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.


  1. I’ve met other people who learned languages totally via immersion. I even know a guy who speaks five languages and is a full-time interpreter in a law firm–even though he’s never lived abroad! If he hangs out with a language group long enough, he’ll pick up their language.

  2. I’ve lived in Poland for 12 years, and learned the language through immersion. Never a lesson was attended.
    I don’t think much of Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, though. In fact, it’s not even a hypothesis because his i+1 doesn’t mean diddly until you can define what i and +1 mean, and he doesn’t. There’s no way to test it. It doesn’t make any precise predictions, and because there’s no way to test it, it’s unfalsifiable. Pseudo-science at best.

  3. I’m not sure that I agree with you when you suggest that one can achieve fluency simply via immersion. If by “fluency” you are referring to the ability to speak quickly and comfortably, then yes. If, however, you are referring to the ability to construct complex sentences that are grammatically sound and liable to convince others that you are actually a native speaker (minus any problems with your accent) then no. At least, only in exceptional cases.

  4. I disagree with Simon. Oral, non-literate rhetoric can be quite complex. It would depend on what you listened to, though; in everyday life you don’t hear many elaborately developed oral presentations.
    I knew a Moroccan who became fluent in Spanish, German, and English on the street. He was very gregarious, and when you first met him he would ask you to correct his English. He worked at it in a very systematic way.
    My ESL experience tells me that Arabs learn spoken english quickly, partly because they’re not easily embarassed, whereas Chinese students are too shy to learn that well. In written English, Arabs tend to be too lazy, and Chinese work very hard. The advantage goes to hard-working Arabs and un-shy Chinese.
    Stereotypes, yeah.

  5. Ah, how I wish I could work in a restaurant in Cicero’s Rome for a year. I’d even be willing to buss.

  6. Of course, I should have added the “He thinks we’re teaching him English” joke to this entry.

  7. I’ll repeat the story about the Chinese-American in Astoria, Oregon whose parents thought he was learning English, but was learning Finnish instead. He became a mailman there and was very well known and liked. Not an urban legend.

  8. I don’t know… Russian students speak and write foreign languages very, very well, largely because the system is based on all that boring rote and repetition. Of course, they aren’t repeating “This is a sheep. That is a sheep.” all day long — you need to have good materials. But unless you are someone with a particular aptitude for languages and a mind that works with aural input (I myself usually need to look at a word to have it embedded in my brain — much more visual than aural), repetition and rote and patterning are needed to be able to do more than just chat with folks so they can understand you.
    Note that the writer didn’t actually check the guy’s Hebrew. I wish I had a dime for every time someone told me, “Oh, you should meet [fill in name]. S/he speaks English fluently — just like a native!” and then I meet the wunderkind, who says, “I am very most pleased to meet your acquaintance.”

  9. Interesting. I started a Mandarin class with my daughter, offered by the local Chinese community center, and the first couple of sessions so far have been (day 1) “I love my mommy. I love my daddy. I love my elder sister. I love my younger sister. I love my elder brother. I love my younger brother”, (day 2) “Who is this? This is my mommy. [Repeat for other family members]” The drill seemed kind of useful for learning some pronunciation but like it will get old quickly.

  10. I think that Russians might have an advantage in languages for phonetic reasons. I may be wrong but it seems that they have a large enough sound inventory that they can match other European languages with relative ease. But I may be wrong.

  11. Oops. I posted before I read the whole article, in which the author says he did check the guy’s Hebrew with native speakers and it was pretty good.
    But still, I don’t believe that this is “the best way to learn a language.” Maybe it does work with some people, but not with everyone. Think of all the emigres who have lived in the US for 40 years and can barely speak English. Here Armando’s personality and motivation may be key factors.
    And I don’t think it is “proof” to justify “immersion classes” for two months. Armando was immersed every day for several years — that’s very different.
    I don’t think the Russian “sound inventory” necessarily helps. For one thing, they have no “th” sound and that is always difficult to acquire. And our “r” gives them about as much trouble as their “r” gives us — not to mention all our lovely dipthongs. I think they are better because they start earlier and really have to memorize and master all those nasty rules.

  12. I don’t think you can generalize about the best way to learn a language; everyone’s different.
    I was born in Israel, but grew up in the U.S. speaking both English and Hebrew, but my Hebrew was never very good: I had the general concepts down, but I misheard things a lot, and so would often confuse similar-sounding words. (I have the same problem with English words when I don’t have a chance to see them written; it’s just that I didn’t grow up reading and writing Hebrew on any sort of regular basis.) Then I learned French in high school, and my French is now a lot better than my Hebrew — but recently I’ve been working a lot on reading and writing Hebrew, on practicing verb conjugations, etc., and my Hebrew is catching up. For me, immersion is simply not enough; I do a lot better learning explicit rules. (That doesn’t mean rote repetition of simple phrases ad infinitum, though.)
    Similarly, AAVE speakers in the U.S. are constantly immersed in Standard AmE situations, but while they all learn very quickly to understand Standard AmE with no problem, many have great difficulty learning to produce Standard AmE sentences. It’s been shown that teaching them explicit rules, and patterns of how to translate from AAVE to Standard AmE, is an effective approach for many students who don’t just learn it on their own.

  13. Eskandar Jabbari says

    I’m not sure that I agree with you when you suggest that one can achieve fluency simply via immersion.
    Yes Simon, you’re quite right. This is the reason why young children usually don’t learn to speak their first language until they go to school, where they are taught to compose complex grammatical sentences. In most cultures around the world, children are generally silent until after a year or so of formal education; thus we have the stereotype of “quiet, solemn toddlers”.

  14. Eskandar Jabbari says

    -mab Think of all the emigres who have lived in the US for 40 years and can barely speak English.
    Having lived in Orange County and Los Angeles for nearly my entire life, in the heart of enormous immigrant populations, I have to take issue with this. Very nearly every single person I have met who’s lived in the US for more than a few years speaks English very well, and I think that decades-plus emigres who haven’t mastered English are in the extreme minority, bordering on urban legend. The only adults I know who have lived here for substantial amounts of time and still speak English poorly are people such as my grandmother, who are surrounded by fellow immigrants and rarely come into contact with English-speakers. Though my grandmother’s lived in Orange County for over a decade, she lives with her son and his wife, for each of whom Persian is the native language, and the only time she ventures out of the house is to go to the Persian market, Persian cinema, Persian restaurants…etc. At home, she watches Persian satellite TV and reads Persian literature. It can hardly be argued that she’s being “immersed” in English, so the fact that she speaks little English is not a result of the failure of the immersion model, but rather her failure to immerse herself.

  15. Languagehat,
    Thanks for your posting today about my blog. You are way too kind and modest with your comment. But hearing it from an accomplished linguist, I sincerely appreciate it.
    From your readers’comments about Dr. Krashen’s theory, it seems to debatable how valid the theory holds and under what circumstances it applies.
    As a native Chinese speaker, I can tell from my own experience that the traditional way of teaching fails miserably, judging by how well, or bad, for this matter, that learners can communicate after several years of study, not judging by the test scores of standard test, such as TOEFL.
    And I don’t think it’s unique to Mainland China. I met many students from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore who shared similiar frustration. However, I don’t know enough people from eastern Europe and speak English as second language to generalize anything.
    There is no large scale immersion or “Comprehensible Input” way of teaching Engish in China or Southeast Asia (at least not I’ve heard of), so it’s hard to say whether it works drastically better than the traditonal one.
    But at the individual level, I’m a firm believer. And I’m willing to bet that, if putting it into practice to the large group of learners, it can’t be worse, if not better, than the current broken system.

  16. An interesting case. In short, I think the speaker probably has a high (as in, “well above average”) aptitude for languages. I think if you repeated the experiment with 1000 people, perhaps less than 10, or less than 100, would have results that good. So it says more about the individual than the method. I think this individual could probably have acquired the same competence with a Hebrew grammar and a couple years in country. But again, the other 99% of people who try this method would not have done as well.
    I believe facility in acquiring foreign language has as much personal variance as musical ability, or any other ability. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ed Van Halen became guitar masters sitting in their bedrooms Friday nights as fourteen-year-olds. Does that mean everybody else would be able to do the same? No. It wasn’t the method that made the difference; it was the starting material.
    Based on the article, it appears the speaker was around 17 when his exposure to Hebrew began. While this is past puberty (the general “cutoff line” after which most people are not supposed to be able to acquire native-level compentence in a new language), it is not much past. I think, depending on the individual, exposure onset in the late teenage years [btw I previously tried to write t-e-e-n-s here but the website rejected that word as “questionable content”, LOL), leading to near-native appearance to native speakers listening to five minutes of a poor-quality recording, is not out of the question.
    But that is not at all the same as true native competence. If we were talking about English, they would have no idea if the speaker can even distinguish between and fluently use “moist” and “damp”, let alone whether he knows all the common meanings of “get + [preposition]”, plus the various meanings of trick, flick, nick, tick, dick, kick, schtick…smitter, smirk, smear, smarmy, smooch, smart, smack, smush, smut…yada yada. And that’s just the sm’s…the beginning of ’em.
    All those words, none of which turn up on the SAT, are sitting in the native speaker’s head, but you can’t show people what’s in your head. So, I think it’s important to remember that there’s a big difference between a native speaker thinking somebody else is native based on limited input… and being an actual native speaker.
    Many years ago a study was done at UT Austin–they examined the English competence of foreigners, separating them according to age when English exposure started. They found that EVERYONE whose initial immersion exposure began by age five was indistinguishable from a native speaker. The percentage of speakers with native competence decreased as the age of initial exposure increased, with puberty being the main cutoff line. After that, people became “pretty good” and worse.
    Lacking conscious knowledge of the grammar is not an issue. Grammar is finite. If you listen to the language for 12 years and you are in the top 1% in terms of language ability you should grok the grammar–heck, fast monolingual babies pick most of it up in 22 months or less. If you put 1000 people in that speaker’s position at age 17, maybe 500 of them would have just “tuned out” and never learned the language at all.
    The phonology is finite–whether you can reproduce it well enough to fool a native probably depends on starting age as well as individual variance. Individual variance is huge, and this persists after puberty.
    But there’s that other issue, which separates the true natives from the nonnnatives–depth of vocabulary. Vocabulary, unlike phonology and grammar, is pretty close to infinite.
    Deep vocab does not mean getting an 800 on the SAT verbal. It means knowing multiple definitions for the words in one’s active vocabulary (the words one speaks), and even more for the words in passive vocab (what one hears and understands). I think this is the hardest thing for the foreign speaker to acquire.
    If you have the finite grammar and the finite phonology down, you can fool native speakers into thinking you have native competence, as long as you stay within your vocabulary range. This is an effective strategy for foreign speakers who don’t have the rest of eternity to learn the full native speaker’s vocabulary.

  17. My Greek parents, who have lived in Australia for the past forty years, have a functional grasp of English from running shops over the years, but they are certainly nowhere near fluent even though they’ve had a financial interest in picking it up.
    No doubt, some people are better than others in just picking up languages from immersion, but I’m sure my parents would have benefited from a systematic approach to learning English.
    Sure, languages are not logical, but they are systematic and puzzle-like, and learning the rules of the system or techniques for solving the puzzle will always help.
    And just for the record, Greek and Australian English pretty much (but not quite) cover all the sounds that Spanish has to offer.

  18. I know foreigners in Japan who’ve lived here 10-15 years and can’t speak or understand Japanese. Immersion certainly isn’t everything, though it’s important and perhaps critical.
    I’ll also agree with Simon Holloway, that most of these wunderkinds who learned a language from immersion probably can’t construct sentences or communicate ideas that require complicated grammar.

  19. I think that a lot of the doubts about “immersion” arise because it is really a bit of a misnomer. Given its regular English meaning, it seems to imply that the language will just sort of seep in of its own accord if you hear enough of it. But what it really means is “immersion in opportunity” — and you won’t benefit unless you seize the opportunity, and actively engage.

  20. Well, this certainly is a lively thread. I don’t know that the emigres who never learn the language of their new country are an urban legend, but of course I have no idea about percentages. But in NYC I knew entire communities of Russians and Ukrainians who really just knew a few phrases and nouns after 40 years. You’re right, Eskandar, that they weren’t really immersed in English — they lived separately — but they did go to stores and other places where people only spoke English, and even then they never managed to learn more than the noun for something they wanted to buy.
    It’s also clear that there are a lot of variables — even with an approach that works best for one person, the materials or process have to be good.
    I do think that some people are oriented more to aural input and some to visual, so probably no approach is universal, and that motivation is a big factor. I know one guy who picked up Russian pretty much just by living in Moscow, but once he could more or less speak, he then had to open the grammar books and figure out patterns. I do that — I use Russian phrases that I’ve picked from other people, and then suddenly wonder why I’m saying that, open up the books, find the explanation as well as several other analagous usages. In other cases I don’t need a grammar book, because the meaning and usage are clear. BTW lately I’ve realized that the noun krysha (literally roof, but in slang — a protection racket) has been turned into the verb kryshevat’ — to provide protection. And BTW, what’s the slang way to say that in English? Would be grateful.

  21. I’d agree with whoever said that comfort in a language and fluency aren’t the same. I’m pretty comfortable in Bardi – I understand a lot, I enjoy speaking it, and I can make myself understood, but I’m not fluent. I say all sorts of weird things that no native speaker would say, I codeswitch, and my phonology’s off.

  22. I agree with hat’s conclusions at the end of the first quote, with their qualification “if what you want is the ability to use the spoken language.” But the degree of fluency is going to depend on the degree of immersion and the diligence of the learner. It is certainly necessary to learn some intuitive rules of grammar, in lieu of the formal ones. Having gone through that process myself, I think the learner needs to be a careful listener (to his own speech as well as that of others) and to constantly self-correct. That’s an active process, not an automatic one. As those who frequent this board know, one can never really stop learning a language, but a lot of non-native speakers improve their skills up to a point and then stop, leaving their acquired language not only with an accented intonation but with their own peculiar accented grammar as well.

  23. I agree in general with most of Greg’s posting – young children will pick up whatever is spoken to them (with expectation of being understood), especially if they are in a group of children speaking the other language, but that ability becomes more problematic and especially much more variable after puberty.
    However, I don’t think that it is the case that ability starts to decline gradually – 17 years old is not long past puberty compared to, say, 40 years old, but for most people it is definitely past that crucial stage, and it does not mean that any 17 year old will be better that any 40 year old, especially if the 40 year old has already learned other languages. One thing that does decline sharply is phonetic ability. You can see this in immigrant families who arrive with children of various ages: those under puberty pick up the new language with no foreign accent while those over the crucial age usually retain a more or less strong accent, regardless of their competence in other aspects of the new language. One interesting confirmation is the case of people who change countries more than once: for instance, a well-known phonetician (now deceased) fled the Nazis with his family as a small child and grew up in Brazil, so he spoke Portuguese like a Brazilian, as well as (I believe) Russian in his family. When he was a young teen-ager the family moved to the US, so he learned English, but apparently always had a thick accent from his first language – accents don’t piggyback on each other but it is the first language that impinges on all others.
    Besides phonetics, there is great variety in adults’ ability to notice the patterns of a language and make sense of them, especially without explicit instruction (but even with it).
    About “immigrants who can barely speak English” (or whatever, depending on the country of immigration), of course it depends what is meant by “barely” – most adults (unless they are able to segregate themselves like Eskandar’s grandmother) manage to learn the language of the new country to a level that is functional for them, and there it remains – often those who are highly educated in their mother tongue are likely to want to learn more complex grammar, written style, etc. but those who have not learned these things in their own language are less fussy about their expectations as long as they can communicate to their own satisfaction. But not all educated immigrants want to learn the new language well: I know some French teachers from France whose English is just functional and who are not trying to improve it – an extreme case was one lady I worked with who had learned enough for shopping and the like but refused to try to learn more because she thought she would lose her French – this in spite of the fact that her husband was also French so they spoke nothing else at home, read voraciously in French, and went to France every year. Such people often have no idea that their “poorly gifted” or “lazy” students may have the same problems learning languages as they themselves have.
    Ability, methods and circumstances all matter. I know a man (60 yrs plus) who grew up in a monolingual English environment in Western Canada. While in high school he had to “take French”, which meant memorizing verb forms in sets (je fais, tu fais, nous faisons, etc) and doing grammar exercises, but nothing related to actually using the language for communication. None of this meant anything to him and he always got failing grades. Since he was doing well in the courses, he was always passed into the next grade, but his French teacher told him “Bill, you are just one of those people who cannot learn other languages”. After graduation he and a friend decided to go to Mexico and ended up playing hockey for one season on the national team (yes!). Bill (a very gregarious person) stayed on, went on to other countries, and ended up working for 12 years in Latin America. His Spanish (picked up “on the street” and working alongside speakers) is so good and colloquial that Latin Americans tell him “Of course you are from South America but I can’t place what country you are from”.
    Colloquialisms, slang words, etc are rarely taught explicitly in language courses, even modern ones (I don’t consider the way Lingual Bee was taught English as “modern”) – and students who have trouble mastering even the basics of grammar hate to be told “you could also say it this way” or “it is written that way but when speaking fast you actually say it this way”. Going to the country or region where the language is actually spoken, students find that young people there do not speak in the slow and clear way they have been taught, sentences are often much shorter, omitting words, slurring them together etc. (ex. “wanna go?” instead of “do – you – want – to – go?) – something the learners may do unthinkingly in their own language but hate to encounter in the one they are learning. Yet if you taught “wanna go” right away, when said slowly and painfully it would sound meaningless to a native English speaker while the full sentence would be readily understood. A slightly different example: while in France last year I went to an event where children and teen-agers were displaying their musical talents. One older girl was going to sing something that the MC announced as “Garabi”. As she sang (in a jazzy style) I could make out an English word here and there, but the meaningless words “garabi, garabi” kept recurring. Later I saw the title written on the program: “Gotta be”. Perhaps a native speaker of English would have understood every word – I certainly did not even though I too have a French accent.
    Finally, a point of terminology: Lingual Bee calls our host “an accomplished linguist” – I am sure “Mr Hat” has a background in linguistics (the study of language in general) but I think that what LB means is “a polyglot”, someone who speaks many languages. Some linguists – people studying language structure and theory – are polyglots, but (unfortunately) many are not.

  24. p.s. (about Bill who “took” French) he failed French but did well in the OTHER courses …

  25. Thanks, Marie-Lucie, for clarifying the difference between those who speak multiple languages and those who study language. You are right, I meant to say ” polyglot”, but I didn’t know the word until I read your comment.

  26. … accents don’t piggyback on each other but it is the first language that impinges on all others.
    I occasionally had people tell me I had a French accent in German; probably from my post-vocalic [ʀ] instead of [ɐ] in words like übertragen, but that’s died down lately. My first language isn’t French.
    As she sang (in a jazzy style) I could make out an English word here and there, but the meaningless words “garabi, garabi” kept recurring. Later I saw the title written on the program: “Gotta be”. Perhaps a native speaker of English would have understood every word – I certainly did not even though I too have a French accent.
    Hehe! Have you much experience with those accents of English with glottal stops in “gotta” ? Because it seems to me that some of them are close enough to the phonemic space of the French r that the confusion could just stem from a lack of experience with them.

  27. Aidan,
    In North American English “gotta” is NOT pronounced with a glottal stop – that is a British usage. North Americans pronounce it with a sound similar to the r in British English “very” – a word sometimes caricatured in American writing as “veddy [British]”. In any case the glottal stop does not sound like a uvular r to a French speaker, who in trying to imitate a glottal stop would most likely do one of two things: either ignore it and say “go-a” or replace it with an h: “goha” – and those two possibilities could be used indiscriminately by the same person. I am not positive what the singer in question (who had probably learned the song from a record) was using as a consonant, but from a distance it did sound to me like a Standard French uvular r.
    If you want to hear a glottal stop and an h in French, listen to Edith Piaf singing the famous song “Milord” : as she tries to coax the forlorn Englishman out of his despondency she uses the word “Allez” (Come on) several times, and it comes out as “allez””, “?allez” (“?” being the glottal stop) and once even as “hallez”. Any French speaker understands (without having to think) that it is “Allez” in each case, the ? and h sounds just indicating where the singer took a deep breath. No one would think that they were hearing the meaningless “Rallez”.
    (they think you must be French)
    Most people who don’t know me think I must be German or Dutch, not French, from the way I speak English. Once I asked another linguistics student why that was so – after a pause she said “it’s because your stresses are always in the right place”. It is true that stress placement seems to be the major stumbling block for most French speakers and one that makes understanding by English speakers difficult – I would think that this must be the case also with speakers of other fixed-stress languages such as (I think) Hungarian, for instance, although I don’t have enough experience of them to be sure. Alternatively, English speakers who stress French as if it were English (especially in words that look the same on paper) also have problems when they try to be understood in French.

  28. that is a British usage.
    Low-register Dublin has it too.
    In any case the glottal stop does not sound like a uvular r to a French speaker, who in trying to imitate a glottal stop would most likely do one of two things: either ignore it and say “go-a” or replace it with an h: “goha” – and those two possibilities could be used indiscriminately by the same person.
    It, or rather what is occasionally produced in practice by those with the feature, is occasionally perceived as a R, and it seems to me that that’s more likely to be an uvular trill than an alveolar approximant, though I don’t have any recordings to check right now. Whence my question on your experience with such accents.

  29. On garabi, it looks like writing has intervened at some point. AmE gotta be is pronounced something like [garabi] in general-Continental phonetics, and then the written r has been brought into French as [R].

  30. Michael Prytz says

    Aidan’s comments remind me of an experience I had hitchhiking across Germany many years ago. I didn’t speak German then (or now), but all I did was cross the border, stick out my thumb, and begin Teutonicising my Afrikaans.
    It went pretty well overall (within days I was discussing East German architecture with monolingual drivers), but I do recall one particular car journey with a nuclear engineer.
    We traded a few phrases when he saw me at the roadside, of the how-far-are-you-going variety, and then he let me into his car – and immediately started speaking to me in French. “Oh well,” I thought, “when in Germany…”
    So I answered him in French. And we had a fat long conversation for at least an hour in that tongue, until it reached the point when we were discussing nations with nuclear expertise. He said, “Of course, we find the French a little careless in the way they run their power stations…” and threw me a significant sidelong glance.
    After a puzzled pause I said, “Mais je ne suis pas francais, monsieur.” (But I am not French, sir.)
    “Non? Vous etes quoi alors?” (Oh? So what are you then?)
    “Je suis sud-africain.” (I’m South African.)
    “Oh!” he said. “Vell vhy don’t ve speak in English then!”
    And his English was much better than his French. But things got a bit quiet in the car after that.

  31. I had an Iranian friend that decided that if he wanted to learn English he’d have to get away from his friends. So he moved to Alaska for a year or two — no Iranians. He ended up speaking without an accent — I thought that he was Italian American when I met him.
    I also knew an American who, after 10 years or so in the Mideast, spoke Arabic, Persian, and Turkish with local accents, (as reported by native speakers). All immersion. (His secret may have been hashish use.)
    The complexities people speak of can be learned from reading. They aren’t used much orally during our time. It may be that the people I’ve known supplemented with a grammar book, but none of them took classes.
    Immersion means something more than living somewhere geographically near speakers of a language; it involves actual daily contact with the other language, plus the intention of learning the language. Expats in enclaves aren’t immersing themselves.
    Greg’s criticisms only apply to professional-translator-level fluency, and very few learn that in class or out. And while most people using the immersion method only don’t do that well, most using the classroom method don’t do well either.
    It may be that immersion-only only works for the best students. That’s hardly a killing criticism, though.

  32. Michael Prytz says

    Just in case my previous post seemed a bit cryptic: I spoke to German friends later on, and they confirmed my pidgin German sounded vaguely French, and that it was all due to that dratted uvular r.

    Native Czech speakers seem to have the most comprehensible English. Is this a similarity of accent, or accentlessness?

  34. I have to say that this whole article is based on a faulty methodology. I know from experience that a brief conversation isn’t enough to evaluate someone’s language skills.
    The one thing that alerts native speakers of problems with the language of a non-native speaker are occasional and rare slip-ups. Since these slip-ups are rare, you do have to have a long conversation with someone to get to know all the little things they have problems with.
    Suppose for example that someone’s vocabulary is in general good, but in terms of shopping vocabulary, they are lacking in words and make up inappropriate ones to replace them. Such a problem wouldn’t be discovered in a brief taped conversation. You would have to have a wide-ranging and perhaps lengthy conversation to discover it.

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