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How to Learn a Foreign Language: Issues in Second Language Acquisition and Pedagogy

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Aya Katz has a PhD in linguistics from Rice University. She is an ape language researcher and the author of Vacuum County and other novels.

Working version of the cover of Ping and the Snirkelly People

Working version of the cover of Ping and the Snirkelly People

I first learned a foreign language when I was six years old and in first grade. When I was exposed to this new language under full and total immersion conditions, I was completely monolingual. I did not know one word of the language that my teacher and my fellow students were speaking. Moreover, my teacher and the other students did not know one word of my language. They could not meet me halfway even if they wanted to. It was up to me—and only me—to make sense of what they were saying.

My native language was Hebrew, and I had been speaking it now for five years. The foreign language that I was expected to learn was Standard American English. Oh, and yes, I learned to speak it at the same time that I learned to read and write it. This means that I have not had the same experience with English that many native speakers have had: being non-literate and yet a speaker of the language.

What was total immersion like? It was kind of scary. It was like being thrown into the pool's deep end and expected to start swimming at once. For the first month or so, I felt as if I were drowning. By the end of the first semester, I was speaking English fluently and reading English better than most of my classmates.

Ping and the Snirkelly People is a chapter book that explores in a fictional guise the same issues that I was forced to deal with that year. Ping is a little Chinese girl, and I was Israeli, but the principles involved are the same.

The blurb at the back of Ping & The Snirkelly People

The blurb at the back of Ping & The Snirkelly People

Resistance and Submission: Two Processes at Play in Learning

Since my acquisition of English was a complete success, many innocent onlookers congratulated me on my hard work and the good results it brought. But the truth is that during that whole time, I resisted English, even as I learned it despite myself.

When we are very young, before puberty sets in and calcifies our outlook on life, we can't help learning a language that is there all around us. We may have a terrible time adjusting to the knowledge that other people view the world completely differently, and what seems strange to us is normal to them.

We may resent terribly that we put in all those years learning our native tongue and becoming fluent in it, only to have our self-expression stripped from us by an environment that is deaf to our words. We may be mightily determined not to adapt. But, sooner or later, the reality of the situation allows our subconscious mind to decode the alien tongue and render it familiar. And when that happens, we change on the inside, while all the people around us remain exactly the same.

People who have read Ping and the Snirkelly People questioned me on why Ping was initially so negative about learning English. This was an unusual and eccentric position for any language learner to take. But let me tell you this: I have been a language learner, and I have been a language teacher, and resistance to a new language, especially by monolinguals, is the norm rather than the exception. They get angry. They resist. They argue! They even try to bargain to make the language behave more the way they would like it to.

Second language students may tell you that they are working very hard, and many are, but the hardest thing is to let down your defenses and accept a new way of thinking and outlook on life. Language is our window on the world and the mode whereby we carry on most of our conscious thinking. Most people will be happy to acquire new information about a specific topic, but they might resist any change in their worldview. Resistance to an ambient language when you are very young is futile, but even so, few of us go down without a fight!

What Parents and Teachers Can Do To Make Things Easier, and Why They Shouldn't Do That

Wouldn't it have been easier if I had been prepared? Couldn't my parents have smoothed my way toward the acquisition of English by speaking to me in English at home? Wouldn't my transition to English have happened more smoothly if there had been a bilingual English/Hebrew program at the school I was attending? I believe, for the most part, that the answer to all these questions is "no". But to some extent, it depends on what the goal is.

Is the goal acquiring the new language and having native speaker competence in it, while maintaining native speaker competence in the first language? Is the goal complete and total assimilation, so that the child transitions from a monolingual speaker of the first language to becoming a monolingual speaker of the second language? Or is the goal to allow the child to maintain a separate ethnic identity while speaking the target language?

Not every second language learner is an immigrant seeking to assimilate to a new culture. Even though we did eventually immigrate to the United States, at the time I was in first grade, this was the furthest thing from my parents' minds. My father was a professor of physics at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth, Israel. We were on a two year leave to the United States, and we would be returning home, where I would be going to third grade in an Israeli school.

In the course of two years, it would have been very easy for me to forget everything I knew about Hebrew, if Hebrew were dropped as the home language. This would have meant that I would have had to go through the same disorientation again in third grade as a monolingual English speaker in an Israeli classroom. From my parents' perspective, the course they took of maintaining Hebrew at home and allowing me to find my own way to English competence at school was the right one.

I did see, a year after I learned English, an example of parents who took a different course with their children. In order to help them adapt, the parents spoke only in English to the children at home. This actually delayed complete acquisition of an American accent and fluent English grammar, but within about a year of the implementation of this policy the children were no longer willing and/or able to speak Hebrew anymore.

What about bilingual education? This means different things for different people. Are we talking about bilingual education where the dominant language of the region is taught side by side with the home language of the students? .Without a large population of people speaking the same non-dominant home language, bilingual education is not a practical possibility. Can you imagine a local school offering bilingual education in Urdu, Armenian, Tagalog, Basque, Swahili, Thai, Cantonese, Nahuatl, and any other of the many, many languages of the world, the moment a single student in the school district had that language as their home tongue?

When you look at it that way, you have to realize that programs in bilingual education in the United States that focus on a single non-dominant language spoken at home by students -- usually Spanish -- are not giving everyone an equal opportunity. It might seem that hispanics are being given an unfair advantage in acquiring English, but actually it works the other way around. Any child who speaks a language at home that is neither English or Spanish gets thrown into the deep end of the pool, experiences a brief, painful period of disorientation, and then becomes perfectly fluent in American English in a matter of months. On the other hand, Hispanics sometimes take years to learn English, and they end up speaking it with an accent that marks them as non-native speakers.

So is total immersion a good way to learn a new language? Yes, but the key to understanding why it is a good way is to see that it's because the language learner has no choice but to learn the language. Programs that attempt to give all the positive advantages of total immersion without the initial high level of discomfort yield mixed results. (I will discuss this in more detail in the section on French immersion programs in Canada.)

Books My Father Used to Teach Me French

My Second Foreign Language: A Reading Language

Of course, not all foreign language learning takes place because people relocate to a different country or because they speak one language at home and another language outside the home. In many places around the world, learning a foreign language is considered an integral part of an elementary education. When languages are learned as part of one's basic education, the goal is not complete and total fluency or native speaker proficiency. Quite often the explicit goal is to be able to read world literature in the original language. In such cases, one is acquiring a "reading language".

The second foreign language I studied was French. I was nearly eleven years old when my father started tutoring me in French. By then, we had emigrated from Israel to the United States, and no foreign languages were offered at the public school I was attending. My parents, as elementary students in Israel had each begun studying English as their first foreign language at the age of ten and then chose their second foreign language a couple of years later. My father had chosen French. My mother chose Arabic.

Learning a foreign language in Palestine under the British mandate was viewed very differently from the way foreign language learning is viewed today in the United States (or even possibly in contemporary Israel). Very little emphasis was placed on native or near-native pronunciation. The phonetic level of the language was considered almost completely unimportant and superficial. The important thing was to maintain the phonemic contrasts using the phonetic inventory that you already had available to you in your own native language. Students in English class would pick the closest sound that they could make, but they did not try to mimic the behavior of English speakers. (They had British soldiers as native speaker exemplars that they met every day, but nobody wanted to sound like them!)

The idea was this: if you were studying English, you wanted to be able to read Shakespeare and understand every word and every idea and every literary nuance. You did not want to sound like the Cockney soldier you met on the corner of the street or the prissy gentleman officer who commanded him. To speak English, you didn't want to become English. You just wanted to be an informed member of the civilized world, while perfectly at home in your own skin and your own nationality. People who tried to mimic the British were looked down upon, and so excelling at the phonetic level of language was deeply discouraged.

When my father started teaching me French, he did it the way he had been taught: with reading fluency as the goal. He was not trained in language pedagogy. He had no degree in French, and he was certainly not a native speaker of French. We started with See It and Say It in French, continued with a primer that featured geographical, historical and cultural readings in French (Premieres Lectures Culturelles) , proceeded with Le Petit Prince, and in about three years I was a fluent enough reader of French to read novels by Victor Hugo without using a dictionary.

My third and fourth foreign languages: Foreign Language Pedagogy in American Universities

When I entered UTA, (The University of Texas at Arlington) I was able to test out of the first four semesters of French using only the French that I had acquired by studying with my father. Was I a fluent French speaker? Hardly. Was my pronunciation good? No, I had in Israeli accent in French, even though I had an American accent in English. I was ignorant of the finer points of French phonetics, and though I had studied French grammar, my off the cuff productions were not always completely grammatical. However, it was good enough for UTA.

Even though I did go on to take a conversational French course, and I also took an advanced French phonetics course, today, as a fifty year old, I have the French that my father gave me, and I don't think that anything I learned at UTA really stuck. However, I did graduate from there with a B.A. in French with highest honors, for whatever that's worth.

Actually, what I had wanted to get was a degree in foreign languages. I was interested in language in general and how it worked, and what all languages had in common, and how vastly different they could be. I wanted to study some languages from many different language families, but at the time the only languages they had were Indo-European. I minored in Russian and German. Lower level German seemed to be taught by TAs and lecturers, but I lucked out in Russian with Rimma Palangian, a native speaker of Russian, and the wife of Jack Palangian who taught French conversation.

Rimma Palangian

Rimma Palangian: My Russian teacher at UTA

Rimma Palangian: My Russian teacher at UTA

Native Speakers versus Academicians and the Implications for Language Universals

In Mrs. Palangian's class, it was possible not just to learn Russian grammar but also to speak it. She gave students her personal attention, and if she felt you deserved more than the curriculum was designed to teach, she gave of her time freely. Although I had just started studying Russian and was required to take the full load of introductory courses, she also allowed me and another student to take private study with her, and we even read some short stories. I don't think she was paid for that.

In Mr. Palangian's French class, only French was spoken. I heard some of the other students grumbling behind his back that this was probably because he didn't speak any English. All the other French professors were willing to speak mostly in English.

Although I was an undergrad and I didn't understand department politics, I did notice that most of the upper level French courses were taught in English. We read French literature in the original, but we discussed it in class in English. Most of the professors who taught those courses were Americans.

At about the same time, I took my first linguistics class, where Universal Grammar was discussed in all seriousness. One of the universals of grammar, according to the instructor, was that you need a verb in every sentence. I raised my hand and told the instructor this was not true. Both in Hebrew and in Russian no verb was required in present tense attributive sentences. "I am a student" or "he is happy" could be said without a verb. The instructor thanked me very much for that observation, but he said that the fact remains: "every sentence needs a verb" is a language universal.

I decided not to major in linguistics.

Early French Immersion Program

Problems with Foreign Language Instruction and Why Immersion Programs Sometimes Fail

There are several problems with the foreign language programs at American universities:

  • Many of the students come in not knowing any foreign language and expect to start from scratch, spending two or three years learning the basics of a language, before they can proceed to advanced study. (In other countries, the basic foreign language groundwork is done in middle school.)
  • Because most of the students have never even studied the grammar of their own language, they have no idea what grammar is at all, and sometimes they struggle with that concept.
  • Lower level courses are often taught by TAs or native language instructors who are not tenure track
  • Upper level courses are taught by tenured professors who are often not native speakers or even fluent in the language
  • In some universities, language instructors who teach how to speak a language are treated like technicians, while the people writing language pedagogy materials are theoreticians, who have no pragmatic experience.
  • Linguists are not required to be fluent in any foreign language. Monolingual English speakers are often allowed to spout off about language universals, and what they say counts more than what speakers of other languages have to say on the subject.

One possible solution to these problems would be to require language immersion programs to be implemented in elementary and middle schools. But even that can botched, because it's all about power. Who are we going to put in charge of the immersion programs? Monolingual English speakers? How's that going to end up? Can you guess?

While we haven't done this in the United States yet, I've recently been afforded a glimpse into the French immersion program that is now in effect in Canada. Fiona Patterson, a Canadian with personal experience in the immersion programs, writes:

Beaucoup de professeurs, même en immersion française, sont des anglophones qui ont, eux aussi, suivi un programme immersif, et n’ont peut-être jamais eu de contact avec des locuteurs natifs, Canadiens ou autres. ("Many teachers even in French immersion are English speakers who, they themselves, participated in an immersion program, and have perhaps never even had contact with native speakers of French, Canadian or other.")

English speakers who have studied French are preferred over native French speakers as instructors for the immersion program. Why? Because they often have the more prestigious degrees in French, are teaching "Parisian" rather than Canadian French, and are seen to be more sensitive to the needs of the predominantly anglophone students who are exposed to this program. The result? Students who, after having undergone a French immersion program, still don't speak French fluently.

The problem with language pedagogy programs in the English speaking regions of North America isn't that only native speakers can teach or that only total immersion works as a learning environment. The problem is that the power to make decisions about language instruction is given to people who, even though they may have studied foreign languages, know very little about what it is like to internalize the new language so that it becomes a living part of themselves.

But why don't they know? Because they never had to learn. They were not thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to swim. They never had the "a-ha" moment when they realized that other people really do think differently, or the even more disturbing insight that now having undergone a process of assimilation, they were thinking like one of "them". They had never been forced to switch sides, even for the flicker of a second.

Field Methods Class: A Language I wasn't supposed to Learn

One enigma in the field of linguistics is the following two tenets:

  • All native speakers are endowed with perfect knowledge of their language
  • Native speakers are poor at articulating this perfect knowledge, so non-native speaker linguists should do it for them.

When couched in these terms it sounds very silly, but this is what many linguists believe. To be objective in studying the functioning of a language, you need to distance yourself from the language, because introspection can be misleading. However, only native speakers of a language are qualified to make grammaticality judgments in any given language. So the best thing to do is to hire a native speaker, pay him a really low wage for answering questions about his language, but never actually bother to learn it yourself. Then you can publish a grammar of the language and become an expert.

Eventually, after spending nine years practicing law, I went back to grad school and took up linguistics again. I thought it was going to be different this time, because I had joined a Functionalist department that rejected the mainstream Chomskyan generative camp. While Chomskyan's believed that formal rules in language were everything, functionalists maintained that language form was subservient to language function. However, most functionalists still believed in universals, but they were looking for them not so much in syntax, but rather in semantics. They assumed that anytime there was a form, that form must have some meaning.

As a result of this, they spent a lot of their time trying to tease out minor semantic distinctions. They would stare for hours on end at two nearly identical sentences and try to figure out what meaning was in the minor formal differences. For instance:

1. I looked the word up in the dictionary.

2. I looked up the word in the dictionary.

If you were a native speaker informant, they would drive you crazy asking you if both of the above sentences are grammatical, and if they were, what did they mean. What, for instance, they would ask, is the difference in meaning between sentence (2) and sentence (1)? If you answered "no difference", they would tsk tsk you and tell you that every difference in form has to imply a difference in meaning, because form follows function. Then they would keep pressing you to dig deep within your subconscious for the exact difference, which as a native speaker, you must be aware of. "Think! Think! Is there a particular environment in which you would say (2) but not (1)?"

Finally, in order to get them to stop, you would make up an answer, like: "I would say (1) at a cocktail party, but (2) if I were testifying in court." And then everybody would be satisfied, and you could go home, and the linguist would have some data to publish.

Of course, they didn't do it with English that much. They did it mostly with Austronesian languages, for which there was no dearth of informants.

When I was taking the obligatory Fields Methods course, our informant was named Manuel Datuin, and the language we were investigating was Pangasinan. And even though I was skeptical about the methodology and the theory behind the class, I enjoyed it immensely. because of the good company and the interesting language I was being exposed to.

We would sit there around the table in the lounge, all of us, the professor, a fellow student and I, and we would try to elicit interesting sentences from our friend Manny. He was very obliging, and he really seemed to want us to learn his language.

At the time, one of the big items in the news was that Tonya Harding, a figure skater, had had Nancy Kerrigan, another figure skater, whacked on the leg by a friend in order to become a champion skater. This fact situation presented us with the context for conjuring up complex sentences involving an agent, a patient, and a super-agent who was causing the agent to act upon the patient. We got Manny to produce some of the following sentences for us:

1812) Si Harding so nampapekpek ed kinen Kerrigan

"It was Harding who had that Kerrigan beaten."

1816) Si Harding so nampapekpek ed si Kerrigan

"It was Harding who had Kerrigan beaten."

1819) Si Kerrigan so apapekpek nen Harding

" Kerrigan got beaten [by order of] Harding."

1821) Apapekpek nen Harding si Kerrigan

"Harding ordered someone to hit Kerrigan."

We had countless other variations on this theme, but I won't list them all here. In the process of eliciting this data, one kind of got the feel for how it would go, and it came to the point when one could generate sentences of one's own and ask whether they were grammatical and whether they meant what we thought they might mean.

I remember one time, when I came up with my own sentence in Pangasinan and my guess as to what it would mean happened to be correct, Manny got very excited, and he exclaimed: "Yes! Yes! Soon Aya will be speaking Pangasinan herself!"

I was very pleased by this praise, but at the same time I felt guilty. What Manny didn't know was that if I had become fluent in Pangasinan, I would have disqualified myself from playing the part of the objective scientist, and I would have joined the informant camp.

We wanted to know all about Pangasinan, but we weren't supposed to know Pangasinan. Anyone who was an actual speaker wasn't allowed to play the game.

Another Monolingual's Resistance to English and What I Learned from It

When I was in grad school, quite unexpectedly I was given the opportunity to observe another monolingual Israeli's struggle with learning English. It was years and years since I had had to face this challenge all alone, and by now my attitude toward language learning was quite positive. But it was odd that as I tried to assist her with her struggle, I was reminded of my own.

A young woman in her mid to late twenties who had been given an extreme religious upbringing had somehow found her way to Houston without learning how to speak English. It's very rare that anyone in Israel can arrive at adulthood without having learned Englisn, since it's taught in the schools from fifth grade up as an obligatory foreign language. But because of this young woman's ultra repressive upbringing, she was not exposed to any other language besides Hebrew. Somehow she had found employment in the home of a family where the wife was a speaker of Hebrew, but she was very isolated, because she couldn't speak to anybody outside the home of her employer. Everybody agreed that she should learn English, and she had been sent to ESL classes, but with little success.

When she was sent to take lessons with me, my new student was delighted to have someone to speak with in Hebrew about English grammar. "You see," she explained, "all the other people in the ESL class had already studied English and they were just trying to get better at it, but I had never studied it, and I didn't understand anything that the teacher was saying. Now that I can talk to you, it will be much easier. I'll be able to ask you all the questions that I have about English."

So, we opened up the study materials that she had already purchased, and one of the early lessons was about how to use the verb "to be" in simple present tense sentences. There was a paradigm: I am, you are, he, she, it is, we are, you are, they are." As paradigms go, it was really kind of easy, because there were only three forms of the verb: "am, is, are." Coming from a highly inflectional language like Hebrew, this is really pretty much a snap. I started to drill her on the meanings of the pronouns, but it turned out she actually knew that. I explained to her that the verb was the present tense of the verb meaning "to be." She already knew that, too. "Okay, great, then let's just do the exercises," I said. The exercises consisted of filling in the blank with the right verb. They were something like this:

I ___ a student.

You ____ a student

He ___ a student

There were no instructions, but it was pretty self explanatory. Besides that, she had already written the answer in in soft, barely visible pencil. She had also written translations of all the English words into Hebrew on the margins in that same soft, barely visible pencil.

But when I asked her to do the exercise, she balked. She had all the information of what everything meant right there in front of her, yet she was hesitating about the first blank.

"I am a student," I demonstrated, "Can you say that?"

She repeated it, with an accent, but perfectly comprehensible.

"Good," I encouraged. "Next one."

But she was not willing to go forward. "I don't understand," she told me in Hebrew.

"What don't you understand?"

"What is am?"

"It's the first person singular conjugation of the verb to be, which means that something is or exists."

"Yeah, I know that," she said. "But I still don't understand. What does am mean? I understand what I means. It means אני. I understand what student means. It means תלמיד or תלמידה. But what does am mean? I mean, what does it mean in this sentence?"

"Well, it doesn't actually mean anything, it's just a grammatical word," I said. "English speakers like to have it there in the sentence."


"Well... They like to have sentences that are in this order: subject verb object. If they don't have a verb, they don't feel it's really a sentence."

"But why?'

"Because they used to have a lot more grammatical morphology that told them which is the subject and which is the object and which is the verb, but they lost most of that, and now they're very dependent on word order to figure out what a sentence means."

"But why do they need am? Couldn't they just say I student?"

"They could, but they don't," I said smiling. "You want to learn to talk the way they do, don't you?"

"But it's stupid! I can't say that unless I know what it means! What does am mean?"

"Well, it means first person singular," I said.

"But that's what I means!"

"Yes. They both mean that. It's grammatical agreement."

"So I am means אני אני!"

"No! If you wanted to say that it would be I am I. The am tells you that the attribute after the am is applicable to the word before the am. It's kind of like an equal sign or a sign for class membership in set theory."

"What if I just said I student?" she asked stubbornly.

"It would be ungrammatical," I said.

"But would people understand me? Would they understand that I was saying that I'm a student?"

"They might not."

"Really?" she smirked. "They're that stupid?"

I laughed. "Some are. Some aren't. But the question isn't whether they're stupid. The question is: do you want them to think that you are?"

Like my linguistics professors, my new student wanted every form to have a function. If she was not satisfied that the form was functional and that it served a direct communicative goal, she wasn't going to bother to learn it. After all, she was learning English for a very practical reason: she wanted to talk to people. She wasn't trying to pretend to be one of them. She just wanted to communicate. In other words, she wanted to speak English without learning to think in English.

Believe it or not, that's what most monolingual adult language learners want. They want to learn a new language without changing one iota of their internal information processing structure. They want to speak it without learning it, to communicate with others without changing a thing on the inside. But if your goal is fluency, that simply doesn't work.

I had a lot of fun talking with my student in Hebrew about English, but as you can imagine, as long as this was her attitude, her English did not improve. To learn to speak English, she didn't need a teacher who would speak to her in Hebrew about English. She needed a teacher who, however kind and gentle, was totally oblivious to her point of view, who would bring home this subliminal message: you have to think like me or I will not understand you. Assimilate or die! Sink or swim! That's what I had in first grade, and that's what every beginning language learner needs.

Learning Dead Languages and Teaching Live Languages as if they were Dead

In language pedagogy, fluency isn't always the goal. For instance, most people studying a dead language are not hoping to become fluent in it. Latin and Greek and Sanskrit are taught in a completely different way from the living languages. People are instructed in the grammar, and they memorize paradigms, and they even do grammatical exercises, but with no expectation that one day they'll be speaking the language or even using it in correspondence. In other words, they are being trained to have a good receptive ability with written texts in that language, a good appreciation of the grammar and vocabulary of the language, without necessarily being able to produce novel sentences in real time.

Is this a valid learning objective? I think it is. It's valid because there are texts in dead languages that are worth studying. It is valid because there is more to language than speech. And it is also valid because sometimes we learn to read a language first, and this opens the door to speaking it later.

Keep in mind that Helen Keller learned written English first (in the form of finger spelling), before she later learned to articulate in English. The story of her language breakthrough resonates with anyone who has had the experience of a similar (though less spectacular) breakthrough: becoming fluent in a language one previously did not speak at all.

A dead language can be preserved in writing, then revived after generations of being nothing more than a reading language. So having a tradition of teaching certain languages as only reading languages can have many useful applications.

I myself have taught a Biblical Hebrew course on the college level in which I used the same methodology as was taught to me in Sanskrit class. There was no expectation that students would begin to speak the language. They were to acquire reading fluency only.

If I had begun speaking to them in Biblical Hebrew and attempted a total immersion experience, I would have been accused of speaking Modern Hebrew. By very virtue of the fact that I was speaking it, it would have been modern by definition. But I could never have had Hebrew as my native language at all, if not for people two or three generations before I was born, who had learned it as a reading language and then revived it.

My grandfather and grandmother learned Hebrew as a reading language, but they went on to internalize it to the point where they could also speak it. For my father, Hebrew was his native language, spoken at home. Who did he learn it from? Not native speakers. He learned it from his parents, who practiced total immersion. This happened in Poland, where everyone outside the home was speaking Polish. When he arrived in Palestine at the age of four, my father fit right in. All the other children were also speaking Hebrew,

Trying to Learn Your First Tone Language Long After the Critical Period

For years, I believed I was pretty good at languages, not taking into account the circumstances that made it possible for me to learn them, and the likelihood that under completely different circumstances I would have learned nothing. Then when I was thirty-eight, I went to work in Taiwan, and the experience of trying to learn Mandarin at that late age was very humbling. I expected that I would be fluent in a matter of months. I worked in Taiwan for three years, but I never achieved fluency.

Was it a total immersion experience? Not really. I taught in English at universities where English was spoken. I had colleagues who all spoke English. Everybody was trying to be kind and helpful, so it really wasn't a sink or swim experience. I took lessons in Mandarin, but the only place where I was really forced to speak it was on the streets where people who were also not native speakers of Mandarin used it as a lingua franca. They were fluent and I was not, but none of us were speakers of Beizhing Mandarin, the language I was taking lessons in.

Was that the only problem? No. There was also the fact that even though I had studied many languages, Mandarin was my first tone language, and I had trouble making a new category in my mind for tone as a phoneme on the lexical level. The problem was not that I couldn't produce the tones. The problem was that even though I was complimented on my ability to mimic the tone in each word as I learned it, I could never remember which tone went with which word after the lesson was over. I remembered the consonants and the vowels but the tone was forgotten.

Surprisingly, reading traditional characters was easier than I expected. Because the Chinese writing system is not based on pronunciation, I didn't need to know anything about tone in order to recognize written words. This is an advantage to non-phonemic writing systems: that they allow people to communicate who might never have been able to do so orally.

Was the fact that I was long past the critical period when I attempted to learn Mandarin an important factor? Yes, I think it was. But equally important was the lack of dire necessity. Because I could function without learning, I didn't learn.

If no one I met in Taiwan had spoken to me in English, I probably would have learned more. If I had had to go to a school or workplace where everyone spoke Mandarin, I would have been truly immersed in the language. Would I have ended up speaking like a native? No. But I expect the result might have been the same kind of fluency that most adults can master after immigrating to a new country.

Conclusion: Define Your Language Goals and Have Realistic Expectations

I would never say that total immersion is the only way to teach a foreign language. To some extent it depends on your goals. It is perfectly acceptable to teach reading languages in the schools, and some of the students who have internalized the reading languages can go on to master spoken fluency later.

It all depends on your goals. Are you learning a new language so that you can read its literature? Then studying its grammar and vocabulary and then attempting to read progressively more difficult texts is a good methodology. It's not that one doesn't attain fluency this way. The very best students in a reading class do internalize the language and can read and understand in real time, without aid of a dictionary or grammar book. But this is primarily a receptive fluency and does not imply equal facility with production.

However, if you want to acquire spoken fluency, total immersion is a very good way to go. The thing to remember is that when your goal is productive performance in real time, you are not trying to learn about the language. You want to become the language! You want to internalize it so that you think in the target language. And in order to do that, you have to experience something kind of painful: you have to allow yourself to change on the inside!

This, more than any superficial difficulty with memorizing paradigms and vocabulary, is the real stumbling block to perfect mastery of another language!

©  2011 Aya Katz


Katz, Aya. (forthcoming) Ping and the Snirkelly People.

Patterson, Fiona. (unpublished paper) L’enseignement du français langue seconde au Canada : éthique, pragmatique et pratique


Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 22, 2015:

While parents and caregivers may simplify language addressed to infants, it is not the case that they teach language to them. Many times infants also learn to decipher utterances not aimed directly at them, when this information is seen as important. We must not assume that baby talk directed at infants is their only source of language data.

By the same token, people on the street speaking to a foreigner often try to simplify their speech, thinking that would be helpful. It's not.

Alexander Martin from Italy on November 22, 2015:

I think 'partial immersion' is preferable. When we consider a newborn infant's L1 acquisition, it is true that the infant is in a context of total immersion. However, research (Asher) suggests that language actually directed at the infant uses only a handful of structures that are easily deciphered. The imperative voice is the structure the infant hears most at first: Smile at Mummy, Wave, Say 'Hello', Blow your nose, Don't touch that, Give me the ball, Look, Close your eyes. The structures are easily deciphered because they are usually accompanied by a gesture and many times comprehension is confirmed with positive reinforcement of one kind or another (a kiss, a smile, a hug). If this is correct, by implication foreign language programs might seek to mimic (at least in the early stages) the way L1 is acquired.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 28, 2014:

There is nothing like total immersion to get you thinking in the target language. The trick is to keep thinking in the language you are speaking at the moment, no matter how many of them you are fluent in.

Lesley Hebert from New Westminster, BC Canada on November 28, 2014:

I learned French in high school In the UK and actually got really good marks. Then I spent some time as a home stay student in Paris and became really humbled when I realized I couldn't actually speak the language. It was really scary at first realizing that I couldn't communicate with the people around me, and then the magic happened. All of a sudden something clicked and I not only began speaking French, but actually enjoying it.

Strangely, when I returned home after only a few short weeks, it was difficult to start speaking English again because French was popping up in my brain first.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on February 25, 2012:

Cclitgirl, thanks for your comment! It's nice to hear from another language teacher, and thank you for sharing your techniques.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on February 25, 2012:

What a great comprehensive hub! I'm a Spanish teacher and took lots of French, so I also know a thing or two about language acquisition. You have done so well, Aya. Bravo! I agree with your points and when I teach Spanish to my English speakers, I pepper it with English, even though current methodologies advocate for immersion. It has been my experience that that is one of the quickest ways to turn people off to the language. If you allow them to enjoy it first, using their own language as the backdrop, I find that they stay in programs longer, want to learn more, and arent' resentful as you "up" your use of the second language. Plus, I try to find all the really neat things about other cultures and infuse my lessons with things like "La Tomatina" and Chichen Itza. You gave me some hub ideas, too. :D

Maggie.L from UK on May 05, 2011:

Unfortunately there are no other Cantonese speaking family members or friends. Thanks you so much for your advice though. I will leave the Cantonese speaking to my husband. Hopefully we might have the opportunity to spend some time in Hong Kong too in the near future. Thanks again.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on May 05, 2011:

Maggie, thanks for sharing your experiences with your daughter. If you yourself don't speak Cantonese, there is no need for you to try to speak it with her. When there are two parents, each of whom has a different language, it works best that each speaks to the child in his or her stronger language, because you want the child to pick up a native accent and native grammar.

However, the time that is spent speaking each language is a factor not to be underestimated. A few hours a week is not usually enough. Are there other Cantonese speaking family members or friends in your life? You can supplement your husband's contribution by finding Cantonese speaking playmates for your daughter.

Of course, spending a couple of years in Hong Kong would be an ideal solution!

Maggie.L from UK on May 05, 2011:

A thoroughly interesting and insightful hub. We are trying to bring up our 4 year old daughter to be bilingual. However it is a difficult job, We live in the UK but hope that she will learn at least the basics of Cantonese. However I speak very little of the language and my accent is all wrong so it is all down to her father to teach her. He speaks to her in Cantonese all of the time but is only with her a few hours a week due to work commitments. She watches Cantonese programmes regularly and seems to understand most of what her dad says but will almost always answer in English. This is understandable as she never hears anyone conversing in Cantonese as the extended family all live in Hong Kong. I believe that she could only become truly fluent if we spent a year or two in Hong Kong. Your knowledge of languages is outstanding. To believe to read and understand a French novel after learning the language for only 3 years is truly amazing. Thank you for writing this very informative hub. If you have any more tips as to how we can further help our little one to learn then that would be much appreciated.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 24, 2011:

DTR0005, then in that case, the near-native abilities he exhibited must be attributable to what he retained from his earlier immersion. We don't forget everything, even when it seems that way.

Doug Robinson from Midwest on January 24, 2011:

Aya, the subject's exposure to English during his middle school years was not through immersion. He was simply another French student in another English class. From having observed English instruction in France at this grade and in highschool, I wouldn't say it was anything special - certainly nothing more or less unique than typical American foreign language instuction in public schools...

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 24, 2011:

DTR0005, interesting story! We do retain a lot, I think, that we're not even aware of from early childhood. What sort of exposure to English did your friend have in middle school? Was it just instruction in English as a foreign language, or was he immersed in English at that time? Middle school is not too late to re-acquire a language with native speaker competence, if given enough exposure.

The observation that he pronounced "simple" English words like a native, while more complicated words with a perceptible accent might be explained by the relationship of English to French. Simple words in English are from Anglo-Saxon, whereas more complicated words come from Norman French. It is possible that your friend subconsciously identified the words of French origin as French words, and thus gave them a French reading, whereas he had no need to do that with words that he knew only in English.

Doug Robinson from Midwest on January 23, 2011:

I met a gentleman in France some time back whose father was American and whose mother was French. His parents divorced when he was quite young - maybe 4 or 5 years old. Before their divorce, he had actually lived in the U.S. At around 5 or 6, he moved back to France with his mother and really had no other "regular" exposure to English until he reached the equivalent of middle school. He had no contact with his father or his father's family in America. His mother did not speak English.

In other words, he lived for a short time in the U.S. and during that time played with American children, watched American television, and communicated with his father in English. I assume, although I didn't ask, that his mother spoke to him in her native French at home, and his father spoke to him, of course, in English.

My observation was that he, as an adult, had retained what I would call a "native speaker's feel for grammar." His sentence constructions were much like those of a native English speaker's; he didn't make the same predictable mistakes that speakers of French tend to make when speaking English. His accent, however, was perhaps the most interesting of all. He prounounced simple, basic words with no noticeable accent. More complicated words, perhaps those learned in later life and in a more formal educative setting, had a slight albeit perceptible "accent."

What are your thoughts on this observation?

OpinionDuck on January 17, 2011:

Thanks Aya


Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 17, 2011:

Opinion Duck, thanks for elaborating. You probably got a very good education at the parochial school you attended. Even just the fact that they were teaching you a foreign language was probably well worth the tuition.

When you were talking about Asian languages, I think the word you were looking for is "tone". Many Asian languages are tone languages. (What we, in English, think of as intonation over the sentence is used in those languages to mark lexical differences.)

If you want to be able to converse in a language then a language exchange with a native speaker of that language is your best choice, if you cannot afford total immersion. When not speaking with a native, watch movies in the language as a way to improve comprehension and to pick up vocabulary and common phrases.

OpinionDuck on January 16, 2011:

Thanks for the reply Aya

Polish was taught in a polish school in Manhattan.

Polish was just another subject along with the rest of the subjects.

It was a Polish Catholic School and the masses in Church were in Latin and not Polish. The rest of the subjects in school were taught in English.

Polish was not spoken at home, although my father could speak it, and my mother could understand it. She was Ukranian, but they both spoke English as a first language.

I misused the word inflection for the Asian languages. It was not the grammar that was inflected but the pronunciation. In Mandarin and Vietnamese there are I believe eight ways to pronounce the word, MA, and only one of them was mother.

As for the learning of a foreign language, my goal would be to basically understand a conversation being spoken in that language.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 16, 2011:

Opinion Duck, thanks for your comment and for sharing some of your language learning experiences. When you received instruction in Polish for the first six grades of your education, was this in Manhattan, where you grew up? Was it a private school? This is really interesting information and opens a whole new vista into your life!

I wouldn't say that English is the hardest for an outsider to learn. I wouldn't actually say that about any language, because it depends on which language or languages you are familiar with when attempting to learn English. It is easier for us to learn languages that are similar to the language we already speak.

By the way, a language that is hard to spell for a native speaker can be easier for a non-native to spell, if he learned how to write it first, and to speak it later. Sometimes on the forums native English speakers accuse non-natives of being trolls, just because their spelling is better than their grammar. But actually, if you have no idea what an English word should sound like, then the spelling is much less confusing. That's why uneducated natives are the worst spellers, and educated non-natives tend to be the best spellers of English.

Asian languages is too broad a category to describe structurally. Chinese is Asian and has little -- almost no - grammatical inflection. Japanese is Asian, too, but it has a lot.

You ask what the best way to learn a new language is, if not by total immersion. It depends on your goals. If you want to become fluent in reading a foreign language, start with a primer for basic grammar and vocabulary, then start reading children's books, then read books for adults on topics that really interest you. You should gain reading fluency in a couple of years, if you really stick to the program and read a little every day.

If your goal is spoken fluency, then setting up a language exchange with a speaker of the target language is one good way to learn. Supplement by watching movies in the target language.

OpinionDuck on January 16, 2011:


Nice hub and easy reading with good insight and information on language.

I noticed that you didn't mention Yiddish, or Idions in the hub.

English has to be one of the hardest second languages to learn because of its mixed origins of words. A lot of the language, especially spelling has to be memorized because it is easier than learning the root and the rules for those roots.

I guess that the Asians have some of the most complex inflective languages.

What would you suggest is the best method or technique for learning a foreign language where there is no immersion possible, and the person is not a child?

I have tried to learn Japanese, Russian and Spanish without much success. I have a large vocabulary of words in these languages but very little syntax.

I grew up on the edge of Orchard Stree in Manhattan, which is the Jewish neighborhood. I probably only heard Yiddish words. A retired Rabbi lived on the floor below us, and his son went to Yashiva.

That wasm't immersion just exposure by proximity. Looking at Hebrew is just strokes on paper to me, and the thought of reading right to left is like driving in England.

I did receive instruction in Polish for the first six grades of my education. Over the years, I can hardly even remember words.

I like to learn the Piano but like the foreign languages, I have only been able to absorb the basic fundamentals.

Anyway, it was an interesting hub.


Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 13, 2011:

Thanks, Maggs! It sounds as if you are doing pretty well in Spanish, considering how late you started, the fact that it is your first foreign language, and also the environment in which your immersion is only partial. Attending church in Spanish can be enriching, but one usually isn't expected to produce a sermon, just listen to the one that is given. (Even the native speakers are probably only partially listening to what is said in the ceremonial portions of the service.)

I only ever took one semester of Spanish, but I can read it pretty well. Also, I speak it better than I listen. That is, native speakers understand what I'm saying, but if they don't slow down, I miss what they're saying.

One of the benefits of having high reading comprehension in a language without being steeped in any particular dialect is that you can read older texts without experiencing any unusual difficulty. When I was researching my second novel, Vacuum County, which is set in Texas, but has historical references to the Spanish explorers of the region, I read a great deal in the memoirs of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, in the original. I remember that someone remarked that the Spanish in that book was especially difficult because it was archaic, but I didn't even notice that. I was able to decode it just as well as any other kind of written Spanish, since I didn't have any dialectal expectations to begin with.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss! You never know when your own particular level of Spanish might not come in handy somehow.

maggs224 from Sunny Spain on January 12, 2011:

As always I found your hub fascinating Aya. I am English but my education was very basic and I left school only days after my fifteenth birthday. I came from a working class background and most of the pupils at the schools I attended were the same as me.

I was always an avid reader and I could often tell that something was not grammatically correct but because my knowledge of my own language's grammar was almost none existent I couldn’t have told you why. We did not learn a second language at school in fact the level was so poor most of us barely learnt even our own language properly.

I moved with my family to Spain at the age of 58 unfortunately the area in which I live there are many British ex-pats and British tourists. I say unfortunately because this means you can get by nearly all the time without speaking a word of Spanish, which makes you lazy. I have been here six years now and although I can understand a fair bit of Spanish forming my own sentences and speaking it is another matter all together.

I attend an all Spanish speaking church I can sing in Spanish and I listen to the sermons which are in Spanish so for at least three hours a week I am immersed in the language and sometime six hours.

I can make myself understood in Spanish but most of the time even I know that what I am saying is not grammatically correct. I read Spanish better than I can understand it when it is spoken because the native speakers tend to speak so fast. However, when I read Spanish I can go at my own speed.

Never having tried to learn a second language before coming to Spain I have found trying to learn Spanish very difficult. I have learned more about the grammar of my own language while trying to learn Spanish than I ever learned in school. Some Spanish words just stick after hearing them once and others I continually have to look up, as soon as I see it in the dictionary I think I knew that but then ten minutes later it can come up again and I need to look it up again. I really don’t know why some words stick and others elude me.

Some of my friends come from Brazil so Spanish is not their first language and I have found that I often understand their Spanish better than a native Spanish speaker.

It is the same for me with a lot of the South Americans (we have mostly South Americans in our church) and they seem to speak Spanish in a way that I can more easily understand.

I wish that I had been exposed to another language when I was young and hot-wired for the task. I have seen many youngsters become fluent in Spanish in a matter of months because they have no other option in this region they also have to become fluent in Valenciano as some lessons are only taught in Valenciano.

I am so impressed by the range and scope of your many talents, you are such an interesting person who has and is leading such a rich and diverse life with a real gift for sharing it with others like me through your writing.

I always come away from reading your hub enriched and having enjoyed myself in the process. Thank you.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 12, 2011:

Dawn, nice to see you here!

As to your question, my parents did not involve third parties. We were in Israel through the end of kindergarten, we arrived in the US toward the end of summer, and I was enrolled in school as soon as it started. There just wasn't much time. It was not an immigration situation, and we had only just arrived in time for the start of the academic year.

It was different for my brother, because by the time he came along we had permanently immigrated to the US. My parents did involve third parties for him, and he was fluent in English before he entered first grade.

I imagine it is easier to maintain English at home in Slovenia when your children know that they will be expected to learn English at school eventually, and they can see the advantage of speaking it.

It's a little harder to maintain Hebrew at home while living in the rural Ozarks, but we are managing. ;->

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 12, 2011:

ReuVera, that's a valid point. The whole concept of a one-and-only native language makes sense only for people who have not acquired more than one language in childhood. For those who have more than one language at "native proficiency", you can have a stronger language and a weaker, but not just one mother tongue.

Dawn on January 12, 2011:

Interesting comments and thoughts, Aya. We are also rearing bilingual children by maintaining our native language at home (as English speakers living in Slovenia). My only question regarding your parents' approach, which I agree was the best one, is whether they involved any third parties in your early childhood to speak English to you. We've tried to "soften the landing" for our kids by having babysitters that speak Slovenian with them, even though we always maintain English as the home language. They seem to transition pretty seamlessly to bilingualism without the immersion shock you described in your own situation.

In our case, the home language is also a highly-prized one in this context (all kids have obligatory English instruction from early grades through high school), and so there isn't much motivation to quit speaking it (as there often is for speakers of other languages that end up in the US).

ReuVera from USA on January 11, 2011:

Thank you, Aya. I just wonder sometimes, what language my son should consider his native. For me, my native language, no doubt, is Russian, at least because it is the only language I speak without ascent, though now sometimes I have difficulty finding a right word while speaking over Skype to my friends in Russian. But I have a Russian ascent in both Hebrew and English.

For Reuven it is hard to name a native language. It is easier to say that he "knows three languages on a native level". :-)

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 11, 2011:

Thanks, ReuVera! Your comment and the story of your son's language learning experiences adds greatly to this hub, I feel. What happened to Reuven in kindergarten is very similar to what happened to my daughter in preschool. I think it is probably not unusual for children to be afraid to show that they have learned a new language, because it implies a switch of allegiance.

Literacy in a language that you don't use in school and/or at work is hard to maintain, especially if you didn't finish high school in that language. Of course, when living in an English speaking country and having gone to school here, your son's best language for written communication is the local language. That's just how it works. But it is good that he is able to maintain his Russian and Hebrew.

ReuVera from USA on January 11, 2011:

This is a thorough analysis with many interesting and useful thoughts. Thank you for writing this hub. I couldn't help smiling reading about your experience with a Hebrew speaking woman. I knew some people like her while I was learning English and later Hebrew.

My son was 3,5 years old when we moved to Israel. He was speaking Russian very well by this age. He went to a kindergarten that was completely Hebrew speaking. At home we continued speaking Russian, but outside our small family of three (my mother, my son and I) we embraced a new culture. About 5 months later my son't teacher told me that she was concerned why Reuven wasn't speaking Hebrew yet. She told me that he definitely understood everything what was going in the kindergarten, was comprehending the stories she was reading and telling, because she could see it by his eyes. But he wouldn't speak Hebrew. My son was very intelligent, so I asked him what was the problem. He looked down and said, "If I start speaking Hebrew, I will forget Russian, then how am I going to talk to Grandma?". I knew Hebrew pretty nice by that time, but grandma didn't know a word yet. Also, I recollected that some Russian speaking people around used to tell me (giving advices to a newcomer, you know)- "You should study hard to learn Hebrew, but don't worry about your son, he'll pick up Hebrew in no time and soon he'll be speaking only Hebrew". My son's little brain interpreted it his way....

I explained to Reuven that he would not forget Russian, but he will know two languages. Next day in the kindergarten he gave a long and eloquent phrase in nice Hebrew straight from the moment he entered the room. His teacher was so happy, she made a celebration for him that day. Kids were singing songs and drawing pictures for Reuven, he was a hero of the day. His travel into Hebrew was absolutely natural.

He speaks both Russian and Hebrew on a sufficient level, without ascent.

We moved to USA on the day he turned 14. He studied English at school in Israel, but I was not glad with the level of teaching. He also knew some English from TV. But he could not really read and write. It took him just two or three months to completely assimilate into hew English speaking environment. This time he was doing it consciously and put a lot of hard work into it. He speaks English without evident ascent. Actually, they say that it is possible to detect that English is not his native language only on certain words (mostly it is a word "three" and the like). He still speaks Russian (at home) and Hebrew (with his Jewish friends) and still without ascent.

So, what is considered his native language? His Russian, though correct, is not very rich or expressive, as he uses it on a basic level. I try to introduce to him complex words and expressions through our conversations, but still it is far from real richness of the Russian language. He also cannot read and write correctly in Russian.

His Hebrew probably is on the level of his eighth grade.

His English is very good, eloquent and rich (well, my son made it through high school and university with a pretty hight GPA of 3.7). For now English is the most close language for him.