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'Golden Rules' for
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Once upon a time the learning of language in schools privileged the aural over the oral. A great deal was accomplished through learning by rote. Hearing and repeating. Although it is perhaps impractical to hope for a return to this virtuous procedure, it is important to realise that it does make a very great deal of sense. Everything that one learns, with respect to language, one learns via one’s ears and eyes (by virtue of what one reads, sees and hears). One learns absolutely nothing by means of one’s mouth.
Nevertheless there are fashions in such things as in everything else and today the majority of language-learners seem to be convinced that what is important is to talk, talk, talk…. They are quite simply wrong. In fact this is, generally speaking, the ideal recipe for learning to speak a language badly. Instead of concentrating on input (and learning accurate modes of expression), one concentrates on output and almost inevitably confirms oneself in bad language habits (incorrect usages and unidiomatic forms of expression).
My first golden rule of language learning is therefore listen, listen, listen….
For this purpose, the television (contrary again to a common misconception) is virtually useless. The level of concentration required for television viewing is so low and the dominance of the visual imagery so great that hardly anybody ever learns anything whatsoever by means of a television. The radio, on the other hand, is an excellent means of learning a language and I have known people who have achieved a high degree of proficiency almost solely by this means.
Evidence suggests that records and tapes (and so-called ‘language laboratories’) do not work very well. The process is too artificial, the degree of engagement too low. The whole experience, in brief, is simply too uncomfortable and boring.
If one is in the country where the language is spoken, the simplest way of working at a language is simple to listen to the people around one. Usually of course that will involve speaking as well. But do not mislead yourself. It is the listening not the speaking that is most important. The lazy brain (see introduction) has a tendency to turn off when the mouth is not required to speak and only to wind up for action (rather like a computer that has been on stand-by) when one is called upon to speak. This is natural enough. The brain is protecting you and itself from unnecessary effort.
When learning a language, however, that effort is not only necessary but crucial. So overrule the brain and make sure that you concentrate (if anything even harder) when other people are talking. And especially – this is a subject I shall return to in a later rule – when other people are talking to each other and not addressing you directly at all.
When seeking language-lessons, students are again inclined to seek opportunities to speak. This is crazy. Opportunities to speak are easy to find; if necessary one can talk to oneself. What one needs are opportunities to listen in a privileged situation, where one can ask if one does not understand or seek further explanation of things said. Try and find a teacher who does not want to encourage you to speak but who is instead prepared to talk you and to talk to you of course just as he or she would talk to a compatriot.
This last is very important because there is a general tendency (however well-intentioned people may be in this respect) to talk to foreigners in a different language. Not enormously different, but different in certain crucial ways. Slang, for instance, may be avoided because the speaker fears the listener will not understand it; cultural references may be unconsciously (or consciously) suppressed. But, as a language-learner, you have need of these things too and this is where the radio, or a paid ‘coach’ can really be of enormous help.
If listening is, as I have argued in the introduction, essentially how a language is learned, it is important to make use of the opportunities that present themselves. And they are of course everywhere. But it is important to remember that the most important opportunities are also the ones most easily missed.
Let me attempt a sort of ranking. The most obvious occasion for listening is when you sit down with a friend or neighbour, who is a native speaker, and allow him or her to rattle on. Alas, this is the most obvious but it is also the least useful. First of all, you will be familiar (or soon become familiar) with the voice, which means that it soon cease to provide any real training for the ear. Your friend and neighbour will also be aware of your knowledge of the language and make (consciously or unconsciously) innumerable concessions. This is very kind of them but will hopelessly limit what you can learn. Thirdly, the friend or neighbour will soon become used to your errors (of phrasing and of pronunciation) and cease to correct them.
Much more useful is the listening you do when you meet new people, go shopping, visit cafés, go out for a meal and so on and so forth. Beware however of failing to listen when it is most important. Do not merely pay attention when you are addressed (the least useful for many of the same reasons listed above); pay particular attention when you are not being addressed. Do not hesitate to listen to other people’s conversations, either listening to friends when they are talking amongst themselves or eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in a queue or at the next-door table.
These, after all, are the times when they are speaking most naturally. In your own language you would not ‘turn off’. Even without being especially curious, you would quite naturally pick up everything that was going on around you. You need to train yourself to do the same in the language you are learning.
What you hear is the key to everything. Many of the commonest errors in pronunciation, particularly in languages which are not phonetic (and no language is perfectly phonetic) arise from pronouncing a word as it looks as though it ought to be pronounced rather than how one actually hears it.
Of course you need to be a little careful of falling into native speakers’ bad habits that other native speakers may disapprove of but this is a much more minor problem than most native speakers believe. Broadly speaking what you hear will be right (in the sense that it will represent what people actually say) and what you think you see will be wrong.
If what you see, for instance, is “comfortable” but what you hear is “kumft’bl”, it is the latter you should go for. An attempt to faithfully reproduce the former is in fact one of the most pernicious pronunciation errors made by foreign speakers of English. If what you see is ‘à cet heure’ but what you here is “asteur’, then you can be confident that that is how it is generally spoken even if, in this case, there will be rather more variation from person to person.
A lot of the vocabulary that one learns, one necessarily learns from reading but be chary of using expressions until you are sure of your ground or, preferably, until you have heard them used. They may be old-fashioned or inappropriate for a whole slew of reasons. In many languages, there are quite marked differences between what is written and what is spoken and what cannot simply assume that the two modes are interchangeable.
Rule 1:4 Never ignore reactions
The brain protects you and it protects you more and more as you get older. It turns away instinctively (and more and more) from anything it believes will give you pain, cause you inconvenience, waste your time, overburden an increasingly overloaded memory. This is natural and necessary. It can, however, as I have already suggested, create a great many problems with regard to language learning.
Your brain is not going to, of its own accord, welcome the idea of a new language. Quite the contrary. It is going to resist the idea on the basis that is a redundant activity. Why learn to rename a world that you already have the capacity to describe? Why retain two (or more) ways of expressing exactly the same thing?
There is therefore a process of training involved. You need to convince your brain (or, if you prefer, convince yourself at a relatively profound level of your consciousness) that the activity of learning a language is enriching and worthwhile. This means being aware at all times of the way in which two languages are different, of realising that the ways in which they are different are in effect more important than the ways in which they resemble each other.
Avoid at all costs the mentality of the equals sign. The moment you tell the brain that such-and-such a word in one language “equals” such-and-such another in another language, you immediately pass the wrong message. The brain, if you will, thinks quite reasonably that you are messing it about. What possible reason can it have for retaining a new piece of information that is (on the basis of your own information) identical to something it already knows perfectly well?
The best example I can think of to illustrate this is what I have in the past called ‘blank page syndrome’. You have written yourself, shall we say, a double-page of vocabulary notes, your own language on one page, the equivalents in the language to be learned on the other. Between the two you have in effect placed an invisible equals sign. When you attempt to remember a word contained in this vocabulary list, you naturally envisage the two pages in your mind. To your horror, you discover that all that remains in your memory is the page that contains the words in English. Opposite all that you see is a blank page. It is a triumph of logic for the brain but a signal failure for the language-learner.
What seems intuitively to be a good way of remembering new words ("Ah! this equals that") is actually a process that makes it more difficult for the brain to hold onto them. And it is a falsification of the reality. Every word you learn in a second language is different from the rough equivalent in your own and it is the difference that is important. It may consist in the lexical meaning, in the contexts in which it is used, in the grammatical constructions of which it forms part, in its associations, in its tone, in its colour. But there is always a difference to be sought and found. And the awareness of that difference, the understanding of that difference is essentially the primary task of the language-learner.
It has very wide-ranging implications (some at least of which will be covered in future “rules”) – for the sort of things it is necessary to notice when learning a language, for the use one makes of dictionaries and for the way in which one remembers (or attempts to remember) things one has seen and heard. There is a tendency to suppose that these skills are instinctive. It is not so. Or perhaps, with age, one has lost the instinct. It barely matters which. The fact remains, that learning a second language well involves a conscious effort and a high degree of awareness.
Make the experiment. Take any text you like in the language you are learning. Go through it word by word noticing every possible difference you can think of, in meaning, in usage, in colour, in tone. You will, I think, be astonished at how much you learn and how many of the things that you learn are things that, in the normal course of events, you might never even have noticed at all. Of course it is not humanly possible to work quite so conscientiously at a language all the time, but it is a good idea to make the effort periodically.
I start here with a general rule that is not in the least intended to be absolute and which I will go on to modify to some extent in later rules. But by and large the whole paraphernalia of activities most people associate with learning a language seem to me of very limited use.
It is only worth taking ‘notes’ if one can be sure of their accuracy, if one is actually going to make use of them subsequently and if they are sufficiently selective to be usable. In my experience, the majority of ‘notes’ taken by people learning a language fail in all three departments. I shall suggest in later rules certain specific instances where note-taking seems to me worthwhile but in general, concentrate on taking note (noting things in your head) and forget about note-taking (scribbling things on bits of paper).
Vocabulary lists are the worst kind of notes because they reinforce the false equation between a word in your own language and the broadly equivalent word in the language being learned. The same is generally true of the use of dictionaries. If you come across a word or a phrase and understand it in the context, it will not help in the least to find the equivalent word in your own language. It will simply make it more difficult to remember the new word. Try to avoid searching for equivalent words (even in your head) and use dictionaries, by and large, just as you would use them with respect to your own native language – which, for most people, means rarely if at all.
Language is learned by the process of re-encounter, of progressive familiarity. Using dictionaries attempts to shortcut this but in practice simply prevents the process from happening. Half the time, having looked up a word, you will then forget it (the brain naturally preferring to retain the word it knows best) and, at the same time, will be less inclined to notice it (because after all “you have looked it up”) when next you encounter it.
If you wish to have something on paper to jog your memory, then the best thing to make a note of are your own errors. Since these will always tend to be repetitive, such an exercise should be splendidly selective. And these, when it comes down to it, are the things that you need to bear constantly in mind. New words and phrases you will meet again and again; There will plenty of occasions to relearn them if you forget them. Your errors, alas, you will go on making, if you do not pay special attention to them and make a special effort to put them right.
The only problem is recognising and identifying them. There are generally three things that should act as a trigger. One (dealt with in Rule 1:4) is the reactions of other people. Any kind of hesitancy in understanding or double-take on the part of a listener will usually be a sign that you have done something wrong. Once you become used to listening to such reactions, you will usually be able to identify what it is.
The second is a sinking feeling inside yourself. Never ignore such instinctive warnings; they are usually based on some real experience even if you yourself are only dimly aware of it. Typically, this may be the case when you have used a flagrantly translated expression. As you said it, it sounded all right but a moment later a little voice inside you began to express doubt. Make sure you listen to that little voice.
The third is the simplest of all, a straightforward realisation that you have made an error. It may come immediately the horror has escaped your lips or it may wake you up in the middle of the night. If t was made on the telephone, it will usually come to you just as you put the receiver down. If it was made in writing, it will usually occur five minutes after you have sent off the letter or email.
Don’t just utter an oath and forget the matter. Make a note (mental or in writing) of the error and make a solemn resolution never to make the same error again. Be aware when the same context re-occurs, avoid the mistake, mark your success in some way, give yourself a reward of some kind.
If this sounds childish, let me give a personal example. The English and the Italians have a notorious problem when speaking French with the ‘u’ sound. It I a sound that does not exist in English (or Italian) and which the English tend even to have difficulty in hearing. They cannot, that is, distinguish it from the ‘ou’ sound. For years I had intermittent problems with this but did not bother to do anything systematic about it. Then, one year, I found myself on a course (not a language course) where the principal tutor took a certain delight in correcting me on every occasion. At the end of the course, I delivered a brief presentation in which I made a point, every time I pronounced a ‘u’ of thrusting my finger in the air and shouting out the name of the tutor in question. It did not entirely cure the problem, but it went an awful long way to doing so.
There was an expression much beloved of old-fashioned schoolmasters that one never hears any more –‘inwardly digest’. The formula, if I remember rightly, was ‘read, note and inwardly digest’ although I would not swear to the accuracy of the first two. After two rules in which I have urged the importance of listening and of taking notice (I assume ‘note’ is intended to have this sense) of language differences, it is only right and proper than we come, in third position, to the knotty problem of inward digestion.
If one prefers a more fashionable neologism, one could I think talk equally of ‘interiorisation’ – making the language learned in some sense or other your own Here the adult learner often has to battle against a whole lifetime of habits and prejudices, developed in another culture and expressed in another language, that tend to prevent him or her being open to the experience that learning a new language (and a new culture) represent. It is natural to want to “protect” one’s personality but what one thinks of as one’s personality will invariably include many things that are in practice specific to the culture in which one has grown up.
It is worth, I believe, giving a bit of thought to the whole question of what ‘personality’ is and how it develops. The word derives from the Latin for a mask and the personality is, for a very large part, something that we assume (“put on” in its original sense) quite systematically during the course of our lives. We could all, I am sure, identify mannerisms and behaviour patterns in ourselves, now completely integrated into our personality, that we have at one time or another developed in imitation of a parent, a friend, an admired teacher and so on or that we have developed in response to a fashion of the time, a convention of our social circle or simply from ingrained habit. Inevitably most of those mannerisms and behaviour patterns will bear the indelible stamp of our origins – our social milieu, our nationality, even our regional origins. When we speak another language, they tend simply to signal the extent to which we are “foreign”.
It is not easy to know where the dividing line comes between what we have learned (hand gestures, tricks of voice, style of humour) and what constitutes the “essential” us, between ‘personality’ and ‘character’, and perhaps in truth no such strict dividing-line really exists. I have isolated here certain elements of personality that are clearly relevant to the learning of a language and I shall return to them in more detail in later “rules”, but for the moment I simply want to stress the general importance of attuning one’s personality with the language being learned.
It is not really possible to speak a different language while maintaining the same mannerisms, in insisting upon the same attitudes or adopting the same social strategies. This does not, however, mean that one is abandoning one’s personality. In time one develops what might be described as a parallel personality in the new language – something that is recognisably oneself. But this does not happen overnight and that ‘new’ personality needs to be developed in a manner consistent with the language one is speaking and with the culture it reflects. Initially it is inevitable (and also necessary) that one should feel that one is acting a part to some extent, playing the role of a person (one’s parallel self to be) that does not yet exist.
This process can often seem, in the short term, disagreeable and even distressing. It is a question of trust. One needs to have faith is one’s own personality, in its ability to imprint itself in time in the new mould and one needs also to suspend all prejudice with respect to the other culture, to believe what is in fact self-evidently true - that all forms of self-expression (including those with which one is oneself comfortable) are possible within all cultures and within all languages.
As with all aspects of learning a language, personality cannot be simply translated. Attempting to express oneself in the same manner as one does in one’s own language will result inevitably in a sort of caricatural ‘foreign’ way of speaking (and indeed in a sort of caricatural ‘foreign’ way of thinking). The parallel personality in the other language needs to be developed in very much the same manner as one originally developed one’s personality. This involves acquiring points of cultural reference that one lacks (particularly those suitable to one’s own age, tastes and interests but also those which, in one’s own language one would have acquired in any case by osmosis). It involves finding a way of speaking (accent and pronunciation, certainly, but also emphasis, style, humour and many less tangible features).
Learning a language is not a process that can satisfactorily take place in isolation. It goes hand in hand with a much larger exploration of the culture of which that language forms a part. It goes hand in hand too with a form of discovery of oneself, of aspects of oneself of which one was not necessarily previously aware. The process is an exciting one but is frequently disconcerting and invariably hard work. It is also a process that takes a very long time.
Although in general I would not advocate looking things up in dictionaries on a regular basis, there is something to be said for browsing through dictionaries from time to time. Preferably one should always use large dictionaries for this purpose, put together, as the rubric of the Oxford English Dictionary proudly proclaims, ‘on historical principles’. Used in this way, dictionaries can perform very useful functions.
In the first place they can give a sense of the connection between words in a language by showing how different meanings have developed. Most languages are in practice a combination of several different languages and the manner in which words from different origins (originally synonyms) have developed different usages can reveal a lot, not just about individual words but about patterns of word use. In English for instance there is a tendency for words of German origin to retain their literal meaning while words of French origin are retained in a metaphorical sense. A similar pattern of differentiation exists in French between forms that entered the language from Latin at different periods.
Secondly, by viewing all the senses of a word, and a whole range of usages where they exist, one can establish the individual nature of a word. In this sense, one is using a dictionary not to establish an equivalence between two languages, but for quite the opposite the reason. To understand why the word in one language is different from equivalent words in other languages because of the difference of its history, of its range of meanings or of its colouration.
Without having to become an expert on etymology, adult language-learners need to interest themselves in the language in a more comprehensive way than native speakers because they do not naturally have the same background in the culture. It pays to read about the language – not language-learning books as such but books or articles about the history of the language, about its slang, about its dialects. In every language there are innumerable books of this sort, many of them humorous (and it is a subject that tends to interest most well-educated native speakers) so try, as a language-learner, to take advantage of the fact.
In urging language-learners to trust their ears (1:2), I mentioned briefly the problem of learning native speakers’ ‘mistakes’ or, more probably, rather sloppy linguistic habits. I do not think this is something to worry greatly about. One usually has a certain instinct in this regard and, then again, even to speak as well as the sloppiest native would be to speak better than one does. On the other hand, it is not something to ignore entirely.
It is, I think, very important to find a model or models for oneself in the language one is learning – people, if you like, whose style and comportment you admire and whose taste and judgement you trust. This is not so much a question of snobbery as of comfort. You need to establish a personality in the language and you cannot successfully do that unless you have something to hang it upon.
In one’s native culture, one develops at a very early age a sense of oneself and of one’s relationship to others around which allows one, relatively effortlessly, to calculate one’s language accordingly. In a foreign language, one has few of the same points of reference and it can be therefore difficult to ‘find a voice’ with which one is comfortable in the language. For children, adolescents and young adults there is usually relatively little problem, the community of age greatly helping. At this age, one also models oneself on others very readily. For older adults learning a language, often uprooted from communities based on work, family and friends, the process can be much harder. You need to know who you are and who you want to be and the best guide to doing that in a foreign language is to model yourself, to a degree, upon someone you feel broadly resembles that concept you have of yourself.
This modelling is particularly crucial when it comes to written language (where style can be crucially important) and in pronunciation – perhaps the most difficult of all problems associated with language-learning. There is, in my view, only one way of making significant progress in this domain and that is by absolutely conscious imitation of someone else’s voice and that you can only feasibly do if you have first identified someone whose voice you like the sound of.
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