Language Learning, Part I

Part I: Textbook language learning – conscious and voluntary language acquisition  

This will, hopefully, resonate with fellow language students.

Unless you are thrust into the right environment, where you can largely rely on your language skills improving by osmosis, a textbook is bound to be your main guide. With each chapter you acquire new sets of vocab and grammar skills, and then you reach the listening exercises and begin to question whether the recording was at all in the language you are allegedly studying. At the beginning of every course you are reminded that it will not be a steady experience of improvement, but rather a heap of irregular grammar, Yoda-esque sentence structures in innumerable translations on equally bizarre topics, all wrapped up in endless stringing together of elements to enjoy flashes of clarity. Even after you’ve ticked every box, wrote out every example, practiced conjugations and declensions, filled out every margin in your text book, you inevitably and regularly consult the old notes (just to be sure). They become, as my lecturer once put it, a comfort blanket.

On an imaginary diagram measuring our improvement, the line would be a squiggle; dipping down before it shoots up again. However, it is bound to be a steady trend upwards in perspective; there are overarching stages in progress as opposed to the mercurial shifts of confidence. I tried to divide them and pinpointed seven milestones:

  1. You’re beaming with pride and enthusiasm for your new abilities, although you cannot communicate much beyond your name, age and a passive complaint on the weather regardless of the temperature. Oh and you can count to ten.
  2. Following hours of basic grammar and reading dozens of airport dialogues about losing passports or slightly creepy conversations where people accost others into telling them their life story, you’re beginning to understand. However, when it comes to spontaneous chit-chat, you can just about muster a ‘yes’, a ‘no’ or ‘it is very pretty/interesting/boring’. The ‘very’ is necessary to emphasise just how much you understand.
  3. This is the point where you can sort of maintain a conversation. Your understanding is excellent but you are still working on your own articulation. Certain individuals may get impatient whilst others will appreciate you trying. The latter are very helpful; they don’t try to correct explicitly but may rephrase what you said correctly. Those who interrupt your flow and squeeze in corrections inadvertently hinder your progress; there are only so many “Actually, you’re meant to say…” generic disruptions one can remember. Everything is better set in uninterrupted contexts.
  4. Now, even the impatient individuals give you more credit and refrain from filling in the sentences you’ve momentarily left at ‘mm’. You complete what you say and correct your own blunders.
  5. You can hold a conversation, on pretty much any topic; your vocabulary allows for scope. You understand; words make sense and sound like a language instead of familiar-sounding snippets.
  6. You can read books pretty effortlessly. Yay!
  7. You practiced writing all along but this is the moment the language becomes your own and you can write comfortably.

Depending on the individual, the last two points may come hand in hand. Personal experience has, however, taught me otherwise; one may read with ease and without a dictionary, but writing with aplomb and finding your own voice in a new language is something different altogether. It is layered with more challenges than writing itself, but I will leave it at that for now.

As awkward as language learning may be at first, it gradually becomes second nature. In among the mistakes that sometimes leave the native speakers in stitches and the continuous brain-strain as you struggle for words, there is an accompanying taste of satisfaction and the sweet realisation that the word ‘ineffable’ is somewhat redundant.

Alex

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