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I wrote about wanting to be proficient in 8 languages almost 2 years ago already. Unfortunately very little progress so far. I did spend a year working on a spanish blog for other Vietnamese learners. I stopped a whiiiiile ago, but I believe it’s still one of the top 3 results on Google for learning spanish/ teaching yourself spanish/ spanish grammar/… (if you type the search term in Vietnamese of course). I also read a dozen or so books and novels in Spanish. But my weakest has always been grammar, and it wasn’t until very recently that I sat down with a grammar workbook. And of course I chided myself for not having done it earlier. Finally understanding the nuances in different forms of talking about a possibility in the past is a real beauty. These nuances, whether in pronunciation or meanings, delight me. I wish I had someone to practice with, but where I live and the lack of a reliable schedule have made it impossible.

And I was mistaken thinking that my next language would for sure be Portuguese. I love that language, no doubt, and have even gathered a bunch of excellent materials to learn, but the one I’m working on now is actually Arabic. It’s bewildering. Quite a few new sounds that I can’t yet distinguish. nd thy wrt lk ths, i.e. they write without vowels. thnk gdnss there are only 3 of them. J/k! t dsn’t mk any easier for a beginner. The script is actually quite fun, gotta stare at them and count dots and dashes since there are so many similar shapes. But hey, they have a letter that looks exactly like a smiley face to cheer you up. This bbc article says I should only use my brain’s left side to read arabic because it’s the detail-oriented side. Quite tricky because we involve both hemispheres to learn new tasks (and they haven’t discovered a button to turn the hemispheres off at will yet, have they?). This is particularly bad news for me, because as I like to say in job interviews, I’m the “global picture” kinda gal 🙂 oh well, insha’allah as they say.

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Whenever a friend compliments me on my knack for languages, I always deny it. Not out of modesty, but out of knowing my abilities. I love languages, but they certainly don’t come natural to me. On the contrary, I work my ass off and most of the time feel like I have to try harder than many many others. I’m so envious of my trilingual and quadrilingual friends who learned when they were young because they lived abroad or because their parents speak a different ethnic language. I’m envious of those that can learn “naturally” by listening and imitating the sounds.

I learned English for 6 years in Vietnam. In fact, I even went to a specialized high school and got 3rd prize in a highly competitive national English contest. (Thanks to it, got a spot at a prestigious university in Vietnam without having to go through the entrance exams.) I arrived in the US, and imagine how shocked, depressed, and even humiliated I felt when I could understand only 65% of the conversation among my peers. What happened to my 630 out of 670 in the TOEFL? I was supposed to be more than proficient. But the truth was I didn’t understand why they would all crack up and had to put fake smiles on my face and nod along. I couldn’t participate in group discussions. By the time I formed a complete sentence in my head, the topic had changed. And half of the time when I did utter something, people would have to ask me to repeat then they went “oh, “cultural”…” and I thought in my head “yes, that’s exactly what I said the first time.” That feeling of being misunderstood, being left out in conversation blew a major blow to my confidence, and at the same time it forced me to throw myself into the water, again and again. And in the water I kicked as hard as I could. I went to parties, to after-class lectures, to plays and shows. And finally after a year, the first question that people asked me after I opened my mouth was no longer: “Where are you from?” (It would come much later in the conversation.) And only then did I realize how horrible my pronunciations had been. My ears in the beginning were practically deaf to vastly different accents. To me Vietnamese English and Singlish and British and American sounded just the same.

I used the same approach when I learned Japanese, French, and Spanish. I surrounded myself with native speakers, or at the very least, fluent speakers. I was determined to not feel uncomfortable when I didn’t understand what was going on, and not get embarrassed when I said the wrong phrases or didn’t know how to say very basic expressions. I always had the radio on and would listen to anything from news to weather forecast. I still remember in France, it took me a full 2 months to crack through weather terminologies. It always paid off. I figured out what works for me to learn a language and it’s no secret or surprise: immersion and practice.

And that should be the key to retaining a language too right? And if you can’t have immersion, practice much harder? The answer seems straightforward but easier said than done, especially when I have to juggle multiple languages. Kato Lomb, who started to learn foreign languages in earnest at the age of 35 and in the end collected 16 languages in her brain mostly self-taught, has been an enormous inspiration. I’m only at a few now and I can already see them leak away and it is frustrating. Even English, which I consider my true second language. By my second year in the US, I’d acquired a light and easy-to-understand accent. Native speakers could tell I had an accent but would have trouble locating it. And now, a year and a half after I left the US, my accent from the old days seems to be crawling back. The first person to notice was Nancy when I met her in Myanmar. She constantly had to ask me to repeat, even simple words. A couple of weeks later, Col came and it was one of the first things he noticed. When he saw me 6 months earlier, nothing was too off to prompt a comment. But now, he said it’s a 6.5 compared to a 9 before I left the US. I feel like a failure.

In Vietnamese slang, 8 (tám) means to chat, to gossip. So the title says chatting in 8 languages. That’s my new goal: to be able to converse in 8 languages in 8 years. Now, there are different levels of “conversing.” I want to be more proficient than just daily work and traveling talk. I want to be able to discuss various topics in life philosophy, politics, and culture, so close to a B2 level (vantage or upper intermediate) of the European framework of reference.

Which 8 languages? I’m gonna count Vietnamese as the first one. (After all I didn’t say 8 foreign languages). Second is obviously English.

Third and forth are French and Spanish. I studied French for 1.5 year in college and then spent an exchange semester in France. My sister speaks it, and her husband is French. So even though I don’t practice much, I still retain a fair amount. I’d say I’m normally a B1 level, and once I get immersed again in the environment, it doesn’t take long to get back into the mode and I improve pretty fast.

Spanish: I spent a summer in Peru. I self-learned with a pocket dictionary, a “teach yourself Spanish” book, with bosses and clients and friends. I went back to college for my last semester and took a Hispanic literature course. Graduated and moved to Mexico for a 6 month internship. At my job, I learned to write with the wonderful “spell-check” tool in Word and Outlook Mail. It really helped to formalize my speaking. And of course huge thanks to my ex. Along the way, I’ve developed very reliable intuition. I can guess and follow lengthy arguments (except if they’re in all slangs) or García Marquez novels. But the dangerous thing is I never properly learned the grammar and the more advanced nuances, so I always feel shaky when I have to create my own sentences in new situations. I’m dedicating this year to getting a firm grip of Spanish. E.g. I’m reading news articles to sentence structures and not just for comprehension.

Next language is gonna be Portuguese for sure. Why? Brazil! I was given some lessons by a friend back in Hawaii, and also started a few chapters of Pimsleur. I put it aside to focus on Spanish for now. As the two are fairly similar, I’d rather be competent in one first to avoid later confusions.

The last 3 languages are tricky to decide. Here are a few contenders:

Arabic: I’ve always liked the idea of learning Arabic, but have very little experience with it. The pro is the large world of Arabic speaking countries that I’d like to visit one day.

Russian: I love Russian literature, and I love its sound. Like many of my generation and older, I watched a lot of Soviet films and enjoyed its music without understanding the meaning. It’s reputedly a difficult language to learn with a convoluted case system. The pro? One of my closest friends is a Russian teacher; I’m sure she would help me out. And with Russian, I could get by in the old Soviet bloc region, also high on my list of travel interests.

Chinese: Standard Chinese, the trendiest language to learn in many parts of the world as it’s crowned to be the next international language. It seems like everywhere, there’s a thriving Chinese community, not just in Asia but in far-flung towns in Latin America and Africa as well. My main motivation though would be my love for Chinese lit. I read all the 4 classic works (Red Mansion Dream, Journey to the West, Water Margin, Three Kingdoms Romance) in 6th and 7th grade and they’re still among my favorites. Later in high school, I went through a phase of wuxia – martial arts novel genre. Despite all these reasons, I still feel a strong resistance to the language. Sinophobia?

Japanese: ahem, it hurts a little to talk about Japanese. I took it for 2 years in college and spent a summer at a well-known language school. And how much do I remember now? Nada! Ok, a little bit. Sukoshi dake. Maybe if I pick it up again it would come back easily. After all, I’ve spent thousands of grueling hours on grammar and kanji drills. My main struggle with Japanese: kanji. Even at an intermediate level could not read a simple piece of article without furiously scrutinizing for correct dictionary entries. I learn a lot by reading and retain by reading so I stalled. It also explained why I lost the language so fast.

Hawaiian: I was tempted to learn back in Hawai’i, but it is simply not practical. It’s only spoken in Hawai’i, and even there, by not many people. I fell in love with it through hula. It is unquestionably one of the most beautiful and poetic languages that I’ve come to know. I had to memorize quite a few chants and songs in Hawaiian and their English translation for my classes. Perhaps I should learn the most used words to understand songs.

Khmer/Thai/Lao: Because our neighbors speak them?

Hindi: big population in (northern) India and Pakistan. I picked up a little during my internship in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. After a few months I could make myself understood in basic situations through a mix of Hindi, Gujarati, and gesturing. Truthfully though, I learned out of necessity and out of a respect for the environment I lived it. I was never too attracted to it although I do like (filmi) music.

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