Thoughts on Language Clubs

Thoughts on Language Clubs

Last year I wrote a post about language clubs at OU and why I think they can really help students become fluent in a foreign language.  I still do think they can be an important supplement to foreign language learning, and this semester I joined both the German club and the Japanese club. But after spending seven weeks in Japan over the summer, I’ve been reminded of the limitations of clubs like these.

The main selling point of language clubs–that they provide a low-pressure environment where students can practice their foreign language skills with students of varying degrees of fluency–is also one of their greatest drawbacks.  The reason is that pressure plays a huge role in forcing the brain to adapt to speaking and thinking in a foreign language.

While I was in Japan, our student “buddies,” professors, and program coordinators weren’t allowed to speak to us in English.  Some of them only know a handful of English words anyway; some buddies had spent a year studying abroad in Australia or America and were far more coherent in English than most of us were in Japanese, but regardless, everyone stuck to Japanese.  My high school study abroad program in Germany was organized the same way–my host father, a veterinarian, was perfectly fluent in English, but the whole family spoke to me in German except in a few instances when they defined a word for me in English.

I’m sure that I’ve said this many times before, but the pressure that comes from not being able to switch back into English is pure gold when it comes to learning a foreign language.  It teaches you how to talk around the words you don’t know.  It teaches you how to just keep talking comfortably and not let the pressure of being perfect get to you.  It teaches you that you actually know how to say far more than you think you do.  And as a bonus side effect, it teaches you kick-butt improv skills for games like Pictionary, Charades, and Time’s Up.

So, I’ve revised my opinion of language clubs to a certain degree.  They’re great for practicing what you’ve already learned and for meeting study partners or other students learning the same language.  But in order to really expand your fluency, to learn how to hold a long, comfortable conversation even if you don’t know all the vocabulary, you have to be in an environment where you can’t fall back to English as soon as you hit a stumbling block.  Yes, it’s easier to throw an English word or phrase into the middle of a sentence (“kono hon wa omoshirokatta kedo, um, character development wa amari yokunakatta deshita“), but it also doesn’t help your fluency grow at all; instead, it teaches your brain that it’s okay to give up and default back to English whenever you can’t remember a foreign word.

I’m not sure if there is any feasible way to create a completely no-English environment on a college campus so that students can speak foreign languages, but that would, in my opinion, be the best way for students to gain fluency.  Perhaps in the future, language clubs could help arrange meetings for students who would be willing to forgo all English for the day.  I’d especially love to see longer activities on weekends, like going to a restaurant, a bookstore, the zoo, or an event, where the students only speak the foreign language with each other!

img_8056

Trilingual-in-Training

Trilingual-in-Training

Since coming back from Japan, my brain has had some rather entertaining struggles with adapting to three different languages living inside it.  Since they haven’t really occurred in a high-pressure situations, these struggles haven’t been a problem, but it’s odd to see how my brain is juggling them.

The most extreme occurrence was on the very first day of courses back at OU, when I ran into one of my German professors before class started.  I hadn’t really spoken any German in several months, since all of my focus was on Japanese over the summer.  He said hello and started a casual conversation about the class, the building we would be in, how hot the weather had been recently.  All easy topics, things I would normally be able to chat about with no problem in German, except that every single response I could think of was in Japanese.

I could feel my brain scrambling around trying to find something to respond with and managed to stop myself before I said “soudesuka ” or “hai,” phrases that I used all the time in Japan.  I did let out a few Japanese-style pause words, but managed to pull out a couple of stuttering German responses as we walked into the classroom.

I had read about this phenomenon before, but this was my first time experiencing it so severely.  Essentially, learning a new language takes up space in your brain.  If you’ve started to learn the new language really well, you can not only speak it more fluently, but you might also start to forget how to say things in your native language.

The reason for this is that our brains doesn’t really store words, like a dictionary.  They store concepts.  Somewhere inside your brain is the understanding of what exactly a book is, and what you do with books, and what books look and feel like.  As English speakers, we’ve assigned this concept the title of “book.”  When you learn a new language, you take the same knowledge and give it another title, in my case “Buch” in German, and then “本 (hon)” in Japanese.  Those three labels are now all associated with the same concept, so when I go to pull one of them out, I might accidentally grab a different one and then wonder how I managed to forget such a simple word.

(For an interesting article on this topic, visit https://www.wired.com/2016/02/being-bilingual-changes-the-architecture-of-your-brain/)

Over the past few months, I’ve gotten back up to speed with German.  But sometimes I will still be sitting in one language class and raise my hand to answer a question, and then suddenly feel my brain stall as I worry that the wrong language will come out of my mouth–and to be honest, sometimes I have no idea what language I’m about to say something in.  On several occasions I’ve decided to just start talking and see if people give me really confused looks because I’ve ended up in the wrong language.  Not the best tactic, but it’s worked okaySwitchboard so far.

There are some words and phrases that I just haven’t been able to keep straight since coming back from Japan. The analogy I like to use is as an old-fashioned switchboard in my head, my language switchboard.  When I was in Japan, I unplugged all of my German cords and dedicated them to Japanese.  I’ve continued to use the English plugs too, but once I came back to OU my poor little operator had to start juggling three different languages.  After a few classes, most of my cords were easy to reconnect to German, but a few are still on the Japanese board.  Which ones, you may ask?  Pause words, for the most part.  Japanese speakers love to use short little filler words, the equivalents of English “um,” “uh,” “hmm,” “really?” and so on.  German speakers do not.  In Japan, I had a whole cluster of cables being used for these pause words, and now that I’m back, I’ve had no reason to disconnect them for German equivalents, because I don’t really have German equivalents.

This has led to many, many instances where I start a German sentence with “eto . . .” (“um”).  I notice that I do it.  Some of my German classmates have looked at me confusedly and asked me about it.  But I haven’t really been able to get rid of that habit.  Today in class a German professor asked a question, and I immediately responded with the Japanese word for “no.”  I didn’t think about it at all–it just came out automatically.  Which is a good sign, in that it means that I’m becoming more fluent in Japanese.  It just also feels like I’ve taken a step sideways in my German skills, since I don’t always speak as smoothly as I know I can.

Overall I’ve enjoyed these minor slip-ups, because it means that I’ve really cemented both German and basic Japanese in my brain, and my brain is ready to flip back and forth between them.  I look forward to seeing what other interesting scenarios I might get into as a result of accidentally defaulting to the wrong language.

Delta Phi Alpha Logo

Wait, There’s a German Honor Society?

Wait, There’s a German Honor Society?

Lo and behold, there is such a thing as a German Honor Society at OU!

Well, not just at OU, but we have a chapter of it: the Delta Phi Alpha German Honor Society is a national organization that was founded back in the 1920s.  Which is impressive, really, considering that back then, the predominant association most Americans had with Germans was from World War I.

Delta Phi Alpha’s mission is “to promote the study of the German language, literature and civilization and endeavors to emphasize those aspects of German life and culture which are of universal value and which contribute to man’s eternal search for peace and truth.”

Although I was already a member of the German Club at OU, I was somewhat dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities for me to practice my German at Stammtisch meetings.  Most of the students who attend Stammtisch are in introductory-level German courses, so the conversation is very limited.  Students quickly get frustrated and switch back into English, leaving me without German conversation partners at meetings.

When one of my professors mentioned Delta Phi Alpha, I was excited to speak German with more fluent speakers, since students must be in at least 3000-level German before they can join.  The simple induction ceremony for new members was held during the German Club’s annual Grillfest, and I was surprised to see how many people were joining Delta Phi Alpha or were already members.  I look forward to being part of a larger German community in future semesters at OU, especially as I prepare to spend a semester in a German-speaking country in the spring of 2017.

"Attributes of Music" by Anne Vallayer-Coster, 1770

Singing Before Speaking

Singing Before Speaking

Learning as many languages as possible is a pretty common theme for me, as you may have noticed. But how does one go about exploring new languages without enrolling in a class or subscribing to an online tutorial?

My favorite method of sampling new languages is through music. At my latest count, I have songs in 14 different languages on my iPod: Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Romanian, German, Hindi, Hawaiian, Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish. I can sing along with at least one song in each language. Can I translate these songs? Most of the time, no. But because accents largely disappears when singing, it becomes easier to imitate correct pronunciation in a song than in a normally spoken sentence. Singing along to foreign songs gives me a very real sense of what it would be like to speak that language fluently.

Listening to music in a foreign language has the same effect as listening to a native speaker talk, because you can hear fluent sentence structure and vocal patterns. Plus, you know that annoying experience where you get a song stuck in your head, and a certain section of it plays over and over for the next few days? That mental repetition is incredibly helpful for learning lyrics, which is a small step towards actually learning the language.

What has been shocking to me is realizing how different a language can sound from how I would imagine it based on a written sample. A perfect example of this is Runrig’s song “An Toll Dubh,” which is sung in Irish. I listened to it essentially on repeat for a couple of days, marveling at the indistinct, rolling rhythm of the lyrics. Try listening to it now.

Then I decided to look up the lyrics and read along with the song–and I realized that Irish is the single most incomprehensible language I have ever seen. It took me several times of listening to the song to even begin to see which stanza the song was on, much less pronounce the lyrics myself! Comparing the sung pronunciation to the written lyrics makes me want to learn Irish, just so that I can understand this fascinatingly different pronunciation.

An Toll Dubh Lyrics

What about you? Do you see music as a helpful tool for learning a foreign language? What are your favorite non-English speaking musicians?

TED Talk Logo

“Breaking the Language Barrier” TED Talk

Breaking the Language Barrier TED Talk

During my freshman year in high school, my mom showed me a New York Times article called “Adventures of a Teenage Polyglot,” which profiled Tim Doner, who was roughly the same age as me but who already spoke more than a dozen languages. I read it and marveled at the idea that learning so many languages was possible for someone my age. Although his efforts were far more impressive than mine, reading the article made me excited to keep studying German. But I soon forgot all about it.

Three years later, I randomly remembered that article. After a few minutes of googling, I found a TED Talk that Doner had given in 2014. It was absolutely fascinating, and I showed it to my all of family and my friends.

Doner emphasizes that languages are a key way of connecting to another culture, something I also feel extremely passionate about. Even after having considerable media attention focused on his rare abilities, he continually downplays how impressive his skills are–more than 20 languages so far, no big deal, right?–and strives to promote language learning though interactions with native speakers.  His inspiring message is one that everyone should hear, especially those who are themselves learning a foreign language.

 

Photo credit to Mike Nelson

Why Yes, I am an iPad

Why Yes, I am an iPad

“Nici, do you understand?”  The boy squirmed restlessly at his desk, snapping pencils in half with his scissors and obviously not taking in a word his teacher said. She shot me a slightly desperate look as she rebooted the slow, temperamental iPad translation software. I smiled and walked into the second-grade classroom. “Hallo, Nici. Was bearbeitest du?”

Nici arrived in Colorado from Germany in February 2014 speaking no English, and for the next year I translated for him and his younger brother.  It was fast-paced and incredibly demanding; I had to constantly improvise and talk around words that my three years of high school German never covered, including “rhombus,” “caravan,” and Dr. Seuss’s “walloping whizz-zinger.”

When I enthusiastically volunteered to be Nici’s translator, I didn’t realize I’d be a best friend, teacher’s aid, and counselor as well. I certainly didn’t expect to have a little girl on the playground tug at my hand and whisper, “I had an accident.”

Today, the frustrated, lonely boy is gone, replaced with an excited, engaged student. His English is fluent and confident. On one of my last days working as his translator, a new classmate pointed at me and asked Nici, “Is she your sister?” Nici grinned and joked, “No, she’s my iPad.”

Language Clubs at OU

Language Clubs at OU

 

German FlagOne of my long-term goals is to become a polyglot, and joining international groups that emphasize language practice is definitely helping me achieve this goal.  Every week the German Club has a Stammtisch in a local coffeeshop, where we meet to chat informally in German about normal topics without the pressure of an organized classroom setting.  Since anyone who knows or is learning German can join the club, the members range from beginning students to native speakers from Germany and Austria.

I chose to join the German Club because of my long-standing belief that the best way to truly learn a language is to actively speak it in everyday scenarios.  Doing so forces the brain to become comfortable with the new language in a way that sitting at a desk reciting vocabulary lists never can.  Having frequent conversations with native or fluent speakers is the best way to learn the language, even though it is more intimidating to speak to someone who knows the language better than I do.  I have attended as many of these Stammtisch meetings as possible and enjoy the new experience of being both the student and the teacher that knows more German than many of the other members.  I look forward to continuing Stammtisch next semester, as well as participating in the the annual Grillfest in the spring.

South Korean Flag

I have also reached out to the two Korean clubs on campus, the Korean Student Association and the Korean Conversation Club, and look forward to getting more involved with both of them next semester.

I am always interested in learning more about the culture of whichever country I choose to travel to.  I know that several study abroad programs at OU run meetings before the students leave the US; many give helpful tips on cultural differences and basic do’s-and-dont’s of the country. Attending these sorts of information sessions is both helpful and exciting, since they build anticipation for the trip.  For the same reason, I look forward to meeting students who are interested in visiting the same countries as I am—which shouldn’t be too difficult, since I would love to go practically anywhere!

Photo credit to Rick Schaefer

The Importance of Languages

The Importance of Languages

Recently, I have been reflecting on how ingrained languages are in our societies, and how vital they are to connecting emotionally to other people.  It seems odd that relatively few people pursue languages as an essential skill rather than as a luxury or a hobby.  After all, emphasis on languages has far reaching and surprising effects.

The value of speaking a second or third language is obvious for certain career paths, such as international affairs or any academic research that requires in-depth study of a foreign culture or history.  For example, it makes sense that an anthropologist studying Incan cities in Peru would learn Spanish in order to interact with local experts.

Less obvious is how helpful speaking another language is even if a career field doesn’t currently require proficiency in multiple languages.  The process of learning a foreign language establishes millions of new neural pathways, making it a mental gymnastics exercise.  Those who speak multiple languages are more capable of approaching problems from new angles, and those who regularly use their skills to translate from one language to another exhibit higher academic performance and self-efficacy.  Interestingly, children who are raised in bilingual households will start speaking later than children raised in monolingual families.  But once they do start speaking, they will be equally fluent in both languages.

With the world’s increasing international interdependence, all careers will soon benefit from and even require multilingualism.  For all of us who were raised only speaking one language, it’s not too late!  Keep studying other languages; it’s definitely worth it for your brain, even if that language doesn’t currently seem useful in your everyday life.  Besides, it’s fun!