As you may know, this blog is the companion site to a book I'm currently working called—you guessed it—Street-Smart Language Learning. The following is an except from the current draft of the manuscript. As I've yet to properly introduce myself on this blog, I've selected this excerpt from the book's introduction, which seeks to dispel with my story quickly so as to get readers to what they're really there for: how to learn languages.
When you tell someone that you speak eight languages, they are quick to label you as some kind of linguistic genius. And when you disagree with them, they assume you are just being modest. But as just such a person, I can tell you that I am no linguistic genius and I am not being modest when I disagree. Learning multiple languages hardly requires genius; our brains are all hard-wired to suck up languages, if only we approach language learning in the right way. Yes, that includes even you doubters out there who right now are saying, “Not me, I’m just not good a languages.” Yes, even you. With the right approach and a little bit of time, anyone can learn a foreign language. This book will help you formulate that approach and learn the foreign language(s) of your choice.
The rules that I’ve laid out for you in the subsequent parts of this book aren’t the result of any “survey of the literature” or the like. I’ve got no degree to make me an official linguist. In fact, I would say that my relationship to a linguist is the same as that of a criminal to a criminologist; they’ve got the data, the literature, and so on, while I’ve got the gritty experiences and the street smarts. These rules were developed over years, and to my own detriment even I didn’t always follow them, but to extent you can put these rules into practice you’ll be able to learn languages better and more quickly.
Before I arm you with all the tools you need to learn a language, let me first tell you a bit about myself and how I came to speak so many languages.
I was raised in an English-speaking Italian-American family just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I lived with my mother, father, grandmother, and sister. My parents and grandmother could speak Italian and initially tried to teach it to my sister and me. Unfortunately, after a few initial “I don’t wanna speak Italian!” tantrums from us, they gave up on it (and how I regret that now). They did, however, use it on occasion when they didn’t want us to understand, resulting in us picking up only certain choice exclamations (in addition to the stereotypical “Mamma mia!”, the not-so-vanilla “Vaffanculo!” comes to mind). This, and various relatives speaking in heavily accented English (including one who to this day swears that Italy under Mussolini was great), did result in me having a pretty good Italian accent when I ultimately did get back to studying it, but I definitely did not know enough to be considered anything other than monolingual.
My linguistic knowledge remained limited to English and handful of Italian phrases until middle school. Our school district kicked off language learning with a pretty worthless French/German/Spanish sampler in seventh grade. Based on your experience in that, you were supposed to pick which language you wanted to learn in eighth grade, and I went with Spanish. My choice was based less on what happened in that sampler than the fact that it was the closest of the three to Italian, so if I were ever to get to studying Italian I’d have an easier time, and that it was the de facto second language in the States. In class, I didn’t do poorly but there was nothing in particular that set me apart from any of the other students. However, Spanish was one of the subjects I liked and, knowing that languages are actually something that could be useful beyond primary school, I became eager to learn more.
I would finally get this chance as an upperclassman in high school after clearing out some of my other core graduation requirements. In eleventh grade, I added French. Thanks to its similarities with Spanish and a cooperative teacher, I was permitted to basically go at my own pace and managed to cover three years of our high school’s curriculum in one year. I followed up the summer after eleventh grade by taking a French course at nearby Chestnut Hill College, and in twelfth grade I found myself in the fifth – and highest – year of both Spanish and French.
That same year, I really wanted to take it up a notch. In addition to Spanish and French, I enrolled in a German class at high school, did an independent study in Italian with an Italian-speaking Spanish teacher, took a Japanese class at Beaver College (now Arcadia University), and started studying Russian for free under the tutelage of my kind French teacher from Chestnut Hill College, Sister Kashuba.
The results from that year were mixed. Spanish continued along well and by the end of high school I could hold rudimentary conversations with a friend of mine who, although born in Mexico and having spent the first few years of his life there, had previously lost all his Spanish and at that point was at basically the same level as me. Although I abortively tried to read Camus’ The Stranger on my own in French and continued to do other things on my own as well, my French teacher preferred to spend time talking about his designer shoes (in English, no less) than give us a period of French a day. My French only improved to the extent I could push it forward alone with my nose buried in a book.
My German teacher begrudgingly let me knock off the first year of German with a placement test, but, unlike my French teacher the previous year, she decided that I had to stay with the class, which was excruciatingly slow and seriously limited the progress I made. On the other hand, going at my own pace in Italian, its similarities with Spanish and French, and the fun of finally learning that when my relatives described things like putting ketchup on pasta condescendingly as “midigan” they were actually saying americano in dialect, or that pastafazul meant (duh!) pasta and beans (again in a dialect), resulted in decent progress in Italian.
I had assumed that a college-level language course would be challenging, but my Japanese teacher was frustratingly of the opinion that Japanese is difficult for us poor Westerners and that we should go slow—real slow. We were supposed to cover two textbooks over two semesters, but we got through the first only after skipping a bunch of stuff and only managed to do a chapter or two in the second. Needless to say, I didn’t learn much Japanese. In Russian I made good progress, but with all the other things going on that year, and since I wasn’t getting graded, I didn’t have the incentive or ability to put the time into it that I would have liked to. Unfortunately, I have yet to return to Russian and that remains as far as I’ve gotten in the language.
Besides two off-the-cuff road trips to Quebec from my home outside of Philadelphia, where I did put some French to use in a very limited way, my first venture out of English-speaking domains was a three-week senior trip to Germany. A German exchange student I met while he was in the States offered to host a friend and me for three weeks. While in Germany, we naturally studied German but also took numerous day trips around Germany. While it was a good initial outing (and certainly a better use of the money than renting a beach house at the Jersey shore, as most of my high-school classmates did), it was limited in utility for language learning by its short duration and the fact that I was with another native-English speaker most of the time.
A month or two later would lead to a trip that would result in the first language I would become proficient at: Japanese. Sometime during my senior year of high school, a friend of mine had told me about an announcement for a scholarship to study abroad with Rotary that I had somehow missed, but, as soon as I heard about it, I knew it was right up my alley. I ended up getting the scholarship (which, as I understand it, is quite a bit easier for Americans than non-Americans to get due to a big demand to come here; some other popular destinations seem to be France and Spain). I put Japan down as my first choice simply because, among the languages I had studied, it was the most different from English and would require more time on the ground to get the language down. As I was the only one in my group to choose a non-Western destination as my first choice, I got it. I left for Japan in August 1997.
Unlike some of the other exchange students in Japan, I had already graduated high school so my year in Japan didn’t really count towards any diploma or degree, leaving me free to focus solely on learning Japanese. While there, I began to crystallize a lot of the language-learning methods I had begun working on back in the States. I’ll get into the details of those in the rules below, but suffice to say that I was able to learn a great deal in what would turn out to be some ideal language-learning environments.
Returning to the States to start college in the fall semester of 1998, I began studying intensive Chinese at George Washington University. But the broader picture was a language-learning plan that I had begun working on while in Japan and finalized during my freshman and sophomore years at college. The basic plan was that I would spend every single college break (i.e., based on the typical U.S. college schedule, about a month in winter and three months in summer) studying languages abroad, plus another year in Japan (to get my Japanese beyond high-school level), a year in China, and a semester in Spain (due to university requirements, I needed to be back on campus; as we had a campus in Spain that counted as “on campus”, I opted for that rather than heading back to DC). Since I was able to stay at the homes of various friends I had made among other exchange students, all I typically ended up paying for was plane tickets, and tuition abroad was usually cheaper than tuition on campus, so all of this was a surprisingly affordable thing to do.
The plan worked well. Winter 1998 was in Mexico, summer 1999 in Brazil, winter 1999 in Costa Rica, summer 2000 in Germany, academic year 2000-2001 in Japan, academic year 2001-2002 in China, summer 2002 in Taiwan and Italy, fall semester 2002 in Spain, winter 2002 in Italy, and summer 2003 in France. In 2003, I started law school at the University of Pennsylvania with a similar plan to spend time abroad, except that it was focused on Chinese alone, so winter 2003, summer 2004, winter 2004, and part of summer 2005 were all spent in China. After a month-long stop-off in Japan in January 2006, I spent the rest of calendar year 2006 in China to obtain a master’s degree in Chinese law from Tsinghua University. The program was primarily in English—a big downer for language-learning purposes—but I was able to take a couple courses in Chinese (and somehow struggle through them).
I met my Japanese wife while in Japan in 2000. We initially spoke English (at the time, I was trying to get her to break up with her then-boyfriend, and I compromised on my language-learning rules in order to claim the linguistic home turf while trying to woo her away from him), but then went to Japanese for a while. We are now back speaking English (as we live in the States, her English proficiency is more important than my Japanese proficiency), but she speaks Japanese to our children and we also typically have a Chinese nanny or Chinese babysitters in order to teach our kids Chinese. English, Japanese, and Chinese are in constant use around the house, and, from time to time, I use Italian with my mom and French with my wife when we don’t want the kids and/or my mom to understand what we’re saying.
And that’s basically where I am. In sum, I can speak English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and German, and that’s roughly in order from strongest to weakest. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe myself as native-level or fluent in any of these languages, although I might be able to fool native speakers over the phone for a few minutes. For at least Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese, I would describe myself as proficient, meaning that I can function reasonably effectively in a business setting in fields that I am familiar with. In all of these, however, I can easily do the basic “get around” stuff and hold social conversations, and I think if needed I could get them all up to proficiency in short order. Moreover, in my work as a lawyer, I have so far had to review contracts or conduct other business in all of those languages, and, with the help of an online dictionary or two, it hasn’t been a problem at all. (As an odd little aside, I’ve even had to do a preliminary review of a document in Dutch (i.e., just to determine who should be reviewing it), and I was able to do that thanks to an online dictionary and its similarities with German.)
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