teaching foreign languages at an early age
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
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.
Linguistics Minor Advisor
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
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