Thursday, May 16, 2013

Learning English

Chapter 4 of Learning a New Land (see my last post) is "The Challenge of Learning English." It offers a lot to think about. Here are some quotations:
[I]t takes longer than most would imagine to develop the English-language skills necessary to be competitive academically, by most, we mean those who have not gone through the process of intensively learning another language—the average, voter, teacher, or politician—who make naive assumptions about language learning and impose unrealistic expectations based on a lack of first-hand experience. Researchers in the field of language learning have long known that acquiring an academically competitive level of language acquisition takes a significant period—from seven to ten years of strong academic environments and frequent second-language exposure.


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A general assumption is that the younger people are when they arrive in a new country, the better they will learn the new language. The evidence on this issue is complex and debated. Older learners, who have developed literacy in their native language and have greater cognitive maturity, seem to learn the rules of language more efficiently than do younger learners. Indeed, perhaps counterintuitively, assuming an identical quality of instruction, older learners learn a second language more quickly (though younger learners catch up over time). Younger learners generally acquire better pronunciation, however, which makes them seem more fluent and competent in the second language. Further, adults must master a larger vocabulary in the second language to appear "fluent."
The information about age surprised me: I had always heard that younger the better for learning languages. But, having studied a couple of languages as an adult, I do know that I was able to apply to the task knowledge and study skills that I just didn't have the first time I studied a language (7th grade). I'm always totally impressed by anyone who develops fluency in a second language, because I know how weak I am in the foreign languages I've studied. Sure, I can say "What time is it?" or "Where is the library?"—but I know I am far from being able to work or go to college in any language but English.

I think the point about younger language learners having good accents and yet lacking fluency in academic English is really important.

I think about the students I've known in my eight years as a volunteer tutor, and I wonder how many seemed to have mastered English but had the accent and day-to-day vocabulary without having a good understanding of academic English. The student who functions every day in English—talking to friends, playing basketball, going to the store, watching TV, texting, etc.&mash;doesn't know that he or she doesn't know enough English to do well in high school and college. It seems to me that some of the following school issues might have to do with English rather than the subject the students are complaining about:
  • I'm not good at Science. (Is the student's ability to read and understand complex material getting in the way?)
  • I don't know what the teacher expects us to do for this assignment. (Was the student paying attention in class but not able to understand the complicated instructions about a social studies project?)
  • Everything we have to read in English class is boring. (Does the student lack the vocabulary and sophistication to make reading Dickens or Steinbeck anything but a chore?)
  • I don't know how to answer the questions in my history book. (Does the student lack the language skill to read the material, integrate it with what the student has already learned, think about relationships, and reason about the questions?)
  • I hate story problems! (Does the student get confused by the English that's describing quantitative, special, or causal relationships?)
What can we do to help?

I'm not talking about totally reforming the way English-language learners are taught in schools. That would be nice, but it's a big project. Let's think about how our tutoring program can help. I am not trained in language acquisition, so these are just my thoughts.
  • I think it's important for the staff and volunteers to engage the students in conversations. Give them practice talking and practice listening.
  • We can encourage them to read, read, read—including a wide variety of material that will give them practice with academic English (not just fiction, but also news stories, science, business, history, and more).
  • We can also encourage them to take in academic English aurally—watch Ted talks, watch National Science Foundation videos, listen to NPR, listen to podcasts about science or current events, and so on.
  • And we can help them work through all of those homework challenges that might have a language component.

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