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2.2. Whom do you have?


To become a speaker of a language is to come into relationships. In the broadest sense, you come into a relationship with everyone who speaks the language, in that a language can be thought of a contract which all its users have tacitly agreed to follow. But you will have many specific relationships that are essential to your language learning progress. You cannot learn a language without the right relationships with people. For example, you cannot learn a language very well if your main source of input is television and radio, though these can be valuable resources in a balanced language learning program. From the standpoint of your language learning, the important relationships are of three types:

  1. Language Resource Person(s) [ LRP s].
  2. Other people with whom you spend a fair amount of time communicating--friends, fellow employees, your parole officer, etc.
  3. People with whom you interact in very specific types of encounters, such as the postman, the butcher, or the judge.

In Thomson (1993c) I outline a strategy for increasing your network of friends, and recruiting LRPs. With regard to increasing your network of friends the principle is quite simple. Keep meeting people until you find a few who seem to appreciate your company. Become their friends. Then, once you have a few friends, become friends of the best friends (and/or close relatives) of your friends, and then become friends with the best friends (and/or close relatives) of your friends' friends (and/or close relatives). It is easier to become friends with the friend of a friend than with someone who has no reason to give you the time of day. If you can tell Bill, “Hi. I'm a friend of Joe's”, and Joe happens to be Bill's best friend, then Bill is likely to be nice to you. Probably Joe has already mentioned you to him anyway, and he is glad to meet you. Once you're important to a bunch of people who are all important to each other, you're a belonger. If you haven't yet found an LRP, you should be able to at that point.

Recruiting LRPs is a point at which I personally experience anxiety and internal resistance. Even though I am usually offering to pay people, I still feel that I am somehow asking a major favour, and I guess I'm not a very assertive person. It helps to realize that there are people who really enjoy being LRPs, and that if you ask around enough, and people come forward, the people who come forward are coming forward not because you are imposing on them, but because your request has struck a responsive chord in them.

It is a good idea when first recruiting LRPs that you not even so much as hint at any long term arrangements until you have seen that the person works smoothly with you. So initially, you request help on a one time basis. If things go well, you can request help again from the same person. If you are getting “one time” help from several people, and then settle on one or two as regular LRPs, you will avoid causing anyone to lose face.

You may be saying, “Whoa! This is more than I bargained for. I don't want to hire or otherwise recruit someone to help me on a regular, scheduled basis! Sorry. That's just not how I work.” Well, I find I can have far more effective communication experiences during the first months of language learning if I can spend time with someone who knows that the reason we are together is for me to improve my language ability. You may manage to do many of the things I will discuss without resorting to this. For me, having regular LRPs helps to make life predictable, and insures I will stick to my intended goals. If you react against this, it may be O.K., unless it is part of a general reaction against getting involved with people. Perhaps you were thinking that you could learn the language as a recluse. Read Thomson (1993c) if you don't think that “recluse” and “language learner” are a contradiction in terms.

The third category of people whom you need, those with whom you interact in specific kinds of encounters, will be built into the situation. It is important that you evaluate your situation in order to determine all of the specific types of encounters in which you interact with people. Then you can use part of your time in formal language sessions with your LRP to improve your ability to interact in specific types of encounters.

In pursuing relationships of these three types, there is a big advantage in relationships with people who don't know English (or any other language which you already know well). Since I am assuming that you are already able to speak the new language at least minimally, I would suggest that you consider mainly recruiting LRPs from among such people. In addition, aim to build your network of friendships so that it includes many such people. In many parts of the world, you will find that some people want to spend time with you in order to practice their English. You may want to make an exchange with these people--you spend so much time speaking English with them and they spend an equal amount of time speaking their language with you. However, you might find it difficult or unnatural to speak the new language with someone who already speaks English fairly well. With determination you can overcome your feeling of unnaturalness, but it may be easier if you mainly relate to people who can only speak to you in the new language.

When I learned Blackfoot, there were very few people to talk to who did not speak fluent English. That is an extremely challenging context in which to learn a language. Elsewhere I have presented a strategy for coping with this challenge ( Thomson 1993d). In such a highly bilingual situation you are only likely to develop fluency if you employ a well thought out strategy such as the one I discuss there. I repeat the relevant portion here:

After you have a vocabulary of many hundred common items, and can construct a reasonable variety of sentences, it is time to bite the bullet. This may be a month or two following the onset of your full-time language learning. You will tell your language helper something like, “Next Thursday, we will not use any English for a full hour.” Come Thursday, you spend an hour during which all communication is in your new language. At times you will get stuck and be unable to get your point across. Jot it down. At times your helper will be unable to get her point across. She jots that down. After the hour is over, you go over your jottings together, and try to learn what it was you lacked which made communication difficult. Repeat these “monolingual hours” once or twice a week until you and your helper are comfortable with them. Then tell her something like, “Week after next we will see if we can go a whole week without using any English.”

Just as your monolingual hours seemed uncomfortable at first, so your monolingual week may seem awkward. After all, you still communicate only with great difficulty in the new language, and it would be easy or effortless to carry on in English. But after you are comfortable with an occasional monolingual week, do a monolingual month. Then try a monolingual week, not just with your helper, but with all the other bilingual friends you now have. Do that a few times, and then try a month with your friends. All this time, you are steadily increasing your comprehension ability, perhaps by methods like those I outline in Thomson (1992, 1993a). Even though the community to which you have access is 100% bilingual in English (or some other language you know well), you will find that you reach a point where you can largely abandon English once and for all (in your dealings with the speakers of your new language, that is).

While I'm on the topic of people who are important to you in connection with your language learning (and hopefully, important to you in general), I should mention one other category of person: fellow-language learners. Many aspects of language learning require a lot of will-power, and I find that it makes things easier if I am not all alone in my struggles. There may be people of a similar cultural background to yours who are at a similar stage in learning the same language that you are learning. If not, there may at least be people of a similar cultural background who are learning some language or other. As you get together with people, you can share ideas and frustrations. You may be amazed how this can increase your sense of contentment and motivation.

In the earliest weeks of language learning, I think it is best if you can have one or more co-learners who participate with you in your sessions with your LRP. This adds flexibility to your communication activities, and may make those activities more entertaining (or less boring) for the LRP. However, you are now an intermediate language learner, and it may be better most of the time if you work by yourself with your LRP, since no two people's interests, needs, or rate of progress will be the same. If you do have the opportunity to work with other language learners, a word of warning is in order. Competitiveness can be counterproductive (Bailey, 1983). If you are making better progress than your friend, why don't you hold back a bit during your language sessions. Language learners can have a lot of emotional ups and downs. You don't want to contribute to somebody's downs.

Finally, if at all possible, you ought to stay in touch with a language learning specialist. Such a person will be able to give you special help in evaluating your program and your progress. If you relate to such a person while setting concrete goals, this can provide a tacit relationship of accountability. Such accountability can be tremendously helpful in keeping your motivation high. As a matter of fact, even if no language learning specialist is available to you, as is often the case, you should consider working out some sort of mutual accountability system with a fellow language learner.

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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.]

Page content last modified: 15 September 1998

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