Surprising Foreign Language Helps

4th Friday, so it’s an education-related topic. I originally started this article for my homeschooling blog, but never got around to finishing it. I’m putting it here because I think that plenty of non-homeschooling (and non-any-kind-of-schooling) readers may be interested as well. So many reasons to want or need to learn a foreign language.


In teaching the kids French, and in toying around with assorted languages on my own (I’m purely a hobbyist: I love to study languages, but I am only competent in the two), I’ve stumbled on a handful of little language-learning helps that don’t get much press. I wanted to share them, in the hopes that they could be of use to others.

1. The Joys of Bad Latin Last summer when I first began my long slow effort to learn Latin, I picked up a copy of a Latina Christiana CD at a used book fair. It was a bit surreal, hearing Latin spoken in a light southern accent. I imagine a meticulous homeschooling mother living in the suburbs Charleston, sitting in her tidy living room and calling out vocabulary words. Fitting, of course, for ecclesiastical Latin, the epitome of second languages – it’s supposed to be used by foreigners, why try to hide your inner barbarian?

I agree, of course, that a language program ought to include instruction on the correct (native) pronunciation; but there are times when it is helpful to hear that foreign language spoken by someone with *your* accent. The reason is that your ear identifies the sounds better. If you are having trouble hearing where one word ends and another begins, or telling whether that was an “r” or an “l” in the middle of that word, this method helps. Especially so in cases when reading the language is difficult, such as for young children.

With my kids I usually give them the normal (native) pronunciation of the word first. If they look at me funny and repeat back something horribly off-base, I give them the word again with a solid american accent, so they can clearly differentiate each sound. We go back to the native pronunciation once they have a better idea what they are trying to say.

2. Bad English: More Useful than You Knew Now it is painful to hear a language mangled. Even more importantly, learning good pronunciation and intonation is essential if you want people to actually understand you. So the second helpful technique is the exact opposite of the first: Listen to your own language (probably English, if you are reading this) spoken by someone who has a heavy accent in the foreign language you are trying to learn. [Ahem: you want a real fluent speaker of the language, not your dearly beloved doing a bad stage accent.] This trains your ear to be able to distinguish the sounds of the foreign language, and gives you a feel for the pace and intonation of the language. You can start learning the sound of the foreign language as spoken fluently, long before you are able to understand whole conversations. Bonus: What trains your ear trains your mouth, as well.

A series that does this is the Bonjour Les Amis videos for children. Not a perfect program, and the style of presentation would be frustrating to some types of learners — but its great strength is that the narrator speaks his English in a powerfully-Parisian accent. A good choice for accent-training as a supplement to whatever else you are using. Presumably the Hola Amigos series does the same, but I have not yet checked them out (our local public library carries both).

[Keep in mind that if you are trying to a learn a language spoken by residents of your own town, you can probably find real live people who would like to practice their English with you. Not that spending an hour with a DVD is somehow inferior to spending an hour with a real person . . . ]

3. Partial Immersion Around here a popular source homeschool-inferiority-complex are the outstanding academic programs available at some of our public schools. Several of our elementary schools have started early-years foreign-language-immersion programs. The children spend half their school day learning entirely in the second langauge. (The program begins in kindergarten – good timing, since recall that back in the day children used to only go to kindegarten half a day, anyway. So no real loss of academic time, by my reckoning.)

Immersion is a very effective way — I would say, the most effective way — to gain fluency in a foreign language. (You still need to study grammar if you wish to be literate, same as a native speaker). To that end, sometimes you read that families learning a second language ought to have a “French night” or “Spanish night” when only the new language can be spoken.

It’s a lovely idea, except you end up saying, “Paul, I present my friend Stephanie. Would you like a blue pencil? Where is the train to Lyons?” Fine things to say, but what you really wanted was the French for, “No you may not put ketchup in your sister’s water glass, even if she did tell you it is her favorite drink.” (And even if *you* knew the french, your young bartender would swear he heard you say, “yes, go ahead.”)

A more realistic method for those of us who can’t pull off total-immersion is foreign-language wading. Use the language, and use it all the time, but combine it with your own. As in, “Non, you may not put le ketchup in your soeur‘s water glass, even if she did tell you it was her boisson preferée.” Gradually it will contain more foreign vocabulary and syntax, but even at the beginning you can practice using what little you have learned. My kids have learned 98% of what they know from this approach.* (Though Mr. Boy is about to start a regular grammar book, now that he’s able to work from a textbook on his own.)

–> Another advantage to this method over total-immersion is that everyone can participate, even if there are widely-varying skill levels. People who don’t know how to ask for the train to Lyons can still get in a mention about the blue pencil from time to time. (“Please take my crayon bleu out of your mouth.”) Perfectly acceptable to use a word in the foreign language, pause to translate if your listener doesn’t get it, and then keep moving.

So you don’t think I made up this last approach myself: A program that effectively uses partial-immersion is the 10 Minutes a Day series, which are geared towards preparation for tourist travel. If you need to know how to ask directions and buy lunch, this is your course. Lightweight and compact, too. I have some of the older editions, so I can’t tell you how good the CD’s are – back in the day we just used the children’s-encyclopedia-style pronunciation guides in the text, and that got us close enough.


So there you have it, three handy techniques that may be helpful in your foreign language learning efforts. Next week we’re back to economics, continuing with the living wage series. Probable topic will be one of those “They can’t really mean that!” bits of the catechism — you know, the ones that make you think the pope must be a communist or something. (Hint: he isn’t.) TBD, though, as my nieces arrive from out of town on Tuesday, and you never know what will happen from there.

*Combined with method #2, my daughter has also learned how to fake the French language, causing her great-grandparents to be inappropriately impressed with her language skills. But I promise grandma, I am teaching her *real* French, too.

4 thoughts on “Surprising Foreign Language Helps

  1. Tres bonne, ma amie digitale.

    Having taught myself a few languages from scratch, I know from experience that your observations are correct and effective.

    Another fun tip, more for adults than kids: Watch movies with the subtitle on in the target language. I learned lots of Chinese when I lived there by watching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, in English, but with Chinese subtitles. When I heard a particular grammar pattern that I wanted to know (eg. “I wish that it had…”) I would pause it and write down the words subtitled. Caveat: BEWARE TOTALLY BOGUS TRANSLATIONS. Surprise: sometimes translators just put any dang thing they like. “What the.. he didn’t say that at all!!”

    Also, again, for adults: Forget the nouns, learn the verbs: have, do, go, like, want, hope/wish, eat, should, can, let, make, leave, come, need, think, teach, feel, and learn descriptive adjs flat heavy shiney round big small pointy. While my expat friends were struggling to remember the words for table and chair, I was talking to people, and if I didn’t know the word for table, I would just ask, “What’s this again? Big flat thing, you eat there?” You’d be surprised how little of a conversation actually requires concrete nouns.

    Nouns are easy to describe, but verbs, especially basic verbs, almost impossible.

    I was having a conversation in Spanish with a co-worker once. My spoken Spanish is pretty weak, and I sometimes miss basic words because I hear them wrong. He used a sentence with the word “hacer”, meaning “to do or to make”, but I heard “aser”, and didn’t know what it was. I asked him, “Que es ‘aser’?” He looked surprised. “‘Hacer’? No sabes ‘hacer’? Hacer! Hacer es… es… como, haceeerlo. Hacer!”

    Roughly translated: “To do! Do! Do is like, when you DOOOO something. Like DO.”

  2. Verbs. Never thought about it! Handy perspective. Thinking of it, once you know the words for “thingamajig” and “whatchamacallit”, you’re pretty much set, how many more nouns do you really need? (In French that would be, more or less, ‘machin’ and ‘truc’.)

    We do the DVD’s the other way around, voice-over in the language we’re trying to learn, which works even for illiterate people (75% of my children), if you are watching the same film you’ve already seen 3,000 times in your native language (100% of my children). Disconcerting, though, when the mouths don’t match up — animation voices-over better than real people.

    I like the idea of watching in English with foreign subtitles below, especially for a new language. (I do this with Spanish sometimes.) Might start doing this with Mr. Boy, since he’s a compulsive reader. Good reminder.

  3. Brian, since you asked . . .

    Nah. If I’m gonna do any gratuitous language learning, it’ll be either Old (medieval) French or else Occitan. And Mr. Boy’s top item on his list is Elvish.

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