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Secrets of Learning a Foreign Language

by Graham E. Fuller

Learn in Your Car French

by Henry N. Raymond

Pimsleur Language Program (French)

by Paul Pimsleur

Most foreigners living in Japan eventually hear the same warning: Be careful not to become too good at Japanese.

Gaijin who speak like locals are viewed with mistrust – at least according to conventional wisdom – because the ease with which they express themselves demonstrates not only mastery of a language but deep understanding of Japanese culture. Learning a little of the language is a good thing, my friends in Tokyo assured me when I lived there in the late 1980s, but learning too much amounts to an invasion of privacy, a dangerous transition from hapless, harmless foreigner to astute cultural critic.

Whether or not it’s entirely true – several of my bilingual gaijin friends insisted it was, and even admitted to dumbing down their Japanese when seeking an entrée with resistant locals – there’s no denying that words in any language are loaded with far more than mere literal freight. Choosing a word involves socio-cultural decisions as much as linguistic knowledge – even a choice as seemingly simple as selecting “tu” instead of “vous” in French.

If what we say and how we say it reflects how we view – and how well we understand – other cultures, so too do some of the audio language programs designed to help English speakers learn new languages. Secrets of Learning a Foreign Language, by Graham E. Fuller, for instance, has as much to say about American xenophobia as it does about foreign language study. Fuller, who reports studying 16 languages during 17 years with the U.S. Foreign Service, makes much of the fact that languages offer windows into other cultures and “open your eyes to the outside world.”

Then he piles on the stereotypes, beginning with the observation that even though “on our own continent, we are surrounded by American English,” we still encounter some people who “do things differently than we do.” Some of them may even be English speakers with different accents and even different vocabulary. His examples? Cowboys, New England fishermen, hillbillies, and “black musicians.” (Fuller isn’t implying that you’ve actually met any of these people, by the way. He does suggest, though, that you may have heard actors or comedians imitating them.) Continuing his introduction, he describes the joys of learning a foreign language, which include buying French vanilla ice cream in Paris. But watch out for the ice cream vendor – she’ll probably correct your grammar or pronunciation “as only a Parisian will do.” He’s also cheerfully elitist, pointing out that although some people might argue that you can get by in most places in the world by speaking only English, “you could also argue that you can go through life with just a high school education.” We go to college, he reminds us, to broaden our horizons. (He doesn’t mention the name of the college he attended.)

Listeners who can get past the introduction, however, and who’ve never studied a foreign language before, will eventually hear some basic but useful advice about language study. Fuller makes a number of practical suggestions: avoid translating, use a tape recorder and practice listening to yourself and others speaking, develop memory handles to encourage vocabulary recall, look for basic word roots that recur in the language, and don’t trust familiar letters (in German and Polish, for example, a “w” is pronounced like the English “v”). Occasionally, Fuller belabours his point – even listeners who weren’t previously aware that English and Spanish share certain similar words don’t need 27 examples to be convinced – but his tips are sound and he stresses the need to work on pronunciation and accents. This is critical advice for English speakers, since many of us have a tendency to plow mercilessly through foreign languages, flattening rolling “r”s and anglicizing any unfamiliar vowels that stand in our path.

At the end of the tape, there’s a suggestion that listeners now begin to study the foreign language of their choice through an audio program such as the Learn in Your Car series, created by the same producer, Penton Overseas (though not involving Fuller). But after listening to Fuller’s chatty discussion of the cultural discoveries English speakers can make while learning another language, Learn in Your Car French seemed particularly bereft of insight. The six-hour introductory program is a tedious list of French words and phrases – and eventually sentences – spoken aloud and repeated once by a woman with an oddly strangulated voice who reads almost every entry with an unnatural rising inflection. (Lessons 9 through 12 takes listeners from un? deux? trois? all the way to un million?) No conversational exchanges are featured on any of the tapes and no attempt is made to encourage students to create their own phrases and sentences using the acquired vocabulary.

The course of study uses no textbook or written materials apart from a listening guide that provides transcriptions of the words and phrases listed and a few cursory grammar notes, but the instructions for use claim that listeners will come to understand how sentences and phrases are constructed and what individual words mean because of the emphasis on literal translations. However, offering “you guys” as the meaning of “vous” and “We to ourselves recall” as one of two translations of “Nous nous rappelons” – the other translation being the more natural “We remember” – may only serve to confuse the listener, particularly when they’re in the middle of a left-turn into oncoming traffic.

The Berlitz French Phrase Cassette (“French As It’s Really Spoken”) takes a similar approach, but to be fair, the single-cassette program has a different objective: to teach only the basic words and phrases needed for a trip to a French-speaking area. But even with its modest goal, the Berlitz tape makes a point of including several very brief exchanges between two French speakers, giving the listener an opportunity to hear what the language actually sounds like when used in a conversation. This tape doesn’t offer much for travellers interested in conversations that take place beyond the confines of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops, but it’s useful for listeners who are truly concerned about the pronunciation of words and phrases that are found in most printed phrasebooks.

The Pimsleur Language Program, designed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur, touts the scientific research that provides the foundation for this course of study. According to the bumph accompanying the tapes, Pimsleur “found that the human brain absorbs most effectively in 30-minute increments,” and as a result, the program is divided into half-hour units. This hardly seems revolutionary – most people starting a new language can vouch for the fact that it can be difficult to handle more than 30 minutes of unfamiliar words and unnatural-sounding grammar during a single session. But scientific methodology aside, the Pimsleur program at least offers some effective learning techniques.

At the beginning of each lesson presented in the beginner Pimsleur French course, listeners hear a conversation, then hear it reduced to single syllables, words, and phrases, which they are asked to repeat several times. The conversation is gradually reconstructed until the listener understands it completely, and then altered slightly to ensure students can apply the vocabulary in new situations. A narrator makes periodic explanations to elaborate on grammar and, occasionally, culture. This program trumpets its lack of written materials the loudest. The introductory program doesn’t even include a transcription of the cassettes, much less written grammar tips, which is a shame, and points out the only significant weakness of the Pimsleur system. Audio tapes are a valuable tool to students of a foreign language, and the Pimsleur program is about as good as any audio-only language instruction course can be, but most students need written reinforcement to grasp anything beyond absolute conversational basics. Use it with a textbook and you’ll be miles ahead of anyone who’s relying solely on cassettes. Without a written text, you may only be getting half the language.

Ask the next anglophone you see singing O Canada in French. They can make the right sounds. But do they really know what they’re singing?