What would you really like to know about language and language learning?
May 19, 2013 10:14 PM   Subscribe

I run a blog about language learning and have ~9 months until a book of mine gets published. During that time, I'd like to grow my audience as much as possible, which basically means writing as many interesting articles as possible. While I have a list of blog-post ideas, I'm currently living in book-related tunnel vision, and could use some outside input. If you knew someone who knew a lot about foreign languages and language learning, and was willing to do some research and write an article about anything you wanted, what would you want him/her to write about? What burning, unanswered questions do you have about languages, language learning, memory or any other related topics?
posted by sdis to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Stuff about language development in bilingual houses or how young children learn a second language
posted by bq at 10:18 PM on May 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe profile different languages from a native English speaker's perspective in terms of relative difficulty to learn, usefulness, etc. Also links to specific resources that are particularly helpful for learning that language.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:41 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

As an ex-ESL teacher and language enthusiast, and now IELTS examiner, I'd like to know more about:

- second language acquisition in children vs adults: it's an accepted thing that children learn faster/more easily than adults, but how much of this is down to neuroplasticity and how much is attributable to other factors? And is it even true?

- learning by immersion vs book learning

- the effectiveness (or otherwise) of rote-learning techniques. (When I was teaching ESL in London a few years back, there was a chain of schools that used this method exclusively...I can't remember the name now, but they were usually ridiculed by ex-employees.)

- accents: how quickly can they really be acquired and lost? What factors affect whether an L1 accent affects comprehension when speaking the L2? For example, I know that 'chunking' is quite important - if a speaker breaks a sentence into unnatural 'chunks' of language it can prevent meaning from coming across.

- literacy rates in the English-speaking world and how they correlate to different educational approaches (for example, I know that Denmark is considered best-in-class in this area...unless something has changed).

Will let you know if I think of any more! Also, I'm FB friends with a lot of ESL teachers. Let me know if you want me to post a call for topics.
posted by Salamander at 10:46 PM on May 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hm, well one question I've always had but not been able to find an answer to is if an actor who can perfectly mimic another accent (e.g. Hugh Laurie's American accent in House) could use that skill to sound native in a foreign language. I've heard that after the age of 10 or so, if you try to learn another language you'll always have an accent.
posted by losvedir at 10:47 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

These are great, keep 'em comiing! (Salamander: absolutely, that'd be wonderful) (losvedir: Yeah, I have a real problem with that rumor for precisely that reason)
posted by sdis at 10:59 PM on May 19, 2013

A recent askme that I'd like to see an expert address: how to sequence learning an unfamiliar language with an unfamiliar writing system (I'm thinking Chinese/Japanese, but also Arabic, Russian.) All at once? One before the other? Doesn't matter?

I've had people tell me not to learn lists of characters, just look up and learn the ones that come up organically in conversation, or take a newspaper and learn them in the order they come up until they stick. But I've found that memorizing the first 1000 most-common characters by flash card before even attempting to read anything has helped me not get so discouraged. Is this just a matter of personal preferred learning style, or is there data showing one way works better?
posted by ctmf at 11:29 PM on May 19, 2013

ctmf: Can you explain what you mean by "All at once? One before the other? Doesn't matter?"
Which characters to learn first? Whether to learn characters before grammar?
posted by sdis at 11:38 PM on May 19, 2013

I would ask that person to write something that would help me select a good introductory and/or intermediate learning text(s).

For example, it wasn't obvious ab initio (to this now intermediate-level japanese learner), that the better plan is to learn to read hiragana proficiently up-front. Also, I don't think it hurts to work hard on learning kanji early on in the process.
posted by rub scupper cult at 11:41 PM on May 19, 2013

Sure. With, say, Russian, it seems obvious that you should learn how to write the sounds, so that you can take notes on stuff in the native language. But plenty of people I know in Chinese family groups in the US don't know how to write in Chinese at all, though they may be fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese spoken language. They just picked it up by sound.

I've actually had people tell me before (though not experts,) that that's the most efficient way to learn, and worry about writing later.

Doesn't seem to work for me, though. Especially with the unfamiliar phonemes, I find it a lot easier to see what I heard written, so I don't remember it wrong and get off on the wrong foot. I assume that the other way, you would just go ahead and learn it wrong based on an approximation of what you heard, and then get corrected later by someone.

So I'm concentrating on the written first, (also because reading signs when I go there is incredibly useful, even if I can't have a conversation,) and figure that I'll have a horrible accent for a while, which is ok by me. Knowing how to write it down helps me remember better, but I can see how the "immersion/just copy the sounds" strategy sounds like a good plan, too.

Is there a way that's known to work best for most people? Am I even making sense?
posted by ctmf at 11:50 PM on May 19, 2013

For tonal languages (e.g. Chinese dialects): will a learner who doesn't use the tones, either because they can't or won't, still be understood? I know there is some 'redundancy' these languages to account for tone errors, but how much?
posted by firesine at 11:54 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's also a god question, firesine. How bad can you be and still be understood, heh.

I'm going to guess the answer is between "no" and "not very well" based only on all the Chinese music videos I see are subtitiled in ... Chinese. But is that because singing a melodic line messes up the tones of the syllables, or is it just so people from other dialects (but same written language) can understand it?
posted by ctmf at 12:01 AM on May 20, 2013

I'm not sure if this is in your scope, but I'd be interested to learn about the impact of readily accessible, reasonably good online translation services on language teaching in academic settings. Are teachers / professors changing their pedagogical methods? Are scores on standardized tests experiencing any net change?
posted by charmcityblues at 12:05 AM on May 20, 2013

More about how bilingual (or people who know more than 2 languages) use language in different situations - eg Spanish/English speaker who uses Spanish in highly emotional situations, English in business situations, etc - particularly if there's code-switching involved or other inadvertent things going on with which language they choose or fall into. Are there patterns to this kind of behaviour, so that (perhaps) the first language learned is associated with certain kinds of language use? What about people who know lots of languages? I find that kind of thing fascinating.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:24 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

The famous triad of language ability, musical ability, mathematical ability. How much is the interrelation between these three abilities empirically proven, and to what extent? I have heard anecdotal references to this interrelation, but nothing solid.

Can one improve one's ability to learn new languages by not only studying those languages, but also studying more maths and music? What does the research - if any - say on this matter?

I speak five languages fluently, can understand a half dozen others in print; played the piano for 12 years and excelled in calculus in university - but not linear algebra
posted by seawallrunner at 1:33 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd like to know:
If I had an endless supply of money to throw at it, where could/should I go to get the (generally agreed upon) *best* (what "best" means would need to be addressed) education in a language.

For example, if it's German you're interested in, go study at Brown; if it's Chinese, the best is JoeBloe's Chinese school in Santa Barbara; for Spanish, go to the University of Madrid's Summer Intensive Program; for Korean, the "Intensive Korean for Diplomats" series of books can't be beat; etc.

I understand that there may not be a consensus for each language, and in most cases, going and living in the Language is the best choice, but even a "top five" list, or somehow pointing in the right direction is something I personally would love to see.
posted by segatakai at 2:27 AM on May 20, 2013

I think this book http://www.amazon.co.uk/Learner-English-Interference-Cambridge-Handbooks/dp/0521779391 (on what is apparently called interference) is great, and am fascinated by problems of this nature.

Now I've already *got* the book, so I'm alright, but anything fun on a similar topic would be, err, fun.
posted by curious_yellow at 2:32 AM on May 20, 2013

How does being dyslexic (or having any native language learning difficulty) affect your capacity to learn a second language?

It is often said that anyone can learn a second language, but those who have difficulty with acquiring some aspect of their first must surely be at a disadvantage. Do dyslexics learn languages differently from 'normal' people?

I'm dyslexic and and I have found while trying to learn German that my learning to read German has complimented and reinforced my efforts to learn to speak/listen it. On the other hand, with French I've found, with its considerably more obtuse decoding rules, that the speaking/listening and reading/writing aspects have not reinforced each other anywhere like they have done with German.

Do all dyslexics find their issues with first language acquisition feeding into second language acquisition? Or does having had to overcome greater obstacles to acquire their first language put them in a better position to face the challenges of acquiring a second?
posted by I_read_somewhere_that_. . . at 2:34 AM on May 20, 2013

I'd like to know more about the "pain points" in different languages for native speakers of English - where learners tend to struggle because concepts don't match up or are difficult (or for some other reason.) For example, aspect and verbs of motion in Slavic languages, "usage" (rectio) in Finno-Ugric languages, tones in Cantonese, etc?

Where do learners fail in each language or group and is there a consensus among scholars of language teaching as to what can be done in each case to make "getting over the hump" easier?
posted by Wylla at 3:12 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

[A couple of comments deleted. Let's stick with offering questions about language learning for the OP rather than giving answers for the suggestions posted. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:13 AM on May 20, 2013

Code switching between accents for people who have emigrated to different cultures that speak the same language (eg, an Australian English speaker moving to USA), and how to learn to do it!
posted by shazzam! at 5:40 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

How does our native language effect the types of errors we'll make in second languages? For example, my German friend cannot get the difference between "borrow" and "lend" and will often use the wrong one, and my Iranian supervisor was never really able to grasp the difference between "among" and "between." Turns out those are my distinctions they have in their first languages, so they REALLY struggle with them in English.
posted by arcticwoman at 6:09 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a multilinguist who has read a number of language learning blogs over the years. I have found them to be a lot like fitness blogs in that most are pretty bad and have a lot of advice along the lines of "three secret tips to get you abs/fluent!" Here are some thoughts I have about how to avoid that.

In a language learning blog I am interested primarily in two things (1) the discussion of learning techniques and (2) their application. I think that a key part of this would be to address common language learning myths i.e. that children have a "language organ". I am confident that your book addresses some of these, so I think it is worth discussing on your blog. Everyone speaks a language so most people think that makes them experts in language learning. I think articles that debunk some of the commonly held myths would be a great boon.

A key factor that give a lot of credibility in my mind is knowing that the blog's author can walk the walk. I would not read a language learning blog by a monolinguist. To use specific examples, my favorite language blogs are by Steve Kaufmann and Luca Lampariello. They both have proficiency in about ten languages each and they often post written and video content in other languages. Since you want as large an audience as possible (presumably of English monolinguists), I would recommend having your written content in English but you might also have a few videos of you speaking to topics in your other languages. For example, a video in which you talk about learning kanji in Japanese or how to learn Russian cases in Russian. Of course, these videos would need to be subtitled.

I would be curious to read your blog if you would not mind sharing the address by MeMail.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:34 AM on May 20, 2013

Do some languages lend themselves to language-based humor more than others? As a native English speaker, I can't imagine growing up speaking a language that didn't have puns. Also, how does language-based humor and punning interact with the second-language learning process? Does learning that sort of material help learn the language more thoroughly/easily/quickly? Is there a point at which students of a second language become able to formulate their own language-based humor and does that match with any other developmental milestones?
posted by marginaliana at 6:52 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would be thrilled to learn more about how, as a language learner studying on your own, you can incorporate media to improve your understanding of spoken language. In particular, I'm thinking of TV series, movies, radio and podcasts, preferably with subtitles/transcripts available to consult if you can't understand a sentence on your own. Here's an interesting example of what I mean (other books in the same series exist for other European languages).
posted by faustdick at 7:11 AM on May 20, 2013

Like others here, I'd be interested in understanding better how multiple languages collaborate or fail to collaborate in the brain, and whether the language clashes in my own head will calm down as I become fluent.

For example, I'm a native English speaker who speaks advanced Spanish. My daily life is nearly 100% Spanish speaking; I rarely speak English. When I do speak English, Spanish insists on trying to come out first, and I have to push it aside and find the English word. I'll also sometimes use Spanish grammar in an English sentence.

This struggle happens most when I'm in a Spanish-speaking environment like I am now, but it also happens if I'm in an English-speaking place and the person I'm speaking English to has an accent or even just looks vaguely Hispanic. I'd be interested in knowing why this happens and whether it will get better as I become fluent in Spanish.

Also like others, I'm fascinated by the connection between learning music and learning languages, and I wonder if there has been any research on whether teaching people to dance helps improve their language-learning ability, or even if matching movements and music to words helps you learn a specific language. I'm especially thinking of the complex, everyone-does-the-same-thing-at-the-same-time dances I learned when young, such as Bulgarian and Turkish line dances. My gut says that learning to match my movements to complex rhythms and to others' movements helped improve my ability to learn languages, but my gut hasn't always been reliable.
posted by ceiba at 7:41 AM on May 20, 2013

I'm an advanced-intermediate in speaking Spanish, but no matter how hard I try I can't seem to break the wall into real fluency, either speaking or listening. I think I'm afraid to let go of the written crutches and just go full immersion and let the mistakes fly. My sister recommends alcohol. I haven't had a chance to try it yet. Any evidence that it works or doesn't work?
posted by CathyG at 7:57 AM on May 20, 2013

I'd be curious to learn more about how children learn their first language.
posted by medusa at 9:21 AM on May 20, 2013

Phonemes! How we hear the ones in our native language(s) so easily but have a hard time distinguishing or pronouncing ones that are unfamiliar in a language we are trying to learn.

Language learning for children of immigrants. How much does exposure (but not always actual use as a speaker) to a language give us a leg up in the language learning process?

Are there really bad language learners and good language learners?

Is it possible to be not fluent in any language? I know of a family who has a native Korean speaker mother, native English speaker father, and has sent the children to a French immersion school. The dominant language in the home is a kind of pidgin English but they live in Korea so there's little exposure to "standard" English out on the street.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:30 AM on May 20, 2013

I'd be curious to know more about this: in a lot of language-learning books, tapes, courses, etc. you're presented with the new terminology and (in my case) the English equivalent. You learn that "pampelmousse" is the French word for "grapefruit." But there's a difference between knowing what "foreign" words equate to English words and internalizing the new language as understood concepts. What are some methods to more directly turn the understanding into solid, "deep" understanding versus having to stop off at the English translation on the way to comprehension? Instead of knowing that pampelmouse translates to grapefruit, I want to get to visualizing and understanding grapefruitness when I hear pampelmousse.
Hopefully that makes sense? (Is the answer, "it just takes time?")
posted by all-caps relapse at 9:33 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not gonna lie, I'd also just like to know the quickest and easiest way to learn a new language. Not super-deep, but there you go. Didn't want to treat it as a "given."
posted by all-caps relapse at 9:38 AM on May 20, 2013

Not necessarily language itself but I would love to know more about accents: specifically about their perceptions and if they translate both directions. For example, as an American, I've noticed that British English accents tend to be used in scientific capacities (voiceovers for documentaries) even for American audiences. Conversely, a southern American (rural or "redneck") accent is often used when implying lower intelligence. How did this come to be? Do other English speaking countries have similar perceptions, or is the individual novelty of hearing an accent that is not my own coloring my own perception (probably both).

Anecdotal thought: I know an American who spent some time (a couple of years) in England. He has since been living in the US for several years but continues to speak with a British accent. There is widespread speculation that the accent is a forced charade on his part in an effort to attract more women. My intuition tells me that an Englishman doing the same thing (speaking to British women in an American accent) would not necessarily be considered a smart move for attracting women, but why?
posted by halseyaa at 10:45 AM on May 20, 2013

I'd be interested in reading stories/anectdotes about regional variations in languages and how they relate to class/nationality/identity.
posted by hannahelastic at 12:43 PM on May 20, 2013

I'd be most interested in dyslexia in 2nd language learners who's first language wasn't phonetic (Chinese/Japanese). I've been told that one problem for some students is that dyslexia doesn't really impact kanji reading, but I have no idea if that's true or just someone making stuff up. If true, it would explain some students who are otherwise excellent speakers and listeners who have poor written skills.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:18 PM on May 20, 2013

I'm interested in language immersion programs for young children in the US. What are the trade-offs in doing 100% immersion vs. partial immersion? What's the bare minimum amount of immersion needed (however you define that qualitatively and/or quantitatively) in order for the child to have a chance of speaking at a native (however you define that - might be for example perfect accent and able to think in the other language but smaller vocabulary than someone for whom that is their first language).
posted by Dansaman at 3:46 PM on May 20, 2013

How to remember gender and adjective endings in German. And other tiny bits of grammar. Preferably, not 'just memorise them', because a week later they are gone again.

Also, a discussion of immersion programs. What to look for, how to prepare, how long to go for, how to get people to speak the language to you instead of english. And added to this, where to go, geography-wise. Particularly for languages like spanish, which have a huge range of accents.
posted by kjs4 at 5:07 PM on May 20, 2013

I'd like to know about culture specific concept words (or lack thereof). For example, this article mentions that there is no word in Greek for "Privacy" and continues on to mention Japanese "ikigai".
posted by WeekendJen at 8:24 PM on May 20, 2013

A lot of people appear to be interested in rare and dying languages. What efforts (if any) should people be making to preserve languages from extinction and is there anything that amateur language learners can do to help? How would someone from Main Street, Flyover, go about learning and helping to preserve a language spoken by a dozen people in a forest on the other side of the world?
posted by pracowity at 1:47 AM on May 21, 2013

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