Absorbing languages

Tremmert   Thursday, April 29, 2004, 19:42 GMT
Is it true that if you move to a country where another language is spoken and hear it around you all the time, that you begin to understand it after a while? Has anyone experienced this? And if so how long did it take?
Simon   Friday, April 30, 2004, 11:30 GMT

I went looking for answers to your quesiton. I don't think I found them but this article seemed worth posting.
James   Friday, April 30, 2004, 16:01 GMT
I guess the simple answer to your question is yes and no.

Clearly, young children who are exposed to another language for a sufficient period of time (perhaps a few years) will absorb what they hear.

As for adults, while it's easier to learn in an immersion environment, you'll most likely never understand really complex communication unless you study (classes, books, conversation w/ native speakers, etc.). In other words, being in the foreign country will allow for you to practice non-stop, you'll never just "get to know" what people are saying.

For example, I moved to Rio de Janeiro last year without speaking a word of Portuguese; I stayed for a little over 6 months. I was able to learn very quickly, but only because I really took a lot of initiative to learn. That is the best combo: being in an immersion environment and studying very hard.

Think of immigrant taxi drivers in large US cities like New York. Their English isn't always so good, right? So it doesn't really matter how long you spend in another country if you're not working very hard to learn.

Anyway, that's my two cents.
Tremmert   Friday, April 30, 2004, 18:00 GMT
Some people seem to be able to understand a language fluently without necessarily being able to speak it fluently though. Could this be the case with immigrant taxi drivers? I've never met one so I can't say ;)
James   Friday, April 30, 2004, 21:51 GMT
Maybe so. I don't know. I would guess that if one were really understanding things fluently, then one would be easy to speak fluently.
But then again, listening is a passive skill.

If the languages were somewhat close, let's say Argentine Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese (as opposed to, say, Cantonese and German) then maybe one could just 'absorb' the language with enough exposure. But beyond that, for an adult, some form of study will be absolutely essential - even in an immersion environment.
Pentatonic   Friday, April 30, 2004, 23:40 GMT
I think that if I were in a new country where everybody spoke a different language that I would pick it up and eventually speak it well. In my opinion what holds a lot of immigrants back is that they really aren't interested in learning the 2nd language well, they put little effort into it, and they go home and speak their native language with family and friends.

I don't think study would be any more necessary for an adult than a child. Children here spend a good portion of the lives in school and if they didn't their language skills would be must worse.
Pentatonic   Friday, April 30, 2004, 23:43 GMT
Grrr, "good portion of _their_ lives" and "skills would be _much_ worse".
mjd   Saturday, May 01, 2004, 00:28 GMT
I agree one hundred percent with James.
Tremmert   Saturday, May 01, 2004, 13:34 GMT
I found some articles on second language learning, although they don't say much about this idea: http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/subject.html#second
Clark   Monday, May 03, 2004, 15:53 GMT
Tremmert, hoe gaan dit?

I think that people, especially children, who move to a country where their native language is not spoken, will learn the language to varying degrees of fluency.
Chilli   Monday, May 03, 2004, 16:43 GMT
With regards to children learning best there are (at least) two chains of thought on it:

Lenneburg (mad old Einstein lookalike) thought that for learning language naturally and fluently, there was a Critical Period (he had a whole Critical Period Hypothesis on this) between the ages of two months and twelve/thirteen years old, after which a new language became much more difficult to learn and stopped being natural.

However, under study (and you can read aaaalllll about this in "The Handbook Of Linguistics" by James Aranoff and Jane Rees-Miller, 2000) it turned out that children in the first year of learning a second language did less well than the adults (and by that I mean 13+). At the end of the first year, the adults outstripped the kids by a clear margin. AFTER the first year, however, the children caught back up and eventually had a greater and more thorough grasp of the second language. Fascinating, eh?
Paul M   Wednesday, May 05, 2004, 21:14 GMT
I think it depends.
Of course, contact with natives everyday is the best way to learn a language.
But I see a difficult times ahead if the person doesn't know 'a from 'b' and try to bond with the natives.

Firstly, he would need 'direct communication' where some sort of comprehension can occur..but who is going to talk to him like he is their child everyday?

For the critical age theory, I'm going to pull this out of my ass..
I... think there is some sort of age limit to grasp the 'idea' of language itself (any language), say like if you've been living with a wolf until that age.. I think you would hardely be able to learn to speak a language with complex grammar and wide range of vocabularies because your ability to do that has already been somehow degraded and it's difficult to fathom the concept at the first place.. How can you 'tell' someone about language using a language when he doesn't know what language is.

However, if you already possess a language, then I think you (the adult learner) would be able to learn a new language to a great degree given that you get the right person and methods and how different your target language is from your mother tongue. I think the key is breaking away from your native language.