Why I Won’t Let My Children Learn French, Mandarin, German, Spanish, or English

If you haven’t read Liam Mullone’s piece in The Spectator entitled “Why I won’t let my children learn French,” you should. His writing is as crisp as an autumn leaf and evinces an excellent grasp of history. It’s also one of the most dangerously myopic articles written about a foreign language I’ve ever read. 

If you don’t care to read the full article, the cliff notes are thus: Mr. Mullone makes the case that both the economic prospects of the French language and the moral transgressions perpetrated by the French government in Africa vitiate any need for his children to learn the language of Molière; indeed, he claims he fight any attempt to inculcate his children with the French language vociferously.

Africa’s Francophone countries, he writes, “speak French because 100 years ago they had no choice.” They’re “irretrievably buggered” for reasons that are “intimately connected to the fact that they speak French.” He goes on to list the ways in which France has entangled itself with nefarious regimes and hampered progress in those countries since the decline of its colonial empire in the mid-20th century. “Today,” he writes, “if you scratch a poor Francophone country you’ll find France.”

Which languages will Mr. Mullone allow his children to learn? Well, on this point he’s rather specific. “German is going places,” he writes. “Mandarin will be indispensable. Spanish has few irregular verbs and is spoken in a multitude of fascinating countries with positive economic outlooks.” 

If you are to accept Mr. Mullone’s argument, you must first accept the spurious premise on which it rests: That a particular language’s moral value is equivalent to the sum of the sins committed by its speakers. Taken to its logical ends, this reasoning leads to some rather unsavory—and decidedly limiting—conclusions.

Take English, for instance. Ah, yes, English—my mother tongue. We could mention U.S. and British slavery; years of secret and not-so-secret British and American meddling in the Middle East and Latin America wherein our governments toppled democratically-elected governments and installed or backed brutal dictators in service of our own interests;orhuman rights abuses committed during the decade-long U.S.-led and British-supported War on Terror, War in Afghanistan, and invasion of Iraq. Does the collective weight of these events, then, inveigh against learning the English language? I don’t think Mr. Mullone would agree.

In addition to English, is it not also the case that Mr. Mullone’s reasoning would preclude his children from learning German as a result of the holocaust; or Mandarin as a result of the Chinese government’s continued denial of basic human rights in occupied Tibet or support for the Kim regime in North Korea; or Spanish as a result of the Spanish conquistadors’ decimation of native populations in South America? 

The world’s major languages are, by and large, major languages because their speakers have, throughout history, expanded their holdings overseas by committing all manner of atrocities in pursuance of their own interests. If you scratch at many of the world’s major languages today, more often than not you’ll find histories of murder, oppression, slavery, and any number of other unsavory deeds. Mr. Mullone is correct in saying that the French are guilty of this, but so too are the Germans, the Spanish, the British, and the Americans. And though largely Mandarin-speaking China hasn’t had a global colonial empire to speak of, it’s certainly not without its flaws. (What sorts of thoughts, for instance, does “The Great Leap Forward” bring to mind?)

If he would like to teach his children a language whose speakers have committed the fewest moral transgressions, Mr. Mullone would do well to browse through UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and choose from among those. Speakers of those languages have experienced history as a negative experiences its photograph. Consequently, their numbers are dwindling, and their mother tongues are likely to find themselves in the dustbins of history by the conclusion of this century.

The troubling bit for me—and the bit that I cannot seem to move past—is that Mr. Mullone’s argument is merely the latest iteration of ignorance cloaked in the trappings of faux-intellectualism. Take, for instance, the controversy a few years ago in the United States over the “ground zero mosque,” the Islamic community center that was to be neither a mosque nor located on what was formerly ground zero. A variety of television personalities took to their glossy bully pulpits to deride the proposal, which they found offensive, as through the events of September 11th constituted an indictment of the Islamic religion as a whole.

Here we find the rhetorical cousin of Mr. Mullone’s present argument regarding the French language. Calls like these for retributive cultural justice miss their mark because they paint the world with the smallest strokes possible, strokes that make the lines of the world appear clean, sharp, and perfectly discernable. The truth, however, is that they aren’t—indeed, the world looks much more like a Jackson Pollack than we’d care to admit—which is a truth that is quite frightening for many people.

There exists a great paradox in Mr. Mullone’s argument: The ultimate goal of learning another language is to be able to access a new culture, new people, and new experiences that would otherwise have been inaccessible if not for the acquired language; Mr. Mullone’s argument, however, precludes these possibilities. Africans in francophone Africa likely don’t spend each day cursing the French. They speak French because, well—they speak French, and if you’d like to communicate with them, learning French would be a good way to do so, especially if they don’t speak English, which, spoiler alert, not everyone does.

If you taste the injustice in each language you attempt to speak, you will taste a bitterness that pervades your worldview, rendering you wholly incapable of realizing the full benefits of multilingualism, of travel, of experiencing other cultures. A language is greater than the sum of the atrocities committed by its speakers; indeed, the world is greater than the sum of the atrocities committed by its inhabitants.

 

Can Learning a New Language Boost Your Creativity?

I became fascinated with the question of what relationship exists, if any, between foreign language ability and creativity after reading Earnest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises this past summer. The novel takes its readers on a trilingual adventure from the cafés of Paris to the bullfighting rings of Pamplona. Hemmingway himself spoke both French and Spanish, in addition to his native English, and though his exact ability in each is a matter for debate, it is clear from clips like this one that he was at least fully bilingual.

We already know that bilinguals, like Hemmingway, reap a variety of benefits. Learning a second language can help you stave off the deleterious effects of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as we age; it can help you become better at multi-tasking; it can help you make better financial choices; and it can even help you improve your English language skills.

But what about creativity? It seems to be all the rage right now. Hardly a day goes by without someone on my Twitter feed telling me about how I should exercise or daydream more if I’d like to boost my creativity.

The problem that we encounter while attempting to answer this question is that creativity is both a relatively recent topic of scientific interest and also a rather subjective one. Rex Jung, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, did his best Potter Stewart rendition during an interview with the New York Times in 2010 when he said, “Creativity is kind of like pornography—you know it when you see it.”

Nevertheless, researchers do have some tools at their disposal with which they can attempt quantify creative ability. One of the most widely used of those tools is a test known as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). The TTCT, which was first introduced by Ellis Paul Torrance in 1962, measures a participant’s capacity for what’s known as “divergent thinking” in four key areas: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration.

Just what is “divergent thinking?” Put simply, it’s your mind’s ability to generate a variety of solutions to a given problem. To measure that ability, researchers often prompt participants to do things like list as many uses as they can think of for a brick in under a minute. The more uses you can list, the better a divergent thinker you are.

A 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of Mashhad in Iran compared how a group of advanced language leaners aged 16 to 18 fared on the TTCT compared with their monolingual counterparts. The advanced language learners were Iranian students who had studied English at language institutes for at least six years.

In selecting participants, the researchers controlled for factors like socioeconomic status and IQ level so that the “participants had everything in common but the experience of learning a foreign language in language institutes.” The results were decisive: the bilinguals outperformed the monolinguals in every one of the TTCT’s four measures.

The researchers posit two possible explanations for their findings. The first is that because bilinguals, as has been shown in other studies, have two language systems at their disposal, they must maintain constant vigilance in order to prevent one system from interfering with the other. Consequently, bilinguals have been shown to outperform monolinguals in tasks that require them to switch attention between tasks, ignore distractions, and hold newly acquired information in mind. The second is that as a consequence of their language studies, the bilinguals are necessarily exposed to “cultures, customs, and beliefs distinctive from their own,” thus forcing them to see the world from a new perspective.

That the languages we speak can affect our worldview is not a new idea. As I’ve noted previously, “Recent research has shown that speakers of “non-futured” languages, like Finnish or German, are more likely to save more money for retirement and are less likely to smoke or be obese than speakers of “futured” languages like French or English.”

Why? Linguists theorize it’s because speakers of non-futured languages think of the future as being indistinguishable from the present, and thus they are more willing to take steps in the present to improve their future.

At a more basic level, learning a foreign language requires us to construct and negotiate the unique architecture in which it consists. Each new language we learn presents us with new barriers when trying to convey meaning. Turkish, for instance, has no equivalents for the English verbs “to be” or “to have”; Russian and other Slavic languages have retained grammatical cases that English shed long ago; and even “easy” languages like French or Spanish have aspects, like grammatical gender, that are entirely foreign to English speakers. As your mind generates possibilities in order to negotiate these barriers, it engages in a potent form of divergent thinking—the very divergent thinking that drives creativity.

Before you go out and sign up for that Italian language course you’ve eyeing, you should know that not all language-learning methods are created equally. According to the study’s authors, the method you use may be a determining factor in just how much of a creative boost you receive. They note that the participants in their study attended language institutes, which generally tend to have smaller class sizes and encourage a more collaborative atmosphere—one that is more conducive to divergent thinking—than traditional academic courses.

Academic courses, by contrast, often stress convergent thinking, which is the sort of thinking you engage in while trying to select the “correct” answer to a given problem from a number of possible choices via a logical, methodical process. If you’re curious about how this plays out in real life, think back to the time you spent parsing through right and wrong answer choices while taking the SAT.

Indeed, one need not look very far in order to find instances of how academic courses discourage divergent thinking in favor of its stuffy counterpart, convergent thinking. The grammar exercises and tests that are part and parcel of those courses place, more often than not, an emphasis on finding the “correct” answer to a given prompt. Either you arrive at that answer or you don’t, and if you don’t, you are often penalized. To give you an example, I remember back to my middle and high school Spanish classes in which we were often penalized half a point or more on our exams for missing accents or using them incorrectly.

Language, however, is primarily a means of communication, and communication is not inherently given to right and wrong answers as tests are. Every language has, of course, its own grammar, and, yes, grammatically speaking, there are right and wrong answers, but achieving grammatical perfection is, at best, a secondary goal to conveying meaning. Therein lies the relevant distinction as far as creativity is concerned: not only is conveying meaning the most important goal of speaking a language, it is also the primary driver of creativity because it forces us to think divergently.

As academic thinker Sir Ken Robertson has noted, our education system has become obsessed with the notion of avoiding mistakes. Said Robertson during a 2006 talk on the subject, “We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make.” The end result of this, he says, “is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

So just how should you go about learning a new language without educating yourself out of your creative capacity? I’m a huge fan of the “Speak from Day One” approach advanced by professional language-hacker and polyglot Benny Lewis. His approach stresses, as its name implies, the importance of speaking your new language from the very first day you begin learning it, no matter how few words you know.

Whereas grammar exercises often focus your attention on just one or two concepts at a time, speaking with others requires your mind to fire on all cylinders as you assimilate new information and cycle between familiar and unfamiliar concepts. It’s just more fun and more practical. As I’ve mentioned to readers of my language learning blog, The Linguisticlast, I still remember words from my Spanish classes in school, like patinar (meaning “to skate”), that I’ve only used a handful of times in my life. It wasn’t until my final year of high school Spanish, however, that I learned the conditional mood and the present perfect tense, both of which are vitally important in everyday speech.

So, back to my original question: did Hemmingway’s foreign language abilities help him write books like The Sun Also Rises and win a Nobel Prize in literature? Research suggests it certainly didn’t hurt. Creativity, though, is ultimately what you make of it. So go ahead, be your own test subject, and try learning another language.

Can Your Phone Teach You a New Language?

Spoiler alert: no, your phone cannot teach you a new language. Your ability to accomplish that depends entirely on you and your motivation, but a having a smart phone can certainly help. Here’s how: 

1) Live Your Digital Life in Your New Language.

The very first thing I always do when trying to learn a language is change my phone—along with my email accounts, social media accounts, search browsers, etc—into that language. Do not underestimate the power of passive learning. Before you even crack open a phrasebook, you’ll know words like “send,” “delete,” “edit,” “message,” “cancel,” and all sorts of other vocabulary just from using your phone on a daily basis.

2) Find A Flashcard App

Hey—the 90’s called. They want your paper flashcards back. The cool kids now use flashcard apps on their phones. I love my flashcard app, Flashcards Deluxe. Why? With the app, you can create all of my own flashcards, with up to five sides, and upload them to your phone using either Google Drive or Dropbox. You can choose how you’d like to learn your flashcards, either through a standard sequence or by using a spaced repetition system (SRS). Spaced repetition knows when you’re likely to forget a piece of recently learned information because it tracks your performance and usage history. It then sequences your flashcards so that that information is constantly fresh in your mind. I would actually go so far as to say that flashcards comprise the lion share of my language learning method. And because I have them on my phone, they’re always there with me—on the metro, in the waiting room at my dentist’s office, before I turn out the light and go to sleep. My point, flashcards and I have a very intimate relationship. 

3) Your Phone As a Dictionary

Finding a good dictionary on your phone can be tricky, but it’s crucial, especially while you’re in public. During my first few weeks in France, I often found myself glued to my phone in supermarket aisles trying to figure out what I was buying. After you start speaking and gaining some confidence, switch to a monolingual dictionary to challenge yourself.

4) Change the Music You Listen To

This is one is fairly self-explanatory. I love to look up the lyrics to foreign language songs and translate them line-by-line. The result is that no matter how rusty my Spanish gets, I think it’s likely I’ll always know all of the words to Bacilos’ “Caraluna.” It’s also worth mentioning that the language in which a song is sung can change the music itself. As William Weir writes in Slate, “English-only listening habits deprive us of the natural rhythm and melody of other languages—the nasal vowels of French, the alveolar trills of Portuguese, the consonant clusters of Czech.”

5) Learn a Language Through…Your Texts?

Yes—texts. You read that correctly. Texting with your native speaker friends will help you pick up on phrases you would otherwise miss in ordinary conversation. Write them down; look them up; ask your friends what they mean. Texts are little goldmines for finding slang words and colloquial expressions you’d otherwise miss in a classroom setting or while speaking.

6) Podcasts

Podcasts can help you learn everything from Portuguese to Pashto, and they’re a great way to spend a period of time during which you’d normally listen to music or the radio, like your walk to work.

7) Duolingo

Though I haven’t personally used the Duolingo app, Apple named it 2013’s “free iPhone App of the Year.” My friends who use it swear by it, and some have gone so far as to say it’s addicting. The app works like a game: You advance through different levels while learning your target language. In the process, however, you help to translate chunks of the internet. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Duolingo’s founder, Luis von Ahn, also created reCAPTCHA, which does the same thing, except with those annoying CAPTCHAs you have to decode to prove you’re human. Pretty cool, huh?

 8) For iPhone Users: Bonjour Siri!

Siri is now available in for use in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean. It just so happens that those are some of the most widely learned languages as well. How convenient! In my experience trying to use Siri in French and Spanish, I’ve had difficulty if my pronunciation is off, but I also have plenty of difficulty using Siri in English as well. I’ve found that Siri’s voice recognition ability has greatly improved with the introduction of iOS7.

Perfectionism: Your Enemy Now As Ever

I had a revealing exchange a few months back with one of my friends who, like me, was trying to learn French. As always, faced with the peculiarities of the French language, I exclaimed sanguinely that the ostensibly endless list of exceptions to already-convoluted grammar rules could not only be memorized, but could be done so easily. I don’t say things like that because I’m arrogant or think my language abilities are somehow superior to anyone else’s; rather, it’s in keeping with the mentality—which I’ve described in previous posts—that learning a new language is easy. To state otherwise is to take up arms with the enemy.

My friend, however, was clearly irritated when she retorted, “You say that, and yet you don’t speak French perfectly.”

And voilà—there it is, the mortal enemy of language learning: perfection. Let me first start off by saying that if you’re reading this blog—a blog about learning other languages for fun—you’re probably a person of some intelligence and are thus likely to be somewhat of a perfectionist in whatever it is that you do. It’s okay—it’s natural. But you should know that perfectionism is likely to be your greatest impediment to learning another language.

The problem is fundamentally a structural one because you already speak English or another language fluently, and in learning a new language, you are overlaying bits and pieces of the new language over your native language. When you first start out, you grammar will be atrocious. In that regard, especially if you are learning a foreign language for the very first time, the experience will be humbling. In doing so, you will be willfully exposing yourself to possible humiliation and embarrassment. No matter how hard you may try, there is just no getting past that.

You should understand as well, however, that no one speaks any language perfectly. Parse through this blog, and you are bound to find grammatical mistakes. Some of that is for affect; some is not. You should also realize that in learning a new language, you will likely hold yourself to a higher standard than native speakers will. Native speakers, by and large, especially when it comes to everyday interactions, don’t care about the grammatical correctness of your sentences. They have other things on their mind. They are concerned about your grammar insofar as you can get your point across, not whether you used to wrong preposition to say “in” instead of “on.”

Again—and I really cannot emphasize this enough—this is precisely where traditional language courses fail language students. Courses emphasize a level of perfection that’s just not feasible—nor practical—for beginners. Instead, I believe that it’s more important to start with the big picture and gradually fill in the details. It’s like building a building. When buildings are built, they are never built perfectly and completely floor-by-floor. No one ever builds the first floor and installs the plumbing and electricity before building the second floor. No—when you build a building, you lay the foundation first, then you erect a frame, and then, gradually, you fill the frame in with details that become progressively finer until you have a fully built, fully furnished building.

The same is true for language. As a beginner, don’t let yourself become distracted by whether you’re using the right preposition; the point is that you use a preposition. Once you get the hang of a concept, move on. As you speak and as you learn, you’ll continue to refine it. The most important errors to correct are those that impede you’re ability to convey meaning to a native speaker. Whenever I learn a new language, I let those errors drive my approach and my course of study.

Taking Fluency Off the Pedestal

The idea that perfection is my enemy when I learn a new language also influences my ultimate goal: fluency. If you think about fluency as being the ability to speak a language perfectly, or even to speak with the skill of a native speaker, forget it—you’re likely to fail. As I mentioned earlier, many native speakers can’t speak their own languages perfectly, so why should you expect yourself to? But even aiming to become as fluent as a native speaker is, in my opinion, a pointless goal, unless you’re wedded to one, or will be living in the country that speaks your target language for an extended—a very extended—length of time.

Fluency, to me, means just that: being able to speak your target language fluently. In my opinion, you’re fluent in a language if you can be about a wide array of subjects, familiar or otherwise, readily and with a degree of accuracy and coherence that causes little trouble in understanding for the party with whom you are having a conversation. Of course you’re bound to make mistakes, and of course you’ll pause, forget words, or lose your train of thought, but that’s only natural. Aiming for this level of conversational ability is much more achievable, and much more practical, than aiming for perfection.

Can You Learn a Language While Living In Another Country?

The topic of this week’s post was inspired by a question a friend of mine posed to me. After reading this blog, she asked how easy it is to learn a language while living in a country where that language isn’t spoken. She noted that while learning French, I have had both the time and the obvious advantage of living in France. Both of those are true, and don’t get me wrong: living in a country in which the language you’re trying to learn is far easier than living elsewhere. It is not, however, an impossible feat to accomplish.

You can find various posts—like this one, or this one—by people who have dedicated for more time to this question than I have and can speak far more languages than I can. I won’t attempt to rehash their advice; rather, I’ll share my experience of learning Turkish in Washington D.C. with you.

Why did I decide to learn Turkish? The ostensible reason was because I had planned a trip to Turkey last February, but I had been to Turkey before and made my way around just fine without knowing any Turkish. Remember, as I stated in my first post, I’m a huge nerd who loves to learn languages in his spare time. I decided, then, to give it a try and see where how far I could go with it. The problem was, not only was I living in the U.S., I was working full time.

I first bought a phrasebook and a small book on Turkish grammar. I then went on Craigslist and found someone who was willing to speak Turkish with me and teach me a few phrases. He, in turn, gave me a Turkish movie—Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever—and some Turkish pop music. Those were the extent of the resources I used.

Since I was working full-time—not to mention that my efforts to learn Turkish coincided with the “fiscal cliff” crisis that Congress was trying to sort out, so we were a bit busy—I had to find clever ways to work Turkish into my schedule. Given how busy I was, I essentially had to cut out all pleasure reading, TV shows, movies, etc for the duration of my three month language mission. For me, that was not such a problem. I don’t usually watch TV ever—I didn’t even own one while living in DC—and I substituted what movies I would usually watch with the Turkish movie I had. Granted, watching a movie for educational purposes is much different from watching a movie for pleasure. I spent hours upon hours pausing, taking notes, looking up words, and repeating phrases before rinsing and repeating. Then, when that was all said and done, I watched the movie again—and then again.

I also began incorporating Turkish into my workout routine—yes, my workout routine. I would run through Turkish vocabulary on my phone using a flashcard app called Flashcards Deluxe while using the elliptical machine. When I ran, or when I was too lazy to run through flashcards, I would listen to Turkish music (which can be surprisingly great for working out).

I even started squeezing some Turkish in during downtime at work. Whenever I had to take the subway from the Capitol to one of the Senate office buildings—the ride lasts probably about a minute and a half to two minutes at most—I would pace through my flashcards. I added the Turkish language account of Hürriyet Daily News to my Twitter feed and would surruptitiously translate tweets and articles when I had a spare minute.

Finally—and this is always the first step I take when learning a new language—I began to live my digital life in Turkish. I changed the language preferences on my gmail account, my Facebook account, my Twitter account, and my phone so that all were in Turkish. I’m continually amazed by how much you can learn by making such a tiny change. Passive learning is a wonderful tool that quite literally takes almost no effort—harness it.

So what was the cumulative result of all my efforts? Did I set foot in Turkey last Febraury speaking fluent, flawless Turkish? No. Not even close. I was probably at a low B1 level—that’s not fluent, but that’s not bad either considering that I spent three months learning Turkish while working full time. I was able to have conversations that were much more interesting than, “Where’s the Hagia Sofia?” or “Good morning.” I met far more people on my trip than I would have had I never tried to learn Turkish. Perhaps my favorite moment came when I was able to talk with my seatmate—an elderly Turkish woman—on my flight from Istanbul to Izmir. She spoke no absolutely no English whatsoever, but I was able to talk with her about her family and what was what like to grow up in Turkey. Cool, huh?

Look, frankly, the question of whether its possible to learn a language while living in another country isn’t a very interesting one—yes, of course it’s possible. Your ability to realize that goal, however, is entirely a function of your own motivation. Have you tried seeking out a native speaker who lives near you? If you can’t find a native speaker, have you tried searching for someone to speak with online? Sites like iTalki have tons of tutors who speak tons of different languages who you can connect with in an instant. On your commute to work or school, do you listen to something in your target language? Have you tried watching a movie or TV show in your target language?

The big secret here, of course, is that I’m not suggesting anything terribly radical. By making a few small tweaks to your routine here and there, you could make a lot more progress than you think. This isn’t something that applies exclusively to language learning—indeed, it applies to everything in our lives. I call this the “workout conundrum.” When I started my first job, I joined the gym at work, but more often than not, I found myself having conversations with myself, like the following, as I left each day:

“Well, it’s six forty-five now, and I have to meet up with so-and-so at eight, and it takes a half hour to get home, so by the time I got ready, I would only have time for a fifteen minute workout because I have to take a shower…tomorrow. I’ll just go tomorrow.”

The flaw in my logic should be obvious: a fifteen-minute workout is always better than a zero-minute workout. You can apply the same principal to language learning. Five minutes of studing vocabularly is always better than zero minutes of studying vocabulary. If this guy could read 366 books in 366 days while balancing a full work and family life, please do not tell me you simply “don’t have time” to study a few flashcards or listen to a song.

In Defense of French

The following piece is a rebuttal to John McWhorter’s piece in The New Republic entitled, “Let’s Stop Pretending That French is an Important Language.”

“And when he told me French was a dead language, I knew it was true,” recounted a friend of mine’s mother a few months ago as I sat with his family having dinner in London. She was describing a conversation she had had with a French friend of hers. They were discussing the impending death of the French language—a popular topic of conversation among Americans and French alike.

French’s detractors claim we should be teaching our kids Spanish or—even better!—Mandarin. This was a sentiment most recently espoused by John McWhorter’s in his article for The New Republic entitled, “Let’s Stop Pretending That French is an Important Language.” He responds to a piece the New York Times ran about the rise of French bilingual education in New York City’s public schools. [Disclaimer: Not only do I live in France and speak French, but my brother attended the Lycée Français de Chicago for ten years.]

Mr. McWhorter admits that bilingual education would benefit New York’s sizeable French-speaking immigrant population, which is undoubtedly true. He directs his advice to, I presume, the (probably) affluent subset of the American populace shopping for the language that would provide the greatest economic benefit to their children, not unlike American parents who hire nannies to speak Mandarin with their children.

This is all well and good, and it’s certainly something to encourage, but it’s a high-class problem to have—a problem that, as statistics show, America actually can’t afford to have. Literally. Funding for—and, commensurately, the availability of—foreign language education in the United States has fallen precipitously since the turn of the century, a trend that’s been exacerbated by perpetual budget shortfalls at the national level and in public schools across the country. If the French government or its partners in the private sector are willing to foot the bill, why not teach our kids French?

As the 9th most-spoken language in the world, it’s not as though French is going to go the way of Cherokee anytime soon. (Sorry, Cherokee—I do hope the iPhone can save you.) And then there’s Africa, the continent on which more of French’s estimated 220 million speakers live than any other. Like it or not, French colonialism made it a lingua franca on the continent. Largely thanks to the high rate of population growth in Africa, French’s speakers are expected to number about 700 million by 2050, increasing French’s global language share from 3% to 8%.

This is important for several reasons, not the least of which are economic. Five of the top ten countries with the fastest growing economies in Africa use French as an official language. Globally, 19% of the world’s trade in goods involves French-speaking countries.

Interested in international affairs? Better learn French. In 2012, Al Qaeda seized a portion of French-speaking Mali larger than the size of Texas before the French military came the country’s aid. (If you missed this story, you could be forgiven—we were busy having a national conversation about big bird in the wake of the first presidential debate.) An ongoing political conflict with ethnic implications and the possibility for genocide warranted the intervention of—you guesed it—France in the French-speaking Central African Republic late last year. Who’s been at the negotiating table during talks regarding peace in Syria or Iran’s nuclear program? France. Oh yeah and that Syria place? Yeah that was once a French protectorate.

Forget Sartre and Molière, Mr. McWhorter—you know that whole internet thing? It’s a series of tubes and wires, and there’s a bunch of information involved…Anyways, French is the third most widely used language on the web, behind English and German. It also has the fifth largest presence on Wikipedia, a site that’s often used by people of my generation as a first—and, unfortunately, last—resort for information.

It is also, might I add, a quintessentially American flaw of the imagination to exclude the possibility of learning both French and another language in school. While political leaders in some U.S. states continue to bicker about whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science classes, 61% of children in Europe are currently learning two or more languages in school. Mandarin is a difficult language for native English speakers to learn, and, despite their massive number, its speakers are not as widely diffused as French’s are. Would it really be such a crime for Americans to have a knowledge of Mandarin and a language that’s spoken widely in both Europe and Africa?

In its incipience, Facebook once gave you the option of selecting “whatever I can get” as your “interested in” status on your profile. That’s kind of where America’s at when it comes to its relationship with foreign languages. So, no, Mr. McWhorter, let’s not stop pretending. Let’s keep encouraging students to learn French, especially when others are willing to pay for it.

What a Coca Cola Ad Taught Us About Language Policy in the U.S.

Last night, millions of American crowded televisions sets to watch the Super Bowl, an annual sporting event so synonymous with American culture that Le Monde, a French newspaper, dubbed it “the other 4th of July.” During the game, Coca Cola ran this minute-long spot featuring a variety of people singing “America the Beautiful” in a variety of languages:

Within minutes, a veritable firestorm erupted on Twitter. The hashtags #SpeakAmerican and #FuckCoke began trending, with users saying things like, “This is America. We speak English.” Conservative political icon former-Congressman Allen West had a post up on his website before the game was even over quoting American President Teddy Roosevelt, saying, “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house…”

The controversy highlights some uncomfortable truths about America’s complicated relationship with bilingualism and foreign language learning. For a country that considers itself the world’s superpower, its citizens are shockingly deficient when it comes to having a knowledge of foreign languages. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted, “Only 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language.” Put in a global perspective, the U.S.’s overwhelming monolingualism is an aberration: according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, “Available data indicate that there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual.”

It didn’t always used to be this way. Many of the United States’ founding fathers spoke French, Italian, or Spanish, or could read a classical language like Latin or ancient Greek. Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States, learned English as his second language—his first being Dutch. Legend has it that James Garfield, the 20th President, could write simultaneously and ambidextrously in Latin and Greek.

Fast-forward to today, when bilingualism has, at times, been a political landmine. In 2008, Barack Obama, who is monolingual, was roundly criticized by conservative groups for supporting early-age foreign language education in American schools. What did Obama say exactly? “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.”

Other aspirants to the presidency who have been able to speak foreign languages have been mocked for their linguistic prowess, including Mitt Romney and John Kerry, who both speak French, and Jon Huntsman, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who speaks Mandarin Chinese. But men like these are the exception in the U.S. and will remain so, especially as schools have cut funding for foreign language programs. As an article published in Forbes entitled “America’s Foreign Language Deficit” points out, the state of foreign language instruction in the U.S. is, well, not great:

- The percentage of public and private elementary schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 31 to 25 percent from 1997 to 2008.  Instruction in public elementary schools dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent, with rural districts hit the hardest.

- The percentage of all middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 75 to 58 percent.

- The percentage of high schools offering some foreign language courses remained about the same, at 91 percent.

- About 25 percent of elementary schools and 30 percent of middle schools report a shortage of qualified foreign language teachers.

- In 2009-2010, only 50.7 percent of higher education institutions required foreign language study for a baccalaureate, down from 67.5 percent in 1994-1995.  And many colleges and universities, including Cornell, have reduced or eliminated instructional offerings in “less popular” languages.

This leads us to the greatest irony of the entire controversy: Coca Cola is a global brand that hails from a country that’s becoming less and less adept at producing global leaders. Only a quarter of the world’s population speaks English. (I say “only a quarter” because citizens of Anglophone countries often act as if this percentage is much higher.) That means that Barack Obama, who was hailed as a transformational leader who would repair America’s global image, can only communicate with a quarter of the world’s population—except though translators.

But speaking a second language is about much, much more than simply knowing vocabulary and grammatical structures; it can actually change the way you view the world. For that, translators simply won’t do the trick. For instance, recent research has shown that speakers of “non-futured” languages, like Finnish or German, are more likely to save more money for retirement and are less likely to smoke or be obese than speakers of “futured” languages like French or English. See the video below for more on those findings—it is fascinating:

It appears, perversely, that the ineptitude of the world’s richest country and largest economy when it comes to learning foreign languages could hamper its ability to remain globally competitive. According to the council on foreign relations, “Nearly 30 percent of the U.S. economy is now wrapped up in international trade, and half of U.S. growth since the official end of the recession in 2009 has come from exports.” Domestically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that market for interpreters and translators will grow by 42% between 2010 and 2020. For a country that’s been mired in an employment crisis for the better part of five years, encouraging more people to pick up a phrasebook doesn’t seem like such a foolish idea.

All of the talk about employment statistics aside, it appears that that America’s bilinguals, like the ones featured in the Coca Cola ad last night, will have the last laugh in this debate. From a greater resistance to the deleterious effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, to enhanced cognitive flexibility—that’s a fancy name for what a layman would call creativity—and decision-making abilities, the advantages of being bilingual are numerous and well-documented. It seems, then, that those who now plan to boycott Coca Cola have a lot more to learn from those featured in the commercial than the other way around.

Whether you do it to better your mind or your résumé, try learning another language this year. I can help show you how.

Where to Begin?

So you’ve made the decision to learn a new language, but as you look out at the linguistic horizon ahead of you, you feel a bit overwhelmed. You look out and see a fully formed language in which the most intimate and profound experiences of the human existence are transacted, and you’d just like to figure out how to order a coffee. As you listen to the language, you can scarcely discern where words end and begin, let alone what they mean. Perhaps you start to panic. Perhaps you start to doubt whether you’re up to the challenge. These reactions are, of course, perfectly normal.

The Right Mindset

First of all, you should know that the language you’re about to learn is easy. “But I’m trying to learn [Japanese, Mandarin, Hungarian, Czech, Turkish, Cherokee, etc]!” you retort. So how do I know the language that you’re trying to learn is going to be easy? Because children learn and use all of these language without problems. What gets lost in all of these discussions is that language is, at its core, a means of communication used by people everyday to express completely mundane, ordinary things. Everybody uses language; everybody communicates somehow.

Benny Lewis at Fluent in Three Months has a series on his blog in which he writes that languages like Czech, Turkish, German, Mandarin Chinese, Hungarian, and French are not as hard as you think. (Disclaimer: I wrote the post about French.) By taking the 360-degree view of the language your learning, as I advocated in my first post, you’ll instantly be able to spot where the trouble spots are and how you should invest your time. Below are three examples of how this plays out in Czech, Turkish, and French:

If you’re learning Czech: OMG THE CASES! There are seven of them! Yes, that’s a lot, but there are only three verb tenses and two moods. Start by learning how conjugate verbs, and then focus your time on learning the cases.

If you’re learning Turkish: Yes, vowel harmony is a weird concept for an English speaker, and yes, the verb comes at the end of the sentence, and YES, the agglutination thing takes some getting used to. BUT—and this is a big “but”—there are no grammatical genders, no definite or indefinite articles, and the verb conjugations are completely regular.

If you’re learning French: Between the tenses, finicky rules for using prepositions, and the seemingly countless exceptions for basically any grammar rule, how is it, you ask yourself, that you are going to learn this language? Well, thanks to the Norman Conquest of 1066, you have a ready-made vocabulary of a couple thousand words already—and you haven’t even cracked open a grammar book yet.

Each of these languages hails from a different language family, and each have few things in common, but did you notice any patterns? The secret is this: When languages seem hard in one respect, they very often compensate in others. Languages are structured they way they are for a reason. Incorporating tons of tricky grammar rules and complicated vocabulary simply isn’t practical for everyday communication, and so people have developed their languages accordingly. Furthermore, the “difficult” parts of languages only really seem difficult because they’re different. English, for instance, has shed the grammatical cases that were a feature of Latin and used to be present in Old English, but you still innately understand the concept of what direct objects, indirect objects, etc are. Grammatical cases, then, only seem difficult because they’re different, not because you won’t be able to understand the concept.

Your First Conversation

That’s enough grammar for today, right? I mean, I love grammar, and even that was too much grammar for me. Right—so let’s get practical. Back to that cup of coffee you’d like to order. Step number one is to buy a good phrasebook. Personally, I prefer the Lonely Planet phrasebooks because I think they do a great job of explaining how the language fits together.

You’re goal is to commit a few ready-made phrases to memory so you’re not totally at a loss for what to say, even if it’s just to say, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Eventually, however, you want to get to the point where you can have following conversation without any difficulty:

You: Hi—how are you today?

Cashier: Well, and you?

You: Very well—thanks. I would like…

Cashier: This?

You: No—this.

Cashier: Big or small?

You: Small please.

Cashier: Anything else?

You: No, thanks. How much?

Cashier: X amount.

You: Do you take credit?

Cashier: Yes. (Swipes credit card)

You: Do you need me to sign?

Cashier: Yes please.

You: Okay. Thank you very much. Bye!

Cashier: Bye!

This is especially handy if you’re living in the country in which your target language is spoken. If you’re not living in a country where your target language is spoken, your first conversation will probably look more like this:

You: Hi—how are you?

Native Speaker: I’m well, and you?

You: I’m well, thanks. What’s your name?

Native Speaker: My name is [such-and-such]. What’s your name?

You: My name is [such-and-such]. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?

Native Speaker: I’m from [country].

You: I’ve never been to [country], but I’d like to go.

Native Speaker: You should! It’s beautiful and I love it. Where are you from?

You: I’m from [country].

Native Speaker: Which city in [country]?

You: [City]

Once you purposefully start learning how to have fluff conversations like the one above, you’ll be surprised just how often you find yourself having them—even in English! That, then, gets to the heart of my language-learning approach: learn what you need, not what you think you need. So much of our everyday interactions with other people never really delve too deep. Most of what you talk about with other people involves telling someone about what you’re doing today, what you did yesterday, or what you’re going to do tomorrow. That’s the stuff you want to learn right away.

That’s also where the classroom approach falls drastically short of preparing language-learners for actual interaction with people. In every course I’ve ever taken, my teachers have held out on teaching us a set of simple tenses until later in the course. Meanwhile, we learn…well, if you read my first post you know my feelings on the Spanish word patinar.

Within your first week of learning a new language, you should learn how to conjugate a handful of essential verbs—such as “to be” and “to go”—in a set of simple tenses, usually present, past, and future. Even if you can’t do it perfectly, you should at least learn to identify those tenses in conversation and writing. Look for different markers that a new tense is being used. In some languages, verbs change tenses by adding a new ending; in others, verbs require the assistance of another verb—called an “auxiliary verb”—to change tenses. Learn how your target language does that before you even dive into that big, gushy mound of vocabulary you think you need to learn.

But before you get too caught up memorizing lists of past tense verb endings, you need to go out and speak. Use the phrases you’ve committed to memory. And if you forget that past tense verb ending, don’t worry—use the present tense of the verb you know with a word like “yesterday” to indicate what you did happened in the past. It’s poor grammar—yes—but your goal isn’t to speak perfectly. It’s to get your meaning across. More on that next time.

My Fight Against “Big Language”: Introducing “The Triage Method”

I’ve been waiting to start this blog until I became comfortable with my level in French. Until then, I felt I didn’t have as much credibility to shake my linguistoclastic fists at the language-learning establishment because I couldn’t prove that my method to learning languages is any better than theirs. You see, whereas many people practice sports, play music, or cook in their free time, I learn languages—for fun. My current language mission is French—I live in Paris, and I’ve been learning the language since the beginning of September. I’ll go into a bit more detail about my French mission below, but first I’ll start with some background and my general thoughts on language learning.

My Fight Against “Big Language”

By “Big Language” I mean the language-learning establishment, which is a veritable gendarmerie, replete with its own exacting standards regarding how languages should be taught, learned, spoken, etc. These standards that are, by-and-large, completely misguided. I’ve come to feel strongly about this because I’d consider myself somewhat of a language-learning expert. (Note that I don’t call myself a “language-speaking expert,” merely a “language-learning expert.”) French is now the fifth language I’ve made an attempt to learn after having spent time studying Spanish, Italian, Czech, and Turkish. Of those, I can only speak French and Spanish; Italian, Czech, and Turkish have since left me, though I am interested in picking them back up at some point.

I learned Spanish in school for seven years, starting when I was ten years old. You would think that, come year seven, I would have been completely fluent in Spanish, that I would have known every one of its nooks and crannies. Well, no—that simply wasn’t the case, though I sincerely wish it had been. The very first time I ever attempted to convey meaning to a native speaker by stringing words together into coherent sentences was during the month I lived in Barcelona with a Spanish family. I was sixteen. I remember all of the vocabulary and grammar—accrued while idling through countless hours of exercise upon exercise—rushing forth. Suddenly, I realized, I could speak. Not well, but I could speak! Within a few weeks I was thinking in Spanish and dreaming in Spanish, and it was fun! I returned to school that fall excited, for the first time in six years, for my Spanish class, but before long my Spanish speaking ability regressed and I muddled my way through my last year of high school Spanish. I would make another attempt to speak it until six years later. Why did my Spanish deteriorate while taking that class? Shouldn’t the class have only helped my Spanish? As I’ve come to realize years later, the answer is, plainly, “no.”

The problem with language learning education is that it means relatively little without a commensurate effort to actually use the language. Many people falsely believe—perhaps because Big Language has promulgated this myth so completely—that by taking a class or lessons, you will automatically be able to speak the language you’re learning. Time and time again, I watch people become discouraged and disengaged, and time and time again, I hear people say things like, “I took high school Spanish, but…” or “I took a French course once, but…” The “but” in those sentences usually precedes a declaration to the effect of, “I can’t speak a word of it.” Okay, I understand, and I’m with you, but I’m starting this blog to change that. Starting now.

Put Your Language-Learning on a Diet

When I think back to my early Spanish classes, the thing I find most interesting is how much of what I learned actually stuck with me. To this day, I remember words like bufanda (“scarf”), despite the fact I think I’ve only ever used bufanda a handful of times in conversation. I remember the tables of verbs—verbs like maquillarse (“to put on makeup”), peiñarse (“to comb”), and patinar (“to skate”)—we had to memorize and all of their corresponding pictures. The problem, then, wasn’t that I don’t remember anything; it’s that I was made to memorize the wrong stuff.

The method I’ve developed focuses like a laser-beam on learning the grammar and vocabulary that I’m most likely to encounter on a day-to-day basis while actually using the language I’m trying to learn. I first applied it while learning Turkish, and I’ve been using it most recently to learn French. It’s simple: I start by thinking about what I would learn about in a beginner’s class, and then I do the opposite. Much of the vocabulary I’ve learned in my language courses—colors, household objects and appliances, family members, sports, activities, animals, etc—is junk. Absolutely crap. There’s no need to spend a second of your time actively learning it unless you absolutely must.

What do I prioritize, then? I start by taking a 360-degree view of the language and how it’s structured and where words go. It’s important to know where it employs a subject-verb-object structure, like English or the romance languages, or some other structure. Does word order even matter at all? In some languages, like Czech, it doesn’t. Are there articles? If so, where do the articles go and what grammatical information do they convey? Do adjectives come before or after nouns, and do they reflect the gender and number of the nouns they modify? Do nouns even have gender? In my opinion, all of this is essential to know before you even utter your first word in the language, though none of the courses I’ve taken have spent time explaining all of this to me in a clear, concise way. My mantra can be summed up thus: Learn the structures first, and then fill in the rest with vocabulary as you go along.

When it comes time to start learning vocabulary, I prefer to be as efficient as possible. Take a moment and think about which words you use most in English. Studies show that speakers of different languages use language, by and large, for the same purposes, to express the same things. It’s also been shown that though languages consist of millions of words, native speakers usually only use a discrete set of a couple thousand to interact on a daily basis. Therefore, learning the most commonly used words in a language will help you progress much further, and much faster, than simply memorizing boiler-plate vocabulary, like patinar. (Sorry, no offense patinar—really. You’re a great word, and I’m sure someone will use you well, but you’re just not all that useful.)

My Method: “The Triage Method”

Okay, I know I’m throwing a lot at you, so below, as concisely as I can possibly organize it, are the five aspects that comprise my language learning method:

  1. Commit the most commonly used words to memory. Frequency-lists are your friends and are nearly ubiquitous on the Internet.
  2. Learn the grammatical structures in which vocabulary is used, including word order, verbal tenses, moods, inflection of nouns, etc. Dive on in. It’s really not that scary—I promise. I find that learning grammar rules helps me make sense of the phrases I hear everyday. You know you’re onto something when you begin to have those “ah-ah!” moments.
  3. Memorize phrases, expressions, and filler speech. Doing so will aid the fluency of your speech and allow you to continue a conversation while formulating news thoughts, just as you do in your native language. Have you ever thought about how often you use words and phrases like “I see,” “I understand,” “well, actually,” or “not quite?” They come to mind so automatically and fit so naturally into your speech that you probably haven’t. You need to learn the filler speech of your target language to buy yourself time to think and to convey basic understanding.
  4. Assimilate words, phrases, and expressions used by native speakers into your own speech. Let’s face it, you take as many classes as you’d like, but you will never, ever sound like a native unless you take the time to speak with natives and learn how they use the language on a day-to-day basis. Having an arsenal of colloquial phrases will no doubt boost your fluency level.
  5. Listen to your target language as spoken by native speakers. Movies and music are the best—and most enjoyable—tools for doing this in your spare time, especially if you’re not actually living in a country in which your target language is spoken. You must, though, make an effort to find native speakers wherever you are.

So in which order are you supposed to do all of these things? Well, now here’s the real secret about my method: it’s not actually a method at all. These, I believe, are the five essential aspects to learning a new language, but the order in which you do them and how much time you invest in each depends on you. I suppose the simple answer is that they should happen all at once, and you should continue with each until you reach what you would consider to be fluency and beyond. I call it the triage method because what I focus on depends entirely on what I feel are my weak points in spoken conversation. In other words, I’m constantly in the process of “triaging” my skills.

In the broadest of terms, that is how I learn languages. This blog will be dedicated to expounding on my triage method and sharing other miscellaneous linguistic tidbits because, well, language is my passion. If it’s yours too, or if you’re simply looking for some practical tips, check back every once in a while for an update.