Wes’s Language Section: Introduction
In descending order of fluency, the foreign languages that I speak are as follows: German, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Farsi Persian, Russian, Swedish, and Danish. German was my “academic language,” the one for which I took courses in middle school, high school and college, and it’s still the one with which I’m most comfortable. I took an “accelerated course” in Spanish during my senior year—one of those two years into one deal—but I’ve absorbed the vast majority of my Spanish from conversations with friends, girlfriends, and random people on the street. I actually use my Spanish nearly every day, and it’s rapidly beginning to feel like a second native language in itself. I never took a formal course for my other languages, but I’ve devoted at least two years of study to each of them with the single exception of Mandarin Chinese. (In that case, well, having a Taiwanese girlfriend has tended to rapidly accelerate the learning process.) I’m at least conversational in each of the languages above and fluent in the first four, but this is of course a moving target—as I’ll explain in these pages, the most basic key to mastering a foreign language is simply time and lots of practice, and as you persevere in a foreign tongue you’ll gradually feel it becoming more natural for you. (There are a couple of other languages—Urdu, Arabic, Thai for example—where I can form sentences but for which I’m nowhere close to speaking yet. Someday when a day has more than 24 hours in it…) Although levels of language proficiency are formally divided into several categories—e.g. basic conversational, intermediate, fluent—for the purposes of this section and your own language-learning, I divide the categories into “fluent” and “potentially fluent.” My point here is to emphasize the need to set the bar high; when you learn a foreign tongue, you want to strive for outright fluency in each case, to be able to handle a situation in which the smallest details can be crucial—helping a patient in a hospital, for example, paying bills, or providing instructions over the telephone. This state of mind is important because it will constantly impel you to truly master your foreign language such that it becomes far more than a mere curiosity.
Perhaps most importantly, you must appreciate that learning elements of a foreign language initially isn’t all that difficult. Rather, the challenge lies largely in retention of the language in long-term memory, particularly if you’re not availed of continual opportunities to practice it. Many of my tips here are especially geared to maximizing the long-term memory potential of your learning techniques, so that the grammar and vocabulary that you pick up become imbued in the deepest recesses of your mind, available to you years later. This will greatly boost your efficiency and confidence in mastering a foreign tongue. The retention issue is one of the reasons that I’ve classed most of the articles in my language section into categories based on language family or geographic/cultural proximity; this allows you to instantly discern relationships among languages and better grasp their logic and structure. Indeed, one of the best guarantors of long-term retention is to learn more than one language in a given category. When our mind forgets details (like a subset of vocabulary), the process of forgetting is somewhat random, and you generally won’t forget the same word in different languages at the same time. When you’re stuck and can’t remember a word in one language, the word in a related idiom which you do remember, can in turn serve as a primer to assist you in recalling the missing word sitting on the tip of your tongue. Thus many of my articles here delve at some point into linguistic interrelations, not only among different foreign tongues but between English (which contains both a Germanic base and a strong substrate of Latin-derived vocabulary superimposed) and whatever other language you may be tackling.
I have some general articles on language below as well as many specific essays on particular languages—focusing, naturally, on the ones that I have learned. Since Asian languages are in vogue, I’ll start out with a brief but, I hope, useful essay on the Mandarin Chinese and Japanese languages and their scripts. I’ll then have articles on French, German, Spanish, and many of the other “traditional” tongues you’ll learn in high school, as well as essays that examine languages in the context of the “families” in which they’re classified. I’ll do my best to help you sprechen Deutsch, parler Francais, shuo zhongwen, nihongo o dekimasu, spreeken Nederlands, or obtain a foothold in whatever other language you want to make your own.
n Wes Ulm
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