May 31, 2010 | Spanish
My Theory of Language Acquisition
The stages language learners pass through in their quest for fluency.
Here is my (highly personal) theory of language acquisition. Many people seem to go through the following three phases as they learn a foreign language:
- Phase 1. Insecurity
- Phase 2. Complacency
- Phase 3. Insecurity
The first phase is characterized by uncertainty and discomfort as learners struggle with the challenges of unfamiliar pronunciation, limited vocabulary, and minimal grammar knowledge.
It is a long phase for many people.
After substantial training—maybe several years of good high school courses, for example—learners often enter the second phase, one characterized by confidence and preferably supported by a solid knowledge of the target language’s fundamentals. Phase two people can carry on conversations. They can read pretty well. They can write pretty well.
The danger of phase two is that those who enter it can develop a false sense of security. They can end up believing they understand more than they do.
They miss nuances. They answer the wrong questions in conversations. They read literature carelessly, failing to look up words they don’t know and guessing at meaning. For example, they might mistakenly believe that the protagonist of a story has died when in fact he is merely in a coma, from which he will soon awaken to reclaim his kingdom, maybe even annexing an adjacent kingdom in the process.
I would characterize this as a pretty serious misreading. As you might imagine, bad things can happen in phase two of language acquisition.
Phase three—the return to insecurity—is a better place to end up, in my opinion. Yeah, maybe it is not as pleasant in some ways. Given a choice, most of us prefer not to be insecure.
The cause of the insecurity increase is in part that, as you learn more, you tend to get a more realistic picture of how little you actually know. Throughout the past two months of Spanish, I have constantly been learning constructions and idioms that were different from what I expected. I have been surprised many, many times as the language departed from my original sense of it. I’m talking verb constructions, general syntax, vocabulary, regional variations, and more.
The truth is, not all that many originally monolingual Americans—those whose native language is English, that is—ever get past stage two. It might be good if they did. I believe in linguistic humility.
And by the way, on a somewhat related topic, I also believe in grammar humility, for English. People who think they know everything just because they had Ms. Smith for eighth-grade English commit all kinds of mistakes. These are people who will pick the wrong pronoun in the following sentence while simultaneously being cocky and condescending about it:
Sarah, who/whom I believe has studied French for 10 years, just failed her language test.
The correct answer is “who,” but the critical issue is not the correctness (though of course I care about that); rather, it is the condescension. I have no patience for condescension combined with wrongness. Wrong but humble: acceptable. Right and humble: preferable. Wrong and snotty: just plain obnoxious.
Anyway, studying Spanish again has been humbling. If there is a phase four—and of course there must be—I am not in it yet, and I will not reach it before midnight, either.
Tomorrow I begin Greek, so this is it for my Spanish, for now. Except that I will probably continue to speak it almost every day, at least a little, just as I have for years here. And I hope I will be noticeably better at it than before!