I’ve said this before; one of the things that is most irritating to me is when people tell me that I have a “talent” for languages. Of course, it’s usually meant as a compliment, but people use it as an explanation; JP learns languages because he has a talent, he is some kind of freak who can not relate to us non-talented people.
Bullshit. We all have an instinct for learning language, and that’s why we all learned our first language with no instruction.
They people say “well, it’s different when learning the SECOND language.” And then they jackastically refer to some critical period hypothesis, “they say that after puberty it’s too late, your brain changes, it’s science.” At that point I point out that they’ve NEVER ACTUALLY READ any literature on the critical period hypothesis, and they don’t actually know what it says.
Nobody ever asks, but I’m perfectly happy to share my secrets to language learning. In fact, I’ll share them below.
1) Language learning is a habit, not a talent. The only language learning “talent” that I believe in is the human instinct for learning language. If there’s any difference between you and me, it’s that my collection of counterproductive and self-defeating bad habits and bad attitudes that stop me from learning is smaller than your collection of counterproductive and self-defeating bad habits and bad attitudes that stop you from learning.
I have compiled a laundry list of bad habits that people have, and some day I’ll write a book about them all, complete with stories that will make you think I really hate my students.
One big bad habit that many many people have is focusing on English.
Like the time I was in El Salvador with J. J was always lamenting that he hadn’t learned Spanish. One day a little girl was offering him some “agua.” J asked her “water?” She looked at him, puzzled, and said, “…agua.” He repeated his question, “water?” this time artificially pronouncing a hard /t/, to make her understand (?). “Agua…” she said, and J looked up at me, puzzled.
“J,” I said, annoyed, “she’s teaching you the word for water.” J was surprised himself when he realized how focused he was on English.
Another time, in the classroom, a kid ran across the word “frenos,” and asked me what it was. I pantomimed hands on the steering wheel, stepped on breaks and screeched to a halt and said “frenos.”
“Brakes?” he asked.
Rather than reward his English, I did it again, I repeated action and said “frenos.”
“Brakes?” he asked.
I repeated my action and said “frenos.”
“Brakes?” he asked. He started to get the look in his eye like I’m a jerk for not just saying ‘yes, it’s brakes.’
We repeated this, I swear, 10 times, me saying “frenos,” and him asking “brakes?”
Finally, when he was sure that I had lost my mind, I asked, “Dude, what’s the word for brakes?” He was speechless; he looked down at his text to find the word. “Stop,” I said, “anyone, what’s the word for brakes?” They were all speechless, they all looked down at their text to find the word.
“I literally just repeated it 10 times. The reason you suck at this is because all you care about is the English word “brakes.”
They rolled their eyes at me, like I was being lame.
Anyway, the point is that focusing on English “meanings” instead of the target language forms is one huge counterproductive and self-defeating bad habits that stops people from learning.
I can write pages and pages about this and other counterproductive and self-defeating bad habits that prevents learning, and maybe someday I will. For now I will continue with my keys to Language Learning.
2) You will get good at what you practice
We teachers say there are five skills; listening, speaking, reading, writing, and culture. If you practice those things, you will become good at those things. Period.
I’m amazed, though, at what people choose to practice besides those five skills.
I’ve seen people who practice asking their girlfriend or neighbor, “what did that mean?” Anytime they don’t understand something, rather than figuring it out for themselves, they get translation. You become good at what you practice, so these people become experts at getting translation. Since that is NOT listening comprehension, their listening comprehension never improves.
Other people refuse to practice speaking; they freeze up, they get all worried about mistakes or sounding stupid, and then they end up not making any sounds. These people become experts and holding their tongue, but unfortunately never practice speaking, which means they do not become good at speaking. What do you expect?
I’ve met people who relish their conjugations, and after years of practice, they become good at… conjugations. Other people drill themselves endlessly on flashcards, and guess what, they become really good at flashcards. Do conjugations and flashcards translate to any of the five skills? No, but don’t tell them, it would break their hearts.
China, as a culture, has a lot of emphasis on memorization and testing. As a result they are wonderful and delightful memorizers and test takers… and for the most part terrible ESL speakers. Of course we all know some Chinese people who speak excellent English speakers, but given that ALL of them younger than 40 studied 12 years of English, you’d think there would be more English speakers, but there’s not. Because they don’t practice speaking. They are some amazing English test-takers, though!
3) Pleasure is good.
Today I was listening to 80s Lunch on the radio. I knew all the words to Things Can Only Get Better, and Everybody Have Fun even though I’ve never studied the lyrics. I knew none of the words to Higher Love even though I’ve heard it as many times (or more) as the other two songs. The difference? The first two songs, I ENJOY. I like those songs. I’ve never really liked Higher Love.
The point is that my brain retains the lyrics of the songs that I like. In other words, when I listen for pleasure, I learn effortlessly.
My friend teaches an SAT prep class; she tells kids that they have to study vocab to raise their verbal score; there are flashcards, lists, practice exams…. but then we go to lunch and she tells it how it is: “The only way to raise your verbal score is to go back in time 10 years and start reading for pleasure.” So the bad news is that you can’t go back in time. The good news is that reading for pleasure lets you learn vocabulary effortlessly.
There’s an attitude, especially among the learners of Asian languages, that learning requires pain, effort, buckling down, hours of excruciating concentration. I believe exactly the opposite; I believe that the key to language learning is hours of enjoyment and fulfillment. My listening skills improve in any language when I meet someone I really want to listen to. My vocabulary increases dramatically when I’m reading something that I actually care about finishing.
For example, I know a bunch of ridiculous words in Spanish: magic wand, wizard, spell, hex, curse… all because I read Harry Potter 6 in Spanish… once. I will pass a vocab quiz on magic vocabulary with flying colors, right now, with zero study or preparation, all because I read that book in a moment of boredom.
Wouldn’t it be great if Spanish was just taught that way, as a matter of enjoyment? Wait, actually it is.
The problem is that students refuse to take any pleasure in it; they look at listening as a chore; speaking as an embarrassment, reading as bore, and writing as a punishment. It’s a damn shame, because they could be learning effortlessly.
Next time: The Truth About All Those Language-Learning Podcasts.