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…