Sunday, September 30, 2007

Staying a Polyglot...

In my last post, I wrote about what makes for a polyglot. In it, I looked at Tim Ferriss' idea that it's better to have a basic idea about a language in mind and refresh before a trip than to try to maintain multiple languages. From a practical standpoint, if his refresh methods work for you and you don't need to be able to immediately use all the languages you've learned, it is an awful lot to maintain languages. From the point of view of pride, however, if you assert you're a polyglot, mention you speak German and have somebody come back at you with a well-chosen phrase in German, it's going to be ego-wounding not to have a response.

In discussion forums for polyglots, new language learners always wonder how many languages they should try to learn at once. And great argument ensues over whether mastering a family of tongues will reinforce or distract from the learning. But there's another question: How many languages should you maintain at once?

If you look up famous polyglots, you find occasional references to someone having known x number of languages but needing some time to refresh if asked to use one of the odder selections. I'd propose that the typical language addict is going to wind up studying a lot more languages than he or she will actually learn. I've read Hans Christian Andersen in the original. It doesn't mean I know Danish today. I've read the opening of the Iliad by way of Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek. Don't ask me to translate it for you this evening, though. So, if you visit the main page for, you'll find lots of languages and you'll find a reference in my bio to some of the languages I'd played with at the time I started the site. How many languages do I know? Four: English - native; French - pretty darn good; Spanish - I read fairly easily and can limp through a conversation; Italian - I can handle basic conversations and my reading isn't bad. For the record, I can also buy a meal or get a room in Beijing, but I'll have no idea what I actually paid for it. My goal, for the short term, is to speak five languages - the aforementioned - reasonably well. And I'd like to learn some more. How to go about that?

In the past few months, I've really become a fan of Assimil. It's not that they're a panacea. But they do provide a lot of content, good explanations, and a format where once you've learned the lessons you can cover up the translations and tackle the language head on. So for the past week, I have been reading one chapter a day from Using French, L'italien sans peine, L'espagnol sans peine and Chinese with Ease. (I've also been limping through a chapter of Le breton sans peine about every other day.) At the same time, I've been making a point of listening to music in French, Spanish and Italian at least a couple times a week, with Chinese music thrown in when I'm in the mood. On the one hand, it sounds suspiciously like pretending to be a polyglot. On the other hand, all the "getting ahead" books tell you to "act as if..." and living a multilingual life has a way of making it feel natural and fun to have five languages floating around in your head. I'll update later on regarding how well this works.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Keep up or Catch Up? - What's it take to be a polyglot?

Tim Ferriss is getting ready for a media tour in Germany. So he's reactivating his German. Says Tim, there's no need to maintain languages if you've attained reasonable fluency, because it will come back quickly when you're ready to use it again.

Comes the question: What's a polyglot? Are you a polyglot if you've known five languages and can get them back in short order, but can't summon them right now? I think part of it comes down to how you relate to language - whether language is a tool for travel or something more. For the linguist, of course, language acquisition and language maintenance go together: languages aren't merely tools for talking; they're an important part of one's mental environment. For people whose language goals are more utilitarian...

In the meantime, Tim's tips might help you get back one of those missing languages, even though you'll have to figure out how to maintain it on your own.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Refining your Spanish - What's your approach?

Robert Mayer of Publius Pundit has traveled throughout Latin America for years and speaks the language such as he's picked it up. Now he's trying to bring a little order and structure into his speech and is looking for suggestions. If you've got a recommendation, drop by and leave one. If you're not so sure, check out the comments to see what others are recommending.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

What is Self-Taught?

In the Meno, Socrates argued that we can only be taught what we already know. He demonstrated this by having an uneducated slave solve geometrical problems with his guidance. Socrates' notion fits in well with the idea of education - a process of drawing out a learner's unrealized understanding. When we educate a native speaker to use his or her native language better, this is surely what's in play: effective language teachers help their pupils activate their innate capabilities for organizing lexical, grammatical and syntactical information. Those who try to force feed their pupils information, by contrast, seem to spend a lot of time wandering around wondering what's wrong with kids these days.

It may be true that we can only be taught what we already know, but can we teach ourselves or do we need someone else to help us along? How much? And what does this mean for how we learn new languages?

To revisit once more Edwin's Tarzan post, is it smart for us to teach ourselves our own version of a language we're learning and hope we'll figure out the bits we messed up later? I don't believe it's necessary for us to get every utterance right as we learn a language. I even see merit in starting with reasonably accurate but highly simplified versions of language to get started (following the natural progression from baby talk to adult speech). But in order to avoid the time and trouble a child takes to get started speaking his or her language properly, I think it's best to work in line with the language you're learning, whereas Me-Tarzan, you-Jane type language would be a sort of creole - your grammar with someone else's vocabulary. That's no good.

Aside from the question of whether we should teach ourselves a language our way, though, there's the question of whether we can. The more I think about this, the more it seems to me that what we're really talking about is the difference between teachers who educate, however indirectly, and those who go in for the data dump. All language learning systems teach us (as opposed to us teaching ourselves), but some of them do so in a way that helps us use and expand our language acquisition capabilities, while others... don't.

When I was getting my hypnosis certification, one thing that was constantly emphasized was the difference between self-hypnosis and hetero-hypnosis (being hypnotized by someone else). The thing is, knowing how to pop in a CD and listen doesn't mean you can do self-hypnosis. Reading someone else's script after filling in some blanks comes closer, but it's still not you driving the process. As for true self-hypnosis, only a trained hypnotist can do it, and at that you can't go in nearly as deep or achieve the same kind of results because you can't be an operator (the one hypnotizing) without being outside of the trance at some level. Comes the question: If you're listening to Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, are you self-taught at all? It sounds to me like hetero-hypnosis with a CD to me. With Teach Yourself, you're reading someone else's script. It's your voice (and thus, the words are probably mispronounced), but you're still working with someone else's agenda. At the outer end, you might sit down with some vocabularies, some grammars and some dialogs. At this point, like self-hypnosis, you're pretty close to being in charge. But unless you already know how language learning works, you're also probably wasting your time.

Whether you're self-taught or not, technically speaking, is irrelevant if we're talking pride points. If you're managing to learn a language without mortgaging your house to pay for travel and schooling, pat yourself on the back. The real issue is what this means for how you should structure your program. Some people think you should talk right away. Others think you should wait. With programs like Michel Thomas and Pimsleur there's no question: the whole point is to start talking right away. The thing is, if you're under the guidance of a language teacher (or language teaching system) that helps you talk from the start, building good habits as you go, that's okay. If you're teaching yourself a language for which such resources aren't available (or don't float your boat), you need to be more careful.

When I look at French, the a-ha moments aren't so many. I've been working with it a long time, I've got a pretty good grasp of how it works. With Spanish and Italian, things are dicier. I certainly can read, and I can make perfectly good simple and even moderately complex sentences. This works because I've already got an underlying understanding of them. On the other hand, studying Mandarin and Uzbek, I spend a lot of time muttering, so that's how you're supposed to say that. These are languages where I have to use familiar structures in limited contexts to stay out of trouble.

In Spanish and Italian, my understanding is better than my production, and me-Tarzan, you-Jane moments do come. I try to avoid them and to use structures I'm rock solid sure of whenever I can. And when I'm out of my depth, I usually know it and so cringe and promise myself to study more. This is a mixed bag - I try to avoid developing bad habits, but circumstances sometimes pull me in that direction.

What's painful is meeting someone who doesn't know their limitations. We get e-mails from Europeans all the time who have taught English in their home country and volunteer that they can teach English in addition to their native language if we hire them. Sometimes, it's true. Usually, it's not. It's for this reason that I would especially advise my fellow language learners first of all to be modest about their efforts, and second of all, to go with the self-teaching methods that really aren't whenever possible. Saying simple things in what you know to be the right way gives you a great foundation for when you get to try out your language and build your skills. Teaching yourself from the ground up, by contrast, can be like buying into the premise of "Me-Tarzan, you-Jane" only without realizing you've done so!

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Language Learning Myths

In my last post, I looked at the problems of speaking a language "Me-Tarzan, you-Jane" style (after reading about it at Tower of Confusion) and suggested an alternative for getting started speaking, but not too fast. This evening, looking around for memory tricks for language learning (nothing new found, sorry), I stumbled upon a site warning people not to fall for seven myths about language learning. Myths two through four go to the heart of problems with speaking for the sake of speaking.

The myths section of the site, of course, tells you more about what not to do than what you should be doing, but a perusal of the home page ( suggests that language learners focus on pronunciation, input and attitude and let production follow.

For a little food for thought for language learning, have a look. And if you've got a better memory trick than linkword, Roman rooms and Tony Buzan's 100 words, feel free to mention it in the comments.


Tarzan Talk and Getting Started in a Language

Edwin got himself involved in a thread at How-to-learn-any-language regarding language learning and the Tarzan approach. That is, put together whatever words come to mind however they come to mind.

Now, here at multilingua, I've written about - and even advocated - some pretty crazy ideas. So I wanted to take a look at this one, if only to distinguish it from some of the wild and crazy ideas that I have suggested.

On this site, I have talked about self-talk and even written some little programs for self-talking yourself toward a language. Let's put a big emphasis on the self there - what you do in your own brain to get used to new vocabulary is one thing. What you do to build your comfort zone talking with native speakers is another.

As a language teacher in college, and now working at a language school, I see value in getting started talking as quickly as possible. But I see a lot of merit in Steve's belief that it's best not to talk before you're ready. Harmonizing the two, I would say that it's important not to rush talking until your knowledge and the environment allow productive communication. For a self-teaching student, this will take longer. With a teacher who knows how to help you along, it may take less time. But conscripting people to be your language guides who have neither the time to fuss with you, nor the training to know how to guide you can be a recipe for disaster. There is the off-chance you'll get a nice, sympathetic person willing to play "Me Tarzan, You Jane" games. But there's a better chance you'll learn that native speakers think you're an incoherent idiot, both hopeless and helpless in their tongue. That's not useful.

So... yes, you should expose yourself to your new language early and often; yes, you should practice what you're comfortable with and; yes, you should stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone sometimes so you can grow. But Tarzan-Jane games don't quite fit the bill. If you're in a situation where you need to communicate, by all means, do what you need to. But don't seek out these encounters - you don't need to practice communicating poorly!

There is an alternative to the Tarzan-Jane game, of course, which is found in such as the Lonely Planet guides: Don't go up to a stranger and talk gibberish. Instead, set a small communication goal, make sure you know the key phrases, and have an exit strategy. That way your experience with natives will reinforce that you can handle certain interactions. Compare these two approaches:

You: Apples!
Merchant: Yes, they're fresh.
You: Want apples!
Merchant: How many would you like?
You: How much?
Merchant: How many do you want?
You: One apple, how much?
Merchant: It's fifty cents for an apple.
You: Want two...

Planned but simple interaction:
You: Do you have apples?
Merchant: Yes, they're fresh.
You: Good, I would like one apple.
Merchant: That will be fifty cents.
You: [pay] Thank you.

In both cases, the work got done. But in the second case, the person had a goal for the conversation - 1 apple, and a conversational strategy for getting it - yes/no questions that drove the conversation toward that goal. This approach allowed the person to have complete sentences at the ready, focus on getting them out and come across as a functional non-native instead of a novice. In the first conversation, the person had to listen constantly and formulate responses constantly. In the second conversation, the person only needed to listen for 1) whether there were apples and 2) what the price was. Everything else was taken care of. For communication and confidence building, I think that's a lot better way to go.


Saturday, September 08, 2007

Link up your learning

The other day, Tim Ferriss had a post on how to memorize lists and number sequences. A commenter passed along another site, Now, memorization and language learning have a somewhat uneasy coexistence: Language isn't a discrete information set that one knows, it's a highly complex and intricate habit that one develops. Discrete information is of use for filling in gaps where automaticity fails us, but the end-all be-all of successful interpersonal communication in a foreign tongue it ain't. As such, memorization is like carrying around an easy-to-use dictionary: it's handy to have when you get stuck, but memorizing word lists is not the same thing as learning a language.

While memorization can't replace language learning, can it help? Of course it can. Knowing a word list by heart can't get you talking, but it can help you with reading, where you can pause half a second to remember something you don't understand automatically. It's better than a dictionary, because a half-second pause will be less likely to derail your train of thought as you try to understand the whole sentence you're reading. And if you're reading passages where some of the words are unfamiliar, but known at some level, you can keep at it until understanding of the passages comes automatically, without the dictionary work getting so tedious that you give up on it. (This is the same reason people would want to use LingQ, by the way).

In recent times, I've been thumbing through Spanish and Italian translations of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This is good practice for me because the unusual nature of the writing and of the story line, plus the fact it's above my level, forces me to do my best just to go along for the ride. The one thing in my favor is my excessive familiarity with the book, which means even if I only understand every other word in some passages I still know what's going on. Memorization can play a similar role, if it's targeted to memorizing words that you will actually encounter and use within a short period of memorizing them.

In going the memorization route, targeting is all-important. If you have a bilingual book and memorize the difficult but critical words for a story, it can enhance your enjoyment of the story and keep your eyes on the foreign text and off the translation. But if you just memorize a list of words for the heck of it, you'll probably find that those you haven't actually used are gone within a relatively short period of time. (Whether you'll remember the words from your bilingual book when you go on to something else is another matter. I don't know that this approach would aid in the learning of a new language; what it would do is increase your enjoyment of something in the language and connected to the culture, which - as Steve discusses here - has a great deal of value on its own.)


Monday, September 03, 2007

How we learn

I'm reading a (rather old) book on NLP and stumbled across a nice summary of the four stages of learning:

1) Unconscious incompetence - you don't even know what you don't know
2) Conscious incompetence - you're learning, but you realize you've got a ways to go
3) Conscious competence - you know what you're doing, but you really have to think about it
4) Unconscious competence - you don't know what you're doing, you just do it automatically

If you're looking for a way to spend an afternoon, try to tie your shoes one step at a time. When that doesn't work, see if you can do it in one automaticized fit of tying your shoes, or if thinking about the process has temporarily disabled your shoe-tying abilities.

This is the name of the game, of course, for language learning. If you handed me a text in, say, Swahili, I would be literally clueless about what it said. In time, with study of the language, I might recognize some word endings and beginnings. Maybe, knowing about the phonetic system, I'd be able to pick out some Arabic borrowings. But I'd still be in rough shape. Later, I'd be able to function in the language, but still with a sense of terror that somebody might start speaking to me too quickly. Finally, with enough practice, I'd use the language the same way I use French: there would be lacunae in my knowledge, but I'd use that large slice of the language I did know with reasonable ease and competence.

The hard part for language learners is finding the quickest way from steps 1 to 4. The harder part is accepting that they're there. All the time, I see adds about "downloading a language to your brain" or "learning the natural way" or "start speaking tomorrow." The methods involved all may have their utility, and they may all get you to your goals in due course, but there's no such thing as learning a language - or anything else - fully formed and ready to go.

What's really important for language learning, though, is unlearning and relearning. This means going from step 4 back to step 2 with the simplifications, generalizations and misunderstandings that popped up in your earlier learning, then, once you've mastered being totally flummoxed by something you thought you knew, relearning it the right way until the right way comes naturally.

I think the unlearning and relearning part comes in for inadequate attention. The truth is that a natural method - one that replicated how we learn our native language - would have this, because as small children, we get by with all sorts of things that the grammar school teachers are left to sort out later. It would be too much to learn it all at once; we'd never get to talking at all. We should be prepared for this in our second (and third and fourth and so on...) language learning as well, because we often waste time and discourage ourselves by trying to get things right that we aren't really ready to get right because we don't have enough of a feel for the language yet for the exceptions to the rules to have a logic of their own.

All of this is by way of saying that if you're having trouble learning a language well, learn it poorly. Ignore the foolishness about having your language forever messed up if you don't learn it right the first time. If that were true, no one would ever get past mama and dada, because they'd be afraid of ruining their chances with their native tongue the first time they tried to actually conjugate a verb or put the components of a sentence in the proper order.

There are a lot of ways to structure your learning. Some people like to talk right away. Others like to wait. Some like to read and write first. Some prefer to talk, even if they'll be baffled the first time they encounter the new language in its own writing system. One thing applies to every method, though. Sooner or later - sooner, if you're honest with yourself - you're going to find yourself saying, "Well, I'll be... I never realized that." That means that for that one problem at least, you're on your way to conscious competence. It also means that you've learned enough that you're ready to start unlearning. And that means, strangely enough, that you'll probably reach full competence just about the time that you've forgotten more than you ever knew to begin with. :)

So learn, read, talk, listen, speak - do whatever it takes to keep yourself exposed to and learning your language. Because until you've been at it long enough to have mistakes to unlearn, you've got a long ways to go.