Saturday, 15 September 2018

Some things about language learning.

I am having a go at learning Greek with the Michel Thomas method. Many famous people have used this method, which worked very well for me for learning Italian and quite well for Portuguese. I need to take the Portuguese to a higher level to really assess how well it has worked. But for now I am trying Greek, prior to a trip to Greece next month.

The method involves listening to recorded material which introduces you to various elements of language and then asks you to put them together in simple, and then increasingly complex, sentences. The constant repetition and reviewing helps the language go in. The recording includes two “students” who have a go at the tasks set by the teacher. The listener joins in as a third student and can pause the recording to try to complete before checking with the recording. The two recorded students serve to ask questions the listener might plausibly raise.

I am not sure if the two students on the Greek course are the same as on the Portuguese course. They sound very similar. If they are the same, then these two must be polyglots by now!

At the point I reached yesterday the cd teacher introduced us to the Greek equivalent of the French “n’est-ce pas” or the Spanish “no” at the end of a statement. This is the expression used at the end of a statement to confirm it: You don’t like eggs, do you? You go on holiday a lot, don’t you? You are English, aren’t you? In English we have a whole range of questions, but other languages make do with one all-purpose expression. This can lead to some confusion; we have a Spanish friend who insists on using “not” in English in the same way as he uses “no” in Spanish. For example: It’s a lovely day, not? That was a nice meal, not? We keep explaining it but he always forgets. Bad habits become ingrained very easily!

Anyway, on the Greek recording one “student” asked for a repeat of the explanation. The teacher was floundering a little when the other “student” suddenly said, “Oh! It’s Greek for “innit?” The Greek teacher was delighted and enthused over how well he had explained the expression.

And I am afraid my heart kind of sank. I first encountered “innit” when I worked in a college with a high percentage Indian and Pakistani student intake. I was at first amused at their use of “innit?, a contraction of “isn’t it?”. Gradually I started to hear it more and more. It became a standard part of young-people speak. But until now I never heard it used by sensible grown-up people. Things have moved on, clearly, if I am hearing it on a language learning course.

 “Innit? has gone from young people’s slang, and originally young Asian male slang in my experience, into everyday use, has it? Or perhaps I should say “innit”?

This language learning stuff is important. Many people apparently think that the ability to speak English is an integral part of being British. Apparently it is an important requirement when you apply for British citizenship. I can think of people I have come across, people born and brought up here, people of long-established British families, whose standard of English leaves a fair amount to be desired. The same thing applies to questions about British culture. If they set me a test on Coronation Street and Eastenders, I would fail. Would they throw me out as a consequence?

The problem with a big emphasis on use of the English language is that it can give rise to racism. I read that the UK’s 2011 Census included questions about language for the first time. The results showed that 138,000 UK residents (0.3% of the population) reported that they could not speak any English. Apparently some of the press reporting on this ignored the 99.7% who answered that they could speak English and printed headlines along the lines of “Migrants shun the English language”. Some people only see the headline and don’t read the detail!

Politicians declaring that immigrants to the Uk should be “made” to speak English don’t help matters.

Personally, I would be interested to know how many of the British who live in Spain or France speak the language of the country where they have chosen to live!

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