Home > Journal, Motivation & Attitude > Pre-2012 Performance Review (2009, basically)

Pre-2012 Performance Review (2009, basically)

Midsummer of this year (2012) marked 3 years since I began my current phase in learning languages, starting with my first efforts to learn Japanese. Since around that time, I planned to check my progress in 3 years to answer certain questions we all may have. How much effort do I really need? How far can I actually get in n years? What about money? Time?

All of that will be answered in the upcoming Performance Review – as I’m calling it. First, I should go over where I was when I started.

Where was I three years ago?

Three years ago, I wasn’t doing anything special with languages, at least nothing too much differently than most people. I was practically at a plateau; the same sort of situation I had been in for many years, and simply a continual progress since youth. There were always three languages in my head.

I was born and raised in the US after all, so this is the primary one, a native language, fluent, blah blah. I don’t think I have to explain. It’s not my family language as you’ll see next, but everyone else I interact with, the books, TV, etc., are all in English, of course. So it was pretty much always there from the start – just maybe not from the start start.

Cat watching TV

Even Cat Channel is in English! You’d think it’s the official language or something!

I prefer not to call English “the” native language and think of Spanish as my “other” or “lesser” native language, because I’ve also had it in my life for as far back as I can remember, and have a degree of fluency where it flows naturally and I can play around with the grammar and choice of words to be silly (while a learner doing it may be interpreted as making a mistake). If you tested me though, I’d probably show as only intermediate conversational levels. That’s because I pretty much only speak it with my parents, and certain things simply never come up. I’ve looked and up failed to remember the word for “anvil” 4 times – I never use it! I could be close to forgetting certain body parts if I’ve never had to refer to them.

Acme Anvil

Pictured: Top conversation topic at dinner tables around the world.

My mother always exposed my brother and me to French – maybe it was an easy choice because she had studied French before. She’d record French kids’ shows off educational TV channels, buy French cartoons on VHS, French songs on cassettes, etc. This mainly helped for familiarity: know some basic vocabulary, be used to the pronunciation and rhythm of the language, and realize the similarity of its grammar with Spanish’s. I then seriously studied it in high school – home schooled, so it was a self-study course of books and audio tapes. I then took 2nd and 3rd level French in college (once in a while watching a French show on TV) and went to France for a week on a school trip. By the end of that trip, I was at a decent conversational level; my most notable achievement was a conversation with hotel staff that lasted 10 minutes and ended naturally. 10 minutes isn’t a whole lot, but pretty good since there weren’t many opportunities to converse.

Budgie l’Hélicoptère, French cartoon.

Swahili & Zulu (not really):
I managed to remember this one during my final revisions of this post. My mother and I actually worked to pick of some vocabulary and work out some grammar of Swahili & Zulu – by looking at the lyrics and translation of the songs from Rhythm of the Pride Lands, the 2nd Lion King music CD. We actually managed a decent amount of words and I held on to a good bit (but of course, nothing truly useful). However, the booklet didn’t specify what was what language. We mostly had to assume Swahili since we would only hear Swahili mentioned wen talking about The Lion King. The two languages have similarities between them, and some songs have some of both languages, so maybe that’s why they didn’t explicitly state it.

Despite the bias toward Swahili in descriptions and common popular “knowledge,” the famous opening lines of “Circle of Life” are actually Zulu. After all, you probably know simba means lion (Swahili); but do you remember all those lyrics before the English ones come in? Those lines use ngonyama, which is in Zulu. This took a bit of research, so although I can’t find any authoritative sources, here are two links that point this out if anyone’s interested. If not, then I’m just saying unapumbaa and we can move on! (Before you kill me, don’t forget to click the given English and look at the alternate translations!)

Link 1 Link 2 Link 3 (lyrics)

Rhythm of the Pride Lands Cover

Specify the languages? Who cares?? Ship it.

Some notes on each language

Surprised to see English here? I bring up my English as one my rebuttals to the idea that I’m “good with languages.” I was just adding to a draft of another post for this blog and couldn’t think of the word “time-consuming,” even though I use it all the time – I get stuck on various words and grammar structures. Although I’ve drastically reduced them through various methods, I used to use fillers frequently because I’d be thinking so much. One solution is to slow down, which I also do for good phrasing and word choice to be clear and respectful – yet I still mis-communicate stupid things. (A bit problematic since people generally seem to not accept a “that’s not what I meant” redo, even though it happens to everyone [/end mini-rant]). Finally, although English is my best subject, even ESL students write papers confidently faster than me – you don’t want to know how long these blog posts take.

Yes, some of this is relatively normal, and if you talk to me you definitely wouldn’t think anything too unusual, so I’m not talking about impairments. (But who knows? Maybe it is and I just work hard to deal with it!) The point is, I see no special aptitude in language; I seem “bad with languages.”

That took two hours, including indent and spell check.

I keep noticing relatively basic words that DO come up in conversations and yet I embarrassingly don’t know them – but since the point is to communicate, I do what any other fluent speaker would do: find another way to say it. There’s quite a few things that I (as well as my parents) have ended up stuck saying the “other way,” not realizing that we actually still need to look it up someday. I’m slowly catching these and correcting them.

I want to point out that my French study involved virtually no speaking. Even in college, speaking was just some dictation or coming up with a few example sentences. In high school, I only did as much speaking as one may randomly do on their own: reading some things out loud, mouthing words, discussing some words or sentences with my mother or a teacher. And yet I went to France and spoke to people. Slowly, hesitantly, yes, but not all that bad. People like me discourage it, but it’s definitely possible to learn a language to a decent level just through books (and audio) – it simply doesn’t seem to work for most people and IS slow.

In fact, maybe I actually managed it because TV gave me a leg up on listening comprehension, and the similarity with Spanish meant I would think and translate Spanish, not English, reducing the effort to bring vocabulary and grammar structures to mind. Even so, the huge value in speaking when learning is that it makes you work to formulate sentences as well as imitate what you hear. If you can do this another way, i.e., writing + some reading and at least some listening, then I suspect you can still learn well while holed up behind closed doors.

Antique Lunenburg door

Behind nice closed doors.

Thus concludes an honest revelation of my linguistic status 3 years ago. I hope it helps you understand where I was and already leads you to see why I hold certain convictions regarding language learning that you may already be aware of. Now, coming up sometime soon: how did I do and how’d I do it? The Performance Review.

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