04 November 2005

More Languages

(I've been finding out more about shagai/chuko bones and have learned quite a bit. We're hoping to pick up more bones tomorrow. I'll pass on some of the games I've heard about the in last few days, and about bone games in general from all over the world. I guess Americans have just lost the art of playing with bones.)

It’s been interesting to study another language again. I’ve always been much better at learning grammar than vocabulary, and that has its good points and bad points. It doesn’t help that I know which ending to put on a word, or which conjugation to use if I don’t know what the word is in the first place.

But grammar is still very important. Just memorizing words and phrases, maybe from a guidebook or in a beginning course, doesn’t get you very far either. You don’t learn why a word is used the way it is so you can’t apply it to anything else.

I was able to get through fourth-year high school French in two years because I learned a lot of grammar and memorized just enough vocabulary to get by. But by the end of that second year, I knew I didn’t know enough words to go onto AP French.

It was an entirely different experience studying Arabic. I took 3 semesters of it before spending five months in Jerusalem. I learned a lot of vocabulary in those five months that would have been much harder for me to learn in the United States.

I also learned how important it is to just practice. I am far less self-conscience than I was 10 years ago and I have been much better here at just trying to make myself understood. No one minds (although some do laugh when I inadvertently say something funny) and most are willing to help me learn Russian.

I’ve also been very pleased with the Russian book Andy recommended a few months ago. It doesn’t skimp on the grammar, but it’s not overwhelming either.

Some people assume my husband and I are good at learning languages. My husband speaks Spanish well, we both do fine in Arabic, and Russian is coming along well enough that I think we’ll both be reasonably conversant by next summer. We’ve also worked on Uzbek, and I’ve studied French and Latin. But I don’t think either of us have a particular knack for it beyond just having some experience. We just work at it slowly, and that’s really the only way to learn a new language. Just keep working at it and find people to talk to.


  1. I think you're so right, and I think this myth about some unusual talent for language is one of the reasons so few Americans speak another language--almost everyone expects language learning to be a special gift he or she in particular does not have.

    That, and the challenge of finding someone to converse with.

    There is an unusual giftedness--rare individuals can learn a second language to native-speaker capability.

    My fingers do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.

  2. That is the perfect quote Johnna.

    I often hear people say that they can't learn another language, but those people have rarely tried.

    I've known a very few people whom I would consider gifted with languages; most simply didn't quit or had to learn another language to survive life in a different country or city.

    Near-native ability is almost impossible, but that seems to be what Americans think should be the goal. There are lots of levels in speaking languages, and I think it's possible to reach a reasonable conversational level without heroic efforts- just steady efforts.