Being bilingual, is it all good news?
Without doubt speaking more than one language is an advantage in the workplace, when traveling or just being able to watch movies in the original version.
Listen to this light hearted discussion with Laura about her real life experiences growing up in a bilingual situation speaking one language at home and another language at school.
You can widen your knowledge of the topic by checking out the link to the more scientific explanation of the benefits of being bilingual.
See also The bilingual brain
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Language is What Makes Humans Unique
Language is what separates humans from animals and is one of the most important aspects of being human – it is what makes us unique.
Although, anyone who has attempted to learn a foreign language will tell you – there is a gulf of difference between knowing a language and being able to communicate or use it.
There many variables which go into making up a language (although we will look at just a few here) including:
Semanticity – where words have specific meanings.
Displacement – using tenses to talk about past and future events or abstract concepts and hypothetical situations.
Structural Dependence – How words are placed in a sentence or clause which can alter the meaning.
Grammar and Syntax – how words are constructed to give meaning
Have you ever wondered why apes and monkeys are unable to talk?
Evolutionary psychologists suggest that language developed through adaptation, which happened around 5 million years ago when humans separated on the evolutionary path, from higher primates.
Physical differences between humans and animals lie in the throat anatomy, which enables a large range of sound production. The brain area responsible for language production – the Planium Temporale is larger in humans in the left cerebral hemisphere than in any other animal on the planet.
Wernicke’s studies discovered that damage to this area resulted in the inability to understand language and produce fluent speech – “Fluent Asphasia,” whilst Broca found a more anterior region of the brain that is used for language production. When this area is damaged, the results are discontinued speech production – “Non-Fluent Asphasia.”
Sperber’s studies focused on “Metarepresentation,” which is a reflection on our own and other’s mental processes, and results in the interpretation of what others would to do or think in a certain situation or context. People can imagine what they think others are thinking – which is a huge evolutionary advantage which allows us to lie to others – an ability that children under 2 years of age are unable to do – which involves qualities of semanticity, displacement and structural dependence – which animals are not able to carry out.
Cognitive psychologists focus on the properties of sound and ‘process recovery’ in communication – how a person forms a sentence and relies on the listener to recover their ‘thoughts’, designed to convey meaning.
Ever been in a situation where you have considered that you have communicated a clear and simple message that was understood differently or produced effects that were unexpected?
Mayer and Schanveldt researched “Semantic Priming”, the ability to recognise words related in meaning and “Associative Priming” – words that occur close together, such as Work-horse, summer – holiday etc. Semantic priming and associative helps us understand and recognise meaning, in fact sometimes so rapidly that we only listen to half of what was said.
There are, of course many theories and variables which form the difference between animals and humans as far as language is concerned, but we will not look too deeply at this at this point.
Researchers argue that sentences we form are already well formed structures, unless we are using relatively new forms and structures, as we would if we were learning a foreign language – representation has to formed and not retrieved in this case. As words in a sentence are sequential, there remains the question of when we build the representation – do we wait until the sentence is completed or do we start building as words are perceived?
Sentences contain two types of information:
1. The meaning of the individual words.
2. The syntactical structure.
Take the sentence – “Hello.” it is grammatically correct and conveys meaning.
Chomsky sought to prove (or disprove this) through his grammatically correct, but meaningless sentence, “Coulourless green ideas sleep furiously.”
A cognitive view would argue that, communication relies on the listener’s metarepresentation and a speakers representation in order for (successful) communication to occur, whereas, a social psychologist’s view would argue that communication does not only rely on interpreting the thoughts of others. Meaning precedes language and is transmitted by language, which differs from the Social Constructivist view, which argues that language creates meaning.
In some parts of Europe, during the middle ages, Latin was the written language, despite the fact that nobody spoke it any more – apart from the clergy and other minority levels of society – this is called Diglossia, and still occurs throughout the world today in certain contexts.
Social psychologists view language as a social, process, and who would argue with that one? Language is used between two or more people as a social interaction, where meanings are formed, contested, constructed and construed, dynamically through prior knowledge and cultural knowledge of situations – communication is for a function, to get things done. This also applies to solitary thinking, reading and reasoning, where the use of language is carried out by way of a dialogue with the self – the internal voice.
It is clear that some researchers have successfully ‘taught’ forms of language to primates – although to date none have been able to reproduce spoken language – it stays on the level of understanding, apart from some experiments where sign language and ‘token’ language has been produced more of a reaction than any real form of interaction, and this does not prove that they would have developed a language among their own species.
The question remains as to whether the attempts at human type communication is authentic or just clouded by exaggerated empathy that sees things that were not really there. Whatever, the result, there is no evidence of ‘turn-taking’ a feature of human conversations and little spontaneity – one such experiment resulted in 96% of the responses being made up of requests, which were then rewarded in some way – a parallel which is closer to Pavlov’s dogs than true communication.
There is the argument put forward by evolutionary psychologists that chimps could have maintained some form of ancestral language ability, as they are the closest animal relatives of humans.
The fact remains that humans are hard-wired to learn languages – it is a natural instinct, but in order for it to be successful, it must occur in a social setting, which necessitates interaction with others. Studies with feral children has revealed that their ability to learn languages and to become fluent in the language is limited by the late age that they learn – indeed the consensus among linguists regarding bilingualism is that the ceiling for becoming bilingual in a language ends at around 14 years of age – this does not mean that people cannot reach a high level of competence, just that there is a difference in fluency and bilingualism.
Animals can undoubtedly communicate within their own species using sounds and gestures, although this is a long way from any language as we know it – and this is what makes humans thoroughly unique, the ability to communicate with, and learn languages, naturally and instinctively.
In summary, language is What Makes Humans Unique.
Learners – Learn to Love your Mistakes
More than half of the planet speaks two or more languages, over 50% of us are bilingual or multilingual, monolingualism is starting to be seen as a culture and nothing more, and definitely not something we are destined to live with.
Many adults, who have failed at language learning often resort to ideas that they are not good language learners or are just not cut out to learn a language, which is pretty bizarre, as a concept, as they have already learnt one language – their own.
So the question remains as to why they have failed at language learning.
Is it really that they are not cut out for languages or is it something more fundamental?
In most cases, it is the processes within the system in which they have learnt (or at least attempted to do so) which is at fault.
A large amount of language teaching provision is based on outmoded methods, akin to that which is used for teaching chemistry, biology or even maths.
Why stop there?
A lot of language teaching methods are exactly aligned as to how dead languages, such as Latin and Greek are taught, using grammatical rules (and woe betide you if you forget them!) and rote methods of learning (off by heart).
The point is, communication is not a binary process from A to B, so learning by heart is a pointless exercise – language is about emotions, feelings and spontaneity and needs to be used.
Communication is achieved through a series of steps – remember when you were a child, using your own language, at two years old you probably didn’t say something like, “Mummy, I would really like a soft-centred toffee, if you would be so kind as to offer me one.”
You more than likely said something like, “Mummy sweeties.”
The thing is, both versions functionally end up with the same result – you got a sweet (if you were good.)
So why do teachers insist on learners coming up with exactly the correct form for language production?
Learners will be forgiven for being too direct as it is blatantly obvious that they are at a stage where they are learning the language.
Obviously, I don’t suggest that the basic functional forms of the language are used ad infinitum, but let’s start somewhere and then get to a form of language proficiency at a later stage.
Give learners the chance to make mistakes and let them enjoy making them – I make hundreds of mistakes in French on a daily basis, but I am communicating and learning to get them down to an acceptable level and I’ll get there … eventually.
People smile at my mistakes and to be honest I couldn’t care less, as I know that I am using the language and I have no problem with that.
One of the reasons we interview some non-native English speakers on the EFLPodBlog is that we want people to make mistakes, as this is good for them and to their non-native listeners as a way of helping them to identify and finally eradicate them in time.
Behind every mistake is an insight and an opportunity for learning, as long as some element of reflection is included – in learning we call this metacognition – thinking about thinking, a vital element in lifelong learning.
As language learners – learn to love your mistakes and most importantly, love to learn from your mistakes – there is usually very little at risk and a huge amount to gain from them.
How not to Learn A Language – 10 Urban Myths
In this post, How not to Learn A Language – 10 Urban Myths, we are going to look at some received ideas about language learning.
There are a great deal of opinions and ideas related to language learning that are either founded on solid pedagogical theory and tested strategies and others which are clearly urban myths to the point of almost being ‘old-wives-tales’.
I have often met people who state that they cannot learn a foreign language, which I feel is total nonsense – albeit that by simply uttering a defeatist statement, defeat usually follows, so I guess they are ultimately right – self-fulfilling prophecies …
However, I have never met anybody who was not capable of learning a language.
Furthermore, I have never met a complete beginner in language learning, in as much as they have not one single word of vocabulary or a very simple sentence or phrase that they can rattle off (well I did, but only once.)
That said, I meet on a daily basis, many people who have strong opinions or beliefs as to how a language should be learnt, and unfortunately a lot of their ideas have very few solid truths, so let’s have a look at some of the myths and misconceptions regarding language learning.
- To Learn a Language effectively you must go to the country where it is spoken.
This is partly true and also false, especially if we look at the vast numbers of Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexican etc. immigrants in the UK and the US or some of the English in France, who still have problems mastering the language for various reasons. One of the reasons is the community aspect, where people live and move almost exclusively through their community in their own native language.
Satellite tv and radio, also means that the news and entertainment comes to them in their native tongue too, so there are times when it is not even necessary to acquire all but the rudiments of another language to survive. For language learners who do not live where the language they are learning is spoken, this would be a good compliment to a language learning program as long as the conditions are right. Student exchange programs are so often done as a job lot to enable learners on a limited budget, access to this type of program – one of the intrinsic problems here is that they usually end up living and speaking with their friends in their native tongue, embracing the foreign language and culture briefly. There is also the problem that I have seen where learners go to the UK to learn English and spend half the day in a classroom (could they not do this in France too?) then half a day sightseeing with their friends (unfortunately speaking French). This seems a bit of a waste of time and money, especially as they are often boarding with a family that sometimes has little time to speak with them at the end of the day, or during mealtimes. Going it alone, can be a good solution to language learning on-the-job, but it needs a certain kind of temperament to be separated from ones family and culture and be plunged into a foreign one, alone, the learner would also need to have a certain ability to get-by in the language to survive over a period of time, either working or studying.
- Children Learn Languages Quicker than Adults
Studies have shown that children’s initial efforts pay off better than adult learners, but adult learners acquire languages more effectively over a period of time. One of the reasons for this is that children see another language as another opportunity to play and to imitate, which adults can have issues with as learners. Adults have experiences of learning and grammar patterns using memory strategies that children have not yet learnt, which helps in the recall process of language learning – some are later overtaken by children. When children play with other native children, they imitate, shout and copy their friends whilst enjoying the language interaction, whereas adults are often too self-conscious to even go all-out in role plays in a learning situation.There have been studies in bilingualism, Lenneberg’s Critical Period Hypothesis for example, which have argued that there is a certain age when true bilingualism is no longer possible – at around the age of 14 years of age (some say younger). Lenneberg’s theory argues that the plasticity of the brain in children up to the age of 14 years of age, allows for the rapid and effective acquisition of languages to bilingual standard, this theory has been criticised by Newport and Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle 1978 but all of the theories relating to natural accent and language use are difficult to compare as the research methods differ, they have been either diachronic, synchronic, or experimental.
- Starting Young Makes For Better Language Acquisition
This can be true in authentic situations where children are using the language at the same time as they are learning, but not always the case where Children have little or no authentic usage for the language in their lives with interaction with native speakers – either friends and family or in school. It has been shown that the age that a child starts learning a language is not so important as the volume of input and stimulation they they get to use the language in authentic situations. There are many examples of, for example, an English child learning both French and English through the interaction with their mother or father in English, and in the world outside the family in French. There are also instances of families where the father is English and the mother is French and the child grows up being monolingual in French, being able to understand English but not being able to speak English fluently.
- Language Learning is a Quick Process that can be acquired Rapidly
You must have come across the books and Audio CDs “Learn French in 20 Lessons” and other such pie-in-the-sky promises whilst browsing a bookshop. Well, believe me it’s a lot of hot air, as I’m sure you know, although it’s very hard to resist the temptation to believe it at times.Learning a language is often a hard and difficult task that takes years of effort and practice to perfect.
- Pronunciation is not important.
Pronunciation is of utmost importance in language learning in order to be understood by native speakers. This is why so many English speakers understand each other in a learning setting when they speak a foreign language such as French but can be floored when they realise that French native speakers can’t understand what they are trying to say. take, for example, the word “Souhaite” in French – to wish or to desire, a close pronunciation would be akin to the word “Sweat” in English but very far from ” Sue-Hate”, which many English speakers say. See the blog post on Linkwords, which is a good technique to help remember pronunciation. Problems with pronunciation occur for two main reasons; either the learner has read the word but never heard it spoken by a native speaker or the word has been spoken by a ‘teacher’ with pronunciation problems themselves – which is very common. I have seen the word “clothes” phonetically spelt in my sons English learning book for school as “Cloth-siz” and heard most French speakers pronounce the word thus.
- Having an Accent is Bad for Foreign Languages
As we have seen, from Lenneberg’s study, most of us will inevitably keep our own native accent, however strong or mild it remains, but never fully eradicate it when speaking a foreign language. This is not a great problem as long as what we are saying is pronounced well and intelligible for native speakers. An accent in a foreign language is both a part of our own identity and can be charming when speaking. I personally hate hearing my own accent when speaking French, and I have been here, in France, for over 20 years, but people tell me that it is charming and that I should keep it – grrrr.
- You can Learn a Language by Learning The 100 most Commonly Used Words
This is another urban myth that is often promoted as the next biggest thing in language learning. Think about the words you use in your own language an a day-to-day basis, now choose 100 of those words. Do you think that this is sufficient to be able to operate and communicate effectively? Your list would probably consist of articles – The, A, An, then pronouns; Him, Her, They, Us, We, It, Hers, His, Ours, Theirs, I, You, then prepositions; on, in, into, out, under, behind, in front of, next to, near, far etc., nwo before you start looking at verbs and tenses you already have 25% of the language – to be able to communicate effectively. The chances of you choosing the remaining 75% of the language to communicate is pretty slim and quite frankly, impractical.
- Languages Can Be Learnt Through Interactive CD ROMS
This myth already has a mistake in the title – a CDROM is only as interactive as the original programmer has designed it. A CDROM will never be interactive in the way the people are interactive, it will never surprise you after you have been through the activities once.It cannot speak faster, louder, or as varied as a real person. It will never speak to you as a person does, such as turning away from you to say something. You cannot rewind a person or get them to repeat exactly what they said and how they said it as you can rewind a CDROM back to the beginning. OK a CDROM has its uses but is a very limited aid in language learning and is only a part of the toolbox and not the whole toolbox as some companies would have us to believe.
- Grammar Rules Must Be Learnt to Learn a Language Effectively
Grammar rules can be useful to learn a language but are not essential. Grammar terminology is a way of describing the way a language works – but it does not mean that by not knowing what the present perfect tense is, that we cannot become very able in a foreign language.English schools abandoned teaching grammar rules in English teaching during the 1970’s, but this does not mean that English children cannot learn English. Indeed they may have difficulties when attempting to talk about the functions of the language, in terms of knowing the labels for parts of the language – this was something that I learnt later at University. I was unable to put a label on parts of the following sentence “I have lived in France for seventeen years”. But I had no problems writing, understanding or speaking English. I would suggest that grammar patterns and grammar functions are more important for language learners – more, how the language is constructed and what the functions do taking precedence over knowing the terminology. If You feel it important to know the labels, then OK, this may work for you, but difficulties arise when a learner tries to transpose the rule they have in their own language to a foreign language. French learners who try to make a parallel between the present simple in French and the present simple in English will know what I am talking about. The function and the tense, although sharing the same label has a completely different function in terms of describing time and its usage.
- Making Mistakes is Not OK
This is one of the biggest surprises for me to see written in black and white on websites. I can’t believe that people can even think that making mistakes is a bad thing as I consider that making mistakes is a good sign of a learning process actually happening.
I would add that making continuous systematic mistakes and not learning from them would indicate otherwise.
If we aspire to learn and speak a foreign language we will inevitably make mistakes along the way – this is a natural occurrence in learning and is, the part of the way that we learnt our own native languages at the outset.
Banning mistakes means making people aware of their weaknesses in such a way that they are not permitted to dare and experiment – take this away and learning becomes restricted almost to the point that it just does not happen.
In summary we have seen here some of the urban myths surrounding language learning – maybe you can recognise some of them and maybe you disagree, that’s fine and you can add a comment to let me know what you think – I would be interested and grateful to hear what others think.
When all is said and done, language serves a social purpose for a social animal; for humans to communicate.
A language can therefore, not be learnt effectively in isolation using whatever method or technique available, without the opportunity to use it for its pre-destined function – to communicate with other people.
Language is quite simple when we boil it down to the basics – it is made up of only four skills (I would add others but it may be just nuance):
Listening, Reading, Writing, Speaking (Hearing I would add too, which is needed in order to listen and cultural skills).
In order to effectively learn a language requires an holistic approach which encompasses the 4 skills plus lots and lots of dedication – there are NO shortcuts, so don’t bother looking for them.
To fully learn a language requires an additional aspect where the learner is able to embrace and understand the culture of where the language is spoken.
Language and culture are two determining factors in understandings across languages and culture and cannot be dissimilated from the learning of language.
Winston Churchill once said of Great Britain and America, that they are, “.. Two countries separated by a language”.
But we both speak the language don’t we?
The jury is still out on that one ….
What is your take on this?
Maybe you have other urban myths to add…
We hear so many people, so many times state, and believe what they are saying, that “I am not good at languages”.
If we think about this, the person has either written or spoken this statement in a clear and intelligible way – so they CAN actually USE language, which says that they CAN actually LEARN a language – because they did at least once with their own mother tongue.
To state that you just cannot learn a language is totally flawed and untrue.
So what are they really saying?
I’ll leave that to you to answer…
Have you ever wondered how you learnt your own language as a child?
Well, most of us don’t, as learning to communicate and thus learning our own native language is so hard-wired into our brains that it just seemed to be learnt by osmosis.
Pause for a moment, if you have ever tried to learn a second language, either at school or later in life – wasn’t that just so difficult?
Well most would answer yes, as they recall the times that they have tried and failed to learn French, German or Spanish etc.
Have you ever wondered why learning your own language was so pain-free, compared to another language you may or not have succeeded in learning?
Have you ever compared the principals that were used in the language learning process of learning your native -mother tongue and another language?
These are all questions that are so obvious that we seldom take the time to ask them, let alone pause for thought to consider them, and this is generally why second language learning is so difficult, and often, not always, an uphill task.
As I mentioned earlier – all humans are hard-wired to learn languages and to communicate – we have already a wealth of experience of learning our own mother tongue, so why, when we approach the learning of another language to we throw all to the wind and try other methods that frankly have little or no chance of working.
This is of course not applicable to people who grow up in a bilingual family setting where there may be two or more languages used and learnt as the norm for communication.
In this context people, usually kids, can drift in an out of two or more languages with ease.
One of the biggest hurdles to language learning is ourselves and that strange thing called adulthood.
Often adults, who have a plethora of learning experiences, lack the guile to put these experiences into action and succumb to any ‘miracle-cure’ touted by the marketplace.
So let’s look at the differences between adult and children as language learners:
- Imitate and mimic sounds that they hear and thus can actually hear the sounds that make for understanding.
- Take risks and actually dare to experiment
- Words, sounds, expressions are picked up with an open mind
- Listen for the sake of listening and don’t always need to make sense of things by comparing with their own language – meaning is extracted through context.
- Associate with what is actually going on in their minds and bodies, linking expressions and vocabulary with strong emotions “Beach” “dog” is associated with what they know or have experienced which makes for excellent memory retention.
- Use language without needing to peer into the mechanics of the structure of language – it is just like that!
- Play with the language – experiment, try-out and look for reactions and results
- Learn by instinct – making meaning through their common sense approach to play – there is no risk
- Go straight for understanding before being fully able to understand the range of tones that make up the language.
- Feel stupid imitating sounds, without really feeling comfortable with mimic
- Words, sounds and expressions are often decoded into their native language – this is the benchmark – one size fits all.
- Often get frustrated when they block on speed of speech, unknown expressions etc.
- Vocabulary is very often a=b, i.e. iron in French is fer, but that is the metal, what about the iron for pressing clothes …
- Want to know how the language is constructed before really feeling comfortable about constructing sentences and often this is compared to their native language too which only confuses matters.
- Are often loathe to play with language, at an early stage at least. Language learning is a thoroughly serious affair.
- Learn lists of vocabulary that they have no hope of retaining nor of ever being able to use effectively.
- Learn lists of verbs that are isolates of the language and very difficult to integrate in a flowing conversation.
We can see that although adults hold the edge in as far as experience of learning goes, it doesn’t really do them a service in the long run, at least in the majority of cases.
Very few adults will listen for the sake of listening, although many will say that they listen in their cars – until they get so frustrated with not understanding that they abandon this by the wayside.
In order to improve listening skills there needs to be a concerted non-effort to actually be able to hear the sounds that make up the language.
I say non-effort as it needs to be something that is undertaken almost constantly in order that listening becomes part of our everyday lives.
There is no way that listening for a couple hours on the weekend will make you a truly effective language learner – it needs to be mixed into a cocktail of concentrated and non-concentrated listening, much the way that we listen in our own native language.
Take the example of someone who listens to the news whilst preparing dinner, the person always has an ‘ear to the ground’ but their concentration is diffused.
However, when a news item of interest to them is reported, they stop, momentarily what they are doing to listen more carefully.
If you can train your ear to do that in another language you are well on your way to success, but another key is the frequency that you are listening to the second language (L2).
If this is done in fits-and-starts, such as on weekend, you will get something out of it, but far less than you would if you listened, even for as little as 30 minutes a day.
You need to juggle between your “prime” and “down” time concentration and actually start stretching your concentration in the L2.
Start playing with the language, enjoy it, have fun and provoke as many communication events as possible to be able to use the language in authentic contexts.
At the advent of the CDROM and Elearning for language learning it was proclaimed from the rooftops that “the teacher is dead – long live the teacher”.
This, of course is utter rot, although I am not suggesting that you need a teacher to learn a language – far from it!
Language learning is a facilitated process that entails communication, learning strategies, autonomy and interdependance or social learning.
Elearning or CDROMs will never surprise you, there will be little or no variety as you rewind back to the beginning – people, on the other hand, in real situations will surprise you as they employ different speech patterns, sounds, accents, expressions etc. These are just tools that are mixed in the cocktail to facilitate language learning – not one, nor another will replace the other.
So if you, against your better reasoning, become seduced by the latest language learning solution of “Learn french in 40 lessons”, just remember three things :
- There are no short-cuts to learning a language
- The way you learnt your own language. –
You are an expert at language learning, as long as you use your common sense and memory of past experiences.