What linguistics can teach us about language learning

July 14, 2017

It is possible to learn to speak foreign languages very well without a degree in linguistics, but there are a few things that linguists and language teachers can teach us. We asked Jaana, a language student towards the end of her studies, what she has learned from her degree in linguistics and pedagogy.

– Language students at the university take courses in language structure, phonetics (the study of sounds), semantics (the study of meaning) and pragmatics (how context contributes to meaning), for instance. In addition to general linguistics, the studies include courses on culture, literature, language history and language varieties, says Jaana.

Language studies usually also involve courses on grammar and vocabulary as well as conversation classes with a native teacher. The structure of the study program and its content greatly depend on the university, as well as on the selection of minors and on the choice of whether you want to become a teacher, a translator or a researcher.

– I especially enjoyed phonetics and oral language courses. I feel that it is very difficult to develop your oral language skills if you live in a country where you don’t hear the language you are studying at all. On the other hand, almost every language student goes on exchange or does an internship in a country where the language they are studying is spoken, Jaana explains.

Most important realizations of a language student

Once you understand how a language is structured and how it functions, it is a lot easier to learn other languages as well (at least those belonging to the same language family).

– Even though languages are different, they have surprisingly much in common. I can apply some of the principles I’ve learned, pick up familiar-sounding words and understand at least a little bit of languages I’ve never even studied, Jaana says.

On the other hand, a formal language degree also allows you to understand how differently things are expressed in different languages, and how this reflects the way people think. The local culture and the way of seeing the world seem to shine through the language. For example, the different ways of formally addressing older people reflect the hierarchical structures of a society and the respect for older people.

Differences in politeness strategies in different cultures becomes clear at the dining table from the way people decline food that is being offered to them. If you sit at a German dining table and your host offers you some more food but you’re full, you can just say “Danke”, which means “Thank you”. This is understood as a polite way of declining. At a Finnish dining table, however, “Kiitos” (thank you) would mean “Yes, please, I could have some more”.

The conventions of using a language

There are some things which you only learn once you become a more proficient speaker of a language. One of these is the conventions of using a language. For instance, when Germans talk about the past, they prefer to use the present perfect instead of the simple past. The sentence “I ate some pizza yesterday” would therefore rather be expressed as “Ich habe gestern Pizza gegessen” instead of “Ich aß gestern Pizza”, even if the latter is also grammatically correct. These kinds of things cannot be deduced from one’s own mother tongue. They simply have to be learned separately.

There are also some language and culture specific conventions concerning written language that can be specific to a particular text type. There may, for example, be established ways of starting and ending an email or an application letter in different languages. It’s worth checking these kinds of things online, for example, before starting to write an important email or application.


The advice of a language teacher: learn the way children do

Children learn languages in a natural way: by playing, by doing and by concrete means. Children don’t worry about whether they make mistakes. They simply try things out, apply and generalize without fear.

– You can only learn a language if you have the courage to use it, Jaana says and continues:
– Fortunately, nowadays the development of oral language skills are taken better into account in language teaching. In Finland, adding an oral component to the high school final exams is currently being considered.

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