Essay: Notes on Second Language Acquisition

Verbal communication is supposedly made up of three elements, only one of which is concerned with actual language.  It is said that 40 per cent of communication is verbal, leaving the other 60 per cent down to context and non-verbal communication equally.  However, when attempting to learn a new language, or to live in another country where you are not fluent in the language, it certainly doesn´t always feel like you are already 60 per cent of the way there just by the pure coincidence of you existing.

When further back on my own language-learning journey, during holidays in Spain, I would strain to pick up fragments of conversation on the street, perhaps congratulating myself a little too much and too readily if I correctly identified and understood the odd word.  Equally, I would be easily slung back into despondency when, instead of hearing a Spanish voice, I would hear an English one, and the ease, the literal lack of thought or need for translation in order for me to understand the words, would make me despair at the length at which I had yet to go in order to be able to do that in another a language: the ability to just absorb it, without thought, almost like white noise.

However, since moving to Madrid three months ago, I have realised that often what reaches up and strikes the brain like a language bullet isn´t always the language itself: it is the tone, or the cadence that pricks your ear before the actual words do.  It isn’t just what a Spanish, or an English person is saying that reaches you translated or untranslated, it is the way they are saying it.  Interestingly, what bought me to this conclusion was hearing English being spoken by native Spanish speakers.  I would listen to the words; individually, collectively, to the accent and wonder why – when it was perfect English spoken correctly and with a clear enough accent – it still sounded off, wrong.  I realised that it was because it was English being spoken with a Spanish tone and cadence that made it sound slightly out of tune.

In music there is a technique called ´harmonics´, which describes when the same chord is played on a guitar, but with different strings: it is the same chord, therefore the same note, but somehow sounds different.  This describes perfectly the use of language by a non-native speaker – the words are all there in the correct order, nothing is wrong, yet it sounds unnatural.  This has led me to the conclusion that chiming and mimicry are just as important when learning a new langauge, or attempting to blend in in a new country, as language, context and non verbal communication.  If you can say peeeeero, dragging out the E instead of pero, with the more English sounding emphasis on the P, what comes next will somehow blend and sound more natural even if it is incorrect, and the same is true in reverse.  This is still an experiment in progress, but it seems to hold true so far.

In addition to chiming and mimicry, confidence, or the confidence to mimic (pretended confidence or otherwise), all combine as powerful tools to assist with second language acquisition, tools just as important as drilling grammar.  That, as well as remembering to celebrate our difference.  For example, I find myself adding a gerund to a Spanish verb for describing my actions: I like to speak of salir-ing for going out and subir-ing from the Metro and I somehow find it much more efficient and descriptive than the correct English.  Similarly, my sister and I have developed a language of our own which is part English, part Spanish and part shared references, which I refuse to see as debasing and instead as creative and interesting.  The experiment continues…


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