Whether you’re emigrating to Spain next year, visiting Taiwan for a year on a work visa or trying to pass your high-school French exam… no matter what your reasons are for learning a foreign language, the idea of taking on a new tongue, especially from scratch, may seem more than just a little daunting.
This might have something to do with the fact the two languages rarely follow the same set of rules or constructive processes, and learning a language is not nearly as simple as learning new vocabulary and keeping the grammatical rules the same.
For example, English past tense adverbs indicate whether the verb was continuous like I was waiting or perfect like I had waited, simple like I waited or perfect continuous like I had been waiting; while Mandarin employs an aspect particle to indicate the time and nature of the verb, without modifying the verb’s form at all.
This is a sticking point for Mandarin speakers learning English, who struggle to adapt to changing verbs which, in their language, always stay the same.
Likewise, though for English speakers trying to master spoken Mandarin, Mandarin employs pitch to indicate variations in the meanings of words that a second language speaker might read as phonetically identical, as opposed to English where pitch alters the emotional connotation but certainly not the core meaning of a word.
The fact is, while your syllabus or theory lessons are vital to forming a solid foundation in your new language, the best way to put what you’ve learned into practice is by exchanging meaningful language and conversation with a first-language speaker.
Supplement Your Syllabus Lessons With Active Language Exchange
You may have heard it said that some people are linguistically gifted, finding it easier to take on a new language than others. This may not be as true as you think, and may instead have everything to do with the way a language is learned and how it is practiced.
For example: Are you learning Spanish conversationally or theoretically? Are you learning theory exclusively or are you supplementing theory lessons with regular, practical language exchanges?
You see, language and thought are inseparable. Cognition is, to an extent, dependent on your available language constructs and, more often than not, you make sense of what you have observed by using words in your mind.
It follows that learning a new language, especially one that employs a very new set of rules, is akin to learning a new way of thinking.
For a Mandarin 2nd language English learner, leaning the structural theory of English tenses may be like trying to balance an equation when you’ve never had an algebra class in your life, it boggles the mind.
In cases like this, where the theory behind a language is so foreign that it makes the language seem cognitively inaccessible, engaging in active language exchange, with a native speaker, is the perfect way to supplement your theory-based lessons and make the most out of your language learning syllabus.
By practicing language usage with a first language speaker, struggling students may find themselves becoming linguistically gifted after all, even if the theory seemed like algebra at first!
When you practice a new language in conversation, the lights ignited by your language syllabus lessons will start to burn brighter and those theoretical sticking points that seemed counter-intuitive will now be illuminated by context.
Think of it like learning to drive: learning driving from a parent who lets you practice on the way to the store is easy… but learning from an instructor who expects you to know all the theory first can be very tricky indeed, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and nervous behind the wheel! Language is the same!
The most effective course of action to true driving mastery is taking lessons with a professional instructor while practicing regularly with a parent or friend. Likewise with language, learning your language theory from a tutor is essential, but practice with a native speaker makes it perfect!
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
There is a popular theory in linguistics named the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity: it states that the structure of a language directly affects a people’s world view or cognition. So the way your language is constructed, in other words, has affected the evolution of your culture and it’s people’s way of thinking/living.
This theory also works in reverse as, for example, the way verbs or nouns are constructed, categorized and chosen in two different languages may tell you much about the variances in cultural focus, among the native speakers and originators of those languages.
For example, the Spanish language uses different forms of the word you to indicate whether the subject is a friend or family member, or a person above the speaker in social standing. You might see this as speaking to the rich friendship and familial bonds of Spanish speakers, as well as the exaggerated cast differences in Spanish societal history, for example.
It follows that practicing language through a realtime exchange of conversation and culture, with a native language speaker, might help you to understand the peculiarities of the language you are learning.
Furthermore, it’s easy to see the value of native language teaching when you consider the level of misunderstanding which could arise, should you use a learned language in a company, without paying heed to these culturally-rooted nuances.
Some languages won’t make these distinctions for the word you at all. In cases where new distinctions need to be learned, however, once again, there is no substitute for practice with a native speaker, who’ll be quick to highlight cases where you’re at fault or using words in a way that’s not exactly common practice.
It’s easy to see why so many people believe the theory of linguistic relativity to be true if you look at some more examples of the principle in action:
For example, most languages describe spatial relations in terms of the body, i.e.: left, right, front, back, yet many tribal peoples, such as certain Australian Aboriginal tribes, describe spatial relations in terms of fixed directions on the earth, i.e.: north, south, east, west.
So, if I were speaking in one of those aboriginal languages right now, I might say that my coffee mug is on my desk, just north of my iMac. Strange but true… and deeply rooted in culture, as all language is!
Much can be read into this and more often than not, as an English speaker like me, you may have no idea which way is north at any given time… I wouldn’t blame you, however, as Australian Aboriginal peoples are far more connected to the earth and open sky, they are deeply aware of the position of the sun, where it rises and where it sets.
They use their sense of direction to judge the time of day and need to know whether the sun is low in the west or low in the east… whereas Siri robotically announces the time to me on the hour, every hour.
Spoken language, as spoken by the culture to which a language is native, exemplifies this theory of relativity even more. There are countless words in the English language which are lost in time because popular culture simply has no place for them anymore. Likewise, there are numerous synonyms for ‘car’ but there’s only one name for ‘badminton racket’.
The best way to put language into practice is to speak it with a native language speaker in an active cultural and language exchange. A nature language speaker will quickly tell you that you shouldn’t ask ‘where the motorized vehicle is located’ but rather ‘where the car is parked’.
Language, thought and culture are inextricably linked, when the world was slow and people fewer, Shakespeare was en-vogue and small-talk was considerably more time-consuming… but now, in the 21st century, we opt for speed of delivery, now that the streets are bustling and the coffee break is short!
Language lessons will tell you the ‘right’ way to use language, but language exchange will teach you the common way to use language. So, while it’s necessary to have a theoretical language backbone, regular practice through supplementary language exchange will make real-world usage a whole lot less daunting to navigate.
Language evolves with culture and these evolutions are often not picked up in standard language syllabus lessons, they are, rather, best imparted by supplementing your lessons with meaningful and constructive Language Exchange, with a native language speaker.
Get All The Practice You Need With Eurekly’s Free Language Exchange
It goes without saying that correct or common pronunciation, common usage, dialects, and slang are best mastered through supplemental practice with a native-language speaker.
These elements of language aren’t common topics in standard language syllabus, yet failing to grasp them can lead to inefficiency, misrepresentation, and confusion when you put a language into practice.
To be clear though, not taking your language theory and syllabus lessons would be something like learning to drive without knowing the rules of the road, likely to make things very difficult for you at the next intersection!
In other words, you should work hard to absorb the theoretical basis laid down for you by your regular language tutor, but do yourself a favor and get some real-world practice, by supplementing lessons with language exchange.
In a setting like the Language Exchange Sessions now available for free for eurekly.com students, language learners are given the opportunity to engage in free, real-time online language exchange with native language speakers… the perfect solution for learners looking to master their new language fast and make real sense of language theory!
During Eurekly Language Exchange, parties can meet, converse, share cultural differences and practice language skills that actually work in the real world, and they can do it as often as they want, for free.
This provides the perfect platform for picking up pronunciation, slang, dialectic and popular nuances, and is the ultimate way for a student to learn how a language is really used, it’s cultural relevance and much, much more.
Language Exchange Sessions on eurekly.com are more than just language practice, they are cultural exchanges and language-habit forming opportunities that are invaluable as a supplement to theoretical, syllabus based tutoring sessions.