Who's afraid of grammar?

Very often people are quite relaxed about the idea of learning vocabulary: the Italian for ‘table’ is ‘tavola’, the Japanese for ‘car’ is ‘kuruma’. OK, no big deal. You learn the words and you’re half way there.

The problem sometimes comes with the second half to get you the whole way there. That second half is perhaps what we generally call ‘grammar’. Conscious that this little word terrifies people, writers of course books sometimes avoid it altogether: instead, they have sections called ‘structures’ or ‘language patterns’. Although we at Euroasia don’t avoid the g-word in its entirety, we do re-assure people that we try to avoid the difficult stuff as much as possible.

In actual fact, far from being the language learner’s enemy, grammar is the learner’s friend. Instead
of complicating things, grammar simplifies them.

Just think a little about English grammar. Sometimes native speakers of English state, with undue modesty, that they don’t know much about English grammar, because they never learnt it at school. In fact, native speakers of every language have an excellent

knowledge of the grammar underpinning their particular language. You learnt most elements of English grammar well before you started school; you acquired it alongside the words that you learnt as an infant.

Grammar is essentially the principles which determine how we put words together to form coherent
utterances. It’s grammar that obliges us to say, “Yesterday John spoke these words” and not, “Yesterday John speak this word”. It’s grammar that determines that we can put together a whole series of words and create a combination as amazing as, “Had I seen her, I might have been able to convince her.” If we were to describe the grammatical principles which underlie the various elements of that sentence and the way they’re combined, we’d need at least a full page in which to do so.

If it weren’t for grammar, language would just be a set of disconnected words, and much of the subtle meanings which we’re able to convey would be lost.

In identifying grammatical points, grammarians look for patterns. In English, for example, we say, “I sing’ but ‘he sings’ and ‘she sings’. Once it’s been seen that other verbs like ‘sing’ also add an ‘s’ after ‘he’ and ‘she’ in this particular tense, a grammar point is

identified. Now we as native speakers of English know this instinctively: we didn’t learn it consciously. However, having identified the point, we can then proceed to use it when we explain the English language to people who are not native speakers of the language.

You might argue that, if native speakers of a language learn the grammar subconsciously (just by being exposed to it, in fact), we as adult learners of a language ought to be able to do the same. The trouble is that our brains are very different from infant brains – we’ve already been conditioned to relate to our own mother tongue, and other languages are in a sense quite alien. While we would probably pick up the grammar if we were exposed to it over a long period of time, it’s much easier for teachers just to draw our attention to it so that we can make an effort to understand, remember and assimilate it.

Grammar is a shortcut: it makes language learning easier, not harder. When teachers present grammar, or  when you read up on it in your handbook after the class, you’re benefiting from having various patterns pointed out to you. What we have done is to grade the patterns according to difficulty and introduce you bit by bit to the elements which you most need to know. (Actually, the best teachers initially encourage you to work out the patterns yourself from the examples which they have carefully selected and presented to you.) Instead of listening to hundreds of examples, all jumbled up, and somehow working out a whole range of underlying patterns, you have the patterns neatly ordered and spread out for your delectation!

And that is grammar – a series of beautiful patterns. Of course, you need to practise your grammar so that what may first of all come across as unusual eventually becomes second nature. The more you can go over the patterns to yourself, the quicker you will assimilate them. Try taking one basic pattern and then substituting one word for another. You know how to say, ‘I’d like some cheese’? OK, so now can you replace ‘cheese’ with another word and still get the grammar to work? One objection people raise to the idea of learning grammar is that there always seem to be exceptions. You carefully learn a pattern, see it working in a variety of contexts, but then, lo and behold, along comes an exception. It’s an irregular verb, or we need a different ending in this particular case. B****r! You didn’t tell me about that, did you? Well, no, we didn’t, because if we told you about every possible exception right from the beginning, the explanation would be too complicated, and you’d probably give up and miss out on all the useful patterns which work in 90% or so of all the situations you’ll encounter.

Take English, overflowing as it is with exceptions of every kind. Well, the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’, of ‘woman’ it’s ‘women’, and of ‘ox’ (should you wish to use this word for some strange reason) it’s ‘oxen’. But isn’t it still worthwhile learning the basic pattern, which of course is that we form plurals by adding an ‘s’? After all, that’s the way most words work…

Don’t be scared of grammar. Go for it! Honestly, it’s there to help you.

Share this:

Elocution lesson

‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.’ Actually, as a matter of geographical fact, it doesn’t, but never mind: this rather dreary sentence is used not to convey a message as uninteresting as it is inaccurate, but instead to get us to work on our elocution.

‘How now, brown cow’ is another. Oh, come on! Can’t we find some slightly more meaningful
sentence to practise our elocution? I mean, really! When did you last talk to a

brown cow, and
when did you last ask anyone, bovine or human, the question, ‘How now’? – if indeed this is a
question. How what? How’s it going, cow? How did you become brown, cow? I can only suggest
that you try using these words the next time you address a brown cow, and see what sort of
response you get.

Of course there’s always, ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore, and the sea shells she sells are sea shells, I’m sure.’ Yeah, right. Glad I

know that…

Share this:

Minority report – Welsh

The first in an occasional series on languages spoken by fewer than a million people around the world…we start with Welsh

The land of Wales, officially one of the four “home countries” which make up the UK, is famous for its beautiful scenery – usually seen through rain – its coalmines – now largely closed or turned into tourist attractions – its singing… and its rugby!

Wales(Cymru) is also home of course to the Welsh language, or Cymraeg, as the natives call it. Welsh predates English: when the Anglo-Saxons invaded much of Britain and brought with them the Germanic tongue from which modern English is descended, they encountered a Celtic people speaking what we would now call “Welsh”. Modern Welsh is much closer to this old Celtic language than modern English is to Anglo-Saxon.

Gradually, the speakers of Welsh were pushed westwards, until they were only left in what is now Wales. And there the language has survived for the last 1,500 years.

Over the centuries, the proportion of people speaking Welsh has unfortunately declined. Wales was conquered by England in the Middle Ages, and the influence of English grew at the expense of Welsh. Today, out of a total population of about 3,000,000, around 25% of people in Wales speak Welsh as a mother tongue. But whether you hear Welsh spoken on the streets depends very much on the part of the country you’re visiting. Every official signpost everywhere may be in English and Welsh, but if you go to the capital,Cardiff(sorry, Caerdydd) or the second city, Swansea(oops, Abertawe), you may not hear it at all. Welsh speakers tend to live in rural areas and smaller towns, where they’re very often in the majority. So in Machynlleth or Blaenau Ffestiniog (sorry, no English names available), you’d better get out your phrase book!

Well, not really. Pretty much everyone who speaks Welsh is bilingual. In every school, both languages are taught, and Welsh is usually a compulsory subject on the curriculum. Some schools are bilingual, with certain lessons conducted in English, and others in Welsh. Others schools are English-medium, with Welsh being taught as a foreign language. If you attend a debate at the Welsh Assembly, headphones are available so you can listen to interpreters rendering the speeches in English or in Welsh.

Thanks in part to official encouragement, the Welsh language has undoubtedly experienced a resurgence in recent decades. This success is not, however, entirely welcomed by everyone. The 75% of the population who don’t speak Welsh as a native language are sometimes frustrated that a substantial proportion of jobs in the public sector now require competence in the language. Some parents complain that a lot of study time is devoted to the learning a language which may be seldom used in their particular locality.

Two interesting facts with which to conclude:

1. Welsh is also spoken in parts of Patagonia! Settlers from Wales took with them, and retained their mother tongue. And you thought you needed Spanish for Argentina…

2. This year, Wales became the first country in the world to open up a path following the entire length of its

coastline. If you’re tramping in Wales, just make sure that you walk on the llwybr cyhoeddus!

Though we

do not yet offer Welsh language training, we do have a range of language courses in Spanish, French, German, Italian and various other European and Asian languages. Check our Euroasia’s language courses in Auckland, Wellington and online.

Share this:

How much money does business lose because it doesn’t get the language right?

Pretty much every business in New Zealand buys from, sells to or works with people for whom English is not their native language. Most of the time, we work on two assumptions: the first is that our partners will be prepared to deal with us in English; the second – more worrying, because it’s less obvious, and usually false – is that our partners have a level of English pretty much on a par with our own.

The problem identified

Here are some examples of how we can get it wrong:

1. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority has on its website information for international students thinking of studying in New Zealand. Here’s how it starts:

“Educational institutions in New Zealand offer a wide variety of courses and New Zealand welcomes international students at all of its institutions. Students intending to study in New Zealand can be assured of achieving qualifications that are at a standard comparable to qualifications achieved in leading educational institutions in other parts of the world.”

It’s perfectly good English, but it’s inappropriate English: given that a fair number of those students are coming here first of all to study English, maybe the

writer could have chosen language which they might have had a sporting chance of understanding! How about:

“We really welcome international students to New Zealand. You can take many different courses at our schools, colleges and universities. And our qualifications are at

the same high standard as those from the best schools, colleges and universities around the world.”

2. A leading operator of backpacker tours around New Zealand has chosen funny names for its tours. These include “Funky Chicken”, “the Full Monty” and “Whole Kit and Caboodle”. A good choice? If the target market is native speakers of English, probably: the names will have a certain resonance. But if they want to attract non-native speakers? I suspect that these names would mean nothing at all even to people with a degree in English – they might still sound quirky, but they don’t actually convey any real message or image beyond quirkiness. Is quirkiness enough?

3. What about the spoken language? I once heard a hotel porter in London giving some directions to a distinguished-looking guest with very limited English. He then added, trying to be helpful, “Jawamedewri’i’dahnfaya?” Which I think translates as, “Do you want me to write it down for you?” He could have made himself understood, and still spoken with his distinctive London accent, if he’d just made a few pauses between the words, and perhaps accompanied the words with a little “writing down” gesture.

I rather fear that an Auckland hotel porter might have come out with something similar!

Imagine these examples multiplied a thousand-fold every day across the English-speaking world…

Two ways of tackling the problem

We suggest that businesses consider two options for their staff.

  1. Encourage them to learn a foreign language!

We’re probably preaching to the converted here, but there’s no doubt that learning a foreign language gives you not only insights into the thought patterns of people from a different cultural background, but also greater appreciation of the language learning process. You have more empathy for non-native speakers of English when you realise just how much time and energy they must have expended in order to communicate with us.

2. Encourage them to work consciously on their use of English!

This is perhaps a newer idea, but it’s one which Euroasia is now actively promoting. We can help people writing websites, handling international correspondence, working in marketing and sales, delivering presentations etc. etc. to ensure that the language they use will be understood and appreciated by the widest possible audience.

Euroasia offers in-house stimulating and highly focused programmes for businesses keen to upgrade the skills of their staff. Please contact the Principal, Peter Chapple, for more information (peter@euroasia.co.nz). (Peter is currently putting the finishing touches to his book entitled “How to talk to foreigners”.)

Share this:

What is it like to learn English?

If by some strange chance you think it’s hard to learn a language which is foreign to you… what’s it like for those who learn English when it’s foreign to them?

Most native speakers of English now deal at some point with people who are not native speakers of English, but how many of us ever

think about what these learners might have struggled with in order to communicate with us?  Very often learning a new language gives us a greater appreciation of the kind of issues that people who’ve learnt English must have had to go through!

If you’ve been learning your new language for some time now, you will no doubt have acquired a feel for what is easy and what is difficult about it.  Of course, different people may react differently to the same situation, so your perceptions may not be quite the same as those of others learning the same language.  Generally, though, people tend to agree about what is difficult and what isn’t.

So what is difficult about learning English?

We should just mention that the perceived difficulty of a foreign language is usually linked quite closely to a learner’s previous linguistic experiences.  If you’ve learnt Spanish, either as your first language or as a second language, you shouldn’t find Italian too hard, because the two languages are closely related.   If you’re a monolingual speaker of Chinese, however, any European language is going to be quite a challenge, because they work in a very different way from your own.  Things which are unfamiliar tend to be harder to grasp.  When it comes to learning English, then, some people will be confronted with points which for them are really challenging, whereas for others they are quite straightforward.

Interestingly, though, English has certain characteristics which are tricky for pretty much everyone, and this is what we’re going to touch upon here.

Most of us are aware that our spelling system can be a minefield: surely any “system” in which “ough” is pronounced differently in “cough”, “rough”, “thorough”, “bough”, “ought” and “through” is going to fox any learner of the language!  Yes, our  insistence on spelling words the way they were pronounced in Chaucer’s day is a bit tedious.  And yet, oddly enough, spelling doesn’t seem to be the biggest problem that learners face.  First of all, it’s not totally erratic: if you suddenly saw the (non-existent) words “moggle” or “vebbit”, you’d know exactly how to pronounce them, and the reason is that we do have certain rules – lots of them –  which are pretty much inviolable.   Secondly, people tend just to learn the spelling of the words when they learn the meaning (much as people learning European languages try to remember the genders of nouns).  And thirdly, spelling is not crucial to communication anyway: it clearly doesn’t matter when we speak, and we do have spellcheckers on our computers when we write!

Pronunciation is perhaps another matter:

it’s much more obvious.  Some of our sounds are found in pretty much every language, and shouldn’t be too hard; examples are “m” and “n”.  Overall, however, English pronunciation is quite distinct from that of all other languages, even those which are quite closely related, and any non-native speakers may have trouble with a good few unfamiliar sounds.   Some of the sounds which are not very common across the spectrum of languages are as follows:

Consonants

“r” – some sort of “r” is probably found in most languages, but both the British and American variants are quite rare

“h” – not a very unusual sound, but a lot of well-known languages don’t have it (e.g. French, Italian, Spanish, Russian…)

“v” – often absent from Asian languages

“th” – we have two sounds represented by these two letters (think “the” as opposed to “thing”), and neither of them is very common

Vowels

We have a big range of sounds, and many of them are quite unusual.  The vowel sounds we have in “and”, “up”, “caught”, “show” and “pure” are quite distinctive, and not often found in other languages.  Just to complicate things further, our own pronunciation of vowel sounds varies so much depending on where we come from: just think how people fromNew Zealand, southernEnglandand theUSAwould pronounce the word “car”.  Which model is the poor foreign learner to follow?

And yet, even if your pronunciation isn’t spot on, you can still make yourself understood very well.  If someone has a stereotypical French accent and says, “Eet’s quite ‘arhrd to speak weezout a Frhrench acceonn”, we can surely understand as well as sympathise…

When we look at English grammar, we can actually say that a lot of it is pretty straightforward.  It used to be more complicated, more like German or Russian today, but it has been greatly simplified over the centuries.  We don’t add many bits onto our words, and it’s not that hard to string a few of them together to make something which makes sense even if it’s not perfect.  But our grammar still presents its challenges!

The thing which nearly all learners have trouble getting to grips with is our excessive number of tenses.  Technically, a lot of what we tend to call “tenses” are not tenses at all, but rather a reflection of “aspect”, which deals with the way in which we look at an event rather than whether it’s set in the past, present or future.   Whatever we call these things, just sympathise for a moment with the poor learner who has to distinguish between “I went”, “I have gone”, “I have been going”, “I was going”, “I used to go”, “I did go”, “I had gone”, “I had been going” – all of them relating to some event in the past!  No other language has this pattern of tense forms.   Mandarin doesn’t have any tenses at all…  You can rest assured that learners of English will have spent many hours grappling with the tenses.  And yet, if they get them wrong, we still understand them, don’t we?  “I have seen him yesterday” may sound funny, but we know what is meant.

The last area to mention is vocabulary.  English is fortunate in that it has a lot of short words – hundreds just have one syllable, and you can go quite a long way with simple words which are not that hard to learn.  So what’s tricky about the vocabulary?

Well, take the word “get”.  In itself, it has quite a lot of meanings, but look what happens when it’s combined with other little words: “get on”, “get up”, “get in”, “get through”, “get by” – not to mention “get out of”, “get with it” and “get off with”, and (literally) dozens more.  Just to add to the complexity, sometimes there are literal and more figurative meanings – “get

on the bus” is not the same use of “get on” as in “get on in the world”.

These structures are called “phrasal verbs”, and they’re hard!  There’s no avoiding them if you want to master English, and the only thing you can really do is learn them when you come across them.  And don’t think it’s just “get” which has all these variants – most of our other common verbs can also be used with little words like “up” and “down” and turned into phrasal verbs.

The thing is, though, no one sits down and learns a list of hundreds of phrasal verbs.  You may start off with some really common examples like “stand up” and “sit down”, and actually before you know it you’ve learnt dozens of them.  Sometimes there are alternatives: you may feel that “I descended the mountain” sounds awkward compared to “I went down the mountain”, but when you think that in French this is “J’ai descendu la montagne”, you can see which of the English variants might have greater appeal!

A rather sweeping, but perhaps not unreasonable conclusion about learning English as a foreign language is perhaps this: it’s not that hard to make yourself understood, but if you want to speak it well, it still needs a fair bit of effort.  But then if you think about it, we could probably say something similar about most languages.  So don’t be put off if you get something wrong.  OK, you won’t sound like a native, but everyone knows you’re not a native anyway!

__________

Multilingual language expert Peter Chapple has spent many years studying English-speakers learning foreign languages, as well as non-English speakers learning English.

Share this:

I was, like….what? – The new new English

For whatever reason, I was recently on a bus in Chile. Having a modest command of Spanish, I can usually manage a basic exchange in the language, but when the conductor addressed me, I heard bla, bla, bla and nothing more. Even when he repeated what he’d said, I didn’t catch a single word.

Annoying! Why can’t people speak their own language properly?

Sitting behind me were three young Aussie guys. I overheard their conversation, which went rather as follows:

“ Man, I was, like… what?” “I was, like… far out!” “And she was, like… what the…” “I was, like… crazy.”

And so it went on. I soon realised that, although I could identify all the words, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. All I caught were various parts of the verb “to be”, a

handful of “likes”, a grinding pause after every “like”, and then finally some kind of interjection.

After a while, the conversation reached its glorious, inevitable climax:

“I was, like… fuck!”

Whereupon everyone roared with laughter. Whether this meant that the trio had actually extracted some meaning from this curious exchange, or whether they were just accommodating one another, I’m not entirely sure.

Having overheard the sentence, “I was, like… fuck!” and observed the same reaction a number of times now, I’ve concluded that it inevitably produces a kind of Pavlovian chuckle. It doesn’t require interpretation. Maybe it just cheers people up – if you’re feeling down, you could perhaps recite it to yourself to see if it helps.

That said, I tried to envisage a context in which “I was, like… fuck!” had some meaning. I believe I understand the standard meaning of all four words in this utterance, but how could they come together to convey some aspect of reality? A number of curious images drifted in and out of my consciousness, but somehow failed to coalesce into anything very concrete. Still less could I attach them to the context in which the words were used – but then, as I hadn’t been able to identify a context anyway, it wasn’t very likely that I would.

But here’s another idea: maybe there’s some mystery code enabling sophisticated meaning to be extracted from a language which has apparently been reduced to about four words. Are there perhaps layers of meaning conveyed by the intonation, and has that replaced vocabulary as the primary vehicle for the conveyance of meaning? Instead of using a hundred different words, just produce “fuck” with a hundred different intonations, and meaning will be conveyed, at least to the cognoscenti, just as well.

I’m thinking now that we should rewrite the textbooks we produce for learners of English. Out goes: much of the old grammar. In comes: “to be + like + pause + interjection”. We could then add, “This construction is now used to convey meanings ranging from ‘to say’, through ‘to feel’, to ‘the reaction was’, to essentially anything at all. It has replaced 99% of the previously existing language.”

But seriously, does it matter if the English language is reduced to about four words? I have to say I’m not exactly offended by the word “fuck”: how can anyone be seriously offended by hearing a word they’ve heard thousands of times already? I do have an issue when it’s used in every sentence regardless of meaning. And I have an even bigger issue with a jarring “like” puncturing every sentence and creating a horrible staccato effect.

It seems to be mainly younger people who speak in this way. Sometimes their speech is so far removed from standard English that it really amounts to a distinct dialect – one determined not by region, class or even nationality, but by generation. Actually, if they want to speak in this way, and manage to communicate with one another, well, so be it. But I really hope they recognise that this is not standard English, and that there are contexts in which they need to switch codes and use that standard.

One such context is in communicating with non-native speakers of English. No learner of English is actually taught the construction “to be + like + pause + interjection”, and to be suddenly confronted by it must be a little dispiriting. When you learn a foreign language, you rather hope the native speakers you encounter will speak the form you’ve learnt. Dialects may well create a valuable sense of identity, but they can also exclude, and when you’re learning another language, they can drive you mad – it’s hard enough learning the standard, let alone umpteen variants.

Most English speakers make little effort to learn foreign languages; the very least we can do is to use a standard form of the language when speaking to those who do. The I-was-like-fuck! dialect may have its place, but it’s not here.

One of the travellers now approached another conductor. Speaking Spanish was obviously out of the question, so would he perhaps switch codes and try to communicate in standard English?

“Yeah, we were, like… wondering if we could, like…”

And I was, like… wondering whether English speakers deserved to

be understood at all.

Euroasia Principal Peter Chapple recently returned from a holiday in Latin America. He is currently researching the topic of optimal delivery of Spanish lessons for English speakers as part of the Euroasia curriculum development programme.

Posted via email from Euroasia

Share this:

Is culture ever wrong?

It's almost a truism that liberally-minded, progressive people of the world make an effort to understand and appreciate other people's cultures, no matter how different they might be from our own.  We might find practices ranging from arranged marriages to initiation ceremonies among Papuan tribes people a little strange, but we would not, heaven forbid, stand up and denounce them as “wrong”.  To do this would smack of cultural arrogance, imperialist hangovers or worse.

Does this mean, then, that everything deemed to be part and parcel of any culture is acceptable?

I think we have to distinguish between cultural practices and cultures in their entirety. No, we should not dismiss any culture in its entirety as “wrong”. There may be certain aspects of the culture which we find distasteful, but that does not justify our dismissing it out of hand; anthropologists have taught us to see that people with cultures which seem quite alien to us may actually lead happier lives than we do. When it comes to cultural practices, however, I would suggest that we might take a different point of view.

Culture is not static: very few cultures in the world are exactly the same as they were 200 years ago.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it would have seemed entirely normal to most people within our western culture that children would labour in factories, that people would be sent to the other side of the world for stealing a loaf of bread, or hanged for poaching. Our culture has moved on from that, and most of us are happy to see that it has. Closer to home, cannibalism was once part and parcel of the culture of certain Pacific nations, including New Zealand – it no longer is; the culture has moved on.

Undesirable practices can be eliminated from cultures without the culture in its entirety turning to dust. And perhaps there are today still certain cultural practices which we really should not be tolerating. The problem, though, is how we determine what is “undesirable”.

We come back to cultural arrogance. We might well denounce some “primitive” initiation ceremony, yet perhaps the practitioners of such ceremonies might well denounce certain aspects of our culture, possibly the materialism and greed which threaten the stability of the earth. Which of the two cultural phenomena represents more of a threat?

I think there are criteria which might help us to determine whether we can, and perhaps should, denounce certain cultural practices with a clean conscience. For example, if the practice clearly results in permanent physical harm, if it is inflicted upon children or anyone against their will – then I think there is a clear case for condemning it. A case in point is female genital mutilation, practised in certain African cultures. In this instance, the criteria just mentioned clearly apply, and I think we can say this practice is wrong and should be stopped. That does not mean that we condemn lock, stock and barrel the cultures espousing it, but it does mean that this one aspect of their culture should disappear.

This is fine, but what actually do we say in response if we asked to change one of our cultural practices and stop destroying the planet?

Share this:

What it means to speak another language

What does it mean to say that you “speak a language”? That you speak like a native, that you speak fluently, that you can to some extent get by? There are many different interpretations of what this phrase could mean.

Over the years, I’ve had a go at learning quite a few languages. I started off at school with French and German (with Latin thrown in for good measure), and I then went off to university and studied these further. Somewhere along the line, I got some teach-yourself books and duly taught myself some Italian and Spanish. A period spent in Wales prompted me to tackle Welsh. Later on, I had a go at Russian, Dutch and finally Japanese. Whereupon I decided enough was enough, so, no, I have no intention of learning Zulu or Icelandic.

I have sometimes been asked how many languages I speak, and I really have no idea how to answer this question. The reason is that I have achieved greatly varying degrees of proficiency in these various languages. My French and German are reasonably competent, but I am definitely not a native speaker, and if I were to write this article in either of those languages, I would take a lot longer and still want a native speaker to check it through. At the other end of the scale, I can’t say very much at all in Russian, but I still have a certain feel for the language.

The point, perhaps, is not so much how many languages I speak, but what do I know of these languages, and what use is what I know.

When we start learning a foreign language, we would of course love to reach a high level of competence in a short period. However, there is no getting away from the fact that there is a lot involved in language learning; even if you have a gift for grammar, and an intuitive feel for the way languages work, you still have to memorise vocabulary, and that takes time. Not everyone can devote years to the study of a foreign language and so, realistically, not everyone who tries it will achieve a high level of competence.

I’d like to go back to my own experience and compare my rudimentary knowledge of Japanese with my non-existent knowledge of, say, Korean.

I can’t say very much in Japanese, I can’t really follow a conversation, and I certainly can’t read a newspaper. However, I do have a feel for the way the language works. I know the sound patterns, and how these are put together to make words. I can easily identify nouns and verbs. I know something about levels of politeness, and how these important aspects of Japanese culture are reflected in the language. On the purely practical level, if I go to Japan, I know enough to get myself around without support. Most important of all, if I meet Japanese people, I can say something in their language, and show them that I have made the effort to match in some small way the effort they have probably made to learn my language.

In Korean, I can’t do any of this: to me the language is just a jumble of sounds, I have no idea what people are talking about, and if I go to Korea I have to really on support from others, sign language, or the classic “Does anyone here speak English?”

The level of knowledge I have achieved in Japanese is probably on a par with what people might hope to achieve after one or two courses with Euroasia. I am certainly not fluent in the language, and yet the knowledge I have is knowledge I really appreciate having: it’s of practical use, it helps me to relate to people, plus it contributes to my general understanding of the world around me.

And this, I would say, is the value of learning a little.

Share this: