September 5, 2011

World of Wordcraft

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at September 5, 2011 2:23 PM

In a week I'm headed to Paris for a sightseeing trip. When I originally planned the trip, I didn't know any French beyond what I have picked up in pop culture, which consists of:

  1. Fetchez la vache!
  2. Garçon means "boy".
  3. You're a good guy, mon frère. That means "brother" in French. I don't know why I know that. I took four years of Spanish!
So, it's clear that I'll be relying on the ubiquity of English to get around. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that it might be fun to learn a bit of French before I go, so a few weeks ago I got a Rosetta Stone subscription and started working my way through the basic levels.

Something I don't have a good sense for is just how much study of a language is required before it starts being useful. On the one hand, if I know nothing (as is the case here), learning just a few words has almost no value because almost all sentences I encounter will still be unintelligible. And on the other end of the spectrum, if I'd been studying French for years, there'd be diminishing returns where learning a little extra on the margin wouldn't affect the quality of my experience any. So the utility as a function of time spent studying must have an S-shape where it starts out nearly flat, takes off at some point, and ultimately levels off again. The important question for this project is how long it takes to get to that first knee in the curve: the point at which I start to understand some of what I hear in the new language. I don't really know the answer to that, so this is something of an experiment.

It's interesting to see that Rosetta Stone is basically a video game: the user proceeds through a series of levels, each of which is further subdivided down to the level of individual screens, and on each screen the user needs to click in the right places (or speak the correct sentence) to advance to the next one. At the end of each section the user gets a percentage score based on how many errors they made. You could call it "Language Hero". At the end of each level there's a speaking test called a "milestone" which is basically a boss battle. There are even achievements! (The program calls them "stamps".) It's a direct application of the Reality is Broken thesis to language learning. (I haven't actually read that book, so hopefully I'm not misstating it here.)

The only problem is that language learning takes a lot longer than mastering most video games, so that I feel as if I'm playing some game that requires a lot of grinding for each minor advancement. On top of that, it's an inherently social game in which I'll get much more out of it if I seek out partners to practice with. Fortunately, I can meet such people through the online component of the course, for which I pay a periodic subscription fee. Wait a minute, all this sounds strangely familiar: Rosetta Stone isn't just a video game, it's a MMORPG! And I thought I swore off that whole genre years ago...

Tags: Games, Travel

You have my full sympathies! Swedish is an 'easy' language for English speakers to learn, supposedly, but it's a right pain for me. Not so much for being Swedish but for being another language at all, and taking a long time to learn. At least I've found the part in my language book where they stop assuming that you're good at memorisation but terrible at grammar — I'm rather the opposite.

I'm enrolled in a Swedish language and culture course at Uni, but I'm debating dropping it for favour of an at-your-own-pace night-school in the town in which I'm living. Hopefully that will conflict with classes less often, and won't require me to travel an hour each way half the term.

I would be curious to hear how well you can get by in France speaking mainly English and enough French to politely apologise for not knowing French. One reason why I'm not concerned slowing my studies here is that nigh everyone speaks English. I'd still like to learn the language, though.

Posted by: Nick | September 11, 2011 2:42 PM

You're not the first person with a CS/engineering background who's mentioned that grammar comes more easily than vocabulary. It's the same for me. I wonder if it's related to one's aptitude for computer languages (which are of course almost all grammar and little vocabulary).

I've been spoiled a bit by studying Japanese, where the grammar is by far the easiest part. It has no grammatical genders and doesn't distinguish singular vs. plural either, and the number of irregular verbs in the entire language is two. Two! This makes French look hideously complicated by comparison, and French seems to love irregular verbs about as much as English does. On the other hand, Japanese has the worst writing system known to man, and no common vocabulary with English outside of consumer electronics. I guess there's no free lunch when it comes to natural language acquisition.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 11, 2011 11:32 PM

I would say i am rubbish at both grammar and vocab at this point i know 100 words of hebrew and my 4 year old know much more or at least comprehend much more.

good luck to both of you. At least its not Latin

Posted by: shellock | September 12, 2011 1:41 PM

Given your several years of Spanish, you should be fine with reading French! (I have used my Spanish to read French on quite a few occasions, and if they hadn't taken away the language requirement of French, German, or Russian in grad school before I dealt with it, I was going to use my knowledge of Spanish to pass the French test. A couple of people had done that successfully before.)

I have heard, by the way, that many of the denizens of France have a tendency to refuse to converse in English even when they know it. I have actually seen similar behavior in Montreal. Somebody asked me something in French that I didn't understand. I indicated in English that I didn't understand, so they asked someone else---but then it also turned out that they were fluent in English. Go figure. I would have been happy to help.

Posted by: Mason Porter | September 18, 2011 7:07 AM

Actually, I don't know any Spanish: all the bulleted items in the post are movie or TV quotes. I did take four years of Latin, which works similarly when I can remember it.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 25, 2011 8:27 PM
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