August 4, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — by AmiraAK @ 11:08 pm

It’s not easy learning a new language.  You have to invest time and effort into it.  For almost two years now I have been learning Spanish.  I have only reached half of the levels required to be competent in the language according to the certified institute that teaches it.  I have passed every level I have taken, sometimes very well and sometimes not too well.  I go to the library every now and then, I try to listen to songs and stories and watch movies, so in fact I exert a little bit of effort and I enjoy learning the language tremendously.  However, I don’t feel I’m making much progress.  To learn a language you have to practice.  You have to put in more than “a little effort”.  You have to study grammatical rules and constantly do exercises, and most importantly you have to speak it – and listen to it constantly.

Throughout the past two years I have been thinking about the teaching methods I learnt in college and the TEFL courses I took and read.  I’ve constantly been thinking of my process of learning and I’ve been thinking of the grammatical rules and vocabulary in the three languages I already know pretty well.  Only now, am I starting to understand the linguistics courses I took in college and only now am I beginning to truly get to grips with my own comprehension of languages and in the similarities and differences between them.  It is amazing.  I think you are only able to truly observe it when you know other languages and can play around with sentences and structures.  It makes you appreciate languages more (it makes you thank God your parents are who they are and helped to nurture our languages the way they did) and it makes you wonder how people come up with all these rules and formulas: SVO, VSO, SVOIO, OVS or however you want to structure the sentences.  Why do we have different sentence structures? And how come so many words are so similar in what may seem to be totally different languages.. what separates each language from another and what is it that binds us all together?

I have come to observe many things:

–       Learning a language is definitely not an easy task.

–       Practice makes perfect.  And to be competent in a language, you have to practice.  There’s no joking around.

–       It’s not cool making fun of other people when they make mistakes in another language.  Except of course when we all laugh together.  My friends and I always make jokes of our funny Arabic or French or English expressions that come out spontaneously, but to make fun of people who really don’t know that they’re making mistakes isn’t very nice.  Coz it’s darn hard thinking and speaking in something other than your mother tongue.

–       On the other hand, you have to learn from your mistakes and try to improve if you’re really serious about this.  You really have to try and make an effort to pronounce words well, and to concentrate on the grammar when you speak and write.

–       Pronunciation issues are a major problem.  There are traits that are common among all French speakers who try to speak in English, or Arabic speakers talking in English, or for example Americans speaking French (a total disaster if you ask me ;)) and though we really really wish that Arabic speakers would try and make more effort to pronounce the P as a P and not as a B, and French speakers the TH as a TH and not as a Z, it’s sometimes totally out of their hands because their own languages and the way they have been using their tongues and lips and pronouncing words doesn’t make it possible for them at an older age to always get it right.

–       I noticed that we structure sentences according to our native languages too.  I remember when I used to teach and correct exams and research papers, I could almost always identify a person writing in English whose predominant language is French.  There’s a certain way that they write and structure their sentences that is different from English, though you might think they’re very similar.  For me, English is predominant and oftentimes, I start Arabic sentences with a subject while Arabic sentences usually start with a verb.  Some expressions I use are a mirror image of expressions in English but make absolutely no sense in Arabic.  My teacher tells me that I also think in English and try to structure Spanish sentences accordingly which isn’t correct.  One has to think in the language that one writes or speaks.

–       Reading is a great way to practice and become competent in a language.  It was reading that improved my Arabic drastically.  Once I stop reading Arabic, I lose base.  I hate writing in French because I don’t like reading it.  Even when I feel my English becoming too commonplace, I hit the books.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to read in the language you’re learning.  It improves your vocabulary and you get you see phrases and idioms and expressions you wouldn’t normally know.  You also, even if subconsciously see sentence structures and grammatical rules and punctuation in place that you wouldn’t otherwise read elsewhere.  What had really helped my English was reading all those 18th and 19th century novels.  I loved to write then, and I could think and speak in that English style.  Once I started reading Daniel Steele, Barbara Taylor Bradford and later Dan Brown and similar writers, my punctuation rules and my vocabulary totally changed.  Sentences became shorter and less structured; as did my day-to-day life..

–       It’s fun to look at the similarities in languages.  The influence of Arab history and culture on Spain and its language, the similarities between all the Latin languages, the influence of the Germanic languages creeping in here and there, the forms of verbs and their conjugation, the vocabulary itself, the differences between Castillano and Catalan and between Castillano and the Spanish language of Latin America with its influences from the American continent.. it’s all quite fascinating.  If we knew more languages it would be even more fun comparing and contrasting.

–       It’s much much easier learning a language when you’re young.  Ideally when you’re very very young.  It comes more naturally.  If you have children, do them a favour, and travel to a foreign country for a few years when they’re just about starting school.  Teach them more than one language (but never override their mother tongue).  And Invest in their education.  To me, there’s nothing more important in this world than a good education and if you can afford it, it’s much more important than having a fancy car or house or other luxuries we fool ourselves with.

–       One forgets.  If you don’t practice, you forget.  It’s not like riding a bicycle or driving.  You really forget, and you have to get back into it with more time and more effort and more practice.  It’s a long process but it’s a fun process, it’s like opening doors and windows to another land.

–       You have to travel to better learn and improve the language you are learning; and you have to learn about the customs and the traditions and the day to day life.  Immerse yourself in the culture and explore its nitty-gritty details.

I think I’ll stop here and probably add more things as the days go by.  What I do know is, that I need to study and I need to speak more.  I need to not be afraid of talking and making mistakes, because otherwise I won’t really learn.

Most importantly, I think I have to go to Spain for a few months if there’s any chance I want to improve my competency of the language, and I have to figure out when I can do that!


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