Has Professor Found Key to Language Fluency?

Quebecers are North America’s bilingualism champions.

But when it comes to how fluent we are in our second official language, well, we’re all over the map.

Why is it that some of us slip effortlessly between French and English – not to mention third and even fourth languages – while others still can’t get “le” and “la” straight?

That is a question Norman Segalowitz has been trying to resolve for four decades.

Segalowitz, a professor of psychology at Concordia University, recently won an international award from the Modern Language Association of America for his book Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency.

The scholarly book delves into why it is so difficult for some of us to attain fluency – the ability to speak smoothly and quickly, without undue hesitations and pauses.

“Every normal human being becomes extremely fluent in their first language,” says Segalowitz, 65, who is associate director of the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance.

But even people who chatter like magpies in their first language can become tongue-tied in their second, Segalowitz points out.

“A lot of second-language speakers say, ‘When I get into complex topics, I feel like a 4-year-old.'”

If that sounds like you, take heart: you are probably just as smart as your perfectly fluent friends, Segalowitz says. Rather, the difference comes down to – you guessed it – practice.

“It has to do with exposure opportunities,” says Segalowitz, whose mentor at McGill University in the 1960s was Wallace Lambert, the founder of French immersion in Canada.

Lacking fluency can be a vicious circle, he explains. If you feel awkward in a second language, you probably won’t get involved in activities that require speaking it. You are also more likely to have a negative impression of people who speak that language, research shows.

In a 1976 study, Segalowitz had anglophones talk to an unseen francophone in another room (who did not really exist). The anglophones spoke some French but were not fluent. They were asked to give a formal talk, and then to chat casually.

The anglophones felt much less confident speaking French casually than giving a formal presentation because they didn’t know how to modify their language in an informal context. And when they tried to speak casually, they perceived the francophone in the other room as being unfriendly.

Today, Quebec anglophones are more bilingual than ever before. Seven out of 10 English-speaking Quebecers and one in three Quebec francophones speak both official languages – making Montreal the ideal setting to study fluency, Segalowitz says.

“Language is a salient issue for everybody,” he says.

In fact, the high level of bilingualism makes it next to impossible to recruit unilingual anglophones for language research, Segalowitz says.

“We can’t find monolinguals anymore,” he says. “In fact, it’s now difficult to find bilinguals who are not also trilinguals.”

But despite the high level of bilingualism, many people are not as fluent as they would like.

Adapting your level of speech to different settings – whether you are making a boardroom presentation or cracking a joke in a pub – is one of the most difficult tasks for people speaking a second language, Segalowitz says.

And while it’s relatively straightforward to master nouns like “cat” or verbs like “run,” most second-language speakers stumble over prepositions like “to,” “from,” “above” and “below.”

“These grammatical words are like a packaging device. But those devices are different in different languages. So people speaking their second language are constantly getting ‘to,’ ‘of ‘ and ‘from’ mixed up,” he says.

Some older anglophones still bear the scars of high school French classes, where memorization and drills were the order of the day, Segalowitz says.

“Performing in our second language was like doing algebra tests,” he says.

“That’s not a comfortable way to learn the language. The thing is to find a way to use the language that is fun and supportive,” he says.

With his wife, Elizabeth Gatbonton, an associate professor of second-language education at Concordia, Segalowitz has researched classroom approaches to promoting fluency.

In one exercise, beginner level students were divided into two groups, each of which had to pretend to be a family. The students had to invent identities for themselves and decide how they were related. Then they had to explain those relationships to the other group.

The exercise included plenty of opportunities for repetition – a key for acquiring fluency – and introduced students to vocabulary they could use in the real world.

There are many ways to develop fluency outside the classroom, says Segalowitz, who speaks French, Russian and Spanish, but does not describe himself as fluent in any of those languages. However, he says he has become more fluent in French by taking part in committees with francophone academics.

“I think it’s important to get involved in activities with native speakers of the language that you genuinely want to be involved in, and to develop good social relationships,” he says.

The more you pursue interests that require using your second language, the more fluent you will become, Segalowitz says.

“Inevitably, people will rise to the occasion. And then it becomes this virtuous circle. The thing is to create the conditions that get you into that virtuous circle.”


Taken from the Montreal Gazette: 28.01.12