From zero to fluency, quickly

Some interesting tidbits from Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching, a paper describing the Foreign Service language school’s experience in preparing novices to use a new language professionally:

  • Unlike adult language learning in other contexts, where students’ motivations might vary from interest to travel to relocation, the FSI language school is training people for a fairly uniform purpose, and gets feedback from its graduates about the particular areas in which they feel underprepared–so the school has a constant iterative model.
  • The goal for language learning should not be to use the language exactly like a native speaker, but to be able to use it to get stuff done: “proficiency”.
  • In some ways, adults are better at learning languages than kids due to increased efficiency. A 10-month Russian course gets its graduates to be able to use the language near fluently in just over 1000 hours, versus 12-15,000 that children spend learning their native language.
  • Immersion seems to be most helpful at *higher* levels of proficiency. In other words, not being able to pick up and move to a country where the language is spoken is no excuse.
  • Some languages just take longer for English speakers to learn than others.
  • To develop a feel for trickier aspects of the language–grammar points, tones–you have to know they exist, so you can pay attention to them.
  • Conversation is actually one of the hardest pieces to learn!
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