Language Acquisition: Trials and Tribulations

Language acquisition and mastery is an important component for professional and personal development in many fields. It is also often necessary for assimilation for new immigrants in a new country. In my own experiences as a language learner (Spanish and Russian) and an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher I have noticed many trials and triumphs in the pursuit of learning and mastering a new language. My language learning days started in middle school with mandatory Spanish classes and mastery did not come until studying abroad in Peru, although every day I continue to learn new slang words and other nuances of the language. My language teaching started during my freshmen year of college when I began teaching ESL courses at a local Hispanic community center in Worcester, Massachusetts. I have also been fortunate to teach ESL in Bosnia, Peru and now Washington, D.C.

Oftentimes I hear harsh critics tell recent immigrants in the U.S. to “Go learn English” or ask “Why don’t you speak English?” While there is significant importance in acquiring the predominant or official language of a country, it is not as easy as it seems. Learning a language is a challenging and lengthy process that requires access to language classes, dedication, humility, perseverance and willingness to make mistakes. Having a solid grasp of a new language can open many doors in terms of relationships, career opportunities and better understanding a new culture. In my personal and professional experiences of being both a language learner and teacher I have assembled the following ten observations regarding language acquisition:

1. Time consuming: In order to be effective, language practice and instruction must occur frequently and at a fairly intensive level. This means having multiple classes each week, often for several hours a class. Additionally, instruction must take place over a long period of time to ensure that student retains the information and continues to advance. For example, the Foreign Service Institute estimates that for an individual who is a native English speaker it will take 600 class hours to thoroughly learn Spanish and 2200 hours to learn Arabic. Those who are students or work full-time or multiple jobs may find the time commitment overwhelming or unmanageable.

2. Cost: Almost all language courses charge a fee, even if they are run by non-profits or religious institutions. Students will most likely need to purchase textbooks, workbooks and other supplies. For those that work to support their families abroad this may be viewed as a frivolous cost. For those attempting to study at a private institution, the cost simply may be too high.

3. Knowledge of resources: Many private institutions have the funding to advertise their services throughout the city, on buses, billboards, the radio etc., but other organizations rely primarily on word of mouth. Most commonly students become aware of opportunities through their friends or employers.

4. Registration process: Registering for classes may be a challenge or barrier for those attempting to sign-up for courses without proper documentation. This can be a large barrier for those without status. Additionally, some of the more competitive programs have a strict time limit or lottery system for registration.

5. Frustration: Learning a new language is not easy and takes a serious amount of dedication and humility. Students can become disappointed with their progress if they do not think they are mastering the language at their desired speed. Practicing in ‘real life’ scenarios can be embarrassing if the student is ridiculed or the other person cannot understand their accent. Slang words are often the most challenging, I myself was both frustrated and embarrassed the first time I got on a combi-bus in Peru and was told “Dame un chino” and had no idea what the man wanted, until a fellow passenger politely told me the fare collector needed $.50 and that “chino” was slang for $.50.

6. Lack of education prior to course: Learning a new language can be extremely challenging for those entering the class with no prior educational background. This situation may embarrass the student and require extra attention from the teacher. Students may be able to keep up verbally, but fall behind in the writing and reading portion of the course.

7. Language of course: There is a large debate about the most effective way to teach a language course. Many argue that the course should be taught solely in the target language, while others argue that it should be taught in the native language. Teaching in students’ native languages may make them feel more comfortable, but it does not immerse them in the target language.

8. Quality of the teacher: Just because a person speaks a language does not make them capable of teaching that language. Language teachers can be volunteers who may not have any training or background in language teaching which can be detrimental to students learning process. Although, it can be hard to find volunteer teachers with a Teaching English as a Foreign Language background.

9. Practice makes perfect: The most effective way to learn a language is to incorporate it into your daily life. This may mean, reading news articles in the target language, listening to the radio, watching TV, conversing on the bus etc.

10. Creative ways of learning a new language: Of course the most traditional ways to learn a new language are to study it in a classroom setting or immerse yourself in a place where the language is spoken. In my experience I have seen other ways such as joining a Meet-Up group, finding a language conversation partner, volunteering to learn or teach or downloading a language learning App such as Duo-Lingo.

With all of these considerations it is clear that learning a language is a challenging process although there is tremendous satisfaction in successfully navigating a transaction at a local store in a new language.

After college, I moved to Washington D.C. which is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city with a large immigrant population in the city and in its surrounding areas. It is quite common to take a quick metro trip and hear multiple languages, some of the most common being Spanish, Russian, Amharic and Arabic. Many recently arrived immigrants choose to live with family, friends or acquaintances, creating ethnic enclaves throughout the city that maintain the language and culture of the homeland. Additionally, many migrants are able to find jobs where their native language is the primary language and English is needed only on a minimal level. While this may provide security and comfort, as many of us know, lack of English skills can limit job opportunities, cultural immersion and ability to acclimate. D.C. has presented me with tremendous opportunities to learn and teach and observe how others acquire language.

There are numerous organizations catering to the language needs of the population for English language learners and those interested in learning other languages. One of the most interesting opportunities in D.C. is that many of the embassies host language courses at different times throughout the year. The federal government sponsors the Graduate School USA which offers a variety of language courses from beginner to advanced levels, amongst other subjects. In addition, D.C. has one of the most unique public adult charter schools in the country. The Carlos Rosario International Public Character School offers extensive classes on ESL, job training, computer literacy and literacy, amongst others.

The opportunities to share or acquire language proficiency are numerous regardless of your location and provide ample opportunity to better understand a new culture, foster meaningful relationships and expand your knowledge base.

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