Feb 3, 2008

On Learning Foreign Languages and the Internet

I have long been fascinated with learning languages other than my native English, and I can remember as a child that I would find, say, a cross referenced Spanish-English dictionary, to provide hours of entertainment. I continue to slowly develop my ability to communicate in a multiplicity of languages, and I have found the Internet to be a useful medium for polishing foreign language skills.

As a historian whose primary field is modern Europe, I have a vested interest in being able to jump back and forth betwen languages with at least a beginning level of comprehension. Still, there is something especially gratifying about meeting a foreign visitor and at least being able to say "Hello" in their native tongue. When I used to wait tables, I kept a piece of paper with me that contained fifteen languages and a dozen or so basic phrases. You'd be surprised how quickly, for example, a table of Pakistani expatriates would warm up when I said "Thank You" (shukriya) and "You're Welcome" (koi baat nahin) in Urdu, and I am sure that I was able to improve my gratuities by taking the extra effort to communicate with foreign guests.

The Web allows a person to instantaneously connect with people from all over the planet in conversation. The other night I was bored, and decided to play backgammon on Yahoo Games. My partner for the moment was a 36-year-old man from Istanbul, and we traded a few bits of language and culture in the three games we played.

In my email box each morning arrive foreign words of the day from Transparent Language. When I click on the links, I can hear native speakers pronounce the word and use it in a sentence. I currently receive Italian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and French words to practice each day, and this helps me keep fresh a language that I do not often use. In addition, the Internet seems to be able to provide an almost unlimited number of language dictionaries, making available such previously obscure languages as Yucatecan Maya or Ulwa available to a global audience.

My interest in Wikipedia, while occasionally a time-sucking habit, nonetheless allows me to connect with native speakers in dozens of languages. I am also able to use my Wikipedia user page to link with other users who share a given interest in linguistics and specific languages.

While there is no substitute for complete immersion in a culture to speed up the language acquisition process, the Internet has opened quite a few doors for me in my quest to master foreign languages. I suspect that there are many more opportunities on the Internet than the ones I have mentioned to polish language skills, and I eagerly await the continued evolution of the Web as a medium of interlingual exchange.

1 comment:

microdot said...

I highly recommend the Living Language software!
I have had the French Course for a few years and it really helps...
Grammar, conjugations, usage...it's all there with Quicktime Videos and pronunciation evaluation!
It's interactive enough to help build conversation skills.