New Brunswick

Learning a language takes immersion, not just instruction, prof says

A professor at Laval University in Quebec City says time — at least 1,200 hours of it — and motivation inside and outside the classroom are key to learning a second language.

Language prof's insights suggest N.B. cabinet minister doesn't really grasp how adults learn a language

Soumya Ahuja-Patel, front, is among the rising number of Canadian residents taking French courses as an adult. (Radio-Canada)

A professor at Laval University in Quebec City says time  — at least 1,200 hours of it  — and motivation inside and outside the classroom are key to learning a second language.

The New Brunswick minister responsible for training under-estimates what adults must do to learn a language, Susan Parks, an associate professor in Laval's language department, suggested Friday.

Parks said learning the basics of a language requires immersion, not just instruction. 

"Time is a very important part of learning a language," Parks told CBC's Information Morning Saint John.

"Basically, in order to get yourself up to a functional level, an intermediate level, where you can go to a movie, talk with people, order something at a restaurant … it's a considerable amount of time."

Achieving an advanced level of language, Parks said, can take close to 2,100 hours.

The New Brunswick government introduced a program in September 2016 that offered free second-language training to unemployed residents.

Donald Arseneault, the minister of post-secondary education, training and labour, was disappointed only 115 people signed up for the program by the end of June.

While there had been much talk about unilingual people struggling to find work, Arseneault suggested the issue may not be the problem people think it is, considering the low enrolment.

But Parks said learning a second language later in life amps up the level of difficulty.

"There are a lot of different challenges," she said, including time availability and learning capability.

The provincial government promised $1 million to make French and English courses more accessible to unemployed New Brunswickers. (CBC)

Going beyond the classroom

Regardless, Parks said, attaining competency in a second-language goes beyond the classroom. The immersion aspect is just as important.

"Sooner or later, you've got to get involved with native speakers of the language," she said.

"If you can go to a part of the country where the target language is being spoken, you have the benefit of instruction, plus being with people who speak the language."

At Laval, students are offered the tandem exchange approach.

For example, an English-speaking student looking to learn French can arrange Skype meetings with a French-speaking student looking to learn English, and they can tutor each other with conversation.

Way of the future

"You have to go beyond instruction in a classroom if you want to attain a high level of fluency," Parks said.

Tandem exchanges, Parks said, are the way of the future, and she said they need to be promoted more by second-language teachers.

Parks is involved in a project aimed at making these kinds of exchanges more accessible to learners and easier for instructors to find partner classes. 

In the end, Parks said, people need to be committed and ask themselves why they want to learn the language in the first place.

"It takes time. The motivation has to be there."

With files from Information Morning Saint John