You remember the original Tortoises and Hares post, right? Well, I got this really insightful email about it from a virulently handsome man named Chris Espinoza, and I want to share it with you here; I’ve highlighted some of the uber amazing parts for your reading convenience:
I have made a breakthrough in my thinking lately in regards to this language acquisition business, and I am excited about it.
I was trying to understand what bothered me so much about the polyglots out there and also why I felt like my Chinese had stunted. The realization I came to corresponds with your difficulty with Chinese relative to Japanese, I think.
The problem was that I was obsessed with acquisition as an end. I felt like I had something to prove to myself, to my former teachers, to people I had argued with about language, and most of all to Chinese people themselves. I wanted to say, “See? Classes do suck. All you have to do is watch movies! Foreigners can learn Chinese quickly and easily!” Because of this, I tried to find the ultimate acquisition method. I looked at all those Chinese movies, TV shows and books as language acquisition tools. And that was the problem. I forgot that the end was not acquisition, but rather the enjoyment of things and people in that language.
I also started to conflate knowledge/eloquence with seeming like a native. My real ultimate desire is to seem like a Chinese person to Chinese people, to have them feel like I am a part of their social circle, someone they can relate to and have fun with. But I forgot about that. I just thought that if I could read enough books on enough subjects and know all the right words and know all the pop references, I would seem like a native. But in reality I already had enough knowledge and linguistic ability. The problem was attitude. I did not see myself as a Chinese person, but rather, and even worse, I saw myself in opposition to them. Chinese was something to conquer, not to enjoy. In the end, if you want to know Chinese, knowing a lot of stuff and being eloquent is not the key. You could ask someone in English, “Oh, how was class today?” and they could respond, “uh, you know, it was kinda boring, the teacher’s stupid, you know?” There is no linguistic virtuosity there, but I would feel like that person was American, or at least in tune with American sensibilities. Whereas, if I asked the same question to some people in China, they would perfectly recite something they had memorized from a TOEFL book and it just felt so foreign and distant from me.
I had a similar problem with myself in China. I was often with my American friend and Chinese people would always be absolutely blown away by his Chinese. People would be impressed with mine, but it was never the level of amazement that they would have for him. There wasn’t a huge gap between us in our knowledge of Chinese, so I couldn’t figure out where the difference was. I’ve figured out now that the difference was my attitude. I had some problems with Chinese culture, so I felt aversion to them in some ways, and I certainly didn’t want to be them. My friend, however, had developed a sense of Chinese identity, that he was Chinese (even though he is a blue eyed fair skinned American of European descent), and Chinese people sensed that. Some people even went so far as to ask if he was Chinese. Now that I think of it, occasionally, people had a similar reaction to me and I’ve realized those occasions occurred when I was loving some Chinese TV show and felt connected to the culture. Then I would go out and people would be amazed. Nothing had significantly changed about my linguistic knowledge, just the attitude. Unfortunately, these occasions were rare, because I spent most of my time hating Chinese people.
When babies and little kids learn their native languages, they’re not seeing linguistic acquisition as the end; they see it as a means. the end is far more interesting, far more relevant, far more about everything that matters to them. if it didn’t matter it might even be possible that acquisition wouldn’t even take place. They want other things — and acquisition occurs along the way. When I was in elementary/middle school and used to emulate certain things I heard people say, I wasn’t thinking “Now I’ll acquire this word.” I was thinking, “Now I’ll be funny, like this person.” Language, a medium, was just that: a thing I wanted because I wanted stuff that was in it. Somehow, I’ve lost track of that, to some extent, with Chinese.
So, as I move forward now, I am keeping two things in mind:
- Acquisition is not the goal. Accessing fun stuff in the language is.
- I want to BE Chinese, not just some weird foreign dude who can make himself understood in Chinese
So, all those arguments about the detail of the acquisition method are much less relevant than I thought before. I could talk about this forever, but I’ll wrap it up here.
Oh, just one more note about the polyglot thing. For some reason, these people claiming to speak 10 languages really bothered me. I couldn’t figure out why. Now I think I got it, it seems their goal is the acquisition of languages, rather than enjoying what’s in the language. Of course, they are enjoying the acquisition itself, but I don’t think that’s enough to be native-like. And that’s why I think they have just slightly above average results even though their methods might make sense. They still see themselves as Americans or Canadians or whatever studying something foreign. However, realizing this, I now might respect the claims of Benny the Irish polyglot more, for example. Maybe it is possible to speak Portuguese and make Brazilians think you are Brazilian in three months, because perhaps Benny believed himself to BE Brazilian for those three months.
I look forward to your feedback,
Who says “virulently handsome”? Anyway, both Chris and I are looking forward to hearing from you 🙂