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Desafortunadamente, ich spreche русским nicht. September 3, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education.
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Fluxor, Chris Gammell, and I got into a brief online discussion about learning languages based on Chris’ comments during the last Amp Hour. Chris wants to learn Mandarin because he thinks it may be useful in the coming age of ‘China is taking over everything.’

My background in languages is actually a bit odd for an American. Until I decided to go into physics, which was approximately my junior year of high school, I first wanted to be a linguist. As such, I ended up taking four years of Spanish in high school and two years of German, one in high school and one in college. I also desperately wanted to learn Japanese (at the time, we were living in the age of ‘Japan is taking over everything’) and Russian. Those two classes were offered via satellite and had to be coordinated through the librarian at our school. I’m still convinced she was simply annoyed by the whole thing and basically discouraged everyone from taking it (except me), so the classes were cancelled every year. (She basically brought everyone in on an individual basis and told us that the class was super hard and we wouldn’t really get anywhere. Then she encouraged us to take something else. Seriously.)

I soldiered on and attempted to learn Russian on my own using cassette tapes (ahem) and a text book. Later, I also gave Chinese a try with Rosetta Stone.

The end result was that I was a decently polished Spanish speaker, a barely passable German speaker, learned a bit of basic Russian, and never got anywhere with Chinese.

From my personal experience, I am totally convinced that the best way to learn a language is either in a classroom or with a tutor. I think that you’ll learn faster if you’re able to supplement with additional resources. Part of my ability to learn Spanish was that my Spanish teacher had a resource room full of videos, computer programs, and magazines that I was able to utilize after school. I went up to the room several times a week. My Spanish teacher told me that he never gave perfect scores, but the year I went, he gave them to me and one other person. The other person, incidentally, had spent several summers attending immersion programs. So while I think immersion programs are probably an extremely good way to learn a language, I don’t think they’re absolutely necessary to become a passable speaker.

I don’t advocate using tapes, books, or programs as a sole source for learning languages. You may become a decent reader of the language, but you really need feedback from an experienced speaker to speak with any level of proficiency. I know that people have raved about Rosetta Stone, but I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s awesome as a supplementary learning tool, but I tried learning Chinese with no prior knowledge of the language and was rather dissatisfied. It was simply too confusing to be of any use. I learned more Chinese in the three months that my son was being tutored by a friend’s daughter than I did attempting Rosetta Stone for a similar amount of time. I think that the reason was that there is little constructive feedback. I get an answer wrong, but the program never told me the correct answer. I found this incredibly frustrating. When interacting with a tutor, I get the correct answer along with an explanation why it is correct.

At some level, the best way to learn a language is probably to live in the culture. I personally think the two are essentially tied together. Until then, you’ll only have a cerebral understanding. Second best, however, is learning from someone who knows and can explain it well.

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Comments»

1. NJS - September 3, 2010

Languages are fun :D. I’ve studied German and Spanish, too. I still have a whole list I want to try someday.

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mareserinitatis - September 3, 2010

My husband and I are thinking of taking German once I’ve finished with school. We both want to learn it, being of German decent. Apparently, I was a ‘native speaker’ until I was 3, at which point my father couldn’t understand me and told my mom to stop teaching me. 😛

I’ve also thought about Russian, but no one here teaches it, so maybe I’ll hit up Arabic someday (with all my free time). Which ones are you thinking about?

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2. Fluxor - September 3, 2010

English combines German grammar with French vocabulary. It’s a simplistic view, but there’s a lot of truth behind it too. That’s why learning German or any of the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian) is comforting for English speakers.

The problem with Chinese is that it is just so so different from English. The same goes for Japanese. The writing alone is so detached from the spoken as to make it almost a language onto itself.

Although I find languages and literature interesting today, I hated it when I was in high school. I barely passed French and I hated English. It’s not that I didn’t do well in English, but my technically minded personality found all that fluffy language stuff to be quite non-utilitarian, hence useless. English also dragged down my grade average. 😛 However, I’ve had an epiphany of sorts when I was in grad school. I rediscovered English! And the catalyst for this rediscovery is the 1995/6 TV mini-series Pride and Prejudice. I just found all that Victorian English to be quite delightful. Certainly more delightful than the latest paper from the Journal of Solid-State Circuits.

BTW, thanks for the link up front, but the links to both me and Chris are broken.

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mareserinitatis - September 3, 2010

Links fixed.

I guess the thing about languages, that I should have mentioned, is that once you start learning foreign languages, it becomes easier to pick the next one up.

I think tackling Russian should’ve made Chinese easier. They do similar ‘weird crap’ with their verb forms that you don’t see in western languages, but the sentence structure was more similar to western languages than Chinese. And I think Rosetta stone gave you the chinese words in either Pinyin or characters, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Maybe I thought about it too much.

I love learning languages and wish I had more time to do it. After having not practiced Spanish and German for nearly 20 years now, however, they’re pretty much gone. :-/

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Fluxor - September 4, 2010

It’s not surprising you found Russian easier than Chinese, since Chinese is in a whole different language family. However, back when I had a chance to be an ex-pat to China, I discovered an ex-pat forum focused on Taiwan. A discussion last week talked about whether Russian or Mandarin is harder for a unilingual English speaker. It appears most choose Russian to be the harder language due to, as you say, ‘weird crap’ with the grammar. As far as I know, there is no verb conjugation in Chinese. And no verb conjugation is how some Chinese people speak English.

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Chris Gammell - September 7, 2010

Well Flux, I still largely agree with you. And while it’s no consolation, I did take Japanese in college. I don’t know if this counts for or against me, especially since I can hardly remember it today. Because of it, I have a slight reference point on the differences of languages but I also have a much better idea of how horrible it is trying to figure out the characters and the contextual and combinatorial nature of them.

Regardless, I’m still thinking of punishing myself and giving it a shot. Cherish’s reference point on Rosetta Stone is interesting, as is your comment about the writing system. I think I would focus on the speaking aspect as Google Translate is about as far as I would attempt for reading Mandarin.

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mareserinitatis - September 7, 2010

If you have some familiarity with Asiatic languages, I think you’ll be worlds ahead of most of us.

But seriously, I’d take a class. 😉

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Fluxor - September 7, 2010

I learned all of my Japanese from the Karate Kid.

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Fluxor - September 8, 2010

So Chris, when are you going to start with the Chinese? Perhaps you can document your experience on your blog.

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mareserinitatis - September 8, 2010

Yeah, I’d be kind of curious to hear how it goes.

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Chris Gammell - September 9, 2010

I’ll let you know. Just started doing a new project (that can possibly provide me moolah) so Chinese would take the backseat to that. I mean, I’m a capitalist afterall 😉

PS. Cherish, are we allowed to thread comments more than 2 deep? Perhaps you can install the plugin “Intense Debate”?

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