Skip to main content

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!

    ReplyDelete
  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!

    ReplyDelete

Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

What is the natural order hypothesis?

The natural order hypothesis states that all learners acquire the grammatical structures of a language in roughly the same order. This applies to both first and second language acquisition. This order is not dependent on the ease with which a particular language feature can be taught; in English, some features, such as third-person "-s" ("he runs") are easy to teach in a classroom setting, but are not typically fully acquired until the later stages of language acquisition. The hypothesis was based on morpheme studies by Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt, which found that certain morphemes were predictably learned before others during the course of second language acquisition. The hypothesis was picked up by Stephen Krashen who incorporated it in his very well known input model of second language learning. Furthermore, according to the natural order hypothesis, the order of acquisition remains the same regardless of the teacher's explicit instruction; in other words,

What is "Input Processing"?

Input Processing (IP) was proposed by Bill VanPatten, Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition from Michigan State University. Bill may be known to some of you from his podcast show Tea with BVP. He is one of those rare university academics who makes a specific effort to engage with practising teachers. IP was first proposed in a 1993 article (published with T. Cadierno in the Modern Language Journal) entitled "Input processing and second language acquisition: A role for instruction." My summary of it is based on an article "Input Processing and Processing Instruction: Definitions and Issues" (2013) by Hossein Hashemnezhad. IP is a little complicated to explain, but I'll do my best to summarise the key points before suggesting how it relates to other ways of looking at classroom language teaching. Is this actually any use to teachers? I apologise in advance for over-simplifying or misunderstanding. To paraphrase Dr Leonard McCoy from Star Trek &q

Delayed dictation

Image: pixabay.com What is “delayed dictation”? Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music. It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too. Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating. In our language teaching case, though, the

Using sentence builder frames for GCSE speaking and writing preparation

Some teachers have cottoned on to the fact that sentence builders (aka substitution tables) are a very useful tool for helping students prepare for their GCSE speaking and writing tests. My own hunch is that would help for students of all levels of proficiency, but may be particularly helpful for those likely to get lower grades, say between 3-6. Much depends, of course, on how complex you make the table. To remind you, here is a typical sentence builder, as found on the frenchteacher site. The topic is talking about where you live. A word of warning - formatting blogs in Blogger is a nightmare when you start with Word documents, so apologies for any issues. It might have taken me another 30 minutes just to sort out the html code underlying the original document. Dans ma ville (in my town) Dans ma région (In my area) il y a (there is/are) des banques (banks) des cafés (cafes) des

Pros and cons of pair and group work

Most teachers have made frequent use of pair and group work for many years, notably since the rise of communicative language teaching in the 1980s. Even before then it would have been common for pupils to work in pairs on simple role-play and dialogue tasks. So pair and group work is standard practice, if not universally supported by language teachers. It’s always worth evaluating, however, whether a practice works - whether, in this case, it helps students develop their proficiency. Pros Rod Ellis (2005) summarises the advantages of pair/group work (based on Jacobs, 1998) “1. The quantity of learner speech can increase. In teacher-fronted classrooms, the teacher typically speaks 80% of the time; in groupwork more students talk for more of the time. 2. The variety of speech acts can increase. In teacher-fronted classrooms, students are cast in a responsive role, but in groupwork they can perform a wide range of roles, including those involved in the negotiation of meaning. 3. There can