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Speaking in foreign tongues
August 22, 2013 6:17 AM   Subscribe

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has spent the last few months in Paris specifically studying French. His latest dispatch, "Or Perhaps You Are Too Stupid to Learn French," looks at how hard it is to apply the rules of new language in real time, while fighting with one's perceptions and limitations (Other dispatches are here).

Washington Post writer Jay Matthews asks if learning a foreign language is worth it and recounts his own struggles studying Chinese. Another WaPo writer, Elizabeth Chang, recalls her experience in learning Arabic.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (200 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite

 
As someone who got a gentleman's C in high school French, despite being very interested in language, I think it's because the process is more like learning a musical instrument, and yet we teach it like math. I can't think of a subject where you can spend 2-3 years in study in class, make good grades, and then be more inept than a 5 year old (who had actual exposure to the language).

I had a Geography prof in college who had been a WWII era intelligence officer. He told about the super-duper-intensive German course they took, so they could get all the nuance out of the conversations when they interrogated German officers immediately after the war. And then, he said, "after a few months we were almost as good at it as our wives, who were having conversations with their next door neighbors."
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:25 AM on August 22, 2013 [78 favorites]


Whether learning a foreign language is worth it depends entirely on the language and what you want to do with it. If you want to live in China or Japan it would make sense to learn their languages frex.

If you're not planning on living in a country where they speak the language you want to study, it becomes harder to justify your investment. For some languages it can be justified: Russian for the access to classic, world beating literature it gets you, French for same as well as the best comics in the world but for many languages there's no real advantage in learning it; nobody ever needs to learn Dutch.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:30 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


@Jay Matthews: Kids in Denmark are learning English starting in the first grade now.

I took Russian in high school as my third language (instead of continuing German). It was great, but unfortunately I don't remember much of it now. The problems, it seems to me, are that a) you don't spend much time on learning it, and b) you often don't get a chance to use it afterwards.

There are probably issues with second language teaching in the US. But I have a hard time taking seriously the position that it's a waste of time learning a second language because a lot of other people have gone to the trouble of learning your language. Arrogant asshat.
posted by brokkr at 6:31 AM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


But what if you never learn the language? I don't mean what if you never decide to learn, but what if expend a great amount of effort and learn nothing. This seems doubtful--but when learning something the fear of learning nothing is one of the greatest obstacles. This is magnified in French because in any class worth it's salt because the instruction is almost entirely in French. What this means is not only is your subject obscured from you, but the method of accessing the subject is obscured too. It is dreadful cycle. You can only barely understand the instructor--because you can't speak French. But in order to speak French you need to get the instruction, which you don't wholly understand because you don't speak French. So mostly you muddle your way through. And if you have a good teacher he will make sure you understand the instructions before moving on.


This paragraph alone highlights the struggle that has been part of my life for nearly five years now. I feel like an idiot because I know the basics but cannot have a conversation--or at least a sustained one--in French to save my life. In turn, it has caused me to become very nearly a hermit. I know that I am overreacting as the Quebecois have been nothing but nice to me, but that mental hurdle of being no better than a student five years on in a language I am required to know stings.
posted by Kitteh at 6:33 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


...I think it's because the process is more like learning a musical instrument, and yet we teach it like math.

There's definitely some truth to this. I had 4 years of HS spanish and it wasn't until our teacher refused us permission to speak English in the classroom (during the last month or so of senior year) that I started to actually be able to say anything. But not much.

But the real reason is that we try to teach languages in HS at all. If we are serious about learning foreign languages, we need to teach them in elementary school. Preschool and kindergarten, ideally. That's the critical language learning period. We are not blank slates that can learn anything at any time like a computer. We are biological machines optimized for certain functions at certain times.
posted by DU at 6:37 AM on August 22, 2013 [26 favorites]


I can't think of a subject where you can spend 2-3 years in study in class, make good grades, and then be more inept than a 5 year old (who had actual exposure to the language).


I think that has more to do with the dynamics of neural plasticity than how we teach language.
posted by Jpfed at 6:38 AM on August 22, 2013 [15 favorites]


Before I came here everyone told me that the enemy was the French. It would be their rudeness, their retreat into English that would defeat me. But I am here now and it is clear that--as with attempting to learn anything--the only real enemy is me. My confidence comes and goes. I have no innate intelligence here--intelligence is overrated. What matters is toughness, a willingness to believe against what is apparent.

This guy has it figured out. Anyone can learn a foreign language. Anyone.

I can't think of a subject where you can spend 2-3 years in study in class, make good grades, and then be more inept than a 5 year old (who had actual exposure to the language).

But a lot of the reason to learn a foreign language in school is not so much to become fluent, but to learn about language structure, grammar, spelling, etc. You don't get that so much from speaking. I am perfectly fluent in a second language, but my grammar and spelling are worse than my accent. And none of this has helped my English as might be another reason one studies a foreign language alongside of English.

I know the basics but cannot have a conversation

You just gotta jump in and do it, Kitteh. There is no other way than to struggle making sentences one after the other in real time.
posted by three blind mice at 6:39 AM on August 22, 2013 [20 favorites]


...nobody ever needs to learn Dutch...

That's actually at the top of my list to learn, due to my Dutch heritage and wish to eventually visit the Netherlands. Whether you "need" to learn it to visit the country depends on whether you think you "need" to carry local money or maps. You'll probably survive if you don't, but it would be better to do so.
posted by DU at 6:39 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


But the real reason is that we try to teach languages in HS at all. If we are serious about learning foreign languages, we need to teach them in elementary school. Preschool and kindergarten, ideally. That's the critical language learning period.

Afaik this is largely a myth and there's no real difference in the difficulty for a child or an adult to learn a given language.

But to learn to speak a language good, neither immersion nor structured learning is sufficient; rather you need a combination of the two. Language classes and speaking it in daily life, watching movies in it, reading novels, etc.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:42 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, "foreign" here is being used interchangeably with "not English", which is tricky. Is Spanish, for example, a foreign language in the United States?

Kitteh - for what it's worth - and it probably isn't much - I found that after a day in Quebec my neurons had dragged up my French to the point where I was able to have conversations with Parisiens, who then translated for me when needed. Quebecois French seems properly tricky - hang in there.
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:42 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


DU, if a dutch person gets wind that you are a english speaker, they will automatically switch to english...
posted by Pendragon at 6:43 AM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is magnified in French because in any class worth it's salt because the instruction is almost entirely in French. What this means is not only is your subject obscured from you, but the method of accessing the subject is obscured too. It is dreadful cycle.

Frankly, that seems like a horrible way to learn a language, or just about anything.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:43 AM on August 22, 2013


I break out into a sweat if I have to use too much German. I can speak well, although my grammar is crap. But it's rather useless when I can't understand responses. I manage for routine shopping well enough. But my partner had to phone to get a repair man over for the dryer. Even he is bad understanding the Swiss version of German.

But I live in German-speaking culture, and have 10 years of it now (to be fair, not working, so not constantly exposed). How do those babies manage? LOL!

The rub: Neither the local German nor my American English is native for my partner. He speaks that useless language mentioned above, called "Dutch". It's not only useless, it's a nightmare to pronounce. And I'm dumber than my 2-year-old nephew, and poor kid isn't old enough to tell me so...yet. :-))
posted by Goofyy at 6:43 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's actually at the top of my list to learn, due to my Dutch heritage and wish to eventually visit the Netherlands. Whether you "need" to learn it to visit the country depends on whether you think you "need" to carry local money or maps.

Don't worry, the slightest trace of an accent and English will be talked at you. Godawful English, but still.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:43 AM on August 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I had a Geography prof in college who had been a WWII era intelligence officer. He told about the super-duper-intensive German course they took, so they could get all the nuance out of the conversations when they interrogated German officers immediately after the war.

They used the Audiolingual method, aka the "Army Method" of language teaching, which came to be in vogue post-war precisely because of these successes. Unfortunately it was eventually found to be no better than any other method once it was applied under less than ideal conditions.

There's quite a lot to be said for having small classes of pre-screened highly intelligent and motivated people who are not only being paid to study full time, but who are also well aware that their lives could very well depend on getting the language right. Not quite the same situation one finds in the average high school or college classroom, sadly.
posted by chomarui at 6:44 AM on August 22, 2013 [12 favorites]


I studied abroad in the Netherlands and will never forget how amazing it was that everyone there spoke like 4 languages minimum. This was often the case in the other European countries I went to, but seriously I feel like everyone I talked to could speak English, French, Dutch and German fluently.
posted by DynamiteToast at 6:48 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


In a previous life, my major was Russian. I traveled to remote Russia a few times, lived and studied in a provincial capital there for 6 months, did the equivalent of 4+ years language study in an American college. I spoke the language pretty well, and understood it extremely well. But then I didn't do much with it after my graduation 10 years ago. Just last year, I had the opportunity to work in Russia for a month. Much to my surprise, it was like getting back on a (somewhat wobbly) bike. Declensions and conjugations and fancy participles and verbs of motion all came back to me in varying degrees.

I've only done this with one language--I never cemented Mandarin as well as I did with Russian--but I think there can be a point, with sustained practice and study, that the foreign language becomes ingrained.
posted by msbrauer at 6:48 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


From my experience in Germany, I have to say they should have 2 different classes. One to teach the language of choice. Another one to teach how to learn a new language, coached in your native language. Kind of a support class. I think this would be highly beneficial. I found when I took German at Volkshochscheule, there was an assumption that I knew how to learn a new language. I did not! I screwed up and should have gone to Heinreich Heine Uni's immersion class.
posted by Goofyy at 6:50 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think as the numbers of non-English speaking people who move to rural and suburban areas in the US increase, the cost/benefit of learning a second language is changing.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:52 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


In middle school I had the choice of taking French, German, or Spanish. I wanted to take French cause I thought it was a super romantic language, my parents wanted me to take Spanish because it would be very practical (being in Texas and all) and somehow we compromised on German, truly exemplifying the old saying about compromise meaning neither party gets what they want. There's probably also a specific term for this in German, Kompromisstraurigmachen or something.
posted by kmz at 6:53 AM on August 22, 2013 [12 favorites]


Coates is a treasure, and I have thoroughly enjoyed his Paris dispatches. He's a fine, fine writer.
posted by jetsetsc at 6:55 AM on August 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


As someone who got a gentleman's C in high school French, despite being very interested in language, I think it's because the process is more like learning a musical instrument, and yet we teach it like math. I can't think of a subject where you can spend 2-3 years in study in class, make good grades, and then be more inept than a 5 year old (who had actual exposure to the language).

The difference is that for most people there is an obvious classroom/non-classroom split for languages. If I say that I studied French (classroom), the expected output is that I now speak it (non-classroom). If I say that I was good at maths when I was in school, the expected output is that I can solve mathematics problems of pretty much the same kind that I practised in school.

DU, if a dutch person gets wind that you are a english speaker, they will automatically switch to english...

Just learn how to say, in rudimentary Dutch, "I'm sorry I'm from Armenia" [or some country where you look like you could be from where they speak languages that very few Dutch people will speak]
That'll sort 'em.
posted by atrazine at 6:56 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


So like most people in my generation (Sweden) I learned English from the third to ninth grade but I truly learned it by watching countless of movies, tv series, playing video games, listening to music and just being immersed in US pop culture. School might have taught me grammar but it was the everyday conversations that made learning the language easy and fun without any conscious effort.

Language learning needs to move out of the class room - or, if you're learning it by yourself, from the headphone aided recitation sessions - and be embedded in fun everyday activities. Instead of spending an hour in front of the teacher reciting verbs, why not cook a meal together or discuss a movie only speaking the language taught? This is so obvious yet we deny ourselves these experiences because we're so used to traditional modes of learning and, I suspect, unsure if you're supposed to have fun while learning. Like, why are you goofing around in a kitchen when you should be learning your French verbs, right?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 6:57 AM on August 22, 2013 [14 favorites]


There is no other way than to struggle making sentences one after the other in real time.

This is basically it, right here. I learned a couple languages to mastery as an adult, to the point that I ended up teaching both of them, because I was motivated and prepared to put in the time. With few exceptions, people who fail to acquire a second language in adulthood fail to do so because it's a hard thing to do and we don't like to do hard things without either an external justification (travel, business, a romantic partner from that culture, etc.) or an intense internal drive to master the subject for whatever reason. Europeans don't have a higher % of multilingual citizens because they're innately more enlightened, they're like that because there are economic, academic, and professional incentives for being multilingual.

Learning a language is a special challenge compared to acquiring any other skill, too, because it forces you to regress to a child's level of communication (sometimes worse, at the beginning!). Most people aren't up for the embarrassment, an embarrassment which TNC has so eloquently documented in this series of posts he's been doing. It takes a certain sort of bravery to restrict yourself in that way, to reduce your available range of expressions to an incredibly narrow band and try to communicate with people using that constrained palette, and to accept that you are unlikely to get anywhere quickly. There's a lot of anxiety among students in the language classroom that you probably don't find to the same degree anywhere else, with the possible exception of public speaking courses.

Is it easier in childhood? Probably. For certain things (like accents), definitely. But even children won't do more work than you force them to. This is why raising a bilingual child in an otherwise monolingual environment is hard. If everyone except for one parent speaks English to the child, and the child figures out that, say, the mother speaking Spanish to them also speaks English, then the child will often reject the second language and opt for the first. It's easier for them.

I would agree that we ought to start teaching language earlier in the US. But what we really need to do is clearly establish relevance and a value proposition, to create that incentive. And what that would entail is a huge cultural shift in how we look at the value of certain types of education, one that goes against a nativist sentiment that has always been strong in this country. I hope that shift comes, especially with the way the cultural, linguistic and ethnic makeup of the country is changing, but we'll see.
posted by Kosh at 6:58 AM on August 22, 2013 [21 favorites]


My first language was actually (Mandarin) Chinese, and while I can still converse pretty well, my reading and writing skills are basically non-existent. I even took a Chinese course in college specifically designed for second-generation kids like me who can speak but can't read/write Chinese, and while I did well in class I forgot everything pretty much as soon as the class ended. Really should try to pick it up again one of these days.
posted by kmz at 6:59 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Afaik this is largely a myth and there's no real difference in the difficulty for a child or an adult to learn a given language.

Not true for pre-lingual children. There's substantial evidence for a critical learning period for language pre-kindergarden. Babies and toddlers are cognitive sponges for learning ideas about how language is pronounced and structured. The next 12 years of instruction usually involves shorehorning that knowledge into formal theory and privileged modes.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:59 AM on August 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


Washington Post writer Jay Matthews asks if learning a foreign language is worth it

It depends what you expect to do with it. You probably will never learn enough French to write (or even read) great French poetry. You may never learn enough to carry on a decent conversation. But you could easily learn enough French to ask directions on a trip through France. The old guy you ask speaks French, not English, and you're both happy because you know how to ask where the nearest restaurant is and you understand what he tells you. You speak the shittiest French on the planet, but you can ask directions in lots of interesting places.

And learning another language can be fun, so why not do it? You can learn another language like you might follow baseball: because you enjoy the fuck out of it. There is no point in watching the Boston Red Sox games on TV, no point in reading about the games in the paper the next day, no point in getting together with other fans to see the games in person, but people do it.
posted by pracowity at 7:01 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the linked text: "The only answer is to put one foot in front of the other, to keep walking, to understand that the way is up."

Isn't that what those barely educated local kids with rags on their backs -- you know the ones in places like Marrakesh, Bali, Ko Samui, etc, -- say to themselves as they take on the challenge of developing functional English?
posted by Mister Bijou at 7:01 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I had 4 years of HS spanish and it wasn't until our teacher refused us permission to speak English in the classroom (during the last month or so of senior year) that I started to actually be able to say anything. But not much." - DU

My French teacher in high school was awesome.First day he spoke no English. But he walked us through "Je m'appelle Mr. Turner." Tu t'appelle Vespabelle" until we got it. And that was a pretty great feeling that we had figured out this mysterious code! And we could speak! And have a conversation!

And then I had a terrible instructor my first year in college and lost it all!
posted by vespabelle at 7:01 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


(from the article) I've had to keep myself from being lazy, because the French are too forgiving.

I learned French in west Africa. The first time I visited Paris, I expected people to be jerks about language. They mostly weren't, but there really are some Parisians who can't stand to hear their language spoken differently or incorrectly (to that sort of person the two are equivalent). My accent is a weird mix of America and Burkina Faso which almost no French person can place* (though it is not so strong that people generally have a difficult time understanding me), and I swear I heard a few people sigh with relief when I translated something for my brother, because at that point they knew they could switch to English and not have to hear any more of my weird French.

Frankly, that seems like a horrible way to learn a language, or just about anything.

You'd be surprised. Full immersion means you either remember what you need to remember, or you don't get to express yourself. It's generally pretty effective, because it forces you to be willing to work through your mistakes, rather than remain silent. Awful, terrible, no fun, but effective.**

*Most people think it sounds vaguely Latino. A Colombian friend thinks it sounds Italian. I don't have any Italian friends to ask.
**One of the worst headaches of my life I got early in Peace Corps training when they spent an afternoon teaching us 'survival' local language...they didn't do full immersion in Mooré, but they would only translate the Mooré into French, a language that at that point I had been learning for THREE DAYS.

posted by solotoro at 7:02 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I learned to read French before I ever tried to speak it (or understand it spoken), so when I finally had to really learn it for work there was a moment every day like "oh, that's what souhaiter sounds like!" (It sounds like Pepe Le Pew saying "sweaty.")
posted by theodolite at 7:04 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is the definitive work on learning a foreign language.
posted by Ber at 7:06 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


From Jay Matthews:And from what I can see, based on what actually happens in high schools, learning a foreign language often is a waste of time.

What a sad and depressing statement. What I got from middle school Latin was an appreciation not only for bedsheets but also for columns, for Horace, for the pleasure of finding the right word for the right sentence, for the vocative.* How could I love Calvino without Italian? Is it a waste of time if someone takes Italian for two years and forgets most of it but can figure out the puns in Dante's terza rima? If they can at least navigate to the train station in Calles after three years of French? Does he seriously see the cultural aspects of high school language courses-- the baguettes, the bocce, the banquets-- as a waste? I don't.


*full disclosure I love Latin so much my marriage proposal was written in it so I'm probably waaaaay biased
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:06 AM on August 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


Apparently my French accent is so weird that few people can figure out where I'm from. I'm clearly not French -- my p/t/k and r all come out wrong -- but I don't have the standard English accent in French.

I remain bitter that no one explained about stress in French because it took me to a university linguistics course to find out that my trying to guess stress based on English rules was not correct. (I am poor at distinguishing stress, obviously.) That said, the only reason I learned formal grammar was because of French (and Mad Libs) -- we never covered it in English.

A good instructor will make sure that you understand what you're supposed to be doing, but actually this is possible in a full immersion class.
posted by jeather at 7:11 AM on August 22, 2013


These articles can only really be written by people from cultures where people can happily get by in life without a second language, either because they have no expectation of going or need to go beyond their culture, or because their language is dominant in commercial or cultural life.

In the UK the government plans to make learning a language compulsory for students between the ages of 7-11. On the other, the UK is notoriously bad for learning languages - generally bottom in Europe. The barrier is that finding an application for that language can be hard, and finding an application to practice to a level where it makes a difference (i.e. you can have a business conversation, or watch a movie without subtitles) is hard, so it gets seen as pointless or just and end in itself. I learnt French to the point I was fluent but I have to actively seek out chances to use it and it's got considerably worse over the years. I've learnt five other languages formally and informally over the years but used none of them except for when I've gone on holiday and slowly they've withered out of my consciousness to the point that I'm proud I can still count to ten or ask for a glass of water.

The issue as I see it is that the landscape is changing. I mean, it's obvious that businessmen who want to deal with the Chinese market will do better if they speak Mandarin. It's obvious, for example, to Australians that learning an Asian language like Mandarin or Japanese will help them as the country aligns its trade relationships eastwards. Indian 'English' is already becoming a hybrid of Hindi and English. I'd be concerned as a parent now about helping my child make the right choices early to give them options in life. English might be the go-to language now, but big emerging markets will demand cultural familiarity, if not language fluency, as the price of admission in the future.

In cultural life things are changing too. We're used to Hollywood pumping out the world's go-to movies but 25 years from now that dominance will look less likely. Youngsters in the Scandinavian countries might learn English in school, but they find their ear for fluent English in their cultural life - movies, pop songs and TV shows. I don't agonise over the idea that when I'm 70 my cultural life will be impoverished by missing out on the nuances of the latest flick from Tianjin. But I'd rather it didn't happen. India and Nigeria already produce more movies than the US even if both will probably shift from quantity to quality in due course. The non-anglophone cultural world is quickly becoming more important.

Finally, marriages: in our new and exciting global world, what was rare once is becoming more common. International marriages often follow migration. For some, a second language will open up a new romantic life for them. For others, it will make the difference between whether they can converse with their grandchildren and the other half of their children's family.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:12 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


My French is très horrible, and I've certainly confused more than one Parisian waiter. But the Parisians have been quite tolerant for the most part, even when I doggedly persist in French after they've switched to English. A few are even kind enough not to speak English at all!
posted by malocchio at 7:12 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I nearly killed myself at the essay in Me Talk Pretty Some Day about buying everything in multiple to avoid the le/la question. (In high school, this also showed up as writing sentences with nous or vous because they had the most standard conjugation. Spoken didn't matter.) It's actually only assholes who pretend they don't understand you when you fuck it up, though.

And when I was in France, not once did any francophone switch to English when speaking to me, which was surprising and pleasant.
posted by jeather at 7:14 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


If we are serious about learning foreign languages, we need to teach them in elementary school. Preschool and kindergarten, ideally. That's the critical language learning period. We are not blank slates that can learn anything at any time like a computer. We are biological machines optimized for certain functions at certain times.

I really don't believe this commonsense wisdom that is so often bandied about...
Having spent time as an adult learning a foreign language and time watching children learn languages I think the most significant factor is TIME. Children especially at that 2-5 year old age just don't have a lot of other stuff to do. They spend hours every single day playing with language. Learning language.

What adult has that much time to learn a language? If you spent an equivalent 1-2 hours everyday learning say french for just 1 year I think you would be at least at the level of a 3-4 year old french child.
posted by mary8nne at 7:14 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm coming to the end of a summer in Montreal. I came here because there seemed to be a surplus of small modest affordable places to live that no longer seem to be available in Toronto. I could live in a walkable area close to downtown for under $600. Thought I'd live cheap, draw, and learn a new culture. Afterall, you can watch all of French in Action on YouTube now. I thought with repeat viewings of Mireille, some Yabla, some french.about.com, listening to Michael Thomas lessons while I sat in the library drawing, I'd be able to pick up enough of the basics. In Toronto you meet people all the time for whom English is a second or third language, and while they're always apologizing for it, you can have conversations with them easy enough. Thought maybe I could manage with French the same way if I tried hard enough to learn. My sister moved to Switzerland and learned German there. If she could do it, I thought I could do it.

There's a French-English language exchange meetup in the east end of Montreal, in the primarily french area of Hochelaga. They meet in a small cafe where they separate in groups of three: one francophone, one anglophone and one allophone, and alternate 20 minutes speaking English and 20 minutes speaking French. Anglophones are actually desired for this group, maybe due to the location they're in short supply, and the organizer will move you up the waiting list if you're an English speaker. I attended two, but just couldn't play the game properly. I'd always revert to English. Like the writer of the article, even if I learn the rules, I can't organize them in my head to say anything meaningful or understand what is being said. I enjoyed meeting the people I did, however. Got me down that I felt unfit to attend any further meetups.

Problem is, I'm a hesitant speaker even in English. So add this new layer of confusion and I just clam up. Can't learn the language without passing the words over your tongue, malheureusement. Even with "bonjour" and "merci" I just sort of mouth them at people without passing sound because it seems I'd be saying some part of the word incorrectly. Guess if I stayed here I'd attend a class where I was forced to speak the words. Since I gave up trying to learn about a month ago, Montreal has lost some of its charm for me. On the street I'm anxious someone will try to ask me something and then I'll need to attempt to spit out, "Je suis un tourist anglais. Je ne comprende pas la francais", and butcher just that trying to say it. I could adapt to Montreal, and over time I'd learn some, but even longtime anglos here speak of their difficulties mastering French. But I concluded that I'd never feel like I belong in Quebec. There are a lot of strays in Montreal, half of them in dreads towing some mean dog behind them. I don't want to be another stray. So it's back to Ontario I go. Sliding the padmapper map back to Toronto and searching through those $800 basement apartments.
posted by TimTypeZed at 7:16 AM on August 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


You could say that in the US they wasted the chance to make people learn the languages that would have had the most immediate applications: Vietnamese, Mesopotamian Arabic, Pashto and Persian.

Too bad the government didn't have the foresight to invest in those; it might have saved a lot of American (and Vietnamese, Iraqi and Afghan) lives.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:16 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I learned basic Bosnian by watching T.V. My motivation was wanting to understand my former significant other. As time went on, it became an end in itself as I made other friends. I am probably never going back. I read news off Al Jazeera Balkans just to keep from losing what I learned.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:17 AM on August 22, 2013


Don't worry, the slightest trace of an accent and English will be talked at you. Godawful English, but still.

We were in Amsterdam for a few days last year and made a point of learning to at least say 'I'm sorry, our Dutch is very poor, do you speak English?'. Mostly what we got was people looking at us like we were crazy and saying 'Um, yes, of course'. Funnily enough, the one time somebody did actually speak Dutch to us we thought at first he was speaking English with a really strong Dutch accent.
posted by Dim Siawns at 7:19 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think for some people at least there is a language ability quite unrelated to general academic ability. I had a school friend who went to Cambridge and did extremely well in Economics, but the struggles he had to get even the most basic competence in French amazed me. One day we happened to be looking at some old Tsarist bond certificates (framed as pictures) which had been printed in several languages and I realised that, never mind understanding any of them, he could not actually tell which language was which. I can get my head around not being able to spot the difference between Italian and German (I think) but my friend genuinely could not tell, given two alternatives, which was Russian and which Chinese.
posted by Segundus at 7:19 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you spent an equivalent 1-2 hours everyday learning say french for just 1 year I think you would be at least at the level of a 3-4 year old french child.

Coates touched on the frustration of even achieving this, where a full grown adult is reduced to child level speaking skills, even as they're aware of being able to do so much more.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:22 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do people in a place like the Netherlands maintain fluency in their second language? Is it because they are watching a lot of media in it?

Because I like the idea of learning a useful second language, and took a couple of semesters of Spanish at the community college recently, but it's basically all gone now. Maybe I can read some Spanish, but that's about it. And it's just because there is zero opportunity to use it.
posted by smackfu at 7:22 AM on August 22, 2013


I always had social anxiety to begin with, but now it's just been magnified a hundredfold by dint of another language. I don't see this as much as a problem in Montreal, where you have a larger pool of Francophones, Anglophones, and allophones to mingle with and meet, but where I am, it's pretty well segregated in terms of your social life. The Anglophone community keeps itself to itself--which has been the reason I avoid it--but the Francophone community here is as equally insular. My therapist (a Francophone herself) said that it isn't just me in terms of feeling out of place; she said that generally Francophones tend to have smaller social intense social circles and don't often go outside of those comfort zones. I wish that I had more social opportunities to practice my French but information about anything I'm interested is as rare as hen's teeth.

My mother grew up speaking ESL (she's Mexican) and has stated that her only regret in life is that she allowed my paternal grandmother to convince her that my sister and I never needed to be taught Spanish because we'd never need it (!). Thankfully, she's rectifying her regret by teaching my tiny nieces Spanish.
posted by Kitteh at 7:24 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't care if a Dutch person switches to English to speak to me. In fact, I'd probably prefer it. I have a hard enough time having real-time conversations with strangers that adding a foreign-to-me language would be terrible.

But reading signs, menus and other printed matter or overhearing conversations would be a lot more possible and fun if I knew Dutch.
posted by DU at 7:26 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


You probably will never learn enough French to write (or even read) great French poetry.

I've found that it's much easier to learn how to read in a foreign language than to speak it. I studied French in middle school through college and was able to translate great French poetry, but when I arrived in France I was pretty much useless at speaking. I eventually was able to hold my own in pretty much any situation, but never really learned to write.

I would say when learning a new language as an adult, in terms of difficulty from easiest to hardest it goes: reading, listening, speaking, writing.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 7:26 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


As someone who hated the one year of French he took in middle school, then moved to France as an adult and learned to speak near-fluently, I can attest that it's not age but immersion and motivation that does it.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:27 AM on August 22, 2013


After years of immersion in French I was still quite frustrated that I couldn't always find the words to expressed myself adequately. I stopped worrying about it when I reminded myself that I have the exact same problem in my native language.
posted by beau jackson at 7:28 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


based on what actually happens in high schools, learning a foreign language often is a waste of time.

Well, yes, being forced to learn -- far too late, and far too briefly -- a foreign language you will likely have no use for is indeed pretty useless, especially when your mother tongue is one a large percentage of foreigners can speak fluently anyway.

Learning a language by choice, for a reason, is a much, much more fruitful endeavour.

That said, forced teaching of a second language does teach a lot of useful stuff about language in general, which is sorely lacking from English classes these days, and which makes actually learning a second language a lot easier later on.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:29 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a French native speaker, I have to say that it's definitely worth it. How could I read Metafilter otherwise ?
posted by nicolin at 7:30 AM on August 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


If you spent an equivalent 1-2 hours everyday learning say french for just 1 year I think you would be at least at the level of a 3-4 year old french child.

You would not speak it as well. There are some sounds, some things you do with the tongue and throat that if you do not learn them as a child, you will never master. I've been working in the Hague and staying in Scheveningen for six years now and despite my practice and hard work I cannot pronounce "Scheveningen" to the satisfaction of any native Dutch speaker. I know that this is a particular Dutch shibboleth, but still. Children (under eight) have no problem ditching an old accent and acquiring a new one. For adults it is basically impossible. That's one of the problems with learning as an adult - pronunciation, cadence, intonation - are vital to being understood and it's frustrating that even when you know the words and grammar the sounds come out all wrong.

I often feel like Inspector Clouseau in the hotel, saying "room" ten different unintelligible ways and then the hotelkeeper finally understands he wants a room and says "So you want a room" and Clouseau says "That is what I have been saying you idiot." (I always think this with the French accent.)
posted by three blind mice at 7:31 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


reading signs, menus and other printed matter or overhearing conversations would be a lot more possible and fun if I knew Dutch

All you need to know is "frites mit fritessaus"
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 7:32 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The attrition rate is the hardest thing to deal with in learning a language. I spent a year and a half studying Mandarin Chinese (on a foundation of six-months' study 10 years earlier) then spent two and a half years in the PRC, and, even so, after leaving China and doing other work, I could practically feel the characters falling out of my head each night.

Now, I peer at anything but the most basic Chinese character as if it were some distant relative at a family reunion. In my experience, the people who really retained the language outside the region were the ones with Chinese spouses or the ones with an ongoing interest in, and engagement with, the language itself.
posted by the sobsister at 7:33 AM on August 22, 2013


The only way to really learn a language is to love it. Same goes for your native tongue.
posted by jet_manifesto at 7:36 AM on August 22, 2013


Learning a language is a special challenge compared to acquiring any other skill, too, because it forces you to regress to a child's level of communication (sometimes worse, at the beginning!).

Metafilter : it forces you to regress to a child's level of communication
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:36 AM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Spanish was my first language. My mother's family is Latino (dad is Anglo, but a fluent Spanish-speaker) and we lived in San Juan, PR during my preschool years. When I started grade school in Chicago, I forgot most of the Spanish I had learned until I started taking it again in the 8th grade. I'd lost a lot of vocabulary, but none of the Carribbean accent which pegged me as a native-ish speaker to every Spanish teacher I ever had. The accent (and general confidence in speaking which grew over time) saved me in plenty of places where my grammar was wanting.

I studied Spanish all through high school and college, and maintain a conversational-level ability as best I can. A favorite exercise of mine is to imagine myself explaining my day's activities to my great-grandfather or great-grandmother, neither of whom spoke much English.

In any case, this is a brief wind-up to tell my favorite Spanish-knowledge story ever.

I traveled to China about 8 years ago on business and spent the better part of a day sightseeing. I found myself in the Shanghai Old Town area which was full of tourists and a great place to try haggling over souvenirs. Then I had to use the bathroom. And I couldn't find one, anyplace.

All of a sudden, I came across a group of Chinese-descendent tourists from...Chile. Their flag-carrying tour guide was bilingual...Mandarin (I assume) and Spanish. I walked up to this guy, introduced myself in Spanish and asked him if he knew were a bathroom was. He gave me detailed directions to one, we had a mutual laugh and I was on my way. The bathroom was right where he said it was. Maybe he spoke English, too. I don't know. I didn't bother asking. For sure he spoke Spanish, and that was enough for me.

And that's how my Spanish skills came in handy during my brief time in mainland China. You just never know.
posted by jquinby at 7:39 AM on August 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


A friend told me once that she felt the best way to learn a language would be to just mimic the sounds for a while, with no sense of what you were saying. Just getting the rhythm under your tongue, and try to approximate the pronunciation. Then later move on to figuring out what to say and how to say it.

I think it would get you over the hump of feeling silly while speaking the language, because there would be no expectation of saying anything at all, much less saying something correctly.

I regularly sit and listen to Italian radio during my workday. While I'm pretty fluent now, when I was just starting out, I did exactly what she was talking about, listening-wise... just let the sounds flow around me and be in my ears constantly. I think it really helped me progress later.
posted by sutt at 7:41 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a French native speaker, I have to say that it's definitely worth it. How could I read Metafilter otherwise ?

Hah, so obviously this.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:41 AM on August 22, 2013


Maybe this is a good time to ask: Are there many other MeFites using Duolingo? My friends list on there is entirely empty, and a bit of peer pressure would be great.

My biggest problem with practising French is the inverse of Coates'. I'm completely comfortable -- grateful, even -- when people speak to me like a three year old, but knowing that I *sound* like a stumbling three year old is excruciatingly embarrassing to me. Practicing with patient native speakers is incredibly useful, but I really have to bully myself into doing it.
posted by metaBugs at 7:41 AM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am using Duolingo to learn a bit of French. It's going slowly, but I love the game-like approach and portability. Have to kill a few minutes waiting for something or other? Whip out the phone and do a lesson or two.
posted by jquinby at 7:43 AM on August 22, 2013


metaBugs, I'm on Duolingo. Or should I say, I have an account on Duolingo that I haven't used yet because I'm too intimidated about failing to the learn Spanish even though I so desperately want to. I'll pressure you if you pressure me.
posted by _Mona_ at 7:44 AM on August 22, 2013


I struggle because the sort of media I enjoy? It's already in English. I don't have the financial resources to travel and likely won't for many years yet. In the meantime, it seems silly to spend a lot of time learning to read things in translation. I guess I might be a better person if I really wanted to read Russian lit or even watch Spanish telenovelas but I mostly don't. I went through maybe four attempts to retain Spanish without having anything I did normally involving the language and it just doesn't work.
posted by Sequence at 7:46 AM on August 22, 2013


One of my greatest regrets in life is that I didn't keep up my French after college. I took it throughout middle and high school and was somehow just naturally excellent at it, infuriating several instructors when I would lazily refuse to complete the homework but could speak and read well enough to get 100s on tests. I participated in an exchange program where I was able to go to France for a couple of weeks, and I did pretty well there.

I continued to take it in college, even though I was in a demanding engineering major, because I just enjoyed it. By the time I finally had to stop in my senior year due to the demands of other classes, I had gotten to the level where we were doing literary analysis in French - basically like a high school English class. I feel like being able to speak French well was something I could be proud of as a personal achievement. Heck, I was better than most of the French majors at my school, who were taking these classes because they were required - for me, it was just fun.

After I dropped it, though, I really dropped it. It's been 6 years since I took a class and I know I've forgotten a huge amount of vocabulary. The other day, I was asked a question, in English, by a pair of Francophones at the airport and for some reason I reflexively replied "Comment ?" because I didn't quite hear what they were asking. Suddenly they were asking if I was from Paris and oh thank goodness you speak French and then it was just a string of rapid fire questions and sentences that I could not understand a single word of. So I had to awkwardly apologize and switch back to English to give them their directions. It made me feel like I had given up somehow, and I really wish I could just get my French back easily without having to relearn it all.

Anyway, tl;dr learning a language is great but it should probably be one that you will use enough to maintain it after school. Maybe there's some hope for me, though - apparently my accent is still decent enough that the French people I ran into thought I was French.

On preview: metaBugs, I've been using DuoLingo off and on lately to try to brush up on my long lost skills, but like you I have found motivation along with my busy schedule to be kind of an issue. Also knowing that I can only speak poorly and in broken sentences generates a crushing amount of anxiety for me and is basically the main reason why I can't get back into the swing of talking to people.
posted by malthas at 7:48 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


for some reason I reflexively replied "Comment ?"

The real hallmark of French fluency is whether you're able to pronounce the space between the end of the word and the question mark.
posted by theodolite at 7:50 AM on August 22, 2013 [24 favorites]


I took 2 years of Spanish in junior high and then promptly ignored it until I was 20, in Canada on a Mormon mission, when I was assigned to the Spanish-speaking congregation in Calgary for 6 months. It's especially difficult to immerse in a foreign language while in a predominantly English-speaking city, bit it is possible. After six months I was fairly fluent, though I've forgotten it all now.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:03 AM on August 22, 2013


I keep thinking we should have a DuoLingo friending MetaTalk thread, actually. I'm MeghanC over there, as well, should anyone want to be friends.
posted by MeghanC at 8:03 AM on August 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


I took eight or ten years of French in school but Ontario schools taught me Parisian French, which is not exactly French as she is spoke in, say, Chicoutimi. After I finished university, I moved to Montreal for a while and had my French modified by the local accent; a few years later, after a couple of years back in English-speaking territory, I found myself working on a farm for a bunch of Moroccans who spoke no English, so my French acquired a North African spin. Then I travelled with a girl from just outside Geneva for the better part of a year, so some Swiss French arrived in the mix. To this day, my accent remains kind of offbeat.

This is magnified in French because in any class worth it's salt because the instruction is almost entirely in French.

This didn't happen for me until first-year university French, which course (French 1A6) was entirely in French. Due to the structure of high school semesters, I hadn't spoken a word of French since the end of the first semester in Grade 13, eight months earlier. It was a bit of a shock to the system. I followed most of the lectures in French, but at a couple of points my prof was talking about some administrative items related to the course. I was stumped by a couple of nouns, which sounded like they were assise and basise. I knew assis was the past participle of asseoir, "to sit somebody down" and basise sounded like a cognate for "basis" (although I knew that "basis" itself was base), so I had a hazy grasp that we were talking about fundamentals and basics. It took a couple more lessons before it dawned in me she was referring to the two French courses, 1A6 and 1B6, which I had interpreted as une assise and une basise.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:06 AM on August 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


How do people in a place like the Netherlands maintain fluency in their second language? Is it because they are watching a lot of media in it?

Yes, most English (as well as other language) programmes are subbed not dubbed, at least for adult fare. Or you just become a member of a foreign language website, that helps too.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:06 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I keep thinking we should have a DuoLingo friending MetaTalk thread, actually. I'm MeghanC over there, as well, should anyone want to be friends.

I've just created a DuoLingo user called 'Metafilter', anyone who wants mefites in their friends list should friend that user and then they can see all the other people who have as well and friend them. That's probably easier than everyone manually copying usernames over from a MeTa thread.

(this is a bit of hack because DL doesn't have a group functionality built in)
posted by atrazine at 8:10 AM on August 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


And I just made the MetaTalk thread! Oh well.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 8:14 AM on August 22, 2013


Meanwhile, Slate.fr published a three-part series on why the French suck at English [article is in French] compared to other European countries. (They cite a European Commission study in which the only country worse in foreign language mastery than France is England—where the main language taught is French, of course).

Some of the possible reasons they discuss: posted by mbrubeck at 8:16 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do people in a place like the Netherlands maintain fluency in their second language? Is it because they are watching a lot of media in it?

My wife is from the Netherlands and thinks this is because most Dutch TV is subtitled with the native audio track, where as German and French TV tend to be dubbed.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 8:17 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don't worry, the slightest trace of an accent and English will be talked at you. Godawful English, but still.

It took me six years, but I've finally gotten to the bi-lingual level where Flemish will respond in Dutch in favour of English.

Next step is to get my Flemish accent 'Dutch grade' so that our dear friend MartinWisse talks to me in his mother tongue :D

...there is of course a chance that my 'dutch' is just easier to understand than my Australian version of English...
posted by channey at 8:20 AM on August 22, 2013


Funnily enough, the one time somebody did actually speak Dutch to us we thought at first he was speaking English with a really strong Dutch accent.

Dutch is fascinating and awesome to the english-speaking ear because when approaching a group of dutch speakers, it takes a weirdly long time to realize that they are not actually speaking english. I have not noticed this phenomenon with any other language, and it delights me.

Also I enjoy how Dutch people, out of all european nations, tend to speak english without a british accent, which various Dutch-speaking friends have attributed to american tv show broadcasts.
posted by elizardbits at 8:26 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I learned German when I was in my twenties, and the lesson I took from all the pain and humiliation of that enterprise was this: It doesn't matter if you believe in yourself, or think you can learn languages, or are determined and optimistic, or any of that feel-good stuff. All that matters is that you actually put in the time reading and speaking, over and over and over. Indeed, I spent the first few months when I was in Frankfurt in a state of increasing panic and despair, certain I was utterly incapable of learning to speak *any* foreign language -- I kept trying to read the newspapers and watch the television shows only because I had a patient German girlfriend, no money to get home (it would actually be three years before I managed to get back to the States at all), and no plans for my life other than staying with her in Europe for a while.

My great good fortune was really that I knew not a single other American there the first year, and I was too aimless and broke to do anything other than keep toiling away. But my experience was that if you can get past the agony of the first half-year or so it gets much, much easier.
posted by ariel_caliban at 8:26 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I never understood why the French prefer to dub everything, it looks ridiculous and they use the same twenty voice actors that make everything sound like a cartoon.

Like many of you I started learning French in middle school, continued in high school, then took it as an after-thought in college in order to get into the Paris study abroad program. I ended up living in Paris for four years and am now fully fluent in French despite speaking a stilted, literary version when I first arrived there in 2008. I have friends who have lived in France for even longer and whose French I would not classify as fluent. I believe the difference is in socialization: the more you force yourself to socialize with the natives (as distasteful as that can be in a lot of the snootier European countries), the more you adopt native ways of speaking. It also can't hurt that I also dated French people. There are communities all over America that speak plenty of different languages, and I'll bet if you just weasel your way in and start learning not just the language but the cultural contexts -- because, let's face it, 80% of understanding any language is context -- you'll be speaking far better than any college course could have prepared you for (and guess what, francophiles, there's probably an Alliance Française in your hometown!). It's not just language but cultural immersion that pushes you over the learning curve imho.
posted by Mooseli at 8:28 AM on August 22, 2013


The self-consciousness kills. I did perfectly fine in high-school Spanish (actually won some kind of state certification in it, I think), did perfectly fine in college Spanish, and at no time in that entire period would I have felt able to carry on a real-world conversation in Spanish.

I think a lot of it has to do with the emphasis on correct grammar and accent in classroom teaching, which makes absolutely no sense to me. It seems as if teachers are perfectly OK with you not being able to say very much, as long as you say it right. Instead, why not focus on expanding vocabulary (nouns, infinitive verbs, adjectives, idioms . . ) outwards by any means necessary? Vocabulary is language, more or less. If you have students cheerfully going around going "Tener . . . usted . . . el . . . empanadas?", well, they've at least achieved understandability. And once people know enough words to get a basis meaning across and to understand the conversation of native speakers, they'll probably pick up grammar and accent anyway, because nobody wants to sound like a four-year-old.
posted by ostro at 8:31 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Dubbing is horrible and I hate it. I learned Catala via subtitles on Simpsons and Mad About You episodes, which was pretty much the apex of my foreign language learning.
posted by elizardbits at 8:32 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also I enjoy how Dutch people, out of all european nations, tend to speak english without a british accent.

This, I think is recent. When I first lived here in '91-'99, most of my peers spoke with a tiny bit of an English-ish accent. Now it's mostly American-ish.

And it's definitely use it or lose it. My 13 years in the States really degraded my Dutch, as anyone who's been to a meet up with me can attest!
posted by digitalprimate at 8:43 AM on August 22, 2013


I talked to a many-language fluent person in the Netherlands. He said that from a very young age they teach classes in French, German, and English. They don't, for example, just have a German class, but the math class will be in German, the science class will be in French, or something like that. The idea is that it is expected that everyone be fluent in all these languages.

Why? I asked.

He said that the Netherlands is a tiny merchant country and that they need to speak all these languages to conduct business with its neighbors. Germany and France are much larger countries and aren't going to bother learning Dutch.

I made friends with someone from Poland who was working in the Netherlands. The language he spoke in the Netherlands? English.

It surprised me (as a typical narcissistic American) that Europeans don't learn English to speak with Americans, they learn English so that they can speak with each other.
posted by eye of newt at 8:44 AM on August 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think that has more to do with the dynamics of neural plasticity than how we teach language.

The difference is immersion vs. 60 minutes a day, 3 days a week. I took beginning level Spanish in Jr. High & the only thing I came away with was "No masticare chicles en la clase de Señora Brown" because I had to write it 100 times. I leaned more Spanish in two-three weeks of immersion every year during my trips to Mexico in the 90's than I ever did in any year long class. Now, thanks to the drug war, I'm losing it all again.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:46 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


You probably will never learn enough French to write (or even read) great French poetry.

People reading, this doesn't have to be true. In fact, reading French poetry helps you learn to speak it, because rhyming in poetry gives you a way to know how words should sound. And I have learned most of the Portuguese I know through song lyrics, which are a kind of poetry.

Learning a language through comic books and music is one of the less-painful ways as an adult, but it doesn't address the problem of speaking any of them for me. My plan is to travel with a white board so I can write stuff down and pretend to be mute.
posted by winna at 8:48 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, re: the Netherlands and foreign language education. This has changed greatly in recent years. My eldest son is now in the US equivalent of 4th grade, and there is 0 foreign language (at a very good school). My wife on the other hand had English starting in US 3rd grade and began German and French by US 5th grade.

But this could be just my county (gemeente)
posted by digitalprimate at 8:49 AM on August 22, 2013


This author seems to labour under the same problem a lot of adults who are learning a second language for the first time do - They seem to fail to understand that language learning is different from other forms of learning. It's a whole different mental, physical and indeed social skillset. You really have to humble yourself and be willing to struggle.

Fluency isn't going to happen for YEARS. You will make mistakes FOREVER. And that's ok. It certainly doesn't mean it isn't worth it.

When I used to teach French for English-only adults, my office should have had a therapist's couch. It's psychologically difficult to take on something so different from the comfortable and the usual. Being unable to communicate fully means you are unable to properly convey your personality, your intelligence, and your creativity, for a long time. It's a HUGE blow to the adult ego.

I try to frame learning a second language as a series of communicative acts. If you communicate, you succeed. The more you practice, the better you communicate. That's it. The rest is just ego.
posted by gohabsgo at 8:50 AM on August 22, 2013 [24 favorites]


It surprised me (as a typical narcissistic American) that Europeans don't learn English to speak with Americans, they learn English so that they can speak with each other.

Something that is very common to overhear in Europe is two people speaking to each other in English, neither of whom have English as their native language.

It still fascinates me. And to me, a native English speaker, it sounds like a badly dubbed movie. The communication is there but there is no slang or cliche phrases, except occasional things that sound like direct translations from their own respective native languages.

1: "This bar is good. Its a good bar."
2: "Yes, I like very much."
1: "Sometimes there are too many people."
2: "Yes. It is like that..."
And so on....
posted by vacapinta at 8:58 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I spoke German originally until I was almost six, when I moved permanently to the US. You'd think that would have given me a leg up in high school German, but not much, really. I took two years of high school German and two or three years in college/university, yet the only time I really felt even close to fluent was after having spent several years visiting my German-speaking family in Germany and being totally immersed in the language. Idiomatic usages, prepositions and genders are much harder to master when you don't have a real feel for the musicality of the language. After enough immersion, you just start to hear what sounds right and what doesn't, and you don't have to consciously think about the rules so much, and that's when fluency starts to develop. (I still have vivid memories of dreaming in distinctly clear and comprehensible German for the first time when my own language skills were finally beginning to peak.) There are so many fascinating nuances to how languages work, language acquisition is really an amazing and bizarre process. Not nearly as rational or straightforward as grammar sticklers might expect.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:00 AM on August 22, 2013


God speed, TNC...

I've concluded that I'm incapable of learning a second language. And, to be honest, my English isn't anything to write home about...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:02 AM on August 22, 2013


In fact, reading French poetry helps you learn to speak it, because rhyming in poetry gives you a way to know how words should sound.

Not necessarily. A lot of French poetry -- and song especially -- suffers from Frère Jacques syndrome, where normally silent syllables are pronounced to fit the meter.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:03 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


MartinWisse: " Don't worry, the slightest trace of an accent and English will be talked at you. Godawful English, but still."

Pendragon: "DU, if a dutch person gets wind that you are a english speaker, they will automatically switch to english..."

This has happened to me several times while visiting Montreal, including one memorable exchange with a young woman at a McDonalds after I tried to order a hot chocolate in horribly broken French. She glared at me and said, "You know we speak English up here, right?" And then told me I was butchering a beautiful language and shouldn't ever speak it again. :)
posted by zarq at 9:25 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


And then told me I was butchering a beautiful language and shouldn't ever speak it again. :)

To be fair, the Québécois are experts at the butchering of beautiful language.
posted by atrazine at 9:31 AM on August 22, 2013 [17 favorites]


There were two girls on line behind me at sbux the other day who I think were maybe speaking Quebecois but tbh I'm still not entirely sure. I listened to their convo for a good 5 minutes before being able to extract a few identifiable words of French, but the accent was so unlike anything I'd ever heard before and I'm pretty sure I was noticeably gawping. I tend to describe languages via their perceived mouthfeel and Quebecois (if that is indeed what it was) seems chewier than Euopean French.
posted by elizardbits at 9:35 AM on August 22, 2013


And then told me I was butchering a beautiful language and shouldn't ever speak it again.

Never take to heart anything said by someone serving "coffee" at a McDonalds.

Also, what atrazine said. :)
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:36 AM on August 22, 2013


Afaik this is largely a myth and there's no real difference in the difficulty for a child or an adult to learn a given language.

For what it's worth, Patricia Kuhl specifically claims that this is not a myth, based on her research. Maybe the research is flawed in some way, however; IANALinguist.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 9:39 AM on August 22, 2013


The question, "Is X worth it?" rarely fails to annoy me. There's only one person who can answer that question, and that's the individual who does X and then lives a little while in the skin of a Person Who has Done X. And if you poll the Been There, Done X population, you're going to get a distribution of valid responses. And yet, people go on asking "Is X worth it?" as if there's some way to actually know the answer as a basis for deciding whether or not to attempt it.

I went through high school French with a girl who squeaked by. She nasalized all of her vowels, not just the nasal ones. When using an irregular verb, she'd always conjugate it like a regular one, then giggle, cry out, "No, wait!" and then change it. Every once in a while, she'd add a "hey" after an "e" with an acute accent. As long as I knew her, it didn't seem like she ever quite grasped the concept of forming a negative with "ne... ...pas." One time, I was miffed that she passed an oral exam when I had points taken off for some silly mistake, and the teacher told me in private, "Well, obviously I can't judge her at anywhere the same level as you." She took the required three years, and not the optional fourth. But she really enjoyed it.

I found out years later that apparently she went to college, found the right instructors, worked her butt off, did semesters abroad, majored in French language, and is now a translator for either the U.N. or some other big fancypants international organization. So, I wouldn't have thought it was worth it for her, but what the heck did I know?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:44 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


There were a few things that helped me learned French as an adult, the most important being immersion and economic necessity. In high school I’d had two hours a week of French, taught to me by an English speaker. I moved to Quebec a decade after high school so that slight base had been mostly erased by time.

Learning in Montreal was impossible. I was in an anglo university, surrounded by anglos. Outside of that it seemed like everyone took pity on me and switched to English as soon as I opened my mouth. So my first summer I went to an entirely francophone area and lived with a francophone family who spoke not a word of English. Mornings I did classes, afternoon activities all in French and evenings and weekends I hung out with the family. I learned more in five weeks than I had in five years of high school.

After that I needed a job. I had a successful interview, was offered a position and as I walked out the door was asked to confirm that I was bilingual. It was starve or lie so I lied.

The next week I was teaching art classes in French, butchering most of what I said but learning from the students as I went. One memorable class on figure drawing I tried to tell students that there should be enough space on the shoulder to fit three necks (cou) but instead said three asses (cul). When everyone stopped laughing they helped me with my pronunciation. I got over being shy really quickly and did a lot of gesturing and smiling.

Eventually I married a francophone, which helps, no doubt. Our kids go to school in French and make fun of my accent now.

I have all the sympathy in the world for people learning languages, especially immigrants who are often already in tough positions. Kitteh, TimTypeZed, you are not alone in your frustration. As far as I know I am the only person in my graduating class (I came to do a Masters) who ended up becoming functionally bilingual. When we began just about everyone thought their French would be great by the time they graduated.

It’s worth the struggle though. I use French constantly in my daily life. There is also much more nuance in travelling and meeting new people when you can spend time with those who are able to speak a language other than English. I would love to learn Spanish but given my current realities and experience learning French I know there’s no way I can do it with a textbook and a subscription to rosetta stone. I like to picture us moving to Costa Rica for a few years. I could stand to miss a few Montreal winters, that’s for damn sure.
posted by Cuke at 9:45 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


A subproblem in Quebec is the not-entirely-unfounded fear by anglos (and anyone with English school eligibility) that if they send their children to a French elementary school, they will end up being cut out of English school eligibility permanently. (This is not currently the case -- if I had kids who were schooled in French, their children would still have this right -- but there's some fear this will be changed.) So although anglo kids often attend immersion schools, they're still hanging out with other anglo kids mostly.

My sisters both went to immersion school. I did not. But I'm by far the most fluent in French of the three of us. (My father went to French school in elementary, and also did his MEd in French -- "we let you attend because you were the only anglo who applied, even though your grades weren't really good enough" -- and although his accent is horrible, he's otherwise absolutely fluent.)
posted by jeather at 9:55 AM on August 22, 2013


Man I spent four years studying French in high school and still can't speak or read a lick of it. Somehow, I got Bs and Cs.

My defining interaction was after moving to Norway and spending a ton of time trying to learn wandering into a kebab shop and ordering. The guy stared at me for a second, then started laughing. "Oh, you must be from America," he said in fantastic English, "Because that was terrible! But at least you tried!" And gave me my lunch for free.

So yeah, I am BAD at languages. That's actually part of the reason I didn't finish college because that 2 year language requirement just wasn't happenin' in my brainspace.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:56 AM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


This author seems to labour under the same problem a lot of adults who are learning a second language for the first time do - They seem to fail to understand that language learning is different from other forms of learning. It's a whole different mental, physical and indeed social skillset. You really have to humble yourself and be willing to struggle.

The other thing is that you have to learn to think in the language you are working on. Some people can't or won't make this jump, and as such, their mastery of the language can't be any better than google translate.
posted by gjc at 10:03 AM on August 22, 2013


The woman at the café who is sure to tell me that it is "une baguette" not "un baguette" is telling me something about herself, her people and her nation.

No, she is telling you that if you see the feminine diminutive "ette" at the end of baguette, and you still say un baguette instead of une baguette, you are probably too stupid to learn French.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:06 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Something that is very common to overhear in Europe is two people speaking to each other in English, neither of whom have English as their native language.

And a 3rd person, who is English, trying their best to get involved in the conversation but utterly unable to strip their speech of enough idiom to make themselves understood.
posted by ambrosen at 10:11 AM on August 22, 2013


My cousin, who has an American mother but was born in Norway and has lived there his whole life, is sometimes greeted in English when he first walks into a shop. I think it's partly because he is a computer programmer and looks like it (i.e., shaggy hair, t-shirt, jeans, sneakers), which is fairly similar to looking “like an American.”
posted by mbrubeck at 10:14 AM on August 22, 2013


My French mother speaks four languages fluently, and worked as a translator in Germany for the U.S. army during the Vietnam War, where she met my G.I. father. Despite her facility with language, she only taught me English, and even with seven years of instruction in middle school and high school, I never became fluent. Ah well.

To be fair, the Québécois are experts at the butchering of beautiful language.

In high school my original French teacher retired and a French-Canadian took her place. When my mother met him, she was absolutely horrified by his accent and seriously considered asking me to drop out of the class.

Yeah, I never understood why the French prefer to dub everything, it looks ridiculous and they use the same twenty voice actors that make everything sound like a cartoon.

It used to be hard to find Japanese anime that wasn't dubbed here in the U.S., and it really sounded horrible. Even anime obviously meant for adults was dubbed as if it were meant for four year olds.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 10:16 AM on August 22, 2013


nobody ever needs to learn Dutch

You're missing out on a whole world of illegal internet streams of cycling races.

Yeah, I never understood why the French prefer to dub everything, it looks ridiculous and they use the same twenty voice actors that make everything sound like a cartoon.

I remember the first time I was in France (1998) watching Dawson's Creek on TV, where the actors are already older than the characters they play, and the voiceover people seemed to be at least in their 40's. "Ah monsieur Pacey, haw haw haw" in deep voices etc. It was brilliant.
posted by kersplunk at 10:18 AM on August 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've never been able to learn languages worth a damn in the classroom, but I've discovered that if I live in a place for more than a month, I get rapidly fluent. I have no idea why this works for me, as I am a poster child for ADD, but my working theory is that I've been a musician since I was about 11 years old, and have a fantastic ear.

My brain seems to treat language like music while I'm ramping up, and to associate certain sets of sounds with certain contexts. It's a bit like being a large, hairy hamster: "if I make THIS sound, then I get THAT reaction!"

Also, I have to nth the observations about neuroplasticity: it is absolutely crucial in the acquisition of new skills, which is why younger people seem to pick things up faster. It's the actual scientific basis for the trope "you can't teach an old dog new tricks". The younger you are, the more easily your brain can change shape, and that's what literally happens when you learn: your brain changes shape.
posted by scrump at 10:20 AM on August 22, 2013



Something that is very common to overhear in Europe is two people speaking to each other in English, neither of whom have English as their native language.

And a 3rd person, who is English, trying their best to get involved in the conversation but utterly unable to strip their speech of enough idiom to make themselves understood.


Yes. Watching the Russian couple (who spoke no Czech) communicate with the Czech waiter (who spoke no Russian) via their mutual imperfect understanding of English was mesmerizing and disorienting, like hearing your own voice coming out of someone elses mouth.
posted by The Whelk at 10:21 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's the actual scientific basis for the trope "you can't teach an old dog new tricks". The younger you are, the more easily your brain can change shape, and that's what literally happens when you learn: your brain changes shape.

Also, kids screw up language all the time, and for years, but when the four year old gets grammar wrong it's adorable. When the 40 year gets grammar wrong it's embarrassing.
posted by The Whelk at 10:22 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


You know, the more I read that Ta-Nehsi Coates article, the more infuriated I become at the glaring stupidity. Which is fairly typical for his work. But this:

I have not visited most of the things I would like--the Louvre, the Museé D'Orsay, and especially St. Denis (Clovis!!!) I spent time up at near Nation (I would live up there if I could), I walked La Coulée Verte (Awesome-sauce. Totally sons The High-Line.) I drank some great wine. Ate some incredible bread. But I make no pretensions on having "seen" Paris.

I came here to study the language.


What. In. The. Hell. Are. You. Studying. French. FOR?
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:25 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Afaik this is largely a myth and there's no real difference in the difficulty for a child or an adult to learn a given language.

Anecdotes aren't data and all that, but I can say this: We put our daughter in the local French preschool (Maternelle) run on the French national school system's model when she was four. She was just barely too young for kindergarten and bored as hell in daycare, and both mrs g and I were ferociously angry at the Canadian education system for teaching us French for twelve years without even making us conversational in the language itself. (But hey, ask me how the plus-que-parfait verb tense works grammatically and I have an answer for you -- in English.)

Anyway, off our daughter goes to the Maternelle, her classmates a mix of French nationals and Quebecois francophones and a handful of anglophone strivers like her. By two months in, she could understand complex instructions in French, even though she could not tell you in English what had been said to her. By six months in, she was conversationally competent (at least for a four-year-old). By early in her second year, she was functionally fluent (which is still a shade below bilingual, mainly due to available vocabulary).

Now, I'm sure there are adults who could pick up a language nearly as quick in a fully immersive environment, but this is six hours a day, five days a week, with holidays and summers off in one of Canada's most non-French big cities and lots of incidental school conversation in English. Everything about the experience has convinced me that kids under the age of six, when neuro-plasticity's still in full effect, are innately better at language acquisition. If we offered daycare in Canada for free in the language other than your mother tongue, we'd be a near-bilingual nation in a generation.
posted by gompa at 10:26 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


WRT learning at a young age: I had German instruction during 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. (And our Swiss instructor lived with my family in that middle year.) I learned a fair bit, and acquired what my high school teacher said was a good Sprachgefuhl...though he despaired of me, as my grammar and vocabulary never advanced much in the four years he was teaching me.

Latr, I only got a gentleman's D in order to get out of college with my skin.

Yet during my semester abroad (in England), I am told that I lapsed into German when drunk. *shrug* I have no idea what this anecdote is worth.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:28 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


What. In. The. Hell. Are. You. Studying. French. FOR?

A. Magazine. Commission?
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:29 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


It surprised me (as a typical narcissistic American) that Europeans don't learn English to speak with Americans, they learn English so that they can speak with each other.

I was once on a train rumbling through the European night, and my bunkmate was an older gentleman (the kind who still wore a suit on an overnight train). We stared out the window for a while, then he asked me a question that sounded Slavic (which made sense, as we were leaving Romania). I replied in Russian that I couldn't quite understand him, but I had some utility in Russian. He replied in French that his Russian was mal, so how about French? I replied in my GI German that I couldn't speak French either, so how about German? He replied in some other language that was probably another Slavic language, and I finally said, "English?" (I hate resorting to it -- my copy-editor mind spends too much time mentally correcting people, and I would never do that to a person who speaks it well enough for me to understand them.) He shrugged, almost apologetically.

I exhaled and said, "Well, fuck."

"Da. Fuck."

We managed to converse for the next several hours in a polyglot peppered liberally with curse words.
posted by Etrigan at 10:34 AM on August 22, 2013 [27 favorites]


Children's skill at language learning is greatly exaggerated. It takes them longer than adults, and they aren't even better at learning sounds. For more see David Singleton's Language Acquisition: The Age Factor.

The problem is comparing like with like. Children are in an immersion environment where they're learning 16 hours a day, and they have nowhere to retreat to where their language is spoken (as they haven't got one yet). The closer you come to that situation, the better you'll do. (E.g.: move to another country, marry a local, and work and live where no one speaks your language.)

The Cheng article mentions that the State Department thinks an American student can attain "professional capacity" in French in half a year. That seems wildly overconfident to me, but still, compare it to how long it takes a French child to attain the same level of proficiency: about twenty years. (Yes, she can chatter away at five, but not well enough to work at the State Department. Teenagers are still learning the language, especially the complicated nuances of its written form.)

I'm sure there's something to the plasticity thing, but I think people don't recall what a struggle it is for children to learn a language, how many mistakes they make, how frustrated they get when they can't say what they want. One of the first commenters above mentions studying for 2-3 years and being as inept as a 5-year-old. Well, yeah, the child has been studying intensively for 5 years!

The one thing I'll grant is that children are better at adults at perfecting their accent. But I think this is largely because other when an adult gets to the point where they can be understood, other adults find that they have a charming accent and don't correct them. Children are far nastier.
posted by zompist at 10:39 AM on August 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


I used to know Spanish, because I used to speak Spanish - my group of friends in high school was mostly bilingual, and conversations we didn't want everyone else to overhear would usually be in Spanish. Or if we were in certain neighborhoods - I actually copped an atrocious Argentinian accent for a while so I'd stop getting so many weird looks in Pilsen, and it seemed to work?

I remember my best friend's parents offered me a job over the summer as a receptionist at their funeral home. Their clientele was mostly Spanish-speaking, and they seemed to think I was fluent enough to handle the bereaved (I was not so sure). But I was apparently doing something right.

Last month, I went to Puerto Rico with my boyfriend. Small town, not really a tourist destination, and I'd prepped with a couple Berlitz Spanish CD's as a refresher. What surprised me when I got there is how much I'd lost the ability to open my mouth and speak. Ask me for the Spanish translation for a single word? Got it. I was pretty good at understanding what they were saying too, even though PR accents in particular have always been hard for me. But the compulsion to hear Spanish and respond in kind was gone. I'd respond in English, then get flustered and try again. Eventually, with his family, I managed to get to Spanglish, which seemed to work out okay. But my brain just resisted expressing myself in the language where I had less control of nuance.
posted by dinty_moore at 10:40 AM on August 22, 2013


It's really hard to learn useful languages as a kid because it's really hard to know what you'd need as an adult. I took 4 years of Spanish in HS and 1 in college, and then found that my life worked out in such a way as to never, ever have the opportunity to use it. On the other hand, there are other languages I could potentially use; Japanese and Chinese are valuable when finding jobs, Germany has some world-class research centers for my field, and France has a long history in working with the organisms I study. We do have a couple of Spanish-speaking collaborators, but both speak English extremely well.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:41 AM on August 22, 2013


I grew up in Denmark and apart from Danish & English, I could watch TV in Swedish, German and Norwegian. French TV5 began when I was in my teens. I took Russian in secondary school, though Italian and Spanish were other options. Pop music on the radio included songs in Italian, Dutch/Flemmish and Hebrew.

One thing that still startles me after having lived in the UK (Glasgow) for seven years is how little exposure Brits have to other languages. Sure, you may hear other languages on the streets but 99% of all TV/radio is in English (unless you are watching BBC Alba or BBC Cymru which cater for Gaelic and Welsh speakers respectively). Scandinavian crime dramas made a huge splash on British TV recently - but they were shown on the artsy TV channel despite being mainstream procedurals. We cannot have subtitled programmes on our flagship channels, apparently.

It is so very odd. And what is even more odd is that English is my second language and I am still proof-reading and spell-checking my old manager's correspondence.

Does this lack of exposure to other languages make people linguistically unaware or almost lazy, I wonder?
posted by kariebookish at 10:45 AM on August 22, 2013


Yes, she can chatter away at five, but not well enough to work at the State Department.

You might be surprised.
posted by Etrigan at 10:47 AM on August 22, 2013


I've learned three languages (with varying degrees of success) for three very different reasons.

- I learned Spanish because I grew up in Texas and my parents were adamant that it would be USEFUL. (Spoiler alert: they were right.) It was a slog and I didn't enjoy it very much, but it wasn't optional. I started in 7th grade and continued all the way through college. It wasn't the language predominantly spoken at home when I was a kid, but later on in life my father began taking in stray humans, and many of them spoke only Spanish. When I moved back in with him in my late 20s, the only language everyone in the house spoke was Spanish, so that became the Default Primary Language. I also ended up in a fully bilingual job for a while as a caseworker, so I guess my Spanish study was, as my parents predicted, useful.

- I wanted to learn French. My cousin is French, and that seemed like as good a reason as any. So once I was done with law school, I sat down and started learning French. It was slow going. And it has been about five years since I started. Only in the last 2-3 years has my French really become passable. That's been aided by some of the resources folks are talking about, LiveMocha especially. (Although, less so now that they've changed formats. Boo.) But it has also been helped along by a certain amount of necessity. I started visiting France a lot a few years ago, and now these regular pilgrimages provide a great opportunity to practice and refine... and also a compelling reason to keep learning. Visiting Paris would be one issue, and I could get by without much (any) French fairly efficiently there because no matter how much I'd like to speak French, Parisians switch to English immediately. It's taken me a while to resist the urge to switch back into English myself, but now I barrel on in French without taking the short cut. Sometimes I even get a little miffed by it. (Like the pharmacy employee who held up four splayed fingers and said "ZAT WEEL BEE FOWR DOHHLARRRZ." I almost handed her the four dollar bills I had stuffed in my wallet.) But we spend the vast majority of our time out in the countryside where the only answer to "Parlez vous anglais?" is "Pas de tout." Without any French, it is much harder to get around the countryside in any meaningful way.

- Now I'm learning Serbian because that's what my in-laws speak and are most comfortable speaking. I can't think of a better reason to learn a language than because you are in a bi-cultural/bi-national relationship. Unlike the drive I had to learn French, which was entirely personal excitement, my drive to learn Serbian is really practical. I find myself becoming much more frustrated with the language than I was with either French or Spanish. I think that's partly because the language is so different from all the others I speak. But I think it is also because I *need* to learn this one, and whether I like it or not is irrelevant. I'm still on the uphill part of the learning curve with this language, and I hope that it eventually becomes easier, but for now I'm stuck being annoyed by all of the (admittedly fascinating) features of the language that require my intense study to even begin to understand. But on family vacation in July, I realized I've finally gotten to the point where I understand the context of the conversations going on around me.

But beyond all these reasons? I like it. I really just enjoy the process of learning another language. The same way international travel is accused of being spycraft cosplay for the middle and upper class, I feel like learning languages are another sort of roleplaying game. It tickles my brain and I get a little endorphin rush when I test my skills. When I know the word for something... ZING! When I overheard a conversation I'm not "supposed" to understand... ZING! When I reach for the right conjugation or syntax... ZING! It just *feels* good to me.

And if I enjoy it, do I really need to have a justification beyond that? What makes learning a language a stupider hobby than putting ships in bottles or playing football? I think the whole question of justification/utility with respect to language learning (at least in America) comes from a place of privilege and/or isolation.
posted by jph at 10:49 AM on August 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


Oh, also I watched all of Betty la Fea in high school (and got to be all hipstery about it when the English version came out). And Sabado Gigante occasionally, but I don't think watching Sabado Gigante helps you understand anything.
posted by dinty_moore at 10:50 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The reason 13 year olds cannot work at the State Department is not, primarily, their facility in their native language(s).
posted by jeather at 10:51 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


In high school my original French teacher retired and a French-Canadian took her place. When my mother met him, she was absolutely horrified by his accent and seriously considered asking me to drop out of the class.

Quebecois French is beautiful and musical. Sure, you could legitimately criticize some things like the prevalence of anglicismes, but there also exists the stupid idea that French from a particular country or city is the "real" French, and that others are a cheap imitation or even a perversion of the language.

One positive thing in the English-speaking world is that we generally like each other's accents and consider regional differences in vocabulary to be an indication of the richness of a language. Of course there are examples of the contrary, but nothing on the level of how the Quebecois and their language are so easily written-off.
posted by beau jackson at 10:55 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Learning a new language improves your knowledge of your own.
posted by prepmonkey at 10:57 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Never have I heard more anglicisms in French as when I went to France. Le parking, le wifi, le weekend, faxer, emailer, and so on. (This is distinct from people speaking franglais, which can't be said to have anglicisms as such.)
posted by jeather at 11:02 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the whole question of justification/utility with respect to language learning (at least in America) comes from a place of privilege and/or isolation.

Like everything here, if it doesn't make you money, it's deemed worthless.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:03 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm sure there's something to the plasticity thing, but I think people don't recall what a struggle it is for children to learn a language, how many mistakes they make, how frustrated they get when they can't say what they want. One of the first commenters above mentions studying for 2-3 years and being as inept as a 5-year-old. Well, yeah, the child has been studying intensively for 5 years!

IMO there's a difference between studying the language (which implies active, purposeful work geared towards learning) and immersion, which is how I'd say little kids learn language. "Studying" always seems to get you less far than immersion, in my experience.

What is my experience? I am from Puerto Rico and my first language is Spanish. My mom insisted that I learn English ASAP because, as the daughter of an Army man, she was enrolled in English speaking schools from childhood and learned English fairly easily that way. So in Pre-K I was enrolled in a grammar school where class was conducted solely in English. The first day, Mrs. Adame told us "This is the last time you will hear me speak in Spanish. Unless there's a problem, you may speak to me in Spanish but I will reply in English." I started out knowing zilch, and walked into Kindergarten the next year about as fluent as any English speaking 5 year old.

All the kids in that school who started in pre-k or K went into elementary school speaking almost accentless, well-formed English. The kids who started later on, even as young as first grade, still became fluent, but their English wasn't as effortless as those of us who started at about age 4. The later the child started learning English, even in immersion, the higher the chances they would need special ESL classes in the beginning. I remember their nervousness and hesitation when having to speak up in class.

In 10th grade, a new girl started whose parents were transferred from Michigan to PR. Spoke no Spanish whatsoever, and her only exposure to Spanish was through hearing her new friends speak it outside of class. She ended 10th grade speaking utterly amazing Spanish, and with a near-perfect PR accent to boot. We were all blown away. She had a bit of formal Spanish lessons in school, but she had an extremely powerful combination of assets - access to immersion + absolutely no anxieties about speaking in Spanish. She didnt care if she made a mistake or sounded silly.

I think that a combination of that sort is really important when you're learning a language. You moved to France to learn French? Fantastic! Immersion is step one, not giving a shit about how you might sound is step 2. Someone corrects you? Don't take it personally, thank them and learn from it.

The younger a child is, the more he or she will benefit from immersive exposure to a second language not just because they're already learning everything else anyway, why not throw in another language. They also don't have anxiety about the process or how they sound. I have an almost 2 year old whom we're raising bilingually, and I marvel every day at how much he is picking up on a daily basis.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 11:06 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


God. I took 4 semesters of college spanish, probably cost me over 10k really, and can't speak at all. I can however recite entire alphatical vocaulary lists.

Abeja.
Aldea.
Alma.
...

Wish I knew what those words meant.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:09 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Never have I heard more anglicisms in French as when I went to France. Le parking, le wifi, le weekend, faxer, emailer, and so on. (This is distinct from people speaking franglais, which can't be said to have anglicisms as such.)

This is the funny thing about Québecois language policing. A stop sign in France is called un stop, and it says STOP on it. In Québec, they say ARRÊT, because apparently no one would know what the word on that giant red octagon meant otherwise.

And then they talk, and it's half English.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:10 AM on August 22, 2013


I studied English for years. Three afternoons a week at a British cultural institute. I could read and write OK, but was unable to have a conversation or understand movies and TV. Going to the US was torture until I learned I could get away with Spanish in California and Texas, the places we visited.

Then in my twenties I has to fend for myself for six months in London. It took me a week to start feeling confident, and by the end of the six months I could even tell and understand jokes, even when talking to the Jamaicans and Nigerians in my local pub.

It is like losing the fear of dancing or singing. No matter how much you suck and how big of a fool you make of yourself, you can still have fun.

With this attitude I was able to not get scammed by taxi drivers and food vendors in Morocco. I have no idea where the French came from, but it worked.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 11:11 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I lived in The Netherlands for about a year. It took me three weeks to work up the nerve to try saying something in Dutch, and I got yelled at for wasting the other person's time when I could've just spoke English. After this I adopted a firm "fuck you" attitude, and insisted on speaking Dutch until it was no longer possible for me to express whatever it was I wanted to say. If I knew that I had the vocabulary to bruise my way through the conversation, I would respond to the Dutch speaker's immediate switch to English with a dumb smile and feigned non-comprehension. If I really wanted to be an asshole about it, I would respond in Mandarin with "Sorry, I don't speak English." By the time I left I was able to have small, grammatically awful conversations about things like where I lived, where I worked, where I was from, how bad the weather was that day, what a miserable bastard the bus was for making us all late, etc. I think what stopped people from instantly switching to English (which happened somewhere around month seven) was that I was obviously trying very, very hard to speak Dutch. This is something most foreigners don't bother doing, and it earned a teeny-tiny amount of respect.

Interestingly, it was easiest for me to speak Dutch at the Haagse Markt, where many of the vendors were not native speakers of Dutch either and were thus way, way more tolerant (and helpful) with my bad pronunciation and worse grammar.

Speaking from my college study abroad experience, if you really want to get fluent in a language, just start carrying on a torrid affair with someone who speaks it well but doesn't speak your language well, or (even better) at all. Thus was spawned the pun "study a broad," which is funnier after three or four liters of Nanjing Beer.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:24 AM on August 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


You know, the more I read that Ta-Nehsi Coates article, the more infuriated I become at the glaring stupidity. Which is fairly typical for his work. But this:

I have not visited most of the things I would like--the Louvre, the Museé D'Orsay, and especially St. Denis (Clovis!!!) I spent time up at near Nation (I would live up there if I could), I walked La Coulée Verte (Awesome-sauce. Totally sons The High-Line.) I drank some great wine. Ate some incredible bread. But I make no pretensions on having "seen" Paris.

I came here to study the language.

What. In. The. Hell. Are. You. Studying. French. FOR?


To learn a language? You sure as hell don't need to speak French to go to tourist sites. I'd point you to some of his other posts on why he's learning it, but you'd apparently find them stupid.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:28 AM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I once saw a Parisian switch to English, after the first couple of exchanges, to ask a Walloon (francophone Belgian) if they spoke French. It was like the personification of that stereotype. On the other hand, my interlocutors weren't bothered by my incipient French. Luck of the draw.
posted by ersatz at 11:35 AM on August 22, 2013


You're missing out on a whole world of illegal internet streams of cycling races.

I doubt that he is...

Like everything here, if it doesn't make you money, it's deemed worthless.

I think it's more than that. Dutch teenagers go on holiday together to France or Spain from 16 or so onwards, granted they mostly stick together while they're there, but not only do they hear it around them - they immediately see how it would be useful. When they're younger, they hear their parents order food in German or French so the idea that languages are useful is just obvious to them.

English of course is in a league of its own. Substantial amounts of Dutch TV is subtitled English language. The Wire was so ridiculously popular a few years ago that part of me hopes that the English accent of the Dutch bourgeoisie will shift even further from the British-esque of 20 years ago and go straight up Baltimore.
posted by atrazine at 11:37 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nothing taught me mastery of English (as a native speaker of English) like getting a degree in French. I took up a second language because it was fun and offered in my public school system, and by college I got an opportunity to earn a language degree in addition to one in my area of study, for free (thank you Donaghey Scholars Program). All in all, I took French courses from about 1992 until 2002, the last four of those years as a serious student. The bit that truly got me to *learn French* was 1999--2000, when I got to live with a host family and take classes at the Université d'Orléans. At every step of the way, I was most confronted by how many of my barriers in a second language related to my poor understanding of the mechanics of my mother tongue.

All those years of English classes growing up? Had they been presented in the form of learning a new language, something comparative, it all would have made so much more sense. I am so, so incredibly grateful for having had that experience, and I wish I could find more opportunities to keep speaking French so I wouldn't feel it creeping away from me. My partner and I had the fortune of spending some time in France last year--my first time back since 2001--and I was truly surprised at how much of it was still accessible, and how fun it was to slip back out of English.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:38 AM on August 22, 2013


> I talked to a many-language fluent person in the Netherlands. He said that from a very young age they teach classes in French, German, and English. They don't, for example, just have a German class, but the math class will be in German, the science class will be in French, or something like that.

This is either a new method or one that's not used everywhere*). I'm Dutch, and my classes have always been in Dutch. I've never heard otherwise from anyone I know. In fact I've never actually heard of this method being used anywhere.

Sorry if this is a desillusion to anyone.

*) or you were being bullshitted, but why?
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:39 AM on August 22, 2013


As I recall, the rule is now that you can have the word STOP or the word ARRET but not both (anymore). And when I listen to a conversation between francophones, they use perfectly normal French, it's when there's a conversation between people of multiple native languages that everyone uses franglais, so when anglos talk it is also half French.
posted by jeather at 11:41 AM on August 22, 2013


Practically speaking people learn to speak their first language naturally, but the refinements of the language come through study- in English we teach children sentence structure, spelling through a school system. I know that French school children get to have fun times trying to navigate their own grammar, which appears to provide the complexity of English spelling.

At this point I can understand the jist of written french, but anything spoken to me is mumbling phonemes. However, given a little bit of study, the grammar comes zinging aback and I can fill out a grammar work sheets to my hearts content. Speaking, of course is impossible and I can't spell anything in french or remember the gender.

I can't pronounce anything in french. I can, however, shop and do other basic activities in french, although a store clerk mumbling that there's a two for one sale on bras or some which is usually heard as "Amm- euh- ais- eugh" or similar nonsense.
posted by Phalene at 11:44 AM on August 22, 2013


Paris is funny. You could live there for 30 years, never leaving, speaking French every day, and even after 30 years, you would still be a foreigner and they could still tell by the way you talk.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:47 AM on August 22, 2013


Paris is funny. You could live there for 30 years, never leaving, speaking French every day, and even after 30 years, you would still be a foreigner and they could still tell by the way you talk.

How is that any different from anywhere else?
posted by Etrigan at 11:50 AM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Learning a new language improves your knowledge of your own.

Attempting to learn a new language does give an interesting perspective on your own. Frustrated by my inability to recognize words in the speech of native French speakers, I searched for tutorials on stress and rhythm. There it was mentioned how in English we change the meaning of words by how we place emphasis on syllables. Mentioned words like 'record', 'project', 'suspect' or 'photo', 'photographer', 'photographic'. Maybe I was taught that all once long ago in grade 3 phonics, but I'd been going along for years saying those words in different contexts without being aware of the way I might shift them around. I was like, "hmm, who knew?" Gave me some sympathy for people attempting to tackle English. It's good to realize that English doesn't always make logical sense either.

And when I began to shake my head at how french speakers seem to push syllables across words or even phrases, I eventually lessened my frustration by thinking how in my rushed small-town working-class English "could have" becomes "could've" becomes "could of" becomes "cuda". And still I expect people will understand me when I speak it so imprecisely.
posted by TimTypeZed at 11:50 AM on August 22, 2013


The only way to really learn a language is to love it.
I would take this further and say that the best and probably the most pleasant way to learn a language is to have a lover whose primary language is the one you wish to learn. The caveat being that you should be in their country. Nothing beats total immersian.

I learnt Spanish living in Spain. I learnt basic French badly in school and carried it into conversation in the Caribbean thus ensuring that no one back in Europe understood me.
I am now embarking on Portuguese.
posted by adamvasco at 11:55 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a degree in Japanese Language & Literature through a department that was heavily involved in modernizing J Pedagogy, since the textbooks were mostly written in the 1970s. Basically, if you studied any language before the late 1990s, the methods they used to teach you were obsolete and did not account for actual verifiable scientific methods. Some of the concepts like immersion are not considered as important anymore. The latest paradigm I know of is "Four Skills." My old classes are now divided into two classes, one for reading/writing, one for speaking/listening. The theory is that you have to work the neural channels both directions, passive recognition and active production, before long term memories are formed. This was discovered through statistical analysis of hundreds of videotaped language sessions. Basically if you learned with the old methods, you only accidentally succeeded by stumbling across the passive/active methods on your own. This was a lot of the problem in old study methods, students pretty much had to invent their own way to learn the material that was presented. Now there are methods that are based on methods that are known to efficiently program your mental linguistic mechanisms.


(I graduated in 96). I was an older student returning to college to finish my degree, so the teacher advised me about the neuroplasticity of young ~20 year old students vs. me at age 35, and even compared to infants acquiring language for the first time. She said that children have a severe disadvantage at language learning, it takes them longer to acquire a language than any other age. The problem is, they have to learn what an object or a concept IS before they can associate a word or sound with it. So a baby has to learn what milk is, uniquely as opposed to other liquids, before they can associate the word Milk with it. But adults already know what milk is, they learned it during their native language acquisition as a child, now they just have to associate the foreign word with their native concept. The problem is that it is harder to establish that new language concept without reverting back to thinking in your native language. Young adults (my fellow students ~20 yrs) have great neuroplasticity compared to the 35 year old geezers like me. They can acquire new language systems well, but they have to work hard at it. My advantage as an older student was that I had much more life experience and thus I had better neural development. This reduces neuroplasticity, but makes my efforts at learning languages more efficient than the kids. I can work smarter, not harder.

And I found this was absolutely true. My young classmates had to spend about 3x as much time on their homework as me. They had much more difficulty seeing the big picture, and less ability to synthesize the overall concepts out of smaller bits of information. And I had a huge advantage in vocabulary acquisition, I could study words a few times and remember them long term, while they had to use flash cards and rote memorization over and over. However, being older, I was starting to have hearing loss at high frequencies, making it difficult to distinguish high pitched sounds, like chi/ji. So I was recommended to work hard on vocabulary and grammar, so I would be better able to understand spoken language through the extra redundancies in speech, that would help me distinguish words better by context. This is done to a lesser degree by all students, who have trouble dealing with the large number of homophones, due to the reduced number of separate mora (spoken units like a, e, ka, ke, etc) that results in more homophones overall than in other languages like English.

So basically, it's a wash. Each age has advantages and disadvantages to its ability to acquire language. The new pedagogical methods have studied how to work lessons to the advantage of the learning skills of the students. Some students have specific difficulties, so there are specific methods known to work to address those disadvantages, and they're not just guesswork. Oh how many boring statistical linguistics theses have I read about these subjects.

One other point I see in this thread that nobody has addressed.. In the US, language instruction is not really intended to produce fluency. Nobody can seriously expect to attain fluency in a language like Japanese in only 4 years (it might be possible in Spanish or other easy languages). Language studies are considered preparation for working in a completely foreign language environment, to give you the ability to "stand on your own two feet" linguistically, without having to spend all your time with a dictionary, etc.

So the primary reason for the widespread instruction of foreign language is to get people to understand their native language. For example, I never heard of the concepts of direct vs. indirect verbs until I had to learn them in Japanese. Of course as a fluent native English speaker, I used them all the time, and I never had to consciously consider the difference between direct and indirect, we called this "native speaker intuition." But once you learn the rules in a foreign system, the rules for English became more obvious, and peoples' native language skills were improved. Alas this is also a pitfall of the old language pedagogical methods, the teachers were often unaware of the subtle rules, they relied on native speaker intuition so they had difficulty expressing the system to students who wanted firm rules.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:04 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The more I think about it, the more I realize that it is fairly easy in retrospect to distinguish between the various points in time/places in life where language learning occurred. There's the spanish I learned growing up (conversational and primarily caribbean origin, in the houses of friends), the spanish I learned in school (castellano, grammar and fancy verb forms and whatnot), the spanish i learned in restaurant kitchens (sweary), the spanish I learned in the summer living in spain (full of argentinian phrasing and colloquialisms), and the spanish I learned living in spain alone in the winter (a confusing mix of catala and eivissenc).
posted by elizardbits at 12:04 PM on August 22, 2013


Learning a new language improves your knowledge of your own.

As a writer, I often find myself captured by the beauty and unexpectedness of phrases, idioms, ways of saying things, that I encounter in the foreign languages I speak. I think if I ever sat down and wrote a novel I would try to bring some of these neat turns of phrase into English.

I imagine other writers have done this already.
posted by jackbrown at 12:06 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


My French accent has been all over the place. I spent a lot of my childhood and teen years just south of the Canadian border watching a bunch of Francophone TV, and there seemed to be a real mix of programming sources from Quebecois to Parisian. My high school French teacher was Lithuanian, and my most influential college prof was Marseillais. When I took a French diction class designed for singers, the instructor tut-tutted and said, "We'll have to watch out for those Southern vowels." I even washed me hands and face before I come.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:07 PM on August 22, 2013


Oh, right, but my point should have been, at no time throughout these various learning experiences did I ever really realize (except with the catala/eivissenc) that I was learning a "different" spanish that might be unfamiliar to other spanish speakers.

languages: a land of contrasts and swears
posted by elizardbits at 12:08 PM on August 22, 2013


Some of the concepts like immersion are not considered as important anymore.

By theoreticians perhaps. Immersion, as I think most people with practical experience of learning to speak and understand a foreign language in practice would tell you, is actually the only way to do it. Classroom preparation is great preparation for an immersion phase, but it's just preparation for actually learning a language.
posted by jackbrown at 12:11 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've been trying to learn some Italian using Rosetta Stone (legitimately, through work!) and Duolingo. I have Italian friends and collaborate with scientists in Italy, and I'm considering doing a sabbatical there, so I thought it would be a good idea. It's hard, even harder than I thought it would be. I'm so over possessives. But I'll keep trying, because it has to be good for me to exercise my brain in a new way, and it might help the next time I'm lost in Rome. Seriously, why do Italians hate the idea of street signs? :-)
posted by wintermind at 12:11 PM on August 22, 2013


Aside from my laziness, my biggest barrier (mentally only, perhaps?) to learning a language is that until I had it corrected by surgery, I was literally tongue-tied until after college. So I have never been able to roll "r" sounds and still cannot to this day, which seemed like a huge problem in many languages, and certainly made me very self-conscious.

I think the point up-thread about not giving a fuck and powering through regardless is important.
posted by maxwelton at 12:15 PM on August 22, 2013


This has been said many times, but learning another language allows one to discover the world anew. It's such a wonderful thing, to be able to expand your perception of what you see/feel/hear/touch/think etc. In the Heideggerian(?) sense of the "thingness of a thing", one's perception of things is infinitely blessed by the ability to perceive of them in new and multifaceted ways that were unthinkable before one spoke that (new) language...

That said, it's hard as fuck to learn a language, sheeeeit, I even find English difficult to speak/write/read well...
posted by nikoniko at 12:18 PM on August 22, 2013


Just learn how to say, in rudimentary Dutch, "I'm sorry I'm from Armenia" [or some country where you look like you could be from where they speak languages that very few Dutch people will speak]
That'll sort 'em.


Also:

"Doooooood yuse speaks englitch welldasossum. I'm from neah Baaaaawstin, an I just sawr ya palaces an chaaaches an alladat, totes bettah'n Brujers daaaawn in Beltchum, whodahell puts mayo on deya fries?"
"Ummm... could we go back to Dutch?"
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:30 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


When I took a French diction class designed for singers, the instructor tut-tutted and said, "We'll have to watch out for those Southern vowels."

In an Alliance Francaise class in Toronto a decade ago, my teacher -- Thierry, un Lyonnais -- had little patience for our Canadian accents and diction. As he said once, heaving a heavy Gallic sigh, "C'est ne pas l'Alliance Québecoise ici, c'est l'Alliance Francaise."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:01 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


In regards to Quebec French, it's a lot easier to understand young people. The older generation--at least outside of Montreal--speaks Joual and they are damn near unintelligible. I understand that it is in fact French they are speaking but I can only make out a few words. Our neighbors are a lovely couple in their 60s and the husband, Laurent, is sweet as pie but goddamn if we can't understand a word he says.
posted by Kitteh at 1:21 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Immersion, as I think most people with practical experience of learning to speak and understand a foreign language in practice would tell you, is actually the only way to do it. Classroom preparation is great preparation for an immersion phase, but it's just preparation for actually learning a language.

Yes, that is the exact philosophy of the instructors I described. College language studies are merely preparation for your real education, when you get into a fully immersive foreign language environment. In fact, our instructors would not write recommendation letters for overseas studies before a student completed 2nd year, and preferred if you waited until after 3rd year. They thought that you were wasting your time learning basic concepts, you needed to maximize your efforts while you were over there. They also believed you would pick up bad language habits because you wouldn't be able to adequately conceptualize the language you heard. I absolutely agree. I went over to Japan after 3rd year and before returning to take 4th year. There was a huge leap between 3rd and 4th, they expected you'd have some overseas study before 4th. Almost all of the students I know who finished 3rd year and spent a year afterwards as an exchange student in Japan, attained very high levels of fluency (but they were still unable to pass top level proficiency exams). On the other hand, I met students in my school in Japan that were taking their first classes, learning the basics like the basic kana "alphabet." They were absolutely clueless. I remember running into a 1st year student in a convenience store near school. She said she desperately needed my help, she couldn't find something, this is so embarrassing, what's the Japanese word for tampon? Um.. I never needed to learn that, let me check my electronic dictionary.. the word is "tanpon." Sometimes I think that in a foreign land, the people with no language skills are living on a completely different plane of existence than the people with even minimal language skills.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:24 PM on August 22, 2013


As a writer, I often find myself captured by the beauty and unexpectedness of phrases, idioms, ways of saying things, that I encounter in the foreign languages I speak. I think if I ever sat down and wrote a novel I would try to bring some of these neat turns of phrase into English.

I definitely agree. My particular weakness is my almost unconscious use of the literary form "kishotenketsu." I've done it here on MeFi plenty of times, I write something, then I reread it and think, oh hell that's kishotenketsu, I wonder if anyone will understand what I'm trying to say.

Oddly enough, I came to understand this format while working with exchange students from Japan. They were told they had to unlearn their kishotenketsu methods in order to write essays for American college classes. Their old methods were incomprehensible to Westerners, even if their essays might get an A+ in their native environment. But somehow along the way, I absorbed this method and made it my own style. Oh well, that's what happens when you get a degree in foreign language and literature. That's why you do it, so you can learn to think in entirely foreign ways.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:33 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I learned French when I was young, I studied and got reasonably conversant in German in University, I picked up Spanish when I living in Mexico. None of them took all that much effort for me, you know, because I'm a supergenius as well as dashing and handsome. But 17 years on, and Korean has still defeated my (half-hearted) attempts to conquer it.

Stay away from Korean unless you're willing to work at it, hard. Harder than I was, at least.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:05 PM on August 22, 2013


So think about your typical American public school student. She has gotten (typically) 5 years of lessons in a foreign language, through 3 years of middle school and the first 2 years of high school. Assuming a teacher teaches 150 students per year and costs the school system $75,000 (salary and pension), that's about $2500 worth of training.

$2500 is just about enough to go to Mexico or Central America for an entire summer, and it would be enough to go many places in Asia or Africa for a summer excluding the price of a plane ticket. I've often wondered whether it would be more efficient to just send public school students on free trips to foreign countries than to try to teach them languages in the classroom.
posted by miyabo at 2:11 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Language lessons tend to discourage one of the most important aspects of language learning: making mistakes. Certainly when someone speaks broken English to me, my only thought is to communicate, not to correct or admonish.
posted by Jode at 2:24 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


And, of course, there are different reasons for learning a foregin language, and the same degree of fluency may not be needed for all of them. The needs of someone who wants to live or travel in another country may be different than someone who, content to get the literal meaning from a literal translation, still wants to appreciate the sound and wordplay in the original lyrics of a piece of foreign music. The needs of someone who wants to shop in a foreign market may be different from someone who's interested in understanding the root words of the ingredients in a foreign recipe.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:30 PM on August 22, 2013


sys req: This is the funny thing about Québecois language policing.

I don't know if this is true, but I heard that in France the Academie Francais basically grandfathered in a whole raft of anglicisms because that's the way people already spoke, so they're ok with "le weekend" etc. But in Quebec they had kept lots of French expressions like fin de semaine, which were subsequently jumped on as examples of French-language goodness for political reasons in the 70's. Which is roughly why we have signs in our national parks that say, "STOP | ARRET".

gompa: Everything about the experience has convinced me that kids under the age of six, when neuro-plasticity's still in full effect, are innately better at language acquisition.

Me too. I remember watching both my kids go through learning French and then English, and I don't think they had any trouble absorbing both vocabularies. We are very lucky here in Calgary that they can go to full-time French school from k-12 with basically no barriers to entry.
posted by sneebler at 2:31 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This paragraph alone highlights the struggle that has been part of my life for nearly five years now. I feel like an idiot because I know the basics but cannot have a conversation--or at least a sustained one--in French to save my life. In turn, it has caused me to become very nearly a hermit. I know that I am overreacting as the Quebecois have been nothing but nice to me, but that mental hurdle of being no better than a student five years on in a language I am required to know stings.

Go out to more bars. Everyone speaks French better when they are drunk.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:45 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, she is telling you that if you see the feminine diminutive "ette" at the end of baguette, and you still say un baguette instead of une baguette, you are probably too stupid to learn French.

Two years of high school French, and all that time we were told there are no rules for determining masculine vs. feminine nouns, you just have to memorize which is which.
posted by dnash at 2:48 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Go out to more bars. Everyone speaks French better when they are drunk.

Yes, but that adds a whole new set of problems! As in, "Why is Shepherd's wife always drunk?"
posted by Kitteh at 2:49 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, she is telling you that if you see the feminine diminutive "ette" at the end of baguette, and you still say un baguette instead of une baguette, you are probably too stupid to learn French.

Yes! Anyone who ever makes a minor mistake when speaking a second language and using a grammatical function that their native language doesn't have is obviously an idiot and should probably just give up on language learning forever.

If you say "une squelette", are you also too stupid to learn French?
posted by jeather at 2:56 PM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]



I took about 6 years of French in school. A few phrases still slip out easily but speaking it just a no go. I can read it and get the general idea of what's being said but not in great detail. I grew up in BC and outside of school the only real French I used was reading cereal boxes in the morning. I spent 2 weeks in Montreal once and after a week I finally started feeling that fluency was possible. I was reading signs without having having to think about translating them, was understanding basic phrases without much thought and just hearing it didn't sound so foreign. It felt like I was so close to just getting it. The schooling was good but I had to be immersed to really start getting the book learning out into every day life.


I just started learning a new language and it's quite a trip. Latin. I want to eventually be able to read historical works in the original Latin. I found a website that teaches it from an immersion standpoint unlike most latin course that just focus on reading and grammar. I haven't done much with grammar an vocabulary yet. I just listen to audio of Latin texts being read out loud. Going through Julius Ceasar's works right now as well as the audio of the website owner reading classical grammar texts all in Latin. It's a bit bizzare. I'm at the point where I feel like I can almost speak it. It feels familiar. I just don't know what the words mean but I know what the sound like and the cadence of the language. Guess it's time to buckle down and do the detail work.
posted by Jalliah at 3:07 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


A shame I'm coming late to this party.

I know five languages and a couple more enough to get around in, tourist style - but I started learning languages young from my father, who was a linguist.

I'm just now reading The Loom of Language, which you can purchase in book form or download for free from that link.

I cannot recommend it enough - it's an old book but it makes a lot of very radical points.

One is that there are actually three separate tasks going on - learning to read and write, learning to understand speech, and learning to speak - and each of these requires very different skills.

The book claims that it's basically useless to learn speech from a teacher unless you're really personally committed - that by far the best way to learn how to do this is talking to a native speaker who is saying something personally interesting to you.

It proposes that a perfectly good strategy might be to simply learn to read and write and to pronounce what you have read, but make little attempt to learn to speak or understand speech until you are actually in an environment where you actually have something to say or to hear in the target language.

It's also full of tricks to help you learn multiple language as an English speaker, using the vocabulary you already have in English, how to avoid learning stuff you don't need - basically, a lot of cheat codes.

I can't remember the exact words, but at some point it says something like the idea of their program is not to make you a good speaker of the language - but instead a bad but fluent speaker, because once you're there you can do the rest on your own.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:20 PM on August 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


I saw this article linked on a language learning discussion group I frequent. (for those of you who read AskMeFi, I am a language learning enthusiast. It is my main hobby) The general consensus was that we were rolling our eyes pretty hard. Howlers like "Learning is invisible act" and "It is dreadful cycle" didn't help. In some sense, it is hard for me to grasp the monolinguist's struggle because I have no memory of being monolingual. That said...

I really don't believe this commonsense wisdom that is so often bandied about...
Having spent time as an adult learning a foreign language and time watching children learn languages I think the most significant factor is TIME. Children especially at that 2-5 year old age just don't have a lot of other stuff to do. They spend hours every single day playing with language. Learning language.


This is it. The research shows that aside from accent acquisition, adults are superior to children in language acquisition. Experience also bears this out. What would we think if an adult who had studied X for five years spoke like an X-native speaker five-year-old? We would think that person is an idiot.

The advantage that children have is time with the language and they aren't afraid to make mistakes. To the contrary, there is tremendous peer pressure to acquire the language.

What adult has that much time to learn a language? If you spent an equivalent 1-2 hours everyday learning say french for just 1 year I think you would be at least at the level of a 3-4 year old french child.

I should hope not! Let's be conservative and say that 1-2 hours over one year amounts to 500 hours to leave time for days where one just doesn't feel like studying. That is pretty close to the 575-600 hours of classroom time that the DLI deems is required for a native English speaker to gain proficiency in French. Someone who studies a language for an hour a day for a year won't be mistaken for a native, but they should be well beyond a toddler's babbling.

Although, I think a lot of language learners to not help themselves in this regard. People spend way to much time on beginner materials. After I spend a few months with a language to develop a foundation, I move to native materials that are interesting to me, such as news websites or short stories. I still go back to the beginner text for reference from time to time, but that's all it is. For example, I started Chinese several months ago (maybe 100 hours total time thus far) and I am not reading, "Zhang has a ball. The ball is red" but "Is the manager coming to the meeting about engineer salaries?" and I can microblog and chat about familiar subjects in Mandarin. According to my tracking stats, I can write just under 800 hanzi by hand. This is not to say that I am so great but to say that an hour a day gets you to a respectable level quite sooner than most people imagine. When I see people say, "I've been studying Spanish for two years. What are some good preschooler books I can read?", I cringe. Spend a few months in the shallow end and then dive in.

On the flipside, one mistake I think people make a lot is trying to speak too early. There is one Internet polyglot in particular, Benny Lewis, who says that one should speak from day one. This is ridiculous. I suppose one could do that, but you'll have very little to say because you have no vocabulary, and good luck understanding what is said back to you. I think this is reflected in some of Benny's videos where he'll ask a question to a native, listen to the response while saying "ok" or "uh-huh", and then ask the next question containing no follow-up and no connection to the previous question. I don't do much speaking at all until I have several months of foundation (but I still drill pronunciation during that beginning period by myself).

This is why Coates' statement that any French class "worth its salt" is entirely in French is so misguided. What? If the students cannot understand what the teacher is saying, that teacher is failing. Immersion is not a teaching method.

I am really glad zompist posted in this thread because I often cite this page when these discussions come up. I think it hits the nail on the head. I commend it to everyone's attention. I particularly appreciate the section regarding native speakers of a language is speak it only at home in a culture with a different dominant language. I see this when I help my son with his Japanese homework. He's a native speaker, but he still comes across words that he doesn't know that native speakers of his age in Japan would, such as "emperor". Earlier this week, I corresponded with an adult native speaker of Japanese who spoke it at home while growing up in America. He was illiterate and had only learned the word "tax" a week or two prior. (we were discussing ways for him to learn kanji). He was a native, but I was clearly the more proficient speaker. Don't think that kids have superpowers and you need to learn as a tot or never.

However, as much as I can't imagine a monolingual life, most people will be monolingual their entire lives and never suffer for it. For most people, getting them to learn a language is like trying to convince someone to run a marathon. I do agree with Jay Matthews that is is largely a way of time to teach in a classroom. Let it be an elective if you are going to insist on classes. As for me, I think a class is a waste of an adult's time for the most part. I get much better results studying on my own. (although I would have loved to attend DLI). Coates could have learned a lot more French a lot better at home.

PS Monday, stony Monday, thank you for saying "Persian" instead of "Farsi".
posted by Tanizaki at 3:42 PM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is why Coates' statement that any French class "worth its salt" is entirely in French is so misguided. What? If the students cannot understand what the teacher is saying, that teacher is failing. Immersion is not a teaching method.

Well, yes, for the first few weeks of a first year language course. Once you have learned enough to get by, then it should be entirely in the target language. They did this in high school, and while I can't remember when they switched over, it was awfully early in the process. One we learned something, we had to use it.

But I guess it depends on the reason for the class. Are you learning about the language, or how to speak it?
posted by gjc at 3:56 PM on August 22, 2013


Tanizaki: People spend way to much time on beginner materials.

This. I took some shit from other expats for trying to read Maupassant short stories when I was living in Paris and could barely speak French, but -- you struggle through painfully, and you slowly improve. The first book I read in German was Erich Fromm's "Haben oder Sein" -- it took me half an hour per page at first, but if you just don't stop trying to climb the mountain, you *will* get to the top. It's a matter of putting in the time -- and why bother putting in the effort for work that's not worth it?
posted by ariel_caliban at 4:10 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metatalk
posted by mlis at 5:38 PM on August 22, 2013


I took French for about 9 years in the Ontario public system, starting in 4th grade. To this day, 25-ish years later, it irritates me that there was no emphasis on conversation. I think it's a scandal that in a country with dual official languages, the school system does such a poor job of teaching us to communicate in both. I learned plenty of vocab, and more French grammar than I ever formally learned in English classes, but I still have difficulty expressing myself in anything beyond simple present-tense sentences.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:44 PM on August 22, 2013


It's funny to me that this is even considered a question. Of course you should learn a language other than your native tongue. It seems to only be a seriously asked question among English speakers (which is a weird linguistic/cultural thing that I'd love to learn the reason for). I remember meeting the Belgian students at the university I taught at in China, and being stunned. They spoke Flemish, English, German, and French, and were attending a Chinese university to improve their Chinese.

For me, I come at this in two ways, as an EFL teacher and as a Japanese language learner. From the teaching standpoint, if you only ever use the target language in class, and never try to engage other speakers of the language outside of your limited classtime, you will not learn the language. Learning a language is a committment to using the language at every opportunity, no matter how small. The students I have, the ones that choose to say 'good morning' instead of 'ohayo gozaimasu' are the ones that will improve. The ones that do their best to make small talk in English, even if it's pretty much the same conversation as yesterday, they're going to be able, even a little bit, to improve and become something of an English speaker.

The thing is, though, Japan is pretty much the bottom of the barrel in Asia when it comes to any and all standardized tests of English (which is hilarious, because most of EFL in Japan is practice for test taking). North Korea got higher TOEFL test scores than Japan. The average taxi driver in Bali speaks better English than a Japanese person. Why? Simply because there is a distinct reward for speaking the language. In Bali, there's pretty much tourism and it's related things, or agriculture. Guess which sector pays better? A friend in China was fluent in English and French, and his salary was roughly 40 times the average salary of the city we lived in. In Japan, being an English speaker means that, on the off chance a foreigner comes to the office, they'll make you talk to them (Mrs. Ghidorah, because she's married a foreigner, gets this constantly, but it's all foreigners, most of whom speak no English either). There's no raise, no salary bump for being able to speak a foreign language. Kids in Japan (compulsory six years of English education) see no benefit to being forced to learn English, so they don't bother.

As for learning, for my own part, I was, and have been, an absolutely lousy student. For the first several years I lived here, I studied from books, but rarely tried to speak. All of my friends spoke better Japanese than I did, so I would be embarrassed to speak in front of them, and like a lot of foreigners teaching English, my social circle was other foreigners teaching English.

Then alcohol came into play. I distinctly remember going into the bar with all of my friends. I remember talking to a woman at the bar. I remember my friend asking to 'switch' and talk to the woman's friend because she wasn't interested in him. And I woke up with a phone number. I had no recollection of getting it, so I called another friend, who told me the long sordid story about how, as I was waiting for the bathroom, I struck up a conversation with the group of Japanese people sitting in that section of the bar, and how I sat down with them, and chatted with them in Japanese for two hours, and very nearly convinced them to go with my group of friends to karaoke, and that one of the women in the group (who turned out to be a Chinese/Japanese translator who spoke no English) had given me her phone number.

I still speak Japanese like an grade-school child with a history of severe brain trauma. It's just that I don't let it bother me. The only way to actually become good at a language is to use it, and fail openly and repeatedly, and to keep doing it. You will learn from your mistakes, however slowly, and you will become a better speaker. My only strength in Japanese is that I want to communicate, and I'm not going to let myself be embarrassed by my mistakes. Many of my foreign friends still speak Japanese better than I do, but I'm just more willing to do it. I strongly believe that's the only way to really get to a point where you can say "I can speak a foreign language."

Note, I said speak. Sitting with books and studying is pretty much the only way to learn to read Japanese, and like I said, I'm a lousy student.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:49 PM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


*paging languagehat*
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 5:51 PM on August 22, 2013


I learned everything I know about French from Mark Twain. And twere some of the most enjoyable language-learning I ever grappled with.
posted by Twang at 6:01 PM on August 22, 2013


Two years of high school French, and all that time we were told there are no rules for determining masculine vs. feminine nouns, you just have to memorize which is which.

True, that.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:27 PM on August 22, 2013


Well, yes, for the first few weeks of a first year language course. Once you have learned enough to get by, then it should be entirely in the target language.

The problem is that a few weeks of X Language 101 is a kiss on the cheek. The students have had 15 hours of classroom time of oral exposure and still have a very meager vocabulary. The target language still largely sounds like indiscriminate noise. They can't say or understand "I feel like having lunch at one o'clock today" but they're supposed to absorb "direct object" or "passive voice", which are concepts that a lot of language students don't know in their first language?

If you are proficient enough to understand instruction in the target language, you don't need a class anymore and can advance on your own.

But I guess it depends on the reason for the class. Are you learning about the language, or how to speak it?

If you want to learn how to speak a language, I think a classroom is far from an ideal environment. There is little benefit in hearing other non-natives stumbling along. It baffles me that the adults who say, "I had four years of high school French and can't say much more than 'bonjour'!" decide they want to learn a language "for real" this time decide to do what? Go back into a classroom. Don't be surprised when nothing changes.

Another thought that occurred to me is about fluency. That is a word that gets bandied around a lot in foreign language-learning discussions; it has been used over 40 times in this thread. But, no one seems to know what that word means. I think to a lot of people, it means being able to do everything you can do in your native language with just as much subtlety as a native speaker of the target language. Well, that is frankly an impossibly for just about every adult learner. I think this hangup discourages so many learners, which is a tragedy.

And, there is no requirement to do that - you haven't failed if you don't reach that level. Some people just want to be able to get around on their trip to Peru. Great! A short traveler's course fits the bill. I view the language learning as no different than cooking, playing an instrument or a sport, or anything else. If someone says, "I play the guitar", I don't think that they have to have Eric Clapton's chops in order to say that. We all have different goals. Speaking for myself, I speak Japanese at home and it is what I consider my second language, so I actively work to improve it every day so I can get to the highest level possible. But for other languages, I am generally happy with lower proficiency levels - it all depends on what I want to do with that particular language. We have have different goals, and you are not a "failure" if you don't speak your target language as well as your native language.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:41 PM on August 22, 2013


Well, that is frankly an impossibly for just about every adult learner.

Hmm, but kids can become fluent, and adults can learn just as well as kids, right?
posted by Jpfed at 8:55 PM on August 22, 2013


"They don't, for example, just have a German class, but the math class will be in German, the science class will be in French, or something like that."

This is either a new method or one that's not used everywhere*). I'm Dutch, and my classes have always been in Dutch. I've never heard otherwise from anyone I know. In fact I've never actually heard of this method being used anywhere.

Sorry if this is a desillusion to anyone.

*) or you were being bullshitted, but why?
--Too-Ticky

It is mentioned in this Wikipedia article, so it may just be practiced in certain parts of the Netherlands.
posted by eye of newt at 9:10 PM on August 22, 2013


Alcohol in small doses helps. I think this is because you lose some inhibitions, and therefore you don't worry about sounding stupid. Possibly some of the advantage children have, along with plasticity, stems from lack of self-consciousness.

And sounding stupid is a problem. I love to express myself precisely in English, and it is painful to lose all nuance with my limited capacity in other languages.

What I tell myself is that since I find it charming when people speak English badly but confidently -- when they don't give a damn and just go for it -- presumably I can be charming in my new non-native languages, with my heavy accent and broken grammar, as long as I just go for it too.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:20 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is mentioned in this Wikipedia article, so it may just be practiced in certain parts of the Netherlands.

In that article I can only find 'biligual VWO', which is offered by some schools, and then only to those who are doing the VWO educational level.
And it's bilingual, so you get Dutch and English or Dutch and German. I've never heard of a school that teaches in more than those languages.

If that's not what you were referring to in the 'Pedia article, I may have overlooked it and a pointer would be welcome.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:17 PM on August 22, 2013


Alcohol in small doses helps.

Ditto smoking ganja.
posted by Mister Bijou at 11:29 PM on August 22, 2013


I tell my (adult) students "alcohol + adrenaline = liquid translator". A lot of the time you just need to lower inhibitions and put a bit of pressure on yourself to overcome the not-wanting-to-sound-dumb.

IMHO TNC has it right (as usual), talking about the emotional barriers. A lot of people want to speak a foreign language well. Not many want that so much that they're prepared to do the time speaking it badly.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:24 AM on August 23, 2013


Alcohol in small doses can help, but if I have another and another drink I can't speak the foreign language anymore.

I've been learning German for about five years now and it's a brutal, humiliating process. I'm actually in Germany, which ought to help - and often does, our social circle is helpful and supportive - but (and this is true in all foreign language-learning ) every now and then you come across some asshole who decides he/she can't understand you. So you go back, try and fix your mangled syntax or pronunciation and try again and you get 'the look', the 'I will not respond to you until it is perfect, now try and figure out what perfect is' look. In moments of great stress I break into job-site Brooklyn-ese and let the person I'm arguing with try and follow along - that is, along as it isn't any kind of official conversation.

I was at a kiosk the otherday and some young guys were screwing around, talking in Turkish. This older guy mutters at them, "Speak German! This is Germany, you should speak German!" One of the young guy answers back in perfectly passable German, "Come on man, I'm surrounded by German, covered in German, even my underwear is German. I'm gonna talk to my friends in Turkish." Everybody got a laugh out of that. Thank God.

I grew up speaking Quebecois and English and thought, 'Oh I'll pick up German like I did French' and it has been a rude, rude awakening. What has really helped, though its kind of horrible in the moment, is throwing myself into the deep end. Basically reading things beyond my 'level' and interacting with people in situations I might not have the vocabulary for. Just, fucking, forging ahead. Trying not to get thrown by the 'What the hell just came out of your mouth?' stare.

The one trick I have, my secret weapon, is the mutter. If you can get the bulk of what you're saying across, you can mutter around words/grammar you're not 100% about and most people will fill in the meaning for you. You have to start out right though, give your sentence a good shove in the right direction and it helps to have a good accent - but once you're underway you can get away with a surprisingly high degree of otherwise incomprehensibility.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:10 AM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


From Bklyn: Your experience with German sounds like my experience with Portuguese. I can speak well enough now that I can pass for a native speaker --- as long as I don't try to say anything too complex. The mutter is a technique I use too!

Passing as a native speaker is more than knowing the right words and grammar. It is also about picking up the rhythm of the language, the unique idioms, the music of it. This is something you don't get in a class and why people are so keen on immersion. My immersion has been in Lisbon among my wife's mostly non-English speaking family.

If you'd only taken a class you'd be taught that the way to say "Thank you" in Portuguese is "Obrigado" pronounced "Oh-bree-ga-doe" But I can assure you I have never heard a single Portuguese person say that. Its the right word but in practice, in everyday life, its a quickly muttered "Bree-gao"

I like to entertain my wife by emulating a really strong native Lisbon accent - with the last sentence falling away. Or a Lisbon aristrocrat, where every sentence sounds dismissive. Or an Alfama accent (the oldest part of Lisbon) which is the Portuguese equivalent of a Brooklyn accent. Or the slower drawl of someone from Alentejo. She has taught me cultural references like "Chapeus ha muitos!" and a host of expletives.

It is not just for fun. When I speak musically, I sound more like a native and make myself understood. And that is what I wanted: communication. I still need to work on vocabulary and more complex constructions. But my goal isn't to write the next great Portuguese novel. My goal is to talk to people on the streets and to engage in idle chit-chat with my new extended family. I think that is what most people want from language learning.
posted by vacapinta at 3:28 AM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thoughtcrime: "

To be fair, the Québécois are experts at the butchering of beautiful language.

In high school my original French teacher retired and a French-Canadian took her place. When my mother met him, she was absolutely horrified by his accent and seriously considered asking me to drop out of the class.
"

We do feel the same about the way Americans treat that beautiful English language.
Btw, Québécois is influenced both by the part of France original immigrants originated from (if my memories are accurate, Vendée) and contact with their neighbours.
posted by nicolin at 3:34 AM on August 23, 2013


I would take this further and say that the best and probably the most pleasant way to learn a language is to have a lover whose primary language is the one you wish to learn. The caveat being that you should be in their country. Nothing beats total immersion.

Richard Feynman referred to this as having a “sleeping dictionary”.
posted by acb at 3:50 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like learning things in a systematic way, so I like the part of language learning where teachers sit you down and explain exactly what the dative and accusative cases are, and what the different forms of the past tense look like. I like lists and charts. Verb conjugation charts! Adjective declensions! Lists of common noun-verb pairs! List of common expressions! Lists of verbs with their appropriate prepositions! I will sit down happily and memorize them all.

What I find horribly disconcerting is the point after you've mastered the very basics. After living in Germany for a while, sometimes I fall into a conversation with a friend in German and all of sudden I'm just talking (not analysing the grammar first, not picking my words carefully), and I have no idea if I'm actually making any sense or not. Words sort of slot into place, but I can't explain why anymore. And my friend will be nodding along and replying, so I must sort of be making sense. But if I stop and second-guess myself, I get totally stuck, because I don't know all the rules anymore that I'm operating by. There are such a huge number of small inflections in a language that are almost impossible to find in an average grammar book. I'm not used to knowing that something sounds "right" without being able to explain why. This happens with writing too sometimes, and I go looking for an explanation then and there in my books, and often there isn't an explanation in there either.

As weird as it sounds, sometimes I miss the period that Coates is talking about, when you're always trying to say such simple things that you always know what you're going to say and how you're going to say it.
posted by colfax at 4:27 AM on August 23, 2013


I remember the first time I was in France (1998) watching Dawson's Creek on TV, where the actors are already older than the characters they play, and the voiceover people seemed to be at least in their 40's. "Ah monsieur Pacey, haw haw haw" in deep voices etc. It was brilliant.

I was in Finland last year and we were flicking through the channels on the hotel TV. We came across Heartbreak High dubbed into Russian, but with the same voice artist doing all the voices, so all the Australian schoolgirls sounded like Andrey Arshavin.

I learned Spanish at school, and decided to continue to A-level (post-16) because I got good grades. the leap between GCSE level and A-level is huge, and for the first time I realised that while vocabulary seemed to stick to my brain easily, grammar refused to - just as I could never remember the rules and formulae for Maths but could perfectly recall entire paragraphs of books, or during my degree, panicking while realising I couldn't remember the phonetic alphabet in an exam despite being able to remember articles I read years ago in Smash Hits. Only about 1000 people a year in the whole country did Spanish A-level then. When I did a refresher course in my third year of university, I was the only student in the class who had learned in a classroom - everyone else had picked up their skills during a year out, which I couldn't have afforded to do.

I'd love to learn French but for the life of me I cannot pronounce it. Sigh.
posted by mippy at 4:52 AM on August 23, 2013


I was in Finland last year and we were flicking through the channels on the hotel TV. We came across Heartbreak High dubbed into Russian, but with the same voice artist doing all the voices, so all the Australian schoolgirls sounded like Andrey Arshavin.


That. Sounds. Amazing.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:12 AM on August 23, 2013


The one trick I have, my secret weapon, is the mutter. If you can get the bulk of what you're saying across, you can mutter around words/grammar you're not 100% about and most people will fill in the meaning for you.

A fair point. I tend to think that the parts of language that are trickiest for a second-language student are the aspects that do not exist in his or her first language. Gendered nouns have been mentioned, but for me the biggest obstacle to confident German is case endings, mainly because English scarcely has them beyond pronouns (she/her/hers). 32 years after my first formal German lesson and 28 years after my last one, I know I will never have a ready and intuitive grasp of cases. If I wish to tell a German speaker I went to the cinema today, I am perfectly able to say Ich bin heute ins Kino gegangen, but I am never 100% sure about that ins: in my head, I spin the wheel -- "ins"? "Im"? "In der"? Ultimately, half the time I just mutter Ich bin heute ighlm Kino gegangen, und hab' ich einglhmm Film gesehen.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:08 AM on August 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think learning other languages is a separate intelligence. I took Latin in high school and college. My husband speaks 5 languages--his father has that gift, as does our son who's currently living in Budapest, speaking Hungarian and learning Finnish from his girlfriend. I can't follow a conversation in anything but English, but somehow, on all our travels, random strangers ask me directions, for coffee, or which book to buy. It's not just the words, it's the music, so to speak. Feeling at home in the world depends on your attitude, not just your aptitude.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:41 AM on August 23, 2013


Hmm, but kids can become fluent, and adults can learn just as well as kids, right?

I think you missed a substantial part of my last comment regarding the nature of fluency. What does "fluent" mean? Does it mean "to speak as an educated adult native"? I think that it what fluency means to a lot of people, but I do not think that it what it actually is. Fluency, coming from the Latin root "to flow", means a smooth flow to speech. Native speakers are not necessarily fluent. For example, stutters and other speech impediments are obstacles to fluency. They also may have small vocabularies.

I read your question as, "kids become native speakers, and adults can learn just as well to become as good as native speakers in their target language, right?" If that is the correct reading, I would say no, that is not right, for reasons discussed above.

If "fluent" means speaking the target language with a smooth flow, then I would say yes, absolutely, adults can become fluent in their target languages. That doesn't mean that they don't make errors, though, and that surely doesn't mean that they are mistaken for native speakers.

I tend to think that the parts of language that are trickiest for a second-language student are the aspects that do not exist in his or her first language

I think this is correct. And on the other hand, we rarely think of features our native language has that others don't. For example, Chinese and Japanese are among those languages that have no articles - they have no "a" or "the", and it can sometimes be very hard for native speakers of those languages to know when to use "a", "the", or no article at all when speaking English. Yet for a native speaker of English, this choice is so naturally and automatic that it is not even taught in grade-school English classes.

On the topic of those who have mentioned struggles with gendered nouns, I think the key is to view the article as being part of the word. For example, think of the word as "la maison" rather than just "maison". And of course, mastering gender can doubly important in languages such as Greek where nouns can have different case endings depending on their gender.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:45 AM on August 23, 2013


What does "fluent" mean? Does it mean "to speak as an educated adult native"?

It's important to remember how many native speakers are not able to flawlessly speak the prestige dialect of their own language. If you can't discuss literature with a French professor, that's fine, most French people can't do that either.
posted by atrazine at 8:14 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


After a year on Okinawa the best I could do (with any confidence) was "...this is a pencil." It used to piss me off, how those little kids could speak perfect Japanese.
posted by mule98J at 8:51 AM on August 23, 2013


After a year on Okinawa the best I could do (with any confidence) was "...this is a pencil." It used to piss me off, how those little kids could speak perfect Japanese.

Besides singing some songs, the best I can manage in Russian is "I am going to the Post Office to mail a letter." But I can say it with such conviction that I'm sure I could make SOME use out of it on the mean streets of Moscow.

Well, and since the Greek and Russian alphabets are so similar, I'm pretty good at identifying frat houses.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:57 AM on August 23, 2013


What does "fluent" mean? Does it mean "to speak as an educated adult native"?

Yeah, this is a question I give much thought to. I can comport myself without too much stumbling though conversations in three languages, and pipe up with occasionally relevant interjections in maybe five more past that, even if overhearing a conversation will reveal little to me beyond the general topic. On top of those there are, I dunno, maybe a dozen where I can splutter out a few pleasantries and remark to speakers that sadly, I speak very little of their beautiful language. But what is fluency? It is not like when you learn enough vocab and syntax you suddenly have a switch flipped and you can readily talk about anything. I have been speaking English since age 2 and if I had to discuss the interior of a rotary engine or how to hoist the sails of a square rigger, I would be reduced to pointing and miming and saying, "That thing there," in short order.

As I remarked before, when I worked front desk in a hotel or hostel, bystanders would occasionally hear me take a reservation in French, give directions from the airport in Russian, wish a departing guest a good trip in Arabic and check someone in in Japanese. They would approach me flabbergasted, asking with drooping jaw how many languages I spoke, to which the answer was always, "Fluently? Counting English, zero." My secret in that setting was that I could direct the flow of conversation and I asked questions with a very limited range of answers: the thousandth time you ask someone how many nights they will be staying is no different than the first, and if you can memorize that question and also learn to count to twenty in a few languages, you have that sussed out forever.

On the other hand, having what some view as a gift for languages can be a little frustrating now and again to realize that what seems intuitive to some of us is definitely not for many others. A friend of mine is taking salsa lessons with her boyfriend and the boyfriend is baffled how she can understand the caller's instructions without speaking Spanish. She, like me, speaks enough other languages that the actual details of left/right/twice/four times are obvious intuitively. She does not see why her monoglot BF can not also hear this as easily.

And I am working through a rewatch of The Wire right now. The second season deals with smuggling and human trafficking; at one point Pryzbylewski, arguably the street cop with the most academic education, is sent around to a strip club to see if the girls working there are Russians. He comes back defeated, saying something to the effect that they speak some weird language and he has no idea what it is. I just about yelled at the TV: "Dude! It is two words and you could learn them phonetically: GAVAREETEE PAHRUSSKEE. Your accent will be crap but it means 'Do you speak Russian?' and if they answer 'Da,' there is your case."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:58 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's important to remember how many native speakers are not able to flawlessly speak the prestige dialect of their own language.

I did remember, which is why the very next sentence I wrote was, "I think that it what fluency means to a lot of people, but I do not think that it what it actually is."
posted by Tanizaki at 10:40 AM on August 23, 2013


I think that it what fluency means to a lot of people, but I do not think that it what it actually is.

You might be surprised. I remember some research that stunned me. You know how they claim Japan has the highest literacy rate in the world, some people claim 100%. But there are specific levels of fluency that is assumed of any high school graduate, like for example knowing the jouyou kanji, all ~2100 of them. But when they actually tested how many adults were really at that level, it was under 10%.

I didn't realize the impact of this until one day I was at a meeting and a young adult woman was reading a newspaper article aloud. She stumbled and couldn't read the kanji about every couple of sentences. There was an older woman reading over her shoulder, prompting her with the kanji she couldn't read. This was a huge relief to me as a student, seeing native speakers that had as much difficulty reading as I did.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:22 PM on August 23, 2013


Speaking a non-native language involves two separate but interrelated sets of skills: accuracy and fluency. Though people commonly use 'fluency' to mean highly skilled in general, it's really just a specific set of abilities. In Korea, it's colloquially called 'opening the mal-mun,' the language-door. Although it is more common, at least here in Korea, to meet language learners with adequate accuracy (in terms of things like grammar, word choice, pronunciation and so on) and low fluency, the opposite happens sometimes as well. Usually, of course, if someone is learning a language by actually trying to speak it (not always the case in Asia), accuracy and fluency will improve together.

Fluency tends to be very much psychological, accuracy tends to be more mechanical. But if you hope to become a proficient speaker of a new language, developing both skillsets is necessary.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:27 AM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know how they claim Japan has the highest literacy rate in the world, some people claim 100%. But there are specific levels of fluency that is assumed of any high school graduate, like for example knowing the jouyou kanji, all ~2100 of them. But when they actually tested how many adults were really at that level, it was under 10%.

Yes, this is accurate. Level 2 of the Kanji Kentei, which I plan to sit for next summer, tests reading and writing by hand of all 2,136 Joyo Kanji needed for the high school graduate literacy you speak of. The overall (not first time) pass rate for that exam hovers around 25%, and this is a test for native speakers. The Kanken really pushes Level 2 as being the level to reach to do business, which frankly makes sense because it reflects high school graduate literacy. I'm old enough to remember when the Joyo Kanji list was just 1,945 characters, but frankly most of the ~200 they added in 2010 were characters that everyone was using anyway such as 亀, 阪, and 丼.

On the flip side, check out the success stories at the Kanken website and get your mind blown by the grade-schoolers who have passed Levels 2, 1.5, and 1.

I recommend the Kanji Kentei to all students of Japanese. I think preparing for it is the best tool for learning kanji and acquiring vocabulary. It is obviously easier to take in Japan but can be administered overseas as well.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:36 AM on August 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


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