- Foreign Language Anecdote 1. A few weeks into my internship in the USA, us new interns were all invited to a farewell party (a stereotypical “American student house party”, to be honest). The delegation consisted of 4-6 split between British and French students. At about 1 am one of the British interns suddenly started speaking in French. He’d been hitherto monolingual, though we knew his family had a holiday home in France and he had been learning the language. He remarked that since he was slightly drunk he was no longer worried about making mistakes.
- Foreign Language Anecdote 2. The older relative of one of my friends (British) was describing how she was visiting Switzerland and on a hike in the nearby forest. A German couple approached her to ask for directions to the nearby town. She described to us how she knew what the right German phrase was…but just didn’t manage to say it, switching instead to English.
- Foreign Language Anecdote 3. A friend of mine (not British) was explaining how she became fluent in the local Basler dialect. She took a beginner’s course in Schweizer Deutsch, then asked her work colleagues to switch from “hoch Deutsch” (standard German) to dialect when talking to her. I was impressed with the concise-ness of her explanation: that was all there was to it.
I recently watched YouTube video Stephen Krashen, a noted expert in the field of language acquisition. His 40 min talk (Part 1 & Part 2) made salient points that struck a chord with me. First, he explained that Language Acquisition is different to Language Learning. Acquisition is a subconscious process whereby the brain picks up the bits of a foreign language (words, sentence structure, verb endings) and pieces it all together. When you speak a foreign language, you’re actually drawing upon your subconscious knowledge, not the grammar tables you memorised by heart in class. The Learned Language knowledge acts as a last-minute editor of what you’re about to say.
Krashen then described where & when Acquisition takes place. When you hear something in a foreign language that you understand, your brain automatically starts Acquiring. You have to been in the position where you really want to learn the language, otherwise the brain takes in what is said, but doesn’t Acquire Language in the process. Despite debunking the rote learning of foreign grammar in language class – he does describe language classes as the perfect ground to start Acquiring: the teacher will be speaking slowly, clearly and without using complex words or sentences. If you’re a beginner at German, going to a foreign country and listening to the locals speak will be too overwhelming: they talk too quickly and use language you’ve never encountered before, your brain will simply hear a stream of incomprehensible noise – it can’t Acquire anything from that.
What I seized upon in his talk was the “you must WANT to learn a language to Acquire it” part. It made me realise something about how our brains (and mine especially) work when confronted with a new language.
Between what in our brains is “instinctive” and what is “learned” there exist On-Off switches. Our learned behaviours control & suppress our instinctive urges, keeping us out of jail, etc. Kushner has argued that the process of obtaining language skills is instinctive (heck, ’cause even babies can do it!) and it doesn’t deteriorate over time. Over time however, I believe that the learned behaviours become more adept at suppressing it. See my Anecdotes. In the first 2 there are examples of mental suppression that stop the protagonists using the language skills they have: they worry about saying something wrong, they fear humiliation, they don’t have confidence in their own abilities. In Anecdote 1 & 3 the “instinctive” comes out on top with the aid of alcohol and self-confidence, respectively.
- Foreign Language Anecdote 4. I’m chatting with a group of international folk about learning German. I sheepishly admit that although I’m taking beginners classes and getting along fine in them, I don’t feel as if I know enough to actually speak in German. “Just go for it,” urges one of my companions. “Just start speaking.”
Huh…she may as well have said “Just take off all your clothes in the middle of the staff canteen” for all the indignant resistance I felt. But I can’t just go and start speaking! I don’t know any German at all! I can’t speak any German whatsoever! It’ll be really embarrassing if I get it wrong! What will people think of me!
Fear of humiliation. Shame. Low self-confidence. All those are learned behaviours that we’ve picked up. If babies were born with any of those included they wouldn’t learn their FIRST language. Babies listen, they absorb, they go ahead and talk. It’s me with my switches in my brain that stop me from trusting my instincts, going ahead and speaking the German, even when my knowledge is limited.
Is there some way to turn this suppression switch in my brain Off?
Over the Christmas holiday I came up with a Plan. I was going to find a Conversational German partner and I was going to meet them for an hour or so…and speak German. No English. None. All German. I’d make it clear in advance that I was just a beginner – there wouldn’t be any expectations of fluency or perfect grammatical accuracy. I was allowing myself no excuse for switching into English: all my urges for suppression had to be suspended.
The first time I went for a Conversation German luncheon…I was nervous. I felt rather jittery as I made my way there – I didn’t know any German! What if I made an idiot of myself!
You would NOT BELIEVE how I felt AFTERWARDS, though. Man, I felt incredible. My self-esteem skyrocketed as I headed back to work: I felt SO pleased with myself. I certainly wasn’t speaking perfect German (my word knowledge was very limited, my grammar was mostly restricted to the present tense, my pronunciation was a bit off, I couldn’t understand everything my partner was saying) – but I surprised myself with what I could successfully manage.
Most importantly, I think I’ve located the vital switch in my brain – the one that controls whether my instinctive Acquired German comes up to the surface or not. I felt what it’s like to have it switched off; I now know how to switch it off. Suddenly it feels as if I can have a good shot at picking up German whilst I’m in Switzerland: I’m talking, I’m learning. I doubt I’ll end up as fluent in German as I am in English by July…but I can get myself communicating effectively. And that’s the most important thing.
If I want to Acquire…I need input. Hell, I’d rather go home at the end of the working day and watch a German DVD/read a book than write up grammar tables: this shouldn’t be a major problem.
The most ballsy thing I could possibly do is ask my work colleagues to speak to me in German (like in Anecdote 3). When I first wrote that idea down in my diary I literally had to curl up in a corner and whimper for a bit. So scary was the idea of going THAT far out of my comfort zone. However…that was before I found my suppression switch. Now I think it could work. And that I could manage. I’ll give myself a few more weeks of immersion and classes to try and expand my vocabulary…but it’s coming attached with a deadline.
If I want to learn German I have to do it the hard way. Or get drunk. Whatever.