Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Defining the core of foreign language learning and linguistics


If I am ever asked to give an opinion about what I believe to be the core concept that needs to be taken into account when it comes to learning a foreign language, I would give the following, shall we say, “diagnosis” of how language actually works.

As a linguist, I often get a lot of questions about my field from people who are seriously perplexed by how one goes about learning a foreign language; there are certain people who do not have “language brains”, who look at me sometimes with admiration for my accomplishments in this particular field of knowledge. For starters, I would like to say that my language abilities are just the particular skill which I ended up being gifted with; I myself have, for instance, extreme admiration for all kinds of people who are talented at things such as music, mechanical knowledge, mathematics and chemistry, and visual tasks such as design and art—all of which I have absolutely no talent for. I do believe, however, that people who are linguistically talented—that is to say, people who just have a knack for picking up foreign languages—are often the most mysterious, and the least-analyzed, when it comes to the normal “spectrum” of talents and crafts that are considered in the public mind. Maybe linguists are a bit like writers, but in a way they are also artists and craftsmen in their own right. Though in a certain way one could say that foreign languages are my life (since I am always working with them), I am sometimes surprised by how obscure and mysterious my trade seems to the general public outside of an academic environment. I would like to conclude this paragraph by saying that there is nothing really that mysterious about linguistics; it is merely a certain type of knowledge. To be good at learning a foreign language, a person simply has to have good instincts, a good general memory, and a strong desire to be a, shall we say, “code cracker.” There is no “magical ear machinery” which endows a person with a high degree of language-learning ability. It seems, however, that in our society, we linguists end up getting snatched up by the federal government and the military; we must inherently be a mysterious lot that does not interact much with the general public, our skills only to be used in top-secret heists and government operations. I find this reality to be somewhat sad, because people with good foreign language skills have so much potential to be catalysts in bringing different groups of people together—through our innate need to communicate effectively, we linguists crack the codes that lead to misunderstanding before they can ever escalate to violence and war.

But I have let myself get off-topic from my original blog topic. What is really the core essence of linguistics? I will now give the following definition, which I believe encapsulates the central “theme” of the field quite well: Linguistic study, which includes general foreign language acquisition, is the process by which a language is scrutinized for grammatical as well as phonological patterns, as well as memorized for its general content and fixed expressions. In essence, it is a synthesis of the grueling memorization of thousands of exceptions, together with the intrinsic need of the human mind to find patterns and thus bring order to the chaos of all the irregularities. There is a chance that what you have just read makes absolutely no sense at all; maybe you already recognize that a language consists of both regular patterns as well as a unique word for everything, and lots of idioms that, when analyzed carefully, do not make much logical sense.

If you are able to read this essay, then chances are that you are already fluent in English, and I applaud you for this capability, because English is a very messy language. But I am trying to show that the reason that we as speakers of a given language (such as English) can say that a language is messy in the first place, is that knowing a language consists largely of being able to instantly recognize patterns and make sense of them. Let me give an example: The past tense of talk is talked, right? The past tense of brew is brewed. So if the past tense is formed by adding an ed to the end of a verb, then clearly the past tense of see is seed, right? At this point, you, as a speaker of English, instantly recognize that the past tense of see is actually saw. I am not going to ask why, because when it comes to the way any language is spoken, things are just the way they are. Yet, there is also a pattern at work here. At the same time as we know that, although most of our verbs are placed in the past tense by adding an ed onto the end of them, there are nevertheless several verbs that are irregular—verbs such as went, had, saw, thought, bought, among many others. You recognize that adding an s to the end of a word makes that word plural. Yet if someone were to say mouses to you, you would probably laugh because you just know that the plural form of mouse is actually mice. Or maybe you didn’t even know what is meant by the term “plural form” and you just knew that in English, saying “many mouses” is just wrong.

By giving the previous two examples of patterns and irregularities, I am trying to demonstrate how these two concepts form the core of studying a language. It is not too much of an intellectual leap to say that learning a language is essentially akin to bringing order to a chaotic situation. A person is told to memorize a bunch of words that are foreign to him/her; that is terrifying. How in the world is one going to memorize thousands and thousands of new words, and then randomly produce them in a conversation? How is one ever going to sound like an authentic speaker of another language? Perhaps you learned English, but you were a child then, and you think about that language in an entirely different way than you would ever think about some “mysterious” foreign tongue. Yet what I am trying to show is that every language on Earth involves on the part of the speaker/learner a combination of being introduced to an enormous inventory of random sounds, and then being asked to make sense out of it all by seeking out patterns. The whole process is, quite frankly, terrifying and extremely messy. But we linguists just love this kind of challenge.

The reason why learning a foreign language generally takes so long should be fairly obvious: the length of time it takes to memorize thousands of words is just long. Yet after some time, people just seem to “get the hang of things.” When starting off with a language, the new learner may hardly recognize a single word. But as study with the respective language continues, the learner becomes more confident and just more familiar with the language. The reason for this is not, however, just because said learner memorized a bunch of random words. The reason is that the learner simultaneously memorized a bunch of random words, as well as learned how to start recognizing patterns and making discernments based on the accumulation of experiences with the language. I believe that the above highlighted statement is something that is really necessary for all foreign-language learners to truly understand; after all, it is often very difficult to undertake a major project if you do not know what the end result will look like.

“While I am learning this new language, when will I become fluent in? Will I just wake up one day to find all the information already in my head? What can I expect?” Such is the so often unasaked query of the neophite foreign-language learner, that he or she may never even be able to ask in the first place. Placing a 14 year-old high school student into a foreign language class and then asking him or her to “start learning the language” is, in my opinion, somewhat akin to taking someone of the same age, dropping him/her off in the middle of a wilderness area without any tools or provisions, and expecting him/her to “figure out how to live off the land”. You might get a small percentage of people who can achieve a lot in either the foreign language wilderness or the literal wilderness, but the majority of people will simply not achieve what they were supposed to. It is my opinion that America’s foreign-language learning approach for high school students is deeply flawed precisely because the process of what to expect during the language-learning process is not adequately explained (though I don’t mean to unfairly judge those school systems that do happen to have good foreign-language learning programs, however I believe they are clearly in the minority here). Furthermore, students should be given at least 6 years of foreign language instruction during their formative years; unless there is a natural linguist in any given class, I don’t believe that 4 years is anywhere near enough time for 95% of students. And if 95% of the students in American schools who attempt learning a foreign language fail to develop their skills enough to ever have a meaningful conversation in said language, then I would say that the entire system can be called a colossal failure (I know that this is harsh, but I have not seen any evidence that would suggest that this is not the case).

But I have digressed enough from the original topic of the core principles of linguistics. However, for the task that the language academy that I have personally founded tries to do for people, it is important to address and look honestly at the failures that have run rampant in the American foreign language education system. Nevertheless, misunderstanding about the field of linguistics and foreign language learning in general still runs rampant in American society, and I believe that this degree of misunderstanding is hazardous and damaging to our society; the damage is just subtle. Not being fluent in a foreign language is not only a career disadvantage, but it is also a cultural disadvantage. Negative stereotypes about irresponsible, uncaring world citizens who inhabit the North American continent will only get worse if nothing is done to improve our foreign language learning efforts; the problem is just that most schools see foreign language learning as something that is inherently less important than other disciplines (along with art, philosophy and certain athletic programs). We need to seriously improve our standards for foreign language education for young students, and adult education and/or software programs and self-help manuals are just not sufficient to fix the problem on a large scale. I hope that I have been able to offer some insight for people who are genuinely seeking to get better at their foreign language skills, and I guarantee that if a person independently seeks to have excellent language skills, the rewards can be immeasurable for that person.  

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