A friend of mine is an immigrant from Russia. He speaks excellent English, though his pronunciation marks him as a native Russian speaker. He is a PhD in the sciences, so he is clearly intelligent. Recently, though, he confided in me that he received two 4’s in school (equivalent to American B’s): in Russian grammar and in English. It struck me: how could someone who was good at school, bad at these subjects? And if he supposedly wasn’t so great at these in school, how did he manage to succeed in English as he did now?
In the classroom, he did not do well in English, in spite of his aptitude in other school subjects. Successful learning for him required Immigrating to the US and surrounding himself with English speakers. He manifested a basic fact, that any human being can learn another language. Generations of people without any formal education have become polyglots without much conscious effort; my friend became one more of their number. Brains are ready to learn multiple languages. Classroom language education does not work as effectively as the direct approach: learning the language on the street.
This conversation reminded me of some of my own personal and second-hand knowledge of language education. My only non-A’s in high school were German and Russian. I know of many people whose last experience with a foreign language was a deflating experience in a school language class. Benny the Irish Polyglot describe this experience vividly in his TED talk. Everyone struggling to grasp another language in the classroom.
Then I remember my African and Indian friends and Indonesian acquaintances who take no credit for knowing 4-5 languages. My Russian scientist friend told me the same is the case in Dagestan, in southern Russia. Africans and Indians often speak 1-2 linguae francae, like English and French in Africa, or English and Hindi in India. Then they speak a majority local language, like Yoruba in Nigeria or a state language in India, like Punjabi. Finally, Mom and/or Dad might come from the village, so that’s an additional 1-2 languages. Three is easy to come by, and five happens without trying. When I look on Youtube for the videos of the famous polyglots, I noticed that they are nearly all from the US and Europe. I have not noticed one Indian and no Africans. Is this under-representation because polyglots abound in these areas so much that they do not stand out in their culture?
Note the main difference between these two groups of people. The Russians and Americans spent much of their time learning languages in school; the Africans and Indians spent the minority of language-learning time in school. The more formal education correlates to the worst outcomes.
In the US and Russia, the education system dumped and continues to dump millions of dollars into language education, when the solution is to live among the people and just talk. Grammar largely doesn’t matter for these language-learners in Africa and Asia. They took very few tests, and they may not have memorized vocabulary. They may not have even been literate in that language. They turned to someone and talked, and that someone talked back, and they worked it out.
One system can’t manage to teach a foreign language to a highly educated scientist; the other teaches multiple languages to people lacking formal education. Yet the former educational system spends so much money on language-learning that doesn’t work so well.
We have what we need–and it’s free
In the US people always say that you have to live in the country if you really want to learn a language. Just learning from a book isn’t enough, we admit. Yet we always say this as we lament a monolingual doom. We are not doomed to monolingualism, however. What are the languages of our cities? of our states? In Minneapolis-St Paul, we have a huge numbers of Spanish, Hmong, and Somali speakers, not to mention Chinese, Vietnamese, and Oromo speakers.
That’s it. That’s all you need–for the cost of some time and a cup of coffee or a meal.
Ok, so you found someone who speaks the language–what do you do now? You start with questions, with gestures, with mimicry, and then you continue building on what you learn. Because your brain was set up to learn multiple languages, you can go in with the knowledge that you can totally learn this language without classroom instruction. You will learn and make new friends. If you must use high-tech tools, stick with Anki to create and track flash cards, or maybe organize notes with Evernote.
From what I’ve seen, the most effective education in language comes from the street. Since we’re set up to learn multiple languages, we just need to find the input. What’s better is that input comes from delightful people all around us. If classroom instruction would work effectively, it would need to incorporate language-learning truths that cultures have known for centuries. Like my Russian friend, the best classroom for learning English was outside the classroom. Languages are not a subject like some others, like science or literature; they come from interaction with others and not from a book.
How about you? Do you learn languages best in or out of the classroom? Did you ever have a fantastic language classroom experience?
- How To Raise a Multilingual Child: MUSTS, BESTS & BOOSTS (melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com)
- Linguists, Polyglots, and Multilinguals (coveredrachel.wordpress.com)
- Bilingual Brains and The Difference in Processing of Languages (fancysci.wordpress.com)
- Speaking in Tongues (hellishbehavior.wordpress.com)
- 5 TEDx Talks to make learning a new language easy (tedx.com)