Thursday, February 10, 2011

Learning a language

Language takes time.. It isn't just about learning the words and repeating them. You must be immersed in an environment that only supports the use of that language. I have been blessed to get this opportunity here in Paris. After a month of immersion, i can say that I know enough of French but not enough to be dangerous.. :-)

I often compare the child's learning curve to that of an adult. The fearlessness; the ability for a child to not let obstacles, such as petty fear, get in the way of a down-hill skiing experience as it did for me. The determination; children don't really take it personally if someone corrects them as long as it is in the right approach, whereas I, among other adults, will refrain from speaking the language to 'save face'. A language mistake of a child is considered cute and even potential for winning $100,000 on America's Funniest Home videos if captured by tape. I don't think I have the same opportunity when I say huile (or oil) as *weee* instead of  *weel*. And then of course, there's the idea that the child is learning his first language as opposed to an adult who is usually learning a second or third. We do have a challenge in that we are so accustomed to and trained by a mother tongue that it would make it nearly impossible to correctly pronounce the words of another language.

Then there's the whole process of language translation that happens in one's head. Have you ever asked someone who knows more than one language, what language they think in? It is always interesting to me how a person can start life thinking in one language and then change it within their lifetimes! It is also interesting to consider what language one thinks in when he or she is speaking in a language he or she doesn't usually think in. Pay attention to your thoughts when you are talking in a language that you don't usually think in. In French, I think in English and actively translate to French- that's why I bore everyone here when I speak in French! You can see it in their expressions. In Arabic, I actually don't think in English except when I want to remember a word in Arabic. I have more observing to do so that I understand what happens further.

Whatever the case, this is how I understand the development of a second or third language in an environment that allows you to immerse yourself in:

1- Basic understanding of the French language- the minimum just to survive
2- Understanding a discussion in French
3- A conversation in French of daily topics- a conversation in French about the weather for example
4- You have a dream in French!! I am excited for this one!!
5- You curse absent-mindedly in French
6- A conversation in French of more technical topics- the ability to express ideas more effectively
7- Joining in a discussion where you actively and comfortably participate
8- Wanting to express yourself in English but can't because you only know the French word you want to use..
9- You unconsciously THINK in French!!

It probably takes varying durations to get from one level to the next but I would imagine that this is the basic framework of development.Where can you say you are fluent?

It takes time to learn a language and call yourself fluent so good luck with the patience. My learnings thus far? Be fearless and be determined! You WILL make mistakes, but is'nt that how you learn??

Till the next,


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