Sunday, 19 June 2011

Perfectly learning a little of a language

My position

First things first, I may be making some posts soon on another blog, that might lead one or two people to resort to their standard defensive tactic of labelling people that disagree with them as perfectionists, non-speakers etc. etc. How you use a word is very important (as anybody learning languages should know very well). Most people would not like to be labelled a "perfectionist" however many of us would happily admit to "perfecting" a skill. Many of use may even admit to something like "when it comes to x, I am a bit of a perfectionist". Hey maybe if you are about to have heart surgery you may be happy to hear that your surgeon is a perfectionist. As with all language, context and scope are very important to meaning so let us throw the dictionaries away. I hope that the title of this post "Perfectly learning a little of a language" is clear enough.

I have nothing against learning a little of a language, in fact it can have many benefits.

One major benefit

There are many benefits to learning a little of a language, however I will introduce one that I have noticed many times. In many cultures people grow up knowing both their mother tongue and a little of other languages that are geographically close to them. They may not consider themselves able to speak the other language but they know a little, picked up from media, parody, eating places, friends, a year or two lessons at school etc. etc. Many American speakers of English probably know at least a smattering of Spanish words, many UK English speakers will know at least a little French.

Many Chinese speakers I meet know a little Japanese (if from Taiwan maybe more than a little). They may know a little Korean, at least how to greet and say thank you in Thai etc. They may be aware of new words or cognates that have been introduced to their language via the media from other Asian languages or vice-versa. Sometimes they will use these words in casual conversation with their friends, or at least they will be aware where the words have come from.

If you want to really get into a language then learning the same "little" of a few other languages that most natives will know is a huge boost. At the very least you will be able to start spotting and understanding cognates in their language that don't just come from yours. If I ever had doubts about this though, one time sitting at a table with people from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, England (including second generation Chinese) etc. and spending a evening chatting and eating would have dispelled that doubt. Even if I never pursue them further knowing a little Japanese and a little Cantonese has more then paid itself back on a number of occasions.


So in my book knowing a little of a language is perfectly fine (another incarnation of that word perfect again) but I am pleased to be constantly perfecting my Chinese (and selected other languages). In case it every comes up it should be quite clear what kind of perfectionist I am without having to resort to a dictionary.

An of course if you read my last post you can see how learning a little bit eventually doesn't require much effort.

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