Most of us have attempted to learn a language while not living in a community where that language is spoken. We may have studied a language in school, or on our own. Yet for most of us, it was probably a relatively unsuccessful endeavor. Why is that?
If language acquisition is a process of growing in participation in a language community, it’s no wonder that acquiring a language outside of the community is difficult.
- How can you participate in a community you don’t live in?
- Can you somehow participate peripherally or virtually?
- Do you need to ignore sociocultural considerations altogether and just try to learn as much as you can cognitively?
The path you take will depend on a number of factors.
First of all, what do you want to do with the language you’re learning? If you don’t want to participate at all in a community which uses the language you want to learn, it would seem to be a waste of time.
So most people are expecting to participate in some way at some time. How, how often, and how deeply you plan to participate in that language community will determine what steps you take in language learning.
First of all, what do you want to do with the language you’re learning?
Secondly, what resources/people are available where you are?
- Is there a community of people (or at least one person) who speak the language?
- Are there recordings/TV shows/books/events in the language?
- What can you find online?
The resources (and, most importantly, people) available to you will have a considerable impact on your language learning path.
Say, for example, you are a businessperson who makes trips into a language community but doesn’t live there. You don’t have any contact with native speakers where you live, so your only opportunity for interaction is when you are on a business trip. You’d like to conduct some of your business in the local language, but feel like that’s an impossible task.
So what do you do?
First of all, think about the ways you want to interact in the language in the future, and then try and replicate those interactions in a language learning context. Now of course, you can’t start off conducting a business meeting on day one, but you can start to do intentional activities which build your communicative skills over time and which will eventually lead you to a point where you can begin to conduct meetings in the language.
How do you do that?
Take advantage of the time you have with native speakers by doing intentional, communicative language learning sessions and getting usable recordings from those sessions so that you can listen to the recordings when you’re away from the community.
You’ll need to produce usable, at-your-level material that you can listen to and watch in order to continue to participate virtually while not among speakers of the language. Then slowly build up to where you want to reach in terms of participation.
For example, if you want to conduct business meetings, you’ll need to do harder and harder activities, going from simple descriptions to simple stories to more difficult stories to arguments and opinions.
Each step along the way, get lots of good recordings which you can listen to while you’re away from the language community. Eventually, you’ll want to build up to activities in which you simulate business meetings, giving presentations, responding to questions, taking part in discussions.
The important thing to remember is that language learning takes time, and that learning from a distance takes even longer. If you want to participate at a higher level, it may take you a very long time to reach your goals.
Remember: language learning takes time
The amount of time you do have to participate in the language community, the quality and amount of recordings you make to listen to during off periods, the quality and amount of other materials available in the language (online videos, radio programs, books, etc.) and the amount of participation you can manage while away (skype, phone calls, etc.) will all affect just how bumpy the road will be.
In other words, have a realistic perspective about the amount of work language learning will take, all the while being optimistic about continued progress. While distance learning is considerably more difficult, it can be done!