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.