Saturday, March 29, 2008

What's the point of language learning?

A few weeks ago, I mentioned Diana Beaver's nlp for lazy learning. Today I thought I'd share one of her observations on language learning. Asks Beaver, how did we learn our first language to begin with? An answer:
Our attention was on the communication, not upon the language itself. (122)
This leads to a bit of advice for language learning:
Remember: you are communicating - everything else is irrelevant. (123)
When you're learning a language on your own it can be frustrating because it seems like the language is all you've got. It gets too easy to think that if you've learned this rule or memorized that phrase, you've got it. This can especially be the case because that sort of thing is measurable - how many words you've learned, or grammar sections you've covered, or chapters you've finished... it gives you a way of saying, I have done 'x'. But the true test of how well you're learning is how ready you are to use the language and get the results you want from that effort. And if you're self-taught, you might - often won't - be able to do so, at least not on a regular basis. What to do? Pretend. Or, so it sounds more serious, model.

Beaver suggests you imagine yourself to be a competent speaker, or emulate a native speaker, and tell yourself you understand, even when you don't. The name of the game here is to get your mind used to the idea that this is a language you use as a human being, not a collection of sounds that you decode as a student. How do you do that?

I've written (ad nauseam) about self-talk. And I will again advise that you learn the phrases for the kinds of things you say everyday ("I'd like a hamburger and a Coke, please") and practice the conversations in your head as you go about your routines. Automacity is important. But another approach to your attitude, if not your learning, is to "take the language for granted." Put on a movie, but don't try to understand or play the "I know that word" game that beginning learners play. Instead, just watch, and if you try to understand, do so from the action and the characters' tone of voice. Let the language just be there. If you buy a CD, don't translate the songs, just listen until you find yourself singing along. When you get a newspaper or magazine, flip through it the way you would in the doctor's office. As you do all this, keep at the back of your mind the knowledge that one day you may interact as lazily with this language as you do your own and that this, not the language, is what you are practicing.

Obviously, you will have to continue with your studies. If you're learning Russian, declensions will have to be assimilated, somehow. If you're learning a Celtic language (God help you!), the fact that words change at the beginning will have to be dealt with. And if you're learning Chinese, yes, you'll have to learn the character and the sounds. But by taking some time, especially when you're all studied out, to just let the language be there and a part of your life will help you avoid some of the burnout and to be more comfortable leaving something for later if you're just not getting it right now.

The reason these little mental exercises are of value is that as language learners we often get the idea that what we do with these languages - it's even in the name! - is to learn them... not to live them. And so we sit with our dictionaries and grammars and other study material and take account of all we're doing to learn, when the real value of learning is to be able to actually do something else, with your knowledge of the language a necessary component, not the end goal. So if you find yourself either burned out on studying or caught up in the process of your learning, take a moment to redefine yourself not as a learner of 'x' language, but as a speaker of the language who already can do some things (say hi, buy dinner, whatever) but can imagine being able to do much more.


Anonymous Ryan said...

I think that these techniques have value. A big part of foreign language learning is convincing oneself that the language in question is not gibberish or a puzzling code of one's native language. I think exercises to informally familiarize oneself are worth while. I would just like to emphasize the fact that this alone will not teach a language.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Hayes said...

I like the approach you take on this aspect of language learning. If you have already learned even some basics, you should think of what those basics could do for you in a real-life situation. I really like the idea that "living the language" (read: communicating) is just as big a part of language learning (probably bigger) as is learning the ins and outs of grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary-building.

I will definitely have to try listening to a song until it becomes second nature to sing along. I think a lot of language learners seek to get to the point of being able to speak a second or third language as effortlessly as their own native tongue. At least that's my goal...

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Steve Kaufmann said...

To each his own. To me reading a book or listening to an audio book is communicating with an author, a narrator, a place and a time and ideas. I enjoy this adventure in another language without any particular desire to talk to anyone in the language. But that is just me. But when I need to speak, I can. meanwhile it is just not a practical thing to aspire to do.

11:41 PM  
Blogger gbarto said...

In Foucault's Pendulum, one of the characters jokes that he thought people who studied German at school just spent their lives knowing German. And I've known more than a few people who got nothing out of their Spanish or French class at high school than a little bit of knowledge of a language that had no meaning for them. I think the same thing can happen to aspiring polyglots who pick up a language for the sake of adding one more to their collection.

You are absolutely correct that there are modes of communication besides talking to people. Indeed, having a skype chat for the sake of talking to someone when you've nothing to say to them can be as artificial as doing a textbook exercise because the author assigned it. Perhaps the thing to say here is that you may not have to speak to anybody, but your encounters with the language do have to speak to you.

My concern was not with what types of communication are more or less valid, but that if you are approaching the language primarily as something to study, rather than with an aim of actually doing something with it, you might be making the process both harder and less enjoyable, whereas immersing yourself in the language and culture would position you to make whatever vehicle of communication you use richer and more rewarding.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous NG said...

I think your comments make a lot of sense. This is why it is so effective to learn a language while immersed in it - you have an inherent need to communicate. Washington Academy of Languages

4:21 PM  

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