sociolinguistic competence

I posted an older version of this on a now defunct blog several years ago. I thought I’d repost it here because it is always a useful topic.  If you are interested in learning another language, I hope you find this helpful.

1. The key is motivation. Learning a language as an adult is hard. You must make a commitment to study and practice and allow your motivation to help you work past hurdles. Motivation in language learning comes from many sources. Many people learn a language because it’s a school requirement, an asset to finding a good job, or because they have some kind of religious, cultural, or personal interest in the speech community which uses the language. There are many reasons to learn a language. What is your reason for learning the language, and how can you use your reason to motivate yourself?

2. Recognize how you intend to use the target language. Are you going to write a PhD thesis in this language? Do you just want to communicate with people? How high do you need your level of understanding to be and in what context do you plan to communicate? If you don’t care about understanding news broadcasts or literature, and you just want to chat with people or go shopping in a foreign language, what level will you need to do that? What type of vocabulary will you need? Of course it is ideal if you can learn to read and write in the foreign language’s script, and I highly recommend learning the script, but don’t bother if you don’t have time and if reading and writing in the foreign script don’t serve your language learning purposes. (However, I’d still recommend that you practice the language by doing exercises and writing in a transliterated version of the script, and seeking out transliterated readings.)

3. Find suitable language learning tools. Choose a book, website, or software that has easy, clear grammar explanations and vocabulary organized in a systematic way. For example, some books have vocabulary divided into semantic categories like “at the shop” and “visiting a friend’s house” or “in the kitchen.” Other books just give vocabulary randomly as it arises in each lesson. Some books use a lot of grammar terminology: subjects, prepositions, gerunds, and preterite tense. Does that suit your learning style or confuse you? You may like one book’s method over another. Choose the tool that works for you. Stocking your shelf so that it looks like a language institute won’t help either. It is better to limit yourself to a couple of good books.

4. Focus on all four language skills and use them together. Make sure you get adequate practice in all areas; combine reading, writing, listening, and speaking tasks. Even if you don’t learn to read and write in the script of the target language, don’t discount reading and writing altogether because it can help you learn. You can read transliterated texts in many language books (like the Teach Yourself and the Colloquial series), and you can write small paragraphs using English transliteration to represent the sounds. You must also get listening comprehension and speaking practice from movies, shows, and possibly friends. If you use other materials to supplement the book or software you select, then choose materials that use the skills at your level or slightly above. Don’t choose anything too hard or you will get discouraged. Materials that are too easy will bore you. Also, your competency in each skill area will vary. You may understand (listen) better than you can speak. You may speak better than you can comprehend reading texts. This is normal. To really improve, sometimes you have to work on your weakest skill. In the beginning, just get through the first units in your book of choice, and then proceed from there.

5. Lose your ego. Be ready to practice even though you will feel like you are making a fool of yourself. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or sounding silly. Very articulate people are reduced to sounding like simpletons in a new language. It is like crawling before walking, and you just have to accept that. Don’t be shy. Especially if your goal is basic communication, not writing a doctoral thesis. Some people will laugh at you, but most will be appreciative and even impressed by your efforts.

6. Make a plan and execute it. You won’t learn a language without putting in effort. You have to set aside time to study. It is like exercising. You have to have a scheduled time for it. At least three times per week should be good, but daily is better. The very early stages of language learning involve a lot of memorization. You have to commit yourself to that if you want to get ahead.

7. Live and breath the language. Try to get interested in the culture of the target language. This helps motivation, too. Hundreds of thousands of students around the world study English and are not particularly interested in the cultures of native English speaking countries. These students will probably never need to interact with native English speakers, and are studying English due to its current position as a global language or lingua franca, and its usefulness in various fields on an international level. I am not saying that taking an interest in the culture where the target language is spoken is necessary. However, it does help to increase motivation. In addition, gaining an understanding of the culture where the target language is spoken will aid in attaining sociolinguistic competence in the language. A language is more than just words. One should, for example,  know how and when to say things, understand how politeness and formality works in different languages, and have an idea of what topics are culturally inappropriate or taboo. All of this is part of gaining competence in another language just as much as grammar. So it is useful to take an interest in the culture where a language is spoken.

8. Recognize that language learning is a slow and tedious process. Be realistic. Don’t beat yourself up for not learning the language very quickly. Adults cannot learn languages very rapidly. It is a scientific fact. First, you have to build a vocabulary base and know basic grammatical structure and use that for rudimentary communication practice. You will plug the vocabulary into the structure for practice. But it will take years to get really good. A fast learner who has a high language learning aptitude can pick up enough of a language to communicate basic needs very quickly, especially when immersed in a setting where the language is spoken, but it would still take a person of high language learning aptitude a couple of years of dedicated study to become truly fluent. (And for adults, does 100% fluency ever occur? Language learning is really a never ending process for the non-native speaker because there will always be contexts in which one will encounter something new to learn.) You may not have  a high language learning aptitude. If you are a slow learner, it could take a long time to become comfortable with using even basic structures in the target language. That is okay. Take your time. (And remember to lose your ego and accept that you will make mistakes.) You will achieve your goals if you are realistic about how lengthy a process language learning truly is.

9. Practice, practice, and do more practice. Do readings, listenings, study grammar, make flashcards for vocabulary. Stick vocabulary labels around the house. Speak to anyone who will talk with you. Be active and take control of the language learning process. The more work you do, the better results you will see. In terms of applied study, focusing on a foreign language can be a bit like exercising at the gym. You have to have to designate time slots during your week to studying, and follow through. Relating to point #6, can you spend 20-30 minutes on Thursday and Sunday evening reading a short text, going over a grammar point, or doing an online exercise in the target language? Can you set a bi-weekly hour dedicated to watching a broadcast in the language? Just like one would supplement the attainment of weight loss goals by going to the gym and parking the car further away from the shops to get in extra walking, what additional  actions can you take to incorporate more of the language into your life so that you get more practice and exposure? Is it possible to listen to radio broadcasts of your target language in the car or online? Do you have a person who is willing to practice with you? Be opportunistic by making the most of any presence of the target language in your environment in order to get practice.

My Spanish has gotten a lot better since I’ve been back in Texas. I never lost the ability to understand, but I was having a hard time communicating everything I wanted to say at first. I used to speak fairly fluently when I was younger, so it was frustrating to feel so clumsy when speaking. When I first came back, I was talking to a lady and she told me that her mother got attacked by bees. I could understand everything she was saying, that her mother (who lives back in her home country) was going out from a beach house towards the sea and went into a little cabana and disturbed a hive and suddenly the bees swarmed her and there was a pool nearby so she jumped in the pool and the bees kept on attacking her when she would come up for air. Her poor mother was hospitalized and kept developing bumps on her skin for weeks after the attack because the bee venom was coming out of her system through her skin. Her mother is elderly and it was a very traumatic experience for her to say the least. Anyhow, so the lady is telling me this, and I am listening and stunned by the terrible story, but I was unable to articulate anything appropriate to say back to her. Obviously it was a sensitive situation and all I could muster was “Oh, that’s terrible.” “Oh, and how is she now?” I talked to this other friend and told her that while the lady was telling me the story, I was just shaking my head up and down and couldn’t think of anything to say. My friend told me that when she came to the US she noticed that when English speakers had conversations with her, they always interjected to show that they were listening and following along. She says that in Mexico people don’t interrupt as much. I was like, okay, if that is the case, then that’s good for me so that I can think of something useful to say if someone is telling me something sensitive about a problem or ill health or whatever. Anyway, I still make a lot of mistakes when I speak, but I have a very good (Mexican!) accent and I feel a lot more comfortable communicating now. Recently, a neighbor was telling me that she had been married three times and that people were always shocked by that, but it wasn’t her fault. Her first husband turned out to be gay. Oh, I had A LOT to say about that situation! Women always suffer so much! I feel sorry for him, too because he probably didn’t want to acknowledge his feelings or didn’t understand them or just wanted to conform to avoid prejudice, but your life was ruined due to all of this. I just blabbed on en español like a motormouth. Anyway, her second husband had some emotional problems and became physically abusive, so she left him. But she has been married to #3 for nearly a decade and he is a great guy. So good for her.

Where I live, Spanish is very useful. As a teen, when I worked in food shops, customers would just start out speaking in Spanish sometimes, never asking if I could understand or not. Now, even with hijab on, people sometimes still start out in Spanish with me or comfortably switch to Spanish with me without asking about my hijab or acting like it is weird if I switch into Spanish (I only switch if I notice that their English is far worse than my Spanish, just to facilitate ease in the communication). Once, in the Walmart, I asked an employee where the shampoo was. She looked at me and I could see her eyes on my hijab, but she just said to me in Spanish “Over there near to the pharmacy.” Sometimes, I can understand people who are talking about me in Spanish. Once these two ladies were standing near to me and said that I looked like a nun and started laughing. At one of the taco trucks near to my house, the owner has called me Mother Superior because of my headscarf, ribbing me in that Mexican Uncle sort of teasing way.

Sometimes people do ask about my origins and my religion. “No, I am not Mexican, I am Anglo. I just speak Spanish cuz I grew up here, I did study it in high school also. Why am I wearing this? Oh, because I am a Muslim and it is in our faith. No, my husband isn’t Arab, he is Pakistani. No, well, I converted out of conviction, not for my husband. I was a Muslim before I met my husband.” That’s how it goes. I have had a lot of hispanohablantes ask me much more sophisticated questions about my faith than the English speaking strangers do, for whatever reason. Mostly other Anglos stick to hijab questions. I have tried to analyze why that might be, but haven’t come to any conclusion.

In addition to talking to people, I have been watching Spanish language TV (A guilty pleasure is Caso Cerrado) and also reading Spanish language magazines which I pick up in the check out aisle at the grocery store. I usually go for People En Español, but once I got this cheap tabloid magazine and in the back of it there were ads for psychics and healers and you will never guess what I saw. Among the pictures of Indigenous or Afro-Latino curanderos, there were ads that contained pictures of Sultan Qaboos (the ruler of Oman) and Madhuri Dixit (famous Indian actress). Since they look exotic, Gypsy, Eastern, or whatever, someone had just probably taken them from the internet and put them in their cheesy ads!

Anyway, it is good to be home and to slip back into the Texan life with our diverse population and bilingual English/Spanish atmosphere.

I can get along with most anyone. I have friends from all corners of the earth. Some of my favorite people are very different from me. There is J., a white Zimbabwean woman. She is a sort-of Buddhist and a sometimes vegetarian. She is my mother’s age. She has a heart of gold, and she is hilarious. She says the funniest things and uses these vivid, humor tickling expressions that just have my sides splitting. There is G. She was one of my best friends in Oman, and now she lives not far from me. She is in her early 40′s. She is of Omani settled Bedouin origin but grew up in Kuwait. She is very lively, likes to tell funny stories, and is a great friend. I could go on and on. I have so many friends who are so different than me. I can be comfortable in my skin around people who are much older and from very diverse backgrounds. But there is a group that I can’t seem to get on with. That would be desi Aunties. When I play doe-eyed girl and act like a niece or beti or whatever, it all goes well. But when I try to talk to them like regular people and not Aunties, it doesn’t work. I seem too strange to them and we have no common ground to chat on. There are a lot of aunties in my neighborhood. Some of them have made an effort to get friendly, but I always do something weird and it scares them off. There is this Hyderbadi family down the street, and the Auntie sometimes comes over and tries to chat with me. One of her first questions when we met was “So what Indian serials do you watch?” I told her that I never watch Indian serials, I mostly watch BBC Food and the news. That killed her fun. We meet occasionally but all we talk about is the differences between Hyderbadi food and the desi food that I make (mostly my DH’s family’s U.P. type stuff, as well as Punjabi fare). I made some lasagna and sent it over to them, but they didn’t  like it (Hydro Auntie always informs me when they don’t like what I send). Anyway, the other day Hydro Auntie came over and I was cooking and had a bandanna tied over my hair to prevent my hair from picking up the food smell. She kept staring at my head in a weird way. After she left I went to the restroom and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I was wearing a biker bandanna with skull and cross bones on it!!! I had forgotten! She must think I am a devil worshipper or something.

Anyway, I am not good at fake polite conversation with aunties. I just don’t know what to say. I am not trying to fit in with them, I am obviously a foreigner and all. I just wish I could gel better with them. They seem to appreciate homogeneity, and not like weird foreigners, from what I can tell. Another of my best friends is a real live Auntie (and she is visiting me in June, yay!) but she is different than most other aunties. She is kind of kooky and off-beat and funny. She also knows my family and knows the “real me,” with no pretensions. So we don’t go through all of the circles of formalities. But I think my problem is that I don’t know how to do these formalities.

I would like to know what kinds of things I should say to aunties so that I don’t sound like such a weirdo. I already learned a few things from the trenches: no skull and crossbones bandannas, don’t say I only watch the news. I am pretty well versed in cooking stuff, but beyond that, I get lost. What do desi aunties talk about? What can I do to move on from viewing them in a maternal auntie light, and view them more as peers?  Since I am married, aunties are my peers, right? Maybe that is my mistake, I should just keep thinking of them in a motherly way. I get invited to gatherings that I can’t avoid and I end up in a sea of aunties, so please someone give me a life raft of things that you think would be great to talk about with aunties. Otherwise I might drown in auntie sea turbulence one of these days.


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