How to learn English

Good morning folks,

I’ve got an interesting topic for you today. A break from the harsh cruel reality of coping with death and suffering in the African bush.

It’s all based on a 19-year-old kid, named Kapindah. As I biked in to my clinic a few days ago calling out greetings and being waylaid by small children desperate to try and catch me on my bike – I met him on the road. I dismounted in the sand and rocky mud and we walked about a kilometer to the clinic. We had a lively conversation – all in Bemba. Then he broke out into a song by DMX wanting to show off – “Gonna Get Mine”. He sang the whole song. When I asked him what it meant he explained correctly – in Bemba. I was shocked, to say the least. Here’s a young man, who has studied English for 12 years but can only carry on a basic conversation, who knows, can sing, and explain in his own language a song by DMX full of complex slang and concepts abstract to Zambian village life.

Today, a friend of mine forwarded me an interesting infographic from Kaplan and it set my thoughts a-turnin’ about how we learn languages.

Infographic: How to learn Englishvia Kaplan Blog

Here’s the situation, I live 56km from the nearest town. It’s 8km down a bush track just to get to the paved road. The average literacy rate in my community is 40%. The catchment area which is served by my clinic, is divided into 8 zones. Within those 8 zones, there are 9,127 people distributed fairly equally. We have 6 basic schools – grade 1-7 with 50-70 students to a teacher. If a person can manage to make it through grade 7 and raise school fees, there’s a high school in the provincial capital not too far away and they can complete grade 12.

The country of Zambia has over 70 spoken languages! Bemba is the language spoken by the largest populations groups throughout the country. When Zambia became independent in 1964 (it used to be Northern Rhodesia), English became the official national language. Even though English is used/taught in the education system and is the language used for official communications, there’s a huge deficiency here in reading, writing, and speaking English – especially for young women. Most high school graduates I’ve met can introduce themselves and carry on simple conversations at the third-fourth grade level. This is after 12 years of English instruction in the schools. Children in the 1st – 7th grade can barely introduce themselves and say hello. Reading is manageable if the material is read out loud and slowly. But more often than not, it is pronunciation without comprehension; spoken words without any connection or meaning to the reader. We know the best time to acquire language skills is when you are young. But these kids and families are living hand-to-mouth on the edge of starvation every day. The value of learning English is pretty abstract as is the idea of improving your chances for a better job many years in the future. There’s quite a bit to survive before the reward can be seen.

It’s not that people here can’t learn languages. Not at all, in fact most people in my community can speak 3-4 different languages, which they use in every day life and between the tribes. Those languages are related within the Bantu family, but they are by no means easy to learn. English remains a challenge, and I think a lot of that has to do with the focus on using local languages and dialects – even in the school classrooms.

Here’s a brainteaser from earlier – Why is it that a teenager 56km in the Sub-Saharan African bush can sing me a DMX song in English and explain it’s meaning in local language, but can hardly get beyond “Hello” in conversation? Do music, radio, films/TV (when it can be found) help people learn English? I think the answer is definitely – Yes! These are tools that have the potential to create a powerful connection with the learner based on individual interests, learning styles, and the ability to gain attention and respect from peers. They act as a supplementary course book – providing insight into slang, usage, pronunciation and dialect. Music especially allows for repetition, practice and role play. A man or woman can sing along and discover language while participating in local pop culture – showing off, gaining social status and receiving a reward for learning the lyrics and meaning of the song. They can teach their peers, receive the strokes and prestige of being the teacher, as they further their own mastery of the song’s language. Grammar and syntax are learned and internalized in an easy, fluid manner. The learner is motivated because the information has direct application and value in everyday life. Exposure, contemplation, information gathering, internalization, adaptation, application through teaching others, and mastery.

Immersion is another powerful tool for learning languages. Sitting in a classroom trying to re-construct culture and context while memorizing a language is not very effective. We’ve all tried it with pretty pitiful results. A conducive immersive environment, surrounded by other motivated learners, wins out as the most effective way of teaching English. I know that from personal experience. I didn’t start grasping Italian, Russian, or Icibemba until I immersed myself in the language, the culture, and communicated with fluent native speakers on a daily basis focused around activities.

Peace Corps volunteers have 3 months of intensive in-country training before they are placed in their village for their 2 years of service. Three months is not a lot of time to gain proficiency in a language like Icibemba with grammar, pronunciation, and subtlety of meaning that is totally different than any language I knew. After 3 months of mixed language training, I was relatively proficient. I could even deliver a speech to dignitaries, which was filmed on national tv, and successfully cracked jokes which made the audience laugh. I believe that was because I’d gotten a learning process down – read, study, write – then listen only to music, programs etc. in the language, find a study partner who is also learning, and work with a tutor/teacher who is a native. For me, the most essential part of the process was collaborating with my fellow learner – oscillating between teacher, mentor, learner, and peer. As we competed with each other we both grew toward mastery, and both being learners we could compare our learning styles and explore different processes and paths to adopt the language. We pushed each other outside of our comfortable learning habits as we grew. I think that process holds true for any language.

My experiences are in sync with the results illustrated in Kaplan’s graphic. Two key factors are in play: 1) Participating in activities that offer personal satisfaction, engagement and application in daily life and 2) Travel to a country to learn the native language. Clearly, the wonderful people living with me here in rural Zambia do not have the resources to travel abroad but, the language programs here in Zambian schools could shift their focus to incorporate more elements of immersion and the tools of music, interactive gaming, and pop culture. Embracing good educational practice, and focusing on use, adaptation, and mastery.

What a trip! Anyway, take a look at Kaplan’s infographic – it’s neat! Let me know what you think about it and how you feel about language learning!




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