Learning a language alone…, that is, people don’t

IMG_3706Last week I had an interesting conversation with “the linguist”, Steve Kaufmann.  For those of you who don’t know Steve, check out his blog “The Linguist on Language.” He always has an interesting twist on language learning, combining practicality with a good hunk of focused study.  Steve is also the creator of LingQ, another innovative site for language learning that includes an especially creative way of organizing a learning community and a cool application to identify new vocabulary words, which are then made into flash cards.

Anyway, what has stayed with me for days since our conversation was his simple observation that “Nobody learns a foreign language alone.  We all want someone to share it with or else we lose interest and stop learning.” It keeps rolling in my head, language learning is a social activity.  I know that in my case it is true.  When I was studying German, somehow I bumped into German speakers every day.  Same thing with Italian.  When I was studying Japanese, I secretly hoped that every Asian student on campus was Japanese, so that I could overhear their conversations  and maybe say hello.  When learning a language, I find myself talking to total strangers.  I remember how in China in elevator I would ask the other people what floor they wanted to go to (qù jǐ lóu?).  How crazy is that?   And when we arrive at their floor, I’d blurt out “15 lóu dào le.”   They just loved it, the game never got old for me.

Every semester at UT I organize the foreign language tutoring for MBA students and McCombs faculty and staff.  It’s offered on a not-for-credit basis, something extra, and this semester 67 people signed up!  Amazing.  People just want to practice language with other people.  I believe that is part of the success and draw of the LingQ and Live Mocha’s of the world.  They do a good job of bring people together socially for language practice.

Thanks for the reminder Steve, language learning is a social activity.  So, get out there and try a few lines of whatever language you are studying.

* And the picture, a social bunch of MBA students hanging out with me in a copper mine in Chile!

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2 Responses to “Learning a language alone…, that is, people don’t”

  1. orangeroomstudios Says:

    I agree with this social, interactive aspect of language, but I do not see it as so different from interacting in one’s native language. I mean, a naturally social person will probably be social and outgoing in any language, and there are also lots of people who study not to socialize, but to read texts (even though it sounds cold and lonely) or just to test the limits of their memory and so-called “neuroplasticity” (like doing crossword puzzles alone).

    Having said that, my first real conversation with a native Brasilian was earlier this year (after spending about a year listening to Ta Falado), and that chance to “realize” my studies on the spot was thrilling and fulfilling, like finally playing the match or the show after months of practice. It was also cool to see what words, phrases, sounds jumped out in reality, after hearing Valdo and Michelle speaking to me through my headphones. But more than just the transient thrill, I have found that we, as students of many languages, also have the power to connect beyond “the game” of foreign language speaking, to let others express themselves in the comfort of their native language. For this, I am very grateful to you.

  2. Bethany Womack Says:

    ¡A mí me encanta Tá Falado! Sólo traté una lección, pero ya me ayudó con mi portugués. ¡Qué padre!

    Pienso que es muy sencillo entender todos los hablantes y me gusta el formato. Es muy natural aprender.

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