In reply to Monday’s article About self-teaching, this from Anne in Chicago:
Well, I couldn’t work my way all the way through this email, but it seems to me that the best way to learn a foreign language is to go live somewhere they speak it.
Yes, well, those of us who are, or have been, wading through two hundred pages of Pirandello in the original over the last couple of weeks probably won’t have much sympathy that you found the article over-long. A ten-minute read in English doesn’t seem much to ask, assuming a person is interested in finding out more about learning a foreign language.
However, Anne’s view, willfully uninformed as it is, is a commonly-held one. So I thought I’d briefly address it today, also because this week we’ve announced the post-Covid 19 re-opening date for our Italian school in Bologna (courses will restart from June 8th, assuming there are students to teach…)
Now it might seem odd, or counter-productive perhaps, that someone who owns a language school that’s actually IN the country where the language is spoken might be willing to pooh-pooh Anne’s (and most people’s) intuitive view of how best to learn a foreign language.
However, my colleagues and I are language-teaching professionals, which means that it’s impossible not to be aware of what works and what might not for our students.
For instance, we see plenty of people who’ve been in Italy for years (perhaps since having bought a retirement home here) and yet have not learnt more than a motivated adult back home in, say Chicago, could have learnt in the same time by taking a two hour class each week at the local ‘Istituto italiano di cultura’.
Those who live in the country where the target language is spoken AND do a decent course, of course, would logically have an advantage.
But living abroad and studying the language of the host community at the same time is not a given. Think, for example, of the not-infrequently heard moaning in the USA about the segment of their Spanish-speaking community which is ONLY Spanish-speaking.
Or the common British complaint about first-generation migrants from, for example, the Indian sub-continent (especially the women, who might spend much of their time at home or with friends or relatives) who never reach a level in English that would be sufficient for them to ‘integrate’.
Why should we bear the cost of translating and interpreting into Spanish/Punjabi etc. just because you can’t be bothered to learn?? After all, you live here now!
Some countries, such as Sweden, INSIST that migrants learn their new country’s language, arguably with mixed results. Many people don’t, either because they won’t or because they can’t, no matter what resources the state throws at the problem in an effort to create the model social democrat-voting new Swedes of the future.
The fact is that immigrants, and I’m a one, are often simply too busy earning a living, or trying to, and dealing with all the complexities and unknowns of their new lives, to devote time and effort to learning the language. Or perhaps they’d like to learn (after all, who wouldn’t want to improve their options, in an ideal world?), and even have the time and money to do so, but the pattern of their lives means that it’s simply not a priority.
Compare the lot of the world’s migrants to that of a typical club member, who might be an educated retired person, perhaps a doctor, teacher or other professional. They may have learnt other languages before, and they have access to high-quality teaching in their city, not least the money to pay for it.
Most important of all, though, are two other factors: they are motivated, perhaps by a love of travel, ‘opera lirica’, ‘la dolce vita’ or language-learning itself; and they have time.
Motivation, time, and opportunity matter.
But, you’ll be thinking, IF you have all these things AND you live in Italy (or wherever they speak the language you’re learning – Sweden, Turkey and most recently Spain & the Americas in my case), then of course that will make it EASIER and FASTER, right?
Well you would think so, wouldn’t you? Because you’ll be speaking the target language all day at work, with your colleagues, with your friends, in shops, in pubs, etc.
Let’s imagine you had visited your local university before the Covid-19 crisis, just for a look-see. What’s higher education like these days, you wonder. Bet things have changed since my day!
If the institution is in any way competitive in global terms (and if not, it will be dying), then you’ll probably have noticed students from China, perhaps many of them. In some top-level ‘western’ universities they make up a significant minority of all students. As a consequence, around the university campuses businesses spring up to cater for Chinese students – restaurants, food stores, Chinese speaking real-estate agents, and so on.
Their parents send them abroad, why, I don’t know – that’s not today’s topic – in sufficient numbers that ‘abroad’ becomes much like home. If they wish, they can live and socialise only with compatriots, speak and hear only their own language outside of lectures, and make no non-Chinese friends from amongst their fellow undergraduates.
So – suprise! – that’s often exactly what happens, though this is in no way a criticism of Chinese students but a general comment on human nature, at least as I’ve observed it.
We NEED to be with others like us, we NEED to communicate.
But I wouldn’t be like that, you protest! I’d shun people from my own country, make friends only with people who speak the language I’m learning, speak only that language myself – all day, every day, until I was fluent and proud of it!
And maybe you would, it’s not unheard of. The well-known ‘learn a language in bed’ method (find a romantic partner who speaks the language you want to learn but not your own) seems to be effective.
But even that isn’t guaranteed. What will you do, for instance, if your partner prefers to speak YOUR language (which after all will benefit them, and perhaps you?) What about if there are children? You’ll naturally want them to be bilingual – which basically means speaking English at home and Italian outside. And the quid pro quo is that you, the default English speaker, get much less chance to improve your Italian.
Besides, in some countries it’s not easy to make new friends. A few years back I watched a hilarious video in which a group of Syrian immigrants in Sweden were sent out on the streets of their new home town to interview the locals about how best, in the opinion of the locals, the new arrivals could make friends and so integrate, a goal that everyone agreed was desirable.
“How can I get to talk to Swedish people?” they asked. “Can I just go up to someone in the street and say ‘Hej’?”
“Nej” was the empatic response. “We Swedes don’t like being put in the embarrassing position of having to talk to strangers. Keep to yourself, please.”
Actualy I’m exagerating. Most people that the refugees attempted to interview simply refused to speak to them at all. Only a group of younger people were willing to give them advice (join a club, but don’t speak to people you don’t already know.)
You would be a very lonely Syrian refugee if you relied on making only Swedish friends.
Not all countries are like that, but remember, you might be starting off as a beginner in your new language, or at least with very limited communication skills. So EVEN IF you suddenly made loads of new foreign-speaking mates, would you have the resilience to sit through hours of socialising with them while not understanding more than a few words and not being able to express your thoughts?
Perhaps your new friends, or new lover, will help you out by practicing their English on you? Indeed, that’s likely. But how’s that going to help you learn their language?
OK, back to the point – yes, of course, if you come to Italy and take a full-time course (normally defined as at least four hours of classes every day), then in three or four months you should reaach a level of ‘conversational fluency). In five to six months you might reach an advanced level, good enough to enter a local university, perhaps.
But that’s ‘living in the country where the language is spoken’ AND ‘studying full-time’. It’ll work for most people, but then again, most people don’t get to take two or three or six months out of their lives, earn no money, abandon their families, etc. to live in a foreign country.
E poi, suppose you don’t have a job, perhaps not much money, and have kids in a local school (in Chicago or wherever) so definitively couldn’t quit your life to travel to Italy to learn Italian?
Well there we are, back at Monday’s article: About self-teaching.
I lived in Turkey for three years, spoke English at work and with my British flatmates and Turkish friends, took no course, and only really started to learn the language when I got involved with a female student who spoke even less English than I spoke Turkish, and wasn’t much interested in learning more. We eventually married.
After those three years abroad, we were together for two more years – first in the UK, then in Poland of all places and always spoke Turkish together (guess how much Polish I learnt, though). By the time we divorced, after around three or four years together, I could speak Turkish fairly effortlessly, if not accurately, so ‘conversational fluency’. I was pretty proud of myself!
However, had I gone to Turkey and, instead of starting work right away, invested a few thousand dollars in a course and so studied full-time for, say, three or four months, I could arguably have made that very same progress in the time it took for late summer to turn to early winter. I’d then have had the benefit of my new linguistic skills for the coming years (and a much wider choice of friends and girlfriends as a consequence.)
I made the same mistake when I came to Italy. Didn’t start by taking a course (my second-wife-to-be was pregnant so I needed a job.) Result? It took maybe eight years to reach a level in Italian that I could have reached in three or four months if I’d invested time and money in myself.
These days I’m settled in Italy, so ‘abroad’ and ‘foreign’ means places like Sweden. The yen to travel, to live in foreign places, to make new friends (not girlfriends, of course) has not left me. But I’m ‘planted’ here, ‘rooted’ as Italians would say, so for the moment it’s not possible to, say, take three or four months and learn Swedish in Stockholm or Spanish in Madrid, however much I would like to.
With the right materials, with the right approach, with the right motivation, you can learn as much or more of your new language, without leaving your living room, as you would do if you were living in the country where that language is spoken. People all over the world are doing it now.
It took me less than three years to reach ‘conversational fluency’ in Swedish, with no formal course and only one visit to the country, during which I probably only spoke Swedish for a few hours in total, certainly less than a day.
Would I have preferred to live the ‘study abroad’ experience, make new friends and risk driving into a moose on my way home from the pub on a Friday night?
Sure. But the point is that there is no ‘best way to learn a foreign language‘, there are only opportunities which may be more or less appropriate for people’s budget and circumstances.
If you’d like to learn Italian in Italy (we reopen soon): MadrelinguaItalian.com
Book-clubbers – I’ve nearly finished ‘Uno, nessuno e centomila’! Just ten pages left to read. And wow, Pirandello saves all the sex and violence to the end!