Which are your functional languages?

held   Sat Jan 10, 2009 8:01 pm GMT
"I discover finally today that my English sucks, to the extent that I can't hold a conversation decently, with a horrible accent that is just understandable."

I think you're too pessimistic and modest. My mother tongue is not English, so I cannot judge your English, but in my opinion your English is pretty good. Your vocabolary is rich and varied and you can write long and articulate messages almost everyday. I wish I could write posts like yours! I have even heard your recorded voice and your English is not that bad, I was able to understand almost everything. Your accent probably isn't perfect but comprehensible. You can't certainly imitate American or British accent and intonation but I'd say your "International" English as a foreigner is fairly good.
Antimooner   Sat Jan 10, 2009 10:50 pm GMT
This is a very good question and one that I struggle to answer all the time. I can use several languages, but I would not say that I speak all of them. I can interpret in a casual way between certain language pairs, but I'm much stronger at going from other languages to English, unless it's simply between Spanish and French. In many situations, I suppose many language lovers could go to bat, if necessary, in the same way.

I like precision. I like exact answers, but it's not easy to define language skills. I can sound out Hangul, but I can't speak Korean. I can understand ninety percent of written or spoken Catalan, but I can't speak Catalan either. If a Ukrainian is speaking in a mix of Russian, English and another language, I can usually clean up what he/she is saying so that the English only crowd understands it. These are examples of how I use languages that I don't "speak". A Romanian speaker makes a brochure in Russian that looks "funny" to me, so I run it through a translator. I correct what I know, and take it to an expert to finish.
Tzej   Sat Jan 10, 2009 11:00 pm GMT
Xie, thanks for the answer. But isn't Mandarin required in schools? Surely there must be a lot of Mandarin floating around in Hong Kong by TV and stuff?
To Russki, Xie, Alessandr   Sun Jan 11, 2009 1:51 am GMT

<<Other Slavic languages - i understand them like from 50 till 90 %, just because i'm native Russian speaker :)>>

You probably understand Ukrainian at 90%, what about the other languages?


"I discover finally today that my English sucks, to the extent that I can't hold a conversation decently, with a horrible accent that is just understandable."

Don't you dare give up, Xie! Everyone wobbles a little in a language sometime on the way to oral fluency.

I will tell you the truth. It is easier to understand you than it is to understand a certain native speaker in the English forum when he speaks in his ordinary dialect. I did not think that your accent was "heavy" and I have heard a fair number of Chinese people who speak with various accents.

There is something to be said for living abroad or having regular contact with the speakers of the language. Perhaps you would do as well as FX if you had the opportunity to live overseas. You should also consider that (afaik) FX usually studies languages within his own big family (IE).
I like his website very much, but take what he writes as his personal view.

If you do go overseas, and you are introverted your biggest task may be
learning to act out of type.


We need a variety of languages here and we certainly need Italian speakers! I don't know anything about Lombard, but I'll look it up so I won't be an ignoramus.
Xie   Sun Jan 11, 2009 3:23 am GMT
>>You can't certainly imitate American or British accent and intonation but I'd say your "International" English as a foreigner is fairly good.

My concern is that, on the way of learning French or German, I still have to pick up a lot of English thru reading the language of instruction (English). I even read some French for this reason, since some other books are in French. This violates my new rule (of thumb).

1) Never learn 2 new languages at the same time (if I were allowed to and even encouraged to, that's different; and it doesn't hurt to go for two together when I visit a foreign country and learn tourist language just for fun)
2) Don't learn the next unless you master the current language. (but history proves that I can learn a lot of French and German at the beginner level without mastering it, but this definitely diverts a lot of my time and energy that could have been concentrated on English alone, for example)

AA even suggests that learning multiple languages is simply the way to go, and a way to endure, to become multilingual. Yet, I think my following statement is compatible with his claim: depending on your own aspirations, the vertical dimension (how well you know of a language) may be more important than the horizontal (how many languages you know to different degrees). English is still very important for most of the language learning literature, and while I learn it almost like on-the-job training, it also follows that I need to sharpen my English, even at the expense of others, to make the learning path shorter and smoother.

After all, yes, I consider English my functional language, so for simpler situations I'm trilingual, but to the point of discerning the smallest nuances, I'm monolingual. There exist a lot of modal particles I don't know in Mandarin, and a few hundreds of idioms in Mandarin, and thousands in English, that I don't know. My Cantonese should be "perfect" at the moment, because I can ask any native for new/old slang, and any vocabulary that is absent in high language (such as academic usage) can be filled up perfectly by standard Chinese.

>>Xie, thanks for the answer. But isn't Mandarin required in schools? Surely there must be a lot of Mandarin floating around in Hong Kong by TV and stuff?

Yep, Mandarin education has been extended somehow since my own days at the elementary school, but many guys of my age still can't hold a conversation and may have to resort to English with other Chinese...

most audiences can only watch the local channels with minimal Mandarin. I have satellite TV and I can watch CCTV and phoenix TV... most people here can't watch all these, since it's commercial. It's a norm that young Chinese who are now at least 18 "speak" Mandarin with a horrible accent like their counterparts (such as my cousin) in Guangzhou. Personally, I've picked up a lot of Mandarin through listening to chinesepod and cslpod in the past year, but I still can't claim advanced fluency very soon.

Mandarin still has little influence in the city life and in the media.
Tzej   Sun Jan 11, 2009 3:39 am GMT
Thanks Xie, that's interesting. And it probably says something about Mandarin as a lingua franca in Asia as with regard to that other recent thread. If a lot of people aren't mastering it even within Chinese territory, then it still has a ways to go before being a lingua franca outside China.
Xie   Sun Jan 11, 2009 3:50 am GMT
>>My Cantonese should be "perfect" at the moment, because I can ask any native for new/old slang

For obvious reasons I won't bother to mention, I've gone monolingual in learning Mandarin as early as at the age of 8. So you see, linguistic similarity is hugely important in how difficult a language is for person of any linguistic background. It follows that the average Chinese (not to say Asian) naturally has great difficulty learning a European language. I go monolingual instantly in learning another Chinese language, but I spend years (I think... 2 or 3) to go monolingual in English. Still, there exists tons of words I can't infer from my CALD easily and make me resort to my Oxford English-Chinese dictionary (OALD) instead.

So, for political and general reasons, the game of learning foreign languages is hugely unfair... at least for a Chinese like me. Europeans can claim to be "multilingual" by learning multiple languages of their neighbors, which AA actually considers "European dialects" (not even languages). And thanks to my country, I simply have no ways to learn Chinese "dialects" effectively from far away, and I have no interest in most of them, and to expand my repertoire I have to face far more difficult languages outside China. But I have no bad feelings now. I'm now very happy with loads of old friends in French, since I know a lot of English vocab that are French/Latinate. And English is very handy for learning almost any language, especially European ones...

>>You should also consider that (afaik) FX usually studies languages within his own big family (IE).

Yep, I actually almost felt deceived when I discovered that Assimil was such a wonderful method...
but given the overall dominant strength of the European civilization (the Anglosphere and Europe combined and even beyond, say in Brazil where almost everyone speaks a European language, so to speak), and given that my country only considers Mandarin a language and all others "dialects",
it follows that, to expand the "absolute" number of languages I (or you) know, it's simply not worth the trouble to learn other obscure languages, or problematic languages like Chinese.

To learn Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, etc, in the same family, and claim to be multilingual, it sounds more like "cheating" because you spend less efforts than...say, me learning German, French, Russian, and then Japanese, etc. Everyone has different taste, but in practice I recognize the fact that even Chinese languages CAN be more difficult than the above three. Some are just so obscure that learning resources are too scarce for doing anything. (Which is sad for Chinese languages in general...except Cantonese and Shanghainese which are still quite lively...and are taught in quite a few of books)

That's very subjective, I know. If I can stay in Chaozhou, the native town of my great-grandfather, and I can pick up Teochew in no time, but there's no more motive - not even my senior relatives have any interest to return to this native town, so Teochew is dead; and in practice, it's so obscure that ... for example, Spanish is easier than it. So, that's not about linguistic similarity, but about popularity.

Another issue is: how are you going to remain fluent/become more fluent in a language thru practicing the language with native speakers? Again, non-IE native speakers are hugely disadvantaged. It doesn't surprise me that far more foreigners want to practice Mandarin than ... Cantonese. So, as an analogy, so to speak, for me Cantonese is like Danish/Swedish, etc, in the more affluent part of Asia (so that its languages are worth learning for utilitarian purposes - a lot of people care about usefulness, after all). Yet, you know, Danish/Swedish is Germanic and should be fairly easy for Anglophones... and for Cantonese, you have far less learning materials than Mandarin, with extra characters... and I, too, don't think it's logical to learn it before Mandarin (along with standard Chinese). It could be something like learning Catalan before Spanish (Castilian).

So, with such reasoning, my own choices are self-explanatory. So I don't bear a kind of linguistic-racist against most language teachers who, I assume, NOT to know Chinese because it's too difficult or something. I heard of numerous stories that Japanese/Korean-speaking teachers speak passable Mandarin/Cantonese, while IE-speaking ones often just struggle permanently... or they just won't bother. At the moment, IE languages are still far more dominant. Some of my Chinese acquaintances also admitted that English was far more useful for reference purposes, when most useful information for grammar, linguistics, learning materials, etc, is absent in China.
Xie   Sun Jan 11, 2009 4:00 am GMT
In ordinary internet discussions, what I see among Hong Kong guys is...
whenever they discuss "hey, dudes, which languages do you wanna learn? hm, let's pick a few names... hm, just how useful are they? where to learn? I wanna join some classes!",
it's so easy to think of Japanese, all those popular European languages I mention, Mandarin, and so on. Most Chinese languages are absent. Some dudes speak Hakka and Teochew, but they're almost forgotten among my generation (no, I don't even know a single word).
So, the average Joes here know naturally far "less" languages (some forget that they know a lot of classical Chinese after all). We're yet to see a contemporary Chinese polyglot. If there would be ever one in my life time, this person would probably be far more accomplished than those who focus on a single family - if s/he also learns languages of _different_ civilizations. There were a few of them in the last century, but there's no way to prove their historical repertoire like that of Mezzofanti.