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.