Whether or not I am qualified as an expert on language acquisition is perhaps debatable. And there are certainly people out there, better qualified than me. So far, through all of my research, however, I can’t find any credible expert who believes that a non-speaker can somehow learn the language by speaking to native speakers.
I get attacked all of the time on the Internet for my videos and articles on language acquisition. So, there are clearly people who disagree with me, but they never seem to be university professors or qualified translators or linguists whose research has lead them to different conclusions.
What I find is that people who are completely unqualified disagree to do so.
In this instance, I asked my colleague if she had a degree in linguistics. And she didn’t, neither did she had a degree in foreign language or similar or related field. So, I asked if she has ever learned a foreign language and her answer was, “I speak Bahasa and English.” The tone suggested that this did indeed qualify her to give advice on language acquisition.
But this brings us to my next point and one of my pet peeves. Bahasa and English are the two most commonly spoken languages in Malaysia. This particular individual, and millions of other Malaysians, are near native speakers in at least two and often three of their country’s national languages. Now, while I envy them for having such a high degree of fluency in two or more languages, these people are not language learners. The bulk of Malaysians have never had the experience of learning a language.
You don’t learn your mother tongue, you acquire it. You learn it because you are surrounded by it, bombarded with it, and people talk to you, and in front of you, in it. Your country’s national languages are on TV, in newspapers, on the radio, and spoken at public gatherings and in school.
The reason why Malays and many Filipinos are at near native speaker level in English is because, rather than in spite of, the fact that they have never studied English. They acquired English by attending math and science classes at school, which were taught in English. They learned it from watching American movies which were not dubbed.
In Taiwan and Vietnam I saw kids memorizing thousands upon thousands of English words. And yet, they couldn’t communicate at all. My most dedicated Taiwanese friends were constantly reading books about, not in, English. “Learn English Idioms,” “How to Converse in English”…. My Malay friends, on the other hand, read “The Kite Runner,” or the latest Stephen King book in English.
Malaysians and Filipinos communicate extremely well. Very occasionally I may stumble upon a word that a Malay friend is not familiar with, but it is a single word. I explain it, and we move on. Malaysians, at least those in KL who I deal with on a daily basis, understand our humor. They make jokes, they even understand puns. Vietnamese and Taiwanese who are considered fluent or who work as translators, often can’t get anything at all out of watching an English movie, and can’t follow the thread of a conversation between two native speakers.
The English language fluency in Malaysia is astounding, and yet, most Malaysians have probably never had a foreign teacher neither have they had significant interaction with an English native speaker.
So, when my colleague said, “Just talk to us,” this advice was no reflection of how Malays learn English.
The fact that the Malaysians speak English and Malay, and then Chinese Malaysians also speak two or three dialects, doesn’t mean they are good language learners. These are multiple mother tongues. They don’t count. You don’t learn your mother tongue. You acquire it. To measure the ability of Malaysians to learn a language, you would need to observe them in a French class or Japanese class. And if you did, you would find that they don’t learn any faster than Americans.
There is a commonly held myth in America that Europeans are great languages learners. Just last week I heard an American tourist in a café saying, “It’s not uncommon to find people in Europe who speak four or even five languages.” I went to school in Europe for four years, and I will tell you, it is extremely uncommon to find Europeans who speak four or five languages. Nearly everyone in Europe learns English at school. The Germanic countries take English seriously and young Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians generally speak it well. In Italy and Spain, however, the level is extremely low. Apart from English, however, most second language teaching in Europe has dropped off. Yes, some Germans speak French well, but it isn’t that common. And certainly, Germans who speak Japanese will be as infrequent as Americans who speak Japanese.
In countries which have more than one official language, you will find that only a small percentage of the population is fully bi-lingual. Estimates show that 55% of bilingual Canadians are Quebecers. Generally, in bilingual countries you find only the speakers of the minority language are bilingual. In Malaysia, for example, nearly 100% of Chinese speak Malay, but very few Malays speak Chinese. Spain has four official languages, but native-speakers of Castilian don’t generally speak any of the other three. Switzerland has four languages, German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romansch – but 22 of the 26 cantons are officially monolingual.
I have written nearly two hundred articles on second language acquisition, but they all lead to the same sobering and dreary point. Learning a language is hard work. There are no secrets and no shortcuts. You can’t learn by “just talking to us.” You have to study. 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.