Why do some people learn a new language really well relatively quickly, while others still sound like a “foreigner” even after several years?
The Curse of Mr. Miyagi
When I was in high school, I read a screenwriting book that used The Karate Kid as an example of a well constructed Hollywood screenplay.
The author had a couple criticisms of the movie, though. One was Mr. Miyagi’s English. The author wondered, “If Mr. Miyagi has been living in the United State for several decades, wouldn’t he speak English better by now?”
Even in high school, I knew that the author must not have had many friends from overseas. There are plenty of people who speak broken English, or broken Spanish, or broken Japanese even after years and years of living in a place where the language is spoken daily.
The reason is interlanguage fossilization, which is explained in detail in this Wikipedia article. The basic idea:
- When you’re learning a new language, your understanding of the new language’s structure is incomplete.
- You do your best with what you know and make assumptions based on what you know of how your first language operates.
- At any time you can stop progressing and your language can fossilize before you transition completely from your native language to your new language.
So we’ll use Mr. Miyagi as an example. (Yes, I’m aware that the actor Pat Morita spoke fluent English and that Mr. Miyagi’s words were the invention of a screenwriter, but they’re still useful for illustrative purposes.)
Mr. Miyagi’s language development:
- He speaks no English whatsoever.
- He moves to California and picks up enough English to get by and find work as a maintenance man.
- He doesn’t exactly have a kicking social life and his job requires fairly basic language skills, so he has no reason to improve. He’s able to communicate, and that’s good enough.
- His language fossilizes and he no longer progresses.
At one point in the movie he tells his student Daniel:
“Daniel-san, must talk. Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do ‘yes’ or karate do ‘no.’ You karate do ‘guess so,’ get squish just like grape. Understand?”
The Japanese influence is still seen in the use of the honorific “san,” and the sentences’ lack of subject and overall choppiness make them sound distinctly “non-English.”
To be fair, Mr. Miyagi absolutely makes his point to the impressionable Daniel, and this level of communication is infinitely better than not speaking English at all.
But this fossilization is not inevitable. If you’re learning a language, you can get past this stage.
The Solution: Instruction?
I learned about the concept of fossilization from the college textbook Educating English Learners: What Every Classroom Teacher Needs to Know.
In the book, two types of second language acquisition are differentiated:
- Naturalistic/Informal – You pick up the language via exposure and comprehensible input (watching TV, talking to friends, immersion).
- Instructed – You pick up the language via instruction (language classes and focused language instruction).
The book states that native speakers learned their language naturalistically, so they “don’t know much about the form and structure of their own first language” and “don’t normally know how to explain its rules” (pg 106). So in one sense, naturalistic learning is vital to language learning, since it’s how we all learned our native languages so well.
But that doesn’t mean you throw out instruction altogether. The book also says:
“Although it is possible to learn a language solely naturalistically, instructed second language acquisition has a number of documented benefits. Studies show that those who take part in instructed second language acquisition are better able to avoid making development errors permanent (known as fossilization or stabilization) and to reach higher levels of proficiency.” (pg 110)
Want to avoid fossilization? Do some of the classroom stuff:
- Grammar instruction
- Conjugation charts
- Verb drills
- Vocab drills
Basically, do anything that you might do in a foreign language class. All the stuff that people usually hate is really good for their language development, at least in small doses.
Does instruction replace naturalistic methods? No, of course not, and I would say that watching TV, reading, and talking to your friends should still form the bedrock of your language learning.
But instruction has its place, and it can keep you from sounding like Mr. Miyagi in your new language.