Why don’t they learn our language? or How did they manage to do it?

How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?
How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?

Continuing on the theme of “Why don’t immigrants learn our language?” (see this post and this post) I wanted to present why the situation is not as simple as people think.

Most people who complain about this in the US speak English only, and so remain blissfully unaware of the complications of learning another language.

My more sophisticated brothers and sisters in Europe likely learned English, and so understand the difficulties. Nevertheless, they learned their foreign language in the comfort of their local school surrounded by family and friends taking care of them.

Immigrants have it hard because of their circumstances, both the situation they left and the life they have in their new country. Learning a new language creates even more work and difficulties in addition to getting by in this new, foreign place.

Yet they learn.

When I used to teach, I remember the reaction of my students when I would add an extra reading assignment. “We don’t have time,” they would inevitably say. I would smile and tell them that one day they would learn what “busy” meant, but at the moment, they were not busy.

We are not as busy as we think. This is what many of us have to grow into when we think about immigrants, and a valuable lesson immigrants can teach the rest of us.

Let’s look more deeply into their circumstances. It’s humbling. We’ll see that the question is not, “Why don’t they learn our language?” but “How did they manage to learn our language?” At the end, I’ll give you a few ways to use your favorable circumstances to the advantage of others.
How they learned

Six ways to get out of the expat bubble

I bet you could practice your language with someone here!
I bet you could practice your language with someone here!

When you go abroad to learn a language, how do you make sure that you’re learning the language? Many people travel with the hope that they will “absorb” the language, and then find that this process does not unfold by itself. Many people get lonely and make friends with the folks they have the most in common with: expats. They quickly get stuck the trap of speaking their native language while abroad rather than the language they’re learning.

How do you get unstuck?

When I visited Spain in college, I had a chance to visit Pamplona for the Sanfermin Festival (the “Running of the Bulls”). In one bar I met a local girl, and we chatted in Spanish. She told me she spent a year in the US—yet she never tried to speak English with me. Surely after a year in the US, she would speak better English than my self-taught Spanish, right?

“Where did you live?” I asked.

“Miami,” she replied.

That explained it! She lived in the US without speaking English.

What could she have done differently? What can you do differently while abroad?
6 ways to get unstuck

Awesome language classrooms create a foreign environment

A foreign experience while still in class!
A foreign experience while still in class!

With the right teacher, you can learn languages quickly and with seemingly little effort.  In my last post, I discussed how language learning progresses best outside the classroom.  Yet some of my best, quickest, most pleasant progress in learning languages took place in classes with fantastic teachers.  Others learners and teachers I know experienced the same.  From my anecdotal evidence, awesome teachers do not focus on grammar but use immersion to emphasize that students listen to and read real speech, and that they talk a lot in the language.

Classes have to focus on communication, not perfection

In my experience, bad classes get bogged down in extraneous details in two common ways.  First, one spends most of one’s time on grammar and paradigms.  I remember praying for sleep in my French class while we were learning the umpteenth irregular verb (voir, I think); staying conscious only produced pain.  In Russian class, we spent literally weeks on declining nouns, and I memorized the same Modern Hebrew verb tables at least 5 times.

Second, teachers grade students according to a native speaker baseline.  For French class, that’s one point off for each article gender missed.  In German, that’s a point off for forgetting the final “n” for the masculine dative, and in Russian it’s missing full credit because you used the wrong variation on the irregular genitive plural.

I found that these minute details do not hinder communication when I saw that native speakers make the same mistakes.  For example, French children miss genders all the time.  When I was in Kiev, my friend corrected her 10-year old niece for using the incorrect genitive plural ending.  My children went to Russian school weekly when they were 4-7 years old.  When they used all sorts of funky verb endings, I mentioned it to their teacher, who simply shrugged–that’s normal for Russian kids, as well.

Native speakers have years to perfect the minutiae of grammar, while we had weeks.  Yet the native speakers could naturally carry on a much better conversation than my classmates could.  Their success came because they focused on natural input and forcing themselves to speak when they were little.  (Any parent will tell you about the wonder when their baby started saying what they wanted rather than just cry.)  My classes were focused on getting it right first, before we could actually communicate.

My awesome experiences: Constant speaking in class

As much as I talk about studying languages on one’s own, some awesome teachers taught me a lot quickly.  When I lived in Kiev, I had an awesome teacher for Ukrainian, Lyudmila.  She was short with big glasses and a high voice and the patience of a kindergarten teacher.  Even though she spoke no languages other than Russian and Ukrainian, she taught Russian and Ukrainian successfully to Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Germans, and others.  As a result, my entire lesson was in Ukrainian, and I was forced to speak Ukrainian the whole time.  She proved infinitely patient with no sign of boredom.  She could bring up a new word, and if I couldn’t understand it from context, she could bring up 10 more examples and contexts until I understood.  I came from every lesson with a headache from thinking so hard, and a list of new words that I had learned.  There were no tests.  In the end, I learned to speak Ukrainian such that Ukrainians thought that I was born in Ukraine and emigrated to the US.

During the summer between 9th and 10th grades, I had an awesome teacher for German, Dr. Coates.  It was a 3-week intensive course at an academic camp.  Dr. Coates insisted on everyone speaking on a regular basis, which he accomplish old-school, through recitation.  The first week we spent on pronunciation.  In one common exercise, we had to stand up and recite the German alphabet and vowels/diphthongs “blitzschnell” during class.  The next two weeks he forbade us from speaking English in class.  Each week we learned a couple poems and songs, and we spent a fair amount of time reading and summarizing aloud in German.  At the end of three weeks he had us perform in the camp talent show by acting out the classic 19th century poem, “Der Erlkönig” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  For grammar, we only used the basic book(let) he wrote himself (no exercises).  We only had a couple of quizzes/tests, but no final tally was made that I remember.  To this day I can speak German with very little accent, and I can still recite a couple strophes of “Der Erlkönig.”

Others’ awesome experiences: No English and lots of native input

Speaking German only in German class makes you learn quickly and intensely.  Melissa Bradford taught German at the Latter-Day Saints’ Missionary Training Center (MTC).  (I’ve long jealously admired the resources and expertise the LDS church has put into language-learning.).  In her blog post, How To Raise a Multilingual Child- MUSTS, BESTS & BOOSTS, Melissa wrote,

The MTC was closer to a total immersion experience. As of the first week, our classes of young volunteers were challenged to SYL – Speak Your Language (or speak nothing at all) – although they’d only had 76 ours of instruction.  It got very quiet right about then.  And our students got headaches!  It is hard work to pry out the mother tongue (let’s say it’s English) and replace it with another (there are 52 language taught at the MTC).

We should recognize that 76 hours of instruction is a little more than one standard college semester of a basic language class.  (In the universities I know, the first years of a language met about 5 hours per week for about 12-13 weeks.)  I can only dream of no English spoken after that amount of time.  The LDS missionaries I’ve met around the world speak local languages at a high level because of their focus on speaking with natives many hours per day.

Awesome classroom instruction also includes lots of native input.  A commenter on my blog, mm172001, wrote this comment:

In the full immersion classes we were introduced to culture; ex in Spanish class in high school we would listen to Mexican radio stations and watch Spanish tv with no subtitles. In ASL our teacher would tell us stories about her weekend, when we only knew partial vocab and had to infer the rest to pick up signs.

As he described, they had to navigate through native input right away.  Radio, TV, and story telling required them to work actively in the language from the beginning.

Switching off English and switching on the other language full blast offers a classroom experience in which students really learn quickly and effectively.

Awesome instruction comes from imitating a native environment

Active speaking and listening make awesome language learning possible.  In my best experiences, conversation only in the foreign language and speaking the language through talking and recitation produced my best learning.  For two others I mentioned, only allowing the language in class and encouraging students to engage in active listening produced awesome learning experiences. In conjunction with my point in my last post, the most important point is to speak constantly and grapple with native input all the time, whether inside or outside the classroom.  Only classes based on communication exclusively in the target language will produce awesome results.