Learning another language

Gregorio Billikopf Encina
University of California

There seems to be a mounting interest in learning another language. As a native of Chile, I am frequently asked questions about Spanish, and the benefits and difficulty of learning it. While languages do not come easy for me, I have felt a need to learn. Perhaps, here I can briefly (OK, so not so briefly) answer a few of the most frequent questions I am asked. I hope this article will also be of interest to those learning other languages beside Spanish, for either work or for pleasure. My suggestions will be of special interest to those who wish to learn another language and sound like a native speaker rather than a foreigner.

Should I learn another language? Although it is not an easy task, surely there are benefits from learning another language. My oldest son related the following story he heard in Uruguay, "A skinny cat stood for hours waiting for the mouse to walk out from behind the hole, so he could nab him. He was having little success. A fat cat walked by, inquired about the nature of the difficulty, and volunteered to show the skinny cat the ropes. First thing, he had the skinny cat move out of the way where he could not be seen and did likewise himself. Next, he barked, "Woof, woof." The mouse, thinking a dog had scared the cat away, and it was safe, ventured out only to be nabbed and devoured by the fat cat. "You see," explained the fat cat, "it pays to be bilingual."

Since my nickname is "Uncle Moo" and I love imitating farm animals, I guess that by this definition I would be a multi-linguist. Actually, I have been working on learning a couple of new languages in the past few years. These attempts have given me a better understanding of the challenge of learning a new language when one is older.

Why the worry about accents? Some feel that a little bit of an accent may give a person a refined or sophisticated touch. While that may be so, too much of a good thing can be a liability. As a frequent guest speaker, I often had one out of every 30 persons write down in my evaluation, "The guy with an accent, could not understand a word of what he said." One day I was listening to recorded messages left in my answering machine at home. One of the messages was delivered by a person who had an accent much worse than my own. I felt sorry for the guy. As I listened, I realized that it was my voice leaving a message for my wife. I learned English as a youngster, along with my native Spanish. I attribute my strong accent partially to having learned English from people who had an accent, and partially from my interest in reading. To learn how to speak another language it helps if we focus on listening rather than reading.

Developing an ear and training our tongues. A first step is to determine what we want to do with that language. Is it to travel? To read a book in another tongue? Or to communicate with people we work with? If our interest is to communicate with others, then we must focus on listening first. As an amateur radio operator I had to learn Morse Code. The dots and dashes, at first, seemed to come so fast at me that the letters all sounded the same. With time, however, I began to distinguish their sounds and rhythms. A friend gave me some good advice. "Don't even attempt to learn how to send the Morse Code," he said. "First, learn how to listen, and when you have learned how to copy the messages down well, it will take less than a day to learn how to send." My friend was correct. With a foreign language, we deal with additional challenges. Every language sounds different and uses different sounds. Different muscles are employed. The mouth, cheeks, nose, and tongue, along with breathing in or out, may be combined in almost endless ways. Language varies from pronouncing the letter "eñe" in Spanish, rolling the tongue to make an "erre" sound, or the various clicking sounds in the African Khoisan languages. English speakers take for granted their ability to say "sheep" and not have it sound like "ship." We shall talk more about developing these skills, below.

How difficult is it to learn another language? Learning another language, for most people, is extremely difficult and takes much commitment. My wife, for instance, took years of Spanish in High School and College, and yet would refuse to speak it with me (Ok, so I laughed once). Only after her fourth trip to South America did she venture out on her own. Shopping provided the incentive. But when I was present, she reverted back to using me as an interpreter.

Setting a goal of learning polite expressions and basic working vocabulary is not so hard, and it can be a lot of fun. A friend recently commented, "I have had more passion about learning Spanish than almost anything I have done for a long time."

Are there different types of Spanish? National and regional differences in vocabulary do exist, but they are minor, probably involving less than ten percent of the words used in Spanish. Nations and regions do incorporate some of the native tongues into their Spanish. For instance, seaweed is alga marina in most Spanish-speaking nations, while in Chile we use the native cochayuyo for edible seaweed.

Apricots may be known by a number of different names, including albaricoque or chabacano in México, and damasco in Latin America. In México it is more usual to say becerro while in South America one would say ternero for a calf. While for the most part differences in vocabulary simply give rise to a little humor, once in a while they can give offense. Most native speakers know to adjust their understanding and use of vocabulary accordingly. Differences between Spanish-speaking nations are underscored when slang is used, and minimized when a more formal Spanish is utilized.

Are there differences in accents? Differences in accents are much more pronounced than divergence in vocabulary. Four very general types of Spanish accents would include those that (1) emphasize the letter "z" as distinct from the "s" (e.g., Spain); (2) have a nasal quality (e.g., Cuba, and some Central American nations); (3) accent a different part of the word (senTAte vs. SIÉNtate) and tend to use a "sh" sound (e.g., Argentina, Uruguay); and (4) non-nasal (e.g., México, Colombia, Chile), often with regional "sung" qualities.

The more formal the Spanish, once again, such as in diplomatic, "short wave radio broadcasts" or "United Nations" type Spanish, the greater the similarities between countries. Accents are easy to pin down, however. I was speaking to someone in English and an observer who overhead the conversation asked if I was Chilean, just from the way I spoke English.

Spanglish Sometimes second generation speakers will make up their own vocabulary as they go. Such as adding an "a" or an "o" to an English word to make it Spanish sounding. For instance, instead of saying freno for the word brake, they may use breka. This is called Spanglish, and native speakers cringe when they hear it. Another related phenomena, is not using the correct gender with the appropriate word. Every noun has a gender in Spanish. Most words ending in "o" are masculine; ending in "a," feminine. While it is easy to know that it is la vaca (cow is female), and el toro (bull is masculine), it is more difficult to remember that it is el mapa, and el agua (map and water are masculine, even though they end in an "a"). The exceptions are few so it pays to learn them.

What is the best way to learn another language? Assuming you want to speak more than you want to read that language, perhaps the best way is the way children learn: first by listening, then by repeating or speaking. Little by little children learn vocabulary and only much later do they learn reading and grammar. Learning another language needs to be fun, otherwise, it is hard to stay committed. We need to celebrate small achievements.

The very worst approach in learning a new language is to use a phrase book, where a word's phonetic pronunciation is given (transliterated) based on a language other than the target language being learned. Most language CDs, tapes and computer programs come with a manual that includes phonetic pronunciations. With the exception of emergencies, these manuals need to be avoided. For instance, when learning Hebrew or Spanish, with words transliterated into English. While some words may transliterate close enough, most of the time the end result is a disaster. Your pronunciation in the target language is likely to be as bad as mine in English. Having said this, I have to admit that a phrase book came in handy during my first trip to Russia, when I left my hotel room with book in hand and asked for tualietna abumaga (toilet paper). The written word can also be useful to determine the precise spelling of words that are very difficult to pronounce. For instance, if it seems hard to tell if the native speaker is using a "d," "t," or "p" in a word.

The ideal is to travel to the area of the world where the language you wish to learn is spoken, and to be surrounded by people who do not know one word of your native tongue. Depending on the language being learned, three to six months can do much good. Since this is not a practical option for most people, the next best approach is to check out language CDs or tapes at your local library.

This is what I did before my second trip to Russia. I made a determination to learn polite and basic expressions, and these constantly came in handy, as they gave me the confidence to venture out on my own, helped me break the ice of formality, and was of great use in developing greater ties with the people of that wonderful nation. The only problem was that my accent was good enough people thought I knew more than I did.

I recommend starting with audio CDs or tape sets that only provide one or two hours, as these are more likely to keep the vocabulary simple, and expressions short. After mastering the shorter programs, more complex ones may be used. Another feature to look for, are tapes that give the word or expression once in English and at least twice in Spanish (or language you are learning). The voice in the target language needs to be that of a native speaker.

My recommendation is to just listen to the tapes all the way through multiple times and only then begin to repeat after the native speaker. Listening to these tapes fifteen minutes a day five or six times a week is much more effective than listening for a long time once a week.

At first, it is easy to get discouraged. Even after a few weeks you will find that your brain begins to associate words in English with their Spanish signification. Soon you will even have dreams where you use your limited vocabulary. Or, a foreign word will come into your mind along with its meaning.

Should I take a class? If you learn better when working along with others, taking a class can help supplement your tapes. An immersion or conversational class is what you are looking for. There is a foreign language learning approach where the instructor uses only, or mostly, the target language being learned, and class participants repeat after the teacher. The instructor may point to an object, give the name in Spanish, and then ask you to repeat it first as a group and then as individuals. Be careful, however, before signing up, that the class is truly conversational and that the teacher speaks like a native. Where a language is spoken in several countries, it is ideal if the instructor is from the country or region you are most interested in.

What about tutors? Tutors need to be patient, enthusiastic, and willing to help you along at the pace you need. They need to be just as quick to get excited at your progress and correct work as to be critical at the mistakes you make. Local foreign students or foreign born individuals who work at your operation may be interested and not charge exorbitant amounts. Even with foreign born teachers there is a need to be careful. Some are able to retain their native language skills better than others. You may wish to get a recommendation from several people before making your selection.

What about computers? There are many computerized language courses. Those that are interactive and come with audio capabilities, can be very helpful indeed. Some purport to be able to analyze how close your pronunciation comes to the correct one, but I have not tested the accuracy of this tool. I used a computer some months back to practice the Hebrew alphabet, and listen to some basic words. This gave me the opportunity to correct some errors and improve my understanding. The computer program I used gave me constant positive feedback, niflá (wonderful!), ken (yes!) as I got the right answers, but not all of them have this important feature. Although the computer program offers speaking and listening opportunities, focus on listening first.

Can I make a homemade CD or tape? If you have a publication that comes with the vocabulary that most interests you, but you have no recording, have a native speaker from the target country tape it for you. Or perhaps you have some words and expressions you want translated. These homemade tapes will help you maximize the time you spend with your tutor. As in anything else we learn, practice is important (as long as we are practicing correctly). I have learned that it does not hurt to ask, and most people will be more than glad to help. You may want to check with several persons to make sure the translation is correct before you have it recorded.

Translators and interpreters come in all shapes and colors, including the one who translated a sign at Yosemite National Park, that reads in English: "Danger, to see how fast this water is flowing, throw a leaf into the water." In Spanish, it reads, "Danger, to see how fast this water is flowing, throw yourself as if you were a leaf into the water."

How about songs and singing? Vowels are often the major expression of an accent. Trying to make out the lyrics of a song can be a fun way to improve your ear for the language, and improve your accent. When words are sung, vowels are drawn out so their major pronunciation points are emphasized.

There are specific songs that help people improve their accents. One such song in Spanish is "El mar estaba sereno, sereno estaba el mar," which is repeated over and over, in a catchy tune, changing all the vowels first to "a" as in "La mara astaba sarana, sarana astaba la mar," then changed to "e" and so on. The Spanish rolled "r" can also be a challenge. Try overly exaggerating the sound as if you were imitating a motorcycle engine and do not expect to be successful right away. It may take two weeks for your motorcycle to sound as if it is not dying, or even getting a single rolled "erre." Don't let that discourage you.

Any other recommendations? Listening to short wave broadcasts in Spanish or the language you are learning, or local radio stations and television when available, are a great help. The advantage of television is that one can catch body language and facial expressions and can capture the context of what is being said a little better. While I was in Russia, I would listen to a broadcast to see how many words I could pick up. If I could pick up one word in ten, I was pleased. You may want to take note of words you hear frequently, and ask someone what these mean.

Enjoy reading a little about the culture, geography, or region you are most interested in.

Read children’s story books and reading primers for children. I am making a collection of these primers, as I now have one from Chile, Russia and Israel. I have been thinking of getting someone to tape the latter two for me, so I can follow along and practice.

Most of us remember very little about the joy of learning our own native tongue. And in my case I learned English in my youth so I have vague recollections of how much fun it can be. Once I learned the Cyrillic alphabet I would go around, in Russia, mouthing every street and store sign, and feeling like a little kid all over.

What can I do to encourage my workers to learn English? When workers see you trying a little Spanish, willing to make a mistake, and notice that you do not take yourself so seriously, they are more likely to attempt a little English themselves. Being in the United States, workers have the advantage of hearing more English from day to day, than farmers will Spanish. Often, fear keeps employees from trying out their English. One farmer has been successful by paying a $50 per month bonus to workers who speak English. And he determines if their English is good enough. Suddenly, "Yo no se" may become a "Yes, I can." Paying the tuition for workers who want to take a conversational or English as a second language (ESL) class may also be effective.

Learning Spanish, or another language, then, takes commitment. Getting started with farm vocabulary and polite expressions is a more reasonable goal and can be a lot of fun. After initial success, more difficult goals may be attained. At some point after the first year or two you will be ready to tackle the longer CD or cassette tape series and enjoy reading. I am not anywhere ready for that, yet. I am working on my Moo in Russian.

© 2004 by The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio Billikopf
Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher and the author. Printing this electronic Web page is permitted for personal, non-commercial use as long as the author and the University of California are credited. Special thanks to Julie L Burns, Ailsa Turrell (Australia), Paula Diller, John O'Brien (Canada), Chris Paris (United Kingdom), Allen Young, Gayle Baugh, and others from the Academy of Management HRnet and ODCNET for suggestions and comments.

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28 December 2004