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An English-Speaker Abroad

I’m back from Lisbon [edit: that was actually in November, but for some reason I wrote this at the time and left it in drafts]. When I got back from Italy (Naples, Rome, Florence and briefly Venice) I wrote a big post with a degree of care to be on-topic for the design aspect of this blog, but this time I only promise on-topic for the aspect where I ramble about anything that interests me.

Today it’s language.

English Privilege

I mean the language, but sometimes also the nationality. I leave you to pick apart the rest of the section and work out which is which.

Firstly, and so that anyone who is going to dislike the tone of this article (and frankly this blog) can decide whether to read on, I’d like to say this, because I think a lot of the people it applies to don’t realise it:

It is an incredible privilege to be a native English speaker while travelling in Europe.

Certainly it’s true that individual restaurants here and there may have a menu available in French or German, but having been to (relatively touristy or metropolitan) corners of Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal I’ve found that you can generally count on a menu (and staff) using English in addition to the local language.

And without speaking for the US (but I bet they’re not much better), or other English-speaking countries (even the rest of the UK), we don’t deserve that. I’ve often heard an English attitude that ‘we don’t need to learn their language, they all speak English’, completely without irony or appreciation that it’s true (practically, not morally) because ‘they’ (the faceless, dehumanised ‘others’ that the sentiment implies) have taken the opposite approach: that they’ll learn our language in case we haven’t got around to theirs (or more tragically, because they can predict that we won’t bother). And frankly, we need to pay attention to who are the better people in that scenario.

Which is why I always try to learn some of the language before going somewhere, and why it annoys me all the more that I’m always too anxious to try using any of it.

‘Strange’ Languages

So I’ll try and filter the rest of the post for my English-speaker tendencies, particularly that I was able to learn a relatively ‘difficult’ language – laden with irregularities and exceptions – over the course of several years in a mostly risk-free environment. I won’t filter for being a formal-systems freak (technical game designer and mathematician), since that’s a good lens for what I want to say. Let’s also note that I’m not a linguist; while that would be fascinating I’m not motivated enough to be a polymath (and maybe a few hundred years too late).

It’s tempting to think of another language as ‘strange’ or similar absolute term, but it’s fairer and more helpful to think of it as ‘strange to me’. More usefully (and carefully resisting labouring the general point about appreciating the difference between your personal viewpoint and wider reality), a language is probably strange to you because of how much it differs from the ones you know.

Italian wasn’t very strange to me. I didn’t get deep into the grammar but it seemed similar enough to Latin; I don’t actually read or speak Latin but the grammar feels like grammar should, with clear rules, exceptions kept to a relative minimum, etc. I spent a while with the pronunciation guide for Italian, and while the rules are numerous, they’re applied pretty consistently.

Counting Rules

Arguably there’s some tautology there, because when you’re a learner (or a machine, or a big fan of formal systems), a rule is of little use if it’s not applied consistently: not only do you need additional rules to know how to deal with exceptions, but those rules must explain how to spot them in the first place.

You can get a feel for (or formally postulate, if you wanted more rigour than I’m going to bother with) the complexity of a thing by examining how many rules govern it. And I mean all the rules, including additional ones to cover special cases and other exceptions, because a learner can’t simply wave their hands and dismiss those as unimportant, as an old hand might.

But more relevantly, a reasonable metric for the complexity the system presents you would be how many of its rules differ from the ones you’re used to. A very English-like language might still have a lot of rules (it probably wouldn’t be very English-like if it weren’t crammed with crazy special cases), but if a lot of rules can be simplified to ‘same as in English’ then that’ll feel less strange to English-speakers.

End of Subsection

Have you noticed how our notation for subsections doesn’t include a notion of returning to the main body from a parenthetical discussion? You basically need to find a section heading that indicates a return to the main stream.

But anyway, Italian has a fair few rules for pronunciation, but nowhere near as many as English (where e.g. each word ending ‘ough’ or ‘ought’ needs its own listing in one of the rules for those spellings). And learning them is interesting, because you start to see the loan-words that English-speakers pronounce relatively well (spaghetti, lasagna*, fettuccine, pizza) and the ones that they don’t (‘bolognese’, most words with ‘z’ in that aren’t pizza).

* And armed with a little grammar, you can see why ‘lasagne’ isn’t supposed to end in ‘a’. But worrying about how people use loan words is fraught with the risk of them saying ‘this is how we do it here’.

Portuguese is more different still. I got even less far into the grammar (more about that below), which is probably similar to other romance languages, but its pronunciation is much further from English.

Adventures in Duolingo

Duolingo is pretty cool. Sign up to learn a language and it gives you a structured course that you can follow in bite-sized chunks, perhaps 10-20 minutes each day, with audio (and speech recognition, but I turned that off), reinforcement through repetition, and other good learning-based things. I figured it might be a good head-start on Portuguese.

It occurred to me relatively early that I should check whether this probably US-centric site was offering Brazilian Portuguese or the older kind (what should one call the ‘classic’ versions of these languages? I normally use ‘Spanish Spanish’ and ‘Portuguese Portuguese’, but that gets clumsy quickly). I’d been told they were very different, and sure enough Duolingo’s course is in PT-BR, but I figured it might still be valuable.

The stranger thing was the structure of the course. Now I suspect this varies by language, since Duolingo is operating the trendy ‘crowd-source it for free, dress it up and charge for it’ business model, but PT-BR for EN-* speakers has strange priorities. A chapter on ‘man, woman, boy, girl’ is fair enough (although in practice there’s a word for ‘lady’ that might be better in PT-PT, and used badly ‘woman’ would be interpreted as ‘wife’), but I got as far as ‘25% fluent’ without leaving the present tense. Just think how many of your sentences you’d have to ditch (or gesticulate wildly over) if you didn’t have the tools to talk about the past or the future.

Of course, a few days before the trip I panicked and stopped paying attention to the pushy reminders. I’d been learning the wrong dialect, it would all be wrong, and I wouldn’t have the nerve to try and speak it anyway. I would stick to reading signs, with a combination of the phrasebook and etymology from other languages (like in Italy: “What does this sign mean?” “The one with the skull? Pretty sure that’s “Don’t touch: Danger of Death.” “How do you know that?”…)


(And let’s not forget, I’m generalising wildly, as only someone who doesn’t really speak either can.)

One thing that interested me is that if Duolingo is to be trusted, Brazilian Portuguese is actually a little easier (by which I probably mean ‘English-like’, but it’s also a bit more like other romance languages). There’s a slightly counterintuitive rule whereby ‘t’ and ‘d’ go soft before ‘i’ and ‘e’ (sounding more like ‘tch’ and ‘dj’, respectively), but that’s what ‘c’ and ‘g’ do in Italian, so it’s not so strange. ‘ã’ sounds easy enough*, although I was probably doing it wrong; in PT-PT it implies not only intoning it partly through your nose, but also in some cases a strange phantom ‘n’ on the end of the vowel.

* You could see it as a testament to the ‘strangeness’ of PT that ‘ã’ is Alt+198, and to find it just now I had to go right through all the curses border characters (e.g. ┬ and ┼) since the accents from French, German and even Norwegian are mostly in Alt+13x, 14x or 15x.

Learning Strategies

In case you didn’t notice, I’m not really going anywhere with this any more. I’m just on tour, which won’t surprise anyone who’s heard me speak.

When I was at school, modern languages were taught in a conversational way, talking about topics we might reasonably use, interrupted by exercises in grammar. This was in an era when teaching formal grammar in English lessons had gone out of fashion, so while my practical grammar is good (from lots of practice and reading some style guides etc.) I’m missing lots of the terms that I should have to discuss it formally.

It was a system that got me a B in GCSE French without any confidence in using it. In nothing else does my academic grade feel less representative of my actual ability. But even now a few phases have stuck, mostly the ones about introducing myself, asking directions, saying what I did on holiday, etc. (Although I suspect I’m no longer onze ans).

By contrast at university, armed with the aforementioned love of formal systems, I found the perfect book to teach me Latin: a carefully structured course that gradually unveiled the rules and vocab in a way that never asked you to take any statement on trust. The problem is, if you learn that way you basically can’t say much until you’ve learned a lot of rules, and I never really got that far. (I have the companion-title for ancient Greek. I’ve barely opened it.)

Duolingo (PT-BR for EN-* speakers; ymmv) is more like the school approach. ‘Here are some useful words and phrases, put together in ways that help you practice. Hopefully you’ll start to spot the patterns.’ This is a good way of learning those words and phrases, and is evidently the natural way to teach young children their native language(s), but it takes a long time to get far enough to solve problems outside the sample set.

But probably it always does.

While I may play with Duolingo in the meantime (although I’m going to switch language now, probably), for the next trip I’ll just cram with the phrase book and its mini dictionary. And definitely find audio sources to help with pronunciation (which is where Duolingo excels, provided you are actually learning the right dialect).

And I’ll have to fall back on English, ultimately. But I still hope not to be someone who didn’t try and doesn’t care.

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Name: Matthew