Sunday, March 28, 2010

Speaking a language is like riding a bicycle...

the more you do it, the better you get.

Josh the Language Geek is writing about his biggest language mistakes. I'd like to look at the first one and toss out a few ideas. Here's Josh:
Fluent in 12 weeks!

I underestimated, by far, the amount of time and effort required to learn a language. The first language course I ever bought was Teach Yourself Gaelic, when I was (I believe) 16.


Anyway, I naively thought that with such a course, why, I would be fluent in 3 or 4 months. At the time, if I remember correctly, I thought that all one had to do was learn the equivalent words, and then you were golden. Word order, grammar intricacies, different ways of expressing the same thing… none of these were an issue in my young, ignorant mind.
One of the first questions new language learners ask is, "How long does it take?" The answer, of course, is "forever." The problem is that we don't really know languages; we live them by doing things with them.

When I was in college, I worked at McDonald's to get some spending money. Now, the day I arrived, I knew that a Big Mac had "two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, onion, pickles on a sesame seed bud." Their marketers had done a very good job of impressing this upon me. But taking these pieces, stacking them in the correct order and putting it in the box without the whole mess falling over was another matter. It's not that I lacked the competence to make a Big Mac. But I had to stop and think. A few summers later, when I left the kitchen for the last time, it was a different matter. Had you put things on the counter ("dressing table") in their usual configuration, I could have made a Big Mac blindfolded in less time than it took to make my first Big Mac.

Now, there's a lot more to speaking a language than making a sandwich, but there's a similar dynamic: In both cases, what begins as known to the mind, consciously, comes to be known unconsciously. This is especially crucial for languages. Unless you're earning your living making sandwiches, you can fumble at it a bit. But if you want to speak a language, you're not thinking of the words, you're thinking with them. Your ability to summon the words automatically is a basic requirement if you wish to actually have a conversation.

Why is this so important? (And so irksome?) When we think of learning a language, we tend to think about how fast we can learn the material. But it's not a question of how much you know; it's a question of how much you've automated. And that automation comes with "muscle memory," not conscious knowledge. The more you speak, the more you listen, the more you read and the more you write, the more you get the knack for this "using a language" thing. Being a brilliant learner with the ability to memorize lots of vocabulary and rules may reduce the number of things you screw up while going through the necessary repetitions to get that knack, may even allow you to mentally go through those repetitions faster, but it can only take you so far.

One of the things I've noticed as my French has deteriorated is just how much is automated. I'm losing words for things I don't talk about, and my use of the elevated language I needed for grad school papers is rusty, but for everyday conversation, the words come as readily as ever. And the muttering bits, fussing about the whatchamacallit and other such elements - the stuff of chatter - are still there. These I still use.

When we think of our strength in our native language, we may forget about this "muscle memory" bit. And so when we learn that you only need a couple thousand words for decent conversation in most languages, we think, "Hey, a couple thousand words and I'm ready to go..." But our real strength in our native language is that we've used those words in similar relation to one another so many times. So if you truly want to speak a language, study away, of course. You're going to need to know a lot to make it happen. But be aware that it's when you stop knowing and start doing and living that you really start speaking. So make sure that your routine, be it with Anki, with texts or whatever, has a strong component for using the language, not just "knowing" it.


Blogger William said...

'3 or 4 months'... Even if you had no grammar issues at all, it would be really hard to memorize enough words in that time to be 'fluent'.

As for the burger analogy, I think it's very apt... For instance, you could then make a burger, but you still had no idea how to make a fish sandwich. Or a sub. Or fries.

You learn a little piece at a time and get good at it. Sometimes, you get good at it while learning other things, too.

But if all you ever do it watch people make burgers, you'll never be good at it yourself.

God, I really want a burger now.

3:53 PM  

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