What? Me Worry About Language Learning? by Greg Thomson

posted Jun 27, 2011, 8:05 PM by Essia Bernstein   [ updated Jan 7, 2012, 7:53 PM ]
You are hoping to learn a language. What sort of expectations do you have? I still have some scrawlings which I made in the margin of a page in Nida (1957) in the spring of 1967. They were my language learning goals for the summer. I expected to become a Blackfoot speaker during the five months available to me. Ignorance was bliss. If I had known what I was doing, I could probably have gained functional communication ability during five months. As it was, there was no chance I would get very far at all. I was overconfident. Over the years since, I have met people who were under-confident about their language learning prospects. Perhaps they were perfectly normal people going to live in a Spanish speaking country, and doubted their ability to learn Spanish at all. That too is unrealistic. Any normal person can learn any language, given enough contact with speakers of that language.

But it does help to be realistic. A simplistic view of a language learning challenge can lead to disappointment and discouragement. An unrealistically pessimistic view can lead to giving up before getting started. Some languages are much harder to learn than others. It is harder to learn languages in some situations than in other situations. Some people are better at it than others. If you face a colossally difficult challenge, you can still succeed, provided you have an effective strategy. If you face a relatively easy situation, you will probably succeed without worrying all that much about your strategy. Even in a relatively easy situation, you will get further faster with an effective strategy, but it probably won’t mean the difference between success and failure. In the most difficult situations, success or failure will almost certainly depend on the effectiveness of your strategy. Most situations fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

The factors which determine where a given situation falls on the scale are of three types:
1) Factors related to the social context in which you must learn the language.
2) Factors related to the language itself.
3) Factors related to the individual language learner.

What I want to do here is to help you reflect on the relative difficulty of different varieties of language learning situations, and to try to locate your own somewhere along the scale between "less difficult" and "colossally difficult". The farther you are toward the "colossally difficult" end of the scale, the more you had better worry about your strategy. Since my main point is that the more difficult your situation, the more important it is that you have an effective strategy, I will conclude by briefly considering some of the components of an effective language learning strategy.
Just any old thing I might try might not work.
"I’d like to learn Blackfoot, eh?" says the enthusiastic school teacher. "I’ll be here a couple years, anyway. So I figure it would come in handy, eh? Do ya think ya can help me?"
Such requests for help used to make me uncomfortable. Far be it from me to squelch enthusiasm for language learning. But what can I say? First of all, what does she mean by "learn Blackfoot"? She probably thinks she knows what she means. She has heard groups of Blackfoot people standing around conversing animatedly in the Blackfoot language. That is what she means. She wants to be able to join in such conversations and do whatever it is they are doing, just like they do it. That’s simple. What else could she mean by "learn Blackfoot"?

However, I am wondering what sort of action she contemplates taking to learn Blackfoot. Is she thinking of something like the nine months I devoted to memorizing, drilling, and reviewing? Or is she thinking of something like those painful first few months when I discontinued using any English with Blackfoot speakers? Or is she thinking of the years that have followed, years in which I always felt that I was still learning, and had more to learn than I had yet learned?

Perhaps what she really has in mind is sitting down with a book of language lessons and completing the lessons, and then subsequently being able to speak the language by virtue of having completed the lessons. Or perhaps she envisions herself getting a Blackfoot person to tell her "how to say things", until she can say enough "things" that she knows the language. Or perhaps she feels that if she hears the language spoken around her enough she will start to "pick it up".

If you have not guessed, I am not overly optimistic about this teacher learning Blackfoot.
If you are reading this because you want to learn Blackfoot, or Chukchee, or French, or some other specific language, then your mind may be racing with ideas as to what you mean by "learn the language" and the actions you expect to take to achieve that goal. If you have already learned Spanish fluently, and are planning to learn French, then you probably know how you will go about it, and what I have to say here may not be all that helpful.
My experience suggests that many people who face the need to learn a language will benefit from having a clearer idea of what is involved. Almost anyone should be able to develop conversational ability in almost any language, in almost any situation in which there is access to speakers of that language. Yet it is common for would-be language learners to experience frustration and to achieve only limited success. If you understand yourself, your social context, and the nature of language learning, and if you have access to speakers of the language you wish to learn, and if you are willing to devote the time required, and perhaps to bear a certain amount of frustration and embarrassment, then you can confidently and steadily move ahead until you are a speaker of the new language.

Billions of people have learned a second language. None of them did it without a strategy. That is, a second language did not simply drop into their brains full blown. They had to engage in activities which enabled them to hear the language with understanding and to participate in its use. However, even though everyone who has ever learned a language has had a strategy, or rather, a set of strategies, most language learners did not have explicit, consciously designed strategies.

When people have failed at second language learning, it was because their strategy was not appropriate, at least for that particular person, learning that particular language, in that particular situation.

It has been common for linguists and other language learners to learn languages without giving a lot of thought to their language learning strategies. The linguist would live in or near a monolingual speech community and concentrate on doing linguistic analysis, that is, identifying the sounds, identifying words and their parts, and discovering the ways that sounds and words and their parts pattern in the language to form a system. One can do linguistic analysis of this sort without learning the language under investigation. Indeed, many field linguists have little interest in learning the languages they investigate. Other linguists, on the other hand, tend to learn to speak the languages they investigate, although often giving little thought to an explicit language learning strategy.

Much of my own experience has been in North America, where linguists primarily investigate North American Indian languages. When I began fieldwork with Blackfoot in 1972, there was widespread discouragement in the linguists in that area over the business of language learning. People could analyze the languages until they were blue in the face, but it did not seem to result in their being able to speak them in most cases.

I had actually begun trying to learn Blackfoot five years earlier at the age of nineteen, when I roamed around the reserves with a bedroll and a Coleman stove for five months. I had learned fifty or a hundred useful expressions, such as "Where do you live?", and a lot of nouns and verbs and adjectives, and I had learned the intransitive verb paradigms ("I sleep, you sleep, he sleeps, we sleep, y’all sleep, they sleep" etc.).

Five years later, I was back at it again, but I felt stuck at about the same place. I went on and learned more verb paradigms. There were scores of verb forms to learn. But after a few months I still found that I could understand next to nothing when I listened in on a Blackfoot conversation. I began to feel that I would never learn Blackfoot. I had essentially given up when a colleague, Randy Speirs, gave a stirring talk on language learning at a conference. He said that the most important thing was to keep learning. As long as you were always learning more, you were on your way and would eventually arrive.
I took heart, and decided that I could learn Blackfoot after all. Remembering the style of my high school French textbook (it followed the well-known audiolingual method), I began to construct dialogues which I felt reflected everyday situations, and to have them translated into Blackfoot:

John: Why are you standing out here when it is so cold?
Bill: Because the storekeeper chased me out and told me not to come back in.
John: What’d he do that for?
Bill: He said I was trying to steal the safe. But I was only leaning on it.

O.K., they were not entirely realistic, since the humorous element seemed to make them less boring. But I always used sentences that went beyond the Blackfoot I already knew and which I felt would help me in every day communication situations. Each Saturday morning a Blackfoot friend would come and he would orally translate one or more of these dialogues. In addition to these dialogues we also made up language drills similar to the ones I remembered from high school French.

That was Saturday mornings. All the rest of the week I worked at memorizing the dialogues. I was in a basement. There were no windows. I worked hour after hour, month after month, for about nine months. I did what Randy Speirs had suggested. I kept learning more and more. But I still could not understand an ordinary conversation in Blackfoot. And I could speak only with the greatest effort.

After those nine months in the windowless basement, a year and a half passed during which there was little improvement in my speaking ability. Then I happened to meet another colleague, Frank Robbins, in the Commodore Hotel in New York City. He invited me to his room and showed a deep interest in my life and work. I told him of my dismay over language learning, pointing out that if I were walking down the sidewalk and saw someone coming with whom I might have to speak Blackfoot I would sometimes cross thc street to avoid the awkward, embarrassing encounter. Frank had a simple challenge for me. He told me to make a commitment that I would never again speak to a Blackfoot person in English. I told him that I felt that would be impossible. He told me that it would be difficult at first, but fairly soon it would start getting easier.

When I returned to Alberta, I took the plunge. Frank was right. The first few weeks were extraordinarily difficult, but then it started getting easier, and the Blackfoot started to flow more and more. For the next several years I spoke only Blackfoot to Blackfoot people. I was always able to get my point across to them, and they to me, so I felt justified in calling myself a speaker of the language.

I learned Blackfoot. I did it by means of strategies. Some of the strategies were not too successful. My first strategy, when I was nineteen, was to memorize useful expressions and say them to everyone I could. I hate to think how many times I said "Will you marry me?" to girls, just for the sake of practicing. That strategy, however, did not get me very far. Then Randy Speirs inspired my next strategy: nine months of memorizing dialogues. This was better. Memorizing isolated expressions had its limits. How many useful expressions are there? After you have learned them all, what do you learn? Dialogues, by contrast, were open ended.

In designing dialogues, I began by constructing them in English. I would deliberately put things into the dialogues that I had no clue how to say in Blackfoot. These memorized dialogues gave me lots of resources for later use. I was doing what Stevick (1989) has called stockpiling. Learning all of those dialogues hardly improved my speaking ability, because I was not really engaging in communication in Blackfoot. But the dialogues gave me a huge stockpile of vocabulary and sentence patterns that I was able to take advantage of later when I took the plunge and refused to speak English with Blackfoot people. Communication was a horrendous struggle for me at that point, but as I kept at it, drawing on my huge stockpile, it got easier. This is not a strategy I recommend. Nine months of stockpiling, before seriously using the stockpile! (Yet it is the sort of strategy I have recently observed in use by language school students in an overseas situation.)

I have already mentioned my third major strategy: insist on speaking only Blackfoot. This was the key strategy. However, had I done this without the stockpile to draw on, it would not have worked. Pretty hard to speak when you don’t know how to say anything.
As I persisted in refusing to speak English, most people would eventually begin speaking to me in Blackfoot. The first person was my main language helper. I spoke Blackfoot to him for two or three hours per day for about a week before he began speaking Blackfoot to me. In later years it was always fascinating to watch a new relationship and see how long it took for people to begin speaking to me in Blackfoot. For some it would be an hour. For others several hours. Occasionally someone would start speaking Blackfoot to me right off.

This third strategy accomplished two things. It gave me a large amount of practice speaking. And it gave me exposure to Blackfoot that I could understand, as people spoke back to me. Overall, my strategies were not too effective. From the beginning of our time with the Blackfoot in 1972 it was about three and a half or four years before I was much of a Blackfoot speaker. And it was several years more before I found a role in the community that gave me the sort of language exposure and practice that I really needed. Since then I have helped a number of people learn languages, and learned another myself. I no longer stumble onto the strategies I use, or move ahead by trial and error. I wish I could go back to 1967 and have a go at those five months knowing what I know now.

The three strategies I employed could be called macro-strategies. Within my three macro-strategies were many micro-strategies. It is the micro-strategies that most authors have in mind when they talk about language learning strategies (e.g. Bialystok, 1990; Oxford, 1990; Wenden & Rubin, 1987). My main point here is that I didn’t sit around waiting for language learning to happen. I did things that I hoped would make it happen. Eventually it happened, though I am quite sure it would not have, had Frank Robbins not steered me to a viable strategy.

Yet there are cases where language learning has been successful when the learner gave little thought to an explicit strategy. Those are the easy situations (relatively speaking). The Blackfoot language learning situation was a difficult one. In most of what follows, I will help you to understand the three groups of factors mentioned above which tend to determine how difficult language learning will be in a given ease. Then you can decide for your own case how urgent it is that you approach the task with a sound strategy in hand. My main concern is to help those facing the more difficult situations. The more difficult your situation, the more I am concerned to help you. However, "difficult" is a relative term, when it comes to language learning. It is never easy. Only more or less difficult.

The social situation for learning

The Blackfoot situation was an exceptionally difficult language learning situation. The biggest difficulty stemmed from the nearly universal bilingualism of the community. I never did learn to speak Blackfoot as well as most Blackfoot people could speak English. This made it awkward for me to use the language in extended communication, since there was always the feeling that communication would go a lot more smoothly in English. The second biggest problem was that I was generally unable to live among the people. Thus I tended to get only limited exposure to people speaking the language, and the amount of life experience I shared with the Blackfoot community members was somewhat limited.

Now you may be thinking that the situation you face will be a snap compared to that. Language learning is never a snap. But some situations are less challenging than others. You may be a native speaker of Punjabi and have acquired native-like proficiency in Urdu as well. The language you arc going to learn is the closely related Siraiki language. Most of the life experience of members of the Siraiki speaking community is very similar to your own life experience, since you grew up in a very similar culture. You are an unmarried person, going to live in a rural village where many of the people cannot speak Urdu or Punjabi, and you will be having extensive interaction with such people. In all probability, you will learn Siraiki, whether or not you have a conscious strategy. Certainly, you could do better with a conscious strategy than without one, but it is not a matter of life or death that you have an explicit strategy.

Or perhaps you are a Canadian linguist going to one of the remaining language groups in the world which has had little outside contact, where almost no one is bilingual. You are going to live in one of the villages of that group, and you are going to do linguistic analysis while relating extensively to people in the course of everyday life—your everyday life and their everyday lives will intermesh. You are going to have extensive social life in your new language, both when you want it and when you don’t. Village life is like that. In all probability, you will learn the language, whether you have a conscious strategy or not. Again, you would no doubt do better with a conscious strategy than without one, but it may not be not a matter of life or death that you give a lot of thought to your language learning per se.

On the other hand, you may want to learn the language of a group to which you have little direct access. As a mater of fact, you have access to only one speaker, a political refugee from a far away land. She speaks English and is willing to help you learn her language. In such a situation, is it possible for you to learn to speak a language? The answer is yes (within certain limits). However, in this case, having a viable strategy is a matter of life or death.

These first two situations are at the "less difficult" end of the scale, while the third is probably at the "colossally difficult" end of the scale. In my experience, the overall social context provides the most important set of factors in determining where on the scale of relative difficulty a given language learning situation lies. Within the social context, bilingualism and access to the community are major factors. If most of the speakers with whom you have contact can speak fair English (or some other language that you already know), then you have a problem. To become fluent, you need to use the language in extensive, extemporaneous conversation. It is easy to have extensive spontaneous conversation with these people in English, but it may feel terribly unnatural, if not silly, or even weird, to struggle to communicate with them in their language. Using the new language will appear to interfere with communication and thus to interfere with relationships.

Limited access can be the result of geographical distance from the many body of speakers of the language you wish to learn. Or it can result from the fact that the community is not very open to outsiders. In either case, it is a challenge to get enough conversational practice to become fluent in the language.

The importance of the social context is illustrated in the case of people who are successful language learners in one context, but not another. I can think of three cases where an individual had done well at learning a language as an adult, but went on to experience long-term discouragement in the efforts to learn a subsequent one. All three were Americans. One learned German in a German-speaking environment, and another learned French in a French-speaking environment. Both of these people subsequently began learning American Indian languages, thinking of themselves as capable language learners. The third person had a very positive experience for several weeks making rapid progress in a Central American Indian language while living in a village there, but was subsequently unable to get off the ground in learning a North American Language of comparable complexity.

In the cases involving German and French, the learners had two things in their favour: similarities to their mother tongue (English) and a social context which provided constant exposure to the language and constant opportunities for interaction. In the third case, the Central American Indian community had been monolingual and the North American community was extremely bilingual. The language learner was outgoing and expressed a need for frequent social interaction. In the monolingual Central American situation, he felt that his social nature pushed him to use the new language, since without it, there was little social life. In the bilingual North American situation, he felt that the same social nature pushed him to use English, since using the Indian language interfered seriously with his ability to socialize. Same person. Different social contexts.

Bilingualism is the most important contextual factor that can negatively influence your language learning. You may face this challenge in any part of the world if you are learning a minority language and already know the major national or regional language. It may also be the case if you are learning a refugee language or are otherwise learning a language at a distance from its normal geographical setting. In such bilingual situations, having an effective, conscious strategy will often mean the difference between success and failure.

After bilingualism, probably the most challenging social-contextual factor is limited access to the language community. I assume that you have contact with at least one speaker. You can only develop conversational ability if you have someone to converse with. Provided you have an effective strategy, you can indeed develop basic conversational ability when you only have access to only one or two speakers. But in addition, you will want to aim to spend some time in the homeland of the language you are learning. If you only have occasional opportunities to spend time in the homeland, it is urgent that you have a strategy for getting the most mileage possible out of your forays into speech communities.

Accessibility of a group of people is not just a matter of physical distance. Perhaps more important is the attitude of the community toward outsiders, which may range from warm enthusiasm, to suspicion, to hostility, to various mixes of enthusiasm, suspicion and hostility. The community members may be excited at the prospect of the outsider learning the language, or they may be largely opposed to the idea, or indifferent. They may feel that it is more important for them to learn English or another major language from you, rather than for you to learn from them. People may have positive or negative attitudes toward their language which may influence how they feel about you learning it, and how they feel about speaking it with you. The point to bear in mind once again is that insofar as any aspect of the social context makes language learning more difficult, it becomes proportionately more important that you approach the job with a well-thought-out, viable strategy.

By way of summary, the following nine scenarios illustrate a range of social contexts, arranged on a scale front the least challenging to the most challenging. Your exact situation is probably not in the list, but where would you place it on the scale which the list represents?
You live in a monolingual community with no other foreigners (except, say, your husband, John, and your four-year-old son, Eric), and the people are enthusiastic about you being there and want you to learn their language. There are a couple of bilinguals, who speak a language you already know in addition to their own, and they have agreed to help you learn for the first few weeks.
You live in a monolingual community with no other foreigners (except John and Eric), and the people are enthusiastic about you and want you to learn their language. There are no bilinguals whatsoever.
You live in a monolingual community with no other foreigners (except John and Eric), and the people are unfriendly toward you and indifferent toward you learning their language.
You live fifteen miles from a monolingual community in an English speaking town. A few bilingual people are willing to help you if you pay them enough.
You live in a largely bilingual community (the second language being one you know well, such as English), and the people are enthusiastic about you learning the local language.
You live fifteen miles from a largely bilingual community, and the people are enthusiastic about you learning their language.
You live fifteen miles from a largely bilingual community, and the people are unfriendly toward you and do not really want you to learn their language. Some people are vocally opposed to your learning the language, and some are willing to help you if you pay them.
You live thousands of miles from any community that uses the language you want to learn, but there are scattered (mostly bilingual) speakers around your city, and one speaker has agreed to help you.
You live thousands of miles from any community that uses the language you want to learn, and you can only find a single speaker, who, it turns out, is willing to help you.

In situation 1 you are likely to succeed, especially if you have linguistic training, or are taking a course in the language, or at least have course materials that you are following. In situation 9 you are unlikely to develop much conversational ability unless you have an explicit, effective strategy. In situation 1, you will benefit from having a conscious strategy, but you may learn the language without one, since you will be forced to use the language extensively and will receive frequent meaningful exposure to it. As you move from situation 1 to situation 9 it becomes increasingly important that you have a conscious, viable strategy.

If you are thinking that the social situation you face for language learning is a piece of cake, a word of warning is in order. Have you heard of being lonely in a crowd? The fact that you will be living in a city with a million speakers of the language you wish to learn does not mean you will automatically have extensive interaction with people. In a small rural village situation the language may indeed force itself on you. In a large city situation there is every possibility of having a rich social life with fellow-foreigners, speaking English, and having amazingly little contact with host nationals, speaking their language. For many people, the path of least resistance will be to avoid using the language, even when surrounded by millions of densely clustered speakers. For that matter, even if you are in a village situation, you may find ways to keep busy working at your computer and quietly convince people to largely leave you alone.

Another social factor in language learning has to do with the culture and its degree of difference from your own culture. Language communities differ in the kinds of content or meaning which thc community members express verbally. I once tape-recorded a conversation between a Pakistani teenager and a Canadian teenager in which the Pakistani attempted to communicate with the Canadian using his limited English ability. When he tried to explain the political system of Pakistan it was hopeless, because he simply lacked the English expressions he needed. By contrast, when he was explaining the game of cricket his English appeared to become more fluent. However, I was still unable to understand him. Some British friends of mine who listened to the tape said that they could understand him easily. The difference? They knew what he was talking about, because it involved a bit of life experience which Pakistanis share with the British, but not with Canadians.

Cultural knowledge and language knowledge interact to make communication successful or unsuccessful. I had difficulty understanding discussions in Urdu about things that happened at the mosque. I could easily understand discussions about things that happened in church. Church services in Pakistan had a lot in common with the church services in my previous experience. Mosque services had considerably less in common with anything in my previous experience. If much of the life experience of your new community has little in common with your previous experience, then you will have difficulty understanding what people are talking about, and this will be a barrier to language learning. Language learning will be severely limited unless you are able to acquire the local cultural knowledge as well. This can require a large time commitment on your part.

Why some languages are harder than others

After the social factors, I suspect the next important factor in determining how difficult it will be for you to learn a language is the language itself. In this connection, no doubt the most important consideration is whether or not the language is closely related to one you already know. Languages can be related because of common ancestry, or because they have borrowed a lot from each other, or both. Someone once told me that he learned Dutch in two weeks. I was as skeptical as he was adamant. Eventually it came out that he was a native speaker of Afrikaans. I have no idea what he meant by "learn Dutch" — but he cheated.

Most Western European languages have thousands of words which are similar to English words in form and related in meaning. In addition, the cultures are similar, so that what is talked about, and how it is talked about, in those languages will be similar to what is talked about, and how it is talked about in English. The more similar two languages are, the more possible it is to translate between them in a nearly word for word, literal fashion. For example, English is more similar to Urdu than it is to Blackfoot. Take the sentence

His story was very interesting.
An Urdu equivalent might be
Usldi kahaanii bahaat dilchasp thii.
The word-for-word English translation is as follows:
Uskii kahaanii bahaat dilchasp thii
his story very interesting was
There is nearly a word for word correspondence. In Blackfoot, there is no sentence which is comparably similar. There is apparently no adjective like interesting. Instead, a person might say,
Otsinikssini iikaahsisstsiiwaana’piiw.
Two words! The first consists of two parts (to simplify quite a bit), and the second consists of at least five parts (again, simplifying quite a bit):
O- tsinikssini ilk- aahs- isstsi waan- aa’piiw
his story very pleasant listen quality was

The idea is that it was a very enjoyable story to listen to. Can you see how that the structure of Blackfoot is less similar to the structure of English than is the structure of Urdu? For an English speaker, Blackfoot will be a more difficult language than Urdu.

Sometimes two languages are said to be of similar types. They may not be related through common ancestry, but they are similar in many ways. For example, in English, the order of words in a sentence is Subject-Verb-Object (as in I-see -you). Also, an English sentence is typically made up of a number of relatively short words. Swahili tends to be similar to English in these ways, and some people feel that it is easier for an English speaker to learn Swahili than to learn Navaho. In Navaho the verb tends to follow the object (which follows the subject), and the verb may be built up out of many parts, somewhat like the Blackfoot verb described above.

Such similarities and dissimilarities between languages imply that a language can be more or less difficult for you to learn relative to the other languages you already know. Is Navaho more difficult than Hindi? It depends. If you already speak Bengali, then Hindi will be easier, since Hindi is similar to Bengali. If you already speak Apache, then Navaho will be easier, since Apache is similar to Navaho. So then "difficult" is a relative term.

There may also be ways languages can be thought of as more difficult or less difficult in absolute terms. This may involve what linguists call morphological complexity. Don’t let the high faluting phrase throw you. Morphemes are parts of words. I indicated that the Blackfoot verb above consisted of five morphemes (actually there are more—some of them are hiding). When we speak of morphological complexity we simply mean the complex use of morphemes! Some of the little bits of sentences, such as suffixes, and prefixes, and words like the and a are called grammatical morphemes (words like the and a are more specifically called function words). Grammatical morphemes (including function words) are often difficult to master in a second language.

English provides a good example of this. In English, we form a progressive sentence (he is working) by using some form of the verb to be (is, am, are, were, or perhaps be) preceding the verb. But that is not enough. We do not say "I am run". In addition to the separate word am, we add a suffix, -ing, to the verb itself. This form is sometimes referred to by linguists as "be plus -ing". The rule might go "put be before the verb and -ing after the verb to form the progressive". To form the perfect we do something similar, called "have plus -en", as in "I have eat-en". We can even use "be plus -ing" and "have plus -en" in combination, as in "I have be-en eat-ing. That is somewhat complex morphology. The word have is somehow tied to the suffix -eh, and the word be is somehow tied to the suffix -ing, and these two pairs of items are intermeshed in I have been eating. There is a lot more to the English verb system than this, but you can imagine how baffling even this much complexity might be to someone learning English. Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, has very little morphological complexity.

Related to morphological complexity is the matter of irregularity. Suppose that in one language, whenever you learn to form the present tense of a verb you are able to form the past tense by simply adding a suffix such as the ed in the English word walked. Suppose that in another language dozens of verbs have past tense forms which are completely unlike the present tense, as is the case with the English go and went. In which language will it be easier to use verbs in the present and past tenses?

Another area of morphological difficulty is agreement. Urdu and Pashto are similar in many ways. However, in Urdu, as in Spanish or French, every noun is either masculine or feminine, and this often affects the form of adjectives and verbs. The adjective or verb is then said to agree in gender with the noun. We can reuse the sentence above to illustrate it. I’ll have to bring out some more morphemes that were hiding. Note that the words for my, story, and was all end in -ii.

Uskii kahaanii bahaat dilchasp thii
his story very interesting was

That -ii is actually a separate morpheme, meaning "feminine gender" (story is feminine). Many times the noun itself has no indication of its gender. You still must know it in order to know to get the uskii and thii right. If the noun is masculine, like the word paanii, which means "water", then instead of uskii, you must say uskaa for his, and instead of thii, you must say thaa for was.

That means that to learn to speak Urdu like a native speaker, you must come to automatically control the gender of every noun. In Pashto, you only need learn the noun itself, since grammatical gender is not expressed. In which language will it be easier to master thousands of nouns? And having mastered the nouns, it is still very difficult to get the agreement right all through the sentence. In this regard, Urdu is harder than Pashto.

There is something inherently difficult about these kinds of grammatical morphemes. People whose speech becomes difficult due to brain damage often omit them. Children learning languages take longer to acquire them than to acquire straightforward words like dog and eat. Pidgin languages often omit the grammatical morphemes of the language they are derived from. The stereotype of a foreigner speaking English involves omitting the grammatical morphemes: "Every day, mailman come my house ten o’clock."

Some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, are simpler in this regard than English. Many are more complex than English. Whenever you hear that a language has lots of verb forms, or lots of noun classes, or lots of irregularity, you can bet you are dealing with morphological complexity. It is clearly a feature that makes some languages more difficult than others.

Such negative effects of morphological complexity may be mainly psychological. You react, "How can I ever learn all of those verb forms?" This causes you to feel discouraged before you start. As a result you are all the more ready to quit before you have given yourself a fair chance. One common fallacy is the belief that we must immediately learn to use all of the forms correctly. We forget that new immigrants learning English really do say things like "Mailman come my house ten o’clock", and we understand them, and we don’t pay much attention to their "errors", except to notice that they are learning English. It is unrealistic to expect to speak "correctly" from the outset. If you take a morphologically complex language and mix it with the belief that you must speak perfectly or not at all, well, you are in for some frustration!

Languages may also differ in terms of the difficulty of their sounds. You may have noticed that people learning English from many different backgrounds have difficulty pronouncing "r" the way we do. You probably do not remember that when you were eighteen months old and were learning English yourself, you to were unable to pronounce that sound the way older English speakers pronounce it. There is something about the English "r" sound that is inherently difficult to master. This is a case of the language being difficult in an absolute sense. In addition, there is also relative difficulty: how difficult the sounds are depends on which languages you already speak, and how similar their sounds are to the sounds of the language you are trying to learn. Bengali words will be harder for a native English speaker to pronounce than for a native Hindi speaker. That is because there are similarities between the sounds used in Bengali and the sounds used in Hindi.

In any case it is crucial that you be able to hear and pronounce the words of the new language with at least a modest degree of accuracy. If you want to learn a language, but find many of the words unpronounceable, it might seem like an immediate roadblock to progress. I had this experience with the Carrier Indian language when I was in my mid teens. I simply could not pronounce many of the words intelligibly, partly because I could not discern the sounds out of which they were built.

Certain social factors can also influence the difficulty of the language itself (quite apart from thc influence of social-contextual factors). Some languages present a special complication in that there is more than one variety of the language which must be learned. In many Arabic speaking countries you will find that there is a "high" form of the language to be used in formal situations and a "low" form to be used in ordinary interaction with friends. To use the high form with friends, or to use the low form to deliver a speech, would be very odd. Obviously this will increase the language learning burden. In other cases, the choice of speech forms may depend on the relative status of the speaker and addressee, or on how well they know each other. And languages which serve as the vehicles for complex societies may have much larger vocabularies to master than languages which serve societies in which there are not multiple occupations and where science and technology and other areas of higher learning are not much discussed.

The basic difficulty of the language you face is an important factor affecting your likelihood of success. If you speak a low German dialect and are going to live in Holland and learn Dutch, hey, no sweat. If the only language you know is English, and you are going to learn Arabic in Cairo, that will be a little more demanding, involving all of the sorts of difficulties we discussed: morphological complexity, difficult sounds, and social complexity. You may do well in the first situation without giving much thought to your strategy. In the second situation, you would do well to have a very good strategy in mind before arriving in Cairo.

Why some people have a harder time than others, even in the same situation

So far I have discussed how the social context and the language itself are factors which make language learning more difficult or less difficult in one situation as opposed to another. As with social-contextual factors, so with language factors: the more difficult the language, the more seriously you need to be concerned about approaching the language learning task with a viable strategy in hand.

Not all of the factors which affect the relative difficulty of language learning are to be found in the social context or in the language itself. A third set of important factors are found within you, the learner. Individual differences in language learning have been a major locus of research for some time (see for example Brown, 1987, chapters 5 and 7, and Skehan, 1989). This is a difficult area for researchers to investigate, however. It includes matters such as aptitude, motivation, personality factors, and differences in cognitive style or learning style. Such properties of individuals, assuming they exist, are difficult to measure. Assuming they can be measured, there is a problem in finding subjects to study. Is a group of high school foreign language students really a group of language learners? Nevertheless, you have much to gain from the exercise of thinking about such issues in relation to yourself as a language learner. You can increase your awareness of yourself as a component of the language learning equation. As you develop more self-awareness in the relevant areas, you will be better able to recognize ways in which your personal make-up is affecting your language learning.

From aptitude to self confidence

There is a widespread belief that some people are "good at languages" while others are not so good at languages. Probably most widespread beliefs have at least some basis in fact. Of course, there are differences in opportunity, and differences in need, and differences in motivation, and differences in how outgoing and communicative various people are in a language learning situation. When all such differences are brushed aside, is there still a difference between different people with regard to how good they are at learning languages?

Many researchers believe that there is such a difference between individuals and refer to it in terms of language learning aptitude. Skehan has suggested that the differences are present when people learn their first language, and carry over into later languages they may learn (see Skehan, 1989 and other work by Skehan cited there). The pioneer in this area of research was John Carroll (see Carroll, 1981 ). His research suggested four components of language learning aptitude, which he called 1) phonemic coding ability, 2) grammatical sensitivity, 3) inductive language learning ability, and 4) rote learning ability for foreign language materials. Both Skehan (1989) and Spolsky (1989) suggest that these can be reduced to three areas of language learning aptitude having to do with
ability to recognize, remember, and reproduce the sounds of languages,
ability to see grammatical patterns in a language, and
ability to remember easily and well.

Language aptitude tests attempt to measure such capacities. Even without taking a language aptitude test, you may have some idea of whether or not you would have high or low aptitude defined in this way. In school you learned grammatical concepts such as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, subject, object, indirect object, active, passive, etc. You may have caught onto such concepts almost instantly. Or you may still be baffled by them. That probably has to do, at least in part, with your ability to see grammatical patterns in language. As to pronunciation, if you studied a foreign language in school, you probably remember whether you found pronouncing new sounds to be a snap. Or did some strange sounds always elude you? You probably have some strong feelings, positive or negative, about your memory ability as well. Sponge? Sieve?

Putting all of this together, what would it predict about your language learning aptitude, assuming that language learning aptitude is reflected in these abilities? Of course, your impressions may be different from what you would find if you took a language learning aptitude test. And neither the test results, nor your impressions of yourself should be taken as absolute truth, nor should definite predictions be made on the basis of such abilities or test results. There are still matters such as motivation and opportunity to take into account. Nevertheless, your feelings about your abilities need to be taken seriously. If you feel "hopeless with grammar" and intimidated by strange speech sounds, and feel that your memory is like a sieve, then these feelings will affect your language learning. They do not mean you cannot learn a language. After all, you have already learned one. But in your case, it is now even more urgent that you go about, it with effective strategies and techniques. The more you know what you are doing, the less you will have to fear.

Not everyone accepts the notion of language learning aptitude. Stephen Krashen feels that genuine language acquisition is a subconscious process. If you have ability to speak a language (somewhat) like a native does, then you automatically handle linguistic complexity that goes beyond anything you have consciously learned. Krashen believes that you acquire such ability unconsciously through being exposed to massive amounts of speech that you understand and attend to. Initially, the language input you receive must be geared to you as a beginner, or you will not be able to understand it. But as you continue being exposed to such comprehensible input, you come to be able to understand increasingly complex language. Eventually, after you have been exposed to masses of increasingly complex (but comprehensible) language, you reach the point where you can understand any ordinary speech to which you happen to be exposed in the course of your daily life. All the time your comprehension ability is growing, your speaking ability keeps growing, though lagging behind your comprehension ability. The learning is unconscious and automatic.

This is why Krashen feels that aptitude as measured by people like Carroll cannot be all that important. What Krashen calls acquisition is an unconscious process. He reserves the term learning for conscious learning. If you were told (or noticed on your own) a fact about the grammar of the language, that was learning, not acquisition, in Krashen’s sense. The abilities which are said to constitute language learning aptitude—for example, ability to recognize structures or to distinguish different sounds—can only affect conscious learning, and cannot affect unconscious acquisition (see Krashen, 1985, 1987).

I find Krashen’s ideas appealing on theoretical grounds. I also find them to be true to my own experience. However, I think he fails to appreciate the extent to which conscious awareness of grammar and vocabulary can contribute to making the input comprehensible during the early stages of second language acquisition. I know that I personally use my conscious awareness of grammatical patterns and vocabulary as an aid to comprehension during the beginning stages of language learning. If such conscious awareness of grammar serves to make the language input comprehensible, then people with increased aptitude (in the sense discussed) will receive increased comprehensible input, and hence they should acquire the language more quickly than other people.

In any case, you can take heart. Large numbers of people who felt they were "not good at languages" have learned languages perfectly well. The real danger in connection with aptitude is that your ideas about your own aptitude will lead to self-fulfilling prophecies regarding your ability to learn a language. There is evidence that good self-esteem with regard to language learning goes hand in hand with good language learning (Brown, 1987 pp. 101-102). As a matter of fact, it helps if you feel generally positive about yourself at the outset, but it helps even more if you feel O.K. about yourself as a language learner. If you don’t, it may help for you to get at the root of your low language learning self-esteem. That root may lie in your negative past experiences with foreign language courses. Be assured that for most people, most foreign language courses are doomed from the outset. You may have felt other students were doing better than you, but the fact is that almost none of them really became fluent speakers of the language through that course. If you now face the prospect of learning a language that you will actually be using extensively in communication situations, then consider yourself to be starting with a clean slate. Those past negative experiences are largely irrelevant.

Recently I have met people who felt doubtful about their language learning ability because they did not do well on a language learning aptitude test. Such people would be better off if they had not taken such a test. Even if the concept of aptitude is valid, as I believe it is, it is but one factor out of many. It is an important factor, but not a decisive one. There may be people who truly cannot learn a second language well, just as there are people who truly cannot learn to read well. However, such individuals are rare, so that the odds are solidly against you being such an person. And much of the literature on "good language learners" is concerned not with aptitude, but with what good learners do differently from ordinary learners. Some of the characteristics which Rubin (1975) says are characteristic of good language learners are
They are willing to guess at meanings.
They seek opportunity to practice.
They monitor their own speech and that of others.
They attend to the meaning of a message.

These have to do with strategy, not with aptitude. So assume you can learn another language, given the right opportunity and motivation. That is the only fair assumption. But if you have the slightest doubts about your ability, be sure to get yourself a good strategy. It is a safe bet that someone with a good strategy and poor aptitude will be better off than someone with good aptitude but a poor strategy.

Differences in motivation
Skehan (1989) claims that after aptitude, the variable which has been most consistently shown to affect language learning progress is motivation. It has been common since Gardner & Lambert (1972) to speak of two types of motivation: instrumental motivation and integrative motivation. If you are instrumentally motivated, you want to learn the language in order to achieve some other goal. For instance, if you want to learn Arabic in order to sell brushes door-to-door in Morocco, your motivation is instrumental. More typically, an English Canadian may wish to learn French to qualify for a high level civil service position. That is instrumental motivation. If you have a message you want to communicate, and that is your main motivation for learning the language, then your main motivation is instrumental. Integrative motivation stems from a desire to integrate. That is you feel attracted to the group of people who speak the language and wish to participate in their society.
Early research indicated that integrative motivation was more effective than instrumental motivation, but over the years it has been found that either type of motivation can be effective. In the Blackfoot situation, it is hard to imagine what instrumental motivation l might have had. Almost everyone was bilingual, so that there were few if any practical goals which demanded that I speak Blackfoot. However, as I lived among the Blackfoot when I was nineteen, l always felt shut out of the world around me. People would talk and laugh, and there I was, staring into space. I felt a great attraction to the Blackfoot people and a desire to enter their world and be there with them.

The research on motivation in relation to language learning has been extensive. Unfortunately, it is an extremely difficult area to study. It appears that there is no automatic guarantee that if you have strong integrative motivation, you will be a highly successful language learner, or that if you do not have such motivation, you will fail (Oller, Hudson, & Liu, 1977). Suffice it to say, learning a language is about as big a chore as a body ever undertakes. Motivation becomes a special concern to the extent that learning the language seems unnecessary.

Consider a situation where learning the language is really necessary. You are stuck in a place where no one speaks your language, and you are going to have to live there for many years, and interact with people, and function in their society. Assuming you do wish to go on living, then motivation is probably not much of a problem. Contrast this with a case where you are only going to be living for two years in the place where the other language is spoken, and in that place it is always easy to find people who can speak English and interpret for you. Now motivation may be a problem. In the Blackfoot situation, where nearly everyone was bilingual in English, motivation was a potential problem. Pakistan was a situation where English speaking interpreters were always close at hand. For someone there on a short-term basis, motivation was a potential problem.

In other words, motivation is not an absolute characteristic of the individual learner. Rather it grows out of the interaction of the learner and the social situation. Still in all, in the very same social situation, different learners appear to have different levels of motivation and different types of motivation, and this is likely to affect the outcome of their language learning efforts.

I must say a word about those odd and delightful individuals who just love to learn languages for the sheer joy of it. If they are around a language at all, for any amount of time, they want to learn as much as they can, even though they know they may never need to use it again. One friend of mine calls himself a "recreational language learner" and is able to pass his enthusiasm on to others, at least to a degree.

As a language learning consultant, however, I often find that it is in the area of motivation that people need the most support. Someone sets out to learn a language or to improve his or her proficiency. At that point I see a strong desire. My goal is to help the person to get to the other end of whatever process s/he decides on without ending up feeling disappointed or defeated, it is somewhere midway in the language learning process that motivation often becomes a problem. What happens is that various exciting opportunities present themselves which, if followed up on, will divert time and energy away from language learning. These exciting opportunities (perhaps offering the promise of instant fame, wealth, or power) always seem to arise when motivation is flagging. The cares of this world start to choke out the desire to learn the language. Once again, the issue of explicit strategies rears its beautiful head. Do you have one in mind? How are you going to keep going when it begins to feel that learning the language is really not worth the trouble? How are you going to keep going when exciting opportunities start to compete with language learning for your precious time? Be prepared.

Personality differences

Perhaps then, the two most important areas of individual differences are aptitude and motivation. But there are many other differences between individuals which must have a bearing on their language learning. Like motivation, personality characteristics are extremely difficult to study, and it is difficult to prove their specific effects on language learning success or failure. For example, the personality trait of extroversion would intuitively seem to be advantageous to a language learner, though the research evidence on this is not at all decisive (Kezwer, 1987). If an extroverted person is one who needs a lot of involvement with other people in order to be happy (Brown, 1987 p. 109), then it would seem that s/he would have an advantage over a recluse who feels a need to avoid people as much as possible. After all, conversational ability can only develop if the learner participates in conversations. If it is only possible to meet your need for socializing by using the new language, because no one can speak English (or any other language that you already know), then being a socially oriented person will probably be an asset. Unfortunately, it is also possible that these strong social needs will work against the extroverted language learner. Suppose it is possible to meet this need for involvement with people most readily by using English (or another language you already know). Then the strong social needs of the extrovert may cause him or her to avoid relationships with monolingual speakers of the new language. In the worst case, it might even cause the would be language learner to limit social contacts largely to fellow English-speaking foreigners.

Various other personality traits are commonly believed to affect the outcome of language learning efforts. These include risk-taking and tolerance for ambiguity (comfort with less than black-and-white situations). Other intuitively relevant characteristics, like assertiveness and autonomy (one’s degree of dependence on the reactions of others for one’s own sense of worth) are not often discussed, but no doubt should be. When dealing with such issues, a word of caution is always in order. Humans are extremely elaborate and complex beings. Concepts such as these represent fairly feeble attempts to understand that complexity. It is easy to think that they represent specific objective realities. You may have taken a personality test which told you that you are an introvert. It is a fallacy to think that you have now identified a clear cut fact about who and what you are. It is always possible that a theoretical construct such as a specific personality trait will be overturned by later research. It would be unwise to take some personality test, or some set of such tests, and base predictions about you as a language learner on them. Nevertheless, reflecting on your individual characteristics is important to you as a language learner, and personality tests can increase your level of self-awareness and stimulate reflection. In this way, they are helpful and important. You need a high degree of self-awareness as you monitor your reactions to various aspects of the language learning situation.

There tend to be intuitive relationships between proposed personality traits and language learning. A risk-taker, it seems, should be more willing to open his or her mouth and try to communicate, even when the road to the end of the sentence is not clear. A person with high tolerance for ambiguity will not insist on identifying and understanding every last detail of a sentence she hears in the new language before being willing to guess at the meaning of the whole sentence. Negatively, a perfectionist might be inhibited from using a language because of the awareness that his or her speech is far from perfect. An anxious person or a competitive person may suffer debilitating effects (Bailey, 1983).

Brown (1991) provides short tests designed to measure extroversion and tolerance of ambiguity. You might take these tests together with a friend who is also interested in learning a new language. The two of you can discuss your results on these tests, as well as your feelings about yourselves in areas like risk-taking, anxiety, competitiveness, etc. What advantages and disadvantages might you have in a language learning situation, based on your personal make-up? How might you compensate for your disadvantages? How might you best exploit your advantages?

All of this came together for me on one occasion when I had been learning Urdu for two or three months. I was in a small shop, trying to explain to the proprietor, without resorting to English (which he could speak), that I needed allergy medication. I never feel good in such a situation, but it was bearable. All at once a fellow Westerner stepped in the door. It was someone I knew, a person who had lived in Pakistan for years and who, to my impression, was a fluent speaker of Urdu. Suddenly my heart began to race, and I was hardly able to finish my transaction, so petrified was I that this man would laugh at my paltry Urdu. The Westerner later commented to me that it sounded to him like I was already an Urdu speaker. I’m sure that for the amount of time I had been in Pakistan, I had nothing to be embarrassed about. But I never did get over feeling embarrassed about my Urdu, or about my Blackfoot. How different my wife and children were in this regard, being either proud to use whatever Urdu they could in front of any and everybody, or else, being totally unselfconscious about it.

The role of individual differences is beautifully illustrated by a small group of children studied by Wong-Fillmore (1979). In selecting children to observe, Wong-Fillmore chose a group who appeared to be similarly outgoing and of normal intellectual ability. All of them spoke Spanish and came to school needing to learn English. But there were remarkable differences in their rates of progress. The two extreme cases were Nora, age five, and Juan, age seven. Nora developed more English-language ability in three months than Juan did in the entire year of observation. Juan was clearly making an effort to learn English, but he avoided relationships with English-speaking children. Nora, by contrast, structured her social life in such a way that people would think of her as an English speaker and would give her lots of exposure to English and lots of help with her English. Nora’s primary interest was in relating and participating, not in learning English per se. At the end of the year Nora was catching up with native English speaking children. Juan had not yet taken off.

Another study involving only two children revealed that very different paths can lead to the same ultimate destination. Willett (1987) observed two children learning English in a day care center, one from Korea and the other from Brazil. Consistent with cultural values, the Korean mainly sought to learn from the teacher. For example she would express an idea by using a single word she knew, counting on the teacher to expand it into a sentence. The Brazilian, consistent with cultural values, mainly sought to learn English from other children at play. Initially, the Korean made more rapid progress in the acquisition of grammar and vocabulary. The Brazilian initially made better progress in acquiring the social-interactional rules of English and in pronunciation. In the long run, however, they both became normal speakers of English.

I frequently see the effects of personality differences and other personal differences on language learning. A friend of mine recently told me of the great fun he had learning and using Swahili during his two years in East Africa. Another friend has told me of the agony of her year learning French in Europe. I identify easily with this second friend. I cannot identify very well with the first friend. Several people have told me that for them language learning is fun. I am happy for them. I often find language learning painful. Interestingly, I have a high degree of aptitude in the sense discussed above. All I would need would be a different personality, and I would be transformed from an ordinary language learner to a super language learner. But I am who I am. And you are who you are. If you are in touch with who you are, you will be able to handle what is ahead for you as a language learner, because your strategy will take account of, your strengths and weaknesses, capitalizing on strengths and compensating for weaknesses. If you are not in touch with who you are, you may get knocked for a loop.

Get yourself a strategy

O.K., then. You are living in a monolingual community where everyone wants you to learn the language, and you have a couple of bilingual people to help you get started. You have an immense amount of integrative motivation. You have high self-esteem and are socially oriented and confident in all relationships, not easily embarrassed, and you thrive on taking risks. You also have a high level of language aptitude and some training in linguistic fieldwork to boot. The sound system of the language is quite simple. The language itself has little in the way of morphological complexity, and sentences tend to be short and simple. Barring the unforeseen, you will succeed.

Or perhaps you are attempting to learn the language of a refugee group. You feel that "languages are not really your thing", but you hope to learn the language of this group in connection with a long-term goal of going to their country of origin. The refugee community is increasingly bilingual in English. There are still many with limited English proficiency, but you find it awkward to relate to them. You really want to learn the language from a book, since you feel more secure dealing with books as opposed to dealing with people face to face. However, you have only found one terse book, written in technical linguistic jargon. And you know nothing about linguistics. This language has a large variety of "verb forms" and lots of irregularity. Furthermore, the language has several varieties, and which one you use depends on how well you know the person you are talking to and what your status is relative to her status. Face it. Unless you have an outstanding plan of attack you are not going to get any farther than I got in my first summer of Blackfoot.
Most likely you are not in either of these extreme situations, but somewhere in between. Play it safe. Get yourself a good strategy. Your strategy should include a time, commitment, accountability to someone, ways to keep improving your conversational ability, and a way to develop lots of relationships in the language.
More than three decades ago, Eugene Nida suggested that the major cause for poor progress in language learning was the failure to devote enough time to it (Nida, 1957). I believe that this was true in 1957 and is still true. But how much time is enough? That is not a simple question. The goal of your formal language learning activities is to bring you to the point where you will be able to keep learning effectively during the course of your daily life interactions in the language. There is no good alternative to full-time language learning before you reach this point. Once you have reached it, continuing in full-time formal language learning could be counterproductive. It might be more helpful at that point to get on with life in the new language, while continuing some part-time language learning activities.
Of course, there will be room for part-time language learning for as long as you live. But what is the minimum for a full-time stage? That will depend in part on the sorts of factors we have been discussing. For me learning Urdu, after a year of full-time language learning I was still clearly benefiting from my structured language learning activities and could have probably continued productively for another year. However, it was necessary to get on with life. As for a minimum, I could probably have discontinued full-time language learning after three months. I could get along well enough at that point that I never felt the need to revert to English when talking to a bilingual Pakistani. One way or another I could get my meaning across and figure out what was being said to me, if the speaker was cooperative; in other words, I was rolling. I cannot imagine getting rolling in less than three months of full time language learning. For many people it may take six or nine months to "get rolling". If many factors in your situation suggest that it will be a difficult one, and if you plan to use the language in a major way for many years, and if you can possibly afford it, then I would recommend you devote two years to full-time language learning. If you are only going to be living in the language community for two or three years, then obviously you cannot devote two years to full-time language learning. If you are serious about learning the language, you should not devote less than three or four months to full time language learning, and you will want to be using powerful techniques.

If you are only going to be in the situation where you need the new language for a year or less, you will be more limited in the amount of time you can spend on language learning, unless your purpose for being there that year is language learning, or unless you are one of those recreational language learners who will devote much of your spare time to it. When your time is thus limited, you will probably learn "survival expressions" to use when shopping, giving instructions to employees, using public transportation, etc. You will simply memorize what you need. You will memorize some whole sentences, such as "It’s a nice day", and you may memorize some sentence frames that you can plug different words into, such as "I want to buy a ." If the language isn’t too difficult, you may develop some ability to manipulate sentences and make up new sentences. In other cases, you may mainly just use what you have memorized, exactly as you memorized it, especially if your time there is really limited, say, to a month. As I say, if you are a language learning fanatic, you may go ahead and spend a lot of your spare time working on language learning, no matter how brief your stay. Otherwise, your accomplishment is likely to be rather humble, though hopefully satisfying.

After a time commitment, the next important component of your strategy is making yourself accountable. Dickinson (1987) suggests that independent language learners should make a contract with a language learning specialist to whom they make themselves accountable. In many situations there is no such person available. The learner can still make herself accountable to fellow learners. Dickinson points out:

For most learners… being a member of a group of peers who are all striving towards similar ends, and who are struggling with similar difficulties and problems, can be a tremendous help in maintaining morale, and in motivation. (p. 103)

Well put. As a matter of fact, you might do well to find a co-learner with whom to share many language learning activities. Personally, I dread solitary language learning. But at least, you should seek out other learners with whom you can meet regularly and share problems and solutions. Whether you make yourself accountable to an expert, or to a group of peers, or simply to a friend who agrees with you that language learning is important and is willing to call you back to your own commitments, find someone to be accountable to, and meet with that person frequently. By frequently, I mean every few days at the outset and at least once or twice a month once things are going smoothly. The contract you will make will include things like the activities you plan to engage in and the time you plan to spend on them. One important matter for the contract is your commitment to get out and contact speakers of the language and build relationships (see Thomson, 1993c). And it needs to be a real contract. We are not talking about halfhearted accountability, much less about token accountability. Again to quote Dickinson (1987):

...it would negate the point of having a contract if the learner did not feel that it was normally binding. (p.99)

So now your strategy includes a time commitment and serious accountability. The next component it needs to include is ways to keep improving your conversational ability. It is easy to objectify the language, as opposed to experiencing it as a system of communication. By objectify it I mean to learn about it, as opposed to learning to understand it and learning to speak it. You will only learn to speak a language and understand it insofar as you get on with speaking it and understanding it. This point is especially crucial if you are counting on a language course as your means of acquiring the language. In many cases a language course will not provide enough opportunity in real communication for you to develop real communication ability, so you will need to supplement the course with communication activities.

This is a big subject, and I cannot delve into it at length here. I recommend Burling (1984) as one source of ideas, along with Thomson (1993a,b,c). In brief, you will need to get yourself a cooperative language resource person cum conversational partner. You can learn to comprehend much more quickly than you can learn to speak, and therefore it will be a good idea to major on comprehension activities at the outset. One simple technique is to have your helper instruct you to do things. This might include instructing you through the steps of common daily activities (say, washing the dishes) which you act out as the instructions are given (tape record this for private listening pleasure later). You can get tremendous mileage out of pictures. Your helper can describe various details of a picture, and you can respond by pointing to the details she is describing. A large range of everyday experience can be captured in photos or line drawings. After you have learned to comprehend what is said in connection with common activities and experiences you can use the same methods in reverse for speaking practice. You may perform simple daily activities (say, washing the dishes) and describe what you are doing, or you may describe details of the pictures to people other than your original helper. These may sound like simple-minded methods, but they are good for hundreds of hours of practice at real comprehension and real speaking.

As you progress in the language, you will want to analyze your life situation in terms of your communication needs. Suppose you need to hire a gardener. You can discuss this with your helper, in the language, and then even role-play that you are a gardener and your helper is the one hiring you. As your conversational ability increases, you can systematically tackle all the major areas of life experience, conversing about them with your helper, or helpers, or neighbors.

Finally, in addition to a specific time commitment, accountability, and ways to keep improving your conversational ability, your strategy should include a way to develop lots of relationships with speakers of the language (see especially Thomson, 1993c). There are limits to the amount of communication ability you will be able to develop with the one or two special language helpers who relate to you in the semi-formal setting of your planned language sessions. The language is the life-blood of a community, and you need to get out there into the flow. It is best if you develop a social network in a systematic manner. After you know a handful of people, you should be able to make steady progress. Spend time with the people you know. Part of your time commitment in language learning is simply time to socialize and fraternize. Suppose you know two people whom you are able to visit and socialize with. Each of these people will have a social network of family and friends. Find out who it is that each of your friends socializes with. Suppose there are three people that your first friend socializes with the most. Meet them. Become their friends. Then repeat the procedure with each of those people. Soon you will belong to a tightly knit cluster of friends. This is preferable to randomly contacting, say, fifty people to talk to briefly every day as you pass through the market place where they work. There is no structure to fifty random people, and relating to people in a superficial way may leave you as pretty much an outsider to the true social life of the community. By developing friendships along the lines of a social network, you are more likely to be taken up into the warp and woof of human life, where you will be able to share some of the rights and obligations that go with membership in a social network.

Special strategies for special challenges

If you are in a situation where the only speakers to whom you have access are bilingual in English, becoming a regular communicator in their language will be a special challenge. When it comes to genuine real-life communication, it will seem unnatural, perhaps even weird, to struggle desperately in the new language when it is so easy, perhaps even effortless, to communicate smoothly and effectively in English. Using the type of comprehension and production techniques described above and in Thomson (1993a) will involve you in actually processing the language in your own brain. Massive stockpiling of language with a view to using it sometime down the road may be of value if your only resources are books and tapes. But if you have access to even a single speaker, it is more important that you get started communicating in the language. Use your formal sessions with your language helper as an opportunity to communicate. Process language meaningfully in your own brain. If your helper says, "show me the picture of someone who is going to travel," you cannot respond unless you process the sentence meaningfully. First process the language as a comprehender. Then become a producer. Your language sessions provide ample opportunity for real communication. Yet often people use their language sessions for other things. Don’t lose the opportunity. Early comprehension is a struggle. Early production is a struggle. Why not do a lot of the early struggling in the security of the strong relationship you have with your private language helper.

Still, you will probably find that when you are not engaging in fairly structured language learning activities, such as describing pictures, you quickly revert to English for your spontaneous socializing, even with your language helper. Initially this is inevitable and desirable. However, you will soon need to start weaning yourself from English. 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. 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, 1993b). 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).

You may never reach the point where you speak the new language as well as most of its speakers can speak English. But your use of the language will cease to be artificial as you take on a new identity in your new community. The way you sound using that language comes to represent who you are in that social group. On one occasion a Blackfoot woman exclaimed to my wife how funny it sounded to hear me speaking English, since in all my visits to her mother she had never heard me speak English. I’m sure I sounded funny in Blackfoot too, but that funny sounding Blackfoot speaker was the only Greg Thomson she knew. You may not have previously thought of language learning as becoming someone new. In a very real sense, that is just what is involved. (A special word of warning is in order here for groovy people. You will have to let go of your grooviness. Some may find that a sacrifice they are unable to make. Well, then go right on being groovy in English, and forget about becoming a speaker of this other language, because it will be a long time before you can be groovy in it!)

What about a strategy for grammar and vocabulary?

I have said nothing about "learning the grammar" or vocabulary building not because these things are not important, but because in most cases that is taken care of in one way or another. If you are taking a language course or using published materials, they will emphasize grammar and pronunciation. Otherwise, it is possible to cover much of the grammar of a language using the type of comprehension and production activities I described above (see Asher, 1982; Thomson, 1989, 1993a). If you feel a need to tackle grammar through structured drills, you might consult Brewster & Brewster (1976, chapter 4).

If you intend to learn a language which is especially difficult in terms of being dissimilar to any language you know, morphologically complex, phonetically difficult, etc., and if you have a long term interest in succeeding, then I suggest you take special linguistcs training. Skehan (1989) refers to unsuccessful efforts to train people in such a way that their scores on a language aptitude test improve. The idea is that you either have language learning aptitude or you don’t. I imagine eight weeks of intensive linguistic training in phonetics, phonology, grammar, and field language learning would in fact affect scores on language aptitude tests, but this remains to be proven. I mentioned how that as a youth I was unable to discriminate or reproduce the sounds in Carrier Indian words. That is a pretty absolute barrier to learning the language. After I had learned phonetics, discriminating and reproducing Carrier sounds was a cinch. As a matter of fact, it was even fun (even for me).

What can I read?

There are a few books dealing with learner directed language learning. I have a hard time recommending any one book. Yet I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone read them all. I have already suggested what may be the most helpful single book, and that is Burling (1984). If you would thrive on a lot of memorizing and drilling, consider Marshall (1989). Remember though, that nine months of memorizing and drilling in a windowless basement will not get you very far. The sort of genuine communication activities I suggested above are a necessary supplement to memorizing and drilling. Telling fifty people in parrot-like fashion something you have memorized is no substitute for real communication. In real communication you have to produce what you need as the need arises, and it is often something you have never produced before, or heard before and certainly have not memorized. Language is spontaneous. Pattern drills do not give you practice at communicating extemporaneously and meaningfully, though they may play a role as a means of stockpiling language forms for later use. These comments apply to Marshall (1984) and also to Brewster & Brewster (1976). The latter does contain helpful ideas for topics of discussion (chapter 4) and grammatical constructions (chapter 2).

If you wish to deepen your understanding of language learning in general, consider Brown (1991), or, if you are more ambitious, Brown (1987). Also helpful in this regard are Krashen & Terrell (1983) and Larson & Smalley (1972). A day-by-day approach for a learner in a really monolingual situation is provided by Healey (1975). Lots of guidance as to the content of language learning activities, and the course of language learning in relation to integration into a community is to be found in Larson (1984).

Not all of these books make a clear distinction between learning about the language and actually learning it, or between memorizing canned expressions and learning to process the language for comprehension and production in a spontaneous manner, or between manipulating structures mechanically and using language meaningfully. You need to make these distinctions, and make adjustments where necessary.

Whatever resources you may choose, make sure your strategy includes an adequate time commitment, accountability, ways to keep improving your conversational ability, and a way to develop lots of relationships within the language group. Commit yourself as to what you are going to do, with whom you are going to do it, and when you are going to do it, and re-evaluate and recommit yourself frequently.


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Source: http://www.languageimpact.com/articles/gt/whatme.htm