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Fearing French and Embracing Esperanto

This post is about why I fear French, and what my attempt at taking this problem on has taught me. This is one of the most personal blog posts I’ve made in several years, but in it are lessons for nearly everyone, especially if you are considering learning a second language

[UPDATE 01-25-2014]: There seems to be some confusion about my use of the term “polyglot” in this post. I am not equating programming languages with spoken languages. I am comparing the introduction of a new skill in an existing domain. Also, I’m referencing a talk by Adam Jacob, a well known member of the system adminstrator community about how we system administrators are “polyglot programmers”.

My Background

I was born just outside of Paris in 1978. My father was French, and my mother is an American who went to Paris to perfect her art and ended up marrying a Frenchman. They intended to spend the rest of their lives in Paris and so when I was born, they decided to make English the “home language”- thereby ensuring my fluency.

When I was just over two years old, my parents moved to the United States, and while I had been absorbing French, I wasn’t any more fluent than any other two year old. English remained our home language in the US.

French was spoken in my home, but it was never spoken to me. My parents used it to communicate with each other as a sort of secret code. They did this in delicate situations outside, but they also used it to argue in front of me so that I couldn’t understand them.

The attitude my parents took was that I should learn French- but that I should do so on my own. My father recorded French in Action off the television for me and asked me to watch it.

Every few years, I would return to France with my family and be reminded by my grandparents and uncle that I should speak French, and that it was a shame, or a failing, that I didn’t.

I took a French class in college, and it also used French in Action, and I learned only marginally more than I had before, from watching the course on television- which is very little. While I could understand the lessons, the structure of the quizzes and the time allotted meant that I had virtually no time to figure it out. I’d misread or misunderstand a question, get the first five answers wrong, then I’d figure it out and get most of the next ones correct. But the professor never took that into consideration, and I failed each quiz. Each failure meant each time, I was increasingly deflated, and eventually I fell behind. Even if I had aced the final exam, I would have failed the course due to the quizzes.

What makes this tragic is that I am, in fact, a French citizen.

And as a French citizen, I’m required to fill out paperwork in French. Years of anxiety and shame have left me with a feeling of dread on the topic. Even writing this out, I feel my jaw clench and the tips of my fingers become numb.

The Polyglot

Switching gears, as Adam Jacob would say, I am a polyglot. I do not speak any other natural language, but I able to program competently in four programming languages, as well as another half dozen with some help.

In addition to programming, I was a system administrator for over a decade, where it was my job to work on vastly different systems and in some cases make them communicate with each other.

How could it be that I could excel at quickly understanding and working with computer languages and systems, but with spoken language be nearly crippled. Certainly this was indicative of something being wrong.

I needed to figure out what the connection, or more accurately the disconnection was between these two skills.

Mastering a spoken language and programming a computer are entirely different, but the essence of my search is not comparing the two, but rather comparing learning an additional programming language with learning an additional spoken language.

The programming languages people may be familiar with are things like C, C++, Java or Python. All of those languages are popular, and all of them are similar. But there are other programming languages too, such as Javascript, Clojure, Haskell, Erlang and Prolog. You may have heard of Javascript, but it’s less likely that you’re familiar with the others. Programming in any of these languages is different than programming in Java. Each requires learning not just a syntax, but a change in programming style altogether. Each of these languages will teach you a new way of interacting with the computer and a new way of thinking about computer programming.

Of the languages listed, I only know Clojure and Javascript, but I’m confident that I could learn any of the languages I mentioned because I’ve made the leap in the past. I’ve learned new programming languages successfully, even when they required a major change in mindset.

Rethinking Language Learning

How could I transfer my computer language skills to spoken language?

There were lots of TED talks on this very subject.

Chris Lonsdale says you can be fluent any language in six months, and Conor Quinn says I can start speaking in 10 days.

Benny Lewis talks about hacking language learning and Sid Efromvich has 5 techniques to speak any language.

If you’re interested in language acquisition, I suggest watching all of these talks, as they each teach something different and complementary, but what they had in common was:

  1. Communicate as early as you can, even if you aren’t speaking

  2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because it’s inevitable

  3. Learn/speak in a way that’s relevant to you personally

  4. Retrain your ears and your mouth

  5. Language acquisition is a skill

  6. Language acquisition is a skill that’s best learned when we’re mentally at ease

For me, those last two were the most important.

Knowing that language acquisition itself is a skill changes the process from “Learning French” to “Learning Language Acquisition”, and all of those years of shaming, whether by family or academia, helps explain why that process has been so difficult.

There were two ways to approach this problem. The first was to try to emotionally move past the issues I’ve had with French and try again, the other option was to learn an entirely different language in order to gain the skills of language acquisition and then apply those skills to French. As you might guess from the title of this post, I opted for the second and decided to learn Esperanto.

Esperanto

The natural question at this point is either “Why Esperanto?” or possibly “What is Esperanto?”

Esperanto is a constructed language, in other words it’s a language which was created by a person or persons intentionally, rather than having developed naturally over hundreds or thousands of years as most languages do.

I’d known about Esperanto for many years. It’s mentioned casually in the BBC show Red Dwarf, where all the ship’s signs are posted in both English and Esperanto. I’d also heard about it because more than a few students from Central and Eastern Europe that I knew spoke about it, but I didn’t think anything of it.

It’s only now with the convergence of my interest in learning French and my reading Land of Invented Languages which has sparked my interest. As a practical exercises in language acquisition, Esperanto comes with some very impressive credentials.

The aforementioned Benny Lewis claims that just two weeks of Esperanto can get you months ahead in your target language, Esperanto USA claims that Esperanto is four times easier to learn than any other language, and Wikipedia has an extensive article on the foreign language benefits of Esperanto.

This idea is summarized well by this talk by Tim Morley entitled Teach Esperanto First, where he describes the process of teaching children Esperanto in order for them to gain language acquisition skills, applicable in any language.

This idea of a simplified first language resonated with me, just as I think that Python is a great first programming language.

There are many resources for learning Esperanto online, including and especially lernu.net.net, which I have been using. In addition, there are books online, including audiobooks at LibriVox.

Why Esperanto is Easy

I’ve been using the Lernu online course for about two weeks now and I have to say that it’s been wonderful. Along with some basic understanding of the Esperanto grammar, I’ve been able to learn an incredible amount in a very short time. The language is extremely elegant in that every word is constructed from a root word and then modified using a series of simple prefixes or suffixes.

From a vocabulary perspective, Esperanto is also very easy as most of the words have a Latin, German or English root, and because English is composed so largely of French and German roots already, it makes acquisition that much easier. For example the word for dog is hundo (nouns all end in -o), the root being the German “hund”, which in English became “hound”, and so on.

Between the partially familiar vocabulary and the simple rule based word construction, understanding Esperanto is fairly straightforward. Obviously mastering any language takes time, but Esperanto gives the learner a step up at each hurdle.

Even the simple words have hints about their meaning in them. The word kio such as in the sentence “Kio estas tio? (What is that?) vs the word kiu, such as in the “Kiu estas tiu?” (Who is that?). The -o at the end of kio indicates that the question is a “What”, which is the same as the -o ending used by all nouns. The -u indicates a pronoun question, “Who”. But just by remembering the -o noun rule, one can differentiate the two words.

The phonetics of Esperanto are fairly easy. Each word is spelled phonetically, with no silent letters, two letter combinations or verb modifiers. The sounds used in the language are relatively familiar to English speakers who’ve listened to European languages and are easy to pick up.

Esperanto Challenges

There are a few challenges with learning Esperanto. Because it’s an auxiliary language, there are fewer people using it every day for one on one interactions and so you see less original culture in Esperanto than you do in a natural language.

In addition, because Esperanto is usually learned as a second language, it’s slightly more difficult to train your ears and your mouth to the language because each Esperanto speaker has a slightly different accent based on their linguistic or geographic background. Even the few native speakers purportedly have slightly different accents. This is somewhat offset by the fact that most Esperanto is spoken relatively slowly in the various recordings that I’ve heard.

All in all, the downsides issues are minor compared to the ease of language acquisition that Esperanto provides, and there is a lot more in Esperanto than in other constructed languages such as such as Lojban, Ido or Interlingua.

Learning Esperanto

If you want to learn Esperanto, I recommend the course I’m taking at Lernu, followed up by checking out this amazing resource of links to travel groups, books and podcasts in Esperanto from the Esperanto club at the University of Rochester.

I have a long way to go until I’m fluent in Esperanto, but I feel that with a new framework for examining language learning as well as the experience of Esperanto under my belt, I will be in an excellent place to not only speak with other Esperanto speakers, but to be able to tackle my fears of French.

Ĝis la revido!