I’m going to learn Malay.
That isn’t as odd as it might sound; I’ve just arrived in Malaysia – in Kuala Lumpur, to be exact, the capital and the largest city in the country. And I’ll be here for the next two years.
I’m an English teacher with an interest (some might say obsession) in second language acquisition. And it seems to me that if you’re going to teach people how to learn a language, you should know not only the ins-and-outs of that language, but how the process of learning language works. In other words, you should have learnt another language yourself, and been through the same process.
Doing that would give a teacher a uniquely valuable insight on a whole array of aspects related to language learning. What most benefits beginners? What kind of lessons are most useful once you can hold a conversation? What really helps to improve pronunciation? Why is it that students plateau? What learning strategies are most important? After all, in what other field would a trainer be unable to impart that kind of insider information? Would you take piano lessons from someone who had never learnt to play? Or dancing lessons from someone with two left feet? There are too many native speaker teachers like me who don’t have first hand experience of how language learning works, and they should.
This blog is based on a study by Richard Schmidt, who in 1983 travelled to Brazil for 5 months and documented his progress in learning Portuguese. It’s a fascinating paper, and compulsory reading for language teachers and those involved in SLA. Schmidt developed from zero knowledge of the language to roughly upper-intermediate (B2) level in only five months, and his diary entries demonstrate many of the experiences that language learners typically document, e.g.:
- initial frustration at being unable to say anything
- embarrassment at trying to speak with natives who can speak good English but willingness to converse with monolinguals
- exhaustion when trying to keep up with group conversations
- coming out with other foreign words (in Arabic, his other L2) inadvertently
- enormous difficulty talking on the phone
I’m coming to Malaysia from two years spent in Spain, and I experienced all of those in my time there. Like Schmidt, I managed to reach B2 in Spanish, but I never felt as though I really had the language under my belt. With Malay, I’m determined to go one better, and to do so in a shorter time.
Learning any language is a major undertaking, but as a language teacher I should have a head start, shouldn’t I? I understand a lot about language that other language students don’t: its arbitrariness, the importance of chunks, potential differences in phonology, syntax and morphology, the value of context and pragmatics, and how much sustained effort is involved.
I’ve attempted this twice before, in Norway and Spain, and though I’m getting better at language learning I’m certainly no polyglot. But I’ll be doing all I can this time to learn as quickly and efficiently as possible, and I’ll be critiquing the latest theories of language acquisition along the way to find out just what works and what doesn’t, leaving no stone unturned. I hope you can join me!