On Foreign Language Acquisition

31 December 2020

In my time acquiring the four languages that I have so far acquired, I’ve come to realize that the world is too large to only speak one language for your entire life, and with the spread of the internet, more and more resources in foreign languages have become available to the point where it is incredibly useful to be able to read text in the foreign language, in its original context. Another side effect of a continuing trend of globalization is that for the first time on such a massive scale, people from around the world have access to each other. While English has emerged as the international proxy, people and writing in other cultures often hold important knowledge that may not necessarily be accessible otherwise.

In other words, foreign language acquisition is an immensely useful skill, outside of just the job market. A few decades ago, being bilingual or multilingual was thought to be a handicap, as it was assumed the brain would not function optimally having to constantly switch between multiple languages. In recent years, however, this paradigm has been refuted, as more and more studies come out supporting the benefits of language acquisition. Language acquisition changes the way the brain is wired, delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and other such diseases by strengthening brain connections and pattern recognition.

In the United States, there seems to be this attitude that acquiring a foreign language, for some people, is unnecessary, as English is the international proxy, and that speakers of other languages must assimilate to English to be a part of the international discourse. This view is limiting, and it assumes that, for example, scientists publish everything in English. In truth, what this leads to is a subconscious supposition that English voices are somehow more important and deserving of ears than voices in other languages. Not everything can cater to English speakers, and a great storehouse of knowledge is lost upon committing oneself to monolingualism. The world becomes more beautiful, I would argue, upon acquiring a foreign language; it’s a way to have a new perspective on reality, and it shows that reality is not definite, but is a product of the environment. In constantly translating things to English, some of the original meaning could be lost. Speaking another language allows you to connect on a more personal level with the speakers of that language.

Another prevailing American attitude seems to be that acquiring another language is hard. Of course, I will never understand the monolingual experience- I have never been monolingual in my life- but the foremost point I want to emphasize most is that acquiring another language is within the realm of possibility, even for monolinguals. It possibly would require more study, but the payoff is immense. On that, I would advise proficiency in at least three languages. Later in this essay I will describe how, exactly, one can acquire a foreign language.

A map I saw recently detailed the average amount of foreign languages a citizen of certain European countries could speak. For example, in France, according to the map, the average was 1.5 languages other than French, in Spain, it was 1.4 languages other than Spanish. When we look at the same statistic for the United States, we see that the United States, on average, speaks 0.6 languages other than English. I truly believe that this statistic can reach at least 1. For a country as well-off as the United States, it should not be the case that the average American speaks one non-English language, with a significant group of monolinguals.

It has already been well-established among the American polyglot community that the system for teaching language is ineffective. The ire I have with this system is in the fact that its function is not necessarily to teach students a foreign language. Many students go into foreign language classes not looking to acquire a foreign language, but to gain credits to flex to an employer that they can, in fact, speak Spanish. Ask this student to sing or recite a mnemonic that they learned in class, and they will, no doubt, be able to list at least one. But put this student, supposedly educated in Spanish, in a situation with a Spanish speaker, and they will struggle. The student has learned Spanish, but not acquired it.

You’ll notice, now, that I’ve been using the word “acquire” as opposed to the word “learn” besides in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. In school, a foreign language is learned, but is not acquired by the students. What’s the difference? It’s possible to learn Italian but never acquire it, and it is possible to acquire Italian but never learn it. Albeit, one and not the other hardly ever happens. Language learning is successful when a student knows the language’s grammar, its phonology, syntax, and things of the sort. Language acquisition happens when a student can communicate their ideas in that language. For native English speakers, English is acquired between birth and say, age 13. At age 13, a child’s vocabulary in English is significantly large enough to convey a great number of ideas. The child, however, has not learned English unless they’ve gone through a grammar class in English. Assuming they haven’t, they don’t know, for example, that a gerund is the form of a verb ending in -ing, they’ve just been using -ing their entire lives. They don’t know what active voice and passive voice is, they’ve just been using the two their entire lives. In short, learning is understanding the mechanics of how a specific language works, whereas acquiring is being able to communicate in the language. An interesting analogy I saw recently said that learning the grammar of a language in order to be able to speak a language is like learning how an engine works to be able to drive a car.

Bringing this back to the way foreign language education occurs in schools, one can see that schools focus on language learning and not language acquisition. Let’s take the example of learning the Spanish subjunctive. In school, I learned the acronym WEIRDO as a way of signifying when to use the subjunctive. And that was all well and good, that is, for the intents and purposes of class. To be able to write something in the subjunctive on a test, simply make sure the verb in the first part of the sentence passes the WEIRDO test, add a ‘que’ and put the subsequent verb in the subjunctive. Perfect to pass a test, but not the way a Spanish speaker’s mind works when they’re speaking or writing. A Spanish speaker just intrinsically knows when the subjunctive is used. If schools were dependent on language acquisition, then in a unit on the subjunctive, the teacher would play various songs and videos, have the students read various texts in which the subjunctive is used- letting the students see that there are certain cases in which the verb form needs to change in order to be considered grammatically correct to Spanish ears. Through exposure to the subjunctive as opposed to learning about the subjunctive, students would have a much more effective and practical (albeit possibly a bit slower) ability to use the subjunctive.

The thesis here is that foreign language acquisition is important and can only come about through exposure as opposed to mechanical, traditional learning. What are the methods, then, that maximize the benefit for this project? It is crucial to understand how a child acquires a language. The two great functions of anything living are input and output. At home over the first few years of a child’s life, they are fed near constant input, from the TV running in the background to their mother’s call on the phone. Humans have an innate capacity to recognize patterns. I know this is a tangent that I’m about to get into, but perhaps the best example of this pattern recognition is in the institution that is religion. At the genesis of religion was an innate human desire to ascribe a meaning, a pattern, to what would otherwise register as a meaningless, patternless world. We are called sapiens (from Latin ‘sapere’ — to be wise) for a reason, and this desire to know is what led us to create a god, controversially without sufficient evidence for one. Of course, there is also the ‘religion as a means of maintaining the social order’ argument, but that is a separate issue.

Returning to the way babies acquire language, this constant stream of input leads to the baby’s first utterance that can be shown to have a sense of crude grammar. Besides the first word, which shows that the baby has the capacity to replicate the simplest of sounds from a language’s phonology, the first sentence often goes something like this: ‘Dad come?’ with a rising intonation. This shows two things about the baby’s language acquisition: that they understand that English places the subject of the verb before the verb itself, and that questions are marked by rising intonation. While this is major, of course it isn’t perfect. A question by an English speaker trying to convey the same information would read ‘Did Dad come?’ or ‘Is Dad coming?’ For a baby and a beginning language speaker, however, this is major, as it marks the difference between seeing random words on a page or hearing random sounds spoken and being able to make some sense, and make some guesses, as to the organization of those words or sounds.

Of course, it is necessary to note that anomalies exist. There will be a phase in every instance of foreign language acquisition in which the budding speaker ‘go-ed to the park’ as opposed to went there, that is, a phase in which the rules for the structure of a language are understood, but not exceptions to those rules. The fact that people went to the park as opposed to go-ed is something that comes through making mistakes, a crucial part of acquiring any skill, not just the ability to speak a foreign language.

This is exactly the manner in which we ought to begin the language acquisition process: through plenty of input. Listen to the language and get yourself familiar with its sounds. Look at the written language (I can’t use the word read, as that implies you’re understanding what is written) to get a feel for how the language looks. And then let your brain’s pattern recognition do the rest. To speed up the process, maybe memorize a base vocabulary of 100 or so words to familiarize yourself with those specific sounds and spellings, so that in taking input, these words can act as landmarks in a sentence to aid you in seeing structure, semantics- how these words assimilate to form the sentence’s meaning.

And then there is output. It helps, when you get a bit more comfortable in a language, to have conversations with yourself so you can see where the gaps in your knowledge lie when it comes to conversational language. Write to a penpal or talk to people you find who speak your desired language. It will be immensely valuable to the language acquisition process to see how the language is used in context. Fluency can only come not when you both understand others’ ideas being conveyed to you, and you can convey your own ideas to others.

The bottom line in all this is that language acquisition, of course for someone like me, on track to acquiring my fifth and sixth languages, is an enjoyable process. Not only is it possible for anyone of any age, the payoffs are immense. It comes down to not being afraid to put yourself out there, find resources in the language you want to acquire, whether that be things to listen to or read, or people to talk to or write to. The journey is beautiful, and I hope this short essay has been able to convince you to take up acquiring another language.

Hi! I'm Nihar, and I like to learn languages. My account on here is to document my journey, plus to have a place to write!