Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pros and cons of language acquisition

Pros and cons of language acquisition

Nearly every day either a foreigner tells me that they wish they could learn Turkish more quickly or a Turk says they wish they spoke English better.

It seems that during the spring months a number of English Language Teaching (ELT) conferences will be held in different places to help English teachers learn new techniques and discuss challenges they face as ELT teachers. On April 1 there is an ELT conference that is planned to be held in Konya. I have been asked to give a presentation on the subject “Can English be learned?”

When asked to give a presentation on this topic it got me to thinking about a question I had not really given a lot of thought to; however, like most foreigners a similar thought crossed my mind with regards to learning Turkish. Will I ever learn Turkish? Any student studying a second language asks this question about the target language. A number of foreign friends over the years have certainly expressed the same thought, that is, whether or not they will ever really be able to communicate in Turkish as a second or third language.

If you have ever studied Turkish you will be familiar with the technique used to teach the language. Only in more recent years have some teachers begun to use games, songs, role play, etc. Generally the more “direct method” approach to learning a language is used. In other words the teacher uses examples of language in order to inductively teach grammar. Thinking about this reminds me of when I took Turkish classes at a language center in Ankara back in 1980. The teacher seemed to only want to give oral practice to the students who knew the answers. So the students who did not catch on as quickly soon fell behind because they were not given enough practice. Naturally those who kept being given opportunities to speak because they knew the answers excelled. The teacher probably should not have been teaching because he had no patience with those who did not catch on quickly. He also lacked the gift of encouragement.

The teacher can make or break a student. Teachers should inspire hope and motivate students.

In another class that I attended the next year in İstanbul the teacher was completely different. Although she was heavy handed with grammar and weak in teaching pronunciation she was loved by her students. In her class it seemed as though she pounded us with grammar drills in hopes that we would catch on. We were always trying to guess the rules of the language through the examples provided. We liked our teacher as she understood foreigners and she knew English well. She was well aware of which grammar points we would struggle with in trying to learn Turkish. She would bombard us with lots of questions trying to get us to give a reply using the grammatical structure of the day in the conversation. Accuracy is sought and errors are corrected. This method provides more comprehensible input than the methods discussed so far, but it still focuses too much on grammar. Unlike the teacher in Ankara, no matter how hard Miss Belgen tried to make us feel comfortable when it came to your turn to answer you felt some anxiety. Sitting in rows waiting for your turn to come and speak can be nerve-wrecking and really is unnatural.

I think Stephen Krashen in his book “Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition” hits the nail on the head when he writes: “What theory implies, quite simply, is that language acquisition, first or second, occurs when comprehension of real messages occurs, and when the acquirer is not ‘on the defensive’.”

In order to really learn a second language and understand the culture you need to spend time with people who speak that language. If you are studying Turkish spend time with Turks. If you are studying English spend time with English speakers and so on. By doing this you will hear, speak and observe much. You will acquire language.

Along with lessons, language acquisition is the key. It does not require extensive use of grammatical rules. It does not require tedious drill. Learning a second language does not happen overnight. Real language acquisition develops slowly, and speaking skills emerge significantly later than listening skills, even when conditions are perfect. These days for most of us the best way to learn is in low-anxiety situations that contain messages that we really want to hear.

SOURCE: http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist-239114-pros-and-cons-of-language-acquisition.html

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Language struggles


“Why don’t you speak Turkish properly?” the tiny old woman hissed at me angrily as she leaned over to interrupt, obviously eavesdropping on the conversation I was having with two of my close Turkish friends. As we turned in surprise to see who had so rudely interrupted us, I managed to say in broken Turkish: “I moved to İstanbul two months ago and have only been learning the language for a month. Turkish is a very difficult language for me.”

Brushing my explanation aside, she snorted and replied: “What do you mean you’re just now learning Turkish? At your age, you should be fluent. It is the easiest language in the world to learn. Why, it is so simple that every child can speak it better than you can. What’s wrong with you?” Puzzled, I told her, in somewhat mangled Turkish, that in the country where I grew up we had spoken English and Spanish at home and I had no reason to learn Turkish until I moved here. Undeterred, she shook her head and insisted that the entire world spoke Turkish. “Look at the television shows,” she said, waving her hands for emphasis, “even the ones made in America are all in Turkish. Everybody speaks Turkish. Except you!”

My two Turkish friends stifled their laughter as they tried to convince the old woman that she was wrong about Turkish being a universal language. However, she could not be swayed and continued to insist that she was right. Even when they tried to explain that different languages are spoken in other countries, she refused to entertain the possibility that she may have been mistaken. Shaking our heads, we returned to our own conversation, which consisted of our own mix of Turkish and English words and phrases. My friends were irritated by the old woman’s intrusion and by her criticism of my grasp of the language.

Even though my friends were quick to point out that this elderly woman had most probably never travelled out of her country, or had interactions with foreigners before, she reminded me of the angry, frustrated tourists I had seen just earlier that day in Sultanahmet, the historic area of İstanbul. Obviously confused about where they were going, they approached a street cleaner and asked him for directions. The worker apparently did not speak English, but tried to understand what they needed, wanting to be as helpful as possible. The couple realized there was a breakdown in communication, and instead of showing him a map or photo in their guidebook of where they wanted to go that would help him figure out how to direct them, they restated their question, but in slower and louder English.

Seeing that they were becoming irritated with the situation, I came over and spoke with them, offering to help. I thanked the cleaner for his time and told him I could assist these lost tourists. Seeming to be relieved, he returned to his work. After giving the couple directions to the site they were looking for, they began to complain to me about their visit. “What is wrong with this country?” the woman asked. “The only people who understand other languages are those who are trying to sell us something. When we need help or directions, it seems impossible to find anyone who can speak English or French properly.” “ Yes,” the man added, “It is so hard to communicate here. You would think that more people would be fluent in other languages. How are tourists expected to find their way? We have tried speaking in the most basic English and French, but that does not even help.”

From all outward appearances, the tourist couple and the old woman I encountered across town a few hours later are worlds apart in terms of their financial situations and education levels. However, they are alike in that they expect everyone else to comfortably, and fluently, speak their own native tongue. Both assumed that they could navigate their way in the wider world using only the language, or languages in the case of the lost couple, they grew up using. I am sure the old woman was not being intentionally cruel to me, but was instead voicing her astonishment at the fact that a middle-aged woman could not speak her language as well as a 4-year-old child who had grown up only hearing Turkish. Speaking louder in a foreign language will not force the listener to suddenly understand your native tongue. Likewise, if someone is obviously trying to learn another language, it is much more helpful if native speakers are encouraging instead of disparaging.

In a way, the old woman was correct. My language skills should be better than they are. I hope that if we ever run into each other again, she will be impressed at how far I have come and she will appreciate how hard I have struggled to grasp the intricacies of yet another language.

SOURCE : http://www.todayszaman.com/news-235898-language-struggles.html

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