By NSS staff
The heading “Language” on the New Silk Strategies site is for commentaries and articles relating to interesting aspects of languages, essentially all languages.
So what does a section on foreign languages have to do with geopolitics? Everything. Without the cultural exchanges between regions speaking different languages and without the ability to read the foreign press or at least to read translations of the kind we post, it would be virtually impossible to understand each other’s issues or points of view. Sadly, however, interest in foreign languages on US campuses is waning. In keeping with this, false patriotism is on the rise, the State Department ignores differences in the cultures of their client states, and Western peoples are increasingly supporting their governments’ crusades against people of different cultures, blaming these people and their cultures for the things that their own governments are doing. Why not? We now value arrogant ignorance over learning, macho military adventures over diplomacy. Antipathies are also heating up elsewhere in the world to match this, and alarmingly few realize the danger of this situation in our nuclear world. During WW II, German was not taught in the US. Rather than follow the advice of Sun Tzu, to know your enemy, we buried our heads in the sand and deliberately ignored him. As if to make up for this parochial attitude of the past, during the Cold War, universities were encouraged with grants and other assistance to teach Russian, the language of our perceived enemy. Briefly, the US emerged from its isolation, only to return into an even tighter shell. Today, by contrast, our UN ambassadors sneer at and grossly insult Russian leaders without even trying to explain the reason for their antipathy. It is the strangest thing! Unsurprisingly, none of the highest ranking state department officials address their clients in their mother tongues.
Meanwhile, the Russian foreign minister and presidential spokesperson both speak fluent English and the Russian president speaks fluent German. Our supposed Syrian “enemy” Dr. Bashar al Assad, gives interviews with foreign journalists in fluent and articulate English. Which countries are the ones for the world to emulate? Which have made an honorable effort to understand the others?
How to learn language on the beginner’s level
Our first post in this section is about how to learn a language. Let’s dispel a myth: If you are a normal person, then your age when you start a new language is not generally a hindrance. There are examples of people who have gained fluency at advanced ages. We know of a Swiss physics prof who studied Chinese in Taiwan in his high 80s.
On the other hand, lots of articles are written on language learning, and some make silly promises like “our course will have you fluent in [x language] in a month!”
Actually, unless you have a perfect memory (and some do), it takes a long time, generally several years, to become comfortable in a new language.
We have 2 sets of tips for language learners, one set for new learners on the beginning level and another for advanced learners, and they are quite different.
Now we do not have a contract with any company to push their product, but we need to say that, if you are looking for a course that holds your interest from start to finish, Rosetta Stone is probably unmatched. It uses photos to illustrate the meanings of the words and sentences it gives you in written and spoken form and has thorough interactive drills for the 4 aspects of speaking, reading, writing and comprehension. (In the higher levels, you will sometimes not understand a convoluted sentence in RS because photos can only go so far to convey meanings, but there is a solution. Keep reading). On the other hand, we would be remiss if we failed to tell you about the main drawback of these courses (they offer a dazzling array of languages), and that is, they do not give you a single grammar hint.
They go on the old “audiolingual” theory that, since children learn to speak fluently and essentially grammatically correctly, without grammar books, then you can too.
It is not true for ordinary mortals, at least not with the limited number of examples that a 3-level course can provide. Children have an advantage that we adults lack. That is, they generally do not suffer from an impediment known as interference. So what is interference? It is a bugaboo that comes from your own mother tongue. It is generally the misapplication of the language logic of your own first language when attempting to speak another language. For example, you may have heard a Chinese speaker of broken English saying something like: “Yesterday I go to nice party.”
This sounds fine to that speaker because in Chinese, there are no separate verb forms for past vs present tense. So in that language, you use the same tense for the equivalent of “I go” as you do for the equivalent of “I went.” So this speaker can’t understand that he is making a mistake in the usage of the verb go. He also has omitted the indefinite article “a” before the word “party,” because his language has no articles. (The same mistake might be made by a Russian speaker with an imperfect command of English because Russia also has no articles).
The fact that you already speak a language to begin with therefore gets in the way when you try to learn another language.
The designers of the Rosetta Stone course have not taken this into account.
So does that make it a bad course?
Not at all. Think of language courses as foods that contain certain nutrients but not others. To get a complete diet you need several foods that supplement each other nutritionally. Milk for protein, oranges for Vitamin C, for example. Neither is a bad food, but if you had no source of Vitamin C you might be more susceptible to colds, for example.
Likewise, when using the RS course, you will need to add a supplement. The proper supplement would be a complete grammar course. You could, for example, read a chapter on the grammar of the language you are studying while going through a chapter of your RS course. Unfortunately, the RS course does not have a special grammar supplement designed to accompany it. Therefore, it would be ideal to complete a grammar course first, before tackling RS. Otherwise you may be frustrated wondering why the speakers recorded on the RS course are saying what they say as they follow their peculiar grammar rules to which you are not privy.
In a language course using the audiolingual method, you may find words changing unexpectedly for reasons that you do not understand. For example, if the course is Russian, you may encounter a sentence like this (given here in Roman transliteration): Kniga na stolyé, meaning the book is on the table. Later you may encounter the sentence: Ya polozhil knigu na stol, I put the book on the table.
You are left wondering about unexplained changes in two words, i.e., kniga changing to knigu and stolyé changing to stol.
At first this sort of thing may make you feel uncomfortable and frustrated if all you are using is Rosetta Stone. But your grammar text that you bought as a supplement will explain that the word kniga becomes knigu because the former is used as a subject of a sentence or phrase while the latter is used as the object of a sentence or phrase. And you use stolé because the book is just lying immobile on the table – a situation requiring the locative (or prepositional) case – which describes the location of the book, whereas you use stol to indicate that the book is being placed onto the table – a change in location, or motion. This requires the accusative case – the same case used for the direct object of a verb – as in “Mom read the book,” where the book receives the action of the verb read and is therefore considered to be the direct object.
Getting back to the problem of how to be sure of the meaning in RS when the photos fail to make it plain, the solution is basically to acquire from Rosetta Stone the English language text for their English course, which matches the other courses fairly well. It is available:
Level 1 here
Level 2 here
Level 3 here
Next, some original tips, which may be unique to nss, for learning on the higher reading levels, particularly in languages that do not share our Roman alphabet or even use characters instead of letters.