I enjoyed Ed Hasbroucks’s recent article on the intricacies of learning a foreign language. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“We tend to think of the problem of understanding a foreign language in terms of “knowing what the words” (or maybe sentences) mean. But If that were true, all we would need anywhere would be a phrase book. Anyone who’s
ever tried, and failed, to use a phrase book to communicate in a completely unknown language has quickly realized that there are multiple layers of coding that one must master before one can look up a foreign word in a dictionary or phrase book.

“One layer down in a spoken language, which groups of sounds or syllables form a “word”? We conceptualize a spoken English sentences as being composed of discrete words separated by at least momentary silences. But we don’t really speak like that, nor do native speakers of most other languages. We run our words together, and the listener is able to separate the words only because they recognize them as words. One of the most difficult challenges…

“What fraction of the sounds or symbols do you need to understand in order to make a reasonable guess as to the approximate meaning of the entire utterance? Some people are “naturally” better at this than others, but I
think this is an important travel skill and one that, at least to a degree, can be improved significantly by practice. It’s also greatly influenced by trust and tolerance for risk: if you aren’t 100% sure of the meaning of what you’ve heard or read, how willing are you to take action in spite of your uncertainty?”

Read Ed Hasbrouck’s entire article here.


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