Xenoglossophobia: the fear of learning a second language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Oct 3 10:36:54 UTC 2006

Forwarded from edling list:

San Miguel de Allende

 Doug Bower
October 1, 2006

After finishing the Part II article on San Miguel, I began racking my
brain trying to come up with solutions rather than my usual polemics. I
really believe that language insufficiency is a primary reason, if not the
sole reason, why little English-only colonies or Mexican-Free Zones form
when Americans expatriate to Mexico. The fear of learning a second
language is real. It is called Xenoglossophobia. I've written about this
extensively in several columns. I have even written an entire book on this
subject. Basically, this is a real phobia.  It could be the reason so few
Americans are bilingual. In America today, less than 9% of its citizens
are fluent in another language. In Europe, more than 52% have fluency in
another language. Some are multilingual.

I went to a university where a Bachelor of General Studies degree program
was created for the sole purpose of avoiding taking a foreign language.
Now, that is some phobia coursing through America. From my research for
previous articles and for the book I wrote, I've become convinced one
reason Xenoglossophobia is running rampant throughout America is
methodology. The way in which second languages are taught is so utterly
and abhorrently difficult and boring that no one in his right mind would
want to engage in this incorrect and archaic method. Who wants to be
handed a textbook, a workbook, a set of tapes, and a few thousand
vocabulary words to memorize, and then have someone tell you to have loads
of fun? And, let me point out, this is the way in which foreign languages
are taught virtually all over the world. Worse yet, when you take Spanish
lessons in Mexico at the private schools and in the Universities, the
identical methodology is used, only all the instruction is in Spanish!
Now, whose brilliant idea was that?

Sitting in a classroom where Spanish grammar is being taught in English or
Spanish is not going to teach you how to speak the language. It may make
you a good translator, but will not, indeed it cannot, develop a high
degree of spoken fluency. Some old and outdated science might be the
explanation for why second language acquisition is taught to teenagers and
adults in such a frighteningly horrid manner. The brain elasticity theory
was the concept that as you grow older, your capacity to absorb a foreign
language the way a child would becomes increasingly difficult. In other
words, an older person's brain is not as able to learn as it was when the
person was a child.

What the research for the last 50 years shows is that older adults can
learn a second language much the same way a child learns his or her first
language. Modern diagnostic technology shows the regions of the brain that
store languages, speech centers, are not the same regions that store
scientific formulas or historical dates. The chief problem with how second
languages are taught is the instructors try to pump a load of grammar
rules and vocabulary into your short-term memory and hope everything lands
magically in your long-term memory. The error is this is not how language
is acquired. It is how language translation techniques are learned, but it
is not how your first, second, third language is acquired.

Language acquisition should be distinguished from language learning.
Language acquisition is developing a speech center in your brain so you
can go on to learn the grammar rules and more vocabulary in the target
language. This is certainly a "which comes first, the chicken or the egg"
dilemma. If your goal is to acquire spoken fluency, then you have to
engage in a different method than the way Spanish is taught in almost
every single school on the planet. The mechanism for acquiring spoken
fluency in your native tongue is the identical mechanism for acquiring
spoken fluency in a second language.  True immersion courses are not--as
almost all the schools in Mexico claim--coming to Mexico and sitting in a
class where the same material you could have studied in the States is
taught, only all in Spanish.

That is not immersion. "Let me say here that the term immersion is also
ambiguous because some courses, as you also experienced, claim to be
immersion systems, but in fact are grammar-translation courses taught in
concentrated periods of time. The term immersion, as it is used in
second-language learning, refers to massive amounts of input with meaning,
similarly to the way we are exposed to and learn our first (native)
language." Input first, and output second. This is so key to your
understanding. This means that long before you begin trying to use the
language, output, there needs to be a period of time, just as children do
before speaking, in which you listen, input, to meaningful dialogue in the
targeted second language. This, I remain convinced, is the reason for the
lament that you hear so often,

"I've tried learning Spanish and just can't. It's too hard." You've got to
resort to methods that mimic the way in which you acquired your native
tongue. They are out there. You can get them. It is amazing so many people
believe there is some hocus-pocus magic in coming to Mexico to study
Spanish. There isn't any magic. Acquiring a high degree of spoken fluency
in a second language is a process that is as natural and normal as the way
you acquired spoken fluency in your native tongue. There are no shortcuts.
I received e-mail from a woman in San Miguel asking my advice on how to
find a community in which she could absorb the local culture. The issue is
one could do that in San Miguel if one acquired a high degree of spoken
fluency in Spanish. The San Miguel de Allende Mexicans I know and with
whom I've spoken--your neighbors--are waiting for that very thing.

Think about it!



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