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Language Learning Autobiography 7

Ruth P.

“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” This quote is from the contemporary psycholinguist Frank Smith and I think it is true.  If you have the possibility to learn a second language or more, you have more opportunities to communicate with people from other places or to get a good job.

I was born in Mexico so my mother tongue (L1) or native language is Spanish because it was the language that I started to learn since I was born (Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis) not in school (formal learning) but acquiring it from my environment among people who speak it during my early childhood (informal learning) because children learn partly by imitating and repeating what they hear.

I started to take English classes here in Mexico when I was four years old in Kindergarten. I can say that it was formal L2 learning because it was in a classroom with a teacher who taught me the basic things such as the colors, numbers etc.  I think that in that part of my life I learned English by listening to what the teacher said and repeating it.  It was so easy for me because of my age so I had the many advantages of younger learners.  For example, I did not have any kind of inhibitions so I did not get ashamed of anything and because of the brain plasticity that all children have, it was easy for me to learn.

I continued learning English during elementary school.  Feedback and correction of my way of speaking and of writing were always a good strategy during  my development in this language. I always felt I had the aptitude to learn it  - phonemic coding ability, grammar sensitivity and associative memory capacity - so it was easy to me continue acquiring it.

During middle and high school I had a “pause” in my development in the formal way of learning that I used to have (in a classroom with a teacher) because all that I studied during that time was the same that I already knew because of the school that my parents chose for me so I began to learn English by myself.

My motivation during that time was integrative because I was really interested in learning more so that I would be able to communicate with people who speak English. What helped me the most to learn the “lexicon” (vocabulary) and “phonology” (sound system) was songs and movies with subtitles and to learn “syntax” (word order, grammar), I read articles from the Internet. I always tried to understand the meaning of words so I was always searching in a dictionary what the meaning was and what the correct way to pronounce it was by using the phonetic transcriptions.

When I started my major, I had the opportunity to get a review of grammar rules and to improve my pronunciation. Some of my teachers since I was I in first semester were native speakers I could speak with them and there was not a problem to understand them. What helped me the most were the corrections that they made when I was wrong in pronouncing a word or in a tense of a verb.

I began to study French in the third semester of my program,  so I also learned it in a formal way because it was in a classroom, the same as when I started to learn English. It was when I was 19 years old, but I still felt that I had a great learning capacity.  I did not have any previous knowledge of French so at the beginning it was difficult because it was unfamiliar to me. I had never even listened to a song in French.  This was very different from my learning of English because listening to songs in that language really helped me in acquiring it. It was not until around the third week of being in contact with the French language that I began to get used to it.

The teacher was not a native speaker but she lived nine years in France so her accent was something that was not a problem for me.  It was understandable and the most important thing was that I really wanted to learn French so I was really motivated and a great advantage was that I already had acquired a second language so my pragmatic skills in English combined with my knowledge of my first language were really helpful.

I began with greetings in French like “bonjour” “au revoir” and those kinds of basic things, then with the verb tenses (syntax). This stage was difficult because of the irregular verbs and the conjugations of the auxiliary verb depending on the pronoun.

The way I started to learn French was very different from when I started to learn English because at this age I am more analytical so I compare everything I am learning in French with my first language (Spanish) and with English. I think this is a good strategy to acquire a third language that really worked for me.  Another strategy I use is that I read a lot.  Reading magazines that are in the library and short books were a good way to acquire vocabulary and to improve my pronunciation, I used audio books. I am a visual learner and everything I see sticks in my mind so drawings, power point presentations and images are good strategies for me to learn more.

In third semester, I started to learn Italian but I only took one course so I only know the basic things. Of course I do not have the plan to leave it unfinished so I try to listen to the Italian radio in my free time and to read articles on the internet in Italian.

Next semester I will begin to learn German. I think that I will have more strategies to learn it in a better and easier way because of all the languages that I have already learned since I was a kid.

I consider myself a good language learner because even when I was 10-15 years old, I did not have a formal way to learn a language and I did it by myself. I am always trying to find out what is the most effective way for me to learn more about the languages I already know and for the new ones. I think I will never stop learning because there is always something new to learn in any of the four languages that I am studying and even in my mother tongue.

My plans and goals for the future are to visit different parts of the world so that I can practice all the languages with native speakers and maybe take courses.  I would like to study in Germany for example, because German is going to be a totally new language for me.

My advice to second language learners is to never give up, even when at the beginning it is difficult or tiring. Always try to practice by talking with another person. Even chatting online is very helpful and improves your vocabulary and pronunciation. Reading books, listening to songs, and watching movies are good strategies to improve your language knowledge and skills.

I have never thought about being a teacher myself but I think it would be a good way to remember and share your knowledge at the same time. My advice to  teachers would be to not only focus on the way you want to teach but to first check what kind of intelligence most of your students have and  according to that, make the lesson plans, so that all the learning styles are included and everyone can learn.

A second language teacher also needs to ask about the goals of each student who and he has to try to incorporate these into his teaching philosophy so that he can use his knowledge of teaching to instruct the students according to their individual goals. For little kids, interesting activities and games according to what interests them are can make learning much easier. Using a wide variety of teaching materials such as magazines, power point presentations, videos, and songs can make classes fun. Taking trips to different places where the target language is used is a good idea too because they can listen to how the language is used in a natural way.

Talking and listening to your students is very important so that you can find out what they already know and what they need to know or if they only need to strengthen what they have already acquired. These talks make you and your students feel more comfortable and generate an atmosphere of calm and confidence.

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