Can I still become fluent in French?


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        I have been taking a foreign language, French, since the sixth grade. I have always liked it, and plan on minoring in it, but also always hated the fact that my parents didn't immerse me in this or any other language when I was a child.  I always heard that that there was no way of truly learning and becoming fluent in a language if you are not around it and learning it from an extremely young age. I never knew why this was the case, so I set out to find out. However, to be quite honest I could not find anywhere that said it was absolutely necessary to learn and be immersed in a language from such a young age to be fluent. In one article article from sciencedaily.com, they state the importance and benefits of immersion, however interestingly enough they do not specify that it is dyer for it to begin when you are a baby.  It said, "The research also demonstrates that the kind of exposure you have to the language can determine whether you achieve native-language brain processing, and that learning under immersion conditions may be more effective in reaching this goal than typical classroom training." Unfortunately, I am currently involved in the "classroom setting" type of learning. I plan to study abroad in France, and I'm now counting on that to allow me to be truly fluent in French. Because although I do well in the courses, and can understand my fellow students and professors, I'm pretty sure I would be completely lost if you were to place me in the middle of Paris. Another article article does state the benefits of learning a foreign language from infancy because of phonetic learning, saying that, "Studies of the phonetic units of language have shown that early in life, infants are capable of discerning differences among the phonetic units of all languages, including native- and foreign-language sounds." However, once again the article does not state that it is vital to learn at such a young age, although obviously it is still beneficial.

            I think that I have been victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have thought in my entire foreign-language-learning career that I will never be as good as someone who began learning from a younger age. So, because of this I think maybe I haven't tried as hard or given it my best effort. And maybe the reason I am not 100% fluent is because I thought it just wasn't possible. But now, because of my research I'm realizing this is quite stupid of me! Another article article, "The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition" by David Singleton he admits that there is a "young = better in the long run" bias when it comes to learning a second language.

However, it also explains that this saying is definitely not full proof and there are many exceptions. It says that in the 5% of adults who are able to become fluent in another language and are bilingual (I tried to not let the smallness of this number scare me), they are still able to achieve this by learning much later in life, way after the "critical period" of a younger age. It goes on to say that by starting learning a second language at a younger age "is neither a strictly necessary nor a universally sufficient condition for the attainment of native-like proficiency. Given the enormous variation in people's experience of second languages - even (or especially!) in the classroom - this out to be a truism." So, with this in mind I am definitely not going to fall victim to the self-fulfilling prophecy ever again. I am going to use these tips tips on how to learn a foreign language to really try my hardest, and hopefully be fluent even before my time abroad in two semesters!

 

8 Comments

Hi Stephanie! So reading your blog post was really familiar to me, since I just talked about this topic in my psych class. I believe it is possible to become fluent in any language at any time, regardless of age. It is definitely important to learn it outside of the classroom environment, however I think it is possible. In my psych class, we learned that children must be exposed to language when they are younger, or else they will never fully understand it. However, I believe this just means that they must be exposed to some sort of language, in order to learn the basics of communication. I think that you can still learn a different language when you are older, however you have to have been exposed to language as a young child.

Hi Stephanie! So reading your blog post was really familiar to me, since I just talked about this topic in my psych class. I believe it is possible to become fluent in any language at any time, regardless of age. It is definitely important to learn it outside of the classroom environment, however I think it is possible. In my psych class, we learned that children must be exposed to language when they are younger, or else they will never fully understand it. However, I believe this just means that they must be exposed to some sort of language, in order to learn the basics of communication. I think that you can still learn a different language when you are older, however you have to have been exposed to language as a young child.

I also had similar thoughts as jamie, as this seems like a very familiar subject. My mother learned french when she was a child, and whenever we have been back there she always seems to be able to retain a decent amount, while she never uses it at home. I didn't start taking french until I was much older, and took classes in high school and college, yet I have always been extremely bad at it, and I feel that I can safely say I will never speak fluent french.

I also wonder if accents have anything to do with it. I have an infamously horrible french accent, yet my mother has an amazing one (she lived in france for a year when she was younger). I know what a good accent sounds like, yet I have never been able to pick it up. Could this be because I didn't start the language when I was younger?

I do agree that you can be fluent in a second language even if you did not learn it at a young age. A woman I know is now a Spanish teacher for a high school and she became fluent in science all through her studies in school. She also did study abroad and said that helps a lot too. Of course, for a child who is brought up since the beginning of their life with two languages it will be easier to learn. I have a cousin who married a Chinese woman and they brought their children up speaking chinese and english. However, this does not mean it is impossible to become fluent in another language starting at age 11 or 12 like you and I did. In fact, this article states being bilingual will protect the brain and keep the brain sharper for a longer period of time http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3794479.stm

Hi Jamie! I definitely agree with you, I came to the same conclusion after doing research. I also learned about language and the brain in psychology. However, I think you're right when you said they mean just being exposed to any language in general, not necessarily a foreign language. I remember learning about one child who was not exposed to any people or language, and was unable to comprehend or form words at all when she was finally let out. She was actually raised by wolves, and therefore instead picked up on all of their forms of communication. I know - that is an extremely different situation (also really interesting if you would like to learn more here's a video I guess that it is still similar circumstances with learning foreign languages though. If you're not exposed at all to them, there is no chance that you will ever be able to learn. If you're exposed to a wolf's way of communication - that's how you communicate. However, I wonder if the same goes for learning this way of communication as it is for language. Could I learn to "speak wolf" at a young age as well? I'm going to assume the answer is no, but I guess you never know...

I find it interesting that you bring up the French accent - I didn't even think about that! Unfortunately, I feel the same way as you - I feel that my accent is miserable! However, honestly I think most of it comes from embarrassment. I know that I have had many french teachers who were American, but had amazing accents. I can just never bring myself to fully commit to an accent for fear of sounding stupid. However, I found an article that states some ways that you could improve your accent. Hint: you could start by speaking French to your mother if she has a good accent.

I think at some point, as you're older, being immersed in the language can help you learn and understand it better. I have actually heard people say that they learned to speak Spanish better (maybe not becoming completely fluent) by constantly watching the spanish channels on television.
I also believe that you can learn a language as a child, but if it is not taught(or practiced) consistently, it can be forgotten. It happened to me with German!
I have a question on whether it works for accents? I had a friend tell me a story of a girl whose parents only spoke in a British accent for the first couple of years of her life and now she has one.

As someone who loves to travel and be immersed in other cultures, I loved you blog post. I could also relate to the advantages of being exposed to other languages at a young age. As someone who was born (and partially raised) in Miami, FL., I could speak and understand Spanish from a young age and was exposed to it in the classroom setting beginning in first grade. Even though my family and I moved a few years later, I still retained my understanding of the language, which most definitely gave me an advantage when I began taking the Spanish again in middle school.
Though the United States is way behind European nations in regards to emphasizing the importance of bilingualism, this article published in 2007 shows that that is certainly changing. I think this is a great thing. The sooner we expose children to other languages, the better equipped we will be to compete with European graduates, many of whom can speak upwards of two to three languages.
In regards to the comment above asking about whether this applies to accents, I think it does, based solely on personal experience. My dad is Welsh and played rugby with a lot of other Brits. Many of their children, especially those who had two British parents, had strong accents, despite living in the US for their entire lives. Unluckily for me, I didn't inherit this, but hey, I can still pull off a killer imitation!

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