Archive for November, 2012

Well the vote is in and it looks like Mandarin Chinese is the winner.  The survey was a bit sparse, but between the actual survey and some offline votes Mandarin was was by far the most favored choice.  So I’m going by  the results and have downloaded the earworms Mandarin 1 package with my second coupon.  As I said in my original post on learning a third language, I’ll hold off on actually trying it until I get a bit more traction on Spanish. Despite the advice from this very interesting post that Maria pointed out, I am only going to try to really learn one language the first time out.

Thanks everyone for all the participation and advice on this one both online and offline.  I think Aaron’s comment about learning Turkish was particularly fun.

The second of the ‘big’ things on my curriculum for this year is to learn a musical instrument.  As I noted in my initial curriculum post, I’d like to not only learn an instrument but also dig into some music theory and include sight reading and playing by ear as part of my overall musical training.

This is in many ways the opposite situation from the language learning that I’ve started.  Whilst I’ve tried and failed at language acquisition on a number of occasions, I actually have a decent amount of musical background, just unexercised for twenty plus years.

Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Piano lessons from 3rd grade – 9th grade
  • Clarinet lessons from 5th grad to 12th grade
  • Concert band, Marching Band, Jazz Band, pit orchestra up through high school (and just a touch into college)
  • My college work study project was writing music theory software for the Macintosh

So, I’m not starting from square one – but that still left me scratching my head as to a where to reboot my music practice.  My initial instinct was to pick up the clarinet again as it was the instrument that I the highest level of proficiency back in the day.  But that just wasn’t clicking for me.

So then I thought maybe I would try guitar, since that was an instrument that I’ve always wanted to play and never really tried.  Or even start with the ukulele. Less strings has to be easier right? Also I’ve been listening to Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs and enjoying them a bit too much.

But sight reading, ear training and music theory are large parts of my objective here.   So, I think,  maybe the violin. That’s one of the fundamental instruments that people start with, and it has a strong ear training component. Of course the piano is a better instrument for sight reading, since if you can sight read harmonies on both clefs, sight reading for a melodic instrument like the clarinet becomes almost trivial.  And there’s nothing better than the piano for digging into music theory.

When it comes right down to it I have to  admit that my parents were right when they told me that if I want to play the guitar I should start with the piano.  So Mom and Dad – this one’s for you – I’m a gunna larn to play me the pee-an-er.

I  purchased an Amazon Local deal for two level one earworms courses even before I was certain that I was going to embark on this reboot adventure.  I have already grabbed the Spanish course as my first choice, and listened through it.  It seems at minimum to be a fun way to add some vocabulary and phrases, but since I’m going scatter shot at this by trying a bunch of different things I can’t tell how well this would stand on its own.  So it seems like it would be fun to give a run at a ‘third’ language using this technique.  Probably after I have some traction on Spanish.

In any case, I have to redeem the second coupon by the end of the month and can’t decide which language to choose as my ‘third’ language.

Since t I didn’t do justice to my full list of options for a second language in my last post, I thought I’d take this opportunity to do a quick run through of why those options landed there and then post a poll of the available earworm languages as a poll to get your opinion.   If I get in a minimum number of votes (say 10), I’ll abide by reader’s choice on this and use my coupon for that language lesson.

Here’s the list that I originally used:

  • Spanish: I believe I covered this sufficiently in my last post
  • Mandarin Chinese: One of the most spoken languages in the word and highly represented as a native tongue by people around me.  It’s probably the most useful language for me professionally.  And finally, I tend to the big challenge and given the FSI take on difficulty of languages for a native English speaker to acquire, Mandarin Chinese would certainly be a challenge.
  • Japanese:  The multiple writing systems in Japanese seem like they would be a blast to wrap my head around.  CodeView, The product that I spent the early part of my career working on was translated first into Japanese.
  • French:  I have two years of high school French, perhaps that would give me a head start.  Whilst I feel like I’ve retained nothing from those early lessons, it turns out that when I turn down my filter to search for a Spanish work, sometimes a French once pops out.
  • Latin:  Well, if I’m going to learn any of the Romance languages, maybe I should just start with the root of them all.  Although if I start going that direction, I’ll probably end up trying to learn Proto-Indo-European, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to get there too quickly (it might make a good 20th language to learn, right after I get a doctorate in linguistics in some alternate universe).
  • Gaelic:  You have seen Highlander, right?
  • Ancient Icelandic: I took a syntax course in college that covered Chomsky’s Universal Grammar and the professor frequently held up Ancient Icelandic as the sole known exception to whatever generalization he was trying to make of grammar rules.  My favorite linguistics professor of recent times, however, has stated on a number of occasions that this particular theory has fallen out of favor, so I guess I’ll pass on learning Ancient Icelandic.

And here’s the poll:

And yes, there is not complete overlap between the two sets, feel free to choose any of the earworm options.   I can understand why they don’t have Ancient Icelandic, but come on, no Latin?

Or Curriculum part 2 of N (where N is large.  Did I already mention that?).

As I teased in my “Curriculum part 1” post, one of my ‘big’ goals for this year is to learn a language. I listed Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, French, Latin, Gaelic, and Ancient Icelandic as possibilities.  How do I go about deciding which of these or of the many other possibilities to choose?  Let’s start with what I want to get out of the experience.  I have two main objectives.  First, the experience of learning a second language is cited as one of the primary ways to create a lasting positive effect on how one learns.  And second, I’d actually like to use the other language.   Both of these are interesting but the act of learning is what I’m really after for this year.  If I can manage some level of competency in a second language as well over the course of the year, I can decide if I want to continue to tune that language or try to knock off other languages in the future.

Here are a couple of fun quotes that add support to my first point.  They are from the lecture series How We Learn that I’ve been listening to recently and ranks as one of the top few lecture series that I’ve listened to from The Great Courses .

Many general learning principles apply to learning languages, such as engaging with the material deeply and using elaborative encoding, which means linking new material to what we already know to enhance our ability to learn and remember the new information.

Research suggests that the capacity to inhibit responses in general gets strengthened when we consistently have to operate in more than one language, and improved inhibition can help our learning much more broadly in many other areas.

But none of the general learning and brain improvement arguments actually help me decide which language to learn, so let’s put that aside for the moment and take a look at usefulness, even though it really is a somewhat distant second.  One way to whittle things down a bit is to take a look at how many people speak candidate languages both globally and locally.   Globally, the internets tell me that Mandarin Chinese and Spanish are the only real contenders on my list. Although perhaps I should add Hindi and Arabic as possibilities from that perspective.  Locally, Chinese and Spanish are pretty high up on the list of languages spoken natively by people that I interact with on a regular basis, so by this measure I’ve pulled myself down to two realist options.

The most important criterion I’m using for this task is that I want to succeed.  Unlike some of the other things on the my list, second language acquisition is something that I’ve tried at various levels on numerous occasions and have never made any real progress.  I took two years of French in high school (completely wasted).  I took a stab at Vietnamese at one point (many hours gone to waste).  Then I’ve done intro series Pimsleur both for Mandarin and Spanish without much luck.  With some other things on my list, a fail fast philosophy is a possibility, but I’m hoping to avoid that for language acquisition.  So I am going to take as easy a path as I can manage to get an initial level of success. Now, I’ve had a number of native English speakers tell me that Mandarin Chinese isn’t all that hard to learn. After one such conversation the person who so strongly contended that point came back the next day (to his credit) with a link to the Foreign Services Institute ranking of language difficulty. I can’t find the original link, but this site has a reasonable reproduction of the list.  This ranking puts Spanish is in Category I (at 24 weeks or 600 hours) and Mandarin (Chinese) is in Category V (at 88 weeks or 2200 hours) to reach “Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3)” and “Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3).”

Another cogent point that Professor  Pasupathi made in the How We Learn series was that if you look at the number and variety of Europeans who are functional in at least two languages, you realize that even those who may not be naturals at language acquisition can get to some level of functionality.  So I’m going to go for failure isn’t an option on this one.

And as to the actual language – drum roll please – the winner is Spanish.  On top of all of the other reasons listed above, my lovely fiancée has a decent amount of Spanish and is willing to help me out and treat this as an opportunity to brush up on her own Spanish skills.  While we’re not quite ready to move to Spain (or a Latin American country) to get the full immersive experience, maybe we will next month…