Just like there are different ways that different people study (visual, auditory, etc.), there are also different types of students, or of aspiring students, as the case may be, based on their experiences or relationship with language. Extremely broadly, I think they fall into three types:
- Dreamers- That perhaps sounds derogatory, but what I'm referring to is people who think about how 'cool' or how 'convenient' or 'awesome' or 'exciting' it would be to be able to speak another language, for whatever reason. Maybe you really need it, or maybe you just want to be able to show off; maybe you'd like to impress a girl, or make a friend, or just have the experience or the bragging rights. Regardless of the reasons (which could be the same for any of these groups of people), you haven't really done anything about it. Maybe because you're intimidated, or uninformed, or busy, or shy, or can't be bothered. This is a big group, and it's the group I'm kind of most interested in talking to, and it's the people I think about explaining this stuff to in my head as I'm talking to myself about what to write on this blog.
- Students- These are the middle-of-the-road people, and really could be classified by any number of criteria, from the methods they use, to their degree of success (which are often related, I might add). Whether you took Spanish for four years in high school or listen to Pimsleur Arabic every day on your way to work or just have a friend that you pester at every encounter with a "how do you say.....?" or "tell me about .....", you've navigated a bit of a language, perhaps multiple languages, and have hopefully enjoyed the fruits of your labor with a conversation of some length in your target language. Even if you haven't (as many high school students of French or Spanish when I was in high school couldn't really communicate apart from a scripted conversation in their textbook), you may still have a good general idea of 'the process' and what it involves.
- The last group is the group that I tend to envy and even resent: the native speakers. I had about as whitebread American an upbringing as one could have, and there was about as much bilingual or international environment in my childhood as there are ostriches on the moon, but I grew up with a classmate in my neighborhood who had parents of both Mexican and Persian descent. It was fascinating. His household was mostly speaking in Spanish, but they could also speak Farsi, and it blew my mind that they could communicate in three languages, perhaps more, but to him, it was just kind of... normal. It's those types of people who are bilingual or trilingual and don't really know how they got that way. They're often perfectly useless for help with a language, because they never had to go through the process of actually learning and struggling with the language like an adult learner would, so they often can't help you with rules of grammar, punctuation, or sometimes even spelling or writing. This is also the case with English speakers. Unless you've made a conscious study of English (as a native speaker), its grammatical rules, constructs, etymology and all the whys and wherefores, it's unlikely you can explain many of your language's idiosyncrasies to a student of English when they ask you "why is it this way or that way?" We didn't have to learn it the way they do. And so I at once envy and resent native speakers of multiple languages who didn't have to try to learn and can't help me to do the same.
|I certainly have backslid into the first category in a number of my efforts. From top to bottom, these are Lao, Thai, Norwegian, Italian, and Russian, all in varying degrees of seriousness and depth. All about necessity.|
Those are the three groups, and you may find yourself in multiple groups specific to certain languages. You may be in group three as a native speaker of English and Chinese, but have a foot in group one when you consider that you've always wanted to learn Russian; you may be in group two when it comes to a studious and successful pursuit of Italian and French, but maybe you've stagnated and have fallen back into group one when you think about picking one of them back up.
Unfortunately, no one can put themselves into group three as native speakers. That's congenital; you've got it or you don't. But that's not to say you can't do your best to put yourself in an environment where you'll learn better and faster. We can still try.
In any case, Those are the three (again, very broad) groups I think of when I classify language students, and aside from group three (people who grow up in bi- or multi-lingual families in places like most of Europe, India, Africa, and elsewhere), I think as far as actual real students are concerned, the biggest group is group one, and if you're in that group, I want to convert you. You are my guinea pigs, I'd love to work with you and talk to you for hours on end about what you can do to start.
If you're in group two, I'd love to sit down over a glass of wine and share war stories, experiences, mistakes and anecdotes. How did you do it, what did you do wrong? Tell me about that time that you embarrassed yourself, and about that time when you were so proud of yourself. Let's exchange useless trivia about different languages and talk about what we'd like to study next and why.
But for that first group, stay tuned for Friday's post about how to get moving. It's a good one.