Photo courtesy of Piotr Bizior
Growing up in a bilingual country such as Canada has some real benefits. Oh sure, there is the vast spaces and the diverse landscape, but most of all, I love our culture. I love the fact that we embrace our linguistic diversity and, even though it can be difficult at times, I love that fact we have access to so much in two languages. I always find it odd when I visit the United States and find only English on packaging, signs, and announcements. I remember as a child sitting at breakfast and reading the cereal box, comparing the English to the French and seeing how word order and word choice was different between them. Even though I was required to learn French in school, I never was able to ever learn it properly (it’s a long story involving moving from one province to another and getting a nightmare of a teacher) which is really sad. There are so many times I wish I had stuck with French and had practiced it more. Ah, c’est la vie.
A number of years later after finishing my university degree, my wife and I moved to Lithuania and I started work as an English language instructor for a shipping company. During that time, we made a commitment to take Lithuanian language lessons from the university in town. We had started with an intense summer language course and then moved on into the regular program in the fall. Our teacher was extremely nice and very knowledgeable, but her experience in teaching was primarily focused on historical linguistics, especially the history of Lithuanian as an Indo-European language. Her approach to teaching us involved a great deal of time learning word lists and memorizing charts for declensions and conjugations. Over time, I was able to define a large number of words, mostly nouns and verbs, and I could spout off the declensions or conjugations for those words as they were laid out in the chart. The problem was I couldn’t speak. Someone could talk to me and I could mostly understand them (although, that took time and practice on my own) if they talked a little slower and didn’t use a lot of colloquial language. Funny thing is, I couldn’t answer making it a fairly one-sided conversation. I couldn’t even call for a taxi, but I knew all of the endings for house!
As an English teacher, I have often thought about how I can help my students increase their productive skills. It is the balance between learning and acquiring a language [see Earl Stevick’s comments on this here pp. 29-30]. In my case, I learned a ‘whack sack’ of vocabulary (or is plethora more appropriate here, Dean Shareski?), but couldn’t make the necessary connection to real life, that is, being able to acquire the language. I knew the definitions for words, but not the application of them.