Cultural Attitudes Toward Language (and Learning Spanish)

James Fallows, on the French/Japanese vs. American/Chinese attitude toward purity of language and foreigners' trying to speak their local tongue:

in France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"  … Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean…" (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.)

The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say. Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity — and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants.

Excellent point. Spanish is closer to English and Chinese in this respect, I think. Getting the meaning across matters most to the Latin American folk I've spent time with. Spanglish has nothing to do with purity and everything to do with utility.

I am trying, by the way, to elevate my Spanish speaking and writing skills from "intermediate" to "advanced." Here are some thoughts on how I'm going to do this:

1. Vocabulary first. If you don't know words, you can't communicate. If you can't communicate even basic ideas, you get frustrated. I'm emphasizing vocabulary. Grammar will come.

2. Spaced repetition. Per Piotr Wozniak's theories on memory — the optimal time to review a word is the moment before you're about to forget it — I'm using his free service to learn vocab.

3. Frequency of vocabulary over themes. I spent $30 on a frequency dictionary. It lists the 5,000 most frequently used Spanish words, in order, drawn from a 20 million word corpus of non-fiction and fiction writing and oral transcripts. The 5,000 most frequent words account for 95% of the written/oral material I am likely to encounter. I think it's a shame that virtually all Spanish vocabulary in U.S. schools is taught thematically (food, travel, etc) instead of by frequency.

4. Make mistakes, have no fear. Fear of embarrassment stops a lot of people from practicing a foreign language with natives, I think. I'm going to try to make as many mistakes as I can.

5. Immersion / live in a country. Chile is my target country. More on this, soon!

Here's a post on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

For those worried about the United States becoming a bilingual country, it's too late. The train has left the station. You cannot deny the demographic trends. Note that we will be bilingual in effect not in law. We are not destined to be Canada, in other words.

Given the competitive advantage they could bestow upon their child, I am surprised when I encounter wealthy American parents who are not paying their (probably El Salvadorean) cleaning lady to talk in Spanish in a structured way with their young children.

Finally, I have read research that shows very young children can pick up a language faster than an adult. But, I have seen no evidence showing an 11 year-old can learn a language faster than a 60 year-old. This seems to be one of the most dangerous myths circulating about language learning. We are damn good at coming up with excuses or rationalizations!

25 comments on “Cultural Attitudes Toward Language (and Learning Spanish)
  • While a frequency dictionary sounds useful, I would think thematic organisation is still better for learning, since we are far more likely to be motivated to learn things that are interesting to us. Grouping by theme makes it easier for us to focus on an area of interest.

  • It’s definitely possible to learn a new language to a high level of fluency in your 20s. In my experience immersion is the key (and trying hard to make it full immersion – e.g. minimize hanging out with expats in English – makes a big difference).

  • Ben as the director of a language school I come across so many myths, preconceived notions and unmerited doubts.

    French is my second language and I’m learning Spanish. Spanish is actually very easy if you understand the basics of latin based languages.

    The French do have a difficult time understanding foreigners because they are extremely strict with their language. Like mentioned English speakers focus on just getting the main idea. In addition we are extremely inventive with our daily language and adjust to new words and terms effortlessly.

    I think that there is great merit to learning by frequency but I think that if there was some effort made to create a frequency based dictionary that was presented in themes it would be doubly effective. I think frequency gives you a focus and shows you what is most important. However,understanding and clarity come from understanding the words in context. Words are meaningless without context. When we learn our native language it is almost always in context. We observe the world around and what our friends and family are doing and incessantly ask “what is that”. If Dad is gardening then we learn about gardening, if mom is cooking we learn about cooking and so on.

    Next topic. I think that Americans overall still remain very closed minded and unconfident about learning foreign languages. We attend monthly community events where we promote our language classes and I’m stunned by the number of people that have zero interest or negative perspectives of learning a foreign language. However, I do see that interest is growing and feel that we are on the verge of broad popularity in the next 10 – 20 years. It won’t happen quickly but it will happen and there will be a consistent increase in interest and necessity in the coming years.

    Looking forward to the discussion on this post.

  • Americans are close-minded because they can be. If you're a fluent English
    speaker, you can be competitive. The need to learn other languages for
    Americans is mainly cultural.

  • Learning a foreign language in adulthood is most certainly achievable. I failed Spanish and French in high school and learned French fluently in my 20’s. I lived their for two years and by the end I was extremely fluent.

    It was extremely difficult and I had to work each and every day but I became and remain extremely fluent. After returning home I decided to major in French and tested into the 400 level courses and got straight A’s. My peers who had been studying for 4-8 years could barely hold a basic conversation in French and wanted to be French teachers.

    Exposure and interaction with fluent speakers is severely lacking in our academic system. The other reason for the overwhelming failure of our system is that we focus on grammar first and language fluency last. Grammar is important but only at advanced stages to refine and polish your skills.

  • Ben,

    Not to say my experiences should be universal, but I’ve found most of the French people I’ve met leaning towards your self-described American/Chinese, use-the-language-to-communicate dichotomy.

    Then again, perhaps it is a factor of living in the south of France where Spanish and Arabic are more prominent than English and the local populations’ English skills aren’t good enough to typically criticize ones French.

    Good luck on learning Spanish, I look forward to read more blog posts as I believe your language learning is paralleling mine.


  • Ben: The French are strict about their language but not as much as the Germans. In French sentence construction, there are formal and informal/ loose options, for instance. Not in German. The rules are rigid and the words very precise. I only ever learnt 3 languages as a child – one my own (Hindi), English and Marathi (influence from neighbours). I learnt 2 other Indian languages informally, then French and German formally as an adult. Note they are all Indo-European languages so there are wide similarities but also gaping chasms amongst them. The reason in my experience why learning when you get older is easier because you have context to “hook” your learning in. Even when I was an early learner, for instance, I read Baudelaire and de Gaulle’s memoirs and Simone de Beauvoir in French, and then re-read them later. In German, much of my reading was German papers in Switzerland and then Der Spiegel (no literature). The reason why learning is harder when you get older is that one’s willingness and sometimes memory for “rules” (many of those in FR/ DE) reduces. Then there is the legacy problem of the language(s) we already know and speak. I also noticed that those in my class, who had poor grasp of English grammar, really struggled with understanding the concept of “case” although those, who did not speak agglutinative languages as their native ones, were happier with the idea of gender agreement between noun and adjective etc.

    I have to agree with Scott Young about French though. My trips to France are much easier (although my vocabulary isn’t very expansive) because I speak French at all. I get quizzed more about how I acquired that accent (my teacher in London was a Marseillaise woman) than get stared at for not being quite perfect. Many French people are not perfect in their own language either. In Prague, it makes life easier to speak German (or Russian) than English even in fancy places. The effort is appreciated more than the correct order of the dativ/ genitiv in a sentence 🙂

  • That is a great Wired article by the way. As a person who grew up speaking Spanish and English, I’d have to disagree on the last thing you said there. Of course it’s easier for younger kids to pick up a language than adults. And by young I mean 3 years old. I have no memory of “learning” English even though I grew up in Guatemala.
    But I learned it the way we all learn our native tongue: by growing up around it.

    Trying to learn French in Paris was a little frustrating because you’re right—you get the occasional giggle from the French that translates to “Oh you’re so silly! Why would you ever say a phrase like that? Silly American!” Whereas in Guatemala it’s all about understanding. If you understand the person, you’re OK. No one will laugh at you (except me, I will).

  • “Finally, I have read research that shows very young children can pick up a language faster than an adult. But, I have seen no evidence showing an 11 year-old can learn a language faster than a 60 year-old.”

    An 11 year old is almost at the end of the spectrum for what is considered to be the optimum age for language acquisition. By age 13, you may end up having a noticeable accent in the target language. In contrast, a three year old will not have as many impediments.

    Remember the ringtones that only children’s ears could hear? ( Imagine the same effect that would have on learning a tonal language like Taiwanese.

  • I’d say the age barrier is a self-limiting belief. And if you really convince yourself of it, it’ll be true.

    It also probably has a lot to do with the fact that children are constantly learning, about everything. Everything is new. Everything is a mystery. A new language is just one more thing. An adult on the other hand, usually mistakenly assumes that they’ve learnt all that they needed to learn in life. So they stop learning, and get rusty. I’ve seen 40 year olds who have been constantly learning all sorts of different things since forever pick up something that you’re supposed to learn while young, like piano for instance, and have no difficulty with it. Notice that “No difficulty” doesnt mean its going to be easy, or that you’re not going to be stumbling your way through the first few months.

    Thats the other thing stopping people, fear of failing, of looking ridiculous. Ego at its worst.

  • I’ve never heard of a frequency dictionary either Ben – and they have a Kindle version! Even better!

    Thanks for the informative comments and suggestions for learning a language and good luck achieving your Advanced Spanish speaking status!

    My father at 88 has decided he wants to learn Italian. I’ll pass on your thoughts!

  • “I am surprised when I encounter wealthy American parents who are not paying their (probably El Salvadorean) cleaning lady to talk in Spanish in a structured way with their young children.”

    What do you mean by “in a structured way”?

  • Like, have her sit down at the kitchen table for one hour and talk and
    listen and talk to the kids in Spanish, instead of the random "hola chico!"
    at the start of her cleaning session.

  • May be Americans see them as “cleaning lady” (an upstairs/ downstairs relationship) and not “au pair” (not unequal, as the name says). Sometimes the label can make all the difference in what we expect of, take from and give a person.

  • I agree that Americans are closed minded because they can be. Geographically there is no incentive. Each state in the Union is the size of a European country and there are 48 states connected without any significant cultural or language divides. One can travel coast to coast for 3,000 miles and only speak English. If I travel 3 hours in any direction for the heart of France I can be in contact with up to 6 or more languages.

  • Ben,
    Japanese say your japanese is good no matter how bad/good you are, it happened to me. It has to do with the Nihonjinron theses; only japanese can speak, understand and produce the sounds of japanese.

    I’d recommend you to listen to this two polyglots; Steve Krashen and Moses McCormick. Their video blogs are frequently updated.
    Steve’s input hypothesis is also well detailed in


    I’ve learn japanese using the input hypothesis in less then a year, just by having fun with the language. Ditch the textbooks ang get real. Suerte con el español!!

  • Reading voraciously in the language you are learning is also an important component, for at least two reasons:

    – Syntax (i.e. the normal/expected organization of the words within sentences) is most easily learned implicitly, not explicitly. Simply experiencing the correct grammar/syntax in sufficient quantities will actually cause you to learn it. This is a lot less painful and brittle.

    – It turns out that we also learn a lot about words and word usage implicitly. See Again, the simple exposure does a lot of the work for you, so it’s easier and more fun.

    What’s important about reading is that you can do it at your own pace. In spoken language a lot is missed until you are already fairly fluent.

  • I’d just like to underscore, bold, highlight and emphasize again IMMERSION.

    All the classes and books are great but they pale into comparison to the sheer number of hours using a foreign language when living in it, whether you’re cuddling with a Chilean honey or getting lost in the streets of Santiago.

  • Language is something that I am very interested in (I have a Masters in Sociolinguistics and Bilingualism)and I just have a couple of comments about learning a second language.

    Very young children can learn a second language with the same facility as they learn their first, but this ability diminishes as myelination happens in their brain. Children start to lose this ability quite early (3-5 years old). So as you get older your brain actually loses some ability to learn language, for example getting the accent perfectly is usually very difficult after about 5 years old, and grammar is not as easy to learn once you are past your teens. Vocabulary is the only thing that gets easier as you age (since it is just memorization). In your brain, your first language is contained in one small area, while second languages tend to be more spread out, which shows different ways of learning/using the second languages (you have to compensate for what doesn’t come naturally anymore).

    As for having the Spanish-speaking maid teach your child Spanish, this is a great idea, but for a child to learn a language fluently that language must be highly valued by the parents and ideally by society as well. Even very young children realize that being a maid is not as valued as doing whatever their rich parent does, and if all of the Spanish speakers the child knows are maids they will not learn Spanish fluently. The parents would have to really value Spanish and make efforts to expose their children to other Spanish speakers who are in more socially enviable positions than their maid.

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