Learning a second language (2)

So you have decided to learn a second language, either out of interest, because you need it to communicate with your new mail-order husband or wife, or to ward off dementia. What choices are open to you?

You could sign up for a class. If you do, it may well have a textbook. In the deep past these tended to be more formal than they are now, often moving from one point of grammar to the next as you progress through the chapters. In the more recent past the book may well have come with a CD containing dialogues, listening tests and the like. And nowadays the student might find that the textbook is entirely in the new language with not a word of English to be seen. You could call this the immersion approach, but there’s more to it than that. Instead of being a textbook in the new language aimed at English speakers, it is now a textbook aimed at speakers of any language. This broadens the market somewhat and brings a bigger smile to the authors and publishers.

Classes have advantages. There is the possibility of practising with fellow students and a schedule to keep – especially helpful to those who lack the discipline to study on their own. And the tutor may even be a native speaker. Even if she is not, the tutor should be able to adapt her teaching to the members of her class. But if you don’t go down that route, or there is no intermediate Tagalog class in your town, there are language packages of various types involving CDs, DVDs and interactive websites. How do these work?

It is known that when children come into the world they bring with them a capacity to learn language, but also that as the years pass this natural facility fades and is lost altogether. Adults can still learn a new language, of course, but not in the natural way a young child can. So what are we to make of this example of advertising? The approach to language teaching and learning used by a well-known company is based:

on the core beliefs that learning to speak a language should be a natural and instinctive process, and that interactive technology can activate the language immersion method powerfully for learners of any age.

This implies that an adult can learn a new language in the same way that a child can – the process is ‘natural and instinctive’ – and that well-designed software can make that possible. If the first belief is wrong it’s hard to see how the second can be right. The company may well believe it, but that doesn’t make it true.

It seems there are two main ways of approaching teaching a second language to an adult. At one end of the spectrum openly accounting for grammatical points as they arise, which seems to be old-fashioned now. At the other the use of the ‘immersion’ approach where no direct mention is made of grammar at all but the learner is expected to somehow soak it up or otherwise infer it.

How successful these approaches are will vary with the native ability of the learner but also with the language being learned. All languages tend to be subtle, but in different ways. Spanish seems easy at the outset, though maybe less so when you discover three years on that there are two forms of the imperfect subjunctive, while German may well seem daunting at the outset with all those pesky cases and endings. So many different words for ‘the’ when one would do! Where is this famous German efficiency?

There are many software packages out there, ranging from Rosetta Stone at the expensive end to free apps for your mobile phone or tablet. Given that the adult is no longer a child, how effective are they?

Rosetta Stone, from which the quotation was taken, offer a wide range of languages and one additional feature: you can talk to the software and it will tell you if you are pronouncing words and phrases correctly. I don’t entirely trust this feature. My only experience of Rosetta Stone is Swedish, and I couldn’t help but notice two things. Sometimes the software passed how I spoke even when I was unhappy with it myself. And sometimes it failed me. In most cases I couldn’t figure out why.  Given that I spent the last twenty years of my working life recording and editing words, I should have been able to. On two occasions at least, I got so fed up having my efforts rejected that I actually gave up with the words ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ – at which point the software perked up and passed me on the spot. How can such things be? In a well-ordered world it shouldn’t pay to be rude!

I read a review by another user which also made this point. I shouldn’t mention it but for the fact that it often rejected his girlfriend’s pronunciation and she was Swedish.

In other respects the software works reasonably well, though every now and gain I find myself looking at a fresh screen and wondering what it expects me to do. What the package does not do, however, is tell you anything about Swedish grammar. So if, as an adult, you would like a structure, a grammatical frame of reference, too bad. You have to work it out for yourself.

At the other end of the scale there is Fabulo, a free app for learning Swedish on your tablet or phone. Fabulo have produced apps for several languages, but the only ones I have are for Swedish and German.

Referring only to the Swedish app, I am very impressed. As with Rosetta Stone, grammar is not included, but the user can infer certain grammatical points through the examples. In fact, the examples are plainly designed with this in mind and it is artfully done.


Another problem Swedish packages face is the fact that the Swedish alphabet contains three additional letters which do not appear on the standard keyboard – å,ä, and ö. So what do you do when typing an answer which contains one of these letters? With Fabulo you don’t have to think about it. You type a, a or o, and the special characters miraculously appear above them. (A similar problem occurs in German, which also uses umlauts and always capitalises nouns. Type the correct first letter of a noun and Fabulo supplies the capital.)

The course, for that’s what it is, consists of 47 categories such as ‘Family’, ‘Getting Around’, ‘Structures’, ‘Home electronics’, and a forty-eighth which puts you through your paces on all the other 47. It speaks to you but, unlike Rosetta Stone, you don’t speak to it. (Well you can if you like, but it won’t pay any attention.)

When you come right down to it, though, I feel that an adult learner benefits from some sort of framework or structure and I am not alone in feeling that. Wonderful though Fabulo is, I wouldn’t be getting quite so much out of it had I not had more than a sneak peek at Swedish grammar in the past.

Learning a second language (1)

[When you get older you know you have less time so you cut corners. In this case, the corner being cut is any attempt to follow up assertions with references. For the record, there are several articles on this subject in back-numbers of New Scientist, as there will be in several other journals.]

It seems to me that language is more essential for mental development than is sometimes recognised. For example, can concepts exist without language? We can see a dead body, if we are unlucky we can smell it too, but we cannot see death. Death is a concept. Without language it could not exist. This concept is not one likely to trouble the young child as she develops, but how about this one heard recently in a café? Sit nicely, Stephanie! What will young Stephanie make of that? Should she take the cake out of her ear?

If we compare the development of a child born deaf to one born blind we find that the deaf child develops more slowly as measured by the tests used in education. While the blind child will have certain limitations – colour words being an obvious example – he will otherwise pick up language in the normal way from his parents. This will not be the case with the deaf child who is born to hearing parents.

[A deaf child  born to deaf parents may well learn ASL or BSL which, though non-verbal, are clearly languages in their own right. The main disadvantage of this comes when dealing with the hearing, very few of whom have any knowledge these languages.]

And the hearing child can learn a second language, or a third. I have seen it suggested that this may cause confusion, but the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. If I could go back in time many years and choose to grow up in a bilingual household, that is what I would do. And not just because two languages are potentially more useful than one.

I would argue that the structures and vocabulary of a given language provide a frame of reference for understanding the world. The French speaker has one frame, the German speaker another. The bilingual person can try the picture out with one frame but replace it with another if she finds the world looks better on the wall. Or that the world appears to make better sense. And we take ourselves too seriously anyway: take away the frame and the world still exists.

Can being bi-lingual really change our perception? That well-known language scholar George W Bush certainly thought so when he astutely observed that the problem with the French was that they did not have a word for entrepreneur!

Or take this simple indication. Two groups of people were asked whether certain statements were grammatically correct or not. For example:

Apples grow on noses

People from both groups thought that this sentence was not grammatically correct, but fewer people in the bi-lingual group made this mistake. The fact that the sentence is nonsensical does not mean its grammar is wrong. (Think politicians.) With their experience of two grammars, bilinguals took more account of the structure of the sentence than their single-language counterparts.

There will no doubt be Inuit who have ninety-seven different words for snow. But leaving that to one side, here are some examples I have been faced with by others, three from German, one from Swedish.

I have heard it said that the German word ‘schadenfreude’ tells us something about the German character. In English we don’t have a word describing the joy we take in the misfortune of others but the Germans do. Fine, but while this may tell us a little about the German character it does not account for the Third Reich. After all, the same idea could be expressed in English using a phrase.

Which brings me to Adolf Hitler. My German teacher revealed to us, his long-suffering class, the secret of Hitler’s success. In German the custom is to put verbs at the end of the sentence. So when Hitler was addressing the massed ranks they had to listen all the way through each sentence because, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t know what the verb or verbs at the end referred to. German grammar assured him of an attentive audience. Is there any substance to this? I have no idea, and can see no way of putting it to the test.

On the off-chance a German reader chances on this post, here is a more positive example. In English we have the word ‘collapsible.’ This is not always a good quality in an object. Depending on where your arms are at the time, sitting in a deck chair when it collapses can be a painful experience. Our German friends, on the other hand, express the same concept from the other direction. For them the deck chair is zusammenlegbar – ‘put-togetherable’. Does that not indicate a better way of looking at it? Our German friends are so keen to put things together they keep making Volkswagens, Mercedes and BMWs.

Moving on to Swedish, perhaps my most provocative example. Look away if you are likely to be offended or, alternatively, switch off your set. In English we might say ‘The woman kissed her husband’, and listeners would be suffused with a warm glow at the thought. Nice woman. Friendly woman. Matrimony. Nothing to beat it it. The Swedes, however, realise that there might be a problem here. ‘The woman kissed her husband’ does not tell us whether she kissed her own husband or someone else’s. (For further compromising details, refer to volume three of my autobiography, I Married A Swedish Masseuse.)

So these cunning Swedes have two ways of expressing this:                                          Hon kysste sin man –  She kissed her husband (her own husband)                                 Hon kysste hennes man – She kissed her husband ((some other woman’s husband)

It is always good to be precise, don’t you think? For the avoidance of confusion.


Deaf or blind – your choice

You are an adult sitting in a café minding your own business, A man approaches you and holds a gun to your head. He speaks. ‘Deaf or blind, the choice is yours’. Since being either is better than being dead you cram five minutes thought into thirty seconds. You choose to be deaf. You’ll miss the music, but you won’t miss the 24-hour rolling news or the deafening ads and trailers at the cinema.

On the plus side you are happy to note that you can still read, write, watch television with subtitles, cross the road in relative safety, find items and their price-tags on supermarket shelves, read menus, run an eye over possible dates and, most importantly, express yourself to others should the need arise.

Whenever I run this scenario, which I have done many times, a majority of people have elected to be deaf. But what happens if we change it?

You have just been born when an agent of a foreign power approaches you with a ghetto-blaster playing heavy metal at full volume and a bag of toffees you can’t enjoy because you have no teeth yet. You are offered the same choice – deaf or blind – and come to the same decision. You will be deaf. (As before, I find this is what majority choose.) But this time you are making a serious mistake.

As we develop we learn language, which we use to understand the world. If we are born blind there will be words we won’t understand – colour words, for example – but the meanings of most words will be as available to us as to our sighted friends and our understanding will develop at the same pace. However, if we are born deaf, and unless something serious is done about it, we will gradually fall behind our hearing peers.


At school I was given a new word every day and added it to my little tin box. Words are treasure. The Germans have a word for it, and the German word for vocabulary is Wortschatz – word-treasure. So saying, for now, I have expended my word-hoard.

[I have used the word ‘language’ in this post. For the great majority this will be a verbal language, such as English, Swahili or Tagalog, which we learn by ear without effort. But for some the language they use to understand the world may be visual, such as ASL or BSL which are languages in their own right.]