Language Acquisition

The following article is from a paper I wrote for my Teaching English as a Second Language course. It’s based on the interview I did a while back, which I also used for my podcast. The focus of the paper is, of course, on language learning.

Haruka Kudo comes from Saitama (near Tokyo), Japan but has been living in Fredericton, New Brunswick since 2002. She originally came to Canada to study journalism, graduating last year from Saint Thomas University, but liked Fredericton so much she decided to stay. Haruka now works for the Multicultural Association in downtown Fredericton.

Recently, Haruka and I had the opportunity to sit down at a local coffee shop and talk about her experiences learning English. She told me that speaking English was one of the biggest adjustments she faced when she first came to Canada. Like most young Japanese, she had taken English in school, from junior high through high school. In Japanese public schools, however, most English teachers are not native English speakers, and the focus is on grammar and reading, with very little practice in actually speaking the language.

After high school, when she was working but not yet in university, Haruka went to a private English school for lessons. Yet when she first moved to Canada, she still didn’t speak English very well. This was because in Japan, she didn’t have many opportunities to practice.

Haruka told me that the hardest things about learning English were pronunciation and slang. Proper pronunciation is hard to achieve without practice, especially when your native tongue is so much different than the target language. And slang, course, is usually not a big part of the curriculum in public schools. But in every day life, it can be a big part of communication.

Haruka said that meeting native speakers and having the chance to practice the language were the most helpful things in learning English. She also pointed out that TV and books were helpful tools. When I asked her what people in particular were most helpful to her, she said her university ESL teachers here in Canada were, because they knew how to communicate with non-native English speakers. They were very patient with her and were willing to slow down and speak clearly when talking to her, in order to help her understand what they were saying.

Haruka said that if there was any advice she could give to a person learning a second language, it would be to find lots of opportunities to practice with native speakers. She also said not to be shy – this was difficult for her at first. I can relate to that because I’m learning Japanese and am a little bit shy about speaking up when I have the opportunity to use it in the real world (which isn’t very often these days).

It would seem that immersing herself in an English-speaking culture was the best thing Haruka could have done for her English language skills. Immersion gives people the opportunity to talk to native speakers every day. And if a person is shy about speaking out in the target language, necessity might force them to do so like nothing else could. So it is probably the best thing any of us can do if we are learning another language.

Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to be immersed in a foreign culture. But what ESL teachers should learn from this is that students usually need practical experience as much as, or more than, being taught grammar, spelling or vocabulary. In a sense, if we plan our lessons well, we can give them an opportunity at a “mini-immersion” of sorts, even if it is just for an hour at a time.

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