I had a very international childhood – lived in Venezuela and Rome and London, and visited lots of other places in Europe (Paris, Athens, Venice, Barcelona). The cause was my dad working for a multinational; the result was that I learned and forgot three languages before I was thirteen.
OK, maybe 2.5 languages would be a better count; I never thought I was very fluent in spoken French, though I could read it well enough (in the late 1960s, when the available English renditions of the Asterix comics were pretty bad, I translated them myself for fun). I was a crib bilingual in Spanish, though, and my Italian became passable.
This had some interesting though minor effects on my later life. One is that, like many crib bilinguals, I am much better at hearing and correctly reproducing phonological features outside the inventory of my native language than most monolinguals. (There’s recent research showing that crib bilinguals organize the language-processing circuitry in their brains slightly differently.)
When I traveled in Asia I found this gave me a useful knack. Chinese and others who deal with Westerners often take Western nicknames to, er, make themselves pronounceable; I, noticing this, developed the habit of asking them for their real name and then pronouncing it back at them. This invariably produced delighted smiles.
(Note: This doesn’t work in Japan, Japanese phonology is too simple. You need to go somewhere that pronouncing the language is actually difficult for English-speakers.)
OK, so, crib bilingual, spoke three languages besides English, good ear (like Frodo) for foreign sounds. Here’s the funny part. I thought I was bad at languages.
The handful of polyglots in the audience are now laughing at me, I know. As well they should; I didn’t begin to get a clue until I tested out of my French-language requirement at college. Um, that was six years after studying it and not having used it at all.
But I didn’t really clue in until I started doing my second round of traveling as Famous Internet Guy in the late 1990s. And noticed that when I was with a group of monolinguals, I was pretty much always the one who clued in on street signs and bits of the local language the fastest.
I think it really hit home when I visited Warsaw for a Linux conference. Polish is not closely related to any language I’d ever spoken, yet…after a day on the ground I was starting to get bits of it. And the other visitors – weren’t. Indeed, they behaved as though it never occurred to them that they could, as though the language barrier was impermeable without concentrated and effortful study.
Yes, go ahead, chuckle at my naivete. But it was a bit of a wrench when I realized that they were the normal ones. It’s my ability to absorb languages through my skin that is unusual in an adult. (Children, of course, do it routinely.)
The point of this rant is actually the question that preoccupied me for a bit once I thought through my observations and did a little research, enough to realize how very mistaken I had been. How in the hell did I develop the belief that I was bad at languages?
Because what I found out, of course, is that this is the history and behavior of somebody who is really good at languages – a natural polyglot. Crib bilinguals tend to be like this more than others, but it’s a tendency rather than a rule.
This, too, made a (minor) difference in my life. By the time I visited Taiwan a couple years into the new century I was confident enough to set myself the goal of learning to hear and reproduce the tones in Mandarin Chinese during the few days I’d be there. And I succeeded, though that’s not really the point I’m driving at here.
No. The point is, I did eventually figure out why I thought I was bad at languages for so long. It was because I was bad at language classes. Found them boring, didn’t get good grades at them, got shut of them as soon as I could, and felt greatly relieved when I tested high enough to fulfill the foreign-language requirement at Penn.
So my conclusion is this: the foreign-language instruction methods in our schools suck horribly. I mean, really horribly. I think it must constitute something near a worst-case definition of suck when you take a crib bilingual with a good ear and a strong knack in one end and spit him out the other with a belief that he’s bad at languages so fixed that it lasts nearly thirty years.
What makes this funnier, in a way, is that I cultivated an interest in linguistics over those three decades and still thought I was bad at languages…
I don’t really know what can be done about this. But I started reading The Polyglot Project recently, motivated by a conjecture that I’d find I’m more like those people – the sort who eat languages like bonbons – than like most monolinguals. And indeed it seems that I am, but that’s not my point either.
My point is more like this: Jesus H. Christ and his bastard brother Harry on a pogo stick, why isn’t the educational establishment listening to these people? What in the hell are we doing numbing childrens’ brains to insensibility with the 413th repetition of a textbook drill about la plume de ma tante when it is utterly clear that immersion and motivation through native-speaker materials is both more effective and more fun?
I know, I know…our educational system is very broken in general, I shouldn’t be surprised at yet another symptom. I managed it, though; thus, this rant. The best I can hope is that it might set somebody to thinking.