As I woke up again on the West Coast this morning, with nary an idea for what to say today, I received a comment from a reader and fellow WordPress blogger, Olga, who teaches English in Russia.
Olga said, “I’d be interested in your opinion as a Word Nymph on learning foreign languages by oneself,” and pointed me to her post on the same subject. I scrolled through a few more e-mail messages that came in overnight. There was a piece of spam, with the subject heading, “Want to learn a new language fast? This contained a link that would not open. But Olga and this spammer got me thinking.
In her post, Olga converses with her reader, Yulia, about the pros and cons of teaching oneself a second, or third or fourth, language. This dialogue is quite interesting, especially as it takes place in English between two non-native speakers, who both write English extremely well. But that’s not the point.
I once learned Spanish, but it took me four years attending a university—and time studying in Spain—to do it. Lack of practice over 30 years has placed me closer to the starting line that I’d like.
As Yulia points out, it’s possible to learn the fundamentals of grammar and sentence structure from a book, but pronunciation is more difficult to learn in isolation. We need to hear words pronounced, we need to practice our pronunciation in the presence of others. Tapes can be helpful, but digital media don’t converse. It is in conversing that we learn.
It’s not that teaching oneself can’t be done. I know that because my son taught himself Italian at age 10. Of course, he didn’t become fluent; his goal was to be able to read a menu and order his own meals while on vacation with us in Tuscany. He had received a pocket-sized workbook for Christmas, took it to school and studied it every afternoon in after school care, while sitting in a corner alone. At least that’s what his day care providers told me. Indeed, when we arrived in Italy the following July, he had amassed an impressive vocabulary of practical words and phrases. Even though he learned in a vacuum, his pronunciation was pretty good as well and he exercised his new skill with confidence.
Likewise, my father is in the process 0f teaching himself Spanish. When he began thinking about retirement, he decided this was something he ought to do. (I was voting for his learning the computer).
My father is making good progress, but he would do well to perfect his pronunciation through practice, something he is doing right now, in fact.
I believe strongly that learning—learning almost anything—best happens in community. Ideas can’t be exchanged in even a hundred years of solitude and, while it is possible to read a book, or listen to or mimic tapes, it is in the conversing that learning a language happens.
Based on my experience, I’d recommend taking a class, forming a study group, seeking out kindred spirits and doing it together. Support one another, exchange ideas, draw each other out of your shells.
And, take it from me, a little sangria never hurts.