2 jul. 2008

We think of learning a second language as so much harder than learning our first, but really, the two tasks are too asymmetrical to make the comparison valid.

For example, the first year of learning a native language...

The student is not expected to produce any utterance, but simply to passively absorb sounds in the immediate environment. The only other skills the student must master are basic infantile ambulation and motor skills.

The first year of the second language.

Memorize numerous conjugations and vocabulary lists, orthographical rules. Learn basic phrases and accomplish simple tasks like ordering food in a restaurant. At the same time, studying college level mathematics and numerous other subjects.

The second year L1:

The student will continue to listen passively, and acquire a basic vocabulary. Some babbling is expected.

The second year L2:

More conjugations and vocabulary; the reading of authentic stories and poems; bringing basic literacy level up to the point that the student is almost ready to do real college work in the language .

3rd year, L1:

Some more babbling. By the end of the year the student will be expected to form some simple sentences with imperfect grammar and have a limited active vocabulary of a few hundred words. You can treat all verbs as regular and nothing bad will happen. If you make a mistake it's cute..

3rd year, L2:

College level analysis of language, literature, and culture in the second language. Continued refinement of grammar and literacy skills. If you make basic mistakes you are treated like an idiot.

No wonder it's harder to learn a second language! Six years of language study and you're in graduate school. Six years of your first language and you're still in 1st grade. It's taken you 18 years to have a college level of English literacy, yet you're expected to duplicate all that in a second language in a few years.

So maybe it's easier to learn a second language. After all, you are already an adult and a lot of that literacy just transfers over directly to your second language. You don't have to lie on your back and passively absorb things for two years before you start. You can just go right to it.

2 comentarios:

François dijo...

Is this how it works in the United States? If so, it would be interesting to compare with how other countries teach their foreign languages.

daniel dijo...

Really interesting post and definitley a good angle on language skills. I think that while the tasks of learning your first and then a second language are linked, there are some important differnces. First, your brain has already become accustomed to language - you understand its concepts, strucutres etc i.e. "how to think in a lanaguage". This process really does help when you come to learn a second language - think of it as the foundations already being there and you just need to build a different style of house.

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