by Reese Parfitt
In Situational Language Learning, we practice a careful, orderly method that can be used to obtain language from any speaker of any foreign language. The idea is to be able to take control of our learning so we won’t need to rely on an officially-trained teacher or a language school as we venture into learning a foreign language. Our class time involves a short time of instruction about the concepts and method, but the bulk of our time is spent practicing that method by using an actual language.
We have two language informants who are fluent speakers of French and Mandarin Chinese. I am in the Chinese group. We start by asking for object-like words, and write them down in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). We methodically progress into longer utterances which we can handle better and better as we learn the sounds.
The class goal is to learn the method, not the particular language that we are practicing on. I am seeing just how helpful it is to record the speech with the exacting precision of the IPA. While a Chinese person could write down an approximation and know how to pronounce it just fine, I must listen very closely to all the subtleties of the language and record it all as accurately as possible.
Have you ever heard an Asian speak English in a manner that was very difficult to decipher? They obviously learned words and letters from our language, but they combine them with the speech patterns from their first language. In order to sound Chinese and not American, I have to reckon with the fact that their sound system is very different from that of my English. I read what I’ve written down back to the language helper to see if I got it right, or if it needs some adjustment.
I can take this learning method anywhere in the world and learn a language from any native speaker. The speaker does not have to be educated, and the only materials I need are paper and pencil. Oh yes, and a sharp set of ears, and a willing mind. With that, I am empowered to learn to my heart’s content!