Sharing My Own Second Language Learning Experiences

Because I have engaged in diverse second language studies over many years at numerous institutions, I have experienced the pedagogical emphasis of both communicative competences (academic and interpersonal), although those emphases have not been evenly distributed among the languages studied and in some cases have been combined within the same course, but usually not in equal measure. The university courses I have taken in the more commonly-studied national European languages French and German focused almost exclusively on academic competence. Little to no attention was paid to language variation (whether dialectal or sociolectal), levels of formality (other than the obligatory tu/vous and Du/Sie distinction) or pragmatics and (in my opinion) excessive emphasis was placed on “proper” pronunciation, especially in the French courses. Although I did not end up becoming fluent in spoken German and only achieved an intermediate level of proficiency in spoken French, I do believe that the academic competence I gained in both languages has served me well, especially given my subsequent academic and career paths. Being able to read academic works with ease in French and with some difficulty in German has turned out to be very useful in my particular case, although I imagine that many of my classmates cannot say the same thing, especially those who took degrees in business, engineering, legal studies and the like and were studying the language as part of their mandatory degree requirements.

Spanish is the language that I have studied the longest and most intensively, from early junior high school through graduate school. Probably because I have studied the language in so many linguacultural and academic contexts (as a second language in Mexico, at intensive immersion camps, as a foreign language in a traditional classroom setting and as the medium of instruction for academic courses in the United States), levels and institutions, I have experienced the greatest variation in which communicative competence was emphasized. Interpersonal communicative competence was emphasized in the language immersion settings, both interpersonal and academic competence were emphasized in Mexico, and some combination of the competences was emphasized in most of the university courses, especially in the graduate-level courses for which Spanish was the sole language of instruction. The fact that I acquired high levels of both academic and interpersonal communicative competence in the language has helped to contribute to my professional and personal success. Advanced proficiency in Spanish is a practical requirement for my current position as a language school administrator in Miami, a city where Spanish is the primary language of communication at almost all levels of society (the most recent United States census statistics reveal that approximately seventy percent of Miami-Dade County’s 2.6 million counted residents are native Spanish speakers; given the large number of undocumented native Spanish speakers in the South Florida region, the actual population and percentage are probably significantly higher than the official numbers indicate). In addition, my academic competence in Spanish has allowed me to become a professional translator; I have earned certification in Spanish to English translation from the American Translators Association and although I mainly work on translations as a side job, translation work represents an important source of income for me. Perhaps because Spanish is such an important second language in the United States, acquiring interpersonal communicative competence in that language tends to be a more common goal in traditional classroom settings than for many other commonly-taught languages. I make this conclusion because, based on my own L2 learning experiences, it seems that interpersonal communicative competence has been emphasized much more in Spanish classes than in French or German classes at all levels (from high school to college).

Finally, turning to some of the less commonly taught languages that I have studied for significant periods of time (viz., Arabic, Chinese and Swahili), the type of communicative competence emphasized seems to have been linked to the traditional teaching methodologies for and the predominant sociocultural role of the languages in question. For example, my studies of Swahili focused almost entirely on acquiring interpersonal communicative competence in the language. Although Swahili is a written language and has a significant corpus of written literature, the language is an important spoken lingua franca in much of east Africa, especially the nations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and far more people in that part of the world speak Swahili than read and write it (the fact that Swahili has only five million native speakers but more than sixty million proficient users is probably a relevant factor here). Although I never had the occasion to use Swahili in “real life” outside of the classroom, my studies of the language were nevertheless beneficial for my development as a linguist and understanding of language variation in general.

My experiences with Arabic and Chinese were quite different from each other, which I believe is partially a result of the sociolinguistic particulars of each language (the backgrounds of my instructors and the overall pedagogical philosophy of the institution where I studied the languages surely also played a role). During my Arabic studies, the object of instruction was a social construct known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). MSA is the current literary standard across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, and most printed documents in Arabic are written in MSA. However, MSA does not serve as the colloquial language of almost any native Arabic speaker and, while the actual linguistic situation is much more complex than this, native Arabic speakers use one or more colloquial varieties for non-formal interactions, although most well-educated Arabic speakers can speak MSA fluently. So, at least in part as a result of this sociolinguistic milieu, my Arabic studies focused much more on academic competence than on interpersonal competence, which would have required learning a colloquial Arabic variety in addition to (or instead of) MSA. I never acquired any significant degree of proficiency in spoken Arabic, but the knowledge I gained about the language and my limited ability to read it have proved useful in adding depth to my understanding of language. On the other hand, my university studies of Chinese emphasized the spoken form of the language more than the written form of the language. I believe that this was the case in part because the Chinese writing system is extremely complex and so there is almost always a substantial lag between the acquisition of oral proficiency on the one hand, and reading and writing skills on the other (a much more significant lag than may normally be present for other languages or at least languages that do not use different writing systems), and so not surprisingly, interpersonal communication tended to be given greater emphasis. As a result, I actually gained some proficiency in the spoken form of the language, although I can now barely read or write it at all (although interestingly, I can tell whether I used to know what a given character means–I can recognize the character, but I do not usually recall its meaning or sound value). The small “core” of proficiency in the language that has not withered away after almost twenty years of nonuse still comes in handy once in a while, and so the interpersonal communicative competence I acquired (and retained) in Chinese has been of some limited utility in my life.

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