Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Language Learnin’ Right or Wrong
August 24, 2012 - By: - In: Language - 11 comments

You got a choice when it comes to language learning. The easy way, or the cowboy way.

Self-study is self-defeating, at least when it comes to learning a language, say the experts. I posted last time on how hard it is to pick up a language on your own. Those who study solo are apt to just up and quit.

So does it take a village to teach a language? In my case, it took two megacities (Osaka, Tokyo). Immersion is the only thing that seemed to work for me, after many classroom failures.

Immersion is the learning method recommended by Andrew Eil of the US State Department. He has learned Russian, French, Chinese and Kazakh.  His method:  formal intensive grammar study, and force yourself to talk — go local, date, work, live in the language to practice, practice and practice.

“I ran press conferences in Russian, located lost luggage in Chinese and read Guy de Maupassant in French. There are people out there who speak all of these languages better than I do, but I learned them all — without shortcuts.

“It wasn’t easy.”

What we say on the ranch is if it ain’t the easy way, it’s the cowboy way. Language acquisition scholars agree. “Most of us who have taken foreign languages classes that emphasize heavy grammar instruction and memorizing vocabulary would disagree with his recommendations, and so does the research,” says Stephen Krashen in the Washington Post.

“The results of studies done over the last few decades by a wide variety of researchers published in scientific journals support this view: We do not master languages by hard study and memorization, or by producing it. Rather, we acquire language when we understand what people tell us and what we read, when we get “comprehensible input.” As we get comprehensible input through listening and reading, we acquire (or “absorb”) the grammar and vocabulary of the second language.” Attentional osmosis you might say, although the ranch hands would be more likely to call it “soakin’ up the sheep dip.”

Because if you think about it, grammar is just too hard to teach, even to non-cowboys. Instead, language students learn grammar through comprehensible input, especially reading. They learn the language by understanding what is being said to them. Only then can they sort understanding from chaos.

This is a step-by-step process. Listening comprehension and speaking ability do not always go hand-in-hand when a feller is picking up another tongue.

So it is okay to listen first and speak later, instead of forcing yourself to speak in a new language you don’t really understand. “Forcing language students to speak before they are ready not only makes them extremely uncomfortable but does nothing for language acquisition. Speaking doesn’t cause language acquisition; rather, the ability to speak is the result.” You can’t put the listening cart before the talking horse, you might say, or is it the other way around?

Anyways. Back before they fenced in all this language range, immersive was good ‘nuff. Just dive right in with some bailing wire and git ‘er done. But I reckon this comprehensible input notion makes sense, too. When learning a language, you’ve got to be able to hear it before you can say it. That’s jest common sense.

But being New Mexican by education and inclination, I prefer the cowboy way still. It may not be as efficient as these new-fangled methods, but it can be an awful fun way to waste time and impose on foreign friends. (I must disclose that I have never put much stock in silence, and generally keep to talking at every chance I get, regardless of language spoken.)

On the other hand, forcing kids to learn language the wrong way works the same as when you brand a calf. When it hurts, they’re going to be harder to catch next time. That’s what happened to me, until circumstances and an airplane ticket to Japan changed my language acquisition habits.

Let me know what you think of this.

See you at the next roundup, saddle pals. Adios!

-TranslationGuy of the Range

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