Friday, September 14, 2007

Tarzan Talk and Getting Started in a Language

Edwin got himself involved in a thread at How-to-learn-any-language regarding language learning and the Tarzan approach. That is, put together whatever words come to mind however they come to mind.

Now, here at multilingua, I've written about - and even advocated - some pretty crazy ideas. So I wanted to take a look at this one, if only to distinguish it from some of the wild and crazy ideas that I have suggested.

On this site, I have talked about self-talk and even written some little programs for self-talking yourself toward a language. Let's put a big emphasis on the self there - what you do in your own brain to get used to new vocabulary is one thing. What you do to build your comfort zone talking with native speakers is another.

As a language teacher in college, and now working at a language school, I see value in getting started talking as quickly as possible. But I see a lot of merit in Steve's belief that it's best not to talk before you're ready. Harmonizing the two, I would say that it's important not to rush talking until your knowledge and the environment allow productive communication. For a self-teaching student, this will take longer. With a teacher who knows how to help you along, it may take less time. But conscripting people to be your language guides who have neither the time to fuss with you, nor the training to know how to guide you can be a recipe for disaster. There is the off-chance you'll get a nice, sympathetic person willing to play "Me Tarzan, You Jane" games. But there's a better chance you'll learn that native speakers think you're an incoherent idiot, both hopeless and helpless in their tongue. That's not useful.

So... yes, you should expose yourself to your new language early and often; yes, you should practice what you're comfortable with and; yes, you should stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone sometimes so you can grow. But Tarzan-Jane games don't quite fit the bill. If you're in a situation where you need to communicate, by all means, do what you need to. But don't seek out these encounters - you don't need to practice communicating poorly!

There is an alternative to the Tarzan-Jane game, of course, which is found in such as the Lonely Planet guides: Don't go up to a stranger and talk gibberish. Instead, set a small communication goal, make sure you know the key phrases, and have an exit strategy. That way your experience with natives will reinforce that you can handle certain interactions. Compare these two approaches:

You: Apples!
Merchant: Yes, they're fresh.
You: Want apples!
Merchant: How many would you like?
You: How much?
Merchant: How many do you want?
You: One apple, how much?
Merchant: It's fifty cents for an apple.
You: Want two...

Planned but simple interaction:
You: Do you have apples?
Merchant: Yes, they're fresh.
You: Good, I would like one apple.
Merchant: That will be fifty cents.
You: [pay] Thank you.

In both cases, the work got done. But in the second case, the person had a goal for the conversation - 1 apple, and a conversational strategy for getting it - yes/no questions that drove the conversation toward that goal. This approach allowed the person to have complete sentences at the ready, focus on getting them out and come across as a functional non-native instead of a novice. In the first conversation, the person had to listen constantly and formulate responses constantly. In the second conversation, the person only needed to listen for 1) whether there were apples and 2) what the price was. Everything else was taken care of. For communication and confidence building, I think that's a lot better way to go.



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