Monday, 18 February 2013

Language acquisition at middle age

I'm a member of Kea Global Network and lately we've been discussing how a lack of second language ability could be holding Kiwis back from better job opportunities overseas. I'd agree with the assertion that this 'English is everywhere so I don't need to learn anything else' attitude really doesn't cut it in the wider world.

Now that I live in Europe I rub shoulders with people who regularly speak four languages, and they're doing very nicely thanks. Well done the Dutch who are masters of multiple languages even though their country is tiny (smaller than NZ). We all know there are intellectual reasons why learning a second language is a good thing but aside from that I'd suggest we need it as an insurance policy against unemployment.

It's no good assuming you'll get a job in NZ. Twenty-five percent of NZ's population don't think so and they are living overseas and not all of them are in Australia. They are not all young. I suppose I left it a bit late to make my move. I didn't realise I could make the move when I was younger - it would have been logistically much easier if I had and it would have been a lot easier to pick up the French language. I did study it at High School though I was never very competent in those read it and write it days. Arriving here I really struggled to understand the spoken word and to speak back. It's still the case.

I'd never consider time spent learning Maori useful to me, though I did enjoy teaching kids a few words, songs and kapa haka. I needed to go somewhere else to find a job because NZ's not in a good state at the moment, neither is Europe but somehow there's a job here for me but not in NZ so I've ended up in France just trying to survive because I couldn't survive (get any ordinary sort of work) in NZ. I'm acquiring a second language the hard way. French is far more useful  than Maori if you have to leave the country and go somewhere else.

The isolation of NZ leads to a difficulty in appreciating other thought patterns in other cultures. Frankly, I'm gobsmacked just how different France is to NZ in terms of work ethics, attitudes, behaviours, values. It may be sort of Westernised but it's nothing like NZ. I'm still trying to come to terms with the label of Anglo-Saxon. (I thought I was simply a Kiwi).

 Kiwis are insulated from natural exposure to other languages and cultures by the distance. Come to Europe and you are suddenly exposed to so much choice, richness, different ways of doing things. The problem is that Kiwis are not EU citizens and are normally shut out, so it's harder to leave NZ now and experience living in the EU.

I still find myself rearranging words in sentences on the white screen in my mind. I'm getting faster at it but that doesn't lead to fluency. If you tell me something French once or twice I won't remember it- I need to see it and hear it many times. My aging brain works well but it's not as plastic as when I was younger. Phone conversations are especially hard for me.
Less than 100% hearing ability creates a significant obstacle to determining what is being said. My tongue still hasn't found the gymnastic trick for French Rs.

The difference between me and a child learning a second language (leaving aside the plasticity) is that I arrived having to jump into the complicated adult world with its adult vocabularly. A Research Centre deals in an even more specialised area. My brain was busy trying to survive all the practical aspects, few things were repeated for me. When a child learns they learn in school with a limited vocab, limited topics, situations they can relate to, slower speech rates, plenty of encouragement,no domestic issues to worry about. As an older adult you just can't pick it up quickly unless you've a big linguistic talent.

Folks who meet me several times remark on what great progress I've made since the last time they saw me. That may be true but the progress slows down and plateaus. I've acquiring synonyms, mots d'argots, expressions, a little more speed but I have to say it's really, really hard. I live alone most of the time and I'm always tired from the concentration of trying to work out what people are saying. Language shapes thoughts. Try thinking in a different language - it's a different identity. It's starting to happen- I catch myself using French in my thoughts quite often so that's a good sign but one language interferes with the other- it's a scientific fact. I have lost the wippet-like speed of recall of English words I used to have and that's scary. The filing system has two sides to it now.

At my age it's hard to round the sharp edges of my preference for thinking and behaving and assuming as a Kiwi Anglo-Saxon (not British, American or Australian). I'm learning a bit of humility, lots of patience and hopefully acceptance of others even if I don't agree how they do and think. It's difficult to gain all this living in NZ's bubble.  Intercultural studies/communication should be compulsory in NZ schools as should learning another language (but give people a decent choice). In my opinion NZ has definitely gone backward. I don't see second language learning (except for Asian languages) being of interest to the Ministry of Education.

Back in 1977 in Wellington I was a one-woman pilot programme for teaching eight-year olds a foreign language. They made such impressive progress that the school and the inspectorate allowed the children to continue with me into the next year. And then nothing. The Ministry didn’t follow through and didn’t get back to me. Opportunity lost.

I'm not interested in Asian languages. I'm not interested in Asia or its various cultures. I belong to Europe and that's where my roots are, my enculturation. It's like that for many NZers. Thank goodness I learnt one European Language a bit, even a little bit helps. So I'd encourage every NZer, especially those under 30, to choose another language of a country that might interest you in future and learn it. You never know what opportunities it might open up for you when the ones back home aren't there.

Today I had a French conversation class in another town. With me in the class were two Russians, a Pole and a Czeckoslovak. Each Monday I'll travel to class for an hour-long class and hope to lift my language plateau. With time I just might be able to communicate adequately. I estimate I'll need another 5 years minimum. Wish I was younger.

For information on the incredible Kiwi diaspora read


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