Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

As you no doubt know, I enjoy studying languages. But I become frustrated at the different ways language courses (including apps) are designed. I want the most efficient, easiest, and clearest course possible. And I want different learning styles and situations represented. Yes, I am demanding.

When I was living in Thailand as a diplomat, the “total immersion” style of language learning was in vogue. After all, the courses would advertise, this is how children learn, and they are the most efficient learners of language of us all. This is true. But the point is that we are not children anymore. Sure, teach a child language by immersion, that’s brilliant. And sure, speak as much as possible in the language to get our ears used to it, and likewise, ask someone in a class to speak as much of the language as possible. (I had a French teacher at high school who resisted speaking French with us. It didn’t help the learning!) But there are times when an adult needs to understand something to be able to accept it and use it, in a way that a child does not. This understanding doesn’t come from immersion. Likewise, there are times when only a teacher who speaks your native language can explain something in context, in the way you need to be able to understand.

I also like to know how something is pronounced, and not just by hearing it on an app. That helps, sure, but our ears deceive us, and a “mi” can sound like “ni” or vice versa. And sometimes, even our teachers don’t hear the different ways they pronounce something. I once had a teacher who would say “ng” for “n.” But when we copied her, she would get frustrated that we were saying it wrong! So I like to see it written down. Whether that is through a phonetic alphabet like pinyin for Chinese, or through learning a syllabic alphabet, like hiragana or katakana, in Japanese. I also like to know the mechanics of pronouncing different sounds in different languages, such as where to put my tongue in my mouth. This helped me with the “r” in French, and also in Spanish, when I actually – and with a lot of practice – managed to roll my Rs. And I used to say “wabbit” when I was little, so my Rs have always been a little tricky.

Subject matter is important too. So many courses are aimed at students at school, and teach words like dictionary, class, teacher, pen, or mother, father, parents, sister etc. That’s really not helpful for my purposes, which have almost always been for business or travel. And I find it frustrating.

A lot of my language learning is self-taught. I’ve had a brilliant Teach Yourself German book, which I wrote about here. The podcasts from Synergy Spanish quickly gave me a great foundation in beginners’ conversational Spanish. I now try to apply the basics of that to any other (European) language I learn. I’ve had one brilliant language teacher, a young Spanish woman who gave me classes for six weeks before going to Spain. I had self-studied for a year before then and had developed a decent vocabulary, but she quickly clarified some grammatical issues for me and made me feel so much more comfortable in the language. Unfortunately, around the time I was in Spain, she left NZ. So on my return I could not continue working with her, and my Spanish fell silent.

I’m currently using Duolingo. What I like about it is hearing the native speakers, and adapting to that. I’m thrilled when I can hear a sentence and immediately understand it. It’s fun speaking the language again too. But I’m frustrated with certain changes in their use of what-I –call-prepositions in their language. They work on teaching through patterns, but there’s no facility for explanations to explain why they are sometimes different. I need and want that. So I’m also throwing myself into my old textbooks (yes, I kept them!) to see if I can solve the mystery.

I think though, that I am most frustrated at the fact that I studied this language for a year back in university, and yet here I am now doing a cursory crash course. I know I won’t get the facility I had at the end of that year, able to read and write and pass an oral exam, in the next couple of weeks, if I develop any facility at all in the language! That’s so disappointing. And I know too that just as I might start feeling it is a little more familiar, I’ll have left the country (about the time you read this), unlikely to ever return and use the language again. And I will delete the app from my phone, and most probably say sayonara to my textbooks forever. I find that almost unbearably sad.

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I am ashamed to say that of our country’s three official languages, I only speak English (or New Zild, as we jokingly call our version of it); I don’t speak sign language, and I don’t speak Maori. However, it’s pretty impossible to live in New Zealand and not understand certain Maori words, and every year, I had a few more, particularly around Maori Language Week, which finished recently.

Many Maori words have been used in New Zealand English for decades, but increasingly we use more and more Maori words for concepts, place names and flora and fauna.

Older New Zealanders, or those Kiwis who have spent years out of the country, find themselves sounding as if they still live in the 1970s, with incorrect (almost disrespectful) pronunciation, and are unable to understand concepts and terms that are firmly established in our vernacular. As a really simple example, they can’t understand our now correct pronunciation of many place names, or our national anthem which is now routinely sung in both languages.  (To keep up with the times, I learnt the Maori words some years ago during another Maori Language Week).

My favourite word out of this year’s Maori Language week was hōhā (to annoy or frustrate), after I heard someone on the radio casually mention that he had been “hoha-ing” his boss.

As I was writing this, I heard a radio announcer speak in Fijian, noting that it was Fijian Language Week – help, I can’t keep up!

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One of the things I love about languages is that they give an insight into the culture and mindset of the people who use those languages. For example, the laid-back Thais’ word for a workaholic translates as “crazy for work.”

I talk about walking around my suburb for exercise (usually approximately 5-6.5 kms/3-4 miles) or going on an afternoon walk in the bush, the hills, or around the coast for an hour or three. Then on a US programme I watched recently, they referred to a 3.4 mile hike, and my response was immediate.

“That’s a walk,” I thought scornfully, “not a hike!”

We usually translate hike –a word we understand but do not tend to use here in NZ except in hitch-hike – to tramp. A tramp is a serious, overnight at least, usually multi-day, walk out in the wild, and many people belong to Tramping clubs.

Calling a walk a hike is like calling McDonald’s a “restaurant.”

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I vs We

I say “we” a lot. When I talk about my childhood, I often find myself saying “we” meaning my family, or (often) my younger sister and I. These days, I talk about “we” including my husband in the experience, and generally always make it inclusive. I was taught not to focus on myself, or to take too much credit for what I did – such a typical female upbringing. My husband, on the other hand, might, for example, see a photograph and exclaim, “I’ve been there.”

“Goodness,” (or some other suitable word I won’t write here) I will reply, “I wonder who you were there with?”

He doesn’t get it.

Do you experience this too? 

Edit: With men OR women?

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I was never really taught grammar. It wasn’t in vogue in New Zealand in the 1970s, and frankly, I’m not sure it is in vogue here now either. When studying Chinese, our Chinese teacher was appalled that we didn’t really understand the names for all the different tenses etc. So learning Mandarin meant that I learnt more about English too. My grammar knowledge is, therefore, largely self-taught. But if there’s one thing I hate, it’s finding typos and errors in my work. I find them easy to identify in someone else’s work. Show me a blackboard menu and I can pick out all the spelling mistakes and incorrectly placed apostrophe’s. Gotcha! I was just kidding, I know it is apostrophes.

So I use Grammarly, cursing their preference for American spellings, to check my writing. Sometimes I ignore its suggestions, though, and sometimes it just drives me bonkers, as in the few examples below:

It won’t allow me to write “hospital” as a stand-alone word. Eg, “when I was in hospital.”

It doesn’t like “a sombre few weeks.”

It wanted me to replace “I have little time” with “a little time” which changes the meaning of the sentence.

Of course, it hates the fact that I don’t use plurals for Maori words – eg “the tui are singing in my garden.” Actually, it’s not too fond of Maori words in the first place.

Worse, it will include all these disagreements in my emailed weekly report, which is like a school report, and it makes me feel as if I need to defend myself!

I am thankful for it, though. I cut and paste a lot when I’m drafting a blog, trying to get it to flow. Unfortunately, by the time I’ve finished the post, I often cannot be bothered proof-reading. Then months or years later, when re-reading any of my posts, I get a nasty shock finding typos, confused tenses, and half-sentences, amongst other egregious grammatical errors. I am mortified when I find these. But I do thank you, my readers, for being too polite to point these out!

Fortunately, Grammarly isn’t so polite.

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I love the phrase “it’s never too old to teach an old dog new tricks.” I love it because I’m fast becoming that thing, an old dog or a middle-aged woman, that society tends to write off. I love it because I feel there is still so much to learn in this life, and I’m going to run out of time. Or, like my mother perhaps, run out of brain-power time.
Languages and self-taught internet stuff are the main things I learn these days. I like learning. It makes me feel as if I still understand the world, rather than watching it catch up and ultimately overtake me. I remember the last few weeks of the summer holiday when I was at school. My brain was ready for learning new things, and I’d start doing maths problems, or trying to learn new things – any new things – to feel challenged and alive.

I’m a bit the same now. So here’s a short list of things I’d like to learn* over the next year:

  1. Some new recipes – including but not limited to pumpkin gnocchi.
  2. Spanish. I taught myself some basics for our trip to Spain back in 2007. I’d like to refresh and improve on that. After all, if we can ever afford to travel again, we’ll be heading eastward, towards Latin America.
  3. Chinese. I studied it about 18 years ago, but have forgotten almost all I learned. My Chinese teacher said to me “the second time you learn a language, it sticks.” It was true with Thai.  I hope it works  now at my advanced age too.
  4. Computer coding. Maybe starting just with html, as I only know the bare basics. But I’d like to explore other areas too.
  5. Yoga. I need to get into an exercise form that doesn’t put too much pressure on my knees, and that helps with stretching. I’ve always wanted to learn yoga, but have been put off by the skinny young things at the classes. So I’ll have to figure out a way to do it until I can feel comfortable at a class.
  6. Maths. I always enjoyed it as an academic exercise. I’d like to remind myself of this again, having forgotten so much since my last formal lesson over 34 years ago.
  7. How to put my theoretical knowledge into practice when it comes to marketing and (self) promotion.

* Inspired by Bridgett at South City Musings. The first thing she says to describe herself is “I like to learn.”

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1.  Be original.  This post is a complete copy of Bridgett’s idea, and some of my items are also direct lifts from her post.  They’re here though because they spoke to me so strongly.  I wish I’d thought of this first!

2.  Wake up early, full of enthusiasm for the day, full of energy.  I’ve never been a morning person.  I love the dawn, the early morning hush, the start of activity in a community.  I especially love dawn when I am travelling.  But I don’t love getting up for it.  I don’t love the death-warmed-up feeling I have as I fall out of bed, and usually stays with me for the next half hour.  My husband can leap out of bed at 6 am and feel fine.  He doesn’t understand me, and I think he’s an alien.

3.  Speak a language fluently. I fear I am too old to ever achieve this. Yes, I speak Thai, but I’ve forgotten so much, and the more I learned, the more fluency rushed off ahead of me, daring me to try to reach it. I’ve forgotten so much Mandarin that I can’t really speak it at all now. I’m working intermittently on Spanish, and would dearly love to improve my schoolgirl French, that comes so naturally at times, and completely deserts me at others.  Italian appeals too – just because I love the way it sounds (and I could use it to order pasta and gelato, two of my favourite things).  This of course is precisely the reason why I can’t speak a language fluently!  I find them all too interesting, and too attractive, to focus just one.

4.   Ski. I would love to be able to ski. I’ve only tried it once, and the boots hurt my shin bones so dreadfully I had to give up after half a day, just as I was getting the hang of it.  I have this romantic notion of swishing  down the slopes, of jetting off for ski-ing holidays to Canada or Colorado or the French Alps or Zermatt.  The fact I don’t like heights, or the cold, is of course irrelevant in this fantasy.

5.   Ride a horse.  Oh, I dreamed of riding when I was little.  All those English girls’ books about riding and horses and ponies sucked me in completely.  But I never  got the opportunity.  Now I’d worry about the poor horse having to hold me up – but I’d still like to learn.  I love the idea of moseying along a trail somewhere in North America, or racing across lush green grass.

6.  Ditto for tennis. I can play, but I’d like to be able to play much better. Or live in a place where playing would be easier.  Ditto for golf.

7.  Stay organised and tidy.  I know how to be organised.  I know how to set up systems to be organised.  I can do all that without difficulty.  But I don’t do it.  (Another example of doing not as I say.)  Then it becomes overwhelming, too hard, and the disorganisation creates further disorganisation.  I could take a photo of my desk at the moment to prove this.  But I won’t.  The shame, the shame!

8.  Make my own patterns.  I like sewing.  Or rather, I did like sewing.  I made a lot of my own clothes when I first started working – sewed my own 1980s suits, complete with lining and shoulder pads.  I stopped when I got cats.  They liked playing with the cotton and fabric, and laying out the fabric on the floor, on the thin pattern tissue paper, was just asking for trouble.  They thought I was giving them a game.  Anyway, I often have an idea in my head of what I want to make, but when I go to buy patterns, they never have anything quite right.  I’d love to be able to make my own patterns, and sew my own ideas.  I watch Project Runway in envy.

9.  Be brave.  It would be nice to be physically brave – to not worry about heights, to be able to hop and skip across a swing bridge, to hike the wonderful scenic routes in the southern parts of this country without fear.  And to be brave in other terms – to be brave enough to put myself out there emotionally.  I do it sometimes – I mean, taking off at 17 to live in Bangkok was pretty brave.  But other times, I don’t even want to pick up the telephone.  (I mean, it is a menacing, evil machine at times!)

10.  Not worry about what other people think.  Yes, I know this is related to #9, and being emotionally brave.  Perhaps it is worth noting a second time.  Perhaps this is why my latest crush is on Brene Brown who writes about vulnerability.  (But I’m getting ahead of myself.  More on that to come …)

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