Friday, June 17, 2005

Learning a Foreign Language

Would you like to learn a foreign language? Lots of people would. Lots of Americans have discovered that it is very difficult to do. I once was served ice cream in Antwerp by a person who spoke six languages. He apparently misidentified me and rattled off a few before he got to English. My wife met a young Finnish woman in line for railroad tickets who spoke nineteen. Why did she have no entourage? It is not at all uncommon to find people in Europe who speak three, even in France. These must be very industrious people, n’est-ce pas?

I’ve always felt that languages are very badly taught. Is this an unwarranted accusation against the honorable profession of language teachers? Come on – even the teachers themselves will tell you that immersion is the best way to learn. My brother went to school in West Texas. When he came home from his first year, he could rattle off Spanish like he’d swallowed the phrase book. Hint: he did not learn it in class. Immersion works, but schools in the US do not have the stones to propose an immersion program. So why do they bother? We do a pretty decent job of teaching reading, writing, math, and science. Why waste our time teaching language.

You used to hear that it was important to start children young. In fact, one of my children was due to start a French class in second grade when the whole program was cancelled. I was disappointed, but I went to the school meeting to listen. The explanation, which I accept, is that students who start in the seventh grade easily catch up with those who start in the second. There was thus no noticeable net benefit, and plenty of cost, like five extra years of cost. The teachers felt they could use the extra time profitably, and I believe they are right.

Unfortunately, surrender is not an easily digested option. The pleasure of knowing a foreign language is comparable to knowing how to play an instrument. The social need is undeniable. The US suffers because of our uniquely American inadequacy in the language field. We might have been a lot better off in our dealings with the Muslim world if we had a pool of translators, readers and speakers, of Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi, not to mention Turkish and the two hundred languages of Indonesia.

The Peace Corps does a halfway decent job of teaching languages. I’ve often suspected that this was the hidden purpose of the Peace Corps. It’s hard for me to believe that politicians developed a genuinely altruistic organization. But I think the Peace Corps is a really good thing. You could consider joining. By the way, I believe it uses immersion as its primary method.

The thing about us and languages. We don’t need to learn them, and we don’t have much chance to use them. If you do run into someone who speaks a foreign language as a native, they will use the opportunity as a means to refine their English. That’s because, they are much better at English than you are at their language, and because, once again, they need it and you don’t. There’re always some extroverts who can ingratiate themselves with foreign language speakers enough to learn the language. That’s certainly the best way if you can do it. I can’t even ingratiate myself with English speakers, so that way doesn’t work for me.

Unqualified as I am, I do have some suggestions for an introverted American who wants to learn a foreign language. I have thought about this for years and a certain amount of this comes from my experiences of repeated failure. Berlitz is great, but it’s ridiculously expensive. Travel is very helpful, but also expensive and stressful for the shy person. Classroom work is OK, but painfully inefficient, and you start forgetting from the day you leave.

Suggestion 1: Buy the Rosetta Stone CDs for language instruction on your PC. They are expensive, but they are well worth it. They are easy to get through and provide lots of motivation for the beginner. You will be amazed at how much you really learn in a very short time. Unfortunately, you will be disappointed by how quickly you use up the instruction.

Suggestion 2: Find a book you love. Preferably a relatively short, simple book with lots of dialog. A book you have read several times. Then get a copy of the book in the target language along with a very good dictionary, or better yet, several dictionaries of various grades. Sit down and read the book. Read it several times. Compare to the original and savor the relationship. Don’t kill yourself trying to understand every word, but do understand every sentence. Keep a list of all the hard words.

Also, don’t do this when you’re sleepy, unless you want to go to sleep. It is hard work, but you can feel yourself making progress. Motivation is the crucial issue here. That’s why you have to pick a book you love.

Suggestion 3: Find a computer instruction format where spoken language is paired with text, so that you can select and repeat a phrase as often as you like. Imitate the sounds of a speech segment as closely as you can while reading it. When you have mastered a segment, memorize it. Recite it to yourself before you go to bed each night. I recommend "101 Languages of the World" for this purpose. Its boring, but inexpensive. Exotic poetry might be more fun, but it will be hard to find the paired format and it won’t have the common phrases.

Don’t play around. If this is important to you, take the trouble to memorize lots of material. Don’t let your memories lapse either. Memorizing is also hard work, but once it’s done, you get to keep it. Even though you forget it, years later you will be able to revive the memory by a very short review. I was told by the Mexican man at the pizza parlor, who speaks pretty good English, that you really only need half an hour a day of study, but you can’t let yourself miss. If you memorize stuff, you carry it everywhere and you never have an excuse for skipping. It can help you get through an exercise session, or a long commute (beware of highway hypnosis though).

Suggestion 4: Be very discriminating in what you buy. There are an endless variety of books and tapes that are not really very helpful. Some are unhelpful because of inherent pedagogical flaws. Some are admirable products that would help the person who has tremendous self-motivation. Unless you have a track record of succeeding at this sort of thing, I would stay away.

6/17/2005 12:06 AM

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At Friday, June 17, 2005 8:48:00 PM, Blogger blackmaled said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Friday, June 17, 2005 8:50:00 PM, Blogger blackmaled said...

I have the Pimsleur cds for German and Mandarin Chinese. They work really well.

At Friday, June 17, 2005 11:53:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Whoa. I'm impressed! I'll have to take a look. Do you really feel that you will retain something you can hang onto?

At Saturday, June 18, 2005 4:08:00 PM, Blogger blackmaled said...

Yea, the programs are designed in a very unique way how they repeat the words and pronounce them starting with the last syllable first.

At first I didnt think it worked, but youd be surprised of the amount of material you can remember after a lesson. (there are 10 lessons, 30 min each)


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