“Learning That Awful Foreign Language”

I found an interesting, if lenthy, article from the Asian Tribune called “Learning That Awful Foreign Language : A Brooklyn Linguist Looks at How We Acquire Languages”, by Antonio Graceffo. Normally this is something I’d simply list in the Daily Dose, but this one is substantial enough and interesting enough that I thought it deserved a post of its own…along with some notes by yours truly.

  • Graceffo cites the fact that more than 70% of communication is non-verbal – so if a person is good at non-verbal communication they may come across as “better” in a language than they “really” are; with “really” in quotes as, well, if the point of language is to communicate, who is to say that people who communicate well however they use the language are not in fact “better” at it?

    In any case, this is a good skill for language teachers to have, especially those teaching lower levels, where verbal communication is limited. I think I’ve noticed the lack of this quality in students as well: sometimes, especially in a multi-lingual group, there is one student who is just slow to catch on – often the one from a country different from that of the majority of the class – and this could be why. The main part of the class is picking up on non-verbal clues that this student isn’t.

  • Graceffo, who also says she speaks ten languages well, explains that she focuses first on the most important things – those she deems necessary to communicate – when learning, and not on the details. Still, save the books and info on detail, she advises – you can use them later.
  • On a related note, while immersion is often helpful…it’s not all. So, once more, don’t discard book learnin’ totally. There’s a classic example (I came across it in a philosophy class) cited here: imagine someone locked in a room listening to a radio broadcast in Chinese for ten years. With no prior knowledge of Chinese…would the person “know” Chinese when the door is unbolted in ten years? Obviously not. (Also obviously the real world where language is used is not a locked room, but the point is that immersion alone won’t cut it). Just think of all the EFL teachers who have been living in a country for years…and don’t speak the language.
  • Many English speakers learn about the grammar of their own language only through the study of another language. “Damn, French is hard,” the author told her father, “They have things called comparatives and superlatives.”
  • Finally, Graceffo describes a “warehouse of boxes” in her brain which she could more easily add to once she’d learned one language. True in my own case as well: I took a course called Serbo-Croatian for a year at university and then lived two years in Sarajevo. When I learn another Slavic language, it’s often easier to just translate into Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian.
  • When you’ve got a bit of time to spare, check out the article itself.