Mastering the Models
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
The other night I was thinking about models. Well, no, it was not the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. It was even more exciting models. The models of a language that we need to embed into our brain in order to communicate in a new language.
I had received an email from a reader who wrote in from my website. He lived Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and had been learning the Xhosa language for about 3 1/2 years. He told me he had become "somewhat fluent" but still had a lot of frustrations. He asked if there was any material or resources I could recommend to help him.
We always think first of formal resources: books, tapes, courses, classes. But I had to tell this correspondent, I am not in South Africa now, and not sure what formal resources to suggest there. But there are actually lots of resources most people overlook -- ready to hand every day all around us. The community of Xhosa speakers is your best resources for learning the language they speak!
Master the Model
When you are learning a second (or third or fourth) language, you are trying to master a Model. All the activities of hearing, repeating, constructing sentences, having conversations, learning vocabulary -- these are all parts of a set of skills to master the Model.
The way people speak needs to be down in your brain like it is in the Xhosa's brain. You need that Model in your head as a ready reference. If you have to painfully construct each phrase and sentence grammatical prefix by grammatical prefix, you and your hearers will indeed get very frustrated! You need to Master the Model!
So how can you master the Model? How can you internalize the ready reference the native speakers have naturally and unconsciously burned into their brain through their early experiences in the brain? You can simulate to some extent the same kind of social interactions through which all people naturally and easily learn their first language. You are around people who speak, you hear it, it comprises the context of your life and living.
In the past I had been in the Xhosa-speaking area of South Africa for the very purpose of analyzing the situation for new learners. I spent some time with them and we explored their environment together in, for instance, Umtata, Fort Hare or Brook's Nek. I found few formal resources suitable for non-Xhosa to learn that language.
But I was able in those instances to propose a whole program of activities and defined resources in the community. One thing I have suggested when working with folks in the Transkei and Ciskei area in the past is local radio programs.
Also the Zulu TV programs should be helpful, since Xhosa and Zulu are mutually intelligible to high degree. My earlier Xhosa learners found the TV programs in Zulu helpful, just to hear and see the interaction in action and event. I am not sure, but I think there are now also some TV programs in Xhosa.
Train Your Ears
The radio, even with passive listening, will help your ears become accustomed to the rhythm and flow, providing a stronger subconscious context with which to listen and concentrate when trying to hear and communicate. The TV sources will add kinetic cues and social interaction. The richness of the visual event will multiply the value of the experience.
Drama is good, since you will have the interaction and setting. News and topical discussion programs can be valuable in a different way, providing a more controlled and sometimes more formal flow and enunciation. The concentration on a topic will perhaps reinforce your hearing with repetitions of key words and discussion of a limited core of ideas.
In the long run, the best resource is the Xhosa-speaking community. Language is not primarily information like world history or chemistry. Language is primarily a Social Skill.
You need to gain fluency by continuing to use the language with native speakers in their social context. Where your time and location possibilities are limited by your job or other factors, plan intentionally more experience time among Xhosa communities. This is harder to do in metro urban areas.
I am not personally familiar with the Port Elizabeth area. I would think, though, that you can be in situations where Xhosa is the language on the street and in the shops between a large portion of the population. Just being in those settings will be of great value.
Fun and Free
Wherever you are, in whatever language you need to learn, here are some practical and fun learning activities you can do with your free community resources! Just sit down in a tea/coffee shop and have a LONG cup of tea. Listen actively and passively. Watch interactions.
You may be surprised how much just seeing what is happening will make you hear more phrases. Listen to the sometimes loud public conversations between two or more Xhosa people. (Maybe without looking directly their way!) Are their newspapers or magazines in Xhosa? Get one and read some every day (one paragraph, then one story, etc). Read the Xhosa paper while you are in the tea shop listening to the random Xhosa interactions around you.
Cultivate Your Resources
Here is a great, almost free resource. Cultivate a waitron (that's what they call table servers in South Africa, to avoid the French gender forms waiter/waitress in the old language). Get to know the bartender or manager who will agree to interact with you in Xhosa even if for only a short exchange, but every day, a certain day every week, etc.
Remember you are going to provide them free entertainment through your interactions with them! You bring value to this relationship! If they laugh hard enough, they may even give you your tea for free! Double bonus!
Just ask them, can I frustrate you with my attempts to stammer your language? No, not really, here's what you say.
Can you help me learn Xhosa (or improve Xhosa) by talking with you? Can I practice speaking Xhosa with you? When I come in for tea, can we speak in Xhosa so I can improve my Xhosa?
Cultivate a set of informal Xhosa speakers you can return to every day, or every so often. Make a circuit of such opportunities. Everyone who speaks Xhosa is a potential resource!
Stimulate Your Ears
Your ears have to have stimulation and you need to use the language enough to gain physical as well as mental-neural control. Your tongue will follow your ears for the model they are hearing. So do what you can to enhance and enlarge the Model availability.
Have fun getting to know your Models!
Accent, Dialect and Language
Approaches to Language: Models
How Many Words?
Principles and Techniques of Language Learning
Tunes and Tones: Singing the Language
Why do People Have Accents?
Originally written in an email response to a query 22 April 2010
This article written and posted 23 April 2010
Last edited 10 July 2011
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.