Talking the talk
Persistence and positive energy play important roles in learning a new language

On the chalkboard at the front of room 301 in the Administration Building, the date, time and weather are written in Japanese. Ikuyo Suzuki, a University of Idaho instructor of Japanese, finishes roll call. She and her students then stand, bow at the waist and sit back down. The motions that begin and end each class are punctuated with three words — kiritsu rei chakuseki. Stand up. Bow. Sit down.

Suzuki’s class is one of the many foreign language courses offered by the university. For some students, these classes serve as graduation requirements. For others, they’re an opportunity to expand on their communication skills.

Rachel Halverson, chair of the Modern Languages and Cultures Department, said if people are motivated to learn a new language, the learning process will be more effective. Halverson, who teaches German, said learning a new language is not as natural as some think it is.

“Our brains work patterns, and we know this because if you have your own little kids were learning how to speak a language, their first language, they create words and sentences based on patterns they know,” Halverson said.

Le Hall | Blot Magazine

If an individual learns this one basic pattern, they can multiply it and generate more language. Halverson said the challenging part of teaching new languages in college classrooms is that adult learners need to be conscious of such patterns.

   “If you’re an adult where you’re absolutely fluent in your first language and you’re learning this other language, you have to take all this linguistic complexity that you have in your first language and you have to reduce it to the very simple tool that you have in that second language, and that is really hard to do,” Halverson said.

Switching between a language a student knows well and one they have little understanding of is difficult, and Halverson said it’s normal to make mistakes. To help students better learn the language, she said she tries to create an environment in which students feel comfortable trying new things.

Kurt Queller, a professor who teaches linguistics and the history of the English language, said while there is recorded consistency in the areas of the brain that activate when a new language is learned, the conscious process is not the same for everyone. He said during brain studies conducted on individuals learning and processing a language, several parts of the brain light up with activity, more so on the left than on the right.

Queller said regardless, students should find the learning process that works best for them when trying to become fluent in a new language.

“Be eclectic. That means don’t feel you have to stick rigorously to one particular lesson plan, it is important to have discipline,” Queller said. “Just work with what interests you at that point and spend some time on that. Listen, listen, listen, and speak when you’re ready.”

In addition to the motions that begin and end Suzuki’s classes, the instructor said students take turns writing the date, time and weather on the chalkboard in Japanese as a means of learning to use the language’s characters daily. She said she tries to encourage her students to connect the language with their every day lives as opposed to only trying to memorize it.

“So try not to memorize it, but use it every day, like a constant pace or just in the real world, I want to connect it to that, to them,” Suzuki said.

Casey Daw, one of Suzuki’s students, said learning Japanese has been a challenge. However, Daw said she found the structure of the language interesting and fun.  She said making flash cards and having personalized study habits has helped her through the process of acquiring a new language. 

Study tools like flashcards can help students practice different parts of a new language on a daily basis — something that Halverson said is important to the learning process. She said beyond that, the internet also serves as a useful resource for students who are determined to learn a new language but don’t have the means to be completely immersed in it.

“We retain knowledge based on association. Surround yourself with the language as much as possible, and the internet has made this so easy,” Halverson said. “YouTube has a ton of stuff for language learners. What’s cool about is you can choose the things that you want to understand so you know, let’s say you really love music. And you’re really into music videos, you can go online and get all kinds of music videos or German rock bands.”

Language learners obtain more information effectively if they are motivated and are able to learn the phrases or words they find interesting to communicate in the new language. Halverson said it’s important for students to remember that while learning a new language can be fun, becoming fluent isn’t an easy process.

“Language learning is fun, but it’s not quick,” Halverson said. “Study it for a couple years in the United States, but definitely go to the region or the country where it is spoken … that will make it all worthwhile.”


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