Francisco Marmolejo’s “Deficiency in Foreign Language Competency: What Is Wrong with the U.S. Educational System?,” which appeared on The Chronicle‘s website yesterday, is worth reading. I won’t summarize it here, but I do wonder if the attitudes he describes have anything to do with a comment I sometimes hear when I ask a student if he or she knows another language or plans to learn one: “I’m no good at languages.” I thought the same thing of myself thirty years ago. Fortunately, life circumstances and patient teachers later taught me that motivation and practice mattered more than mere aptitude.
The following piece originally appeared on Language for You (now closed) on this date under a slightly different title.
When learning a foreign language, it is important to practice daily or even more frequently than that. Many readers will say, “But I don’t have time for that!” Sure you do! Really. You just have to let go of the habit of doing a lot of homework and studying all in one long weekly session. Do many short sessions instead. If you only have two hours a week to devote to learning a new language, you could break part of that time up into shorter chunks. You could, for example, take one hour for a long study session. And then you could divide the other hour into four 15-minute sessions. That would give you a total of five sessions in a week. Add to that the class you are probably taking, and you are up to six sessions per week. That will give you the repetition you need to make new words, grammar, and habits of thought sink in. This little amount of time is not ideal. More studying is desirable, but it will bring you a better return on your investment than one long session per week.
Of course, once you get into the habit of these short study sessions, you will find that you can schedule more. What about the five or ten minutes you spend waiting for a bus or train? What about the time you spend on the train? What about when you’re walking? You can’t look at your books then, but you could look at flash cards with idioms, confusing words, or irregular verbs. You could also simply try thinking in the language you are learning. In this way, the two hours you spend learning the language will grow substantially without actually costing you extra time. And because you are studying frequently and regularly, your brain and mouth and ears will grow accustomed to the language more quickly.
And you know what? It can be fun. It takes your mind off your daily troubles and lets you accomplish something in a short period of time. Pretty soon you will notice that you can feel good about this activity, which gives you one more reason to feel good about yourself. These positive feelings will spark you to keep up and even expand this new study habit.
Looking back, I am surprised at how easy it was for me to get through high school and many college courses without knowing a lot of basic vocabulary related to English grammar. I knew English grammar intuitively, and I could write, but I could not talk about grammar. I am lucky I knew enough intuitively, for this weakness could have become a real handicap for me in my studies.
In fact, it did become a weakness in one subject: Russian. We had to take a foreign language at Dartmouth College, and I fulfilled the requirement with Russian. But I was horrible. I do not believe that I ever rose above a C+. Part of the problem was study habits and discipline, but much of it related to my lack of appreciation of the nature of grammar. The professors used terms like genitive case, dative case, direct object, personal pronoun, possessive pronoun, conjugate, and decline, and it seemed like I had to devote too much energy to understanding that vocabulary and the things it indicated instead of learning Russian. Or I missed points entirely because I did not recognize their significance.
I only appreciated this dilemma later, after I took a break from Dartmouth and came back. During my time away I was in the army and stationed in Germany, where I learned to get by with rudimentary German. Upon returning to Dartmouth I decided I would like to learn German properly. My experience was enhanced considerably by a practical little book by Cecile Zorach entitled English Grammar for Students of German. It explained the way English grammar worked for certain situations and then compared it to German. It was through these comparisons that I began to gain an appreciation of the mechanics of English grammar and a vocabulary with which to talk about it. This knowledge later served me well when I found myself in Munich teaching English to Germans. Of course, the learning process never ended.
Students who have spent many years learning English with vocabulary and grammar exercises in their home countries sometimes have a hard time speaking when they arrive in the United States. This is especially the case if the major focus of their studies has been accuracy. They hesitate to say anything for fear of it getting it wrong. Such students need training in fluency. They need to practice talking and writing without stopping to correct themselves all the time. Yes, accuracy matters, but not at the cost of not being able to speak in the first place.
Students who have spent many years in the United States without formal training in English frequently experience the opposite problem. They can speak fluently, that is, they can say whatever is on their minds. But often they make mistakes. These mistakes probably did not matter at first, but the student finds that now they do, especially in a professional context. Such students need to study grammar and practice speaking and writing accurately.
Balancing fluency and accuracy is a tricky business though. Students emphasizing fluency still need to keep grammar in mind, and students improving their accuracy dare not become so concerned about accuracy that they can no longer speak easily. The trick is to find a healthy balance, and that balance will be different for each student.