It’s been about a year and a half since I took my last French language class. Since crossing over to literature courses, I’ve had some minor anxieties about losing my grasp of grammar and conventions. While I may be familiarizing myself more with the deployment and use of language in its native format (in literature, in print media, in film, in seminar conversations), I’ve nonetheless had to keep at my basic grammar skills in addition to my studies.
I wrote a post a year ago about tips for learning languages, and I’m going to add on to this list today with some tips for maximizing your energy as a language learner.
Learn IPA: IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet, is a helpful tool for anyone interested in learning how a language functions phonetically. IPA is a universal system through which words can be transcribed and therefore pronounced through a set of phoneme representations in Latin (or Latin-like characters). Now, IPA is not necessarily intuitive at first; certain sounds are pretty analogous to their English equivalents, like /g/ in good or /s/ in s Others are not, like /dʒ/ in judge, are not. It will take some time to learn all of the steps and mechanisms of IPA, and for some languages it’s more complex than others. For instance, Mandarin, due to its tonal nature, has markers which tell you what the tone is (these are also present in pinyin). For French, IPA is helpful for distinguishing similarly sounding phonemes, like /u/ in joue /ʒu/ and jus /ʒy/. The vowels [ou] and [u], to the English speaker, look indistinguishable, given that [ou] and [u] in English are often the same sound, as in the words you and june. The phoneme /y/ however, rarely is used in English. IPA is even more helpful more helpful for learning English because it quite frankly doesn’t make much phonemic sense. English is a wildly irregular language in terms of its orthography, and IPA allows English learners to better gauge how certain words are pronounced. Unlike orthographic systems, IPA is universal; it does not change depending on language or even dialect. The /u/ phoneme which appears in Azeri is the same /u/ that appears in Icelandic.
For those who enjoy reading Dostoevsky in the original Russian but trip over spoken Russian like a toddler.
First, understand that you will not reach fluency in strictly a collegiate environment. There are kinds of fluency which are more attainable in academic spaces, but speaking and listening are likely skills you will need to improve in the field, not in the classroom.
Take a moment to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. If you have trouble doing this, consult your professor. It is helpful to know where you need improvement when studying languages lest you focus on one particular section and flounder in another. Unless you only need that particular section… so if you are learning Igbo so you can speak back to your grandmother when she talks to you, you may not necessarily need to know how to write or even read Igbo.
Don’t be a prick – everyone has a reason to study a language and some people’s reason is that they simply want to explore a new culture. Just because you are studying Mandarin so you can be a better job candidate does not mean that your interests are more legitimate or deserve more esteem than the student studying Quechua or Icelandic or Chilean Sign Language.
Three years ago, if you asked me what I would be minoring in, I probably would have said History or Black Studies or even Film Studies. I most likely wouldn’t have said… French?
I’ve been studying French for two years now. My first semester at Swarthmore I did not take a French class and sort of just trained myself using all sorts of online resources. I was able to skip the first level of Intensive First-year French from learning the language in a way which to me can only be described as inorganic. Computerized voices uttered words which to me sounded more like garbled tv noise than human language. Questions, likely generated randomly, tested how well I could put together the jagged, undefined pieces of the puzzle which was my comprehension of French grammar and syntax. Rote memorization of words which were ciphers for English.