¿Qué dirección a la Amazonia? (The Importance of Conversation in Language Learning)

In the midst of a roar of a yawn, I opened up Skype and rubbed the sleepies out of my eyes.  “Buenos dias,” a not yet familiar voice said.  “Buenos dias Rosa, lo siento que soy un poco tarde, me he levantado solamente un momento hacer,” struggling to say this sentence in perhaps thrice the time of a normal cognizant human being.  “Me acabo de levantar,” she quietly corrected and so my mind turned on and the lesson began, me acabo de levantar.  I had just woken up.

Realizing my full attention and concentration was necessary to grasp the intricacies of what Rosa was saying, I became quickly aware of how important our conversation was to me challenging myself in my language learning.  If I had just woken up to a date with Miss Stone (things are a still a little too foreign to call her Rosetta just yet), I could take my time and not worry about silly stumbles and such, just clicking some button to repeat or acting like I understood or just taking the time to look it up on Google Translate and carrying on.  But real conversation doesn’t work that way.  There’s no chance to press rewind or pause the dialogue as you fumble through your Rick Steve’s “Must Know” Phrasebook (when I arrived to Ukraine there were three seats at the table-one for me, one for my host mother, and one for my dictionary).  The inability to communicate in real time is a tragic result of language learning that does not engage the student in a very communicative and conversational manner.

The bridge of understanding and communication is so much sturdier when the people walking it have contributed to its building in person.

So why is this method effective, what are the goals of language learning through the communicative approach?  Discussions over the subject highlight “grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competencies” as the end result. [1]  Of the competencies, sociolinguistic and discourse are most closely intertwined with a conversation based style of learning, although strategic competence (the “knowledge and effective and appropriate use of language by speakers” in the right contexts) is undoubtedly a thread in the fabric that if pulled could undo the whole tapestry.  Applying this understanding of the foundations of this approach to real world situations and language learning institutions allows us to better appreciate its true value (with the present assumption that it does indeed hold value in today’s methodology).

There are millions of books out there, but do any of them talk back to you? In REAL time?

Aside from the plethora of language learning books that are available, the web also offers various tools to aid one in their adventure into a new world.  The program Babbel, for example, offers three sections which are-1) flashcard-like experiences for memory 2) sophisticated games for passage analysis and comprehension and 3) vocabulary reviews.[2]  While the author of this article appeared quite taken with this program, it seems to me incapable of preparing you for the terrifying moment that your bus just happens to break down on your way to the Amazon and you have to figure out alternative plans in the middle of nowhere with only your wits to guide you (perhaps not that improbable of a situation).   What I mean is that while useful as a buffer of sorts, a tool to get you by in simpler conversations or in reading and writing in a foreign language, many of these tools lack the necessary voice of a true native speaker, a person that lives and breathes the language and responds not according in some textbook manner but with the firing of synapses in their brain, the products of their experiences shaping their speech patterns.  Accordingly, you must adapt to not a computer speaking in binary codes and recorded voices, but a person speaking in colorful tones and true personality.

Returning back to the context of the communicative approach, we see that such tools as Rosetta Stone and Babbel could very well fall short of the discourse and sociolinguistic competencies, as you have no sense of how to measure cultural contexts or create real dialogue with someone, therefore becoming unknowing in not only what words to use, but when and how to use them most effectively.  Through my experiences thus far with Rosa and Homeschool Spanish Academy (www.homeschoolspanishacademy.com), I am already beginning to feel the benefits of interaction and conversation with a true native Guatemalan.  Not only am I learning the techniques and grammar of the language, but also I am learning why phrases are made in the way they are, and in what parts of society to use certain words.  I am learning about the generations of Spanish speakers and the fascinations that reflect their speech (Rosa’s son is a fanatic of fútbol Barcelona and it’s all he talks about).

Aside from my practical and personal experience, research shows that “adult-child conversations are roughly six times as potent at fostering good language development as adult speech input alone.”[3]  While this study was done on infant and toddler language development, the philosophies of language learning don’t change in the sense that “more conversations mean more opportunities for mistakes and therefore more opportunities for valuable corrections”.  With this fact, and the sad state of our declining foreign language programs, being cut because of student’s inability to “really converse” in Spanish [4], it is critical to invest in language learning that gives you the real world skills you need to get you on that next bus to the Amazon.

[1] http://facta.junis.ni.ac.rs/lal/lal201102/lal201102-06.pdf


[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/26/technology/personaltech/powerful-tools-for-learning-a-language.html?_r=0


[3] http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/conversing-with-child-more-effective-94603.aspx


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