You Never Know Where Your Languages Will Take You

art-2026073_960_720

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.

Advertisements

Learning a Language without Grammar

Disclaimer: Before I get into my own viewpoint on this, I need to make an important point. The objective of this blog is not to assert that there is necessarily only one right way to learn a language. Different people learn in different ways and suggesting that a one-size-fits-all approach would work for everyone would be arrogant and intellectually dishonest. I also must admit that as a translator I absolutely love grammar!

Recently there has been a lot of talk about learning a language without all the supposedly “unnecessary” complications of grammar or boring memorization. The idea is that you will learn naturally, just like a child, and that your brain will slowly piece together the grammar without any active effort on your part by continued exposure to simple sentence patterns. In fact, many new products are being extensively marketed right now based on this very idea (Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, Michel Thomas). The concept is nothing new. It’s been touted for many years. I was even required to use it when I taught English as a Second Language classes a long time ago so I do have first-hand experience with the method and its results.

In the beginning stages of language learning, it makes sense to deemphasize (though not eliminate) grammar and focus more on pronunciation and vocabulary acquisition. This frees the learner to concentrate on memorizing essential vocabulary and commonly used phrases and learned responses. This honeymoon period can help the learner to get a feel for the language and gain a bit of confidence before tiptoeing into the finer points of grammar. The problem is that our brain does not work the same as adults as it did when we were young children. Certain changes, which are not yet completely understood, occur in the brain at puberty. Therefore, adults can only get so far with the approach. Though short-term gains can be impressive when used in combination with teachers or native speakers, ultimately without at least some grammar rules to fall back on, the student will become frustrated and unable to produce more complicated thoughts.

Even with languages with relatively easy grammar for English speakers, like Spanish, the learner will quickly be confronted with concepts that don’t exist in English, such as the gender of nouns. It will take a while to grasp just by reading and hearing the different forms in context that Spanish has four ways to say “the” (el, la, los, las) if the learner is not simply given this basic information in the beginning. This is a needlessly inefficient and frustrating approach to learning a language. In other languages, like Russian, where grammar can be extraordinarily complex for English speakers, I simply don’t see any realistic way that anyone can make any genuine progress in the language without grammar. Floundering to figure out grammatical features that don’t exist in your native language like noun declensions, verb aspects, etc. serves only to undermine the learner’s motivation and confidence.

Though it sounds trite, grammar is truly the foundation of any language and you can’t build upon it if you don’t understand it. Anyone who truly wants to have a deep knowledge of a language and the confidence to know that he or she is speaking correctly cannot avoid grammar. People who make grammatical mistakes in English do so because they don’t understand their own grammar, so why would someone be able to speak a foreign language any better who didn’t understand its grammar? While skipping grammar may sound like an efficient shortcut, it is best reserved for the casual language learner — someone who just wants a smattering of the language for vacation or social purposes. I admit that grammar can be a drudgery to some, but when you remove it altogether from the learning process you don’t simplify learning, you complicate it.

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.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

Serbo-Croatian language flag

Image via Wikipedia

As a linguistics major in college I remember being taught that the question of what is a language versus a dialect is a political question rather than a linguistic one. This is indeed the case. Languages are held in high esteem by their speakers. Dialects are deemed to be less prestigious than the main language. Confusion between the terms arises from the fact that there is no clear distinction into what makes a language a language, or a dialect a dialect. For many American English speakers, regional accents are often considered to be dialects of English. For example, Southern speech is frequently referred to as “dialect” in just the same way as one would refer to British English. From a broader and politically-neutral perspective, a dialect can be considered to be any form of a language that is mutually intelligible to speakers of the same or related language. Therefore, American, British and Australian English would all be dialects of each other since the speakers of these three variations of English can essentially understand each other, apart from localized slang and expressions that often stump the listener.

However, the picture becomes a bit murkier as you consider closely-related languages such as Danish, Norwegian or Swedish. To varying degrees these three Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligible to speakers of the other languages. Political boundaries have defined them as separate languages and different orthographic rules have further modified their written forms.  Often in such cases speakers of one of the languages have much less difficulty understanding the other language. In fact, I used to teach English as a Second Language and would regularly hear Spanish and Portuguese speakers conversely with each other in their own language after class. The Brazilian Portuguese speakers told me that they had no problem whatsoever understanding the Spanish speakers, but the Spanish speakers often struggled to understand the Brazilians.

For political reasons, sometimes languages that are mutually unintelligible are considered to be the same language, as is the case with Chinese. China considers Cantonese and Mandarin to be the same language. In fact, these two languages do share the same writing system and use the same characters, but the spoken form of the languages is so different that the speakers are unable to understand each other without writing back and forth. In other cases, the exact same language is considered to be a separate language. Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are essentially the same language, called Serbo-Croatian during communist rule. Now for political reasons they are considered distinct languages. Serbian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, Croatian in the Latin alphabet and Bosnian in both. As languages and countries continue to evolve, what we now consider to be dialects may become languages or vice versa.

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.