Language Acquisition

I would like to highlight a post by Justin E. H. Smith that I’ve already shared in the sidebar, discussing the fact that foreign language programs are the only aspect of the humanities that really “rewire” your brain in a serious way, akin to learning the play a musical instrument — and also claiming that the fact that getting a degree in French no longer remotely means you’ll be able to speak French means that the actual closure of foreign language departments is more the finalization of something that was already long gone.

This post was interesting to me, because I really think that what made the difference in my graduate study, what pushed me beyond what an avocational student would have done, is precisely the work I’ve done on languages. I am a decent reader of several languages at this point (though my ability varies widely — Romance languages seem much easier for me than either German or Greek), and all of that took hours of tedious labor that I simply would not have done were it not for the formal requirements of exams or for the requirements of my research.

I was overoptimistic in my early years about what I could accomplish on that front — I pictured myself, sometimes at least, reading simply everything in the original — but I still hold to a position that I know many regard as elitist: if you are going to do research in the humanities, you must be able to work with foreign languages. That doesn’t mean being fluent — sadly, I don’t really speak any foreign language, though I like to think I could get up to speed relatively quickly if I had the chance to live abroad — but it means getting to the point where you can reliably get the gist of writings in your field in a primary language of competence and, more importantly, being able to pick up related languages when required. (For instance, if you get the basic languages of German and French, you should be able to go through a grammar book for Danish or Italian and start stumbling through texts relatively quickly.)

I understand that not everyone has the same degree of facility in this regard, and I’m sensitive to the fact that I may have a particular knack that makes it difficult to generalize from my own experience — but I am absolutely convinced that inability to read in a foreign language, particularly to read in Western European languages for English speakers, is at bottom a fixable problem and that the main culprit behind people not fixing the problem isn’t innate ability but the learned helplessness that English speakers and especially Americans have toward other languages.

And another thing: one objection to Smith’s post that occurred to me is that it’s very difficult to gain real speaking competence from formal coursework — some substantial amount of time immersed among native speakers seems to be absolutely essential. And it strikes me as ironic that there is increasingly such emphasis on study abroad as a selling point of college, when there is simultaneously so low an expectation that anyone will actually be conversant in a foreign language. All through my education, it has seemed to me that foreign language instruction in America is such a huge joke that one almost begins to suspect that the real purpose behind such courses is to convince students that learning a foreign language is impossible — and by the same token, study abroad programs that allow you to hang out primarily with fellow Americans reinforce the idea that foreign languages simply aren’t necessary.

30 thoughts on “Language Acquisition

  1. I think I’ve expressed my feelings on this point elsewhere, but to reiterate here. I’m don’t think you are wrong on the whole, but I do think you overstate the case.
    I kinda agree that being able to read foreign languages is important. But, just because my strength is in Italian, doesn’t mean that the only research I am ever going to do will be from thinkers writing in that language. And I’m not going to assume that the only smart addition to the humanities can be made from people who know foreign languages (no?).

    And when you write, “I am absolutely convinced that inability to read in a foreign language, particularly to read in Western European languages for English speakers, is at bottom a fixable problem and that the main culprit behind people not fixing the problem isn’t innate ability but the learned helplessness that English speakers and especially Americans have toward other languages.” Eh. I had trouble learning my own language. I’m pretty dyslexic, and I was unable to read until I was in third grade. And yeah, I’ve gotten decent with other languages, but the level of work I needed to do were significantly more than my peers. So, it was possible. But just because something is humanly possible, doesn’t mean that such things are reasonable. I think you are simply overstating the case.

  2. No doubt some have difficulties more or less unique to them in learning foreign languages, but in general, Adam is right about learned helplessness, I think.[1] For many, learning other languages isn’t or shouldn’t be a uniquely difficult experience. One sees the same thing with math, I think, where people are just convinced that it’s difficult and beyond them and if they aren’t a Galois or Gauss from day one they’ll never get anywhere—the analogous figure in language learning might be Richard Burton. I actually went to high school with a guy whose facility with languages far outstrips Adam’s; the list of languages I’m pretty sure he’s at least conversant in (or, in the case of dead languages, can read and perhaps also write) includes, let’s see, English, French, German, Icelandic, Finnish, Russian, Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin and one could presumably add Spanish and Italian and several other related languages. What he does is clearly something that not everyone can do. But there exist entire countries whose populace is basically bi- or trilingual, and they aren’t all prodigies, one assumes. It simply can’t be the case that they’re uniquely free from people with dyslexia.

    A still-annoying example of learned (or perhaps even willful) helplessness: I myself did a one-quarter study-abroad deal, in Athens. (I later learned that the guy whose job was coordinating the study-abroad programs at Chicago thought that only the year-long programs were really worthwhile, because with them you actually get something like immersed and get some facility with the language and familiarity with the place where you’re staying. Those, however, were only open to people who’ve already made progress in language study.) Part of the program was a course in modern Greek, which went (I thought) excruciatingly slowly. Many of my fellow students, when called on to participate, say to read a sentence in Greek aloud, didn’t make even the slightest token effort to get the pronunciation right, reading things syllable by syllable in plodding fashion. So annoying.

    In the end this comment consists almost entirely of barely-relevant ranting, I guess. I believe that’s covered by the comments policy, though.

    I still regret the paltriness of my spoken German, and the extent to which I’ve let my Latin go to seed. Alas.

    There is one other objection to Smith’s post, about the part where he poo-poos the faculty who let their standards slide in the name of democratization. The thing is: optimally you won’t begin your language study in college. That’s certainly possible, but if you want fluency in the spoken language as the end result, then, given the sort of environment a university is (namely, one not located in a place where all the languages it teaches are spoken widely) it’s much better if instruction’s begun earlier, in high school or before. And, well, …

    [1] I just got a major feeling of deja vu writing this. Some older post on Aufs. Strange.

  3. Scu, I understand that some people have special obstacles and others have unusual abilities, and I apologize if I wasn’t as circumspect about that as I intended to be. I’m not sure exactly what you mean about not basing all your work on Italian figures — the whole point of what I’m saying is that one should be as flexible as possible, and I didn’t intend to say that work done in English is somehow lesser.

    Following on what Ben said, I guess one thing I would question from JEH Smith’s post is the idea that there was some point in the past where a degree in a foreign language area from an American university would reliably indicate strong speaking ability in that language. It seems as though the stories one hears of people from other countries learning English (without necessarily coming to an English-speaking country) involve a lot of work with reading novels, watching movies, etc. — and that kind of intensity simply can’t be guaranteed or measured through formal coursework alone.

  4. In terms of the limits of coursework, I’m thinking of my own French for reading course — the teacher promised that we’d end the course capable of passing the written exam, but it was up to us to use that as a foundation for further work. What I’d like to see is more integration of foreign language stuff into regular course work, etc., so that the language learning hours are kind of “folded into” the regular work you’re doing anyway.

  5. Oh, I don’t really have any disagreements with the rest of what you said, Adam. I obviously felt that languages were important to learn, regardless. I just have a lot more sympathy for people who complain of problems with language acquisition, even though I know they don’t all have dyslexia and there is a good amount of learned helplessness in all of this.

  6. It seems uncontroversial that if you want to do textual work involving texts from a foreign language, that you familiarize yourself with that foreign language and work with the original text. If you’re a Hegel scholar, you should read Hegel in German; if you are a Foucault scholar, you should read Foucault in French; and so on. But, even for people working in the humanities and the social sciences, especially in more “theoretically” inclined areas, a working knowledge of, at least, French is vital given the lag-time between original publication and translation–should the text ever be translated at all. Having said that, my French is fairly shitty. I can’t speak or write the language, but I read decently.

  7. Looking at this from a dead language perspective (I’m studying classical Greek and Latin), gaining proficiency in a language not generally spoken can be greatly advanced by one or both of two things; teaching an introductory course in it, or taking a composition class. Perhaps composition classes might help fill this deficiency?

  8. I’ve gone back and forth on the language issue. Given that Paul is my own area of specialization (two books coming out in the near-ish future) you would think that my Greek would be excellent… but it isn’t. My understanding of the Greek is good enough to read and understand those who are masters in that language… but that is a far thing from sitting down and comfortably reading the NT in Greek. And I’m actually okay with that.

    As for other languages, I can get by in French (both speaking and reading) and I can BS in German and Spanish but I haven’t found that this has really advanced my scholarship all that much (although when I want to increase my academic brand-status I’ll study and refer to works in different languages, even if I can find something in English that says the same thing).

    Mostly, but not always (and that is a crucial not always) the language thing is overrated.

  9. Absolutely, Adam. Learning Norwegian has helped me think, not just read Norwegian books (there’s not much out there of enormous worth that’s not already translated).

    I think an examined reading proficiency in one foreign language should be a PhD requirement. Certainly the idea of a Norwegian with a PhD who is unable to read English is unthinkable. The ideal here is to be able to read their own language plus three others (usually English, German and French (in that order), sometimes Spanish, occasionally Italian).

    I read Foucault in French as well as in translation for my PhD, and have to confess that I understood the books I read in English much better. It’s no good assuming you’re better than you are in a language. It’s just really tempting to give up at that point. But early publication of foreign langauge books should be a motivation. I was criticised in my viva for not having read a book published shortly after my viva in French. It’s still not translated.

    I suppose the examination criterion is there under cover: in Britain and Norway, language proficiency is not considered a sufficient excuse for not reading a piece of literature central to your thesis.

    Personally I’ve made fairly heavy use of and other spoken word books to teaching myself languages (I also recommend this to my (Norwegian) English students with dyslexia).

    One reason I’m personally merciless with myself and others is that it’s actually quite relaxing to learn/maintain a language for, say, an hour a day whilst using the rest of the day wrangling with a difficult philosophical or theological problem, or writing an article. Sit back and read a novel in French! We just have to justify it as research time.

    So I’m curious: what do you people do to learn a language? Concretely: when you work through a foreign language book, do you look up all the words you don’t understand, or just the ones you need to understand the whole sentence? Do you take courses? Do you use interlinear versions? (I use such a book for Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations)

    Right, now I’m off to my weekly flagellation for not being good enough at German…

  10. @Tony

    Production is an important pillar of language learning, which means that composition does have value. However, you need to have teachers with native-level proficiency to correct your mistakes and show you the most natural way of putting something; otherwise, you’ll fossilize bad habits and fail to understand the underlying logic of the language.

    Back to the main topic — school is certainly inadequate for learning a language, if for no other reason than that it can’t possibly provide the thousands of hours it takes to master one. This probably applies to everything and not just languages, but it’s a lot easier to fake mastery of a passive academic subject than it is a language.

    As a second-language speaker of French and Japanese (with Korean and classical Greek underway), I can attest to the rewards of another language, both in practical and in self-improvement terms.

  11. I think part of the “learned helplessness” you describe has a lot to do as well with the fundamental awkwardness of learning to speak a second language, if not embarrassment and humiliation. One has to just accept that as a ground-condition for learning, however, before making any sort of progress.

    For my part, learning to speak German has been an invaluable experience and my top academic priority for at least two years now. It’s certainly changed the way I think, maybe even “re-wired” my brain, so to speak, though to some extent I was, prior to this, ready and willing to carry this out prior to really delving into a foreign language. So in the end I’m very glad that the university in which I received my bachelor mandated 2 years of foreign language. Where I am now (Johns Hopkins) has no foreign language requirement, and I can’t help but feel that the undergrads here, who are 80% science and engineering-oriented, are missing out on something important.

  12. Well, I don’t know about the US but here in Belgium at least a quarter of all hours spent in school (before University) are language courses (my son easily goes over the 50% mark).

    But I think Adam’s point is stronger on the informal than the formal level. Being able to converse in another language – & I don’t think this requires being able to write in it as many a immigrant shows – just shows an openness of mind which is sorely lacking in many Americans that believe the rest of the world just has to recognize they need to learn to speak bad English.

  13. What I generally do is work through a grammar book (with French I took a course, but I didn’t with others), then set to work reading a book I’m really interested in. With French and Italian, I believe I really solidified things by doing a translation — that’s when I got to the point where constant maintenance wasn’t necessary and I could just pick things up occasionally to make sure I hadn’t forgotten — and one of my big regrets is that I never did a full-blown translation in German, which is probably what has held me back. I also went through a separate grammar book for French after finishing the course, which I think I might need to do for Greek at some point. Honestly, though, it’s hard now that I’m teaching — the language routine is the first to go.

  14. @Andy: Method wise I learnt German through a bunch of translation classes (as part of the PhD requirements for credits). This was over a few semesters so a long haul. Then I slowly stepped up to listening to Michel Thomas and Assimil on my way to University. Once I started to tackle Heidegger (and later Kant/Hegel) in German I simply stopped resorting to English translations. I also have a little program called Lingopad on my desktop for looking up words. I suppose the key thing is to recognize that it’ll take a long time and that a little a day goes a long way.

    In the thesis all the German is translated and although it is time consuming it can be worrying to rely on translations with people like Hegel. If you go back to the 60’s and 70’s, when reliance on translations was more or a no-no, you can find some radically different readings hinging on translations (especially in relation to the final chapters of the Phen. of Spirit).

    On the flip-side there is nothing worse then over-doing it. Heideggerians are famous for this. Never has a word suffered as much as the word ‘Ereignis…’

    My main worry now is French. I don’t read much prior to Kant but the new stuff is often in French and I hate that I’ll be stuck waiting for someone to translate all this stuff (and here I’d like to give a nod to all translators for bringing this work out – APS being an example).

  15. Subtopic: next quarter I’ll be done with applications and so should have more free time — what German text should I translate? I’d prefer something untranslated, to make the exercise seem less contrived.

  16. Sebastian Rödl’s Kategorien des Zeitlichen is untranslated, interesting, and not too challenging. (I mean, it’s interesting to me.) Manfred Frank’s Unendliche Annäherung.

    Or, of course, Lichtenberg’s complete Südelbücher!!!!

  17. I found this blog post and subsequent discussion fascinating. One thing to note is that this is a conversation that is unique to an English speaking blog, as in other countries this is not an issue; language acquisition (typically of English) is a prerequisite at all levels of schooling, as @Guido points out from a Belgian perspective.

    I graduated with a Masters Degree in Economics and German from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and spent one year working in Germany during my studies. I had studied German since the age of 14 (French from 11 – 16 and Welsh from 8 – 16) and chose to continue German at university solely for the purpose of having the structured opportunity to live in abroad for a year. My fascination with German was a product of that one teacher who really inspired me in high school, and I never looked back.

    @Ben states that the study abroad director at Chicago only considers year long programs to be worthwhile, and I largely agree with that. There is no way that one can become immersed, establish meaningful relationships, and build momentum on language acquisition/enhancement in less than a year. I spent a year in German corporate environment and was able to understand most things and converse well with colleagues. I bought German newspapers, read books in German and listened to/watched German media. However, what surprised me is that even with my deep background in the language I did not improve to the extent that I expected through osmosis; just from being there and absorbing the language. In hindsight, I should have been more structured and/or enrolled in advanced language courses.

    Despite the confidence that I have from being able to speak another language, I am not above the learned helplessness that is articulated well here. If you asked me to speak French, even the basics, and I could recall enough to have a go at it, I would cowardly revert to English. Moreover, I give myself the excuse that as I can speak another language, I do not have to try when I am in Japan, for example. I persuade myself that I am not a lazy Anglophone who has not pushed beyond my linguistic comfort zone, and so I get a pass from making an effort in a third language.

    A couple of tips/observations to finish:
    1. If someone embarks on reading a novel/text in a foreign language and it is tough going, then starting by reading a German (for example) translation of an English novel/text will prove easier and build confidence (baby steps!).

    2. An American colleague of mine who lived in Italy for 3 years as a teenager said that when she really needs clarity in her thoughts, she thinks in Italian.

    3. Anyone graduating with a language degree from an English speaking university/country should be able to converse to a high level in that language and have spent at least a semester in that country. Let’s raise the bar, not lowest common denominator.

    4. When I listened to Pimsleur Spanish 1 and there were very basic conversational items which were new to me in Spanish, my basic French came flooding back. It gives me confidence and ambition that if I invested the time, I could become reasonably conversant in French again. What is ingrained at a young age is very valuable.

    Question to the group: if you have reached the inflexion point of diminishing marginal returns in the acquisition of one language, do you pursue that language with the goal of fluency, or do you start learning another language where you can gain the satisfaction of improving rapidly?


  18. I suppose that means I’m not going to be the one who translates it.

    It really is a pretty straightforward read, as far as the German is concerned (except for the parts consisting of quotations from the first Critique).

  19. I doubt the idea of immersion as helpful – one must have a good foundation to progress (as Robin notes), and many people speak languages of countries they never visited. More than that, I think the immersion angle is for lazy people who think that languages just sort of grow on you if you are “immersed” – nonsense, if you ask me. There’s no way around disciplined memorization and hard work.

    I find the idea of translation as learning to be interesting, however, I wonder if it’s a good thing vis-a-vis published translations – I see the point (get a publication out of it), but don’t you have a kind of a nervous feeling that your translation will be crap? I mean there are some crappy translations of texts that you never stop hearing about (like E.B. Ashton’s Adorno translation) – does it not scare you that some specialist-translator will take a look and find a million errors which is likely if you are only learning the language? I’d shit my pants if someone asked me to translate something (and publish it) in a language that I am not fluent in (reading, speaking, writing)…

  20. @Robin

    Languages are not investments, you don’t learn them to feel good about yourself or to revitalize your ambition – for most non-English-speaking people they are a norm of entering an English-speaking world (and then some more) – and I’m hoping that for most English-speaking people it’s a way to explore, not acquire some skill like statistics or C++.

  21. The immersion idea is absolutely not crap: it is supported by heavyweight linguistic and pedagogical theory based in solid investigation.

    On a personal level, I have learnt Norwegian almost entirely by immersion. I now have no worries about interacting with Norwegians in any context whatsoever. I have never once (as far as I can remember) memorised lists of vocabulary or grammatical rules.

    It is closer to the truth to say that one year is not going to get you very far. You need to work in the language (I spent a year washing floors with people who refused to speak English to me) and have good friends that you only speak the language with. That kind of immersion is really effective, and I reckon you could go from ignorance to standard capability in a couple years; or from basic to fairly fluent in the same period.

    One year is, depressingly enough, too short a time to work up that kind of context. Even in this felicitous situation, though, spoken word books are really useful. And here you’d want to scale your learning: start with children’s books, through Harry Potter, translated novels, and finally native language innovative novels and academic literature. Because you can’t start and stop like you can with reading.

  22. I learnt Spanish by immersion. More importantly, I wouldn’t know how you’d learn a native language without immersion so also in this case it is more efficient to be lazy ;-)

    And, what Andy says.

    (Adam, maybe something by Cassirer?)

  23. I suppose my point was only that even in the immersion situation one still has to do the language leg-work, but of course I could be wrong. Why do so many immigrant groups (take Russians in CA) not learn the language despite being immersed in it for decades? Where there’s no will, there’s no way.

    How one would learn a language without immersion? By reading a grammar book I suppose. It depends on what “learning a language” means here. Clearly, for some a decent reading level is enough, while others want to be able to speak without any need to write in the language. I’m sure there’s no one magic way to learn a language though, immersion or not.

  24. I guess these Russians (as so many immigrants) actually do not immerse themselves. That may be wrong but it is not an argument contra immersion.

    One can only really read dead language and highly technical books with a book-only study of some language. TV – on the other hand – is good enough a proxy for immersion, afaics & dubbing therefore a crime against humanity.

  25. If an immigrant group is big enough to create a cultural bubble, learning the broader language isn’t as necessary. Supposedly in Chicago there are native-born Americans in the Polish community who don’t speak English, for example.

    In my mind, the very definition of immersion is being put in a situation where you’re forced to use the language. Given that Americans and Anglophones in general seem to be so lazy about languages generally, it seems like that’s the best bet for us to learn a language competently — and it also makes intuitive sense that it would be helpful for everyone. Yes, there are people who speak a language from a country they’ve never visited, but I’ve also heard of Chinese people, for instance, whose version of English has been filtered through a generation or two of non-native teachers and so is barely recognizable to most English speakers. Obviously an adult learner will need more work than simply immersion, but to gain real speaking competence, immersion intuitively seems like a necessary, though not sufficient, condition.

  26. I don’t know why I said “supposedly” — I actually know a Polish-American woman who was born here and spoke Polish as her native language, only learning English much later. She has one of the most unplaceable accents I’ve ever heard.

  27. I have taught Koreans English who never had a native speaker teacher and it was amazing how bad their pronunciation was compared to their grammar and writing.

    The thing is, after seeing JEH Smith talking about “education” rewiring your brain, I mean stated as baldly as that, I immediately realised that it just isn’t true, or if true, about 10% of what going and living in another language or learning an instrument or a dance does for your wiring, i.e. he has inadvertently hit on something about ‘real time’ skills while actually trying to say something else.
    Because a classical education (in the sense of learning dead languages and learning the structures in a fairly rote fashion) which is the original humanistic education, is the reverse of what he is trying to say it was. Odd now that I think about it…

  28. Great discussion! I really enjoyed it.

    Although many posters paralleled my own thoughts, I figured I’d chime in any way. I’m on a break from my PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania and I’m living in Morocco, where I study Arabic and teach English. Most of my students speak Darija (Moroccan Arabic) in the home. The few that might speak Berber or French (especially among the upper classes) or Fusha (standard Arabic), particularly the Islamist types.

    So all of my students are conversant in Darija, Fusha, French, and English. I’ve lived in Europe and just going to a party of university students you see the same kind of linguistic ability. It’s entirely possible for a society to educate their children to speak three or four languages well. They start early and then by the time they are in college they can take those foundations and run with them.

    There are natural barriers to this: easy travel worldwide for monolingual Americans, a large-enough, diverse-enough country most Americans don’t leave anyway, and just the general entrenchment of English as the world language. However American study abroad programs often don’t help. For many universities they are nothing but cash cows–sending students to much cheaper universities abroad to “immerse” themselves in the culture, which more often than not looks like one giant party at an American university.

    Here where I live, every three months a new batch of Americans arrive to be wined and dined by the study abroad staff. They don’t speak French. They barely speak any Arabic, and in three months they don’t improve much. Then they go home and tell everyone how romantic Morocco is. But at least they’re in Morocco. The same thing happens at Oxford and then the Americans go home and talk about how great study abroad was.

    In order to learn the seven living languages I speak, I have had to beat my own path. But it has been worth it. I can’t tell you how much better I understand cultural difference and how much I am constantly forced to re-evaluate my cultural and linguistic assumptions and how much I have learned from that about translation (in all its forms). Truly acquiring another language does wonders for your critical thinking skills.

    A lot of times I’m absolutely ashamed of the U.S. in this respect. But what is worse for me is how elite universities are little different. You will find a good smattering of extremely intelligent, truly multilingual individuals, but they are rare. The two required translation exams at Penn are absolute jokes. It’s a far cry from the great German philologists of old.

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