Friday, August 28, 2009

Why Are We Such Terrible Language Learners?

It's pretty simple, actually. We live in a big country where almost everyone speaks English. Why the hell should we bother to learn some other language? Well, about 20% of us speak Spanish, so that's pretty practical if you're so inclined. I learned it in spite of, rather than because of, my high school training. When I became an ESL teacher I decided it behooved me to do what my kids were doing, and I spent a few summers studying in Mexico.

But we're not really terrible language learners--we're neither better or worse than anyone else. If we were born in Switzerland, we'd be multilingual without even thinking about it. When I was in Switzerland, I busted my butt trying to learn German. I don't really understand people who go to other countries and don't bother trying to learn the language.

Yesterday, I met a young woman here in Ontario who told me she had a problem. She can't learn English, she told me in Spanish. She's been studying for a year and a half but can't understand anything. She did not take it well when I told her it was her fault, that she clearly wasn't trying at all, and that she was not going to make any further progress unless she stopped waiting for the language to fall from the sky and hit her on the head.

I mean, there she was, with me, a native English speaker, and she chose to use this opportunity to ask me, in Spanish, why she didn't know English. I guess it made sense to her, though it really made no sense at all. If you speak only one language, the ability to speak another seems almost magical, and unattainable.

But it isn't. It's like playing the violin. You have to be willing to make awful screeching sounds, to make mistakes, to make an utter fool of yourself before you make anything resembling music. For adults, it's tough. We're self-conscious and our brains are fossilized. Maybe we need to bang ourselves on the head until they loosen up.

But you can do it. She can do it. Here's the secret--you have to force yourself to get out there and do it. Then you have to do it again and again. If you're an adult, alas, practice may not make perfect.

But it will get you a lot closer than standing around and hoping for the best.
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