I speak un poquito… under the right circumstances…

I this really communication?

“Hello, my name is Sergey, and I forgot 500 English words.”   I can’t even count how many times I heard my Ukrainian friend say this.  Sergey, who is a brilliant, highly educated man who studied English all throughout school and college, has now, at the age of 45, found himself unable to say any other English phrase.  Every time he met an American, he would smile, shake their hand and repeat his phrase.  Another woman I knew who was introduced to me as a professional document translator that had translated entire books from English into Russian was unable to answer simple questions like “How are you?” or “Where are you from?”

I’m sure you have had experiences like this.  Maybe you studied four years of high school Spanish and now all you can say is, “Hola, yo quiero Taco Bell.”  All over the world, I have met people who have invested years of their life studying a language and now that the books are closed, they are completely unable to function in that language.

One thing that I have found to be true is that while many people are not functional, if they are exposed to some of the language they studied, their minds can still pick up on random words they recognize.  They have a passive understanding of the language, but not an active one.  Passive understanding is when you are exposed to something, and your mind is able to recall information about that something.  This is like my friend who, upon seeing a word written down in English can remember the Russian equivalent.  Or when you call your bank and hear, “Para servicio en español, marque dos,” and you know not to dial 2 or you’ll be speaking Spanish.  Reading and listening are passive acts when it comes to recalling language because you are receiving outside stimulus that can prompt understanding. The good news is even if the information is only in your passive memory, it can still be drawn out under the right conditions and a with a little effort.  The bad news is that when you actually need it in a pinch, you might not be able to find it.

Active understanding is when the information is so accessible that you can recall it any time you want without an additional prompt to tell your brain which shelf to look on.  You don’t have to think about it, it is at hand when you need it.  In order to speak or write with ease, a person must have an active understanding of the language. 

“people with years of formal language training can’t speak the language as well as a toddler can.”


This reminds me of an experience I had several years back.  I worked my way through college as an EMT, and one day I was in an ER and ran into a tech who had an accent.  Always being a curious monkey, I had to ask where he was from.  When he said he was Romanian, I blurted out, “I studied Romanian, my mom’s family immigrated from there.”  As he switched languages and started jabbering away at me, I could understand bits and pieces, but the only words I could remember how to say, as I mentioned in my last post, were “Nu fumez,” which means “I don’t smoke.”  I was happy to hear the tones go off to summon me to an emergency and thus spare me the embarrassment of having to actually try to talk!  Later, as I got to the scene of the call and discovered my patient was Hispanic, I found myself in a different situation.  I was able to explain to them who I was, that I was there to help, and ask them questions about their health. 

Why was it that my Spanish was more accessible than my Romanian? Something had to have happened in order for one language to make the move from my passive memory into my active memory.  Unfortunately, I think the typical ways we have approached language learning have been inadequate to achieve this.  As a result, we have the phenomenon where people with years of formal language training can’t speak the language as well as a toddler can. 

I believe there are three big mistakes we make in our language learning, and I want to spend the next few posts diving into them in order to help you on your language journey.  The first is encouraging students to study for the sake of passing tests instead of participating in a relationship.  The second is focusing too much on rapidly expanding vocabulary and not as much on actually mastering the part of the language we’ve already learned (also known as fluency).  The third is approaching language from a literate standpoint instead of an oral standpoint. 

Certainly there are many other factors that contribute to the success or failure of a person in learning a new language, but I hope that as we explore these four mistakes in the next few weeks, it will help you to start off your journey with a better map to help you reach your language destination.


About the Author: David

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