An article by Stephen Krashen describes the unusual case of a Mexican-American who speaks Hebrew better than English:
A front-page article in the Los Angeles Times (Silverstein, 1999) described the case of Armando, a 29-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has lived in the United States for 12 years. Armando, who attended school in Mexico up to grade nine, has worked in an Israeli restaurant in Los Angeles nearly the entire time he has lived in the United States. While Armando speaks English quite well, he says he speaks Hebrew better…
Thanks to Silverstein, I was able to meet Armando and get more details. First, it must be pointed out that acquisition of Hebrew took time: Armando told me that it was two or three years until he was comfortable in conversation even though he heard Hebrew all day on the job. He said that he never forced or pushed himself with Hebrew, that his approach was relaxed… Armando told me that he had never learned to read Hebrew, never studied Hebrew grammar, had no idea of what the rules of Hebrew grammar were, and certainly did not think about grammar when speaking. He said that he received about five corrections a day, but none of these were aimed at grammar; it was all vocabulary.
This just confirms what we all (I hope) know, that immersion is far and away the best way to learn if what you want is the ability to use the spoken language. It should also give pause to those who think formal study of grammar is necessary to fluency.
I discovered this story via Lingual Bee, the excellent blog of a Chinese guy who came to the U.S. as a grad student who had studied English in China for ten years and could barely speak it. He describes the problem with his education here:
All of my teachers followed the same philosophy that’s as old as the Confucianism: the only way to instill something in student is to drill the same rule over and over until his brain spins.
My English teacher was fond of this in particular, and she did it with an immense zeal. Man, let me tell you, solving a thousand algebra equations was one thing; working on subject and verb agreement a thousand times was totally insane. Yet, she was never tired of it.
Even if I survived the teacher, I had no chance to stay sane with the textbook. Half of the texts were mad repetitions like “This is a sheep. That is a sheep. These are all sheep”, substituting sheep with other animals and starting all over again; another half were filled with such a masterpiece like “How Karl Marx Learns Foreign Languages”.
(He has more to say about more about Dr. Krashen’s theories here.) I admire the hell out of anyone who blogs in a second language; I don’t think I would have the nerve.