Monthly Archives: March 2013

“No way! I read a study, and the only foreign language they say to learn is Mandarin.”

This statement was overheard on the subway the other night as a group of four high-school seniors  was discussing what language class they were going to sign up for in their first college semester.   They assured us (their volume and tone loud enough that the whole car couldn’t help but participate) that if they got into a liberal arts college, it was bound to have a decent language program.

The tallest of the group was saying that his goal in life was to become the U.S. Ambassador to France, and for that French was the obvious choice. Learn Mandarin

The loudest of the group informed us all that he’d read a study that concluded hands down that students should learn Mandarin in order to get ahead once they graduated college.   And, interestingly, that if you planned to go into business in the EU that German would remain in the forefront of languages it was important to know.

                A couple of days later I was watching BBC News before work, and there was a segment based on the 10th Annual HSBC/British Council Mandarin Chinese Speaking Competition which had just been held.  They spoke about the tiny number of British students who learn Mandarin vs. those who still take French, and the fact that the Mandarin scholars were fighting off multiple job offers, while the Francophiles were facing a bleak job market.   british council

                In a blog on the state of Mandarin education in the UK, John Worne, The British Council’s head of Strategy, said:

“The Mandarin Chinese language is becoming more and more important for the UK because, quite simply, China is becoming more and more important on the world’s stage. In 2011, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy, and many confidently predict that they’ll wrest the top spot from the USA by 2050.            

Some knowledge of Chinese language is the ice breaker which gets you talking culture –              and business – in China.  And our research shows a bit of language and culture goes a long way when you’re looking to trade.”

What I find encouraging and fascinating is that while the whole world is increasingly learning how to speak English – and the Chinese are leading that charge (see great TED video), it is still crucial for Americans (and the British) to put some blood, sweat, and tears into learning new languages to show the sincerity of our commitment  to understanding other cultures and working with other countries on their terms as well as on ours.

The familiar Nelson Mandela quote says it better than I can:

 If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.   If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. –Nelson Mandela

Let’s face it; things might be looking up in the U.S. if a group of high school seniors going out on the town on a Friday night knew that what languages they spoke when they got out of college would have a huge impact on the career choices available to them.


Language Learning: Tutore, Traditore

Tutore, Traditore

Recently I found myself with a couple of hours to kill downtown, so I did what I’ve always done with free time:  made a bee-line for a bookstore.  In this case, the Barnes & Noble multiplex on Union Square in Manhattan.  After some serious browsing, the dizzying feeling of so Language Learning - Barnes & Noblemany books and too little time set in and I found myself in the store’s café that must seat 100 people, but is nonetheless always full.

I begged the second seat at a table with a guy who had a stack of very thick economics books in front of him and quietly concentrated on my soup.

Ten minutes into the soup, a pattern began to emerge in the conversations around me.  It seemed as though fully half of the tables were occupied by language Tutors and their students.  Many of them were American guys teaching the English language to women from other countries.

Filtering out as much of the general noise as I could, the typical tutor/student dialogue emerged:

“Now give me an example of a gerund with that same root.”

“Can you think of an adjective that would fit in that sentence?”

“Which word is the adverb in the sentence I’m about to say?”

                What I did not hear were the responses, as the questions were designed to elicit monosyllabic replies from the students, not actual spoken English.  The sessions over, tutor and student would rise, shake hands, the student would leave and the teacher would resume his seat quickly before someone got the mistaken idea that he was leaving.

After a few of these sessions, the penny dropped.  This was what we are always trying to explain about language learning with Pimsleur.  Here was 30 minutes of halting exchange where way too much time was spent on “meta-language,” labeling each part of speech, learning grammar as if it came first and not the spoken language it attempts to describe.  In a Pimsleur lesson you are listening to the new language being spoken, or you yourself are speaking it aloud for some 80% of a half-hour lesson.

In order to lay the groundwork for your being able to take what you learn and add in new vocabulary when you are out in the real world,   Pimsleur teaches what are called “structures” in each lesson. They are not labeled as such, and you don’t know you are learning them until you begin to use them in conversation.Language Learning - English Grammar

I must admit to getting a kick out of diagramming sentences in Ms. Staats seventh Grade English Class – what Virgo wouldn’t?  For me, however, actually speaking another  language – Spanish daily, with the Abuelas in my apartment building, French while haggling with rug merchants in Morocco, or Italian first learned because I had a huge crush on a certain Florentine native speaker– is the payoff.

These are the things that inspire me and which the Pimsleur Method™ with its combination of science and magic puts within reach of its learners in a way that no other language learning program does.

Language Learning - French Grammar

Note:    Tutore, Traditore, is a pun on an Italian pun.  The more familiar version is Traduttore, Traditore – which means Translator=Traitor, aka to translate is to be untrue, disloyal to the original text.  Tutore more precisely means “guardian” in Italian, but precettore would rob me of the alliteration.



Language in Literature: “You could have blown froth from the top of his accent it was so Bavarian.”

This is how mystery writer Phillip Kerr introduces a nefarious new character near the end of his trilogy Berlin Noir set before, during, and after World War II in Berlin and Vienna. froth

For me the next best thing to travel is reading books set in other countries, particularly books like Kerr’s where the way the language is spoken is as important as the architectural style or the food.

Earlier, the book’s hero Herr Gunter is caught trespassing, and since he’s been grabbed from behind, he relies on clues in the guard’s German to assess the situation:   “He sounded big and not too bright.  And it was a strangely accented German he spoke:  like Prussian, but different; more like the Old Prussian I had heard my grandfather speak; almost like the German I had heard spoken in Poland.”  It turns out the guard is Latvian.

A mystery caller’s regional German accent is a clue to solving the mystery in part I of Berlin Noir.  In this sprawling, hard-boiled mystery thriller, Kerr describes six different regional German accents – from Berlin, Frankfurt, Bavaria, the Rhineland, Vienna, Latvia, and Munich.  These linguistic variations fit in perfectly in a book that is more about evocation of time, place, and people than the actual whodunit.

The Donna Leon, Inspector Brunetti mysteries are set in Venice,  and after two dozen of them you begin to feel like you could navigate the labyrinthine streets without a map.  You also want to know booklet on veneziawnmore about Veneziano, the local dialect which Brunetti uses to his advantage when interviewing witnesses of a certain age:

“Her voice flowed in the Venetian cadence:   in other circumstances, Brunetti would have slipped into Veneziano, but she was speaking in Italian, and so he did his part to retain the formality of the exchange.”

What’s great about the Brunetti novels, beyond good advice on when to address a suspect or witness in the ancient Venetian dialect, is that you develop a sense of how native speakers balance the official language with the often more private dialect of their native locale.

Brunetti’s endearing sidekick, Vianello, describes a fanatical group they are investigating,:  “ ‘They’ve got to be a bunch of basibanchi  if you ask me.’  With that word, Veneziano at its most pure, scoffing at people who knelt in church bowed so low as to kiss the pew in front of them, Vianello gave yet more proof of their dialect’s genius and his own good sense.”

A consciousness of language as more than just a flat means of communication, but as a living breathing character in these books is why I love these authors, and why they are able to evoke such a strong sense of place.