Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Archive for the category “Europe”

The learning process…and the process of “fossilization”

There are many theories on how we learn language, therefore there are many methods on how to teach.  Students are different and for adults what is even more different are their life circumstances and schedules.  We can’t always have the “ideal” situation for learning by moving to London or Washington DC, and what is “ideal” anyway?  The practicalities of life play a big part in language acquisition, and this is simply a reality.

English is a unique case as it’s spoken in many more countries than just the UK, the US, Australia, Ireland etc.  It’s the “common language” among people in an international environment and for traveling.  English is also unique because we have regular exposure to it, and it dominates the entertainment industry.  This is how so many people learn on their own by immersing themselves into TV series, podcasts or music.

Although it’s wonderful to have the ability to learn on your own, it presents some challenges and limitations as well.

  • Many times there are “holes” or “gaps” in a student’s knowledge – things that weren’t learned well from the start, therefore leaving a ‘hole’ or ‘emptiness’ in the flow of knowledge.
  • We naturally have “interference” from our first language onto a second, so we “transfer” things from our mother tongues onto English.

Both common sources of mistakes – holes and interference – lead to “fossilization”, which occurs when a mistake is repeated enough times without correction that it becomes a habit.   The mistakes technically harden in your brain leaving an imprint, like a fossil.

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… but rest assured, there is no challenge too difficult to overcome.

Fossilized mistakes are possible to correct.  It just takes work and more than that, it takes greater awareness, which is the first step to any change.  Meditation techniques teach that “what you feed will grow.”  In other words, what thoughts and beliefs you constantly reinforce by repeating them will grow stronger in your mind.  The process is the same regarding language, including how we talk to ourselves as we learn, how we react if and when a mistake occurs and those darn “fossilized mistakes” themselves.  The more we repeat them, the more they take root.

This leads me to the four general steps in the learning process:

  1. A student makes mistakes and gets correction from a teacher. There is no limit to how long this process might take and it’s a more passive process for the student.
  2. Eventually the student starts to “self-correct” and this is when you know language acquisition is shifting from passive to active. Self-correction is possible due to greater awareness, which is the first step to any change.
  3. The mistake is made once in a while, always self-corrected when noticed.
  4. Eventually the mistake disappears. The hardened fossil has been broken open and thus dissolved.

This matters anywhere you learn another language, but since there are around 184 nationalities living in Brussels and around 104 languages present, this makes “interference” widespread and there are few native speakers to learn from as you would in London or Washington DC.  If everyone is influenced by their first language, then interference comes in many forms in Brussels.  Some people call the English spoken in international communities such as this “Globish”, “Eurish”, “Euro-English” or simply “International English.”

Some observations and tips for language learning based on my teaching experience:

  1. Frequency is more important than duration of time in order to retain and memorize information. For example, it’s better to learn a language in small increments of time (30 minutes a day) instead of a two hour class all at once.
  2. For improving comprehension it’s better to stay with one general accent and get used to the sounds, tones and expressions before moving on to another. Some students think it’s best to change their teacher and hear different accents all the time, but it actually works in the opposite effect as your ear never adapts fully to one. This is to focus your comprehension and limit the amount of information you receive at once.
  3. When you aren’t focused and can’t concentrate, it’s best to take a short walk, try to meditate or find whatever means you can to relax before learning begins. Being relaxed and calm is more important than knowledge or skills, because when we aren’t relaxed, it blocks us from speaking at our full potential and therefore the knowledge we have matters less.

Since language is best learned with more frequency than of duration of time…since greater awareness is needed to make a change… and since “fossilization” is real and occurs when students don’t get corrective feedback, targeted conversation is the way.

Remembering what meditation reveals: “What you feed will grow.”

If conversation isn’t guided and if there isn’t someone available to point out “interference” or “fossilized mistakes”, then we continue to feed these errors and find ourselves in a vicious cycle of habit.  Fossilized mistakes are just that – they’ve happened enough where they are now habit.  By being more “mindful” of your learning, by targeting problem areas, and by being in a calm environment to do so, you can learn to break the habit of “fossilization” and then be in a better position to continue learning on your own!

 

 

 

 

 

Football and English: The Power to Unite

It’s that time of year again, the World Cup.  The United States didn’t qualify and after Argentina and Spain lost, I naturally went for where I live now–Belgium.  The team was doing great and made it to the semi-finals!  I speak in the past tense, because it all ended last night losing to France.  Despite losing, however, people still honked their horns and celebrated the team’s success, which put a smile on my face.  These past few weeks have been exciting and beautiful as the occasion united people who otherwise have little to nothing in common.  This is the power of sports, and football in particular.

Brussels is a conglomerate of people from all over the world, and finding a real “Belgian identity” is hard for a few reasons.  First of all as stated in the last blog post, there are approximately 184 nationalities living within the City of Brussels!  And secondly, Belgium itself is divided.  Unlike some countries where division is due to race or religion, the modern explanation for division in Belgium is  language.  In Flanders they speak Flemish, a dialect of Dutch. In Wallonia, they speak French, although a Latin language Walloon was their original language and has declined in use little by little, today being spoken by few.

The World Cup can be a time for unity.  You cheer for your team, then you go for another if need be.  You may not watch the games or be a fan, but you still like to see people on the street smiling and filled with excitement.  In Belgium, bars were filled with people of all kinds.  Bars were filled with Flemish and Walloons, matching the demographic of the team in fact!  They had to unite to play as a team, so how could they overcome the language division that existed between them?

I overheard some Irishmen talking last night about how the team communicated, and it wasn’t by speaking the others’ language.  Instead, it was by speaking English together!  A trend that is starting to happen bit by bit is that Flemish and Walloons are choosing to speak English together instead of each other’s language.  It seems English is able to bridge the divide somehow.

Belgium lost which was disappointing for many but good news came as well as a lost football team in Northern Thailand were rescued.  This was a miraculous story with divers from many countries working around the clock to save the boys.  When the boys were found, fortunately some spoke enough English to be able to communicate with the British divers who found them.  When EU Parliament workers have a meeting, it’s English that is spoken to reach the numerous nationalities represented.  Historically English was a language of submission and cultural domination, but today it’s the language used to unite groups and ease communication barriers.  English today is a common lingua franca across the globe.

The World Cup is a time of unity and cheers come in many languages, but when more than “Go” “Stop him” or “Shit” (among others) are needed, English is the language in common.  Football and English, together or separate, they are true forces that can unite!

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Some language quirks about Brussels

Brussels is home to the institutions of the European Union and for that reason the capital of Europe.  Although it’s not as internationally recognized as cities like London, Paris or even Amsterdam, on a political level, this is where things happen.  Being American I often call it the “Washington DC of Europe”, but there are countless differences between the two.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium and is legally bilingual with French and Dutch.  Why two languages?  That’s complicated but imagine a city tucked between two regions – one French speaking and the other Dutch speaking – and that is Brussels.  At the same time, it’s the most international city in the world after Dubai with 184 nationalities living here (as stated by the Bulletin.) French is used more within the City of Brussels, but English is the language used in common for the international community of course.

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As home to so many nationalities, this means there are numerous languages in contact influencing the other all the time.  According to the third Taalbarometer study by VUB, there are 104 maternal languages in Brussels!  Among the people I’ve met so far, there are few who aren’t studying some language in fact, be it English for professional development purposes, French to survive in Brussels, Dutch for those living or working outside of town, or another language for professional and promotion opportunities within the EU institutions.  Due to the high percentage of bicultural couples as well in Brussels, it’s not uncommon to meet young children who speak four languages well at home.

Not only is Brussels an international place, it’s also within Belgium that has three official languages: Dutch, French and German.  For these two factors, I will be bold and say what I have come to believe and observe since moving here: In Brussels, the quantity of languages spoken is valued higher than the level at which you speak each one.  This doesn’t mean that people don’t speak languages well, quite the contrary, but it does explain why many claim that they lose fluency and get worse with their second, third or fourth language here.   Where there is a loss there is always a gain, and the gain in Brussels will be one or more new languages for your mind and CV as well as  immense cultural opportunities.

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The graphic below shows Brussels as “bilingual” but this is how the it’s measured within the Belgian system alone.  As Brussels is an international place unlike any other, we know it’s much more than just “bilingual.”  

A few linguistic challenges to consider in Brussels

In a place where there are more than 100 languages spoken and where there are two official languages within the city limits, no wonder “interference” happens when speaking English in particular. “Interference” is the influence from one’s mother tongue (or other dominant language) when learning and speaking a new language; interference occurs when we “transfer” parts of one language onto another.  This is normal; it happens for anyone learning a new language, and it happens a lot in Brussels with English and any other non-native language for that matter.  Language “purism” is another factor.  Purism is a pejorative term in linguistics for a strong conservatism regarding the use and development of a language.  Those who are language purists aim and seek to speak the most original (or pure) form of a language.  It is why some will want to learn British English over American English, for example, or study Spanish in Spain instead of Argentina.  The chances of learning  French or Dutch well are likely here, always knowing interference is a factor in language learning, but if you are intending to perfect your English, know that Brussels can be a hard place to do so.

I learned long ago and am a firm believer that language is a living thing that molds and changes with time and the environment.  This is why the emergence of an international English is happening throughout the world and especially in a place like Brussels.  I’ve heard people call it different things like: Eurish, Globish, Euglish or International English.  When communicating is the priority, sounding perfect and “pure” lose relevance quickly.  Stay tuned for future posts on Eurish/Globish/Euglish!

It’s a very enriching experience to live in such a culturally diverse and dynamic place.  I’m coming to see that Brussels can be a place for anyone – language lovers or not – but one thing is certain, at some point you’ll probably give in to language learning resistance and pick up another language out of need, interest or possibility while in Brussels.  This is just that type of place, and because of the diversity, one must be realistic with their learning goals.  The best way to learn a language is full immersion and that isn’t realistic in an international community where communication has priority over language perfection.  Next post: realistic goals for learning English in an international environment such as Brussels.

 

The Fork of Identity

I haven’t written in this beloved blog for many months. Since the last post I have come to Europe–Barcelona, Spain specifically–and although it’s only been about six months, it feels like years!  Adaptation and growth can indeed feel like a pressure cooker I suppose.

I could write about many things to open the Europe chapter of this blog, but one topic comes to mind specifically: table etiquette.

I remember how Alexia ate, a dear French friend I met in college.  I remember thinking it was quite “pretty” the way she held the utensils and used both at the same time.  I quite honestly had forgotten about it since coming to Europe, but of course it’s come to my full attention.  How could it not?  Recently someone commented on the way I changed hands when eating.  To him, it was quite strange and far from elegant.  The process is as follows:  American Style: Knife in right hand, fork in left hand holding food. After a few bite-sized pieces of food are cut, place knife on edge of plate with blades facing in. Eat food by switching fork to right hand (unless you are left handed). A left hand, arm or elbow on the table is bad manners.

Placing the knife on the edge of the plate and switching hands  was like turning on automatic pilot, and it’s moments like this when you realize just how American you are!   The American style of eating seemed like a lot of extra and unnecessary work to him, but what was far worse of an offense was that my left hand was not visible,  but according to the description above from “United States Dining Etiquette Guide,” having your left hand or arm visible on the table is bad manners in the US of A!  There are many ways to spot an American tourist: college and professional sports paraphernalia, tennis shoes, fanny packs, and the infamous North Face jacket, among others.  I never took part in the fanny pack craze (and never will for that matter), and I prefer Converse over Nike thanks to Argentina, but apparently, the hand I use to hold my fork is also a dead giveaway of my nationality!  Let’s call it the “fork of identity.”

It’s more accurate to call it the “North American style” instead of the “American style” as this also is the common way to eat in Canada.  In comparison, here is a description of the Continental/European StyleKnife in right hand, fork in left hand. Eat food with fork still in left hand. The difference is that you don’t switch hands-you eat with your fork in your left hand, with the prongs curving downward. Both utensils are kept in your hands with the tines pointed down throughout the entire eating process. If you take a drink, you do not just put your knife down, you put both utensils down into the resting position: cross the fork over the knife.

continental and american style

In the early nineteenth century in Europe, shifting forks back and forth while eating was not only accepted but also common believe it or not.  It was around 1850 when the upper class changed this and the Continental/European style became fashionable.  A French etiquette book of the time stated: “If you wish to eat in the latest mode favored by fashionable people, you will not change your fork to your right hand after you have cut your meat, but raise it to your mouth in your left hand.”  Although the “Continental” approach is also accepted in North America, it is far less common, and the opposite is not true.  The North American style stays on that side of the world and most Europeans today have their preferred style.

It’s debatable among etiquette historians where the “switch and then switch again” North American style came from.  Some etiquette books teach that it came to the States along with the British colonists, where others infer that Americans created it to be different, to keep in line with their pioneering ways.  Last week I happened to be at a dinner full of expats and sat next to an American who had been living in Europe for more than 15 years, and across the table was another with less years to his European CV.  I quietly watched to see how they ate, and neither of the two would have revealed their nationality based on how they held their fork.  They both used the European style with ease.  I asked Rob next to me when he changed his eating style, and he was struck by my question. He admitted he hadn’t thought about it in years, if ever at all, and he thinks he goes back and forth between the two styles depending on where he is.

I imagine this topic comes up for many Americans living abroad and/or in Europe often.  Despite having an EU Passport and living across the Atlantic, my identity as an American can’t and won’t change…but I think my fork will!

 

 

 

 

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