Monday, September 03, 2007

Language in a new light

Working, can't stop, a post from a couple of days back:

About a month ago I finished the 90 half hour lesson series of Pimsleur's Mandarin Chinese. It is without a doubt the most valuable language resource I've found and makes learning Chinese much much easier than anything else I've tried. It's uses interval repetition, such that you will hear a word first slowly and it will be repeated several times over the first minute. Then you may not hear it for a five minutes, and then 20 and then there will be a gap of a few lessons until it will pop up again in context. This format seems to work extremely well. The other technique which is used is that you are prompted to say words and phrases, not with an exact queue but with a hint of the sort of response you should give.

You won't learn a huge amount of vocabulary (just 400 or so words in the 45 hours) but you will learn them well and be able to get the pronunciation and tones accurate by the end of this. This is no small feat in my book.

Anyway, highly recommended - I just wish there were a further 90 lessons with another 400 words.


On the subject of languages I had a small, retrospectively obvious epiphany this weekend as I was getting on with learning Spanish. I've spoken in the past about my struggle with Russian and it's only just clicked why this was.

I didn't enjoy learning Russian because I didn't have any motivation.

This has only occurred to me a decade after I scraped a C grade at GCSE. I had always claimed that the language, even after 5 years of learning it, simply never clicked. I only realised yesterday quite what why this was.

Around a year and a half ago I wrote a rant of a post about the fact that some schools in England were going to make pupils learn Chinese. I thought that this would simply be a waste of the kid's time and effort for the great majority who would never use it (unless China has its way in another two decades). This thought was largely because I was struggling with the language at the time and had struggled at school with Russian (having been forced to learn it) and achieved only passable French. I now see the reason for these outcomes in a clearer light.

When I arrived here and started learning Chinese it was hard work. It's hard for just about everyone (Japanese and Koreans seem to have a slightly easier time of it). When I arrived in Beijing I had around 100 Chinese words to my name and could actually get by most of the time, I could go into a shop and get what I wanted, if I had a dictionary. I could get around in a taxi and if anything tough came up I could usually blag my way through with a stranger's assistance or by phoning a friend. Frankly I didn't need any more Chinese than that and so my motivation was low. I also didn't like the language very much. The Beijing dialect can sound like a man coughing up a rusty bicycle chain and the women don't sound much better.

OK, so a year and a half on from that I know perhaps a little over a thousand words, at a guess. I can have a basic conversation with most strangers and have spent on occasion a few hours with Chinese people speaking nothing but. My Chinese is still really, really bad but I actually love to use it. Having got used to it I actually rather like the sounds (sometimes, the radio shows and real locals still grate my eardrums when I'm not in the mood). And suddenly there's the motivation: the motivation is because I can see that my life is improved by learning the language, being able to communicate with people and I like listening to it.

The part about it making my life better is something that I NEVER KNEW AT SCHOOL! I knew that if I learnt French then I could go to France on a French exchange and speak with my host family, but why would I want to do that? I could go to France with my family and there were plenty of people in England I still had to meet. From a cultural point of view I didn't see that I was going to be gaining much (this isn't something I contemplated but I can see now that it didn't register at all). The motivation for learning Russian, so we were told, was that Russia was soon going to be taking off as a genuine superpower and we would be set for life if we could do business in the language - what sort of motivation is that for a 10 year old? I learnt to read Hebrew so that I could duplicate the sounds from the Torah. Something which I soon became bored with and gave up on. So, it seems that my past experience at learning foreign languages was marred by the fact that I didn't see a good reason why I should make the effort.

I got myself into a bit of an awkward position with my arguments about English kids learning Chinese at the beginning of my stay here because on the one hand I had spoken about how much I enjoyed the nature of language and reading great literature and on the other hand was saying that I really didn't want to bother with the hassle when I could do perfectly well without. I think that the point is, I think it's difficult to grasp how much joy can be gained from reading great works in another language or talking with the locals on an even footing until you've done so. The fact is that it opens up such a new dimension to your life. I don't claim to be able to read literature in Chinese, nor even the local papers but I can get a sense from having spoken with people about the depths of great Chinese works that it would be wonderful to be able to read them.

I've just started learning Spanish while keeping up with the Chinese and I so look forward to the day that I can sit in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela and talk with those around me naturally. I'm smiling now thinking of the first time I will be able to open up a Marquez and read the words in their untouched form.

By all this I don't mean that suddenly language is easy or that I will pick up Spanish in just a few weeks but now I actually want to learn it, not just because I think I should, or I'm told to, but because I'm excited about the prospects of it.

This minor epiphany begs the question: could I have been shown this earlier? Could someone have given me good reasons for learning Russian and French and Hebrew and allowed me to explore the enjoyable parts of learning a language (speaking with the people and reading the literature) to a greater extent. Twice I went to France on French exchanges and enjoyed both occasions, but it rather felt that this was a treat so that I would keep learning the grammar and the vocab lists, rather than the whole reason for learning the language.

Perhaps we just need more enthusiastic teachers but with teachers of all calibers running rather low, at least in the UK, there's little room for such requests I presume.

Anyway, some random thoughts after almost 2 years in a foreign land.


Chinese Study Adviser said...

Are you learning Chinese? How long time do you learn Chinese and mandarin? Do you want to know your current level and achievement? I suggest you spend 5 minutes to know your Chinese level through watching a video on

Ebolamonkey said...

Pimsleur is okay but not not very original if you are into mindmaps.

The German edition is geared in such a way for a typical businessman to get laid in German to put it bluntly. The vocab is okay but I am pretty sure with the right motivation anyone can overcome the pronunciation. Personally I do not have a hoarse voice and its hard to do.

Chinese is easier though. :)