This guest post is submitted by Harold Almon
I want to share with you my experiences with learning the French and Latin languages, and to demonstrate that you can learn a language now, even if your previous language learning attempts failed.
I am a proponent of learning techniques that rely heavily on language acquisition using the target foreign language, with little or no assistance from the native language. It may sound counter intuitive that you could learn a foreign language with instruction delivered exclusively in the foreign language but there are audio, video, and printed resources that do exactly that.
Let Go of Existing Language Patterns
Why is it so difficult for adults to learn new languages? The reason many people fail to learn languages is that they cling to language patterns acquired early in their life and try to superimpose their existing language patterns over the target language. You need to give up the notion that your target language will have any particular structure and just accept the target language as an independent entity that is not a translation of your native language.
The Quest for French Proficiency
I started learning French from my mother (who was born in Québec) when I was very young, but since I grew up in Toronto in the 1960’s and 70’s, I was cutoff from any major exposure to French. My father spoke only English, my mother spoke mostly in English, and I lived in a neighbourhood where everyone spoke English. I wanted to read, listen, and speak French, but at that time I had no access to radio or television stations broadcasting in French.
When I was a boy, we would go almost every summer on vacation to Rivière du Loup, Québec to visit my relatives. Since I was able to speak a small amount of French, and my cousins could speak some English, we were able to communicate effectively. We would stay two weeks, at which point my French would start to improve, then I would have to leave. This was extremely frustrating from a language standpoint since I knew, even then, that exposure to the target language was the key to learning the language.
Language Learning is a One Way Street
I look up foreign words in a native language dictionary rather than a dual language dictionary. If I need a foreign equivalent for an English word, I use a dual language dictionary to find the foreign equivalent but I never look up the English meanings of foreign words in a dual language dictionary. I think you should always go in one direction from your native language to the target language. Try to think like a speaker of the foreign language. What would they do to learn a new word, phrase, or subject?
Formal Language Instruction
One of my high school English teachers who had Latin training, Mr. Adams, bemoaned the fact that his students had no formal Latin language instruction. At Birchmount Park, French and German were available as foreign languages but not Latin.
Mr. Adams was well known as one of the most difficult English teachers in the school. When Mr. Adams went to school, if a student made a few spelling errors in an English exam, he would fail the exam. When I was in Mr. Adams’ class, the grading system had changed. If one of Mr. Adams’ students made a few spelling errors, the student’s mark was lowered but the student did not fail the exam.
There was something extraordinary about Mr. Adams. His personality just seemed to exude intelligence and savoir faire. I sensed that Mr. Adams definitely had a passion for teaching as did several other teachers in my school. When we were reading a short science fiction story called A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury, Mr. Adams assigned me the task of researching the anti-gravity technology that was used to levitate a metal path for the dinosaur hunters in the story. Not until then, nor ever since, had any English teacher assigned me such an intriguing request!
At the time, I was not interested in continuing English courses because I had more ability in science and mathematics. Mr. Adams had a discussion with me about the importance of continuing English instruction and how the choice might impact my admission to a university. Mr. Adams so impressed me with his sincerity and teaching abilities that I took his advice to continue English, worked harder, and squeaked through his class. Gratias tibi ago, Mr. Adams, for giving me that crucial bit of career advice during my high school years.
French class was somewhat easier since the concentration was on basic language instruction but after seven years, I still could not converse very well. I learned quite a lot of vocabulary, rules, and grammar but I still had a lot of difficulty communicating verbally. This is a common result when students learn a foreign language in a classroom setting.
To learn a foreign language, you need to work on acquiring content first rather than focusing on grammar and translation. As Loki states in one of his videos, if you learn grammar first, you are learning the language backwards. But if you spent time learning grammar, you have not wasted your time. You just need to acquire more content by reading and listening. After I learned French backwards to some extent, I was determined to change course and learn my next language in the correct order.
At some point, I stopped going to Rivière du Loup and had virtually no exposure to French for a period of about ten years. Then the saviour came, the Internet, and with it French podcasts, live streaming, and on-demand video. The input available on the internet combined with a basic knowledge of grammar allowed me to re-activate the stored knowledge of French that I had developed over the years. Now I can call my French relatives and talk to them in their language. My French is not perfect but I can speak at a level that is sufficient for comprehension even by my older relatives that speak no English.
While I was working on my French skills through the years, my cousin Anne, who lives in Québec, learned English and completed a degree in Spanish. Now we can communicate in either French or English.
French in Action
An excellent French series that teaches French in French is French in Action (FIA). Dr. Pierre Capretz created the FIA series, combining French spoken at a natural pace, an interesting story, and attractive actors into a series that has an avid fan base. The enthusiasm generated by the series is evident in a post on an FIA fan site which states that Valérie Allain as Mireille has done more to promote the French language among English speakers than anyone since William the Conqueror1.
Lingua Latina, Lingua Ex Deo
I started learning Latin because I adored the Latin motets on a compact disc called The Chant of Christmas Midnight2 and wanted to understand the text of the songs without using an English translation.
Words such as ad hoc, ad nausium, and ex post facto are easily recognized as Latin but others are so deeply entrenched in English that they are not recognized as Latin per se. Words such as color, exit, animal, and circus (as in Piccadilly Circus) have the same or very similar meanings in Latin and English. Latin is everywhere from the American dollar bill to the botanical names of maple trees. The next time someone claims Latin is a dead language ask them why the go-out signs are all written in Latin!
Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata
I wanted to know the exact meanings of Latin words and so I decided to conquer this language once and for all. To learn Latin, I bought Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata3 written by Hans Ørberg. Lingua Latina is written entirely in Latin and starts with the sentence “Roma in Italia est” and then gradually increases the complexity of the written text. The reader uses the context of the story and the known words to infer the meaning of the unknown words using what Hans called the principle of contextual induction4. There are diagrams, grammar explanations, charts, and exercises but they are all in Latin. The method is challenging but it produces a high level of reading proficiency and quickly expands your vocabulary.
Think of the advantage for a Chinese student that knows the Latin alphabet because he learned Pinyin but has no English language skills. In Lingua Latina, he can see a map with Rome and Italy, then figures out the meaning of “Roma in Italia est.” He reads the paragraph and then finishes the chapter. He reads chapter two and then chapter three. He realizes that this relatively easy and voila, you have another potential Latin student!
Before I started chapter one, I tried to read chapter five of Lingua Latina and could not understand the text. I was surprised that I could not read simple text from a language that was the direct ancestor of French. I could read simple Spanish and Italian and get the gist of the meaning but simple Latin was completely incomprehensible.
I read in a review of another popular grammar intensive Latin textbook, that the book uses a decoding method to train the student hunt for the subject, verb, and object in the sentence. If you read Lingua Latina, there is no decoding—you just read and comprehend the text like you would a native language text. I also tried listening to the previous chapters and to my surprise some but not all of the text came across as completely natural whereas months ago every audio chapter was like a garble of alien words and grammar.
I went back to the motets I mentioned earlier and discovered that some of the existing translations were inaccurate. The translator had taken artistic liberties to embellish the English version with words not in the original Latin!
I am now studying Latin verb conjugations and noun declensions so that I can better understand the text. If you study grammar to produce Latin, it does not work. Work on input and when you get confused with the language, study some grammar to understand the language.
Get a Virtual Personal Language Coach
After I read chapter eight of Lingua Latina and completed the exercises for chapter seven, I completely stopped learning Latin. The combination of a new language, a full-time job, and the language exercises had me exhausted. After a couple of weeks, I stumbled upon a Youtube video by Bret Martin called Deadliest Sins of Language Learning. Bret is so passionate that sometimes when I watch this video, I think he is going to pop out of the monitor and enter my room just like the alien did in one of the episodes of The Outer Limits. After watching Bret’s video, I stopped doing the Lingua Latina exercises, started reading again, and completed a total of twenty two chapters, covering about 1100 words of vocabulary, in one year. If you think you do not have enough time to learn a language, watch Claude Cartaginese’s video There’s Always Time for Self-Improvement. If you study languages, a suite of videos like these are the next best thing to having a personal language coach.
With the correct technique, you can learn a foreign language by spending just twenty to sixty minutes per day studying the language. If you spend forty minutes per day commuting to work or school, you can use that time to listen language courses. If you add twenty minutes for self study at night, you have one hour total time devoted to language study. Do you have cable television and newspaper subscriptions? Consider canceling one or both. You will save time and money that you can apply to language learning.
Note that if you have limited time and work on too many languages at once, you will not learn any language with much proficiency. Arabic is a difficult language but Bret is succeeding because he is working on just one language. I tried learning Latin and Spanish at the same time but it was too much effort, so I gave up Spanish to concentrate on Latin. If you are working full-time, try to limit yourself to learning just one language at a time and reviewing the other languages that you already know.
Divide and Conquer
When I was in grade school, I remember reading stories from the SRA reading lab. The lab was a large box that contained stories printed on durable booklets that the students removed and read at their desks. The stories gradually increased in complexity so that students could expand their vocabulary and improve their reading skills. Since the stories were independent, students could choose easier material if stories were too difficult or skip forward if the stories were too easy. Students could move slower or faster through the material depending on their abilities and motivation. The system essentially broke a complex task into smaller parts and then allowed students to proceed at their own pace.
The Lingua Latina chapters are getting harder and every time I read a new chapter for the first time, I think, oh no, how I am ever going to understand these new words. Chapter sixteen was so difficult the first time I read through it that I thought, “You must be kidding, this is impossible!” So, what do you do when you find yourself in this situation?
The way to solve this linguistic challenge is to divide the chapters into smaller sections. Spend ten minutes reading two or three pages and then stop. If you cannot read that many pages in that amount of time, read just one page and then stop. If you do just one page per day, try to read that page several times during the same day. Stay in the same chapter until you understand at least ninety five percent of the words. Your brain will decode the new words from the context and then you can move to the next page and repeat the process. Complete the chapter and move on to the next one.
Always Move Forward
Do not spend six months trying to understand every word, declension, and conjugation in a chapter. In Lingua Latina, the problem words and grammar are likely to be repeated in future chapters and it is more important to continue acquiring new vocabulary than to strive for complete comprehension. If you cannot decode one or two words in a chapter, flag the word in the book and move on to the next chapter. After you advance a few chapters, go back and re-read the paragraph with the unknown word. Usually, the meaning the word becomes apparent.
Lingua Latina is a great little novel in itself with an interesting story line. Here is one of my favourite lines from chapter twenty that I adapted slightly:
Ita loquitur homo qui officium suum scit.
As Hans Ørberg might have said, “To find out what this means, read Lingua Latina.”
You can watch Luigi Maraglia and other instructors on Youtube using Lingua Latina to teach Latin to a class of Italian students. The La vía de los humanistas (LLPSI) capitulum XXII video shows the students, the teacher, and a ferocious dog that attacks one of the students.
If you want to learn Latin, buy Lingua Latina and the related compact disc so you can hear the text spoken by the author himself. The publisher offers a limited demo version5 with text, audio, and exercises so you can sample the book and the compact disc. I have other instructional books for Latin but they do not come close to matching the breadth and depth of the language instruction in Lingua Latina. For advanced Latin students, there is a second volume, Roma Aeterna6, that introduces the reader to prose written by original Latin authors.
Once I finish Latin, learning another romance like Spanish or Italian should be relatively easy. I recently tried reading Interlingua, an artificial language based on romance languages and comprehended most of the text. So if you decide to learn Latin, you almost get a second language as a bonus.
The Cortina Natural Learning Series
Rafael Díez de la Cortina devised a series of instruction texts based on what he called the natural learning method. The only prerequisite is the ability to read the Latin alphabet. Some of the Cortina natural language books had a second version with an English translation printed on the right side of the page.
This Cortina series of books all used the same story line so learning one language will help you learn the other languages in the series. The following languages were published: English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. The English and Spanish books have twenty chapters, the German and Italian twelve. If you cannot find a suitable language book that teaches in your native language, this series allows you to learn five major languages without using a separate instructional language.
I have a 1908 German-only version of Deutsch Auf Deutsch with an original price listed in the back pages of $1 for a hardcover book! The natural method works by starting with very simple sentences such as “Paris ist die Hauptstadt von Frankreich.” The idea of simple text with gradually increasing complexity is the same technique that Lingua Latina uses.
There are a few drawbacks to the Cortina series such as the lack of audio or a parallel text pronunciation guide. The English In English text is too formal and awkwardly written at times because Cortina appears to have used the literal translation from a foreign language, e.g. “Group First, of what nationalities are you?” A more idiomatic version would read, “Group one, what are your nationalities?” Even with the drawbacks, this series can advance you from rank beginner to lower intermediate without resorting to vocabulary lists or the grammar and translation approach.
Once you reach intermediate status, you can switch to target language materials or a multitude of other language courses. Unfortunately, the Cortina natural learning series is out of print but you may be able to find these books on internet bookstore and auction sites.
Cortina 20-Lesson Series
Cortina still offers the 20-Lessons series that uses a different teaching method. The Italian in 20 Lessons book features a pronunciation guide, parallel text translations, small drawings, a grammar reference, and four chapters at the end written entirely in Italian. Although the book does not rely as much on inference, I like it because it does offer a lot of content. This series is also offered in a wider range of languages than the natural learning series. To see a complete review of the 20-Lessons series by professor Alexander Arguëlles, watch Cortina: Foreign Language Learning Series Reviews.
An alternative to the Cortina series, complete with audio, is Assimil. Assimil expects you to read the native text translation but eventually you should be able to hide the native text and just read the target language. Most Assimil products are readily available and reasonably priced. When you choose a language course, remember that a higher price does not guarantee a better result.
I also like the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) course for French. The FSI course features native French speakers performing language drills that allow you to practice French while commuting to work or school. The FSI audio and manuals in PDF format are available for free on the internet.
The Dawn of Audio Based Language Instruction
My copy of Deutsch Auf Deutsch has an advertisement for a phonograph called the Cortinaphone, with the following explanation.
“In presenting the Cortina language method, we are not asking you to try an experiment (…) Thousands of students have used it successfully, and if you are in earnest in your desire to learn any modern language, you cannot afford to be without this wonderful system which teaches you to ‘to pick up’ any language you wish (acquire a practical knowledge of it) by the natural method, the method you used as a child unconsciously in learning your mother tongue – the method of listening to the language.”
In addition to buying the player, the language student had to buy fifteen double sided albums with a playing time of four minutes per side for a total of 120 minutes of language instruction. With the availability of mp3 players, videos, and the Polyglot Project, acquiring a language is much easier, less expensive, and more practical than it was over a hundred years ago. A hundred years into the future, readers will giggle at my references to CD and DVD technology.
If you study German or like science fiction, I am leaving you with a suggestion to watch Raumpatrouille, a German movie not intended for language learners per se. This black and white 1960’s German science fiction series was eventually released on DVD for region two with no sub-titles; however, the seven separate episodes were combined into a movie called The Producer’s Cut with English sub-titles. The original episodes featured one actor speaking French but he was dropped from the movie. The series features some interesting special effects, an intriguing soundtrack, and an underwater Starlight Casino that you could never forget.
Author: Harold Almon
2 The Chant of Christmas Midnight, Imaginary road, 1995, 314 528 869-2
3 Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata, Focus Publishing, 2006, 978-1585102389
4 Latine Doceo: A Companion for Instructors, p. 4, Focus Publishing, 2004, 978-1585100934
6 Roma Aeterna, Focus Publishing, 2008, 978-1585102334
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