I read recently that there are at least 40 theories as to how people learn a second language and that each of these theories has a number of scholars who support it, but also those who don’t. What is obvious is that we learn in different ways – by listening, imitation, repetition and so on. These various ways are divided into two groups. There is acquisition i.e. unconscious learning in the way a child learns by listening and observation The other way is of course active learning as when we try to learn a verb tense or a list of vocabulary. The conclusion that the linguistic scholars seem to share is that the classroom and book learning are not the most important ways to learn a language. It is being immersed as far as is possible that is important – being exposed to a language in as many ways and as often as possible.
Some years ago we visited Malta. The language there is a combination of Italian and Arabic – neither of which I knew. I did however have a working knowledge of Urdu which has links with Arabic, and with Spanish and French, like Italian these are Latin languages.
Towards the end of our holiday we went to a fiesta with a promised firework display, but late at night it didn’t seem to be really getting going. I heard a local gentleman explaining to his friend that they were waiting for the guest of honour who had been delayed. It was only after I had passed this news on to my family that I realised the pair had been speaking in Maltese, yet I had understood it. Without even trying I had, in less than two weeks, acquired enough for my subconscious brain to fit pieces of the puzzle together. I couldn’t have managed a sentence, but I could understand.
So, if you really want to learn a language, don’t forget the books or neglect the classes, but do try to expose yourself to your chosen language as much as possible. Buy a foreign newspaper, retune your radio, get a pen friend (or better still someone on the Internet whom you can actually speak too in real time.) With modern methods of communication there are more opportunities than ever before to learn by acquiring in this way.
The scholars (or at least some of them) think that age makes no difference to our abilities to learn a language, though they admit that children are more likely to be able to acquire a native accent , but we don’t need to pretend we are a native – the aim is to be able to communicate.
Motivation is very important. One of my new neighbours hails from Lithuania. She arrived in England 2 years ago on holiday, she only spoke few words of English, but then she fell in love. It is amazing to hear her talk about just anything and with ease now, but of course she had great motivation and, importantly, except on rare occasions, she had no one to speak her native language to, so her progress was rapid.
She, in turn, reminds me of a friend from college. Betty knew written English, and could understand much that was said, but until she arrived in London hadn’t actually tried it outside the classroom. Suddenly she was sharing a large college hall with 35 other girls - none of whom spoke a word of Portuguese. She couldn’t afford to phone home and we didn’t have personal computers in those days, so it was English or nothing. Two years later she gave a speech at the Albert Hall in front of thousands of people! That is something few of us will manage to do, but it just shows the kind of results that are possible if there is comprehensive input which is matched by comprehension and an ability to overcome inhibitions and shyness. You will make mistakes. That is normal and to be expected, but you will also make amazing progress if you just go for it! So just do it.
Happy New Year!