Paul Makepeace ;-)

November 30, 2004

Learning languages

Posted in: Language

I've been (re)learning French ahead of a trip to Val Thorens (for which I've discovered French will be even more important since the other skiiers there won't speak English!), and Paris Santarchie right after it.

This last week I was in Vienna which meant exposure to German.

I learnt French in school for five years and had a three-week exchange trip to Bordeaux (during which time I seem to recall saying almost nothing). Since then I've been to France once or twice and earlier this year had a French speaker stay at my house and spoke a tiny bit. If I pay attention I can follow a non-idiomatic French conversation, slightly more than getting the gist.

I learnt German to theoretically the same level in three years. My exposure to a German-speaking country was about 10mins on an autobahn, and the only reason for that was being driven to see a sign saying "Ausfahrt" (which sounds amusing to English speakers with a sense of toilet humor).

I got As in both languages. I paid a lot more attention to French than German. At some point in my German education I took a dislike to the teaching style and lost interest. Yeah, I still got an A but at the risk of sounding like a dick right now getting an A at GCSE language level shouldn't be difficult. I'll expand on this below.

A few observations:
* Everyone I encountered in Vienna spoke high-grade English, and I encountered quite a few people that week
* Going to a foreign country I've during that time become really interested in learning their language
* Coming back my interest is by default back to baseline, i.e. not much, after about a week (I'm still interested as an idea but not as an action)
* Talking to people with different native tongues I find absolutely fascinating. I was up 'til 05:30 in a nightclub talking to Robert (a Viennese) about German-speaking culture, for example
* despite considering myself "OK" at French and having had much more experience of it if I switch my attention off I will pick up next to nothing of the conversation. Like if I was asked "so, what were we talking about?" I would get almost nothing
* despite having literally done nothing with the German I learnt at school, listened to no German beyond school, or in any way furthered my education there (that's 15yrs, folks) I could somehow understand chunks of the language spoken in Vienna. To me this is quite bizarre
* Even if I wasn't really listening to a conversation in German I somehow ended up with a sense of what was being spoken about. This is to me even more bizarre
* When I listen to French it feels like there's lag understanding it. Like, whichever bit of my brain it's going through either there's more of it or the bits are processing slower, or something
* When I listen to German, the bits that I understand I understand like *bam* immediately
* Again, all this is despite having had a lot more experience with French
* I've always found German easier to pronounce
* I've met probably two French speakers with even remotely good English accents
* I've met probably two English speakers with even remotely good French accents (yes, it's possible to tell, I think, even being lame at the foreign language)
* Conversely, the number of decent English accents from German speakers seems remarkably and embarrassing(to English world)ly high

So putting it summarily, German is easier for me than French.

Learning French

I'm currently thoroughly enjoying the Champs-Elysées French subscription. It's a nearly-monthly "audio magazine" that is sixty minutes of French with a booklet containing transcription and English commentary on not only language terms but aspects of French life and culture. The range of material (politics, finance, music, literature, current events, etc) is pretty diverse so there's plenty of range of vocab and interesting topics.

The BBC has a ton of good stuff too. When I see this kind of quality content online paying my TV license feels fine.

Effectiveness of modes of learning

I learnt French for five years in school with five hour-long lessons per week. (Conservatively, that's 500 hours of French instruction!) And yet my French sucks; my spoken ability for example is "Get By in French" standard. What's up with that? That's an absurd amount of time for that kind of result. Three weeks in Bordeaux did more for my French than possibly a whole year at school.

Here I am self-teaching via a CD/mag subscription and poking about online about an hour a day and my French has progressed (I think) dramatically in maybe a week. I'm hoping, realistically, that after this next couple of week's French learning, a week's skiing, and a day or so in Paris I'll be getting quite decent at it.

A week in Vienna listening to and occasionally asking speakers about German (not reading or speaking at all) and I could sense my German improving.

So, what the fuck? How is learning at school so apparently unbelievably inefficient? I hesitate, but only just, to say "useless".

A few factors: I'm motivated right now (altho' I did enjoy the educational bit of school, for the most part so this difference might be less than some people who, say, hated school); I spend most of my day learning stuff i.e. a decade and a half of post-school practice; I have studied in-depth the specific process of learning; I am, I consider, unusually in touch with how my brain works and how to influence it (many thanks to even more talented friends and mentors) so now have some bad-ass learning strategies.

All that aside, the benefit of going to a foreign country to learn a language seems to be so dramatically beyond what I experienced in a classroom that what immediately springs to mind is that kids simply need to be packed off to a foreign country for some time, as soon as possible, and that the current classroom teaching strongly deprecated.

The other depressing conclusion is that a huge chunk of my life wasn't used efficiently, and I didn't have a choice about it (to say my life is efficient now would be a gross misrepresentation, but at least if I stay in bed 'til 13:00 it's more often than not out of choice...).

And finally... check out Friends Abroad, a site to help meet other language students for mutual assistance. You've got to love a site that has "Relationship (status)" and "Starsign" as profile parameters... FWIW, I've never been contacted out of the blue on any site by so many cute folks in my life, let alone in the three weeks I've been a sweet FA subscriber...

Posted by Paul Makepeace at November 30, 2004 03:23 | TrackBack

"Even if I wasn't really listening to a conversation in German I somehow ended up with a sense of what was being spoken about."

I could understand the gist of some Japanese conversations immediately. If you can pick out some proper nouns, read the attitudes to these in body language of two people, and can bring to bear some background understanding of the topic, you can interpolate a *lot* of information. Many conversations don't bring any new factual information to either speaker, and if you already know the facts at hand you can often easily understand the subtext from the nonverbals.

Posted by: Nik at November 30, 2004 12:40

So putting it summarily, German is easier for me than French.
maybe i can come up with a reasonable explanation for this: english and german are both germanic languages and therefore related, whereas french is roman language. now if you take german utterances you can immediately relate to the grammar because it is similar to your mother tongue's, whereas in french, even if you understand some words of an utterance, these words will occur at different places in the sentence. thus your intuition doesn't work as well here. one could say that english and german share the same 'architecture' in which you feel at home, which isn't the case with french.

Posted by: feuerfisch at November 30, 2004 17:10

french is a romanIC language, sorry :)

Posted by: feuerfisch at November 30, 2004 17:20

Hang on, personally I'd be practising the skiing more than the French. Calves and quads endurance exercises at the very least.

And skiing can trash knees, so either a) set your bindings very loose, or b) go boarding instead. This has the added advantage that you probably have knee and wrist pads just kicking about.

Big snowfall this winter, so we've a plan to go boarding on xmas day. Oh yeah!

Posted by: jez at November 30, 2004 23:27

I took French in high school for three years, and I've been taking German in college for just over three years now. Like you I'm much better in German than in French, though I managed to communicate some with the locals in Paris a few summers ago.

You are right that when it comes to learning a language nothing beats living in a country that speaks it. My German improved a lot this past summer during just a five week stay in Germany. I'm going back next year for six months, and that should really help.

Of course most people in the U.S. don't have the resources let alone the inclination to send their kids abroad to learn foreign languages. It'd be something at least if Americans would start learning a foreign language in grade school.

Posted by: David at December 1, 2004 04:36

I can relate to the comments about school. I also got "A" at GCSE French, and went on to study at AS level, however my level of French sucks. I can comprehend some written French ok (because my brain has time to backtrack and decipher it), however I find it very difficult to speak, or understand when spoken.

I recently started to learn Italian, primarily via the Michel Thomas audio course. I strongly recommend the style of teaching he uses - I was very impressed by the level of conversation I could have after just 8 hours of audio. The reason? His theory is you learn as you do when a child, ie. forget compicated grammar points and reading etc and concentrate on listening and speaking first. The rest comes later.

Final point - I agree on Friends Abroad - awesome site. I now have a plethora of cute Italian "penpals". Apart from one 16 year old who worryingly thinks my picture is very beautiful....

Posted by: Darren at December 1, 2004 11:55

So who are the two English people with remotely good French accents, Paul?

BTW if you really want to improve a foreign language fast, find a native speaker and exchange conversation with them; one hour in English, one hour in your target language. That's the idea behind of course...

Posted by: Dom at July 15, 2005 13:45


Posted by: singles personal ads at October 16, 2006 14:41
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