Just Talk to Native Speakers: The Worst Way to Learn a Language

Posted on May 31, 2010

By Antonio Graceffo

In the apartment complex where I live outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, there is a Cantonese speaking woman who seems to know everyone. She walks the halls and hangs out in the cafés all day, getting to know all of the building’s residents. Then she helps them find rentals, acts as a real-estate broker, or hooks them up with whatever they need, and, I assume, earns a commission on each transaction.

When I told her I wanted to find a school to study Bahasa Melayu, the official language of the country, she said, “You don’t need to go to school. Tell me the words you want to know and I will teach them to you.”

Being an ALG (Automatic Language Growth) proponent, I believe in studying language, in context and for the purpose of communicating meaningfully, and with the goal of approaching native speaker fluency. So, if you ask me which words I want to learn, it’s all of them.

Rather than make a list, I was going to toss the dictionary on the table in front of her.

“I would like to learn those words” I would say. “Please teach them to me.” But then, since the dictionary already has English translations, I guess her job was done for her.

In actuality, one of the major concepts of ALG is that words are not the key to a language, meaning is. You could memorize 5,000 words from a dictionary and not be able to string a sentence together or express yourself in any meaningful way.

Mark Twain may have had a vocabulary that was 10% or even 30% larger than the average college graduate. But he wrote works that the average college graduate couldn’t. And it wasn’t because he had more words. Clearly there is much more to language and communication than words.

Many of us don’t know much about nuclear physics or how to run a nuclear reactor. But then, most of us don’t have a reactor and don’t need to run one. So, it works out in the end. But we all speak language. And some people have two or three native tongues, and yet the average person seems to be completely clueless about what it is that makes a language and especially, people seem to be lost on the subject of how to teach or learn a language.

Nearly 100% of people who graduate medical school can work as doctors. Nearly zero percent of people who graduate with a four year degree in a foreign language can speak at anything approaching fluency.

Another Malay friend was trying to encourage me in my study of Malay language. “I know a British woman who has been here for ten years. She married a Malay man, and now she speaks excellent ‘Pasar’ Malay.”

Pasar in Malay means “market”; I assume it comes form the same Persian root as the English word bazaar. Pasar Malay is basically a pigeon language, which was historically spoken by foreign traders. Basically, what my friend was telling me was that, if I remain in Malaysia for ten years, and marry a Malay man, I will be able to speak grammatically incorrect sentences and converse at the level of a kitchen servant.

First of all, it’s not even legal for me to marry a Malay man. In fact, in Malaysia I can’t even marry a Malay woman without converting my religion. So, step one is already out. But the end result, talking like an uneducated person… That isn’t really a goal I have ever striven for. I worked hard to educate myself in my native tongue, why would I want to talk like a moron in a foreign language?

There is clearly a flaw in our understanding of how language is acquired which is causing us to get terrible results in this one area of education. Even the goals that people set out for themselves seem flawed. When I began learning Khmer in Cambodia, the first time I ordered my own food in the presence of my Khmer friends, one of them smiled approvingly, “If you stay here three years I bet you will be able to speak Khmer.” Three years? I was planning to learn the language in six months to one year. If you are studying full time you should be able to achieve conversational fluency in two years in most Asian languages (category 3 languages) and academic fluency in a European language or other category 1 languages.

The US Foreign Service Institute and Defense Language Institute rate languages according to the difficulty in learning them. Mandarin and Arabic are category 3 languages, whereas Italian and Spanish are category 1. Malay is in its own category, basically between 1 and 2. The reason is probably because Malay is actually a pretty easy language, but culturally Malaysia is very different from America. Cultural differences often make language learning more difficult. For someone who has been living in Southeast Asia for a long time and speaks other Asian languages, the difficulty in learning Malay probably drops to category one.

For all of the years I have been studying Asian languages, I have heard from linguist friends and also confirmed through research that Bahasa Melayu is the easiest Asian language to learn (In this article I am only talking about “major languages”, languages which are the official language of a country. I am not talking about tribal or minority languages.). Bahasa Malay is considered easy because it’s not tonal. It has a very simple grammar. It is written with the Latin Alphabet. And, it has more native speakers than any other Southeast Asian language. Counting Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand and parts of the Philippines, there are 180 million native speakers, but if we include Thai, Indonesian and Philippine dialects which are close to or heavily influenced by Malay, the number could almost double.

Working on a film crew, I mentioned to my assistant that I needed to learn Bahasa but hadn’t had time or money to organize classes.

“You don’t need to go to school” She insisted. “Bahasa is so easy.”

No matter how easy a language is, you have to study it in order to learn it.

“Just talk to us in Bahasa when you see us.” By us, she meant the rest of the crew.

That advice made very little sense to me. How am I going to talk to them in Bahasa if I don’t speak Baahsa? I explained to her that would be like me telling her that if she spoke to me in Italian, which she doesn’t speak a word of, she would reach fluency in just a few short months.

She didn’t buy it, though. She explained the value of practicing your language with native speakers and how this was superior to going to school. She then said the phrase that makes me cringe. “It’s the best way to learn a language.’

In my expert opinion: Four years of advanced study in applied linguistic, years of working as a translator, having studied ten languages, and having learned eight to some degree of fluency, thirteen years of classroom teaching experience, author of a couple of  hundred articles on language acquisition, and creator of numerous videos on the same subject, plus a bunch of other qualifications:

If you don’t speak a particular language at all, practicing with a native speaker would be the absolute dumbest way to try and learn it.

First off, practice suggests you already know something and you want to get better at it. If you don’t know it at all, you can’t practice it. What if you never had a karate lesson in your life? If I locked you in a room alone, and told you to practice, would you emerge ten years later as an expert?

Whether or not I am qualified as an expert on language acquisition is perhaps debatable. And there are certainly people out there, better qualified than me. So far, through all of my research, however, I can’t find any credible expert who believes that a non-speaker can somehow learn the language by speaking to native speakers.

I get attacked all of the time on the internet for my videos and articles on language acquisition. So, there are clearly people who disagree with me, but they never seem to be university professors or qualified translators or linguists whose research has lead them to different conclusions.

What I find is that people who are completely unqualified to disagree do so.

In this instance, I asked my colleague if she had a degree in linguistics. And she didn’t, neither did she have a degree in foreign language or similar or related field. So, I asked if she had at least ever learned a foreign language and her answer was,

“I speak Bahasa and English.” The tone suggested that this did indeed qualify her to give advice on language acquisition.

But this brings us to my next point and one of my pet peeves. Bahasa and English are the two most commonly spoken languages in Malaysia. This particular individual, and millions of other Malaysians, are near native speakers in at least two and often three of their country’s national languages. Now, while I envy them for having such a high degree of fluency in two or more languages, these people are not language learners. The bulk of Malaysians have never had the experience of learning a language.

You don’t learn your mother tongue, you acquire it. You learn it because you are surrounded by it, bombarded with it, and people talk to you, and in front of you, in it. Your country’s national languages are on TV, in newspapers, on the radio, and spoken at public gatherings and in school.

The reason why Malays and many Filipinos are at near native speaker level in English is BECAUSE, rather than in spite of, the fact that they have NEVER studied English. They acquired English by attending math and science classes in school, which were taught in English. They learned it from watching American movies which were not dubbed.

In Taiwan and Vietnam I saw kids memorizing thousands upon thousands of English vocabulary. And yet, they couldn’t communicate at all. My most dedicated Taiwanese friends were constantly reading books ABOUT, not in, English. “Learn English Idioms,” “How to Converse in English”…. My Malay friends, on the other hand, read “The Kite Runner,” or the latest Stephen king book in English.

Malaysians and Filipinos communicate extremely well. Very occasionally I may stumble upon a word that a Malay friend is not familiar with, but it is a single word. I explain it, and we move on. Malaysians, at least those in KL who I deal with on a daily basis, understand our humor. They make jokes, they even understand puns. Vietnamese and Taiwanese who are considered fluent or who work as translators, often can’t get anything at all out of watching an English movie, and can’t follow the thread of a conversation between two native speakers.

The English language fluency in Malaysia is astounding, and yet, most Malaysians have probably never had a foreign teacher neither have they had significant interaction with an English native speaker.

So, when my colleague said, “Just talk to us.” This advice was no reflection of how Malays learn English.

The fact that the Malaysians speak English and Malay, and then Chinese Malaysians also speak two or three dialects, doesn’t mean they are good language learners. These are multiple mother tongues. They don’t count. You don’t learn your mother tongue. You acquire it. To measure the ability of Malaysians to learn a language, you would need to observe them in a French class or Japanese class. And if you did, you would find that they don’t learn any faster than Americans.

There is a commonly held myth in America that Europeans are great languages learners. Just last week I heard an American tourist in a café saying, “It’s not uncommon to find people in Europe who speak four or even five languages.” I went to school in Europe for four years, and I will tell you, it is extremely uncommon to find Europeans who speak four or five languages. Nearly everyone in Europe learns English at school. The Germanic countries take English seriously and young Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians generally speak it well. In Italy and Spain, however, the level is extremely low. Apart from English, however, most second language teaching in Europe has dropped off. Yes, some Germans speak French well, but it isn’t that common. And certainly, Germans who speak Japanese will be as infrequent as Americans who speak Japanese.

In countries which have more than one official language, you will find that only a small percentage of the population is fully bi-lingual. Estimates show that 55% of bilingual Canadians are Quebecers. Generally, in bilingual countries you find only the speakers of the minority language are bilingual. In Malaysia, for example, nearly 100% of Chinese speak Malay, but very few Malays speak Chinese. Spain has four official languages, but native-speakers of Castilian don’t generally speak any of the other three. Switzerland has four languages, German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romansch – but 22 of the 26 cantons are officially monolingual.

I have written nearly two hundred articles on second language acquisition, but they all lead to the same sobering and dreary point. Learning a language is hard work. There are no secrets and no short cuts. You can’t learn by “just talking to us.” You have to study. You need to go to school, hire a teacher, pour over books, videos, DVDs, audio, whatever materials you can find, five hours per day for up to 800 hours. Then, as soon as possible, wean yourself off of language learning materials and move into the use of real language materials such as novels, newspapers, movies, and attending lectures and classes taught IN but not ABOUT the language.

9 Comments

  1. Great article, Antonio! Ever since I took Language Learning as part of the MA in TESOL program, I became enthralled with Chomsky’s UG which changed the way people viewed language acquisition. I consider myself blessed to have been born of Chinese parents in Panamá and acquire Hakka Chinese and Spanish and to some extent English (in school) at an early age. By the time I went to University, I had a good command of the English language. While pursuing a major in Mathematics, I had to choose either French, German, or Russian. I chose French. I would say I can communicate at the Intermediate level, but to be fully fluent, I think I will need to immerse myself in the language. I would love to read some of your articles on language learning but have no access to professional journals. Linguistics as a field is something that I have always been interested in.
    Great website and enlightening information!
    José

  2. hi,antonio that is a good article, i agree with you that if you want to learn a language you need to study it, i mean using books and records,watching tv, hearing radio or finding a teacher,but i think that you also need to stay in touch with native speakers as well, otherwise who’s gonne correct yours mistakes?for example, i speak fluidly chinese, russian,thai,english and spanish(this is my mother language)and i am 100% percent cuban,i mean i dont have foreigners in my familly and all the languages that i speak fluidly i’ve learned then by studying by myself with books and talking with native speakers and other people that learned it as a second language,in the case of thai(this is the exeption of the rulle)i learned it with the help of my wife who is thai,and with dictionaries,cuz here there is almost no material dedicated to teach thai to foreigners,so i think that if you work hard and you are persevere,you will achive your goal,i do have a degree of chinese language from BLCU(beijing language university)and i dont know how did you studied linguistic but i also know many people that studied the same,and they study a litle bit of many languages but can’t speak fluidly,cuz they only study the basic,but i advice you,if you really want to learn a language you must to combinate self-study with practing, otherwise it is very difficult that one day you will be able to speak it fluidly,by the way in malaysia there are some friends of mine who study and work there and all of them told me that mastering malay only took them one year more or less ,so good luck and wich you to learn it well,bye

  3. I strongly agree that you need interaction with foreigners. In fact, you need everything, watching TV, movies, radio, newspapers. But my main point is that no input, whether it si from contact with natives or watching movies or what have you, none of it is of any use if it is too far beyond your ability. and in the case of conversation, the real test is, can you walk into the middle of a conversation between two native speakers, listen, pick up the thread and then participate intelligently? That is real conversation. but what many people do is walk in and say something stupid and the native speakers immediately drop the subject they were talking about or drop to the level of the learner and talk to him at that level. the learner is then fooled into believing he is having a conversation. but it is not a real conversation, it is just language practice, and technically, it;s not even practice, because it is at or below the learners ability. When you attend a university in China or Germany or whatever country, and study a subject, then you will be required to read at an age appropriate level, and participate in meaningful discussions and writing assignments. That is the goal. and yo will never get there by hanging out and talking to friends.

  4. Definitely hang out with native speaker “friends” but realize that until you reach a certain level of fluency (or have really, REALLY patient friends), you will be their as an audience member, not active participant. If you you DO participate with very limited language skills, you will likely do little more than distract, dominate and annoy the group. Don’t be that guy…

  5. I disagree at all.. talking with native speakers is the best way to get fluidy in the language you want to learn, you remind me of that example which says : “you can’t fly a jet with only reading manuals” so , you’re wrong for me, but it’s just my opinion , I’ve been talking with native english speakers, and I think and feel that my english is lots better now… bye gl

  6. Great!! :D But I’m trying to learn Japanese and of course with me still being a Middle School student I don’t think that I will be able to vist Japan any time soon. And it’s not like I live near Little Tokyo or anything, so what should I do? I’ve been studying for a while now and I think that I’ve finally pass the Benginer stage and I might be taking classes next year in High School. But since that’s not 100% does anyybody who has ever learned a forgin language have any ideas? (Since this is my first forgin language) Thanks in advance!!!

  7. Hi Jacquelyn. Living in Japan is obviously an advantage, but today’s language learner has access to everything they need online. You can get heaps of free Japanese input via podcasts, blogs, streaming video, RhinoSpike, etc., and get lots of speaking and writing practice via social networking sites. It just takes the discipline to spend the requisite time everyday with Japanese despite being in an English-speaking environment. 頑張ってね!

  8. I only speak five languages, so I’m probably not qualified …. since I don’t have any linguistics degrees or teaching experience or any other fancy credentials.

    But, I’ve learned four out of those five just by being in the country, dating local girls, and acquiring the language without any sort of official schooling. Six months, and I’m conversational at just about anything.

    The people who claim this to be impossible are usually the academics, who need to justify the hard way. ;)

  9. I agree with Antonio. You need a lot of input before you can speak. If you are not living in the country where the language is spoken, reading is the best way of getting this input. I speak five languages fluently and I owe three to extensive reading. The problem is that most language teachers are native speaker of the language they are teaching, who have no track of how much input they had before they could speak. If I were to learn my sixth language, I will be least concerned about speaking practice. Regardless of whether you are speaking for the sake of practice or for the sake of a real conversation, you have to build a wide variety of sentences. For this you need a strong vocabulary. You acquire a strong vocabulary via reading not via speaking practice. Antonio your concept of learning a language is very realistic although not very common.


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