Sunday, 13 May 2012

Trying out on-line learning

I'm not really that keen on 100% on-line (or on screen) learning, to be honest.  I prefer a book that I can read easily without needing glasses and that I can take around with me.  Having said that, I am enjoying using some of the wonderful BBC Learning content to revise my French, German and Spanish.  Sadly, some of the content won't work as well outside the UK, but there are often other versions for non-UK (or slow connection) users.

First of all, I'm working through the post-beginners' French course Ma France.  There are also complete beginners' materials available, but I don't need that for French, although I might play the videos for the lower level stuff through later on as well.  This course has 3 short video clips per unit, 2 of which have listening comprehension questions in English and you can select to have English and/or French subtitles running on the clips too.  I have both going at once and usually only refer to the English for one or two words per clip.  There are also other games and activities and, as long as you're signed up, you get a 'BBC Certificate' on completion. Actually, you can get this for a number of the on-line courses, so I expect to have amassed a few over the coming months...

With German, I've just started watching the comedy clips in the What's So Funny About German section.  As someone with a fairly decent level (well, for a Brit, anyway!), these short vids are just a good giggle for me, esp. as they comment on German culture as well.  I'm sure my German hubby would enjoy the humour on some of them too.  I'm going to have a look at their other material later on as well, as there are some videos for post-beginners and, although the level will probably be too low, it's never a bad thing to 'exercise' that part of my brain!

Spanish I have played with over the last 20-odd years, on and off.  The most intensive time was during my last year at uni when I did a beginners' course to level CEFR A1 (half GCSE) and got an A+.  That was 12 years ago though, so I've got 'Talk Spanish', the course they use at the local colleges for beginners out of the library and am watching the on-line video clips etc for that alongside working through the book and CD.  I'm also enjoying the interactive video course for beginners called Mi Vida Loca, which is a mystery story in which you, as the learner, take an active part.  There's a similar type of thing on the Italian page, although I'm resisting the temptation to start that one as I really can't manage two such similar languages from scratch as well as revising and building up my knowledge of 3 other languages.  French, German, Chinese and re-starting Spanish is enough for the time being!  I'll add in Italian and Dutch a little later on.=)

So, do take a few minutes to explore the BBC Learning Site's Languages section.  There are many more than just the few I've mentioned here, including beginners materials and support videos in Greek, Portuguese and Mandarin as well as the 'Steps' course in the 'Big Four' (French, German, Spanish & Italian).  There's much to learn and plenty of fun to be had in the process.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Super article on polyglots

Do NOT miss this article on the BBC website today, esp. if you are interested in learning and achieving fluency in several languages!  I added a comment and I hope they publish it!!=) (They didn't, but I wanted to say that I hoped that article would nail the coffin lid on the myth that men and native English speakers were verging on genetically unable to learn other languages!)

Thursday, 18 August 2011

What a shame!

Numbers of pupils studying foreign languages are falling in UK year on year according to today's news (it's A Level results day here). The entries for French, German and Spanish combined have dropped another 6% this year (similar figures last year, although Spanish grew then).

People are blaming the changes in the national curriculum made a few years ago that allowed kids to give up their language classes at the ago of 14 whereas, for the previous decade or so (since I left school, more or less), it had been compulsory to study at least one language to GCSE level (age 16). Naturally, this would feed A Level entries (age 18) and, now that GCSE language entries have also nose-dived in recent years there are fewer pupils with the necessary entry qualifications to move onto the more advanced programmes. Add to this the huge rise in university tuition fees, which would stack up even more greatly for those wanting to take language based degree courses (4 years in the UK as opposed to the standard 3 for most subjects), and you can see language studies becoming more the exception than the rule.

Another reason, of course, is that as folk have commented on one of the UK newspaper sites I just looked at to get more details on the stats, learning a foreign language is no easy thing and so folk are avoiding the work involved and falling back on the excuse that 'everyone else is learning English anyway'. Even if that were true, what kind of lazy attitude is that??! Even getting a decent selection of adult education classes in many parts of the country is no mean feat. Here in Sheffield, there are plenty of French and Spanish classes to attend and some basic stuff in German and Italian and, having the Confucius Institute attached to the university here, there are plenty of opportunities to learn Chinese, but there isn't much more on offer than that - and this is the 4th largest city in England! Compare that to the wide variety of languages being taught in the German Volkshochschulen and it makes me almost want to pack my bags and emigrate! Brits are just inveterately lazy linguists. Not that we can't, we just won't.

Sad! Just too sad.

On the good side, a language GCSE is necessary for a pupil to gain the controversial new EBacc certificate (one wonders how long that will last!), so that may cause GCSE entries to rise somewhat. Also, it was of keen interest to me to see that entries for A Level Chinese have risen over 35% on last year's figures.=)

How things go in the world of further and higher education over the next few years will be interesting to watch...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Two quibbles

I've been doing some looking around at a few fellow language fans' blogs, sites and so on this morning. There are some good tips and experiences out there, but there are also some things I can't really agree with. I would say I took great issue with the two following things, but I have something to add.
Never say 'I speak X fluently'

Unless X is your mother tongue, it is not smart to say that you speak a language 'fluently'. Nobody speaks a language he learned perfectly. 'Fluently' in that context sounds very terminal - you can't know it better. What will happen if the guy sitting next to you is a native speaker of that language and he, too, is pumped with testosterone and wishes to teach you a lesson? Will you be able to have perfect pronunciation, to know every idiom? Chances are you will look like a moron. People might feel that you exagerated your command of that language, and that maybe everything else about you is fraudulent.

The prudent polyglot will say 'I speak X quite well'. Nobody will ever try to expose the gaps in your command of a language if you say that. And people will esteem you for your modesty. They will think perhaps there is more to you than meets the eye.
Now, I have to agree that modesty is always the best policy. There's nothing worse than someone showing off and, frankly, half the things people say aren't true, so I can also see why he would be concerned that someone would try to prove you wrong. I think my issue here is with the assumption that someone 'fluent' in a language speaks it perfectly, or at native speaker level. Is this reasonable?

Well, it's certainly a common viewpoint, but not a correct one. The concept of fluency implies effortlessness and being smooth flowing. Confident and correct use of a foreign language so that your speech is easily understood and is without grasping for words. Well, without it to a reasonable degree. I mean, how often do we stop and search for the right mother tongue word??=) Fluency does NOT require that you have perfect knowledge of the target language. You don't even have perfect knowledge of your native one, so why expect someone to have that of a learned tongue? It's just not reasonable. However, there are many, many people who have a good, working level proficiency in a second language and they can be considered fluent without knowing everything.

I once described fluency to a former student as 'not knowing everything in the language, but using what you do know so well than no-one knows the difference.' To me, that's fluency. So, having a more reasonable understanding of the concept of fluency will help to avoid misjudging one's own abilities and that of others.

The second one I wanted to add a thought or two to is this diatribe against learning two languages at the same time:
Actually, this is a very bad idea. Unless you are a seasoned polyglot, you will waste your energy, study time and will power over several languages and never reach an advanced level in any. It is much better to focus on one and only language until you become fluent, then move on to the next one.

Finish the language you are doing before moving on. This also applies to closely related languages such as Spanish/Portuguese or Italian/French. It’s much easier to build from a strong background in one language rather than trying to build concurrently the foundations of two languages.

Once you reach an advanced level in your target language, you can start a new language, and still work on perfecting the first one.

I think there are some good points here and some I can't agree with. For one, you can never really 'finish the language you are doing' as learning any language (indeed, learning any subject), is a lifelong process.

So, can one learn more than one language from scratch at once? I would say yes, but only under certain conditions:
  1. You have a good aptitude for languages and/or are very keen and/or highly motivated.
  2. You start two very different languages at the same time. Having said that, I can see how learning two very closely related could help, albeit only for someone with the right kind of learning style and abilities, but generally, leave learning another related language until you've got a decent level of the first.
  3. You have a decent amount of time and energy to devote to the pursuit.
I also don't think you need wait until you've reached fluency before you take up a new language, even a related one. I think that reaching about CEFR A2 level (GCSE standard in the UK) would be OK (although I took up German when I was about A1 French and took my GCSEs in both at the same time - getting As for both). When I suggest that level, I don't mean just having covered the material, but actually having the majority of it in long-term memory and that you can use the structures confidently. I don't think I'd recommend, for most people anyway, taking up a new language too quickly - unless of course you're doing it from a point of view of linguistic enquiry, rather than with the aim of communicating to any great degree.

But then, perhaps I qualify as a 'seasoned polyglot' in his opinion??=) I shouldn't think so though and I don't consider myself as one. I could be, if I put the work in, but that's something I would have to see to believe!!!

Anyway, you'll find on the website I pinched these quotes from a lot of interesting info. At least he's now moderated his judgement of Chinese as being the hardest language in the world, an opinion which he formerly confessed to be based almost entirely on the script appearing hard. Chinese writing is a challenge, but one that can be met with sufficient work and someone teaching it well (i.e. showing how it works and de-mystifying it, rather than those folk who like to scare people), and I always feel that those who write Chinese off as virtually impossible solely on the basis of the script have clearly made no serious attempt to learn it and are language learning feather weights!! There are FAR harder languages to learn than Mandarin!

Monday, 13 June 2011

You have to read this post.

No, not this one that I'm writing, as I'm not going to say much. It's this post you can't miss - esp. if you have a knowledge of one or more of the languages on the menus featured there.

I enjoy Victor Mair's Language Log posts as he does some good stuff on Chinese and I've learned some interesting stuff from his expertise - as well as had a good laugh at times!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Divided by a common language

You'd think that, if you were to publish a book in any given language, especially English - the world's number one business and commerce tongue, that you wouldn't need to provide translations, but....

<-This is from a delightful book by the well-known Australian stumpwork embroiderer, Jane Nicholas. Some of these, of course, are the brand names used by leading manufacturers of these items, but some are the name of the item itself. There's a similar list in a New Zealand embroidery book I own.

I once saw a blog entry written by a British lady living in the States in which she'd drawn up a list of the different names given to clothes on either side of the Atlantic. The number of differences actually surprised me when I saw them listed. Now, I understand most of them no problem, ('jumper' for 'jumpsuit' was a new one on me), but it was by no means the first time I've felt sorry for anyone coming to English as a non-native speaker, especially in the earlier stages, who wants to be able to get a grip on global English. There are just SO many options and, whilst American English is dominating the world scene to some extent (a fact that always puzzles me given that the USA is about the only English speaking country that uses it, all the others use British English or local adaptations thereof), other words proliferate!!

Monday, 24 January 2011

Two mad things

Check these out:

Yeah, RIGHT! You can learn a whole, complex language in just 7 days! And since when is learning any language effortless?? OK, so you may not have to sit and work through a text with this sort of course (although you're probably going to have to do that sooner or later), but it will still require effort. These marketing gimmicks annoy me as they a) make language learning look like something you could do in your sleep, it's so easy; and b) they foster a false sense of security so that when folk come up against the real work, they may be even more likely to back away from it.

This one cracked me up. It's from the out of print Hugo French for Business and I was quite startled to find English referred to as 'Anglo-Saxon'. I was flicking through another French course book, this time one published in France, and saw again that British things, people and language seem to be commonly referred to as Anglo-Saxon. I can understand wanting to avoid using the French for British as it's very close to words used to describe Brittany, but, really! We haven't used Anglo-Saxon in these isles for close on a thousand years and we're so mixed up race wise that referring to the Brits as Anglo-Saxons is also somewhat out of date! We're part Ancient Briton, part Celt, part Pict, part Roman, part French and, yes, part Angle, part Saxon, part Jute and a number of other invading nationalities from the last couple of millenia!!