Prepping for Paris: language edition
Some people decide to go on a trip, buy their tickets, book their hotels and leave the rest to chance. I am not one of those people. For me, planning a trip is not just a necessity, it’s a pleasure. In the preparatory stages, the vistas of possibility have yet to be winnowed by time or finances or other such frivolous practicalities. Anywhere and anything is on the table.
And so it is with this spirit that my wife and I have been preparing for our honeymoon to Paris. As a pair of ardent Francophiles, we’ve been brushing up on our French, combing through travel books for tips and tricks, learning how to cook boeuf borguignon and Parisian potage, enjoying the films of Truffaut and Tati and generally throwing ourselves heads-first into an immersion with all things French.
Through it all, we’ve made prodigious use of our Anythink cards. My hope is to do a series of blog posts exploring various aspects of our thorough (and perhaps a bit obsessive) preparation. But for today, I’d like to focus on the language learning resources I’ve been using to reacquaint my American tongue with la langue Francaise.
The sheer number of educational language programs is enough to make you reconsider your decision to learn, or relearn, a language. Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, Rocket, Living Language, Mango, Duolingo, Fluenz, Yabla – what’s a person to do when confronted with this chattering crowd of linguistic education services?
The answer is actually fairly simple. Try a few. While these programs share some underlying pedagogy, their approaches vary. What works for one person may fall on deaf (or uncomprehending) ears for someone else.
For me, Pimsleur has been the best option. Whether or not you know anything about the language you wish to study, Pimsleur will help you learn to speak and – just as important – comprehend a foreign language. Its method focuses on repetition and recall. An English speaker provides instructions while (in my case) a French speaker teaches you phrases.
What distinguishes Pimsleur from other language learning programs is its emphasis on active participation. Rather than simply repeating a handful of words and phrases, you’re regularly prompted to take a word or phrase you know and use it in a new context. There’s also the anticipatory aspect of the process in which you’re asked to say something in French – perhaps: “I speak a little French” – before hearing the correct answer and pronunciation. Answering correctly elicits a concentrated burst of absolute pleasure. “Understanding is a joy,” as Carl Sagan wrote.
And yet, there is no true understanding without mistakes, and with Pimsleur you need not feel bad if you don’t immediately know the answer. There’s enough repetition throughout the various lessons that, sooner or later, words and phrases that once sounded like a breakneck jabbering and felt unwieldy in your mouth begin to coalesce from babel into language.
The disadvantage to Pimsleur is that it focuses almost exclusively on speaking and listening. While there are “reading sections” at the end of every lesson, which test your pronunciation skills, these exercises leave much to be desired. If you’d like to supplement your linguistic education, I would recommend the ever-popular Rosetta Stone.
Available as a free service to Anythink customers, Rosetta Stone can be accessed by visiting the Articles, Research and More page on our website. After setting up an account, Rosetta Stone lets you pick from over a dozen languages before asking you to specify your course. Some courses emphasize reading and writing, while others are geared toward speaking and listening; you can also simply select the Standard course, which offers a nice overview of speaking, listening, reading, writing and grammar.
Like Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone relies on repetition to help cement different words, phrases and grammatical rules. Unlike Pimsleur, though, Rosetta Stone never translates back into English (or whatever your mother tongue happens to be). Instead, you’re offered a variety of (sometimes unintentionally amusing) pictures of different actions or concepts that help you determine what a word or phrase means.
Rosetta Stone’s rationale for this methodology is that it more closely resembles the way you learn your first language, and there’s certainly truth to this idea; you learn how to walk before learning the word for it. Still, Rosetta Stone’s approach occasionally leaves you in the dark about linguistic subtleties and grammatical rules. Anyone looking for some elucidation on such matters should consider checking out one of the Dummies series of books, particularly those that focus on grammar.
One of my most vivid memories of the last time I went to France was trying, in vain, to understand the protestations of a bus driver after I had explained in my halting, no doubt garishly American-accented French that my family and I had missed our stop. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t corral my abridged knowledge of the language into articulating what I needed to say, nor could I make my ears or brain arrange the frustrated sounds that were being hurled in my direction into words I could understand. It was, quite frankly, a mortifying experience.
Needless to say, I’m hopeful that, with some diligence and the resources at my disposal thanks to Anythink, I’ll never have to relive this experience again.
Until next time, or, as the French say, à bientôt.