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Approaching Fluency

Approaching Fluency

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

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For most of us who try it, learning another language is a long, frustrating process. In middle school, I made stacks of flash cards to memorize Spanish vocabulary. My friends and I affected accents for class presentations and humiliating skits. And I dutifully conjugated verbs into the present perfect, the future perfect, the past perfect, and the imperfect. By the time I left for college, I was upset that all my hard work hadn't rendered me fluent. A few years later, I spent a semester in Bolivia. (Finally, a chance to put my Spanish to good use!). For weeks, almost every conversation was tedious. What tense is she using? What is the word for that? I must sound really stupid. (In retrospect, I'm sure I did). My host sister, Mariana, would roll her eyes at every malapropism. "That's so gringo," she'd say — in English, to add further insult to injury. I swallowed my pride. I took solace in David Sedaris' stories of ex-pat life. And things got better. Eventually. Today, in the second hour, we'll talk to the editor of a new book, How I Learned English. If English is your second language, how did you learn it? Can you remember that moment when you finally felt fluent?



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We keep hearing "English" being mentioned. I am wondering if it should be stated "American English" instead since there are many things different between the two.

Sent by William | 3:14 PM | 9-25-2007

My mother learned English by watching soap operas.

Sent by Denise Slate | 3:20 PM | 9-25-2007

I am a community college teacher of writing and literature. More and more of my students are second language learners. I've been listening (as I always do) during office hours and cannot remember a better program on TOTN. I'll be looking up How I Learned English--it should be very useful in helping me understand how my students cope with English. Thanks again, OPB!

Sent by Rise Quay | 3:22 PM | 9-25-2007


I went to a very good British school in Pakistan for twelve years and when I came to the U.S. for my und. grad education, I mainly focused on mastering American accent. That was my way of showing respect in addition to learning as much as I could and continue to learn more and more about American culture, history, constitution and political environment. I don't sound 100% American YET, however I continue to move in that direction and it's almost impossible for people to tell where I am from. I had two instructors (1 from Pakistan, 1 from India) in my business grad school and their accents were so amusing for me because they had lived here for over 25 years ago and they sounded like as if they just got off the boat. NPR & CNN has indeed played major roles in improving my accent in addition to improving my global perspectives and to understand humanity. This is a great topic, I love it:) Cheers!

Sent by Alex (Wichita, KS) | 3:34 PM | 9-25-2007

Learning english using Saved by the Bell and Family Matters:

I didn't know a word of english when my family moved to the United States from Russia. I was ten, my brother was twelve - and neither of us knew a word of English (though we both spoke Russian and a fair amount of French). We found that the single most effective way of learning english was by watching TV with closed captioning or subtitles. We found that being able to read along what you're hearing and seeing on the screen greatly aids comprehension. Shows like Saved by the Bell and Family Matters helped us learn both the language and American culture.

I'm now a graduate student and live at the International House in Berkeley, and it's the one piece of advice I always give to foreign students.

Sent by Paul Ivanov | 3:45 PM | 9-25-2007

my language: italian. At school: latin/old greek and spanish (5 years). By myself: french. When I was 60 I decided to learn english for 2 reasons: open the door of the world and train my brain. Headphones + NPR, it's the best! I hear your radio while cooking, working in the house & garden etc.English is now a real hobby for me & my youngest daughter (26); DVD of american films with subtitles are also very useful. Now (at 63) I understand better and better, maybe 1 day I will be able to talk! And by the way I've noticed a weird thing: my memory is really improving.

Sent by letizia Benigni | 5:04 PM | 9-25-2007

During my freshman year in college in China, I bought a portable radio/cassette player. It cost me???well, my parents???a fortune, something like one-month salary. I justified it by declaring a noble motive: to improve my English listening comprehension.

At first, the player was fulfilling its noble mission. Most of my waking hours, I was listening to English 900, the popular audiocassette that recites 900 of the ???most commonly used sentences in Britain???, starting with, Hello.

I had a plan: repeating after each one until I could memorize them all. While I was making a progress, the sentences started to get into my nerve. By the third week, having advanced to the 248th (???I lost my pet cat yesterday???), I snapped. Just like that, my noble motive was gone with the lost cat. Since, it???s mostly the pirated cassettes of Taiwanese pop singers in playing.

I felt sorry for my parents??? investment, before this unexpected turn.

One day, I was playing with the radio part of the player, tuning in the shortwave broadcasting randomly. All of a sudden, a clear, distinctive American voice came through the headset, out of nowhere:

???This is the World Service of the Christian Science Monitor, I???m Jessie Blood. Here is the headline news??????

In a brief second, I didn???t know what to think. I never heard a real American speaking live before. It just hit me???her rhythm, the pace, the accent, the purity, the clam, and more. Hell, I didn???t know Christian is a Science, nor had any clue what it Monitors. It didn???t matter. I was fascinated. And from that moment on, I was hooked.

As I became more familiar with the program, I realized it???s not just the style, but also the content and authenticity that really captivated me. I was a news junkie, but had been tired of the junk news I received from the typical Party propaganda. It???s so all-too-familiar that I could lip-sync the newscaster even before he read the piece.

I was elated. Finally, I was exposed to the news that???s original, lively, and authentic. It didn???t bother me that I often barely understood what story was about???I was too ignorant to the basics of American politics and society. What really pissed me off was that the signals were often jammed. In bad days, it made the traffic in a busy street sounds like a symphony in comparison.

Even if I guessed the story half wrong when the signal was clear, or had to bear with the noises in pain when the invisible hand were busy working, it???s still beat lip-syncing the official mouthpiece. And to my amusement, the list of the prominent people in my vocabulary had shifted; Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Kim II-sung like were out; Ronald Reagan, Casper Weinberger, or even Michael Dukakis were in.

That???s the period when my listening comprehension soared beyond my belief, while the English 900 cassette was collecting the dusts somewhere.

My parents??? investment was a huge bang for their bucks after all.

Sent by David | 11:21 PM | 9-25-2007

Excellent show! I grew up in a border town in Mexico and moved to the U.S. during my High School years. As a kid my sisters and I would spend hours watching TV shows we would pick up on our UHF/VHF antenna from our neighbor U.S. border town; shows such as Gilligan's Island I dream of Jeannie,The Flintstones, etc. In the beginning I had no idea of what the characters were saying, but I learned to imitate the sounds and expressions I listened to in these shows. As I grew up I put those sounds to words and understood their meaning with a Spanish/English dictionary alongside me. During part of my elementary and junior high years I attended evening classes to learn English, so by the time I was a teenager I could understand it or so I thought.
While in Mexico I excelled in all of my courses, however, when we set foot in the U.S. my handicap was evident: the English language and its inherent culture. Although I thought I had mastered this language, I realized I knew only a bit of it; Speaking, reading, writing, listening and living in English went from a recreational luxury I had in Mexico, to a grueling daily necessity in the U.S.
One of my problems was that I had learned to imitate pronunciations and gestures; however, I often did not understand the meaning of most idioms. I would give people the impression that I knew the language; but when short sentences would turn into conversations, I would freeze, smile or laugh in trying to divert the attention to something else.
I eventually picked up English enough to earn a business degree from a U.S. university and along the way I learned Italian, Portuguese, a bit of French and Russian. Having gone through the experience of learning English at an early age, I think aided me in picking up other languages.
I must admit though that to the day I struggle to truly express myself in English as I do when speaking my native Spanish. As it was mentioned in the show, it's as if each language requires ones personality to change. I visit Mexico every time I can and cherish every minute I have of speaking, reading, writing and listening to my native tongue. I truly miss it so I take every opportunity I have to speak it.

Sent by alonso arriaga | 1:39 AM | 9-26-2007

I have been in the United States for almost five year, and learning english has been a real challenge. I am from Guatemala, my wife is american but she speaks spanish as a native spanish speaker. We got two kids and we want them to speak both languages, english and spanish, so we have decided to speak only spanish at home. And that has been a problem for me to keep learning english. But I rather that than my kids not speaking any spanish like many latinos in this country. So, to learn english you really have to hear it and speak it constantly, specially when you are 34 years old and your memory is not that effective any more.

Sent by Juan Coy | 3:18 PM | 9-26-2007

I came to US 30 years ago when I was 11, barely knowing the alphabet. At first, everyone sounded like "wauk-wauk-wauk" in the Peanuts cartoons. Then one day, I actually understood what someone said to me. I don't know exactly how I learned it, but I did watch a lot of TV when I first came here.

Sent by Joanne | 6:16 PM | 9-26-2007