How to Learn a Language (Learning an Endangered Language Part 5)

[This is the 5th installment in an ongoing series.]

I am not this guy:

Or this guy:

Then he dived into Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian and German, teaching himself mostly from grammar books and flash card applications on his iPhone. This in addition to a more formal study of French, Latin and Mandarin at the Dalton School, where he is a sophomore.

I suspect some people are wired differently, like this RadioLab episode about a ragtime musician who can play four concerts in his head at the same time and keep track of what any instrument in each of the four orchestras is playing at any given time.

This is a post about language learning for the rest of us. But first, a little throat clearing. While I have read a few books summarizing contemporary research on language learning, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. That means I make some scientific claims without backing them up. Caveat emptor.

1. If you are having difficulty learning a foreign language, it might not be your fault.

There is significant debate over the concept of “learning styles.” Some researchers argue that different students learn things in different ways, while others argue that this theory is simply an excuse for coddling the lazy and stupid. I personally believe that our education system trains us to learn in certain ways and that after a certain age it is hard to learn in new ways. So, if you are a Taiwanese student you are probably pretty good at memorizing large chunks of information because your schooling has taught you how to do so. But if you are an American, you probably don’t have the same memorization skills.

Being good at memorization (like the folks listed at the top of this post) is useful for learning vocabulary, but it isn’t sufficient, nor is it necessary in the strictest sense. By that I mean that being able to provide the English term for a word is not the same thing as being able to use that word in a conversation. There are lots of words I know and can use in Mandarin conversation which I would not be able to provide upon demand if you asked me how to say the Chinese equivalent of some English word. These are different mental skills. I do believe having a good memory can help, but only in the sense that being a good long distance runner means you probably are in better shape and less likely to get winded when doing sprints. The training for one is very different from the training for the other and they shouldn’t get confused.

I realized this very late in my training. I was doing horribly at my intensive Chinese classes and was beginning to despair of ever having the language skills necessary to do ethnographic fieldwork. Every day we had to memorize nearly a hundred Chinese characters and familiarize ourselves with the new grammar patterns in the book. I just couldn’t do it. Moreover, I was becoming sleep deprived and I now know that sleep deprivation makes it harder to learn a foreign language (or anything else for that matter). Luckily, one of our teachers Ms. Chen, was studying at a program which was teaching new methods in language learning and she asked if I would be a guinea pig in her new class. Despairing of anything else working, I agreed. I will explain why in the next section.

2. Learn a foreign language like you learned your mother tongue.

It is true that children are naturally wired to learn a foreign language. We loose a lot of that when we grow up, so there are good arguments to be made for using a different approach when learning a new language. Above all, we can apply our literacy skills to learning the new language – something we can’t do as infants. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that, like infants, we learn a lot just by sheer exposure to a foreign language. Exposure isn’t enough on its own, but we need a lot more exposure than we realize. Listening to a language for half an hour a day in addition to your classes will make a huge difference. Watch TV, read books, read comic books, listen to the radio, eavesdrop, do whatever it takes to increase your exposure to the target language. Like a baby, I believe you need thousands of hours of exposure to achieve basic competence. But unlike a baby we have to work to get that exposure.

What Ms. Chen did that was so different from my previous teachers was to have us first spend lots of time listening to audio of the new lesson. Doing this before we had studied the vocabulary or the grammar. Just listen. Use our knowledge of the language to try to guess the meaning. Like a baby. Only after we had listened numerous times, tried to write down what we heard, and tried to guess the meaning, did we get to look at the grammar patterns. Then we listened again. Guessed again. Then, and only then, did we get to see the new vocabulary list. This worked for me in a way that my previous classes had not. One of the problems, I believe, is that if you learn the vocabulary first, you “hear” the English word instead of the word in the target language when you study the lesson. This way, you really hear the word in the target language and then when you learn the English it helps you to make sense of that word rather than replacing it with the translation.

3. Become the master of your domain.

One of the hardest things about learning a new language – especially if you don’t have a particularly good memory – is that there is simply so much vocabulary to learn, but you need a minimum amount of vocabulary to learn the language. Without that vocabulary you can’t really learn new words or grammar because you don’t have a framework upon which to hang the new information. The solution is to focus on a few domains that interest you. To this day I am much better at talking about politics and social theory in Chinese than I am at talking about sports. Not surprising as I’m pretty much the same way in English. By playing on your strengths you can quickly reach the minimal threshold necessary to begin learning new words “in the wild” (as opposed to what you see in textbooks).

Similarly, if you want to read fiction in another language, or watch a TV show, pick something with numerous volumes or episodes. It will be hard at first, but soon you will know the characters and the basic vocabulary associated with that world. I read all seven Harry Potter books in the Mandarin translation (see this great website comparing Harry Potter in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese). Doing so was very hard at first, but by the third volume I was familiar with most of the terms associated with the Harry Potter universe, and I could increasingly guess the meaning of words I didn’t know (or at least the general outline of the plot) without recourse to a dictionary. I have also watched every single episode of Doreamon in Chinese (but not the specials or the films, I prefer the TV show). The musically inclined seem to do very well learning songs in the target language – unfortunately that has never worked well for me.

4. Learn like a linguistic anthropologist.

This is even more true for learning an endangered language that might not be as well documented, but I think it is true of all language learning. Ms. Chen’s teaching method taught me the importance of transcription as a teaching method. Trying to transcribe unfamiliar speech makes one a keen observer of the nuances of a language and turns one into a better listener. I know several linguistic anthropologists who have told me that they only really began to get good at a language when they returned home from the field and began to transcribe the tapes they had collected in the field. In essence, this approach combines elements of all the previous rules I’ve mentioned above.

Conclusion: Application of these rules for learning an endangered language.

These rules are not easy to apply to endangered languages. Native speakers are likely to be old and trained in grammar-translation approaches to language teaching, or they might lack any training whatsoever. You have to teach them how to teach you. It is also going to be hard to get lots of exposure to the language if it isn’t being used much anymore. Nor will you find much in the way of TV shows and books in that language. Where there is a lot of material, it may be in an area outside of your domain (in my case: the Bible). You will have to use #4 to create the materials and texts that you need for study. In a later post I will talk more about specific tools one might use to implement such an approach.

6 thoughts on “How to Learn a Language (Learning an Endangered Language Part 5)

  1. This is informative advice for learning a language. I am having a difficult time with another East Asian language and many of your techniques the most effective ways to learn I’ve found. The irony of the exercise is that you have to discipline yourself to learn like a baby.

    The larger issue that I see (as a linguistic anthropology graduate student) is that your methods of learning still focus on language-as-code. That is, despite the criticisms of the people who are freaks of nature or rote machines, at the end of the day, your advice still takes learning code to learning language. No doubt this is important, however, but as anthropologists, we should all find it to be a narrow view of language learning and one that bakes in some Western ideologies about what language is. The hardest part I have with my language for example is that I have to learn different notions of what a person is and how that is expressed grammatically. No amount of code learning can adequately prepare me for that nor for successful use in interacting with people.

    Regarding endangered languages, the issue of language-as-code has actually proven extremely dangerous because it can reify the notion that a language can be abstracted from its social life. Thus proposing that we teach informants how to teach us can actually turn out to quicken the death in a similar way as “folklorization” of cultural activities “essentially” does the same.

    To add perhaps a nuance to language learning that would be apropos of an anthropologist: what would it mean to learn a language like a baby of the culture you were studying in? Do people think that would add an interesting perspective or you would learn the language differently?

  2. @Mike,

    Important points, and they point back to some of the issues raised by Maxwell Owusu’s, “Ethnography of Africa: The Usefulness of the Useless” which I discussed in my first post in this series – about the reasons why anthropologists should study minority languages even if they share a lingua-franca with their subjects. It is precisely the non-code aspects of language which make it essential to learn such languages, and which make ethnography interesting. Keith Basso’s work on silence among the W. Apache is a great example of the importance of such language socialization for both communicative competence as well as for producing good ethnographies.

    But I think it is absurd to suggest that teaching the importance of communicative-competence teaching methods to someone who has been socialized into grammar-translation methods would some how “quicken the death” of an endangered language. If anything, it is the grammar-translation approach imposed by a hegemonic Mandarin-language school system which has helped quicken the death of their language. If the younger generation are going to learn their language, they need teachers who can move beyond a test-based pedagogy. Moreover, while I don’t highlight the non-code aspects of language learning in my blog post, all the methods I describe above are equally essential to learning communicative competence, not just what you call “code.”

  3. @kerim
    i guess that i’m learning my ‘amis mostly through song lyrics. they are a bit stereotyped, but of course there isn’t much in the way of ‘amis media (other than of course _the bible_ and related publications), so we can only wait for the intrepid–and motivated only by love of the language–translator of _ci-hali pote ato kora a fakeloh no cikawasay_. in the meantime, it might be useful to collect and possibly rate sites for ‘amis language learning / media on the web. maybe a fb group? (grrrr. am i volunteering? i hope not)

  4. @mike
    sometimes in this regard, it might actually be preferable to reify the language. the last thing that anyone needs in a’tolan or elsewhere is the equivalent of the french academy; and although it is true that everyday communicative practices actively transgress linguistic boundaries, asserting these boundaries (part of what you seem to react against) could be the only means to ensure that the language remains in circulation. strategic essentialism? perhaps. we might be well advised to find the ineffectual purity of linguistic anthropology as damaging as the reifications of folklorists. at any rate, it is more important for me now to learn ‘amis than wring my hands over the influence of western ideologies of language in my language learning. it is also more important to the people who are teaching me.

    of course one might ask, why did it take more than ten years out from chicago to arrive at this position?

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