I’ve just discovered a new (since February) blog called freemorpheme: The mad ramblings of a Graduate Student in Linguistics. Jason is taking a course in Second Language Acquisition and keeping a journal (“We are to relate the course material with experiences from our own lives”), and he reminds me of me:

The approach to teaching Japanese at CCSF seems to be informed by a bit of the cognitive school and a lot of the constructivist. There’s a splash of memorization here and there, but it’s not really stressed. The goal seems to be to get us talking: genuine, spontaneous communication. This is fairly challenging for me. Although I love foreign languages and have a self professed talent for them, I’m very shy about speaking them. I’m much better at memorizing tables and things and passing tests. I’m glad that I’m pushed to speak more, but I don’t always enjoy it. There are definitely places where I feel like the old school choral drills would be helpful to me. I want to go through all the verbs I know and recite the forms in order: ikanai, ikimasu, iku, ikeba; kakanai, kakimasu, kaku, kakeba; etc. I want to do it with the voice of the whole class behind me. I want to do it a hundred times. That way when I have to use one of these verbs, I’ll remember what it sounds like in the form I want…

I had never really considered why I wanted to study languages. It turns out that I’m really not all that interested in talking to Germans or Russians or French people (Ok, I’m a bit more interested in Japanese people), but I’m really interested in their language. Considering the languages I’ve studied, this makes sense. Certainly I’m never going to have the opportunity to speak to a Goth (the old, dead kind, not the young I wish I were dead kind), or a native speaker of Old Low Franconian. So why study the languages? The answer would seem to be that it fulfills a need for me…
In all of my foreign language experience, I’ve always had a good accent. Years ago in Germany, riding a train full of fellow EuroRailers (many of them German), I was often asked what part of Germany I came from. Granted, I was traveling with several Germans at the time, and using my German daily. Knowing more about phonology, I now realize that from early on in my language learning I had the ability to extrapolate and apply phonological rules.

Lots of good, thought-provoking stuff for anyone studying a foreign language:

It’s not just phonology that makes you sound native though. Sentence intonation patterns, prosody, and stress are also important. Next to phonology however, the easiest way to sound like a native is to hem and haw like a native. Knowing what to do with pauses and interstitial spaces is absolutely key. If you’re fishing for a word in Japanese and you say “umm, uhh,” instead of “ano” or “mmm” (for example) it doesn’t matter how good your accent is, everybody knows you’re not a native. You have to adopt the conversational mannerisms of the culture.


  1. ben wolfson says:

    I was once complimented for speaking well by a German teacher I had; I think it’s because I remembered to say “keine Ahnung” instead of “Idee”, and could sort of use “also” correctly.

  2. My sister-in-law married a guy from Tbilisi and lived there for at least 10 yrs before immigrating to US. She doesn’t speak Georgian (knows phrases helpful for bazaar shopping and can recognise profanities, and that’s about it), but she adopted the mannerisms, accents and intonation so well that she speaks English with perfect Georgian accent. Oh, and she does that “Tz, slushai” thing perfectly1

  3. Actually I wrote about Freemorpheme March 6th here.

  4. Tatyana, that’s a great story. And I’ll have to find a good source for Georgian obscenities…

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