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A Learner’s Guide to All Languages

INTRODUCTION

PURPOSE

The purpose of this book is to show exactly how to learn a language, any language, by using the whole panorama of talents and gifts that human beings are endowed with. First it is necessary to demystify the art of learning a language, because although we have all learned our native language on our own, we have been led to believe later on, that it needs to be done in the way that language teachers traditionally have proclaimed. In fact, much of what we actually learn as we learn new languages is learned outside or even in spite of traditional teaching.

We learn best when we do not try too hard to study, because we are not aware of what we really do all the time. We might think we are simply enjoying a song on the radio, or simply try to figure out how a computer programme works, but at the same time we make advanced conclusions on the grammar or vocabulary of a foreign language, subconsciously. When watching a funny movie we learn about foreign behaviour and rules that might be very useful as we meet people from the same parts later on.

PRINCIPLES

The target language is conquered in a fork manoeuvre: BOTH using one’s experiences from everyday living AND by attacking where the differences are as small as possible. Thirdly it is important to leave as many as possible of the differences from already known languages and habits until a solid foundation is secured.

FIELDS OF EXPERIENCE

Nobody can have an idea of the wealth of information that a people get from just living their lives and being exposed to and manipulating events, people, and things. It is a mistake, however, to overlook this immense bank of information in the form of first-hand experience. If it can be connected to elements belonging to new languages it will enhance memorising them, meaning that they will be available when sensory stimulation is at hand, i.e. in situations where they are needed.

SITUATIONS

A language must be visually and sensory rooted in situations in order not to confuse the learner too much. Given the contextual nature of language a situated and social behaviour among others the perfect way to start is in well-known environments where memories of multi- sensory stimuli are abundant. Examples of such environments can be seen in every textbook: La cuisine, au restaurant, à l’école, ma famille, ma maison, en route, en ville, demander des renseignements, à la gare, etc.

But a textbook or a video is a poor substitute for first-hand experience. Especially as the textbook describes the actions of other people it will not successfully stimulate the sensual memories that will empower the learning. This is not an easy problem to solve in a classroom situation. And that is why it is better in many ways to practise on one’s own, in lifelike situations, in reality. But first and foremost, language is a social activity, so what one needs most is people.

SOCIAL ACTIVITY, OBSTACLES

There has to be an initial will to enter into communication with people. It is natural to be shy, however, so it is necessary to find strategies to overcome that shyness. This is often why people go to language courses. The role of the teacher thus is that of an intermediary. S/he is expected to bring people in contact with native speakers at the right time in the learning process. This is a very important function, but it is something that language learners can learn to perform themselves and better than their teachers who often are unaware of this part of their duties.

If shyness is the obstacle, then their have to be strategies to work around it, because it is a common problem. And yes there are: LIST HERE! (mainly written communication, associations, projects, etc)

As communication has been opened up, shyness is likely to be reduced, and the drive to more extensive contacts is likely to be reinforced as many rewards are lavished upon those who communicate. Indeed communicating people are happier people, research shows: LIST HERE! (solutions to problems, emotional relief, self-knowledge, less expensive solutions, happiness from being able to help, gifts, knowledge of the world, reduced fear of the unknown, liking people more, better attitudes, success in projects, etc)

The ultimate goal is to learn to enter into communication often and in a pleasant way that will bring many kinds of benefits, not only in terms of practising the language, although that might be the main reason. Indeed practising language is a socially acceptable reason to start a conversation, but with a bit of ingenuity and humour it is not hard to come up with better reasons.

SOCIAL ACTIVITY, BROADBAND

The main reason there is shyness is the much greater sensory input of the social situations. But that is also why language learning is so much more powerful in social situations. Let us compare face-to-face social situations to traditional classroom language learning.

First there are many possible scenarios, not only those few that are common in the classroom. Thus there has to be wider and deeper attention on the part of the participants for the situation to progress.

Secondly the situation is only social as long as both parties are actively and willingly driving the communication. There are intentions, which means that there is more energy in the nervous systems of the communicators.

Thirdly there are non-verbal clues that complete the verbal message. These clues are authentic, not artificial as in learning materials in classrooms. They might contradict, modify, explain, or reinforce the words used.

Fourthly a face-to-face situation is a step on the way to a deeper interpersonal relationship, thus profoundly meaningful, if not always entirely pleasant. The meaningfulness of the communication takes away some of the attention on the verbal part of it and opens up the attention of the participants to a more sensual world, where more pleasure can be enjoyed. These pleasures reinforce the behaviour present, part of it then verbal.

Fifthly it is dramatic and important to people. It is possible to make mistakes that can ruin one image or make reaching one’s goals more difficult. Learning is at its most efficient when something is at stake. Some face-loss is inevitable when starting to use a new language, but the part of it is that the experiences are so strong that the learning seems never to be forgotten, and who can say that of a lesson in a classroom?

ROLE PLAY

The roles as stranger, tourist, trainee, newcomer, or exchange student are full of potential opportunities which might not come again in a lifetime. Nobody lives to learn languages only. Instead we have all kinds of intentions and aspirations. This is all very well, because precisely those intentions will drive us to using communication to realise them.

CULTURE

Culture is often a vague word, but nevertheless it has to be used, because it is the invisible world that our inner selves dwell in. it is the vehicle and home of language. It concerns the mental pictures and components that we think with. Verbal language is a superior way of expressing them, although not the only one.

CULTURAL EXPRESSIONS

Knowledge of the cultural expressions of a group or society of speakers of the language one years to learn, is a great advantage, too great to be overlooked. And why do people want to learn languages, if they are not attracted and interested in the cultural expressions of the speakers of that language? So tuning in to the music, literature, food and drink, history, geography, sports, entertainment, fashion, art, theatre, mass media, films, websites, multimedia productions, etc of the countries in question is the obvious thing to do, but unfortunately sometimes forgotten.

It doesn’t have to difficult, not always in the target language. Knowing things about a country is a beautiful compliment to its people and it will always be returned in one form or another, usually manifold.

First there is the enjoyment of slipping out of one’s own limited spheres, into a new and fresh way of expressing life.

Secondly there are many useful things to discover that one might be able to adapt or use in one’s regular life that most people ignore.

Thirdly one will acquire new perspectives on one’s own situation, helping to accept and appreciate it. What is too obvious to mention in one’s own culture might be a luxury in other people’s lives.

Fourthly the learning is easy to see as one rapidly learns to decode communication that seemed impossible to follow earlier.

Fifthly the knowledge acquired leads to further decoding help as references to known facts, expressions, people, places, and attitudes are understood.

Sixthly, contacts to native speakers are going to be more pleasant and energised with the joy of shared knowledge. This will of course reinforce the drive to knowing more about the topics touched upon. By picking up a few buzz words of contemporary society one will get an idea of the social climate and one will be thought of as very gifted and well- informed by the natives. Some words are simply loaded with connotations at a certain time in their life cycle.

Seventhly, as knowledge is linked to people with whom one communicates, memory will be greatly helped.

Eighthly, the people one communicates with will be easier to understand as one knows something of their background and upbringing.

And the list can be made as long as one wants. And the language learning is made easier with every step one takes into the world of the others.

WORLDVIEW

To be able to communicate successfully in any language one needs to have a fairly correct idea of the other party’s worldview, i.e. the inner world of the other person. It is clearly useless to talk about things they can’t know of, unless one is prepared to spend a lot of energy on providing background information.

Indeed this tendency, to provide background, was identified by Basil Bernstein in his study of linguistic codes in the sixties. It was typical of middle class families to speak in a way so that people who are not familiar with specific situations can follow the course of a conversation. (Why? Because they met more people from other places and social strata.) This would be at the expense of flavour and humour, and that is exactly what one can expect as one tries to understand colloquialisms before having learned a language very long. But the charm and humour of colloquial language is so strong that one is prepared to work hard to understand and imitate it. This is perhaps where one feels most that one is brought into contact with another worldview.

CODES

The worldview can not be seen or heard, only known through a decoding process of the sensory input from the communication and observations of the native speakers. Once one assumes that one has discovered something important it is best to try to check that by asking if the assumption might be valid. There are books to read about the ideas and culture of every country of course, but chances are that one sees and hears other things and people than the authors of those books have met and seen. Besides, culture changes rapidly, so young people’s worldviews will be quite different to those of old people.

Take the forms of address in Germany and France for instance. Everybody knows one should use vous and Sie to people one isn’t introduced to. From where does everyone know that? And is it so in reality? The answer depends on whom one asks.

Worldview is part of the invisible culture shared by all members of a society or group. The worldview is highly subjective and judgmental. It rates the value of all phenomena by attitudes and norms. It prescribes what is normal and what is not, usually the attributes and actions of “the others”.

Codes translate the outer world to the inner. Language is the most powerful code system, but it is complemented very much by non-verbal symbols and rituals. The translation process works both ways. Anticipation of what is to come next guides our attention towards stimuli subconsciously, learned from our groups and society. Ideas of the intentions of the people we listen to and watch filters the immensity of possible meanings of messages down to just one or sometimes two. This is a very powerful process and it not fully understood. However, culture is present at every step of it. Therefore language and culture can not be separated, although it is wise to try to move in that direction when communicating with members of cultures that are unknown to us.

COMPETENCE IN INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION

The field of intercultural communication is that of managing to decode signals produced by people belonging to other groups and societies that one’s own (or perhaps by animals). And to be able to encode messages so that they are likely to be understood the intended way by such people. And also to be aware of the total communication that can be received by others, which is impossible, needless to say.

In a language learning perspective we do not have to be overwhelmed by the difficulties, but rather we can enjoy the fact that there is such a vast amount of communication in all social situations, that any verbal deficiency can be mended with non-verbal information and context. Therefore basic intercultural communication principles will be included as a resource that will facilitate verbal communication practice with a view to learn a foreign language. Not being aware of this dimension might cause embarrassment and unnecessary misunderstanding.

Important concepts in intercultural communication pertaining to verbal language are:

speech patterns, context dependency, taboos, values, humour, small talk, silence, irony, greetings, titles, formality, expressing feelings, style, and rhetoric.

How is a learner of a foreign language ever going to manage to learn all that? Schools say: by studying for years and years. Fine, but what if there is a faster way? What if the minds of people are able to absorb and abstract a lot of information from social settings where the target language is spoken and written? Because clearly there is enough capacity in people’s nervous systems: Some 300 billion neurons interconnected through 3 to 5 thousand synapses each! And clearly there’s more than enough information present as clues to the cultural universe in the situations, contexts, messages and relations present in normal communication. And as a learner one has the right to ask for additional information if what is present would still be puzzling.

Intercultural communicative competence consists of awareness of many of these aspects as well as of many others pertaining to non-verbal communication and contexts. But that is not the root of the competence. At the root lies a strong will to leave one’s own solid ground and to fearlessly try otherness. By doing so one opens up to new levels of learning. Because everything has meanings, and by trying new lifestyles, attitudes, and societies one enters into direct contact with the subject matter that language mediates.

AREAS OF KNOWLEDGE

BASICS IN LINGUISTICS

SEMANTICS AND LOAN WORDS

Words are symbols of internal realities, stored in a person’s long-term memory, often confused with the real thing which at best exists externally. With familiarity with a growing number of languages this confusion is likely to be reduced, since the symbols (words) never really overlap perfectly.

It is discomforting at first to realise that there is no shared concept of reality, not if the details are examined closely. Even simple everyday phenomena are deceptive, e.g. the English word car can mean a part of a train, thus quite different from carro in Latin American Spanish (which is a loan word from English).

This lack of mutuality is present in almost all words except those that can be called scientific. In science definitions are exact, stripped bare of all cultural context. In addition a majority of the scientific words are made up of Latin and Greek root morphemes, so that they are identical in most languages (and ideal if one is trying to learn Greek).

The opposite is true of advertising language. Here the literal meaning is secondary to cultural connotations (“the flavour”). What we see today in most languages is how English terms are borrowed in order to represent something slightly different from what the dictionary says it means. The same thing happened to English in the Middle Ages. Then the words beef, pork, veal, and poultry were borrowed from French (today’s boeuf, porc, veau, and poule) although the words cow, pig, calf, and hen meant the same things. The only difference was the style or perhaps context. One had better be aware of this tendency to double the vocabularies of languages, but for a learner it more of an advantage than a problem.

COMMON ORIGINS

VERBAL CULTURE AND SOCIETY

Important concepts in intercultural communication pertaining to verbal language are: speech patterns, context dependency, taboos, values, humour, small talk, silence, irony, greetings, titles, formality, expressing feelings, style, and rhetoric.

AN IDEA OF LEARNING PROCESSES

The larger the sensory input in a person’s nervous system, the greater the chances are that a word can be retained and categorised so that it will be accessible in the person’s memory. The best is always to be in the place where the new language is being spoken together with the speakers of course. But it is possible to use one’s imagination and memories – which then can be refreshed by recreating the situation, i.e. going into a school or a kitchen, etc.

Once there it is time to start looking for words that are similar in some way to other known languages. This is easier for those who know something about phonetic and semantic change over time. But this is a step-by-step process which most people already have started on their own.

IMMUNITY TO “TEACHING”

A few of the traditional components in school-like situations are clearly counter-productive to

learning languages.

FOCUSSING ON THE DIFFICULT ASPECTS

A lot of time is traditionally being spent on some aspects of languages. The reasons for this vary,

but one is that certain aspects of grammar are easily listed. A notorious example of this is the

prepositions in German that determine the case of the noun phrase that follows. Many people have learnt them by heart, but considerably less know why, let alone how to use that knowledge or have practised integrating it in their speech flow (like many Germans themselves).

It is much more serious, however, that so much time is spent on teaching elementary grammar in compulsory education, a heritage from the Middle Ages, or even Antiquity. It has not been clarified why this is still done, but clearly it helps that grammar is so easily taught. The students are awestruck by the sophistication and level of complication of the sentences they utter daily with so little effort. The teachers swing the magic wand well protected from criticism by the vast amount of Latin terms used. But how is this activity coordinated with the civic and democratic objectives highlighted in the curricula? If language is removed from the sphere of control of regular people, how are they then going to dare to participate in public debates?

Another side effect of the message sent by the grammar magicians is that languages are very difficult to learn and that there is no point in trying on one’s own. Why should there be a point when most of the students didn’t understand even though there was an expert planning and monitoring the exercises even in their own language?

Grammar is the structures that allow people to make sense of the words the use. Ergo, all people who can speak know how to use grammar. Is that use less valuable than being able to match Latin categories to examples of words and to abstract classes from those categories? No, so why not skip it until it is needed?

REDUCING THE FLOW OF INFORMATION IN ORDER TO CONTROL IT

It is not difficult anymore to access media in foreign languages. But instead of encouraging

students to do so, teachers many times imply that the textbook used by them is sufficient and superior to other expressions. By limiting the flow of information the teacher can protect her/his students from seemingly contradictive usage. But this is clearly not necessary, because understanding is not just about words. When watching TV one understands from visual

sensations mainly, and the actual wording is not paid attention to.

TEACHERS TAKING OVER THE RESPONSIBILITY AND INITIATIVE

Perhaps the main reason why teaching often is an obstacle to learning is that students start to relax as soon as they see a teacher. It is a learned reaction from the first school years when the teachers had to face the unrestrained activity of large groups of children. How unfortunate that that is the most powerful outcome of those school years: We expect the teachers to tell us what to do, and asking why is not reinforced behaviour.

REQUIREMENTS OF CORRECTNESS, OFTEN FAR EXCEEDING THE LEVEL OF CORRECTNESS OF NATIVE SPEAKERS

To get corrected very often is something everybody abhors. Why is it then that language teachers so often do that to their students? The assumption is many times that by not doing so the teacher endorses incorrect usage. By consequence students “learn” that it is dangerous to try to speak or write when a teacher is not at hand, ready to put one right if need be.

Instead it is better to let the speaking and writing be done in situations that will go wrong if language is used in the wrong way, if correctness proves to be necessary. This way the satisfaction of having been able to communicate successfully in the target language is what the student will remember most of the time. If something goes “wrong” it is a natural thing which is nothing to be surprised about. Instead it gives rise to curiosity perhaps, and can be a point of departure for further learning.

TOO EARLY AND TOO FREQUENT EVALUATIONS OF PROGRESS

Tests are used mostly to force students to work harder. That is very good, except that the testing then relies on the assumption that the students in themselves are not sufficiently motivated to study without that external force.

The disadvantage however is the evaluation process. Firstly it makes the student think that her/his learning can be measured by external measurements. Secondly it makes the students feel good or bad about their learning, and for the wrong reasons most of the time. Feeling good is not a very big problem, if it is not for doing things that can be measured, rather than things that will lead to the goal (learning to use the language in a way that gives most pleasure).

SUBCULTURES

In practical communication emotional aspects are more important than linguistic competence. Thus it is wise to try to find out if there are short cuts to bonding with the other party. As two persons discover a common interest there is a strong impulse of positive energy present in the communication. This will help to prolong the interaction and to make it more likely that it will be taken up again some time. It is a form of attraction; we like to feel similar to some others once in a while: Birds of a feather flock together.

Confidence is built that way. As one feels less wary of being misunderstood one’s attention can be directed towards more pleasant things than wording and sentence structure, providing a sensual setting for the meaning that is conveyed. This sensual stimulation will enhance memory too, so that what one hears will be categorised with more flavour and pleasure, rendering it more likely to be retrieved when it is needed later on.

A RECIPE FOR LANGUAGE LEARNING

QUESTION WORDS THE NUMBER 1 TOOLS

It is indispensable to conquer the interrogative adverbs and pronouns very early. Fortunately

they are not many and they are related to one another within each family of languages. In every thematic field or environment the question words open up to a never-ending story of unfolding realities and words. As such a field is visited (a picture is enough many times) the students write questions and answers, always SELECTING their own words, i.e. those that they feel they can

remember, either by their format or by the associations that are aroused in their memories.

PICTURES

A picture tells more than a thousand words. And long before people could read or even talk, ore

even before people were people, they could see. And they depended on seeing for their survival.

Seeing is by far the most powerful sense, ten times stronger than hearing.

ACTIONS

What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand” (Confucius). The obvious method in order to enhance learning is to put words to one’s daily activities. As one performs each procedure it is natural to say what one does just then. If that is not enough one can go on to what one did before that and what is to follow. The words that one might have looked up in order to be able to say what one does will be remembered thanks to the context they are used in and thanks to the activity that is linked to them in a powerful combination of symbolic and practical meaning.

In addition it is a good rehearsal for the very common and natural situation of telling others about one’s day, in writing or orally.

MUSIC

PEOPLE

TV AND FILMS

INTERNET

READING

WRITING