Thursday, October 30, 2014
Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 7
Three Parts of the Language
So what, basically, does a language consist of? What units, what ‘continents’ is a language world made of? What should we diligently and thoughtfully consider in studying and researching a language?
Usually, a language—a foreign language, of course—is divided up into three main parts. It is broken down into speaking, listening, and, of course, reading. Writing isn't usually given a separate category and isn’t studied separately (unless it’s hieroglyphic writing) since it is generally accepted as a product of the three basic components mentioned, primarily reading.
I fully agree with this breakdown of what a language is. Although it’s not perfect, for the purposes of foreign language study (for a practical mastery of it!), it will have to satisfy us.
Therefore, to achieve full acquisition of a foreign language, we must have a mastery of speaking (spontaneous speech), be able to understand a native speaker, and be able to read original literature in the target language with adequate understanding of it.
It is possible that some are concealing a vague but oh so sweet hope that, to master all three language components, it’s not actually necessary to invest intense work in each of them separately. You're kind of hoping that, if you learn to read, then speaking and listening will just come on its own. Or you hope that if, in some miraculous way, one day you will come to understand foreign speech that comprehension somehow will transform itself into speech, flowing from your lips like a majestic deep river.
Let me be quick to discourage you, as nothing of the sort will happen to you, unless of course you are the rare exception. If that is the case, then it raises the question of why you are even reading this exhortation, for another man’s discoveries must be boring and superfluous for you.
Practical experience gives us all kinds of real-life examples showing that mastery of one component in no way means mastery of the other two. Even grasping two of the components does not automatically result in grasping the third. We have to battle each separate component separately! Each height has its own particular defence fortification, and we have to storm them separately. Remember that, my future general.
Of course, all three components are interconnected, and knowledge of one will ease the acquisition of the other two. But that’s it, nothing more. This is well known among true professionals who teach in foreign language departments, where speaking, reading and listening are essentially independent disciplines.
A great example of how the knowledge of one component does not automatically turn into knowledge of the others is seen in how foreign languages are studied in non-language departments. Most students can read their foreign language decently enough, or at least the literature for their majors and specialties. But that’s all. They don’t understand oral speech, and even more, they are unable to speak the language that they are studying. A similar situation, by the way, exists in primary and high schools.
There are all kinds of examples of professional translators who spend their whole lives translating literary works from some foreign language and yet do not speak the language at all. Neither do they understand their target foreign language when it’s spoken. They possess the language only at the written level. This type of situation is rather ordinary and not really that astounding.
As a reverse example, we can consider the indisputable and well-known fact that millions and millions of people exist who are unable to read in their native language. We’re not even talking about tribes that have no written form of their language, despite getting along fine just speaking. I think these types may even be among those you know personally.
You can make a weak effort trying to say that it’s possible that the situation is a bit different if it’s not your native language, if you study the language as a foreign language. I counter that with the fact that there are millions of illegal (and legal) Mexicans in cowboy boots and seekers of the ‘good life’ from other nationalities who have somehow just barely learned to speak the local ‘jive’. They barely understand (mostly just guessing from context) what they are being told by the natives, but reading in English, or other local language, remains for them a mystery beyond their reach. Yes, you can find tons of examples of this in your own country, too.
An interesting but sad illustration of the aforementioned situation is how parents and children interact in the overwhelming majority of first-generation American families. Parents, being practically non-English speakers, talk to their children in their native language. The children, having ‘unlearned’ to speak the language of their parents (almost completely), can more or less understand what they’re being told but answer (if they answer at all!) in their day-to-day language of school and friends, in the language that has taken the place of their native tongue—English. Quite amusing an example, is it not?
So, then, how do we approach the study of a language so that we don’t end up in one of the unpleasant aforementioned situations?
Language study must begin with long, persistent listening. This idea, this foundational dogma, I will tirelessly express countless times because it is so important for the correct approach to studying a language. As often as it’s repeated, it still won’t be enough. By the way, listening at the matrix stage of learning still does not mean significant understanding of the spoken foreign language; actual understanding will come to you much later. Don’t give in to panic if after a few days of listening to the matrix dialogue you don’t understand much, if anything, of the elements of the dialogue. That’s normal. You just need to take a deep breath and keep working. The initial matrix listening is a necessary step in the right direction, nothing else.
Then follows repetitive reading aloud, which brings us closer both to spontaneous speaking and reading in the target language, but at this stage, this kind of reading aloud is just a surrogate and preparatory prototype of real speaking and real reading.
In this way, the use of the resonant meditative matrix leads us simultaneously in the three language directions, and we remember that, without mastery of all three, full knowledge of the foreign language, alas, is impossible.
For now, though, we will take a well-deserved break from our studies. For a little while, you can forget about foreign languages and stretch out in the grass, surrounded by young yellow dandelions, under the rays of a warm, promising spring sun.
[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]