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The First Step In Your Expatriation Adventure

May 12, 2008
The very first thing you should consider once you've made your mind up as to where you are going to live overseas might surprise you. The many letters we receive from potential expats always begin with the theme of cost of living. While important, most who contact us in our adopted home of Guanajuato, Mexico, never get past this economic issue. It is as though the economic issue is the most important point in the whole expatriation adventure. We answer their pleas with the statement that if you downsize your American lifestyles, live as close to "going native" as is humanly possible and comfortable for you, then you will do fine economically.

However, in Mexico, we rarely, if ever, hear from those who are concerned with what we regard as the First Step--the language--when moving to a country where your native tongue is not the predominate language.

I've also wondered if those Americans who move to any country in which English isn't the predominate language are concerned with the linguistic issue. The answer is, apparently not. I talked recently with a retired Foreign Service Officer who not only served in the Foreign Service but also who was raised in a family where her parents were Foreign Service employees. The story she told was the same with slight variations on the same main, monolingual theme--language is at the bottom of the list when moving overseas!

The expatriation phenomenon in Mexico is predominantly composed of baby-boomers who are rapidly finding out retirement in the U.S. is going to be all but impossible unless you are in Bill Gates' will. A smaller segment of the American expats in Mexico are those who work here or who have mobile enough jobs and can have a great adventure in another land while making a living via the Internet. It's what I do. I send stories to publishers in America and my books surf the email waves to those who want to buy my manuscripts. But, most of the Americans and some of the Canadians are "retirees" who, for the most part, never learn Spanish.

Through the years of our expat adventure, we've discovered those American retirees who move to Mexico fall into two classes when it comes to the linguistic issue. There are those who have absolutely no intention of ever learning Spanish. I know this to be true because I've been told this to my face. I've heard this story over and over again from bilingual Americans who are truly puzzled that their fellow Americans do not want to learn Spanish. When they ask their fellow Americans why they don't learn Spanish, they get the same answer I've gotten--refusal.

The reasons for this are varied. Some retirees respond to the slick-shtick the real estate moguls spew in their advertising that you don't have to know Spanish to live in such-and-such city. They will make the claims that bilingualism is so great in the city to which they are trying to get you to come and buy a house, that you won't ever need to utter a word in Spanish. While in some cities this is true and is true because of American Cultural Imperialism, this sort of screed presents an image of Mexico that is not a reality. Many Americans are truly perplexed when they come here and don't find English predominately spoken in places the real estate gurus have targeted as places where cheap housing and affordable living can be found.

Another class of Americans who move to Mexico to retire actually gives the linguistic issue more than a passing thought. They take Spanish classes at the local adult education schools before moving to Mexico. Eventually they expatriate to Mexico and take even more classroom instruction, only to find they've shelled out a fortune in classes and cannot communicate much more than "Where's the bathroom?" and "Can you make change?" Frustration sets in and the American retiree arrives at the horrible conclusion that he or she can't learn Spanish.

This is an all-too-often scene in cities like San Miguel de Allende. The expats with whom I've spoken and those who post in the online forums express a genuine remorse, for lack of a better term, for their continued monolingualism.

This essay is targeting that group of Americans, or any monolingual expat, who still has some semblance of hope that he or she can one day communicate in Spanish and not have to be forced to live in an Americanized Mexican City that is now as expensive (if not more) as the hometown he or she left.

That is, by the way, one of the great advantages of learning Spanish as an expat. You not only can live anywhere but also will have the linguistic skills to ask Mexicans who to avoid renting or buying from in a particular city. I am convinced that's why my wife and I have repeatedly had the rare opportunity of fellowshipping with Mexicans in the privacy of their homes. This is something most expats I know have never experienced. And, think about it: How can you have any sort of social communion with someone with whom you cannot communicate?

The Failure Factor

The failure factor in learning a second language is that most regard learning a new language as an academic endeavor. They think this is going to be like learning Algebra. The approach offered by educated academics is enough to send any normal person screaming from the classroom. This approach to second language acquisition is not second language acquisition at all. It is the learning something about the target language. It will equip you to read and translate into your native tongue some piece of Spanish text. But, will it assist you in speaking and comprehending the language you want to acquire? Not likely.

The question that must be asked when making the decision to have a go at the target language of the country you are planning moving to and for whatever reasons, is do you want to be able to sit down with a local and chat while having dinner? Do you want to be able to engage not only in rudimentary social intercourse but do you want to be able to go to a Mexican doctor or dentist and not have to hire a translator to come along with you? In other words, do you want to be assimilated into the culture?

How will spending a fortune in classes in the target language help you achieve your assimilation goal? How will attending classes that will teach you all the verb declensions of the target language and the cold, mindless memorization of out-of-context vocabulary words aid you in this quest? When your friend, spouse, or life-long companion keels over from a heart attack, how will having learned in the pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo of any verb in the Spanish language help you to rapidly explain to the emergency room physician the medical history of your loved one?

In my view, based on my research, if what you want is to be able to communicate in the target language, don't begin with a class in which you are issued a textbook, workbook, a list of grammar rules and vocabulary you have to memorize. Rather, begin with something called "Comprehensible Input."

What most try to do when taking classes in a second language is to develop the ability to speak to be understood and to understand the reply. This happens "... when a language learner comprehends words and sentences in a communicative context. These kinds of utterances are called "comprehensible input." (Language Instructor Manual (LIM) Comprehensible Input; http://ling.ucsd.edu)

I think we could all agree than no human popped out of his or her mother's womb quoting Chaucer. Each of us, no matter what our native tongue, heard thousands of repetitions of our caretaker's commands, pleadings, questions, descriptions, and so on before one day trying ourselves to reproduce the speech we heard repeatedly from our parents.

What we were exposed to was an environment in which lots and lots of words and sentences were first heard in a meaningful context. We were not born a linguistic blank slate. At birth, we had a linguistic outline preinstalled of what language should be and hearing our parents and loved ones speak to us filled in the outline. It is hardwired into our brains to learn language and this hardwiring is not ripped out of our heads what we become adults. It's still there, so why not use it to become proficient in a second language?

" Incidentally, there is no evidence that the "biological wiring" for language acquisition changes as the infant develops into childhood and then adulthood." (James Asher, Ph.D.)

How-To Begin

First of all, understand the difference in learning speech and learning language. One is the "biological wiring" for language acquisition at work; the other is an academic effort in which something "about" the language is learned.

Secondly, understand that none of us came into the world producing in any language that we didn't first hear. Production in our native tongue came after hearing lots and lots of speech in the target language spoken in meaningful contexts. Listening came before speaking in our native language.

"Never do we observe infants in any culture or in any historical period showing language acquisition starting with production followed by comprehension." (James J. Asher, Ph.D.)

Just as when we were infants, when we try to become fluent in a second language, we have to resort to the same method that afforded us success in our native language: Listening First; Production in the language second.

I am convinced, based on the science as well the personal experiences of my wife and me, that if you engage in this process, speech, and that which we all are seeking, fluency, come as the result of Comprehensible Input. And, refining speech--learning grammar--comes much later than that.

Thirdly, if you are a rank beginner, will listening to Univision TV be of any use? Hardly!

What is meant within the Comprehensible Input Theory is to be exposed to massive amounts of level-appropriate audio communication in the target language.

You would not play tapes and CD's of Shakespeare to teach your infant spoken fluency in your native tongue. If you were to watch a Mexican soap opera as a beginner you would most likely understand nothing.

You must seek input in which the speech is understandable at the level you find yourself and work up from that point. The speed at which the speech is delivered is also paramount. Trust me when I tell you that what you will get out of a traditionally taught Spanish class will not equip you to understand street Spanish. I still have problems when listening to native speakers who are excited or angry.

There are resources available to get you started in the Comprehensible Input approach to second language acquisition.

Resources:

The Learnables - Affordable and Successful Foreign Language Courses

The results of The Learnables® research are published in a variety of applied linguistic journals. A description of the research also appears in two books: Comprehension and Problem Solving as Strategies for Language Training, Mouton: The Hague, 1975 (authors H. Winitz and J. Reeds) and The Comprehension Approach to Foreign Language Instruction, Rowley: Mass., 1981 (editor H. Winitz)

Spanish I and Spanish II Fluency Fast Classes (16 DVD set)

Based on the more than 40 years of neuro-linguistic science of second language acquisition. These are actually recorded workshops that you can view in the privacy of your own home.

Immersion Plus Spanish

One of the most misunderstood parts of becoming fluent in any language is the need of training your ear in the target language. What I mean is, if you cannot hear the euphony or music of the language, you will rarely, if ever, be able to understand what someone is saying to you in the target language.
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