Posts Tagged ‘language learning’

On keeping my brain alive

March 7, 2019

It’s something I never heard anything about when I was younger, perhaps because people hadn’t then tuned into it as an important idea, or perhaps because when you are young, certain things just don’t cross your radar, but as I enjoy my retirement, it’s hard to miss all the exhortations to do things that will exercise your brain, keep you mentally active, and –who knows – perhaps stave off the horrors of eventual dementia. I suspect there is some sense in not vegetating, but I’m not sure about deliberately taking new things on board just in the hope…

Do I keep my brain active? I hope so. I keep up my French and German in conversation groups here, and obviously when I’m travelling, and probably about a quarter of the books and novels I currently read are in French; I also read a monthly current affairs magazine in French. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ as I found in those long years of being a parent, when holidays abroad faded somewhat into the background. I’m still quite proud that the French often have to ask what country I’m from – they can now tell I’m not French, whereas in the years just after I’d graduated, they often didn’t realise… And a few years ago I took up learning Spanish, with the aim of being able to manage some holidays in Andalucia eventually. I’m enjoying the mental challenges and have been fortunate in finding a really good teacher. I’m not sure what particular parts of the brain language learning uses, but I’m still fascinated at the way communication can come out in a different language without my having to do deliberate processing.

As a student, I taught myself to do The Guardian cryptic crossword, and it has brought me endless pleasure; there’s serious and tortuous brainwork involved – anagrams have always been my speciality – and I can do it by myself or with a friend. In my early teaching days a colleague and I had the goal of finishing the Times and the Guardian cryptics before the end of the school day, and succeeded more often than not. I’ve occasionally wrestled with even harder ones like Azed in the Observer, but haven’t the patience for them. My one small indulgence, in terms of actually paying for an app on my phone, is the one that gives me the Guardian cryptic crossword every morning: I download it before I leave the house and use it to while away idle waiting moments anywhere. Sudoku I’ve never managed to wrangle, unlike my other half, who whizzes through it; an aversion to numbers on my part, I thought until I came across Calcudoku, which I now enjoy, although at beginners’ level.

Those are the only ‘mental gym’ type activities I can bear; other than that it’s reading and writing, both of which I enjoy and do a lot. I have a very moralistic attitude to my brain, I realise, along the lines of “God gave you it, so use it!” Certainly, as I’ve grown older, I’ve never ceased to be astonished by how complex and wonderful an organ it is and what it’s capable of doing; reason should be capable of enabling us to live in a rather better and fairer world, but it hasn’t… and it seems a great shame that all those electrical impulses eventually just die away, after all those years of hard work, and accumulation of knowledge and experience.

How do you keep your brain agile?

My travels: L for languages

January 23, 2017

Not a place, I know, but an integral part of my travelling. I’m prompted to write this post after a real shock today. I’m part of a French conversation group which meets fortnightly to chat in French, as a way of keeping up our fluency with the language as well as to share stories and knowledge of that country’s culture. And from a visitor, we learned that a local secondary school with a very good reputation and the largest associated sixth form in the country – some 1200 students – has just three dozen, across two years, studying a modern foreign language. Five of these are boys, apparently. I was horrified.

I’ve written before about my encounters with different languages from my earliest days, and my fascination with them, of my good fortune in having an excellent French teacher at school and the moment of epiphany when I realised I could communicate in that language, with it native speakers.

One of the reasons my travels are relatively limited, compared with those of many other people I meet, I have realised, that it’s important to me to be able to communicate while I travel, rather than remain in a tourist bubble, hoping someone will be able to speak English. I know that’s not a very helpful approach in that it cuts a lot of the world out; I don’t rule out going to countries whose language I don’t speak, and I also know that people in other countries are often very keen to practise their English. And yet it seems natural, or useful to be able to ask for directions or other information of a passer-by, or in a tourist office, to be able to join up with a guided tour at a place I happen to be visiting, to chat at the till in a shop or supermarket. And when out walking, casual or chance encounters can develop into an hour to two’s companionship…

I’ve also realised that as a Brit who has the steering wheel on the wrong side of his car, and has to drive on the wrong side of the road while in Europe, that the ability to understand the roadside furniture is one of the things that helps with the slight strangeness of driving there: I’m in France so I do French and that includes driving French-style, if you see what I mean.

Clearly I can manage in France, and that means Belgium, too (once a Flemish-speaker realises you are a foreigner rather than a francophone Belgian being rude, you are OK, though I can just about get by in Flemish), and parts of Luxembourg and Switzerland. French also helped me in Morocco many years ago. I’m okay, if a little rusty and ungrammatical, in German, and that does for the rest of Luxembourg, Austria and some other bits of Switzerland. I used to be able to get by in Italian. I have a project for a tour of Spain, and am very much enjoying the challenge of learning Spanish at the moment. I’m seriously lacking confidence in that terribly complicated language which is Polish, and have relied on people there speaking English or translating for me. I don’t like this; I can understand quite a lot of the language, but constructing sentences of my own is very hard indeed.

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When a teacher offering career advice to students, I would always point out the advantages to be gained by pursuing study of a language to degree level, and the spectacular opportunities that could offer themselves to those who had two foreign languages and English as their mother-tongue; some students took my advice and I don’t know of any who regretted it. Sadly, of course, the goalposts have recently been moved, and on reflection I now think that if I were able to rewind the clock, I would move abroad…

It is hard to put into words – even for a former English teacher – the fun and the pleasure that my engagement with languages has given me over the years, and how much it has enhanced my enjoyment of my travels: a dish or a drink recommended here, a place to go and visit suggested there, extra help or advice from a tourist office or a guide, a friendly conversation that rounds off a pleasant day. It’s hard living on an island.


On other languages…

February 2, 2015

So, having eulogised the English language the other day in this blog, I need to write a few words about my fascination with other languages. I have the kind of brain that is interested in the small details of similarities and differences, whenever these catch my eye (or ear). I read about languages, and attempt to learn them. So far, French is the only other language I can read and speak more or less fluently, and I’ve always marvelled at the ability to do this, and the picture I get of another country and culture because I can do it.

I love the way that, as one becomes more fluent in a language, one ceases to think or translate before speaking: the words just come out in the target language. One even begins to dream in the language. I think I’m approaching this stage with my German. I tell myself that I can get by in Polish, probably Italian and Dutch, and I have just begun learning Spanish, which is an interesting challenge as it keeps getting mixed up with the vestigial Italian…

Latin I learned at school, and I think the rigid grammar and the variability of word order have been most helpful in my wrestlings with other languages. It taught me that there was a grammar – a very different one – to English too, and linked me into the wonders of etymology.

French was challenging in terms of the sounds and pronunciation, being so different from English; just as that ‘th’ sound is so hard for non-English speakers, the slightly rolled ‘r’ in French was fun getting to know. German sounds so different, and the genders are a killer for me. I’m always amused by the ways the French and the Germans try to tame and regulate their languages, the Germans with their spellings and the French with trying to keep out alien (read English) words. Fortunately, we don’t, and couldn’t.

I love the liquid sound of Italian, and so far I love the straightforwardness of Spanish, though they do confuse themselves in my memory. Spanish pronunciation – particularly the b/v sounds – has reminded me of the ways certain languages just do not make some distinctions: the Japanese apparently find r/l difficult, and Russian makes little distinction between g/h, giving us a wonderful Shakespeare play called Gamlet… The spreading of the ‘schwa’ sound (sorry, cannot do phonetic symbols yet!) in English causes problems, both for us speaking other languages and for foreigners learning English.

I’ve made many attempts to learn Polish – as I should – and have failed thus far, for lack of a good teacher, partly. Polish pronunciation is actually very easy and logical once you know the sounds, it’s the grammar which is horrendous, making classical Greek (which I also failed at) look simple. There are genders, several cases, no articles, complex rules for plurals, and a verb system using perfective and imperfective rather than tenses, depending on the nature of the completion or not of the action, which can result in two totally different verbs to the same one in English… I was astonished to learn how many cases there are in Hungarian, but then discovered that it’s explained by the fact that they don’t do prepositions.

Alphabets based on Latin or Greek are relatively straightforward, but anything outside just looks bizarre. I am humbled when looking at a newspaper in Arabic, for instance, which says absolutely nothing to me, realising that millions of people can interpret it as easily as I can the front page of The Guardian. Scripts can look beautiful, especially some far Eastern languages like Thai; I find it astonishing that printed and written Russian use two quite different scripts; print I can transliterate, but written, no.

There’s been a lifetime of fascination and learning here, and I have realised that it’s important to me because language is about communication which is about being human. In my next existence, I think I would like to be a linguist.

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