Thursday, January 25, 2007

Which Language To Learn?

A colleague of mind recently told me that his daughter's school had asked her to choose which language to study for the next three years. Knowing my interest in language, he came to me for advice. What an interesting question, I thought. And it goes far beyond being a choice that only high school students face. University students attempting to pick up a language that will bolster their choice of career, adults wishing learn something new, people wanting to connect more with their heritage, people who are relocating, people wishing to keep their minds sharp by learning something new- all face this same question.

In this case, his daughter had the choice of Latin, French, or Spanish. High school students, perhaps, have an easier choice than most because the choices are limited to the few languages that the school actually offers. But, even here some interesting decisions must be made. Of the three languages above, one can obviously divide them in Classical Languages (Latin) and Modern Languages (French and Spanish). So the first decision might be whether she wants to learn a classical or modern language.

Classical languages can be more difficult to learn (especially at the beginning) for a couple of reasons. First of all, you cannot find stories, novels, DVDs, and popular music in that language. These are great tools for learning a language. Not only is understanding a culture a crucial aspect of truly learning new language (see the post on Language and Culture), but the desire to understand what you are hearing or reading is a great motivator. Desire is an important part of learning a language. Everyone performs better when they have a desire to learn instead of treating language learning as a chore.

Additionally, classical languages can be more difficult because they often use explicit case endings which involve a high level of memorization initially. These languages also sometimes lack modern language features such as definite articles, making them seem awkward to modern speakers. However, there can be a thrill when learning a language that reaches back into the history of humanity. Once mastered, modern languages which are based upon a classical language will be easier to learn. But remember, difficulty is an important factor when choosing a language. Difficulty can also be measured by how different the language is from languages that you already speak.

If she chooses to study a modern language, she still faces an interesting choice. Both French and Spanish are amongst the top ten most spoken languages in the world. And each of them is spoken in many countries around the world. Thus, they are both quite useful. Usefulness is a major factor when choosing a language.

Both of these languages could provide opportunities for employment or career advancement. Both of them have a huge pool of films, music, and literature to enjoy. Location might be a factor when choosing a language to study. Here in New York City, Spanish would be of more use than French as there are many Spanish speakers living here. However, I would caution against allowing one's current location to heavily influence the choice of a language. It's easy enough to move somewhere else or get transferred.

Regularity might be a factor when choosing a new language, but again I would urge caution. Some languages (like English) are riddled with exceptions and special cases. This can make mastering a language difficult (though might not be a factor for beginning students regardless of the language).

Finally, personal aesthetics are an important factor when choosing a language. Everyone has some language to which they've always been attracted. Maybe it's a language your family used to speak or it's the language of a country where you had a fantastic vacation. Maybe you don't consciously know the reason. But, you've always loved the sound of that language, always wanted to learn it.

So, we've looked at some factors to consider when choosing a language:

  • desire
  • difficulty
  • usefulness
  • location
  • regularity
  • personal aesthetics

My colleague said that his daughter's teacher was pushing her study Latin, but that she was leaning in the direction of Spanish. Between those two choices, I recommended Spanish as it was useful here in NYC and would be easier to learn. She could always go back and pick up Latin later, having a great head start from all of the common roots that the two languages share. Personally, I would have chosen French. Though less useful here in New York City, I love the way it sounds and I absolutely love reading in French. This would fall under the "personal aesthetic" category from above.

Ultimately she chose Latin. I wish her bona fortvna.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Adjectives modify nouns. This means that they decorate nouns by adding some characteristic. The adjective big can make the noun dog much more interesting when it becomes a big dog. Rabid, scary, and ghost might be interesting too.

Adjectives can never modify verbs or any other part of speech. They are crazy about nouns and don't have time for any other part of speech.

In some languages, adjectives change their endings to agree with the noun they modify. Often adjectives will agree in gender and number with the noun they modify. For example, in French feminine nouns end with an 'e'. So if I'm an adjective that's decorating a feminine noun, I too must end with an 'e'.

French nouns are made plural by appending an 's'. So, if I'm a French adjective modifying a plural noun, I must end with an 's'.

Many languages exhibit this type of noun-adjective agreement.

exercise #1: What are the first five adjectives that come into your head when you hear the word "water"? What about "fire"?

exercise #2: Does English have the kinds of noun-adjective agreement mentioned above?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Language and Culture: You Can't Have One Without the Other

Let's clear up a common a misconception. If you properly learn a language you will not (cannot!) forget it. You might get a little rusty and forget a few less common words, but you will not lose the ability to speak that language. Anyone who tells you otherwise has memorized words and phrases, but has not truly allowed that language to become a part of them.

So what do we mean by properly learning a language? Learning the grammar, the vocabulary, idiomatic usage, and... the culture. Learning a language means that you also learn a culture. Luckily for you, this means that you'll get to watch some films and listen to some songs. That's not so bad is it? How about food? Yep, you'll need to try some new recipes (or find a new restaurant). You've got to get in there and allow this new culture to become less foreign.

exercise #1: Try to find a DVD spoken in your chosen language. Set it to speak in the original voices and simply put the subtitles on English. Start to listen to the rhythm of the words and phrases. At first it will seem like a high-speed jumble, but eventually it will start to seem more natural.

Enjoy the film. How did the film differ from an American film?

exercise #2: Find the word for "bread" in your new language. From now on, that is your only word for bread. Your friends and family will get used to hearing you say it. Don't worry. Start using this word exclusively. Even if all of the other words you say are still in English, it will help your brain to associate the concept of bread to this new word. Words are only labels, after all. Attach a new label to the underlying concept of 'bread'.

Do the same thing for "milk" and "water". These are good words because the occur frequently in daily life.

exercise #3: Eat a meal at a restaurant which specializes in your target country's cuisine. If this is impractical for where you live, download a recipe. Enjoy the meal. Did you like the food? Do you think that people who live there eat that kind of meal of every day?

exercise #4: Find some songs from your target country. Order an album or purchase some tracks online. Enjoy the music.

The point of all of these exercises is to make the foreign culture seem less foreign. The words themselves will make more sense when you understand the people who speak them. Besides, a new perspective is never a bad thing. In my experience, every culture has some things that they do particularly well. Find those things. Allow the strengths from this new culture strengthen your own life. You never when something that you try for a few weeks while learning language might become a permanent part of your life.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Less and Fewer

This one is pretty straightforward, but I hear people getting these two words confused. Time for a quick review.

Fewer is an adjective. Period.
Less can be either an adjective or an adverb. I've never heard anyone mistake fewer for an adverb, so this is not where the confusion lies.

The question is which of the two adjectives to use when modifying a noun. Is it "fewer problems" or "less problems"? They both sound like they could potentially be correct. At least, neither adjective seems jarringly wrong.

Here's the rule:

Use "fewer" with countable nouns and "less" with non-count nouns.

What is a non-count noun? Anything which wouldn't normally be counted in individual or finite items. Water is an example of a (usually) non-count noun. You would ask for some water and not three water. This means that you would use "less" to modify water. For example, the tub holds less water (not fewer water). The same holds true for gas.

On the other hand, you don't want to use "less" to modify a countable noun. I heard an advertisement the other day state that something had "less calories". They really meant to say "fewer calories". It's not that they were incomprehensible. I understood what they meant, but they didn't exactly fill me with confidence.