Cultural Attitudes Toward Language (and Learning Spanish)

James Fallows, on the French/Japanese vs. American/Chinese attitude toward purity of language and foreigners' trying to speak their local tongue:

in France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"  … Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean…" (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.)

The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say. Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity — and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants.

Excellent point. Spanish is closer to English and Chinese in this respect, I think. Getting the meaning across matters most to the Latin American folk I've spent time with. Spanglish has nothing to do with purity and everything to do with utility.

I am trying, by the way, to elevate my Spanish speaking and writing skills from "intermediate" to "advanced." Here are some thoughts on how I'm going to do this:

1. Vocabulary first. If you don't know words, you can't communicate. If you can't communicate even basic ideas, you get frustrated. I'm emphasizing vocabulary. Grammar will come.

2. Spaced repetition. Per Piotr Wozniak's theories on memory — the optimal time to review a word is the moment before you're about to forget it — I'm using his free service SuperMemo.net to learn vocab.

3. Frequency of vocabulary over themes. I spent $30 on a frequency dictionary. It lists the 5,000 most frequently used Spanish words, in order, drawn from a 20 million word corpus of non-fiction and fiction writing and oral transcripts. The 5,000 most frequent words account for 95% of the written/oral material I am likely to encounter. I think it's a shame that virtually all Spanish vocabulary in U.S. schools is taught thematically (food, travel, etc) instead of by frequency.

4. Make mistakes, have no fear. Fear of embarrassment stops a lot of people from practicing a foreign language with natives, I think. I'm going to try to make as many mistakes as I can.

5. Immersion / live in a country. Chile is my target country. More on this, soon!

Here's a post on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

For those worried about the United States becoming a bilingual country, it's too late. The train has left the station. You cannot deny the demographic trends. Note that we will be bilingual in effect not in law. We are not destined to be Canada, in other words.

Given the competitive advantage they could bestow upon their child, I am surprised when I encounter wealthy American parents who are not paying their (probably El Salvadorean) cleaning lady to talk in Spanish in a structured way with their young children.

Finally, I have read research that shows very young children can pick up a language faster than an adult. But, I have seen no evidence showing an 11 year-old can learn a language faster than a 60 year-old. This seems to be one of the most dangerous myths circulating about language learning. We are damn good at coming up with excuses or rationalizations!

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