How do you learn a foreign language? “There are no subtitles in real life.”

“One fine day, it’s like going from the black and white to the color part of The Wizard of Oz.” That’s John McWhorter’s striking description of one of the things that happens when you learn a new language. It’s from his New York Times newsletter of September 21, 2021, as is the title of this post.

As you would expect from a public linguist, he captures the moment vividly. Maybe you’ve had this experience yourself, maybe you haven’t. If you haven’t, you’re missing something. McWhorter amplifies what he means with a concrete example:

Suddenly you can understand what native speakers are saying, because now the language is in your ear for real. I’ll never forget the day I walked by some Chinese people and heard one of them saying in Mandarin, “Wait, take a picture of that statue,” when just a few months earlier I would have heard nothing but a stream of sounds.

To learn a new language in what McWhorter considers the “right” away—short of spending some time living in the country, which of course is best but is not always practical, especially in the time of COVID—he recommends using Glossika, at least if you’re an intermediate learner. If you’re a beginner, he suggests starting with Duolingo or Babbel and then moving on to Glossika. So figured that it would be fun to take him up on this suggestion. I had tried out Duolingo three years ago, using it to review Norwegian, Turkish, and Esperanto rather than learn a brand new language (brand new to me, of course); I could have pursued one of those languages in Glossika, but for obscure reasons I decided to try reviewing a language I once knew much better than any of those: German. In a previous life—or so it feels—I could actually hold a reasonable conversation in German and had read several books in German, including ones by Dürrenmatt and Remarque, so it might be a good vehicle for evaluating Glossika as well as reviving some of my knowledge of German. Then I can try one of those I had started in Duolingo.

At this point I’m doing pretty well, as you can see. I will report back in a couple of months.

But two caveats are in order. One is a complaint I had made in my post from three years ago:

The big issue is that no passage is longer than a single short sentence! There’s absolutely no sense of discourse, of conversational or literary flow. Even a single question-and-answer interchange is nowhere to be found, and there are certainly no entire conversations. The result is a distorted view of language, where the largest unit appears to be the sentence.

Unfortunately almost exactly the same problem recurs in Glossika. Individual sentences all the time! Well, almost all the time. Actually it does have a few—very few—question-and-answer interchanges. Maybe when I get to a more advanced level this will change and we will get longer discourses. (I started at the most basic level, since I had forgotten so much.)

My second caveat is that there’s no formal grammar instruction. This absence may surprise you, given that McWhorter is a linguist. Before I tell you his justification for recommending it, let me recall two of my own language-learning experiences. One, appropriately enough, is German, where I began with a very intensive summer course at that rival university in New Haven: 7 weeks, a class of 6 students, 20 hours per week! The system was that 17 of those hours were German-only from day one; they were taught by three native German instructors, rotating every hour. The remaining three hours—which I still remember were 12:00–1:00 MWF—were taught by a native speaker of English with a linguistics background, when we could and did speak English to discuss grammar and other technical issues. The combo was great!

The other experience was not quite so great. One summer in the ’70s, preparing to visit the late lamented country of Yugoslavia in the summer, I decided I ought to learn Serbo-Croatian, as the national language of Yugoslavia was then called. (Brief aside: my teacher, who was Croatian, insisted on calling the language Croatian-Serbian, which illustrates and presages why the country was soon to split up. Now they are two different languages: Croatian and Serbian. For those who are under the incorrect impression that language is primarily writing, not speech, I should point out that Croatian and Serbian are merely two dialects of the same language, but they look very different since the former is written in the Roman alphabet, like English, and the latter in the Cyrillic alphabet, like Russian.) I figured I would kill two birds with one stone by trying out the Berlitz Method, which had long intrigued me: learning a language in which all the instruction is in the target language, again from day one. Like my German course, but without the three hours a week in English. So I visited the local Berlitz School, was surprised and appalled to discover that there was no demand for group classes in Serbo-Croatian, and signed up for an individual class therein. I learned quite a bit (though I remember almost nothing now after nearly 50 years) but I unfortunately discovered that I had too little opportunity to practice real conversations since most of the people I met wanted to practice their English! And the rest all spoke German, which of course I knew much better than Serbo-Croatian, so we usually ended up defaulting to German. Oh well.

Categories: Linguistics