Thoughts on Language Learning

I went to a good private school (Kinkaid in Houston, if anyone knows it).  I didn't really know how good it was until I went to an Ivy League college and found I was ahead of most of the other students in most every subject.  The thing  I thank Kinkaid for more than anything is that we had to write -- and write, and write.  Every test was an essay test.  By the time I was 18, I could write a well-organized and reasonably coherent (but not well-proofed, as readers will know!) five paragraph persuasive essay in my sleep.   (My ability to communicate was not really advanced at all in college, and I only began to learn more about persuasive, organized communication when I joined McKinsey & Co. and was taught the pyramid principle).

Anyway, that is all background to my one gripe about primary school -- I hated language learning.  Hated it.  I took Spanish from Kindergarten through the 11th grade, but counted the years and months and days to when I could quit.  From when I was 18 until I was about 45, I never had any desire to learn another word of any language again.

But about 10 years ago I picked up a Pimsleur language course (Italian, I think) and I loved it.  Knowing some Italian really enhanced my trip to Italy.  From there on, I have been studying a number of languages.

I want to pause for a minute and reflect on why I hated language learning so much in school but like it now.  It could just be a function of age -- I was bored stiff plowing through Les Miserables in high school but re-read it as an adult and loved it.  But I think there is a bigger problem:  I think schools suck at teaching languages.  My kids, who generally love learning and are good at school, hated language class.  My guess is that people just want to be able to converse, which is what courses like Pimsleur are geared towards.  When I go to Florence, I want to be able to order dinner in Italian and talk to the shopkeepers.   But in high school we seemed to spend a lot of time learning two (!) forms of the pluperfect subjunctive in Spanish.  Great for the AP, but my guess is that the bartender in Barcelona is going to give you a pass for messing up the subjunctive.  "If I were to have a beer, how much would it have cost me yesterday and  how much might if have cost if I had come tomorrow instead?"

So I have taken about 60 hours each of Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin.    I seem to be able to remember them all in deep memory but I can only hold one other language in my short-term, immediately-available recall buffer.  So I have to do 5-6 hours of one of these again before I go to the country to shift that language into the top of the memory heap.

I like the Pimsleur approach, which is pure auditory (which matches how I learn, I have a much higher ability to remember what I hear than what I read).  The courses use an approach called spaced repetition that works well for me, and must work for others given that these courses, which are pretty old and predate all the new Internet tools, are still quite popular.  The one oddity about them is that they almost never explain any points of grammar.  For example, they really don't explain the rules of verb conjugation.  You are expected to figure out the rules as you go based on the examples -- essentially you back into the rules based on use.  This works pretty well, though certain situations can drive English speakers crazy.  For example, we are not used to having a command form of verb conjugations, as Spanish and Italian have, so I have seen folks get confused for a while when the verb in "You can come with me" and "Come with me" are conjugated differently.   At some point one needs more structure for grammar, which means I almost always buy a basic grammar book and one of those 501 verb conjugation books for each language I do on Pimsleur.

People always ask me which languages were easiest and hardest.  The answer is that it depends.  Each have hard and easy parts.  Here are a few thoughts on each (all from an English-speaker's perspective):

  • Spanish and Italian are incredibly similar, so similar it can be confusing knowing both, as I forget exactly which word is which when their words for something are very similar.  Both have a lot of borrow words in common with English and have sentence structures and word order reasonably similar to English (except for having adjectives follow rather than precede nouns).  Like other romance languages, they have gendered nouns which are unfamiliar to English speakers and generally I find gendered nouns add complexity without any really gain in meaning.   I consider both Spanish and Italian to be easy languages for an English speaker to learn.  In terms of which of the two is easiest, I have studied Spanish since I was 4 so I can't really be unbiased here, and they are similar in many ways.  Spanish plurals are more natural to English speakers, and I think management of adjectives with the genders is a bit easier and it seems to be more regular.  Italian verb tenses are a bit easier, without as much complexity in past tenses as there are in Spanish.  Overall, though, both are fun and easy to learn.
  • German is a mixed bag but was generally a lot harder for me to learn.   If you hate the two genders in Romance languages, you are going to love having three (!) in German.  German has pretty rigid rules about sentence order which in many cases will be unnatural to English speakers.  For example, there are certain types of sentences where the verb goes at the very end, after everything else (something Mark Twain made fun of).  When you have a list of adverbs or prepositional phrases in a sentence, there is a correct order for them (e.g. time before place).  In English we would consider "I ate in the kitchen in the morning" and "I ate in the morning in the kitchen" to be equally OK but not so in German.  The articles and possessive pronouns not only have different forms based on the 3 genders of the noun, but there are different forms if the noun is in different parts of a sentence, eg the direct or indirect object.  I found myself having to diagram each sentence and plan it out in my head before I let it come out of my mouth.  I can say a fair amount in German, but it never became natural.  The good news about German is that pronunciation is very regular, though there are a few sounds you have to learn to make that we don't have in English.  There are a ton of borrow words, so a lot of vocabulary comes easily.  And verb conjugation is pretty straightforwards, with what seems to be fewer cases in use than in, say, Spanish (never learned a future tense and no special command tense, though I suppose one could be snarky and say all German verbs are in command form.)
  • Mandarin is a mixed bag but it may surprise English speakers that it is easy in some ways.  First the hard parts:  Speaking it is really hard for a westerner, as every sound has at least four possible tones, plus variations such as falling  and rising.  I am a terrible singer and believe I would have done much better at Mandarin if I were good at music, since the hitting the tones right felt a lot like singing to me.   The other hard part about Mandarin is the almost complete and total lack of borrow words.  Every single word is new and unfamiliar.  But there are aspects that are surprisingly easy, such as basic grammar.  There are no gendered nouns, there are really no plurals, and within a tense there seems to be no very conjugation -- For example the form of "to be" for I, you, she, they are all the single same word.  Many things from numbers to prepositions are very logical, in some ways almost like it was designed by a group of scientists.  Past tenses are also surprisingly easy to form.  There are a few quirks, like special count words -- it is not just one beer, but one count of beer, and the word for "count" changes whether you are counting beers or people or something else.  But all in all, a very easy language to learn -- if it were not such a royal pain in the butt to pronounce for westerners.

By the way, I find that being able to speak the languages has different value depending on the language.  People in Italy and Spanish-speaking countries are just absurdly delighted if you can speak any of their language -- there is a big payback in goodwill.  Also, it is far easier in Italy or Latin American (than, say, in Germany) to find oneself in a place where no one speaks English.  In Germany, the homeless people speak better English than my German.  When I insisted on trying to use German, the Germans were generally willing to let me try but you could just see their impatience, knowing they could have finished the exchange two minutes earlier in English.  Mandarin turned out to be a virtual non-starter.  I just did not have enough experience conversing with natives to be comprehensible.  Also, it was easy to run into many other dialects, or other languages like Cantonese.  Others have reported that many Chinese hate when Westerners try to speak Mandarin and will pretend not to understand it -- I can't confirm or deny this, though my Chinese exchange student loves it when I try to speak Mandarin.

Postscript:  Mark Twain on German:

A dog is "der Hund"; a woman is "die Frau"; a horse is "das Pferd"; now you put that dog in the genitive case, and is he the same dog he was before? No, sir; he is "des Hundes"; put him in the dative case and what is he? Why, he is "dem Hund." Now you snatch him into the accusative case and how is it with him? Why, he is "den Hunden." But suppose he happens to be twins and you have to pluralize him- what then? Why, they'll swat that twin dog around through the 4 cases until he'll think he's an entire international dog-show all in is own person. I don't like dogs, but I wouldn't treat a dog like that- I wouldn't even treat a borrowed dog that way. Well, it's just the same with a cat. They start her in at the nominative singular in good health and fair to look upon, and they sweat her through all the 4 cases and the 16 the's and when she limps out through the accusative plural you wouldn't recognize her for the same being. Yes, sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat. That's about the amount of it.
- Mark Twain's Notebook

Much more here.   I would swear I saw a quote from Twain that said he had read a whole book in German but did not know what was happening until he got to all the verbs on the last page, but I can't find the quote.


  1. Bobw:

    I'd heard the joke about the verbs-all-at-the-end, too, but didn't recall it being Twain. Now that I think about it, in my version all the verbs might be in volume 3.

    There's also the joke(?) that there's a single German noun for "the daughter of the man who sells tickets in the park at discount prices on Sundays."

    Interesting essay. Thanks.

  2. Christopher Michael:

    I often joke that German is basically Yodaspeak -- which at least in V and VI was more or less true. If you take a typical German sentence and hard-translate it word-for-word, position-for-position, "something Yodalike you get."

    OTOH, at least German doesn't have three present tenses ("I go..." "I am going..." "I do go..."), and rarely uses the past tense either.

  3. craftman:

    The French hate it when you speak French. I craft a whole sentence in my head and two words get out and they interrupt me, "Ah, how may I help you?" I know my accent is terrible but let me try :-/


    I love your writing -- now I know why you are so good :-) I debated on a decent team in high school (I'm from the suburbs of Chicago) and we traveled to the Dallas and Houston areas to debate your excellent teams. I remember Kinkaid having one of the best in the country (the other great Texas team was St. Mark's in the Dallas area.)

    I've also struggled with language as a student and never tried to learn again as an adult -- this post gives me hope. My oldest daughter is learning Italian in high school and she is actually enjoying it (and is good at it.) When she graduates I think we are all going to go to Italy on a fun trip so your course recommendation is helpful.

  5. jimcraq:

    Generally you're right about Mandarin, but a couple of quibbles:
    "four possible tones, plus variations such as falling and rising"
    The so-called four tones are actually a high tone, a rising tone, a low tone, and a falling tone. There are no "variations" on these.
    "within a tense there seems to be no very conjugation"
    Not only are verbs not conjugated, there aren't really tenses, either. (Instead of tenses, they have something called "aspect", and is only similar to past tense in that it involves completion or change.)

  6. johnmoore:

    I agree that schools are bad at teaching language - or at least they were when I took them. It is natural to learn language by immersion, and methods teaching that way work better. I completely forgot all grammatical rules of Latin, Spanish and German, and never knew them in French. But conversational bits of those languages (except Latin) stay with me - no doubt because I have used all of them in the real world.

    We lived in Paris for awhile back in the early '90s. I found going to movies with subtitles was fascinating - I ended up reading the subtitles and pondering them rather than paying attention to the plot. I also found the French to be very friendly, but they all spoke English so the French we were learning mostly went for reading, or for speaking with Algerians.

  7. SamWah:

    As I recall it, Twain wrote something like, "You can't interrupt a German because you don't know what he's saying because the verb at the end of the sentence comes." I took 3 semesters of German in college. I rather liked it.

  8. Scott:

    FWIW, English also has word order rules that are sometimes more strict than the German time-manner-place. We just don't learn about it in a classroom. To borrow from the tweet that made the social media rounds awhile ago, adjective order has to be opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose. So you can have a great green dragon, but not a green great dragon, or a lovely thick black coat but not a black thick lovely coat.

  9. kidmugsy:

    "I have a much higher ability to remember what I hear than what I read": that's a female trait. Allegedly.

  10. Steven Aldridge:

    I've been using Pimsleur for quite a while. I speak 2 languages (and understand 3) besides English and used Pimsleur to teach myself Japanese.
    What Pimsleur does is teach you a language in the same manner a child learns it (the adult brain has much more plasticity than it was given credit for). Within just two weeks I began picking up Japanese grammar naturally without even realizing it. The process is so natural that you feel like a native speaker.

    There was another language program that had an "Oscilloscope" which measured your wave against a native speaker. It was so effective that within a few hours I had a perfect accent and when I switched back to English I had a foreign accent for a few minutes.

  11. me:

    Obviously, 'Sonntagsermaessigtezugangsberechtigungsticketverkaeuferstochter' (pardon the missing umlaute). Used somewhat infrequently in everyday conversation, though ;)

    German as a language is geared towards expressing ideas with extreme precision, leaving no doubt about who the actors are, what their attitudes and intentions are and how they go about doing what they intend to achieve, including how far along they are in the realization of their plans.

    I'll admit that I am frequently frustrated when my dear love (who stems from Korean roots) uses single words to express intention. "Butter!" might mean "please get the butter from the fridge so that it'll be soft later when we need it", "Put the butter back in the fridge" or "You have butter all over, what the hell happened". It's left to the recipient to determine the full semantics based on context.

  12. me:

    I'd love to read a follow up from Warren about how precisely the writing parts of the early curriculum were implemented.

  13. DaveK:

    There are a couple of things that make learning a spoken language easier. First, you simply have to be able to parse them. That is, until you can "hear" individual words, it's all just a jumble of unintelligible sounds. When you get past that part, it becomes so very much easier, though for us older folk with hearing loss issues, that step becomes quite challenging.

    Another big issue is the "root" of a word. That is, what a particular word is built from. When you are familiar with the roots, you quickly understand what a new word might mean, or at least be related to. If you don't know the roots, or if those roots are used in ways you aren't used to, you have a steep learning curve. For example, in English we tend to classify things according to a particular type, like (say) Maple trees... Sugar Maples, Vine Maples, Big-leaf Maples, Japanese Maples, and so on. In another language, you might find completely different words for each of those trees (oh, say, The Glorious Sunshine Tree, or the Summer Shade Tree) and unless you know just what those trees happens to be, you would not know that they are quite similar to one another.

  14. Eric Wilner:

    A lingering annoyance from having studied German is a tendency to rant about misuse of archaic English grammar. It really bothers me to hear someone use, e.g., "didst" for third-person singular just for the sake of sounding old-fashioned or possibly Biblical. As we gradually lose the irregular verbs, we forget how they were used and whence they came - unless we study a language that retains them.

  15. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    Thanks for the post. It produces a smile!
    The most difficult language that I undertook was Estonian. You may be concerned about articles in German or the irregularity of verbs in English; but in Estonian, the nouns change. It is a different noun for table depending upon whether you are sitting at the table, standing on the table, crawling the table, writing on the table or carrying the table through the door. I may have forgotten the exact number, but I think there are 72 different cases for the noun table.
    Uff da! (Pardon my Norweigan!)

  16. obloodyhell:

    If I may offer, for the languages it covers, the Android app "DuoLingo" is a pretty good way to pick up a good part of a language.

    The things I hated about French (and so many other Euro languages)

    1) The need for crap to agree on gender. The idea makes no rational sense for me. I suppose I can see the notion that a door is female, but... a table, a couch, a ball, a car? How do these "have" gender? WTF?

    2) The silent letters in French. Take a French book that is this thick:
    and take out all the silent letters and it'll be this thick:

    3) Run-on sentences!!! Yeesh. You start reading a sentence, and clause clause clause clause clause clause clause clause later -- roughly two pages, given the silent letters -- you finally see the period and in that moment you realize you forgot what the first part of it was all about.

  17. DaveK:

    French is a language designed by committee. It is deliberately complicated to ensure that the Elites can easily differentiate themselves from the lesser-educated rabble. That committee exists to this day to ensure the "purity" of the French language.

  18. Mark Matis:

    To me, it looks like Mr. Twain provided a fairly accurate analysis of why some German Shepherds can be such nasty sumbitches...

  19. Bobw:

    Nice! Thanks for the reply.

  20. IdahoBob:

    I learned German in Germany and my "app" was a 20 year old German girl. I can't tell you how easy and natural it is to learn a language in bed with all your and your teachers clothes off playing hide the wurst in the pleasure grotto. Das ist gut!

  21. buanadha:

    I think people used to joke that Richard Burton, the explorer, used to learn his languages horizontally ;) He spoke 29 of them, so he probably knew what he was doing!

  22. slocum:

    A little late to the party, but my experience is similar to Coyote's, only I've become a 'Michel Thomas' rather than 'Pimsleur' fan. I had years of Spanish in high school and a little French in college and both were nearly useless in making me able to carry out a conversation. On the other hand, the Michel Thomas Italian was enough to get me fairly functional in a language I'd never studied and the French and Spanish had similar effects (showing, at least, that my formal instruction hadn't ruined all my potential). Like Coyote, I do need to refresh before heading off on a trip, but that doesn't take long. I did start messing with the German a bit, but found it tougher going (I don't care what the experts say, my experience says modern English is a Romance language, not Germanic).

  23. hcunn:

    Unlike Coyote, I like to read languages first, and enjoy getting my teeth into some grammar if there are not lots of exceptions. You can put down a reading language and pick it up decades later, particularly if it is related to another language you are current on.

    For reading, I insist on an alphabet, which rules out Chinese and Japanese. Arabic and Hebrew omit vowels, which makes them almost as bad.

    One of my favorite modern innovations is same-language subtitling, originally intended for deaf viewers, but a wonderfully entertaining resource for foreigners who can read a language but need practice listening to it.h

  24. hcunn:

    Some European languages also have tones, eg Swedish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Serbo-Croatian. The two Swedish tones are not really necessary: for example, Finland's Swedish-speaking minority make themselves understood without them.

  25. hcunn:

    In the 1960s, some Frenchmen and Quebecois resented American visitors who made no effort to speak French; they still wished to defend French as a World language. By the 1990s, however, a new generation recognized that visitors from Scandinavia and Asia were not relying on English out of cultural arrogance.

  26. jimcraq:

    And even English (and many other languages) use a rising tone for questions.