I've always been interested in languages and studied several of them, some more thoroughly than others, but studying languages always seemed like an exercise in futility until I finally went to Europe in June, 2000. A new friend, Danny Turner, who at that time was living in Europe, mostly Germany, during the summer and in Hawaii in the winter, suggested that I should establish email contact with his friend Sylviane in France. I started correponding with her regularly and wound up visiting her for a month in a little tourist village called Cluny (in Burgundy). This was my first trip to Europe.
Before I went, I went through the Living Language Advanced French set of tapes. I chose this because it was the only French course I saw in the bookstore labeled "Advanced."
I was met at the airport by one of Sylviane's friends, an seventy-year-old Buddhist nun named Nicole. Nicole spend two days showing me a little bit of Paris and then put me on the train to go to Cluny. She spoke a fair amount of English, but mostly she spoke to me in French, and I was able to understand most of what she said, although I was often not able to answer her in French. (I was slightly puzzled when she told me that there is a small field in Montmartre where they grow raisins. But then after she started talking about the special wine they make, I remembered from my high school French that "raisin" is the French word for grape.)
Sylviane, on the other hand, was very much an anglophile and spoke to me almost completely in English. However her four kids didn't speak any English at all, and I was sometimes able to understand their French. I panicked a bit one day when Sylviane sent me off to the village grocery store for some milk, but I managed just fine.
Sylviane is the sort of person who has a lot of friends, and I got to meet a whole lot of them, as well as her two brothers and her mother. Almost all my conversations with these people were in French. I was told several times that I spoke French very well. However since I seemed to understand about 20% of what people were saying, I thought that perhaps my French was not quite as good as people said it was.
After I got back home to Honolulu, I wanted to work a lot on improving my French. I called up the Alliance Française to see what they had to offer. The classes they offered In Honolulu didn't sound like they were very challenging (although I never actually tried one). I did go several times to a potluck/conversation group held twice a month on Thursday evenings. It seemed that about a third of the people who came to these potlucks were French or otherwise fluent in French, and spoke mostly to each other, and the remainder spoke very bad French. In any case, Thursday nights are the time when the Honolulu polyamory group has its meeting, so I wound up going to the Alliance meetings less and less.
The following summer, Danny convinced me to go to the summercamp at ZEGG, which is not far from Berlin. By now, Sylviane had married an Australian and was living with him in London. I would have liked to go visit her and her husband on the way to ZEGG, but I just couldn't afford the airfare.
Before going to ZEGG, I bought a few tape sets in order to work on improving my German. Among others, I got the Pimsleur Level 3 German,1 wondering if it would really have much to offer me after my three years of German in college. In fact, I learned a number of very useful things from it.
I managed fairly well at ZEGG, but didn't need to speak German a lot there. There was a large English-speaking group at summercamp, and almost all the Germans spoke fairly good English. I did get a little practice in speaking German while in Germany though, and occasionally got myself in trouble by saying something simple like "Guten Tag" or "Vielen Dank," and then getting a torrent of German in return. It was then that I understood that when people say, "You speak very good French/German/Russian," etc., they are judging almost completely on the basis of your accent. It was especially funny in a Berlin bar when a guy had to ask me about four times, "Du bist ein Amerikaner?" before I understood what he was saying, and then after I answered, he said, "Du sprichst Deutsche sehr gut" (You speak German very well). Well, he was speaking with a Berlin accent, which did make him a bit more difficult to understand.
Listening to various language courses on tape, I realized that it had been a miracle that I had managed to learn any languages at all in school, back in the days before they even had language labs. It's insane to imagine that one can learn to speak by doing exercises in books. I know that some people claim they learn best from live conversations in classes, but you really can't learn very much from a class that meets for an hour three or four times a week. It's absolutely essential to have something you can listen to at home. You don't get much conversation in a college language course anyway, because so much time is spent on teaching the grammar and teaching students to write correctly in the language. And the conversations that do occur in college classes tend to be pretty fake: not the way people really talk at all.
When I was in my twenties and thirties, the only aural course available was the Living Language course on phonograph records. It was enormously expensive, but I was able to borrow the Living Language Russian and Italian for two-week periods from the public library. They weren't very good, but I did learn some from them.
It's only recently (in the past ten years, say) that really good and moderately inexpensive language courses have become available on tape and CD. The basic Living Language courses still follow a very traditional structure: vocabulary, grammar, and then a few practice sentences. The Living Language Advanced courses, though, available only in French and Spanish, are much more useful in learning to actually understand and speak the language. The tape portion of each of the forty lessons consists completely of a conversation, at normal conversational speed. The grammar and vocabulary are given in the book. You do definitely need the book.
The All-Audio courses from Living Language also follow the traditional language-class format, but they're a little better than the standard Living Language courses, because they have more in the way of actual conversation. Living Language's "In-Flight" courses are totally useless (but at least they're cheap!) Like the "Language 30" courses, they are nothing but phrase books on tape (or CD).
I've found the "Just Listen 'N Learn" courses extremely helpful. After using them in Greek and Italian, I decided to see what they were like in German and French, and whether they'd be too elementary for me in those languages. And in fact I learned quite a bit from them. They are not very systematic in their approach, but they give you live (although usually extremely brief) conversations recorded on location in the country in question. They are intended for beginners (except for the Advanced courses in French, German, and Spanish), but they're probably a little more workable if you already know the language in question a little bit.
The Oxford University Press "Take Off In" (Italian, Greek, Portuguese, etc.) series is also very useful. Each chapter consists of three lessons, each of which contains a fairly natural-sounding conversation at normal conversational speed, which in fact is carefully planned to cover the relevant set of grammar and vocabulary for that lesson. The explanation of the grammar and the vocabulary list is in the book. The book gives a written transcription of the conversation on the tape the book does not give a translation of the conversation. But with the grammar and vocabulary given, plus the vocabulary in the back of the book, it's usually not hard to figure out the conversations. (The same thing is true of the "Just Listen 'N Learn" courses, but in that case the books contain footnotes which are so detailed that deciphering the conversations is rarely a problem.) In addition, each lesson in the Take Off courses has oral exercises, which are occasionally rather challenging. And then each chapter has a final lesson which is part of an ongoing story that goes all through the book and which is moderately interesting. Something that pleased me in the process of studying several languages is that the Oxford series uses a different story for each language, so that I wasn't being told about things I already knew of from the other books.
For French, the French in Action videotape series put out by the Annenberg Foundation is also excellent. There are fifty-two half-hour lessons, all of which are completely in French. I was lucky enough to be able to check these out of the campus library. I think that most public libraries also have them, and most PBS stations broadcast the series, often late at night. In the US and Canada, they are also available by streaming video over the internet. Since it claims to be for beginners, I thought I would just listen to a few episodes to see what they're like. But in fact I found it quite challenging and I learned a whole lot from the series. It present a whole lot of colloquial language, sometimes even slang, that I was not familiar with.
The most thorough courses on tape or CD for learning a language, however, are undoubtedly the Pimsleur ones. These contain very little in the way of actual conversations, but teach primarily by giving pattern sentences for the student to repeat. What makes the Pimsleur series work so well is that the lessons are very repetitious. So one learns very very slowly but very thoroughly. In the most common languages, Pimsleur offers a three-part course: basic, intermediate, and advance. Each part consists of 30 half-hour lessons, which one should do at a rate of no more than a lesson a day, and which costs about $200 from Amazon (price as of 2003). Thus the Pimsleur series is expensive both in terms of money and in terms of time, but the cost is roughly comparable to taking a course at a university. The disadvantage of the Pimsleur courses is that since they go so slowly, even after one finishes a 90-lesson course, the size of one's vocabulary is quite limited. So it's a good idea to supplement the Pimsleur course with "Just Listen and Learn" and the Oxford series to expand one's vocabulary.
In 2002, I definitely wanted to go to ZEGG a second time. But I also got an opportunity to go to Athens, a city I'd always wanted to visit, and stay with a former student and her family for a week and then stay in an apartment offered by another friend for two weeks. The only thing was, my former student insisted that I come before the end of June, and ZEGG summer camp takes place in the second half of July. So I wound up going to Europe for almost two months, starting by staying with Sylviane and her husband in London for a week, then going to Paris for three nights, then to Athens, then to Berlin and ZEGG.
I took this as an excuse to go back and learn Greek again, more thoroughly this time. Everybody I knew told me not to do this, claiming that everyone in Greece speaks English. But the minimal amount of Greek I was able to learn from going through the Pimsleur series (only thirty lessons available for Greek; it just barely gets into the past tense) and the "Just Listen 'N Learn" and Oxford series proved quite useful, especially when I was on my own after leaving Eugenia's house. Of course it's one thing being able to go through a series of lessons successfully, and another thing to be able to have the language available then you need it. Often I understood what someone had said only several minutes afterwards, which was usually too late to be useful. But I discovered that, contrary to what I had been told, there are lots of people in Athens who don't speak English, and I was usually able to communicate, although not to participate in any real conversations.
That summer was also my first time alone in France, and I was able to confirm that my French is good enough to survive in hotels and restaurants. And I was in Berlin long enough this time to confirm the same thing about my German.
When I came back from Europe in the fall in 2002, I decided that it might be interesting to learn Portuguese. For one thing, if I wanted to eventually live in Europe, Portugal would be a choice that offers a fairly low cost of living. Furthermore, Pimsleur has a full 90-lesson course in Brazilian Portuguese. And since I knew essentially no Portuguese to start with, it would be a good opportunity to find out just how good the Pimsleur courses are.
I did go through the full 90-lesson Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese course. Unfortunately, by the time I had finished it, I had learned that there are considerable differences between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese, not only in pronunciation but in vocabulary and grammar. So I went through the Oxford series as well as a few shorter ones ("Learn Portuguese in 7 days"; unfortunately, "Just Listen 'N Learn" doesn't have a Portuguese course) to learn the European language, and when I went to Lisbon for two days in 2003, I was usually able to order in Portuguese in restaurants.
After finishing with my study of Portuguese, I decided to go back and study Spanish and Italian more systematically, using the Living Language All Audio courses plus the Oxford and "Just Listen 'N Learn" courses. Doing this made me realize just how little Spanish I had in fact previously known. Of course even after having gone through these courses very carefully, I would still not claim that I really speak Spanish or Italian, even at a survival level.
I also went through the eight-lesson introductory Pimsleur courses for some more exotic languages: Japanese, Mandarin, and even Irish. The Pimsleur method goes so slowly that in eight lessons you don't learn much: only eight verbs (but very useful ones). Nonetheless, I am still able to recognize some words and phrases when I hear Japanese spoken, and to my delight I even understood a sentence in Irish from the film Gangs of New York.
Sometimes by the time I hear a new word for the third or fourth time (by the time a Pimsleur lesson comes to an end, each new word has been repeated four times, often in the same sentence), I realize that I'm just not remembering it, so I pause the CD, repeat the word several more times, look out the window for a while, maybe get a glass of water, then repeat it again a few times. Maybe by the time I review the whole lesson again, I'll have a chance at remembering it. Fortunately, it's only rarely that I need to go to that extreme.
Anyway, I went through the Level 2 and Level 3 Italian lesson very carefully, and when I went to Italy in the spring of 2005, I managed fairly well. The manager of the little bar (i.e. snack bar) where I stopped in every day in Florence started talking to me whenever I came in, and seemed extremely surprised when I told her I was from America. I took this as evidence that however good or bad my Italian may be, at least I don't have an American accent.
More recently I've been going through the Pimsleur Japanese course, which I find fairly demanding. I go through each lesson four or five times slowly. Then when I reviewed Level 1, I mostly found I needed to go through each lesson twice. But I certainly do know a whole lot, although I'm certainly not ready to have conversations with any Japanese. I'm just in the beginning of Level 2 at this point.
And, as always, while I'm going through a Pimsleur course, I'm also studying books on the language, because I want a more systematic explanation of the grammar than Pimsleur gives, and because I'm too impatient for the Pimsleur pace.
Mostly I'm using the Ultimate Japanese book (from Living Language). With European languages I have found this series fairly useful. (I've used only the books, not the the tapes.) They give a fairly thorough exposition of the grammar and cover a lot of useful little idiomatic quirks. With Japanese, though, I'm having a lot more trouble.
Next will probably be Mandarin. My second non-European language. But I really would like to learn some Dutch and Danish, if I could find some decent course material.
The Pimsleur materials are certainly not perfect, but they do get you off to a good start. Each lesson starts off with a brief conversation, which is fast enough to be challenging. But even so, these conversations are on the slow side compared to the way people who know each other well speak in real life. The French in Action television series is the only course I know of that gives you conversations at a really normal conversation speed. The Oxford Take Off In and the Just Listen 'n Learn Series are closer to every day speed than Pimsleur, but are still slow compared to listening to a couple teenagers converse.
The Pimsleur lessons provide an opportunity to learn pronunciation really well. But you have to know how to learn pronunciation. For one thing, that means you have to know how to listen. For instance, you have to be able to hear the different between an aspirated 't' (as at the beginning of "today") and a non-aspirated one (as in the middle of "city") and a 'd' (as in "dog"). Pimsleur doesn't provide much explanation about such things.
As of 1999:
Actually, the only language I speak adequately is English.
In fact, besides my failure to have written more fiction, the fact that I've never become really fluent in any of the languages I've studied is one of the major disappointments in my life. (That, plus my failure to have become a world renowned thinker or writer. [smiley] )
Like several other things in my life though, the big problem was that I never understood the right way to go about learning what I wanted. Taking classes in college and going through texts on one's own is simply not a good way to learn a language. Certainly the usual ``foreign language requirement'' for college students involving four semesters work is just one of the bad jokes of the university system, like the ``quantitative reasoning requirement'' which involves students taking one course where they commit a bunch of formulas they don't understand to short-term memory. (Well, okay, medium-term memory. [smiley] )
In fact, for practical purposes I probably became more competant in Spanish as a result having spent about 10 days in Mexico and working through a couple of simple readers than I became in German after three years of studying it in college.
I do want to put in my 2 cents worth here on the general question of how adults can best learn languages, first noting that there exists a considerable literature on this subject, most of which I am not familiar with.
People sometimes say that the right way for adults to learn a language is the same way that young children learn it, since children learn it so easily. But this is to ignore the fact that a young child in fact invests an enormous amount of time in learning his/her native language. If you observe a parent with a three or four or five-year old, you are likely to notice that there is an almost continual language lesson going on. But even so, young children don't learn to speak their native language in an acceptably grammatical manner until the age of seven and eight. In my own school years, we were still being given grammar lessons up until at least the age of thirteen.
One also has to consider the fact that almost any subject taught in school, whether chemistry or history or whatever, involves teaching a lot of new vocabulary. So for anyone to wish to acquire the vocabulary of an educated person in a foreign language is a considerable ambition.
Therefore for an adult to learn a foreign language at all efficiently, I think that it is essential to use the skills that we have as adults which young children do not have.
Nonetheless, I still maintain that the teaching of languages in universities is quite misguided, and has more to do with the attempt to conform to the traditional patterns of university teaching than to any considerations of what actually works. It may make sense for a mathematics student, for instance, to do most of his learning at home, spending two or three hours of studying for every hour in class. For a beginning language student, I can't see how this can possibly work.
I only took the first semester of second-year French in college, because at that point it seemed to me that what we were doing in class was stuff I could just as easily do for myself. Looked at from one perspective, this was clearly a bad decision, because without the pressure of class assignments I never got around to going through the textbook carefully and doing all the work. But looked at another way, it was a good thing because it gave me a feeling of guilt about not living up to my commitment to myself that eventually led to my working my way through a whole lot of French novels, buying a lot of records by French singers (Yves Montand, George Bresson, Juliette Greco, Charles Aznavour), and going to about every French movie I ever had a chance to (which was not very many), although I probably would have done that in any case.
I remember what a thrill it was the first time I ever understood a word in a French film (or any foreign language film, for that matter). I had been watching French films for several years, by then. I don't remember what the movie was anymore, but someone said something and the woman responded, ``Pourquoi?'' And I realized that I'd actually understood that word.
As far as books go, I read a whole lot of Zola. He tells an engrossing story, which is important when one is reading laboriously through a long novel, and I found that each of his novels had its own specialized vocabulary, but once one had mastered that, it was fairly clear sailing. (I found that Balzac, on the other hand, had an impossibly difficult vocabulary.)
I also read several novels by DeMaupassant, including some -- such as Bel Ami that nobody else ever reads. And lots of 20th Century stuff, including a number of mysteries (which mostly I didn't find very good, except for Simenon), and several books by Marguerite Duras, who writes an extremely simple French.
And then eventually I read a whole lot of mathematical French. Reading technical material in a foreign language is hard at first, but once one learns the relevant specialized vocabulary it becomes much more straightforward than literature. (Newspapers, in my experience, are the most difficult, because they use an incredibly large vocabulary of simple words that every child learns while growing up but that seldom occur in literature. I had the same problem with trying to read Robbe-Grillet, and eventually gave up on him -- to my great regret, because there's something about his novels (in translation) that I find extremely fascinating.)
The reason I started studying Russian again while I was teaching at Kansas had to do with a mathematician named George Bergman (at Berkeley). I'll repeat here the account given elsewhere on my home page.
I had gone to a ring theory conference at Carleton University in Canada, and I rode back to Toronto (to get my flight home) with a Berkeley algebraist named George Bergman. He had been part of a group that I had gone out to dinner with at a Chinese restaurant earlier that week, and there he had exchanged a few words with the waiter in Chinese. In retrospect, I suppose he didn't say any more than ``How are you?'' and ``Isn't this nice weather?'' but it impressed me at the time. I had also observed him talking in Russian to some of the Soviet delegates at the conference.Later, during the summer of 1977, I took fourth-year Russian in Indiana University's intensive summer program.
I don't remember whether we talked about languages on the train trip to Toronto. (He's an extremely nice guy, and I remember that we talked about a lot of things.) In any case, after we went our separate directions, I thought, ``Damn it all! I've studied so many languages, and I've never learned any of them really well. I ought to choose one of my languages and work on it to the point where I'm fluent.''
I thought about which language which be the most worthwhile to become fluent in. And although I knew both French and German fairly well, and had read several novels in both of them (and at that time could almost read French without a dictionary), I thought that it would be more valuable to master Russian.
After that summer at Indiana, I took two Russian literature courses here at UH, one in poetry and one in drama, both allegedly taught in Russian. Of course UH is not a great school for Slavic languages, but aside from giving me some more practice in speaking and reading Russian, these courses taught me aspects of Russian literature that I never would have learned on my own.
I also subscribed for quite a while for an emigre Russian-language weekly newspaper from New York (Novoye Russkoye Slovo) and a weekly Soviet paper (Literaturnaya Gazetta), and read them both fairly thoroughly. And I suppose I've read more than a dozen novels in Russian, mostly Turgenev and a little Tolstoi. I've also read some Soviet literature in Russian, but perhaps only one complete novel (The House on the Embankment, published in about 1975), and that because my teacher in Russian translation at Kansas wanted our class to do the official translation for it, with her help. (Eventually it was translated by someone more qualified.) Soviet literature is difficult, because there tends to be a lot of specialized vocabulary and slang which is often not in dictionaries. But at least I read enough to start to get some sense of who the standard Soviet authors are, up to say about 1960. (Solzhenitsin is very hard reading, and nobody reads Sholokhov who doesn't have to, because he's so boring.)
And yet I never did become really fluent in Russian. Another summer at Indiana probably would have done the job, but devoting eight weeks of the summer to anything was a commitment which I was not in a position to make, back when I might have wanted to.
In connection with the Russian drama course I took here at UH, I bought a complete recording of Ostrowski's play The Storm, performed by the Maly Teatre. And I was discouraged to immediately discover that I could not understand it at all without looking at the text. (And the Soviet theatre companies make things very easy by pronouncing all the words very carefully, and not using the ``fast speech'' which is used in normal Soviet conversation and most movies. People often refer to fast speech as slurring, but it actually involves leaving out about half the syllables of the words. It's not quite as difficult to learn as it would seem, but it's not easy.)
I think that probably the reason that I seem to know French better than I know Russian is that I've had a lot more opportunities to see French films.
I can read mathematical Russian reasonably well. In fact, it was Gould's textbook on mathematical Russian that really taught me how to systematically learn Russian vocabulary. For a while, when I first came to UH, I was translating Russian journal articles for the American Mathematical Society, but I stopped after a while because it was just too much work typing the results up. (This was before the days of personal computers.)
When I first started learning mathematical German, one of the books I chose was van der Waerden. I was pleasantly surprised at how straightforward his prose was. Then later I discovered that he was actually Dutch, which explained things.
Another book I went through was Hasse's book on number theory. It was the opposite of van der Waerden, quite difficult with very convoluted sentences. In particular, Hasse was quite fond of the ``The standing-on-the-sidewalk-in-the-early-morning-rain girl'' type construction, which seems to have been invented primarily to bedevil German students. (The hyphens are not included in the German style, but are inserted here so the English-speaking reader has some chance of figuring out the construction. In English or any sane language, one would of course write, ``The girl standing on the sidewalk in the early morning rain.'')
I originally decided to take Greek because of the influence of Ezra Pound. Pound believed that before one could become a decent writer, one had to first familiarize oneself with all the great classics of literature, starting with Homer. And, of course, one could only expect to get the benefit by reading them in the original language.
By the time I was talked into taking on Greek as a second major, I had totally forgotten my reason for studying it in the first place. And the language never became much more than a complicated crossword puzzle for me. I certainly never understood why the writing was supposed to be so good, and it certainly never helped me with my own writing. In fact, purely from the standpoint of literature, I would probably have got much more benefit by taking a good course on Greek literature in translation.
One of the several things that deterred me from continuing my study of Greek was that I eventually realized that my teachers weren't even all that fluent in it, and couldn't translate well in class if they hadn't had a chance to thoroughly prepare in advance.
And besides that, I eventually realized that all the ancient Greek literature that still exists today makes up a shelf of books about three feet long. (Well, maybe four or five feet.) And it seemed absurd to me to put so much effort into learning a language in which there exists so little material to read.
When you look up a word that's not totally common in Lidell and Scott, the canonical dictionary of classical Greek, you find citations to several places in the literature where the word occurs. And eventually I became aware that in a lot of cases, the citations given were the only places in the known literature where the word occurs. And then I noticed that sometimes when I looked up a word, Lidell and Scott were telling me that the text I was reading was the only known occurence of that word. And at this I thought, ``Why does it make any sense for me to use this dictionary, when the information the dictionary is giving me on the word is based on nothing except the very information in the text I'm reading?''
My Latin may be a little better than my Greek, but not much so. Certainly when I see a Latin maxim in a book, I very seldom recognize all the words.
Mostly what I remember from my course in Chinese is the character for man, which almost everyone knows anyway, and the phrase ``Tse yueh,'' which begins every paragraph of the Analects of Confucius and means ``The Master said.'' ``Tse'' is an honorific suffix for a teacher, or master of a subject. The particular master known in Chinese as Kung Fu Tse is known in the West by the Latinized form of his name, Confucius. In English, of course, we then Anglicize the pronunciation of the Latin name.
Just as with Greek, it was Ezra Pound who decided me to learn Chinese. Pound believed that there was a profound significance, especially profound for poetry, in the way meaning is represented by the Chinese ideograms.
Be that as it may, I certainly got none of this from my course in Chinese. But it was an intense experience, and perhaps worthwhile as an experience, even though I carried away no permanent knowledge of Chinese.
Our vocabulary test every week involved knowing about twenty words. Twenty may not seem a lot, but that involved learning to draw and recognize twenty Chinese characters, and learning all of the diverse meanings for these -- on the average, each character would have about eight or ten different meanings. And these would not be like the different meanings of an English words. Some of the meanings for a Chinese character might be nouns, and others might be verbs, and others might be prepositions, and there would be no possible connection between the different meanings.
Whereas in German class, we usually read about four pages per day, and in Greek, I suppose we read about one page per day, one day's assignment in Chinese was usually one or two sentences: about 15 or 20 characters. Those one or two sentences usually took longer to work through than the corresponding four pages in German or one page in Greek. (Furthermore sometimes there were footnotes in the back, which we also had to read, and which were also in Chinese and might be longer than the assigned text.)
After one year of this, I realized that I was never going to learn to read Chinese unless I was willing to devote most of my life to the effort -- which I was definitely not willing to do.
I went down to Mexico City on the train, second class, starting at Nogales, Mexico, just across the border from Arizona. I had a stop-over of several hours in Gaudalajara. No one I encountered on the train or in Gaudalajara spoke any English.
I decided to spend some of my time in Guadalajara by going to a double feature: two American cowboy movies with Spanish subtitles. This turned out to be a very good Spanish lesson and I learned several useful vocabulary words.
Just walking around cities in Mexico was also useful, because I could pick up vocabulary by watching advertizing and the signs on stores.
In Mexico City, my girl friend and I mostly went places where no one spoke English. We rode busses and took taxicabs, shopped in small stores, and bought food from vendors on the street.
One rather amusing experience was having dinner at a French restaurant. We were quite early by Mexico City standards, maybe seven PM. They put us in the front room, where people walking by would see us. There was also a back room, which I couldn't really see, and which was apparently mostly a bar.
We did just fine ordering our meal. The only problem was that, when we were finished, I didn't know how to ask for the check. From time to time the waiter would stop by and say something in rapid Spanish, to which we'd both nod enthusiastically, and then he'd ... bring us more coffee or whatever!
Finally another couple came in for dinner and then the waiter immediately brought us the check.
Afterwards I realized that the waiter (or maybe he was the owner) had understood our predicament quite well, but he didn't want people walking by and seeing his restaurant empty. The American custom of eat and run is alien to Mexico City, of course, but we had wanted to finish our dinner and go see more things.
For several years after that, I made a point of listening to Spanish-language radio programs fairly often. I got so that I was pretty adept of picking up a lot of what was said on news programs. At first, I couldn't understand why the Spanish news programs always paid so much attention to Casablanca! (``Hoy en La Casa Blanca, el Presidente Johnson dice...'') Eventually, of course, I realized that ``La Casa Blanca'' is Spanish for the White House.
I've never been back to Mexico, but I think I could still probably manage the language more successfully in Mexico than in Germany, despite my three years of college German.
In my junior or senior year in college, I worked my way through a more sensible textbook, and I actually read through a thin volume of Italian short stories. This was not a textbook at all, just a book written in Italian for Italians. I think I may have also read a novel. A few years later, I found in a used bookstore a very thick volume consisting of the complete short stories of Pirandello, and I read a whole lot of them.
Italian is not too hard to learn to read, especially if you already know French and Spanish. You just have to learn a few simple rules for how words in one language correspond to those in the other. A ``pl'' in French, for instance, become a ``pi'' in Italian. You also need to use some imagination in figuring out what a word might be. In an article on algebraic geometry, for instance, I encountered the word ``iperpiano.'' At first it looked quite alien, but given the context, a little application of imagination produced the translaterion ``hyperplane.''
I also got a language course on records from the library -- it was probably the ``Living Language'' Italian course, consisting of four LPs -- and worked through it fairly carefully.
The other thing that helped my knowledge of Italian was that for a while during the Sixties, Italian films were very popular. Aside from the films of Fellini (who I loved), de Sica (which I couldn't really relate to), and Antonionni (which made no sense to me at all, but watched anywy because they were in Italian), there were a whole slew of light comedies, the first being ``Divorce: Italian Style.'' (The premise was that, divorce being illegal in Italian, Italian-style divorce consisted of murdering one's spouse -- an idea with riotous comic potential!)
The thing about movies is that even though one is unlikely to learn a whole lot of vocabulary or grammar from them, they help you get a ``feel'' for the language. When I hear people speaking Italian, on some non-verbal level the language makes sense to me. And this makes it a lot easier to learn vocabulary, because I can learn it in the context of sentences.
In this sense, I almost feel that I know Italian better than I know German. When I listen to people speaking German, mostly it just sounds like a bunch of incoherent sound.
I worked my way through a textbook that included sections from the Old English versions of the Bible, and from various Old English historians -- Adam Bede and the like.
I never attempted Beowulf. But I did read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in an edition (with a vocabulary in the back) edited by Tolkien, of Lord of the Rings fame, no less. The language of Sir Gawain is technically Middle English, but it's much earlier than Chaucer and is a lot closer to Old English than to the language of Shakespeare.
As to Old Norse and Old Irish, I can at least claim to have bought textbooks on both. I think I actually did read about a dozen pages of some Old Norse saga. But I gave up on Old Irish fairly quickly when I discovered that the grammatical inflections modify the beginnings of words as well as the endings. This seemed to make using a dictionary an impossibly complicated chore.
It was actually Tolkien who got me interested in studying Old English, Old Irish, and Old Norse. I had stumbled across The Lord of the Rings around 1960, and I had read the three volumes in reverse order.
I was staying for a week with a friend who had two daughters, maybe 10 and 12 years old, and one of them asked me what an ``appendix'' was. I wondered what sort of book she could be reading that would have an appendix. In fact, it was volume 3 of the Lord of the Rings, which was at that point a totally obscure children's book. I read through the appendices, which seemed fascinating, then went through volume 3 itself, which seemed moderately interesting.
Later I was able to find volume 2, and then finally volume 1, in the library.
The appendices were actually much more fascinating to me than the story itself. It seemed to me that the words Tolkien was using -- such as ``runes,'' ``Middle-earth,'' and ``The Shire'' -- couldn't be simply invented. So I became interested in finding out how much real myth and legends were at the basis of his book. (To be honest, I guess that on some irrational level I wanted to find out that the whole thing was real, and not just a made-up story, although of course I realized that this couldn't be true.)
I was quite interested in antiquities at the time, as evidenced by my study of Greek. It seemed to me then that there was something very important about these people who had lived so long ago. (The Romans, on the other hand, seemed not so fascinating. Something about them seemed pedestrian, boring.)
Unfortunately, I discovered that the real English and Irish and Norse legends turned out to be comparatively boring compared to Tolkien's creation, just as eventually the actual Greek literature also disappointed me.
When I think back of that time now, the person I was then seems even more alien to me than the ancient Greeks or Norsemen or whatever. I find it almost impossible to imagine that any twenty-year-old in today's world could think that important secrets of life could be discovered by studying ancient Greeks, Celts, or Norsemen.
I do have friends that call themselves Wiccans and are interested in the Druids and such. But to me, from what I know, their interest seems rather superficial. I can't imagine them actually spending hours in the library attempting to learn the ancient languages.
Then, for about six months, I subscribed to a weekly newspaper from Athens. I chose it because I thought a daily paper would definitely be more than I could deal with, and the one I choose had the largest circulation of any weekly paper in Greece.
This newspaper turned out to consist of eight pages, of which only the front page had any sort of news or serious editorial content. The back page consisted almost completely of cartoons (not strips), which seemed to me to be fairly clearly French in origin, although the captions had been translated into Greek. The great bulk of the paper consisted of serials, pretty much analogous to soap operas.
For the six months I subscribed, I read it pretty much cover to cover, working my way through it laboriously with the help of a dictionary.
Now, I remember almost no modern Greek except the words for "please" and "thank you."