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Chapter 1. Introduction


Languages are big. They are complicated too. But brains are good at learning them, provided they are given the chance. A child learning a second language is often given the chance for his or her brain to do what it needs to do. The brain of an adult often gets less than it needs, because the world of adults is different from the world of children. In addition, adults are commonly under time pressure, and have a psychological need to observe clear and steady progress.

It is often said that children learn languages from their environment. They get into an environment where language learning can happen, and language learning happens. What I have to say here is about creating an environment where language learning can start happening for an adult. These are suggestions for beginners, ideally, for people who are just about to begin learning a new language. I'm especially concerned to help people who have to, or wish to, learn a language on their own, in the location where it is spoken, without the advantages and disadvantages of a formal language course. The techniques I will suggest will be especially helpful during the first two months of language learning. Eventually, other approaches will be needed. Even if you start out employing the techniques I suggest, you may end up modifying them, or inventing new techniques of your own. Think of this as one way to learn a lot of language in a short time.

1.1 What is a beginning language learner trying to do?
1.2 Learning about the language versus learning the language
1.3 You can learn the language in the language before you know the language: an example

1.1 What is a beginning language learner trying to do?

If we ignore a whole bunch of problems, we can say that a language learner faces two main problems. The first is to get started. The second is to keep from stopping. We are focusing here on the first of these problems. You may intend to become an outstanding speaker of your new language one day. Your first problem is to become any kind of speaker, period. First you must go from being a total non-speaker to being a struggling speaker. Then you can go from being a struggling speaker to being a comfortable speaker. Way down the road, if things work out, you may come to speak the new language almost as easily as you speak your mother tongue. Right now, you'd be happy with a lot less than that. When you can basically get along in the language, given enough effort on your part and enough cooperation on the part of the person who you are talking to, you will be a “basic speaker” of your new language.

You are entitled to call yourself a basic speaker of the new language when you meet two conditions. First, your ability to understand the language (commonly referred to as comprehension ability) is adequate so that a typical speaker of the language can always get her point across to you, given a bit of effort, and provided the topic is fairly mundane. Second, your ability to speak the language is such that you can always get your point across to other people, given a bit of cooperation, and provided the topic is mundane.

Get the picture? You and a typical speaker of the language work together cooperatively to make communication successful. It is hard work for both of you, but you usually succeed. A mundane topic is any topic involving ordinary concrete experience, but not including things like philosophy, theology, and punctuated equilibria. The cooperative effort between a fluent speaker and a new speaker is called the negotiation of meaning. A lot of the burden falls on the fluent speaker to make this communication successful. The fluent speaker must simplify her speech, and speak slowly and clearly, and help you to find the words you are groping for. Both of you often will need to guess at what the other is saying, or meaning to say.

We now have an idea of your first target: to be a basic speaker, able to negotiate meaning with a cooperative conversational partner. So that's what I want to help you do--to go from being unable to speak this language at all to being able to negotiate meaning with a cooperative native speaker.

And when I say speak, I really do mean speak. A tape recorder can't speak. Neither can a parrot, in the sense I have in mind. By “speak a language”, I mean that you can start with an idea that you want to get across, and go on to express that idea in words that someone else can understand. In addition, you will often understand what they say in response, or at least the gist of it, and if you don't understand, you can work with them conversationally until you get the point they are trying to make.

You may have had experiences attempting to learn other languages. Those experiences may have been successful or unsuccessful. Whether or not you have had experiences learning other languages, you will have beliefs about language learning. What is it to know a language? What is it to speak a language? How do people learn languages? Is learning a language like learning a poem, like learning chemistry, like learning to play the piano, like all of these, like none of these? How is it normally accomplished (in cases where it really is accomplished, as opposed to only attempted)? Take a few minutes (or hours, as the case may be) to jot down your beliefs about language learning.


Done? Good. Here are some of my beliefs. I believe that I must work at learning to understand a language just as much as I must work at learning to talk in it. At one time, I believed that if I learned to talk, I would automatically be able to understand. Today, I believe that I must also learn to understand. Another belief I have is that I will only become familiar with a language if I have extensive exposure to it. But I believe that for that exposure to do any good I must be able to understand at least some of what I am hearing. Another thing I believe is that when I am first learning a language, both understanding it and speaking it will be hard work. I expect to speak the language poorly at first, and then, as I keep using the language with people, both in talking and in listening, I believe that my ability will gradually improve. That is, I will go from speaking the language brokenly to speaking it fluently. Another important belief I hold is that I am far more likely to be successful if I can devote myself full time to learning the language, than if I have another full-time job and attempt to do language learning on the side. Learning a language is tiring, so “full-time” might mean five or six hours per day. Or it might mean eight hours. But I believe that I am less likely to be successful if I try to learn a language as a side-line, than if I see language learning as my central responsibility. During my six or eight hours per day of language learning, I believe that I need to devote most of the time to actual communication and conversation. But I also believe that unstructured, real-life conversation is not enough for me. I need to engage in structured communication activities which will help me to learn the language. These structured communication activities are especially important during the early weeks of language learning. Without structured language learning activities, I may not succeed, and even if I do succeed, my progress will be slower, and my ultimate achievement lower, than might have been the case.

How do your beliefs compare to mine? Probably, you thought of things which I did not think of, and I reminded you of things you did not think of. That illustrates an important principle. If you want to have a positive experience learning a language, get together often with friends who are also trying to learn a language, and share ideas with them. They may be learning the same language as you, or they may be learning different languages. If it is the same language, you can share discoveries related to that language. In any case, you can share discoveries related to what helps you as language learners. You can also share your woes. You can laugh together and cry together. Hmm. Guess that's another belief of mine that I forgot to mention in the preceding paragraph. I hate lonely language learning. I believe that I need encouragement from people who have some idea of what I am up against.

1.2 Learning about the language versus learning the language

One common belief about language learning is that to learn a language is to learn a body of facts. In Chemistry class you learn facts such as a carbon atom can form four bonds with other atoms. In German class you learned facts such as the first person singular present tense form of möchten is möchte and facts such as the word meaning “dog” is hund. Learning a language is seen as learning hundreds or thousands of facts about grammar and vocabulary.

Another common belief is that to learn a language is to form a set of habits. A common comparison is to riding a bicycle. When you first try to ride a bicycle, or type, or play the piano, you struggle to do it at all. But with practice it becomes an automatic habit.

No doubt there is truth in both of these beliefs. However, there is also little doubt that these are gross over-simplifications. Any kind of learning, whether it is like learning chemistry or like learning to play the piano, is incredibly complex. But learning a language is uniquely complex. Fortunately, you didn't have to understand how your muscles worked, or even what exactly they were doing, in order to learn to ride a bike. It is even more fortunate that your brain will deal with most of the complexity of learning a language without you (or anyone) understanding how it does it. Otherwise it would be a rather hopeless situation.

But you need to set your brain to work. I'm not talking about learning facts about language, much as that may help some people. I'm talking about your brain actually using language as language. In the final analysis, that is the only thing that will get your brain to acquire the language. There are two main ways you use your language ability. You use it to express your own ideas, and you use it to understand other people's ideas. When you are just starting to acquire your new language, that is, when you're are at the absolute point zero, it is impossible to use it to express your own ideas in it. But it is possible even at that point to begin understanding someone else's ideas in it, especially when those ideas are centered around that other person's desire to help you start learning the language. You can start understanding the language before you know how to talk in the language.

Alternatively, some people like to begin by memorizing sentences in the new language. That's O.K. too, but when you memorize a sentence, it doesn't involve you in using language as language. Remember that to use language as language means to put your own ideas into words or to understand other people's ideas from their words. You may learn to say “Where is the bathroom?”, and whenever you need to know where the bathroom is, you pull that sentence out of your hat. And you may also be able to use it as a master pattern for asking where other things are. You want to know where the kitchen is, and you know the word for “kitchen”, and you think to yourself, “Now let's see, to say 'Where is the bathroom?' I say 'XYZ', where Z means bathroom; and let's see, mm, W means kitchen, so if I want to say 'Where is the kitchen?', I'll just substitute W for Z and say 'XYW'.” So then you say “XYW?”, and the person you said it to tells you where the kitchen is. Your thought process might not be quite as laborious as that, but do you get the idea? That is one way a lot of people start out learning a language, and many of them end up being successful. However, it takes most people a long time to memorize what amounts to a tiny taste of the language they are learning.

Fortunately, it is also possible to start out from the outset learning the language in ways that are more language-like. In this case, you will get someone to talk to you in the language as your initial means of learning the language. Suppose you want to learn to ask where the bathroom is, and where other rooms are. You might draw a simple floor plan of your house. Your friend, who is your Language Resource Person (LRP), will point to the different rooms in the floor plan, and tell you (in her language), “This is the kitchen; this is the bathroom; this is the entry way”. Since she points at each part of the house as she tells you what it is called, you can understand what she is saying, even if you have never heard these words before. You are already processing the language as language in your own brain. That is a central concept in all that follows. You learn the language by processing the language as language.

1.3 You can learn the language in the language before you know the language: an example

Let's use this example of learning the names of rooms in the house to illustrate some key principles involved in learning the language through using the language. You probably wouldn't start out with this in your real language learning situation, but it is something you could do during your first month for sure. The principles illustrated will apply from your very first day of language learning--if you apply them, that is.

So back to the sketch of the floor plan of your house. If your LRP starts off just racing along saying “This is the kitchen; this is the bathroom; this is the entry way; this is the door; this is the sitting room; this is the sink; this is the toilet; this is the bedroom; this is the bed; this is the dresser; this is the dining room; this is the table; this is the ”, you will be overwhelmed with the flood of language, and you won't be processing very much of it at all. On the other hand, if she says “This is the kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen,” that will get pretty boring, and pretty soon you won't be processing the language. You need an approach that will

  1. make it possible for you to process what you hear.
  2. force you to process what you hear.
  3. keep you interested in processing what you hear, and
  4. keep you learning more and more of the language as you go along.

Here is a good way to do this. Your LRP begins with just the kitchen and the bathroom. She says “This is the kitchen and this is the bathroom” (pointing to where they are in the floor plan as she speaks). She says that a few times. Then she questions you: “Where is the bathroom? Where is the kitchen?” You respond by pointing appropriately. Do you see why you need to start with two items? If she just told you “This is the kitchen”, and then said “Where is the kitchen?”, there would be only one possible answer. That is, there would be no choice. If there is no choice, there is no need to process. You could just point at the bathroom without even listening to her. Having two choices to start with will force you to process what you hear. On the other hand, if you start out with more than two items, there will be too much to remember. You may be surprised to find that starting out with “This is the bathroom; this is the kitchen; this is the entry way,” is enough to overload your mental processor. You may manage three items O.K., but not many more than that. So by starting out with not more than two or three items to choose between, you make it possible to process what you hear. Now you just have to worry about keeping yourself interested in processing what you hear, as well as keeping yourself learning more and more of the language as you go along.

Now suppose your LRP tells you “This is the bathroom; this is the kitchen,” and repeats that several times and then says “Where is the bathroom? Where is the kitchen?” a few times, and you point at the bathroom and the kitchen correctly. Then she says “This is the bathroom; this is the kitchen; this is the entry way” a few times, and asks you “Where is the bathroom? Where is the kitchen? Where is the entry-way?” She then adds a fourth item in a similar manner. I can predict that you'll soon be pointing correctly without bothering to process what she is saying. Can you see why? If she asks you the questions in the same order that she told you the names of the rooms, and keeps asking you over and over in the same order, then all you have to do is remember the order: bathroom, kitchen, entry way ... So if you are going to be forced to process the language as language, it is necessary that your LRP ask you the questions in random order. That way you won't know for sure what she is going to ask. You will have to listen to what she says to you and process it in order to understand. This involves what has been called the principle of uncertainty reduction. You are uncertain what she wants you to point at until you have used what she said as a means of determining what she wants you to point at. This is real communication. Here you have just begun, and you are already using the language for real communication! You are learning the language by processing the language.

So we started with just two items, the kitchen and the bathroom. You want to get to the place where your LRP can ask you to point to different parts of the house and items of furniture, and you can point correctly. Once again, it is essential that you not overwhelm your mental processor. You avoid overloading your mental processor by

  1. introducing new items one at a time,
  2. having the new item repeated along with several familiar ones many times, and
  3. having the new items questioned (“Where is the X?”, or “Point to the X”, or “Show me the X”, etc.) many times, but always randomly, along with questions about other items (otherwise no processing will occur).

Now as you are going along, you may be on your tenth item, which is, let's say, the verandah. Your LRP says, “This is the verandah”. In order to keep your mental processor processing, she says this several times but always randomly interspersed among other items you have already learned: “This is the verandah; this is the sitting room; this is the verandah; this is the front yard; this is the backyard; this is the verandah; this is the kitchen; this is the verandah; this is the door.” I have yet to see an LRP who appreciates the amount of repetition I need in order to learn new items. At this point I may want to hear verandah twenty or thirty times, interspersed among familiar items as illustrated. The LRP may think that five repetitions is plenty. Fortunately, most LRP s will soon come to accept the need for repetition, as long as you keep gently reminding them.

Now imagine that you are working on your fifteenth item, say the kitchen sink, and your LRP is asking you “Where is the kitchen sink?” randomly interspersed among questions such as “Where is the bathroom?”, “Where is the kitchen”, etc. Frequently, you will discover that you can no longer remember an item which you knew a few minutes earlier. Suppose while the LRP is working with you on “Where is the bathroom?”, she asks you “Where is the sitting room?” A few minutes earlier, it appeared that you had learned sitting room. Now you find that when she says the word for sitting room, you cannot remember what it means. What your LRP does at such points is to act as though you now need to learn sitting room, and she asks you the question “Where is the sitting room?” many times, always interspersed randomly among other questions. Once you are again able to consistently recognize sitting room, she will emphasize kitchen sink a few more times, since that is the new item you were working on. If you aren't having any problem with kitchen sink, the LRP goes on to item sixteen, perhaps, stove.

At times you may have special difficulty with two items which strike you as similar in pronunciation. This happened for me in Urdu with kira which means 'cucumber', and kela, which means 'banana', since we were learning the word for cucumber and the word for banana in the same session (using real cucumbers and bananas, along with other pieces of fruit and vegetables). These two words may not look all that similar to you, but I have seen learners become confused over choices involving words that were considerably less similar than these. When this happens, you should have the LRP focus on the two items which you are confusing. At first she can just concentrate on those two items: “Pick up a banana; pick up a cucumber; pick up a cucumber; pick up a banana; pick up a cucumber; pick up a banana; pick up a banana; pick up a banana; pick up a cucumber...”. She should then add one or two items that you already know well, along with cucumber and banana. Then add one or two more familiar items. Gradually, she'll get back to using all of the items you have learned so far during the current activity.

Now suppose you had never heard this language before the session with the floor plan. You've been processing the language as language, and doing so for, say, one hour. Your session ends. You have to go to the airport to pick up a friend who is just arriving from your home country. Your friend tells you, “I need to visit the restroom”. You say to the security guard, in your new language, “Where is the bathroom?” You've never said that before. In your session you only learned to comprehend it and didn't try to say it. But you now needed it, and it came out, and it felt like natural communication. That is, you had an idea that you needed to express, and you expressed it. Your visiting friend is impressed. The security guard points to the bathroom and says something which you don't understand. You don't realize that you used a word that only means “bathroom” in a home, and a different word is used for the airport restroom. But it just doesn't matter at all at this point. The security guard knew what you meant and knew that you were doing your best. After all, you've only been learning the language for an hour. I'd say you're doing pretty well.

Now alternatively, you might have learned to say “Where is the bathroom?” without processing the language as language in the way I described. For example, you might have taken a 3x5 card and written on one side of it “Where is the bathroom?” in English, and written on the other side of it “Where is the bathroom?” in the new language. Then you could have tested yourself on that over and over, and repeated the sentence to yourself hundreds of times until you had it memorized. You still could have said it to the security guard.

The way you learned it was quite different. You learned it by being asked where the bathroom was (on your little floor plan). When you were asked, you had to determine what you were being asked. That is, you actually had to understand the new language. Then you indicated where the bathroom was, conveying to a speaker of the language the fact that you had understood what she asked.

In the early days of language learning, many people, perhaps most people, are able to learn much more quickly if they learn the language by processing the language than they can learn by memorizing expressions from on 3x5 cards, or from tape recordings. More importantly, they will be giving their brain the chance to start developing genuine comprehension ability. You start out small, and by using appropriate techniques, you steadily and rapidly expand your comprehension ability. You'll be amazed at how much you will be able to comprehend by the end of a month. It will be considerably more than you could have memorized in the same month. If you choose rather to learn primarily by memorizing sentences, it will do very little for your comprehension ability. You only learn to comprehend by comprehending, and you learn to talk by using the language to formulate and utter sentences which put your own ideas into words as the need arises. You can create situations in your language sessions in which needs arise. You can also plan your language sessions so that they relate to the communication needs that you are facing in real life settings.

As I say, the approach I am suggesting is not the only approach. You may well succeed by memorizing a lot of sentences and using them as patterns for constructing new sentences. As you do this, it will cause people to talk to you in the new language, and sometimes you will understand some of what they say and thus have the chance to process language as language and thereby start developing your comprehension ability. But I believe you'll be off to a much slower start than if you use your times with your LRP to do heavy-duty, large scale language processing.

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Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 3.5, published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 1999. [Ordering information.]

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