How to Learn a Second Language: Lessons from a ‘Last Speaker’

One of my favourite holiday reads this summer was the ‘The Last Speakers’ by linguist K. David Harrison. The book is a compelling, first person account of the plight of the world’s minority languages – at least 1 in 4 of the world’s 7000 languages are in danger of dying out – and, most importantly, what can be done to save them.

In many cases, Harrison points out, this involves adults and young people learning a (heritage) language that is hardly spoken at home, if at all. As anyone who has struggled to learn a second language will know, this is no trivial task.

In the final chapter, Harrison describes a visit to the Washoe people, in Nevada, to find out about the fight to maintain their heritage language. One of the interviewees is Danny, a man in his twenties, who tells Harrison about his own efforts to preserve and teach Washo. Because so few children are exposed to the Washo language in the home, Danny explains that what is needed is an immersion programme for teenagers. He explains why:

‘[…] ‘Cause the way I learned to talk Washo was real hard. I learned it one word at a time, in the beginning. And just in the past two years I started putting it together – you don’t talk like you talk in English. And then there’s little, just little sounds that changes the word or changes the tense or whatever. The more I hear it, the more I understand it and I speak it better.’

Danny might not be a linguist, but he knows that there are two ways to learn a language. The easy way is the way we all learn our first language: as a child, with enough input from our parents, and without any formal teaching. The other way is the hard way, after the so-called ‘critical period’ for language acquisition, as an adult, in class rooms and from text-books.

And we all know just how hard that can be.

Language LearningFor adult language learners, there is a worldwide community of academics and practitioners devoted to research into the (cognitive, socio-cultural and pedagogic) processes involved in teaching and learning second languages, and how they can be made most effective. The fruits of their labours are countless journal articles on second language acquisition, and textbooks that strain to summarise the most important of them. Outside of the classroom, there are a myriad of ways to learn a second language, and countless commercial companies offering the newest and best methods for doing so. And, finally, there are a myriad of guide books, websites and blogs, written by fellow language learners, offering advice and insights on the most effective ways to learn a foreign language.

All of these are valuable, of course. But, for me, Danny sums up the process (and challenge) of second language acquisition most succinctly. Unless you grew up speaking it, there is only one way to learn a second language and that’s the hard way – one word at a time.

The interview made me think of an excellent documentary I saw last year, also about language endangerment, called ‘Tongues of Heaven’. The film explores the attitudes of four young women, from minority language communities in Taiwan and Hawaii, to their heritage languages. The two women from Taiwan in particular, fluent speakers of Mandarin, have both struggled to learn and speak the language of their grandparents. In carrying the burden of past generations to maintain their heritage languages into the future, they admit to feeling guilty that they haven’t tried harder to do so. ‘Do you feel lazy?’ the interviewer asks one of the women about her efforts to learn the language of her ethnic group, Kanakanavu. ‘Lazy? Yes,’ she replies.

But, as a teenager in a rapidly modernizing society, it’s hard to blame her. As any language learner will know, irrespective of all the great guidance material there is out there, it takes grit, determination and time to learn a foreign language to any degree of fluency. It’s going to take the same grit and determination to ensure Washo, Kanakanavu and the many other minority languages across the world can be saved from extinction.

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