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Learning languages Why we should learn at least a foreign language?

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The first and most immediate benefit of learning a foreign language is being able to communicate with the group of people who use that language. Acquiring the ability to understand the once meaningless and foreign sounds and symbols is just too fulfilling to express in words. Then, the moment we're able speak and write things understandable to the local people may simply be unforgettable. Of course, one of the top practical reasons for learning a foreign language is to be able to study, to do business or to live where the language is the main communication channel. Apart from the ability to communicate, there seems to be something else that is also very valuable to the mind when studying foreign languages. As we know, a language is the tool a group of people to communicate with each other. And to accomplish this task, the language must/should be able to model what's seen in the physical world or what's imagined in our mind. As a result, the way we think and look at the world is inevitably constrained and influenced by the language we use.

Men imagine that their minds have the command of language, but it often happens that language bears rule over their minds." -- Francis Bacon It's worth noting that language is used to model reality and is, hence, like a territorial map. And regardless of the amount of details and impartiality we put into building the map, the map is the map and "the map is not the territory", as remarked by Alfred Korzybski, the author of a theory of relativity for knowledge. Learning new languages is, therefore, similar to learning to move around using new maps. The exposure to different maps would simultaneously reveal the inescapable limitations and highlight the positive properties of our familiar maps, to which we could have otherwise been oblivious. This opportunity to look at the same scenery, the same people, the same buildings, the same situations under a different light would prove to be a tremendous experience that may well broaden and, quite possibly, change many aspects of our mindset. As a concrete example, in English we may say the following in giving direction: Please go straight and turn left. That's also about what would be said in Vietnamese. Yet, in Chinese, one might also have said: lease go straight and turn to the west/east/north/south. What's more, for Guugu Yimithirr [1], an Aboriginal language, it seems to be always the case that they use the geographic orientation instead of the egocentric orientation preferred by the Vietnamese or English speakers. Isn't it astonishing? Isn't it wonderful to know that some people seem to have/need a built-in geographic compass to express direction? Another example is about the encoding of age, seniority and gender: and this is where English and Vietnamese differ. In English, we would all use you regardless of whether the other person is male or female, younger or older, or having a higher position than us. In Vietnamese, we would use different words for this: anh(for male + older or more senior or in formal context), chᝋ(same as "anh", for female), bấn(around the samge age, for any sex) and many more! Of course, this is not to mean that English native-speakers don't care about gender or seniority of the other person. It just means that they probably care less than Vietnamese people or perhaps more precisely, the language doesn't force them to explicitly express those factors. They may choose to express those relationships in more subtle ways as in the choice of words, the intonation or through body language. For Vietnamese people, as the language explicitly force them to pay attention to those relations, it's no surprise that relationships about age or gender or position have continued to matter, to some extent (and especially for old people), in the general social context of Vietnamese people. An English speaker who has learned to "think" in Vietnamese may naturally, to an unknown extent, find themselves get more concerned with those factors. And the reverse may hold true for Vietnamese acquainted with English. As the last example, it's reported in [2] that the Hottentot of southern Africa use a counting system of only four numbers: one, two, there and "a large number". Number 5 is, therefore, called "a large number" just as number 100 or 10^5. Beyond number 3, all numbers apparently mean the same to them. Isn't this amazing? Would you have imagined this before reading about this? Don't you think it's in your best interest to set aside time to learn languages?

What is involved in learning a language? Now, having discussed the reasons of learning foreign languages, let's examine in more detail what skills are to be mastered in learning languages. To go straight to the point, learning a language is centered around acquiring the ability to speak and to listen, to read and to write using that language. And what makes one good at those? Below is a short analysis: Major component of languages: Language ability

Requirements/Focuses Grammar (simple) and vocabulary (relatively small; focus: pronunciation). We need to know words to express our ideas and we need grammar to arrange those words into meaningful utterances.

Speaking Though certainly depending on what we have to say, daily conversations typically require a minimal set of grammar rules and vocabulary. And this is great, anyway, because just being able to speak a few simple sentences would also bring quite significant encouragement to learners of foreign languages.

Requirements for good listening is quite similar to Speaking. The difference is that it may require a much larger vocabulary (including informal and slang words), especially when listening to native speakers. As such, it also requires a much higher level Listening

of familiarity with the native accent and the high speed of pronunciation with frequent blend of sounds. It's worth remarking that learning to pronounce words correctly not only helps make one understood by others (speaking skill) but also enables one to understand what's said (listening skill). Grammar (large set of rules) and vocabulary (huge; focus: writing) Newspaper and books usually employ a much larger set of grammatical constructs than what are necessary for speaking. And the


vocabulary used is just huge. And we need to be able to recognise the written form of a word in order to understand it. This makes a big difference in languages such as Chinese where being able to know the pinyin(the pronunciation) doesn't lead to the ability to read: we also need to learn the writing of words as well. The general requirements are similar to those for reading but probably at a higher level of language proficiency than required for Reading. This is first of all due to the fact that while we're able to understand what a particular word means when we hear/read it, we may not be able to recall or know it well enough for use when needed. A similar issue with grammar: being able to "guess" a grammatical construct in context may not be as difficult as being able to use it ourselves. These issues with the pair (reading, writing) also happens with the (listening, writing) pair.


Another factor that also makes writing more difficult than reading is that being able to recognise the written form of a word doesn't automatically result in the ability to write it. For instance, being able to read a Chinese word doesn't imply the ability to write its strokes. Usually, being able to write indicate the highest level of proficiency because it requires the highest level of mastery and confidence. People would know if you don't know by reading what you write. The caveat is that writing doesn't measure the ability to pronounce words correctly, which is essential to speaking and listening.

What can be concluded from the above analysis seems to be this simple equation: Language = Grammar + Vocabulary(writing, pronunciation) For languages such as English, writing and pronunciation are quite related but for languages such as Chinese, writing seems to take far more effort than pronunciation. As both grammar and vocabulary are essential to the usage of a language, it's impossible to tell which one is more important. The question about which aspect to focus on first, on the other hand, depends on what you use the language for. In the next section, we'll discuss how to learn a new language effectively.

How to learn a new language effectively? In order to really use a language "natively", the possibly most practical way is to move, since early childhood, to places where it's the main language. Then, we'll learn everything using that language in the same manner as what indigenous people do. It's really hard to achieve the same level of mastery and feeling of the language with any other ways. But everyone would have one or at most two "native" language(s) that are at our command pretty much subconsciously. Beyond that, we would all need to learn new languages in the "non-native" way. So if you're keen to learn new languages, you'll need to master how to acquire new languages consciously. As concluded in the previous section, learning a new language is about studying its grammar and learning its vocabulary, which includes writing and pronunciation. And among those essential components, it's probably easiest to grasp its grammar. Grammar is simply a set of rules about how words and expressions should be combined to express meaning. It's a rather compact set of rules so it's the easiest place to get started. Now, if you would ask "Who invented those rules?", my answer is: Everyone who uses that language. That's not to say that "everyone" literally involved in the process and designing the language's grammar initially. Certainly, that's not the case for English. For Vietnamese, the current alphabet was a deliberate effort that was attributed to the French and Portuguese "involved in proselytizing and trade in Vietnam" [3] in the 17th century. Similar to vocabulary, a language's grammar is evolving. It keeps changing, though probably more slowly than vocabulary, according to the ways users of the language use it to express meaning. As such when you learn "the Vietnamese Grammar", you are actually learning "the contemporary Vietnamese grammar", to be precise. Next, let's talk a bit more about vocabulary. Vocabulary is very important and most of the fun happens at "vocabulary". While grammar is the design, vocabulary is the bricks. Without any design, your house may looks ugly or even not fit enough for living; but without bricks, you can't build a house at all!

Having stressed the importance of vocabulary, I wouldn't hesitate to say bluntly that learning vocabulary is mostly a process of plain memorizing for foreigners (and yes, it's hardwork). Of course, before we ever commit to remembering new words, we'd better make sure that we don't store redundant information. As a simple illustration, consider the various tense-forms of an English verb. For a regular verb such as ((use((, do we need to remember the past-tense form ((used(( and the past-participle form ((used(( as well? Obviously not, we'll be smart and choose to learn the 3-word rule that covers most cases: "add -ed suffix" (yes, an over-simplification). After we've learned all possible rules to reduce the amount of information to be remembered, the next step is "just do it": take the effort to learn new words by heart. Some of the different approaches that you may find useful are detailed below. Please keep in mind, however, that there is no single method that would be suitable for everyone. l

Among the words you "need" to learn, learn those that you're interested in most first!


Learn words in the context or content that interest you. If you like reading about psychology, why not reading psychology books/news and learning vocabulary at the same time? If you like learning with images, why not?


Apply general memory techniques such as associating meanings of different words. Use flash-cards or other memory-aid tools to speed up memorization.


Frequent exposure to the sounds of the target language by, for example, listening to radio.


Repetition plays a crucial role. Be disciplined!

Of course, the last one is well among the most important and also the hardest to do! It's no exaggeration to say that learning vocabulary is a life-long process, especially to acquire the capability of "feeling" the nuances in the meanings of similar words or constructs. Nonetheless, it's definitely possible to master the general-purpose phrases and those in our specialised field as we'd read and use them often. The general strategy that has worked for some people is to start with the language's grammar. At the beginning, we would just learn enough words to enable me to understand grammar lessons. You may also find it helpful to compare the language's way of expression with a language you're already very familiar with. The hard part with this approach seems to be the patience needed to defer learning of vocabulary so as to focus on grammar. With a strong grammar and without sufficient vocabulary, the pay-off is not quite visible. But it comes later on. Upon obtaining a general understanding of the fundamental rules of grammar, the focus is then shifted to learning new words while grammar is relegated to the second priority. In learning vocabulary, it's proved important to learn very carefully the basics of pronunciation and writing so that further self-study becomes possible. For speaking, this may mean learning the phonetic system so that we'd be able to pronounce new vocabulary correctly given their phonetic descriptions, which are usually available in dictionaries. For writing, it possibly means studying the basic character sets and how to type them in the favorite editor. Then, when all the fundamentals are in order, it's time to read more aggressively to expand our vocabulary and to write more frequently to use the learned vocabulary more often. Practice makes perfect is a valuable wisdom. Indeed, only practice can make any skill better. As such, it's worth emphasizing that no matter how experienced language learners you are, it only helps reduce the amount of time needed to get a general understanding about the language. To really know how to express your ideas in a new language and appreciate the beauty of its words and expressions, it takes interest and discipline. Number one factor is still interest or need, number two is discipline and only then, being an experienced learners can make any difference.

References [1] Does Your Language Shape How You Think?, NewYork Times, 2010. [2]

Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense (2009), Karl Albrecht

[3] Wikipedia: Vietnamese Language.

Š 2011 All Rights Reserved.

Learn Foreign Languages: Why and How  

We discuss why and how one should learn at least a foreign language.