Random Notes on Studying Foreign Languages

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I used to have very old-fashioned ideas about studying languages, how they should be learned in a very structured environment with a healthy emphasis on reading, writing and grammar. I learned all my European languages in school (high school, university, graduate school), and school was also where I formally studied up on Japanese, building up from my limited childhood vocabulary of playground phrases. Later on I enrolled in a proper ulpan to learn Hebrew. But now, faced with the prospect of having to learn yet another foreign language in my forties, and surveying the desolate landscape of forgotten words and conjugations piled up over the years like so much mental debris, I just don’t feel like I have it in me anymore. So lately I’ve been lounging at home with my first Rosetta Stone program, trying to learn just enough Spanish to get by. Rosetta is formatted like a serial quiz with lots of pictures and, in my opinion, marvellously embodies this very American idea of painless learning, in which you’re having so much fun you don’t even realize you’re absorbing something of value (whereas in other cultures learning is a very conscious activity and necessarily accompanied by a certain amount of angst).

Spanish is a close cousin of French, and the two languages share a lot of vocabulary and grammar between them so I wasn’t expecting a lot of surprises, but still, life filtered through a new language offers interesting food for thought. I learned, for example, that the Spanish word for “pregnancy” is el embarazo. Really? Even when it happens in wedlock? And “to wait”, in Spanish, turns out to be esperar, as in the French word for “hope”, espoir. The word somehow imbues the most mundane moments of waiting with poignancy; you hope, despite everything, that the bus will come.

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Studying is a good excuse to use up the notebooks one has stockpiled up till now. I’ve even come up with a system that allows me to use pencils and pens equally often: I write down words and sentences as I go along with the lesson the first time, and then overwrite the parts I need to memorize in ink when I go over them again. Up till now I seldom reviewed my notes, which must be the reason my vocabulary retention is so poor (well, my brain cells are also aging); this way I review more often. This also allows me to use thicker-nibbed fountain pens more, that tend to get underused with daily Hobonichi journalling.

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I first finished up my small Life Vermilion notebook, then started on a notepad I bought many years ago in Korea but never got around to using. The brand (Oxford) is fairly popular back home (you see a LOT of their yellow legal pads) but I hadn’t given much thought to its origins up till now; I vaguely assumed the brand was Korean, even, given the academically aspirational name, but it turns out to be French! A family firm based in Normandy, to be specific, which also owns several other brands, including Canson. This particular format that I have (two-holed, perforated at top) isn’t really for me as I never use binders, but the paper is pleasantly smooth and crease-resistant in a different way than Rhodia or Clairefontaine. The paper has a khaki tint to it, which is accentuated by the grey lines. I might pick up some more of these in a different format next time I’m back home.

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19 thoughts on “Random Notes on Studying Foreign Languages

  1. I have the same idea on language learning as you, since I have learn all European languages in a class room setting. It is a pity that my abilities in some of them have been reduced to deciphering chocolate wrappings and stationery items. Self-paced language acquisition sounds appealing but motivation has been a problem for me; my effort usually lasts about 1-2 weeks. One of the ways that I haphazardly keep up with them is to read recipes in original languages. So far, the vocabulary sticks with me and I stumble my way through reading the instructions. Perhaps I should start again with notebooks and pencils as part of the enticement!

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    1. I know – I can’t believe just how much I’ve managed to forget ;) I came up with my own theory regarding learning languages along the way, which is you can’t expect to remember everything forever. Languages require a lot of upkeep. Losing most of the vocabulary is inevitable, but I’ve found that bits of grammar stay in my mental hard drive, and as long as I can identify the pieces in a sentence well enough to figure out their original forms I can start again with a dictionary if necessary. Necessity and stress are the prerequisites for mastering any language, neither of which is very pleasant…

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      1. Human brains remember the oddest thing and they need to be well-oiled enough to get into a language drill. It is sort of silly to plan language learning as part of the retirement plan, perhaps I should look into incorporating bits and pieces of language acquisition into my life. It is a wonderful mental exercise!

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      2. I always liked learning languages, so I do hope it’s had some beneficial effects on my brain! For a time I was really into Sudoku and I got quite good at it too, but I somehow doubt it’s had any lasting influence… ;)

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      3. Once upon a time when I wanted to enroll in a PhD program, one of the requirements that I need to fulfill was having reading proficiency in French and German. Depending on which area of study (in my case, medieval European or East Asian history) I would need to know Latin, and another East Asian language. It is amazing how much human brain can retain, and it is evident that I am not a polyglot!

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      4. Did you acquire either? Both French and German are very attractive languages and I would have loved to keep some working knowledge of them, but unfortunately it was more work than I could handle ;) I took classes in all three (including Latin) but it’s astounding how thoroughly I managed to forget!

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  2. Interesting about Oxford – I’d always assumed (not sure why) that they were produced by a German company. That they’re French may explain their ubiquity in French Hypermarkets (at least in the North of France) around the time of the rentrée!

    I found Spanish’s similarity to French difficult – when I couldn’t remember the correct Spanish word, I would find myself lapsing into French instead! As I don’t “need” Spanish (I’ve not holidayed there in years) I chose to focus on improving my French instead.

    I use an Android application called “Duolingo” to keep my French ticking over (and to try and learn more Dutch, and Welsh from scratch) – it nags when it’s time to practice. I think it’s best supplemented with more structured learning though; in the languages I don’t know some of already, not knowing the “rules” seems to be holding me up.

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      1. Wow, you already knew about Hamelin? Because of Canson sketchbooks maybe? I first started using Canson marker paper when I was learning calligraphy :)

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    1. Hi John,

      Re Oxford: I know, if somebody had told me it was Chinese I would have believed them ;) They definitely have an image problem. That aside, I wonder why French stationery expertise seems to be so concentrated on paper – nothing left over for pencils, after Conté?

      The reasons you give for learning languages are telling. I don’t think anyone studies a language to holiday in that country, in my part of the world! Maybe this is why Westerners take a more relaxed approach to foreign languages. I agree with you on how these online programs are structured, though – I recently arrived at the twin “to be” verbs of ser and estar, and there was not one word of explanation from Rosetta regarding what the differences were and when to use which. You were just supposed to instinctively understand everything from pictures >.<

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      1. “Wow, you already knew about Hamelin? Because of Canson sketchbooks maybe?”

        Much more prosaic than that – I was trying to find out who to complain to when they stopped making the A5 “Black N’ Red” day per page planner (I found Hamelin, and through their website saw that they owned Oxford and Canson as well)!

        On French manufacturers, there is Bic, I suppose, and Waterman (the former do make some pencils) Calepino make pencils in France too, I think. But yes – their dominance of paper is much more analagous to, say Germany’s being the home of Faber Castell and Staedtler!

        Conté, incidentally, make the most wonderful art pencils (sanguines, pastels) – round cased, and slightly thicker than a “normal” pencil, with delightful, expressive cores.

        “The reasons you give for learning languages are telling. I don’t think anyone studies a language to holiday in that country, in my part of the world! ”

        Yes – although I did see a job in my field recently located in the Rhone-Alpes, and was very tempted to push a bit more on my French! I think it’s partly being a native English speaker (most contacts in my field speak/write English too) and partly the type of job (the technical language used tends to be English, for the most part). My Grandmother, on the other hand, lived and worked in Belgium, and spoke French, Dutch, German Italian, English and Spanish well, as well as Flemish dialect – she’d be expected to correspond and talk with people in those languages during the course of her working day.

        I did once tell a French tourist that he had left his umbrella on the train (in French), but sadly, the opportunity to use the language outside of holidays doesn’t arise that often!

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      2. John, thank you for the wonderfully detailed reply :) I’ve only seen a couple of Conté models up till now, and wasn’t very interested in the brand so far, since they seem to specialize in art supplies. And I never got around to ordering Calepino stuff from cwpencils. I should have a closer look at them someday.

        Your comments on the Black ‘n’ Red products, too, along with Matthias’s below, made me look up the brand. I’ve never heard of it before! At first glance they look very Moleskine-ish (but what doesn’t, these days?), I wonder if they came first? And surely you need another apostrophe before the “n”?

        Re European languages: I’ve so far met maybe one other amazing multilingual like your grandmother :) In the past, I assumed it was easier to pick up languages in a Western context because they were all related to some degree, but with some baby steps in Dutch and now Spanish, I find that learning sister languages is actually more difficult! There’s so much confusion and so many subtle differences to keep in mind! This trick of grabbing a vaguely Latinate word and pronouncing it in a “local” way takes you only so far…

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      3. “I’ve only seen a couple of Conté models up till now, and wasn’t very interested in the brand so far, since they seem to specialize in art supplies.”

        Yes – they do make a range of graphite, but don’t use the mini jumbo style casings that they do for their sanguines and pastels. I’d have bought some to try ages ago if they did!

        “And I never got around to ordering Calepino stuff from cwpencils. I should have a closer look at them someday.”

        They’re definitely a brand I want to try – reviews I’ve seen have been good, both for pencils and notebooks.

        “Your comments on the Black ‘n’ Red products, too, along with Matthias’s below, made me look up the brand. I’ve never heard of it before! At first glance they look very Moleskine-ish (but what doesn’t, these days?), I wonder if they came first? And surely you need another apostrophe before the “n”?”

        The version I’m most familiar with is the spiral bound hardcover, and casebound books. They were, briefly, a staple of the stationery cupboard at work. The paper is very nice, and fountain pen friendly. The only criticism I’ve heard is that it’s very bright white, which can be a bit off putting if you’re used to off white or cream papers.

        I reviewed the Diary here; https://johnthemonkey.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/review-black-n-red-day-per-page-diary-2012/ – I assume the paper is the same in the notebooks.

        I wonder if the lack of preceding apostrophe is to do with trademarking the name…?

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      4. John, thank you for pointing out the review of the Black ‘n’ Red planner – the paper looks very sturdy indeed. 90gsm! The layout is indeed a bit businesslike and may not be my first choice, but if the paper is anything like the Oxford notepad I’m using now I am sure it is good value for money.

        If you think of it, planners are more or less similar (?!) and choosing one shouldn’t be so difficult, but it’s amazing what small details end up bugging you and you find yourself on the search for the Grail Planner again. I used a Semikolon Creativo as a planner for two and a half years and it worked fine, but I could never get over the fact that the pages were all detachable (even though nothing came off, but still!). The Hobonichi Weeks I’m using is a bit too flimsy, and the Moleskine before bled ink, and I don’t want to go back to a Paperblanks or a Semikolon… [sigh]

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  3. 저 태영이에여!!!!!!! 저 12월 말부터 2월까지 친구들이랑 남미 가요!!!!!! 방금 비행기표 예약했어요!!!!!!! 꺅!!!!!!!!!!

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    1. 꺅 태영아!!!! 네가 이 블로그를 알고 있다는 데 놀래고 남미 온대서 더 놀랬다 ㅋㅋㅋ 근데 아직 한참 남았네? 여비 착실히 벌어두고 준비 잘해라 나중에 보자 d^^b

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  4. The paper you can find in Black n Red products is really nice. I used to be able to get them cheap in our library, but not anymore 8(
    I wonder whether there’s some fierce competition between the French paper makers – as they seem to enter each other’s territory (e.g. Oxford selling Rhodia style notepads, ..).

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    1. The orange cover is very prevalent – I’ve seen them on Rhodia, Oxford, and supermarket own brands, quite often all clustered on the same shelf!

      It doesn’t seem to happen with art paper, where (for example) Canson is clearly distinguishable from Clairefontaine – perhaps artists are more loyal to a paper brand, and so more likely to be irritated by a competitor aping the style of a favoured brand?

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      1. I’m also curious as to whether the papermakers share some common material or technology that is superior to that of other countries. I remember Tsuchihashi-san said something about Rhodia paper being a three-part sandwich in his book, I wonder if the other brands are like this too?

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