A Tale of 20 Languages in 7 Years (Pt 1/2)

By Jirka Matousek: http://bit.ly/1bAUL3V
 

Counting the languages you know

When I finished secondary school, I thought I knew two and a half languages – my native Estonian, English that I mostly picked up from the media, and some basic German that I had studied from grade six onward.

German was always a grey area, as I’d started from scratch in school and found it painfully difficult at the time, thinking upon graduation that I’ll never study a word of German again. Going on to the university, I had the idea to learn French which I did so with some moderate success by taking beginner French classes.

At the time, I was fascinated with reading French literature in French and reckoned that if I stuck to it until the end of my studies, perhaps I would have learned something by the end of year three.

But somewhere between my first and second semester, I came across an old textbook intended for advanced students of French. I certainly didn’t feel like an advanced student, but since it featured a bulk of original texts from French literature, I took it all the same and gnawed it through – with the help of online dictionaries (that would graciously conjugate for me all those pesky irregular verbs in their obscure tenses and moods) and an in-book glossary – within half a year.

Maybe I could have gone through it a bit quicker, but at the end of second semester it sort of faded to the back of my mind, because, hey, who studies languages over summer break, right? In addition to reading the textbook, I would try to listen to as much French as I could. I used several on-line radio stations or other media outlets, but for the most part, I stuck to the talk-shows on France Culture.

  

The effects were not immediate, but by the first half of my fourth semester in French, I discovered we were moving at a snail’s pace, discussing topics I’d read about maybe half a year before. So I decided to just drop the class because I felt I could just continue working on my own.

The following semester, I took a few courses in French, but as far as purely French language classes go, I haven’t been able to sit through another one since.

Instead I focused on taking beginner level courses in other languages – first there was Finnish and Spanish, then there was Ancient Greek and Russian, later still Swedish and Icelandic and so on.

Most of these languages I dropped after only a semester or two, because independent study, for me, would soon leave classroom progress well behind. A few I would keep a little longer, particularly Ancient Greek which I found so difficult that I went on with it for almost three years – Classics Department’s curricula. Others I would continue on my own; sporadically going through advanced level textbooks and listening to native radio stations.

At some point I came to the conclusion that you don’t really need textbooks if the whole Internet is full of texts you can simply find online. Time constraints were increasingly becoming an issue, and while I made it a habit to now start 2 new languages per semester.

It has been seven years now since I  had that vague idea to study French and in that time I have ended up studying more than 20 languages, both dead and alive, initially from the European branch of the Indo-European language family, although I’ve been drifting further and further.

Studying, not speaking

Emphasis is really on the word “studying”, which is certainly not the same as “speaking fluently”, in many cases not even “speaking a little”, as I study (which for 90% of the time, actually means “I read”) the language for a while, then drop it in favour of a new one, and while I usually do plan to come back to most of them, it’s never really a fixed commitment in the moment.

You might have seen this video about Ziad Fazah – a man who claims to know 58 different languages and who is revealed, live on national television, that he doesn’t know as many as he may claim.

I think this is good example of how communicating definitions can go wrong.

A professor of mine said that you can say you know a language when you know enough to ask in that language, “where’s the toilet?”. In contrast, there are language teachers, who will say that most people are unable to speak properly even in their native tongue. So there is certainly some room for interpretation when it comes to what “knowing a language” really means.

The question of “how many?” itself, though, becomes irrelevant in any kind of more in-depth analysis. So, whereas I know I can maintain a conversation in 5 foreign languages and perhaps make myself understood in another few, there’s no way of measuring the convergence effect that knowing a particular language has to other closely related languages.

A Portuguese native speaker might insist (s)he speaks absolutely no Spanish, but does in reality a lot better than an English native speaker in an intermediary Spanish course who also claims that (s)he manages to speak just a bit.

Learning through reading 

As previously hinted, my language learning very much revolves around reading. This a very straight-forward technique and is hardly an original way to study a language.

Perhaps what is more unique, is downplaying the importance of knowing grammar by heart and placing emphasis on being able to recognize grammar passively (and, as an extension, to understand what a particular grammatical element actually expresses).

This has to do with the great innovation of online dictionaries that allow you to get away with not having to know the base form of any given word. Traditional dictionaries do not include every grammatical form of a given word primarily because of spacial constraints – something which no longer matters in the case of online dictionaries.

So  you don’t really need to know grammar to get the grammar. What’s the 3rd person plural of “prendre” in passé simple? I have no idea. What does it mean; this 3 person plural of “prendre” in passé simple? Well, that’s the challenge you need to work on, but unlike memorizing tables and paradigms, it’s a lot less time consuming; allowing you to jump into the language from the first day.

Going into specifics, I’ve used a variety of different online dictionaries in the past, but for 90% of the time, there are only two tools I need: Wiktionary for the words and the grammar, and Google Translate for when I have trouble understanding the syntax. And that’s all free of charge, so I haven’t paid for a textbook since 2009.

schadenfreude_en
The first person plural whatever of “prendre” – getting to know the grammar without knowing the grammar.

 

There are, of course, some downsides to this method that might pose a challenge when first adapting this new mindset:

First, the emphasis within this learning method is placed upon reading of the written text of the language, which is not, perhaps, the common approach. I doubt that there are many people who set out to learn a new language, because they really, really want only to read it.

The written language can diverge quite a bit from the spoken language, and you might might be accused of learning something which does not exist in reality – that you are learning an artificial system of the language, rather than the language itself. Listening is a very simple solution to to help compensate for this, be it a  popular radio or TV station of the target language. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it causes you to become immersed in the language.

Still, reading and listening alone will take time to have a significant impact, so if it’s your first or second foreign language and you’re really motivated to put it into actual use, you could use this method as a supplement for your language classes/pedagogical course. For me, that was the case for French and a few other earlier languages with which I’ve progressed the furthest.

The second problem is more of a technical sort. Not all languages are equally represented in Wiktionary or online in general, and you might have trouble finding a dictionary that also offers sufficient  information on these languages’ grammar. Sometimes you have to jump between several sources, because one dictionary has information on the grammar, but doesn’t provide any definitions and vice versa.

For example, when learning Russian, I used a lot of Russian Викисловарь instead of the English Wiktionary to find the grammar I’m searching for, but I would have to jump back to the English Wiktionary (or use Google Translate) to find out, what the words actually meant. I’ve been struggling with Arabic for years, since there’s always a lot of confusion on noting (or not noting) vowel marks and I’ve yet to find a good tool that’s able to take it all into account. Persian, on the other hand, is reasonably represented in the English Wiktionary and has been smooth sailing since the first day, even though it uses the same Arabic script voluntary vowel marks.

In the case of non-alphabet languages, such as Chinese, the problem is also that the writing system does not really depict the sound of the language. In such cases, you’d have to mark the sound of the language separately from the original writing system.

That is the general gist of the thing and if you feel it’s all the instruction you need, don’t waste your time any longer and go learn some languages.

continued in part 2…

 

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Norman Kuusik is a freelance interpreter and an assistant lecturer for conference interpreting in the University of Tartu, Estonia. He is also a long-time independent language-learner and maintains an Estonian-English dual language blog “Tõde minemisel” for translations, reviews and essays on a variety of subjects.

 

  • Really interesting article. On language blogs in general, there’s a lot of emphasis on speaking, since it’s the skill that people first think of. But like you, I spend a lot of time reading texts. In fact, reading and listening are for me slightly more important than speaking and writing, and like you, I’ve noticed that they require different abilities. The ability to recognize grammatical constructions *enough* is completely different from the ability to produce them on your own.

    Looking forward to part 2!

    • Hi Ron, I’m glad you liked it.

      I’ll try to see if I can get Norman to respond, but I think you’re right.

      Unfortunately in the US I really don’t have an awful lot of practical application for spoken foreign languages. Yes, they can be useful from time to time (and of course I use them online) but in general most people speak English and only English so the French I’m learning, which of course focuses on speaking, is less practical for that purpose than it is for reading.

      It’s not common but I have come across a select few language learners whose goals are almost exclusively expanding their reading options and have little interest in speaking the language.

      I like meeting people and talking to people. I find pronunciation fun, but I definitely understand simply focusing on reading for its own sake. My Spanish and French (and even Russian) reading skills far out-stripe my spoken skills.

      Thanks for commenting!

    • Norman

      No worries Brian, I’m keeping an eye on things 🙂

      I think what Ron said characterises language learning pedagogy in general –
      reading just isn’t a priority, and you start off by learning common
      phrases. I think that’s the most difficult approach there can be – to
      focus on speaking (and writing) with an extremely limited knowledge
      base.

      As for recognising grammar vs. being able to
      produce it yourself, I have to say the first doesn’t really substitute
      the latter, and it’s inevitable that I’ll spend some effort on
      specifically learning grammatic forms to get them absolutely right
      (presuming I actually want to get them right, which isn’t always the goal), but it’s a lot easier if you’ve been familiar with those forms before.

      I’m glad you like the article, the second part will be a bit more specific on examples and arguments.

  • David Cooper

    This ties in with how I learn languages, and I now use Google translate as a way of getting a near-literal translation of any interesting text I want to work with. It means I learn languages more like the way that a child learns their native language, not bothering to try speaking it until their understanding is extensive. They probably understand a few thousand words by the time they begin to use sentences of their own containing more than two words, and they’ve learned to recognise and decode all of those and the associated grammar without at any time trying to memorise any of it – they just let it all write itself into their head in its own good time, and the mechanism for this is meeting the same words, phrases and grammatical constructions over and over again, but always in interesting contexts where learning the language is not the main aim of the interaction they’re engaged in. I like to work the same way, though reading rather than listening – I’m reading things that are interesting in themselves rather than being boring, artificial texts flung together purely for learning purposes. I am motivated to read for hours at a time because I want the content, but I always force myself to identify what all the words are doing in each phrase and why they take the forms they do. By the time I’ve read a novel in the language, I own that language and will never lose it, even though there’s still a lot of work needing to be done before I can speak it too (and particularly if I want to speak without grammatical errors), but by that point I’m in a position from which I know I cannot fail – it is only a short journey from there to being able to communicate effectively in that language.

    I know that the opposite approach can work too – Michel Thomas had a way of teaching people to speak languages from the outset and to make rapid progress, but it takes an extremely competent teacher to replicate his method, and there are very few who can do it.