Monday, May 16, 2011

How to and how not to learn a language

When I arrived in Japan, I had no contacts or friends in the city I was assigned to and I was lucky. I was lucky to be living in an environment where I felt anonymous.  For it was that feeling of anonymity that led me to feel truly free to make mistakes.  It was a very different feeling to the university classrooms that I had studied in previously and I felt all of the inhibitions fade.  That is why I understand the negative impact that peer pressures can have in the classroom. 
The pressure to speak the first language often comes from the need to deliver respectful tones that a speaker feels can only be delivered in the first language. In Thai, to show respect to elders, you end sentences in Krab/Kaa.  This is difficult for my students to drop because they feel that without this honorific, they are not showing due respect.  The result is sentences like, “That’s right krab”.

Often, things just don’t sound polite enough because of our internal translation system.  I find it difficult to say “mai ow krab” to my mother-in-law.  It is a perfectly correct and polite response to an offer but in my head it sounds like, “don’t want it!” (The word for word translation is not want + Thai honourific.)

For me, the affective factors restricting me from freedom to play with the language came not so much from my peers but from my own beliefs.  I believed that there should be a switch.  I believed that I should only ever use and think in one language at a time.  I saw code-switching as a slippery slope.  Believing that mixing languages would lead to confusion and attrition of my first language, I felt that I had to learn Japanese from scratch in Japanese.

Now, I realize that I deprived myself of key learning strategies such as extension.  Sure, extension leads to errors (over-extension) but that is part of the learning process.  We notice a similarity (e.g. played, worked) and we make an assumption (add –ed to talk about the past).  We overextend (goed, doed) and then we learn the exceptions.  The benefit of this is that we apply one rule and straight away learn 80% (for example) of cases and then we learn the other 20% individually.  Makes sense to learn one rule and 20% individually than to learn 100% individually doesn’t it?

The fear of fossilization also slowed down my learning process.  I tried to learn everything 100% because the fear of learning something wrong, developing a habit and then not being able to change it later lead me to overanalyze simple input and think too much before I attempted a response. 

When we apply assumptions, we make mistakes.  Whether these assumptions are based on our first language (interlingual[1]) or based on what we already know of the target language (intralingual), they will lead us to errors which are really just signs of progression.  These errors show us that we are in progress from L1 to L2 (interlanguage[2]).  That is why we need to encourage students to make errors and to correct them not to avoid making them.

[1] Brown, D.H (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall. PP 263-264
[2] A coin termed by Selinker.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10, 209-231.

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