The Importance of Childhood Language Immersion

After having read this article, I am deeply disturbed by the lack of respect for immigrants from the Middle East and their language and religion. Resolving tensions with the Middle East does not mean rejecting anything to do with it. By helping children learn other languages, we encourage them to learn about other cultures, and appreciate the world for the multiple cultures that exist in it. Being monolingual forever means pushing away the wealth of knowledge that others have to offer.

To all of the Arabic speaking families in Houston: my prayers are with you that this program will be preserved, so that children will be able to bring themselves closer to you, your children, and your culture. You’re not alone. Language is what binds cultures and civilizations together. We prosper because we understand each other. By learning other people’s languages, we can be even more prosperous.

To the protesters: Closing yourself to the world is exactly what ruins this country. This program is a step in the right direction. “Immigrants must assimilate”? It is not our duty to do anything other than abide by the laws of this country and get along with other people. We are not required to give up our heritage, religion, and definitely not our language.

Don’t listen to these people who want to hold our country and our world back! Protect language immersion of all kinds in schools!

5 Myths of Learning a Foreign Language and How to Get Past Them

There are a lot of misconceptions that people have about learning foreign languages and this can often discourage young aspiring polyglots (such as myself) newly coming to the fray. So, I’m going to show you here what is and isn’t true about learning another language.

1. It requires years and years of practice with native speakers to become fluent.

This one really depends on the language, as every language has its own bells and whistles to sort through. The embedded infographic is really interesting, as it shows what languages are hard or easy for a native English speaker. Some of these I might debate, but that’s not what I’m here to do. It does require effort and hard work on a learner’s part to gain even operational proficiency, but it certainly does not require retreating to the country (or countries) where the language is spoken to acquire the language. There are many methods of doing this, whether it be through grammatical foundations or immersive methods, such as Pimsleur and Glossika.

<a href=””><img src=”×1993.png”></a><br/>Via: <a href=””>Voxy Blog</a>

I taught myself to speak Hindi at a more or less conversational level and even though I speak Kannada, using its vocabulary to build my Hindi up would have resulted in a very pure and unnatural form of spoken Hindi. To learn a language, studying is imperative. A little bit every day will get you on the right track. Write notes on grammar, practice useful “canned” sentences you can use all the time, or use the dictionary to learn new words (yes, I’m actually suggesting that you read a dictionary), whatever works for you. Whether you’re learning Arabic or Romanian, the key to gaining operational proficiency is to divide up the work into manageable stages. It is not imperative that you learn how to have political discourse in Russian before your first trip to Russia. Ordering in a restaurant is likely to be the more important situation.

2. Fluency means complete mastery over the language, to the point of having native-level proficiency.

This varies with what desired level of proficiency is. I think most people would agree that only the set phrases in a travel phrasebook is not enough to be considered “fluent” by any standard. However, if your only objective is to be able to get around in a foreign country and have a semi-extended conversation with people every now and then, those phrases are important to know and you’re not exactly far off from that level of fluency. There is absolutely no rule that says that you need to be native-level in anything (except maybe pronunciation), so don’t be afraid to set many small goals instead of a few large ones.

3. You can’t learn a language through a book. My high school Spanish/French/Mandarin/etc. class is a perfect example.

I’ll be perfectly frank in saying that this is somewhat true. Your entire learning cannot consist only of “theory”, as eventually you need to put into practice. However, this does not mean that the converse is true: you can only learn a language through immersion. It is unreasonable to think that you will learn as quickly via immersion with no knowledge as you would have in a formal class. My post on the method of immersion explains why this is a bad idea. As for high school and even college level classes, you have to take everything with a grain of salt. Until you reach the upper levels of coursework, the classes are designed so that you have a very basic knowledge of the language in practice and can read/write much more. Speaking takes a priority toward the end, as by then you have learned all the grammar. It is equally unreasonable to expect that a single high school/college course will teach you to a functional level of use. Again, it’s a question of whether you will put in the effort to build up to operational proficiency. Language learning is a self driven process!

4. I’m too old to learn a language/I’m not good at learning languages.

As I said, learning a language is self-driven, and if you’re not putting in the work, you’re getting anywhere. There is no such thing as being “good” at learning a language, but there is such thing as finding the right method. Not everybody can learn through grammar and vocabulary drills, and not everybody finds it productive to learn with spaced repetition of sentences. You need to find what works best for you. And while there certainly is a ripe age for learning, there is no such thing as it being too late for you to learn a language. It may take you more time, but that doesn’t mean you’re not learning.

5. I didn’t understand a word of Person A speaking in Language B! What do I do? I didn’t learn anything!

Not being able to understand someone is perfectly normal. I still struggle with perfectionism and trying to understand as quickly as possible. But it is a gradual process. Native speakers are likely to speak much faster than a learner is comfortable with. And for all you know, the person in question speaks a dialect that is much more prone to speaking quickly and slurring words! The point is, don’t be disappointed when you don’t understand. Ask them to repeat themselves or tell them you don’t understand. It’s OK to make mistakes and it’s a part of learning.

I hope you found this article helpful and don’t forget to share it on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Method of Immersion: Bogus?

I have many relatives who believe that the only way I would ever learn Hindi is by sticking myself in a place where Hindi is the only language spoken. This way, I would supposedly adapt to the situation and pick up Hindi in pieces. However, this has only worked partially for me. The majority of my learning has come from traditional methods, through grammar, vocabulary, and reading. However, I will not deny the merits of immersion, because it has helped me grasp some concepts of the language in practice, and also some more idiomatic usages.

However, as a method of learning in its entirety, I am against the immersion method, particularly for beginners with no experience in the target language whatsoever. It is for the same reason that I greatly dislike Rosetta Stone. The immersion method exists on the principle of building up from an existing foundation, which assumes that the learner actually has one. However, those who are not familiar with even the trappings of a language or its roots will find it extremely difficult to benefit from this at all. Think about it; Why would you learn anything significant from somebody talking to you in what is, for all intents and purposes, gibberish? Living for six months in Seoul, knowing not a word of Korean or not being familiar with the language at all, will yield absolutely nothing in getting ahead in learning the language. Even a phrasebook would help you more than that.

The immersion method relies greatly on pictures, context, and most importantly, an environment that is dedicated to learning. The last one is the nail in the coffin, so to speak. Living in a place where you do not know the language is not conducive to learning for several reasons. One, the people around you have their own lives and probably won’t stop to help you learn, unless they know that you’re expressly there for that reason. Next is the fact that you don’t even know what you’re supposed to be learning, which is why you need to be familiar with the language’s grammar and vocabulary. It’s as if you were searching for a needle in haystack where there is no needle in the first place. As for pictures and context, those can be found in abundance, but are hardly useful if the script of the language is not the same as one you already know.

Therefore, I believe that is better to have some knowledge of the language on an analytical level, and then expose yourself to immersive situations in increasing degrees. That’s my piece for today, and even though it was relatively short, I hope you found it interesting. Please leave your comments, and feel free to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

Going Solo in Language

Since I’ve been learning Italian on my own for almost a year now, I thought I might share with you my tips and tricks for going solo in language learning. When you’re learning a language on your own, it can be difficult without formal instruction, but there are essential steps to do it effectively.

1) Get a feel for the way a language sounds. This is unimaginably important. Every day in my Spanish class, I hear that one person who either doesn’t bother to practice the accent or can’t, and simply doesn’t care. If you plan to actually use the target language, and you want people to understand you, then you’ll need to get the accent and pronunciation down. Listen to music in the target language, listen to a native or expert speaker (chances are the latter has a pretty good accent and pronunciation), and sound it out to yourself. You could even learn to sing the alphabet in that language. Speaking German does not mean sounding like you’re screaming at someone or coughing up a hairball, and speaking Italian does not mean imitating Mario and Luigi.

2) Grammar, grammar, grammar, and more GRAMMAR! No matter what someone tells you about immersion and learning the language that way, grammar is always a solid way to start building your foundation for your non-native target language. Know how a basic sentence is structured, learn conjugations, and how inflections or declensions in adjectives and nouns work. There’s never been a more sure-fire way than a high-school or college-level textbook.

3) Vocabulary is a must. The same way English teachers and textbooks give you vocabulary lists upon vocabulary lists to build your own functional speaking arsenal in English, learning a language requires that you have a pretty expansive vocabulary across a wide variety of topics, and you can command a language easily in discussing them. Grade-school children in the countries where the target language is spoken already have a decent vocabulary, even if they’re not giving lectures on political science or something in their mother tongue. What you need to do is organize vocabulary lists or flashcard sets such as on Quizlet in relation to specific topics. There’s a reason foreign language textbooks teach you all sorts of words you think you’re not going to need to use in lists of related words. Ask someone to quiz you, because some people are aural and oral learners. Or you can quiz yourself and internalize the words by saying the word out loud as you say the word in the target language and then saying it in your native language (By the way, MIX THE CARDS UP, because you’ll just end up memorizing the order of the words instead of the words themselves).

4) Understand the culture on the linguistic level. Every language, particularly the Eastern languages of the Middle East and Asia, has some level of cultural context and understanding. There are all sorts of reasons why this matters, ranging from when you need to be formal to whether you actually understand idioms and customs. The latter reason is especially important, because this is a far more apparent aspect in the way people speak in the Middle East and Asia. Korean, for example, has four levels of formality in use, formerly seven, and if used improperly, can make you come across as pompous or extremely rude. Indian languages have an extreme taboo on discussing death, except in certain idioms or jokes involving death (both of which are pretty rare). It’s always important to understand the culture of the native speakers of the language.

5) Practice with a native speaker or an expert in the target language. You are not going to get anywhere without being comfortable speaking with someone in the target language. Even now, I do not consider myself fluent in Spanish, even after having studied for six years, due to my rather limited vocabulary and mostly because I am not entirely comfortable speaking with others in Spanish. Speaking with a native or expert is the best way to learn the rhythm of the language, and how people intone and generally use their vocabulary.

6) If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times. REVIEW. I can’t stress how important it is to review your old material to keep your vocabulary and grammar fresh in your mind. You are human, and that means you are more than likely to forget things.

7) Write your own notes. From experience, I can say that reading other people’s notes or just reading from a book doesn’t help. For a lot of people, writing out their notes internalizes the material. And when I mean write, I actually mean, handwrite your notes. Typing them out isn’t as good as taking pen/pencil to paper. Besides, your written notes are more portable than typed ones. And when you go back to review, or explain something to someone else learning the same language as you, reading over the material written in your own words is much better for comprehension and retention.

8) This is kind of an extra, but it’s still important. Even if you don’t have the opportunity at the time that you’re learning, you should eventually aim to go to the place where the language is spoken widely. You don’t go to the middle of Pennsylvania to learn Tamil. You go to Tamil Nadu, where the language is most prevalent, written everywhere, and 95% of the time, the first person you pick off the street is a native speaker. By going to these places, you not only enjoy a new experience in traveling, you immerse yourself fully in the language and are forced to practice wherever you go. You also learn the cultural aspects of the language more deeply.

So, hopefully, you have an understanding of how to set out on a personal journey of learning a language fully and properly, now that you’ve read this!

Note: While I am not an avid supporter of the method, full immersion is a way that some people have used to learn languages. This involves forcing yourself to speak with other people who speak the language, learning from your mistakes, and building your vocabulary slowly but surely. I personally believe that this isn’t entirely effective, if you don’t already have some foundation for the target language. This is a part of my rationale for why grammar is so important to cultivating a foundation for the target language.

Anyway, thanks for reading!