Esperanto
Author: David Poulson


Learning Naturally

Author: David Poulson
Published on: May 25, 2001

Introductory note for new visitors to the Esperanto Topic.

If you have only just begun to take an interest in Esperanto and wish to know some basic information about this fascinating subject, please start your reading at the first article of this series. Having already completed 83 articles, I am now at the stage of writing articles for those readers who have learned quite a lot about the Esperanto language and movement already, and who are now wanting to find out more than just the basic introductory information.

After you have read the first article, click on the link at the top of the page which says "Articles" to find the rest of the series, which is listed in reverse chronological order. ___________________________________________________

In this Topic article I am pleased to introduce to you a new voice, that of Alan Mendelawitz . Alan is a member of the Esperanto League of Western Australia and he has kindly sent to me his own ideas about teaching and learning a language. Included in the article is a brief description of a Cseh-method class which Alan witnessed at the 58th UK in Spain.

LEARNING NATURALLY

Contrary to what I read a while ago in an article written by a misguided academic, language does not begin with writing. No doubt he was only considering the languages of the major nations but most of the world?s languages don?t even have a system of writing. Nevertheless they function adequately because language begins with sounds which express concepts and not with symbols. Writing developed much later than speech.

Nobody taught me to speak English. Is it now a miracle that I can speak this language fluently? Perhaps it might be if I had been raised in a Chinese or Hungarian family but I wasn?t, I was raised in an Australian family living in Perth, Western Australia. So it?s only natural that I can speak English.

I?ve talked to intelligent people who were taught languages by means of the classic method of a providing a firm foundation of grammar plus an extensive vocabulary. This basis was supposed to be enough to enable them to speak the language. It worked well for some people but for others it was simply an arduous business which left them years later merely with a few remembered phrases.

Italian, Spanish, Esperanto - I?ve learned something of each and picked up a smattering of other tongues. After studying Italian for four years in the conventional way and even gaining a Certificate of Fluency some years ago, I can?t speak it and I only understand bits here and there when I watch an Italian film, although I can usually get the gist of newspaper articles. After two terms of Spanish lessons at TAFE in 1999 I visited Spain and found that I spoke just enough to help me catch a train or order a coffee. Conversation was not possible.

Through my own language-learning experiences and through conversations with many people I?ve formed the view that fluency is not acquired by the process of constructing a rigid framework of grammar and then building it up with vocabulary. We did not learn our first and most comfortable and natural language this way.

Thinking back to when my two children were little, their first attempts at speech contained first the musical pitch and rhythm of speech, the vowel sounds and minimal consonants. Sometimes they would just say one word or make approximate sounds. Gradually the words became clearer, the vocabulary widened, they were able to express more complicated concepts and the grammar became more correct, with a minimum of actual instruction. The children received tuition but, nevertheless, ended up speaking good, fluent English.

Can we learn other languages in this natural way when we are no longer children? Yes, certainly we can. I?ve met a great number of people who migrated to Australia knowing not a word of English, who had never had a formal lesson but who were eventually able to converse satisfactorily in English, through acquiring the language in the street or workplace and through radio and television. Their grammar was sometimes imperfect but they could communicate. and isn?t this the main function of language ?

Spending a month in Paris two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that after a while I could often make sense of something said in a cafe or on the radio, whereas earlier I wondered how the French could understand each other when they seemed to have no separate words. My earlier experience in Germany was similar.

In Esperanto there exists a system of teaching the language known as the Cseh Method. I know nothing of the theory or training of instructors in the Cseh method but I was privileged to once attend a teaching session and I was impressed. It happened during the 58th Spanish and European Congress of Esperanto, in Castellon de la Plana, Spain, in 1999, and the class was conducted by the late Anton Zacharias, a linguist from Slovakia. I was saddened to hear that he died only recently, as he was a charming and humorous man.

The class of seven or eight people (all Spanish except me) included two men aged about 60, and a girl and boy about 9 years old. Anton and the students spoke only Esperanto the whole time and he used a lot of gesticulation, mime, blackboard pictures and some writing. It was stunning to see how much the children could understand and respond to abstract concepts such as telling the time and liking or disliking various foods or activities.

They were having only their second lesson! The older men, were slower to catch on than the children, but they understood quite a lot. And every one was obviously enjoying the class, despite its being quite intense.

The ideal system of language teaching, I believe, commences with speaking it. Grammar and analysis can follows after students have a basis of oral expression in the new language and, are able to think in it without first translating into their own language.

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