Confessions of a Native Russian Speaker

Posted on 28. Jul, 2014 by in education, Language Learning, Reference/Usage Tips

Image by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

Image by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

Any adult who makes a decision to learn a foreign language knows the road will be perilous, long and often frustrating. We pore over books, listen to audio CDs, take classes and commit to memory dozens, if not hundreds, of vocabulary words to make the process quicker and easier. But we all known it isn’t easy and even after years of intense study, we still may find ourselves questioning our own abilities and repeating the same mistakes. But this is okay! It all comes with the territory of learning a foreign language and, as cliché as it may sound, the journey is the reward.

For this post, I decided to interview my lovely wife, Natalya. A native of the Ukraine, Natalya came to the United States at the age of twenty-two accompanied by her mother and younger brother to begin a new life. I wanted to share with you her experiences as a foreigner trying to learn English and some of the challenges she faced and still faces today. Here is her story…

How much English did you known when you first arrived in the United States? 

Just a few words, almost nothing. I knew how to say “Hello,” “Thank-you,” “Sorry,” very basic words and phrases just to get by. I took a couple English classes in the Ukraine but they taught me very little.

How did you learn to speak English?

I carried around a dictionary when I first arrived and asked friends and family how to say certain things if I didn’t know how to say them. I took an ESL class (English as a Second Language) at the local college for three months along with my mother and brother where they taught us how to say and write very simple phrases, write our address, etc. I then began working but I worked with other Russians and Ukrainians so my foreign language abilities did not improve very quickly at all. Five years after I arrived in the United States I began taking university level English courses and saw my English improve dramatically. So for the first five years, I learned enough to get by but I wanted to become more proficient, to the point where I could speak fluently with any native English speaker.

How long did it take you to become fluent in English?

I’m still in the process of learning and, although I can communicate freely with any native English speaker, I don’t think I will ever become completely fluent.

What did you find most challenging about learning English?

The rules of the English language are not always clear. There seem to be a lot of exceptions and I find it difficult to remember them all. Pronunciation is easy, but it’s the exceptions that still confuse me at times because my native language has very few exceptions.

Do you feel you still struggle with English?

I still do, especially when speaking to someone on the phone. When I can’t see the person I’m speaking to, the fear of not being understood kind of paralyzes me so that is something I still struggle with quite often.

Do you think in your native language or in English?

It depends. When I’m at work, I think in English because I earned my nursing degree in the United States and my nursing education was in English. If I’m thinking about things I learned while in the Ukraine, then I automatically think in my native language. So it all depends on the topic.

What advice would you give someone who, like you, came to the United States from a foreign country without knowing how to speak English?

Don’t be afraid to speak up or to make mistakes. I think a lot of foreigners who are trying to learn English hold back because they fear being rejected or humiliated if they don’t speak perfectly. Try to surround yourself with native English speakers as much as possible and you will improve quickly. Go to school and take classes that will challenge you and force you to learn English. You’ll be surprised by the results.

What were some of your experiences learning a new language in a foreign country? Share your comments below!

7 Tips for Hanging on to That Hard-Learned Second Language (aka How to Slow the Erosion)

Posted on 23. Jul, 2014 by in Language Learning, Trends

Remember me?  I’m the “old guy” who’s been learning French and who shared on this blog some of my not-so-secrets of how old guys – and maybe not-so-old guys – can pick up a second language.  Well, now, sadly, I have transitioned to a new phase in language learning.  I am now an old guy who is beginning to lose what I’ve learned of my second language.

Image by scott1346 on Flickr

Image by scott1346 on Flickr

Why?  Because I have no real need to use it in my daily life, AND I seem to lack the will power to keep going some form of disciplined learning process.  Tme is slowly eroding my language abilities, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one around here in that situation!

So, I’ve discovered a few ways of slowing my slide, and I’d like to share some of them with you:

1. Subscribe to an online news source.

I have, and have had for years, a subscription (free!) to the daily email newsletter from La Figaro.  It challenges me, every day, with new vocabulary, sometimes with new usage of old vocabulary, and with a comprehension test presented in the real, every-day language used in a widely-read Parisian journal.

A huge bonus in La Figaro – for me, anyway, a hopelessly enamored Francophile – is the fact that it’s chock full of really fun and interesting current news and features, with great photos, and presented from a viewpoint very different from that to be found in my local rag, or in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal!

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that sometimes days – even a couple of weeks – might go by without me having more than flipped past the top two or three headlines!  It’s always there, a great resource, but do I really milk it for all it has to offer?  Sadly, no.

2. Sign up for a Word of the Day service.

I of course receive my daily email (doesn’t everyone?) of the Transparent Language Word of the Day in French (it’s available in 25 languages).  For a while, this daily prod (which is also a freebie) to those of us who struggle to slow the erosion of our perhaps never-too-great language competence was “too easy.”  But WotD has improved over the years I have been using it.  The words presented started out too near the “French 101” level to be of much interest to even an intermediate-level learner.  Now, however, it has moved a couple of pretty good frog hops uphill, and I regularly see useful words that I have never met before.

The WotD email message shows the word, its English meaning, its use in a French sentence, and a translation of the sentence.  But there’s more!  The message also contains two links:  clicking one evokes a native-speaker pronunciation of the word; the other, a recitation of the entire French sentence.

3. Keep a book handy.

I try to keep at least one French-language book going and handy for a quick dip into a paragraph or two as a diversion, or just to fill a free moment.  Those of you who have read my earlier blogs know that I was already an “old guy” when I started learning French, which is probably why the idea that I can now actually read a French-language book still feels sort of new.  I think it’s partly that “Look, Mom; see what I can do now!” pride that helps to keep me plugging away at Victor Hugo prose and savoring the hilarious exploits of Petit Nicholas.

4. Immerse yourself when possible.

In our neck of the woods, where we abut Quebec to our north, and where some French-flavored pre-Revolutionary history took place, I find a surprising number (surprising to me, though it shouldn’t have been) of what I consider to be “near-francophones.”  These neighbors, friends, and people in shops might speak Québécoise, or a very colloquial form of European French, or even Acadian.

As far as hanging on to my fading French is concerned, interacting with these people is of some, but limited, value.  I described them as “near-francophones” because I am having enough trouble hanging onto my “textbook” or “Parisian” French without adding the challenges presented by dialect and patois!  But those folks all seem to be able to follow well enough my attempts at my version of the language, so that is gratifying.

5. Join a club or cultural society.

A nearby French-American Society (or some such) provides a venue for periodic gatherings of some of these francophone locals, and it occasionally hosts a more elaborate soirée.  I have attended a couple of these gatherings, but – frankly – to little effect.  Maybe attending only “a couple” may not have resulted in enough engagement to help delay the fading process.

6. Find a pen pal (or e-mail pal).

I keep going, if sporadically, two or three streams of email correspondence.  My counterparties are such folks as a couple of members of our wonderful Grenoble-based family of friends, my former (and still occasional) native-French tutor and neighbor, and – even more sporadically – two of the Harvard Extension School faculty whom I once knew well.  Also on the “sporadically” list are two of the several informally-arranged tutors that we have found to help us during various Paris visits.

For me, this emailing business is a hugely important help!  It’s really the only time when I actually sit down to compose thoughtful, well-structured, as-grammatically-correct-as-I-am-able French prose.  I correspond almost exclusively with native speakers, and in some cases, with teachers of the language, so the pressure is on!

I beg these people to point out my errors, and several are kind enough to take the time to do that – and I have to confess that it is rare indeed when I manage to produce a message without at least a handful of grammar errors.  This is not, I fear, because I don’t know the rules; it is instead for the far more difficult-to-correct reason that I have not yet assimilated French grammar (and may never!) to the point at which it is like breathing – a natural part of how I think in the language.  Ah, me!

7. Listen to music and watch shows.

I am a music nut, and I find on YouTube (and there are plenty of other sources) French-language songs and musical performances that are not only very enjoyable simply as entertainment, but also are valuable exercises for my oral-comprehension skills.

Example:  the other evening I did a YouTube search for something that included the name “Offenbach.”  I was offered in the response a two-hour-plus modern staging of Jacques Offenbach’s 19th-century dynamite entertainment “La Vie Parisienne,” which kept me enjoying, laughing, and practicing French for the full performance!

Those are some of the things I do to try to slow the fade.  How about you?  What tips do you have for those of us who have no regular need to exercise our second language, but want to hang onto what we have?

Pronunciation is King

Posted on 21. Jul, 2014 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: A Travel and Language Comic

The above comic is one of the very few I’ve done (along with the one from my previous entry) which is taken verbatim from personal experience. In 2008, I was on the island of Muuido, off the coast of South Korea, in a little restaurant on the beach. It was apparently off-season, as there was nary a soul in sight apart from myself and my travel companions. I was far enough off the beaten track that the waitress (also the eatery’s proprietress and cook) didn’t speak a word of English. I, of course, didn’t speak a word of Korean. But I wanted to try. The rest played out exactly as it does in the strip – after consulting my dictionary, I said “rice” and “fish” and received two bowls of cold noodle soup. They were delicious, but contained no perceivable trace of either rice or fish.

I’ve since made South Korean friends who read the strip above and don’t get it. By all rights I should have received fish and rice! I said the words, after all. And it’s not like a Korean restaurant on a Pacific island would be out of fish and rice, right? The only conclusion I can draw from my adventure is that my pronunciation was off. Way off.

And when it comes to speaking languages, pronunciation is king.

My wife is Italian. She speaks excellent English – she’s fluent. She wasn’t when we first met, but after five years with someone, you pick it up pretty quickly (ProTip: want to learn a language? Date a native speaker with poor skills in your native language!). She can even understand the molasses drawl of the cowboys that live out by my dad’s place in rural New Mexico. She has trouble understanding the British, but who doesn’t? The only snag is that occasionally she’ll pronounce words with a strong Italian inflection. You would think we’d get what she’s trying to say, but we’re used to hearing words the way we’re used to hearing them. She often has to repeat a word like “transparent” several times before the listener gets it. It can be discouraging at times. How good can your language skills be if people can’t understand a simple word?

We lived in Lyon, France for exactly one year. I arrived knowing exactly zero French, and felt that after one year I was more or less conversational. I was no longer paralyzed by the fear that I would be ostracized as a dirty foreigner, as detailed in my very first post here.

On the morning of our departure, leaving Lyon for good, I walked into a boulangerie to order up some baguettes for the long train ride to Venice. Here’s how the conversation went.

Me: Deux baguettes, s’il vous plaît. (Two baguettes, please)
Boulangère: Pardon?
Me: …deux baguettes, s’il vous plaît. Deux baguettes.
Boulangère: J’ai pas compris. Quoi? (I don’t understand. What?)
Me: (Making exaggerated sign language for “baguette” and holding up two fingers) Baguettes! Baguettes! Deux BAGUETTES!
Boulangère: Ah! Baguettes!
Me: Voilà! Baguettes!
Boulangère: Combien de baguettes alors? (How many baguettes?)
Me: (Slapping my forehead) Oh, mon Dieu! (Good grief!)

True story. I couldn’t believe that after a year, I couldn’t even make myself understood ordering baguettes. What could be simpler? Surely my French was terrible!

The thing to remember is that while pronunciation may be king, it is not necessarily tied to your language ability.

My father is German. He’s been living in the United States for 27 years, and speaking English for longer than that. He is obviously fluent in English (so fluent that he doesn’t like speaking German with me!), but he still has a German accent. But he doesn’t care! He knows he speaks English, and he doesn’t let a little thing like his pronunciation or accent get in the way. The mother of my childhood friend was Israeli, and always felt that her English was somehow wrong. An accent is a beautiful thing! So what if you have to repeat a few words now and again?

My pronunciation of German words is pretty good. So good, Germans occasionally think I’m German. I’m not quite fluent, and in certain subjects have real difficulty making myself clear, but the pronunciation carries me. People assume my German is much better than it actually is because I can say “Bundesverfassungsgericht” like a local. Conversely, in French, because my accent is so strong, people often assume my French is much worse than it actually is.

Pronunciation is king, but it is not necessarily tied to language ability. So don’t be discouraged! If you’re a natural at pronunciation, don’t get lazy, get better! If your pronunciation sucks, work on it! Your accent is the spice you bring to the table.

Just please, someone, for the love of Mike, tell me how to correctly say “fish and rice” in Korean!

Now let’s hear about your pronunciation troubles. Have any funny stories? Can’t shake that accent? Have you learned to listen to what non-native speakers are trying to say, rather than listening to what they’re literally saying?