I have a cousin that I’m helping with Spanish. It is a challenge for both of us. She has a hard time understanding the concept that “one word can mean two words.” Let me give you an example:
Soy niño. – I am a boy. – Mi a wahn bwaai.
For my cousin, it is hard to grasp that two words could ‘mean’ four words in English. Neither English nor Patwa have conjugations as complex as in Spanish, so understanding that ‘ser’ becomes ‘soy’, ‘eres’, ‘es’, etc., etc., depending on who you’re talking about. And it was especially hard to understand that we could omit ‘yo’, ‘tú’, ‘él’, ‘ella’ and other pronouns in Spanish. We can’t do that in English or Patwa, not generally anyway. And she finds it hard to understand how come we don’t need a indefinite article (a, wahn) for this sentence, that by having no article, it has the same meaning in Spanish that the indefinite article has for English and Patwa.
And it’s challenging for her. I feel so very sad sometimes because I don’t know how to explain it. I try over and over, yet she doesn’t understand.
But that same challenge is one that I’ve seen so many times. Once, when I was helping a kohai with Japanese, I heard her use a sentence that sounded something like this:
I eat breakfast.
That sentence structure is wrong. She used the sentence structure of English (subject, verb, object) instead of the Japanese one (subject, object, [object marker], verb.) And I know that many times I used English structure in my learning of JSL. I asked my Deaf teacher once what the sign for ‘of’ is. He told me that they don’t use it really in JSL. I couldn’t understand how you could sigh that you are proud of someone without a sign for ‘of’.
But you know; all of that is natural. When we approach a foreign language (especially if it’s our first), we approach it as if it follows the rules of our own. And that’s okay. I think we actually need a firm grasp of our first language before we ever get a good grip on a second.
Have you ever heard of additive bilingualism? That’s the good way to become bilingual. Where you learn a new language and file it in your brain beside your first one. (Or may be on top of to make this analogy work.)
And then there’s subtractive bilingualism. This is the bad way and the way that many Jamaicans learn English. This is the erasure of the first language to be replaced with the second. When Jamaican teachers tell students, “It is not ‘unu’, it is ‘you’!” or “Stop saying, “Mi tiit dem,” it is, “My teeth!” they are in effect promoting subtractive bilingualism. The first language is slowly uprooted and replaced by the second. But the problem with that is because the foundation of the first language is compromised, they never get full command of the second language while losing full fluency in the first, too.
So… if it’s natural to have the first language as a foundation to learn a second… how do we get over the challenge that the first language can pose to learning the second…?
I have an idea. The acclaimed and super-expensive language learning programme called Rosetta Stone has provided inspiration: use the first language as little as possible. Have the second language’s words and sentences associated with concepts, not more words. That way, the connections are made naturally without necessarily the need to explain too much.
I think it worked with my cousin, but I haven’t got a chance to follow up, so it’s likely she’s forgotten by now. I took phones, books, pens and pencils and said we studied colours and stationary that way. That way (as I understand it) her mind analyses the words and concepts and figures out how it’s different from her native language and files it beside (on top of) the native one.
It makes you think in the language, not translate to and from it. You think it would work?