For many adults, listening to and then speaking a foreign language remain key challenges. And that may be so even after several years of school and college instruction.
Hearing and producing the new sounds of another language take a special effort. Plus, we may be shy about speaking up, afraid that we'll make mistakes.
A popular marketing promise of some language programs contains some wishful thinking: “Learn a second language like a child.” It implies that by following such program learning will occur as effortlessly as young children seem to learn their first language.
No matter that children spend nearly all the waking hours of their first few years just listening to and then learning to speak the language of their parents and caregivers. Once in kindergarten and school, it'll take them several more years to learn how to read and write.
What we may consider “effortless,” actually involves quite a bit of struggle and effort. As infants, children first learn to understand the meaning of the words, gestures, and expressions others use to interact with them. At the same time, they start using their own vocal chords to replicate the sounds of words they hear. It's only after much trial and error that they can make themselves understood.
Clearly, it takes time and effort to develop good listening and speaking skills in a language. Children learning their first language have the advantage of being immersed in the language on a daily basis. They hear their native language and speak it all the time. (In fact, they can even handle more than one language!)
For adults, who are learning another language, listening comprehension and speaking are important skills to practice. However, many language programs focus more on reading and writing, than listening and speaking – with the exception of predominantly audio programs such as Michael Thomas, Pimsleur, and some others.
THE IMMERSION TEACHING METHOD
We recently had a conversation with a friend of ours, who spent over 30 years teaching German to English speakers in U.S. colleges, as well as English to German students in high schools in Germany.
He firmly believes that students progressed most in his classes – both in the U.S. and in Germany - when he taught with a method that uses immersion. In particular, he found the Rassias method to be very effective.
John Rassias, former professor of French and Italian at Dartmouth College, believed in the motto: “Speak to learn a language, not learn to speak a language.” The Rassias method, which continues to be widely used, combines theatrical techniques and rapid-fire drills to fully engage the learner in the target language.
My experience with college language teaching in the U.S. was pretty similar. In a classroom, you can create an immersive environment by staying in the target language and explaining things using gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, pictures, reformulations, etc.
But clearly, getting students to understand and speak in their new language in class does require a lot of extra theatricals and energy. And, no matter what you do, if you have a large class, students won't be speaking much in the target language.
Teachers at international language schools, such as the Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française, or Berlitz, often create an immersive learning classroom. But unless the school is located in a country where the language is spoken, students rarely use their target language outside of class.
(Some language schools, e.g. the Middlebury [summer] Language Schools, ask students to sign a pledge to only speak in their target language.)
It seems that one-on-one lessons taken in person or online via Skype may provide the best chance for immersion learning, if you can't be in a country or region where people speak the language. That's especially true if the tutor pushes you to speak a lot.
HOW ABOUT ONLINE LANGUAGE PROGRAMS and APPS?
New technology has made it convenient to learn a language online and doing so has become very popular. But to what extent can online programs and apps provide immersion learning, and with it, fluency in listening and speaking?
Immersion learning, especially for beginners, is not easy to create in an online program. But training listening and speaking in foreign language is a challenge that different programs have attempted to solve in various ways.
Having developed our own GamesforLanguage courses and reviewed a number of other language learning programs, here's a quick snapshot how these programs encourage listening and speaking (in sequence of our development/review).
Each of our course lessons (we call them “Scenes”), start with a dialogue of an ongoing travel story. The learner reads and hears sentences in the target language, which he or she might encounter while traveling, but may or may not fully understand.
New words are then taught and tested with various games in which learners see the words and are encouraged to repeat them. In the listening game “Say It,” the player hears and is asked to repeat a new word, which then appears for just a moment. In another listening game, “Balloon Words,” the player hears the word and has to pick the correct one from three words with a similar spelling. In both, no translation is given so that the attention can remain on listening and repeating.
After other translation and writing games, learners can then record the sentences of all story-dialogues at the end of each lesson, as often as needed. This helps to both memorize phrases and expressions, and to get close to the pronunciation of the native speakers.
Are you now thinking, but isn't “Rosetta Stone” total immersion? Yes, there are no English translations and you are indeed “immersed” in the foreign language throughout a session.
I only bought Level 1 of Spanish, quite a while ago, so that's all I can comment on. The four Levels are set up as pictures and short sentences that describe the pictures.
You hear a sentence, identify the corresponding picture, and then are prompted to record your voice. My voice recording often gets rejected even after several tries. But it's not clear why some sentences are accepted and others aren't. Rather than improving, I just get frustrated.
Is there a boredom factor built into Rosetta Stone? People do seem to give up easily on the kind of "immersion" this program offers. It may be because in each lesson you go through repeating dozens of unrelated phrases and sentences. On top of that, many grammar lessons are in the form of simple pattern drills, where you just click on one word each time. And, because everything is done with pictures, it gets hard to remember what each picture is supposed to mean. (See our 5 Rosetta Stone reviews)
This program has a fairly traditional approach: A lesson starts with a flashcard exercise where you are asked to “Study the words and their spelling.” Then you go through exercises to practice writing, reading, listening, speaking, and basic grammar. Most of the exercises work from translation. Explanations are in English.
For listening practice, I particularly like the dictation exercises (“Write what you hear”), and the part where you complete the sentences of a conversation by adding a word that cued from the English translation of the sentence. In both of these sections, you see and hear language in context.
Speaking practice is up to you: It's best to repeat words and sentences as much as you can. Most lessons have a section for practicing sounds that are different from English.
My main beef with Duolingo is that it has me often write English translations, which I find a huge waste of time. I'd rather be writing answers in the target language. I would be learning so much faster. To avoid writing in English, I've set my “native” language to another language I'm learning. (I now have an account to learn Italian from Spanish.)
I do like the “voice recognition” part because it makes me say things out loud, which I sometimes forget to do. (Of course, there is no REAL voice recognition with feedback.)
Duolingo's newest addition are the Chatbots. At this time, they're available for French, German, and Spanish conversations. What you do is chat in your target language with a “partner” by writing predictable answers to questions and comments, with help from pictures. It's really quite neat.
You hear and see what your Chatbot partner is saying. You can check the meaning of the vocabulary, and get feedback for what you've written. To practice speaking, though, you just have to push yourself to say out loud whatever you hear and see. (see also Duolingo and Babbel: How They Differ)
At the moment, Language Zen is only available for learning Spanish online. The addition of Spanish Music (songs and lyrics) to its courses let's you focus on listening.
In general, you hear a lot of Spanish in this course. You learn new Spanish words and phrases by hearing them (and seeing their spelling and English translation). Next, you hear the Spanish word or phrase and have to identify the correct English translation among five options. When you click on the correct translation, you'll hear it again, see it spelled in Spanish, and are thereby induced to repeat it yourself.
Speaking is an important part of the course. Once you've heard and learned a few words, you are asked to translate an English sentence into Spanish – either by saying it (or by writing it). The voice recognition software is actually pretty good. It has adjusted to my voice, as well as Peter's voice and accent, and writes what it hears.
You can correct any spelling (or hearing) mistake. Click on “Check Answer” and you now hear the correct answer. If you're correct, move on, if not, you have one more chance to say or write the correct Spanish translation.
We very much like the fact that you're encouraged to say (or write) Spanish words and phrases quite often, and that you're not asked to say or write sentences in English. (see also our detailed Language Zen Review.)
This is a new app for Spanish, created by Larkwire. It can be used hands-free. The program is very well done and clearly focuses on listening and speaking. So far, four (4) Levels have been released, from Beginner to Intermediate (with higher levels to come).
Each lesson (almost 250 to date) has you listen to and repeat individual words and sentences, with an emphasis on individual sounds, intonation, and the rhythm of the language. Since the purpose of the program is to repeat what you hear, that's what you do. English translations are spoken and written, so you do hear lots of English not just Spanish.
Brief pronunciation lessons teach you the basic sounds of Spanish. You're told how to produce the sounds and are given examples. Then you record yourself, play back your voice, and compare your pronunciation to that of the native speaker. This is a great feature. (See also our SuperCoco Review.)
Lingualia is an online program (with iOS and Android apps) to learn Spanish or English. All word definitions, audios, fill in the blank and unscramble exercises, image identification, etc. are in the target language.
If you want, you can set the interface language to English, Spanish, and now also to German. So, if you're learning Spanish and if you set the interface language to Spanish, everything will be in Spanish.
In the program, you're not asked to do any translations (though translations with google are available).
With Lingualia you can work seriously on your listening skills. The program contains 200 rapidly spoken conversations, one at the beginning of each lesson. You can listen to them as often as you want, with or without seeing the text.
There's less chance for practicing your speaking skills, unless you make a special effort to constantly repeat individual phrases of a conversation as they scoot by. There are no exercises to practice sentences. There's no recording feature to play back your voice. (See also our Lingualia Review.)
Having worked at Pimsleur both as author of the first three German courses and co-author and development editor of various other courses, I'm both familiar with and fond of the Pimsleur approach. We have not (yet) published a review of this program, which started out with audio tapes and CDs, and now also has MP3 files for download. In addition, there's an interactive product called Pimsleur Unlimited, which can be downloaded on your computer or mobile devices.
With a Pimsleur Audio course, you listen and speak right from the beginning. The Narrator guides you along (first in English and later in the target language) and gives explanations. After you've heard the initial dialogue, you learn new words by hearing and repeating them, usually by building them from the end.
As a lesson progresses, the Narrator gives you the English cues for the words that you've learned, sometimes prompting you to make new combinations. However, the audio lessons are hard to navigate beyond listening in sequence.
Pimsleur Unlimited contains the 30-minute audio lessons, Flashcards and Quick Match to practice new words and sentences, plus a Speak Easy part to practice the conversation. Except for Speak Easy, where you participate in the conversations, everything is prompted from English.
In all, Pimsleur does a great job pushing the learner to say everything aloud. Its particular audio method (backward buildup, anticipation of the answer) is very effective to train the ear and help the learner get a good pronunciation.
THE ONLINE/APP TEACHING DILEMMA
As this quick survey shows, none of these programs (including our GamesforLanguage courses) can provide a true immersion experience, the way a live conversation, or online session with a tutor can.
Online courses or apps have to rely on images (e.g. Rosetta Stone, etc.), writtentext, or English audio to transmit meaning to the learner. A teacher or tutor can do that with gestures, mimic, different sounds, or alternate expressions in the target language, etc., all options that apps or online courses do not have.
The online/app dilemma then is this: Images are rarely sufficient for explaining the meaning of thoughts, feelings, and complex activities, etc. in the target language. You require a teaching language to translate from. (I don't know if Lingualia is an exception for beginners, who may use Google translate in the early stages.)
Translations, however, take the learner away from the the target language. The moment the learner hears or reads the translation in his or her native language (English or otherwise), immersion is interrupted.
THREE POWERFUL IMMERSIVE TECHNIQUES
Still, using online programs and apps to learn can give you a good basis for getting started and progressing in a language, for learning vocabulary, expressions, and pronunciation.
My advice: Don't just click on the correct translation or answer.Repeat and speak the words and phrases you hear and learn in such programs. Without speaking and trying out the new sounds you won't become fluent.
So, what can you add - besides a regular language tutor - to strengthen your immersion experience in the language and become more fluent?
Watch a film or YouTube video in your target language, without English captions (or with captions in the same language).
Listen, with attention, to an audio book. If you can, follow along with the text in your target language.
Listen to a passage from your audio book, and then read and record the same passage. Play back and compare. Do this several times. This is really powerful.
And remember: learning to become fluent in a new language is a long-term project. Use as many different means and methods to read, listen to, or speak the target language every day. Daily “exposure,” if not “immersion,” will get you there.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a life-long language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands and Canada. You can follow her onFacebook, TwitterandInstagram, and leave any commentswithcontact.
Disclosure: Several of the language learning companies mentioned above are partner sites with revenue sharing should you decide to subscribe.
“1. History. Trying to understand international affairs without knowing history is like trying to cook without knowing the difference between flour and flounder.
Not only does history provide the laboratory in which our basic theories must be tested, it shapes the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances and how they regard their relationship to others.
How could one hope to understand the Middle East without knowing about the Ottoman Empire, the impact of colonialism, the role of Islam, the influence of European anti-Semitism and Zionism, or the part played by the Cold War?
Similarly, how could one grasp the current complexities in Asia without understanding the prior relations between these nations and the different ways that Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Pashtuns, Hindus, Muslims, and others understand and explain past events?
But don’t just memorize a lot of names and dates: Seek out teachers who can help you think about the past in sophisticated ways.
Among other things, it’s useful to know how other societies see the past even if you don’t agree with their interpretation, so make sure you read histories written by citizens of other countries.
And if you’re studying in the United States, don’t just study 'Western Civilization.' The world is a lot bigger than that.”
How could one argue with the above advice?
In the 2016 Presidential elections, U.S. voters will also decide whether knowing history and understanding the complexities of the modern world are important. Their choice may well affect many foreign countries and shape our future.
The Language Skills of U.S. Presidents
In reviewing thisWikipedia entry(see excerpt of Wiki table, left)and overview of the language skills of the U.S. Presidents, it becomes clear that the early U.S. Presidents from John Adams (#2) to John Quincy Adams (#6) had superior foreign language skills to most of their successors.
The indicated language skills in the Wikipedia table may not all be completely accurate. For example, by his own account, (as he wrote in an April 12, 1817 letter) Thomas Jefferson was able to read “Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and English of course, with something of it's radix the Anglo-Saxon.”
Although he learned French as a student, he only acquired some fluency after spending time in France.
Thomas Jefferson and Spanish
Jefferson already recognized, however, that speaking Spanish would be beneficial to U.S. politicians in the future. In1785 he wrote in a letterto his nephew Peter Carr:
“...Our future connection with Spain renders that [Spanish] the most necessary of the modern languages, after the French. When you become a public man, you may have occasion for it, and the circumstance of your possessing that language, may give you a preference over other candidates.”
In this excerpt from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation about Jefferson's French language quotes, you can also read how he changed his mind about his nephew Peter Carr learning Spanish instead of Italian.
1785 August 19. (Jefferson to Walker Maury). “My intention had been that he [Peter Carr] should learn French and Italian, of the modern languages. But the latter must be given up (for the present at least) and Spanish substituted in it’s place.”
Foreign Languages in recent Presidential Campaigns
It has been 84 years since the U.S. elected a President who spoke another language than English fluently. Franklin Roosevelt was taught French and German from childhood on.
(While Presidents Carter and George W. Bush speak some Spanish, Clinton some German, and Obama some Indonesian, they are certainly not fluent in those languages.)
Some of you may remember that John Kerry downplayed his knowledge of French in 2004.
President Obama got a lot of flak in 2008 when he regretted:
“I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing ... It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?” (CBS News 7/11/2008)
In 2012, a candidate for the Republican nomination, Jon Huntsman, had been U.S. ambassador to China. He was attacked for speaking fluent Mandarin, called “China Jon” and “Manchurian candidate,” implying that voters should be suspicious of him.
And Mitt Romney quickly learned that speaking French was no advantage either.
Foreign Languages in the 2016 Presidential Campaign
Spanish was the one foreign language that acquired some prominence in the Republican primaries.
There are several YouTube videos ob Jeb Bush doing interviews in Spanish, showing that he is quite fluent in Spanish.
Jeb Bush or Senator Marco Rubio (who grew up bilingual) would have been the first U.S. President with a command of Spanish beyond a high-school level. (Senator Ted Cruz also speaks some Spanish.)
There was a somewhat funny exchange during one of the Republican debates when Marco Rubio stated that Ted Cruz did not speak Spanish, and Cruz challenged him in Spanish.
“There is a dark period in American history. It's one to which some Americans seem eager to return. It's one when people were barred, shamed or even punished for speaking languages other than English. That was especially true outside the home.
Speaking a foreign language or limited English was very widely believed to be an indicator of suspect national loyalty, limited intelligence or ability. Speaking a foreign language simply was not regarded as a useful skill.”
The Republican Candidate, Donald Trump, doesn't speak (or read) a foreign language, which makes him somewhat of an exception in his family:
His mother, Maryanne, was reportedly from a village on the Isle of Lewis and spoke Scottish Gaelic as her first language.
His paternal grandparents were German-born, but it's unclear whether his father actually spoke German.
His first wife, Ivana, was Czech; his current wife, Melania is Slovenian and most of his children are multilingual.
Trump's Vice-President choice Mike Pence does not seem to speak another language, either.
Bernie Sanders does not speak any foreign languages, but he learned enough Spanish to confirm in one of his Spanish campaign ads that he “approves this message.”
A 2008 New York Times article indicates that Hillary Clinton does not speak any foreign languages. (Visiting over 90 countries doesn't do it; and whatever language courses she may have taken at Wellesley apparently had no lasting effect!)
This leaves Tim Kaine, Clinton's choice for Vice President as the only remaining candidate in 2016 who speaks a second language.
He acquired his fluency in Spanish, while working and teaching in Honduras when he took a year off from his studies.
In 2013 Senator Tim Kaine made history by giving a speech in the Senate (see clip above) in support of immigration reform entirely in Spanish. It was an impressive performance by a politician who did not grow up bilingual, but learned Spanish as a young man.
It's not surprising that Spanish has risen in importance in the U.S.: The U.S. Census estimates the Hispanic population in 2014 as 55 million, or 17% of the nation's total population.
By 2060, the Hispanic population in the U.S. is projected to increase to 119 million or nearly 29% of the total population.
Will 2016 be the year when speaking Spanish as well as English will not be seen as a disadvantage for politicians?
The Importance of Foreign Languages
Professor Walt had listed “Foreign Languages” as #3. Here is his reasoning:
“If you grew up outside the United States and are headed for college, you probably already speak more than one language.
If you're an American, alas, you probably don't. You should.
I know that everyone is learning English these days, but learning at least one foreign language provides a window into another culture that you can't get any other way, and also provides a sense of mastery and insight that is hard to achieve otherwise.
I'm not particularly good at languages, but I'd gladly trade my mediocre abilities in French and German for real fluency in one of them (or many others). Don't make my mistake: get to the language lab and acquire some real skills.”
I would just add, that if you want to speak fluently, but can't live for a while in the country where your target language is spoken, don't have a partner with whom to practice, or don't have access to a “language lab,” you have more options today:
Join one of the local language groups, online language exchanges, immersion sites likefluentu,get a tutor onitalki, etc. or practice on other similar online sites.
There is no way around it: To become fluent in a foreign language you have to start SPEAKING it.
Thomas Jefferson would certainly have agreed...
Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.
It was my niece who finally convinced me to take the plunge. She told me how much she enjoyed the various options italki provides.
Even more importantly, she was happy about how quickly her fluency in Spanish was improving. She'll be using Spanish in her work, for counseling families and conducting interviews.
For me, becoming conversationally fluent is a personal goal, though one that I take very seriously. So, a few weeks ago, I decided to try out italki.
The italki site is easy to navigate. When you start looking around, you'll find various free options and features that can enhance your experience on the site, besides, or in addition to taking (paid) lessons.
On your Dashboard you can see all your activity at one glance, including your schedule, your teachers, your friends, your community activities, a recommended article, as well as your “wallet.”
At the footer of your Dashboard page is the heading “Browse.” From there you can jump to any of the sections listed below. Once you're there, sort by language and specific options.
The Main Stay: Lessons for Speaking
Learning to talk fluently in a foreign language and building on conversational skills are the main goals for many language learners.
One-on-one sessions with a skilled language teacher - be it from home, or when living where the language is spoken - are doubtless the best way to get there.
Skype or Facetime lessons are italki's mainstay. There are lots of options for everyone. You can choose between “professional teachers” (who are certified and experienced) and “community tutors” (native or near-native speakers who do informal tutoring).
For Browsing through a list for available teachers or tutors, you can set the language, the country where the teacher is from, a rate, tags (such as: beginners, children, teenagers, business, test preparation), native speaker, trial lesson, audio & video, available times (instant tutoring, or time of day, days of the week).
To find the section, simply click on “Language Teachers.”
Italki encourages you to try out different teachers and offers three (3) 30-minutes, discounted trial sessions for their teachers and tutors. (The discounts are set by each teacher and tutor, and therefore vary.)
4 More Features
1. Informal Conversational Practice
For casual practice, you can add Language-Exchange sessions, which are free. You can set up as many as you want, and with time you'll probably find some good partners and ways to make the language exchanges run smoothly.
In this section you can get free language practice by exchanging time teaching your native language, for time learning a foreign language. You can sort by language you're learning, gender, place your partner is from, and native speaker.
To get there, just click on “Language Partners.” Some of the language partners are also teachers on italki. Above the profile picture, you can “Switch to Teacher Profile.”
In some cases, time differences and a partner's availability make language-exchange sessions somewhat more difficult to schedule than sessions with teachers. This is a problem that many language-exchange sites share.
The best way to grow your (passive) vocabulary is to read as much as you can in your target language, and on a variety of subjects.
Italki has a free section where teachers and tutors post articles they've written. They come in a variety of languages and are mostly about learning a language, specific language topics, or cultural themes.
These articles are conversational in nature. I recommend reading the ones that are in your target language. For a learner, they are a great way to start internalizing informal language beyond basic phrases such as “how are you?”“where are you from?”“are you a student?”“what kind of work do you do?”“do you have any brothers and sisters?”
To get there, click on “Articles.” Sort by language and scroll down. You'll see articles in your native and in your target language.
I find, though, that I may have a huge (reading) vocabulary in a foreign language, but still find myself tongue-tied when speaking it. So, you need to find ways to use your words and phrases in real conversations, by speaking!
Now that there are lots of Forums, Facebook community pages, Chat options, etc. in various languages, learning to write well enough in your target language seems a good skill to shoot for.
In the “Notebook” section, on italki, you can write short journal-like entries in the language you're learning about topics that interests you or something that's on your mind.
These notebook entries are then corrected by others who are native speakers or proficient in the language. You'll sometimes get several corrections and comments. In turn, you are encouraged to correct the notebook entries of others, written in your native language or one you're highly proficient in.
This option is free and you can use it even if you haven't taken any lessons.
Under Browse, click on “Notebook,” sort by language.
4. Grammar and Usage
Not many language learners approach a language by just learning grammar rules and memorizing conjugation tables. However, when you're beyond the beginner level, figuring out some of the grammar points is actually fun.
You can do that in the “Answers” section. There you can add specific questions about the language you're learning (translation, correct usage, etc.) and answer questions about a language that you speak.
To get there, go to “Answers” and sort by language.
The following quote by a learner says it very well: “I've used italki to get answers for questions I don't have the courage to ask in the classroom as I'm very shy. I always get satisfactory answers, the community is really nice as far as I can tell.”
Even Polyglots use italki
You may never become a Polyglot like Benny Lewis. You may not even agree with him that learning your target language is easy. Or you wonder how one can Become Fluent in 3 months, as he promises in his well-known guide.
But when even Benny uses italkito keep up his fluency in the many languages he speaks, you know that italki has something going for it.
I will certainly continue to use it for the languages I want to become more fluent in.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada and speaks German, English, Dutch, and French fluently. She intends to become as fluent in Italian, Spanish and Swedish. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.
Disclosure: The links above to Fluent in 3 Months and italki are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to purchase or subscribe.
Fluency in the language we're learning is important for many of us, especially if we're talking with new friends. But, what is fluency?
Unless you think that being fluent means perfection, I would argue that these are the three essential marks of fluency:
You have enough vocabulary to hold your own, to argue your point. You should not be constantly searching for words. If you can't think of a word or expression right away, you can easily talk around it, and find another way to say what's on your mind.
Your pronunciation is adequate. Even if you don't sound absolutely like a native speaker, people can understand you. Otherwise, your conversation is not going to move forward.
You can sustain a conversation with someone without thinking much about grammar. That means, even if your grammar isn't perfect, your mistakes won't throw your message off track.
In other words, if you're able to engage in conversations with native speakers without constantly searching for words and tripping up over grammar, you're well on your way to fluency.
Getting to the threshold of fluency is one thing. Making the leap into fluency is another. For me, the million dollar question is how an adult learner can achieve that leap.
I acquired my first three languages by growing up and living in different countries (Austria, the Netherlands, Canada/US). My fourth language, French, I learned in school and college, and I improved it during stays in France and (French) Switzerland.
Italian and Spanish I began to learn later in life. I thereby continue to experience all the challenges of an adult learner.
In this post I'll write about my experience with Spanish. I don't speak it quite fluently yet, but I'm ready to make that leap.
VOCABULARY, PRONUNCIATION, GRAMMAR
There are many ways and different tools to acquire vocabulary. Putting together a personal "system" of daily exposure to new vocabulary is not that hard.
Social media sites are an easy source. For example, I follow several word-a-day Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. When I check into these, I can always pick up some new words and phrases in Spanish.
We're using Spanish post-its on furniture, gadgets, and other items in our house.
By reading news articles, opinion pieces, or stories in your target language, you can build a diverse vocabulary. If you write down any new words or put them into a Flashcard game such as Quizlet, you'll remember them better.
Lingua.ly's browser extension or app lets you collect words when reading online. As with Quizlet, you can then practice them later.
Online language programs and apps are set up to have you learn and practice vocabulary. Most of these offer the advantage of providing audio - which is essential for improving your pronunciation.
Some programs let you record your voice, play it back, and compare your pronunciation with that of the native speaker. (This is one of the features the Gamesforlanguage quick games and courses provide.)
Voice recognition seems to be getting popular too. Though I must confess, the ones I've tried tend to frustrate me more than they help.
In any case, recording your voice and playing it back is an excellent way to improve your pronunciation - even if there's no native speaker for comparison.
Unless you love memorizing conjugation tables and case endings, it's best to acquire gradually and in context. The idea is to become aware of patterns. Here again, reading will help you a lot.
Once you've internalized a grammatical structure, you can build on it. That may be a good time to look it up, learn the rule, and try out a few more examples in your next conversation.
WHEN TO START SPEAKING?
What has worked for me is to start speaking in my target language right from the start! I use every opportunity to say words and phrases out loud.
One way to get beyond individual words is to memorize dialogues. These you can say to yourself, and if possible out loud at various times during the day. You can even "perform" them as real conversations adding gestures and emotional expression.
Speaking from day one is also Benny Lewis' advice in Fluent in 3 Months. If you have a partner or friend who's willing to engage in simple target language conversations with you, that's perfect.
On the other hand, Steve Kaufmann of LingQ suggests that you hold off on real conversations until you're ready. For him, the magic word is "input" (reading, listening, watching) until you have enough vocabulary to communicate on more than a basic level.
I do understand Steve Kaufmann's argument. However, in my experience "lots of input" alone has not been enough to make me fluent in Spanish.
MY ROAD TO FLUENCY
This year, I'm intent on becoming fluent in Spanish, my sixth language. I started learning Spanish four years ago, casually, and since then have been trying out and using various programs. On the average, I've spent about 30 minutes a day doing various things in Spanish: listening, playing games, writing, watching films, reading headlines, etc.
Of course, I know our GamesforLanguage Spanish 1 course by heart, often playing one or more of the 36 scenes to work on modifications.
Last year I used Duolingo's Spanish course as well as a 3-month subscription for Babbel's Spanish course.
Currently I am using Lingualia's (one of our partners) Spanish course daily. (You can read my review of Lingualia HERE.)
We are listening to Spanish radio stations and are watching Spanish movies (we find Spanish [not English] subtitles especially helpful!)
My husband and I spent one month in Barcelona, four years ago, and one month in Seville, last year. Though we thoroughly enjoyed interacting with locals as much as we could, met with language exchange partners, engaged a tutor (see: How a Tutor Boosted Our Language Fluency), and improved our Spanish during each stay, I still don't feel that I can speak it fluently.
In order to gain more confidence in speaking, I need another learning boost - intense practice with conversation partners, who are able to give me immediate and informed feedback.
WHY AN ONLINE LANGUAGE TUTOR
My reading and listening comprehension skills are a lot better than my speaking and writing skills.
I have a good grasp of rudimentary Spanish grammar and a passable pronunciation.
However, I do not believe that lots more "input" (reading, listening, watching) is going to boost my speaking skills, per se.
We don't have any Spanish-speaking friends at the moment and living in Spain is out of the question.
So, to become fluent in Spanish, I've started using an online tutor. To date, I've had just a few Skype lessons on italki. The jury is still out, but I feel very encouraged.
FROM HALTING SPEECH TO FLUENCY
With italki I've had two different types of Spanish only Skype lessons. I'm not yet sure which model will work best for me.
Tutor #1- One tutor, let's call him Carlos, has engaged me in real conversations. We talked about topics that I would also want to discuss with others, for example: the main difference between living in Europe and in the United States; what's going on in politics; how I came to be fluent in four languages; or, what it feels like to live in other countries (something that applies to him as well). To me the conversations were interesting and personal to the extent that we exchanged opinions and talked about some experiences.
There were lots of questions back and forth. Carlos corrected some of my mistakes, but not too much, and helped me formulate my thoughts. At the end of the lesson, we went over a list of words and phrases, again with corrections. As he talked, he typed the list into my Skype message box.
Tutor #2- The second tutor, let's call him Juan, immediately started me on a B1 Level textbook, which he pulled up on Skype. He then proceeded to go over the first exercises of Chapter 1.
The topic was "daily life," and dealt with everyday activities and hobbies. The exercises included typical vocabulary and related grammar points. Juan asked me to read various sentences and to answer questions, but on the whole, the lesson felt somewhat impersonal, more like a regular class.
With both tutors, I felt the lessons were challenging. I had to speak quite a bit, and to listen hard to make sure I understood. At the end of each lesson, I felt "foreign language fatigue." One hour was enough, any longer and my brain would have started to shut down.
I haven't yet chosen which tutor to continue with. Italki, in fact encourages you to try out several before making up your mind. But it's clear to me that I can get closer to fluency by using an experienced tutor.
I'll also try out another site, Hellotalk, and expect to add language-exchange sessions with native speakers as well. But I'll write about that another time. Stay tuned.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitterand Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.
Disclosure: Only the links above to Fluent in 3 Months, italki, and Lingualia are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to subscribe.
"A different language is a different vision of life," said Federico Fellini. As our world becomes smaller and flatter and more people get exposed to foreign languages, the wisdom of this observation begins to sink in.
As you become more fluent in a foreign language you will learn to avoid the common misconception about translators and interpreters. Many U.S. companies often assume that any individual who speaks a foreign language is automatically a translator. But just because you grew up speaking Portuguese doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a good translator.
Translators vs Interpreters
There are two categories of foreign language experts. The interpreter’s job is to translate orally from one language to another everything that is said, preserving the tone and style of the original speech. Translators deal with written documents, taking into account various language and terminology issues and the context.
In other words, translators translate documents, and interpreters interpret speech.
There exist some language professionals who are great at both translating the written word and interpreting the spoken word. But more often than not, they are an exception, not a rule.
What Translators Do
Language translation is a very specialized field. In addition to being linguists, some translators are professionally qualified in specific technical disciplines, such as aerospace, biochemistry, hardware and software, electrical engineering, finance, law, mechanical engineering, medicine, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications.
Some only translate patents and others concentrate only on translation of technical manuals, or only on translation of legal contracts. Most of the professional translators work only in a single language pair and in one direction (e.g., English to Chinese).
Because professional translation requires training and expertise, it has a high cost for failure. An article in the National Law Journal relates an instance where a large Italian bank was being sued as a loan guarantor. When the loan document was translated literally from Italian, it stated that the bank guaranteed the loan. However, the word "guarantee" has different meanings in Italian than it does in English, and a literal translation did not accurately convey the document's meaning. The court dismissed the case, deciding that an Italian "guarantee" was different than an English "guarantee" - and the bank was not responsible for the loan.
As you find out more about professional translators and interpreters, you will learn that it is a good sign if the translation company, whose services your company uses, provides professionally executed legal, corporate and technical translations and utilizes translators, who are certified by the American Translators Association and who translate only into their native language.
Where Interpreters Work
There are two types of foreign language interpreters: simultaneous and consecutive. Simultaneous interpreters facilitate conferences with a large number of attendees. For small meetings, tradeshows, depositions and social events, companies need to hire consecutive interpreters.
As you begin to experience in a different culture, you will learn how easy it is to create a misunderstanding by viewing people from other cultures, as if they are similar to us.
Imagine that your company sends you to Japan for a technical meeting. The Japanese company’s representative comes to your hotel room and inquires if you have had your lunch. You tell him that you want to try some sushi. You feel great when he invites you to a restaurant, where a gracious waiter encourages you to try various kinds of sushi. A while later, you begin to feel ill at ease, when you realize that your host has just paid about $400.00 for your lunch.
Language and Culture
Incorrect assumptions about cultural similarities may cause us to misjudge people and situations. In our culture, smiles, for example, are associated with pleasant emotions and project friendliness. Some Asian cultures, on the other hand, use a smile as a mask when dealing with unpleasant situations.
As you continue to enhance your knowledge of a foreign language, your competence in the culture of the country whose language you are studying will also increase. And little by little you will be able to see and interpret any situation from two different viewpoints. And you will then understand what Federico Fellini meant when he said that a different language is a different vision of life.
Enjoy the beautiful journey as your growing fluency in another language and in another culture will continue to enrich your life and your worldview.
Bio: Nina L. Ivanichvili is CEO of All Language Alliance, Inc., a legal translation and interpreting company providing multilingual legal translations, certified translation services and deposition interpreting services in more than 100 foreign languages. You can contact her at 303-470-9555, at www.languagealliance.com, and follow her legal translation blog Translation for Lawyers.
For most of us who are learning a foreign language, speaking fluently is the ultimate goal. Having a conversation in a foreign language, being able to express feelings and ideas, voicing opinions – all are proof that you have reached a new plateau.
Your accent may not be perfect, but you now have the confidence to express what you want to say. And even if you can't find the absolutely right idiom or expression every time – you now have also other ways to say what's on your mind.
There is no question that the so-called passive skills – reading and listening – are important for achieving fluency. And yes, having a good vocabulary is necessary as well.
However, my own experience also tells me that even when you can read a foreign language and understand it fairly well when it's spoken, SPEAKING it fluently is another step.
Online- vs Classroom-Learning
One of the big drawbacks of online learning is that learners can do so silently. You may do all the exercises, but few online programs “force” you to speak out loud.
(We, at GamesforLanguage, in addition to the “Record-It” segment at the end of each lesson, also invite learners to “Say-it”, i.e. repeat words and phrases they only HEAR, and then briefly SEE spelled out. You can try “Say-It” with one of our German or French Quick Language Games.)
On the other hand, in the classroom, and especially with a one-on-one tutor, you typically have to speak, formulate answers to questions, etc. (The size of a class obviously matters greatly here.)
For beginners, repeating and saying words and phrases aloud, or reading out loud is an important first step.
Especially with languages that have sounds that don't exist in English, getting your “mouth mechanics” working correctly is another crucial task. (Benny Lewis - see below - may disagree!)
From Hearing to Speaking
HEARING and then REPRODUCING sounds that are different from our native language are not an easy task. Just think of the French nasal sounds, the German “umlauts,” or the many subtle sounds of the Asian languages.
Now, we also know that our ability to HEAR sounds that don't exist in our native language diminishes from early childhood on. (This was the topic of a previous post: Beyond Learning a Language Like a Child, in which we discussed the concept of “Categorical Perception.”)
So, the challenge, especially for all online-learners is this: SPEAK as much as you can, repeat ALOUD the words, phrases and sentences of all the exercises or games you are doing. And once you are able to start reading articles and books, read these out loud as well whenever you can. (And when this is not possible, try “reading aloud silently,” by just moving your lips!)
The sooner you feel ready to participate in real-life conversations, the faster your fluency will improve.
Try to find someone in your neighborhood or among your friends to practice your new language with. But if you can't, you can join language communities such as italki, where you can find an online teacher for personal language lessons and conversations.
The Benny Lewis Method
Maybe not everybody can muster the time or commitment that Benny Lewis promotes with Fluent in 3 Months. But if you watch his clip and consider the points above, you will conclude as well:
To become fluent in your target language, start SPEAKING it whenever you can - right from the start!
Creating a habit is not easy – but the start of a new year is a great opportunity to set some goals. Make 2016 YOUR year to become fluent in your target language!
Disclosure: Some links above are to sites with revenue-sharing, should you decide to buy or subscribe.
Do you ever get a little anxious when speaking a foreign language? Foreign language anxiety knows no age and can bubble up in anyone. It doesn't matter whether you're speaking formally in the classroom or office, on the telephone with someone you don't know, or informally "on the street."
So, why do some of us get anxious when speaking to someone in a foreign language?
Well, we sometimes imagine all kinds of mishaps. The thoughts are all in our head but the fears feel very real. We worry about:
making a fool of ourselves
saying an utterly wrong thing
being badly misunderstood
On top of that, our anxiety itself may have all kinds of effects on us:
we blank out in the middle of what we're saying
we forget words and phrases that we thought we knew well
we start to stutter or get visibly flustered
we start to feel nauseous or otherwise physically uncomfortable
Worst case scenario: As a result, we avoid situations in which we could use our foreign language. Ultimately, we find it hard to continue learning the language.
But it doesn't have to go that way!
A second or third language is a huge personal and professional asset. If you want to make that new language your own, it's totally worth dealing with your anxieties.
Below are 3 situations in which the fear of speaking in a foreign language often pops up, even in people who are outgoing and used to being assertive.
SPEAKING UP OR PRESENTING IN CLASS, or in another formal context
Holding your own in a foreign language when you're being evaluated by a teacher, a superior, or even peers can be particularly anxiety-provoking. Before and during your speech, all kinds of additional emotions may come up, including jitters about standing in front of a group.
You may feel anxious about:
not being prepared
suddenly losing concentration
feeling self-conscious and shy
feeling unable to explain your ideas
getting stuck and/or losing your thread
going completely blank
Dealing with anxiety about speaking in front of a group starts the moment that you know you'll be doing it. But curious as it may seem, you have quite a bit of control over such an event.
Because you're anxious, it's easy to avoid thinking about the presentation. Thinking about it also means worrying about it. However, the key is to start early and not to procrastinate.
A Few Tips For Acing That Speech
Put your speech or presentation together as soon as you can, and don't try to make it perfect.
Practice your speech out loud, in front of a mirror, and if you can, before a partner or friend. Practice again and again until you have your speech pretty well memorized; then write down a few key words, and practice your speech again, this time talking more freely.
Look up and write down a few phrases that you'll need when you should lose your thread during your presentation, phrases such as: "what I meant to say ...", "okay, that's not right", "let's go back", etc.
Practice your speech, this time "blanking out" a couple of times. Use your phrases to get back on track. Don't forget to chuckle at yourself as you do this.
During your presentation, focus on the here and now. Find a kind-looking face in the middle or back of the room and from time to time use that person as a focus.
SPEAKING WITH SOMEONE ON THE TELEPHONE, or Skype, camera off
If you cannot see the other person, you don't get important visual clues from the other person. So, you have to focus exclusively on the person's voice.
This makes a telephone call in a foreign language with someone you don't know or don't know well, particularly difficult and anxiety-provoking.
In such a situation, you may be be concerned about:
misunderstanding what the other person is saying
not being able to formulate what you want to say
sounding scared rather than confident
saying something stupid
starting to stutter
having the other person hang up in exasperation
As with a presentation, preparing yourself is crucial. Even if your language learning goal has been only to "speak" in the foreign language, it's worth mastering some writing skills.
The good thing about speaking with someone on the telephone, is that you can have your "cheat sheet" right in front of you to help you along. If you're polite, relaxed, and smile as you talk, you'll be just fine.
A Few Tips For Dealing With Telephone Anxiety
Write out a couple of typical phrases for greeting someone on the telephone, and for starting and concluding a conversation.
List the items of information that you want to ask or to communicate.
Write down how to ask questions politely and how to confirm, "yes, that's it."
Learn typical phrases to help you get through the conversation, such as "Sorry I didn't understand," or "Could you repeat that, please?" or, "Did I get that right?"
Practice your phrases out loud, several times.
On the telephone, always repeat the information the other person gave you, just to make sure you fully understood.
SPEAKING WITH SOMEONE IN PERSON, also on Facetime, or Skype, camera on
Let's say you're lucky enough to know native speakers you can chat with in person. Or, also nice, you're in the country or in a region where your new language is spoken. All I can say is, go for it!
While having a real conversation may seem a little scary, you have the huge advantage of getting immediate feedback beyond the other person's responses and tone of voice.
You also get lots of visual clues: gestures, body language, and his or her facial expressions - especially the eyes.
When talking with native speakers you know or meet, you would typically talk about yourself, your interests, things that you do, and ask about the other person.
If, however, you are visiting or living in a country where the language is spoken, you'd have additional opportunities for applying your new language with daily tasks:
starting up a conversation while waiting in a line
making small talk at a social gathering
These kinds of language interactions are not quite as limited in scope as the others. Still, they are a great way to confront your foreign language anxiety in relative safety.
As a starter, you could preface any of these encounters by saying that you are just learning the language and that you're eager to put it into practice.
A Few Tips for Conversations
Prepare by writing down some of the words and phrases that you'll need, be it for the task you'll undertake or the kind of conversation you're expecting.
Memorize and practice these aloud.
Write down questions you want ask, and phrases to help the conversion along, such as: "I didn't understand," "Can you repeat that," "What does X mean?", etc.
Take a piece of paper with you with a list of words. It can't hurt.
When you're in a conversation, pay attention to the filler words or sounds, "uhm", "hmm", "eh," etc. Use them, but cautiously at first. Used correctly, they can help you sound more like a native.
Be aware of the cultural context in which you find yourself. Become alert to what is appropriate, what is not. This is often learned through conversation, by asking questions, and yes, also by making mistakes.
When speaking a foreign language, the cultural context is highly important. In her timely talk - based on her book, The Anxious Language Learner: A Saudi Woman's Story - which Taghreed Al-Saraj gave at the 3rd Polyglot Conference in New York (October 10-11, 2015), she stressed how important a role culture plays in communication and behavior.
It also means that the person learning a language is adopting "a new identity ... (and) is learning a new way of doing things. ... What's normal in one culture differs from what's normal in another culture."
Should you indeed say something silly or make a cultural faux pas - you'll probably know this from the other person's immediate, verbal and/or non-verbal responses. When it happens, it's best to learn how to laugh at yourself, say you're truly sorry, and chalk it up to language-learning experience.
Just remember, a little specific preparation can make it easier to speak up in the foreign language you're learning. It's been proven that practice reduces anxiety. Then, when you are involved in a conversation, know in your mind that it's okay to make mistakes and to feel somewhat uncomfortable. With time and practice, you'll gradually learn to deal with your fears.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.
A couple of weeks ago, when buying a laptop in one of those trendy stores, we had a typical conversation with a young saleswoman. “Oh, you guys speak German,” she beamed, as she came back from helping another customer. “I thought I recognized the language, all those scratchy sounds.”
She then added: “Well, I took Spanish in school and college. I used to speak it pretty well. But, it's been a couple of years since then. Now I couldn't say anything in Spanish if my life depended on it.”
That wasn't true, of course. My husband immediately tried his Spanish on her, and she responded with a couple of simple phrases. “Okay” she said, “I would need to go to Mexico and live there for a while. I bet Spanish would come back.”
At the moment, it looked like she was busy getting her work life together. She didn't really seem focused on language learning. But she got us thinking again, about how adults can get back a foreign language they once knew.
Relearning a language has to be one of the smartest decisions you can make. There are so many benefits involved. Besides adding a notable skill to your resume, you're giving your brain a fantastic workout.
Also, knowing another language makes traveling much more fun. For more benefits, read lingholic's blog post. Simply said, if you're open to the pleasure of language learning, it's always worth it.
Reactivating a classroom language
When you learn a language in school or college and then stop using it, you may feel after a while that it's “gone.” But is that really so?
As studies have shown (using functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI, as described in this academic Sciencedirect.com article): When you learn a new language, your brain undergoes neural changes, which have short and long-term effects on language learning and cognitive control.
From such studies, it becomes apparent that a second language - even when learned as an adult - retains a presence in your brain. This neurological presence gives you a head start on various aspects of the language, ones that a newcomer would have to learn from scratch.
Traditionally, classroom learning has tended to be somewhat heavy on textbook exercises and reading, and (necessarily) a little light on speaking practice. Classroom learners acquire reading and writing skills, and at least a basic understanding of grammar.
Therefore, reading will likely be the most effective way to reactivate a classroom language that you've put aside. Plus, if you liked the writing exercises, you can easily bring this skill to life again by first copying texts and later participating in a language community on one of the social networks.
Some have found that labeling objects in their home with Post-its or FlashSticks, will boost their vocabulary.
A further step would be to try one of the interactive online language programs. In some ways, they are a perfect tool for adults who want to reactivate a language.
Many of the online programs or apps have you learn or review a language in various ways: identify a word you hear, write the translation, repeat after a native speaker, figure out grammar patterns, put together basic sentences, etc.
In this way, you can practice - and relearn - the sounds, spelling, essential grammar, word order, and vocabulary of the language you want to brush up.
All of the above-mentioned ways give you an easy start, and can definitely get you going. To this you'll want to add more reading, and a lot of listening, and as much speaking as possible.
Speaking is probably the hardest skill to acquire for former classroom learners. Fortunately, there are a lot of options for practicing speaking (even if you don't have family members or friends who speak the language you're relearning).
If you're the social type, you'll find plenty of free opportunities with language exchange partners, language communities on Facebook, hangouts on Google+, etc.
Paid options include Skype lessons, online tutors such as Verbling.com, italki, or courses such as Pimsleur audio programs. For the latter, I would suggest starting with Level 2 or 3, because you're not a beginner.
Relearning a childhood language
If you spoke a language as a young child, and then forgot it because it was gone from your life, you may take a different path for reawakening it.
My own experience is informative here:
My first language was German. When I was 9 and 10, I went to school in the Netherlands. Then, after moving to Canada, I had to learn English and had little exposure to Dutch and German.
It was only after the family had settled in and my siblings and I did well in school, that my family started using German and Dutch again at home. It was mostly just by speaking that I kept these languages alive.
Young children learn a language by hearing and speaking it, often during play. At the same time they are learning to make sense of the world around them.
They discover objects and actions, become aware of emotions, and find out how to communicate their needs and wants. The sounds of the words, which they hear and learn to say themselves, become deeply imprinted on their brain. For young children, the spoken word is paramount because it functions as a tool for discovery and survival.
So, it's especially language as sound which imprints itself on a young child's brain and leaves a "permanent" mark, as this Guardian article explains.
Thus, for adults who spoke another language as a child, reactivating native pronunciation and sentence intonation will come pretty easily. Listening to songs and stories has proven to be a good first step to getting back a “lost” childhood language.
Even more effective would be having conversations with a friend or family member. If he or she can gently correct your mistakes, all the better.
Then, there are other skills to learn. You may have to learn a new spelling and writing system from scratch, as well as essential grammar rules, if you had no formal instruction before. Though a child may have acquired a good-sized vocabulary, the adult has to learn grown-up, formal, and specialized language.
If you're interested in new discoveries about bilingualism and language acquisition, look at François Grosjean's book Bilingual: Life and Reality or check out his Psychology Today blog“Life as a Bilingual: The reality of living with two (or more) languages.”
Make a Plan
Once you've made up your mind to get a (somewhat) forgotten language back into your life, it helps to make a project out of it. Be clear in your mind why you want to relearn the language. Then set some goals and decide on a daily schedule that you can easily stick to.
Tom gives a engaging quick overview of the various language learning theories that are popular today.
He uses the example of how difficult it is for English-speaking adults to distinguish between a “p” and a “ph” sound. Hindi language speakers apparently learn this distinction as children.
Tom concludes that “categorical perception” may be one explanation for the difficulties that adults have in learning a second language.
Categorical perception (CP) was actually a new concept for me and I wanted to understand it a little better.
Here is what I have learned so far about CP.
R.Goldstone and A. Hendrickson, in a 2009 paper, define “categorical perception" as “the phenomenon by which the categories possessed by an observer influences the observers perception.”
The highly technical paper notes that “cross-cultural evidence suggests that the learning of a particular language influences the pattern of discriminability between speech sounds.” In other words:
Once you have learned your native language(s) (yes, many children learn more than one), then the sound categories you have acquired as a child make it difficult for you to hear (and learn) the sound differences of other languages as an adult.
In the YouTube video linked above, Tom Scott cites the example of the “p/ph” sound difference that English speakers can barely hear.
Similarly, speakers of Chinese and Japanese have difficulty hearing and pronouncing the difference between the “l” and “r” sounds.
Practically all foreign languages have certain sounds that do not exist in one's native language. Some we may be able to recognize and reproduce easily. Others we may never learn completely.
Color categories are another famous example. Which shades will look alike to you, or which you will perceive and name as different colors, depends on the language you speak and in which culture you have grown up.
The concept of CP suggests that as adults we have already categorized the world around us. And CP may therefore provide ONE explanation, why adults have more difficulty in learning a second language than children.
Listening and Speaking
The examples cited above relate to listening. Once we have acquired the sounds of our native language (and “categorized” them) as children, we seem to start tuning out the sounds of other languages.
Let's not forget though that it takes children more or less the first 2 years of their life with constant listening and practicing to remember and internalize these sounds.
It takes them additional time before they can speak in full sentences.
Speaking requires children to both listen and imitate the sounds they hear. Once we have learned to produce the sounds of our native language as children, we find it harder as adults to reproduce the sounds of other languages.
The ability to discern different sounds and reproduce them automatically diminishes with children between the age of 8 to 10 years. Apparently, by the time they are teenagers that automatic ability all but disappears.
But with deliberate practice adults can still make progress. Attention to “mouth mechanics” can be very helpful, as we point out in a recent post. When we understand and practice how to produce a “foreign” sound, we can often get pretty close to native pronunciation. With time, we also begin to hear the differences.
When looking into the various theories of second-language acquisition, I found that they fall into either a linguistic or a psychological camp. Just check out this Amazon page and you'll see many well-known names in those fields.
While these books make interesting reading for the language aficionado, they probably help you little in learning a second language faster.
There does not seem to be any general agreement on the best method by which adults can learn a second language.
And, because of the changes our brain goes through as we grow up - think CP - there is NO method that lets adults learn exactly like a child, whether it's languages, mathematics, science or anything else for that matter.
What is helpful, however, are descriptions by people who themselves have successfully learned foreign languages, as adults. Opera singer and polyglot Gabriel Wyner's “Fluent Forever”, for example, combines useful learning tips with explanations of how our memory works. It's an engaging and worthwhile read for serious learners.
Interestingly enough, Wyner does not seem convinced that the children's language “learning machine” disappears in adults.
He traces a child's learning advantage over an adult to his or her longer exposure to language in their early years. Adults can typically commit only limited hours when learning a second language.
Benny Lewis, "the Irish Polyglot", in Fluent in 3 Months Premium describes his own strategies and experiences in learning a dozen languages or so after he turned 21. His tips and techniques to become fluent are fun to watch and listen to. They are also a great motivator for many committed learners.
Common to both books is this: Using various strategies, methods and techniques can accelerate your learning quite a lot. Key is using them often and consistently, always remembering the Nike tag line: JUST DO IT!
The Good News for Adults
Even if we, as adults, cannot commit the same amount of time to language learning as children, we have other advantages: We can already read and write our native language, we can devise learning strategies, use various learning resources, see grammar patterns etc.
And if we accept findings that CP will make listening and producing new sounds more difficult, we also know that we can learn to overcome such shortcomings.
A personal experience can illustrate how important it is to listen a lot to a foreign language. When I started to learn Italian a few years ago, (even after having completed all 90 lessons of the three (3) Italian Pimsleur courses), I only seemed to hear gibberish when listening to fast-talking Italian radio or TV programs. But after a couple of weeks of daily listening, I started to discern distinct sound clusters and words. After a while, I began to understand some of the words, then entire sentences.
The same happened recently again with Spanish.
No question, Spanish and Italian sounds are easier for English speakers than those of Asian languages, but the point holds: We can learn to distinguish foreign sounds with practice and effort.
So yes: Learning a second language for adults requires time and effort. However, with the right tools and strategies, adults can make good progress and achieve a high level of understanding, and - with enough conversation practice - even fluency.
Disclosure: Certain links above are to affiliate programs from which we receive commissions should you decide to subscribe or purchase.
We, at Gamesforlanguage, are always looking for ways that help learners take the next leap towards fluency. The key for learning to speak a language fluently is simple: You have to engage in live conversations, and do this frequently using various topics of conversation.
Recently, we discovered a new start-up site called Speaklikethem.com that looks very promising. We had a chance to talk extensively with Speaklikethem's Olivier Royer and Alberto Bortott, who together explained some of the special features that they are building into this site.
Intermediate Learners or Above
At Speaklikethem the goal is for learners to have real and productive conversations, so learners can't still be beginners.
Users of the program should have already reached a fairly solid basis in a language they are practicing. Beginners simply cannot hold their part in a conversation that goes beyond a simple exchange of questions and statements about themselves.
In your Profile, you're asked to list your language skills: native, bilingual, intermediate, or advanced, and while self-classifications of intermediate and advanced leave much room for interpretation, they are a clear signal that the site is for those who want to practice already existing listening/speaking skills.
An Interest-based e-Platform
In order to make interesting conversations possible, users can upload videos in the target language from the Internet, which will serve as topics and discussion points with their language partners. Or they can use any of the existing videos.
With time, the program will accumulate an extensive supply that will cover topics such as business, culture, fun, planet, sciences, society, sport, style, techno, and trends - all in many languages.
This is the basic new idea that is likely to create not only conversation topics, but also “engagement” by the language partners – (one key component of language learning that we had discussed in our post 2 Language Learning Essentials: Motivation and Engagement)
Preparing for a Conversation
Clearly, videos can become a great way to suggest topics for a conversation. But in addition, at Speaklikethem users can upload links to articles, pictures, as well as vocabulary lists, grammar points, etc. that could provide a little extra linguistic backbone.
We found that especially during a first encounter with a language exchange partner, it's important to have topics of conversations as well as some questions ready to ask.
Finding an Exchange Partner
Because the focus of this site is to set up interest-based conversations with readily available resources, finding a suitable partner should be fast and easy. For example, if I'm interested in elections in Spain, or am looking to work in Germany, I can propose those topics to my language communities - using one of the videos - and anyone interested can pick up the invitation.
When we were looking to meet language exchange partners in Seville, Spain, we were able to filter both for the specific city and face-to-face conversations on certain sites, an option we would strongly recommend also to Speaklikethem.
Speaklikethem is currently in a Beta start-up mode and subscriptions are free.
Coincidentally, we also learned that Speaklikethem has applied to MassChallenge's startup Accelerator Program in London for 2015, a program that started in Boston and has expanded internationally. Gamesforlanguage was a Finalist in MassChallenge's 2011 Accelerator Program in Boston, MA.
MassChallenge is a yearly 4-month competitive program that connects high-impact start-ups with resources they need to launch and succeed. The program provides mentorship, office space, education, network & community and runs from late spring to early fall.