Friday, December 14, 2012

What we can learn from the Japanese

The Japanese, and many Asian Cultures, have a passion for education that many countries should strive to share.  Part of the culture dictates that one should be incredibly patient and do things meticulously until perfection.  This is especially true when it comes to learning a new language.

A recent study shows that the Japanese have realized the power of learning a new language, in particular English.  93% of the parents interviewed want their children to have more of a global viewpoint and think their kids need to speak English in order to succeed later in life.

However, 86% of people surveyed were dissatisfied with the country's approach to English.  Why?  Because it is not practical.  The article discusses that their is too much focus on "Exam English" and not enough focus on "Practical English".

We see a very similar thing here in the United States.  Schools have all come to terms that Americans need to learn  new languages in order to compete in a global world.  So the educators have all come together and made new requirements that students need 2-3 years of a World Language to graduate from high-schools and colleges across the country.

Unfortunately, they have made these requirements to study the language, but not to learn how to speak the language.  So what happens is students enter very big classes where they may be able to learn how to read and write the language of study, but can't speak the language or understand it.  Many students have even majored in a language and graduated without the ability to speak it.  Sure, give them a written test on the most advanced grammar topics and vocabulary and they pass it with flying colors, but send them to that country and they have no idea what is going on.

As the results of this survey point out, we should focus not so much on studying a language, but on the practical reasons of being able to speak the new language.  As we always advise prospective students, make sure that you understand your reasons for learning the language, and find a program that will help you accomplish those goals.

Let's say you simply want to go on vacation to the Yucatan Peninsula and hit the beaches in Mexico.  A conversation course geared towards travel where you learn how to speak in the present tense about things you like to do for fun, food, and transportation would be much better for you than a class that dives into 20 different tenses and teaches you vocabulary that you will on use on a college campus.

This story simply illustrates the main point of practicality.  When you are looking for a program, teacher, or school to help you learn Spanish, make sure that you will accomplish your goals.  Focus more on your objectives and think of questions you can ask your prospective teacher to ensure that this person will help you get there.  For most people that study Spanish, the end goal should be on becoming fluent and being able to speak and understand the spoken language rather than being able to clearly define the difference between the conditional and past-perfect subjunctive tenses.

The Language School focuses on helping our students become fluent in Spanish, and has a variety of Spanish Programs designed for the traveler and the professional.  As you evaluate programs to help you become fluent in Spanish, make sure you understand the options and choose the place that will help you accomplish your goals in the quickest amount of time possible.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Learning new languages, grammar, and culture is like building a house!

I recently came across an article that I couldn't agree with more, and wanted to share it with you.

It doesn't happen very often, but from time to time students complain about learning grammar or culture in class.  "I just want to learn how to speak the language, I don't want to learn the grammar".

Let's address the grammar first.  As this article points out, learning a language is like building a house.  We have many materials to choose from - words are like bricks, nouns are like concrete, adjectives are like details, and the different tenses are like the frames of a house.  It is great to have all of these materials, but if you just have a big pile of them that haven't been put together, then you are going to have a very uncomfortable living situation.

Grammar in that case is like the engineers, architects, and construction workers that put the materials together and build the house.  Alone it is not fun, but when we put it together we can learn how to make our own sentences and converse with others.

We have had many students in this situation.  They didn't care to learn the grammar, or they used a software program that didn't teach it, or found a cheap tutor online that didn't know how to teach it in a way that made sense.  Thus they could understand a lot of the new language, had fairly good pronunciation, or could read it fairly well, but they couldn't actually make their own sentences, which left them in a very frustrating situation.

When learning a new language, it is important to learn the grammar too, so that way you can begin to formulate your own sentences and develop the ability to speak with others.  This is also important if you want the ability to sound educated and sophisticated.  For instance, it is very common to hear children speak in either very simple sentences, mix up subject pronouns, or use the present tense when they are referring to the future or past.  This is because they have developed the ability to comunicate, but have not yet mastered the language.  So, without the grammar, it is true that you may be able to communicate with others, which may be fine for a quick sight-seeing vacation.  But if you truly desire to live in a new country for an extended period of time, enhance your options to do sales in new markets, or truly develop friends from another country, you will want to sound sophisticated and educated.

It's true - grammar exercises aren't the sexiest things to do in the world, but they do help you to memorize the language and master it.

So what about the people that want to learn the language but not the culture?  In that case, why are you learning the language?  Culture is crucially important to learning a new language.  As a matter of fact, many studies have shown that communication is only about 7% verbal, which means the remaining 93% of communication comes from nonverbal communication.  Nonverbal communication is pretty much entirely based off of our culture.

When I say culture, I am referring to things like clothing and style, sports and activities, gestures, and other norms we have come to live by.  For example, let's say you are in business and want to do sales in Argentina.  You show up to Buenos Aires and have mastered the Spanish language.  However, you haven't learned the first thing about Argentine Culture.  So you show up for your first meeting and things seem to be going pretty well.  You hit it off with the prospective client because you share a passion for football.  He is impressed with your ability to speak Spanish and he invites you to a game.  Of course you agree and can't wait to see how they play football in Argentina.  Unfortunately, you enter the stadium and realize you are at a soccer game.  In turns out you absolutely hate soccer!  Your initial rapport is destroyed and the deal goes sour very quickly.

This may be a little extreme, but in this example we can see how important knowing the local culture can help us achieve our goals.  The executive was able to conduct his business in Spanish but at the end of the day his lack of understanding of the local culture destroyed his ability to build rapport.

Therefore, I would say that culture is like the roof of the house.  You can have the most elaborate details, a foundation that will last a million years, and a great entertainment system, but without the roof you probably can't live in the house.

The problem is that most people aren't exactly sure why they are learning a language, or haven't found an ideal program to help them meet their specific goals.  Rosetta Stone and other software programs are great to learn vocabulary and phrases, but without the grammar or having a real person to ask questions it is kind of pointless.  University programs tend to go overboard with the grammar drills, but unless you plan on teaching the language, focusing so much on the past progressive versus the past participle might not make a lot of sense.

If you have decided that you want to become fluent in Spanish, that is great!  Now ask yourself why, and make sure that you find a program that is going to help you accomplish your goals.  The Language School has developed a very fun and engaging Spanish program that focuses more on conversation than anything else, but also mixes in enough culture and grammar so that you can feel comfortable and confident speaking your new language on your own.

Here is the original article I read that inspired this:

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