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Demanding as language learning is, having the target language is of immense benefit to those who intend to spend much time communicating with those who use it. Western countries which used to limit language teaching in schools and universities to a small number of cognate languages taught to the brightest children only, now have ambitious schemes to increase language learning. In California and some other parts of the United States Spanish is taught in almost all schools and universities and some Asian languages are taught and studied seriously. In the United Kingdom there is now much greater emphasis on languages in secondary schools and, through the Pickup Scheme, centres have been set up where adults can acquire at least a minimum knowledge of languages they need for international business. The level of language acquired will differ greatly, depending on the quality of the teaching, the motivation of the students and the number of chances the learner has to use the target language in real situations.Those brought up to be bilingual may have native skill in languages other than their mother tongue, or the first language they learnt as a baby. Those who did not learn a second language as children but subsequently learnt and used one for many years may acquire native ability but are more likely to be near native, that is, extremely competent but occasionally betrayed by pronunciation and odd usages. Those who spend a few years learning and
Language115using a language may never become fluent, but should certainly have language that is functional, conversational or merely at survival level, depending on their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and perhaps also on their natural flair.It is easy to be scornful of those who acquire a modicum of a language and think they can use it effectively. However, even a little verbal and nonverbal language is better than none. In the words of Samovar and Porter (1995): ‘Our first piece of advice is this: If you spend time around people from other cultures, try to learn their language.’ Their first language is important to every group. Even a few key terms such as those for ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘It was no trouble’, ‘I’m sorry’, and ‘Hello’ can be precious door openers. The numbers up to ten are invaluable also. As Cathie Draine and Barbara Hall (1986) put it: ‘You have much to gain and little to lose in speaking the language.’But just how much of a language is that happy minimum many people want? Though cultural fluency is as or more important than linguistic fluency, every thoughtful person should at least be able to express and pick up certain messages. These will differ according to the user’s needs but should include the ability to greet, thank, apologise, and arrange meetings. Certainly, the more of a language a person who wants to understand a culture has, the better; to try to do without any is surely rash.