Friday, September 15, 2006

Language Dabbling

If you're planning on living in or working with a culture, basic fluency in the language is a must. If you're not, there may be serious questions as to why you would study the language at all. But in a multicultural world, as with the world of leisure known to select members of the upper class in past centuries, language doesn't have to be a tool for survival. It can also be an avenue to enlightenment, a vehicle for connecting with the larger world or just plain entertaining. In the 19th century, nobles of a certain mind read the literature from other countries or picked at language families in an effort to decipher the world and broaden their horizons. In an era of YouTube, mp3 download sites and online newspapers and radio, we all can do this. You don't have to travel the world to find out about other peoples anymore. To the contrary, with google or ask and a little patience, all sort of place, cultures and languages are accessible.

The other day, at How to Learn Any Language, a test (via Polyglottery) was posted for deciding what to study next. The test is a good one. It is in the nature of the would-be polyglot to want to study them all, and a little judgment is called for in making sure you don't wind up knowing nothing at all about everything. The test is an excellent one if your goal is to pick a language you can learn well enough to 1) use effectively and 2) answer, "Yes, I speak it" without risk of a native speaker showing you for an idiot.

The language dabbler speaks a few languages, but if wise will answer about all of them that he or she, alas, only knows the odd phrase. In this case, if you run into a native speaker, you will at worst prove your modesty justified, but more often show that you are more serious than you at first appear. The serious language dabbler always wants to fit the second category. So here's's test for whether you want to get your feet wet in a language, even if only for fun and curiosity and with no long term plans:

1. Are there books or software packages for each of the following categories that are a) less than 20 years old and b) less than $50: Phrasebook (+1), grammar (+1), vocabulary guide (+1), general language guide (+1), CDs (+1)

2. Is there a website that explains verb conjugation (+1), use of nouns and adjectives (+1), common expressions (+1), unusual features of the language (eg lenition for Celtic, agglutination for Altaic, particles for languages like Japanese or Chinese) (+1)

3. Can you locate an internet radio station that is listenable (+1), downloadable music (+1), downloadable movie or video clips (+1), an online newspaper (+1). No points if you think you found a link to the item but couldn't actually make it work.

4. How much time are you willing to spend per day listening to your language? +1 for each half hour up to 1 1/2 hours

5. How much time are you willing to spend reading and navigating web pages, etc in the language? +1 for each half hour up to 1 1/2 hours

6. When you decide you have dabbled enough, you will:
a) think it was a neat experience (+1)
b) keep scanning web sites in the language (+1)
c) keep listening to music/radio in the language (+1)
d) actually try to communicate in the language in forums or language exchanges (+2)
e) exchange a few words in your new language with actual people (+3)

There are a maximum of 27 points possible.

0-8 points: either there's no material or you're not that interested
9-14: have fun; if your language comes up in conversation, you can smile and volunteer that you once knew a few phrases; apologize in advance for your mangling of them before you demonstrate
15-20: it sounds like you could really have fun with the language, and like there are a few resources to back you up; be modest about your skills but know that you're not wasting your time
21-27: take the test linked above; you might want to consider pursuing your language a little more seriously


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