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Random reflections on the foreign language classroom Random reflections on the foreign language classroom
by Joseph Gatt
2020-11-13 11:29:23
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Some observations and thoughts on learning foreign languages inside and outside the classroom.

-The experience everyone has. You take 200 hours of Hebrew lessons. Or 400 hours of French lessons. Or 800 hours of Mandarin Chinese lessons.

Things are going great in the classroom. Teacher asks you questions, you reply in perfect French. You do all the drills. You can build proper sentences.

Then you head to Israel, France, China or somewhere else. You meet local people. You think you master the language.

forlan01_400You start speaking Hebrew, French or Chinese, and your interlocutor has no idea what you're trying to tell him/her. You accent turns out being too much of a burden, your choice of words is completely unnatural. More importantly, the way you say things and your choice of topics does not match local expectations.

Furthermore you have trouble remembering a lot of vocabulary. You use the grammar very liberally. And you use some words instead of other words.

I'll call this phenomenon “proficiency overestimation.” That is a lot of language learners (including me) spend many hours in the classroom and are convinced, almost certain that they could handle any conversation with a native speaker.

But it happened to me in the past, while learning Korean, when my Korean friends refused to speak Korean for a very long time, simply because my Korean made absolutely no sense to them.

My Korean only really picked up when I got a job at a Korean factory, specifically because we shared an environment that forced us to communicate about very precise realities, such as our paycheck, the food we just had, the tasks awaiting us, or clients we have to deal with, or instructions for what needs to get done over the weekend.

As for my “regular” friends, we were just meeting for lunch (or drinks) and we were both dealing with very, very different life realities (they were stuck at jobs they hated, I was learning Korean full-time).

That couldn't make for great communication, because I had no idea what went on in Korean workplaces, I had no idea there were subtleties at the workplace, in terms of marriage obligations and family obligations, in economic and financial terms, and in social dynamic terms.

So there I was trying to discuss my hiking trip or ski trip with a guy who has to go through a mountain of bureaucracy to get a mortgage so he can get married to a woman that his mother does not like, all that while working at a job where his supervisor keeps hinting he could get fired any minute. You get the idea.

-An important aspect of speaking a foreign language is having a social status within the society whose language you are speaking. Otherwise the only times you will be using the language will be when you order food, go visit shops or take a taxi.

What do I mean by social status? A lot of societies are built around social tokens. Your hometown is often a social token. So are the schools you went to, or the schools you are attending, the companies you work for, your family, marital situation, financial status, place of residence and so on.

Speakers of a foreign language are often going to need a workplace, a place of residence or a study place to identify themselves socially. The absence of such social tokens will often leave you with very little to talk about.

Because laws, the banking system, workplace culture, study culture, family obligations and so on vary a great deal from one country to another that can make conversations very frustrating.

For example, a lot of my conversations with Koreans centered around different beliefs when it comes to family obligations, financial obligations, workplace behavior, study behavior and so on, a lot of my conversations with Koreans frustrated both myself and my Korean interlocutors.

It took me around 5 to 7 years to come up with unbeatable arguments that the way Koreans perceived life was not correct. By that time, I was deported to camp 44.  

-Regional dialects/cultural differences: something very difficult when learning a foreign language: regional dialects and the different regional cultures.

Let's work with the Korean example again. I lived in Busan, a port city in the South East, where there is a very strong regional dialect, very different from the Seoul dialect. Busan is also something of a very straightforward city, and does not fear being rude. But people in Busan tend to stick to the truth.

Seoul has its own regional dialect and is something of an elitist society, when Busan is a bit more of an egalitarian society. You can share an elevator with an elder in Busan, but not in Seoul. In Seoul, you have to wait for the elder to use the elevator first, before it's your turn to use the elevator.

People in Busan tend to be very to the point, say little, but give you complete information, albeit very coldly. Seoul is more of a talkative city, but a lot of the reports you will be getting will be made up.

Then you have Daejon, Korea's fourth largest city. Daejon uses yet another regional dialect. But in Daejon, if you're not part of the family, no one will talk to you.

In Seoul or Busan taxi drivers tend to engage in a little bit of chit chat, although some cab drivers can be the quiet type. In Daejon however, talkative cab drivers are like black swans, you'll meet them once every other year, if ever. Daejon taxi drivers rarely say much of anything. Nor do shopkeepers in Daejon, when Seoul or Busan shopkeepers might trade pleasantries.

The idea is that you could speak Korean (or French or Italian) but the regional dialects and cultures might baffle you. When you thought you spoke Italian with the Romans, you will have to re-learn Italian with the Paduans. If you think you speak French with the Parisians, you will have to re-learn French if you move North or South.

Just one final example. Many of my French friends were from Paris. Then I met a good friend from Bretagne, Western France. His daughter was like a sister to me, and he was something of a surrogate father. So after school his daughter and I would share a cab, she'd invite me home, and I'd have long chats with her father.

One day, I told this to a Parisian friend who told me coldly and bluntly that I was “invading their private space.” So I decided to take distances from my friend/sister, and would run away home after school.

After two weeks of hiding, my “sister” grabbed my by the arm without saying a word, threw me inside a taxi, told the taxi to drive, and then told the taxi to head to her house. Her father was there waiting for me, and kept asking me if he'd offended me in any way. I told him about the whole “private sphere” thing and he was like “this is your home, that room over there, that's your room, this TV is your TV, and the kitchen is your kitchen.”

So the French from Bretagne have a very different definition of hospitality than the French from Paris.

-Making friends from scratch: other important factor when learning foreign languages... making friends from scratch.

They say “you can't have childhood friends in a foreign language.” Almost true, unless your childhood friend happens to be bilingual.

So in addition to the social, regional and cultural aspects, you're also going to have to make lots of new friends to practice the language with.

Making new friends can be difficult in a language and culture that you share very little with.

Some foreign students do manage to make friends among local students, and some workers make good friends at the workplace.

Some foreign students and workers only have this one single friend that they get along with, and that's pretty much the only person they speak the foreign language with.

But for a lot of people, navigating friends is very awkward territory, and they keep making friends and losing them.  

-Different types of communication (orders, establishing rapport, reporting information): I've discussed this before, different languages communicate differently.

In some languages like Japanese or Korean, and to a lesser extent Chinese and Vietnamese, people often give each other orders when the communicate.... lots of orders. Do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that.

So if you're telling your Vietnamese friend a story about that apartment you want to purchase, your Vietnamese friend probably won't just nod in approval, but will probably force you to give up the purchase and force you to purchase another apartment. That's why the Vietnamese usually tell their entourage about an apartment purchase AFTER it's been purchased.

In some cultures like Arab and African cultures, a lot of conversation will revolve around “building rapport.” That is you're going to constantly remind each other that you “like” each other, or constantly remind each other that you “don't like” each other.

In Western cultures people mostly communicate to convey information, without trying to build rapport or give orders to each other.

These are important factors when speaking foreign languages.

For example, if I brag about my language skills to the Koreans, they're going to force me to teach their kids foreign languages, free of charge. If I brag about my language skills to the Arabs, they're going to be mad at me, as to them it's a sign that I'm trying to prove to them that I'm “better” than them.

Other important factor: face-saving. I've discussed this in the past. In Asian, Middle Eastern and African cultures, when you're strong, you act like you're weak. When you're weak, you act like you're strong.

So if you're American and you're chatting with an Arab or Korean bragging about your nice house and your nice car and your 200,000 a year job, the Arab or Korean are going to think that you're broke and on the verge of homelessness. They're going to try to help you in ways you won't understand, such as give you loans or suggest you stay at their house until you find your own place, or other stuff that would lack logic to you.

If you're American and you complain to the Arabs or Koreans that you're broke, they're going to think that you're hinting that you're rich, and they are going to play games to try to find your money.

Example: this Arab kid stayed at my house for 8 months on-and-off. I was really DEAD BROKE. And I insisted to him that I was broke. But the Arab kid somehow was convinced that being dead broke was a prank I was playing on him, and the Arab kid kept looking for clues to see where my money was. Hint: there was no money! I was really dead broke!

-So, how are you supposed to teach a foreign language? The problem with teaching a foreign language is that people tend to have very different motivations when it comes to learning foreign languages and using them.

Some learn foreign languages just to please their parents. Others just so they can talk to their foreign husband or wife. Others just so they can use it at their company. Others have broader objectives, and want to get to know society at large and use the language in different functions.

So as a foreign language teacher, you're really guiding the students to the basics, and it's up to the students to figure out what extra effort they need to use the foreign language in their own private sphere.

-Excellent thing a lot of language learners do: they speak the foreign language amongst themselves...At a lot of foreign language schools, “advanced” language learners start speaking the foreign language amongst themselves.

At the Korean language school I was at, it was quite common for advanced learners to speak with each other in Korean.

The advantage of doing that is you are indeed practicing the language, and you share an environment that makes conversation easy.

The disadvantage is that the “outside” environment is really different from the school environment. When I was an English teacher in the Middle East, a lot of my advanced English students would communicate in English with each other. Problem is the context in English-speaking countries, be they Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya or Canada, India or Australia are very, very different, and the students will have to adjust to that as well.

-Dangers of speaking a language as a second language/foreign language: I'll finish with this. In most countries, as a non-native speakers, you are probably going to have a lot of trouble making friends.

So, as a non-native speaker, if a native speaker is eager to talk to you and be your friend, hum, there's probably some kind of scam involved.

In Korea, there were many “modeling agencies” and young people eager to befriend Korean language learners, and those were often scams that could lead to joining sects or human trafficking.

There were also a lot of people eager to speak with me in Korea, claiming that they “loved making foreign friends” when it usually turned out they were trying to sell me something useless and very, very expensive.

The same rules apply to those that apply in your home country: keep your distances, and don't trust anyone who wants to become your best friend the minute he meets you.

As they say “if he's eager to take you to bed on the first date, he's probably not coming to the second date.” Same thing applies to any friendship.

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