Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Adventures in Language Learning

Writing a recent post about language learning reminded me of my own adventures in foreign languages. My first formal foreign language was Latin, three years in high school. Now Latin isn't spoken much anywhere outside the Vatican (and even there, I have heard, Italian is far preferred) but it is fun to study. (I didn't think so when I was expected to do two hours of Latin homework every night.)
Learning Latin sets you up well for the complex grammar, much harder than English, of many other languages. Obviuosly it helps with all the Romance languages--French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian, but it is also useful when learning lnaguages such as German and Russian where nouns and adjectives are declined, just as they are in Latin. And Russian includes a number of words--cauchemar, journal, etc. borrowed directly from French.
I also took two years of French in high school, another year in college and a couple of years in grad school, followed by further formal and informal study later. For a time I was quite comfortable working in French, the official language of Quebec, but in the last few years I have become lazy and my French has deteriorated.
Even before any formal language study, though, I learned a little German, as many Midwesterners do. It was a long time before I realized that a few common words I heard, like "Gesundheit" when someone sneezed, were actually German. My mother learned some German as a child in Illinois, and for a brief period I had a German nursemaid, so the language always seemed familiar. In my opinion German is the easiest foreign language for native English speakers, because there are few unfamiliar sounds. The grammar is a bitch, but speaking is relatively easy.
One of my proudest moments was when I had started talking to a woman at a cafe in East Berlin and she asked me whether I came from West Germany.
I will recount more on language acquisition in later posts, but wanted to mention one very useful tool for learning to speak and understand a language, the Pimsleur tapes (www.pimsleur.com.) They offer conversations with native speakers that can really help you deal with pronounciation and also understand natives when they speak, usually much faster than English-speakers speak. I am working on the Russian series and find it quite good, though you will need to supplement it with grammar and written work.


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