teaching foreign languages at an early age

A. Katz amnfn at well.com
Mon Jan 17 13:59:11 UTC 2011


German and English are bad examples of "similar" languages, because 
despite the genetic relationship, they are very different structurally, 
and so the only thing that is helpful for English speakers in German are 
a few stray lexical cognates. That doesn't help achieve grammatical fluency.

Sometimes two languages can have some degree of structural similarity and 
not be genetecally related at all (at least in any way that's attested.)

I started studying Russian in college, as a minor. I was able to speed 
through the beginning material really fast, because something about 
Russian was very familiar. I'd never spoken any other Slavic language, and 
yet the syntax more or less made sense, and I had no trouble putting 
together a sentence that didn't sound strange. The accent was also easy to 
pick up. Some things, like case and aspect, were not as familiar, but not 
hard to learn. After only about two years of study, I could converse and 
pass myself off as, if not exactly a "Russian", a Ukrainian. ;->

At the time, I was an adult, and I considered myself to be "talented" at 
languages. Most people who knew me thought so, too. I got a degree in 
foreign languages, with a concentration in French and a minor in Russian 
and German.

Then I went to law school and didn't do anything with languages for 
about twelve years, then went back to grad school, got a Ph.D. in 
linguistics, and eventually a job teaching in Taiwan. I went there 
believing that I was good at languages, and that I would be fluent in a 
matter of months. It didn't work out that way. Here are some of the 
factors that may have made the difference:

    * I was thirty-eight when I arrived. I think brain plasticity changes 
over time, and someone who is able to pick something up fast at eighteen 
or twenty or even twenty-eight isn't as good at it at thrity-eight or 

    * I had a full time job and no time to play. I didn't socialize 
outside the workplace or explore after hours. I was too exhausted.

    * Eventually I had a baby to take care of as well as a job, as well as 
old business in the states.

    * Mandarin is very different from the languages I had known previously. 
It wasn't a superficial fit with some other language I knew. It was my 
first tone language, and I could not seem to open a new category for tone, 
even though I could mimic the sounds well.

These are some of the factors that go in to making someone appear to be 
"talented" or not at language. For whatever it's worth, I did not speak 
Mandarin like an American, and nothing about the way I used it suggested 
that to the locals. Instead, one merchant asked me if I was Korean!

I don't know much about Catalan, but I am wondering if there might not be 
some grammatical or areal feautures of the language that might make Arabic 
not that hard to learn, if you already speak Cat. After all, Spanish had 
some Arabic influence in it in general, and I imagine that all languages 
spoken on the Iberian peninsula have Semitic influences from both the 
moorish conquests and the earlier Carthaginian occupation.

When we are talented at something, there is usually a reason 
for it, even if we don't know what that reason is. Chances are it has more to 
do with function, and less to do with labels.





On Sun, 16 Jan 2011, Johanna Rubba wrote:

> 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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