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How many people can actually speak?

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s_allard
Triglot
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 Message 25 of 45
15 January 2013 at 1:59pm | IP Logged 
Splog wrote:
I have a 19 year old friend who speaks five languages extremely well (C1 and above in each of them). She has a Czech mother, and a Spanish father, and spent much of her childhood living in different countries. The ease with which she speaks German, Spanish, French, Czech, and English is both breathtaking and enviable.

She has given me language lessons, and has never told me that I should have started out when I was a baby, and moved with my parents to lots of countries - because that advice would be completely useless to me as an adult. So, she teaches me with my current circumstances in mind, and adapts her advice accordingly.

Now, if the people mentioned in the videos really are misrepresenting how they learned languages, then we can rightly be upset about it. Perhaps, though, they realise that their primary audience no longer has the chance to be a child again and live "in country" for years on end. That is, perhaps their advice is aimed at adult learners, with responsibilities, geographical limitations, and no background in language learning.

In other words, I am not sure they are being dishonest, but rather, they have to adapt their advice to the actual (rather than ideal) circumstances of their audience as best they can.

With all due respect to @splog, I don't think that it's a question of polyglots misrepresenting how they learned languages or being dishonest. Or that the only way to learn a language is to pretend you are a baby again and then go live in the target country for a year. Actually, that may not be such bad advice.

I fully appreciate that certain polyglots are trying to giving advice based on their analysis of the language learning process. So we have, as we see here at HTLAL, a very wide range of methods, techniques and approaches. For example, some people love flashcards. Others hate them. And there are different ways of making and using flashcards both paper and electronic.

Some people believe in speaking right away, Others believe in a silent period. Some people believe in a lot of passive background listening. Others think it's a waste of time. And the list goes on.

But the fact remains, as Splog's friend illustrates so well, that high levels of speaking proficiency are nearly always correlated with starting early, a multilingual background (family, schooling) and living in different countries.   

But that statement is not meant to discourage people by telling them that it's too late. It's simply stating what we all know. On the other hand, the real challenge for most of us is how to best learn a language in our current circumstances, using whatever techniques work for us and the advice of those who have gone before us.

In a similar vein, there is the idea that native speakers make the best teachers. While they make the best models to imitate undoubtedly, they were never in the shoes of their students. Speaking and teaching a language are two different things.

The best example, in my opinion, of this idea is Michel Thomas. Here is a great teacher who spoke with very noticeable Polish accent and that none of us has ever heard speaking any of the languages he teaches. But how did Michel Thomas learn his languages?
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emk
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 Message 26 of 45
15 January 2013 at 3:09pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
But the fact remains, as Splog's friend illustrates so well, that high levels of speaking proficiency are nearly always correlated with starting early, a multilingual background (family, schooling) and living in different countries.


Plenty of people learn languages late and speak those languages well.

Of course, this depends a bit on the standards you apply. When I say "speak well", I mean that they could work in a professional, office-type job using their second language. They probably still have an accent, and in unplanned speech, they may make the occasional gender error, or something like that. They're not native speakers, but they have absolutely no problem integrating with society.

I live near a research university in the US, and lots of graduate students and postdocs in the sciences arrive with high B2 English and some difficulty speaking. And most of them are too busy running experiments, publishing papers, and raising families to ever open a grammar book. But if you look at these same people 10 years later, they have C2-level speech skills and an excellent idiomatic command of English. (Their writing may still be sketchy, unless they've also spent those 10 years reading lots of books.)

For those people in this thread who read French, I'd like to recommend L’asymptote du français avancé : les difficultés résistantes, which examines the speech errors of foreigners working in France and using their French professionally.

(I apologize for the somewhat rocky translation. This paper is written in lovely academic French, and I'm having a surprisingly difficult time being faithful to the original without producing word salad in English.)

Quote:
L’émission Double je de B. Pivot nous a fourni le terrain d’investigation idéal. Cette émission est présentée par Bernard Pivot depuis 2002, diffusée sur France 2 une fois par mois. Comme le titre l’indique en « jouant » sur les mots, cette émission accueille des personnes, voire des personnages, bilingues ou plurilingues dont une des langues est le français. Ce ne sont pas seulement des personnalités dans le monde des Lettres, mais dans n’importe quel domaine : acteurs, chanteurs, enseignants, musiciens, historiens. Tous sont francophiles et racontent leurs expériences, leurs intérêts.

The broadcast Double I of B. Pivot has furnished us with an ideal ground of investigation. This broadcast has been presented by Bernard Pivot since 2002, disseminated on France 2 once per month. As the title indicates by its word-play, this emission welcomes bilingual and multilingual people (or even "characters") who speak French. They're not only leading figures in the world of letters, but in all domains: actors, singers, teachers, musicians, historians. All are Francophiles, and share their experiences and their interests.



À l’intérieur de notre corpus nous avons aussi remarqué que, même en cas d’apprentissage relativement tardif, les enseignants de langue française ou encore ceux qui s’intéressent à la langue en tant que telle, ne font que très peu d’erreurs – ce qui est assez logique : ils se sont intéressés aux mécanismes de la langue en les observant et les étudiant.

In our corpus, we have also noticed that—even in the case of people who learn languages relatively late—the French teachers or those who interest themselves in the language as such, make only a very few errors, which is logical enough: they have taken an interest in the mechanisms of the language while observing them and studying them.


I'll happily concede that few adults will ever speak 100% flawlessly, but I also think that perfection is overrated. And I'll also concede that if you want to go on French TV and have an interesting conversation about the arts, you'll probably need to either (1) live in a French-speaking community for a while, or (2) make truly heroic efforts if you're "the farmer in Iowa."

But how could it be any different? How could anybody become charming and witty and culturally aware in their second language without also somehow being part of the society and culture on some level? And that's hard to do when you don't live in the country, though not completely impossible if you use Skype and buy a sufficiently large quantity of books and DVDs.

Edited by emk on 15 January 2013 at 3:10pm

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s_allard
Triglot
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Canada
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Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
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 Message 27 of 45
15 January 2013 at 4:47pm | IP Logged 
I won't reproduce here all of @emk's interesting post, but I would like to address some of the points raised. But first of all, let's remember that I said that "high levels of speaking proficiency are nearly always correlated with starting early, a multilingual background (family, schooling) and living in different countries."

I would think that graduate and postdoc students coming to study in the United States end up speaking excellent English after 10 years of studying, working and raising a family in English (at least outside the house). That's exactly what I meant in my statement. If that student arrived at age 15 instead of 25, the accent would be probably better.

For some strange reason, some readers believe that I think that you can't learn a language well as an adult. Rubbish. If you went to study and work in a Chinese university for 10 years and raised a family in China, I think you would probably come back speaking very good Chinese. Now, if you only went at age 15...

The article quoted by @emk is very interesting and I highly recommend it. I should point out that the main thrust of the article is that people who have learned French at an adult age continue to make certain kinds of mistakes that are rarely made by those who started early. The author shows quite clearly that starting at an early age is the most important factor in overall proficiency. Duh, is this surprising?

What the author also points out, as @emk has quoted, is that teachers of French and people who have taken a specific interest in the language make very few mistakes. These people are able to monitor their language at a very high level. But this is not the case of most people who learn the language just to use it. Again, is this surprising?

Here is the abstract of the article. I'm sorry that I don't have time to translate it.

"L’observation du discours en français de locuteurs d’origine étrangère montre que – quelle que soit leur langue d’origine – ils rencontrent certaines difficultés récurrentes, source d’écarts de la langue par rapport à la norme reconnue. Il est significatif que ces caractéristiques ne se rencontrent pas chez les locuteurs d’origine étrangère dont l’apprentissage du français langue seconde (ou troisième…) a débuté durant le jeune âge et qui ne se distinguent pas des locuteurs français de langue maternelle. Laissant de côté l’aspect phonétique, à lui seul très révélateur, nous constatons que ce ne sont pas les erreurs de lexique qui dénotent la provenance des locuteurs car elles sont statistiquement rares. Par contre les variantes syntaxiques, statistiquement nombreuses, sont significativement groupées autour des formes verbales et du système des prépositions. Nous en déduisons que la didactique du français langue étrangère, parallèlement à un enseignement visant la communication, devrait développer un enseignement qui démonte les mécanismes logiques qui sous-tendent les systèmes syntaxiques. Ceci surtout lorsqu’il s’agit d’apprenants qui ont dépassé le stade de l’enfance, période durant laquelle les mécanismes d’apprentissage sont très différents."


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emk
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 Message 28 of 45
15 January 2013 at 5:54pm | IP Logged 
Now I have an urge to translate some more good bits from L’asymptote du français avancé : les difficultés résistantes. Here are two great examples from the paper. Once again, my apologies for the clunky translation—I can't capture the original style without a much more aggressive rewrite.

Quote:
Il n’y a aucun doute que les inexactitudes de morphologie et de syntaxe sont le noyau dur des erreurs persistantes chez les locuteurs d’origine étrangère, même s’ils peuvent par ailleurs posséder un niveau de langue en français globalement d’excellente qualité et donc une excellente communication.

There is no doubt that the inexactitudes of morphology and syntax are the "hard kernel" of the persistent errors among speakers of foreign origin, even if they may otherwise have a globally excellent quality of French, and thus excellent communication.

Ceci va nous amener à identifier un type de difficulté commun à nombre de ces locuteurs. Tous déclarent que le genre des mots est une difficulté majeure. Nombre de français qui ont entendu parler Jane Birkin identifient son charme enfantin avec les interversions de genre masculin et féminin dont elle est coutumière.

This will lead us to identify a type of difficulty common to a number of these speakers. All declare that the gender of words is a major difficulty. A number of French speakers who have heard Jane Birkin speak identify her child-like charm with the inversions of of masculine and feminine gender to which she is accustomed.

Par ailleurs, bien que ce ne soit presque pas apparent chez Charlotte Rampling, durant les vingt-cinq minutes de sa participation à l’émission Double je on relève treize exemples d’erreur sur le genre des mots ; inexactitudes peu évidentes parce qu’enchâssées dans un discours très fluide.

For that matter, although this barely apparent with Charlotte Rampling, during the 25 minutes of her participation in the broadcast Double I, we pick out 13 examples of errors with the gender of words, inexactitudes which are barely evident because they are set in a very fluid discourse.


So we have Jane Birkin, who makes lots of gender errors, and who is thus considered charming by native French speakers. And we have Charlotte Rampling, who makes a total of 13 gender errors in 25 minutes, many of which are "barely evident" to native speakers without a lot of rewinding and very careful listening. And then there are the people who take an interest in the language itself, and reduce their error rate to a very low level.

And at no point should we forget that these people are all guests on French television, and that they all function quite well in French society!

One lesson that we can pull from this paper is that adults may need to pay more attention to the details of language. I was well on my way to speaking like Jane Birkin, with her gender errors and child-like charm, before I spent two weeks refusing to utter a word unless I knew the gender. Now, I still make gender errors, but far fewer than before, and the number is decreasing with time. With luck, I someday aspire to wind up like Charlotte Rampling.

One of the interesting hypotheses raised by this paper is that our brains are sensitive to different aspects of grammar at different ages: First the sounds, then the syntax, and finally the vocabulary. Adults can absolutely work around these limitations—as seen by all the examples in the paper—but it may require paying careful attention to gender, prepositions, and other tricky aspects on syntax. Perhaps the kids are merely getting that extra attention to the details for free.

My favorite example of an adult paying attention comes from the Antimoon site. The article is called How to get the most out of English texts, and it's worth reading in its entirety. But here's the key part:

Quote:
Former President Jimmy Carter will visit Venezuela next week to mediate talks between the government and its opposition, which have been locked in a power struggle since a failed coup.

“Former President” — not “The former President”, so I guess we say “President Carter” and not “The President Carter”, even though we say “The President will do something” when we don’t mention his name.

“to mediate talks” — not “to mediate in the talks” or something like that. I wonder if that would be OK, too...

“power struggle” — I think I’ve seen this phrase before.


My hypothesis is that adults who pay attention to details can not only learn to hold a pleasant, interesting conversation (which is a relatively easy skill), but can go far beyond that if they're willing to put in the time.
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mahasiswa
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 Message 29 of 45
15 January 2013 at 6:27pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:

"L’observation du discours en français de locuteurs d’origine étrangère montre que – quelle que soit leur
langue d’origine – ils rencontrent certaines difficultés récurrentes, source d’écarts de la langue par rapport
à la norme reconnue. Il est significatif que ces caractéristiques ne se rencontrent pas chez les locuteurs
d’origine étrangère dont l’apprentissage du français langue seconde (ou troisième…) a débuté durant le
jeune âge et qui ne se distinguent pas des locuteurs français de langue maternelle. Laissant de côté l’aspect
phonétique, à lui seul très révélateur, nous constatons que ce ne sont pas les erreurs de lexique qui
dénotent la provenance des locuteurs car elles sont statistiquement rares. Par contre les variantes
syntaxiques, statistiquement nombreuses, sont significativement groupées autour des formes verbales et
du système des prépositions. Nous en déduisons que la didactique du français langue étrangère,
parallèlement à un enseignement visant la communication, devrait développer un enseignement qui
démonte les mécanismes logiques qui sous-tendent les systèmes syntaxiques. Ceci surtout lorsqu’il s’agit
d’apprenants qui ont dépassé le stade de l’enfance, période durant laquelle les mécanismes
d’apprentissage sont très différents."


The observation of foreign-origin speakers of French shows that, whatever their native language, they come
to certain, recurrent difficulties, stemming from the language's difference in relation to the recognized
norm [their native tongue(s)]. It's important to note that these characteristics don't occur with the foreign
origin speakers whose learning French as a second (or third) language started during a young age and who
are indistinguishable from native language speakers of French. Looking past the phonetic aspect, though
very revealing, we affirm that it's not lexical errors which mark the speakers' source [of mistakes] for those
are statistically rare. Au contraire, syntactic variations, statistically numerous, are significantly grouped with
verbal forms and and the preposition system. We deduce from this that teaching French as a foreign
language, similarly to teaching aiming for communication, should operate by instruction that demonstrates
the logical mechanisms underlying syntactic systems. This [is] principle when it's a matter of learners who
are past the stage of childhood, the period in which the mechanisms of learning are very different.
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s_allard
Triglot
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 Message 30 of 45
15 January 2013 at 6:37pm | IP Logged 
Given that it is better to have started early, what can adults hope to achieve? They can do very well indeed like the examples given by @emk, Jane Birken and Charlotte Rampling. How did these two women learn such excellent French? Let's scratch the surface and what do we see? Always a combination of the same success factors: live in the country, marry a person of the language, study and work in the language, all at an early age if possible. You can't get better than that. All the evidence points in the same direction

I don't think the author really says that human brain is sensitive to different aspects of grammar at different ages, but rather there is a sequence of learning that corresponds with neurological development. Basically, this is a variant of the critical period hypothesis that many of us are familiar with.

What the author says in the conclusion of the paper is that teaching and learning strategies must focus on the known areas of difficulty. For example, English-speakers have a particular problem with gender, verbs and prepositions. They should pay particular attention to this. This idea is actually a variation of the idea of noticing that emphasizes developing an explicit awareness of specific linguistic features.

Edit: Thanks to @mahasiswa for the excellent translation.

Edited by s_allard on 15 January 2013 at 6:39pm

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kanewai
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justpaste.it/kanewai
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 Message 31 of 45
16 January 2013 at 12:49am | IP Logged 
There was another thread last week about someone's great method for learning languages,
but the final step of the technique was a seven-week immersion course at Middlebury
College. And I had the same reaction as I do to all the YouTube polyglots and their
advice (and products): When I've had time to immerse myself I haven't needed to
use any special techniques or tricks, and I definitely didn't need to bother with any
expensive courses. A simple book was usually enough.


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mahasiswa
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 Message 32 of 45
16 January 2013 at 4:16am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:

What the author says in the conclusion of the paper is that teaching and learning strategies must focus
on the known areas of difficulty. For example, English-speakers have a particular problem with gender,
verbs and prepositions. They should pay particular attention to this. This idea is actually a variation of
the idea of noticing that emphasizes developing an explicit awareness of specific linguistic features.

Edit: Thanks to @mahasiswa for the excellent translation.


But it was your gist translation which really communicated the ideas. I got lost in the translator's
interlanguage like so many Latinists used to back in the day.

In any case, you're absolutely right. Being an anglophone I still make gender mistakes here and there
when speaking all'improvviso in Spanish or Italian if it's been a while, despite studying the two for more
than a few years.

I remember putting off German because of the case system, as well as Greek and Russian (although I've
studied Russian now, the hardest element is nevertheless still the case system but I study and think
about it everyday!). The German declensions I've now got down pat I believe, except for when using a
particular French-origin noun which has moved from being standard neuter to feminine in recent times.
It's a matter of time before I master the Russian ones! And for Arabic, I focus on the verb conjugations. I
remember in elementary school thinking French verbs were hard. Those are nothing in comparison!

Edited by mahasiswa on 16 January 2013 at 4:27am



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