From Buckfast to Bordeaux Column 6

By learning a language in an immersion setting you learn two important skills.

1. The language. Because if you don’t use it you don’t get what you want.

2. Not getting what you want because sometimes you don’t know the language to ask for it.

Not only has my French improved this year, I’m less spoilt. Win, win.

Immersion is the recommended way of learning a second language. You are surrounded by it every day. Even if you go for a wander round the park and speak to no one you can still hear the language being used around you.

My new favourite language learning hobby is eavesdropping on public transport. It’s interesting and educational. (As a side note, another fun thing to do in a foreign country is to eavesdrop on other English speakers. They assume you’re French and therefore speak freely! Brilliant!)

Learning a second language isn’t easy unless you’re one of those lucky bastards raised bilingual. This is mainly because being older affects both how people teach you and how adaptable your brain is.

When you learn your first language you do so in an immersion setting with no other way of expressing yourself than getting up to speed with everyone else. From your first few words to saying more and more complex phrases you are showered with praise. At first, the praise is attention from your parents, later the praise is that your needs and wants can be expressed, understood and therefore catered for.

If I had been showered with praise every time I learned a new French word I may have picked it up faster too. Instead, as adult learners we repeat verb conjugations, noun genders and the rules and exceptions of countless grammatical structures until they stick.

Another element, which makes learning language easier when you’re younger is that when we’re young our brains can mimic whatever sounds we are exposed to in language. As we grow older this pliable aspect of our brain disappears and in the process our brains learn to dismiss subtle differences in noises that it deems inessential. This explains why primary school children are constantly saying, ‘non, Claire, c’est pas ça, c’est heure’ in a way that I can only describe as ‘the exact same way as I just said it’.

As older learners we also have the capacity to ask more questions, since we were toddlers we have been obsessed with the word ‘why?’ Unfortunately an important aspect of learning a language is learning structures, which are merely habits of communication. To ask ‘why?’ would probably make the process longer and more arduous because quite often the answer is just ‘because it would sound ‘funny’ to native speakers otherwise’. Therefore it’s best to learn a language before you have the sense to start questioning how it is made and how it can be mastered.

I’ve been in France for four months now and it’s hard to tell how much my French has improved. Some of my sentences are clunky and disjointed with lingering English syntax. Some have questionable grammar structures that I have invented in order to avoid things I don’t know how to use yet. A lot of the time I have all the words I need to make the sentence that I want to say but rather than making it I just throw the words from my body and hope they magically form meaning.

But is it even possible to be fluent in a second language if you’re not exposed to it at a young age? I learned the French numbers to ten in primary school. I did 4 years of high school French, had a 6 year break and tried again in Uni and I don’t think I’m particularly adept at language learning. Should I still expect fluency?

There’s no point in asking. I know by now that learning a language isn’t about asking questions and getting insightful responses. It’s about repetition, practise and looking like a right tit when you try and fail on a daily basis until you start getting it right.

By Claire Alexander (columnist 11/12)} else {