Freitag, 6. Juli 2012

Language - barrier or stepping stone

It was a long time ago that I came to a new country as a kid without basic understanding of the native language. Even tough I took some (very few) language lesson before moving, those didn’t really help because they were pretty bad. When I got into kindergarden, where I only stayed for about half a year, I wasn’t able to communicate at all. My mother still tells me stories about how fascinating it was that I didn’t complain once. I couldn’t understand or speak a word, but I was still alright. After six months I had no problem whatsoever so get into a pretty good school and never experienced problems with the german language. The school I got in, was even one of the few schools at that time, that taught english from the age of seven or eight on. Which is probably also one reason I love the language, starting so early made me grow up with two foreign languages. Thankfully at home we still spoke (speak to this day) in our mother tongue.
As you can see, language learning was always kind of a big deal to me growing up. So, it’s no surprise that my path lead me to being a language teacher.

Language teaching is very diverse. There is school, which can also be divided into primary schools and secondary schools, in districts and so on. But there is also adult ecudation and university teaching. The range is so wide that it’s almost impossible to understand how each sector works. It is also tough to talk about teaching with people from a different sector than yours, because you just can’t now about all the details that go into their work.

My experience regarding language learning/teaching is small in comparison to other professionals.
But there are a few things that I experienced which made me think about the language acquisition process.

First of all, as I described above I’ve been exposed to three languages growing up and the way it is now, I’m fluent in all three of them, it may vary a little between speaking and writing but overall it’s pretty equal. My next big challenge will be to learn swedish, since I’m going to study abroad for a year.

I’ve talked about it a few times in this blog, I’m also currently a student-teacher teaching in highschools, and I also work as an english trainer with a project where I teach migrants who are looking for apprenticeships. 

I’d like to share a few thoughts on this subject, based on my experience.
-) motivation for learning a language:
Back then, it was obvious for me that I need to learn the language if I want to stay. I really needed to learn the languages because I wanted to stay here with my mother. And she made it clear to me that I’m here now and I will be in school soon. So it was necessary for survival. 
Additionally I had the support from home to learn the language, my mother cared just as much about german as she did with hungarian (I took hungarian grammar lessons a few summers later). And that’s the point, the kids we teach in the high-schools are in school becaue they are in school, not much to add. Very few of their parents are supportive, not of their general education and not of the languages. The society is changing, but somehow still stagnant. On one side, it’s obligatory to speak the local language, but it’s also kind of okay if you don’t speak it very well, because they somehow don’t really care.
Language for me is the cornerstone of a culture. So if you are new in country and you want to stay there, it should be the very least thing that you learn to communicate. And I’m not even talking about actual ‘spreaking’, I only mean ‘communicating’, so talking to a doctor, buying tickets, talking to the cashier at the supermarket and so on. It sounds very partial, but applies to a lot of people.

But, there are also really amazing young people, who came this country not more than two or three years ago at the age of maybe nineteen, without parents, without friends trying to start a new life. Not only do they have to learn the local language, but then they also have to learn another foreign language, because it’s needed for their apprenticeship or further education. The biggest difficulty for them was that the words they didn’t understand in english I need to be explained to them in german, but there were also many german words that they just didn’t understand, so someone who knows what that word means has to explain it to them in their mother tongue. 
As a young adult having to learn two languages at the same time is more than tough, especially because the last few years brought news and studies that it’s always better to start language learning at a young age.
Unfortuntely not everyone has a motivation for learning a language, which only makes life(s) tougher.

-) talent for languages
You can call it either skill or talent, but for me, coming from a sport-background I like to call it talent.
For me it was obviously the right time for languages, I was five when I started with my first foreign language and about three years later I started to learn the second one. Later in school, I also attened spanish and russian classes. I did alright, but looking back on it, I should have put more effort into it and actually use the ‘talent’ for languages I developed early on.
Of course it’s the same in school; some kids already speak three languages even tough they are ten and just came to the country a year ago. These kids usually don’t have problems with anything new, either if it’s german or english, they seem to have a mostly flawless understanding. The same with young adults, some of them speak excellently and are eager to learn new vocabulary to speak even better, others really struggle. These struggles are mostly about pronunciation rather than grammatical issues. Since they already have school experience they can easily deal with grammar rules and regulation.

The key to this is common knowledge: strengthen the strength, and work on the weakness. But the most important part is patience. You can’t rush somebody if they obviously have a lot of difficulty with parts of learning a language, but you also need the keep an eye on the more talented.

-) frame for learning language
Most people I've talked too who learned a foreign language said the best way to do so is to be confronted with it on a daily basis, meaning if you’re in a new country, go outside and get involved in everyday life. The keys part is to surround yourself with native speakers. Everytime I get a chance to meet or be with an english speaking native I try to talk as much english as I can with them. That sometimes seems problematic, but only because most of the natives want to learn german, so subsequently it ends in me talking english, while the native answers in german. Maybe not every native will be patient enough and hear you out, but the time you spend in that foreign environment the more you start to pick up language and it becomes natural.
And later on, it should help to attend some kind of language course and learn the structure of things you've been saying the whole time.

All in all, language can be a barrier to some people, but for the most part it’s a major stepping stone for everybody.

Language learning and teaching is tough, multifaceted but has an uncanny ability to connect people and cultures, and there needs to be an awareness out there how vital it can be.
The first step shouldn’t be at the school or university, not even in the work world, it needs to start with the families and parents, they can lay the groundwork for future development.

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