Friday 14 November 2014

How Languages are Learned

Scientifically proven to improve pronunciation of  rz and szcz.
As long-time readers know, my family has a passion for languages. That is to say, most of us dabble in them and get rather good at one, two or three. I was a terrible dabbler as an undergrad, when I had no work ethic. It took work to get a work ethic.

And even after that it hurt. I can still remember long hours of toil in the one very handsome hall at Boston College, working away at translating St. Augustine. Christian Latin was my favourite class, and 100% heresy free.  Oh heavens, and there was some Early Church Father I elected to study whose work on the Holy Spirit was available only in Greek,  Latin and French, so that meant sitting down and reading pages and pages of theological French. What a killer.

Now that I am out of school, the two languages in which I am immersed on a regular basis are Polish (every day for at least an hour, usually more) and Christian Latin (Mass). Polish has a reputation for being the most difficult language for English-speakers to learn, and that may be well-deserved. I suspect that if  I put this much effort into my Italian, I would be fluent in Italian by now.  It would help that I have been studying Italian, on and off, since I was 15 years old, of course. Taking up Polish at the age of thirty-nine was wonderfully optimistic.

For, alas, I have been reading an interesting book called How Languages are Learned, and if you want to speak a language without a foreign accent, you really need to move to that country as a child and learn to speak it there. However, this can stunt the adult development of your native language, depending on how much interest your parents take in it. That said, the very best, most efficient learners of a foreign language are teenagers.

I cannot go back to being a teenager, so I am heartened by the news that adult learners can indeed achieve fluency in a language through sheer hard work. Says the book:

some of history's most successful learners of multiple languages...their unusual talent was also associated with a willingness to work hard at tasks that many would consider too boring or difficult, such as using word cards to study vocabulary. (p. eighty-three).  

My dad, who teaches linguistics, told me that this book was an easy read, which it undoubtedly was for him.  However, even a non-linguist  can profit from its amusing and heartening information. For example, the ridiculous letters I send off to amuse Poles are not written in pidgin after all but in something called an "interlanguage."

 Polish is the "target language", and what I am creating as I learn Polish is my own "systematic" and "dynamic" interlanguage. It is dynamic in that it changes and becomes more like proper Polish the more data about Polish I absorb.  And what is very neat is that interlanguage follows the same stages for almost everyone.

Interlanguage involves "bursts of progress" and also plateaus. One can expect to hit a plateau eventually, and then something "stimulates further progress." Sadly, the book did not suggest what the something might be, although in my experience getting a new email in Polish is a great boost.

The book is very hot on vocabulary, although one needs only 1,000 - 2,000 words to get by in ordinary life. However, you may need as many as SIXTEEN "meaningful encounters" with a word before it is "firmly established" in your vocabulary.

The best source of vocabulary growth is reading for pleasure, although the book argues that to learn words passively, you need to understand 90-95% of the text already. This is bad news for me, diligently reading Harry Potter in Polish while understanding perhaps 50%. However, eventually I will start making flashcards out of Harry'a Potteriego, and then we will see. Meanwhile. "vocabulary development is more successful when...fully engaged in activities that require [students] to attend carefully to new words and use them in productive tasks." This is where writing letters, stories and mini-essays comes in handy.

The book recommends  keeping a notebook, looking up words in a dictionary and reviewing what has been learned. And this very much reminds me of when I was a child of eight, diligently keeping a diary, writing stories, looking up words in the dictionary (with some prodding by my mother) and rereading what I had written. I was also a terrible bookworm and constantly read storybooks. And I had many people to whom to speak English, as my parents kept giving me new brothers and sisters.

That was an advantage of childhood I don't have now, for I am gravely inhibited in my speaking of Polish, whereas very little could stop me from chattering away to my family in English. Inhibition is  indeed a serious problem, according to How Languages are Learned. Fortunately, it turns out that inhibition can be lessened and pronunciation improved through the drinking of small amounts of alcohol. Larger amounts of alcohol, however, ruin pronunciation, and I am disappointed that the book did not suggest how small is "small." I suspect that one cocktail is not enough and two cocktails are too many, but I will research this when Polish Pretend Son arrives tomorrow.

One advantage I have now that I did not have as a child or a teenager is the ability to take, and even welcome, correction. I used to show teachers extra writing in a "look at ME" kind of way, in English and in Italian, and be greatly distressed when instead of simply admiring my efforts, they covered them in red ink. Naturally they were just doing their job, but instead of learning from corrections, I  wept or sulked and never showed them anything extra again. And that's too bad, for if I had kept on writing in Italian from the age of 16,  I might be a Joseph Conrad by now--or a second-rate imitator of Alberto Moravia, whose work we were reading at the time.  On ne sait jamais, as we did not say in Italian class.

Truly, there is no room for ego or hurt feeling in language learning. You just have to face up to the fact that it took you at least six years to speak your native language with any sophistication and it is probably going to take you just as long to speak your second (or third) language as flawlessly as a native six year old. But fortunately you are more intellectually developed than a six year old, so you will at least be having adult conversations, even if you sound like the anglophone version of Balki Bartokomous. And everyone liked Balki anyway.


  1. I am very impressed that you are putting so much effort into Polish. I tried German and French in my post-teenage years and gave up on both. They were too challenging and I wasn't really motivated.

  2. @Expat Housewife: I sympathize with the German in post-teenage years. Have you read Mark Twain's take on it? -NS

    1. I haven't. But I am intrigued now.

    2. I don't feel so bad now for having quit German :-)

  3. Hmm. I don't want to quarrel with professional linguists who actually make a study of language students, but this information is a bit of a surprise. I find it hard to believe that learning a language is easiest when one is a teenager. Most teens are even more inhibited than adults about making mistakes of any kind. Children learn languages most easily, in my observation, but the trouble is that they forget them if they can't use them. (Alas for the Polish that I once spoke.)

    Alias Clio

  4. Have faith in your accent potential. I had a French prof who, according to grad students from France, could not have passed for an Irishman in French. They thought he was a native speaker. Likewise, I remember listening to a woman calling in to a radio show a few years ago and the DJ asked her where she was from. Germany. They didn't believe her and neither did I until she repeated the joke in German. She sounded Dublin born and reared. You can do it! You have the advantage of learning from native Poles too. Apparently I sound like a Galway girl in Irish - yay Coláiste na bhFiann from out West. You're well on the way. :-) Sinéad.

  5. Thanks for the link NS - as a fellow sufferer of learning German I found it very amusing!

  6. Good point! Remember my first visit in Vienna as a teenager - I knew very, very little German then - I only had courage to speak those few words I knew after drinking some wine (!). Please don't worry about making mistakes - I suppose it makes you embarrased as you think you can't afford them as you are mature/well educated/professional writer etc. And probably when someone's English is poor, it annoys you.
    But most of the time (not if you have a speech during an UN meeting, sure :-)), I think you' ll make people immeasurably happy if you let them know you're doing your best to talk in their language, even though it's not perfect. Polish is so hard and rarely spoken that we feel extra appreciated if someone puts effort into learning it, believe me!
    My observation on language skills improvement after the teenage years are also surprising: starting to learn Portuguese has extensively enhanced my skills in German (!) However, my spoken English slightly suffered from that :-(


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