teaching foreign languages at an early age

Johanna Rubba jrubba at calpoly.edu
Mon Jan 17 03:08:07 UTC 2011

I began studying Arabic in my mid-20's. I used a book from the old  
"Teach Yourself" series, which presented Classical Arabic, I think.  
Later, I lived in Tunisia for four years. I began using Tunisian  
Arabic for many everyday encounters after I had been there for about  
2.5 years. By my fourth year there strangers would ask me if I was  
from Algeria or some other Arabic-speaking country. My communicative  
range was, of course, pretty narrow, since I operated within a pretty  
restricted domain of experience (I used English, French, or German  
for most purposes), but it struck me that my accent and grammar were  
good enough for people to ask me that question. The biggest  
challenge, was, of course, the vocabulary, but I still had a good  
memory then!

I studied German for 7 years, from sophomore year of high school to  
senior year of college, and then lived in Germany from '76 to '78.  
Within four or so months, my comprehension was very good. A year or  
so in, people thought I was a native speaker; I came back with  
influence from the local dialect (Mainz). On a good day, I can still  
fool people, although I'm losing word genders, and that's a giveaway.

I have, however, found French extremely difficult, from the point of  
view of both pronunciation and grammar -- more difficult than Arabic,  
believe it or not. Still, if I hit the right balance between effort  
and relaxation, my French pronunciation can be pretty good.

I don't think there's any doubt that some people have a talent for  
learning other languages, even in adulthood. I was raised monolingual
English (though I did learn to speak Cat). I think one's talent can  
also be concentrated in one area over another -- pronunciation is  
particularly easy for me. I consider it an inborn talent (no brag).

I'd have to disagree with the idea that learning a Germanic language  
like German is easier for an English speaker than a less Germanic or  
less Indo-European language.  A lot of German words are obvious --  
Buch, Hand, Mann, gut -- but, in many, if not most, cases, sound  
change or semantic shift obscures the connection; this is compounded,  
of course, by English's massive loss of Germanic words and adoption  
of thousands of French, Latin, and Greek words. 'Oak' and 'Eich,'  
'Zeit' and 'tide,' 'treiben' and 'drive,' 'tragen' and 'draw' are all  
recoverable only if you can undo the sound changes and are familiar  
with the Old English lexicon. Then there's all that inflection! When  
I taught German as a TA at UCSD, my students just did not *get* case  
marking. Their minds were blown by the fact that changing a  
'reversible' sentence's word order would not change who did what to  
whom. It was always their weakest point.

Dr. Johanna Rubba, Ph. D.
Professor, Linguistics
Linguistics Minor Advisor
English Dept.
Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407
Ofc. tel. : 805-756-2184
Dept. tel.: 805-756-2596
Dept. fax: 805-756-6374
E-mail: jrubba at calpoly.edu
URL: http://cla.calpoly.edu/~jrubba

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