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Leave me alone! Can't you see I'm learning your language?

Ch 1. Introduction

Ch 2. Your entry point into the speech community

by Greg Thomson

© 1993 Greg Thomson. Used by permission.



This essay by Greg Thomson describes how to build up a social network while learning a language. It shows how important social relationships are to really entering a new language community and culture. This essay is an important complement to the technical information about how to learn a second language.

1. Introduction

1.1. Learning a language means becoming part of a speech community.
1.1.1 No relationships--no language!
1.1.2 Doing unto others, with others also doing unto you

2. Your entry point into the speech community

2.1. Finding a mediating person
2.2. The mediating person as a Language Resource Person
2.3. Language learning at the entry point: no free lunches
2.4. Language learning at the entry point: time to think about doing something

3. Branching out: getting a network

3.1. Introduction to social networks
3.2. Your new social network at the outset
3.3. Enlarging and strengthening your network

4. Coping with some less than ideal situations

4.1. Learning in a truly monolingual society
4.2. Learning in a totally bilingual society
4.3. Language Learning when there is limited access to the society

5. My network is growing and strengthening--now what?

5.1. Bootstrapping your way to good behaviour
5.2. Systematic language learning in your new speech community
5.2.1 What should I learn next?
5.2.2 Carrying the language sessions into real-life encounters
5.2.3 Learning to communicate in general
5.2.4 Systematically expanding your cultural knowledge
5.2.5 Focusing on social skills
5.2.6 Focusing on language functions
5.2.7 Avoiding fossilization
5.3. But it sounds so hard.
5.3.1 Your time commitment
5.3.2 When to start
5.3.3 Staying encouraged
5.3.4 Don't get stuck on your way to first base

6. Conclusion (Leave me alone!)

Back Matter


1. Introduction

Imagine yourself crashed on a desert island, all alone, with nothing but a radio and, fortunately, a solar powered battery charger and a good supply of rechargeable batteries. The only station you can get on the radio is in Mandarin Chinese. Having discovered and read the journals of several others who were stranded there before you, you realize you may be there for the rest of your life. You've always wanted to learn a foreign language. This is your big chance. Any other pastime available to you seems boring by comparison. So find yourself a cozy sand dune, hunker down, and turn your radio on.

1.1. Learning a language means becoming part of a speech community.

I can think of two good reasons you are not going to learn any Chinese. Probably the most obvious reason is that although you hear plenty of Chinese being spoken, you have no way to find out what anything means. The second reason is closely related to the first. It is, I believe, more basic. You cannot learn Chinese because you have no relationship of any sort with anyone who uses Chinese.

1.1.1 No relationships--no language!

Language implies relationships. The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein reasoned that there can be no such thing as a private language, meaning a language which belongs to a single individual (Wittgenstein 1953). His reasons are rather philosophical, and his claim has been, like everything in philosophy, rather controversial. But I have my own (nonphilosophical) reasons for agreeing with Wittgenstein. A language is a means of communication between people. Suppose I see someone stealing your car, but you are looking the other way. What I see is now a part of my experience but not of yours. Language enables me to describe my experience to you with a statement like, “Hey, that guy is stealing your car”. There may be other uses of language, but they are all derivative on this basic one: language lets me make my experience available to you. What would it mean then for me to have a private language, that is, a way of making my experience available to myself? As soon as I have experienced an experience, indeed, while I am in the process of experiencing it, it is available to me. I can't make myself aware of what I'm already aware of by telling myself about it.

So when you talk about language, you're talking about community. You learned your first language within a community, and you learned it as a means of participating in community. The famous linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure compared language to a contract between the people who use it (de Saussure 1959). If I secretly decide to mean cat whenever I say the word dog, I will be misunderstood by all members of the English speaking community whenever I use the word dog. The word dog stand for dogs, but it doesn't stand for dogs in the abstract. It stands for dogs in that it is used by people to talk to other people about dogs. Take away other people, and you take away language. Language is an interpersonal thing, a shared thing, a communal thing. No community, no language.

Now, you want to learn a language. I hope you can see that what you are saying is that you want to become part of a community and function in that community by means of its language, which is its primary means of being a community.

(If you're the argumentative type, you're probably thinking of scenarios where everyone but you has been killed by a meteor, or perhaps you're thinking about people who learn a “dead” language from written documents. If I were argumentative, I'd convince you that even in these cases, language only exists through participation in communities. Good thing I'm not argumentative. Instead, I'll move right ahead with the discussion of what this all means for us as language learners.)

Think of how you learned your first language. A very small number of people interacted with you. This probably included your mother, and may have included other caretakers and older siblings. They were part of a larger language community, but at that point you did not have a lot to do with that larger community. There may have been a period of several months where your mother and siblings were the only ones who could easily understand what you were saying. As you ventured out farther into the world, your speech had to become more and more like that of the larger speech community.

Let's agree then, that learning Mandarin means (among other things) becoming part of a community which uses Mandarin as its main means of interaction. That community contains hundreds of millions of people. Do you enter into a relationship with hundreds of millions of people? The answer is yes. Recall that a language is like a contract between the people who use it. Everyone in that community accepts certain rules and plays by those rules. Though most of the members of the community will never meet one another; nevertheless, should they meet, they would at once recognize that they are members of the same community insofar as they recognize that their behavior is constrained by the same rules (or at least reasonably similar rules).

1.1.2 Doing unto others, with others also doing unto you

For communities to exist, people must share certain rules, or norms, of behavior. People don't usually think about most of the norms that they share with others in their communities. They may think about some of the norms, as when a parent tells a child, “You're supposed to say 'thank you' when someone does something nice for you.” However, that same parent may not realize that moments earlier, someone did something nice for her, and she didn't say “Thank you,” but instead said, “ You're too kind,” or perhaps, “How thoughtful of you,” or maybe, “You'll never know how much I appreciate that,” or possibly, “Hey, great!”. In those cases, the parent is following much more detailed, fine-tuned norms for expressing gratitude than the four-year-old who says “Thank you” is aware of at this point. The overwhelming majority of the norms which unite a community are ones that are rarely or never thought about consciously or discussed.

The main purpose of the community-wide norms is to ensure that the behavior of one person does not adversely affect other people. Therefore, someone who is seen to be a non-follower of the community norms is seen to be a potential threat to the community. Of course, in some cases it is clear that someone is still learning the norms. That implies the person is new to the community. That new person may be a baby. Or it may be you.

The norms which define a community become particularly important in the context of transactions. A transaction occurs when two people interact. If I sell you a used car, that is a transaction. If I meet you in the hall and smile, that too is a transaction.

For you to learn your new language is going to require that people talk to you, and listen to you, for thousands of hours. That will involve a very large number of transactions! A popular approach to understanding transactions is called the exchange theory (Homans, 1958, discussed in Milroy, 1987). According to the exchange theory, in every transaction there is a cost and a benefit. If I sell you a used car, you will receive something of value (the car) and so will I receive something of value (the money). (Likewise, we'll both be giving up something of value.) If I give you a ridiculously good deal, say, charging you only half of the true value of the car, and we are both aware that I have given you a ridiculously good deal, then sometime in the future when I ask a “small favour” of you, you may feel obliged to grant me the favour. That is because when the exchange is uneven, it creates a sense of indebtedness, called an obligation in the exchange theory. If I give you a smile, you can give me a smile in exchange. We both made each other feel warm and fuzzy. No obligation was created because we each gave something of equal value to the other.

The implications of this concept for language learners are enormous. Right now you have zero Mandarin Chinese (or Chukchee, or whatever) in your head. That is, there is an incomprehensibly large goody, i.e. the Chinese language, which you need. It is entirely in the possession of other people. The only way you will get it is if they give it to you. If you are going to be in the process of becoming a functioning part of a community of Chinese speakers, then something equal in value to what you are going to receive (the language, among other things) in the course of countless transactions will need to pass in the opposite direction, that is, from you to them. That should give you something to think about.

And to make matters worse, you'll start out as a potential trouble maker. Spradley and McCurdy (1984) gave the title Conformity and Conflict to their collection of readings in cultural anthropology. They explain that the very set of shared norms which makes it possible for a community to function smoothly (conformity) can become a destructive force when two communities come into contact (conflict). That is because those shared norms define what is good and bad in the eyes of the people who share them. Here you come, into the midst of conformers, a ready made source of conflict, since you operate by different standards of good and bad. You need a massive transaction to occur if you are to learn the language, but the deck is clearly stacked against your being able to hold up your end of the exchange. It will be very kind of them if you end up learning their language!

2. Your entry point into the speech community

Relax. You will be glad to learn that you don't have to cope with all of that all at once. You might learn to swim by jumping into the rapids where the water is over your head and icy cold. But that is not the only way to learn to swim. Nor is it necessarily the best way.

What if there is a warm, calm, shallow pool with a soft, sandy bottom where you can get your feet wet and then your knees, etc. And you can try to swim, and make mistakes, and then get the hang of it. Later you can venture into deeper and deeper waters. In the end, you find out that the river wasn't really all that swift, or deep, or cold--just swift, deep and cold enough for a non-swimmer to drown in!

You are going to become part of the new speech community. For you, starting at the shallow end means structuring your own gentle little speech community in which you can learn to dog-paddle. From there you can venture out little by little into a bigger world.

2.1 Finding a mediating person

You can begin with just one or two people. People like linguists and anthropologists approach a community through a relatively small number of people. Such people have traditionally been called informants. Most linguists and anthropologists quickly discovered that inside every informant there lurked a friend, waiting to emerge.

There is a reason for this. People aren't forced to be informants. Rather, they want to be. I once wished to learn about the subculture of motor-rickshaw drivers in Hyderabad, Pakistan. I always get stressed out over recruiting an informant. But I recalled a driver who struck me as unusually educated for his profession (I later learned he held a degree in English), and the next time I saw him I told him that I wished to learn of the world of rickshaw-driving from him. He seemed hesitant but agreed to come to my house at a specified time. That time came, and the gate-bell sounded. I went out and down to the gate, to find a man I did not recognize, standing beside a rickshaw. He told me that his friend was nervous about coming and talking to me, and so he was volunteering.

This man turned out to be a very special person indeed. I recorded about two hours of interviews with him and went over the recordings and asked some questions. He had loads to share on any point I would ask about. After the interviews, he continued to visit and provided us with new entrance ways into Pakistani life.

The key point I want to make here is that this informant was self-selected. If you seek help from within a group, and out of several people, one or more appear to really want to help you, then you are witnessing this self-selection process at work. Self-selection tends to result in wonderful helpers.

The man I have just described could not speak English and was not widely traveled. But within his peer-group, he was an outward-reaching, open-minded individual. Everyone is different. Some people are tightly bound into a spot near the center of their peer-group and do not like to venture near the edges. There is nothing wrong with that. They may be major contributors to the community's welfare. But their place is right near the middle of their group. Some day, you may be deeply inside that group, and then such people may become wonderful friends. But your very first friends will be people who are more comfortable moving at the periphery of the group, where that group interfaces with outsiders. You'll start out as an outsider. People like my rickshaw driver friend are human bridges. Some time after our interviews he asked me to accompany him and a couple buddies to visit his wife in the hospital. As we rode in the back of a covered Suzuki pick-up (public transportation), two young mothers sat across from us wearing burqas (large black over-garments worn for modesty by Muslim women). As is frequently the case, their veils were flipped back, exposing their faces, but not their hair. Their interest was piqued by this obvious foreigner who appeared to be a local insider. This so validated me in their sight that they asked if I would come to their home in the countryside and visit them. They had their elderly father dictate his address to me, which I wrote down with his pencil. He then insisted I keep the pencil. I stood there with my mouth hanging open as I watched these women flip their veils down over their faces and head for a bus to continue their journey. I previously had the impression that rural women in burqas didn't relate comfortably to men other than close relatives. My rickshaw driver friend didn't know where I got that idea. The fact is, he had validated me and led me in a bit more deeply into the larger Pakistani society.

So, as you seek to wade into the shallow water, you're looking for a person who is comfortable at the edge of his or her community and culture. My rickshaw driver friend was the perfect person at the point when he came along. However, he would not have been the perfect person two years earlier. And since we are concerned with your very first contacts, we need to consider people who are even further from the center of their group.

The kind of person I have in mind has been called a mediating person (Bochner, 1981). Taft (1981) describes a variety of people who are near the edge, psychologically speaking, of their society or subculture. Not all of them qualify as mediating persons. Some people may wish they could move away from their culture and adopt yours and some may already have done just that, at least as far as they are concerned. Taft refers to theirs as peripheral membership in the community you are hoping to join. Worse yet, from the standpoint of your needs, are those who Taft calls isolated. These extremely marginalized people have a negative attitude toward their own culture, and toward other cultures as well. Once some strangers standing beside me at a newsstand in Pakistan commented “There is one of those capitalist pigs we were talking about”. I suspect these were marginalized individuals, and they would not have been the ideal choice for my initial entry point to the larger Pakistani community. A better choice would be people who belong to what Taft calls a marginal group. These would be people who have moved out into a different culture (yours in this case), with which they now identify, while retaining a group identity based on their common background. The Chinese community in Calgary would be an example.

True mediating persons, in Taft's typology, are people who remain active in their own culture and are also completely at home in the other culture and have positive attitudes toward both cultures. I met people like that in Pakistan, people who lived part of the year in Canada and part of the year in Pakistan and were happy in both places.

2.2 The mediating person as a Language Resource Person

Ideals are rarely achieved, but it is good to think about them as we seek the to find best options available. We come back now to the fact that you need to become part, not just of a new community, but of a new speech community. That is central to what is meant by learn a language. Let's picture the ideal person to serve as your point of entry to the new speech community. Call her Noju. Noju's language and culture of origin are the language and culture you wish to learn, and she also speaks your language with ease. She has participated extensively in your culture and feels at home in it. She has positive feelings about both societies, and, for that matter, she would enjoy exploring additional new cultures herself if the opportunity arose. She is a true mediating person. But since we have a special focus on language, we also want her to be a person who is enthusiastic about her mother tongue. She's not a trained linguist (I mean, even ideals aren't that ideal), and so she may not have given much thought to the structure of her language, but when you point out a structural observation you have made, such as, “Did you ever notice that no words ever end with b, d, or g,” she replies “Wow, that's really interesting”. She is not familiar with the latest concepts of second language learning (not that ideal), but neither does she have strong opinions as to how it should be done. She is adventurous, and willing to try whatever language learning methods you wish to use, even if they seem a little silly to her at first. Not only is she an ideal mediating person, but she is an ideal Language Resource Person (LRP).

Now ideals are ideals. You may not be able to get very close to this ideal in every respect, though you may get close to it in many respects. The helpful thing about having an ideal in mind is that it will encourage you to avoid making matters worse for yourself than you need to. For example, someone might think there is a special advantage to begin learning the language from the most conservative, monolingual member of the community. Not recommended. That person may later become your best friend, but you need to prepare for that. Otherwise, you could end up making a worst enemy instead of a best friend.

If at all possible, your first LRP should be someone who shares a language with you. For example, if your mother tongue is English, and your LRP is fluent in English, you will be able to use powerful language learning techniques, because you can clearly explain those techniques to your LRP in a language you both know well. In addition, you can concentrate on rapidly learning to comprehend the language, using appropriate techniques, without feeling a lot of pressure to speak the language before you have some familiarity with it. This can greatly reduce the stress of early language learning.

It is also important that you begin working with monolingual LRPs fairly soon, say after one to four months of initial language learning. If no monolingual LRPs are available to you, then you will need to begin working monolingually (in the new language, not in English!) with your bilingual LRPs. At the point where you can function somewhat in the language you may find it less stressful to work with monolingual LRPs rather than forcing yourself to work monolingually with bilingual LRPs, since that may tend to feel artificial. 1

Our focus right now however, is on your very first LRPs, and you will prefer that they be bilingual. You will prefer that they not be overly marginalized with regard to their own culture. Hopefully they will be cross-culturally open-minded, outward-reaching people, but nevertheless people with strong and healthy links to many other people within their own community.

How do you find such people? Recall the self-selection process. It may be that the right people will emerge quickly. If not, you will need to employ the network building techniques discussed below until you arrive at the right people. For now, let's assume that you have found them.

2.3 Language learning at the entry point: no free lunches

So here you are. You have located someone who is willing to be your point of entry into the new speech community. I have suggested that initial recruitment may be a simple matter of making your need known and seeing who is interested in helping. There is more to consider. An easy mistake is to make a long-term arrangement with someone who subsequently doesn't work out very well. In working with LRPs in a number of languages, I have noticed that some people catch on really quickly to what I need to do, while others are never going to catch on. If I've made a long term arrangement with someone who doesn't work out, then what do I do? Better to ask someone to help me “for one hour this afternoon” than “for the next three months”. Then I can ask, again, and again. Soon I will be able to decide whether a long term arrangement with a particular person will be a good idea. If possible, I should begin with more than one person, so that whoever I work with expects me to work with others and doesn't feel personally rejected if I end up not working with him or her all that much. Bear in mind also that someone who is not ideal for my initial language learning may come to be very helpful at a later stage.

Next comes that troublesome exchange theory we discussed before. Every transaction (including every interaction between you and your LRP) involves something of equal value going in both directions, or else the party who contributes less to the transaction incurs indebtedness to the other. One of my very first LRPs listened to my request that he help me regularly. I clearly remember his response: “What's in it for me?” A fair question. You might ask what's in it for you, but it is better to ask whether, from your LRP's standpoint, the amount of effort is worth the amount of reward.

In my case, I had a simple solution: minimum wage. But I rushed into that a bit precipitously. I wasn't really giving the guy a job. And he was later to become a real friend. If I could go back and start over I might well do things differently. First of all, I wouldn't propose it as a job offer. Rather than, “Will you be my main language teacher?”, I would have asked, “Can you help me for a few minutes?” Once he was comfortable with what we were doing, I would say, “Any chance we could do this for a couple hours next Saturday morning?” I would have incurred indebtedness. In that situation, I now realize that opportunities would have quickly arisen for me to reciprocate. Whenever he bought his groceries, he might easily end up paying five dollars to someone to take him home (this was awhile ago), unless, that is, he met someone who had an obligation to take him home. My paying him minimum wage for helping me learn the language sure made it easier for me to refuse him rides. But that risked creating hard feelings anyway.

And just the other day, a member of that same culture reminded me, “You know how it is when a friend asks you to lend him money. If he's really your friend, you're not going to be thinking 'that guy owes me money'. If he thinks of it some time, he might pay you back, but you're not going to mention it to him.”

How I wish I could go back and start over, knowing what I know now. I had the opportunity to participate in a rich system of rights and obligations, and I opted to pay minimum wage as the easy way out. Mind you, I've known people who didn't want to pay their LRPs minimum wage, but neither did they want to give rides or make “loans”. I suspect if I had done things the way I should have, it would have cost me more than paying minimum wage, but it also would have “bought” me far more than I got by paying minimum wage. There is no stingy way to become part of a new speech community. It costs what it costs. And it's worth what it costs.

This is not to say that there will not be times when paying a fixed hourly amount will be desirable or necessary. I find it easiest to have a scheduled daily time with an LRP. In many cases, this may best be remunerated by direct cash payments. It may still be possible to start out as though your LRP is doing you a favour, but then at the end of the first week to say, “Here, take this. You've been such a great help. I'd feel guilty not to give you something. It's not much.” But be sure that “not much” is at least minimum wage (according to local standards)!

On one occasion, when I wanted to improve my fluency through eight hours per day of semi-structured conversation practice for a whole month, there was no choice but to make it a work-for-wages arrangement. Every case is different. In the end, doing something that works, but is less than ideal is to be preferred over giving up on learning the language because the ideal is unachievable.

It should go without saying that you do also need to take into account the actual value of the exchange to you personally, and be fair from your standpoint. I've been envisioning a situation where the payoff to you is that you get to be part of a new community. For some people there will be other rewards, such as an M.A. degree or a Ph.D. partly as a result of the help you are getting. Or perhaps your work will lead to published journal articles, with the accompanying increase in the your professional standing. In such cases you need to be sure that the people who help you receive what will be of comparable value from their perspective. This could indeed be wages, well above minimum wage, as well as other career benefits, along with benefits to the community as a whole which result from your work.

Even if your main payoff lies simply in becoming part of the new community, you must bear in mind that there is going to be a considerable cost to others. Recall what it is like for you to communicate with someone who is just beginning to learn your native language. It is hard work. So if you are going to become fluent in someone else's language, lots of people are going to work very hard at communicating with you. They must receive something equal in value to the effort they expend. The principle is, something that is perceived by both parties to be of equal value must travel in both directions, sooner or later. You are not allowed to incur a permanent imbalance of payments in your own favour!

Fortunately, material value is not the only value. Milroy (1987) includes such things as “greetings, civilities, jokes, information,...child-minding services, or assistance in times of sickness or poverty” as typical exchange commodities and refers to exchanges in which the LRP's speech is traded for “sympathy and a boost to the informant's self-esteem”. Your friendship and time can be an important reward to others, as theirs is to you. It was obvious that my rickshaw driver friend found a variety of rewards in his relationship with me.

2.4 Language learning at the entry point: time to think about doing something

It may sound as though I am assuming that you are a self-directed, independent language learner, learning the language from friends and neighbors, but not taking a formal course. I need to say a word about where formal courses fit in. If a formal language course is an ideal one, it will be your entry point into the new language community. The methods used in the course will involve you in actually using the language creatively from the outset. Some learning activities will focus on comprehension. A native speaker will communicate with you in the new language in ways that require you (and enable you) to process the language (that is, to figure out what is being said) and respond in some way. For example, the native speaker could instruct you to arrange a group of objects in a particular way and you respond by arranging the objects as instructed. As you learn to comprehend more and more, your ability to speak also increases, and you interact in the language with other learners and native speakers, doing role-plays which deal with typical communication situations that you are facing or will face in real life outside of the formal course. The course will also help you to become aware of cross-cultural friction points, and again you may use role-play as a means of gaining the social skills which you need in order to begin functioning acceptably in the new society. From the standpoint of the language, there are two broad challenges in the real world: you must be able to understand the barrage of speech that will come your way, and you must be able to make up new sentences on the spot. An ideal language course will concentrate on developing these two skills.

But some language courses are far from ideal. I can hear at least ninety percent of those readers who are taking formal language courses exclaiming, “But my language course is nothing like that.” Just the other day I heard two students preparing for the mid-term examination of their introductory German course. Said he to her, “Do you know the second person plural form of möchten?”. Welcome to the dark ages. Modern language departments still teach “languages” as though a language were a body of facts, hundreds if not thousands of facts such as “The third person plural subjunctive of X is Y” and “The verb meaning 'to eat' is Z”. It is odd that the same modern language departments often offer courses on second language learning theory and practice, in which they describe the what-is-the-second-person-plural-form-of-möchten approach to language teaching as something belonging to the 1940's. Well, welcome to the 1990's. In Pakistan I met people who had been “learning the language” for over a year but who were still not becoming part of a speech community to any extent. A language course does not have to be like that. A language course can give you your very first, sheltered entrance into the speech community and guide you as you begin to venture farther afield. But if this is not the case with your course, then you will need to work at becoming part of a speech community on your own.

You may not have enrolled in a formal course, but you may have a formal textbook, perhaps with tapes, which you plan to follow. Once again, there is no guarantee that a textbook and tapes will provide an entry into a speech community. You may indeed learn a lot from a formal course or from a textbook with tapes which will speed your early acquisition of the language and assist your entry into the speech community. But it is important that you realize that you will only learn to communicate by communicating, and the work of entering the speech community still lies before you.

So whether you are taking (or using) a formal course, or have already done formal language study, or are starting from scratch all on your own, your reason for meeting with your LRP is the same: you want to develop communication skills. If you have already done formal study, you have a head start in some ways. You may be able to get right on with conversational practice using pictures or objects of various kinds as focuses of discussion, or struggling to discuss specific topics of interest to you, noting where you get stuck and making a point to learn what you lack that causes you to get stuck.

If you are starting from scratch on your own, without formal course materials, you can begin with very rudimentary communication skills, exploring the grammar as you go. If formal linguistic descriptions of the language are available to you, they may not make a lot of sense to you at first. If not, don't waste too much time trying to learn and remember everything in them. You can return to them again and again as your comprehension ability and speaking ability continue to grow. Each time you will understand more. You may also find that they are incorrect in some points, unless the linguist who wrote them was a native speaker or someone who learned the language very well.

So let's say you are learning the language from scratch, on your own, without the aid of any linguistic descriptions. This is not the place for a detailed description of all activities you might engage in to start developing communication ability . But here are some suggestions. (See Thomson, 1993a, where I deal with this in detail, as well as Larson, 1984, especially Part III, Stage I.)

You want your LRP to understand that you are mainly going to be learning to communicate, and you will learn to communicate by using the language, and you will provide the needed structure for your language sessions; s/he shouldn't “come prepared”. How are you going to communicate when you don't know any of the language? No problem. Your LRP knows plenty of the language. S/he will be the first one to communicate in the new language, albeit under your guidance. One of the best techniques for getting started is the so-called Total Physical Response (TPR) method (Asher, 1982). You begin by having your LRP tell you to do things. S/he can demonstrate what she means by doing the things herself. Better yet, s/he can issue the commands to another speaker of the target language first, and you can learn to comprehend the commands by observing the responses. Then s/he will instruct you to do the same things, and you will respond by carrying out the instructions.

You begin with very simple instructions like “stand”, “walk”, and “sit”. Unfortunately, that is about as far as some people ever go in using TPR. The key is to keep building. You can learn all sorts of complex formations through TPR. Eventually the LRP will be able to tell you something like “If you are holding three dollars, place them in front of him, but if you are only holding two dollars, put them into your pocket.” (You can use play money.) That may not seem like very meaningful communication, but you may be surprised to find that it is fun and interesting for both you and your LRP, and that you really do develop the ability to process speech through such activities.

At this stage you want to learn to understand the words for hundreds of common actions and objects. What objects? You can begin by looking around you. Any object which you are likely to want to be able to talk about within the next few months is fair game. ( A sample instruction from your LRP to you for learning to understand the word for “stove” is “Walk to the stove”; you respond by walking to the stove.) To get other ideas for objects, visit the market, buy one of everything, and bring it home (sample instruction from your LRP to you: “Pick up the cucumber”). Using TPR you can learn to recognize not only the names of the objects, but other properties of objects, such as size, shape, colour, and quantities, including numbers, and relative locations (sample instruction: “Place two green bananas in front of me, and put a yellow banana between them”). Using a family tree diagram (with photos or drawings of people standing for maternal grandmother, father's brother, etc., etc.) you can learn to recognize kinship terms (sample instruction from LRP to you: “Show me the little boy's sister”). And don't forget body parts. You can hardly call yourself a “speaker” of even “broken Chukchee” if you don't recognize the word for “nose” (sample instruction: “Point to your nose”).

Then there are words for actions. Some action words were used in the examples above (“Walk to the stove”, “Pick up the cucumber”, and so forth). Everything (just about) that you can do with your body is worth learning. And you can also learn expressions for anything that you can do with all those hundreds of objects that you have learned the names of in the previous paragraph! What can you do with a piece of cloth, a rope, a glass of water, a carrot? (Sample instruction: “Wad up the piece of cloth, and break the carrot into three pieces”). And try to think of everything a person in that community might do in a typical day, from rising until retiring. Any of these actions can form the basis of TPR activities, even if you have to pretend, e.g. that you are shaving.

One of the most powerful aids to communication at this stage is pictures, either photos or drawings (or even videos). Many scenes from everyday life can be used. (Sample instruction: “Show me the picture of someone who is dressed-up.”) In addition to TPR activities, your LRP can simply describe the pictures at a level that you are capable of understanding. At the outset, this may simply be “This is a man, This is a woman, This is another man. This is another woman. This is a woman and this is a man. This is a boy. This is a girl. This is a girl and a man.” You can build slowly from day to day. As your recognition of basic vocabulary grows, the time will soon come when your LRP can give you detailed descriptions of various aspects of pictures, and you can respond by pointing to the picture you believe s/he is describing. Or she can tell you how the people in the picture would describe what they are doing, or what they might be thinking, and you try to guess which picture she has in mind.

You are probably thinking, what about grammar? Good thought. In your TPR activities, and in your use of pictures, you will plan to emphasize specific sentence patterns and get a lot of repetition of those specific patterns. For pictures, I have described how you might do this in another paper (Thomson, 1989, 1993a).

One thing you will want to learn to comprehend right away is the pronoun system. This may consist of separate pronoun words, like I, you, he, in English. Or there may be special endings on the verbs (suffixes) or special beginnings on the verbs (prefixes) which carry these meanings. For example, if you say hablo, in Spanish, the meaning is “I speak”, but the part that carries the meaning of the English word I, is the o. Often there will be both separate words, and prefixes or suffixes on the verb. Thus to say “I speak” in Spanish one can also say, Yo hablo, where the word yo is also translated I. You'll want to learn to understand such pronouns functioning as subject (“If I am eating peas, pick up a carrot.”), as object (“Pat me”) and in other roles (“Put the pencil near me”; “Write your name for me”; “Pick up the rope with me”). Be prepared for surprises. For example, there may be no difference between “him” and “her”, and there may be differences you are not used to. In Arabic there is a special plural form for two people as opposed to more than two. I cannot begin to prepare you for every possible surprise. This is where published descriptions of the language (or training in linguistics) can be a big help.

Using pictures and physical response drills you can learn to comprehend statements about things in the past, present and future. (Sample instruction: “Show me a picture of a man who is going to sell something.”)

You can learn a variety of complex sentences including those with relative clauses (sample instruction: “Show me a woman who is walking”), conditional clauses (sample instruction: “If you have more money than me, give me some of your money”), purpose clauses (sample instruction: “Draw a man to show to her”), etc. Other examples are to be found in Thomson (1989, 1993a), Asher (1982), and Silvers (1985). Winitz (1982) is a source of ideas for pictures. (Paste blank paper over the English sentences so that they are not a distraction to you or your LRP. You can use the pictures for more purposes than are suggested by the English sentences printed there.) The best source of pictures is photographs of everyday scenes and activities in the community you are entering.

If it is not clear already, you need to carefully prepare for your sessions with your LRP. You will do well to spend at least an hour in preparation for each one hour session with your LRP. The one hour session can then be tape recorded, and you can listen to it several times before the next session and later on for review.

If you are learning a language for which no written grammars exist, or perhaps even if they do exist, you will probably benefit a lot from organizing your observations and thoughts regarding the grammar and sounds of the language. Your own observations, organized your own way, may be more useful to you than the observations of others which may be written in some dense technical jargon. Spend some time each day writing out any new observations. This can be included in your regular journal writing in which you may describe many aspects of your experience as a language learner working with your LRP or using the language in the community. Your journal should also include daily observations of the new culture.

So far I have been concentrating on learning to comprehend. The advantage of concentrating initially on learning to comprehend is that you can make very rapid progress. In a month or two you will be able to comprehend hundreds of the most essential vocabulary items and enough sentence patterns to form the basis of functional speaking ability. If, instead, you concentrate on memorizing whole sentences or dialogues, along with lists of vocabulary, I can just about guarantee you two things. First, you'll learn a lot less in the same amount of time. Second, you won't be very good at understanding real speech, even when it employs a lot of the items that you have memorized from word lists or in sentences you memorized whole hog. You may be able to say “Where is the bathroom?”, only to find that you have no hope of understanding the answer you are given.

But you ask, while I am barreling along learning to comprehend so much, when do I start learning to speak? Personally, I think it is a good idea to start speaking when you have something to say and feel like saying it. You may feel a need to memorize a few sentences lock, stock and barrel fairly early. These would be things that you frequently need to say (“Can you tell me where there is a bathroom?”), but which are beyond what you could make up for yourself on the basis of your current ability. These are sometimes called “survival expressions”. These will probably include greetings and leave takings, and may include information about yourself, where you are from, and what you are doing.

Once you are well under way in your comprehension learning, you can structure many of your TPR activities around the communication needs you face in real life. For example, if you need to use taxis, your LRP can give you the kinds of instructions you might give a taxi driver, and you can carry them out (charade style, or using a toy car and a home-made map of the city). You'll probably find that the next time you ride in a taxi, you'll just start using some of what you learned to comprehend in your language sessions. It will come out naturally, and you will feel like you are speaking the language genuinely, rather than parroting something that you have memorized lock, stock and barrel. After all, your goal is to be able to make up whatever sentence you need as you need it, not to memorize enough sentences to cover every possible situation you might encounter. If you want, you can use role-play with your LRP to practice what you will say to the taxi driver. So far, your LRP has played the role of the passenger while you, as driver, responded to her instructions. You now change roles with your LRP and pretend s/he is the taxi driver. Now you give the instructions. But don't try to be fancy. You're a brand new speaker of this language, so speak like a brand new speaker of a language! Don't try to be an unrealistically good speaker for the stage you are at. That may confuse people. You utter an exquisitely memorized sentence, and you get back a torrent of exquisite speech which you can't understand. Utter a halting, simple sentence, and people will speak simply to you, so that you have a chance to understand them and perhaps learn something new at the same time.

So, now you're (barely) a member of your new speech community. You may not have communicated with many people yet. The overwhelming majority of your actual communication experiences have been with your LRP (or LRPs) in the sheltered environment of your structured language sessions. Time to think about leaving the nest. To use our earlier metaphor, it's getting hard to remain in the shallow water, because you're trying to dog paddle, but your feet keep bumping the bottom. It' s time to spend more time where the water is deeper. As a matter of fact, you have designed your language sessions with this in mind, getting ready for life in the big world.

Footnote 1

Marv Mayers (p.c.) points out a special problem with multilingual helpers. Strange as it may seem, such people may not be completely clear where one language ends and another begins. They unconsciously switch between them and mix them, based on complicated factors in the situation in which they are speaking. In speaking to you in the artificial setting of your language session, they may use a language mixture rather than the language you innocently think you are learning.

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