Thursday, 9 December 2010

Things that sucked (for learning another language)

I tried to learn to speak Portuguese once. So even though this is a blog about learning French, I'm going to be spending a bit of time looking back on my Portuguese-learning endeavours. You know, some of the things I spent my time doing sucked. And by "sucked" I mean: "didn't help me learn Portuguese"...

Going to Portuguese classes at a college
Apart from not having to worry about being wedgied and the teacher not constantly unleashing sarcastic put-downs *, this was just like GCSE French. A total waste of time. Horrific comedy-English 'Allo 'Allo-esque accents that made me not ever want to say the word "cerveja" again (sir-vay-ja? got any sir-vay-jas, mate? Lovely). Mind-numbing, blank-filling, paper-wasting conjugation "exercises". And students with the mentality that the teacher was somehow going to magically beam the language into their eager little minds whilst they sat there slack-jawed and dreaming of buying a muffin in the tea-break. Never again.

Michel Thomas Portuguese
Unlike most language learning books and CDs, these are recordings of real (supposedly) language lessons using the Michel Thomas method. His method is meant to be super-amazing and get you to ninja-level language skills in like, four hours. Unfortunately, the two students on the CD are some of the most punchable people ever recorded (him: smug and perky, her: producer of the most unbearably cat-on-heat-like nasal vowels hearable). I never got past the second CD. Amazingly, I actually got the Michel Thomas French course. I was that sucked in by the claims of insta-ninja megaskills. The French course features the real Michel Thomas. Unfortunately, it was even worse than the Portuguese one. You know... if I wanted to hear a grumpy old man shouting at idiots, I'd go and visit my Granddad.

Trying to learn individual words
Without context, words don't really get recognized by your brain (well, mine), as anything useful. And while you can jam them into your short-term memory like so many soggy Bermuda shorts in an overstuffed, sandy suitcase, as soon as you encounter them in the wild, you're just left with the uncomfortable haven't-we-met-somewhere-before-actually-maybe-not-sorry feeling of passive recognition without understanding. Luckily, things got better after reading some blog posts about learning languages through sentences...

OK, that's enough negativity for one post. In the next one, I'll bring the love and talk about what actually works when trying to learn a new language. And what I'm going to be doing to become fluent in French!

* "You know, you lot do sound a lot like real French kids. Shame it's the ones on the Special Needs bus." (and that's a real, genuine, secondary-school-in-Devon-in-the-early-90s-teacher quote, folks)

the great worked/ sucked divide

Four years ago I started learning Portuguese. And now I'm pretty OK. I can speak to people, read emails, books, and sometimes make jokes that are slightly amusing. Looking back, I realise that I spent a lot of time doing things I thought were teaching me the language, which were just teaching me about the language. And a lot of things that were so boring and annoying they were counter-productive.

So, here's a list of everything I did, divided into two groups. Things that worked. And things that sucked.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

damn, I only know two French words

Well, I haven't started learning French completely from scratch. Oh no. I have an academic qualification. In French! A grade "C" GCSE. For seriously.

Unfortunately, the only thing I can remember from studying French for two years is how to request that someone does something impolite to their mother and how to say "potato". Now that's great if I want to start fights with root vegetables, but not really useful in the real, actual world.

So, where has everything I learned gone? Is it still in my brain, in some mummified form, waiting to be resurrected into an unstoppable French-speaking force of nature, like a linguistic Mumm-Ra? Or has it been replaced with all that vital (but English) adult knowledge of spreadsheets and pin numbers?

Well, all today I listened to French hip hop on my mp3 player. Hoping that some words would pop back. Hoping that it would trigger the French DNA dormant in my brain stem to create new French cells (um, I also got a "C" in Science). But nothing. Not a single "where is the post office?". I don't know how to say "post office". I used to. And now I don't. How did that happen?

Well, after racking my brain I asked the internet about French words that exist in English, hoping that I could add some to my list. Unfortunately, I only knew about 30. And while some of those words are pretty sweet, for instance, "agent provocateur", "coup de grâce", "coup d'état", they're not really taking me past the whole potato-provoking sweary stage.

So, what am I going to do, to go from 32ish words to fluency in four months? Simple: I'm not going to do any of the things that suck when learning foreign languages.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

un assisté, moi?

I have to learn French in four months! And this is my blog about it...

So, why do I need to learn French and why do I need to learn it in four months? Well, I have a new French girlfriend, who's invited me to a chic Parisian wedding next April. There's €500 bowls on the wedding list. Sophisticated cousins. Rich uncles. "So, would you like to go?", she asks. "Hell, yeah," I answered. "Well, you better learn French, then. I don't want you being an assisté". 

I didn't know what an assisté was. And the fact that I didn't know, made me think I probably was one.

And I was right. An assisté is a variety of loser, specifically, one who needs assistance. All the time. There's no way I wanted to be one of those. So, I decided, right away, I was going to learn French. To fluency. In four months...

Let's see how it goes.