Talent For Language
Apr10

Talent For Language

You hear it all the time and I’m sure you’ve heard it before… The struggling learner with the ‘once a month’ study plan says it. The person that studied Spanish in high school while reading a comic book and not paying attention says it. The ‘average’ L1 English-speaker says it… It’s the monolingual catchphrase:  “I don’t have a talent for languages” Rubbish. Everyone has a ‘talent’ for language… it’s an in-built mechanism. We are human. We have language. But what do they truly mean when they say that they “don’t have a talent”? Well, it’s my professional opinion that they mean they are ‘lazy’. When people are young – i.e. infants – we are surrounded by language and our ‘talent’ allows us to acquire language without knowing what we’re doing. We have to acquire it or we can’t communicate… Simple. And depending on circumstances, some of us acquire just the one language or some of us acquire multiple languages. In any case, as we age and have to actively think about acquiring – or learning – a foreign language this ‘lack of talent’ comes to the fore. The average L1 English speaker uses their ‘lack of talent’ as an excuse for nothing putting in the effort. Ask any of the people that have successfully acquired an additional language post-puberty and they’ll tell you that it didn’t happen overnight. What did happen though, is that they put in the hard yards and grabbed hold of something that they can use for the rest of their life. This ‘talent’ should more realistically be seen as: ‘motivation’ + ‘effort’ = ‘talent’. Without the motivation, you won’t feel the need to learn. Without the effort, your motivation will eventually shrivel and die. Without a combination of the two, your talent will never emerge. How can you keep the motivation alive? Well, take baby steps… There are mini-milestones everyday and when you achieve them your motivation will keep growing. But to reach the mini-milestones, you have to put the effort in. Even if it’s just reading one sentence and figuring out the meaning; at least you’re putting in some effort. And I’m sure, that one you’ve figured out that meaning and gotten past that sticking point, you’ll feel a sense of achievement. A ‘sense of achievement’ typically has the pleasant side-effect of stoking your motivational fire. And in-turn, you’re likely to put in that little bit more effort. A vicious circle is emerging. Simply put, don’t be lazy! To achieve your language goals, you have to put in the effort. But effort is likely to be fruitless if you don’t have the motivation to back it up....

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The Truth About Arabic

There’s no doubt that the people from the Middle East are very proud people. They are proud of their country, of their history and of their language. Except when speaking English… many of those I speak to wish to lose all traces of the  markers that identify them as being from the region. But that’s a story for another time. Today we talk about Arabic itself. What are the differences between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and the colloquial or vernacular varieties? Which is intrinsically the best Arabic to learn? The answer seems to be…. all of them! No matter which country the person comes from that I speak with. Whenever I tell them that I have an interest in Arabic and wish to study it in the future, they all tell me to learn their variety of Arabic; whether it is Saudi Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Jordanian Arabic, Lebanese Arabic… or take your pick from any of the Gulf states. And why should I learn X variety? Well, because, as I’m reliably informed (irrespective of where that speaker comes from)… X Arabic is the closest to MSA. It’s amazing right… so many different varieties that are reported to be somewhat unintelligible to one another, and yet, they all the closest to MSA. My question to you… as a learner of Arabic, and not as an L1 speaker of Arabic… which Arabic vernacular is actually the most practical for the learner to attempt to acquire, keeping in mind that the vast majority of Arabic materials reflect MSA and not the...

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Accents: Native or Not
May10

Accents: Native or Not

Our friend Ultimate Attainment is back again. He’s someone we’re talking about a lot in my seminars lately and unfortunately, certain people do believe the falsehoods about sounding like “native” being the ultimate. It’s also a fundamental aspect of my dissertation (specifically dealing with English in Korea).. but that’s another story. When it comes to accentual perfection, I’m of the opinion that it is possible to sound like a native, but the issue is, is it necessary..and that is a no. It’s a no for several reasons, but one of the biggest is because many people these days have been exposed to others learning their language, so accentual perfection is not needed to be understood. I have met a few people with excellent accents in English (and other languages… if we are to use a native model as being “excellent”), but it’s not the norm and it’s not something that can make or break conversation. So I don’t believe it to all that important. Getting the message across is the key to successful communication, while sounding like a local doesn’t really mean all that much if what you’re saying is gibberish. On top of this, we also need to consider language pride/national identity. There are learners from certain countries that are proud to still be noticed of where they’re from. To generalise… many French English speakers like being recognised as being French, whereas many Arabic English speakers don’t like being recognised as being from that region of the world (generalisations of course, but ancedotal evidence to back that up 😉 So that’s the moral high-ground, but where am I in relation to my own learning? Well… I like to think I have a pretty good ear for accent replication. And I like to think my Korean accent in particular is quite good overall (with the exception of a few sounds that I’ve long been aware of)… but having recorded myself a lot lately I’ve come to realise that after just a year out of the country – and even though I have many Korean friends and a Korean wife – my accent has gone downhill a rather long way. Downhill, not in the sense of failed communication and gibberish, but downhill in the sense that my pronunciation isn’t anything like a native 😉 …Which is where I am right now; going through a lot of remedial pronunciation drills to pick my accent up again. All this is inspite of the fact that I will never pass as a Korean since I’m Caucasian… but alas… c’est la vie And that, my friends, is the dilemna… Even though we know it’s not necessary to sound like a native, nor...

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What is Fluency?

Are you fluent? It’s a pretty simple question. The answers are more than subjective. To a non-language learner there seems to be the consensus that this question is a definitive yes or no. So not true. Everybody has their own interpretation of what fluency is and while there is a switch in all of us that can flick on or off when we reach our interpretation of fluency, it’s not easily defined across the board. Yes, we can look at something like CEFR or ILR scales (both in the Language Proficiency Scales post) but they’re still open to subjective analysis. For me, fluency is a matter of being able to speak freely about any subject I’m interested in. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not too concerned with accuracy and accept that making mistakes is the norm… Many native speakers make mistakes quite often if you listen closely. I take for granted that I will also be able to read and write with ease, and obviously, if I can speak, then listening is also thrown in. But why only subjects I’m interested it? Well, because if it’s a subject I’m not particularly interested in, then I’m not likely to want to contribute to the conversation at this stage anyway. The different between fluency and advanced fluency is being able to contribute meaningfully in conversations that don’t particularly interest me. And perhaps more importantly, an overall accuracy and nuance in my usage. I can only do this in English… and it will take me a long time to reach this level in any other language I feel. Somewhat interestingly, I read on I Kinda Like Languages recently, that Kato Lomb – the Hungarian polyglot – devised a simple test to check your profiency in any language. There are 4 categories with 4 words in each. Category 1 words are worth 1 point each, Category 2 are 2 points each, Category 3 are 3, and 4 are 4. I’m a little uncertain on how to actually determine your language level, but I guess the closer you are to the 40 point max, then the more of a superstar you are. Anyway, the words… Category 1: the moon, to buy, wide, free Category 2: a blow, to enjoy, suddenly, grateful Category 3: a straw, to promote, rigidly, significant Category 4: brass, to browse, obstinately, enthusiastic I see this as being quite useful for assessing your knowledge of a language. Not for necessarily assessing fluency per se, but still…...

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Bilingual Children and Literacy

As a follow-up to the Multilingual Children post a while back, this is a question we’ve been pondering lately… How do you develop and maintain literacy in the home language without formal instruction? The obvious way as we are both teachers is to actively teach our son how to write and give him written tasks as he progresses… but that’s unrealistic. The last thing we want to do is have Leon resenting English when we’re in Korea (where English will be the home language). Sure, he’ll be exposed to English in the education system or should we choose, a private institute… but since his English level is likely to be higher than his peers, that’s also kind of unrealistic. We have no issues when it comes to taking care of the other skills – listening, speaking and reading – and their development as to take care of them is obvious. Read and talk, just like any parent does. Meta-linguistic transfer should take place to assist with reading skills across the board. The only concern is the writing as it’s a different alphabet, and a direct transfer cannot take place. So our dilemna is purely related to English writing skills that are going to be comparable to his development in the community language, or Korean. I’ll be interested to hear from others that have been raised bilingually (or are raising kids bilingually) and have successfully developed written literacy in their home...

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