Middle East studies in the News
Love thy Language(s): Fluency Factors
by Christopher Lee Tutolo
It was during my second semester of Arabic that I started to notice something: I was really picking up the language. I was already beginning to think as well as speak through the language rather than attempting to translate my thoughts in a lapse before delivering them in speech.
Notably, Arabic 001 and 002 were daily classes, allowing far more time to engage myself with the language. Considering the difficulty that learning a second, let alone a third language can be for a nonnative, my own learning curve seemed particularly extraordinary to me. Where I'd been studying French for a number of years and did feel comfortable with it, I was already beginning to feel myself reaching that level of capability with Arabic after just a few classes.
A lecture in French linguistics during that same semester given by Professor Jean-Marc Authier helped to reveal truths regarding my bubbling convictions. He presented something entirely new to me: the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). A theory first proposed by Noam Chomsky, the LAD is a "postulated organ" biologically linked to the learner's age. He even pinpointed the disappearance of the LAD to a stage in every human life: puberty.* Chomsky's theory is tied closely to the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH), which holds that the optimal (and virtually only possible) time for language acquisition is during the presence of the LAD.
Naturally, other theories have arisen since Chomsky's developments in the mid-1960s. His theory, to pose a point, came in direct opposition to the language acquisition theories of B.F. Skinner, which of course entails a behavioral psychology approach. Chomsky's hypothesis, however, has carried considerable weight in the principles of linguistics into the modern day.
As many who have entered but never fully pursued a second tongue will know too well, gaining fluency in a foreign language during high school, college, or thereafter does prove itself a challenge with a rather low success rate. But fear not; your hormones aren't holding you back.
If you ask me, in a much more plausible solution, the existence of a LAD is a way of labeling a number of roadblocks that arise with age. For one, you are far more likely to attain fluency in the languages with which you identify culturally. A lack of identification with a particular language may cause enough dissonance to make fluency an overwhelming and overly frustrating task.
This leads me to the next point: motivation. Without incentives like cultural identity, surrounding environment, and other speakers of the language to keep you going, the very idea of learning the language in the first place may creep into the shadows of your mind.
A third and often-underestimated factor: time. Think about how you learned your first language. You'll probably answer that there wasn't an option. You were a child who knew exactly what you wanted but had no idea how to request it, save screaming and crying. When you discovered that this wouldn't work, you spent every waking moment of your life copying your surroundings until you could communicate your thoughts, emotions, and desires in what we recognize as a civilized manner.
The closest one can come to emulating this experience and ultimately gaining fluency in another language is much the same. Go to a place where the language you know best is least understood. Without a doubt, it will be both challenging and frustrating (the motivation factor comes to mind again). Short of hand gestures and primitive head movements, you would have no option but to figure out how to make yourself understood in that tongue. You would have to empathize, adapt, and assimilate with a new culture regardless of former cultural identities. And perhaps most importantly, you would have all day every day to try and get it right. These are the factors that are really involved in gaining fluency. After such an analysis, the LAD seems but a scapegoat for these various hardships.
I recently had an opportunity to correspond with Professor Authier again on this very topic. To emphasize the point, says Authier, "There is at present no evidence of any kind that suggests that anything biological prevents adults from acquiring native proficiency in a second language...Second, a very troublesome fact for the unavailability of the biological LAD past puberty is that a significant number of people who start learning a second language as adults ARE able to reach a proficiency level that is INDISTINGUISHABLE from that of native speakers.**
For those on the fence of whether or not to continue studying that foreign language, defeated by the mounting complexity of the task, bear in mind the same points above that immediately hit home with me. For me, Arabic has been a great way to trace my Syrian roots and grow ever closer to the elders in my family. On the other hand, the only identification I have with French is a mild (okay, severe) obsession with its people. With either of the two, I know that at some point my learning curve will plateau as I outgrow the foreign classroom within an all too customary and routine place. I know (and anticipate) that moving forward with fluency will require rising to a challenge beyond the classroom that has trained me and into the environment I've thus far been mimicking.
No matter the source of your desires, don't allow the passing of time and the drifting of your motivation to be a hindrance. Most importantly, know that no time is too late to begin. Redefine the boundaries that surround you once more.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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