Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Gen Eds LC4: How to Learn a Language

1. I have dabbled in a number of languages over the years. I consider English the only language I am really fluent in. My spoken German is not horrible. Mi Español es horible. Perhaps I could order a meal in French.

As far as written languages are concerned, with enough time I can read German, French, and Spanish, as far as living languages are considered. I am good at biblical Greek. I can make my way well enough in Latin and Hebrew. Aramaic is close enough to Hebrew that I could take a shot.

As far as languages I have studied but remain fully incompetent at, there is Akkadian and Sanskrit. I have started Arabic, Coptic, and Ethiopic. I know a few phrases in several other languages.

So I have some experience at least at starting to learn languages (I have colleagues that far surpass me). How would I recommend going about learning a language?

Learning Style
2. A question you will want to ask early on is, "What kind of a learner am I?" For example, do I remember best by hearing? Do I remember best by seeing? Do I learn best by speaking? Do I remember best when I understand why? How do I best learn stuff?

Frankly, you're pretty much going to need to do all of these if you're going to learn a language. There is the question of writing or speaking. Why am I learning this language? To go on vacation? To become a spy or work for the NSA? Am I just wanting to read scholarship in other languages?

Google Translate leaves me speechless. Yes, it often comes up with weird stuff from the perspective of native speakers. But, dang, if this stuff had existed when my brain was young.

If you are visiting a country that speaks another language, it makes sense to get some basic pleasantries down. It's really common courtesy and you will get a lot more cooperation if you can say "Please" and "Thank you." The arrogance of many an American overseas who expect everyone to speak English and conform to their expectations is embarrassing. No, we don't put ketchup on our "fries" here. Go home if you can't deal with it. You're the foreigner here.

I personally do not learn well merely by sound. You can tell me verbally a hundred times and it means nothing. In one ear and out the other. I have to see the words written down and hear them. Then I need to speak it. And my rate of learning increases exponentially if I understand the structure of the language.

The best learning software these days has you listen, repeat back, read, and write. That gets you to a certain point in learning the language. Beyond that, you need to engage the real stuff. You need to engage people who really speak the language. In the end, you really need an immersion experience in a country where that language is the language.

3. Not everyone will be able to learn another language proficiently, although everyone can try. I've known of missionaries who struggled with a sense of defeat because they were not able to master the language of the people. In the future, a person probably should not go as a missionary to a country whose language they cannot learn. Never say never, of course.

There is a strong temptation not to immerse oneself even when you are in a country that speaks a foreign language. If you are there with family, the temptation is to speak English at home and only speak the other language when you have to in public. This is death to language learning.

Being on an English speaking military base or being in a business context where you have a translator is almost like not even being in the country. Certainly forget about really learning the language. This is not immersion.

I spent two months in Germany in 95. I was alone and so had no native English speakers to speak to. My German friends would only speak English to me if I broke down, which I did very often. I had learned German for reading and no doubt they wondered if I knew any German at all. (By the way, I believe some Asian countries used to teach English in this way, which is why I suspect some Asians in the past used to receive the same reaction as my German friends to me).

But at some point in those two months I reached some sort of critical mass so that more and more of the conversation was in German. A highlight of one stay in Germany was when I gave a ride to a Dutch hitchhiker and it took a few minutes for us both to realize that neither of us was actually German.

It is my personal opinion--to which I welcome correction from experts--that having an ear for music is a great help in language learning.

A Basic Learning Sequence
4. Let me set out a basic sequence for learning a language to speak:
  • Learn the alphabet
  • Learn the basic conversation phrases
  • Understand the type of language--how does it work?
  • Learn 1000 words.
  • Go through a basic software package on it.
  • Start going through a grammar.
  • Start listening to native speakers on radio and/or internet. 
  • Read the Bible in that language.
  • Start having immersion experiences in a relevant country.
More on these in a moment.

5. For the academy, most languages are taught for reading and they are taught in a compressed, grammatical manner. I learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in order to read texts. Accordingly, I did not learn conversational tidbits. My learning of German and French was similarly first to be able to read scholarly books. So there was no conversational German or French in my graduate, one semester courses in these languages. It was memorizing grammatical tables.

You sometimes hear people mock this approach to learning ancient Greek or another language. "If I could only learn it like I learned English or some other language," I have heard. I actually think this response itself lacks understanding. How many years did it take you to learn English--sixteen to get to the English level that the Greek New Testament is at? And the child's brain is far more spongy than our brains the older we get. I hate my 50 year old brain more every day.

The fact of the matter is, the way dead languages and languages for scholarship are traditionally taught is the fastest way to cram in those languages for reading. If someone ever comes up with a conversational way to learn ancient Greek, let's see how many years it takes you to get as far as a concentrated grammar class can get in two semesters. It's called grammar, baby.

1. Alphabets
6. So let's say you really want to learn a language. You want to speak and read it.

The first step I would take in learning a language is the alphabet. For most European languages, this step is a cinch. I was surprised when I first learned that Spanish and German have letters that are not in the English alphabet. At the beginning, I naively thought that all languages have the same letters and sounds and that it's just that some languages write them differently.

Not so!
  • Spanish has the ñ (enye), which is pronounced with an "ny" sound. Spanish and French also have letters with accents on top. Some English speakers get annoyed, "What's the difference, it's an e?" Well, él means "he" in Spanish, while el means "the." Just because you don't know enough to tell the difference doesn't mean they don't.
  • German has the umlaut letters (ä, ö, ü). We have difficulty hearing these sounds that are completely obvious to a native speaker. My wife had a prolonged exchange with a bus driver in Tübingen, Germany, trying to get to Bühl. "Bool?" she said. "Was?" he said. "Bool?" she said? "Was?" he said. "Bool?" she said. "Ah, Bühl," he said. "Ja, wir fahren nach Bühl."
 7. Of course the further away on the branches of Indo-European languages you get, the more likely that the "script" will be different.
  • The Greek alphabet is not too difficult because many of the letters look similar. Others we learned in math and science: α, β, γ, δ, ε, ζ, η, θ, ι, κ, λ, μ, ν, ξ, ο, π, ρ, σ, τ, υ, φ, χ, ψ, ω.
  • The Russian alphabet was based in part on the Greek alphabet: а, б, в, г, д, е, ё, ж, з, и, й, к, л, м, н, о, п, р, с, т, у, ф, х, ц, ч, ш, щ, ъ, ы, ь, э, ю, я.
  • The Hindi alphabet hangs its letters from a line: क, ख, ग, घ, ङ, च, छ, ज, झ, ञ, ट, ठ, ड, ढ, ण, त, थ, द, ध, ऩ, प, फ, ब, भ, म, य, र, ऱ, ल, ळ, ऴ, व, श, ष, स, ह
The Semitic languages get a little more complicated because they sometimes have one form of a letter for the beginning of a word, another for the middle of a word, and yet another for the end of a word.
  • The Hebrew alphabet is: א,ב,ג,ד,ה,ו,ז,ח,ט,י,כ,ל,מ,נ,ס,ע,פ,צ,ק,ר,ש,ת. Hebrew is different from the other languages above in that it reads from right to left and, in a book, from back to front (by English reckoning).
  • The Arabic alphabet is:
      ا ,ب ,ت ,ث ,ج ,ح ,خ ,د ,ذ ,ر ,ز ,س ,ش ,ص ,ض ,ط ,ظ ع , غ ,ف ,ق ,ك ,ل ,م ,ن ,ه ,و ,ى Like the Hebrew alphabet, you read from right to left.
8. One of the challenges of Chinese is that it does not really have an alphabet. Rather, as an analytic language, it puts together individual bits of meaning. There are over 100,000 variations of its characters, but if you know about 2600 of them, you know over 98% of what you would need in everyday language.

Interestingly, different Chinese languages pronounce the characters differently. So someone who speaks Mandarin and someone who speaks Cantonese would not be able to understand each other's spoken language, but they might be able to understand each other if they wrote down what they were saying.

2. Basic Phrases
9. As I go through the various languages and cultures in this series, here are the conversational phrases we will learn:
  • Hello and Goodbye
  • Good morning, afternoon, evening, and night
  • Yes and no
  • How are you?
  • Please, thank you, sorry, excuse me, you're welcome
  • My name is... Pleased to meet you.
  • I don't speak ____. Do you speak English?
  • I do not understand.
  • I would like...
  • Where is...
  • How much?
  • I am ...
3. Type of Language
10. At some point, if you are going to get serious about learning the language, you will need to know how it works. This relates to the previous post. Is it basically a matter of learning words and putting them in the right order (analytic)? Great. Then learning vocabulary is going to be the big deal.

Is it an inflected language that changes the endings? Oh boy, you're probably going to need to memorize some charts. Is it an agglutinating language? Then you'll need to learn a lot of meaning bits that get stuck inside words.

11. I hate to say it but you're just going to have to learn some words to get a language. This is where I am at with several languages. If you don't have a critical mass of words, you're not going to understand much. I wish I could say I was the master.

There are no end of flash cards, ranging from apps you can download to your phone to the old traditional box of 1000 that I have tried to use. A word a day seems puny, as it would take three years to get through the stack, but it's better than nothing. Sometimes I take these flash cards on long car trips. Barron's AP Test study tools have boxes more along the lines of 500 words.

When I'm in a foreign country, I usually learn vocabulary intensively. As I encounter words or want to use a word, I write it down and then review my vocabulary for the day in the evenings. A journey of a 1000 words begins with the first flashcard. In theory, you could have a "Spanish day" here where you try to think of the Spanish words you would say.

12. There are tons of free apps you can download. Then there are the conversational CDs you can buy. If you are going to a country for a week's vacation, why not listen through one of the conversational series in preparation?

If you are more serious, there is Rosetta Stone and other tools like Babbel. I find Rosetta annoyingly repetitive. But it will reward the plodder.

13. At some point you will want to buy a serious grammar of the language. How do you make a past tense? How do you make a future tense? This is when you are getting serious about learning the language.

14. Start reading a book like the Bible in the language you are learning. Your familiarity with the content will help accelerate your understanding. I have found that I can more easily understand a sermon in a foreign language than I can the radio. This is because of the common church language I share with the preacher. You can probably find sermons online in your language of choice.

My friend Norm Wilson listens for hours on end to French and Spanish radio. With the internet, we can listen to all the real speakers of a target language that we want.

Of course you will eventually want to go there. Try not to speak English while you're there. Try to think in the new language. A moment of crowning significance will be when you dream in the new language!

Next Week: Cultures 5: Spanish and Spanish Cultures
This is the fourth post in a series called, "World Language and Culture." This is the fourth series in an overall project called Gen Eds in a Nutshell. The other series so far include 1) philosophy, 2) world history, and 3) a math and science series, which is a little over half-way.

Thus far in the Language and Culture series are:

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