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Picking up a new language as an adult

My wife Elspeth Jones, herself a linguist and linguistics graduate, recently taught herself some Romanian whilst on a working trip with universities there. She reflects on the process of learning a new language from scratch as an adult. There may be one or two useful lessons for language teachers....


On a recent visit to Romania I was challenged to learn 100 words over the two weeks by Adrian Georgescu, one of my team members. For a linguist this shouldn’t be too difficult but it was a long time since I’d learned a new language from scratch and some of the first words I learned did not seem to relate to other languages, such as "mulțumesc" for thank you and "bună" dimineața, good morning.

I have lived in several countries and speak a number of languages to various levels of fluency: Romance, Germanic, Slavic and Oriental. It turns out that Romanian has some unusual characteristics and influences from several language groups. A word one might expect to be easy such as ‘to speak’ is actually ‘a vorbi’. And then at other times the word is easily recognisable from French, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian, like ‘foarte’ (very). So I became increasingly interested and soon my patient teacher’s challenge changed. I was to 1) provide 25 Romanian words of my choice 2) give the Romanian for 25 words provided by my teacher 3) produce six sentences of at least eight words 4) in conversation, answer two unknown questions in a sentence of at least eight words.

As regular readers of this blog will imagine, the question of ‘comprehensible input’ is a frequent topic in our house, so when I came home we discussed the language learning strategies I had used for this challenge. Adrian was endlessly patient and what luxury to have a native speaker willing to answer my incessant questions. It also helped that everyone I met was delightful and apparently positively inclined to my halting efforts. Of course I was also surrounded by visual clues – signs, advertising hoardings, shop names and so on.

But what were the strategies I used and was there anything which might offer pointers for language teachers in the classroom?

Moving from words to sentences I couldn’t understand why verb forms always seemed to be ‘irregular’, and what on earth was going on with articles and possessives? So I took to the internet for some answers. Perhaps naively, I hadn’t expected to find so much information on a language spoken by a relatively small number of people. Once I understood that there were four verb conjugation types, things began to make more sense, although it wasn’t any easier to learn them! Grammar lessons are never wasted on a learner like me.

Memorising patterns, writing everything down, reviewing everything I’d learned at the end of each day, learning chunks of language and then breaking them down into meaningful sections, were all important, being able to visualise where the word was in my notebook and which other words were around it, which words were not as you’d expect from other languages and conversely which were as predicted, even remembering where we were when I asked Adrian for a new word or sentence, all of these helped me to remember vocabulary and eventually full sentences.

I also have some Romanian friends on Facebook and picked up words from their posts. Motivating factors were that my teacher was willing to be mercilessly exploited but I also wanted to please him, the sense of progress being made and the ultimate challenge of ‘examination’ on the return flight to Bucharest were all part of the challenge, and it was just great fun. Also I’m a pretty motivated linguist, it has to be said.

Some of these strategies are a function of being an experienced adult linguist and knowing what works for me, but they also reflect the importance of different learning styles. There were words which stayed with me just from hearing them but others I had to write down and constantly revise.

So comprehensible input is all very well, but how would I step up to the conversation part of the test, listening to questions with new vocabulary and making up novel sentences? I was reminded that being able to break down chunks of language depends on knowing at least some of the words involved and trying to guess the others you don’t know and this relies on knowing where words begin and end.

The first time I heard Steve discussing with a friend "l’effet de serre", I thought they were saying ‘f é deux r’ and I simply couldn’t get it. Equally, one of the questions in my exam was ‘Spune-mi ceva frumos despre soţul tâu’ (tell me something nice about your husband) – all I could hear in the middle was ‘d’espresso’ because I hadn’t come across the word ‘despre’ before.

Lessons to be learned? Motivation plus comprehensible input, using personal learning strategies and having the opportunity to practise results in success. This was a privileged period of intensive learning in an immersion context, but still with the same fundamental tactics. The only problem is that if the motivation is lacking, everything becomes more difficult. Sadly I can’t offer any insight into how that is developed. I now need a Romanian friend to practise with or it could all disappear!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Comments

  1. What an excellent post. I can empathise with every single point you make, and I agree with your conclusion. How are you going to go about finding a Romanian friend? The internet opens many possibilities, especially for adults who are willing to have ago and do not mind taking risks!

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  2. Thanks Helen. Unfortunately our part of the UK doesn't seem to attract many Romanians but I live in hope. Adrian continues to send me little challenges via email - he's so patient. I hear you are learning Dutch? Veel geluk en geniet ervan!

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