This is a story
about a young man growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
He was a bit strange for a Californian of that epoch. He of
course loved surfing, but he loved mathematics and physics
even more. His dream from a very young age was to go to university
and get a science degree. And that's what he did.
In 1960 he enrolled at University of California at Los
Angeles (UCLA). At that time (I imagine it is still the
case), in addition to their choosing a major, university students
were required to take so-called "cross curriculum"
classes in other disciplines. In particular, at UCLA everyone
was required to study a language.
This young man chose German because it was a language of science.
This was a mistake. Not only is German a very difficult language
compared to English, it is almost impossible to learn any
language if you are exposed to it only in the classroom. This
of course is the case in the United States, and in particular
at that time English was so dominate that outside the classroom
you would never hear German, or virtually any other language.
Spanish in California was of course an exception; however,
in the 1960s it was no where near as important as it is today.
When he graduated, the young man
joined the Peace Corps, the U.S. government organization established
by President Kennedy to send volunteers to Third World countries
to help them with their nation building. The young man was assigned
to Tanzania in East Africa. As part of their preparation, all
volunteers heading to Tanzania were required to study Swahili,
the national language, three hours a day, six days a week for
the professor insisted that "Sie werden Deutsch
lernen!" (You will learn German), our young man
was not so certain. "Particle physics and differential
topology are not easy subjects, but German is impossible.
I spend more time and effort on this class and get less
out of it than any other class I have." The professor
of course was wrong. The young man didn't learn German,
and probably neither did anyone else. All he knew was
that he was extremely relieved when the course was finished.
"At last a language I
will actually be able to use!" the young man exulted.
So he really threw himself into it. He intensely studied every
aspect of Swahili, grammar, vocabulary, syntax, diction, idiomatic
expressions, etc. He was unquestionably the best student in
the class. When the volunteers got to Dar es Salaam, then
the Tanzanian capital, four of them were put on a train and
sent to posts in the middle of the country. At each stop,
vendors swarmed around the train to sell bananas, tangerines,
oranges and other local produce. With some difficulty, the
young man was able to speak to the vendors, but he couldn't
understand their replies.
One of the other members of the group had unquestionably been
the poorest Swahili student. At the end of the nine weeks,
she could barely say "hujambo" (hello), yet somehow
she understood what the vendors were saying. So the young
man would speak, the vendors would reply, she would translate,
and he would speak again. "But this makes no sense. How
can you understand them when I can't?" he asked. "I
don't know," she replied. "I guess I just listen
to what they are saying." Suddenly, he realized that
his approach to languages had been academic, not practical.
He was listening for conjugations, singulars and plurals,
inverted verbs and other grammatical constructs, but not to
what people were actually saying.
Once he recognized this, his progress was blindingly rapid.
Within a very few weeks, he found that he was no longer translating
through English. He was actually thinking and speaking directly
"It was like being released from prison. I saw my cell
door swinging open and my mind being set free to fly out.
I could literally feel my brain expanding!" the young
man explains. He now lives in Belgium and has gone on to master
French, has a working knowledge of Dutch and German, and is
currently turning his attention to Spanish.
"You know," he says, "I used to be jealous
of people who learned other languages as a child, not as an
adult. But now I'm not so certain. I was 24 before I learned
a second language. It wasn't easy; in fact it was excruciatingly
difficult. However, I had an experience that people who grow
up speaking other languages cannot even begin to imagine.
Looking back on it, I don't think I would really want to change
I was that young man. I am no longer so young; all of this
happened more than 40 years ago. Having had four decades to
reflect on it, I am now convinced that this life-altering
experience firmly demonstrated two things. First, under the
proper circumstances, anyone can learn to speak other languages.
Having grown up in a country as big as a continent with a
single dominant language, I had fallen victim to the idea
that learning other languages required high intelligence and/or
special gifts. I am extremely happy to have discovered otherwise.
Secondly, I believe that the way languages are taught in the
U.S. is all wrong. The objective of teaching students to speak
the language is manifestly false. They won't, because in most
cases opportunities to use the language are lacking. Pursuing
this objective therefore only demoralizes students and turns
them against language learning per se. American educators
need to recognize that the best they can do is to acquaint
students with a language and lay a foundation for them to
rapidly start speaking it if they ever find themselves in
a place where the language is actually spoken.
Language courses should teach basic grammar passively, i.e.
so that students can easily recognize verb conjugations, singulars
and plurals, formal and familiar pronouns, etc., then concentrate
on helping students to comfortably read in the language, e.g.
newspapers, magazines, novels, etc. If students know how to
read a language, once they finish the course they might continue
reading it, thus keeping their knowledge grammar and vocabulary
fresh and ready to use should the opportunity ever arise.
Under current conditions, the moment they leave compulsory
language courses, most students immediately forget whatever
it is they might have learned, so everything is lost. My own
experience demonstrates the value of this approach. When I
had mastered Swahili -- and realized that I could master any
other language I wanted to -- I decided to try my hand at
French. With some effort, I taught myself to read French while
still living in Tanzania. When I returned to Los Angeles,
I continued reading newspapers, magazines, and novels in French,
so five years later when I moved to Belgium, I began speaking
it almost immediately.
I am currently doing the same thing with Spanish. I have essentially
no opportunity to speak Spanish in Belgium, but I now read
it almost fluently. I occasionally spend a week on vacation
to Spain. Each time I do, it takes only one or two days for
my mind to switch to Spanish mode, so that I can begin speaking.
Not fluently, but enough to get around. I am certain that
if I were to spend a month or so in Spain, I would rapidly