Sunday, 30 September 2007

Learning a new language – create time of exposure

With the possible exception for the English, Europeans in general seem to be interested in the language of places they visit. It is therefore logic that many of our friends back in Sweden see the language in itself, rather than the nice weather or the Spanish culture, as the biggest opportunity my family and I have when living here. The world has changed, however. Thanks to the Internet, it is easy to create a Spanish media environment in your home, although you live in another country and if you are a committed learner you ought let your target language come alive in everyday life. To increase the time of exposure is a crucial factor for success.

Originally I was planning to write a text on the first books I have read in Catalan. Since I prefer to study languages by myself, starting to read books in a new language is like reaching a first and very concrete milestone. From that point, everything gets easier in a self-reinforcing positive spiral. The two interconnected reasons for this are time and motivation, and they both merit some reflections before I start commenting on what I have recently read. I will start with time, since this is the factor I judge that most people underestimate.

When adults complain about their difficulties to learn languages they often blame it on grammar. How unfair! Grammar is an intellectual challenge and ought to be just as rewarding as the crosswords and sudokus which so many people enjoy in their spare time. It is not rare that the same people claim that children have a fundamentally different capacity to learn languages than grown-ups. I consider that to be a wrong conclusion from a correct observation.

Children are better than adults in achieving a nativelike pronunciation in a non-native language. This, most likely, is due to the fact that they are more open-minded to unexpected sounds and tones which the brain of a typical adult has learnt to filter out. However, when it comes to learning vocabulary, which I dare to claim is the key element of any language, adults theoretically have a huge advantage over children in identifying concepts for which there is a need for words. So why, after some time in a new country, do the children of most immigrant families excel over their parents, not only in pronunciation but also in vocabulary? I am confident that the time spent exposed to the non-native language is the answer.

Under no circumstances do I want to ridicule people who invest time in taking weekly classes of a foreign language, but I do think that they should ask themselves what they aim to achieve. If the main reason for their studies is to have some social time, they by all means do the right thing. However, if they truly strive to learn a language they had better stop. Low-intense language learning is only discouraging for adults, since we tend to remember the amount we have paid for courses and the number of years we have studied, but do not admit what a small fraction of our time we have in fact spent on the new language. It is relevant to make a comparison with children. My two little sons pay attention to, repeat and explore language throughout the whole day. How many grown-ups come anywhere close to that? Is it surprising that children learn so well while we do not?

From a learning point of view, it is this exposure time which is the main advantage of living in an environment where a language is naturally spoken. Since many of my daily activities, like taking the children to school or to the doctor, doing the shopping etc, have to be carried out in in Spanish or Catalan, I spend time with these languages even at times when I would prefer to speak my mother tongue.

At the same time, do not be discouraged by the fact that you do not live in the country where your target language is being spoken. Unless you can find a job where you can make use of the language which you are studying, you might not be able to switch the language of daily life. However, if you really want to learn, I am confident that you will find some extra hours in your daily routines if you scrutinize the time you spend on entertainment. In the beginning, to watch a movie or read a book in a new language will not be relaxing, but I can promise you that you will soon pass that threshold and once on the other side, you will have gained additional hours of exposure to a non-native language.

Entertainment is where I put my focus since that is often the only pool of extra hours which adults have available. It has the additional advantage of being fun and what is fun does not require much motivation. Motivation, however, is so important a topic that I will come back to that in my next text.


Monica said...

i el llibre??? ens has de dir el llibre que has llegit!

Erik Wirdheim said...


Jag som inte har kommenterat dina lingvistiska äventyr på din sida, och ändå dyker du upp så här...

Dessutom innan jag hunnit kontrolläsa texten. Ville bestämt ha upp den med septemberdatum (utan att fuska).

Har redan 3 katalanska böcker bakom mig. Återkommer dock till dem som först om någon vecka.

Hoppas att du fick klart ditt arbete i tid.