The summer before my junior year of high school, one of my friends went to France on a foreign exchange trip. I remember her scrambling in the months before her departure because she had never taken a French class before, nor had even begun her language requirements. Before she left she was able to take a few classes in French from my high school as well as some meager online classes that gave her the basics, but definitely not enough to hold prolonged conversations in the language beyond the occasional “j’aime le chocolat.” The French class she had taken prepared her for such minimal conversation that she was struggling to keep up with the conversation. After a year abroad, she returned to the United States after a year, completely fluent in French. I was jealous to say the least; how could she become fluent after a year when I had been sitting in a classroom poring over exercises in grammar and vocabulary to achieve the same result?
Exposure, I feel, was the most prominent of factors that led to her fluency. By communicating naturally she was able to grasp the different mannerisms of the people she spoke with, and they were there to help her with words and phrases she didn’t understand, as well as guide her in new social customs and traditions foreign to her. Language classes should begin as early as elementary school so that they take advantage of the benefits of immersion into another culture, and language classes should focus on immersion through active discussion about books, films, music and other current cultural themes, using grammar exercises as a supplement to enhance fundamental understanding of the language through both cultural and conversational immersion.
After taking years of classes myself I can say that I have learned more from classes structured around learning grammar and language conventions through conversation than classes which base their learning and teaching on the understanding of grammar. Exposure to the conversation and the culture of the French language was the key to my development in the language, a development I wish could have happened a lot earlier than high school.
These realizations made me wonder why, in the United States, children are not taught to speak other languages until they reach high school, middle school if they are lucky or in the home if they are fortunate enough to have parents speaking a language other than English. If anything, children should be exposed to other languages between the ages of zero and six, when their brains are most apt at language learning.
A linguistic theory known as the Critical Period Hypothesis deals with this concept exactly, and its benefits have been proven by multiple linguistic field studies. By observing and comparing several types of bilingual and multilingual language learners, they discovered that there are significant differences in the way people filter language as they age. For example, parents learning English for the first time through the filter of their primary language process language in a more limited way than teens who juggle the two separate linguistic concepts of speaking their native language at home and learning and speaking English at school, who are still different from children who develop two linguistic codes simultaneously as they grow up learning words and concepts in both their native language and English. They discovered the higher plasticity of children’s developing brains allowed them to use both hemispheres to process language whereas adults were only using one hemisphere — usually the left, analytical hemisphere — to process language. Children, then, could more fully understand multiple languages and also more fully grasp the social and cultural nuances of each language they learned.
In addition, linguists are discovering more every day about the tacit abilities of the human brain to decode and comprehend complex grammatical systems in language; tacit abilities which are strongest earlier in a child’s development.
Language study should be tailored to human neurolinguistic capabilities, as shown in the Critical Period Hypothesis by allowing children to study multiple languages early in their development and to focus on conversational over grammatical elements, as the brain has its own ability to develop the tacit knowledge of grammar and of language function via exposure.
As I’ve made my way through the French courses here at UCI, I’ve discovered that I can increase my fluency on my own, in addition to the classes I take, by simply picking up some books in French and sitting down to decode the meaning for myself, or by studying abroad, where I can even further enrich my language-learning experience.
Continual immersion in the language and the culture, whether at home or abroad, is the best way to create the sort of language experience needed for fluency, and that begins with your initiative in finding programs and options for your own study. Beating the linguistic odds that the public education system has placed us in requires the discipline and desire to absorb every aspect of the language and its people.
Eliza Partika is a second year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.