The language learning thread

Did a bit too much navel-gazing here, sorry.

I've always been kind of interested in French, though I don't really know why. My mom's mom was québécoise, but I never knew her, and my mom doesn't speak it, so it was all English for me growing up. I remember going to an after-school French class once when I was 6, getting discouraged, crying on the way home, and never going back. I wish I hadn't done that! For the next ten years I guess I compensated for not learning another language by being super anal about learning the rules of English (my parents always got a kick out of this and encouraged it, thankfully).

I took two semesters of Spanish in high school, then dropped it when I didn't like the person teaching the third semester. I wish I hadn't done that! In high school I also read/became kind of obsessed with Proust and Dumas, which renewed my interest in French. My high school psych teacher once said something dismissive about adult language acquisition, like "If you don't start learning when you're 5 then you'll never be fluent," which I understood to mean I would never, through any amount of effort, be able to speak a language other than English reasonably well.

I started college in 2014 and began taking French classes my first semester. My experience with Spanish made it easier to pick up than it would have been otherwise. At first I was motivated to study harder by my resentment for what my pyschology teacher had said, but I enjoyed studying it for its own sake too. I kept taking the classes, studied abroad for a semester my senior year, and in 2019-2020 worked as a teaching assistant at a French high school. One year ago _today_ was my last day actually working at that school (originally supposed to work until May).

Right now I have a full-time contract position at a K-8 French immersion school. It's helping me keep up with the language, but everyone wearing masks all the time* has made me realize just how much I rely on looking at other people's mouths in order to understand what they're saying. I'll start conversations in French and then immediately need to switch to English because the situation is one where information needs to be communicated efficiently and I don't want to waste the other person's time by saying _WHAT? HUH? COME AGAIN?_ all the time (which is something I do in English constantly, but for some reason I feel way worse doing it in another language). Lately I've been feeling kind of bad/insecure about my French skills slipping, but the feeling will pass. I try to read books/play games/watch movies in French but have been pretty lazy about it lately (pretty lazy about everything for the past year, of course).

*it's a small enough school that we're able to observe COVID safety precautions well enough, so we meet in person and of course wear masks

My proficiency in the language varies somewhat significantly between reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I can read and write very well, speak well enough (good accent, but my command of proper grammar goes down the toilet; on more than one occasion, though, I've had someone say to me that they didn't notice my accent at all, which gives me a big head all day), and listen somewhat badly. I don't think I have a hearing impediment but it's like if I am not 100% confident about one particular word in a sentence I hear, my thoughts zero-in on that word and how I don't know what it was and throw the rest of the sentence out the window with it. Sometimes I can listen really well. At the height of my listening comprehension last year I went to an older colleague's dinner party and listened to her and her friends talk for like four hours about the differences between and significance of tradition/ritual in Abrahamic religions, a subject for which my studies did not necessarily prepare me, vocabulary-wise. I remember watching Tales from Earthsea in French and hearing the sentence "Il me l'a confiée pour que je te la donne" (he entrusted it to me so that I might give it to you), proud of having understood this sentence which actually sounded a lot less clear than how it might seem written down.*

*you know how in English we don't say "I-AM-GO-ING-TO-THE-STORE," but sometimes "I'ngoinothe store," it was like that

I've been slowly, inefficiently, noncommittally working my way through a Japanese textbook for I guess almost two years now. I really, really want to throw myself into learning at least that—the plan is to look for courses on offer in the area once in-person learning is safe again. I'd also really like to learn German, and maybe Russian. I keep telling myself "once I learn that I'll be content," but I'll probably never be satisfied.


@“fridgeboy”#p21671 Do you all think that talent plays a role in language acquisition?

I went to a party once during this period abroad where I dug my heels firmly into the argument that there's no such thing as natural talent, or else that natural talent plays a much smaller role in developing skills than we commonly believe it does. I don't actually feel confident taking such a firm stance on this, or at least phrasing it that simply, but at least with regard to language acquisition I'd echo the thoughts others have expressed here and say effort and perseverance are 1000x more important than talent. It's all about time. Maybe your spouse spent/spends more time thinking about Italian/French/languages than she let/s on. I could've spent half an hour reading my Japanese textbook instead of writing this comment! Oh well.

All this is to say if we start a thread about le monde francophone I'll be there, buckaroo.


@saddleblasters#21623 It’s easy in the sense that, even at the basic level I’m at, I can play through games in Japanese and still understand 80% of what’s going on. This is of course because I know what most of the Chinese characters mean (though they are sometimes used in very different ways from how they’re used in Chinese).


@saddleblasters#21623 so I have to relearn the pronunciation of every character

This sounds like a real mind-bender. When you're doing this and you come across Chinese characters for which you don't know the Japanese pronunciation, what does that sound like in your head? I guess the first question would be, Do you hear a voice in your head when you read in English? When you read something in Japanese with kanji is it tapping into visual memory more than linguistic memory (if those are adequate ways of describing those concepts)?

I've thought I might want to eventually learn Mandarin, so I suppose picking up kanji while studying Japanese might actually make that more difficult.


@captain#21729 I’ve thought I might want to eventually learn Mandarin, so I suppose picking up kanji while studying Japanese might actually make that more difficult.

This is not the case at all! Chinese and Japanese learning complement each other more than hinder. I know Japanese +very very very basic Chinese and can sorta fuddle my way through a lot of reading. I wouldn't say I _understand_ what I read, but I can at least understand what it is that I am reading about most of the time. In terms of speaking it wouldn't help that much but you'll be able to pick up vocab way more quickly.

I actually make a game out of it when I go to Chinatown or something, where I try to read signs ultra-literally just by translating character-by-character. It's fun only to me. I also work part time at a Chinese produce store, and I've tried to get into learning more Mandarin but I am just way way _way_ too shy to do the practice that would make it stick. All I know how to say is "we don't have any of that."

I guess the extent of my language learning can be summed up by “I love to read and am way too shy to talk.” Been studying Japanese for like a million years but probably no one would know it by talking to me. I used to be super self conscious about that fact but it‘s just how I am. I don’t live in Japan and don‘t really plan to so it doesn’t come up too much.

However, I study every day and my reading skills are enough that I freelance as a translator. I think most of my success in this job is due to having worked a lot on my writing skills over the years and just being able to spit out consistently competent English seems to give me a leg up over a lot of people, at least at my pay-grade. Obviously just doing this work alone helps me improve a lot and I take extra time to practice listening comprehension too, although it's still not at a level where I would ever be able to translate anything without a script. I find the process of translation really fun and rewarding, which is nice.

I've got a few friends in Japan and so when it becomes possible I'd love to visit for a while and really throw myself into some live practice. I lived there for six months in college and I improved a ton in spite of my shyness just by being forced to talk to people.

@captain#21729 When I see a character (or character cluster) while reading Japanese and don‘t know its Japanese pronunciation I do hear the Mandarin pronunciation in my head. But when I learn the Japanese pronunciation, it’s not like the Mandarin pronunciation gets in the way. In both Chinese and Japanese characters have multiple pronunciations anyways (though this is much more common in Japanese). Often one of the Japanese pronunciations (the Chinese derived on (音) reading) maps very directly to the Mandarin pronunciation, which makes it very easy to remember. Though actually (from what I can see) it's often more similar to the Cantonese pronunciation, since Cantonese preserves the stops (-k, -t, -p) at the end of syllables that Chinese historically had. Two random examples off the top of my head:

Mandarin: de (pronounced like "duh" is in english)
Cantonese: dīk
Japanese on reading: テキ(teki)

Mandarin: fú
Cantonese: fūk
Japanese on reading: フク (fuku)

Though sometimes the on reading does seem bizarrely different. Anyways, like @wickedcestus#21739 said, I doubt that knowing Japanese will make learning Chinese harder for you in any long term way. Though maybe @Syzygy can chime in with some personal experience.

@wickedcestus#21739 This is just a really interesting way of understanding a foreign language I hadn‘t thought about before. Like I can make a pretty good educated guess about what a lot of Spanish writing means because I know Latin roots through French, and the roman alphabet is one which has pronunciation written into it, but with the Japanese/Chinese connection it’s more like you know what the word looks like without really knowing what it would sound like (even if the on readings of kanji might give you something of an idea, as @saddleblasters pointed out). Or I don‘t know, do radicals indicate pronunciation/phonetic components of characters in Chinese? Maybe I’m thinking these are different experiences when they aren‘t that different. It’s cool anyway.


@wickedcestus#21739 It’s fun only to me.

I will presume to speak for everyone in the thread and say we would find that fun



I will presume to speak for everyone in the thread and say we would find that fun

Can confirm. I do exactly this when in Chinatown or Chinese-language situations.

It's cool (but not that surprising) how many of us have been studying and learning Japanese for years! Maybe we should start a Japanese language thread one of these days.

I guess my personal story is probably closest to @Syzygy, in that I started teaching myself The Superior Nihongo back when the best way to do that was to buy a book+CD set from the local bookstore. That seems hilariously antiquated now, but there you have it.

I also relate strongly to what you said, @saddleblasters, about Japanese language study being my main/only hobby, even though I need to use it every day at work and in life. Like you, I thought that one day I'd be able to stop _studying_ and just _use_ the language, but no, there is always more to learn, and the more I learn, the more I realize how much more I still have to learn. Over the years, I've also gotten briefly-serious about studying Mandarin and German, and I kind of have retained a little bit of each. But whenever I'd spend time studying those languages, a little voice in the back of my mind would tell me, "You know, you could be using this time to read one of the Japanese-language novels on your shelf, and improving your comprehension." It's a tough balancing act!

As a Canadian of a certain age, I was also _legally required_ to learn French for years, and although I still have close to zero interest in anything French-related, I can function in the language well enough to surprise people I know.

That experience with French has taught me about why some folks in Japan feel the way they do about English. When you're forced to learn a language for many years, sometimes by people who don't speak it natively, and with no real sense of utility surrounding the language itself, that sure can be an enthusiasm-killing experience.

Finally, can I just say how fortunate I feel to be a native English speaker? Trying to learn that language later on in life seems like an absolute nightmare.


@whatsarobot#21774 in that I started teaching myself The Superior Nihongo back when the best way to do that was to buy a book+CD set from the local bookstore.

read this too fast and thought the book+CD set you bought was called "The Superior Nihongo" lol


@whatsarobot#21774 Japanese language thread

Gotta request that everyone limit their range of expression to saying whether it's hot or cold outside and whether there is or is not a middle school nearby

I suppose I should have said “It's fun only to people like me”

@whatsarobot#21774 I'm also Canadian so I went through the requisite nine years, but deliberately (with help from a very lax curriculum) learned absolutely nothing at all. seemed like the first half of each year was reviewing verb conjugation, then we'd learn how to talk about school supplies. Rinse repeat for every grade. Granted i am on the west coast and no one here actually speaks french. Most of my knowledge comes from working at a grocery store where just by staring at bilingual labels all day i learned the names of every food.

@Syzygy#22161 lol your nerdery is much appreciated. I feel like everyone should get at least one thread (and optimally more than one) where they can go crazy with whatever specialized knowledge they happen to have. (Which is why you have to make that mahjong thread!)

Anyways, it was interesting to me because I'd previously assumed the weirdness with the onyomi from a modern mandarin perspective was purely a matter of language diverging over time — was not aware of these other factors.

Feel free to share whatever other random knowledge you've accumulated, especially about pre-modern Japanese.

@Syzygy#22161 No, not at all, that was great! In fact, I was going to ask if you had any recommendations for English-language texts or other sources that delve into the historical linguistics of Japanese or other East Asian languages on a level appropriate for the layman.

@Syzygy#22166 Thank you, I suspected as much when I asked the question. I took a survey course on historical linguistics in college and to say it glossed over East Asian languages would be giving it too much credit and my subsequent courses on the subject were mainly PIE-derived language focused. I am glad I discovered this small niche of the internet where I can enjoy these missives on the topic, at least. Hopefully if your theoretical book does ever materialize you can find some oblique way to make us aware!

Apologies for writing unrelated to the above.

Don't really know what discipline this question is related to/if it's appropriate for the thread, but do any of you experts know of some scholarly literature or dirt on post-Internet written communication (perhaps what one might google to find it)? I'm interested in trends which (seem to) have arisen or been encouraged in message boards and text messaging, e.g. deliberate excision of punctuation, manipulation of orthography, etc. Furthermore, interested in why members of this forum write comments which are stylistically distinct from each other—everyone has their own language and set of "rules" when composing a comment. Surely an age-old question about habits in letter-writing, but has it been influenced by conventions of Internet communication?

linguistics discussion reminding me of a favorite hyper-elaborate website:

lots to see there but specifically the language-construction stuff

no idea personally if the guy's academically correct but salute the dedication

@Syzygy#22244 This looks promising, thank you. Will sift through those comments too

Edit: lol I googled my question before posting here and opened some New Yorker article without reading it, and it is all about this book

@Syzygy#21860 Would you mind explaining why (plz forgive layperson speak) onyomi compound nouns are so common in modern Japanese? 辞書、体重、住宅、etc. Like how did so many of them come to replace whatever word was used before? Guessing a full explanation could be 10 dissertations but just whatever info you don't mind sharing. Have always wondered this

@Syzygy#22248 yeah I think the guy sells books on how to create fictional languages. It's good to know he has a sound method. Just one of those unique corners of the internet you check in on over the years. I’ll send him an email, see if he wants to post here. He does like video games

The book that taught me how to program at beyond a basic level starts out with a program that generates sentences using a context free grammar, much like one of the tools on that guy's website. It made me want to make a game based around decoding sentences from a randomly generated language. Actually making this fun and doable turns out to be very very complicated, so I will probably never actually make that game. (though perhaps someone has already made a game like this).


@“Syzygy”#p21860 [Kanji] soon becomes a cheat because in writing you can skim for kanji even when you don’t understand the syntax

Not exactly the same thing as scanning for known kanji, but I just started over on Japanese using a [different textbook]( than the one I'd been using [before](, and all the vocab I had been reading in kanji without furigana is now written in hiragana and it's actually slowing me down because I'm no longer used to reading certain words that way, for example だいがく or わたし (very beginning of the book). _Hmmmm, who knew kanji were useful???_

Also, the search feature works for thread titles again!