The Gentleman's Guide

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Learning a Foreign Language

I was never a fan of French in school. Burnt all my notes after I'd got my C at GCSE, glad to see the back of it. But now, a decade later, I wish I'd made more of an effort.

  • Why it's useful to speak more than one language.
  • How to choose a language to learn.
  • Getting hold of good resources to help you learn.
  • Tips to make learning more enjoyable.

I had the best possible kind of French teacher. Madame Reid was French, so my accent is still pretty good even if my vocabulary and grammar need work. She was a fully qualified languages teacher capable of teaching up to A-Level (and probably beyond). And she didn't stand bullsh*t. Unfortunately it's taken until now for me to appreciate what a perfect opportunity this was for me to learn another language while my brain was more capable of taking it in, my teacher was great, and it was all at the taxpayer's expense. I'm now taking a French course at my own expense, essentially re-learning things I've already been taught. But why?

Well, for a start I rather like the idea of going abroad and being able to make myself understood without resorting to the usual English-speaker's standby of speaking more slowly and loudly, using lots of potentially embarassing hand gestures. This is not a civilised way to conduct oneself.

I'm also quite ashamed of my former laziness. Yes, English is the most widely spoken language (though not spoken by the most people - I'll explain shortly). But does that mean we should take no opportunity to immerse ourselves in different cultures any more than a crude translation will allow? Of course not. As I said in my article on art galleries, a gentleman should be open to new cultural experiences. How better to appreciate a different society than by understanding what they're saying? On the point of laziness, I also feel embarassed that in almost every non-English-speaking country pupils take English lessons and quite probably have a better grasp of English grammar than a lot of English school children.

Finally, as with so many of the suggestions on this site, it will make you more attractive to women. I'm not suggesting you walk around all the time conversing in a foreign tongue, but being able to converse confidently with a waiter while abroad can't help but make a flattering impression.

So, the question is, if you intend to learn another language, how do you go about it? Well, firstly consider which language you might need. French is an obvious choice since the country is our closest neighbour and since we are exposed to a substantial amount of French in our day to day lives (wine lists and labels, some restaurant menus, phrases like "à la carte", "bon voyage!" and "plus ça change", etc.), it's a place that's easy to visit, the language is fairly widely spoken within our country already so there's plenty of resources, and you probably already learnt some French at school.

What about other languages though? Well, I also speak a little Japanese, since I find I'm exposed to that through TV shows, Western movies like Kill Bill and Lost in Translation, Japanese movies and anime like Princess Blade, Ghost in the Shell, Ringu and Cowboy Beebop, and numerous t-shirt logos, etc. Incidentally, while you may notice that the tattoo someone thinks says "Peace" actually is just the hiragana for a meaningless phoneme like "ga" (or worse, something offensive or copied from a packet of soba), don't point this out unless you're in the company of other Japanese speakers, when it's polite to suggest they cover it up.

Spanish is extremely widely spoken, particularly in South America. If you're planning on going to Brazil though, then it's Portugese that you need to learn. German and Italian will also come in useful since these are places you could well visit or the nationality of other Europeans you may meet. If you're looking for something more exotic but still practical then consider China. The country has several languages but the two main ones are Cantonese and Mandarin. Mandarin is, I'm reliably informed, the business language of South East Asia and since China's economy is booming and the country is likely to become increasingly powerful and influential this century it should serve you well. I'm told it also has the largest number of speakers in the world, given the large population of China. Plus you could visit Beijing for the Olympics.

As for other languages, well, it's entirely up to you. However, you're probably not going to get much use out of Latvian, Guarani, or Tatar. And just because Google allows you to change it's interface to any of the following, does not mean that "Bork, bork, bork!", "Elmer Fudd", "Hacker", "Klingon", "Pig Latin" or "Welsh" are valid choices (just kidding, Wales).

Now you've chosen you language how do you learn it? It used to be that you either had to attend a class (potentially held by someone for whom it wasn't a first language) or try to learn from a book, both of which could lead to problems with grammar and accent. Now though, we have a wealth of technology to assist us. Classes can still be useful if you aren't good at self-motivation, but the resources now available make them almost redundant for any other reasons. First, look around on the internet. There's dozens of useful sites to help you learn all the main languages I mentioned, many of which are written by truly bilingual authors. Hopefully the advertisements on this page are suggesting potentially useful websites, or you could always Google for more (search bar top right). Once you have an idea what you need then look on a site like Amazon for reviews of books by people who've bought them. Get one that's highly recommended and that comes with a CD (it can be easily converted to MP3 using software such as Windows Media Player) so that you can hear the correct pronunciation. You could even consider buying more than one to give you a more balanced education. You're a beginner so look for material aimed at this level, and you'll probably find it most useful if it focuses on colloquial language (day to day language and possibly some mild slang) so that you're not speaking the foreign equivalent of Recieved Pronunciation.

Finally, set yourself a target. As a man you work better when given a short-term goal, some sort of ranking system, or competition. For example, arrange with a friend who also wants to learn, to ask each other three questions in your chosen language each Friday. The aim is to make the questions as difficult as possible and the one who is least able to answer must get the first round that evening. Alternatively, set yourself a target of finishing chapter 1 within 7 days, treating yourself to a nice steak if you achieve this target (just make sure the target isn't too easy). As your understanding improves, find out what the most popular film in your language was last summer, and order the DVD (make sure, though, that you order the correct region - UK is in region 2). Watch it with subtitles first, but try to make out as many familiar words as you can. As you get better you could try switching the subtitles off, repeating characters lines, or saying the next line.

Don't forget to read your language as well. Make sure you have a translation dictionary to hand, and visit a foreign website or buy a foreign magazine or newspaper (large bookstores such as Borders usually stock a selection of imported newspapers and magazines). If you find yourself at the point where you can watch a foreign movie or read a foreign paper and get almost all of it without needing to look it up then congratulations; you're pretty much fluent. Félicitations!

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Some language books contain stickers that you can apply to objects around your home to help you learn nouns. If you don't have these, try making your own from Post-It notes.