To memorise new words in foreign languages, I use all kinds of tricks. I look for etymological relationships to more words I know, I stick Post-its to objects, I listen to songs that have the word in their chorus. But my number two favourite (etymology is number one) is the kind of mnemonic device known as ‘bridge for donkeys’ in German and Dutch: an artificial and often tenuous, but helpful connexion between the hard word and something familiar.
I’ll list some examples here, mostly in order to inspire you to remember your own mnemonics and share them with me. How have you memorised those hard words in French, Spanish, German, Russian, Mandarin or indeed English, if that’s your second language?
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It’s happened again. In spite of good resolutions, and before even making a full recovery from the previous bout, I’ve contracted a new language.
For over two years, I suffered from Vietnamese. That was for – my idea of – a good cause: the writing of a book, Babel. The experience was instructive and fascinating, but not rewarding in any practical sense. In reading, I never got beyond picture books for toddlers. My chats in Vietnamese were few, and it’s probably an overstatement to call them chats – or Vietnamese. Early last year, I beat the virus and began my recovery.
A few months later, the Polish publisher of Babel invited me to Warsaw and Cracow for some interviews. I went, I liked the places, I loved the people I met and I discovered how near they all are: if I walk out my door at 7 in the morning, I can set foot on a railway platform at Warszawa Centralna or Kraków Główny the very same evening, and still have time for a drink. How was I to resist these temptations? Once more, the language learning virus overcame my weak immune system, aka better judgement.
They say that Polish is a hard nut to crack. Or rather: we say so, the speakers of Western European languages. And it’s not a groundless claim either. Polish nouns have three genders (sexes that is, but without the organs or the fun). So does German, but German has only four cases, whereas Polish has almost twice as many: seven. And while it may not have as many verbal forms as French or Spanish, the catch is that no single verb can be said to be entirely regular – they always have something unpredictable about them. Call it a mystique. Or, if you’re more like me, call it fuckedupness obnoxiousness. Continue reading →
“How’s your Vietnamese coming along?” people ask me, for it’s the sort of outlandish hobby that gets remembered. The answer is: so-so, could be better. I’m struggling with two problems, and I’m pretty sure that many serial language learners are familiar with them.
One is keeping up the self-discipline. I found that not too hard when I was at school, easy when I was staying in Latin America and very easy, indeed irresistible, when I was in love with a German woman. Using Duolingo, with its computer game based psychological tricks, also used to help. But studying at home from a conventional book and CD, motivated mostly by my wish to write an article in a year’s time, I find the going somewhat hard. Continue reading →
Me in Peru at the age of 22, busy learning Spanish
Several British journalists have asked with incredulity and a hint of admiration how come I ‘speak so many languages’. My standard response is embarrassment and stout denial.
Don’t think the denial is false modesty; it’s firmly grounded in fact. By sheer fluke, I grew up with two mother tongues, Dutch and Limburgish, the national and regional languages of my hometown. Studying English is compulsory in Dutch schools. Choosing German as a subject is wholly unremarkable, and the same with French. Since my school days, I’ve added only Spanish to the collection, severely damaging my French in the process. I don’t have the figures, but I’m pretty sure tens of thousands of Dutch people have a similar story. I’m just one of those who ‘speak a nice little word across the border’, the Dutch expression for being able to travel abroad and still talk to people. Continue reading →