You Never Know Where Your Languages Will Take You

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It’s been a while since I have posted anything here since running a business tends to consume all of my time, sometimes to a nearly unhealthy degree. The gap since my last post has made me consider where my languages have taken me compared to where I thought I was going when I started out. To give you some background, I have had a near obsession with languages since I was fairly young, studying any language I could get materials for. This unguided, haphazard approach to learning languages became much more structured when I went to college and limited myself to my “major” languages: Russian, Spanish and French. I chose these three intentionally thinking I might end up working for the United Nations whose working languages include English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

Yet it was Russian that really held my attention. The mystique of the language and country during the cold war was very intriguing to me. I even spent six months in the Soviet Union studying and perfecting my Russian. I remember how excited I was the day I realized I could speak Russian easily without even thinking of the grammar. I left the country feeling very proud of my ability to speak confidently, fluently and intelligently on most topics, assuming I’d be back in Moscow very soon after I graduated. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 job opportunities were not the same and I ended up in graduate school studying Russian and Spanish.

After graduating, my professional life quickly led me to a job at an insurance company translating from Spanish and Portuguese, languages which I had secretly looked down on as “back-up” languages that were not as prestigious or fascinating as Russian. Now I found myself suddenly needing to use them both at a professional level. I began devouring Spanish content, memorizing obscure Spanish grammar rules and making long vocabulary lists to be sure that I could do the job well. Since I only had three semesters of college Portuguese under my belt, whenever I had “extra” time, I’d spend it working on Portuguese grammar and vocabulary, principally relying on words and grammar that were different from Spanish. Within a reasonable period of time, I felt comfortable using and speaking in both languages at work.

Yet after four years in the insurance industry, I was ready for a change. I started a language services company with my partner in 1997. It quickly became very clear just how useful and indispensible Spanish actually is in the United States. Soon after a very large client required me to put my atrophying French skills to the test. I went through the same process to ramp up my French. It’s been 20 years since that time and I still use French and Spanish on a daily basis, and Portuguese a few times a week. Yet Russian has never played a large part of my professional life in all of that time. Over the years, I can sense my Russian skills deteriorating, despite occasional bursts of interest in reading and listening to the language on the web. When I do have opportunities to speak Russian, the words are no longer on the tip of my tongue and I can feel myself having to think about verb forms and noun declensions that once came out naturally. To a large degree, we make our own opportunities in life so I am not ruling out ever using Russian on a professional level. However, for now I am enjoying using languages that I feel completely comfortable in and studying other languages for fun when I can. It can be hard to know where your language will take you right out of college so stay open to all possibilities and do your best to keep your skills up in languages that you aren’t actively using.

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The Benefits of Dictionary Flipping

I have been so busy with work lately that I haven’t written anything. That is about to change as I have several drafts of posts for the second half of the summer. In the meanwhile, here is a post from a guest blogger, Hannah Varadi.


A previous post on our language blog discussed the potential drawbacks of learning a language “naturally” without grammar.  But what about the concept of vocabulary memorization?

Language dictionariesLike grammar, drilling vocabulary is one of the most tedious parts of language learning.  It’s the opposite of language immersion, in which one absorbs vocabulary through hearing or reading the words and infers their meaning through context.   But although making vocabulary stick in your head can be tricky at first, it is also essential—and there are ways to make it somewhat more enjoyable.  One way to do this is through a quick-and-dirty version of vocabulary absorption: a tactic I refer to as “dictionary-flipping.”

In this case I will use “dictionary” to include both print and online language dictionaries, as well as online forums: that is, resources which will give you the basic idea of a foreign language’s definition, but not to the depth with which a native speaker would know the word.  I am also only addressing written language and not spoken language, which is a topic for another day.

It was while reading the French writer Joseph Kessel’s novel Le lion for a class assignment last spring that I last applied this method in earnest.  The novel was just above the level at which I could comfortably read in French, mainly because it takes place on a reserve in Kenya and includes plenty of description of the picturesque scenery and wandering animals. On average, every page contained about two to five words that I had never encountered—most of them crucial to understanding the sentences in which they appeared.

To handle this, I would read a paragraph or a page of description, absorb the rough gist, note all the unfamiliar words, flip through the dictionary to find only the unfamiliar words that seemed important to the context, then rereading the passage.  Even in cases where I guessed the meaning of a word based on context on the first read-through, looking up the unfamiliar words and then rereading the passage allowed me to see the image the author intend to convey much more vividly.  I gained a more concrete image of, for instance, the sun rising over Kilimanjaro as a herd of elephants splash around in a watering hole.  It was also easier to pick up the nuances of character interaction and dialogue when I understood individual adjectives.

And most importantly: this process got somewhat easier over the course of the novel.  In the first place, maintaining the habit of looking for vocabulary became increasingly comfortable.  I was able to identify recurring words after the first couple of occurrences (fauve—“big cat”, se pencher—“to lean”, se dresser—“to stand upright,” etc.), and thereafter to recognize their meaning immediately each time they appeared.  In this way I absorbed and remembered about 50-60% of the vocabulary I encountered in total, and my heightened understanding of the novel’s content allowed me to more highly appreciate and enjoy the narrative.

Admittedly, different forms of vocabulary learning are more effective for some people than for others, and I admit that in certain respects the method I used for Le lion was inefficient.  After all, I retained far fewer memories of vocabulary through dictionary-flipping than if I had taken the time to at least write down the words and their definitions.

I must also stress that this method of learning vocabulary requires a text just slightly above the level at which you can read comfortably.  In this case I began with a fairly solid understanding of French grammar, verb conjugation, and vocabulary: had my grasp of French been lesser when I read the book, I would have spent so much time looking up vocabulary that I would have lost the sense of the text.

What’s more, Le lion is a relatively modern book from the 1950’s, and contains virtually no jargon, proverbs, or informal expressions in French.  It can be difficult or impossible to find these three things in the average language dictionary: you have to either search through online forums or consult a native speaker of the language, both of which are certainly worthwhile but also time-consuming.

But for this particular book, and for my particular purposes—reading to gain a deep meaning of the novel’s themes—the method worked well enough.  Of course acquisition of vocabulary is crucial in language learning, and it’s a process we continually undergo even in our native tongue!  But which method to use for learning depends on your goal, and on the quantity of knowledge on the language you already possess.  There’s a time for drilling, a time for gist-reading, and a time for flipping through the dictionary every paragraph or so.

 

Hannah is a junior in Comparative Literature (Creative Writing and Spanish minors) at Oberlin College, who is studying abroad with CIEE’s Communications and Journalism (CNMJ) program in Seville. You can follow her blog here.

What Makes a Language Hard?

Students shy away from certain languages because they are perceived to be too difficult. But are there really easy or hard languages? Well, yes. However, the degree of difficulty that any language poses is relative to many factors. What might be a difficult language for one person may be very easy for another. If English is your first and only language, then how hard a given language is will depend on how different it is from English. And if you speak another language well, then learning additional ones will become easier and easier. Whether or not aptitude plays any substantial role is debatable. The people I know who speak several languages have a real passion for them and their language abilities are the result of a lot of hard work and effort. That said, obviously all people have an innate ability to learn a language as a child, but I am going to look at this question from the prospective of the adult learner.

FSI Difficulty Chart

FSI Language Difficulty Chart

A language’s level of difficulty can be measured in many ways, but in practical terms it can be measured by how long it takes an average learner to reach a certain degree of fluency compared to another language. The Foreign Service Institute has created a list of languages ranked by the number of hours needed to reach what it deems as “General Professional Proficiency” thereby equating a language’s difficulty with how much time is required to reach this proficiency level. Therefore, “easy” languages take less time and effort to learn than “harder”.

To get a better perceptive of why it takes more time to learn certain languages, we need to understand that all languages are grouped into “families”. The Indo-European family contains many of the most common languages that English speakers learn. Each family is broken down into smaller subgroups. The farther down you go in these subgroups the more similar the languages become to one another. Let’s look at five languages from what’s called the Italic subgroup: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. These are all commonly known as Romance languages. Romance here means that these languages all descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire. I chose this group because four of the five are very commonly studied in the U.S. and provide a basis for comparing the difficulty of other lesser studied languages. Even though these five languages are all in the same language subgroup, they are not equally easy for English speakers. Spanish is widely regarded as the easiest of the group for various reasons, such as its highly phonetic structure, regular stress patterns, relatively uncomplicated grammar and abundance of cognates. French, on the other hand, has a much more complicated pronunciation system and grammar than Spanish, but has even more easily recognizable cognates. Portuguese, which is a close cousin of Spanish, is slightly more difficult due to its pronunciation, contractions and less recognizable cognates. What this means to English speakers is that if you learn Spanish well first, then you will be able to learn Portuguese later on much more easily than any other language. Italian is highly phonetic and has many recognizable cognates, but it is just slightly more difficult than Spanish given that stress on words is often unpredictable, the rules for making plurals is different and there are many contractions. And lastly, Romanian is the most different of the five since not only has it been influenced by Slavic words, but it still retains grammatical cases left over from Latin. All five of these languages are therefore theoretically easier for English speakers to learn than languages in other subgroups or language families.

You have undoubtedly heard people say that English is such a hard language for foreigners to learn, but this is not necessarily true. I remember staying with a host family in the Netherlands when I was in high school who told me that English was very easy for them. They said French and German, the other two languages they were required to study, were more difficult for them than English. This is easy to understand as the Dutch language is very closely related to English so the grammatical elements of English that might be difficult to master for a Chinese or Czech speaker do not exist for a Dutch speaker whose own language has the same grammar features. Russian is considered to be a particularly difficult language for English speakers to learn due to its very different grammar, but it is quite easy for a Ukrainian or Polish speaker whose own languages contain many of the grammatical features and vocabulary as Russian. Chinese, on the other hand, has a very simple grammar, yet part of its complexity lies in its tones, complete lack of cognates and difficult writing system. Japanese is just the opposite. It has simple pronunciation, but a complicated grammar structure.

All languages contain elements that are either easier or more complicated than English so judging how hard a language is with any precision is a rather tricky and subjective matter. Yet whatever the real or perceived difficulty of a language, you should not let that be an obstacle to you trying to learn it. The right materials, teachers or environment can make all the difference in whether a language seems difficult or fun. With enough time, dedication and most importantly motivation, no language is beyond anyone’s grasp.

The Importance of Culture in Language Learning

I recently heard someone who studies multiple languages say that he didn’t care about learning the culture behind those languages. This is really surprising to me on many levels since not only is culture a major and inseparable component of “knowing” a language, it is also one of the most enjoyable aspects of acquiring a new language and keeping yourself motivated. If you argue that a language can learned devoid of culture for mere functional or academic purposes, then what you will end up with is the mere ability to function in the language as an outsider at the minimal level and have no real appreciation for the people who use the language. Choosing not to learn about the country or countries where a particular language is spoken nor its government, history or people not only robs you of the richness that knowing another language normally brings with it, but also makes it very difficult to appreciate the news or place current events in any meaningful context.

However, trying to avoid the culture of a language is actually rather hard to do if you study a language to a thorough level and interact with its speakers. For example, you simply cannot learn to speak and function in Arabic if you are not familiar with its underlying culture or Islamic influence. Speaking Japanese without understanding its rather complicated honorific speech system would be socially disastrous and detrimental to any business negotiation. Each language carries with it all of the history and culture of the area that it arises from. The political, social and economic conditions of the country influence its vocabulary and the shades of meaning of its words. The cultural landscape of some languages is quite vast since they are spoken across many different countries, each flavoring the language in its own unique way. Spanish, as an example, is the official language of 20 countries and widely spoken in the U.S. with variations that reflect each region’s reality. In Mexico, many words for food that Americans are familiar with have different meanings than elsewhere in the Latin world. A tortilla, for example, is a thin layer of corn or flour unleavened bread in Mexico, whereas in other Spanish-speaking countries it is an omelet. Every American knows what a taco is, but the word has a myriad of meanings outside of Mexico that have nothing to do with food. In cases like this where a language is spoken in different counties, it’s more practical to learn the most about the culture and people of the country that you will actually interact with.

Proverbs are cultural treasure troves in any language. They reflect the accumulated wisdom of past generations, but they are also great for your language skills. I still remember very clearly one that I learned while I was a student in the former Soviet Union, “В Тулу со своим самоваром не ездят!,” which literally means you don’t bring a samovar to Tula. This expression certainly means very little to most people who don’t know anything about Russian culture. What is a samovar? Where in the world is Tula? Well, a samovar (pictured above) is a traditional Russian urn used for boiling water to make tea, both of which are items inextricably linked to Russian culture. Tula is a city in Russia famous for being a major manufacturer of samovars; hence, there would be no need to take one with you if you go there for a visit. If you invest the time in learning many such proverbs, you will be well rewarded by what you gain not only from cultural insight, but in how your language is appreciated by native speakers.

Learning a language without the cultural framework in which it exists is like cooking ethnic food without the spices of the region. You simply will remove all of the flavor from the language. If you are lucky enough to be able to travel or live in the country for awhile, great! If not, try to learn as much as you can by reading books and magazines from the country and watching its television programs so that you can get a feel for how the people think, act and speak. Don’t just be bilingual, be bicultural!

Inside the Mind of a Polyglot

Babel No More CoverA polyglot is defined as someone who is able to speak several languages. The exact number of languages can be and often is disputed, but technically “poly” from Greek means many so each is free to define it as he or she wishes. People tend to be fascinated and highly impressed when you tell them that you speak several languages. Everyone tends to ask you the same types of questions. How many languages do you speak? Where did you learn them? Do you travel a lot? Don’t you confuse them? While it is fairly easy to impress most monolingual people with your answers, it can sometimes come across as boastful, even when not intended to. In my own case, I have found that the best answer to give is to say how many languages I work in professionally. These are the languages I can use in any situation and actually make a living off of by translating and interpreting. I have studied many languages for pleasure, but if I mention those most people automatically assume that I must speak them all equally as well. However, studying and knowing can often be very different things. I have studied astronomy and chemistry in my life, but I am neither an astronomer nor a chemist. In fact, I remember very little beyond the basics in both of them. However, there are many people who quite readily claim to know fifty languages or more.

So what does it mean to know a language and how many can a person really learn? In search for an answer to that question, a new book has come out titled Babel No More by Michael Erard. The book delves into past and living polyglots and attempts to discover what they all have in common. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book for several reasons. First of all, since I have an insatiable passion for languages, I was curious to know what I may or may not have in common with these language overachievers. Secondly, I participated in the on-line survey for the book several years ago and had been anxiously waiting for the book’s release to get a glimpse into the world of modern polyglots. Lastly, I received an iPad as a gift this past Christmas and this was my very first venture into the world of electronic books.

Mr. Erard actually focuses on hyperpolyglots, a newly coined term for people who speak six or more languages. However, he states that he found eleven languages to be a more accurate number for defining a hyperpolyglot. The author admittedly takes a somewhat skeptical approach to claims of those who speak many dozens of languages, pondering whether it is even possible for someone to speak so many languages to any meaningful degree. He researches renowned polyglots from the past and interviews several living ones to observe their methodology for learning and retaining so many languages. The author attempts to determine whether there is any secret or innate talent that they have for learning languages. Each of the people he interviews gives different approaches to tackling a new language, each suited to his or her individual learning style. When he confronts the question of how many languages a person can actually know, he comes to the greater question of what it means to “know” a language and whether you count a language if you merely know a few basic phrases in it. He learns that all of the people he studies have latent languages that they don’t actively use for long periods of time. They reactivate them as needed by studying them from a few hours to several weeks. He tries to figure out how many active languages a person can have, concluding that there seems to be a limit on how many a person can maintain at a high level, though he doesn’t give a precise number in the book. In the end he seems rather disappointed to realize that more than anything else what these hyperpolyglots share is a love for doing what most people find boring: studying vocabulary lists, verb conjugations and grammar. He states that polyglots “haven’t escaped the banality of methods at all; they make the banality more productive. Their minds enjoy the banality.”

My own take on Babel No More is that it is a rare gem – a language book with a mass appeal. It is written in such a way as to be both insightful and compelling. I found myself staying up well past midnight for nearly a week as I couldn’t easily put it down, if one can say that about an e-book. The polyglots that he profiled were fascinating, though sometimes a bit sad. I kept trying to find threads of my own learning style and personality in the quirkiness of the polyglots he covers. I found the living polyglots even more interesting as they are able to speak for themselves. In particular, I enjoyed the section on Alexander Arguelles, who is a living polyglot with an unquenchable drive for studying languages, and whose YouTube videos I have been following for years. His profile reveals just how much effort is required to actually maintain such a large number of languages. Though the book does not cover many other well-known living polyglots, or more famous past ones such as Mario Pei, it is well worth your time and money. I would encourage anyone with the interest in languages in general, or polyglots in particular, to give this book a read.

The Price of Misunderstanding

Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language has a favorite story about what happened when he or she misunderstood something that was said. These stories can range from humorous to disastrous. Here’s my story.

Back in the mid 90’s I was tutoring a Venezuelan student in English at her home. We had been meeting for many months so we were quite comfortable with each other and frequently spoke in Spanish during study breaks or when I needed to explain English grammar to her. One day I came by for our regular appointment and she greeted me in Spanish stating that her children were home sick today from school and in their bedrooms. She told me that they both had come down with lechina. My look of understanding and lack of concern betrayed what was really going on in my head. My brain quickly tried to make sense of that word, running through lists of diseases, but I actually thought I heard la china and could not think of any illness that corresponded to it. I discarded it as something minor and didn’t give it any more thought until two days later when I began to start scratching at my chest. As the day wore on I began noticing red splotches on my chest and suddenly my mind went racing back to lechina. I began to have a sinking feeling that lechina was actually varicela… chickenpox. I never had chickenpox as a kid so I got panicky and called my student and explained my symptoms to her. She apologized and said that I apparently had contracted lechina from being in her home. She assumed that I must have had it as a kid since I didn’t seem worried about it during our last class. Being an adult with chickenpox was quite awful so this is one lesson that I will never forget—in Venezuela lechina is chickenpox.  When it comes to important things like health, be sure you totally understand what is being said so you don’t end up in a similar situation.

This underscores the regional variations in language, especially Spanish. With over twenty Spanish-speaking countries, not to mention the Spanglish of the United States, such examples abound. Since that incident, I have worked closely with Venezuelans, Columbians, Mexicans, Salvadorians, Puerto Ricans and Cubans I have observed and noted hundreds of other such differences. I’ll write more about this in a different post.

The main point is that when we speak in another language, we are often reluctant to admit that we don’t understand everything that we hear during a conversation, either out of embarrassment or pride. No one wants to keep asking for sentences to be repeated and modified so that we can understand them. In many cases our brains filter out or guess parts of conversation that were not initially understood allowing us to continue the conversation. Language learners quickly learn to pick on clues to know when to make appropriate nods and “uh huhs” during conversations even if they haven’t gotten the entire gist. However when it comes to more serious things, asking for clarification could have saved me from three weeks of chickenpox but then I wouldn’t have the funny story to tell now.

Is Spanish the best language to learn?

I get asked this question rather frequently. The answer is not always a simple one. With thousands of languages in the world, there is no single language which is the best for everyone. Your geography and job goals play a larger part in choosing a language than most other factors. My views here are particular to readers in the Unites States, though they could be applied in many places in the world. Let’s look at some facts. Spanish is the official language in 21 counties by about 329 million native speakers worldwide, just slightly ahead of English. It is the second most spoken language in the U.S. and the world. For several decades Spanish has been the most studied language of students both young and old. In many cases, this was because it had been perceived to be both easier and more practical than the other languages commonly taught in school, such as French, German or Latin. According to the 2010 census, there are now over 50 million Latinos in the United States, just over 16%. All of these above facts together certainly mean that you can’t go wrong with Spanish. In fact, it is certainly the most useful second language nearly anywhere you go in the U.S. This linguistic trend will continue well into the foreseeable future, so for most learners of any age, I would feel comfortable recommending Spanish.

There is, however, a new trend developing in high schools and colleges to offer less-taught languages, such as Chinese, Arabic and Russian. The sounds and writing systems of these languages seem exotic, which appeals to many students. Forward-looking parents and students will also see that the developing economies of the countries where these languages are spoken will have many job opportunities available to savvy Americans who learn to master these languages. With 850 million speakers of Mandarin Chinese, it is the fastest-growing language in popularity for students worldwide. Here in the U.S., an estimated 1,600 schools are now teaching Chinese, some starting as early as kindergarten. The government of China is an active promoter of the language and in some cases is even providing free teachers for cash-strapped schools. Arabic is also gaining popularity in American universities. With 280 million native speakers in 26 countries, it’s an important language of business and government. In areas where such language opportunities exist, I believe that it’s a fantastic way to get experience in strategic languages that will give students an academic and career edge later in life.

For adults with a desire to learn a language, any language, the question of what language to learn depends more on what motivates them. If you lose motivation in the language, you won’t continue to study it. Learn French if you want to travel throughout France every year, or Russian if you’re fascinated by Russian history. Whatever language you study, try to learn it as well as you can. The real fun comes from being able to use the language easily and naturally.