Help me sound like I know a lot of foreign languages.
December 17, 2008 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me sound like I know a lot of foreign languages.

-I want to spend 30 mins a day for a month to sound as fluent in a foreign language as possible.
-I'll be using VTrain / leitner cardfile system / staggered repetition after the 30 days to maintain what I've learned.
-So in 6 months I should be pseudo-fluent in 6 languages...

The use cases are:
-Amaze co-workers with phrases like, "Good morning," "Let's go eat lunch," "Good night," "See you tomorrow."
-Dazzle strangers from faraway lands with phrases like "I only speak a little [LANGUAGE]," "I don't understand," "My name is [NAME]," "Nice meeting you," "I taught myself a little [LANGUAGE]," "What part of [COUNTRY] are you from," "Nice weather," etc.
-Make my wife swoon by saying "I love you" in a dizzying number of languages.

First I'll need a list of common interchanges, starting with the basics. Almost a flowchart of question:responses. For example:


"Good morning."
"Good morning."

"Good morning."
"Oh! Your [LANGUAGE] is very good!"

"Good morning."
"How are you?"

Then I'll need the actual translations and cultural insights that go along with each interchange in each language.

I think a simple way to do this would be to buy the basic Pimsleur for each language, and listen to one language a month. However, Pimsleur's curriculum goes into more detail than is necessary for the casual faux speaker.

What I would really appreciate, is if you guys know of any resources that will help me with my project, e.g.:
-Do you know of a list of common foreign language phrases that, say, covers 75% of "casual interchange" use cases?
-A site or product that provides audio specifically for commonly used phrases / interchanges?
-Any other tips or resources that come to mind.

Languages I already speak:
-Japanese (intermediate)

Languages I want to learn the basics of:

Thanks in advance.
posted by blahtsk to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
1. Make a list of all the languages you want to learn. (You've done this already!)
2. Make a list of all the phrases you want to learn in each language.
3. Translate, or have someone translate, each of these phrases into the languages from #1.
4. Study the final list for 30 minutes per day until you achieve desired results.
5. Profit.
posted by nitsuj at 10:55 AM on December 17, 2008

I really like My Daily Phrase Italian. It might cover more than what you're looking for, but was a great basic intro to Italian. You could probably pick and choose which podcasts to listen to.
posted by at 11:04 AM on December 17, 2008

It sounds like you're looking for Mango Languages, which will at least cover you for French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Mandarin; I'm not sure what it costs for an individual subscription, but check if your local library subscribes. (At my library, you can log in from home with a library card.) It's an audio-based program, not quite as intense as Pimsleur.
posted by Jeanne at 11:24 AM on December 17, 2008

Travel guides are often a pretty good source of basic conversational openers; filter through the "where is the bus station" parts and a lot of the Lonely Planet/Let's Go guides have good basic phrase guides in them.

By the way, no offense intended, but if a coworker of mine felt it necessary to "amaze" me every day by saying "good morning" or "what's for lunch" in a different language for no other reason than to show off how many languages they knew, after about three days I'd want to punch that coworker in the throat.
posted by pdb at 11:26 AM on December 17, 2008 [9 favorites]

Why would you want an extremely superficial knowledge of some 11 languages when you could devote 6 months (minimum, probably) to achieving intermediate proficiency in one more, and then be able to truly claim that you are at least conversant in 3 languages? That would be much more impressive.

Perhaps I was thrown off by the involvement of the term 'fluent', as your stated goals otherwise don't suggest that fluency is an actual criterion for this enterprise. But if impressing people is the real goal (looks like it to me), I would suggest that, again, being conversant in x languages is much more impressive than knowing how to say "Good morning, I love you" in xx... languages. Spitting out a few memorized phrases may charm a native speaker for a mere moment until they realize that, yeah, you weren't even interested enough in their language and culture to spend more than 15 hours listening to tapes of it.
posted by xanthippe at 11:36 AM on December 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

I've been to Berlitz for Italian. They will do that for you. It will cost more than a regular course, because (obviously) it's private instruction. You tell them what you want to learn and they'll teach you.
posted by Zambrano at 11:37 AM on December 17, 2008

Yeah, as someone who apparently sounds like the guy you want to be, I advise you against being that guy. I worked at the front desk of a hotel for years. By the time I left I could check people in, and get through the basic pleasantries, in maybe nine languages.

For example, I speak fluent Japanese down a very narrow channel of "How many nights are you staying?" "May I see your passport?" and "The elevator is around the corner to your left." But if a Japanese guest came back to ask me directions to a shoe repair store or where he could get tickets to a hockey game, I would be no help whatsoever.

And at least once a month I would get the question "Wow! How many languages do you speak?" My truthful response: "Fluently? Counting English, none."

I must agree with pdb and xanthippe: I don't really see a way to do this without coming across like a poseur. But yes, if you're dead set on it, Charles Berlitz's Around the World in 80 Words is probably right up your alley and will save you having to track down a dozen individual "______ For Travellers" volumes. I see it frequently in used bookstores.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:47 AM on December 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

What you want are phrasebooks, as pdb says.

Here's many online from WikiTravel.
posted by vacapinta at 11:47 AM on December 17, 2008

I love learning languages and spend a lot of time working very hard to do so, even spending a few months abroad each year to develop my skills or to take on a new one. Believe me, your goal will impress no one but the very stupid. It will become obvious to anyone who can actually speak any of your "faux" languages that you learned a few phrases (at best.) And to be honest, without decent training, you will probably butcher those phrases in some way that will be less than impressive. I mean, I took Hungarian full-time as a beginner, and no one in my class could really utter "köszönöm" (thank you) or "jó napot kívánok" (a basic greeting) or "elnézést" (excuse me) with any real degree of flair in prononciation until about three intensive weeks in . . . and many of us spoke five or six diverse languages already.

If I met you and you attempted this, I'd probably belittle you endlessly - and I'm a nice person who normally wouldn't do that sort of thing! Somehow, this feels more offensive than anything else. I'd rather know someone who worked hard to learn something really well than someone who attempts to impress as a dilettante.

Not to mention the very idea that you could learn enough of most languages to cover "75% of "casual interchange" use cases" is pretty crazed. In most languages, it'd be just as easy to learn the whole language than attempt to fake one's way through 75% of basic exchanges.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:11 PM on December 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

Let's tackle your use cases one by one:

UC:001 - (Amaze co-workers) - feasible, if they are your common-or-garden variety unilinguists. difficult, if you reside in a cosmopolitan area.

UC:002 - (Dazzle strangers from faraway lands) - they will politely indulge your poseur tendencies but privately think you're a tool

UC:003 - (Make my wife swoon) - she'll groan but chalk it up to yet another quirk that she loves about you
posted by randomstriker at 12:15 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dazzle strangers from faraway lands with phrases like
I always hated it when people tried their german on me. I would usually respond in german and they would look at me confused.
posted by krautland at 12:33 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, as other people have pointed out to you, this may not be as easy as you think it is -- I've posted briefly on this topic before, but just to take one of your languages as an example: Mandarin Chinese is a really difficult language to pronounce properly, especially if you did not grow up speaking a tonal language. I mean my parents speak it fluently, I was sent to years of Chinese school, and I took it in university, and one of my Chinese friends was _still_: "Ha ha, you speak Chinese like a white guy!"

To take another example, someone posted a link to a documentary about Americans who were captured during the Korean war and defected to Communist China. There was an interview with one guy who had lived in Communist China for, I think 25 years -- and his accent was _still incredibly awful_. I don't mean to bash on what he learned, since I'm sure it was tough for him, but basically every word he said could have four meanings because he didn't do a tone, so you had to basically guess which one of four words it was based on context.

I have actually never met anybody who didn't grow up speaking Chinese who has a good accent, and that includes myself.

Don't get me wrong -- if I were in a foreign country where I couldn't speak the language, and someone took the time to pick up a language I _could_ understand, I would really really appreciate it.

But I was at a Chinese restaurant the other day, and some fellow who had been trying to pick up a bit of the language was trying out some Mandarin on the host. Now first of all, from what I gathered, everybody in the restaurant primarily spoke Cantonese, so, you know, strike one. Secondly, I felt really bad for the host, because the interchange went something like:

HOST: "How many?"
WHITE DUDE: (some garbled syllable)

The host is staring at the white dude with a puzzled expression on his face, and the white dude is like, "Uh, four!" And the host smiles the broad, painful smile of embarrassment and says "Oh, yes!" And then he says the word four in Chinese, but, you know, properly, and he says "Very good!" But you can tell he doesn't _mean_ very good, because 'very good' would have been understandable right out from the onset.

When I left, the white dude was quizzing the waitress on "What do you call this" and doing the "look at me, I can say 'tea' in Chinese" (kind of, sort of).

So ... uhm, yeah, occasionally I still get stumped at the Asian grocery when they try to talk to me, so I just don't know if it's possible to get through 75% of conversations by learning a language for 6 months. Plus, I feel horribly embarrassed when the conversation gets away from me, and I have to be all, "Well, uh, now I have to talk in English."
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:38 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think the biggest barrier to being able to do this is the listening comprehension. I've worked very hard at a second language, and there are so many variations and accents, it took a long time to be able to use what I knew with native speakers. After the fist exchange of how are you, they would use some phrase or vocab I didn't recognize. People are unpredictable, for example, instead of saying "Oh! Your [LANGUAGE] is very good!" they could say:
"have you ever been to [my country]?"
"how long have you studied this language?"
"I have no idea what you just said"
"I'm feeling sick to my stomach"
"It's a great morning, don't you love the sunshine?"

This is why I did not use my second language at work much until I was an intermediate speaker

The real pleasure of learning a language is when you get to use it, meaningfully. So learn a language of a place you want to visit or that someone you know speaks.
posted by Gor-ella at 12:44 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I suspect that the most important phrase for you to learn is going to be "sorry, but I don't actually speak 'X'". That way, you can deploy it whenever you need it, which will be roughly two minutes into any conversation in any language in which you become "pseudo-fluent" using this method.

Think of it this way: you say you're an intermediate Japanese speaker, right? Do you ever encounter words you don't know while speaking casually in Japanese? Is it ever hard for you to understand native speakers' Japanese? How much studying did it take you to get to the point where one, the other, or both didn't happen every time you spoke to someone? I'm guessing the answer is not "30 mins a day for a month". That gets you "私は blahtskです" and "もう一度言って下さい", the latter to be used liberally until the other party gets sick of repeating things and excuses him/herself. It does not get you 75% comprehension of the everyday language spoken at a native pace. If it did, then I really hate to break the news to you this way, but you're a frakkin' Cylon. On the plus side, that means you're probably already fluent in Toaster.

You're going to need roughly intermediate skill in all of these languages to handle "75% of 'casual interchange' use cases". In fact, that's pretty much a definition of "intermediate" right there -- someone who can mostly get through everyday conversations in the language in question. Sorry, but you're not going to get there by memorizing a bunch of set phrases.
posted by vorfeed at 1:07 PM on December 17, 2008

I spent 3 years in high school studying French. Now, granted, I've barely kept up with it, but I thought I'd do OK in Paris. My accent is evidently pretty good, because I'd say a casual phrase, and they'd respond as if I spoke fluent French. From then on I looked like an idiot, because I'd have to switch to English.
posted by desjardins at 1:57 PM on December 17, 2008

It's impossible to get to 75% percent without intermediate knowledge of a language. Just listen to the small talk of the people around you: They use at least a few hundred words, proper grammar, and the right tone and pronunciation. Without months of intensive practice, you'll just sound as if you are reading it from a paper. You will not win hearts that way. For example, I got chased with a broom when said 'facciamo l'amore' to a girl. Granted, I was 14 at the time.

Stick with the basics: Hello, Goodbye, I'd like to have ..., and most importantly: Thank you. People will be charmed when you're mixing up English with their language.
posted by Psychnic at 2:45 PM on December 17, 2008

I'd love to hear natives' response to this - I have a few years French and German - enough to navigate my way around, but very obviously not fluent. However, I was always told that people appreciated if you'd taken the time to learn a bit of their language, and it always seemed to me that people were happy to help (although I was in Paris recently, and essentially whatever I said people would respond in English, so my accent must be pretty damn terrible).
posted by djgh at 3:18 PM on December 17, 2008

Well I'm a non-native English speaker, and my native language (Serbo-Croatian, though we call it Bosnian now!) is not like French or Spanish or German, which many people try to learn. So when I heard foreigners speak it - however haltingly - I appreciated the effort. Typically, these were tourists who weren't there very long, but wanted to be able to say "hello" and "thank you" and other little phrases which put across good vibes. This was especially true in the 1984 Olympics, by virtue of the total stampede of outsiders who showed absolutely no consideration for the environment in which they were visiting . . . a "thank you" in Serbo-Croatian was meaningful.

That said, djgh, the bit about people always appreciating a little effort in the local tongue is really about visitors in foreign countries not assuming that "everyone should speak English." (Or German or whatever.) It's not about trying to impress people with a minute about language simply for the sake of trying to impress people; in fact it's quite the opposite. (Witness the inclusion of Latin!)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:07 PM on December 17, 2008

Heh. In my pseudo-polyglot former life as a desk clerk, I used to frequently find myself in conversations where both or all parties were speaking their second language. At some level, I used to dream of the day when my two years of university Latin would save me: when my questions of "parlez-vous francais?" and "sprechen Sie Deutsch? and "govariti po russki?" would all come up negative, but "loquesne latinum?" would be answered by a joyous "Hoc ille!" ["Of course!"]. That day never came.

But let me return from the brink of chatfilter: psychnic is right on the money -- "Hello," "goodbye,""please," "thank you," and "I am sorry, I do not speak ____ very well," should absolutely be the first five acquisitions in any new language. If you have these down, you will get a lot further than any other course of study will take you. The other stuff will briefly amuse native speakers and soon thereafter annoy them. Take it from somebody who can say "that's a nice hat" in fifteen languages.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:57 PM on December 17, 2008

Use cases work great with computers, as they have a limited number of possible responses. But you're dealing with real people, who will have an infinite number of responses to your opening gambits. Best case scenario, you'll get through a couple of responses. Worst case scenario, they'll respond with something you don't understand straight away, and you'll be back talking english and looking a bit silly in the process. (Do you have the same conversations with co-workers each day, word for word?)

Ricochet biscuit could get away with it because he/she was in complete control of the conversations - you won't be.

If you want to learn a language, and have even basic conversations in that language, you'll need to sacrifice breadth for depth.

If you want a superficial understanding only, that's fine, but don't fool yourself into believing that you'll be able to hold a conversation in that language. Focus on the please / thankyou / hello / goodbye / excuse me / can I have 2 beers./ do you speak english?...
posted by finding.perdita at 7:52 PM on December 17, 2008

Why go for superficial posturing when you can have more fun getting closer to the real thing? I like the Pimsleur method. Their (recently renamed) "comprehensive" editions consist of thirty lessons of about thirty minutes in length (here's French, for example). For some languages, there are three levels (90 lessons total). I made it through Level 1 and part of Level 2 of the French lessons, and that made my trip to Paris last year much more fun. I was able to interact with people when necessary and enjoyed doing so. Granted, I'd had French in college, but the audio lessons helped me with aural comprehension and pronunciation. I wouldn't have been fluent even if I'd made it through all three levels, but I'd be closer. And it's still a goal of mine to finish them.
posted by wheat at 10:15 PM on December 17, 2008

Sorry, but I laughed out loud while reading this question.
The proposal is untenable and foolhardy.
Take the advice stated above and try to actually learn something.
posted by softsantear at 6:44 AM on December 18, 2008

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