An Approach to Foreign Language Learning
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
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I have often heard the question, “What’s the best way to learn a language?” The answer lies in using the language as early as possible. My first exposure to Spanish was when I entered high school. I remembered how silly my Spanish teacher sounded when she greeted the class with “buenos días”. We had some good laughs during that first and subsequent Spanish lessons. As you might well have guessed I ended the term learning nothing more than “hola” (hello), and “¿Cómo estás?” (How are you?).
It is important to remember that there are four components to language acquisition: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The extent to which language is learnt is in this order: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. However, the extent to which it is taught is often different: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Is it then any surprise that so many language learners fail to speak their target language?
Language is a tool for communication. It means that if a language learner refuses to communicate he/she will make absolutely no progress in the target language.
Growing up as a child up in Jamaica my mother always encouraged me to speak properly. By that she meant I was to minimize my use of the Jamaican creole (patois). For her, and many others even today, the Jamaican creole is considered to be broken English or improper English. However, as I have grown I realized that while many English words comprise the Jamaican creole, it is in fact a unique language with its own phonetic structure. Therefore it is not broken English.
Despite my mother’s insistence I recognized pretty early that I was more fluent in speaking patois than in speaking English, all due to one simple factor; patois was the language I heard spoken around me every day and naturally it was the language that was more natural for me to speak. Strangely enough the Jamaican patois is almost entirely an oral language. There is still no formal spelling for patois words and there are various versions spoken in different parts of the island. This is likely to change somewhat as within the last decade or so a few scholars have been trying to create formalize spelling etc. However, there are still no official grammar books from which we study patois. We simply acquire the skills through daily interaction.
A little over two years ago I migrated to Japan. As an individual who is fascinated with languages I was intent on becoming conversant in Japanese within the first six months. However, after only a week in Japan I had to ditch my language learning project as I had to address some more urgent matters. Four months later when I decided to resume the project my progress was very slow and I was unable to communicate in Japanese despite hearing the language spoken around me on a daily basis. Why was this? I wasn’t using Japanese nor making any real effort to use it.
Conversely, my son was enrolled at kindergarten nine months after arriving in Japan. On his first day of school he was only able to say “konnichiwa” (hello). However, three months later he was speaking Japanese as naturally as his classmates. What’s the difference? He was using the target language while I was not. He was living his life in Japanese while I continued to live in and English bubble. As such, his progress has been rapid while mine continues to stagnate.
Of course there are other factors to his language acquisition which can be debated. However, the success factor to his language acquisition versus my own failure lies entirely in language usage. The fact is, once you are seriously desirous of learning a target language you must be committed to using it from the start and also with frequency. The greater the output the greater the results.
Despite my concerns about only knowing a few basic Japanese expressions I have seen where I have been improving. I have been making steady progress since I started using the language more frequently. I am no longer afraid to attempt telephone calls. When I am up to it I engage in random conversations with the Japanese nationals despite not quite understanding what they are saying.