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This morning in the car I was listening to the Cantares Latino-Americanos program on WTCC and repeating words and phrases I liked, which were mainly ones I understood... and it struck me that while I don't speak Spanish or claim to know it, a fair number of words and phrases are actually in my vocabulary, and I bet this is true of a lot of Americans.

In the United States, lots of people for whom English is a first language feel very uncomfortable about learning a foreign language. They set it up in their minds as a huge and daunting task. But what if, instead of thinking they didn't know any language unless they could speak and read it fluently, they were able to think of themselves as having a smattering of a language, starting with when they had just had a few words and phrases, like me with Spanish? Maybe that would demystify and de-difficult-ize language learning. Because that's what language learning is, I think--going from a few words and phrases that you can employ in a limited number of circumstances to a few more. Then stretching to a few more. Then more.

People in most places learn bunches of languages. They usually know two really well: their mother tongue and the most dominant national language of their country (maybe these two are one and the same, but in many cases they're not). But on top of those, they'll know other local tongues, plus languages of neighboring countries, plus maybe English or some other major trade language. They don't know all of those to the extent that they know the first two languages, but they know them somewhat.

... So yeah. I speak Spanish... a tiny, tiny bit. But one day maybe I'll stretch it.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 21st, 2014 04:15 am (UTC)
Yes! I think this is precisely it!

For me, the thing that gives me the push is being in a situation where I *have* to use the little bits of language that I have.

Feeling like someone's chopped off a limb--that's a good description. I remember when I wasn't very fluent with Japanese, having to twist my rudimentary vocabulary this way and that to express the things I was trying to say. If I didn't know the word "philosopher," I'd have to say something like "a person who talks a lot about ideas and big questions of life," and then someone might volunteer the word for me.

I didn't know you were Finnish! So many people are so very, very good at English....
Dec. 21st, 2014 05:25 am (UTC)
I have friends who have just gotten to Costa Rica for a 4 mo. stay; that's what they have going in, little snippets of Spanish. They both are totally confident they will be able to learn more and more, adding to their scraps to get where they need to go.
Dec. 21st, 2014 04:49 pm (UTC)
And because they have that confidence, they won't be hesitant to speak, and because they're not hesitant to speak, they'll get in more conversations, and because they get in more conversations, they will indeed stretch their language capacity. Excellent.
Dec. 21st, 2014 06:09 am (UTC)
I generally say I only speak one language "properly", but... you can do an awful lot with just three or four hundred words. Especially if those words include "what does X mean?" and "How do you say X?"...
Dec. 21st, 2014 04:50 pm (UTC)
Absolutely! And even just learning those few phrases lets you speak to people... it all makes a difference, I think.
Dec. 21st, 2014 09:03 am (UTC)
This is why, when I taught English as a foreign language, I never corrected the students, no matter what they said. I just responded to it, and laughed at any joke they tried to tell no matter how garbled, but never at anything else they said. And that was for two reasons: First, corrections don't work, at least not the way most people do them. Students don't really learn anything even if they think they want corrections. Second, to give them confidence. They could communicate, and they weren't going to embarrass themselves in class because I would never embarrass them.

It worked. The students loved it and talked a lot. And that's the only way to learn to speak a foreign language correctly. Talk a lot -- badly at first, but eventually it gets better just because you talk a lot.
Dec. 21st, 2014 03:46 pm (UTC)
Awesome. Please insert great fusome praise I can't word-- that is such a good way to teach.
Dec. 21st, 2014 04:48 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful, wonderful approach. Yes, if someone's interrupting you to correct you, it ruins your attempt to marshal your thoughts and destroys your confidence--and yet I never thought to consider correction-free instruction!

I think the way I've learned to fix mistaken ways of saying things, for myself, is to say something I think is correct, have the person I'm speaking to look a little puzzled, and then have them say, "You mean---" filling in with the right way of saying it. "Yes! That's it!" I say. And remember. The other is by listening to bunches of native speakers speaking together.
Dec. 21st, 2014 06:06 pm (UTC)
Here's a non-intrusive way to do it. The student says, "I only want a little gifts for Christmas." And I know she's studying the differences between "few," "a few," "a little" and "little" (I'm the teacher), so I say, "You only want a few gifts? Why?"

That is, I echo the correct grammar. They hear the right way to say it, but there's no muss and no interruption in the conversation.
Dec. 22nd, 2014 02:29 pm (UTC)
That's just perfect. It does require them to notice--so they need to be paying attention--but if they've got motivation to hear and adjust what they're saying, then yeah: perfect.

(And if they don't have those things, it's okay too--they'll still become more fluent and free in their communication, just with some errors in there... which, in terms of human communication, isn't the end of the world)
Dec. 21st, 2014 01:07 pm (UTC)
All it takes is immersion, and fun helps. I realized this as a kid, when languages were taught by grinding drill of disparate pieces of language, and tons of grammar before one had a sense of the tongue. When I taught French to school kids (and my French is minimal) I made it fun--they ended up being fairly fluent in a very limited way because they'd had a good time with it. I hoped that some would go on and learn it in earnest, unafraid.
Dec. 21st, 2014 04:51 pm (UTC)
You made it fun for them and gave them the confidence to go further with it, if they wanted--what a wonderful thing!
Dec. 21st, 2014 03:58 pm (UTC)
I so much agree with zenicurean.

A nosegay of responses:
- Oddly: Sheeyun and I watching the last episodes of "The Tudors." He was just in the kitchen getting something when I laughed, and wen he came down, I explained that when Lady Mary spoke fluent Spanish to the new Spanish ambassador he remarked in the subtitles on her speaking English, but in his speech, upon her speaking Christian. And then I realized with pleasure that I have enough of several languages that my ear is open to them. (Any English-speaker might catch the funny clever scripting I noticed, but I think our ears are mostly turned off. ) Even Korean, though unless it's a soap I'll get very little-- and yet my ears are cocked for the occasional noogoo or hajeman.
- As I understand it, studies of multilinguals indicate that in most languages claimed, there are a few words or phrases or a pidjin, not full fluency.
- I like the amputation comparison. Partly in a developmental way. It is exhausting to work for long in a language that's inadequately one's own. I imagine it's exhausting to adjust to amputation. But as skill develops in language, or in a differently-balancing body, te exhaustion abates. But still, it is different-- not the same as a native tongue or the body before amputation. (Though of course some people have more than one native tongue-- a bliss!)
- Whoops, forgot one. When Dr. Samuel Johnson visited France he only spoke Latin, olding it to be improper that the French should find an Englishman inferior in anything. What a guy.

Edited at 2014-12-21 03:59 pm (UTC)
Dec. 21st, 2014 04:58 pm (UTC)
I watched this beautiful movie last night, Yesterday. (Don't look up the trailer; it's awful and treacly and not at all true to the film, but if you want a flavor of it, try this: film clip) It's all in Zulu, and because Zulu's in a completely different language family from English, you can really hear the loan words... and I got to thinking about how many loan words there are all over. A lot of it is colonialism, sure, but some of it is trade without colonialism, and some of it is just cultural diffusion--and those loanwords also are little stepping stones that help you into a language, I think.

I like the idea of an ear being open--that's a great way of saying it.
Dec. 22nd, 2014 09:14 am (UTC)
And yet, most Americans learn to communicate just fine in a foreign language once they have to or set their mind to it. :)

My Danish students are often a bit shy when they have to speak English, so I "force" them out of their comfort zone through various games. Once they get that little nudge, they do fine. No, it's not perfect, but if they spoke perfect English, they wouldn't be in my class.
Dec. 22nd, 2014 02:32 pm (UTC)
Yes! They just need to let go of the notion that learning a language is a hard thing. People are told stuff like, "Once you're over the age of twelve, you can't really learn a language." Such a defeatist thing to say, and clearly not true. Maybe, once you're past twelve, you can never learn a language so well that you'd be mistaken for a native speaker, but to give up because that's out of reach is like giving up on learning to play the violin because you'd never be First Violin at the London Philharmonic.
Dec. 22nd, 2014 07:28 pm (UTC)
I take sporadic stabs at learning Spanish, but I have a hard time sticking with something. :P
Dec. 23rd, 2014 10:21 pm (UTC)
But you probably have a few phrases *anyway*, just from, y'know, life.
Dec. 24th, 2014 08:44 am (UTC)
I do. And I can understand quite a bit. :)
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