Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Bilingualism: Outside-In

The cherries have nearly disappeared from the trees already...

Wow--the last post on bilingualism prompted loads of *fascinating* comments that made my brain run off in a hundred directions...hence my lateness in replying.  Had to go chase my brain down:-))  (Actually, three sick boys are my excuse for my absence--hopefully that won't happen this week). 

Before I head down some of the *very* interesting rabbit holes brought up in the comments, I'd like to tell you about what my experience with languages (German, French, and Japanese, specifically) is so everybody knows where I'm coming from:-))  Ought probably to have done that first, but...anyway, off we go!

When I learned both German and French, I learned them "Outside-In", as I've come to call it.  That means, I learned them first from the "outside", so to speak, in a foreign language classroom (starting in the ninth grade for German, and the eleventh grade for French, for a total of four years of High School German and one year of French--I had a busy schedule:-).  I learned them using textbooks, memorizing vocabulary and declensions and verb tenses, with a bunch of other students whose L1 was the same as mine.  The L1 (first language) of the teacher was also the same as that of her students.  This kind of language-learning is "outside"--by which I mean "non-immersion".  You are learning it outside the country and culture where the language is spoken (full-immersion schools could also be included here).  Class time is usually spent learning the phrases a traveler would use, and vocabulary is often presented in daunting lists.  A disproportionate amount of time is spent using the students' L1 to talk *about* the language--to explain the past tense...the passive voice...strong and weak adjective endings...count and non-count nouns... 'ser' and 'estar' or 'por' and 'para'... the Preterit versus the Imperfect (I had lots of Spanish teacher-friends, so I picked up all the hard bits in Spanish kind of by osmosis;-))

I don't mean to imply that language classes are a waste of time, or that one doesn't learn anything.

I rocked at that stuff in German.  I was the Grammar Queen.

I certainly learned plenty of vocabulary and grammar--enough to test into 300-level German classes as a college Freshman.

And after six years of studying German (four in High School, and two more at university).... I went to Hamburg, Germany for a year-long study-abroad program. 

Six years.  And when I opened my mouth... no words came out.  I was Scared. To. Death.  Scared to speak--scared of making a "mistake".  Curiously, it was as though all the German I'd learned in 6 years of study wasn't.... real.  As though all the grammar and all the vocabulary I'd learned lived only inside my textbooks ("Wir, die Jugend";-).  As though I couldn't believe that real people really used those words.  Did real Germans actually say "Tschuss"? 

I was about to find out-- and about to start learning German... from the Inside-Out.

Stay tuned-- mata asobou, ne!


  1. my college japanese was completely immersive and the teachers were actually japanese. My highschool and college french were also immersive (no spoken english) but the teachers were american.
    that said, i never actually used any of it, except a small amount of french when i was in Italy

  2. Ooh, it's like a cliff-hanger! I can't wait.

  3. Sarah-- immersive language classes! Good! I think that type of language instruction has spread in the last 15 or 20 years (since I graduated...naturally:-(( Did students use the L2 exclusively in your classes too? Curious! It's always seemed to me that the new language doesn't quite....how shall I say?... "take", or maybe "set" until the student is in a "have-to" situation. Hmmmm....thinking....I think what I'm thinking of has to do with natural versus artificial language situations.... will bring that up in next post!

    (p.s.- Sarah, you should totally come to Japan! I get the impression that there's quite a lot of Japanese up there in storage that would come out if you were surrounded by it:-))

  4. Alice-- stay tuned! Still writing....will hopefully have part deux up tomorrow:-))

  5. I learned German the same way you did, with one exception. Our teacher (who incidentally taught English by the same method, AND social sciences) was well known for being very liberal, for being interested in all kinds of stuff, and for encouraging discussion. We thought we'd tricked our way out of the hard stuff when we begged to be allowed to debate different issues, like equal rights for women or environmental issues in class. He allowed that, provided we spoke in German (or English, in the English classes). And so we did, and lessons rushed by! I bet he laughed all the way back to his office.

    The fist time I actually had to use German 'for real', whas when I hiched a lift with a German couple vacationing in Norway, and their car was hit by a bus. I suddenly had to act as an interpreter, as neither part spoke a word English. I soon realized that the grammar (which I was pretty good at in a classroom situation), just got in the way, and so just chatted away. Amazingly, most information got through the pretty rickety filter....

  6. My college Japanese classes were also completely immersive, and the teachers put great emphasis on trying to "think" in Japanese - like I mentioned in a previous comment, even making us use the Japanese filler sounds, "ano," "eto," etc., not just to think of Japanese as something to translate your English into!

    The one area of Japanese I would prefer be taught differently, maybe even preferably by non-native speakers, is Kanji. In all my classes, the teachers tried to teach it the same way they learned it: rote memorization and writing each character dozens of times. Not the best way for an adult learner to pick up new characters! I had a much better time than my classmates, since I made an effort to learn kanji on my own, breaking up the characters into their component parts, learning the "etymology" of them, etc. Now I know a lot of kanji well enough that I can usually remember how to read and write them without referring back to my mnemonic devices, but it was a lot easier getting to that point that way.

    Speaking of which - have you considered writing anything about differences in foreign language acquisition between kids and adults? Would be interested to get your perspective.