This article is the second in the “Four Modes of Language Learning” series and will primarily deal with ways to improve speaking skills. In my opinion speaking and listening might be the most challenging out of all the others to master. The reason being is that an immediate response time is required. If you want to work as an interpreter or acquire native fluency for professional reasons your speaking ability must be fully developed. On the other hand, when you write (a translator’s task) you have the luxury of collecting your thoughts, rereading passages or revising sentences. Although seemingly nonexistent, skills required for speaking and writing are different. Many language service professionals have perfected the individual skills necessary to successfully work as both a Translator and an Interpreter. However complimentary, they are distinct professions that should not be viewed as one in the same. Take into consideration the music Industry, there are many singers who are also musicians but it should not be assumed that all singers can play a musical instrument. Let us take it further; is it fair to say that all musicians can dance professionally to the music they create? Certainly not!
So, how can one improve speaking skills? Practice, practice, practice; your response time will get better the more time you spend thinking in your new language. However, this can prove to be more challenging for language learners who are not constantly around native speakers. Try utilizing the internet for help. Join Skype conversation groups and insist upon speaking in your new language when you encounter natives of that language. When you think out loud or silently to yourself—do it in [insert language here]. It is not good enough to simply recall vocabulary and grammar rules when responding in your new language. At this point, words are only speech and do not have genuine meaning. One must begin to think as a native speaker would. Learning a new language is not as simple as replacing a word with its translated equivalent. Rather, it is learning to see things from a different point of view. This is why it is impossible to learn a new language without also learning about the culture. We must begin to understand how they see the world. The key is to start thinking like a native speaker. Nineteenth century French writer, Antoine de Rivarol showed he understood the difference between knowing words and understanding the process of thought when he profoundly wrote “speech is external thought, and thought internal speech.” Thinking in your new language—to the point to where you are dreaming in that language— will serve as proof that you are becoming a master at speaking.
This article is the first in “The Four Modes of Language Learning” series and will deal primarily with ways to improve listening skills. Language students often frustrate themselves when they began to learn a second language. They develop unrealistic expectations and when they don’t meet these expectations their motivation decreases, increasing the probability of them abandoning their studies. All too often, students try to match their language skills in their first language with their new found skills in their second language. However as you can imagine, this is fallacious thinking. How long did it take us to learn our first language? Some of us began to speak when we were around 1 to 2 years of age. So that begs the question, what were we doing during that time before we started speaking? We were listening, observing and figuring things out based off of the reactions we got from others. The lesson we should take away from this is to be realistic. You can’t expect to take a foreign language class every weekday for 50 minutes or twice a week for 4 or 5 hours for a whole semester or an academic year and expect to be speaking, reading, listening and writing at the same mastery level as your native language. Remember, it took you 1 to 2 years to learn how to speak and understand your native language at a beginner level and that was with 24 hour daily exposure to the language. Concepts such as reading and writing weren’t even introduced to you until later. Now can you realistically expect to effectively cram all that knowledge of a new language in less the time you effectively learned your first language? Not likely, the moral of this story is not to beat yourself up. Mastery will come with patience, consistency and stick-to-itiveness.
It is true that everyone has different aptitudes for different things. You will find that one person may have more of a natural ability for picking up languages and therefore might be progressing faster than another person. However, anyone can acquire native or near native mastery. Regardless of whether or not you are a fast learner or a slow learner, you can utilize these suggestions to help improve your ability to understand what is being said when trying to understand your new language:
1) Language is very rhythmic and each language has a certain sound characteristic. Some languages have a sing-songy rhythm, others a more harsh sound. You must accustom your ears to the rhythm of your new language; to do this listen to the news, music or television in your new language a little every day. You want to get to the point where it feels normal and natural. At this early stage we are not concerned with comprehending all that is being said. We want to study the inflections, gestures or any other characteristic of that language. Just look at it as if you were learning how to do an excellent impersonation of a famous person. As you improve on other aspects of your language skills, this exercise will help you to not have so much of an American English accent when you speak in your new language.
2) In regards to listening to music, news, television and movies; change the audio to your new language and select English subtitles/captions. Try your best to reframe from reading everything throughout the entire program. Test yourself every few minutes; go from reading to listening to see how much you are starting to understand.
3) Ask native speakers to talk to you in your new language. Don’t concern yourself at this point with trying to respond in your new language. It is okay to respond in English, just concentrate on understanding what it is they are saying to you. These suggestions are not at all a complete list on how to improve your listening skills. They are just few techniques that have helped me in my language journey. Try them and you will begin to understand the words coming out of everyone’s mouth in no time!
One person will tell you that it is hard to learn another language and yet another will tell you that it is a breeze. So, which is it? Unfortunately, there is no one answer to that question. The reason being is that there are several variables that affect the outcome. Let’s talk about these variables. They can be anything from natural ability, time investment, motivation, environment, effective instruction, and access to resources. To truly be able to function within a language with native or near native ability, one has to have a command of the four language modes (listening, speaking, reading and writing).
The assumption remains that if a person is skilled in one then surely he is skilled in the others. Let’s analyze this misconception a little closer. How many people know a person or have heard of adults that are unable to read? As a teacher, parent or student, have you seen students struggle to string together a sentence on paper? Or how about this, have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone but their speech is so poor you can’t quite understand what they are saying? Chances are we have all experienced or known someone who has experienced any of these scenarios. All the people in these scenarios are native speakers, so why are they having problems? The answer– they have a deficiency in one or more of the four language modes (skills).
In the next four articles we will highlight some suggestions on how language students can strengthen each language skill area in their second language.
For many years the popular concept of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic (the three Rs) was sufficient in preparing students for the work force. As the industrial aged turned into the information age the required skills needed for the work force naturally changed with it. Due to advance technology, many careers and jobs today also require a creative component. Academic courses that help develop creative skills such as foreign language are often classified as electives. Unfortunately, electives carry a stigma of being less than and not as important as core courses.
As a translator and an educator, I certainly would love to see more people earn their living using their language skills. A large percentage of job announcements list speaking a foreign language as a desired skill or a requirement to qualify for a position. If you plan on being a worthy competitor in the national and global job market: learn a second language.
As a high school or college student you may have already decided on a career. However, in our competitive society there are many others who aspire to have the same careers as you do. How then can you set yourself apart from the rest? What could you offer that others do not have? Do not underestimate the power of supplementary skills. Stop and consider this; every industry has a use for language services. As a language service provider you can work in any industry that you choose. Examine the following chart for possible linguistic careers in an industry that interests you.
Specialized Area of Translation/Interpretation
|Military Language Specialist
|Interpret for the UN, interpret during political negotiations or serve as a code breaker for military intelligence. (You can potentially earn six figures if you can speak an unpopular language spoken in political hotspots)|
|Interpret and/or translate for court, Police departments and law offices.|
|Interpret for patients who are English limited proficient. Translate medical brochures/journals.|
|Translate transcripts from audio and video. Write captions and subtitles for TV, Movies, and video games. Do voice-overs for commercials , TV and Movies.|
|Computers & Technology||Website Translator||Provide website translation and localization services.|
Foreign Language Teacher
|Translate educational materials, interpret for students and/or parents who are English limited proficient, Teach ESL or a foreign language at any level of education.|
|Translate owner/instructional manuals and product labels. Write correspondence or interpret at business meetings/conferences calls, translate/transcreate intellectual property (Ads or music lyrics). Serve as a consultant on international marketing campaigns.|
I encourage all college and college bound students to put more thought into their elective choices. Even if you are not interested in providing language services as your primary focus, do not let this deter you from achieving fluency. Just as vitamin supplements can help replace what has been lost or fill in what has been missing from one’s diet, so can supplementing your career with marketable skills to ensure longevity and success. As you decide on what courses to take for next term; remember, do not forget to take your supplements.
The educational system in the United States is not perfect by any means. There are educational issues that need to be reworked, adopted and/or eliminated. Despite these issues there are countless numbers of educators who work so diligently with their communities and political representatives to try and address particular issues that they are passionate about.
Global Language Needs
One issue that should be of great concern is the lack of qualified linguists in the workforce. Why is this concerning? Our world is more globalized than it has ever been. Since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century to the present, the world has been experiencing a great global transformation comparable in scope to the phenomenon that immediately followed the discovery of the New World (referred to as the “Colombian Exchange”).
Our globalized world requires now what would centuries ago seem like an unconquerable feat. Goods and services as well as the communication required to produce and move them are expected to be dispersed in a matter of days, hours, minutes and in some cases seconds among people who do not speak the same language.
If this is the reality of our world, then in order to successfully compete, nations must ensure that their citizens are equipped and prepared to meet the linguistic challenges that our world demands. An online article published by Forbes in 2012 entitled “America’s Foreign Language Deficit” reported that Arne Duncan (U.S. Secretary of Education) discovered in 2010 that 53% of Europeans can converse in another language, whereas only 18% of Americans can. Since it takes time to learn a language proficiently, that 18% would not have had time to increase for 2013. Because there has been little to no effective change within the institution charged with preparing its citizens for the workforce, I don’t expect to see that statistic improve for the U.S.
National Deficiencies and their Consequences
This linguistic deficiency has clearly been felt by the U.S. government. The Hill.com states that The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that in 2009 U.S. agencies were ill-equipped in foreign language translation during the national crises of September 11th and the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Even today, the government has stated more linguists are needed. Especially since the war in Afghanistan, there has been an increase need for speakers of unpopular languages such as Pashto and Dari.
It is not only the government feeling the consequences of the language deficiency, but the general national community as a whole. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been reinterpreted to include those individuals who are identified as Limited English Proficient (LEP). This means that all agencies that receive federal monies must provide these services at no cost to the individual. If our schools are not producing linguistically trained citizens, this means that there are fewer individuals available to provide these services for their communities.
Unfortunately, due to the language deficiency, what is left is the tendency to cut corners and employ those lacking the necessary education and skills to produce good work. One such case in 1980 involved a non-English speaking 18-year-old boy from Florida who fell into a comma. A law suit of $71 million was filed because a misinterpretation of his symptoms, by a staff member with no linguistic training, lead him to receive incorrect treatment. We also hear of legal cases where mistrials have been declared due to errors in legal interpretation. Now more than ever, it is vital that we take a more serious approach to language investment in schools.
Proactive Change in Language Investment
Language education is not very uniformed in this country. In areas where there are large diverse ethnic groups, language programs and classes are available but in areas where there is low diversity, foreign languages are not offered. Educators and the communities that they serve need to keep in mind that they have the responsibility to not only prepare their students for the local workforce but also for the national and global workforce.
It is my desire to help Americans have more of a healthy, realistic view of foreign language education. Although, over the years schools and universities have developed some type of foreign language requirement for admissions and graduation, more is needed. As it stands, foreign language education is not offered at all in many states at the elementary level, despite studies that conclude that the ideal time to learn another language is the years before the age of seven. Advocating for foreign language education in our schools is a matter of future financial national security. We must do everything in our power to keep funding for language programs off the chopping block. This will ensure that our nation will be able to surpass its success in the global economy.
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