Languages by immersion!

17 04 2012

In many years in Norway I learnt what a few friends call my personal Norwegian: far from being good, I do understand and people i general understand me when I speak Norwegian. I had a one month immersion course before starting the first semester as student at NTNU in Trondheim. From that course I learned almost nothing! Met nice people, had a very nice teacher, but besides the basics like “How are you?, What’s your name?, Where do you come from?” I leaned very little! And especially very little useful in a technical University!

So when the semester started I had to make a choice: follow the steps of a few fellow exchange student and enroll myself to some serious language courses (3 hours in the evening, 2-3 times per week) or use the same time for something else, more inspiring and interesting for my international experience.

I chose the second road, also thinking that since almost all subjects had books in English (some even classes, even if I never asked for that myself!), I could cope one way or another. And technical Norwegian is not that different from technical Italian-English-Spanish-French, so with my linguistics basics or language similarities (Italian-Spanish-French) I would have been able to understand the most.

I was not wrong!

But the extra teaching, especially in everyday life, started when I started practicing Aikido.. where all the sessions were taught in Norwegian! That became also my main Norwegian environment! True enough, every Norwegian person can understand and speak a very good English, so my interaction with them was never a problem, even at the beginning. But then I liked so much Aikido from the very beginning that I took part to all the possible sessions, receiving a very good full immersion in Norwegian language!

In fact, this winter, when I was in Italy and I have been asked to teach one Aikido session in my hometown, I was extremely nervous especially for.. the language!!! First time teaching Aikido in Italian!!!

Now in China, in Hefei especially, one would then think that I have learnt a perfect Chinese already. Unfortunately this is far from reality: the immersion in the local language is almost total, true, but since this language has very little in common (nothing!) with any of the languages I (more or less) know, the learning results are.. desperately bad!!!

I admit I had hoped to learn more Chinese by osmosis, but the lack of any real basics has proven to be a quite large difficult to overcome.

Also with Norwegian, at the beginning, I did struggle a lot to identify words, where they were starting and ending, parts of sentences, distinguish verbs from nouns for example. With Chinese.. ehm.. it is a nightmare! OK, in truth, the nightmare is little less scary nowadays. Still not understanding much, I can identify more words inside a sentence. From time to time I even manage to get a global understanding during a discussion (at work!) but it depends much more from an empathic (or empathetic) point of view, good technical background and visual understanding of reports/slides (that are in Chinese, but plots and diagrams are.. international!).

Studies have shown that learning by immersion give excellent results. With this in mind I have started using 2 methods: Pimsleur method and a website teaching system called Yabla.

Pimsleur method

During the lunch breaks at work I have started to listen to Chinese lessons based on Pimsleur method. I bought the lessons from a friend that had decided to focus on Japanese language and not studying Chinese anymore. The method is focused on listen & repeat, like a good martial art teaching is just watch & repeat actually!

Unfortunately, I have learnt using this method that I do need some visual aids! So I found on internet some transcripts of the lessons and I tried as well to write down (at least the pinyin) of the dialogues.. and searching around I have found out the stupidity that sometimes accompany a success: Pimsleur people forced the guy of the previous blog to remove what it was so useful to me.. silly!

Like Pimsleur it is a method based on dialogues as well, but in this case videos with a full interacting window that presents also all the keywords in Chinese, pinyin and English translation.

It has a huge variety of videos of very different topics, definitively not banal or teaching only the kind of sentences as “How are you?, What’s your name?, Where do you come from?”. Watching an interesting video practicing a few Chinese words is not a bad way for learning some! And the video difficulty ranges from basic to super advanced. Some examples: Apartment – Bargaining, Italian Wine, The role of marriage in society, Resturant – Ordering, Food – Cooking Ingredients, etc etc.

Furthermore, the system presents you with flashcard and listening games related to the watched videos.

The flashcard is my love & hate section: being tone deaf as I am, the Chinese tones are a nightmare, so I decided to stick to a slow training with the very complete flashcard system: not only meaning, but Chinese characters and pinyin with the correct tones are part of every session training! Yeah, love & hate for me!!

All in all, Yabla was suggested by a friend and it has become much more interesting and effective than Pimsleur for my slow, extremely slow learning curve! And need in visualizing the words, not only learning the sounds!

Yabla is available for different languages as well: Chinese for me, but also Italian (no, I’m not working there.. yet!), Spanish, German & French.

So, my suggestion is:

Yabla yourself up!



2 responses

17 04 2012
David S. Wills

Thanks for the link and the heads-up on Yabla. I’ll definitely give it a try!


25 04 2012

There is a lot of italians in Trondheim and each time I hear them talk I think about you, and that you’re living in China, and that it is freakin awesome, for you! 🙂


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