Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Language Problem

During the last year I've been trying to learn French. It has been a struggle, as I'm not very good at learning languages (I achieved the lowest mark for Welsh in the history of the University of Wales). The only time I have been able to pick up a language is when I've been immersed in another culture, cut off from English speakers.

I like to tell myself that this is because I am a musical person who learns aurally rather than visually. But it could just be that I'm bone idle and only pick things up when deprived of any alternative. Either way, in an ideal world I would spend a few months working behind the bar at Chez Jacques, interacting with the locals to the point where, months later, Parisians would be appalled by my strong Toulouse accent.

Sadly, work and family committments have meant that it was unlikely that I would ever be pouring a glass of Ricard for Monsieur Bertillon, so I had to find a compromise.

At one point I joined an evening class, but soon discovered that it was actually a dating agency for middle-aged divorcees, masquerading as an educational course. As an alternative, I tried the traditional book and CD route, but it was really hard to assess how well I'd done. What was the answer?

After a long search, I found an internet course that combined traditional teaching methods (books - remember them?) with videos and exercises, where I could record myself and be assessed by native speakers. I could also join a social networking site and make friends with people in Francophone countries. Parfait!

Unfortunately the reality was a little disappointing. The feedback on my exercises amounted to little more than 'tres bien'! One or two brave souls remarked that my accent wasn't all it could be, but practical tips were thin on the ground.

The social networking didn't quite live up to expectations either:

This young woman is from the Ukraine and, as far as I can tell, doesn't speak French. However, she does have a fine collection of commemorative plates celebrating military helicopters. I'm not sure why she's wearing angel wings.

The French course taught me enough to ask a wide range of questions, but sadly left me completely unprepared for the answers. In some ways, knowing a bit of a language is worse than knowing nothing. It was humiliating.

I have decided to take a break from French for a while and try German, which seems to be easier in many ways, as it's more closely related to English. But there are two possible problems. First, I'm a little concerned that my pronunciation strays too easily into war film German: "Achtung! Fünf, vier, drei, zwei, eins...". Second, they have those terrifyingly long words, like betäubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung. There's no excuse for that.

Perhaps I should just stick to French. But I'd rather speak three foreign languages badly than one reasonably well.

When I was 26 I went to Lanzarote. I didn't speak a word of Spanish and had an unfortunate incident which ended with me being dumped in a lava field at 2.00 in the morning, surrounded by hostile dogs. It was horrible and I know that if I'd been able to speak some Spanish, however badly, things would have been different.

(Fortunately, after wandering across the lava field for an hour, I was rescued by some local lads in a jeep who helped me find my house, driving at ridiculous speeds in the dark, along dirt tracks with terrifying vertiginous slopes. Once we found where I was staying, I invited them in for a drink and as they left, one of them suddenly handed me a huge lump of dope and said, with a grin, "See you in Hell")

After that experience, I learned some Spanish and reached a point where, a few years later in Chile, I was able to book hotel rooms and train tickets in Spanish over the phone. It was exhilirating.

But unless you have a particular affinity with one nation or linguistic group, does it make sense to limit your options? Wouldn't it be better to learn the essential 1000 words in several languages, unless you're one of those nauseating people who are naturally fluent in six languages? In the early part of the 20th century, some people would have had a simple answer: Esperanto.

Sadly, Esperanto is largely forgotten and I wouldn't be surprised if the most popular artificial language of today is Klingon. What a waste of time.

If anyone has any tips for learning a language that don't involve working in a bar for a year, I'd be interested to hear them.


Anonymous said...

Oh that is a very funny post, Steerforth! I'm not laughing at you but with you - I love the angel with the military helicopter collection. Good for you to persevere with languages. I learned Gaelic through a combination of self-teaching (remember cassette tapes?) and classroom teaching, but the key to it all was conversation with native speakers. Could you find a sympathique French person who might like half an hour English conversation in exchange for half an hour French conversation once a week?

Little Nell said...

Sorry Steerforth, after two years of living in Lanzarote my Spanish still leaves a lot to be desired. However, I have yet to have the ‘being dumped in a lava field’ experience! You have to ask yourself why you want to learn the language. We decided that we would learn Spanish so that we could get by in day-to-day dealings with the locals. Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is not what happens. Making an appointment to see the doctor is about all that we use it for; oh, and making sure we get the right cut of meat at the supermarket. Unless you are going to be living in a village next to the local goatherd (my husband’s explanantion) why do you want to learn? I’m very tired of hearing ex-pats say that we are ‘arrogant’ for assuming that the locals will speak to us in English. Well, excuse me, but the last time I looked, Lanzarote had given up agriculture and fishing as its main source of income, and embraced tourism wholeheartedly. The spanking new Health Centre here in Playa Blanca is there precisely because of tourism. We will continue to make a huge effort to speak Spanish, even though it tests the aged grey matter to the extreme, but I am finding that life is just too short to spend my days learning vocab and verbs; I’d rather be exploring the natural beauty of this wonderful island...and that includes the lava fields.

lucy joy said...

I excelled at languages in school. I fought, and lost a long battle to study French, Welsh and German at GCSE (opting for French and Welsh in the end).
It got me nowhere - I never travelled far, and I chose not to send my sons to the local Welsh school.
When I was a nanny, the family specifically wanted an English-only speaking girl so their son would learn fluent English. I ended up picking up a good standard of conversational Punjabi, much to their amusement and annoyance

My advice is to use your skill - music. Listen to a language and learn the 'scales'. Watch films in French/German and disable the subtitles (I have loads of French films I'd be happy to send to you - ooh la la!).
Another thing I do (my one concession to Autism) is read the ingredients/instructions and descriptions on every day things in all languages. I very much enjoy this, and have done since childhood ('barberskum' - Norwegian shaving foam being a favourite).
If you are looking for a technique, you're probably trying too hard.
I would encourage you to try several languages at once, I believe once you have the knack,every language penetrates your brain and starts to make sense. Listen and repeat is boring, feels childish to me - is this how you feel?
I really think it's a confidence issue - you have obviously tried exceptionally hard, and it shouldn't feel like a chore. I'd imagine you're a perfectionist who wants to be able to recite beautifully constructed sentences full of descriptive language - just stick to the basics for now.

By the way, I'm not bragging about my ability - I failed every other subject abysmally!

Apologies if this makes little sense, I cracked open a beer at 6 p.m, the recycling bag is now full (even the word verification is 'asole' (honestly)...

George said...

There is a restaurant group in New York City called "Esperanto"--one location is in Williamsburg, and I think that there are at least two others. I thought it would have been edgier to have named it Volapuk, but I suppose commerce trumped attitude.

But I do have at the office a novel in Esperanto, Sept Fratoj (translated from Finnish). When I saw it on the cart at Second Story Books, I knew that I had to buy it. Now I don't know what to do with it, because my attempt to give it away failed.

JRSM said...

This was a very funny post!

The only suggestion I can make, which SOUNDS wise, but which I haven't tried myself, is to get a French edition of a book you know well and love in English, and work through that with a dictionary for the unfamiliar bits.

Anonymous said...

Lucewoman is right - you can learn a lot from reading the foreign language instructions on things you buy. My favourite; instructions for filling a fountain pen (ah, those were the days...) in Dutch, were something like 'doop der pen in der ink' - although, come to think of it, that wouldn't expand your Dutch vocab.much, would it?

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your post; witty and insightful, as ever. The Spanish lava field incident sounds terrifying!

I would like to learn French. I studied it at school along with German and did okay, though I was never brilliant at languages. I was much more interested in science back then. I have been thinking for a while that I would like to learn a language properly and a recent trip to Dieppe with a French speaking friend of mine has prompted me to consider it more seriously. After reading about your experience with the internet course, I think that may not be the route for me.

Sadly I don't have any tips on language learning to share, but good luck with it. I think learning other languages and not just sticking to French is a good plan.

Bill Chapman said...

Sorry. You're wrong about Esperanto. You clearly were not at the 2011 British Esperanto Congress was at Eastbourne College, from 2011 April 8 to 10. There in Sussex Esperanto speakers from ten countries (Japan, Belgium, Germany, Italy, ...) got together for a long weekend to talk about the Japanese earthquake and subsequent problems, and to discuss a vast range of other topics, sharing a drink in the evenings.

I've used ERsperanto a lot on my travels.

Esperanto is a relatively young language with a relatively young speaker population. Here's the language you won't fail at! A good place to start is

Oh, and there are a lot of Esperanto materials on eBay at the moment!

Grey Area said...

I have several family members who speak Welsh fluently, one cousin has two children who speak welsh as a first language - and another who was the first welsh speaking Miss Wales. It was one of the key subjects at school - I loathed it. It's the language of Satan and makes no logical or linguistic sense. It also brings out the worst qualities in people and makes them angry and morose. I found French very easy, and spent 6 weeks in Toulouse when I was 14 ( I like the French, all the aspects of their collective personality that we are supposed to dislike rather appeal to me ) - and still watch French Films without the subtitles - I had a very good accent, but then my father was Spanish and spoke 6 languages,all very well except for English, which was terrible - except for swearing - which he was very, very good at.

Martin said...

Sorry to hear about your linguistic quandary. However, I would urge caution if you intend to make any jocular remarks about 'taking off' to the winged lady in the picture. Your Ukrainian will need to be perfect, or you could be in deep trouble.

Doofus said...

I think I woke the neighbours laughing at that post, Steerforth.

And I did a double take on the photo. Are those really angel wings?!

As far as the language goes, I can only give you the benefit of my own very limited experience of speaking French - I just went for it, I blundered and blustered and paused, and got corrected by the French, who I found without exception to be friendly and polite. But I think I improved whilst I was over there.

It's great to learn lots of different languages though. Like Lucy I did French and Welsh GCSE (which was the only A I got!) and enjoyed them both very much, but I always remember excitedly jabbering on in Welsh in my FRENCH oral exam. I only got a B for that one.

One other thought is that, as I understand you live in the South of England, you could always try to pick up some French radio stations and listen to it as much as possible (depending on how tolerant your family are).

Thinking about it, just log onto the France Musique FM website, highly recommended!

Steerforth said...

Christine - Congratulations on learning Gaelic - not the easiest of languages! My wife has also suggested that I take some private French lessons - very broad-minded of her, I must say ;) But seriously, one to one conversation would be an excellent idea.

Little Nell - I like Spanish as a language - much more phonetic than most langauges - and it's more of a lingua franca than French. But if I was in your position, I'm not sure if I'd bother. You're right - spend every spare moment exploring the beautiful island (and it really is beautiful!).

Lucewoman - I must admit I'd had a few drinks myself when I wrote this post. Watching foreign films without the subtitles is an excellent idea. I think you're right - listen to the music of a langauge and don't get too bogged down worrying about constructing grammatically perfect sentences.

George - Perhaps I was wrong about Esperanto. See Bill Chapman's comments.

James - The problem with your technique is that I'd have no idea what the words sounded like and it's hard enough to get the French to understand me, even when I know the correct pronunciation. Still it would be fun trying.

Anna - I've seen several Dutch films where I've wondered why they're suddenly talking in English, only to realise that it's 100% Dutch. I suppose Dutch is the easiest language to learn, but a complete waste of time because the Dutch already speak excellent English (better than some English speakers!).

Pinky - There are courses at the Lewes branch of Sussex Downs college, but I've always been put off by the length of the sessions. After an hour I start to lose the will to live. I might try out one of the tutors who advertises in Viva Lewes.

Bill - I don't wish to sound dismissive of Esperanto. On the contrary, I think it's an excellent idea and wish that the EU would promote it across the member states - much easier than struggling with French, German, Spanish etc. I was just going on the fact that I've never met anyone who speaks it and as a bookseller, only sold a couple of books in 20 years. I'd be interested to know how you used it on your travels.

Richard - I must admit I had a very unhappy experience learning Welsh. I don't feel quite as strongly as you do about it! I think it's great that the language has undergone a revival and I'm all in favour of fighting the homogenisation of the world, but I found the grammar impossible, particularly the mutations. I learned enough to work behind at bar at the National Eisteddfod and can confidently pronounce place names, but that's as far as it goes. I know middle class English people in north Wales who send their children to a Welsh-speaking school because they don't want them talking like Scousers!

Martin - Ukranian's extra fun isn't it, because in addition to tough grammar and pronunciation, you have a new alphabet to cope with!

Steerforth said...

Genius - Yes, I can sometimes get French FM stations if the atmospherics are a bit weird (even Spanish the other day), but you're right, we now have internet radio.

I quite like some of the French pop too - vive la difference and all that.

Well done for getting an 'A' in Welsh. I take my hat off to you. The best I can do now is tell you that it's a bit cloudy this morning (bore ma?).

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I would prefer to learn one language very well. I am also in awe of anyone who can flip back and forth--especially when they are friends of mine and we are traveling. Before Italy trips I have been able to brush up on my college Italian just enough to not be a total rube when I get there. And my high school French allows me the most basic French accompaniment to my pointing and gesticulating. Since we have so many Spanish speakers in this country and lots of Spanish media I've been meaning to learn Spanish. I've had the books on my shelves for two years now and haven't cracked them open. Your post may be the inspiration I need.

Camilla said...

I recommend total immersion, if you can manage it somehow. When I moved to the Netherlands nearly six years ago, I was required to take one year of Dutch at night school. That was great, and very useful, but the thing that really kicked my conversational Dutch along was simultaneously starting work in a Dutch-speaking office. At first it was hard going because people could hear I was a foreigner, and would 'helpfully' switch to English, but once I started being able to make myself understood, they did that less and less and it was immensely gratifying :D

Having just mastered Dutch, I then moved to Belgian Limburg where they speak a very strongly accented dialect of Flemish - ARGH :P I am getting there ... slowly ...

If you can't move to another country right now, I believe there are some immersion courses you can do for a week or two, which apparently get you reasonably fluent. If nothing else, it gives you a great excuse for a week or two in France. :D

Good luck, and have fun!

ps Dutch is harder than it looks - a lot of the words sound like English, but the grammatical structure is completely different. Sometimes find I myself English talking but with a Dutch construction. :P

pps word verification 'painpenv'!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I had to laugh at your lingual mishaps. I have to agree that immersion and conversation probably work best. I used to have business French lessons at one stage, and after the dryness of learning letter etiquette etc, we read the proper Asterix for fun.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that one should do what one is drawn to (which should be plenty), without looking for unnecessary challenges, particularly languages which may never have any practical use unless planning to emigrate or get a job in that country.

But then I have so little aptitude for languages, I really do think the fates are trying to tell me something (ie don't waste your life Laura!). Though the 1000 words idea is good just in case I ever fancy a holiday abroad I suppose. Though surely it can't be long until we can speak our own language into our smart phones for instant translation when talking to someone else and vice versa?

lucy joy said...

I SWEAR, I don't go looking for these things, they just show up -

Steerforth said...

Lucewoman - Good for us, not following the crowd. Ananas? Pineapple's much nicer.

Thomas - For a bit of fun, you could learn Spanish with a strong Castillian accent, just to annoy people. I'd be happy learning one language very well if I had a particular affinity with another country, but I just can't decide.

Camilla - You've just talked me out of learning Dutch. How about Frisian? That's the closest language to Engish. If only more people spoke it.

Gaskella - I like the idea of learning by reading Asterix or Tintin (or should that be 'Tantan'). The general consensus seems to be for immersion, so that's a good excuse for another holiday!

Laura - I'm not surprised by your reluctance to learn a language, given your aversion to travelling beyond these shores! However, as someone who apreciates the Victorian age, have you ever thought about ecclesiastical Latin?

Canadian Chickadee said...

Oh this is wonderful! I speak un peu francaise (probably misspelled it too!).

As you say it is all very humiliating, especially since I had an uncle, one of those terrifying people who spoke six languages fluently and a couple of others badly. These days, I'm hard put to even remember which ones they were.

I have taken French lessons, and a couple of quarters of Norwegian, until the teacher quit, whether it was from the lack of quality of the students or because of the traffic congestion -- her stated reason -- I'll never know.

And one of my nieces got a bilingual job, spending part of her time in Paris and part in London, but she gave it up because her husband got too lonely. She might have been better off keeping the job and losing the husband, but that's another story ....

But I say, full marks for trying to speak another language. Bon chance!

Canadian Chickadee

zmkc said...

How odd, I was just thinking of writing a post about learning languages. As I'm not very good at it, I won't be able to offer any advice though, only the benefit of my unhinged enthusiasm for the process itself.

Sam Jordison said...

But, but, but, you have to tell the full lava field story. How did that come about?

Steerforth said...

Well, I'd been clubbing (not a great evening - I might as well have been in Basildon) and thought that getting a taxi home would be the simplest thing in the world (the house I was staying at was quite remote, but Lanzarote's a fairly small island).

I managed to find a nice BMW and showed the driver my address. He nodded and started driving. After six miles, the taxi suddenly stopped and the driver gestured that I had to leave. I looked for my house, but we appeared to be in the middle of nowhere.

I asked why we were stopping there, but didn't understand the answer. I tried again, using a variety of words from different languages, but the driver was becoming increasingly agitated and things were getting a bit uncomfortable.

I decided to pay him and find another taxi, but once he'd driven away, I realised that I was completely alone in the middle of a lava field, with a black, starry sky above me.

I started walking across the loose, jagged rocks and kept stumbling. The noise seemed to agitate some dogs in the distance and they started howling and barking.

My head ached like hell from the alcohol and dehydration. I was also half deaf from an evening of loud music. I was beginning to feel really ill.

I felt like lying down and waiting until dawn, but the ground was too uncomfortable, so I just kept walking. After a mile or so, I saw a jeep full of men and approached them. In hindsight, I might have been getting into even bigger trouble, but I was desperate and luckily they were friendly.

Anyway, the point of this anecdote is that the next day, I realised that the taxi driver had actually dropped me off very close to where I was staying, but didn't want to take his shiny BMW on a dodgy dirt track in the dark. If I'd spoken even a little Spanish, I'd have been several hours of wandering aimlessly in the dark.

Shelley said...

Try Sign Language. Although English is what I write in and what I love, to me American Sign Language is the second most beautiful language in the world.

Steerforth said...

Well Shelley, we tried sign language with our sons when they were babies and it was very successful. Some people in the family were very dismissive and even alleged that it was stoping the boys from learning to talk, but I'm sure that many tantrums were avoided because their needs could be communicated.

Sam Jordison said...

Hilarious! Thank you!

David said...

Really, really funny. Thanks for that. First day back at work so I needed cheering up.

When I studied both French and German at school - 30 years ago - I found French much easier: while German may seem more like English, French grammar seemed more intuitive to me - you could take the English and map it directly into French. With German, you have all those cases, plus the send-the-verb-to-the-end thing. And it wasn't the long words that flummoxed me, but the short ones you tack onto a verb and totally change its meaning.

And then when I did my O level the examiner who came to do the verbal test had some kind of speech impediment, poor man, and I couldn't even tell what he was saying in English.

Helen Brocklebank said...

I used to speak reasonable (if heavily accented) French, but then I met mr Trefusis whose French is so perfect that I gave up completely & just let him do all the talking. When we're in France he refers to me as Ma Femme Anglaise, which always makes me wonder if people think he has a variety of different wives from different countries.

Noktema Strigulino said...

I speak from experience, both Basildon and Esperanto are not as useless as people say. ;)

Mi parolas sperte; Basildon kaj Esperanto ne estas tiel sentaŭga kiel personoj diras.

Strig - Basildonian Esperantist.
Strig - Esperantisto de Bazildono

George H. said...

After two years studying Norwegian at the university, I simply moved to Norway from the United States, married a native, studied language at the university AND got a job in a bar. Presto!

Steerforth said...

Nice to hear from an Esperanto speaker - much nicer than Klingon, but few too many 'j's and 'k's for my liking. Still, wouldn't travel be easier if everyone had learned some Esperanto at school?

George - I lived with a Swedish girl for a year and didn't pick up a single word of the language. Maybe I should just accept that my strengths don't lie in this area.

Noktema Strigulino said...

I actually quite like the sound of Esperanto. The J's are pronounced like Y's. People usually tell me it sounds like a cross between Spanish and Polish.

"Still, wouldn't travel be easier if everyone had learned some Esperanto at school?"

Esperanto in one sentence.

You can give it a go, of course. Best way to find out. Have a look at - very comprehensive site, all free. :)

Steerforth said...

I was going to write a pithy comment in Esperanto, but Google Translate doesn't have it.

Like a lot of people, I have reservations about learning a language that not many people seem to speak. But I realise that unless ordinary people take the plunge, Esperanto will never grow. I still think that the ultimate solution is a political one, with the EU heavily promting it.

Noktema Strigulino said...

There are quite a few of us. Hard to count, but probably on a par with Welsh. ;)

Twitter and Facebook are quite busy with Esperanto, and there's quite a few bloggers, and of course tha national and international congresses. With that and Ipernity, and the Lernu chatroom there's always someone to talk to.

It's a truism to say that there are quite a few Esperantists but we are quite spread out. That's a good thing though; had a perfectly normal conversation with someone in the Lernu chatroom once and then found out they were Nepalese. Where you are actually from becomes a point if interesting trivia rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

They're actually doing studies on teaching Esperanto in schools to give kids a nice, easy language to get their heads round before they do French or German for example. Springboard for Languages, it's called.

Aroma Okrent has written an interesting book about Esperanto, Klingon and lots of other planned languages. In the Land of Invented Languages. About the strange people that make languages and the strange people that decide to learn them.

I'd say though, from you saying that it would be great if you could learn one language that meant you could talk to people all over the world, you're half Esperantist already. All you have to do is learn some. I wasn't great at languages myself; too lazy to learn all that irregular verb rubbish. Esperanto appealed because it got rid of them, and lots of other unnecessary things besides. All letters are only pronounced in one way. That means you can look at a word and know how to say it, and make simple sentences straight off and know they're right. Rewarding from the start. Most languages you learn phrases by rote without understanding the meaning, but in Esperanto we tend to learn the basic grammar first because it's so simple. Then you make your own sentences up instead of learning someone else's.

I think there was something on the BBC News website recently about RobHawkins from The Automatic saying how he learned Esperanto in a very short period of time - that might be interesting for you to look up.

And of course, if you want pithy in Esperanto there's always Bonvolu alsendi la pordiston; laŭŝajne estas rano en mia bideo. And I think we all know what that means...

Anyway, enough of my evangelism. I'm at the Esperanto Assiciation's stall at the Language Show in London next month so I should save some of my enthusiasm for then. :)

Steerforth said...

Thanks for your fascinating comment - much appreciated. One of the joys of blogging is that it opens your mind to so many new perspectives on the world and your obvious passion about Esperanto is very persuasive.

Noktema Strigulino said...

Most Esperantists are quite passionate about it; like any obscure hobby. Esperanto being all about communication, it tends to attract people who like to communicate. I'm not saying it's totally easy though, or everyone would be doing it - languages have to have nuance or they're not much use. You do need to sit down and learn it. But the vocab is limited compared to English, adapted to suit. Baby animals - in English it's dog/puppy, cat/kitten, horse/foal, sheep/lamb, cow/calf... Ten words, nothing like one another. Hundo/hundido, kato/katido, ĉevalo/ĉevalido, ŝafo/ŝafido, bovo/bovido. Five words, one suffix. You can stick it on anything. Sunido would be a child of the sun. The concept is there.

I havent the foggiest what a baby hedgehog is called in English... Erinacido. So now you can work out the word for hedgehog. All nice and logical.

Logical... Vulcans probably speak it. ;)

I do know a few words of Klingon. Lespaul is guitar, I think. And ghoti means fish. Think of the gh in rough, the o in women and the ti in nation...

Noktema Strigulino said...

Can I just also point out that the spelling errors in my posts are predictive text and tiny phone screen, not my fault. :) While I am rubbish at foreign languages, I do pride myself on having nailed my native language. :D