The other day I typed in “Language Schools” into Google and came up with a whopping 95 million hits. After popping my eyes back into my head, I wondered just how many public schools, junior colleges, and universities are offering second language learning opportunities in the United States. That must be an equally mind-boggling yet mysterious figure.
The ultimate mystery in all of this is really why, with all the opportunities to learn a second language, are so few Americans bilingual? The truth of the matter is that about 9% of Americans have a true bilingual ability. Yet, there are so many public and private schools offering second language instruction not to mention the booming business in the foreign countries offering Americans the chance of “becoming fluent” in another language.
Also with all of these opportunities, Americans remain at about 9% with Europeans at a 52% bilingual rate. Have you ever wondered why? I have.
For the past five years, I’ve been approaching my second language-learning odyssey using non-traditional approaches. I did not start with grammar first courses. You know what those are. If you took any sort of second language learning instruction in school, including Latin or Greek, you began learning the dead or live language with a grammar book.
What this effort got you, if you “stayed the course” was an ability to translate written texts. The almost universal experience of students who begin their second language learning adventure using the grammar-first method is that when they try to speak the language, or even go overseas for a yr abroad, all they can utter is,
“I need to go to the bathroom and can I’ve a cheese sandwich, please?”
The way in which all of us, no matter our country of origin, learned how to speak our native tongue is the same way in which we must approach second language acquisition. Note I said, acquisition, and not learning the second language. There is a difference and therein lies the rub when it comes to selecting a course of study where you will first acquire a high degree of spoken fluency before learning grammar rules.
Let me go out on a limb here: If you don’t approach the learning of a second language first with second language acquisition, instead of a grammar-first approach, you will not learn how to speak the language. And, is that not what we are talking aboutspoken fluency?
One method accomplishes one thing while the other method gives you something you don’t necessarily want. I am a long way from being able to read and discuss physics in Spanish. But, I can discuss simple news events, go to the doctor, or do most anything I need to do in Spanish. I want to grow linguistically where I will have the ability to discuss issues that are even more complex.
Right now, I am still in the child stage of Spanish acquisition and that’s ok. Note carefully, however, I did not get to that stage by taking a grammar-first course. I can do what most five and six-year old native Spanish speakers can do. Trust me when I tell you this: This level of spoken fluency most Americans I know struggling to learn Spanish would kill to achieve.
So, how did I do it? I used the same method I unknowingly used learning my first language, English. I am learning Spanish using the same approach all Spanish-fluent native speakers used in learning Spanish as children.
I am engaging in second language acquisition first, and second language learning second.
The horse, language acquisition, must come before the cart, language learning.
That is what you must seek first.