Monday, July 25, 2005

Learning the Local Language

by AJ (also posted on Effortless Acquisition)

Ive always considered myself one of the worst language students in the world. Im terrible. I lived in Korea a year-- and speak no Korean. I lived in Japan a total of 6 months... and almost no Japanese.

Ive lived in Thailand for two years and speak only "taxi Thai". Pitiful, eh?

Yet I still believe that learning another language is very important. Without the local language, there is a permanent barrier between you and the culture which is very difficult to breach.

So I criticize myself for this (Im a language teacher after all). But lately Ive reconsidered this criticism in light of the research, knowledge, and techniques I use as a teacher. I KNOW that traditional language teaching methods are a huge failure (somewhere in the vicinity of 95% of language students never attain proficiency). As a teacher, I also know that living in the country is of little help to beginning students.. the input they receive is far too complex to be of use.

Yet for some reason I continued to follow the traditional mindset as a student. I thought just living in Korea or Thailand or Japan might be enough. Its not.. unless you are already at a mid/high intermediate level. I tried to learn Japanese from language tapes and textbooks... and totally failed. I studied a little Thai in a natural way (thus my "taxi Thai" ability) but then reverted to the "Ill absorb it from my surroundings" mentality.

But lately, Ive caught on and decided to try the methods I encourage my own English students to use. As Ive mentioned earlier, Im lazily trying to acquire a bit of Spanish. Ive been doing this, so far, simply by reading baby books and the lowest level graded readers (available from the TPR site... by Blaine Ray). This has been a very pleasant and indeed "effortless" approach.

Truth be told, Im not one of these gung ho people who can grind out studying for hours every day. I hate trying to memorize vocabulary- and grammar is even worse. In the past I made attempts to "study" Spanish and I got bored and frustrated very quickly... my attempts never lasted longer than two weeks.

But Ive been doing light reading for about a month now... very leisurely... I just do it when I have a little spare time... and Im making much better progress. Because I dont do this a lot, my progress is slow. But it is pleasant and most importantly-- I am continuing with it. Learning a language is like running a marathon... its not a sprint.

After a month of light reading, however, I realize Id like to get some oral input. I suppose I could order a "language tape" and do endless drills (ugh). But instead Ive decided to use movies. Im going to start with "The Motorcycle Diaries". I just watched it (with English subtitles) and loved it.

My plan is to imitate the movie technique... watch the movie in short scenes and play each scene two or three times. Since I won't have a teacher to explain the dialogue to me (in simpler language)... I may resort to looking up key words in a dictionary as I pause the scene.

To be sure, this will be slow work. But Im not in a hurry. And it will be much more pleasant than repeating drills from a language tape. My guess is, in the longrun it will also prove to be much more effective.

With Thai, I first need to learn the alphabet (so I can use a Thai-English dictionary).... then I will use the same technique with Thai kids shows (Bob the Builder, etc...).



teabag said...

hihi happen to pass by and here's just my two cents worth!

on the language issue, i reckon, it could just be..

the thai language being incredibly hard to master? (even my thai friends admit its not an easy language to pickup instantaneously!) korean is equally hard to master too. for japanese, if you've got mandarin background, it won't be too difficult i was told..i've known of non-natives picking up mandarin and the indonesian language really fluently, and of course, the european languages...

so..don't give up! and don't be too hard on yourself either ;)


AJ said...


Jan, thanks for the encouragement! You are right, of course. Im a restless and impatient person- but learning a language is a slow and steady process.

Ill keep chipping away at Thai and Spanish...


Cleve said...

"As a teacher, I also know that living in the country is of little help to beginning students.. the input they receive is far too complex to be of use."

My own two cents, for what it's worth, IMHO, in the spirit of (hopefully) helping, etc: that's flat out wrong. Especially in one-to-one conversations you can manage the level of discourse so as to obtain the coveted I+1 (of course you'll get some I+7 as well). The foundation of your learning should be conversation with other people, not movies or dictionaries (which are great supplements). Drop the Spanish for now. Find a few friends who could be be language partners, exchange English for Thai if convenient, and scaffold your conversations for a while. Balance your time spent hanging with fellow expats with more time hanging with the local culture. In a month or two, you'll break the code and pieces of indecipherable noise will suddenly become meaning. That's a pretty blissful feeling. When you really start to get a feel for another language you enter into a whole new way of looking at the world and human experience. And that's about as psychonautical as you can get.