Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa
Multilingualism: What Makes Some People Excellent Language Learners?

Multilingualism: What Makes Some People Excellent Language Learners?

6 Apr 2015

“Multilingualism: What Makes Some People Excellent Language Learners?”

The Language Educator, a publication of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

By Maura Kate Hallam
September, 2010

MAURA: What are some of the skills/motivations necessary for learning multiple foreign languages?

TRACEY: As your question suggests, beyond good basic functioning of the senses (the ability to hear, see and speak well), there are few required skills for learning a foreign language. What is evident is that many people feel they aren’t “good at languages” because they lack the motivation. As students struggle in foreign language class you can see the internal dialogue: When will I ever use this language? What good does it serve me to communicate in another tongue? How will making a fool of myself in front of my peers as a struggle to perfect my accent in any way be beneficial? What is the point of sacrificing my self-esteem for a language that will never serve me in the future?

It is clear that people who learn foreign language are almost always highly motivated to do so. The business man who knows that Mandarin is his ticket to a promotion, the love of an infant for her parents, or the desire of the star-struck teenager to be closer to the visiting exchange student are all examples of high motivation. The opposite is also true, however. If a student feels humiliated by the language teacher, (because he is ridiculed for a poor accent or sentence construction) he will see no foreseeable benefit and not try at all.

There are two basic pairs in motivation: positive-negative and intrinsic-extrinsic. A child can have a personal (intrinsic) motivation for learning a language, such as a deep love for the person speaking it. He can also have extrinsic motivation, such as forceful parents or teachers who insist he learns. Masked upon this are positive and negative feelings. The best way to learn anything (not just a language) is via the positive-intrinsic channel. Parents and teachers have to find ways to make the child own this process and want the language. Forcing a child to do speak a certain language or punishing him when he doesn’t do so is simply bad parenting. A concrete example involves taking something a child already loves (dinosaurs, cars, music) and use language as a vehicle towards it. Maybe the child does not want the English (Arabic/Spanish/Chinese, etc.), but he can’t wait to get his hands on the book about dinosaurs, which happens to be in the target language.

In the U.S. we have a particular challenge. Even though we are a country of immigrants, less than 20% of Americans hold a passport; we don’t travel much abroad. And because the U.S. is such a large country, we can spend our entire life simply traveling internally and never meet a person who does not speak English. This is not true in Europe or Asia, where most school children learn a second, if not a third or forth language simply because the nearness of border countries demands it. The motivation to learn another language is built into the social fabric. In the U.S., we unfortunately send the message that to “be American” you should “speak English” and many people do so, but loose their native languages as a result. However, we need to realize that the world is changing. In Living Languages (2008) I noted that:

Americans are more diverse than ever. In the long tradition of immigration to the US, between 1990 and 2000 there was a 57% increase in the number of foreignborn citizens; more people are immigrating to the US than ever before. Whereas migration from Europe was more common at the turn of the 20th century, at the turn of the 21st century Latinos account for the greatest number of new citizens. This puts an interesting angle on American’s unspoken language policy as 78% of the students who are English language learners (ELL) speak Spanish at homei. One in five Americans speaks a language other than English at homeii “About three-fifths of this group speak Spanish at home (59.9 percent), another fifth speaks another Indo-European language (21.3 percent) and almost 15 percent speak an Asian language. Overall, foreign-language speakers grew by about 15 million during the 1990s, with new Spanish speakers contributing about 11 million people and new Asian speakers almost 2.5 million”iii. This group is not only on the rise, but also on the move, no longer limited to big cities like New York or Los Angeles. This has been a growing trend for years, but it seems to be catching up with us as if by surprise…Other studies have actually blamed the lack of language skills for complete and open communication and point the finger of blame at the English linguistic hegemonyiv. It has even been hinted at, not so subtly, that American’s language limitations are to blame, at least in part, for the problems with countries in parts of the world such as the Middle Eastv.

MAURA: 2. How can these be applied by teachers in the American foreign language classroom?

TRACEY: First and foremost, we need to help students understand the greater benefits of learning another language. I would suggest that the teacher asks the students to reflect on this question themselves: “What do you think are the benefits of learning Spanish (or French, or Japanese or Arabic, etc.)?” Then the teacher should fill in the gaps with the following information:

Cognitive benefits: Enhanced higher thinking skills (metalinguistic awareness, creativity, sensitivity to communication).
Social benefits: Integration, appreciation of other cultures
Economic benefits: Marketability of bilingual skills, government- and businessrecognized need.
Personal benefits: Psychological well being, self-confidence, sense of belonging, enhanced identity with roots.
Communication benefits: Literacy in various languages enables access to wider literature and a wider communication network of family, international links.
Cultural benefits: Greater tolerance, less racism, bigger intercultural sense.
Academic benefits: Increased working memory capacity and therefore increased achievement across the curriculum

A student’s motivation to do well in any subject, foreign language included, is rooted in seeing the overall benefits it can bring him in real life. By sharing these benefits with him, the student can actually convince himself to be more motivated about the process. Our problem is that instead of inspiring student, we oblige them.

MAURA: 3. The experience of learning other languages in the United States is often very different than in other countries. What lessons can US teachers teaching foreign languages learn from teachers in other countries teaching foreign languages?

TRACEY: I believe American teachers are some of the most innovative, adaptive and engaging in the world. Having said that, our system does not attract students towards the use of foreign languages, primarily because we fail to create authentic experiences. I work with schools in 18 different countries around the world (Argentina, Australia, Australia, Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United states), and find that institutions situated in geographical regions in which foreign languages are required on a daily basis such as Switzerland, which has four official languages in an area slightly less than twice the size of New Jersey, or which are isolated, as in the case of Japan, because it is an island and never had colonies, have a far easier time of convincing students of the needs to learn an additional language. In the U.S. the only states which actually seem to be making headway in incorporating foreign languages are those that border on Mexico (California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico), or which have a high influx of immigrants from a specific region, such as Florida. All of these states now have a majority household language that is not English (Spanish), and due to this reality, have managed to make foreign language acquisition a priority.

In Europe there are several schools that require at least three languages for graduation. The European School model in Brussels requires four. Children are given time to dominate their mother tongue, and an “international” language (English, German or French) is introduced through play. After literacy is taught in the first language, then formal lessons begin in the second, at which time the third language is introduced through play. After two years of literacy in the first language, literacy in the second is begun, and classes are started in the third language, etc. By graduation, these children can take university exams in any of the four European languages they have chosen.

The key to multilingualism is taking advantage of the ten key factors in each individual child’s case, and a school system and society that value the gift of tongues.

If foreign language teachers in the U.S. can manage to make language more “real” for students, they will be more successful. The undeniable “carrot on the stick” of taking a trip abroad pushes many towards improving their language skills. A friend in West Virginia who is the head of the foreign language department says she has never had more students enrolled in French and Italian since they adopted a “Spring Trip” program in which the students actually went to Paris and Rome for a five-day tour. However, this is not a reality for many, but “virtual fieldtrips” are. By actually (or virtually) taking a tour of Paris, many students will find the motivation they need to continue learning. Students today also love movies and technology. By watching films or asking students to develop virtual pen pals in other parts of the world, teachers can take advantage of the natural interests of their students and create authentic learning experiences for them. I know of one teacher who collaborates with her colleague in computers and has students make travel brochures of cities, which speak the target language (the brochures being in the target language as well). Another colleague in a dual immersion program in Spanish and English have debates with a sister school in Mexico about issues of interest to the students (required school uniforms, curfew times, favorite movie stars, food). They alternate the target language and also the mode (sometimes they write in chats in English, other times they video conference in Spanish, etc.).

MAURA: 4. In the work that you did when you wrote your books, where their any common patterns that you saw in individuals who had mastered multiple languages?

TRACEY: I believe that there are ten key factors that influence successful bilingualism or multilingualism:

1. Timing and The Windows of Opportunity 2. Aptitude for Foreign Languages 3. Motivation 4. Strategy 5. Consistency 6. Opportunity and Support (Home, School and Community) 7. Language Typology and Similarities 8. Siblings 9. Gender 10. Hand Use as a reflection of cerebral dominance for languages.

Each of these ten factors is important in every individuals “recipe” but each recipe is unique. (The combination of exactly when in life someone learns a language, their motivation, strategy, or family composition makes each situation unique.)

What is clear is that the most successful language learners that I know took advantage of all of these factors. For example, my daughter learned her first two languages (Spanish and English) in the first window of opportunity (from birth), and her third and forth languages in the second window (between 4 and 8 years old). She has a high aptitude for foreign languages as well, and was highly motivated to learn all of her languages. Our strategy involved one-person one-language at home (mother spoke one language, father spoke another), and the school system provided the third language, while society the forth (we lived in Geneva at the time). She had ample opportunity to use all four of her languages, and the linguistic relationship between French and Spanish (both Latin languages), and German and English (both Germanic languages) was also in her favor. She is the oldest of three children and has been a dominant and rich source of language for her brothers, and has always been an avid talker as well as reader in all of her languages. She is left handed and benefitted from a phonemic based language instruction in her earlier literacy years. She is now a senior in high school and is entertaining the many options she has to either study in Germany, the U.S., France or Ecuador.

As to patterns of successful language learners, I would be remiss to suggest that there is any such thing, except for, as I said in paragraph above, people who could take advantage of all of the factors above.

MARUA: Your book, Raising Multilingual Children, seems to be targeted at families (I have not had the chance to read the book, but the synopsis and some reviews). What lessons can teachers learn from your work that can be applied to the classroom? What about single-language families who are trying to encourage a child/children to learn multiple languages

TRACEY: Maura, I sent you the proofs of my last book, Living Languages, which is directed towards teachers. I think you will find lots of suggestions there.

MAURA: How many languages do you speak? What do you believe is the major reason you feel you were able to learn these languages?

TRACEY: I learned Spanish in high school, but poorly. This was not the fault of my teacher, I simply had not motivation or interest. However when I went to university, I met my soon-to-be husband, who is from Ecuador, and my Spanish flourished. I am now a university professor and teach, publish and research in Spanish. I went to Japan as an exchange student to find my roots (my father is Japanese American), and this gave me a firm foundation for learning the language at a slightly higher level when we lived in Tokyo for three years early in my marriage. I learned French when we lived as a family in Geneva, Switzerland for five and a half years. This was relatively easy for three reasons: my husband is a diplomat and the United Nations and its many social functions were almost always wither in French or English. Second, I think French is a beautiful language and just love hearing it, and finally, because French and Spanish were close, I could often read and understand things before I could pronounce them (street signs, directions, menus). I have also studied German in order to try and keep up with my children and their studies. I cannot claim to have more than a third or fourth grade level, however. My drive to learn the language was highest when my children were smaller, but now that they are all teenagers and actually even make fun of my accent, I have less motivation to continue, though I still find it enjoyable to sit with the children and watch films with them in this language.

MAURA: What advice would you give students who struggle learning foreign languages? What advice would you give foreign language teachers?

TRACEY: If I was the classroom teacher, I would ask students learning foreign languages if they understand how speaking another tongue allows them to see the world through a slightly different lens. I would ask them if they think values change by talking in another language (or if honesty always honesty and respect always respect?). I would query as to whether they think there is anything to be learned from the fact that in English a watch “runs” and in Spanish it “walks”; or that on Hopi there is no past or future, only the present. These strange quirks of language make communication across cultures fascinating to reflect upon. We could start by asking students it hey think it is “fair” that English is the dominant language of the world, even though most students’ grandparents (if not parents) were not born in the United States and didn’t start their lives speaking this language. I would ask them if they knew that the most spoken native language in the world is Mandarin, followed by Spanish, then English.

I believe that students of foreign language have to “own” the challenge before they will be successful, and for that to happen, they have to be intrinsically motivated to learn. By having even the youngest of learners think about the types of questions above, they begin to see the utility of another language.

MAURA: What else about this topic do you think it is important to include?

TRACEY: I think that a reality check is needed. While English is the most spoken language in the world today, and we can in effect, not worry too much if Americans can’t speak another language, we have to understand that demographics are changing.

Never before in the history of the world have multilinguals been prized more than they are today. In businesses, government, world politics, cultural domains, communications, media, and international relations as a whole, there is a deficit of qualified professionals who can speak, read, and write in more than one language. The Economist and Business Week recently acknowledged that the characteristic most valued and least available in new business recruits was the ability to speak more than one language, and other studies go as far as saying that the future of some fields can be jeopardized by the lack of foreign language skills, (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2008, p.15).

The growing global demand for multilinguals should make each of the parents reading this article feel secure that by giving the gift of languages they are opening doors of opportunity for their children.




i US Census Bureau. (2000).
ii Frey, W. (2006). MULTILINGUAL AMERICA. American Demographics, 24(7), 20. Retrieved Monday, December 11, 2006 from the Academic Search Premier database.
iii Frey, W. (2006). MULTILINGUAL AMERICA. American Demographics, 24(7), 20. Retrieved Monday, December 11, 2006 from the Academic Search Premier database.
iv Cohen, R. (2001). Language and Conflict Resolution: The Limits of English. International Studies Review, 3(1), 25. Retrieved Tuesday, December 12, 2006 from the Academic Search Premier database; Poncini, G. (2003). Multicultural Business Meetings and the Role of Languages other than English. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 24(1), 17. Retrieved Tuesday, December 12, 2006 from the Academic Search Premier database)
v Kubíková, N. (2006). A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East. Perspectives: Central European Review of International Affairs, 25, 87-90. Retrieved Tuesday, December 12, 2006 from the Academic Search Premier database.

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Tracey is a globally recognized educational leader who professes the philosophy that change starts with one: one student, one teacher.


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