alan little’s weblog

on learning languages

9th January 2008 permanent link

A few more general thoughts and ramblings on the subject of learning languages.

The comment two down from mine on Tim Ferriss’s blog posting leads to some reactions to Tim that I find rather wrong-headed.

The comment comes from Barbara, who maintains a blog for professional foreign language teachers, and I presume is one herself.

this superficial survey of the mechanics of the language does not ever approach the deep, nuanced learning that in depth (those pesky “Wasted” hours) of immersive language learning could provide. And God forbid should anyone mention the ability, through learning a language, to learn about culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language.

The basic questionable (i.e. wrong) is that language teachers are for some reason the people best equipped to convey anything about “culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language”.

I’m willing to be sceptical of Tim’s claim to be “fluent” in a large number of languages – I suspect him of using a more relaxed definition of “fluent” than I ever would – but that doesn’t mean his techniques can’t be of value. I entirely agree with his basic premise that you only actually learn to speak a language when you get out of the classroom and into situations where you’re trying to have real conversations about real things with native speakers. I’m sorry, but however demotivating it may be for language teachers the point of language classes isn’t to provide students with “cultural and historical contexts that are rich, complex, chaotic, intellectually tension-filled” (to quote one of Barbara’s commenters). That’s what real conversations are for. The purpose of learning tools, including classes, is get as quickly as possible to the point where you can start attempting to have those conversations. For that, I’m willing to believe for the time being that Tim’s short cuts might be useful.

As Brian Micklethwait – not even slightly wrong-headedly – points out, what Tim is getting at in the particular blog posting we’re discussing is not learning a language, but rather assessing how to learn how easy a language will be to learn.

Somewhat but not entirely at a tangent: you can tell you are proficient enough in a foreign language when you can both score reasonably in and laugh at the country in question’s equivalent of Der Grosser Deutschtest. The Big German Test is a yearly Saturday night TV extravaganza in which Germans enjoy making themselves feel insecure about their (supposed) inadequate command of their own damn language. Understand this and you can legitimately claim a deep and nuanced understanding of twenty first century German culture.

The show runs over several hours, during which celebrities and several other groups compete as individuals and teams at German grammar and spelling tests. There’s always a group of non-native speakers that always does surprisingly well (go expats!), but the teachers always win (Barbara & co. can rest easy on that score at least).

Here are the attributes of Germans that make this interesting. One: they have a language with a moderately complex grammatical structure, whose formal written form differs considerably from what most people actually say most of the time. So far, so normal. This is true to some degree of every single language that has a written form.

However, Two: there are descriptive and prescriptive views of language. Descriptivists, of whom I am one, believe that “correct” language is whatever a native speaker would naturally say that is comprehensible to a reasonably large number of other native speakers. According to this view the formal written version is just one among several dialects with no special elevated status. Prescriptivists believe there a single Correct version of a language - usually assumed to be the formal written version – to which other forms are inferior. Germans tend (generalising wildly, doubtless with numerous individual exceptions etc. et.) towards prescriptivist views on a whole range of subjects of which language is but one.

A recent prescriptivist coup that gives Germans a whole new range of opportunities to be wrong is the Rechtschreibreform of the late 1990s. “Spelling Reform” was a doubtless well-meaning attempt to standardise and rationalise some historical quirks of German spelling and grammar. Every history of the English language mentions several attempts to do this with English in the last couple of centuries, all completely abortive even though English spelling irregularities are far, far worse than any German dialect ever was. German Reformed Spelling is proving slightly less abortive. It’s taught in schools and used in government documents, at least in Germany. The Austrians and the Swiss are ignoring it – in the Swiss case by getting some of their variants written into the new rules as officially ok for use by Swiss people. Several major German publishers, including the two largest daily newspapers, have declared against it too. Nevertheless it’s the official standard now in schools and in The Big German Test, with the result that a lot of what most people learned in school and have used all their lives, that was perfectly ok ten years ago, is officially not ok any more.

Three: insecurity. For reasons to do with both its catastrophic history in the last century and its rather dire financial and demographic predicament in this one, Germany is a society deeply lacking in self-confidence just now. Being persuaded that you can’t even speak your own language properly fits rather well into the twenty-first century German psyche.

My wife and I generally do ok competing in The Big German Test from the comfort of our sofa (go expats!), whilst also grasping the irony of the whole thing. Would students pick up much of this stuff in rich, complex, chaotic, intellectually tension-filled language classes? I fear not.

Less tangentially, Julian Tarkhanov wrote a while ago to recommend wikipedia as a language learning tool:

1) Go to the Wikipedia page on something in the language you know. Let's take your recent example:ümmel

2) Look left and under in the toolbar. Over there, you see the list of other languages on Wikipedia that have the same entry. In German it's called "Andere Sprachen" but you get the point. Click on Russian. This will promptly reveal

Тмин (лат. Carum) — род растений семейства зонтичных, из которых наиболее известен вид Carum carvi — тмин обыкновенный, используемый как специя.

I consider it much more lovely than the dictionaries. because it gives you a stimulus not only to lookup the translation, but to read about the subject as well! (which might lead you to implicitly learn other words, contexts and idioms).

… which strikes me as an interesting approach, certainly ending towards rich, complex cultural and historical context; but also one requiring a rather higher base level of skill than I have yet in Russian. Also, Julian’s mail had the misfortune to arrive just before I went on holiday in the summer, thus falling into an email black hole from which I didn’t get round to thanking him until now. Thank you Julian.

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