April 17, 2012 | Review Period

How to Sound Foolish in Multiple Languages!

I bitch a lot about my grammar books, but I keep using them, while also making bizarre mistakes.

I tend to complain a lot about my grammar books. My Complete German Grammar by Ed Swick is now full of my irritable comments on grammar-exercise design and how it is not what it should be, but I keep going anyway. The McGraw-Hill “Complete Grammar” books really do offer a ton of practice, even if some are better than others. The German is not bad, I guess.

Pimsleur Has New Multimedia Offerings, But I Haven't Tried Them Yet, Partly Because of My Monomedia Tendencies

Pimsleur Has New Multimedia Offerings, But I Haven’t Tried Them Yet, Partly Because of My Monomedia Tendencies

Part of the problem for me is that my knowledge in German is advanced but at this point rusty again. This book is better for someone less advanced who is less rusty, I think. I get bored writing down nouns with their proper articles in various cases, but it is good for me nonetheless. I do like getting my articles right, after all.

Often I try to go from one language to another as fast as I can. I’ll do French Pimsleur, then German grammar lessons, then Italian Pimsleur, then Spanish grammar lessons. It feels great. So much slumbering knowledge being awoken from its nap!

On the subject of grammar-exercise design: I do hate mindless, brain-dead grammar exercises where you—for example—copy a lot of the same sentence over and over again but just change the verb tense. There should be as little mindless repetition as possible in a well-designed exercise.

In my grade school we did a lot of mindless repetition. I have to say, I loved a lot of it. Spelling lists were delicious. A caress of the language. I liked to draw the words as beautifully as possible and experimented with different pencil types and pressures. I am drawn to certain types of routines. But total mindlessness at this point is not my favorite. Some mindfulness is good. That’s why translation is fun.

I am perplexed by my apparent inability to assess my own levels of skill in various languages. In real life, as far as actual speaking is concerned, I am most comfortable in Spanish, secondarily in German. But when I do the grammar books and vocabulary, I am feeling my French is probably the most advanced in terms of technical language knowledge, and then, even weirder, since I don’t have that much experience with it relatively speaking, I think I actually get the most answers right in Italian.

One thing I sometimes have trouble with is remembering the names of languages in other languages. “German” in French? (L’allemand.) “French” in German? (Franzözisch.) “Spanish” in Italian? (Lo spagnolo.) Okay, those I know.

I like “German” in Italian: il tedesco. But it is definitely not a word I would have been able to guess at. And coming up with translations of “Hindi” and “Dutch” in various languages gets hairy. Since I sometimes talk about this project in other languages, it kind of matters to be able to name the languages. If I can’t even name languages I have been studying while in a conversation about the language project, it makes me look kind of incompetent. Even though I know myself that it is not an easy thing to name 15 languages in 15 languages. That is after all 15 x 15 = 225 different words. I know only a subset of those.

The challenge reminds me in some ways of what it’s like to recite the alphabet in a foreign language, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is more complicated than it might sound at first glance. After all: just because you know an h makes a huh kind of sound in English doesn’t mean you automatically know that the name of the actual letter sounds like aych. You have to learn that separately, and it’s not exactly the highlight of Chapter 1 in most grammar books.

Although I just love this multi-language study, it is definitely causing me to look lame at times. I am making such weird errors. Recently I was translating “they have a dog” into French, mindlessly it seems, because I ended up with ils ont un perre. It should have been chien, not perre. Perro in Spanish is “dog.” Pere in French is “father.” Perre in either language is, as far as I know, nothing.

Days of the week are also getting confused. German’s “Wednesday” is fine and totally sturdy in my head: Mittwoch. But in French I have mercredi, in Italian I have mercoledì, and in Spanish I have miércoles. They blend.

So I continue to embarrass myself, both privately and publicly.

One odd thing I am noticing: if I am doing a Pimsleur lesson in one of these four languages, I can often read something lightweight in English, maybe at about the reading level of the New York Post, without getting much wrong in the lesson. These four—at least at the level of Pimsleur, which is not very advanced—are mostly on auto-pilot in my brain at this point.

However, if I am doing a Pimsleur lesson in, say, French, and I think about something relating to German, I almost always answer the next French question in German. In other words, if my French Pimsleur lesson asks me to say in French something like, “Is it too late to change the date of the conference?” and if I have just idly, walking down the street, heard someone say Guten Tag (a German greeting), I will translate into German instead of French by mistake.

It happens automatically. I don’t think about it; my brain just switches. And it really does feel just like a switch!

I guess my head can’t easily accommodate two non-native languages simultaneously, even though I can read/think in my native English while translating from English into another foreign language more or less simultaneously.

Brains are weird.

Comments (3)

Jared Romey • Posted on Wed, May 30, 2012 - 8:21 pm EST


You brought up a great topic, without posing the related question to readers…How is your ability to assess your own language level?

I too have a hard time with this.  For Spanish, it’s easy, I’m completely fluent.  But then I move into the other two languages I’ve studied at length, German and Portuguese.  The best I can say about my Portuguese is that with a few days in-country I’ll be “pretty” fluent.  My German’s a lot more basic, but, dropped in Germany by myself, I won’t starve.

I’d be interested to hear how other readers feel about rating their own language abilities, without the benefit of formal testing.



Tim • Posted on Tue, June 12, 2012 - 2:28 am EST

Jared, you make a good point. Even formal testing is often flawed, and people aren’t always too good about being objective about themselves. When people ask me, I tend to use standards like your “won’t starve.”

For me it’s complicated by the fact that the people asking me are usually Japanese (I live in Japan), and even saying you’re not bad at a language sounds to them like boasting. So you also have to keep in mind the people you’re talking to, their standards, and whether they actually care in the first place.

Another issue I’ve noticed is that as native English speakers we tend to fancy ourselves as quite cool if we can speak even a little of another language, but millions of other people speak our language extremely well. So I try to err on the side of humility so I don’t have some German who speaks practically native English laugh at me.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, June 22, 2012 - 12:16 am EST

Tim, I think humility is such a critical quality and one that many American language learners lack. My impression - not yet systematically explored - is that our textbooks are pretty dumbed down in this country compared to foreign-language textbooks in other countries, so we are in danger of getting a false sense of confidence about our skills.

Jared, even in languages where I am more advanced, I sometimes feel as though my food-related and various other practical skills are pretty bad. I think it is possible I MIGHT starve while conversing semi-intelligently about some more esoteric philosophical topic. :)

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