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Eureka: How do you learn a foreign language?
by Jay Gutman
2017-01-05 11:20:34
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How would you define “to speak a language?” We could define speaking a language as speaking and understanding other speakers of the language, but then again I have dealt with native speakers of several languages who had trouble understanding simple instructions in their native language. This is because in most cultures lack of understanding is frowned upon and people would rather pretend to understand than ask for explanations. So what is speaking a language?

lang01_400_01Roughly speaking a language means being able to function in a society through verbal and nonverbal communication. This definition would bother language testers who often demand that non-native speakers be able to function at the academic level of the language, in examinations such as the English TOEFL, the French DELF, the Spanish DELE, Japanese JLPT or Mandarin HSK, which demands thorough knowledge of the academics of the language when most people function at the non-academic level.

So how do you learn a foreign language? To use two examples, let’s take how I learned Korean and Modern Hebrew. I speak fluent academic and non-academic Korean, and survival Modern Hebrew. I spent 10 years in Korea, but have never been to Israel.

There are basically seven phases I went through learning both languages and many people go through similar phases.

1. The Hazy phase

This is a phase I went through while learning Korean and Hebrew and where people speaking or the writing systems are part of the picture but I have no idea how the alphabet is broken down or how to break down people’s speech. I have no idea what tone they’re using, how the language actually sounds or whether what they are saying to each other actually means anything.

2. The deciphering phase

The Korean alphabet has 14 consonants and 10 vowels and the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. I seem to have identified the sounds and tone of the language, and can remember to a certain point how the letters read although I do occasionally mix them up. I’m starting to learn vocabulary at a faster pace, yet seem to forget or mix up a lot of the words. Vocabulary and grammar are identified in arbitrary ways: I remember how to say hospital but not post office etc. When listening to speakers, I have no idea what they’re talking about, although I can recognize a word here and there.

3. The pattern-recognition phase

Hebrew and Korean are both languages where you can give brief answers to questions and where not all sentences need verbs. This is one aspect of the language that confuses  Englishnative speakers. If you ask for directions, an Israeli or Korean would say “straight, left, left” and leave without saying goodbye, when native English speakers are more used to polite markers and to sentences that use verbs. The non-native speaker will recognize patterns and start using verbs like “to be” or “to give” but might have more trouble with the verb “to want” or “to desire.”

4. The “I understand or have a vague idea what they’re talking about but can’t independently make a sentence” phase

This is a phase where I know enough words and grammar that I can form sentences, but get very frustrated because I have huge gaps with grammar and vocabulary and can’t express most of the basic ideas I want to express, nor do I understand what it is that people are telling me. I always need a dictionary with me, and make several basic vocabulary and grammar mistakes. I also think that words have meaning that aren’t the actual meaning, as in Korean gooksoo is a type of noodle, though for almost 2 years I thought it was the generic word for soup or broth. The truth is, there is no generic word for soup or broth in Korean.

5. The “I can speak but need to have a dictionary somewhere near me” phase

This part is where things get interesting. I understand most questions and a lot of the conversation, although I still get vocabulary and grammar occasionally mixed up. For example I will be telling a friend about a vacation I spent somewhere, yet will need to constantly interrupt my account of the vacation by describing things that the language actually has a word for.

Speakers of any language up to level 5 need to spend a lot of time rehearsing their conversation because that’s how they can find the missing vocabulary words.

6. The “I don’t need a dictionary for myself but the other speaker uses a lot of words I don’t understand” phase

This is an interesting phase I go to when learning foreign languages. I can express anything I want in the foreign language, yet when someone else is speaking or when I have written documents, there are a lot of words being used that I don’t know of. That is because a lot of the vocabulary is specialized or each person uses their own jargon.

7. The phase where you understand almost everything the other person says and  where you can have complex conversations

This phase is when you’ve spent so much time learning the foreign language that you know more than the average native speaker. Many countries expect non-native speakers to reach this level before they can apply for anything, including citizenship or studying at a local university. The secret to reaching this level would be to read a lot of good books or watch a lot of good movies in the non-native language and to actually understand the contents of the books.

Hope this helps you with your goal to learn foreign languages. Good luck learning a foreign language!

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