Westerners living in foreign nations often can benefit from a coach who keeps them current and accountable for learning the language and culture of the nation they are working in.
There is a social pressure in many non-Western nations that casts Westerners in a superior role, viewing them as potential helpers in the local person's enterprise to learn English. This attacks the Westerner's ability to learn and use the language and culture.
Also, the tendency to gravitate toward others who speak our language draws us away from quality time with those who speak the language we are learning. It's simply more comfortable to hang out with other Westerners than it is to insert ourselves into the social contexts of those who speak the language we're trying to learn.
All this stands in contrast to the very firm knowledge we have, though, that the most successful workers and business people are always those who are the most effective at appropriating and employing the language and culture.
Right up front I need to admit that my view of what it takes to become fluent in a second (or third) language is biased. Although I have seen diligent students who use classroom learning become fluent speakers of the language they learned in that modality, I have also almost always observed that the learning they did in the classroom was augmented by a rigorous enterprise of community-based, structured practice. In other words, I believe that the main element in becoming fluent in a language has more to do with how much one adjusts their lifestyle with a view to using and practicing the new language than it has to do with how much content one learns. The best language learning situation is one in which the learner is naturally immersed in the cultural and linguistic environment of the new language.
A question that always arises in this context has to do with which languages are more difficult to learn. Some say Mandarin or Thai, because of their difficult tonal pronunciation system. Others say African languages, such as Shona or Zulu, because of their many clicks and guttural sounds. My mentor, Dr. Tom Brewster, though, told me this: "All languages are equally easy to learn, evidenced by the fact that all two-year-olds learn them." This perspective underlies the concept of natural, rather than academic language learning.
More plainly stated, language learning is a social enterprise, not an academic activity. To the extent that we can adjust our perspective, our attitude and our lifestyle to approximate that of a native-born two-year-old, we can become fluent in the language and culture of a people group.
Not everyone is a natural language learner. Yes, language learning is an enterprise we have all done, when we were children. But some of us are more able to approximate the activity of our childhood than others. Here are some observations about people who learn languages naturally, meaning by themselves and without outside help, What makes a language learner an effective acquirer of a foreign language? What methods and approaches do they use that enable them to become fluent more quickly than academic learners? What can we learn from their techniques that we can pass on to other language learners?
Natural Language Learners take and create opportunities to use the
Many language learners avoid using the language in the early stages for fear of a breakdown in communication. The natural language learner, on the other hand, uses the language at every available opportunity. They are forever seeking out opportunities both to use and to hear the language, e.g. chatting with storekeepers (rather than just purchasing the goods they have gone there to buy); asking people at the bus stop how to get to where they want to go (even though they are clear on this already!) instead of just getting on the bus; asking someone in the street to explain some unusual object or event (rather than just passing it by); asking someone on the bus or train to explain something in their textbook, etc.. All the while, therefore, they are taking and creating opportunities to use the language. Tom Brewster used to teach LAMP learners “Learn a Little . . . Use it a Lot!”
Learners practice what they have just acquired
Many language learners practice in class, but few practice enough outside the classroom. The natural language learner practices what they have just learned as soon as possible. For example, while on bus or bicycle, they are going through in their mind what they have recently learned in class by holding an imaginary conversation with someone. And straight after class, or in the evening, they visit their sympathetic listeners (whether they be neighbors, street vendors, store assistants, etc.) telling them what they have just learned that day.
In L.A.M.P – Language Acquisition Made Practical, the authors, Drs. E. Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster suggest that those wishing to acquire a new language do so by first relocating to somewhere within the cultural context in which that language is normally spoken, and that they arrange their learning activity around a cycle that moves through four stages, symbolized by the acronym G.L.U.E.
For full-time language learners, those who consider it their full-time occupation, The Brewsters suggest completion of one learning cycle (Get, Learn, Use, Evaluate) each day. But this may be adjusted to account for other activities that must be addressed, ambient stress within the cultural setting and the learner’s own abilities to handle learning, stress and process the cultural changes.
Learners are willing to try anything in order to get their message across
Many language students, if they don't know the correct word or phrase for what they wish to communicate, simply avoid the subject completely or use English. The natural language learner, possessing such a strong desire to communicate, is willing to try out different ways in order to get their message across. For instance, if they don't know the word for 'language school', they might say something like “watashi no gengo wo manabu no tokoro” (in Japanese), "the place where I learn language". It’s a very awkward construction, and one Japanese speakers would never use. But it gets the point across. They even resort to acting if necessary! They are willing to try almost anything, even to appear foolish if necessary, in order to communicate.
Learners are willing to live with uncertainty
The average language learner, when hearing something they don't understand, often feels embarrassed and may try to change to another topic of conversation. The natural language learner doesn't give up so easily! They are able to overcome their initial feelings of uneasiness, and in fact, may even enjoy it -- seeing it as a game to be played! They hazard a guess as to what the meaning might be, trying out their hunches by asking suitable questions which they hope will shed light on the matter. The natural language learner uses all the clues which the context of the conversation offers them. And they are content to rest with a general conclusion as to what the meaning might be, knowing that everything will clarify itself later (hopefully!). Moreover, the social and living situation of a language learner is often fraught with ambiguity. Lifestyle for language learners who are fully engaged in their enterprise plunges every situation into a language learning activity, making for what is sometimes a high-stress, low definition environment. 2-year-olds don’t spend much time thinking about what they will do when they grow up, or how they’re going to spread the portfolio in their 401k. Kids seem to be very comfortable with simply not knowing a lot of things. This doesn’t mean that they are not engaged in learning, though. They are fully engaged in learning at the level where they currently are. Things that are coming up in future levels, though, simply don’t garner much interest. Natural language learners are, in many ways, like children – comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Learners monitor their own speech as well as the speech of others
Many language students are so bound up with getting their message across or trying to understand what the other person is trying to say that they learn little from the communication process. The natural language learner, however, is fully engaged in the communication process, firstly monitoring their own speech -- listening to themselves speak and noting how their speech is being received by their listeners (e.g. facial expressions, etc.). To them, such feedback is a very important element of communication, which energizes and informs language learning. Then, secondly, they are monitoring the other person's speech -- noting how they use words and phrases, as well as grammar structures, attitudes, ideals and values that may be implied in the sub-text of what is being said, and comparing those elements of communication they are hearing and seeing to other experiences they have had. We often find natural language learners forming working hypotheses, based upon their own experience, of the real cultural meanings of words and phrases, then verifying and researching their hypotheses using dictionaries, encyclopedias and lexicons. This full engagement strategy for learning vocabulary produces much higher retention than simple memorization, and so we also often find natural language learners developing a better command of vocabulary and a more exact usage.
Learners are constantly looking for patterns in the language
Many language learners absorb only what they are taught about the language; if the teacher or their textbook hasn't yet covered that point, their minds are closed to it. The natural language learner is constantly analyzing, categorizing and synthesizing his/her new language. They know that learning a new language is a very complex matter -- like putting together the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle. They absorb what they are taught in class, but they are also actively involved in discovering where new pieces fit in to the overall picture. And so they are constantly trying to find schemes for classifying the information they have gathered.
Learners are systematic organizers
The inefficient language learner often lacks a planned and systematic approach to acquiring the language, and hence fails to reach a reasonable proficiency. The natural language learner incorporates cultural understanding with the development of a catalog of concepts, giving him/her a more concrete framework for retaining what they learn. Recognizing the magnitude of the task, the natural learner constructs a plan for their study program that is divided into attainable goals, and organized regular times for study. Moreover, learning is interspersed with generous portions of time spent actually using what has been recently learned. Natural learners systematically record what they learn about the language -- whether pronunciation, grammar or vocabulary -- so that it is readily available for reference. Different learners use many different methods for this recording process; some do it verbally on a small, handheld recorder while others prefer to keep a written journal, either on paper or on a handheld device. Even the most intuitive, natural language learner cannot keep everything in his head, though, and concepts and vocabulary learned more than a few weeks before tend to evacuate. The journal, whatever form it is in, provides the natural learner a way to review, bringing formerly learned ideas and words into current use.
Learners are willing to experiment with different learning methods
The inefficient language learner, upon discovering that the way they were taught to learn the language has proven ineffective, complains and gives up! The natural language learner tries out different approaches to acquiring the language, chooses those that work for them and discards the rest. They also note how other people learned the language, trying out their methods to see if they are suitable for them.
Natural Language Learners use everything around them to help them learn the language
Whether it's teachers at language school, children on the street, stall holders at times in the day when customers are few, they realize that local people are normally very willing to help the enthusiastic and humble foreigner learn their language!
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