jasonlockwood

Mastering a foreign language

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I'm not sure if this is the proper place for a post of this nature, but here goes anyway.

I have for a long time thought about why my complete ease with mastering French seems so at odds with most people I know who have attempted to learn a second language.

As background, I began learning Spanish at age 14, then after a couple years in high school, I decided to begin studying French, too. Spanish was very easy for me, I could pronounce it with no trouble at all, and even won first prize in pronunciation contests three years in a row. I even beat out kids whose PARENTS were native Spanish speakers. These were kids who heard Spanish daily, but didn't learn to speak it till later. Needless to say I was astounded by this. How could a kid with no linguistic background come out so far ahead of everyone else?

In my junior year, I started studying French. I easily picked it up due to its similarity to Spanish. I went through two years of high school French in one year. The more difficult pronunciation was still incredibly easy to me. The structure of the language required focus, of course, but it all seemed like such a grand puzzle to me. With French, I found my linguistic niche. While I enjoyed learning Spanish, I LOVED learning French. I found myself attracted to French culture (which I must add is quite separate in my mind from their modern politics). From the beginning, I knew I wanted to master the language and incorporate it into my own life - to "make it my own," so to speak.

Obviously, studying the language in a classroom setting was not sufficient to master it. I had to have a game plan. Throughout high school, I had wanted to spend a year abroad on an exchange program, but until I started learning French, I didn't particularly care WHERE I went. Upon discovering my love of French, I made it my explicit goal to spend my exchange year in a French-speaking country. One program didn't allow one to choose the country. Another one did, so I chose Belgium first, then Switzerland and France. I figured I'd have a better chance getting my first choice if it were a "lesser" country.

After finishing high school, I set off on my year in Belgium. I attended a local high school, lived with a host family that spoke little English, and made friends with Belgian kids my age. I was fortunate to have a teacher at the school who gave me special exercises to improve my written and spoken French. He had me write essays, take oral exams on books he had me read, etc. While my abilities were already strong, this teacher actually provided me the needed guidance of actually ACQUIRING the language.

What I realized implicitly back then was raw ability wasn't enough. I had to use an actual process to enhance my knowledge of French. I recall that when I encountered a new word or phrase I didn't know, I would look it up or ask what it meant, but not incorporate it into my own vocabulary until I had really "chewed" it and integrated it. Now, those are Objectivist terms for the process, which is why I say it was implicit. It just seemed the right way to learn.

In my year in Belgium, I became fluent. I still had a lot to learn, but my speaking and writing were excellent. I could converse freely and without stammering or searching for words. I carefully excised any English influences from my speech, such as pause words. I carefully listened to HOW natives spoke, their cadence, rhythm, intonation, etc. I practiced that assiduously. I acquired a native speaker's accent, albeit Belgian.

After my return home, I wanted to continue my learning, so I decided a degree in the language was in order. Going to Europe for several years was not practical, so I decided on a large university in Quebec. I spent 3 1/2 years in Quebec City studying language and linguistics with native speakers. I could have chosen a program for non-native speakers, but I already had an excellent foundation, so I needed the challenge of a native program, which included a lot of writing and analyzing grammar and such. While the linguistics was essentially nonsense, many of my courses on language and literature were valuable. I also made it a point not to befriend native English speakers, opting to become as much a part of the culture as I could or wanted to.

The result of all this was I mastered the language to a degree I later learned was unusual for most anyone. My accent became decidedly French-Canadian and rare is it that someone detects any kind of American influence in my speaking. I am today perfectly comfortable with the language.

All of this background provides a "roadmap" of how I went about acquiring a language. I know that most people are incapable of ridding themselves entirely of an accent. I've read that my ability on that count is very rare. If it merely required a high degree of intelligence, Ayn Rand would have spoken English without a trace of Russian accent.

What intrigues me is how few people seem to learn a second language well among those who actually study one. Surely one's values vary, so it's a much lower priority for some people. But I've known others who get entire degrees in French and STILL don't speak or write it very well. I'm convinced that it was my METHOD that made me successful. Objectivists understand this well; others not very well at all.

I think this highlights why a rational epistemology is critical in mastering complex things like a second language. Sadly, few in our culture grasp this, so they end up floundering and ultimately settling for second best or giving up entirely.

My question to the group is: are there others out there (American or not) who HAVE learned a second language well and how did you go about doing it?

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My question to the group is: are there others out there (American or not) who HAVE learned a second language well and how did you go about doing it?

I fell in love with (and eventually married) my Turkish teacher. :wacko:

Barry Wood

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My question to the group is: are there others out there (American or not) who HAVE learned a second language well and how did you go about doing it?

I have met many Scandinavians on the internet and in person and almost all of them write and speak English with a skill and fluency I wish most Americans had. If any of them are here on THE FORUM, maybe they can tell us how they did it.

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I have met many Scandinavians on the internet and in person and almost all of them write and speak English with a skill and fluency I wish most Americans had.  If any of them are here on THE FORUM, maybe they can tell us how they did it.

This is very interesting. I would like to deviate a little bit – it is my fourth year here in United States of America. And I have lived my first 23 years in the Philippines.

I started my English class as early as four years old at a Montessori school in the Philippines. At an early age, I was already fascinated with the English language. When I reached sophomore in college, I still have English classes. Most of the classes in the Philippines are taught in English. To enhance my English language, when I was still at school, I watched English films, cartoons and television shows. I also read English publications. While to enhance my English diction, I joined a religious group of commentators. At that time it was difficult for me to enhance my English conversation skills, for most Filipinos prefer to speak Tagalog (Philippine’s main language). So I just became more proficient in reading and writing the English language.

When I moved here in United States, it was a difficult adjustment. There are some English terms that are considered old English that an average American nowadays does not use, i.e. thrice and fortnights. I have used such terms in a casual conversation and I get comments about my choice of words. Then I met my husband, who grew up here in United States, and he helped me out with my English conversation problems.

I still struggle in conversing here in United States. My English reading and writing skills still needs some polishing. But my level of understanding English publications is way above than an average American. I can even identify the synonyms and antonyms of certain English words (which is quite unusual for a foreigner). I think I understand the concepts behind each English word which enable me to choose my terms correctly.

I would suggest going beyond conversation, reading and writing skills. Understand the concepts underlying each word, watch French movies and shows, read a good French dictionary and a French thesaurus. I remember when I turned twelve years old, I asked for an illustrated encyclopedic English dictionary as a birthday gift from my aunts here in United States. It was my best friend. I missed it though. :wacko: But now, my best friend is my husband, he is more ideal. :blink:

I hope this helps. Good luck!

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I have met many Scandinavians on the internet and in person and almost all of them write and speak English with a skill and fluency I wish most Americans had.  If any of them are here on THE FORUM, maybe they can tell us how they did it.
When I was on vacation in Denmark, I remember seeing a lot of English movies with Danish subtitles on Danish TV channels. I don't know why.

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When I was on vacation in Denmark, I remember seeing a lot of English movies with Danish subtitles on Danish TV channels. I don't know why.
Because they speak Danish in Denmark? The part that I find anumsing is that the Norwegian channels will put Norwegian subtitles on a Swedish movie.

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...There are some English terms that are considered old English that an average American nowadays does not use, i.e. thrice and fortnights. I have used such terms in a casual conversation and I get comments about my choice of words....

I think these might still be used in the English they speak in the UK, just not here in America; I don't think they're that old :wacko: . (Also, I remember that when I learned about The Ayn Rand Letter, in the 1970's, it was billed as a "fortnightly communication from Ayn Rand", and in high school physics I remember we used to joke about using fortnights as units of time, so that term has been used here fairly recently.)

I think that in general, Americans have smaller vocabularies today than they did 30 or 40 years ago; that might be what you're encountering.

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I remember when I turned twelve years old, I asked for an illustrated encyclopedic English dictionary as a birthday gift from my aunts here in United States. It was my best friend. I missed it though.  :wacko:  But now, my best friend is my husband, he is more ideal.  :blink:

I can't help but acknowledge this last part. It made me glow. :lol:

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I've read a number of times that somebody who learns more than one language at an early age is far more capable of picking up other languages later in life. I've also heard (I don't know how reliable the information is) that MRI scans have shown that different areas of the brain are activated in somebody listening to a particular language, who learned that language as an adult, vs. early in childhood. So it seems plausible to think that ease of new language acquisition is somewhat related to brain physiology, and early childhood brain development.

Either way, motivation must also be important. I saw no particular benefit to learning German in high school, so I pretty much blew off the classes - programming was much more interesting. I was not motivated and memorizing lists of German words was boring and therefore difficult. That motivation might come from practical circumstances, such as living for a long time in new country, or it might be that somebody just enjoys the process of learning a new language and it comes easily to them (which relates to the first point.)

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I think this highlights why a rational epistemology is critical in mastering complex things like a second language. Sadly, few in our culture grasp this, so they end up floundering and ultimately settling for second best or giving up entirely.

A rational epistemology helps -- whether explicit or only implicit -- but that is not the end. As you noted, motivation is another element. Further, one needs a productive psychology and psycho-epistemology.

The field of psychology of learning, language learning in particular, is a fascinating one. About eight years ago, at age 52 or so, I went back to a university, for history courses and for basic language courses. What I mean by basic is the first year or two (depending on the language), the years in which one learns common vocabulary and grammar. The dividing line is idioms. Learning idiomatic language for me was nearly a stone wall.

Before beginning my university language courses, I took an independent learning course by mail from the University of Wisconsin -- for each language I intended to study later, in the university I attended locally. That preview helped me tremendously, because I am a very slow language learner.

Another preview step I took was to study various books, pamphlets and articles on the psychology of language learning. They had a lot of insights to offer, some of which I adopted with successful results.

At the local university, in actual classroom courses, I made A's in French (for reading only), Latin, Greek, and Arabic (mostly for reading, not conversation). (I took one year of each except for 2 1/2 years of Latin, and the one year of French was at the third-year level). I tried to become (in Barry Woods's term) a "grammar god." I largely succeeded but only at the basic level. Once I got to the idiomatic level my performance plunged, and I still don't understand why.

Another note: To get A's in those languages I had to spend 20 to 30 hours per week studying each language. Other A students sometimes spent as little as half that time, yet my methods were both more numerous and more effective. The other A students were learning better methods from me, and yet they were more efficient. (I was also the one to organize study groups, which were a great help to me and some others who were serious about learning.)

I had had a terrible time with learning language when I was in junior high and high school (45 years ago). My performance then was very poor. So, I feel pleased that I was able to partly overcome my previous experience, but I had to finally accept that I am missing some element that would lead to success. I finally accepted the situation in the way that Dr. Edwin Locke has explained his career change, in his university days, from mathematics to psychology. His original passion was math, but when he hit calculus he had great problems with making progress. At the time, he didn't know why that was true, but he rightly accepted it -- after trying various solutions -- and went into a field he has come to love and do well in.

In summary, I would say that methods and motivations do play a great role in learning languages (or other specialized subjects), but different individuals have different psychological setups that do seem to make learning a specialized subject much easier for them than for others. I don't know why. Does the mind develop in one area, usually at the expense of other types of development? I don't know.

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A good exercise in learning a foreign language is using the foreign language while thinking. You can pick any topic and discuss it in your mind – no oral discussion in front of an imaginary audience. Pretend that you are a having a monologue in your mind.

I have been doing this practice since I was in grade school, about almost 21 years ago. Until recently, after getting married, my husband asked me what language do I use every time I am thinking. To my surprise my answer was – English! Then I realized I have been doing this practice for years.

The mental process helped me a lot. Sometimes I also engage into a conversation with an imaginary person. I just make sure that no one is around. But recently, I have been reasoning out with my cats – they never mind. :wacko:

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My question to the group is: are there others out there (American or not) who HAVE learned a second language well and how did you go about doing it?

The best way to master a language is to use it. I think you point this out while describing your experience in Europe and Quebec. Everyone is a little shy at first when attempting to become proficient in an area so new.

My siblings and I were exposed to foreign language all of our lives from our father. When I was 12, I was given options as to which language I would like to try to master and I chose Russian.

I took several years of the language and a few years later I moved to a largely Russian speaking community.

I learned some embarrassing lessons :wacko: (and took away some incredibly now funny stories - including differences between language commonly spoken in Russia and Ukraine). It was difficult to communicate with brand new immigrants with my text book Russian. Fortunately, there were several incredible women who took me under their wings and helped me learn to communicate more effectively. In turn I helped them study for their citizenship exams and helped them learn to speak American English.

Since moving I am back to square one, however. For now the only practice I have is writing or talking back to my computer.

To me – learning to communicate in a different language can only expand the mind.

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A good exercise in learning a foreign language is using the foreign language while thinking. You can pick any topic and discuss it in your mind – no oral discussion in front of an imaginary audience. Pretend that you are a having a monologue in your mind.

I second that. My first language is Portuguese, but sometimes I find myself thinking in English. Even in simple situations like "hmm, it's hot today. I'm going to buy a Coke."

I began learning English by "accident" when I was 7. My father bought a PC-XT back in 1990 and, well, the games were in English. This was my greatest motivation when I was a kid! :wacko:

Now I'm studying Chinese (Mandarin). While I'm struggling with pronunciation issues, the characters are just a matter of memorization and finding patterns between them. I enjoy discovering the subtle differences of thinking that the three languages implies (Portuguese, English and Mandarin).

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My native language is English, but I speak French and Russian as well. I hesitate to mention I speak some German as well, but my skills are pitiable.

I have an ear for languages, so it is very easy for me to pick up accents. I also spent much of my youth listening to my Russian ballet teacher speaking both English and Russian. I believe that this exposure helped my brain pick up the sounds from which the Russian language is composed. During my studies, I spent a good deal of time with a native Russian, so he helped me pick up a lot of slang.

I am afraid both my Russian and French are deteriorating because I find so little opportunity to use them now, but I still tend to curse in Russian when I become upset.

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Hi Bruno,

I'm also learning Mandarin, but am only focusing on the spoken language. My wife, daughter (3yrs old) and in-laws speak it natively, but I'm still very slow in picking it up. In high school and college, French was my most difficult subject, so I know language acquisition is difficult for me.

I've been using Pimsleur. After many repetitions I finally finished the first 30 lessons, and am starting the second 30 lessons now. I find myself understanding more of what my family says in mandarin now, and can occasionally draft up a few worthwhile sentences or phrases. I'm hoping that with several repetitions of the second course set, I'll be able to start getting really conversational, after which I should be able to pick up the language better by speaking with my family.

Anyone else have opinions on the Pimsleur method? (It is a conversational method that has some respect for the crow, in that it builds one's vocabulary fairly slowly, reinforcing existing foundations, then adding a bit more.)

Regards,

Andrew

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Anyone else have opinions on the Pimsleur method? (It is a conversational method that has some respect for the crow, in that it builds one's vocabulary fairly slowly, reinforcing existing foundations, then adding a bit more.)

I love Pimsleur! I'm a subscriber to Audible.com which allows users to download audio files to their PCs and/or MP3 players. They have a limited selection of the Pimsleur Quick & Simple series of lessons. These are basically the first 8 lessons of the 30 lesssons that constitute the complete first course in any given language. Out of curiosity and because I work at a Japanese company I tried the Quick & Simple Japanese for English Speakers. The lessons are in easy to deal with 30 minute chunks -- perfect for a commuter like myself. The method is very careful to constantly repeat and review material as you learn it. It's as if you are being taught one on one by a who speaks both English and Japanese. I continued on to Quick and Simple Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic and French.

Of course, since it's only the first 8 lessons in each case I did not gain fluency in any of these languages, only a few phrases and some knowledge how to greet people and ask for directions. Nevertheless, I think this method is a very good method for learning to speak a language.

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Hi Andrew,

Good to know a fellow student of Mandarin! I do not know the Pimsleur method, but for the testimonials it seems a good one; perhaps I'll search and give it a try.

I'm studying chinese at the languages department of my university. The teacher is chinese, from Beijing, speaks Portuguese very well (he works at China Radio International) and is here through an exchange program. The material used in class is copied from a Chinese government sponsored book. It focuses a lot on characters, but there is also an audio CD for pronunciation practicing. I think it is very good, so far.

One resource that can be of use for anyone who already studies Mandarin or who wants to get a feeling of the language are the podcasts from ChinesePod.com.

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Thanks for that Chinesepod link Bruno.

Check google for "cheappimsleur.com" if you're considering buying pimsleur lessons. I recently bought 2nd level mandarin for about half the list price, and am supposed to be able to return it for a partial refund when I am finished.

Gideon, I don't know if it was true for you, but for me the Pimsleur lessons got a lot more challenging after about lesson 6. The first few seemed really easy, but then they have to start adding words and phrases more rapidly.

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Gideon, I don't know if it was true for you, but for me the Pimsleur lessons got a lot more challenging after about lesson 6. The first few seemed really easy, but then they have to start adding words and phrases more rapidly.

Well, my experience beyond lesson 6 was limited to lessons 7 and 8. The quick and simple series only goes up to eight. But I think you're right, I remember learning more words and phrases in 7 and 8 than in the earlier lesson which went nice and slow.

Interestingly, all the languages I learned went through the identical sequence of content beginning with greetings and ending with the same basic questions. The narrator is also the same.

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