Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Professor-Student Update: Penultimate Goal

It seems like it has been a while since I wrote about my adventures taking an undergraduate language course, perhaps because, after three years with the same professor and the same core group of students, we are definitely in a routine in which not much surprising happens. A lot of learning has been happening, though. Earlier this year I traveled to a country in which this particular language is spoken, and I found to my intense happiness that I have made progress even since my trip last summer.

But at the end of this academic year, I will have reached the end of the line in terms of taking undergraduate courses in this language, and my options are limited for taking courses on literature and culture in this language. I may hire a private tutor because I don't want to lose what I've learned so far -- my abilities in this language are still quite precarious.

It will be a sad moment for me when I take my final exam and complete the class, especially with no further classes to look forward to in the fall. And I will miss our little group that has been together for 3 years.

These three years of intensive language courses (4-5 days/week) have taken a lot of time and energy. The effort, however, has definitely been worth it for me because of the immediate practical effect of learning how to communicate in a language that is useful to me for many reasons and because it exercised my brain in different and interesting way.

So there is much to feel good about, but I have not yet attained my Penultimate Goal: I want to give a complete scientific talk in this language.

In the classes I've been taking, we don't learn any science jargon, so I've had to acquire that by reading the scientific literature and asking questions of colleagues who know this language. Little by little I have been acquiring the words and skills I need to speak Science in this other language, but it's going to take a lot more work to be able to give a coherent talk. It might take a year or three, but that's my next goal.

And then I would like to become fluent in this language. Fluency -- the Ultimate Goal -- may, however, be unattainable given my advanced age, limited time, and lack of opportunities for immersion in the language. But that's OK. Any progress I can make en route to proficiency in the language will be worth it for me.


Anonymous said...

You amaze me. I would love to attend your talk in whatever foreign language.

A Life Long Scholar said...

Is it safe to assume that in the mean time you've been reading papers in your language? How has that been going? Have you had an opportunity to attend talks given in this language? It seems to me that a video recording of a talk in the language (complete with accompanying slides!) would be very, very helpful towards achieving that goal, as you could listen to it over an over, to determine which words you don't understand on the first try, and how your discipline's jargon fits into sentences...

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, reading papers and going to talks in that language have been extremely helpful. I don't have any video recordings, but that would certainly help as well.

barbara said...

There are two foreign languages in which I am a fluent speaker, and can read literary texts without effort, but I wouldn't feel confident giving a scientific talk. I guess I switched ultimate and penultimate aims. I never hear talks in either of the languages, so I miss most of the vocabulary - I can't even read formulas aloud. I occasionally read papers in one of these languages; in that one I would be able to write a paper (also because I took courses in it for a total of ten years).

BTW, I think the big divide is not young vs. mature learner but indoeuropean vs. nonindoeuropean languages. I would be much more impressed by a north american learning chinese/arab rather than spanish/russian; adding a second germanic language must be particularly easy if you're a native speaker of one (e.g., english).

Curious Computer said...

I'm impressed that you can get talks and papers in a foreign language. Perhaps it is just my field, but I have been doing my PhD in a non-English speaking country now for 2.5 years and have seen only one thesis defence in that language. Every other talk and defence has been in English and no one here publishes in anything other than English.

Anonymous said...

good, now perhaps you have an idea about how it is for scientists whose mothertongue is not English. If I had the chance, I'd make learning a second language compulsory, as part of getting a proper education.

Anonymous above says "You amaze me.": so do all non-US/UK/Australia/Ireland/Canada scientists? Thank you. But you probably did not mean that; in fact, we never get to hear compliments for spending a lot of time learning a second/third/fourth language, just complaints when our English spelling, grammar or style is not perfect.

Anonymous said...

I had an experience the other way around. Recently I had to give a science talk in my native (non-english) language, after having given every talk in English for 7+ years. It turned out that my science vocabulary in my native language was very poor!

I appreciate the effort FSP is taking to study a foreign language. For us non-native english scientists, we just have to learn english to be able to communicate our results. It takes quite a lot of determiantion to study a language you actually don't have to learn.

Anonymous said...

@estraven: actually, as an Australian, I found Japanese much easier than German. Sure, the writing is more difficult, but the grammar is easy and incredibly regular. German on the other hand... I do get some vocab for free in German, but the false friends (Gift, Rat, spenden etc) trip me up a lot too.

Anonymous said...

It is a bit worse for me. I cannot even give a scientific talk in my mother tongue; I'm missing words...

Like to the Lark said...

I think I heard recently that it is a popular myth that "to be fluent in a language you have to learn it young"

Apparently this is not true, although its persuasive power dissuades many people from even trying.

I think I heard it at a keynote address given by Dr Stephanie Burns (www.stephanieburns.com)

(I can't find a reference, but her website is supercool)

Curt F. said...

To give a talk in a foreign language requires a lot of (linguistic skill + moxy). One time, several years ago, I finally decided I had enough to give a talk in Japanese. I like to think it was because I had finally attained enough language skills, but in retrospect it may have been mainly moxy.

Just four years later I have lost a huge amount of my Japanese proficiency by basically never using or studying Japanese on a regular basis. Bummer.

It's great that you can find scientific literature for your language. In this category did you included textbooks? Textbooks, whether for high-schoolers or graduate students, were the best way for me to learn technical words.

Textbooks have a beautifully transparent and simple grammatical style. Unlike with other books, the vocabulary tends to map one-to-one to technical words you already know in English. There are rarely any cultural ambiguities, differences, or distinctions you need to learn in order to read the text.

Textbooks may share all those characteristics with scientific papers, but textbooks are often much more repetitive, which is good for learning, and are usually about topics which are well-understood, meaning you can focus on resolving linguistic confusion instead of trying to resolve linguistic and scientific confusion all at once.

Female Science Professor said...

It's not a myth for me. With age, it is harder for me to remember new words; there are some words I look up many times before I remember them. When I was younger it was easier to learn other languages. Also, my young daughter became fluent in the language of our sabbatical country a few years ago; I did not.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous: 4/21/2009 03:03:00 AM

Actually, in nearly all 4 year US colleges and universities, "learning" a 2nd language IS compulsory. Though you should know better than anyone that there is learning and there is LEARNING. I am certain that you were not completely fluent in English when you (presumably) came to the US to study, much as I would not have been completely fluent were I to have gone to study in Japan after taking my required language courses.

I'm not saying it is "fair" but there simply are not as many universities that offer what I wanted in a graduate education in countries outside the US. If there were, you would likely see many English speakers going abroad to study, and thereby becoming actually fluent.

plam said...

I think it's awesome to learn another language and give a scientific talk in that language.

I gave two hiring talks in French when I was interviewing. I'd never given a talk in French before (except in high school). I don't really know how they went; I didn't get offers from those places.

Having said that, I don't know of much computer science in French (aside from a few workshops). I used this web resource (the "Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique") to translate terms.

I'm not aware of US schools where you have to take another language. Certainly I don't know of any schools in Canada where that is the case.

I've also heard that it's easier for young people to learn a language because they can focus exclusively on learning; they don't have to have a day job at the same time too.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's a myth that you must be an adult to gain fluency; I think it's just a lot easier for children to pick up a new language. Not just the vocab, as FSP alluded to, but the ability to create sounds that don't exist in your native language.

I think it would be hard to become fully fluent without actually living in a country where it's spoken on a full-time basis*. I lived overseas when my father was on sabbatical, and I noticed that those who'd learned the foreign language out of a textbook tended to talk like, well, a textbook. I would not count that as fluent...

BTW, you'll know you are fluent when you start dreaming in the language. For me, an unexpected side effect of acquiring fluency in a foreign language was that I occasionally switched from one language to another without noticing it. (I was a rather absent-minded teenager, though.)

*This includes California, if you're trying to learn Spanish.

Anne said...

I'm not sure what language you've been studying, but I actually found the basic science at least came fairly easily after learning French. I spent a year of college in France, and I would tutor my teenage host-brother in his chemie-physique course. My host-father would be amazed, but thanks to cognates I really only had a relatively limited amount of new vocab to pick up. I admit this was a fairly basic level of science, and not a talk in front an audience, but it's a start. :) I'm in grad school now...and I'm thinking I should brush up on French and maybe learn German to broaden my post-doc opportunities (even if they do publish in English). :)

John Vidale said...

My impression is that learning an extra language or two by graduate school used to be motivated by its usefulness in communicating with specialists in other countries. French and German could have been useful in my field.

English is now such a dominant part of science conversation, and expertise has spread to ever more countries with diverse languages, that the cost far outweighs the professional benefits of studying language for science.

So while language is worthwhile to study as cultural enrichment or entertainment, requiring a second language for reluctant scientists makes about as much sense as requiring sports, history or music.

Anonymous said...

How are you differentiating fluency vs ability to give a scientific talk? Being able to handle a talk and the following Q&A seems pretty fluent to me.

Anonymous said...

FSP -- Giving an academic talk is much harder than being fluent in day-to-day situations.
I am German, and I've now spent a decade of grad school, time as a post-doc and now junior faculty outside of my native country (where I did my undergrad), and I would *not* be able to give an academic talk on my research in my native tongue. I have even trouble having conversations about my research in German. This is because in most cases I don't even know the terms (all the literature is in English anyway).

Kevin said...

I took one language in high school (German), one as an undergrad (Russian), and one as a grad student (Japanese). As a young faculty member, I retook the Japanese, because I'd already lost a lot of it.

Now, many years later, I retain some of the German (enough to read a newspaper or follow a class in a subject that I know well), and essentially none of the Russian or Japanese.

Three things helped with retaining the German: learning it younger, having occasional opportunities to practice it, and greater similarity to my native English,

EliRabett said...

The primary advantage of youth is accent. It is just about impossible for an adult learner. As to words, besides dreaming, it is really strange when you are reaching for one in your native language and it pops out in your second language.

barbara said...

Full disclosure: I can write well in English but my accent is weird. Be thankful you read me and not listen to me.

@FSP: There is a very big difference between learning a new language as a child and as a grown up. But I didn't find a big difference between learning a new language at 16 and at 30, except that at 30 I had much less spare time.

@plam: "I think it's awesome to learn another language and give a scientific talk in that language."
As anonymous @3.03 pointed out, there are enough of us around doing precisely that. All our lifes long.

@Anonymous Australian: I'm intrigued by the notion that Japanese might be easier than German. Maybe I should try.

@John V: every extra language you know opens up job chances. There are universities outside North America. Plus, in my field there's a bunch of material from the 60s and 70s in French that has never been translated, so reading French is mandatory.

Ψ*Ψ said...

Can you find or arrange a weekly conversation night in the language?

Anonymous said...

I am a native Spanish speaker and did my Ph.D. work in a Spanish-speaking country. Yet, after 'only' 10 years of living in the US, I have a hard time talking about science in Spanish. I can do it, but mix tons of English words that I feel are more 'natural' in science. Often I know the Spanish words, but I still feel more comfortable with the English version. This is in part because different Spanish-speaking countries use different words for scientific terms (like everything else), and I often think that whatever comes natural to me in the Spanish of my specific country will sound funnier than using the actual English word to many Spanish-speakers in the audience.
I participated in a regional scientific conference when I was a graduate student where several American professors took the opportunity to showcase their Spanish-speaking skills. It was a lot of fun, but often we (the local students) wished they would go back English so we could actually understand the talk. My recommendation to FSP, if she gets the opportunity to give a talk in her newly learned language, is to keep the slides in English so students have a reference in case she is not as clear as she would hope to be.

John Vidale said...


True, there are jobs, but which language to learn?

I was offered a post-doc in Norway once, but hadn't the forethought to have learned Norwegian (or whatever they speak).

I interviewed at ETH once (wasn't offered the job), and the prospect of lecturing in high German and dealing with the Swiss polyglots was imposing. Again, German wasn't in the top five of languages I had ever considered.

Language as a cultural broadener is enviable and praise-worthy, just not so technically helpful. Japanese might be handy at the moment, though, wish I could pick it up in my spare time.

Anonymous said...

I am a (US-)American in graduate school in Germany. I studied German in school an as a second major in college, along spending two exchange years here, so I arrived in grad school fluent in the German language and with a lot of knowledge of German history and culture.

This constantly amazes people I meet here. They are impressed by my language skills when they catch on that I'm not German. But they are always *much more* impressed when they discover that I'm American, almost as if I had overcome some congenital defect unique to Americans that makes it impossible for them to learn foreign languages. They would clearly be far less impressed if I were, say, Belgian.

At this point in our acquaintance, the Germans often let me in on a favorite joke (which seems to be told all over the world except in the US):

What do you call a person who speaks many languages? A polyglot.
... a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
... and a person who speaks one language?


Anne said...

Hahaha I had similar reactions to my French when I spent a year abroad. The French could tell I wasn't French, but they couldn't tell where I was from, or that I'm a native English speaker. I agree that they were much more impressed with my French knowing I was American rather than from another European country. My favorite comment that I got ALL the time, always in French, when I told somebody I'm American: Oh! so you speak English?? Nooooo, I'm a white woman living in the largest English-speaking country in the world...but I don't speak English. I don't think any of them ever realized how funny it sounded.

Anonymous said...

This happens to be my area of research. It's not a myth that the earlier the better for language learning - particularly in terms of the final outcome that you can hope to achieve. However, even as an adult you can reach near-native levels of fluency, given enough exposure to the language you are trying to learn. Some elements of language seem to be more sensitive to age effects than other - the ability to acquire nativelike pronunciation is typically lost earlier.
The good news is that using more than one language on a daily basis is very good for cognitive function right into old age, though again these effects are probably stronger the earlier you started using more than one language.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

My PI and one of the postdocs are both native speakers of a language other than English; they'll often talk science in that language, but what's truly funny is to hear, "Foreign foreign foreign foreign foreign error bars foreign foreign control group foreign foreign foreign."

Those terms are most familiar to them in English, even being native speakers of other languages...

Ms.PhD said...

I won't say what language I studied, but I learned it in school classes and was dreaming in it around the end of high school/during college.

I would strongly recommend that you take the cultural and/or literature classes, assuming that they're upper-level classes taught IN your language.

I actually found that the advanced reading assignments coupled with class discussion and the lectures being taught immersion-style vastly advanced my ability to speak and understand the language.

I also recommend that, since you're on a real university campus, you can probably find a dining hall or cultural group that brings together native speakers with students of the language. Many places have these. Informal dinners/coffee with speaking buddies are also a great way to build vocabulary and fluency.

Have fun! I agree, learning another language is good for the brain. I would have been happy to continue the one I learned in school (mostly forgotten now through disuse) and learn another one. I have started trying to teach myself a third language, but it's hard to stay motivated when you don't have the structured practice time with other students and a specific goal (i.e. give a talk in a particular country in that language).

And which one I would most need to learn now is up for debate in the great science race.