Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Failing at Language? Maybe You Chose Wrong

Learn this man's
secret for speaking
a foreign language
William Alexander wrote in the New York Times about the trials of learning a foreign language.
I used to joke that I spoke French like a 3-year-old. Until I met a French 3-year-old and couldn’t hold up my end of the conversation.
I think I’ve put in more hours of learning French than Mr. Alexander (I started in 1974), and while my studies seem to include none of the things he did, I am able to read eighteenth-century French in the original. “Tonight, sweetheart, we’ll be reading Voltaire’s Zadig in French for your bedtime story.” I don’t think I’d hand Adolphe to a 3-year-old (I think it’s standard for high schoolers in France though).

But even with my abilities to read eighteenth-century novels, Le Monde, and Têtu in French, I know that my abilities to speak are somewhat more limited. I. Speak. French. Much. More. Slowly. Than. I. Speak. English. I have actually had casual conversation in French. Some years ago, I was in D.C. and was asked a question in very bad English by a French woman who was at the museums. She had trouble understanding my English, so we both switched to French.

Though my level of proficiency doesn’t please me (though the thought of conversational drill is sufficiently odious that I have no desire to improve my spoken command of French), it seems that I’m a rarity. Mr. Alexander notes that his failure was “in fact quite unremarkable,” and notes that “few adults who tackle a foreign language achieve anything resembling proficiency.” He does say that there are other advantages to learning a language, even if you’re never going to be good enough to order a meal in a restaurant or read a book written for grownups.

He writes that he had taken a cognitive assessment since he was worried about general memory loss. He scored below average for his age group. A year later, after the year of French, he retook the assessment and scored average in three categories and above average in the other seven. “Studying a language had been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth.”

But what if he could have it all? First, I don’t think anyone can learn French in a year. Even the toddlers he’s comparing himself to have put in more effort than that. But what if a year of language study could actually produce a reasonable level of proficiency? What if you could have a conversation about things you care about after a year of study?

You could with Esperanto. If Mr. Alexander spent the next year studying Esperanto, by the end of the year, he could easily read an issue of Monato, the Esperanto general interest magazine. He could hold a casual conversation with a non-English speaking Esperantist at the 100th World Esperanto Congress. Many people mark their Esperanto anniversary by trying their hand at translating something into Esperanto or embarking on writing some poetry. I wouldn’t dream of trying to write a poem in French. I could do it in Esperanto.

If trying and failing to learn a foreign language is good for you, imagine the befits of trying and succeeding. It seems strange to prod people into foreign language classes, knowing that most of them won’t actually ever get proficient, as if five years after school you were likely to forget how to add a set of numbers. (“Five plus seven make…damn, I’m out of fingers”) Yet we’re okay with the idea of people failing at language and deciding that they’re just “dumb at languages.”

Imagine the delight people would have if they could chatter away happily at language, confident that they were speaking it with ease. Imagine not writing off language learners, but knowing that people are going to succeed. That could all happen in an Esperanto class. Some years ago, I taught an Esperanto short course. At the final lesson, the class asked that we do that day completely in Esperanto. So we did.

Eat your hearts out, French students.

(Oh, and the picture at the top. Yeah, that's Dr. L. L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto.)

Update: All the Esperantists are saying, "certe estas Doktoro Zamenhof, John. Mi estas nek blinda nek stulta."
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