by Philip Yaffe
“Why are Americans so poor at learning to speak other languages?” is asking the wrong question, because the answer is obvious. They don’t learn to speak other languages because they don’t need to. Or more pertinently, they have little or no opportunity to do so even it they want to.
The real question is: “Why does language teaching in the U.S. continuing aiming at a virtually unattainable objective rather than accepting the reality of the situation and adapting to it?”
When l was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s speaking another language (with the possible exception of Spanish) was hardly an option. Even hearing another language was hardly an option. If you turned on the radio, there was only one Spanish station, but certainly no German, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, or any other language stations. And of course television was worse, because there even Spanish was absent.
When I enrolled as a math and physics student in the early 1960s, I was required to take a language course, so I chose German, a language of science. This was a mistake. Of all my classes, German was the one that demanded the greatest investment of time and energy for the least return, including quantum mechanics and differential topology.
I graduated with a bad taste in my mouth for German or any other language. The proof that the time spent in the class was largely wasted occurred about a year later when I was confronted with a German. I could still say “Guten Morgan” (good morning), but that was about all. To communicate, we resorted to grunts, groans, and sign language.
I have since become fluent in two languages and have a working knowledge of three others. So what changed? Two things;
1. I got over my ingrained distaste for language learning.
2. I discovered a much more efficient way of going about it than what I had been subjected to as an adolescent.
I would therefore like to make a modest proposal: Language teaching in the United States should be completely overhauled. In particular, in the early stages the virtually unattainable objective of learning to speak a language should be scrapped.
Clearly, if students never have any opportunity to speak the language outside the classroom, then the chances of their learning to do so become infinitely slim. On the other hand, the same time and effort could be profitably turned to learning to reading and understand it.
Most people can master enough of the fundamentals of a language to be able to speak (poorly but nevertheless coherently), and to understand what is being said to them, within only a few months. The trick is to recognize that the major obstacle to language acquisition is not grammar. It’s VOCABULARY.
If you don’t know the verb you need, it doesn’t matter that you know how to conjugate verbs; you still cannot speak. If you don’t know the adjective you need, it doesn’t matter that you know how to decline adjectives; you still cannot speak. And so on.
Since vocabulary is crucial, then the largely unrecognized key to mastering another language is: first learn to READ it.
This, of course, may sound like heresy. But it is really common sense. There is nothing like being able to sit down with a newspaper, magazine, or even a novel in the language to reinforce both grammar and vocabulary. The more you read, the more your vocabulary will expand. And the more some of the language’s apparently bizarre ways of doing things will become increasingly familiar.
Once you arrive on site where the language is spoken, all the grammar and vocabulary you have stored up in this way will rapidly show its worth.
I am not a pedagogue, so I offer no definitive plan for implementing this idea in the classroom. But here are a few thoughts on the matter.
In the first year of the course, do not discourage students by testing them and grading them. The objective is to get them involved in the language, not to frighten them away from it. The more tests they take and the more they fail, or at least struggle with, the less involved they are going to be.
This does not mean no testing at all. However, this should not be to determine how much students know at a certain point, but to encourage them to learn more. I would therefore propose banishing tests that require students to translate from English into the target language, which almost invariably results in numerous mistakes.
Preferably, tests should be multiple-choice, asking students to recognize the grammatically correct sentence among three or four incorrect ones. At a slightly more advanced stage, they could be shown an incorrect sentence and asked to correct it, or to determine the infinitive of irregular verb contained in it.
Putting the emphasis on reading rather than speaking does not preclude an oral part to the course. It in fact requires it. However, during the first year, this would not be to master simple phrases such as “good morning”, “what is your name?”, “how old are you?”, “the post office is around the corner”. Instead, it would be to perfect pronunciation.
Students would be asked to read passages in the target language, with the teacher demonstrating the correct pronunciation. This would be particularly important with a language such as French, where virtually every word is pronounced differently from how it is spelled.
By the end of the first year, and probably before, students could start reading in the language, as much for pleasure as for tuition. These readings might include articles from newspapers or magazines, and even novels. For best results, the novel should contain a maximum of dialogue and a minimum of description. With dialogue, you can frequently anticipate and interpret what the characters are saying; with description you haven’t a clue.
When I was learning French, I used novels by Agatha Christie and the adventures of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because they are about 90% dialogue and 10% description. Hardly my favorite literature, but they served the purpose. I would also suggest Animal Farm by George Orwell and Candide by Voltaire. However, any novel with a high ratio of dialogue to description will do.
The purpose of reading in the language is to learn vocabulary. However, constantly looking up unfamiliar words would reading rhythm and damage enjoyment. Consequently, once students have learned enough basic vocabulary, their use of a dictionary should be kept to an absolute minimum.
In fiction, very few words are crucial for understanding the story line. Do you really need to know precisely what a room looks like? It’s enough to know that is large and elegantly furnished. Do you really need to know precisely what a landscape looks like? It is enough to know that it is isolated and windy. Moreover, words repeat. You will certainly see an unfamiliar word many more times throughout the text. At least one of those times, the way it is used will tell you exactly what it means, with no effort at all.
As a rule of thumb, once they have mastered basic grammar and vocabulary, students should be encouraged to use the dictionary no more than 2 – 3 times a page. Any more than this will make the exercise too tedious. They should just read and enjoy!
When they leave the course, chances are most students will not have any immediate need or opportunity to speak the language. But as long as they can enjoyably read it, they may very well continue to do so. The effort that went into the course will not be lost.
While living in Los Angeles, I taught myself to read French, with no idea that I would ever have any need to speak it. I maintained my reading knowledge of French for five years before coming to live in Belgium, where I began speaking it almost immediately. What a gratifying experience! Certainly much better than if I had gone through a traditional language course, only to discover that on arriving I had to start all over from scratch.
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing and Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com).
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