Just Talking To Native Speakers Is The Worst Way To Learn A Language

In the apartment complex where I live, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, there is a Cantonese speaking woman who seems to know everyone. She walks the halls and hangs out in the cafés all day, getting to know all of the building’s residents. Then she helps them find rentals, acts as a real-estate broker, or hooks them up with whatever they need, and, I assume, earns a commission on each transaction.

When I asked her I wanted to find a school to study Bahasa Melayu, the official language of the country, she said, “You don’t need to go to school. Tell me the words you want to know and I will teach them to you.”

Being an ALG (Automatic Language Growth) proponent, I believe in studying language, in context and for the purpose of communicating meaningfully, and with the goal of approaching native speaker fluency. So, if you ask me which words I want to learn, it’s all of them.

Rather than make a list, I was going to toss the dictionary on the table in front of her. “I would like to learn those words.” I would say. “Please teach them to me.” But then, since the dictionary already has English translations, I guess her job was done for her.

In actuality, one of the major concepts of ALG is that words are not the key to a language, meaning is. You could memorize 5,000 words from a dictionary and not be able to string a sentence together or express yourself in any meaningful way.

Mark Twain may have had a vocabulary that was 10% or even 30% larger than the average college graduate. But he wrote works that the average college graduate couldn’t. And it wasn’t because he had more words. Clearly there is much more to language and communication than words.? (What is the writer trying to say here?)

Many of us don’t know much about nuclear physics or how to run a nuclear reactor. But then, most of us don’t have a reactor and don’t need to run one. So, it works out in the end. But we all speak language. And some people have two or three native tongues, and yet the average person seems to be completely clueless about what it is that makes a language and especially, people seem to be lost on the subject of how to teach or learn a language.

Nearly 100% of people who graduate from a medical school can work as doctors. Nearly zero percent of people who graduate with a four year degree in a foreign language can speak at anything approaching fluency.

Another Malay friend was trying to encourage me in my study of Malay language. “I know a British woman who has been here for ten years. She married a Malay man, and now she speaks excellent Pasar Malay.”

Pasar in Malay means market, I assume it comes form the same Persian root as the English word bazaar. Pasar Malay is basically a pigeon language, which was historically spoken by foreign traders. Basically, what my friend was telling me was that, if I remain in Malaysia for ten years, and marry a Malay man, I would be able to speak grammatically incorrect sentences and converse at the level of a kitchen servant.

First of all, it’s not even legal for me to marry a Malay man. In fact, in Malaysia I can’t even marry a Malay woman without converting my religion. So, step one is already out. But the end result, talking like an uneducated person… That isn’t really a goal I have ever striven for. I worked hard to educate myself in my native tongue, why would I want to talk like a moron in a foreign language?

There is clearly a flaw in our understanding of how language is acquired which is causing us to get terrible results in this particular area of education. Even the goals that people set out for themselves seem flawed. When I began learning Khmer, in Cambodia, the first time I ordered my own food in the presence of my Khmer friends, one of them smiled approvingly. “If you stay here three years I bet you will be able to speak Khmer.” Three years? I was planning to learn the language in six months to one year. If you are studying full time you should be able to achieve conversational fluency in two years in most Asian languages (category 3 languages) and academic fluency in a European language or other category 1 languages.

The US Foreign Service Institute and Defense Language Institute rates languages according to the difficulty in learning them. Mandarin and Arabic are category 3 languages, whereas Italian and Spanish are category 1. Malay is in its own category is basically between 1 and 2. The reason is probably because Malay is actually a pretty easy language, but culturally Malaysia is very different from America. Cultural differences often make language learning more difficult. For someone who has been living in Southeast Asia for a long time and speaks other Asian languages, the difficulty in learning Malay probably drops to category one.

For all of the years I have been studying Asian languages, I have heard from linguist friends and also confirmed through research that Bahasa Melayu is the easiest Asian language to learn (In this article I am only talking about “major languages”, languages which are the official language of a country. I am not talking about tribal or minority languages.). Bahasa Malay is considered easy because it’s not tonal. It has a very simple grammar. It is written with the Latin script. And, it has more native speakers than any other Southeast Asian language. Counting Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand and parts of the Philippines, there are 180 million native speakers, but if we include Thai, Indonesian and Philippine dialects which are close to or heavily influenced by Malay, the number could almost double.

Working with a film crew, I mentioned to my assistant that I needed to learn Bahasa but didn’t had time or money to organize classes. “You don’t need to go to school,” she insisted. “Bahasa is so easy.”

No matter how easy a language is, you have to study it in order to learn it. “Just talk to us in Bahasa when you see us.” By us, she meant the rest of the crew.

That advice made very little sense to me. How am I going to talk to them in Bahasa if I didn’t speak Bahasa? I explained to her that it’s the same like me telling her that if she spoke to me in Italian, which she doesn’t speak a word of, she would reach fluency in just a few short months.

She didn’t buy it, though. She explained the value of practicing your language with native speakers and how this was superior to going to school. She then said the phrase that makes me cringe. “It’s the best way to learn a language.”

In my expert opinion – a person with four years of advanced study in applied linguistic; years of working as a translator; having studied ten languages; and having learned eight to some degree of fluency; thirteen years of classroom teaching experience; author of a couple of hundred articles on language acquisition; and creator of numerous videos on the same subject, plus a bunch of other qualifications:

If you don’t speak a particular language at all, practicing with a native speaker would be the absolute dumbest way to try and learn it.

First off, practice suggests you already know something and you want to get better at it. If you don’t know it at all, you can’t practice it. What if you never had a karate lesson in your life? If I locked you in a room alone, and told you to practice, would you emerge ten years later as an expert?

Read the 1st chapter of Obstacle to Peace for free!

Antonio Graceffo

Antonio Graceffo is the author of the Monk from Brooklyn, Warrior Odyssey, and several other books about Asia. He lives in China, where he is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of Sport. 

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  • “You need to go to school, hire a teacher, buy books, videos, DVDs, audio, whatever materials you can find, five hours per day for up to 800 hours. Then, as soon as possible, wean yourself with language learning materials and move into the use of real language materials such as novels, newspapers, movies, and attending lectures and classes taught IN but not ABOUT the language. — Sounds like a lot of work, but it is. I agree with author, nice article!

  • Kimberly

    So, what about those of us who learned a 2nd language after the age of 18 without an prior exposure and did not, “go to school, hire a teacher, buy books, videos, DVDs, audio, whatever materials you can find, five hours per day for up to 800 hours.”? Are you arguing that this is the ONLY way for ALL? Do you think ‘acquiring’ a language is only possible during the ‘critical period’? Or, could one possibly ‘acquire’ or at least partially ‘acquire’ an L2 after this time?

  • Josh

    A minor correction: The Defense Language Institute classifies languages into 4 categories. Category 4 (to include Modern Standard Arabic and Mandarin) being the most difficult for English speakers and Category 1 being the most difficult.

    • Josh

      Obviously I meant Category 1 being the least difficult.

  • Helen

    Actually, your article is very good! I live in Ukraine and recently tried to get a job – working in tech-support department of outsourcing company and the mamager told me that i am not suitable for this work, because my english is not the english of native -speakers. I really want them to read your conclusions.

  • Hello,

    Your article is very insightful indeed. I am a Malay, living in Malaysia, speaks excellent Bahasa Melayu Pasar ( Pasar Malay ) and one who is embarrassingly not so good with proper, written Bahasa Melayu and find Malay Literature can sometimes give me huge headaches!

    If you were to learn Indonesian Malay, it would be fairly easy. Why? Because everybody speaks the same. From one end to the other, it will be the same lingo, intonation and slang. However in Malaysia our Pasar Malay is a bit of a ‘Rojak’ ( a mixture of all sorts of slang, accent and jargon from all the states. Not to mention a bit of Chinese and Tamil thrown in to make the conversation more interesting ). It can be confusing, but with practice you’ll get the hang of it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do agree on what you said. You have to start somewhere. Even though we don’t speak the way we learn, it is essential to know the basics of all the alphabet sounds, adjectives, adverbs, articles, gender, nouns, numbers, phrases, plural, prepositions, questions, pronouns, verbs, negation etc . Same as English, grammar and vocabulary are two different things. One has to learn and understand. Memorising words just simply won’t work.

    And trust me … Google translation is hopeless. Most of the time we end up laughing ( or cringing ) when we read them.

    I wish you all the best in your quest. Don’t take it so hard when we Malaysians say our language is easy or that you can pick it up easily practicing with the locals or when they say to ask them and they will tell you the meaning. It is our way to show you that we welcome you and we do not mind sharing our language and time with you. We also sometimes take what we know from small for granted and think it will be as ‘kacang’ ( literal translation : peanut. Pasar Malay : Extremely easy ) to speak, read and write Bahasa Melayu as it was for us.

    Oh! Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

  • Jim Ara

    I struggled learning the English language mainly due to my busy schedule and tight budget. My goal is to speak and comprehend English like a native, and to find the best English teacher on Skype. I am really pleased that a website like http://preply.com/en/skype/english-native-speakers exists to help learners like me find English personal tutor online. I get to learn 1 to 1 English lessons and to practice and converse with a very good teacher. I don’t have to be physically present to go to a class. All I need is internet access and get online through Skype (free!). I want you to experience this. Check it out and see for your self :)

  • dannyR

    ” ‘pigeon’ language”

    Sheesh, that’s archaic. That’s pidgin language. How on earth…