I look forward to Ken Carroll’s posts about language learning, in part because he’s actively experimenting. As he says, he reads a lot of education theory, but he’s also trying to put theory to work via sites like Chinesepod.
In that post from last Friday, Ken linked to another New York Times mention of Chinesepod (highlighting in this case Chinesepod’s use of the Olympics).
Comments both on Ken’s post and on the NYT piece exhibit a wide range of opinion regarding how to learn a language — all the way from “you’ve got to take a class” to “do what you want.”
To me, this is another example of a covert discrimination — Joe Harless’s term for an apparently simple case (“learn a language”) that conceals a number of different situations requiring different actions.
There’s isn’t a “right” way to learn a language, any more than there’s a right way to cook dinner. Do you want to read, or to read and write? Do you want to read and speak? Do you want to work in a scholarly or professional or formal or technical setting in the new language?
As I talk (via voice) with francophone friends in Second Life, I often receive compliments on how well I’m doing. That’s how I learned the verb se dÃ©brouiller (“Tu te dÃ©brouilles bien — You’re doing well”).
I’m all too aware of my shortcomings, though. And after only eight months or so, insight came to me with my usual lightning speed:
First, I think people appreciate what they see as sincere effort. I have always liked the idea of speaking another language, and I remain grateful for Brother AndrÃ©’s enthusiasm back when I was a high school freshman.
Ce n’Ã©tait rien qu’un peu de miel
Mais il m’avait chauffÃ© le corps
Et dans mon Ã¢me il brÃ»le encore
A la maniÃ¨r’ d’un grand soleil…
(It was only a little bit of honey
But it warmed me all over
And in my soul, it’s still burning
Like a great sun…)
— Georges Brassens, Chanson pour l’Auvergnat
(video with less-than-perfect English subtitles)
More to the point, though, I finally realized something that should have been obvious:
- When I’m speaking (or text-chatting) in French, the people I’m talking to understand every word (except the French words I manufacture out of thin air from English ones).
- When they speak to me, they understand every word also — but they can’t really tell how well I’m following.
On another language-learning site, I discovered a rule of thumb that I reinterpret like this: a middle level of language skill means that you can speak comfortable in paragraphs. You don’t have to pause and pre-assemble what you plan to say — at least not any more than you do in your native language.
I’m just not there yet. I feel more like someone who’s moved to a strange city. I know there are bagel shops somewhere; I know there must a good place to get my bike fixed; I’m pretty sure there’s a great family-run Italian restaurant. Not to mention a much better route for getting from point A to point B.
I just haven’t learned those things yet. And while I can take in a lot of advice (which is really the theory that Ken Carroll talks about), I have to apply that advice, probably several times, before I can really judge its value for me and go about incorporating it into my repetoire.
I remember learning from Brother AndrÃ© that the French equivalent of “it’s Greek to me” is “it’s Chinese to me.” It delighted me even more to read once that the ancient Greeks supposedly would say, in the same situation, “it sounds like Hebrew.”