By Nima Khorramrooz
How do we learn a foreign language?
Firstly, when it comes to learning a language, it is important that we know the difference between three very common and sometimes tricky terms: first language, second language and foreign language.
First language is your mother tongue, the language that you born with. A foreign language, on the other hand, is a non-native language with no status as a routine medium of communication in a country. Like foreign language, a second language is a non-native language that is used for communication purposes, as a medium of education, government or business. For example, English is the first language of England but it has a foreign language status in Japan and second language status in Nigeria. Knowing these terms helps us to know the importance of learning foreign languages.
We are living in a multilingual world, with people speaking thousands of different languages at local, national or international levels. English speakers are unlikely to learn a foreign language as they believe that a large number of people in the world understand and speak English. So what’s the point of learning a foreign language when we can stick to English?
There are many reasons why we should know more than one language. First of all, knowing a foreign language helps us have a better understanding of other people as well as showing respect and promoting tolerance for the cultural identity and values of others. Secondly, in the world of economics, an ideal candidate is the one that can sell himself or herself to the employers. Knowing more than one language can differentiate you from other people that just speak one language and more job opportunities will be available for you as a result of that.
Travelling could also be a motivation to some for learning more about languages and people living elsewhere. Moreover, the internet and social media bring people much closer in comparison to the past two decades. People can now have direct access to the world of foreign cinema, radio, TV programmes, music, etc. which might inspire them to speak more than one language.
Several theories have been propounded about ways in which individuals can learn a foreign language. The process of language learning in the 1950s and 1960s was influenced by the tenets of behaviourism. From this perspective, learning a language could be done through imitation and reinforcement. This means that speakers normally copy what they hear and, with regular practice, establish a set of acceptable habits in the new language. During this process, your first language always has a tremendous effect on your second language because you are more likely to transfer sounds, structures and usages from one language to another.
This theoretical view of language learning has its pros and cons and could not be used for every single individual in the world. Therefore, linguists looked for an alternative to the behaviourist approach and suggested cognitive factors in language-learning to be used by individuals instead. This method involves learners being encouraged to use their cognitive abilities in a creative way to work out hypotheses about the structure of the foreign language. They make rules, try them out and change them when they think it is necessary. Learners learn foreign languages in a series of transitional stages and, of course, they will make mistakes when learning a language that they have no idea about. Mistakes are likely to be made when learners make the wrong deductions about the nature of the foreign language. Gradually, however, learners will understand how the foreign language system works through the errors they make as errors provide positive evidence about the nature of the learning process.
So why is it that some people can learn a foreign language and others find it more difficult?
There are variable answers to this question. Motivation is an important factor for learning. Languages should be taken out of the classroom as then students can see them used in their native communities. Also, learning a language requires both teachers and students to be motivated. Teachers will be less motivated if they find out that most of the students are forced to learn a language and are desperate to drop the language at the earliest opportunity. Teachers in this situation tend to spend less time and energy on students and the outcome could be disappointing in most cases.
Attitude is also a very important factor when learning a foreign language. If a student dislikes a country or a culture for whatever reason, such as politics or religion, this very negative attitude will affect the language learning achievement and vice versa. Practising regularly is another reason why some succeed and others don’t. You can’t learn a language unless you spend a reasonable and effective time practising and talking or listening to native speakers.
So, when should we learn a foreign language?
The sooner, the better. Formerly, people would start learning a foreign language at the late stage of development around the age of ten or eleven. However, the importance of an early start has been noted by linguists in recent decades. Children can learn languages faster than mature adults and songs, games, rhymes, sayings and so on can be used to teach foreign languages.
We need to live in a hate free world where everyone can say what they want and listen to what others say. However, all this will not happen unless we start learning at least one foreign language now. Right now!
Nima’s article was influenced by Professor David Crystal’s How Language Works