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4. Coping with some less than ideal situations


Perhaps you would like to begin learning your new language by finding a bilingual mediating person who will later help you to systematically build a dense and multiplex network somewhere near the core of society, except for one small problem: you find that it is impossible.

4.1 Learning in a truly monolingual society
4.2 Learning in a totally bilingual society
4.3 Language Learning when there is limited access to the society

4.1 Learning in a truly monolingual society

It may be that you have no choice but to jump in at the rapids. That is, you are unable to contact any bilingual mediating person and unable to remain on or near the fringe of the community while preparing both yourself and the community for your fuller participation in its life. You should still be able to apply many of the principles I have been describing, if you give it some thought. You will still expect that your first LRP(s) will be people who live nearer the edge of their society, or at least are temperamentally so disposed, being open-minded, outward-reaching individuals. You can also do a lot of comprehension learning, starting with the names of simple actions and objects and using photos or drawings. If you must be exposed to a whole community all at once, you might as well meet everybody. You're probably less of a threat, and source of stress, if you are a known (albeit strange) quantity than if you are some mysterious figure lurking in the shadows. In such situations you need all the preparation you can get in terms of linguistic and anthropological training.

A word of warning is in order. I have seen people behave as though they faced such a situation when they really did not. Some people may believe that it is preferable to live in a monolingual immersion situation from day one. I have seen it done both ways, even by different people learning the same language. The person who worked for several weeks with a bilingual LRP on the fringe of the community and then moved into a monolingual setting had a dramatic advantage over the person who jumped right into the monolingual situation. Now there is a third possibility: you might remain in the bilingual, fringe situation forever and never move into the monolingual situation. That would be tragic indeed. If the only choice were between this tragic third possibility and the first possibility of immediate monolingual immersion, by all means, go for the immediate monolingual situation. But if you have the opportunity to start out with a bilingual LRP, and you have a definite strategy for moving into the monolingual community in due time, then you have the best possible situation, assuming you don't get cold feet when the time comes to move into the monolingual community. If you make yourself accountable to someone, and take that accountability seriously, you will overcome those cold feet.

4.2 Learning in a totally bilingual society

Another difficult case is the one where there simply is no monolingual community available, period. You may wish to learn the language of a community that is totally, or at least largely, bilingual. Perhaps they are far more proficient in their first language than in the language which you share with them, but it will take you a long time to reach the point where you can communicate more comfortably with them in their first language than in their second language which may be, in the worst possible case, your mother tongue. In this case especially, you may appreciate the possibility of doing extensive comprehension learning (learning to comprehend a wide range of language related to a wide range of topics as used in a wide range of functions). Thomson (1992, 1993a, 1993b) contains some suggestions along these lines.

Once you know a thousand or so basic vocabulary items and are familiar with a range of basic constructions in the language, you will want to have specific times in which you behave monolingually with your LRP. Initially, this might involve a “monolingual hour” once or twice per week, and later it might involve a “monolingual week” once in awhile, and eventually, “a monolingual month”. Your LRP will have a much easier time being “monolingual” with you than anyone else, since she has the best possible feel for your current level of language ability, and can gear herself to it. It may be best to do your serious network building after you have reached the point where you can get along (by hook or by crook) entirely in the new language. It may be hard to change the language in which a relationship is conducted once the relationship is well established. Once you are functional in your early “broken” form of the new language, you can build perfectly fine relationships in it. This may make you uncomfortable at first. You may feel that you are making a fool of yourself conversing in the new language when you could be being your old familiar groovy self by speaking your stronger language (which may even be your mother tongue), since they speak your stronger language better than you can even dream of speaking their language at this point. You may have a strong feeling that you are not putting communication first when you struggle to communicate in a language you hardly know rather than easily expressing yourself in a language you both know well. What you need to bear in mind in this situation is that learning a new language means becoming a new “you”. The “you” that speaks broken Navajo may be the only you that most of your Navajo friends will ever meet. That does not make you any less of a genuine person. But becoming someone you have never been before may make you awfully uncomfortable! How badly do you want to learn this language?

4.3 Language Learning when there is limited access to the society

The third less-than-ideal case I want to address is the one where you must learn the new language at a great distance from the homeland of that language. Suppose your LRP and you live thousands of miles from any significant segment of the language community. If you are serious about learning the language, you will want to plan forays into the homeland. Now the matter of timing becomes crucial. Suppose that in terms of time and finances you can only afford a three month foray into the homeland of the language you are learning. Later on you hope to make additional forays, but the future is not at all clear in that regard. Want to waste most of the potential benefit of those three months? Then why don't you just go on over there before you've even learned the first bit of the language. That way you can spend a good part of your three months grunting and pointing and writing things down in your little notebook. Want to get a lot of benefit out of those same three months? Then before going, make a point of learning to use a couple thousand vocabulary items, both as a comprehender and as a producer of sentences. And perhaps you can learn to communicate (by means of role-play with your LRP) in a wide range of communication situations before you make the trip. In other words, by working with your LRP to develop basic communication skills--i.e., the ability to understand and produce sentences you have never heard before--you can prepare yourself for three months of meaningful communication, during which you can get to know a lot of people and participate in the culture first hand with a lot of understanding.

The point is, you can develop a lot of real communication ability before you go, as long as you have at least one person to communicate with in your cozy little speech community of two people. Don't spend your preparation time mainly reading about the language if you can be learning to use it. And learn about the culture in the language, as you are learning the language, rather than just reading about it in some other language (like English). When you arrive in that distant homeland, do you want to arrive as someone who knows a lot about the language, or do you want to arrive as a communicator (albeit a broken communicator)? So get busy using the language with your LRP. Then when you arrive on the scene you'll be in a position to wring the maximum benefit out of the few weeks in terms of improving your fluency and experiencing the culture.

Besides poor timing, another easy error to make is to spend your time in the homeland of your new language doing things that you could do as well or better in your own homeland. This is not the time to start writing a book, for instance, or to write technical papers about the language or culture (or anything else). It is not even the time to start constructing a fancy dictionary of the language you are learning. If you are a linguist, this is not the time to start typing texts into your computer and interlinearizing them. (If you're not a linguist, forget I said that). You have a few precious weeks to experience the language and culture in its proper setting. Don't get sidetracked. There will be plenty of time later for those other worthwhile projects.

In any of these less-than-ideal situations you can apply the principles of network-building, starting with whatever contacts you have or are able to make and attempting to work out from there. You meet Joe. You learn that Joe has a friend named Bob. Just being able to tell Bob, “I know your friend Joe” is enough to validate you and give you an entrance into Bob's life. At the same time, entering Bob's life strengthens your relationship with Joe. Then you work outward from Bob and Joe, or any other starting points you might have. Don't be afraid to get new, independent contacts as new starting points. But don't spend all your time pursuing new, independent relationships, or you will end up with a diffuse network, rather than ending up as a belonger in the new society.

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