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NEWS | June 4, 2014

Language learning mythbuster

By 2nd Lt. Abror Samatov 628th Contracting Squadron

"Ты будеш рвать наши книжки? " Svetlana Sergeevna, my secondary school teacher, asked me loudly. I was completely lost. It sounded like one of those guttural warrior cries that Genghizkhan soldiers probably made to intimidate the rivals before battle. Translated, the question was "Are you going to tear up our books?" I was clueless of the meaning of the question, but I yelled proudly and confidently "Да!"

That was my introduction to a foreign language, in this case, Russian. Fast forward 20 years. Now fluent in five languages, I still remember how alien those words sounded. Not only have I picked up languages, but cultures and ideologies as well. It's amazing to read the same story in different languages and to see the perspectives derived from different vantage points.

Language is a way to communicate, a means to establish a connection with a total stranger. Language helps us express our emotions, achieve our goals, pray and praise, curse and criticize - it's the center of our lives. The great Cicero once said, "The one thing in which we are especially superior to beasts is that we speak to each other."
But what if you can do all the above in multiple languages? A foreign language opens a whole new world of opportunities. It can make you competitive at your job or help you find another one altogether. It can expand and enrich your social life. You can read books in their original language without losing some of the context in translations. The possibilities are endless.

The world is shrinking through globalization. People who speak only one language have become the minority. Learning a new language now will create additional demand for you in future.

Acquiring a foreign language is done through hard work, eagerness and persistence. Contrary to popular belief, there is no mythical "language gene" required to speak another language. Anybody can do it with the right motivation. As a matter of fact, it is instinctual. People tend to believe individuals who speak multiple languages are somehow smarter. More knowledgeable, yes! Smarter, no!

Your capacity to learn is not based on education or the number of languages you speak. Therefore, as long as you have the want and ambition to learn, you can!

Renowned linguistics professor Vivian Cook says language learning trains the brain to be more analytical, flexible and logical. Research has proven English speaking school-age children read better in English when taught a foreign language just one hour a week, when compared to children who have no foreign language training. Learning an additional language has positive side effects in other areas of thought processing.

Furthermore, knowing a foreign language changes the way one perceives the world around them. I can attest to this statement by saying that my attitude and demeanor changes automatically depending on the language I'm using. For example, a taboo in Turkish may not be a taboo in Russian. Not only is the speech different, but how I must behave with native speakers differs based on the particular language. As Vivian Cooks, Professor at Newcastle University, puts it, "Our cultural attitudes may be changed by the language we are acquiring."

Human beings obtain and improve all skills during their lifetime. People do not have inherent speaking skills. If a child is not spoken to during childhood, they cannot articulate any words, except some indistinctive sounds. They are not born with a language, so their first is foreign. In essence, this means you have already learned a foreign language.

Have you ever observed a child learning to speak? Initially, a child starts to repeat what parents say without understanding. Then, children demonstrate things around the house, which they have learned as their "new vocabulary." Children don't care about grammar, spelling or articulation of sounds. Someone always corrects them, and they still never lose their motivation for learning. I'm still corrected on all of my languages to this day. Thus, I'd advise anybody who has that passion to be immersed in a whole different world. Learn like a child - demonstrate, visualize, use the new words in context and learn with movements. When the new words are combined with physical actions, muscle memory is created, connecting the mind and body. These are far superior to mundane repeating.

There are a lot of methods for learning a language. Some of them are practical, others - not so much. Modern grammatical method is aimed at learning the language as a system. It's directed at all four language skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. In my opinion, too much attention is paid to text construing, script narratives and essays.

In addition, all must learn the structure and logic of a foreign language, be able to relate it to the first native language, to understand similarities and differences with the first language. However, this is impossible without serious study of grammar and practice of two-way translations.

Why try to make a person a philologist, instead of just teaching them to speak the language? A person needs practical skills, rather than a secondary specialty. As a result, a student learns about the language, not the language itself; an individual can differentiate very well language structures between one another, but cannot call a friend abroad and fully engage in live real conversation.

On the contrary, one of the most practical approaches is the immersion method. According to this method, you can learn a foreign language by becoming (at least for the period of study) a completely different person. This allows one to create the illusion that they are in a completely different world; the world of the target language. For this method to work, a person should be surrounded by like-minded people who are learning the same language.

Heinrich Schliemann, successful businessman and famous archaeologist, discoverer of Troy, fluent in at least 15 languages, wrote all his correspondence and kept a diary in the language of the country in which he was at that moment. I also employed the same system when I was learning Turkish; I even temporarily "Turkisized" my name from "Abror" to Turkish "Ebrar" to fully immerse myself.

Another suggestion numerous linguists advise is learning through language families. Knowing the ways around the language families is like having a treasure map of the language. For instance, acquiring one or all of Latin-Germanic languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German) is going to be easier for English native speaker than getting into whole different realm of Sino-Tibetan, Slavic or Turkic lingo groups.

The bottom line is that if you have a desire and a passion, it doesn't matter what language family it belongs to or how hard it is, I'd say, "Keep calm and carry on!"

Editor's note: Links to language learning resources are available through the Air Force Culture and Language Center's website at culture.af.mil.