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Eureka: The pseudo-science of learning languages
by Jay Gutman
2018-05-25 08:07:52
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Learning languages, in Q & A format.

Question: Why should I learn a foreign language?

Answer: Maybe you have family members or friends who speak a foreign language. Or maybe you have friends who speak a foreign language. Or maybe the company you work at has a lot of people who speak a foreign language.

langui0001_400But let me caution you on learning a foreign language without having direct connections with the foreign language, that is knowing people and having close connections to people who speak a foreign language. Not all cultures are as open and direct as American culture tends to be. You could try to learn Chinese or Korean or Arabic or French for that matter and try to get a job at a Chinese, Korean, Arab or French corporation. You need to know that those cultures tend to view strangers with suspicion, tend to view people who speak their language with suspicion, and you'll have to beat around the bush for a very long time before you can get to speak to them in their language.

Furthermore in some cultures speaking a foreign language is a sign of intellectual superiorty, and speaking a foreign language can almost be perceived as a sign of arrogance. So for example if you speak French with the French, not only will they tend to downplay your French language skills, they will also tend to be jealous that you can speak their language, and you'll be stuck between not being able to speak to them in French nor in English. Had you just spoken to them in English they would probably have treated you like a guest. To conclude, I remember this one time where I was at an office in Algeria and someone had called and asked for someone who speaks English. The assistant asked me to take the call and that was the first time she heard me speak English. Five minutes after that phone call ended, she came down to my office, picked up my phone, dialed a number, and she had been speaking with someone in Italian for something like three hours. I did what I could during that time, going out for a cigarette, chatting with colleagues from the top floor, even going out for a walk. When I was back she was still on the phone speaking Italian. And that was not the end of it. She would regularly dial calls from my phone and speak Italian. All this just to say speaking a foreign language is not always perceived as a blessing.

Question: What's the best way to learn a foreign language?

Answer: The idea is that a language is not just grammar and vocabulary. It's mostly conversation, so you'll have to know something about food, shopping, taxes, transportation, housing, the weather, lifestyle etc. in the target language. You also have to know what the favorite conversation topics are. In French, Korean, Chinese or Arabic there tends to be a great deal of gossip so if you don't have a circle of friends who speak the language you'll have trouble talking about anything. Also some cultures value honesty, in other cultures there's great deal of dishonesty, something you have to keep in mind.

So the best way is to observe people practicing the art of conversation. The more time you spend observing people having conversations, the more comfortable you'll be with the foreign language, the less likely you will say awkward things in the foreign language. Some people speak great English, but their conversation skills are awkward at best. Once you're comfortable with the art of conversation you can move on the professional and academic use of the language. Again, the more you observe people in professional and academic settings using the language, the more comfortable you will be using the langauge in professional and academic settings. Again culture plays a role, as in Korean and Chinese companies for example very little conversation takes place. In Chinese and Korean classrooms, the teacher tends to read from the book and the students listen politely. In Latino workplaces, a lot of chatting goes on, but most of it will be gossip, and little conversation will center around getting work done.

Final question: Is speaking foreign languages sexy? Will I get all the money,fame, glory, jobs, dates if I speak foreign languages?

Essentially no. Speaking foreign languages is not a big deal to many. Most companies will probably take that skill for granted, and a lot of times you won't even be allowed to use the foreign language. I have a million examples where that Turkish guy or girl got very uncomfortable with me when I spoke to them in their language, despite saying all the right things, or where that Spanish guy or girl insisted on speaking to me in English. This was in countries where Turkish or Spanish is not spoken by the way. I remember a Canadian guy in Korea speaking to me in Korean, when I paused to tell him, in English, “you really don't want this friendship to move forward, do you?” He didn't laugh, and went on babbling in his awkward Korean. So you probably won't gain as much as you think you would gain from speaking a foreign language.

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