Special brain cells help language learners
The great Hungarian concert pianist and historian, Balant Vazonyi, contends that one of the reasons the western democracies won the Cold War was: “… the spread of the English language, which replaced even French, for centuries the international language of diplomats. German leadership in philosophy, literature, and technology notwithstanding, English became the language also of broadcast communications and aviation. Above all, seminal English phrases such as ‘my home is my castle,” or “innocent until proven guilty” were insurmountable obstacles in the paths of all who sought to suppress the spirit of freedom.”
Mr. Vazonyi says we should not allow the languages of demonstrably failed societies, for example: the dictatorships south of our border or Cuba, to displace English as our first language.
But for those who already speak English yet would like to learn another language, recent studies reveal our brains have special language-learning cells. To one degree or another, we all have them.
When we learn our first language at home, the ambient language sounds we hear are recorded automatically in those special cells. If one is blessed to be surrounded by first-language sounds that come with perfect grammar and a pleasing accent, that is a life-long blessing. But if those language cells are imprinted with poor grammar, that becomes a life-long handicap. Fortunately, subsequent study and practice can overcome poor grammar.
Here is how to put those little grey cells to work: Start playing a good language program CD or tape series in your target language. The best programs use little or no English. Put on earphones or let it play via speakers. Do not even “bother” to listen. Just do whatever you normally do at your desk, in the kitchen, in the garage -- wherever.
If you have never been blessed to learn a second language using the Total Immersion method, this may seem strange, this listening to sentences and phrases that have no English meaning, no context. No problem.
Just let those special brain cells be exposed to the sounds coming through your ear phones or via speakers. Soon, even with your CD or tape shutdown, you will be hearing (in your mind) the perfect accents and grammar of your teachers. Their voices will become like that first song you hear in the morning -- the one that plays in your head all day.
In time, you will even begin to hear their voices in your dreams. Do not worry that you do not understand what they are saying. If you stay with this method long enough, you will come to understand what they are saying in your target language rather than English. That skips the time-wasting “translation” step.
After a week or so of doing this for at least one hour every morning, start trying to mimic what you are hearing by repeating it out loud. In advance, tell you family what you are doing; so they will not be shocked to hear you suddenly blurting out phrases and sentences in a foreign language. What you are doing is using mimicry to train your vocal cords and tongue to recreate the sounds being sent to your special language-learning cells via your CD or tape.
Rest assured, it will take weeks of this “passive” listening and “active” speaking. (But this is truly faster and more effective than bi-lingual classroom instruction.) Then, one day, a miracle will occur.
You will be able to speak to people who already know your target language and they will understand what you say! Granted, you may be saying mundane things like: Driver, take me to Hotel de Paris. Or, does this room have a bidet? No problem. The key is mimicking the perfect accent and grammar of your teachers.
Soon, the time will come when you can form your own ideas in your target language and construct your own sentences. Viola! You will no longer be the “ugly American” who only speaks English.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – novels about terrorist attacks on the water supply of Colorado and on the Panama Canal, respectively.
©2007. William Hamilton.