LEARNING THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
When you teach overseas, pretty soon you’ll have to face up to the fact that you’ve got to become a second-language student yourself. Unless of course you’re content to cruise through your six months or a year overseas without ever engaging a local in conversation. So, what’s the best way to learn a language? Your school may run language classes for its teachers – if so, grab the opportunity. It’s all too rare.
In my life I have attempted to learn two languages: Indonesian and German. The first I learnt by total immersion, without the aid of a teacher. I learnt it in the street, from vendors, shopkeepers, passers-by and taxi drivers. And from girlfriends. I learnt it fluently. Learning German was a different kettle of fish. I enrolled in a night course, hunching over my text book every night wrestling with the grammar and memorizing vocabulary. And after six weeks of this, I’m ashamed to say, I admitted defeat and dropped out of the course. Today my German is still at the pre-beginner stage. All of which would suggest that a teacher is actually an impediment to acquiring a language. (Sshhh, don’t spread it around. It could put us all out of a job.)
Now learning Indonesian was a piece of cake. It must be one of the easiest languages in the world – simple grammar, delightfully limited vocabulary, and easily learnt pronunciation. No changes of verb form for different tenses. And, lissen to this – to make a plural, just say the singular word twice. So ‘buku’ means one book, and ‘buku-buku’ means books in the plural. Oh, I love it! And on top of all that, Indonesian employs the Latin alphabet, and has no tones.
Tones… aargh! Tones are a devilish invention designed to prevent foreigners from ever understanding or speaking the language. Our ears do not hear them clearly. It is a strange phenomenon; if a language contains a sound that does not exist in your native language, your mind automatically converts that sound to one that does exist in the mother tongue. The phenomenon occurs in reverse too, which explains why Germans say ‘zis’ and ‘zat’ and Chinese say ‘I will ruv you follever.’ So if you’re saddled with learning a tonal language, you’ve got to spend countless hours saying ‘mu, mu, mu, mu, mu’ in a rising tone, a falling tone, a slightly rising tone, a rising then falling tone, and so on ad finitum. It’s possible, but it’s hard yakker.
Another thing you have to contend with when learning an Asian language is the little matter of register. You have to address different levels of people (e.g. teacher, parents, siblings, shop assistants, government officials) in a different way, using different words, different sentence patterns and a different tone of voice. It’s hard to come to grips with, but it’s important. If you use the wrong register, you risk alienating the person you’re talking to.
Like I said somewhere before, learning a second language is no walk in the park.