It’s possible to teach a foreign language without taking into account the languages one’s students already know. Proof of that is Andreo Cseh’s brilliant success in teaching Esperanto by the direct method, often to students who spoke languages he didn’t know — and who sometimes didn’t know one another’s language.
That said, the language(s) a student already speaks can hinder or help learning a new language, and the nature of that help or hindrance depends on the languages in question. So when possible, a student’s language background is something a language teacher might want to consider.
A student can get a head start, especially in vocabulary, from acquaintance with a language related to the language being studied. For example, Esperanto students who already know some English, French, Spanish, Latin, German, or another Germanic or Romance language (and to some extent a Slavic one or Greek) will find many familiar roots in Esperanto.
Esperanto students in the U.S. typically speak English, so teachers can take that into account when designing a course’s vocabulary. Words with close English equivalents are easy to figure out when reading or listening. They’re also easy to think of when speaking or writing, which is of practical importance especially at the start when a limited vocabulary can be very frustrating. True, students shouldn’t be misled into thinking they can just append an Esperanto ending onto an English word, nor should they be encouraged to speak a form of Esperanto too heavily influenced by English. But those are problems that need to be dealt with anyway — so why not take advantage of a student’s existing knowledge?
Have some of the students already studied a language other than English? At a minimum, that means they’ve had exposure to the basic ideas of learning a foreign language. If they’ve studied a major European language, so much the better. For one thing, that increases the number of Esperanto roots they’re likely to find familiar. It also means there’s a good chance they’re familiar with some of the “false friends” they’ll meet — words that look familiar, yet have a different meaning from what one might expect. For example, students who already know that the French word actuelle doesn’t mean “actual” are more likely to guess the correct meaning of aktuala in Esperanto.
Unfortunately, as the concept of “false friends” implies, knowing another language can also hinder as well as help. Possibly the hardest thing about learning a new language is making distinctions that exist in that language but not in your native tongue. If you already know a second language that also doesn’t make the distinction, it’s even more confusing.
For example, Russian has no articles (no equivalent for English the, a, or an), so native Russian speakers sometimes have trouble knowing when to use an article or leave it out. Some languages have separate pronouns by gender. English and Esperanto make the distinction only in the third person singular, and Finnish and Chinese have no pronoun gender at all — all of which must be kept in mind when teaching a language that makes such distinctions to speakers of other languages that don’t have them. The same problem crops up with simple vocabulary, such as the difference between nombro and numero in Esperanto, which are both usually translated as “number” in English.
(For that matter, I’d hate to tell you how old I was before I glommed onto the fact that the English homophones “discreet” and “discrete” are distinct words. Being a native speaker of language is no guarantee that you know its subtleties.)
The word that in English is very often equivalent to que in Spanish, but in Esperanto the correct translation is sometimes ke … but sometimes kio or kiu (or for that matter kion or kiun). A student in the habit of robotically replacing that with ke will be all right translating I hope that you will phone as Mi esperas, ke vi telefonos, but not when translating the thing that I want as tio *ke mi volas rather than tio, kion mi volas. At other times the tendency to omit an explicit that before a subordinate clause in English (as in I hope you will phone) may cause a student to leave out a necessary ke in Esperanto entirely.
When teaching, it makes sense to try to anticipate these problems and head them off, both by giving students a lot of examples of correct usage and by explicitly warning them away from common errors. This might be a particularly good place to make use of translation exercises, having students translate the very sort of expressions most likely to lead them astray. The purpose isn’t to encourage them to get things wrong (though I wouldn’t put that past some of the teachers I’ve had) but to learn what to watch out for.
Of course, the most basic way one’s native language influences learning of other languages is probably in the area of pronunciation. (Granted, that’s not so much a concern when studying the written form of a language, but nowadays even Latin and Ancient Greek tend to be taught with some emphasis on speaking.) If you’ve ever taught Esperanto in a classroom or other in-person setting, odds are that you’ve taught pronunciation from the first class, so there’s no need to belabor this.
One point that might still be worth mentioning, however, is that current practice is not to worry too much about developing a perfect accent from Day One. If, for instance, students aspirate their unvoiced stops — emit a subtle H sound after K, P, and T, as speakers of English (and for that matter Polish) are apt to do — that’s not a serious problem. It’s much more important to discourage mistakes that are more likely to interfere with communication, such as reducing unstressed vowels to ih or uh, as we’re inclined to do in English. (I’ve suggested having students address this by watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and imitating Ricardo Montalban, but nobody else seems to think this is as grand a pedagogical idea as I do.)
Instructors used to worry that students who didn’t develop a good accent early on would have trouble overcoming their initial bad habits. In fact, students can and do improve pronunciation, grammar, and so on gradually over time, and it’s more important for them to get a lot of practice using the language, even imperfectly, than to get it right from the start, and perfectionism is likely to interfere with that. In Esperanto this isn’t a new idea. Most beginning Esperanto courses don’t even mention aspirating stops, let alone try to discourage it, and no less an Esperanto teacher than Zamenhof himself suggested that speakers of Slavic languages simply ignore the definite article la when starting out.
A brief ĝis revido:
Since I’m involved with this year’s Landa Kongreso in Raleigh I’m taking a vacation from this column for at least a few months. Writing it has been an enjoyable experience and I’m grateful for the kind words and helpful suggestions you’ve sent in, and in particular would like to thank our editor for putting up with my deadline-pushing habits and for correcting my numerous typos and worse.