Learning Languages

THE GOOD LIFE -- Please welcome long-time forum member and friend Serge Gorodish, who takes us on a trip through the world of learning languages.  Bond knew a lot of languages, and it's a great way to really get to know the places you're traveling to!

Don't forget, you can hear the whole podcast, including comments by Jamie and Sandy, by scrolling to the bottom of this article, or by clicking on the podcast link at the top of the page!

Also, the book Jamie mentioned in the podcast is: Express Yourself!: The Essential Guide to International Understanding





…or in other words, “Bond, James Bond” in Mandarin Chinese. Hello BJB listeners, this is Gorodish, Serge Gorodish, and today I’d like to give you a few pointers and some encouragement on foreign language study.

According to Ian Fleming, Bond had an excellent command of German and French. In the films, we see Bond using Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Pashto, Russian, etc. with ease and confidence. A second language is almost like a superpower—it opens up a whole world otherwise invisible.

Learning and using foreign languages has long been one of my favorite activities. A second language can be the key to job opportunities, to travel, and even to romance. It’s also a source of pleasure that anyone can experience at little to no expense.

Perhaps your previous foreign-language experience is limited to school classes. Some enjoy these while others find them boring and frustrating. If you’re among the latter I encourage you to take a look around at the new approaches and resources available these days, many for free. It’s a whole new world for language learners. I used to have to scour the bookstores to find a single book on a slightly unusual language like Japanese. Now with a few keystrokes I can find dictionaries, videos, music, even conversation partners for hundreds of languages. There’s never been a better time to master a language.

Using a foreign language has five facets: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and cultural competence. One of my favorite tools for practicing speaking is also my method of choice for attacking a new language—it’s the Pimsleur course, named after the linguist Paul Pimsleur, who originated the method. A Pimsleur course appears deceptively simple. Each lesson is a recording with instructions to repeat this, say that, etc., with lots of repetition to help things sink in. All you have to do is listen attentively and follow instructions. The content is carefully designed to gradually ramp up in complexity.

Think about it. Speaking a foreign language is a physical skill, like skiing, for example. You must train your mouth to move in new and unaccustomed patterns, and the more practice you get, the more gracefully and precisely you’ll be able to do it and the less you’ll stumble.

A typical language class gives each student a few minutes at most of actual speaking time. The Pimsleur method gives you lots of speaking practice in perfect privacy. A typical course consists of 30 half-hour lessons. Some of the more popular languages offer three course levels—that is, 90 lessons. By the 90th lesson, you’ll be surprised how much you’ve learned to say. Pimsleur courses are easily available for sale on-line. Admittedly, they don’t come cheap, but I have been able to borrow quite a few for free from my local library.

My second suggestion concerns listening. Listening is the hardest aspect of a foreign language because you can’t go at your own pace but must take it as fast as it comes. Any foreign language student knows the satisfaction of correctly formulating and asking a question, only to be taken down a peg when the reply is completely incomrehensible.

The solution is obvious once pointed out. To get better at listening, you need to spend more time listening—a lot of time. Fortunately listening takes less energy than speaking or writing and can be multitasked with other activities such as driving or housework.  To do this you need audio to listen to. Try foreign-language soundtracks of your favorite movies, music, audio books… dedicated Websites such as ChinesePod.com also provide audio tracks for download along with transcripts, vocabulary lists, and other study tools. Aim for audio that’s a little beyond your comfort zone. I have found that with repeated listening a recording gradually becomes more comprehensible.

Maybe you deal with someone regularly whose primary language is not English. I’m thinking of a server in a favorite restaurant, a manicurist, or other professionals of this type. My third suggestion is to take such opportunities to master alimited realm of discourse. For example, learn how to order in a restaurant, how to ask for the check, and conduct other restaurant-related business. This is a much more manageable goal than trying to converse on every subject under the sun. Your efforts will make you look cool and most likely make you a favorite customer.

My fourth suggestion is to make use of spaced-repetition software. This is a far more sophisticated version of old-fashioned flashcards. The software presents “cards” (I’m making air quotes as I say “cards”) according to a carefully calculated tapering schedule of review so that you can keep up with ever-increasing vocabulary. Several space-repetition programs are available. I personally use Anki, which is available for free. Among its many capabilities is the power to synchronize and access your “cards” across several platforms such as a Web browser or cell phone. This is a very flexible tool which can do much more than just vocabulary once you become an expert user.

A fifth suggestion is to employ mnemonic techniques to help memorize vocabulary, grammar, etc. The harsh truth is that approaching fluency in a foreign language entails memorizing ten thousand words and more. Mnemonic (that is, memory-training) techniques are a huge help in this.

A key tenet of mnemonic techniques is the mind retains images much better than words. Here’s an example. The word “grapefruit” in French is pamplemousse. To fix this in your mind, indulge your childish side and notice thatpamplemousse sounds a lot like pimple-moose. We’ll use a mental image to burn this into our brains. Picture a moose covered with pimples—giant pimples that look exactly like grapefruits. Take a moment to see that image in your mind’s eye. Absurd? Repulsive, even? Yes, and that’s the point. Once you visualize it, that image will be burned into your brain.

Take a moment tomorrow to ask yourself what “grapefruit” is in French. Do you want to bet you will remember? Over time, with repeated use of the word, the image fades, to be replaced with natural and immediate recall of the word.

This example only scratches the surface of memory techniques. Much more can be learned from the many books available as well as the Web.

My sixth and final suggestion: don’t forget to have fun. Earlier I said learning a foreign language is like skiing. Learning a foreign language is truly a journey with no end. You will never be “done.” But just like with skiing, you can have fun and excitement from Day One, even if you never reach Olympic level.

When possible, I like to combine foreign-language with travel in a mutually complementary way: it is equally true to say that I travel for the purpose of study and I study for the purpose of travel. Pick a place to visit—say, Prague. I would lead up to my trip with six months or a year of studying Czech. This phase is training for the mission. Then on the trip, the mission itself, I not only use what I’ve learned but take notes on interesting words and phrases that I encounter. Pick up a few books or magazines for which I can get the English equivalent. After the trip, I keep studying, including all those notes that I took. This phase is enhanced by pleasant memories. Even particular words or sentences bring to mind where I was when I first noticed them.

So, to summarize the main points: (1) Try a Pimsleur course to get started in a new language and to get your mouth used to the feel of a new language. That’s P-I-M-S-L-E-U-R. (2) Spend lots of time listening to audio just beyond your comfort level. (3) Take the opportunities offered by your daily interactions, perhaps to master a language in a specialized realm of discourse. (4) Use spaced-repetitition software, such as Anki (that’s A-N-K-I) to keep up with your vocabulary.  (5) Use mnemonic techniques to dramatically amplify your memory power. I recommend the classic introduction How to Develop a Super-Power Memory by Harry Lorayne (that’s L-O-R-A-Y-N-E). (6) and finally, don’t forget to have fun.

I want to close with a story that shows you never know when or how a foreign language may prove useful. Some weeks ago I was preparing to make a trip to Texas via a U.S. air carrier that shall remain nameless. I went on-line to select my seat for the flight, only to be informed that this could only be done by telephone. Calling the customer-service line, and running the gauntlet of the push-button menu, I finally got a recording which said that due to the current east-coast snowstorm they were too busy to talk to me, and I should go on-line, following which it hung up on me. This was the classic rock versus hard place.

In a flash of inspiration, I called the Japanese-language customer service line. This time there was no phone tree, merely a pleasant woman who picked up the phone and courteously and efficiently took care of my needs. I got what I needed and felt cool doing it.

So, until next time, this is Serge Gorodish, reminding you to keep living like James Bond—and, whatever it is that you’re doing right now, why not do it with a little style?

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