How I Became a Language Addict

The following is adapted from the Introduction to my book, Fast, Easy Way to Learn a Language.

Before I began school I was already fascinated by the idea of learning and speaking a foreign language. I persuaded two girls who lived next door to teach me French after they came home from school every afternoon. They enjoyed playing school and willingly cooperated. They would give me written notes with the numbers and days of the week written down. I was too young to read but that didn't matter. I asked my father to read what they had written and his pronunciation was nothing like what the girls had told me. I remember I kept telling him he was wrong and he kept telling me that he was reading what they had written.

I thought that learning a foreign language would be like learning a secret code. I would be able to understand talk that none of my friends or family could decipher. I could talk in a secret language that no one else could know. I couldn't wait to begin high school when I would begin to learn French. The idea of school had never been so exciting.

It was a huge disappointment. No one in the school - even those who finished their final year with top marks in French - could actually hold a conversation in the language. They didn't actually teach you to speak the language; we even had trouble reading it. Everyone complained about having to learn French. I was ashamed to admit I actually enjoyed it, even though I was disappointed with the lack of progress. French was still my consistently best subject.

It was hard to become enthusiastic about the French lessons. They began with grammar and conjugations of verbs. Not much spoken language. The lessons seemed designed, not only to result in failure, but also to engender a hatred, if not dislike, for the subject.

When I left school I bought some phonograph records that taught French and attended an evening class at my own expense. My progress was a hundred times faster than the high school classes. We actually spoke the language. We learnt the spoken language rather than narrative. We used an Assimil course book as our textbook.

During this time I found an Assimil German language course in a second hand record store. They were selling it cheaply because they didn't have the textbook for the course. I knew I could buy the book from my language school so I bought the records and then I bought the textbook from my school. I was speaking reasonable German inside two months.

I had friends who spoke German so I tried my language out on them. They couldn't believe their Australian friend was speaking German.

In the mean time I had discovered a very cheap Russian course. I saw it in a shop window as I was walking past and couldn't resist it. I thought they must have made a mistake with the price - it was so cheap. I realised that the price was subsidised by the Russian government but that didnít matter, here was a genuine language course that I could use. I began to learn Russian. My progress was slower than with German, but I was speaking the language.

My wife and I booked passage for Europe with Germany as our destination so I was highly motivated to improve my German. I learnt German from my records (I had now recorded them on to cassette tapes) for six months and this was sufficient to get by quite well in Germany. On arrival I visited the local library to read books on electronics in German to learn the vocabulary. I filled my notebook with the technical terms I thought I would need. I applied for a position with an international electronics firm and landed a job translating a technical English text into German. It was very hard work requiring long concentration but I was able to do it and greatly improve my vocabulary. I translated the text with the help of a technical dictionary to a German engineer and he improved my translation into good German. This was the most intensive language course I have ever undertaken.

Two weeks before we left Australia I bought a course called Italian For Travellers. We were travelling on an Italian cruise liner to Europe so I thought Italian would help. The course was very cheap and contained cardboard recordings of the text. I copied them to cassette tape so they would last the distance and began learning. The program was called the Lewis Robins Reinforced Learning Method and I thought it was great. I practised what I learnt on my Italian friends and I was pleased that I had learnt so much so quickly and so easily. I was so pleased with the course that I bought the French, German and Russian versions as well. I think they cost $3.20 each at the time. They also had a Spanish For Travellers course but I wasn't interested in learning Spanish. I have regretted not buying it ever since. Each course began by teaching the words and phrases that would do the most good and give you the greatest flexibility in speaking the language. The sentences were spoken in context - they weren't just random phrases they thought would be useful. I have since incorporated the reinforced learning methods into my strategies for other areas of learning and teaching.

On the ship, our table waiter spoke little English and no one else spoke Italian, so I was nominated to be interpreter for the table. Our waiter took delight in helping me improve my Italian. He always brought me extra servings at meal times and looked after me, so my study of Italian paid off.

While we were in Europe I discovered I could learn Dutch, Swedish and Russian via short wave radio, so I immediately wrote away to the stations for the free textbooks that went with the programs. I received a free phonograph record to go with the Dutch textbook and paid for a set of long-play records to go with the Swedish textbook.

While visiting the Hanover library I found a Yiddish course with a book and phonograph records so I checked it out. I took it with me to the electronics firm where I worked and said to my colleagues, "Listen to this. Here is a Yiddish course I borrowed from the library." We listened. Their immediate reaction was, "Hey, we can understand Yiddish," because Yiddish is like a dialect of German. The language actually derives from old German.

In the movie, The Frisco Kid, I still can't understand why the Amish people couldn't understand Gene Wilder when he spoke in Yiddish, or he couldn't understand them when they spoke in German. There are German dialects that I have trouble understanding, and many Germans can't converse with their fellow countrymen because the dialects are unintelligible. But I had no trouble following both sides of the conversation in the movie.

Living in Europe gave me my first experience of conversing with someone in a language that neither of us spoke as our mother tongue. It was exciting for me, but for Europeans it is an everyday occurrence. We had very close friends in Poland but we could only converse in German. I bought some excellent Polish courses in Poland, so that was the beginning of yet another language. One of my German friends criticised me for learning so many languages. "You will never be completely fluent in any if you are going to learn so many. Wait until your German is perfect." I thought about it and continued my studies.

I found that it was essential to speak Polish when travelling in Poland because for many, that is their only language.

I was driving on a freeway in Poland when the police flagged me down.

"You are fined two hundred zloty," he said.

"Why," I asked.

"I can only tell you in Polish," he said. "Can you understand Polish?"

"No," I said, "Do you speak German?"

"No." "Do you speak Russian?"

"No, but I can tell you in French. Do you speak French?"

I said I did. He told me, "You were diving in the wrong lane. You were in the overtaking lane but you weren't overtaking anyone. That is two hundred zloty fine."

I told him the slow lane was full of potholes and I was merely driving around them. It doesn't matter, he told me. The fine is 200 zloty. In western currency 200 zloty wasn't worth much, but he then fined an East German driver for the same offence and it took most of his holiday savings.

I worked for a company, designing and servicing language laboratories, and it was a dream job. The electronics was mainly logical thinking and problem solving, which I enjoyed immensely. I was paid to travel and I enjoyed working with equipment to learn languages. I was often away from home for several days at a time, so evenings I would often ask if there were any foreign language classes in the school that I could attend, so I often sat in Russian, French or Italian classes of an evening.

I worked for a year as an English teacher in a middle school and enjoyed the experience. I developed methods for teaching German children to pronounce English words without an accent. I remember as a small child, sitting in my back yard near our side gate, experimenting with diphthongs. If I slowed down saying the diphthong I found the sound broke up into two vowel sounds. I would say the word "day" very slowly. It would come out Daaayyy. The "a" sound was like "ah", which is the Australian pronunciation. All of this helped when I was teaching English. I used the method I discovered as a toddler of breaking down diphthong sounds to their components and teaching them to the students as separate sounds rather than as a single sound as is the usual practice. I found this was highly successful. I told the German students the word "day" is pronounced D-eh-i. My own accent underwent change, as I had to teach Standard English pronunciation. When I returned to Australia my brothers said I "spoke like a foreigner."

When we returned to Australia I enrolled as a student teacher. I thought it would be a good opportunity to put some of my methods of learning and teaching mathematics into practice. I have always felt I cheated my way through Teachers' College because I based my assignments on the learning and teaching methods I had already developed. I felt I only put in half the effort of the other students in my class, but the effort had been made years before. The lecturers encouraged me to develop my methods further.

I was travelling by train and found an Icelandic newspaper on the seat that someone had left behind. That was a treasure for me. I read it through from front page to the back and was pleasantly surprised at how much I was able to understand, mainly because of my knowledge of German and a little Swedish. I have been fascinated by Iceland and everything Icelandic ever since. I am looking forward to my first visit. I definitely intend to learn some Icelandic. Sometimes sales people have asked me what my favourite holiday destination would be. I always tell them Iceland. They think I am making fun of them and get angry, but I am simply telling them the truth. I have downloaded some Icelandic learning material from the Internet and I have an introductory course in Icelandic.

When I was given the opportunity to teach my strategies in other countries I was delighted. I spent time in Canada and then the United States. After my first mathematics book was published I was invited to teach my methods in Singapore. This aroused my interest to learn Chinese and Malay. When I was invited to conduct training programs in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I jumped at the chance. I bought books and tapes to learn Malay. While I was in Malaysia teaching my mathematics methods I was learning Malay as fast as I could.

I have downloaded a course in basic Malay from the Internet and use that as a basis, as well as two cheap courses teaching Malay and newspapers and children's magazines which I brought back with me from Singapore.

My book, Speed Mathematics, has now been translated into Indonesian so I will have to learn Indonesian as well to read it. Indonesian is almost the same as Malay so I get two languages for the effort of learning one.

My knowledge of Chinese is still hovering around nil but I was able to try out my memorised wishes for the New Year in Chinese. I had learnt the Chinese New Year greeting from a Dennis The Menace comic. According to Dennis the Menace, the greeting is Gung Hay Fat Choy. People understood me but said I was saying it in Cantonese. I should speak in Mandarin, so they taught me the Mandarin equivalent, Gong Si Fah Chigh. My knowledge of Chinese is still very basic but I can observe the formalities in the language.

I enjoy learning languages with strange alphabets. That is partly how I developed my strategies for teaching reading and literacy. When you learn a language like Russian, Greek, Hebrew or Arabic, you have to sound out every word. It can be discouraging at first but it isn't long before you develop a sight vocabulary. All of my children are voracious readers. Now my grandchildren are avid readers and reading years ahead of their age level.

I currently speak and understand about 15 languages. This can be misleading because if you learn Malay, you can understand Indonesian; if you know Dutch you can understand Afrikaans. As I have already said, if you know German you can understand Yiddish. I understand some languages quite well and I would say I am fluent - with other languages I can get by and read articles in a newspaper or on the Internet. I have done public speaking in German and French (and taught in a German school) and could probably speak in public from notes in several other languages.

For me, learning a language is a way to really get to know a people. I enjoy sitting on a bus in a foreign country conversing in their language. I am part of their environment. I am not just an observer. I remember sitting in a streetcar in Poland discussing politics with my fellow travellers and thinking I am getting first hand insight into the way the people think. Sitting at the table with families in East Germany discussing religion and politics are some of my great memories of the country. I think of the times I was invited to picnics and spending time with families while we lived in Europe and I realise that this could never have happened if we didnít speak the language of our host country.

Learning someone's language is an act of friendship. It gives you insight into how they think. There is a thrill that comes with your first successful attempt to converse with someone in their language; when you first discover you are thinking in their language.

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