Friday, 5 August 2016

Success with Languages

I am in a relationship with the Routledge Study Guides' Success with Languages. It's not an easy book. It's a book that demands concentration and, ye heavens, feedback. It's a book that defies skimming. It's the opposite of Fluent Forever and its ilk.

I read a chapter of SWL, and then take it back to the library three weeks later. A week later, I take it out again. I read another chapter. I reluctantly find a pen and paper and begin again, this time doing the "Tasks." The book is not just a strict but undeniably good teacher; it's a therapist.

Therapy is painful. Why did I give up studying Italian once I had got my OAC (A-Level equiv.)? Alas, alack, my parents wouldn't pay for me to go to  summer school in Italy, and it never occurred to me (A) to pay for it myself (B) openly defy relatives' rather antiquated beliefs about the safety of teenage girls in Italia. My brother, naturally, went to the Beauce to perfect his French. My sister, the rebel, just would have forged my parents' signature although not, admittedly, the cheque.

Today the book asked me to think about "what works" for me. What works for me--what has always worked--is writing out vocabulary words in the left margin, writing their English equivalents on the right of the margin line, and then folding over the margin, so that I can't see the vocab words. Then I try to remember what they are and write them besides the English words. Then I fold over the English and try to remember the English for the vocab. And so on.

I did that in high school for Italian, and the end result is that 20+ years later, I still remember high school Italian vocabulary. Of course, it helps that I had a thorough review when I was 27, and now go to Italy once a year or so, buying the bus tickets, the train tickets and the lunches.

Actually speaking the language most definitely works for me. Today I went by the Historical Office to give B.A. and his teammates some cake, and I ended up in the Historical Gift Shop, shooting the breeze po polsku, with a young lady who perfected her English the hard way, i.e. working in a gift shop on the Royal Mile. Jings crivens, help mah bob, as Scots  say only in jest.

(That reminds me. Today near Waverley Railway Station, as I wriggled through a heaving sea of tourists, I overheard a woman I thought was French lecturing her son about his scooter. "T'm'as fuit", I heard and then a second later realized she was saying "My foot." )

Another amazing language learning tool are good old Pimsleur CDs, which you can get from the library, so don't bankrupt yourself before you check. Italian resources are rather more plentiful than Polish resources, and as B.A. and I are going in Italia next month, I have borrowed "Pimsleur Intermediate Italian" to stock the front of my brain with useful phrases.  Pimsleur is rather limited in terms of scope and vocabulary, but it is excellent for improving your accent and jogging your memory. It is also up-to-date, which is useful as my Italian is probably of a very 1980s order.

 Anyway, I offer those titles to those of you who are slaving away at languages: Success with Languages to address your learning skills and Pimsleur to train your tongue and wallop useful phrases into your head, repetition after repetition after repetition.


  1. The Collins language CDs/MP3s with Paul Noble are cool too.I have been learning French from him, a bit of Italian too. As I have been learning Italian from a book since I was a kid, I can read and write it to a fair level, but it all goes down the drain when someone speaks it to me - my ear is not trained at all. (Here, let me get a pen and write down my reply...!)

    1. That is a good thing to know! It definitely means that, if you want to use spoken Italian, you must practice listening and speaking. Reading and writing are totally different skills! I feel very lucky that I had such a good Italian teacher in high school. I wish I had known then, though, that the reason I couldn't understand other Italians in my city is that they were speaking dialect--or at best with very non-standard accents! When I finally got to Italy, Italian voices were crisp, clear and beautifully comprehensible!