Guerrilla tactics in foreign language learning

Doubt anyone’s going to be too shocked if I say this: I love language and languages. Because of this, and a natural aptitude, I’ve studied a lot of languages. I speak none fluently but English, but enough of enough of them that I am rarely at a complete loss.

The state of foreign language instruction in our K-12 education system is lamentable. I believe this because of the large number of camera-like young minds who, having taken two years of Whateverish, can barely speak two sentences after they graduate. It was true of my generation and I’ve been hearing it from every graduating generation since. So often I hear: “I want to learn a foreign language.”

Okay. If you mean it, I’m on your side. If you are ready to put your time and energy there, I will tell you all the dirty tricks I know and use.

First, assess your basic aptitudes. If you don’t really grasp even your native grammar at all–which is to say that you cannot tell a noun from a verb from an adjective, consider ‘conjugation’ a method for prison inmates to see their spouses, and think of ‘declension’ as what’s likely to happen in your fifties and sixties, look those things up. You do not need to become a grammarian, but you do need to absorb what the basic terms mean, because they aren’t going away.

Another aptitude to consider is your ability to mimic sounds. Our palates form in early youth to our native languages, so you will probably never pass for a native speaker in any language you learn in adulthood. Doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter how good or bad a mimic you are; it just matters that you assess yourself and accept it. I know people who will never, ever be able to make certain foreign sounds not found in English. You have heard people with forty years’ residence in your country who probably will never manage to utter certain English sounds. Doesn’t matter. All that matters: if you aren’t a natural at this, don’t let that be your downer. You will simply have a profound accent, so be at peace with it. Even if you can never make a perfect rolled Spanish rr (I have a rough time with that one in flowing speech myself), anyone trying to understand you, will. Anyone trying not to, will not. That’s why it doesn’t matter.

To get an idea of difficulty relative to you, see what family it’s in. It works like this: the languages in a family have much in common. If it’s in a language family in which you’ve never studied a single language, there will be more concepts to learn. Be prepared.

If I hear one more person assign a language an absolute difficulty level, I may start using all the curse words I’ve picked up (including the ghastly phrase in Hungarian my friends taught me). Language difficulty is relative to what you already know. Examples:

Swedish was so easy for me that I still don’t think native English speakers deserve foreign language credit for learning it. One can see where it broke away from the common hybrid ancestor that pathed out into English. In learning terms, this means a native English speaker will immediately understand some words and concepts that the tongues have in common. Thus, for a native speaker of English, Swedish is very easy. For a native Korean speaker, it might not be as hard as English, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. German is in the same family, and is harder for me than Swedish, but I could not speak for our Korean friend because I am not equipped to judge the difficulty from any beginning perspective other than my own. Neither is much of anyone.

Hebrew was a bit of a challenge, because I had no background in it and spoke no Semitic languages. These past few months, I’ve been studying Arabic. In essence, on vocabulary and some grammatical concepts, Hebrew lets me cheat. Since I know how to say ‘hour’ in Hebrew, and the Arabic word sounds pretty similar, I will pick it up. Same for the concept of a dual number; Hebrew speakers are used to this, but someone new to Semitic languages has to wrap his or her head around a grammatical number besides singular and plural.

Because I speak Spanish and French, Italian is very accessible to me, and if I set out to learn it, I’d have a tremendous leg up over anyone who had never studied a Romance language. Is Italian easy? That depends on what you bring with you. It would be easier for me than for a native speaker of Russian with no background in Romance languages, I think, but harder for me than for a native Spanish speaker.

Is Irish difficult? It sure was for me, because it was my first Goidelic language (and only three exist). But having learned some Irish, Scots would be much easier. In fact, I can pick out a good many words in Scots, since it is so similar. In Welsh, which is in the other branch of Celtic languages? I have no idea, but it could not possibly be easier for me than Scots. If I already spoke another Brythonic language, for example Cornish, I’d have a leg up in Welsh.

Never let the difficulty of a language (relative to you) intimidate you. That just means it’ll take longer, and require you to get someone to explain some concepts. You can find that information, I’m sure.

Where to start: at least one class in the basics. Best would be a community college class, but if that is impractical, look for a community ed class run through the local school district. Failing that (or in addition), get Rosetta Stone or some other tool. I haven’t used many of them, but any would be better than nothing. The key is to get yourself to a basic sense of the grammar, so you can begin screwing the language up on your own.

Alphabet. If it has an alphabet you don’t know, learn it. However, even if you know the basic alphabet, not all letters are pronounced the same across tongues. Embrace its alphabet. Without this, you can only learn audially, which will stunt the process. Someone once asked my wife if I were also bi-literate in Spanish; I found the question shocking. I’d never considered the possibility one could fail to learn to read as one learned to speak. You shouldn’t even dream of just reading, or just speaking, unless it’s a dead language, for example Gothic or Ugaritic, that can’t be practiced aloud with hardly anyone. Learn the writing system. If it’s got symbols rather than an alphabet, you are better off knowing only five symbols well than none at all.

Your next resource: get to know a friendly native speaker. That is defined as someone who a) will answer your questions, and b) will not be offended when you say something stupid, tactless, or otherwise unintended in his or her native language. Don’t ask him or her the swear words; some people take real offense to that, as they consider it presenting the worst of a language they love. Anyway, this person is your resource. S/he is your source of pronunciation to imitate, encouragement, and so on. S/he may not actually know the grammar precisely, having grown up with it; whatever.

Do bear in mind that a native speaker’s willingness to correct you (or not) may have a cultural foundation. Most native Spanish speakers will praise your Spanish even if it’s lousy, because in many Hispanic cultures, to speak poorly is embarrassing. It might be hard to get them to nitpick you; most tend to think it is more important to help you save face. A German will not only volunteer the corrections most of the time, but will help you repeat them over and over until your articulation is flawless. By their lights, both are being kind and helpful. The Mexican would rather slit her wrists than (as she sees it) embarrass you; the German can not imagine someone not wanting to say it perfectly, and will coach you to do so. Each is showing the best possible manners by the standards of his or her culture, and you will just have to adjust and work with it. You’ll have to figure out what each culture’s weak spot is. For example, it took me a long time to realize that even though most French speakers were delighted to help me pronounce the language correctly, few native French speakers have any ability to slow their speech, which makes it very difficult for non-native speakers. They aren’t trying to make it tough on you; it’s just hard for them. Since you are the newcomer, it is you who adjusts and accepts.

Now arrange to like some music. Yeah. Find some music that you like, with lyrics in the language you’re trying to learn. Look however hard you have to, but it has to be something you enjoy. Once you’ve heard it a number of times, start looking up the lyrics and finding out what they mean. We tend to remember lyrics, so you’ll have some vocabulary and grammar from that without really doing any work. It is also something you can do while driving to the leather bar, waiting at the DMV, or smoking dope–no extra effort needed.

Think of your favorite short book. Ideally, it would be one whose original is in the language you want to learn, but doesn’t have to be. It’s the book you’ve read over and over for years, and can remember passages by heart. It is probably popular enough to be available in translation. Get the translation and start reading it. Feed words you do not understand to an online translator. You already know what to expect it to say, so the cues are already in your mind. If you really want to work at this, read it aloud. This you probably can’t do at the leather bar or DMV, but could do while smoking dope.

If you know of a book in that language that you want to read, but can’t get in English, you have a perfect motivator to start feeding it to a translation website para by para. You’ll absorb a lot. Get it in e-book version, or something from which you can copy and paste.

Speaking of smoking dope: or light drinking, if you indulge (I myself am a light drinker, don’t like weed; not that I advocate either, but I condemn neither), feel free to do so while reading or listening. A relaxed mind absorbs this stuff better. If you find that the relaxant trips your beer-thirty trigger and gets in the way of absorbing, of course, use common sense.

Grab a newspaper or magazine in the language. If it’s Spanish, many American cities have little weekly or monthly Spanish-language newsletters. Try to read it, looking up any word that really has you stuck. A magazine is best, because there are usually lots of pictures that will give you cues and context, but whatever medium you can find. Not only will you see the world as its speakers might see it, but you’ll pick up a metric crapton of vocabulary (this is equal to two English craptons). Just labor through the article so that you get the gist.

If you get cable or satellite TV, or otherwise have access to foreign movies, watch some. Subtitles aren’t necessary; I would recommend some with, some without. All the visual cues are there for you: if the French woman says in annoyance, “Elle me fait chier,” you may not get that this literally means “she causes me to shit,” but you will see that it was said in irritation, and will probably have an idea about whom she was talking. Through watching Mundos Perdidos on HITN, I picked up a lot of Spanish environmental terms without any effort at all, including great stuff like ‘manglar’ (mangrove swamp), ‘alimentación’ (nourishment), and ‘la caza’ (the hunt). In fact, half the time I was reading a book in English, just listening to the background vocals and peering up at the screen now and then.

Laugh at yourself. You are doing it wrong if you are afraid to embarrass yourself. Now and then it’s okay to make a funny mistake on purpose; it breaks the ice. A very nice young Mexican lady who spoke no English was helping me to recite the Spanish alphabet. The letter J, jota, in Spanish is pronounced ‘HO-ta.’ However, joto is Spanish slang for ‘gay.’ (I think it’s only pejorative if you mean it that way. I learned it from a Mexican who was speaking of a brother he loved very much.) When I got to J, I blurted “HO-toe.” She didn’t correct me, but she laughed.

Jokes don’t always translate, but when it’s safe, give it a try. I was explaining to a Spanish-speaking waitress that Deb spoke a little but was embarrassed to try, whereas I had no shame. To describe myself as ‘shameless,’ I used a cultural code word: sinvergüenza. In Spanish, that means “having no moral scruples of any kind,” and would be a terrible insult if I said it of anyone but myself. She knew I knew what I’d said, and what I meant in English, and in context it was comical. Have some fun.

All exposure is helpful. Reading, listening, speaking, writing; if you are doing anything involving the language, you’re making progress whether you feel like it or not.

You will never be perfect. Neither are they. Do we speak perfect English at all times? I do not, and the English language is my line of work. As I often tell people who keep apologizing to me for grammar or spelling, I’m off work; to get me to pick on your English, I get paid for that. Being understood, and understanding, are more attainable goals. Learning any language is like golfing: good days and bad days, good shots and bad shots, gradual improvement through regular application and self-examination.

Not that you shouldn’t strive for perfection, but if perfectionism becomes the excuse to beat yourself up, or be afraid to try, it’s a hindrance rather than a help.

Buena suerte, bonne chance/merde alors, etc.


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