Language in Education

Kirsten, a college student from South Africa, sent me a nice email a while ago asking me to weigh in on an issue that I find extremely important and often complicated. It is an issue that affects people in every country of the world and one that has affected every ethnic group in the history of the world. The question is whether children who should be educated in their native language or in a language that will give them more opportunities later in life.

 

What kind of opportunities in life will you have if all you know how to speak is a variety of Zapotec that only a few thousand people in Oaxaca, Mexico understand? No one would blame such a person for making sure their children learned Spanish from an early age. How far can you go in life in south western China if you don’t know Mandarin? Ethnic minorities are certainly not the only people confronting this issue.

 

German is the official language of six prosperous countries and has over 100 million native speakers with tens of millions of non-native speakers added to that number. It also has a literary tradition that is hundreds of years old and boasts some of the best writers and philosophers in modern times. In spite of this, every German engineering student knows that his or her career will be limited without a solid command of English.

 

Is it any wonder that millions of students from all over Africa are demanding to be educated in English instead of Afrikaans, French, Yoruba, etc.? Many American, British, Australian, etc. companies have been known to favor employees with fluent English over other employees who are harder to understand but are more competent in their professions. The advantages to combining impressive professional skills with fluency in English are palpable.

 

On the other hand, I wonder about the Filipinos who have a wider vocabulary in English than they do in Tagalog or Cebuano but speak it with a heavy accent. I wonder about Haitian children who are taught that what they speak at home is corrupted French, instead of a proper language. This means they have to be be taught to speak the real thing by teachers who usually cannot speak French well either. I also wonder about the Hispanic youth in the USA, the Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain, and Algerians in France who never learn to speak any language well.

 

What does it mean to undervalue, or even despise, your native language? What does it do to a person to intentionally lose or weaken the ability to speak with Grandparents and other relatives? How do we feel about ourselves and our worth as individuals if we believe that the language that feels most natural to us is somehow inferior to another language? Can a language’s true worth be calculated accurately with money alone?

 

I wish I had a simple answer to this complex problem. There is, however, no single solution that will work for countries as diverse as South Africa, the USA, China, Ukraine, and Malaysia. I would like to describe some principles that will help people as they try to negotiate their education between two or more languages and I will talk about them in my next post. Until then, what are your thoughts?

Level Up with Moses and Benny

This is a totally cool video and definitely worth sitting through twelve minutes of a shaky camera and poor audio. Even my wife, who is not a language enthusiast, loved this video. If you are a language lover or want to be one, please watch it.

Benny (the Irish Polyglot) Lewis has the playful attitude and lust for life that that his compatriots are famous for. In his case, this includes a love for languages and travel. Benny has been traveling the globe for eight years and got his language learning method down to a system. He’ll even sell you a book about that system. He likes focusing on a language for three months and striving to speak it fluently by the end of that period. We can thank this video in large part to his world travels, especially coming to Ohio (that’s a state in the USA). A point that Benny makes in this video, that I really like, is that shyness is probably not a lifelong stamp and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moses McCormick is the other language enthusiast in this video with an Irish last name. He, like Benny, also has language services that he would be happy sell you. If you watched the video you cannot help but be impressed with Moses. I know I can’t. With the soft relentlessness of a door-to-door salesman, Moses lets nothing stand in his way to have a positive language experience. In this video, he gives us all a fabulous example to follow: get out there and use your languages! He also gives us a great example of learning and using the languages in your community. Moses has never visited Cambodia and perhaps never will, but that doesn’t stop him from interacting with Cambodians in Columbus, Ohio.

Benny has also written a post about his experience on his blog which includes another video not seen here. I suggest you give a look. Thanks for the video guys!

New Lady Polyglots

The MehrsprachICH competition is over and I am happy to announce that my friend Richard won first place! Thanks to those of you who responded to my invitation to vote for him. Every voted certainly counted. While I am please that Richard won, I was also happy to come across new polyglots that I was previously unaware of.

Male polyglots are very well represented online. Moses McCormick, Benny Lewis, Steve Kaufmann, Stuart Jay Raj, Luca LamparielloRichard Simcott and Dr. Alexander Argüelles are some of the most well known. Female polyglots are not nearly as well represented but they do exist. Three who have come to my attention are Susanna Zaraysky, Jana Fadness and Kathleen Hearons. These ladies have done some fabulous work with their languages and their videos are definitely worth watching.

The MehrsprechICH competition introduced me to three more lady polyglots that I would like to highlight here. Dalia Hazem’s video didn’t actually make it into the competition but is worthy of mention nonetheless. You can tell that she’s serious about writing and making her works known in English and German in addition to her native Arabic.

Lily Alexandrova’s video got fourth place in the competition. Be sure to turn on the subtitles when you watch it. Her knowledge of French, German, Spanish and Italian (in addition to her native Bulgarian) are impressive to say the least. As a native English speaker, I get a huge kick out of her English. She speaks as if she were the daughter of an English lord. Watch out world! She’s going to be a lawyer soon.

Anastasia, from Lithuania, had the best produced video in the competition. Her love of languages and cultural exchange come across very clearly as she switches effortlessly between her four most fluent languages: Lithuanian, Russian, English and German. She also includes fun little scenes in Spanish, Polish, Korean and Japanese. I was genuinely surprised that she didn’t get more votes. Remember to turn on the subtitles while watching her video as well.

I want to wish all three of these new young polyglots the best! We hope they will all continue to share their language learning journeys with us.

One of the Best Polyglots in the World

The multilingual competition in Europe is still on! It boggles the mind to see the best contestant trailing in a distant third place. I suppose this wouldn’t bother me so much if the other contestants had studied over 30 languages like Richard; it wouldn’t be as big of a deal if any of them had a near native or native command of six languages, like Richard; I probably would have a hard time deciding whom to vote for if I had ever seen ANY of the other contestants encouraging fellow language learners online before. This is exactly what Richard has been doing for years. See him below in New York encouraging the next generation of hyperpolyglots.

Don’t wait! It will take you two seconds to vote here to make sure the best person wins. Who would be better to represent and promote multilingualism in the world than a man who has studied languages since kindergarten and has been promoting multilingualism for years ? Vote for Richard!

European Multilingual Competition

Deutsche-Welle is having a multilingual competition for Europeans. My friend Richard Simcott is one of nine people you can vote for. He is by far the most advanced multilingual competitor (16 languages!) but his video doesn’t have the production quality that a few of the others have. That’s not the point of the competition but it gets votes apparently.

Vote for him here! You don’t have to be European to vote and they will take your votes right up to the 24th of July.

 

Foreign Language Learning as an Adult

This post is a response to a comment left on my last post by someone who I will call Brandie. Like most people, she has always wanted to learn a foreign language. Brandie is interested in learning Greek and has access to native Greek speakers. She is concerned because she has no access Greek classes. It also worries her that she has reached the ripe old age of 20 and feels it may be too late to learn a foreign language well.  I began writing in the comment section but quickly realized that my comment was too long. I also thought that maybe my response could benefit or would be interesting to others.

Dear Brandie,

Children do not learn languages more easily than adults. The life of a child is set up to help him or her learn a language. Give an adult that much time and that kind of support and he’ll learn just as fast or faster. Children are also not expected to learn to speak in an eloquent or sophisticated way. How big is a five-year-old’s vocab? 200-300 words? Most adults feel very frustrated having to limit their self expression that way so they just give up.

Small children can learn to speak without an accent but for adults this is impossible to do all the time. If you really work on it then you can get a 75%-90% native sounding accent. That’s still worth the effort and plenty good enough to get you Greek friends (who don’t speak English) or a job where you need native Greek speakers to understand you. Guys like Richard Simcott have learned quite a few of their languages past the age of 25. I have learned all of my languages in adulthood and plan on learning more. Feel free to check out my videos. Keep in mind that I am not the most skilled polyglot on YouTube. If I can do what you see in these videos then you can too.

Greek is harder than Spanish or French but not a lot harder. I think you’ll find learning it a rewarding experience. No single learning method works for everyone 100%. You need to fine-tune your own method and this takes some time, creativity and trial and error analysis. Luca Lampariello, Moses McCormick, Steve Kaufmann, Benny Lewis and Robert Bigler are all polyglots who explain their independent learning techniques on YouTube. Check them out. If what they teach works for you then do it. If not then throw it out. Don’t be afraid to mix and match parts of their methods. Remember, this is about what works well for you.

I will say this, whatever method you settle on there are two simple things you need to keep in mind:

  1. Input (what you read, listen to, watch, etc.)
  2. Output (what you say, read or write)

Input

The famous language learning expert Stephen Krashen recommends listening to TONS of content in your target language that is 80% intelligible. Reading things that are interesting to you in the target language is also a good idea. Wikipedia is a decent place to go for that because there are lots of articles in both English and Greek. You need to find your sweet spot where you are not overwhelming yourself by needing to look up too many words to get the gist of what’s written/spoken but not so easy that you understand every single word. Again, it’s about finding the balance that works for you.

Output

You need to find a strong balance here as well between waiting too long to speak and not speaking soon enough. I recommend figuring out learning how to deal with short interactions first (Hi how are you? Find thanks, and you? I’m okay thank you, etc.). Pat yourself on the back every time you get your point across and understand more or less what they say in return. Do not try to be perfect at first. Do children wait to speak until they can speak perfectly? As Michel Thomas would say, “Just try to get the ball over the net.”

Another tool for improving the quality of your output is a foreign language journal. Speaking to people can be overwhelming because you have no time to look anything up. If you spend time writing at home then you will have that time. Again, don’t try to be too fancy at first. You need to walk before you can run with confidence. I recommend getting a book like Complete Greek (make sure you get it with the CDs). Treat it more like a guide rather than a strict instruction book. As you go through the different chapters ask yourself if you can tweak the materials to your personal needs. Before you try out your Greek on Greeks, I suggest writing it out in your journal first. The chat rooms at SharedTalk.com and The Polyglot Club can also give you the opportunity to practice Greek in a situation where you have time to look things up. Just make sure you get online well after the time when Greeks get off work.

Balance Daniel San!

I want to stress the idea of balance one more time. If you expect yourself to be perfect or very advanced too soon then you will disappoint yourself and eventually give up. If you get complacent with just getting your point across in caveman Greek then you will miss out on the joy and experiences that only fluency can bring you. Do your best and be happy be with that but try to make your best a little better every time. I wish you luck with learning Greek!

Language Learning: 4 Important Factors

Inspired by the Canadian program on hyperpolyglots, I decided to make this video.