teaching foreign languages at an early age

Danielle E. Cyr dcyr at yorku.ca
Mon Jan 17 15:22:22 UTC 2011

Thanks Jo for your language learning narrative. It really interesting and
enlightening. Ii is also an incentive to add mine to our conversation.

I was born in an Acadian family of New Richmond in the Gaspé Peninsula
(Gaspesie) and thus raised in that variety of French. Both my parents were
children of teachers (my paternal grandmother an elementary school teacher and
my maternal grandfather a teacher’s college teacher). This means that we were
speaking  a less archaic variety of Acadian French than other children around
us. I have to add that New Richmond was then, and is still a bilingual town
with 20% English speakers and 80% French Speakers.

I learnt my first English with NYC Long Island kids who came with their parents
every year to spend the summer months in a log cabin close to our house. By the
age of ten I was able to converse in English with a definite Long Island accent.
My adult relatives used to burst in laughter when hearing me saying that I spoke
like a Yankee.

During teenage I then I socialized with New Richmond local anglophones and my
yankee accent shifted towards the Gaspé Peninsula regional accent (a mix of
canadianized Irish and Scottish accents I would say). Then the Québec
Independence movement arose and, in its wake all my generation got into the
idea that speaking English was a betrayal to the cause. So my English went

Meanwhile I was sent to a boarding school to do what was called in Québec a «
cours classique », i.e. eight years of classics and humanities starting in G8.
I then did a lot of English grammar and a bit of English literature + eight
years of Latin and six years of Old Greek. On the side with a classmate we
bought each a Assimil German and taught ourselves enough German. so After two
years I met some German tourists and I could carry a small conversation with
them, to my astonishment.

After a B.A. in linguistics I did a M.A. on tense and aspect in pre-classical
Latin, I then spent a year in Tuscany and taugh myself Italian from a book. It
was very easy mostly because I could use my French apply backward Latin to
French historical phonetics to it and hit the right Italian words. It was also
easy because I lived in the Tuscan countryside and the neighbours spoke nothing
else than Italian (Tuscan variety).

When I came back to Québec I enrolled in Italian courses at the university
level. When I first opened my mouth in the class the teacher laughed and said
that I spoke Italian like a Tuscan peasant. Anyway, I passed all levels of
Italian and even received an award from the Swiss Embassy for the best student
of Italian in Canada! When I went back to Tuscany, however, my good neighbours
said that my grammar had improved but my accent was impoverished ...

Meanwhile I enrolled in Inuktitut, Innu (Algonquian) and German at  university
level.  I started to teach myself Swedish with a book and tapes. Some times at
the end of the day my brain was so full of foreign languages that I could
hardly read the French advertisments in the bus I was taking for my ride home.
Anyway I passed all the exams that allowed me to go and study in Germany and I
could start to think in Inuktitut, Innu and Swedish

One year into my doctoral  (I was then 39) I went to do my coursework at
Stockholm University (with Östen Dahl and Ake Viberg). Getting there I could
understand about 75% of what was said in Swedish. I suppose I could have
started to speak right away but I was a bit shy and all the Swedes spoke such a
beautiful English that there seemed to me no way I could try my poor Swedish on
these great people. Also, because I was a Canadian people took for granted that
English was my first language so they wanted to take the opportunity to practice
their English with me. That is how MY English got a lot better in my first year
in Sweden because I learnt a lot more English from the Swedes than THEY ever
learnt from me! And, consequently, my English accent shifted again from the
Yankee-Gaspé variety to something a bit more British à la Swedish. It is only
after the first year, however, and having made a lot of friends that I became
quite fluent in Swedish I believe.

During my first summer in Scandinavia I went to immerse myself in Finnish
intensive courses for three weeks. I found Finnish very easy. In the first
place I was used to declensions because of Latin and Inuktitut, in the second
place Finns get so excited that somebody want to learn their language that they
are highly collaborative. Each Finn turns into a private teacher when you try
talking to them.  Third, at that time back in 1987 not a lot of them spoke
English so Finnish was the only way to communicate. Or else it would have had
to be Russian or German but I never told them that I spoke German. The
pronunciation is quite easy except for the fact that one has to get used to put
the stress on the first syllable instead of on the last like in French. After
three weeks of learning Finnish, on the eve of my departure I was able to go to
a taxi driver, explain to him that my boarding place (a student residence) had
no phone connection before 7 :00 a.m. and that I needed to catch a train at 6
:30 so could he come and fetch me a 6 :00 the morning after. All in Finnish
after three weeks only. Well, guess what, he had understood me because he was
there the morning after!

After my PH.D I went to teach at York University in Toronto, where I still am. I
had an Australian roommate for almost three years, thus my English accent
shifted again to become a bit Australian. And I became much more fluent than
ever. I watched every possible BBC Masterpiece theater, read most of the 19th
century English classics, and worked hard at improving my vocabulary. Sometimes
English speaking people would wonder where I was from with my 19th century
vocabulary and my unique blend of accents overlaying a slight French
background. Now, when in England I can shift from North American English to
British English without any difficulty.

>>From 1995 to 1997  I took a leave of absence and went for two years as school
principal in the Mi’gmaq reserve of Listuguj. I had already started to teach
myself the language from a teaching grammar and tapes. Getting there however, I
found that the linguistic situation was very tensed. Only people above 50 still
spoke. Those of them who worked in the school were so resentful that they
refrained from speaking in Mi’gmaq in front of me in case I would learn from
them. I was also forbidden to interview people and conduct any kind of
research, not to mention to publish. So I did not learn much. It is then that I
launched the sentence : « Trying to learn a dying language is like trying to
learn dancing with a dying dancer. »

So, in the end, I conclude that learning foreign languages successfully depends
on many factors : talent, love of languages and cultures, good teachers,
helping context, age, good teaching materials among others. The distance from
one’s own first language is easily compensated  by how nurturing the context
is, how helpful the native speakers are and how good the teaching material is.
If all these conditions are satisfied, the more languages one learns, the
easier they become to learn. The Pope is a good case.

Based on my personal experience also, retaining foreign languages is a matter of
practice of course; yet once a language has become dormant, it is quite easy to
reawake through practice in context. When I go back to either Italy, Germany,
Sweden of Finland, it takes about 4-5 days before I can resume speaking and
regaining fluency at a satisfying pace. I also find that improving one’s
fluency is possible at any age if there is need or interest.

This is my story,

By the way, I want to thank all my Swedish and Finnish friends and colleagues
who have been so patient and generous towards me with their time and knowledge.

"The only hope we have as human beings is to learn each other's languages.  Only
then can we truly hope to understand one another."

Professor Danielle E. Cyr
Department of French Studies
York University
Toronto, ON, Canada, M3J 1P3
Tel. 1.416.736.2100 #310180
FAX. 1.416.736.5924
dcyr at yorku.ca

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