Lighten up

More than most fields of learning, language learning is a matter of attitude. In a way it is an escape from reality. Reality is your native language. The new language is make believe, at least at first. You are pretending to be something you are not, a natural speaker of another language. You are imitating the behaviour of another culture. You become an actor, so you need to let go of your inhibitions.

As a university student in France 40 years ago I had to give a speech in class. Every time I went to say the word “responsable” in French, I said it wrong. I said “responsible” as in English. Every time I said it, the whole class laughed. I used that word many times. I could not understand why everyone would just burst out laughing each time. Afterwards I was told. I did not mind, but I never made that mistake again. By making mistakes, and sometimes through repeatedly making the same mistakes, we eventually learn.

When I lived and worked in Japan I was frequently in meetings where I was the only non-Japanese. Once I became fluent in Japanese, I was never conscious of not being Japanese. I felt as if I were part of the same group as I saw around the table from me. You do not just try to imitate the people of the target language, you almost try to become one of them. The barriers are removed and you leave the real world of your native language behind to join the new world of the other language.

People who resist the new language, who ask “why do they say it that way?”, these people have trouble. People who are happy joining the new group will find that they are able to absorb the new language with much less effort. So lighten up and enjoy it.

Everyone is a linguist. Everyone has their price.

When I was 17 I could only speak one language. Now I speak 9. I am convinced that most people can learn to speak many languages. We are all potential linguists.

I am astounded at how strongly people cling to the belief that they cannot learn. This belief then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I like to ask “if I gave you a million dollars to learn the language in 6 months, or if your life depended on it, do you think you could learn?” Then the answer is yes. I guess like in the story about the old man and the pretty young socialite at the cocktail party, everyone has their price.

Academic writing, business writing and such

There are courses on academic writing and on business writing. For people who already write correctly and well, these might be helpful. For people who lack sufficient control over the words and phrases of the English language, these courses are misleading.

There is only one kind of English prose -clear, concise and well constructed prose. If you control the words and phrases of the language it is easy to learn how to start with a “theme sentence” in every paragraph and the other little conventions of writing that are taught in these special writing courses. Without the vocabulary you do not have the resources to express yourself.

If your mind is muddled, no amount of courses on academic writing will help you.

That being said, once you have brought your vocabulary up to the required level, by all means read everything you can find on specialized writing. Start looking on the web where it is available free of charge. Or just buy a book on the subject.

Grammar or pronunciation or vocabulary?

What is the most important thing and what is the most difficult thing in learning a new language? My answer is always vocabulary.

You can express yourself with faulty grammar and less than perfect pronunciation. If you do not have the words you cannot express yourself. The constant battle to acquire enough vocabulary to read what you want to read, to say what you want to say and to understand what you want to understand, that is the hardest part.

The grammar comes as you need it with more and more exposure. Imperfect grammar and pronunciation do not prevent communication and enjoyment of the language. Lack of vocabulary does.

When I correct writing, it is overwhelmingly vocabulary, improper use of words and phrases that is the biggest problem, not grammar.

How do you accumulate words and phrases? You do so from input, from reading, and from listening to content that is of interest to you. You have to see the words and phrases often in different contexts. But then you have to use them in writing and speaking. Writing can really help because you can analyze what you are doing and which words you are using wrong.

It was the lack of a systematic method for accumulating words and phrases that motivated me to develop The Linguist.

How long does it take?

People always ask me how quickly they can “learn” a second language, like English for example. I always answer that it depends on your level, and whether the language you are learning shares a lot of vocabulary with a language you already know (Italian-Spanish-even English; Korean-Japanese-Chinese etc.). Most of all it depends on how much effort you put in.

Along with motivation, intensity is one of the most important principles of language learning. If you spend at least 90 minutes per day for six days out of seven every week, you will make a significant breakthrough in three months. If you study 3 hours a week you will achieve very little.

A breakthrough might mean getting to basic conversation ability starting from zero. It might mean going from basic conversation to the ability to express more complex thoughts and read comfortably. You will know when you have made a breakthrough and it feels good.

Of course your activity must be intense. Sitting in language class may not be intense, especially if there 15 other students in the class. Personal study is intense. I am talking about reading, listening, learning words and phrases and using them in writing and speaking. You can do that with a minimum amount of tutoring.

Language learning is an ongoing process. You are always less than perfect but you should be constantly improving if you do it right. It is a long road of gradually getting more and more comfortable in the language. It should always be enjoyable but it does require deliberate effort.

I am not sure if this clarifies things or makes things more confusing.

Language and the brain

Learning languages ‘boosts brain’

Learning a second language “boosts” brain-power, scientists believe.

Researchers from University College London studied the brains of 105 people – 80 of whom were bilingual.

Learning languages enhances the brain, scientists believe

They found learning other languages altered grey matter – the area of the brain which processes information – in the same way exercise builds muscles.

People who learned a second language at a younger age were also more likely to have more advanced grey matter than those who learned later, the team said.

Scientists already know the brain has the ability to change its structure as a result of stimulation – an effect known as plasticity – but this research demonstrates how learning languages develops it.

The team took scans of 25 Britons who did not speak a second language, 25 people who had learned another European language before the age of five and 33 bilinguals who had learned a second language between 10 and 15 years old. “It means that older learners won’t be as fluent as people who learned earlier in life”
Andrea Mechelli, of University College London

The scans revealed the density of the grey matter in the left inferior parietal cortex of the brain was greater in bilinguals than in those without a second language. The effect was particularly noticeable in the “early” bilinguals, the findings published in the journal Nature revealed. The findings were also replicated in a study of 22 native Italian speakers who had learned English as a second language between the ages of two and 34. Lead researcher Andrea Mechelli, of the Institute of Neurology at UCL, said the findings explained why younger people found it easier to learn second languages.


“It means that older learners won’t be as fluent as people who learned earlier in life. “They won’t be as good as early bilinguals who learned, for example, before the age of five or before the age of 10.” But Cilt, the national centre for languages, cast doubt on whether learning languages was easier at a younger age. A spokeswoman said: “There are conflicting views about the comparative impact of language learning in different age groups, based both on findings and anecdotal evidence.” However, she said it was important to get young people learning languages in the UK. Only one in 10 UK workers can speak a foreign language, a recent survey revealed. But by 2010 all primary schools will have to provide language lessons for children.

Ski trip

I just finished a wonderful week of skiing at Big White near Kelowna in the BC Interior. The climate is a little colder than the coastal range near Vancouver. The snow is light and plentiful. The runs were long and varied. There were steep bowls with fresh powder snow, moguls, long giant slalom type of runs, and skiing through the trees.

I went with my son, daughter-in-law, her mother and our three grandchildren. We stayed in a chalet we rented right on the hill. In fact all the accommodation at Big White is “ski in ski out.”

The temperature varied between minus 5 and 0 Centigrade. We had two days of blue sunshine and three days of variable visibility and snow. But we need the snow so that was all right.

In the evenings my son and I played a high quality of outdoor pick-up hockey on an outdoor rink. We also took the whole family including grandchildren and grandparents for night-time tubing down a groomed tubing hill.

The grandparents had time to spoil their grandchildren and we had lovely meals at our chalet every evening, with plenty of help from all. New Year’s eve we had our champagne and went to bed early in order to be first on the slopes the next day.

I did not have time to think about language learning except when I sat beside some snowboarders from Korea who were studying English in Kelowna.