Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Why do we try to learn a language twice?

And other musings.

It is a long time since I did schoolboy French (and a little less since I tried student German) but it seems to me we always teach 2 languages at the same time.

What do I mean?

Spoken language is taught, certainly, whatever the language being imparted, but side by side with that is the written language, and they seldom seem to work side by side. I became aware of this when trying to pay for fuel to a petrol pump cashier and realised that I was trying to first translate the sounds that I had heard into written French so that I could analyse and understand it before replying.

Crazy, no?

We find it much easier – well, many do anyway – to learn a written language because it does not require us to retrain our ears, minds and instincts in order to comprehend.

My initial reaction was that this is because I’ve had to learn French by reading stuff written in French during various holidays and visits, and that’s why I have this duality of understanding. However I recall when at school that everyone found the written stuff much easier because it was real and solid and interpretable through judicious use of dictionaries (no babelfish then). I put the theory to Chris and she agreed whole heartedly (and she has done conversational French classes since school too).

Now I understand why things are done this way. You have a class of unruly 11-14 year olds, and they get French lessons for 45min maybe twice a week. They are expected to go away and learn French (or German, or Spanish, or Latin, or Chinese) on their own on the days and weekends in between. Of course they have to, because you don’t have daily classes with them, and language only comes with practice and use.

No self-respecting schoolboy will do non-essential practice – he’ll do the minimum he possibly can to scrape a pass. So that will mean covering off the written stuff and then hoping he can bluff his way though any oral sections in the class if necessary. With evening classes it’s not quite the same, but having an hour once a week makes doing the oral stuff for 30min daily impossible.

So we teach 2 languages: written and oral.

There’s another catch too.

Those beastly foreigners don’t know their alphabets properly and can’t pronounce the letter’s sounds correctly. And worse still, they mangle the letters together in ungodly combinations that no decent English tongue (I’m an Austrian, so this is written with MY tongue firmly in my cheek) should ever have to be wrapped around.

And then to make it even MORE fun, teh mynd doss thet clyvir trek ov mekking sence of ninsonce. Or we read what we think is there instead of what is really written. Not a problem when you’re in a place of quiet and study, but when you’re trying to understand things on-the-fly it makes for fun.

Took me a while to read paradillas correctly as parilladas.

But there’s hope.

When we’d finally realised that the petrol pump cashier wanted me to hand over my credit card and he already knew which pump I’d used then the transaction went through fine. Without thinking I answered “merci m’sieu, au revoir”. It seems that if the analytic process is kept firmly locked away then I can say the right thing sometimes after all.

Or maybe I might simply speak the same old nonsense I do in blighty, but to a different people group.

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