Now that I am a teacher, I understand what the nuns were saying back in grade school. They were saying, “Children learn by listening, not by speaking.” But I couldn’t hear them, because I was too busy talking. Actually, I was imitating The Fonz from the “Happy Days,” TV show. While I was saying his catch phrases, “Ayyyy!” and “Woaaaaa”, the other kids were learning useful tidbits of Americana like, “what year was Benjamin Franklin elected president?” Because I wasn’t listening, I thought the answer was 1789. But actually, the answer was, “never.”
You see, I should have been listening.
Stephen Krashen, one of the world’s leading linguists, proposed the “comprehension hypothesis” (or “input hypothesis”) which is a smart-guy way of saying, “you learn by listening and reading, not by speaking and writing.”
Speaking is the cream. It’s the icing on the cake. In fact, you don’t even need to ever do it, to learn a foreign language. The learning comes through listening and reading. If you start talking too early, the danger is that you will speak incorrectly. You will have grammatical and pronunciation errors which will become fossilized over a period of time. Another issue is that many learners use speaking as a defense mechanism. To try and avoid having a native speaker say something to them that they don’t understand, they dominate the conversation.
Teaching in Taiwan, I see this behavior with many of my Chinese counterpart English teachers. They are so terrified that I will say something which makes it obvious that their English is lacking, that they dominate the conversation. Sometimes I can’t even get a word in edgewise, which could be very frustrating when you are trying to coordinate your teaching syllabus or explain to someone that they are on fire and need to drop and roll.
Another annoying thing that learners will do is laugh at everything you say. The strategy here is that, if they aren’t sure what you said, it may be a joke. And if they were told a joke, but they didn’t laugh, then people would find out that they didn’t understand. So, they just laugh at everything.
Sometimes, to amuse myself, I will sharp-shoot my coworkers by telling them something tragic, but using vocabulary they couldn’t possibly know. For example, I will say, “My mother is demised. She was engulfed in a raging inferno and had to be euthanized.”
That one really breaks them up around the office. Actually, in addition to the comic value of saying something like this to a coworker, it also becomes a sort of honesty test. If they laugh, I know they are full of rice droppings. But if they say, “Sorry, I don’t know several of those words, please restate.” Then I know they are honest and willing to learn. But this is the smallest number of cases. Normally they just chuckle and say something like, “Yes, paper is sometimes made of rice in China.”
All playful xenophobia aside, the point is, we learn by listening or reading, input. These learners have demonstrated to me that they have stopped listening. Someone who chuckles at your comment and walks away, or quickly changes the subject, has already reached the pinnacle of their English. They have stopped learning. No matter how many more years they spend listening, their English will not get any better.
Just in the interest of fairness, I see foreigners do this in Chinese too. Just today, I saw a café owner ask a foreign customer, “Do you want soy milk or whole milk in your coffee.” The foreigner just smiled, said “yes, yes.” and then checked his cell phone for messages.
We can’t reject the input or we stop learning.
As children we listened for years before we started speaking. And yet when we started speaking, we didn’t have a foreign accent. We had exactly the same accent as the people around us. For better or worse, I was surrounded by a lot of Italians who spoke English as an eighth language, although they only spoke two languages. So, my model was imperfect, but what are you going to do?
Why do our students have imperfect accents in English and why do we have such terrible accents in Chinese? Obviously because we have spent very little time listening.
If you think of when you were a child learning to speak, there were probably times when your mother made you repeat after her to correct your pronunciation. But, this way of teaching was done for the smallest minority of words in your mother tongue. Most of your language learning happened passively, again, from listening and reading. As a child you were learning without even being aware of it. When you started speaking, those passive words became active. But you were only able to say them because they were already in you brain.
The Thai program I attended in Bangkok didn’t allow us to speak at all. We had to listen for ages, learning passively. The theory was that when we were ready to speak, we would do so, and do so correctly, without having been taught any words or even grammar. Believe it or not, the program worked. Now that I am back to studying Chinese in Taiwan, I am using a similar approach.
I spend hours and hours reading and writing Chinese characters. Everyone keeps saying to me, “Being in Taiwan is a great opportunity to speak Chinese.” Yes, it is. But, we don’t learn by speaking. We learn by listening and reading. So, I study, and study, and study. The variety of words that I get from study would never be matched by hanging out with people in a bar. In fact, if you hung out with people long enough, you would develop a certain vocabulary and then block everything else.
I know several foreigners who have been here for ten, fifteen, or even twenty years. Some of them are married to Taiwanese. And yet, after only a few months of study, I see my Chinese level passing theirs. One simple, mathematical reason for this is hours spent. If you hang out with someone, or even live with your spouse, how many hours per day are you actually speaking? In a Chinese lesson, one on one, we spend a solid two hours talking and listening. That is a lot more than many couples talk to each other each day.
Then, when I sit down to do my homework, I have another three solid hours of input. No matter who you are living with, they won’t be giving you three hours of input. The input I get from my books is perfect in that the new words introduced in the vocabulary section are repeated in the reading and again in the grammar exercises. Slowly, methodically, my vocabulary, grammar, and usage are growing through repetition. Living with someone you would also get repetition. And in the short run you would see your language improve dramatically. But after the initial spike, you would level off. There are certain phrases or certain topics that would make up the bulk of domestic conversation. Once you had mastered those, most of your learning would be done. That is why the foreigner living in Taiwan for three years maybe be at the same level after five years or ten years. But this is not true of people who study.
For the above mentioned reasons, I believe that reading is more important than listening. But, of course, if you don’t practice listening, you will never have good pronunciation. Whether through listening or reading, however, if a word is not in your brain, you simply cannot hear it.
An American friend of mine, who speaks excellent Chinese, was asked to give a lecture in English to the other teachers at his university. Afterwards, a Chinese coworker approached him and said, in Chinese, “I didn’t understand your lecture.” The American said that this was understandable, and began explaining the lecture in Chinese. But the Chinese coworker stopped him and asked, “Why is it Taiwanese people miss certain keywords when they are listening to Americans speak?”
My American friend was laughing when he told me this story. “It’s not that he missed keywords, he missed EVERYTHING. And, rather than attribute his lack of understanding to his lack of knowledge of English, he attributed it to his race.”
It goes both ways. A Canadian friend told me, “I have trouble understanding the Chinese news on TV, so I need to work on my listening.”
This Canadian only has about 500 words of Chinese. His problem is he just doesn’t know enough Chinese to understand. If the problem were truly listening, then it would mean he could read a transcript of the news and understand it, but he can’t. If the structures aren’t there, we just can’t hear them.
We put them there by reading and listening.
When I studied in Germersheim, Germany, I met many Eastern Europeans, Hungarians, Romanians, and Poles, who had never met an English native speaker or seen an American movie. They had learned everything from books, and their English was nearly flawless. Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Ernest Hemingway are by far better models of English than foreign friends in a bar.
A significant point about those Eastern Europeans vs. the Asians we encounter living here is that Asians who are dedicated students of English tend to read a lot of books about English, such as “A Million and One American Idioms, Or “An English Learner’s Guide to Gender Bias in British Syntax.” The European students tended to read literature and books IN, rather than ABOUT English.
Native speakers don’t learn idioms by reading books about idioms. They learn them by reading books about gardening, hunting, baking, stock investing, and how-to make hats out of old tires. You also learned idioms by watching movies about car chases, wars in space, searches for lost relics, Kazak journalists touring America, and severed hands that crept along the ground and strangled people.
When I hear the CNN journalist say: “The tale of how this woman overcame every manner of adversity to build her small business into one of Africa’s leading corporations is a real Rocky Story.” I understand what he means by “Rocky Story,” not because I read it in an idiom book, but because I saw “Rocky” 29 times.
Reading and listening your whole life put English sounds, vocabulary, and grammar in your head. When you first started speaking, all you did was activate them.
Again, my own experiment with learning Chinese mirrors this hypothesis. When I do speak Chinese now, I find myself using advanced vocabulary and grammar that I learned in my books. I had a PTA meeting at school, and while I was talking to the parents of one of my students, I heard dialogue 37 come out of my mouth.
One side of me is saying, “I have been studying really hard from books for several months now, I should go into an immersion situation in China to activate all that I have learned.” But the other side of me, the side I think is correct, is saying, “Whether you activate it now or ten years from now, those structures and that vocabulary will still be there. But if you keep studying, the longer you wait to activate it, the more you will have to activate, and the better you will be.”
So, my best advice to people who want to learn a foreign language is, Shut UP and LISTEN or read a book. The choice is up to you.