How to learn a foreign language by Jay Gutman

I want to learn French! I want to learn Spanish! I want to learn Japanese! Currently, the trend is to buy textbooks or tapes, or to watch language courses on YouTube and perhaps think that you will somehow pick up the language. But textbooks don’t teach you conversation, nor do they teach you how to use languages at the professional level or use a language at the academic level. So if anyone claims he or she learned a language by listening to tapes, you can detect fraud.

  1. Learning conversation

forein0001_400The problem with learning a language is that language and culture are intertwined. You basically have three types of culture: free cultures where the individual represents himself, tribal culture where the individual feels that he is representing his tribe and militarized cultures where the individual is representing his rank.

So if you’re learning the language of a free culture, you’re going to have to adjust to being an individual who does not represent his tribe or his rank. Why? Because if you constantly represent your tribe or your rank, you are not going to make a lot of friends and you will have no one to use the language with. Same goes if you learn the language or a tribal culture. If you’re constantly talking about yourself as an individual, you are not going to make many friends. If you learn the language of a militarized culture, you will lose a lot of friends if you don’t behave the way your rank tells you to behave.

Once you understand how the culture works, you can practice conversation slowly but surely with native speakers of the language. Now in a lot of foreign language schools abroad, you have foreign learners of the language practicing the language among themselves, but never really practicing with native speakers. That is at a Japanese language school in Japan for example, you will have non-Japanese people speaking Japanese amongst each other, but never really conversing with Japanese people.

The art of conversation varies greatly from culture to culture. In militarized cultures, there’s a great deal of gossip in conversations and honest conversations are only meant for friends. In tribal cultures, there’s a great deal of showing off in conversation and most of what is said will be exaggerated. In free cultures there’s a great deal of “report talk” meaning that conversations tend to center around reports of daily activities or information that was picked up here and there. In sum, you need to spend time observing groups having conversations before you engage in conversation yourself. That’s how you’ll find out, for example, that when the Chinese, Japanese or Koreans cough repeatedly, they are really hinting that you are being politically incorrect and need to change the direction of your thoughts.

  1. Learning professional language use

The more conversation you have the better. While everyone is familiar with the art of conversation, not every native speaker will be familiar with professional language use. Some native speakers can read and write fluently, give presentations, discuss and negotiate, while others are completely incapable of doing so.

So for professional language use, you will need to practice reading, writing, discussion, negotiation and presentation. Now most native speakers don’t read a lot, but reading comes naturally to them. So you will need to reach that point where reading is painless and effortless. That means you will have to be familiar with the local culture, and read a lot to get used to reading. Same goes for writing, as you will need to practice a lot of writing before you become familiar with it. Most languages differ in writing style, so you will have to get used to writing styles before you can read and write.

Discussion, negotiation and presentation also have a great deal of cultural elements to it. Furthermore, as a non-native speaker, expectations will differ depending on who you work for. Some will expect you to come up with your own negotiation style, while others will expect you to conform to local negotiation tactics.

  1. Learning academic language use

Taking a class on physics or history in a language that is not your native language will be complicated, as you would struggle with such a course in your own native language. Lecturing styles and testing styles differ a great deal from language to language, and you might struggle with those as well.

In Japan, absolute silence in the classroom is mandatory, and you are not allowed to squeak your chair, let alone ask the teacher a question. In Korea most teachers tend to be very assertive, almost to the point of being confrontational with students. In France, teachers tend to beat around the bush, and rarely give maximum points for anything. You could give a perfect answer, and yet only get 70% as your grade. Grades are negotiable in China and Korea, but non-negotiable in France. A lot of context is provided in the United States, while Asians will stick exclusively to what is in the textbook. American teachers give personal examples from their private life; most French teachers never discuss their private life or give personal examples.

In sum, for academic language use, you will have to learn how to write essays and read “boring” information on history or biology, but you will also have to get used to the academic system. Arab teachers yell a lot, Japanese teachers’ voices are barely audible.

So next time, think twice before you say “I want to learn French!” or “I speak French!”

Ovi magazine

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