Mission Strategy Bulletin, Old Series, Volume 2, Number 2

Basic Principles of Language Learning

Bruce Terry

Language must be viewed in its relationship to human behavior. It is not just a method of communication but also a tool for doing things. When a little boy who is about to be sent to bed says, "Mommy, I want a drink of water," he actually means, "Mommy, I don't want to go to bed." The student of another language must constantly be aware of this fact in order to come to a correct usage of the language.

The student should also realize that there is no such thing as a simple or a primitive language. While some areas of a particular language may be simpler to master than others, each language is complex in its own way and the student must be prepared to master the language.

One of the best ways to get into a language is to analyze it. Studies in phonetics, phonology, and grammar are necessary for this. Knowing about a language, however, is no substitute for knowing the language. The ability to use the language comes only with much practice and memorization. The language must be attacked as a whole; while the student is analyzing the language he must also be learning it.

In the first couple of days in a new language situation, the student should pick up expressions such as 'What is this?", "Please repeat," "How is the weather?" and the greetings and leave-takings. He should not assume that the greeting will be the equivalent of "Hello" or "How are you?" even if such expressions are available. Rather, he should set up a situation and ask "What do you say when...?" This is always a safe procedure and by using it, the student will avoid a lot of embarrassing mistakes.

At first, the student should simply listen: listen to the intonation patterns, listen to whether most of the syllables end in a vowel or in a consonant, listen for sounds which are similar to English sounds, but are slightly different. He should try to make these strange sounds and use all of what he learns. He should mimic the sounds and speech patterns of the people. This will not be offensive as one might think.

The student should especially be careful that his speech does not end in the rising intonation that is characteristic of English questions. It is worth noting that not all languages have the same intonation patterns as English, especially with regard to the rising intonation of questions. A word should also be said regarding word order. The general word order for English is subject, predicate, and object. This is not universal by any means. It is usually a drastic mistake to put foreign words into English word order.

When learning an unwritten language, the student should transcribe phonetically what he hears and begin to organize his data. A tape recorder might be helpful in this respect, but the student should not depend too much on a tape recorder. If too much data is collected on tape, he will get that snowed-under feeling. Rather, he should be around the people; he should get to know them and let them get to know him.

Within the next few weeks, the student should learn how to buy and sell, how to count, the name of colors, etc. He should devise simple substitution drills for language learning and above all he should use them. He should not depend too much on a dictionary. A dictionary does not make the meaning; it merely records it. The true meaning comes from the context. The student should learn the natural figures of speech for the language. He should master the idioms and thought forms. It would also be good if he could find an informant to help him learn the language. He should always remember, however, to treat his informant as a human being, and not as a machine.

These suggestions for language learning are taken from a paper being prepared for release throught the ACC Missions Center. It is based on studies at the Summer Institute of Linguistics at Norman, Oklahoma. Two excellent books for further study in this area are Eugene A. Nida's Learning a Foreign Language (1957 edition) published by Friendship Press in New York for $3.50,and Becoming Bilingual (1972 edition) by Donald Larsen, Practical Anthropology, for $6.00.

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