Why Are The English-Speaking Nations Crap At Foreign Languages?
August 12, 2002 5:07 PM   Subscribe

Why Are The English-Speaking Nations Crap At Foreign Languages? The standard explanation is that they're lazy and arrogant and expect everyone in the world to speak English. Well - surprise, surprise - that's not Philip Hensher's experience and it certainly isn't mine either. So why - or what - is it? [More inside.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (86 comments total)
My English mother, who's lived in Portugal for 50 years, often says it's because everyone wants to speak/practice their English with her, so there's no real chance for her to learn Portuguese. Though she eventually did, as most foreigners do.

In fact, I find the great majority of native English speakers are curious about other languages and make a great effort to learn them (even if it is only the "local lingo") - but just don't get the chances that foreigners who want to learn English do. Or is this just wishful thinking and is the stereotype true after all?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:09 PM on August 12, 2002

America/Canada/Australia/NZ are geographically isolated and Britain and Ireland are islands. (the short answer).
posted by cell divide at 5:12 PM on August 12, 2002

I think the guy has a point. I used to speak perfectly good French (I passed the verbal and written Examen Nationale with fairly high marks,) but it's all gone to mush in my head because every opportunity I had to use it, the person to whom I was speaking would automatically switch to English. The only person who'd actually converse with me in French was my French teacher. C'est la guerre.
posted by headspace at 5:24 PM on August 12, 2002

Yikes, how annoying it must be for the English to have to listen to the German ambassador whine about this. If he wants English-speakers to speak other languages then make us. By this I mean, if it is arrogance then it is an eminently practical arrogance to note that English is pretty damn convenient language to start with. I find people who complain about Americans or any other nationality with any seriousness tedious. Blah, blah, blah, yes we're lazy and arrogant, thank you, I'll just go home and kill myself.

I wish I spoke another language purely for personal fulfillment but it's hard. And I'm pretty certain it's a lot harder for Americans than for Europeans. I took a year of Swedish in college out of sentiment (my Mother is Swedish). It was fun but totally impractical. Swedes speak English only marginally worse than native speakers. (I'm sure that has something to do with the impracticality of making your way in the wider world speaking only Swedish.) Furthermore I don't get back to Sweden much and you don't really encounter it very often here in the States.
posted by Wood at 5:29 PM on August 12, 2002

Doh, XQ... made me "remember" what I was going to say. Spanish should be a common second language for much (if not most) of the US. I grew up in CA but made the mistake of taking French in high school out of romanticism. I think if I had taken Spanish I'd probably still speak it, or at least some approximation because of the enormous number of Spanish speakers I've encountered in different places and times. (My current roommate is a Spanish intepreter, natch.)
posted by Wood at 5:32 PM on August 12, 2002

Germans learn German and English
Frenchies learn French and English
Spaniards learn Spainish and English
Italians learn Italian and English.

Are (Americans/Britons/Aussies/NZers) supposed to learn German and French and Spanish and Italian to not tick off Europe?

I say no! (and in Spanish: ¡NO!)
posted by TacoConsumer at 5:36 PM on August 12, 2002

I've lived for years now in Italy, France, and Spain, and people have been enthusiastic and encouraging about my attempts to speak their language.

The trick is that you have to sincerely want to learn the language and communicate with people, not just show off that you're a sophisticated world traveler. I've seen lots of people trot out their guidebook phrases, and as soon as someone responds in English, they give up. We English speakers do have it easy, and that does makes us lazy.

I know this because I see it in myself. People give me menus in English all the time. In countries where I want to live, I persist, and people try to help me once I manage to communicate that I'm not playing the slumming tourist. Eventually, I get fluent.

But when I really am the slumming tourist on vacation in Greece, or spending a couple of weeks working in Sweden, I abandon my half-hearted attempts to chatter in the local language as soon as I find out (to my relief) that people speak English.

Hensher doesn't actually want to converse in other peoples' languages, he just wants them to acknowledge how well-educated he is.
posted by fuzz at 5:36 PM on August 12, 2002

Regarding the Spanish/American connection: as an aside, because of the harsh Castilian phonetics as well as political and cultural self-centredness (dubbed films, lack of interest for the wide world) the Spaniards are probably the worst foreign-language learners (and pronouncers) in the world. Though South American versions are quite a lot sweeter - Chilean and Argentinian specially so.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:41 PM on August 12, 2002

XQ is exactly right. My friend was in the Spanish immersion program from age five, and now she could pass for a native speaker. Whereas, I started Spanish at 12. I can read and write okay, but am hopeless at oral comprehension and basic conversation.
posted by puffin at 5:42 PM on August 12, 2002

Well... growing up in Denmark, I've been taught English, German and Russian as foreign languages. If I had wanted to, I could have been taught French (in place of German or Russian or in addition to those) and Italian or Spanish. And Latin. All as the standard curriculum of high school.

This might sound impressive, but the truth is, that in anything other than English and Danish, I'm utter crap. Why? Because I don't use them.

It's extremely hard to learn and continue to be good at a foreign language if you haven't got a chance to practice it. It's simple.
posted by cx at 5:53 PM on August 12, 2002

Miguel: Here in Catalunya, things are different. Everyone is bilingual (Castilian Spanish and Catalan), and Barcelona seems to me to be packed with people who speak four or five languages well.

As for pronunciation, the French might take the prize from the Spaniards: even when they speak grammatically perfect English, their accent is appalling.
posted by fuzz at 5:54 PM on August 12, 2002

I think that if you plan to live somewhere, anywhere, you should learn to speak the language of the land.

France: Learn French
Italy: Learn Italian
Japan: Learn English
USA: Learn Spanish

Seriously though. What really bugs me, here in NJ, are the growing number of people who have immigrated to the US, but out and out refuse to learn English. I'm sure people in other countries feel the same. It's just...Rude
posted by lasthrsman at 6:12 PM on August 12, 2002

Are (Americans/Britons/Aussies/NZers) supposed to learn German and French and Spanish and Italian to not tick off Europe?

For Australians/New Zealanders, you can add any number of Asian languages to the mix. The fact is that English is the closest thing we have to a common language worldwide (yes, I know that it is not the most commonly used language), particularly among those who either travel widely or who deal with those in other countries.

Personally, I decided not to learn another language because I couldn't work out which one was more important, when I do business with people from every region of the globe. I settled for learning a few key words (thank you being the most important) from the language used in countries that I visit.

It is true that people often want to practice their English on native speakers - just go to any trade exhibition in Asia and you will find that many of the visitors are there for English practice, often having been sent by their school teacher.
posted by dg at 6:16 PM on August 12, 2002

I don't really see the debate here. Americans don't NEED to speak other languages. 3 years of French in high school is hardly an education in the French language (speaking of my experience). Lord knows, I would LOVE to be able to speak other languages. At 33, I doubt that's going to happen (although I still convince myself that I'm still going to do it one day).

Fact of the matter is, if I traveled to North Carolina, where they spoke a different language (left up to interpretation), or Maryland for another, Kentucky for a third and Tennessee for yet another language... chances are, I would know how to speak more than just English. Europeans got it easy. :o)
posted by Witty at 6:23 PM on August 12, 2002

Hmmm... A question I'd like to see answered is this one:

Isn't it true that foreigners have much less patience (even willingness) to teach English-speakers their own language than they do to learn English?

I mean, learning English is essential; it's opportunistic; it helps your career; it allows you to read 500 times the number of available books, magazines and websites. So it's not a question of sheer politeness or curiosity, as it mostly is with English-speakers who decide to learn a foreign language, mostly (in my experience) because they think they (morally) should.

I suspect there's a sort of inverted exploitation at work. Foreigners conspire to keep English-speakers monolingual (thereby safeguarding the rarity of their own skills) while making every effort to use them to further their own (mainly professional) aims, by co-opting them to help them learn international/American English.

There's probably a morally defensible equilibrium there, but it still makes for a markedly non-international world. Everyone speaking English often means there's a better chance of everyone misunderstanding each other in the same, only apparently shared language...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:37 PM on August 12, 2002

Curiously, neither of my parents taught me their mother tongue, forcing me to learn (and pay for) both German and Inuktitut classes on my own. My German cousin speaks both fluent German and English, yet will only respond to my questions when I pose them in my beginner-level German. He will speak to me in English, but only when I nag him to explain something that was said in German. My experience with the Inuit side is varied, as most are very encouraging and will try to help you to understand while others dismiss you if you don't speak fluent Inuktitut. In most cases, though, the other person will switch into English once they hear my paltry attempts at speaking their language.

cx: I agree. It is difficult to keep maintaining a language, especially when it is not spoken within earshot. The best you can hope for is to, one day, crack the spine on your old language textbook.
posted by KathyK at 6:41 PM on August 12, 2002

Frenchies learn French and English

Not entirely true. Second languages in France are mostly defined by geography. In the south of France, it's almost unheard of to learn English as a second language, where Spanish and Italian are much more popular.

The standard explanation is that they're lazy and arrogant and expect everyone in the world to speak English. Well - surprise, surprise - that's not Philip Hensher's experience and it certainly isn't mine either.

That's definitely my experience. As an Englishman, I can count all of the people I have ever known in this country who can speak French, German or Spanish fluently.. about two out of hundreds.

If you live in England and take your holidays in Spain or take day trips to France, there's no reason to speak anything else. English is spoken in the French hypermarchés, and English is pretty much the mother tongue of most Spanish tourist resorts.

Add to that the fact foreign languages are not taught until the age of 11 or 12 in the UK, and you end up with a bunch of kids who end up knowing 'Bonjour' and a few other phrases, but then forget all about it by the age of 20.

I've studied French on a somewhat constant basis since the age of 11 (and I left school 5 years ago) and I'm still not fluent. I just can't learn it properly. It's hard, because England is a 99% English speaking nation.
posted by wackybrit at 6:48 PM on August 12, 2002

England is a 99% English speaking nation.

Though, like the Castilians and indeed all imperialists, I'll bet more English, living in the U.K. or in so-called Great Britain, know French, Latin or even Greek more than they know Gaelic/Irish, Welsh or Scots. Even though these are the languages of the people the English subjugated.

Perhaps that's why the English (apart from you, wackybrit, and untoward others...), along with the Spaniards, are worse at foreign languages than any other English-speaking (or indeed European) nation.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:03 PM on August 12, 2002

Americans can't speak any European languages (save Spanish) because we have no chance to practice them. I've just finished an immersion class which I took in Germany (equivalent to about two years of study -- I'd say I'm about halfway to fluency), and the only reason it was even practical for me to do so is because I'm a philosophy major, and German is the language of philosophy.

Apart from that -- the REAL reason is, in my opinion, that Germans in particular have got English up the wazoo. It's in their commercials, on their magazine covers, in their movies, and in their colloquial speech. It's the same in Japan. If you're surrounded by a language to such an extent, you'll learn a little naturally and be motivated to study it. (For example, a few years ago I wanted to be able to read Japanese comic books, so I started to learn Japanese. I didn't stick with it, but think about how much larger of an influence English has in Europe than Japanese does here.)

And yes, Germans are EXTREMELY snobby about talking to you in English. My classmates and I knew more than enough German to get around -- and I don't mean that we just knew how to ask for an English menu -- we could ask about ingredients (we were all vegetarians), ask to pay separately, find directions to our hostel, and ask the waiter's opinion of a new movie that just came out. Still, as soon as our accents were detected, they would start speaking English to us. There we were, students who had learned German specifically in order to be able to travel to German and speak to Germans in the way that they requested -- and they wouldn't let us! Most of our conversations were literally bi-lingual -- except that we were speaking German and the German would be speaking English!

So let's see. They import and obsess over our culture, learn our language, complain that we don't learn theirs, and then won't let us speak it? At this point, I think, it's obvious that the problem doesn't solely lay with so-called "Lazy English-speakers", but perhaps just a weensy bit with the Europeans too, hm?
posted by tweebiscuit at 7:04 PM on August 12, 2002

On an interesting side note, there was a recent study (I've lost the link) that found that Germans visiting other countries were considered to be the best travellers. They routinely attempted to speak in the native language, ate the local food, and were the least demanding.

This study also found British travellers to be the worst.
posted by jazzkat11 at 7:15 PM on August 12, 2002

I'm tired of not getting what I actually ordered at McDonald's. In my own neighborhood.
posted by dopamine at 7:17 PM on August 12, 2002

Tweebiscuit - ping! I'm a political philosopher and had to learn German (for reading) too, but when I speak to my brother-in-law or my nephew or niece (my sister married a German, btw the nicest of them all), it's exactly the same. They won't correct me or teach me anything - just revert to English as soon as I'm not perfect. So perhaps English is an unwilling accomplice to the crime of everyone being basically monolingual with English as an almost BabelFish language...

The result being, of course, that so few English-speakers can actually speak and write proper (whether American, Australian or Canadian) English. Apart from the Irish, of course...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:19 PM on August 12, 2002

Everyone speaking English often means there's a better chance of everyone misunderstanding each other in the same, only apparently shared language...

I've been in groups of people who speak English to each other even though I'm the only one there who's a native English speaker. It's interesting to hear two native German speakers disagree in English.

Actually, it's not English, it's a kind of "international English" that's different from American or British English. It's highly simplified, although big words are part of it if they have Latin roots. When I speak it, it feels like a foreign language to me, and I find myself speaking slowly and thinking about my words. It's the modern business Esperanto, and it communicates well if you're conscious of its limits. A lot of the richness of communicating in other languages requires you to understand a lot about the culture as well, and that's what you miss in "international English".
posted by fuzz at 7:26 PM on August 12, 2002

Japan: Learn English

This is a joke, right? About one percent of Japanese can hold a basic conversation in English.
posted by dydecker at 7:27 PM on August 12, 2002

I'm sure its a stupid question, but what exactly is Inuktitut?
posted by black francis at 7:32 PM on August 12, 2002

Though, like the Castilians and indeed all imperialists, I'll bet more English, living in the U.K. or in so-called Great Britain, know French, Latin or even Greek more than they know Gaelic/Irish, Welsh or Scots.

I don't know if this is accurate, but according to the woman I take lessons in the Irish language (decided I needed a change of pace after Latin) from, it's required for all students in the Republic of Ireland to know Irish as well as English.
She's been in the US for at least 20 years, though, so things may have changed since the time she emigrated.
posted by Kellydamnit at 7:35 PM on August 12, 2002

As for pronunciation, the French might take the prize from the Spaniards: even when they speak grammatically perfect English, their accent is appalling.

Well yeh, if by 'appalling' you mean dead sexy
posted by delmoi at 7:39 PM on August 12, 2002

In Japan, speaking incredibly inept Japanese, natives claimed to be very impressed with my command of the language.

But what happens when a Westerner learns the language (and the culture)? Some of my friends have reported that Japanese people feel a little weird about that.

I realize that this thread has been all about European languages, but maybe this has some relevance.

posted by kozad at 7:39 PM on August 12, 2002

Black francis: in case KathyK is absent, here's an answer regarding the Inuit language with an interesting Lego-language analogy.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:44 PM on August 12, 2002

Personally, I hate Spanish. I hate it's sexist prefixing and conjugation. This comes exclusively from my experience two years of classes through high school. Other than a few token phrases, my Spanish is awful.

Yet, I need to take language classes to complete my major.

So, since Spanish is out of the question due to my reluctance to have at it again, I'm edging towards German. Should I be considering a different language? From what I see, German is largely English, with different spelling and sentence structure. Am I wrong in this assumption?
posted by cinematique at 7:56 PM on August 12, 2002

I took 4 years of Spanish in high school and added Spanish as a second major in college, just so I could learn to speak it. And, my girlfriend/partner/etc. of 11 years was born and raised half her life in Venezuela, where her dad's side of the family still lives, so with all the study and real-life practice I've gotten very fluent in Spanish. Comes in very handy living here in Austin TX.

Anyway, I think in some cases there might be another side to this phenomenon people are observing. I noticed the same thing talking with my girlfriend's dad, who is quite fluent in English; even when I'm participating in a group conversation that includes others in the family who don't speak English, he'll sometimes switch to English when he addresses me. And when he and I are speaking alone, he speaks nothing but English. The first thought I had was, hey, I wanna practice my Spanish! But it turns out that, besides just wanting to be polite (his English is probably a hair better than my Spanish), he also wants desperately to keep improving his English. In terms of creating opportunity in life, it really is more important for him to improve his English than it is for me to improve my Spanish. He's considering moving to the U.S., while I'm not considering moving to Venezuela. So I'd feel a bit selfish if I let myself worry about it.

Then again, Venezuelans aren't Germans. In general, most Latin American people I've met are just surprised and impressed that a gringo bothered to learn Spanish. They usually just think it's sort of cool and maybe kind of funny.
posted by boredomjockey at 8:13 PM on August 12, 2002

I will absolutely substantiate what kozad is saying.

My Japanese is wretched, rudimentary, and yet whenever I trot out the odd "Stop the cab here," or the like, people fawn..."Nihongo ga jyozu desu ne?"/ "Ne?" ("Adam's Japanese is so goooood, isn't it?"/"Totally.")

OTOH, let a gaijin who's been here a long time and/or really put serious effort into learning the intricacies of Japanese will find themselves excoriated for minor errors, and treated as if they're acting in something other than good faith.

Part of this is doubtless due to the dynamics of Japanese pedagogy. Some of it, though, is just xenophobia.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:24 PM on August 12, 2002

Germans are perfectly happy to talk German with me, but make the very reasonable inquiry as to whether I have any marketable skills other than the ability to speak ...

Unfortunately, in the US, it's not all that straightforward how to make a second language part of your career path. Unless, of course, you aspire to re-locate cross country for a bilingual administrative assistant position that pays $10 or $15 / hr. The work I'm finding out there for bilingual Americans right now is: low-paid jobs working with tourists, immigrant populations, or social services, high school language teaching, computational linguistics, medical professions, high-level technical or legal translation, and scientific research / academic professorships. (Note that in order to move past the low paid potions, most jobs require skills or certifications that are not part of a college language major.)

The average American assumes that anyone with BA in a foreign language can simply step right into a job as a simultaneous interpreter at the UN, and will suggest this to you in all seriousness on a regular basis! Pay for official certification, and study for a few years to become a court interpreter? You're kidding, why can't you just walk in there and tell everybody what the guy said. After discovering that the UN doesn't have a job for you this week, they propose in all seriousness that you ought to be an Ambassador or something, and support yourself by teaching an adult education class 3 days a week / interpreting at the local emergency room in the event an accident victim shows up ....

My guess is that the best bet is to learn a language as a kid, get a career, and figure that you'll probably end up having to learn some other language instead of the one you grew up with.
posted by sheauga at 8:31 PM on August 12, 2002

Germans visiting other countries were considered to be the best travellers.

I just read an article, but I can't remember where, that said the exact opposite. That Germans are rude, demand their kraut, make fun of the local beer and all kinds of other nasty things... so I'm guessing it's impoosible to categorize a group of people based on a few experiences by the author of an article.

Oh and about the Japanese thing. I recently got my hands on a Japanese magazine (Boys Rush), which apparently is 99.9% ads. The Japanese are not only really facinated with things American (t-shirts that say "New York Fucking City" and "Turn The Sound Up") but also are into "used" things. Really curious and if anyone with insight to Japanese culture can add to this, but I noticed a ton of things that not only look used but had "Used Levi Jeans" in big letters above it. I mean I get stonewashed jeans, but these looked used... actually used -- I can only hope they weren't.
posted by geoff. at 8:35 PM on August 12, 2002

There's no incentive. If you know English, and everybody else knows English, why waste your time? In every country I've ever been to in my entire life I've always found people who speak and want to speak English. Add to that what sheauga just said, and there's not even an economic incentive to do so. That leaves learning a language in the course of a relationship, to get by as an immigrant (then you have loads of incentives) or intellectualism.

Anyway, I'm sure everybody said a couple hundred years ago the French were arrogant because they wouldn't learn any other languages. Yet, everybody spoke French.
posted by raaka at 8:55 PM on August 12, 2002

Adam, I can speak Japanese and people don't seem to be too finicky about mistakes etc. If anything, most Japanese are relieved when they find out foriegners can speak Japanese (bar the occasional English bandit). And once you get to a certain level laziness kicks in and it's very hard to get friends to speak English at all.

Problems occur with strangers who expect not to understand, or have never talked to foriegners (mind you, I've been thinking recently that many of these people have that peculiar Japanese trait of being nervous about talking to anyone outside their own circle).
posted by dydecker at 9:27 PM on August 12, 2002

From personal experience as someone who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, anyone non-Asian that speaks fluent Mandarin draws enough curious stares to rival a freak show. I nominate Asians (or at least my parents' friends) for the most xenophobic people ever.

cinamatique: I would be careful about making that assumption. English is a Germanic language, which might make German easier for you to learn than Spanish, but like any other language, it will come with its unique challenges. And German words have genders too.

I'm with you on the insanity of Spanish conjugation though, ugh. I'll take Chinese grammar, thank you. One tense, that's all.
posted by ligeia at 9:38 PM on August 12, 2002

Germans visiting other countries were considered to be the best travellers.

yeah, by the sandal and black sock lobby.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:38 PM on August 12, 2002

I find it sad that people tend to think mainly about their career when it comes to learning languages. What about just learning a language for fun?

I learned French in high school, and although you wouldn't think that you'd need it being from New Zealand, there are a bunch of French colonies in the South Pacific. My French class went to New Caledonia for a week when I was 15.

In high school, we also had the chance to learn German, Japanese and Maori. Personally, I wish I'd learned Maori because it really pisses me off that I know a few words here and there of New Zealand's second national language. Depending on where you went to school, you could have also chosen to learn Spanish, Latin, Italian, and a bunch of Asian languages. I guess it's also because Kiwis are travellers at heart, and most people travel for a year or two after they finish university.

Anyway, kind of related to that article: I've found that Americans tend to get really pissed off if you don't speak with an American accent. When I go out and have to talk to people, say at a restaurant or store, and I'm not alone, if the person can't understand me they won't ask me to repeat what I say. They'll just ask whomever I'm standing with what I said. It really fucks me off. Not only because it's totally fucking rude, but because ENGLISH IS MY FIRST LANGUAGE.
posted by animoller at 9:53 PM on August 12, 2002

When I was an English teacher in Taiwan, I took an evening class to learn Chinese. My classmates were Japanese, Koreans, Spanish, Thai, German, Indian, and ethnic Chinese kids who grew up in the Phillipines or Indonesia.... and outside of class, we all spoke to each other in English. Learning English isn't just about communicating with native English speakers; it's about being able to communicate with foreigners all over the world.

What's shameful about native English speakers' apathy toward foreign languages is that learning a language isn't just about being able to speak. It also means learning a culture, a different outlook on life. For native English speakers, that's the real value we lose from not learning foreign languages.
posted by Loudmax at 9:57 PM on August 12, 2002

animoller: You said, "...fucks me off". I think I like that and shall incorporate it into my current swath of foul terms and phrases. Hehe!

I agree that one of the major losses in not learning a foreign language is the exposure to another culture. (Still kicking myself for not knowing anything beyond English). But I think you would have to agree that learning another language isn't easy... at least for the majority. It takes a lot of work, study, and practice. Hell, if I could do that, I'd be a mechanic, a painter, and a botanist by now.
posted by Witty at 10:08 PM on August 12, 2002

Hmmmm, I just make sure I've got subtitles. (oh wait, this isn't a movie, is it?)
posted by kayjay at 10:13 PM on August 12, 2002

Animoller: and just think--in a few years, you'll get even worse shit when you turn up in Wellington with your new American accent.
posted by dydecker at 10:20 PM on August 12, 2002

From what I see, German is largely English, with different spelling and sentence structure.

Völliger Blödsinn.
posted by muckster at 10:31 PM on August 12, 2002

First post, so please be gentle....

Native English speaker here...also American, seems to be two strikes against me in this thread already.


I am currently teaching English for one of the larger language schools in Japan, and studying Japanese at the same time. My Japanese sucks, but not only am I making slow progress, I am learning about the "beast" that is the Japanese psyche, the culture, and have a clear understanding of the difficulty of learning a second language at a later age. I am a better teacher because of my own study.

Some things that are apparent from the thread so far:

1) By default, English is becoming the language of global communication. Numerous companies here in Japan, as well as elsewhere, are adopting English as their primary or official language for business purposes. Even many in partnership with companies in France, Germany, etc.

2) Each culture and society brings its own prejudices, history and misinformation to human relationships and therefore to language and its acquisition.

3) English, for all the criticism of its complexity, etc., is one of the most rich and varied languages. This undoubtedly comes from its roots in so many other languages, and its ability to readily absorb from other cultures and create words from whole-cloth. Every time I hear my Japanese wife say "The clock is fall off the bed" I thank my lucky stars for the ability English gives a speaker to express so many points of view and tenses.

I also took Spanish for a year in college to fill my requirements as well. My oldest son took three years of German in HS and my youngest two years of Spanish.

I am slow at languages...I am slow at memorization (dramatic experience there)...I can't even remember phone numbers! I am simply a bad at acquiring language. But lazy I ain't!

As Bartels and James would say "Thanks for your support."
posted by charms55 at 11:45 PM on August 12, 2002

I'm tired of not getting what I actually ordered at McDonald's. In my own neighborhood.

El Big Mac.
posted by owillis at 11:52 PM on August 12, 2002

Völliger Blödsinn. = Complete Bullshit? :D
posted by cinematique at 12:38 AM on August 13, 2002

while in france, i remember asking for english menus in french (i am canadian) and getting quizzical looks since i was able to ask without much of an accent.

so, yeah, i'm lazy. i could've deciphered the french menu with a little effort, but i was with my mom and woulda had to have translated the whole thing for her.

and french is my third language anyways.
(point? no point, just that there are circumstances that i feel excuse laziness)
posted by juv3nal at 12:50 AM on August 13, 2002

Personally, I hate Spanish. I hate it's sexist prefixing and conjugation.

it was my understanding that the gender of words within the romance languages has less to do with sexism (some words that refer to very masculine things have feminine articles, and vice versa), than it has to do with it's root language, latin.

And if it sexist, it's greatest injustice is that modern romance languages have left out the third gender from the original latin: neuter. Not unlike the poor, forgotten ophiuchus constellation by modern day astrologers, the neuter gender has been edged out by an elitist society.

They have rights too!
posted by jazzkat11 at 1:07 AM on August 13, 2002

Miguel: I'll bet more English, living in the U.K. or in so-called Great Britain, know French, Latin or even Greek more than they know Gaelic/Irish, Welsh or Scots.

The proportion of monoglot incomers to Wales who successfully learn Welsh is something less than 1%. The continued existence of natural Welsh speaking communities is under threat (anecdotal evidence -- in the absense of census results, which will be just as depressing). The dismissive attitude (and just downright ignorance) of the English media towards Welsh language culture was brilliantly illustrated last week by the "pagan Archbishop" story, and this doesn't help. A woman moved into our village recently without realising that she wouldn't be able to find work as a primary school teacher in Ceredigion without being able to speak Welsh.

There are two sides to this story, of course, and Welsh speakers are far too ready to turn to English, even when incomers are making the effort to learn Welsh. There are no monoglot Welsh speakers (other than infants) and very few bolshy enough to pretend to be.
posted by ceiriog at 2:35 AM on August 13, 2002

Interestingly German has the neuter gender (in a strategy sort of derived from German I tend to use "they" as a neuter third-person singular instead of "he" or "she" or "s/he". It fulfills the same function as "s/he" but is a lot less showy. Anyway, that's a completely different thread).

I wish I had the brain that could absorb French - French movies and songs (especially Brel, who I love) really don't translate that well as it's a language with a lot of naturally-occurring rhyme and assonance (all those -er verb endings for example). Perhaps I might understand Derrida in his original language. Probably not, though.

I'd also like to pick up a bit of Portugese - the same reason except with Bossa Nova.

A lot of really bad lyrics have been committed in the name of translating into English (although I understand that Aguas de Marco is that bonkers in the original as well).

A question for the polylinguists here - to what extent do you think that the demands of the first language dictate the way in which people think and see the world?
posted by Grangousier at 2:47 AM on August 13, 2002

Ceiriog, you paint a simplistic picture. A lot of the hostility towards the Welsh language comes from the Welsh themselves. The native Welsh speaker that I live with says that the country is split along geographical and class lines with regards to language and that one groups is very hostile towards the other. He also suggests that the low turnout for the vote for the National Assembley in Wales was also due to this tension.

When you add the fact that Welsh is an incredibly difficult language for an adult English speaker to learn, both in terms of structure and pronounciation, plus the fact English people aren't exactly loved or encouraged in Welsh-speaking areas, is it any wonder monoglot English speakers find it hard to learn the native language? The fact that much of the media, TV, papers, radio etc, is in English doesn't help either. It's not the same as going somewhere like France or Germany where you learn the native language or die.
posted by Summer at 4:40 AM on August 13, 2002

ligeia: And German words have genders too.

Not to mention sixteen variations of the word 'the'.... (and yes, I know that some of them look and sound the same, but linguistically, they're different words).
posted by jonpollard at 5:02 AM on August 13, 2002

At various points on my travels over the years I've wished that I could speak (or at least read) Afrikaans, Cantonese, Catalan, Dutch, Fijian, Flemish, French, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, German, Greek, Hawai'ian, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Malagasy, Malay, Maori, Scots, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Tongan, Welsh, Zulu, and a few Aboriginal Australian and Native American languages.

My failure to learn any of them (beyond the level of a basic tourist vocabulary in about half, and slightly better than that in French) wasn't down to 'native English speaker apathy', it was from being torn in so many different directions. I'd love to be able to speak German, for example, but am not willing to spend years learning it for the sake of another couple of visits to German-speaking areas.

Sure, it'd be great if my country had taught languages earlier than age 12 when I was in school; but even if it had, it would have been impossible to predict which ones would be the most useful. The popular languages in Australian schools in 1980 were French and German (in my school you had to choose one or the other) - this, for kids who lived halfway around the world from Europe, who were more likely to know migrant Italian or Greek or Vietnamese speakers. Later the focus switched to Indonesian and Japanese, but even though they're our 'neighbours' they're still an eight or ten hour flight from Sydney or Melbourne.

And those languages wouldn't actually have been the most useful for me. The ones I've most wished I could speak have been Fijian, Tongan and Malagasy, because there's a lot said and written in them that never gets translated. Hmm, I wonder if they'll introduce Malagasy in the first grade curriculum back home...

So, sure, teach kids another language in early childhood by all means, because in learning another language they learn that not everyone looks at the world the way English-speakers do, that the language we speak frames the way we think, and so on. And sure, someone who moves to a non-English-speaking country would do well to learn the local language. But to suggest that random English-speaker X is apathetic, lazy, or arrogant because they don't speak particular language Y is pretty dubious.
posted by rory at 5:05 AM on August 13, 2002

to what extent do you think that the demands of the first language dictate the way in which people think and see the world?

I don't think language determines your thought. I'm more of a cultural determinist. When you go native in another culture, you start to realize how much your own culture limits your ways of seeing the world.

Language is just a reflection of the culture, and learning it is a way to understand a culture's ways of thinking. I had a lot of fun in France discovering words that exist in one language and not in the other. The French have no word for "dating" -- American mating rituals seem baroque and alien to them. On the other hand, they have a rich vocabulary for bureaucracy that you had better master if you want to avoid huge problems with office politics.

On a more basic level, in France if you say something is "not bad", that's high praise. Gushing enthusiasm is uncool over there. After a few years in France, I got into trouble once with an American friend when I told him I thought his art was "not bad". He thought I was being lukewarm.
posted by fuzz at 5:19 AM on August 13, 2002

I've lived in Austria for the last 2 years. I've never taken a class in German, and to be honest, my German sucks. I can read the newspaper, function in business meetings (listening, not speaking), and interpret most of the German conversations I hear - but I can't speak it well at all.

Everyone here speaks English, especially in the <30 group, with whom I socialize. My coworkers speak English; most of our customers speak English; the bartenders speak English; the cab drivers speak English; my girlfriend speaks excellent English. My best bet, when I want to practice my German, is to visit small border towns in the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary. In these towns, German is often the second language, and it is possible for me to find people with whom I can communicate only in German.

In the respect that it makes it more difficult for me to learn a foreign language, I hate that everyone speaks English. In other respects, it's not a bad thing. It's nice to be able to sit down to dinner in China with a group that includes Germans, French and Chinese, and have everyone (nominally) understand everyone else.

My biggest fear is that I'm losing my facility with the English language and not replacing it with any facility (worth mentioning) with some other language.
posted by syzygy at 5:35 AM on August 13, 2002

Its pretty simple in some regards--If Americans want to learn a foreign language, they need to start studying it at age two or three, with native (or at least excellent) speakers of the language. Continue this through high school, and you'll have fluent speakers with manageable accents.

The other way to learn well is to have parents who teach you their native language besided English, or to immerse yourself in a language abroad for a year or two, preferrably at a younger age. But the first method works the best. It requires a lot of teaching infrastructure and hard work though.
posted by 4midori at 5:46 AM on August 13, 2002

I was curious about how common the Irish language is, so I did some hunting around. BBC Northern Ireland has a page, and some programming, in Irish. A general information page lists where it is commonly spoken, sometimes as the community language. So, it is apparently surviving, at least enough to be the primary language in some areas.

One thing I recalled from the cassette tapes that came with my textbook was interesting. The recordings were made by people from different areas, and regional variations were common, in some cases quite obvious.
posted by Kellydamnit at 6:00 AM on August 13, 2002

While I certainly acknowledge that it is difficult to maintain a foreign language if you are not surrounded by it, it is not impossible. And you can thank the Internet.

While less common languages may have a difficulty, I maintain my French as best I can by listening to Radio France International as often as possible (helped by the fact that it is also broadcast at night on FM here in New York City, but just as often via streaming RealAudio or WindowsMedia), reading the French newspapers, reading French books, and communicating in French with friends and professional acquaintances via email, including starting and administering a French email list related to Mac OS X. True, there's no audible conversation taking place, but I have not, as others here seem to have done, thrown up my hands in despair. Let me sound like an infomercial: It works! Just a few minutes a day! Read the newspapers! Listen to the audio! Make Internet email friends! Joine a foreign-language email list! It does help. It really does. Listening to a foreign language solidifies grammar, vocabulary and accent; keeps you engaged in and familiar with the issues and news relevant to that market; and enhances your understanding of foreign perspectives on American events.

To start you off, here is a great site for finding streaming radio: Radio-Locator. Many streams *will* work over dial-up; I've done it many times myself. However, if streaming doesn't work for you, many stations also offer programming available for file download, including the US-government sponsored radio outlet The Voice of America, which offers downloadable foreign language programming in about 50 languages, in RealAudio format. (Don't start whining: It's not that bad. It does work, even in beta on OS X). The BBC offers programming in 43 languages.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:45 AM on August 13, 2002

It is possible to learn about a culture, be sensitive to it, and operate efficiently within it without knowing the language. Just because Americans are not known for being able to speak other languages, it is a bad assumption to make that they are ignorant of other cultures.

I think I'm pretty good at taking into account the various cultural differences, from closeness of talking to taboos of drawing attention to sneezes. However, I'm horribly lacking in beign able to speak other languages, although I do try when warranted.

See, for those of us who are first or second generation American (or even third), many of the immigrants that came to the States (ok, the New York area) came to be Americans. My mother, first generation, was brought up on Spanish, since her parents were more comfortable talking in spanish than English. But I think that when my siblings and I were born, there was this period in the 60's and 70's where it didn't seem important, or even that trying to teach us Spanish at home may hold us up learning English properly, or fitting in as 'Americans.'

Of course, everyone recognizes now how important it is to be able to speak at least one other language, but I'm out of sorts on how to teach my kids a language I don't even know.
posted by rich at 7:00 AM on August 13, 2002

All the anecdotes in this thread and decades of sociolinguistic research say one thing: The only way you're going to gain native-like fluency in a language post-puberty is out of necessity and total immersion. (Children acquire language(s), in other words, it's effortless for them.) Effort from the adult learner helps, but doing it for fun or cultural enrichment or because your school requires two years of classes -- or even because your government passes laws that says you have to speak a certain language -- isn't going to cut it. That doesn't mean it's useless to try, of course.
posted by kmel at 7:17 AM on August 13, 2002

P.S. I hope one little verb agreement problem doesn't undermine my whole argument.
posted by kmel at 7:30 AM on August 13, 2002

Over the course of my life, I've learned Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, German--to widely varying degrees of fluency. After 8 years of Latin and English as a native language, all of them came fairly easily, but the biggest problem was the inability to practice it. Outside of Latin (which I took in school), I was only able to practice Spanish because I worked in a restaurant in Texas and German because I had a German girlfriend who didn't speak English. When you live in America there just isn't enough ability to immerse in anything other than English.

Now I've been in Hungary for 4 months and have been learning Hungarian. In some ways, it's a very simple language—compact, efficient and few exceptions. On the other hand, each syllable counts (hence, there is no room for error) and the words look absolutely nothing like their english cognates so it's a real bitch.

The point is though, because of immersion, my fluency in Hungarian is probably better than my French, Italian and Spanish. If you don't use it, the mind can't retain knowledge.
posted by fooljay at 7:38 AM on August 13, 2002

Personally, I'd like to learn Basque.

I studied Irish/Gaelic in college, and it's quite an interesting language, with a large body of really good literature and especially poetry, but it's slowly (sadly) dying. As kmel says, even because your government passes laws that says you have to speak a certain language -- isn't going to cut it. The Irish government forces children to learn in school, but most don't bother to actually try, and even after they have learned it, they never use it and forget it. Most people (say, 28 y/o and older) have said that they really regret not learning it. The only place it's actually used is in the Gaeltachts, sort of rural language preserves, mostly on the North and West coasts of the island.

Also, and forgive my long-winded response, I spent a good part of this summer in France on an excavation, and the group was entirely French. I spoke very little (Bonjour!) French going in, and they spoke some English. They almost insisted that they speak English to me, because they wanted to learn, but they also asked what I'd prefer. We worked it out that we'd speak French exclusively most of the time, and they'd translate when I didn't understand; sometimes, we'd speak English as well (mostly when we were drinking). It worked well; I love the French language and I can speak more of it now than I remember of four years of high school German.
posted by The Michael The at 7:43 AM on August 13, 2002

Cinematique, I do hope you're joking about "sexist" Spanish--let's not dismiss all Romance languages, and all other languages with gendered pronouns, in one callous comment. Please.

As to the interesting question of whether language influences or "determines" ways of thinking, I would say that language is an important reflection of the way the speakers of that language tend to think (note all the hedge words). As some European countries absorb American influence, they borrow English words--it's interesting to see what concepts are relatively new to a language. In Italy, my own area of expertise, you see words like "lo stress," "il marketing, "la privacy," because Italians don't have words reflecting those precise concepts.

And I have to disagree with 4midori--it's perhaps best to learn in the way you describe, but it's not the only way to learn well--with lots of practice I learned Italian well enough in college to work for and translate for the Italian gov't (after studying French in high school).
posted by lackutrol at 7:52 AM on August 13, 2002

The Michael The, it's true that such governmental meddling can have the opposite effect than what's intended, and that's the case with Irish. I lived there for a year and found a rather even split between young adults who cherished the language and put a lot of effort into learning and preserving it and those who associated it with backwardsness and useless sentimentality. Even if Irish is free of negative associations AND taught to children on a widespread basis AND used outside of school, it's going to be a herculean task to get it on equal ground with English. The damage is done, really.

I think that Hebrew is the only language that has successfully been brought back from the dead, but the circumstances were quite different.
posted by kmel at 8:03 AM on August 13, 2002

There's no incentive. If you know English, and everybody else knows English, why waste your time? In every country I've ever been to in my entire life I've always found people who speak and want to speak English.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Philippines who can't speak at least a smattering of English. That said, while you could easily live here without learning the language (Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilonggo, etc depending on the region), you'd be cutting yourself out of a whole lot of things that'd help you understand Filipino culture -- tv, movies, music, literature, jokes, etc. I think living somewhere and not making an effort to get to know the people and culture you're staying with is short-sighted at best, and at worst, rude.
posted by lia at 9:29 AM on August 13, 2002

lackutrol: ...with lots of practice I learned Italian well enough in college to work for and translate for the Italian gov't...

Please tell me you weren't responsible for this. I'm teasing, of course; it's just that the Italian government provides me with a daily source of entertainment. Come to think of it, any government for that matter....I digress.

rich: It is possible to learn about a culture, be sensitive to it, and operate efficiently within it without knowing the language.

As an American living in Rome and generally working in the tourist industry for the past 4 years, I have to respectfully disagree with you, Rich. Without knowing the language, you can learn about and be sensitive to the culture to a degree, but you are missing out on subtle nuances and flavour, much like a four course haute cuisine meal without the wine. Or sex without foreplay. As for operating efficiently, well, that depends on the operation itself. The needs of, say, a tourist, an ex-pat, and a businessman operating in an international area are all obviously very different, but I believe that efficiency would be enhanced by at least an honest attempt at learning and using the local lingo, even if they end up replying to you in English.

And, on preview, what lia said.
posted by romakimmy at 9:39 AM on August 13, 2002

I'm impressed that no one has referred to the snobbery of the French about speaking their language. (Sorry if I missed a comment that did.) I'm competent, if not fluent in French, and my appearance makes my nationality difficult to guess. When traveling in France, as long as I spoke only French, people assumed that I was a native and responded in the national language. However, if I then spoke in unaccented American English to my Asian-American boyfriend, any further French from me was ignored. I actually had a waiter remove my French menu and give me an English one instead. People got angry, as if I had been trying to fool them.

On a different note ...
As far as language acquisition is concerned, the current idea in the field is that the part of your brain that learns language rapidly starts to shut itself down in your teens ( the linguistic critical period). Kids who learn a second language "relearn" it better as adults after years without practice than other adults who start from scratch later on.

Learning a language as an adult is more difficult (the theory goes) because first of all, you have less access to that part of your brain. However, it's also because most adults try to learn language through artificial exercises and straight memorization. Immersion type learning may work better because it's a more "natural" form of language acquisition that forces you to learn the way you did when you were a child.
posted by synapse at 10:01 AM on August 13, 2002

What a great threadâ??thank you for starting it, Miguel, and especially thank you for pointing me to that excellent and compendious description of Inuktitut!
posted by languagehat at 10:25 AM on August 13, 2002

Referring to my snide comment from way earlier... yes, cinamatique, that's about right. In the end, every language is like every other language except for the lexicon, syntax, grammar, and pronunciation-- but that's like saying baseball is like soccer, but with different rules, a different ball, a different field, and without the exchanging of sweaty shirts.
posted by muckster at 10:26 AM on August 13, 2002

D'oh! That does it -- from now on I'm using double hyphens, I don't care how crappy it looks!
posted by languagehat at 10:26 AM on August 13, 2002

Romakimmy, that's pretty good, I like how they translate La Bocconi as "Mouthfuls of Milan." I think there's a joke in there somewhere. Looks to me like someone was using babelfish.

Synapse, that sounds like a terrible experience, but I personally never had a similar one. The French were tolerant of my (decent, but not terrific) French. But the Italians were exceptionally gracious--with just one exception, they were thrilled that I had taken the time and energy to learn the language, and would always help me out if I was stuck on a word or something.
posted by lackutrol at 10:37 AM on August 13, 2002

I actually had a waiter remove my French menu and give me an English one instead.

Its not uncommon in France (and maybe elsewhere) to print English versions of the menu that have higher prices than the French ones... I noticed this twice when I did a group trip three years ago (coincidentally, I also had a cashier attempt to treat my $100 traveler's check as $50 when giving me change, hoping I wouldn't notice).
posted by gsteff at 10:47 AM on August 13, 2002

Summer: Ceiriog, you paint a simplistic picture. A lot of the hostility towards the Welsh language comes from the Welsh themselves.

Where did I mention English people? I talked about the English media, which accounts for most of the media intake of Wales, amongst monoglots and bilinguals. My girlfriend is English and fluent in Welsh, my parents are Welsh and have never shown any interest in the language.

Welsh is an incredibly difficult language for an adult English speaker to learn...

Is this true? I suspect the main (practical) difficulty facing the average English person trying to learn Welsh is that they're monoglots, not that they're English. The pronounciation is strange at first, but it's (mostly) consistent - far more so than English - and even my slower students get the hang of that quite quickly.

It's far more difficult to overcome the less practical difficulties, the social attitudes you mention, and the entrenched attitudes of native speakers who're too ready to turn to English. Attitude is everything, as lots of people have already pointed out.

It's not the same as going somewhere like France or Germany where you learn the native language or die.

Ever been to Tregaron?

You're right of course, but the reason we're having this discussion is that French and German are starting to face the same problems that Welsh has had to deal with for over a hundred years.
posted by ceiriog at 10:54 AM on August 13, 2002

On my travels to Paris, I have not noticed any snobbery towards my pidgeon trying-to-remember-from-high-school French. They were quite helpful in correcting my pronunciation (my high school French teacher had an heavy Texas accent. Heh.)

As far as the tourist scam of higher prices in English, I ran across that in Cairo. As arabic numbers are easy to memorize, one restaurant had written the prices in arabic in word form (i.e. sixty-five). Little did they know my travel companion read and spoke Arabic. Now *that* was a fun argument when the bill was presented...

lackutrol, I've found the Italians at times *too* gracious. I've found that very little correction will be given if they understand your gist and don't know you all that well, possibly due to the never-ending politeness towards strangers. When first beginning to learn the language, if I did not have enough small bills in the till to give back change, I would (as I did back in the States) ask if they had something smaller, literally translated. Lei ha qualcosa piu piccolo? I'd been saying this for, oh, about 6 months before my boyfriend at the time overheard me and was shocked at what I was inadvertently implying. Turns out I had been asking every male client if they had, uh, a smaller member.
posted by romakimmy at 11:11 AM on August 13, 2002

I think learning languages in the end sometimes comes down to this or this.

I certainly don't think that immigrants don't want to learn, more like overwhelmed while trying to.

I arrived in France at the tender age of 12 and spent three years there. I still sound like an American despite all the poorly dubbed American TV shows I watched. My experience was that the French were happy that I was trying to learn and speak French. All I could do was try...

My mother lived there for 10 years and considers it a great achievement to sound like a Swede speaking French.
posted by ericableu at 11:16 AM on August 13, 2002

"I do hope you're joking about "sexist" Spanish--let's not dismiss all Romance languages, and all other languages with gendered pronouns, in one callous comment. Please." - lackutrol

I wasn't really joking. Keep in mind, I only took Spanish in high school, and have no other (modestly deep) foreign language exposure. Don't get me wrong, though... English has its own fair share of silliness. There, their, they're... your, you're... et cetera.

"Referring to my snide comment from way earlier... yes, cinamatique, that's about right. In the end, every language is like every other language except for the lexicon, syntax, grammar, and pronunciation-- but that's like saying baseball is like soccer, but with different rules, a different ball, a different field, and without the exchanging of sweaty shirts." - Muckster

My point was, from what I can tell, it is (somewhat) easy to understand something German if you listen carefully or read it... not that English & German are the same sport.

Cut me some slack! :(
posted by cinematique at 2:59 PM on August 13, 2002

I studied German for a few years (high school and college requirements) before I lived there for a few more. Upon arrival, I was pretty competent language-wise for an American, but found out quickly that wasn't saying much. There is just not a lot of call for conversations about zoo animals, a mainstay chapter in the lesson books, although I was really good at those. There are never lessons about how to describe failing transmissions, leaking water pipes, or beer ordering, and that's the kind of stuff I needed. I also found out quickly that all the der, die, and dasses that I had been memorizing (because even though it's called gender, there's no rhyme or reason) really weren't so necessary since I never had to write grammatically correct German. All the locals just shortened it to "de" anyway. "De auto ist kaput," said I, with no hope of richly explaining the funky noises and grinding I was experiencing. The "de" thing ironically made me, after 3+ years of real German immersion and fluency, a much lazier speaker.
Now 10 years of no practice later, I'm back to zoo animal fluency. Although I can order a beer properly (and use the right fingers, actually thumb) and I know what a Spargelfest is. And I think it's "das Auto"...
posted by dness2 at 5:48 PM on August 13, 2002

I realize this thread's sell-by date is probably almost expired...so it's probably best that I'm posting this now. I actually wanted to take a moment to whine about how little ENGLISH native english speaking Americans know :(

I have come to the realization that my vocabulary is somewhat better (it's hard to tell how much sometimes) than many other Americans I work with. These are people who learned english as a first language, and have never learned another language.

It is very flattering that everyone in my department (all college educated people) called me to find out what the word "deleterious" meant (even the VP!) when I used it in a specification document. Also flattering are the hints that at least some of them consider me "very smart" due, in part, to my vocabulary. Yet it is also very annoying to be constantly afraid that I'm using words other people a) don't understand, and/or b) are too embarrassed at not knowing to tell me straight off that they don't understand me. I frequently get a nagging feeling that I've just left someone cross-eyed, even though I'm just speaking the language as it enters my mind.

I don't want to sound like a show-off. I would rather others simply told me straight off to use more common terms than to walk away confused.

All at the same time...I don't consider myself an exceptional speaker of the english language. I simply read a lot when I was younger, and do enjoy using the only language I've got...and have a hard time understanding why, if indeed it is the case at all, my facility with english is uncommon.

There. Hopefully I didn't come across as TOO snotty and whiny...besides...it's the end of this thread and probably no one will read this anyway ;)
posted by ruggles at 7:44 PM on August 13, 2002

Tips for self-study

The fastest tapes for memorizing your first words in a new language are the Language 30 series, because each new word is spoken twice. If you decide to continue with tapes, pick the ones with the most interesting words, and if possible, a musical background.

I'm pretty impressed with The Rosetta Stone CD-ROM course for initial memorization, pronunciation, and basic phrases. So are NASA and the State Department. It's the same natural approach of "see and speak" that you had as a child, with a well-thought out selection of phrases. You can also compare your accent with a native speaker's voiceprint. The sampler pack is about $50 and gives you a slew of languages to try out. I was surprised to discover that some of the relatively unknown languages are actually a lot easier to hear and memorize.

If you really want to talk, let the academic approach wait till later on, and focus on conversationally oriented material instead, like the BBC Suenos series in Spanish.

It also helps to stick to stuff you really want to read, no matter what it is. Non-studious people I know have gotten good results learning a second language by reading easy murder mysteries, since you can't put them down, or the illustrated "Einstein for Beginners" series books on their favorite topics. Listening to the news a second time every day in the other language also works, because you already know enough about what they're saying to start recognizing words.

If you're new to learning languages, you might check out How to Learn a Foreign Language by Graham Fuller.
posted by sheauga at 11:31 PM on August 13, 2002

I studied French in Jr. High, which means exactly nothing now (that and a quarter will get you a hunk of previously chewed bubble gum). But in my noble college years (not so very long ago) I went to the West Bank to study Arabic. I was there for a couple of months studying under incredibly complex conditions (bombings, closures, a war of attrition, the like) but dutifully went every day. I came away with a little bit of all of the experiences previously recounted: People wanting to speak English; people realizing that we were going to stand around all day not saying anything if we persisted in plodding along in my very limited Arabic; my sheepishness that I was so bad at it; and the overwhelming experience of being in an international program where everyone spoke better English than most of my friends back home. Germans, French, Swiss, Arabs--they all knew English!

The first few weeks were spent struggling through my pathetic grammar books; the last few weeks were spent glancing at the grammar books just to get the lesson done and then drinking contraband wine in Hebron and speaking English with my new friends. It wasn't until my last night there when this Palestinian, who hardly spoke at all, looked me square in the eye and said, "Why don't you try harder to speak Arabic?" that I felt truly like a heel. I had been there two months and could piece together a cursory preschool conversation and no more. I feel the shame of that still.

The upshot is that when I came home, and was chock-full of jetlag, I fell asleep next to my husband and talked in my sleep for the first time. My husband, who studied Arabic in college, woke me up and told me I was speaking fluently. How sad that my subconscious got an education and I can only say "thank you" in the waking world.
posted by readymade at 11:44 PM on August 13, 2002

Don't be sad, readymade, your subconscious may be on to something.
posted by ceiriog at 2:00 AM on August 14, 2002

On the telly last night, and an inspiration to anyone trying to find their way into a new language/culture, Alice James, the Welsh Learner of the Year.
posted by ceiriog at 2:04 AM on August 14, 2002

I think that one of the key issue regarding learning a language is immersion . When I worked in Eastern Europe, I tried to pick up at least enough language to be able to shop and hold basic conversations, but living in Moscow and Sofia, I was surrounded by other ex-pats so we pretty much spoke English all of the time. When I moved to Bucharest, not so many ex-pats and the ones I knew all spoke Romanian fluently, so I ended up using the language a lot more.

The other thing is that although many of the people I worked with encouraged and helped my learning the language, they also wanted to improve their English, so unless I made the effort to keep the conversation in Romanian, it would quickly switch to English.

posted by geoffaw at 6:43 AM on August 14, 2002

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