Mandarin: it’s Greek to me

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 débrouiller (“Tu te débrouilles 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 André’s enthusiasm back when I was a high school freshman.

Ce n’était rien qu’un peu de miel
Mais il m’avait chauffé le corps
Et dans mon âme il brûle encore
A la manièr’ 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 André 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.”

2 thoughts on “Mandarin: it’s Greek to me

  1. 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.

    This is a discussion we’ve been having at the office — how much of any language learner’s needs, regardless of their goal, is the same? I tend to think that every language student through at least the intermediate levels need basically the same things, and only as you reach higher do specialized needs create specialized requirements. I have been told by many people much smarter than me that this is horribly misguided, though, so perhaps I’m mistaken :)

  2. John, you and the others in your office know a lot more about language learning than I do. I’ve also seen examples on Frenchpod and Chinesepod of people who are apparently semi-pro language learners (working on their fourth or fifth languages, say), so I’m not in their league, either.

    With that disclaimer: I don’t believe most people, especially after adolescence, learn a new language they way they learned their first. And thank God. Immersion may be an excellent method, but in childhood it’s characterized by an enormous amount of enforced listening (because we don’t know enough to reply), followed by a length period of trial-and-error.

    Certainly there’s some level at which most students do need certain things — basic sentence structure, use of common verbs, present / past / future / imperfect / conditional (maybe in that order, at least in terms of when they’re introduced?)…

    Harless has been a big influence on how I think about learning problems (in a workplace sense), and so I hear him asking, “Learn a language for what?� As in, do you want to travel in Chinese-speaking places? Do you want to pick up a Chinese date? Do you want to read Confucius? Li Bai? The Little Red Book? Do you want to get a job with Praxis, or with Lenovo, or with Hutchison Whampoa?

    You’ll still need to know how to put words together, but your date or your employer may not care that you know 月下�酌. On the other hand, if they do care, they’d perhaps be interested to find over three dozen translations of Drinking Alone with the Moon.

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