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July 22, 2011


I speak Portuguese fluently, having a base of Spanish at the intermediate level. I took but one course, that I frankly, found deficient and have merely relied on immersing myself over the years.

Don't be afraid to be corrected, don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Don't be afraid to be corrected, don't be afraid to make mistakes.

My experience is that some level of drunkenness helps with this, though whatever advantage it offers does not necessarily last into subsequent sobriety.

My Spanish seems excellent on the far side of a bunch of drinks.

The temperature reading on my car this morning at 7:45 in Washington DC: 90. Right now it's 93 and "feels like" 104. By this afternoon we're supposed to hit 103, which will be a "feels like" 115 or so with the humidity. Ugh, one might say.

Tho' maybe that will get the debt deal done.

hairshirt, how did your presentation go?

Fine! I still got very nervous a couple of minutes before I had to speak, but I got through it without a problem. Mostly, I followed your advice to breathe and McKinney's advice to take my time while speaking, each of which facilitated the other. I mean, it still wasn't fun, but I didn't freeze up, and I said just about everything I wanted to say.

Thanks for your advice and concern, Janie.

Same thing in Philly, Ugh. Ugh...

I find it fascinating that places where there is massive disbelief in global warming (more accurately, at the local level, known as climate change) are getting way above average temperatures. While those of us in famously liberal bastions of belief (e.g. northern California) are having the second summer in a row of well below normal temperatures. We've had days when the high was below 70! I've lived here over half a century, and never seen it this cool -- that is, comfortable.

Could disbelief be the cause? I seem to recall something in the Bible about disbelief being punished, so just perhaps....

Back to the OP...

I've dabbled in languages a lot: Latin and French in high school, German in college, Old English in grad school, and bits of Russian, Irish, and Italian on my own or in e.g. adult ed classes. Not to mention a more-than-dabbling phase of studying (and even a bit of teaching) linguistics a few years ago. But I've never become fluent in anything but English. If I were given to regrets about past decisions, a big one would be not having put myself in an immersion context when I was young.

When I knew I would be going to China to visit my son, I started listening to Chinese CDs in the car -- Pimsleur brand, which I like. I had done almost the whole Pimsleur set for Italian (Levels I, II, III -- 90 lessons I think), pretty happily. With Chinese, I listened to the first CD maybe 20 times before I had the remotest shred of a prayer of taking in and remembering, much less producing, any of the words.

When someone helped me with a bag at the luggage carousel in Beijing and I tried to say “thank you” in Chinese, the guy looked at me like I was from Mars. When my son (a bit of a perfectionist) heard me say it, he rolled his eyes. Eventually I could make the funny “sort of like ‘sh’ but not really” sound and do the tones well enough so that I got over my shyness of trying to say it.

It’s really lucky that “ni hao” is easy to say. :)

English, German, French, Italian, Latin -- all kinds of overlap. Russian and Irish -- culturally familiar, and of course there’s an alphabet, and no tones. Chinese -- there’s nothing to latch onto. Just nothing.

However -- five weeks in China was enough to give me the sense that I was now starting to recognize familiar words instead of hearing an incomprehensible flood of gibberish every time someone spoke. I don’t think I could ever become even rudimentarily competent in Chinese -- maybe I’m too old to ever become competent in any foreign language now. But I really admire and envy anyone who is multilingual.

From another angle: time in China also made me more aware of the non-verbal components of language. When I went to get my visa extended, with the help of my son’s department’s secretary, I asked my son at one point what the guy behind the counter at the police station was angry about. My son said: nothing; that’s just how they talk. And I noticed it a lot: there’s an expansive, sort of declamatory, very dramatic habit of speech, more pronounced with men than with woman, and far more pronounced than is our American habit. When my son was asked to check translations of speeches for English speech contests, we would just marvel at the way the students (and faculty!) could write Chinese in English, so to speak. The English sentences would tend to be okay grammatically, but they were couched in a declamatory, dramatic, flowery style that you would never ever find in a speech written by a native American speaker of English.

Here's an abstract of a paper I don't have access to. It's probably pretty difficult for adults to overcome unadapted brain morphology. (Isn't biology cool, though?)

Localized morphological brain differences between English-speaking Caucasians and Chinese-speaking Asians: new evidence of anatomical plasticity. Kochunov P, Fox P, Lancaster J, Tan LH, Amunts K, Zilles K, Mazziotta J, Gao JH. SourceResearch Imaging Center, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, 78284, USA. [email protected]

Deformation field morphometry was applied to magnetic resonance images to detect differences in brain shape between English-speaking Caucasians and Chinese-speaking Asians. Anatomical differences between these two groups were limited to gyri in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes, which are known (through functional imaging studies) to differentiate Chinese speakers from English speakers. We interpret these anatomical differences as evidence of neural plasticity shaped by the process of language acquisition during childhood. While anatomical plasticity due to manual skill acquisition (e.g. in musicians) has been established, to our knowledge this is the first report of a brain anatomical difference attributable to a learned cognitive strategy.

hairshirt, yes, biology is so cool, and language+brain issues are fascinating and I've never pursued info about them as much as maybe I will...someday (in my dilettantish way).

That abstract makes me wonder if there's a pool of study subjects for the converse: native Chinese-speaking Caucasians and English-speaking Asians. Chinese-Americans (or many Asian-Americans) might be found in plenty for the latter group; there are Asian-Americans whose families have been in the US for generations now. But native Chinese-speaking Caucasians? Maybe harder to find.

I've read enough to know that it's rare to acquire native fluency in a 2nd (3rd, 4th...) language after (early?) childhood, although I also have met and heard of people who seem to have what I would assume is a special talent for it. Still, I think even at my advanced age I could get pretty far along in Italian compared to Chinese. Who knows, though, I've never jumped in the deep end and tried to swim....

More on my attempts at Chinese.

Janie mentioned the declamatory tone. The last time I was working on Chinese, one of my colleagues (Japanese who teaches Chinese) mentioned that if you speak Chinese as if you are shouting at someone, you will do better. While it wasn't the key to solve all my problems, it did click for me.

One thing that I am thinking has held me up is that I've always used texts that only list the pinyin incidentally and seeing a Chinese character automatically brings up a Japanese reading, which may or may not be close (generally, one reading, called the on-yomi, is the 'chinese' reading while the kun-yomi is the native Japanese reading. Unfortunately, the 'chinese' reading depends on when the character entered the language, and tons of characters have more than two readings, so my retrieval pattern is 'hey that's xxx in Japanese, is that on or kun yomi, let's see, ah, I got it, ok, is that close to the Chinese pronunciation or not', while physically, I'm doing my best impression of one of the Star Trek logic robots that Mr Spock outwits by babbling non-sequiturs. So I've located a book that is only pinyin, and I'll give that a try. I thought that I was good at languages and I am, but only for languages that are written in roman letters. After my first 5 years in Japan, my recognition of characters was pretty good, and when I went back to grad school, I did Thai, but didn't get a chance to use it. When I went back to Japan, I found that my reading ability had dropped off a cliff. What's more, when I moved after 3 years, I found some of my Thai notebooks and I realized I could remember writing them, but couldn't read anything that they said. I felt like I was Jack Nicholson in the Shining, with some sinister alter ego writing something that the real me had no idea what it meant. Redrum indeed.

I took a quarter in Mandarin in college and then hired a private tutor while a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, ni lang. Visited Taiwan relatively briefly for some immersion, then returned to the States and tried to continue with lessons but ...

... anyway, back to plain English:


The English word I'm having trouble with in the title is "cold".

I think the word should be "hot", as in hot and violent soup.

I don't let Sullivan off the hook when it comes to winking at the murderous right all of these years, the ex-patriot get. That he is gay merely opened a window to how he's the Other to them just like many of the rest of us.

When John Wilkes Boothe founded the modern Republican Confederate Vermin Tea Party with the bullet to the back of Lincoln's head, I wonder if he imagined the second Gettysburg Address would be given in Mandarin by Chinese bondholders, over the mass graves of deadbeat Republican filth.

lj, you bring up another thing, which I don't know anything about but which I'm curious about. And that's:




It's interesting that with European languages -- I never even thought about reading/writing as a separate issue from listening/speaking. Because, of course, I took alphabets for granted and was fluent in one. (And Russian wasn't that much of a leap, though I didn't study Russian for long.)

But watching my son with Chinese for 6 or 7 years now, and being there with him, and seeing that even in China there are different sets of characters in use...I've thought more about the question of how languages are taught. You write as if studying Chinese automatically includes the written language, but what are your thoughts about how it might go if you just worked on speaking and listening and left the written language aside? I mean you, lj, and the general "you" who might study the language. I feel like it would be much more crucial, if I were traveling, for me to be able to talk to people than to be able to read stuff....

Not even sure what I'm asking, but I feel like the spoken language and the written language are separable enterprises and yet they're typically not separated in language teaching.

Except by good old Pimsleur, of course, with whom I've gotten much farther (Italian) by ignoring the written language than I ever got in a language class in school.

Except that of course to someone whose native language is English, reading Italian once you can speak/understand it is pretty trivial.

Just rambling, it's too d*mned hot to actually think, even in Maine.

I am turning the Halpern Kodansha into wallpaper a character at a time, then cycling the wallpaper ever thirty minutes. This gives me Kanji, compounds, Romaji, and definitions. I spend a little time every week on Kana and grammar.

I watch 3-4 Japanese movies a week, but the subtitles distract me. Those vowels are *short* except for the doubles. And they talk fast. But I have gotten so used to the sound and tones I prefer listening to Japanese than English.

1-2 books about Japan every month (which usually contain some basic romaji). Occasional web sites.

Everybody gives me advice. I am not in a hurry.

When we first moved to Hong Kong, I was told that Cantonese (Guangdonghua) was the only language it was impossible to whisper in.

Not true, but an insightful introduction to the city nevertheless.

Well, the previous times I have tried Chinese, I've always had at the back of mind 'and my understanding of the kanji will be so much better!'. Ha. And I find myself having lots of opportunities to speak with Chinese in various places and it would be nice to carry on a 'gee where are you from?' conversation. Nothing deep and philosophical, just your basics. So what you suggest is bascially what I have kind of realized I want to do, but I think I have to pretend that there is no written language, just a funny romanization scheme that was thought up to get the sounds of the language across. In a sense, the written language is something that is restraining me from taking the leap. Or something like that.

Unsolicited advice to Bob, but I think I learned more of my kanji from manga then I did from anything else. The titles weren't super challenging, but when I got into a story, I was really hooked.

My love of Asian movies had me interested in the languages. I found that German and English subtitles for those often differ to a degree that I have to assume that at least one side is lying/censoring. I usually have more trust in the English subtitles knowing the often horrible German ones for English movies. Did you know that Casablanca is actually about a scientist running away from the Russians with nuclear secrets or that the black powder in that jar in the basement of that Hitchcock movie is actually cocaine? Well, at least in Germany this is or was the case (in the Hitchcock case even the title says 'white poison').
Taking a look a textbooks for Japanese or Chinese I threw in the towel almost immediately.

It took me more than a decade to get from my close to nonexistent school English to where I am now. I actually started reading books in English because I was so bad at it that it took me several times the time to read them (and thus the amount of money I would spent each month on them was far lower).

Currently I try to put some effort into Norwegian and maybe Icelandic. The latter is a tough case though. The orthography is medieval but pronounciation has shifted significantly. Textbooks have pages after pages of 'a is pronounced b before c except when...' (e.g. ll is pronounced dl or tl inside a word and simply d/t at the end except in the case of proper nouns where no rule applies. Solla is Solla but Halla is Hatla). I also get the impression that the th/dh characters are selectively de-aspired by actual Icelanders whatever the textbooks say.
Now try to turn spoken words mentally into writing in order to be able to look them up under these circumstances. I also found to my astonishment that Icelandic totally sounds Germanic but is still almost totally incomprehensible (for the most part). While I do not need to actually know Norwegian to be able to get a good deal of info out of books or newspapers an Icelandic text could as well be Kisuaheli. Add to that that Icelanders are even more purist than the French trying to eliminate foreign words (e.g. computer became tölva, a portmanteau of he words for number and seeress; a video game is a tölvuleik).

The motto of my PhD thesis is from the Elder Edda and essentially says: If you have no idea what you are talking about, better keep your mouth shut. Maybe nobody will notice (fat chance!). :-)

It was certainly a help to learning the language that I could read Japanese in romanji, although kana wasn't all that big a stretch for me. But wrapping my mind around the characters was a much bigger push.

I can see the benefits of characters when, as in China, you wanted one written language to fit multiple spoken ones. Not to mention the challenge of recording tones on top of everything else. But the fact that the character gives no clue as to pronunciation is a weakness. Even with something like French (for which my rule of thumb is "if a word has more than 6 letters, pronounce every third letter in the first half of the word, and none of the second half" -- far from perfect, but closer than you might imagine), you can at least get a clue.

And I think it is telling that learning to write the size vocabulary that Europeans take for granted is a lifetime learning effort in Chinese. It does seem to promote a cultural bias towards learning. On the other hand, if you hve to spend that much time learing to read, you necessarily have fewer hours available to learn other stuff.

I recently (like, two years ago) decided that I had to get my German back. Once upon a time I was fairly fluent, but disuse had its usual effect. After a more or less casual run of translations (manga, in German editions), I'm reading it fairly well, but still not speaking.

My Russian and French are long gone.

I periodically toy with learning Japanese. I've picked up a number of words and phrases from listening to anime soundtracks (which I always watch in Japanese with English subtitles), and I have a pretty good sense of the sound values.

As for learning to read and write? Kanji scares me.

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