Sunday, August 10, 2008
Here's a page from the Harvard Crimson yesterday about how learning Spanish is hard when using English is so easy. It's a very good example of exactly how not to go abroad to learn a language, and is important because when people go abroad to learn a language they often fail to plan ahead, and either end up wasting either valuable money or time. Those who don't have that much money often work part-time for a number of months or years for the chance to study abroad, and those that have enough money like the average Harvard student are often set up to start working right after graduation, and if the field of work doesn't involve the foreign language then it's not always that easy to find the time for another trip abroad.
Let's take a look at it piece by piece.
Problem 1: If at all possible, do not go abroad to study with large groups of people that share the same language.
On the first night of my summer study abroad program, our teaching fellow led 15 jet-lagged Harvard students through the narrow streets of Barcelona’s Old City to a restaurant off La Rambla, the city’s touristy yet iconic nucleus, which slices through the original part of the city. Brought to a long table on the roof deck of the short building, we met our professor and his family. The sun was setting, the wine flowed freely, and it felt like we could have been in the countryside rather than overlooking a bustling street.Study abroad can be accomplished with small groups of people in certain situations, but it's still best done alone. The whole concept of immersion is that one has to be surrounded by a language, and a group of 15 people all speaking the same mother tongue is a huge linguistic barrier to break. Even the physical aspects make it impossible: when speaking in your mother tongue you can talk to a group of 15 people with a loud enough voice, but when each of them is speaking another language you have to deal with 1) the speaker's accent or lack of ability in the language, and 2) the listeners' lack of ability to comprehend it. Unfortunately there's no magic all-encompassing Spanish atmosphere in Spain that wafts into a room and makes everybody all of a sudden start using the language where they wouldn't use it back home.
Still in the honeymoon period of my time in Barcelona, I made a comment to my roommate after dinner about how “European” that experience was. Her response? “I don’t know, I mean, everyone was speaking English.”
Problem 2: If you are going to study in a group, you need to set up a few ground rules beforehand.
A day or two later, I asked my friend who had studied here in the spring what she thought. She suggested it was unnatural for people who share a native language to speak to each other in a different one.Not necessarily. It's unnatural for a group of people who share a native language and who have always used that language only to communicate with each other to suddenly start using another one. If the group has been prepped well in advance before going, then you might be able to succeed. That means establishing a few ground rules, such as penalties for using one's native language, and practicing a lot before setting out. Everybody in the group should have the experience of talking to everybody else in the group in the language before setting out. Divide the group into five groups of three or four for example, talk in Spanish for a few classes, switch the groups up a few times until everybody has had the chance to hear everybody else talking in the language. That helps you avoid the following:
My classmates and I have planned Spanish-only Tuesday, but it hasn’t happened once. My roommate has come in and tried to speak to me in Spanish, but I have trouble understanding her accent.With a language like Spanish you're going to encounter a number of different accents. In most parts of Spain the c and d in ciudad for example are pronounced like English th, giving thiudath, and in Panamá they apparently pronounce ch like an English sh (ocho = osho). You're also going to hear people with English as a first language using Spanish quite a bit as well, so you might as well get used to it as soon as possible.
Problem 3: Don't go to a region that uses another language as often as the language you're trying to learn.
There is also something ironic about the fact that we are taking Spanish courses in a region where Spanish is not the primary language. While everyone here does speak the language, Catalan is more common, and almost all signs, ads, and menus are in Catalan. The weekend that we went to Madrid, I was reminded that I am actually in Spain.Ouch. Going to Catalonia to learn Spanish. Sometimes you have no choice in the matter, such as if you wanted to learn Basque, as Basque speakers don't have their own country which means that you're going to hear a lot of Spanish there as well. But for a language like Spanish there's no real reason to go to a place where most people have a different mother tongue. Catalan is very easy to understand and learn for someone who already knows Spanish, but for the student of the language that would be as bewildering as going to the heart of the Gaeltacht to learn English.