What I’ve Learned Coming Back to Language Teaching

So this year I came back to language teaching- Spanish specifically.  It has been four years since I taught language.  In the space in between I had focused on Special Education and getting my Master’s in TESOL.  Those experiences have greatly changed the way I approach my language classroom.  In my opinion, both have made me better at what I do.
So as I wrap up grading the final papers of the year, I am going to selfishly use this blog post as a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned this year as I dove back into this lovely, crazy field.

  1. Kids are never too old for puppets.  I’ve used puppets in every language class I taught and those included students from preschool age to high school.  Here’s the thing- somehow by using a puppet, the kid is less nervous about speaking.  It seems to provide some level of cognitive distance that allows them to feel safer taking risks and making mistakes.  Other teachers are doing similar things with avatars- if you are interested in this idea, check out this blog post.
  2. No matter how much I try, I can’t  understand why some kids will never understand basic formulas for sentence structures.  And no matter how much I can’t understand it, some kids are never going to get those formulas.  I’ve got to use work arounds.
  3. Joining Twitter was the single best decision I’ve made as a language teacher and learner.  That scares me.
  4. Food continues to be a powerful motivator.
  5. Letting go of some control makes my classroom a better place.  It is hard to do and I still require a high level of discipline- but interaction is essential for kids to learn and I’ve seen more students learn from each other this year than ever before.
  6. The best compliments you’ll get while teaching often come from those you least expect.  A student who never seemed to try all that hard said to me “You know for the first time I find myself thinking in Spanish outside of class.  I start taking notes in Spanish in the class after this.”  That is pretty cool.
  7. Some concepts are going to take the time they are going to take. The past couple of years this school’s Spanish program has been majorly disrupted.  Therefore the students are “behind” where I want them to be for their level and I tend to rush through a lot of concepts.  Surprise Surprise- they don’t retain the stuff I rush through.  I’ve got to realize that sometimes a little really well is better than a lot half-arsed.
  8. That said- there is a time to move on and realize exposure is sufficient  We went over commands in Spanish 3 this year.  In my opinion, due to the conglomeration of rules surrounding commands, this can be one of the toughest topics for students to pick up.  It was for this class for sure.  They struggled, they moaned, there was gnashing of teeth.  Finally we moved on to something else.  You know what?  It was fine.  They got the next concept without issue, they could still recognize the pieces of commands they needed, and the world went back to a relative normal acquisition of Spanish.  Sometimes exposure is enough.
  9. Students put a lot of stock in vocabulary and worry about not knowing enough.  I plan to show the video I posted last week in class next year to help combat this.  There are hundreds of thousands of words in most languages- you simply can’t know them all.  But the right 6000 will go a long way.
  10. Times have changed SO much in just four years and it fills my heart with joy.  When I started teaching Spanish right out of college, the #1 obstacle I faced was students saying “Why the heck do we have to learn this?  Everyone speaks English anyway!”  I can proudly say not ONE of my students ever stated that this year.  My students seem to understand that learning languages is valuable to them in both professional and personal development.We’ve come a long way from a principal who suggested it was insane that I made my students speak the language to a principal who reprimanded a student who continuously complained about me speaking Spanish with our foreign exchange student.  (**Important note- I always translated what we were saying so that students did not feel left out or talked about.  Not that I should have to.**)

I can honestly say I fell back in love with language teaching this year.  I love my job in general because it let’s me pursue both my passions- language teaching and special education.  Despite being very ready for a much needed break (yay summer!) I am actually excited about preparing new curriculums and materials for next year.

For now my Polyglot peeps, I must bid you Auf Wiedersehen so that I may grade the 9000 papers waiting for me.  (Only slight exaggeration.)  If any of you teach, I’d love to hear your reflections as well.  Students, feel free to share the best or worst strategies your teachers have used.  Meanwhile, keep that language groove going!

(Who doesn’t love hitting the sample music buttons for these things at Wal-mart and Target? 😉 )
Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/26/14.

 

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Linguistic Vocabulary Unleashed

       Okay I may have oversold with the title.  Tonight I’m just going to explain 2 simple Linguistic terms.  These terms however can explain a lot of confusion many people have about what it means to “learn a language.”

Language learning can be looked at as having 2 stages, especially for those who are still in the world of academia.  These two stages are often referred to as BICS and CALP.

BICS- Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills

These are your basic social and functional language skills.  Introducing yourself, making a purchase at a local store, even basic dating talk all fall in this category.  These skills tend to be picked up relatively quickly.  They are full of scripted phrases with easily predictable responses.  Most students in an immersion environment master these skills in 1-3 years.

Unfortunately for many ESL students, this leads teachers and peers to the erroneous believe that they “speak English” and therefore should be able to do the same level of work as everyone else.  What they fail to take into account is that while these students have indeed mastered daily life language skills, they have not yet mastered the second stage of language learning which is crucial in the academic arena

CALP- Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

THIS is key.  This is learning all the academic vocabulary necessary for your scholastic endeavors.  This includes both contentvocabulary (specific words by subject area such as allusion in a Literature class or photosynthesis in Biology) as well as structural vocabulary (words like paraphrase, summarize, and compare) which are necessary to complete academic tasks.

Many native speakers struggle with this type of vocabulary.  We often see students who come from homes with less print-rich environments (i.e. less reading and books available) struggle with picking up these new vocabulary terms.  One could argue that they have to learn a new sociolect (think dialect but associated with socioeconomic status).  This type of language is much more difficult for ESL students to pick up, as well as language learners of all tongues.  On average it takes students 5-7years to pick up CALP in their new language.

This why a student may very well be able to shoot the shit about their favorite movies with their peers but not be able to write an effective compare and contrast essay about a book and a film from class.  They may have their BICS but not have fully developed their CALP.

So I think I’ve made it clear why it’s important to understand the difference between these two from a teaching perspective.  But what about as a learner?  Do they matter?

      I think so.  For one thing, understanding the amount of time it takes to pick up each helps one develop a realistic time frame about how long it will take them to do so.  If you want to be able to read scholastic articles in your new language, you are looking at a longer time frame than someone who just wants to order coffee.

For another, I feel like these two can really help someone set their goals in the first place.  Is your goal to be sufficiently sociable in your new language, or do you want to enjoy its literature, history, and other academic contributions?  EITHER IS PERFECTLY OKAY, just one requires a bigger time commitment.  A friend of mine asked me to teach her Spanish.  I asked her what her goals were and she said “I just want to get my BICS.”  Perfect- now I know how to focus your instruction.

In a future post, I’ll talk about the best ways to develop each.  For now, I hope it’s enough to understand the difference and to use this knowledge to help set your goals, pacing, and time frames in realistic ways- enough to challenge, but not so much as to frustrate.

For now, I bid all of you fair followers adieu.  I’m only 1 away from 50- how crazy is that?  Thank you for your support and general linguintastic awesomeness.  Feel free to hit up that message box with your ideas, comments, and tips to share.  Ta Ta For Now!

 

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/20/14.

My Current Bookmarks

These were my bookmarks as of May 2014.  Things have changed some since then, so perhaps I will update at some point.  But I still think many of these links are useful, so I’m posting it.

Tonight I’m exhausted and so I don’t feel up to explaining Dual Instruction Schools, which was my original plan for a post.  Instead, I’m going to share with you a variety of websites I currently have under my language folder on my bookmarks.  I hope some of these resources will be useful to you.

General Linguistic Info

ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

ACTFL (American Council for Teachers of Foreign Languages) has this guide on ranking students language levels (Novice- Beginner (Low to High)- Intermediate (Low to High) – Advanced (Low to High)).  If you are curious where you stack up, or what is necessary to be considered at different levels, it can be an interesting read, though a bit repetitive in parts.

Living Tongues

This site provides information on endangered languages, a topic near and dear to my heart.  Many languages are being wiped out due to the widespread use of English and other tongues.  (Also as a result of peoples being dispersed due to genocide and commercialization.)  When a language is wiped out, often forms of knowledge and wisdom inherent to the language are wiped out as well.  Please educate yourselves on this topic- as linguists, it is truly a cause to be cognizant of and something to work to change.

Multi-Language Learning Sites

Duolingo

I already gave a product review on this, but it is a still a great beginner site.  It offers several languages in a game like format, with additional opportunities to translate real text.  It primarily offers European languages right now, but they seem to be adding quickly.

Memrise

I haven’t played with this one yet but it looks promising.  Mostly vocabulary instruction, but it does have several Asian languages, in addition to the European ones. (Small update- I’m a HUGE Memrise user now- so I definitely owe this one a separate article now.)

iTalki

$$$ Again, one I haven’t used BUT this site hooks you up with one on one tutors for the language of your choice.  It does cost money, but if you are willing to pay (particularly if you are having trouble locating tutors for the language of your choice), what a great find!  It also might be a great choice if you are trying to up your speaking level before a major trip. (Small update- I’ve used the FREE parts of this site now and have looked into tutoring, just haven’t had a need to take the plunge as I currently have a local speaking partner.)

 

Japanese

AJATT

Khatzumoto has been around for a bit but isn’t always easily found by new language learners.  While not a personally a big fan of his method, he does provide a lot of good resources and tips for learning Japanese.  He also shares a lot about how he personally learned Japanese- and who knows?  Maybe his strategies are right for you.  There’s a lot of information there, so pace yourself.  You can also follow him on twitter @ajatt.

http://www9.plala.or.jp/system19/

Going to admit right now that I am not the best at navigating this site.  However, if you are familiar with video/torrent sites, you probably won’t have lots of trouble.  Basically it is a collection of Japanese videos, both anime and real action J-dramas.  Lots of listening practice!

Lingulift- Top 10 YouTube channels for learning Japanese

Some of these youtube channels are great; others are more culture driven and actually are produced in English.  Still, if you are looking for places to start, a list is always helpful.

http://japaneseclass.jp/

Kanji and Kana learning games… need I say more?

Erin’s Challenge

This will be the site I play with FIRST this summer.  Video lessons for beginning Japanese- it looks kickass.  Check it out!

ASL

ASLU

My current FAVORITE site.  Bill Vicars has provided what I’ve searched for over many YEARS- a quality way to learn ASL.  Most local library only offer dictionaries, which fails to expose one to the grammar and structure of ASL.  In addition, I don’t know anyone deaf or hard of hearing in my community to practice with.  This site has given me the tools I need to finally make the progress I’ve wanted for so long.

ASL with Rob Nielson

Some of this site is free, other portions require a fee.  However, quality ASL sites can be hard to find, so here is a good start for your sign language learning endeavors.

Start ASL

Another great starting point, with complimentary workbook.

Described and Captioned Media Program

So what’s this?  Only the motherload of ASL resources.  Consider it a combo of Netflix and Youtube for Deaf culture and media.  There are deaf movies, instructional ASL videos, and documentaries on Deaf culture all available to you.  You do have to sign up- if you are a student or teacher it’s free.

Spanish

Spanish Proficiency Exercises

Here are some basic Spanish listening opportunities, divided up by level and complete with transcribed copy.  They have a lot of different countries and dialects represented.

Rockalingua

This site is geared towards kids.  That said, kids’ materials sometimes jazz up an otherwise monotonous language study routine.  Flashcards can become dull and sometimes you just want something fun.   Why not ignite your inner child with a sing-a-long or storybook read aloud in your new target language?

Well, this is an incredibly long list but I hope you find it useful.  I’d be happy to share any resources any of you find particularly useful- just hit up my mailbox with links and notes so we can share the language love.  And as I’m unable to come up with a clever quote mashup with the words Language or Polyglot, here are some words some cats would like you to learn.

 

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/13/14.

Flashcards- Make Your Life Easier

There are a lot of differing opinions out there in regards to flashcards and language learning.  Many linguists and polyglots will say that they are not an authentic way of learning the language, and therefore should be avoided.  Others will point out that at some point memorization plays a role in all learning and flashcards can be a great tool to promote that process.

I tend to subscribe to the latter philosophy, but like many people find making and doing flashcards a bit tedious.  I also know that making and storing paper flashcards can be a pain (literal and metaphorical- damn you hand cramp!).  Not to mention at some point you are likely to have so many flashcards that the sheer number makes the idea of trying to review them overwhelming.

Technology to the Rescue!

There are Internet applications called SRS- spaced repetition systems.   These are digital flashcard systems that keep track of which cards you need to study MOST.  You create the cards, set your preferences for max number of cards per day, and review them.  The computer program randomizes the order of the cards, of course, but it also provides you with an opportunity to rate how well you remember the card.  This could be from not at all to kind of to I got this!  Based on how you rate the card, the computer then determines how long it will be until it shows you that card again.  This way the I got this! cards don’t show back up for several days, while the “Is that even a word?  Did I really type that in?” cards may return in just a few hours or even minutes for review.

The beauty of this is that after the first few days of inputting and reviewing cards, you return to a very manageable number of cards to review.  You don’t have to go through all 1001; instead, you can focus on the 50 that are really tough for you.

I personally use the Anki system.  I have it downloaded onto my computer but you can actually do everything from the web.  (In fact, if I was just starting now, this is what I would do.  Makes your cards much more portable.)  I believe they do have working interfaces for most tablets and phones so you can make your flashcards as mobile as you are.

Here are 3-4 SRS programs and their sites to check out if you think this is something you might want to try.  (By the way, they are all FREE.)

Anki: http://ankisrs.net/

Surusu: http://www.surusu.com/  The writer of the blog AJATT (All Japanese All the Time) recommends this one.  My fellow polyglot amigo who I often reference in this blog is also a user.

 

 

Mnemosyne: http://mnemosyne-proj.org/    I do not know anyone who has personally used this, but that does NOT mean it’s not a great program- check it out and see if it fits your needs.

 

 

Super Memo: http://www.supermemo.com/english/smintro.htm I am not sure if this program *technically* falls into the SRS category.  Again, I have not personally used it.  However, it does claim to be learning method to improve memorization, so it’s worth checking out.

UPDATE: Memrise is now my tool of choice and beats the rest to me in terms of versatility.  I’ll probably do a post just on how awesome they are at some point.

Flashcards AREN’T for everyone.  But if you think they’d be a valuable tool for you, I suggest making them as efficient as possible and get the most out of the time you spend reviewing.  If anyone else knows of a great SRS program that I’ve not included, please feel free to inbox me so I can let our fellow Polyglots know.

May the language force be with you… and you… and you…

 

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 04/07/14.

Where on Earth Do I START?

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First of all- welcome all you lovely new followers!  While not British, the only word that comes to mind to describe how I feel about all the attention my last post received is chuffed.  It’s a fine word for it- Martin Freeman would approve.  I hope you continue to find my posts useful or at least entertaining.

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You have decided to learn a new language.  You are committed- you are willing to shell out some financial resources (within reason), you have carved some time into your hectic schedule, you have set a goal and by golly, you achieve your goals.  You are good to go!

That is, until you walk into a bookstore and stare blankly at the rows and rows of language learning materials.  Or you do a Google Search and find a dozen sites and that’s not including the advertised ones.  If this is your first rodeo, you don’t have the first clue what gear and get-up you need.

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Please allow me to be of service.Here are my suggestions.

1.Start simple.

When I first started being interested in languages (and had disposable income), I bought every resource imaginable.  I stored dozens of websites in a folder in my bookmarks list.  I even checked out every library book I could find.  The result?

I was so overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information that I didn’t really absorb any of it.

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If this IS your first rodeo, I suggest you start with ONE good source, maybe 3 at the most.  That doesn’t mean don’t dabble with others- just don’t commit beyond your means and in this case your means are your study time and your brain’s maximum intake.  As you find a rhythm, you’ll learn how to navigate more smoothly between various sources and use resources appropriately.  But in my experience, too many resources at the beginning is similar to too many cooks in the kitchen.  You get frustrated and distracted and before you know it, you’ve burned the sauce.

2. Get the RIGHT resources

I am a public school teacher.  I am someone who learns best in a classroom environment.  Therefore I DO advocate getting a quality textbook.  Why?  GOOD textbooks do the following:

  • Structure learning in a format similar to how the brain takes in linguistic information (i.e. it puts the morphemes and syntax structures in an order that linguists have come to call the “natural order” or the order your brain would learn them in under immersion circumstances.)  This means you are more likely to actually retain the new structures because you’ve learned the ones your brain sees as prerequisites first.
  • Blend vocabulary and grammar together.  New language learners tend to get completely focused on one or the other.  In my opinion, your adult brain needs both.  You don’t need to spend 5 years deducing the grammar from a series of authentic sentences- you can speed it up.  Likewise, learning all the grammar in the world may make you able to explain how a language works, but it won’t get you speaking it.  You need both to optimize your language learning.
  • Offer a variety of practice strategies and activities.  These can be especially useful if you have a language learning partner but aren’t sure where to start with conversational practice.  Trying some of the book exercises and discussing your answers together can help improve your recall and the depth of your comprehension of new content.
  • Make you aware of cultural information.  While not a substitute for authentic material and situations, textbooks often include snippets of real literature, information about famous persons, and notes on cultural quirks and customs that are unique to the area that speaks your new language.  These can be both useful and interesting and may give you ideas on where to look for more information, both on your language and its culture.

What do I mean by a GOOD textbook?  Well, that could be a post all on its own.  Without going off on too much of a tangent, I suggest looking at what textbooks local colleges and high schools are using.  Take note of the copyright- make sure it is within the last decade as linguistic research has radically changed how textbooks are organized now.  Current textbooks, such as Avancemos for Spanish, are much more skill-based and culture rich than their predecessors.  You can often find used copies of books online.  They may be a bit pricey, so do your research first.  However, a great textbook is well worth a few extra dollars.

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(I highly recommend Japanese in Mangaland and  corresponding workbook.  It is fun and well-structured.) (For any language, I am not a big fan of the For Dummies or Everything About series.  Both tend to put too much grammar into one chapter and do not provide enough opportunities to reinforce the material.  But to each their own.)

 

 

You will also eventually need a good dictionary.  This could be in the form of an app with today’s technology, though I admit to still being a fan of my old hardback copy.  (I’ll explain why in another post.)  There is a lot of controversy over whether one should use a target language to native language dictionary or a dictionary IN the target language (i.e. Webster’s but with Spanish definitions).  Personally I think both have their uses and especially if you are going the digital route and can find such resources for free or cheap, I suggest getting both.

3.Use social media wisely

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Social media can be a great way for you to get a daily dose of your language, even when life throws you a curveball and you can’t study.  I set my Facebook into either Spanish or Japanese at all times.  (Word to the wise- take a mental note of how many lines down the “Account Settings” button is before you do this.  It will help if there is a vital reason you need to change it back.)  My cellphone is also in Spanish.  This means every SINGLE day (heck let’s face it, almost every hour), I am confronted by some foreign text.  The great thing?  My brain quickly STOPS thinking about it as foreign text.  It starts seeing a puzzle to solve and eventually recognizes words without me even realizing I learned them.

Twitter and Tumblr are two other great sources.  Follow 1 or 2 people that are either native speakers of your L2 or who offer something in it.  There is a great tumblr blog called Spanish-quotes that takes popular English quotes and translates them.  That can be a great positive start to your day and your learning.  On Twitter I follow musicians, sports stars, news sites, and so forth to get a daily dose of language.  The news sites can be especially useful in your growth in language, as they often link to actual articles so that as your vocabulary improves you can start increasing your reading exposure.  Don’t sell those celeb tweets short however; many of those can teach you about modern slang and “texting” type writing skills you WON’T find in any textbook.

4.Balance your materials

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I said it earlier in my pro-textbook rant but I’ll repeat.  You NEED to balance grammar and vocabulary.  Having both WILL increase your efficiency in language learning.  It is important to note however that YOUR balance and MY balance may look different.  I am a very grammar driven person and so my balance is probably 60-40, with grammar leading the way.  I have friends who hate language rules and their balance looks more like a 30-70 split with vocabulary clearly winning.  I stress that you tweak your program until you find the balance that feels right for YOU.

You also need to balance your skills.  Try to get yourself using all 4- listening, speaking, reading, and writing- as soon as possible.  A good book will likely promote this, but if you find yourself struggling, check out italki or a similar site for ideas to work each skill.  Youtube is filled with listening opportunities, PalTalk and Skype are filled with native speakers to connect with, and there are e-pal matching websites all over the web.  Reading material is a news or Wikipedia search away. (Or check out LingQ which has tons of reading and listening material.)  Use your tools- but don’t let them use you.   Find one or two you like, make your habits, and keep it simple until you are ready to add more.

Don’t become paralyzed by the sheer abundance- recognize that banquets are great, but you don’t have to stuff yourself to the brim.  Take what you want now- the rest will still be there later for you to partake.

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5.Follow your OWN gut

This is easily the most important on the list.

You may be reading this thinking “But I freaking HATE textbooks.  I like mess, I like jumping from one thing to the next.  I have lots of native input available to me and that is where I want to start.”  You want to know how I respond to that?

More power to you.

The MOST important thing you must do as a language learner is to take charge of your own learning.  You have to be intrinsically motivated for this- it’s a lifelong process and while external factors may help light the fire, only you can stoke the coals.

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This means you have to know yourself well.  Know how you learn and how you need to organize your time and materials.  Do you need to schedule study sessions or assign yourself tasks?  Do you need lots of grammar and slow and steady increase of vocabulary?  Or do you prefer to flood yourself with words and reference grammar as you go to help parse it all out?  Do you need to keep a binder of your notes, with tabs for vocabulary sections and grammar concepts and skills input practice?  Do you even NEED to take notes?

For me personally, I need about 60% grammar at the beginning and 40% vocabulary in terms of my direct instruction.  I need simple skills practice spread out over a reasonable length of time.  I challenge myself to do ONE thing with my languages daily but I don’t assign a time or specifics to which thing I do what day.   I keep a notebook and my materials together and do often use highlighters and tabs to color code my work.  If I can, I attend a class.  At minimum, I find a language partner.  THIS is what works for me.  BUT it’s not what works for everyone.  My friend who I’ve often mentioned before is a much more solitary learner.  He is not one for taking notes or book instruction.  He is one for diving into authentic material head-on.  He is, paradoxically to some people, also a HUGE grammar nut.  He is a big fan of processes like shadowing and constant audio input.  He had successfully taught himself Japanese BECAUSE he KNOWS what works for him.

I give you my advice from my own experiences both as a learner and a teacher of languages.  But I would be amiss to not request that you use them only as you yourself see fit.  I hope this gives a bit of clarity to anyone lost in the overwhelming sea of “where do I begin?”  Here, my friend, have a life preserver.

And then?  Just keep swimming. 😉

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/31/14.

When You Look in the Mirror

Last week I wrote about what I see as the #1 reason why many people don’t learn languages.  They start off with the best of intentions, but don’t actually make consistent  use of the tools they acquire.

This IS a huge reason why many people don’t end up being the bodacious bilinguals they want to be.  But there is a sadder reason why others don’t achieve it.

They don’t think they can.

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I have met so many people who tell me they just don’t have what it takes to learn a language.  Their reasons often include:

–       I’m not smart enough.

–       My memory sucks.

–       I just don’t have a “knack” for languages.

–       I’m too old.  (Often spoken by people under 40.)

This saddens me folks, because scientifically speaking you absolutely DO have a knack for languages.  Your brain is hard-wired to process it- it’s been doing so since you were born.  If you competently speak your first language, then you ARE capable of speaking a second or even a third or more languages.

(To those worried about not possessing an innate ability or talent for languages, I’d like to mention that linguists are actually in hot debate over whether or not such a thing actually exists.  The two primary professors of my graduate program in TESOL studies differed greatly.  My advisor did NOT believe there was such a thing as “innate talent for languages” while my other professor did think some people had more of a knack for it than others.  I’ll debate this topic at some point with a few polyglot friends of mine but for now take comfort in the fact that there have been NO conclusive studies to show that certain people have any more talent for languages than others.  You CAN do this.)

Intelligence and memory do help.  I’d be lying if I told you otherwise.  BUT intelligence is multi-faceted and where it seems inadequate in one area, it often more than makes up for it in another.  Memory can be improved and there are a plethora of ways to do so.  (Some will be discussed here.)  But also realize this- you really only need about 500 words to start reading and speaking at a basic level in any language.  That sounds like a lot until you realize the average language has 250,000 words.  That means you only need to learn 0.2% of the vocabulary available in order to really get started.  I promise once you get started, vocabulary will generally add itself naturally to your mental inbox, just like it does in English.

(Sidenote- English, last I checked, has more than 1 million words still listed as in effective use.  You speak this language without knowing all of them- you can do it for another.)

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(For the record- I love this lady.  She kept it real.  I don’t mean any disrespect in posting this.)

Finally, to my favorite MYTH to crush.  “Young people learn languages faster… you’ll never be bilingual if you didn’t learn as a child… I’m too old.”  This is one misconception that I’d love to annihilate from the planet because it is absolutely, completely, 100% FALSE.  That’s right, folks.  Your age does NOT impair your ability to learn language.

 

 

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In fact, studies have shown that adults are capable of learning languages much FASTER than their kid student counterparts.  Why?  You have all this awesome background knowledge to help you!  You know by this point how to study (though we could all use a few pointers in a new subject area), you know a first language solidly and can make connections across languages, and you even have a wide array of mental images and memories that you can attach new information to, helping your brain access it faster and more efficiently.

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The ONLY aspect of language where children excel beyond adults is in pronunciation. As we age, the cilia in our ears decrease. That’s why you can’t hear as high of frequencies with age.  This also means your ability to discern nuances between sounds (specific phonemes) also decreases. However, you are still more than capable of speaking the language within the “range of acceptability”- i.e. in a manner that native speakers can
understand you.

The big difference between kid and adult learners is kids don’t consciously realize they are learning a language and they often feel they HAVE to learn the language in order to get what they want.  If Mom only speaks Spanish (at least to them), then if they want milk, by golly they’ve got to learn that word leche.  We learn what we have to in order to satisfy our own needs and desires.  I am certain at some point in your career you have been tasked with something you were uncertain how to do.  (If you haven’t, *SPOILER ALERT*, you will be.)  Your choice was learn how to do the task or find another job.  I’m guessing most chose the former.

Okay, I’ve rambled enough.  What’s my point?

My point is this- if you look in the mirror everyday and the person you see is someone incapable of learning a new language, then my friend you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.  As Henry Ford once said:

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

Most of us life-long learners like to make goals and that is fantastic.  What’s important is to remember there are three kinds of goals: appearance, performance, and identity.  (Please see this blog for a way more thorough and much better explanation than I’m about to give.)

Appearance goals are the ultimate achievements. Your appearance goal as a polyglot is likely a visual image of yourself conversing easily with natives of your target language. This is great- but ultimately you don’t have a lot of control over this BIG goal. The control you do have comes from achieving a series of smaller goals that all contribute to it.

These are called Performance goals. This could be to learn twenty words a week, or spend ten minutes a day listening to the news your L2, or even read the newspaper in your new language once a month.  These are tangible, actionable pieces that are invaluable to you achieving your ultimate, appearance goals.  But before you start creating these, there is one more set of goals you HAVE to address.

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Identity goals are, in my humble opinion, the KEY to achieving the rest of this puzzle. This is about how you see yourself.  Are you someone who is incapable or incompetent at learning languages?  Or do you see yourself as a future polyglot?  Do you look in the mirror and see an explorer ready to tack a new set of words and syntax, a voyager into the lands of verbs unknown? If you start seeing the potential in yourself, the rest of the goals are going to be MUCH easier to achieve.

NOTE- I said easier and not easy.  You still have to do the work and there will be days you don’t want to.  But if you see yourself as capable of mastering your L2, if you stop seeing your brain as an obstacle and rather as a fantastic tool, you CAN become the polyglot of your own dreams.

Now, for a bit of tough love before I sign off.  Many people use the “I can’t learn a language” phrase to mask this reality: “I’d like to be able to speak another language but I don’t want to put in the work.  To these people let me say this:

It is perfectly OK if you do not feel you have the time, energy, or motivation to devote to learning a new language.  What is NOT okay is perpetuating the idea that some people are incapable of doing so.

Every time you say that about yourself, others hear it and absorb that message.  Particularly young ears.  They become convinced that the ability to pick up a new language is something “you’ve either got or don’t.”  And far too early students convince themselves they don’t got it.  That’s the sad part.

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Be honest with yourself.  Do you really WANT to learn a new language, to the point that you are willing to make the relationship sacrifices I discussed last week?  If not, fine.  Just admit that to yourself and others.

But if you are, do NOT let anyone, especially your inner demons convince you that you can’t.  You are more than capable, and with the right set of tools, you are unstoppable.

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/17/14.