16 September 2011

I think I made a bit of a break through this lunch time. I don’t know if this is normal for other language learners (feel free to leave a comment and let me know) but this hasn’t happened to me before.

For the Chinese I’ve learned I can speak certain key phrases quite well. The accent even sounds pretty local. That isn’t surprising because my exposure to the language is with a native speaker so you’d hope that I’d start to pick some of it up.

The problem though is that it is mostly canned sentences. I have a couple that I can roll out every time someone asks me if I can speak Mandarin or Cantonese. I even have a few different versions and I fine tune them now and again so that they’re more impressive sounding.

So I say my sentence, all confident and with great pronunciation. Everyone is impressed that this _gwailo _(literally ghost person but generally just means westerner / foreigner now) can speak such great Chinese. All is well and happy in the world of Pete for about three seconds which is the time it takes for the other person to reply. About half a second after that is when my brain realizes that it has no idea what was just said and the conversation is over before it begins.

Canned phrases are good because you can communicate basic requests or information. You can order food, take a taxi and say. All very useful. You can also modify them slightly. Instead of going to the airport, you can go to the train station or university. If you’re feeling advanced you can introduce your sister to the rest of your family.

The problem is, that’s really all you can do with it. Repeat memorized lines. This is better than nothing but really not by much. It occurs to me now actually how pointless things like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur are. It also occurs to me that although they’re good for confidence and making you feel like you’re making progress, in reality you’re treading water at best. If they were just used as primers to give you a feel for the language, then fine but they’re sold as courses and really if you complete the course, you still don’t get anywhere. I was thinking about this morning and this afternoon read another one of Benny Lewis’ posts where he pretty much says the same thing. I promise I thought of it before I read his :)

Anyway the reason I mention all of that is because today, something different happened. I’d estimate in total I’ve spent about 10 to 15 casual hours playing with Esperanto. I haven’t really done any drills. I haven’t used any flashcards. All I’ve done is chat a bit on IRC, work through some of kurso de Esperanto and do one lesson per day via correspondence. Not a great investment of time or effort.

The interesting thing happened when I was answering one of the questions from the correspondence course. The exercise was to read the question in English and then reply in Esperanto. The question was this:

Is your mother a man?

I found this quite an amusing question and so I answered it:

Ne, mia patrino ne estas viro.

The interesting breakthrough was that I did not translate the answer. I read the question in English and simply replied in Esperanto. I didn’t answer in English and then translate it. In other words for that brief moment in time, I was actually thinking in a different language and doing it naturally and easily. It wasn’t until afterwards I’d even realised I’d done it.

So, 15 hours of work in exchange for the ability to think - if in a limited fashion - in another language. This tells me that maybe I don’t suck at languages after all. Another confidence boost and I’m only just beginning.

I wonder if I will end up a Polyglot? This stuff is kinda addictive…

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