Friday, December 18, 2009

Wanting to Speak / Wanting to Learn

In my last post, I commented:
Now might be an amusing time to review last year’s resolutions...
I decided to do just that. Now, last year I set intentions, not resolutions, and I think I'm sticking with that. So, here are last year's intentions, with updates on how I did in [square brackets]:
I set the intention to regularly use and rebuild my French toward regaining fluency.

[I took a course at the Alliance française, read quite a bit and made a point of speaking more French with the Francophones I work with.]

I set the intention to regularly study Spanish and build toward conversational competence.

[I did Pimsleur Spanish I & II, listened to some Michel Thomas and encouraged a Spanish teacher at our school to correct me more often. There's one other thing below...]

I set the intention to regularly study Italian and rebuild toward basic conversational competence.

[I did Pimsleur Italian I and the Michel Thomas course, and listened to a lot of Italian music. I should have done more, but my Italian is better now than it was last year.]

I set the intention to rebuild and regain basic skills in spoken Mandarin.

I should note that in the middle of the year, I did a Language Goals page where I refined my plans. But it's the intentions I want to focus on for the moment because they highlight a dichotomy I've touched on before but not in quite a while and not in this way. It goes like this:

Which languages do you want to learn?

Which languages do you wish you could speak?

Earlier this week, I got David Brodsky's Spanish Vocabulary. In it, he shows how Latin roots gave rise to words in Spanish and to similar words, via Old French, in English. Just as I love tracing Indo-European roots to see connections between Latin, Greek and other languages, this is right up my alley. It's a place where I love learning language and I love learning about language. If you told me I could either wave a magic wand and instantly speak great French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, or I could spend years figuring out how they derived from Latin and finding the connections between them, I'd ask if I could use the wand for the budget to buy books and figure out the Romance languages on my own. In short, the process of learning the Romance languages has rewards in its own right. One of my favorite classes in grad school was History of the French Language, and there are still few things that delight me more than making the connection between words in French, Spanish and Italian that I hadn't seen before.

So, what languages do I want to learn or learn better? French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, Greek and Uzbek come to mind.

Returning to the magic wand, though, which languages do I wish I spoke? If you let me pick a language that I could instantly know and without effort, it would be Mandarin. I've done the "learn Mandarin" thing off and on for a while, and what I find is that I like the idea of knowing Mandarin much better than the idea of learning it. It would be neat to go into the shops and restaurants in Cupertino and show off my Mandarin. It would be neat to meet Mandarin speakers and be able to have a conversation with them. But when I imagine the thrill of poring over character charts, and mastering tones, etc, that thrill just isn't there.

I think the Wanting to Speak/Wanting to Learn distinction is an important one. And let's break it down to this test:

If you had a magic wand and could choose, would you:
  1. Have all the resources you could possibly want to learn the language?
  2. Instantly know the language?
If your answer is number two, and you don't have a really strong external motivation to learn the language, it's probably not the one you want to take up for self-study. And if you want to be a polyglot, languages for which you answer 2 are probably going to be the ones that hold you back and drag you down. So before you make that resolution that this year you're going to learn German, really, try this little test. Because if you really want to learn a new language, it's likely not going to be something that you "do," then check off your list. Rather, it's something you're going to be working at and coming back to for a long time to come.

Last words: The picture I painted at the end there could sound a little grim. But actually, it's an immensely positive thing. If you really are interested in a language, the further in you get the more you'll discover there is to know, and the more there is left to learn. And that means that unlike a really great book or movie, once you get into a really great language for you it never ends.


Blogger Keith said...


I'm acquiring Mandarin and I'm not pouring over character charts. I'll be a master of Mandarin without trying to master tones. Why? Because I'm acquiring rather than learning.

You can always learn all you want about the language after attaining fluency in it. If you are really interested in learning about the language, there's no reason that that magic wand, with its power to instantly zap you with knowing the language, should stop you from learning about the language.

Good Luck Next Year!

8:50 AM  
Blogger gbarto said...

Maybe the visual of poring over character charts was over the top. Not confusing acquisition with "learning" is a point I myself have made more than once. It would be more appropriate to say that acquiring a language requires spending a lot of time with it, and there are other languages I would rather spend my free time with at the moment.

Best to you for the New Year as well, and enjoy your Mandarin!

1:22 PM  

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