Volume IV - 1997

Obsession, Block and Turning Point: How Language Learns Itself
     by Barbara F. Mascali

         Dr. Barbara Mascali is Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at High Point University in North Carolina, teaching German and French, as well as Foreign Language Teaching Methods, ESL, and an interdisciplinary course on language and culture. She acts as advisor to international students and directs a German study-abroad program. Her educational background is in Philosophy of Education, and her special interests lie in language, epistemology, and consciousness.


         "Imaginative teaching" invariably focuses on the search for exciting and meaningful teaching techniques, regardless of what is being taught. In the foreign language classroom, our students know that they are acquiring a skill. But are they given the opportunity to attend to the things that language does with them rather than to the more obvious process of what they do with language?

         In this paper, I will discuss some phenomena that I have observed and that seem to be experienced universally by foreign language learners. I will describe the experience of "obsession" during which the beginning learner is much less autonomous than she has been led to believe. I will examine the occurrence of "block" which seems to suggest that the acquisition of a foreign language is not a linear process during which one building stone can be neatly stacked on top of the other. Looking at a higher level of proficiency, I will talk about the "turning point" which marks the beginning of language fluency.

         It may be important to point out at the very outset that this paper is not meant to be an attempt to prove my views on language acquisition through an objective study. It is merely an attempt to describe a number of personal observations and experiences, something for which we seldom set a moment aside in our obsession with efficiency and productivity but which may help us understand ourselves and our actions.

Language Learns Itself

        "We do not learn language, language learns itself."1 With a slight modification of one of the more famous Heideggerian pronouncements, I want to propose that we take a good look at some of the phenomena that assail us during the process of learning a second language. These are phenomena which many of us may have encountered at one time or another but which we have probably ignored in our effort to take control of our learning process. Since the second language learner forms new concepts rather than merely translating existing concepts from another language, it seems that we can only benefit from attending to how this could happen.

         In order to notice how language "learns itself" and what it does to us, it is necessary to let go of our preconceived notions about language acquisition and to let our imagination take over. If we are willing to let phenomena speak to us, we cannot cling to the notion that introspection will show us these phenomena. On the contrary, we must realize that the idea of introspection is in itself tainted by the kind of pseudo-objectivism we want to avoid. Imagination, on the other hand, will provide us with the material to fill in the gaps that our memory has left, and will be the vehicle with which we can make sense of the phenomena of language acquisition.


         On a recent visit to Italy, I was reminded of an experience I had on my last trip. Italian is a language I do not use frequently, one in which I am actually not very fluent. On the first day, I was extremely reluctant to converse. On the second day of total immersion in Italian, I became aware, during periods when I was by myself, that my mind was reverberating with the voices of people to whom I had talked that day. My head was filled with Italian phrases, intonations, and sounds. Over the next few days, I found myself "working on them, repeating them mindlessly to the rhythm of my heels clicking on the pavement. While these language fragments were resounding in my head, I could not tell what they meant. Only on closer scrutiny could I reconstruct them from the context of conversations I had had earlier. Most of the time I did not even understand them, but the constant rehearsal of these language chunks made conversation easier and easier, and I felt my proficiency and above all, my ease and comfort, increase from day to day. What I find interesting in retrospect is the fact that I had no control over the choice of language bits that entered my mind. There can be no mention of intentionally, since the phrases that did enter my mind were in no way a useful preparation for further conversations. On the contrary, they stemmed from situations that were memorable either because the person I was speaking to made an impression on me or because the subject discussed was meaningful to me--certainly not your standard textbook situations.

         While this phenomenon seems to be experienced almost universally by many learners of a second language, it is very difficult to convey that experience to uni-lingual individuals. The closest (and most enjoyable) proximation in every- day life is probably the obsession we experience when we are in love. We are bombarded, if not consumed, with images of the loved one, images the intensity of which we cannot control and which are not predetermined by our conscious minds. Another example is music. Who is not familiar with the experience of "hearing" bits of music in our minds, catchy refrains that won't go away and that haunt us all day long?

Implications for 2nd Language Learning

         So what, you may ask, if your mind works over what you have heard? It seems that the importance in the acknowledgment of this phenomenon is the implication it has in second language teaching. Based on my experience, I can ascertain that the phenomenon of what I call "Obsession" is caused by the input I have received during my conversations. Whether that input needs to be comprehensible, as Krashen suggests (1983) is questionable. I remember distinctly working over chunks of Italian without having the slightest idea of their meaning. It seems, therefore, that in teaching a foreign language, it may be beneficial to systematically include the teaching of chunks in the classroom, something which has so far been neglected because, as Coreil has suggested, the scope, formation, identity and integrity of these structures is not generally recognized. (1992, p.66).

         A further implication of the phenomenon of Obsession lies in our use of materials. Our second language textbooks, even those with a contextual bend, are packed with "practical" situations, contexts which supposedly mirror important situations in which the language acquirer may find herself eventually and which require a prescribed set of vocabulary. In other words, our textbooks reverberate with intentionality. They, and we as teachers who use them, prescribe for our students a certain set of vocabulary which we consider useful. By doing so, we are the ones who define and limit the realm in which the student can move and express herself. Simultaneously we are belying our good intentions to encourage meaningful communication.

The Meaning of Structure

         The chunks of language with which I was obsessed were not prescribed sets of vocabulary which might come in handy for future use and which I might manipulate at will in a Chomskyan fashion. Rather than creating entirely new sentences out of separate elements, as generative grammar suggests (Chomsky, 1981), I clung to pre-fabricated structures. The chunks in my mind were fossilized structures which, at that time, I was unable and unwilling to separate.

         Now, years later, I know that during my period of Obsession I was acquiring the meaning of structure--not explicitly learning grammar. Language itself has taught me that certain elements belong together in a certain way. It seems to me that the process of acquiring, remembering, and especially accessing these chunks in a situation that I judge fitting involves quite a bit of imagination. After all, when it comes to utilizing chunks of language, it is no longer a question of relying on the rules of a linguistic system that is there for me to use. Often the chunks I had acquired are even grammatically incorrect, as are many idiomatic expressions, but they are still judged to contribute to "fluent" speech. Coppieters speaks of "two linguistic planes: language use and language form" (1989, p. 555). Chunking certainly belongs to the first. What seems strange to me now--and what goes against my common sense--is the fact that I was totally unaware of learning anything at all.

         The idea of acquiring a language unconsciously brings to mind another experience I had as a novice second language learner. After having "learned" English as a foreign language in school, I was unable to have a conversation after six years of classroom work. But after listening to an American radio station for only months, I was able to bridge the gap between "learning" and "acquiring." While I did not understand very much of what was said in the daily newscast, I remember hearing certain words repeated on a daily basis. Since it was the era of Watergate, the newscasts were resounding with terms like "subpoena," "trial," and "allegation," which, needless to say, I had not encountered in my textbooks. While hearing these words mentioned in different contexts, I slowly came to realize their meanings. I did not learn them as I had learned my school vocabulary lists, but by being unaware of their meaning in my native German. I had gradually made meaning_relatively independent from prescriptive rules_of phrases and expressions that seemed to have their own internal rules of structure. I had constructed a personal, temporarily idiosyncratic system of language, not unlike the system children will set up for themselves at various stages of language development.


         Years ago I took an Italian class at the University. After having completed two semesters, I decided to continue to study the textbook on my own. I felt that I made slow, steady progress, until I reached a chapter dealing with the different cases of personal pronouns. I had reached an impasse. I could not, for the life of me, memorize the forms for all the cases. Worse yet, I confused them. But instead of continuing with another chapter, my German sense of order made me determined to master the one in question--with the result that I gave up studying all together. It goes without saying that I was unable to converse with anyone. What if I had to use a personal pronoun?

         I was as naive as the next person in assuming that learning is a linear process. This assumption has led me to programmed, step-by-step learning which builds on what I had learned previously. But if the task of learning a language (native or foreign) were additive and linear, it is difficult to see how anyone could learn a language at all. If each phonological and syntactical rule, each lexical feature, each semantic value had to be acquired one at a time, people would say their first word at age sixty. Once again, chunking comes to the rescue. Estes (1962) has suggested that perhaps the learned chunks of language are compared and become available for use in new chunks. The possible number of "things known" exponentiates as the number of chunks increases additively, since every complex chunk makes available a further analysis of old chunks into new elements, each still attached to the original context upon which its appropriateness depends.

         As my do-it-yourself-experience has shown, the conscious and systematic learning of a foreign language can markedly stifle proficiency, for the tendency to reach an unbridgeable impasse or block is unavoidable. Krashen speaks of an "overactive monitor" (1983) which is constituted by our awareness of grammatical rules and our ability to (or our obsession with) correct utterances. For me, it seems that the monitor is performing in its optimal mode when it does not interfere with speech production. This implies indirectly that only in this mode can a certain degree of proficiency be achieved or can the Turning Point (see below) be reached. Seen in these terms, the monitor needs to be part of our unconscious background. It has to either take on the form of Chomsky's "Learning Acquisition Device" (1981)--a faculty that enables us to detect and "know" correct grammar without being explicitly aware of it, or it constitutes the reliance on preformed chunks of language-- grammatically correct or not--which fit the situation.

Turning Point

         Months after having given up on Italian, months during which I received sparse but continuous input in that language, the "working" over of that input enabled me to reach a juncture where it was possible for me to maintain a decent conversation. By now, I had acquired an adequate number of prefabricated structures, and I had a feel for the way words were held together. I had heard different people use similar expressions in similar situations, and now it was my time to try them out. I had overcome my shyness, and I was able to put to rest my fears of using the wrong case. If I became aware that I had made a mistake, it was only in retrospect, and it did not thus interfere with my ability to converse more or less fluently (though by no means grammatically correct). Fossilization had finally paid off. There were enough chunked structures in my repertoire to cover up my lack of grammatical knowledge. I could wing it.

         Whereas the phenomenon of Obsession is observable only when the speaker does not possess a high degree of proficiency, that of the Turning Point takes us further up on the ladder of competency. This "threshold" (Curran, 1976) is characterized by the forgetting that one is speaking in a foreign language. I personally believe that much more is involved. Not being aware of the vehicle of communication, once I had reached the Turning Point, I had made the transition from meaning to value. I was now able to focus on investing myself in communication. Meaning had turned to meaningful. At the same time, I had created a new reality for myself with the help of new concepts that were formed with a new language. I like to think that overcoming the block and crossing the threshold of the turning point brought into existence a different epistemic terrain and with it maybe even a different mode of consciousness.

         The implications of the observation of these three phenomena on foreign language teaching are obvious. In order for students to achieve native-like proficiency (a goal towards all of us second language teachers like to be working) we must provide an environment in which transfer from the first language is kept to a minimum. The experience of the phenomenon of Obsession coupled with that of Block leads me to the conclusion that, if total immersion in a language is impossible, the ideal acquisition environment is one where anxiety is low. Obsession, the most important phenomenon to be experienced by a novice language student, can only be assured if the input in the foreign language occurs on a daily basis, preferably for a lengthy period of time each day. Simultaneously, the introductions of chunks should not be forgotten. How many of us remember lines from poems memorized a long time ago or a phrase from a long-forgotten language lesson? Maybe there is a case to be made for learning "by heart" instead of only "by mind."

A Question Thrown Out

         In connection with this article, I would like to throw out a question in the hope that some readers will respond. Situation: I am abroad. For a few days, the following will occur without fail: I hear people conversing in the background without being able to make out what they are saying--through an open window, at the next table in a restaurant, etc. The speech seems to have a clearly English intonation, although I know that they are not speaking English. After a few days, I don't hear the English intonation any more, but when I return to the U.S., the intonation of people speaking English in the background seems to bear the intonation patterns of the language which I have just left behind. Question: Has this happened to anyone or am I the only one who hears things? How do you explain it?


Chomsky, N. (1981). Rules and Representations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Coppieters, R. (1987)." Competence Differences Between Native and Near-Native Speakers." Language, 63, 3. pp. 544-573.

Coreil, C. (1992). "Fusion In Language: A Case For Supralexical Units." Dissertation. City University of New York.

Curran, C. ( 1976). Counseling-Learning in Second Languages. Dubuque, Illinois: Counseling- Learning.

Estes, W. K. (1962) "Learning Theory." Annual Review of Psychology. No. 13, p. 110.

Heidegger, M. (1971). Poetry, Language and Thought. (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

Krashen, S. and T. Terrell. (1983). The Natural Approach. San Francisco: Alemany.


Footnote 1: Original quote: "We do not speak language, language speaks itself." (Heidegger, 1971, p. 192.)

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