The other day, a young man named Ilhan sent me this email:
I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and I love it! I try to follow your method as much as possible, but I am not 100% immersed in Spanish (yeah, I am learning Spanish instead of Japanese) as I am kind of undisciplined. But your method is still helping me a lot!
I was wondering about what you think about a phenomenon I “discovered” lately. Here in Germany, there are a whole bunch of American people I know who speak German very little or with an extremly heavy accent. Alright, maybe the problem is that there are a lot of folks in Germany trying to learn English, so they try to practice their English on them. But another example, yesterday night I saw a Turkish TV show (yeah, I am Turkish but live in Germany) with a woman from Sweden, who had married a Turk and now stayed in Turkey. Even though she was in Turkey for a few years or so (I think) she spoke Turkish with an obviously foreign touch (accent and word order). There are not so many people learning Swedish in Turkey to excuse that!
So I was wondering, what do you think about that? What’s the reason that there are people being 100% immersed in a language, and still not attaining that “native fluency” in that language (maybe never in their lives)?
Thanks for your answer!
Here’s my Khatzumoto attempt at an answer. It’s really an extension of ideas previously covered here by me, and here by AntiMoon, and summarized in the words of Kató Lomb as recorded in her Polyglot: How I Learn Languages.
The fact that a linguistic microclimate is more important than a linguistic macroclimate is proven by many of our older émigré compatriots. No matter where they live, they can’t acquire the foreign language properly even after 10–15 years’ residence, simply because they have built a Hungarian wall around themselves and their children, bridge partners, or even business partners. [Emphasis added]
A large part of the answer may simply be, well, is, the fact that many people who seem “100% immersed” aren’t really immersed. Period. They illustrate the simple truth that just because you’re near the water, that doesn’t mean you’re taking a bath — one must actually enter the tub. You will find that these people continue to mostly/only read books, watch movies, work with and talk to people in their primary/native language. There are many Western men married to Japanese women, with Japanese-speaking Eurasian children, who know no Japanese beyond the basics. Many first-generation Chinese immigrants in the US may have lived there for decades, yet can barely speak English. There are Western men who have lived in Korea and Arabia for 10+ years who can neither speak nor read these phonetic scripts. What happened to the kanji excuse? They have all physically walled themselves in.
But their wall is also psychological. You see, it turns out that pride is another factor. Many adults feel silly making the sounds of the new language. And they are so invested in their current identity, that they will cling to their current intonation — whether or not it be appropriate to their new language — as a way of “feeling themselves”. They are afraid of making the sounds of the new language and being made fun of. Ironically, their strong foreign accents are the silliest-sounding thing of all — as you’ve no doubt experienced, someone who at least tries to sound Turkish when speaking Turkish, or French when speaking French, or Japanese when speaking Japanese, is much more pleasant to the ear.
I am kind of undisciplined.
Discipline really isn’t the issue per se. Not in the way we usually think of it: “making ourselves do boring, painful, mind-numbing crap we don’t really want to do in the hope of some future reward”. This process shouldn’t need discipline. Or, more accurately, it is impossible to use so-called “discipline” and “willpower” on a project of this length. Discipline is too scarce a resource for anyone to attempt to use it over any significant period of time. Any project that requires sustained self-directed effort for more than several hours or days is not one where you want can use self-coercion.
Instead, you want to combine fun (attraction) with inertia. In your case, it might go something like (1) Find fun stuff to do in Spanish. (2) Remove Turkish/German from your life to create inertia. This is analogous to removing all unhealthy food from your home, then replacing it with food that is both tasty and healthy. The result is that you will eat this healthy food (1) just because it’s there, and continue to eat it because (2) it tastes good. “Food” must fulfill the conditions of abundance, variety, desirability, and availability, if it is to be eaten. If you are to “eat” Spanish (i.e. healthy food), you need to have lots of Spanish that’s so tasty you eat it merely for the pleasure of eating it, not because it’s Spanish and often not even out of hunger.
By the way, I personally subscribe to the idea of discipline as “remembering what you want”. This is a totally different animal from all these masochistic attempts at inflicting suffering upon oneself. This re-definition of discipline essentially carries us in the direction of remaining in touch with the joy and curiosity that led us to fall in love with a language in the first place.
So don’t try to use traditional discipline. As long as you are a normal, healthy living organism with a drive for self-preservation, any attempt to hurt yourself will inevitably fall flat. Don’t suppress “human nature”, use it. I happen to love sitting around watching movies and reading comics, so I simply transfer these activities into other languages, and what were once bad habits suddenly become highly educational activities worthy of remuneration, praise and websites.
While hiding in the linguistic microclimate of the native language will not help, any attempt to force oneself out of it is destined to meet with violent resistance and ultimately failure (indeed, the only way force will work is if it’s initiated and maintained externally, and that gets you into all kinds of issues of [child] abuse and human rights and ethnic cleansing and all that good stuff). If in doubt, observe real toddlers — there is no shame, no doubt and no boredom, only adventure. Fill that bathtub with toys, jump in, and before you know it, you won’t even want to get out.
Skin going all wrinkly and junk…
There is a natural tendency to view this in-the-bathroom-but-barely-even-getting-wet phenomenon as something negative, as yet another example of how you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. I don’t buy that at all, and I hate how we’re always just trying to find excuses to euthanize old dogs. While we’re at it, why don’t we just go Logan’s Run and murder everyone when they turn 30, since they’re never going to amount to anything anyhow? If the dog’s not learning, it’s not the dog’s fault — it’s the trainer’s fault! I take a different view altogether. That foreigners can go years in a country virtually unscathed by the local language, is, I think, an example of the triumph of the human will 🙂 . It shows just how powerful our ability to shape our personal environment — our microclimate — is; it shows how we can resist seemingly overwhelming counteractive forces; it is a feat that should perhaps even be celebrated…OK, maybe not that far.
Anyway, for us who actually want to learn a certain language, all we have to do is run this process in reverse. Stop resisting the target language, and become more receptive to it. Receive it. Accept it. Become it. If a Japanese person can create a Little Japan in Kansas (as some of my friends from Japan have), then…an American person can do the same. It’s that simple.
I leave you with this quote, apparently from some guy called Paulo Coelho:
We wouldn’t worry nearly as much about what others thought of us if we recognize how seldom they do.
Thanks for reading. I am sure there’s much more to add on this issue — if you have any insights, please feel free to share.