Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Road to Becoming a Quadrilingual

On a good day, I am fully literate in one language, illiterate in one, and semi-literate in two others. This is the wonderful world of trying to become more than bilingual.

Becoming quadrilingual?
At the moment, I am trying to learn two additional languages and brush up on one that I've been learning since grade school. French is taught in Canada through parts of elementary school. It was mandatory for me from grade six up until grade nine, and more advanced electives were offered beyond that. Obviously, this is the one that I'm trying to brush up on. The other two are Spanish and Chinese (Mandarin).

Mandarin was chosen simply because it is the most spoken language in the world at the moment. Spanish being among the top five languages in the world and its adoption rate in the United States made it numero dos. The fact that Spanish seemed so similar to French and was a Latin based language made it an even easier decision.

There really weren't too many alternatives for me to be honest, I can't really think of anything else I'd like to learn. I love all things Japan so that's a future possibility. Hindi is also huge thanks to the population of India, but maybe in the future. Rounding out the Romance languages with Italian would work -- I even know a few words from my days studying music. The completely different alphabet systems of Middle Eastern languages and Russian just scare me -- Chinese may be my first and last adventure into a different writing system.

Isn't three at once too many?
The thought of learning three languages at once seems scary at first, but then I look back to my school years. I did eight courses at once in high school and five to six during college. It seems reasonable that I can do three "courses" that I'm not graded on at once. Even better, they don't have group projects or deadlines!

How am I learning? Software + Books
I initially wanted to just brush up my French by picking up a copy of Rosetta Stone. It impressed me so much that I wanted to see how the program would handle something not based on the alphabet. This led me to Chinese. Finally, there was a sale I just couldn't miss and I decided that I would really want to learn Spanish. About two years later for French and Chinese, and half a year for Spanish, I am about done two out of five levels for each of the programs.

After six combined levels, I am still impressed by Rosetta Stone. By no means is the program or system perfect. A built-in translation would be tremendously useful. However, having an interactive learning tool has definitely kept my interest better than compared to another book. Its audio component has helped improve both my pronunciation and listening abilities. The importance of this audio component became especially apparent when I bought some books to reinforce my learning.

Like I said, Rosetta Stone isn't perfect. Textbooks can be boring, but having everything laid out and explained in English is amazing -- especially after using just Rosetta Stone for so long. I bought the for Dummies series books for French, Spanish, and Chinese. At around CAD$ 15-20 a pop, they didn't break the bank much and were much cheaper than even a single software package. I'm working through them slowly. They have more than impressed me so far in their organization of information, laying out of grammatical rules, translations, and writing. But the theme of nothing being perfect continues: books don't talk back.

Speaking and listening in a language, to me, are significantly more important than reading and writing. I guess reading and writing would be useful online, but then I could just run something through Google Translator almost instantly with fewer mistakes. Regardless, speaking and listening are difficult without being able to hear someone speak it properly. Some of the for Dummies books I got came with CDs filled with audio that I didn't try out yet. Having to load up a CD that isn't synced to the page of a book can be somewhat tedious. I never touched any of the accompanying digital materials that came with my textbooks throughout college unless required by the instructor. Glad to see old habits never die. This circles back to the usefulness of Rosetta Stone: it plays audio and usually allows me to replay things as many times as I need.

Impressions so far
Things are coming along. I am absolutely atrocious at Spanish and Chinese -- some words are starting to become familiar though. On the bright side, my French has gotten slightly better in all facets, especially spoken and listening.

Spanish seems surprisingly like French and not like French. The conjugation of verbs is similar, but the word order and sentence composition reminds me more of English. I'm loving the relative ease at which the gender of nouns can be figured out by the ending compared to French. Pronunciation of the written world also seems significantly easier with fewer silent letters or modifiers relative to French and English. Knowing French helps as well with similar words -- some are similar to French words but not English words.

The Chinese writing system is the hardest thing so far. Luckily, the book has helped explain some of the rules for writing and how the system works (e.g. specific brushes relating to certain objects or ideas). I was completely lost before that and essentially gave up on it. The Pin Yin Romanization system is useful but I get the feeling that knowing how to read the actual characters would be more useful in the long run.

So now then
I have essentially been learning French for close to twenty years now and still suck at it -- likely due to a lack of immersion and practice. About a year in for Spanish and Chinese, I feel like I'm getting somewhere. Hope I get somewhere quicker this time around.

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