Dr. Orlando KelmIn his own words, Dr. Orlando Kelm is “a lucky guy” professionally. Not only does he get to spend his time with two languages (Spanish and Portuguese), but he is also the Associate Director of Business Language Education for the UT CIBER (Center for International Business Education and Research, a part of the McCombs School of Business. He is also author of a new book on intercultural relations called When We Are the Foreigners. In our interview, Dr. Kelm shares what he believes to be the 6 most important factors in effective language learning.

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Orlando: Well let me start by saying that I like your Foreign Language Mastery blog site; it’s been fun to read.

John: Thank you. I’ve ended up interviewing a number of my mentors and heroes, and I stumbled across your blog and really liked what you had to say, so I thought it would be good to share your views with my listeners and readers. So I think best would be maybe to go through those 5 fundamentals that you have on your blog. [Note: In my preparation for the interview, I accidentally missed reading No. 6.]

Orlando: Ah, sure.

John: I think that really sums up your basic stance. I’m sure there’s a lot more you could say, and we’ll fill in as we go. I think the first one was the 500 hours of study that’s required to reach a modicum of fluency.

Orlando: Right. The issue is time on task; that people underestimate how long it takes to learn a foreign language. And sometimes, even if they’re doing everything right, there’s a sense that ‘Oh, I still don’t speak Spanish!” because you don’t speak it as well as you speak English. And it’s always good to go back and tell people, “Even if you’re doing everything right, it’s not going to be a 20-hour project.” You know, I always get phone calls from people saying, “Uh, we want to negotiate with people in Mexico. Can you teach us some Spanish?” And it’s like, “Sure, but it’s not going to be a during your lunch hour for 3 weeks type of project.” So that first category is that realize that it does take time on task, and to be proficient in a foreign language, is going to take you a hunk of time.

That 500 hours is a nice number, too, because what it says is that even if you’re in a normal classroom situation and you meet 5 times a week for a whole semester, you’re still going to be way short of 500 hours. So a lot of it is you just got to spend more time on task. That’s number 1.

John: Ok, and then number 2 was about context.

Orlando: Number 2 is context, which is, words stick when you’re in the situation of the moment. Word’s don’t stick if you can’t connect them to some sort of experience or some kind of context. I often give the example to my students of a time I was sitting on a bus in Brazil, and there was this kid that was driving me crazy, jumping up and down and screaming and yelling. And the mother yelled out, “Não faça isso, filho.” (Don’t do that, son.) And I remember thinking afterwards, “Wow, command form!” And never again did I have to think about how to conjugate a command form in Portuguese. I saw the lady; I saw the kid; he was driving me crazy; and forever more, I could just say “Não faça isso, filho.” So that context of the moment really helped me have that word stick. So I think it’s a big deal to put all of your language learning into some sort of real context of a real opportunity.

John: Ok, on that note, what advice do you have for somebody who, for example, lives in the United States, and doesn’t have the opportunity to go live abroad? What can they do to create a context for themselves, so that that sticks?

Orlando: Well, you know what, the nice thing of being an adult learner is you can pretend. You can create those scenarios for yourself. You can put yourself in the situations. You can visualize yourself actually buying something, saying something. I actually think that’s one of the great opportunities of an adult learner; is we can role-play stuff. Where children when they learn a foreign language, they can never really put themselves in a role-play situation. But you see the sad thing is that a lot of people don’t know that. And so they will just take a big gigantic list of words, and kind of keep reading the list of words, and never ever try to visualize, “How are you ever going to really say this?” or “What would you really say in this real situation?”

John: You mentioned about differences between children and adults. Maybe we can go off on that tangent shortly. I think there are many, but I also think that there is a lot in common that people also underestimate. What’s your view on the similarities and differences?

Orlando: You know, I’m not a gigantic fan of the whole critical period, you’re kind of doomed after you’re an adult kind of thing. I also don’t believe, that, you know, sometimes people talk about how easy it is for children to learn a foreign language. But if you look at the amount of energy and effort they really put into it, we’re talking about 5, 6, 7 years where their whole concentration is language, language, language, playing with languages, playing with sounds, trying phrases out, communicating back and forth. There is nothing easy about the way children learn foreign languages. They’re just putting tons and tons and tons of effort and time into it. And so I think that sometimes we sell ourselves short when we say, “Oh, there’s automatic language learning that goes on when you’re a child.” Well, it’s automatic in the sense that you’re doing it every day, every day, every day, every day. But it certainly isn’t without tons of effort. And if we put as much effort into our adult language learning, as what children do into their first language acquisition, we would probably do a lot better as well.

Years and years ago, Lily Wong Fillmore did a great study, it was her dissertation, on little kids that were learning foreign languages in elementary schools. And she had a great example that kids first socialize, then they communicate, then they worry about form. And when we teach foreign languages, we do the exact opposite. We worry about form first; we worry about communication second; and we get to socialization third. And I thought it was kind of a neat observation, that that’s how kids worry about it. If they want to go play in the park, they play in the park. And that’s kind of their number 1 thing to do. And communication becomes second; form is down the road.

John: Interesting. Well, back to number 3, about schema theory and social scripts.

Orlando: Right. You know, I’m a gigantic believer in the idea of chunks, that we learn foreign languages in little chunks, little phrases, little situations. And we know how the script goes. Recently, I was the example I often give is that when I go to a bakery in a foreign country, that in the Unites States, I know the rhythm of going to a bakery. They ask what you want; they cut it open; they slice it. There’s kind of a way that you follow the pattern of buying meat, and cheese, and bread at a bakery. When you’re in a foreign language, that pattern changes. And it’s not a language issue necessarily; it’s that I don’t know the rhythm of how to keep the flow of everybody’s activities going in the bakery. So in foreign language, if you know the flow of the dialogue you’re supposed to follow, it helps you understand things.

I was recently in Rio, and when I was in the check-out line, somebody asked in essence if I had a “blah blah blah card”. Well of course I didn’t because I was a tourist. And that was not part of my dialogue. I was not ready for the lady at the checkout to ask me about if I had that card. And I went from understanding 100% of what she was saying to a bunch of garbled noise. Because I didn’t know the dialogue. And I had to have her repeat that a couple of times until I finally [realized], “Oh now I know what she’s asking for” and I could say, “No, I don’t have that.” [For] a foreigner that comes to the US, it may be that when you buy a certain thing, sometimes they say, “What’s your zip code?” Well, you’re not ready for them to ask what your zip code is. You’re just trying to buy some bread. And so you would probably not understand that question because you’re not used to that dialogue. So that’s schema theory. Schema theory is: What are the dialogues? What are the chunks? How do we put strings of words together? How do you take turns and change back and forth, and reinforce things? There’s a pattern that we do that in, in language, and the more we understand those patterns, the more we understand the foreign language.

John: That’s also why I think movies are an excellent way, but once you get…

Orlando: Well, we’ll get to that when we get to number 5 on narrow listening.

John: Good point. Ok, so number 4: input and intake.

Orlando: Yah, you see, when the second language theories first were coming out, they talked about the importance of input. And then years later, they said, “You know what? It really… It’s nice to have a lot of input, but sometimes it never sinks in. And so what really is a big deal, is what they call ‘intake’, which is input that you’re actually conscious of, that you’re aware of, that you’re concentrating on.” And you know, the words get changed. Sometimes they call it “consciousness raising”; I’ve even heard it called “input enhancement”. But basically it’s the idea that you have to be exposed to a lot of the foreign language, but it’s not enough to be exposed to it. You have to be actually listening to it; have it sink in. So your input becomes intake. And so I’m a big proponent of that, that you need to hear a lot of language, but you need to recognize it; you need to consciously be thinking of it. And see if it can soak in a little bit while you’re listening.

John: Ok, so number 5 was narrow listening and narrow reading.

Orlando: Yah, this comes from Krashen’s ideas that narrow listening and narrow reading basically means, I believe, that you get more success out of looking at a small chunk in detail than a very large, gigantic hunk, superficially. And so when you look at my materials, the clips will be 2 minutes long. And then I want the students to really study in detail what happens in those two minutes. I seem to get more out of that than I do watching a 2-hour movie. That kind of runs past me. I understand the movie but I can’t say I really learn a lot of foreign language watching that movie. But if I take that same effort and time and put it into a very small chunk of language, and study that in detail, I get a lot more out of it. So I believe that narrow listening and narrow reading does more for language acquisition than a broad, one time through sort of experience.

John: One thing though I have noticed when I look at a short chunk of material, I do agree that I get more out of it in terms of acquisition, but on the other hand, if I do watch a movie or I read a longer passage, I also can get lost in the story, instead of just focusing on, “Oh, I am learning the language”, which I think has its own benefits as well.

Orlando: When I was in China, it was my first time in China and I had a free afternoon, so I went to the movies. And I watched my first movie totally in Mandarin. And it was kind of fun to go through the experience of, “Ok, how much of this am I going to grab?” Because my Chinese is kind of survival level; it’s not fantastic Chinese by any means. But it was pretty fun to go through the whole movie and just see, “Ok, how much am I going to catch onto? No responsibility here; let me just soak in what I can soak in.” I think it’s good to be exposed to that now and again, too.

John: Number 6, then? Which I missed I guess…

Orlando: And the final one is, it’s a fairly old model, it’s called Schumann’s acculturation model. And that’s the one where you kind of lump together all the cultural and social factors that affect language learning. You know, as we’re about things like anxiety, motivation, how extroverted you are, how much you identify with the culture yourself. Do you have a girlfriend from that country? Do you love the movies from that country? Do you love the music from that country? That’s a big, big deal. You know, how much you just are the sort of personality that can just jump out and do that kind of stuff versus how much you just hang back.

I remember I had a friend in Brazil who was one of these perfectionists: “Unless I say it correctly, I’m going to say it at all.” And in the end, he never really did learn the language well because he held himself back. He was so guarded about, “Oh, I don’t want to do it wrong. I don’t want to do it wrong.” That sort of personality that can say, “You know what? I want to enjoy this food, and if I don’t say something, I won’t be able to eat it, so let me say something. I think that girl’s pretty. Let me talk to her, because I want to get to know her. I don’t care what it comes out like.”

Well I had a student a few years ago, when I took them to Venezuela, he was a music freak. And he would go out in the street, and as soon as he heard music in somebody’s apartment, he would literally stop, knock on their door, and start talking to total strangers about, “What kind of music are you playing on your radio right now?” His grammar was kind of backwards, but his ability to get to meet people and to talk to people was just phenomenal, just phenomenal. He was amazing.

John: Do you think there’s any harm in speaking too soon?

Orlando: You know, there’s no doubt that people fossilize. You kind of get to a certain level, and then if you can survive for whatever you need your language for, you kind of stop there. And you’ll see that for people who live abroad for 2 years. And after 3 or 4 months, they kind of stop their progress, and kind of never improve after that. But they kind of are able to use the language for whatever they need the language for. Part of the answer to your question is, “What do they really need language for?” And if you’re going just to socialize, just to hang out, you know, just for informal sort of things, maybe your informal Spanish or Portuguese is just fine. It may be that in other situations you need to have more precise, or let’s say “correct”, sort of language forms. I think a lot of it is not just the language learning process; it’s what are you going to end up using the language for.

In terms of speaking too soon, you know, we have the whole silent period concept where it’s good to let it sort of soak in for a while, and then you can start talking. And I think there’s some validity to the idea that you should learn how to be a listener. Too often when we’re abroad, we forget to actually listen to people, and try and soak in.” I know that sometimes when I’m abroad, I’ll say to myself, “Ok, for the next hour, I’m just going to sit and listen to people, and make little notes about things I hear. And even in languages I’ve been speaking for 30 years, I’ll still have a notebook full at the end of that hour, just because I want to hear what people are saying. So it’s a give and take. You know, there’s a point where you can fossilize, and if you don’t really, really concentrate, and force yourself to get a little better, you’re just going to get stuck there. And I think it takes a hunk of effort, to, when you feel yourself getting to that point, to actually improve and get a little bit better.

So anyway, those are the six items:

1) I think that you have to have a good time on task;

2) You need to learn language within the context of the situation;

3) I love Schumann’s…I love the schema theory of Vygostky on their scripts and chunks you need to follow;

4) I think that input should be more than input; it should be intake, so that it starts to sink in and you concentrate on it;

5) I like the narrow listening concept that Krashen has; and

6) I think we can’t ignore the big cultural factors that go into language learning.

And that’s all six.

John: Excellent. Very, very good.

Orlando: Well, it was fun talking to you today.

John: It was fun talking to you. I really appreciate your time. Talk to you again.

Orlando: Appreciate it.

Mo’ Info

To learn more about Dr. Kelm and his projects, check out his blog and grab a copy of his new book, When We Are the Foreigners.