Language Learning: Horrible Adult Choices

Aussie L told me the story about how he got a hot tip for an English teaching job here in Taiwan; same job, but better pay. He called them up. The phone call was doing well, until they asked him if he was a native speaker of English; which, of course, he is. They asked him where he was from, and Aussie L said Brisbane, Australia. At that point the man on the other end, who apparently hadn’t noticed Aussie L’s Aussie accent to that point, apologized, and said, sorry, we only hire native English speakers from North America.

“But I’m a native English speaker,” explains Aussie L, but they man on the other end said sorry, sorry, and then *click*.

So the man on the other end must be operating under a bunch of assumptions, all of which are preposterous. First of all, someone must have made an assumption that North American Englishes are more desirable… which is… their bullshit issue, I cannot really address it. Second, they must be operating under the assumption that North American Englishes are somehow uniform, which to me is preposterous. I had misunderstanding problems when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, due to pronunciation and vocabulary. Not a lot a lot, but it was clearly to me a different variety. The other day I picked out a Canadian accent. I asked the man who was speaking where he was from. I could tell it wasn’t Toronto or Vancouver, and he said “Winnipeg.”

Anyway, the most disturbing assumption that the man on the other end of Aussie L’s phone call was making was that the kids are too stupid to be allowed to hear an Aussie accent. That they had to be protected from it. that discriminatory hiring practices should be employed in order to protect the kids from calling each other “mate.”

Listen to me. Think of any English speaking kid at any age; any variety of English, any stage of acquisition. Go ahead, picture a kid you know in your head. I am telling you right now, that kid is smart enough and mature enough to handle hearing Australian English. That kid will, within a matter of hours, notice the difference in variety and have it figured out. A young kid might ask, why does he talk different? or why does he talk funny? but it won’t be a source of confusion. The kid will not experience any fear or discomfort.

The adults, however, might experience all kinds of fear and anxiety. Some of you reading this right now are probably thinking “but I don’t want MY KID to start suddenly talking like the Crocodile Hunter,” clutching your pearls with one hand, and fanning your necks with the other.

LISTEN TO ME. Children, especially the young ones, have a language learning superpower; they figure stuff out quickly and unconsciously, they soak up vocabulary the first time they hear it. You think they’re going to be taken over by crazy Australian vowels and start screaming CRIKEY, and won’t know any better and you’ll have to punish them or have a carefrontation with them of some kind. But I’m telling you that the kids are WAY. AHEAD. OF YOU.

You think the kids are going to be ruined for life. I’m telling you those kids can handle it, and they can handle better than you can. Don’t tell me it’s because they’re Taiwanese kids and American English is their second language, and that Australian is a legitimate threat. Throw a bucket of ice water over your head and listen to what you’re saying.

Children do everything right as language learners. Think about it: they make friends. They play. They role play. They repeat-experience story books, videos, and spoken stories countless times, and they do it joyfully. they insist upon it. They don’t have any fear of misspeaking; they just speak and keep speaking and by the time they’re five years old, they’ve got all the basic structures down to a degree that they are considered NATIVE SPEAKERS; something that we adults spend tons of time, toil, and treasure just trying to approximate. If someone has a different accent or different variety, THEY SORT IT OUT.

Now look at the choices adults make. Adults memorize. Adults do solitary study. Adults organize language exchanges, and spend the entire time speaking the most comfortable language, rather than the target language. Adults go DAYS without exposure. Adults make horrible language learning decisions.

Check out the first paragraph of this New York Times op-ed by William Alexander, who I’m sure, has a book to sell you:

I used to joke that I spoke French like a 3-year-old. Until I met a French 3-year-old and couldn’t hold up my end of the conversation. This was after a year of intense study, including at least two hours a day with Rosetta Stone, Fluenz and other self-instruction software, Meetup groups, an intensive weekend class and a steady diet of French movies, television and radio, followed by what I’d hoped would be the coup de grâce: two weeks of immersion at one of the top language schools in France.

TWO HOURS A DAY WITH SOFTWARE? Would a child spend two hours a day with multiple-choice memorization software? What the hell is “Intensive weekend class?” That would great for learning ABOUT French, but if a child was only exposed to a language only on the weekend, we would call that abuse.

Meetup groups? Meetup groups are a crapshoot; sometimes you get to practice, sometimes you sit around a big table and hear travel stories, not in the target language. Sometimes you just get hit on.

Movies, television, radio… I hear a lot of inexperienced language learners swearing to me that they’re doing a lot of media. You know, I’m sure that they are getting a lot of cultural information and enjoyment from that, but folks, for lower level learners, they’re just processing sound; they’re not processing meaning. Say it with me: sound without meaning, is called NOISE.

And then the coup de grâce is supposed to be TWO WEEKS of immersion? Sheesh! Two weeks is how long it takes just for the headache to wear off!

The thesis of this man’s article is that even despite his lack of achievement in learning French, the processes of it were a huge benefit to his cognitive abilities. That part is undeniably awesome. He gets all the credit for living out the claim that language study is good for your brain. I like how he was able to present the information about critical period without erroneously jumping to the conclusion that adults can’t learn.

However, as an adult learner of French, he made some horribly, horribly ineffective language learning choices. I wouldn’t recommend repeating any of the choices he made.

But JP, you say, we adults have mortgages to pay, and kids to raise, and we’re stuck with horrible options, and are you trying to discourage us from studying at all? Because that’s all we can handle.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone. I’m trying to encourage you to make the language-learning choices that the kids do. Make friends. Play. Role play in the target language. Repeat-experience story books, videos, and spoken stories countless times, and do it joyfully. Insist upon it. Have no fear of misspeaking; just speak and keep speaking.

Make choices that are about communicating, practicing, and relationships; repeat your media experiences until they are no longer noise. Do it fearlessly, do it joyously.

Once all of that is in place, then you can think about the one thing that we adults are good at: study ABOUT the target language and culture. This is a short-cut that adults have that are not available to kids. We are capable of hearing our own grammar, analyzing it, and analyzing the patterns and sounds of a target language consciously. Kids aren’t great at this… but they don’t have to be; they can suck this information up out of the air. We adults get to study ABOUT it.

But once you study ABOUT your target language, then you have to go and practice it. You can study ABOUT riding a bike, but you don’t really learning to ride a bike until you physically get on the bike and start riding around. You can learn ABOUT the rules of basketball, but no matter how high your score is on a basketball standardized test, you’re not going to learn to play basketball until you actually get into the game. Why should language learning by any different?

Today I talked my face off in with my tutor for about two hours. I’m going to read and re-read the stories I’ve been given; even though I’ve already read them several times; I know I get something new out of it every time. I made a silly mistake on the street today, trying to explain to some workers that I had just taken a selfie, and NOT just snuck a picture of them.

But today I also watched a Weird Al video about foil; got a pork chop with an American friend, and treated Aussie L to dinner at a German restaurant... all of those things, I did in English. In other words, I haven’t given up my adult life and adult choices. However, the choices I DID make for language learning today were deliberately more child-like than the horrible adult choices that William Alexander made for his French.

It’s really a shame; French is worth learning, and worth learning well. I hope he makes better choices when learning Italian.

2 thoughts on “Language Learning: Horrible Adult Choices

  1. LOL This brings to mind the year my granddaughter Jocelyn became a fan of the Harry Potter books and movies and decided to become an “British” English speaker. Mind you, she is born and raised in Omaha, NE (supposedly with very little accent or at least a neutral accent). But she decided to speak like a “Brit” for pretty much her entire 8th grade year. She even had wizard wands, both handmade and bought. But it was hilarious because everyone at school including the teachers and administration went along with it. I honestly think she can recite the entire script of every Harry Potter movie verbatim. Now as a Senior in High School she is back to “American” English, but easily falls back into her preferred dialect at the drop of a wizard had.


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