How the Words Come to Me

There are all kinds of ways to supposedly measure proficiency.  There are the standardized exams, which can be studied for and gamed (TOEFL, HSK, etc).  I think those are scams, but that’s neither here nor there.  There are the professional ratings (ACTFL Proficiency, the ILR Scale, the CEFR scale that the Europeans like so much, etc.).  These are all very descriptive, and come in flavors of fuzzy and tedious.

I have my own diagnostic.  It doesn’t measure or quantify skills, or proficiency, or functionality. Instead, it describes the way I come to learn and own words.  Ladies and Gentlemen, the Villanueva Objective Classifications for Acquisition Behavior (VOCAB).

  • Behavior 1: Translation Dependence Sometimes I learn words and expressions because I ask (or I’m told) what they mean in English.  Sometimes I look them up.
  • Behavior 2: Explanation Dependence  Sometimes I stop the conversation to ask or what something means, or to clarify that my guess is correct.
  • Behavior 3: Absorbing Words and Expressions On The Fly  Sometimes I manage to perceive, repeat, and turn around a word and test it in conversation without ever stopping the conversation.
  • Behavior 4:  Absorbing Words and Expressions from Media or Eavesdropping Sometimes I can learn new stuff even when it’s not directed explicitly toward me.
  • Behavior 5:  Magically Using and Understanding Words and Expressions You Never Knew You Knew  Sometimes I use a word or understand a word perfectly in the wild without ever having thought about it consciously.

As a learner, I want to get myself to the place where I’m spending my time doing all five Behaviors.  Behavior 3 comes with practice and confidence; children are really good at it, since they don’t have an L1 to fall back on.  Also, they are cute, and they work it.   Behavior 4 is probably the hardest thing on the scale.  Behavior 5 is the easiest, because it happens magically, with no effort.

Behaviors 2 through 5 happen naturally with a lot of time and exposure.  I do a lot of Behavior 1; looking things up, asking what words or expressions mean.  I refuse to ask for full sentences; I don’t learn anything from that, but getting translation is useful and fast.  I always try to use and own a word right after I get a translation, though, because I know that words and expressions that I gain from translation usually fade pretty fast from my memory.

There are a lot of people, though, who don’t make it out of Behavior 1: Translation Dependence.  Here’s what I see…

People who are Stuck in Translation Dependency:

  • Often have a translator.  If there is someone who is constantly there to translate (a parent, a significant other, a classmate, a teacher), you have very little chance of switching on your own acquisition engine.  Even if these people are “teaching” you words, you’re not internalizing them.  Some people are happy to be stuck in this stage, and I’ve seen people’s progress go nowhere explicitly because they always manage to have a translation.  The most interesting to me are the students who, rather than just freaking learning themselves, manage to manipulate their classmates into whispering translation into their ears.  It’s so gross.  Of course, when I was a kid I always got my parents to translate Filipino into English for me, instead of trying to move to the higher behaviors.
  • Have no intention of learning, or have decided it’s pointless.  If someone has decided that they’re never going to learn, or they’ve made a decision that they’re “bad at languages” or “it’s just too hard,” will usually not progress to the higher behaviors; it’s too painful a personal investment.
  • Are often horrified of making mistakes.  These are people that would rather read a book about how to ride a bike than get on a bike and ride it and wobble. In language class, when called upon they freeze and try to deflect, or try to go invisible, like a deer fawn.  Newsflash: deer fawn are horrible at language. Horrible.
  • Learn something and then act like it’s a miracle.  Listen, kids, it’s not a miracle when you get something right; it’s the result of good guessing or good practice. When you act like something is a miracle in the middle of a conversation, it means a) you still fail to believe that language happens because of good guessing and good practice, and b) you take yourself out of the conversation. Taking yourself out of the conversation for any reason (to celebrate, to beat yourself up, even to look something up in the dictionary) is WRONG.  It’s like pulling the emergency brake on the train because you have the winning lottery ticket.
  • Learn something and still hate it.  I wish I could say that this was confined to American teenagers, but I’ve seen grown men and women be filled with resentment for understanding something correctly. With teenagers, it’s because they’re teenagers, and they think it’s cool to hate stuff.  With adults, it’s usually a distaste for guessing.  Imagine an American tourist looking at a French menu and reading “hamburger,” and then asking “does that mean hamburger?” and then being disgusted.  And then asking “what is frites, is that fries?”  And then being disgusted; not at the cuisine, but at the guessing.  Odds are that the next day, they will not remember how to say “fries”.

Let’s talk about Behavior 5, because that’s the best.  Magically Using and Understanding Words and Expressions You Never Knew You Knew. Sometimes, when I’m speaking Spanish, especially, I don’t admit when I don’t know a word or a slang expression.  I just let it go, especially if I’m not part of the conversation.  Fast forward to six months later, I hear the words coming out of my mouth as if I knew what it meant. Because I did, I did absolutely know what it meant.  I never made a conscious choice to learn or start using the word “wey” in Mexican Spanish, I never asked what it meant or when it was appropriate to use it and when it wasn’t.  When I started using the word 那個 as a filler word in Chinese I was as surprised as anyone.

I don’t manage these words, I didn’t think about them, I didn’t look them up; they just showed up in my vocabulary.  It just happened.

Later the new word wants to come out again, but this time I’m in the middle of speaking English, and I realize… I don’t know how to say that word in English.  The word just seemed to appear in my thoughts, magically.  That’s the language learning instinct; it happens to you outside of your conscious thoughts.

One time I was speaking French… this was in 2008, years and years after I was in a French speaking environment, and somebody mentioned the word s’entrainer, and they asked me how to say it in English.  I said, “it means this,” and then put an imaginary object behind me and started pulling on the imaginary string as I walked away.  Then another French speaking friend chimed in, saying “s’entrainer means to drag.”  And boy did I feel dumb for not knowing the English, but then I realized; that word was never connected to English in my mind. Why should it have been, if I learned it in the wild?

Once you’ve added Behavior 5 to your bag of tricks, I think it’s safe to say you’re fluent, or at least that fluency is assured.  There won’t be any ceremony or certificate, and you probably won’t feel any different.  In fact you’ll probably still feel non-fluent, and there will always be gaps, but think about it; you’re probably at a level that dazzles the monolinguals.  What does it mean to be fluent anyway?  It should be up to us, the multilinguals, to supply the definition for “fluency” for the monolinguals.  How would they know?

Note:  somebody in the UK is lighting up my blog stats today.  Thanks, would love to hear from you in the comments!

2 thoughts on “How the Words Come to Me

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