Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Are you wearing your language learning jacket?

Recently I saw a friend in town as I was taking advantage of the semi-annual soldes in France. She was talking on her cell phone as I walked over her direction. I didn't want to bother her, so I stood back and waited for her to finish talking before saying hello.

My friend is bilingual and so it was possible that she was speaking in either French or English. I was surprised to realize that when I looked at her to figure out which language she was speaking, my inital instinct wasn't to try to read her lips. Instead I found myself looking at her posture, hand gestures and facial expressions. I could see immediately that she was speaking French, even without deciphering actual words.

Apparently I'm not the first to make this discovery that languages are spoken from more than the person's mouth. In 2007 a study from the University of British Columbia found that infants can tell the difference between two languages without hearing the spoken words, simply by watching the face of the person who is talking.

What should language learners glean from this? Pam Bourgeois, the founder of Bien-dire magazine, France's best-selling magazine for adults learning French, answers this question in A Practical Guide to Learning French.
"Without mimicking people so that it becomes a mockery, it is important to try to "be" French in your gestures and general body language. It's part of getting the "feel" of a language. While it may be simply copying at first, you will be surprised how soon it becomes part of your "French" personality. Many bilingual people say that they have somewhat different personalities in the two languages they speak. This is because, as good speakers of the foreign language, they have also taken on its cultural connotations.

A good way of thinking of it is to visualise yourself putting on a jacket when you are speaking French as a way of signalling that you are moving into your French way of being. You can mentally take off your "French jacket" when you move back into English."
I first read this a few years ago, shortly after arriving in France. This idea has been one of the most useful language learning tools I've found. I actually personalized the idea a bit to make it more "me". Instead of a jacket, I mentally put on my "French scarf". For me, the image of a scarf gave me the flair and boldness I needed to express myself in French. It works well for other languages as well. When speaking with a Senegalese person, I put on my "Wolof flip-flops" as theirs is a more casual culture and I needed a reminder to slow down and value time with the person rather than getting straight to business.

Dressing the part - even if only mentally - can give you the confidence you need to find your personality in another language.

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