Saturday, January 07, 2006

Learning a second language ... and keeping it

I have worked on learning Spanish (early grade school in TX), French (HS and college), Russian (1990's) and Swedish (2000 to date). Only a few words remain from those early experiences. Very little remains of the Russian, even having used it for about 10 days in the Russian Far east 11 years ago.

The common denominator of loss is disuse. No big surprise there. I even found when we lived in Sweden that I was losing English. In Sweden we were surrounded by people who spoke English as a second language (or third or fourth), so we often simplified our speaking so as to be understood. For some months after our return in mid 2005 I found myself grasping for words that I knew should have been close at hand.

I continue to study Swedish, both reading and listening to the spoken language daily. Still, I find myself looking up some words more than once. Some words just don't seem to stick very well. Others seem to effortlessly find a more permanent lodging.

Interestingly, pronunciation doesn't seem to slide away. Perhaps the listening process is enough to allow the verbal mimicry necessary for reasonable pronunciation.

Speaking is the area where I get the least practice. As with understanding spoken and written Swedish, a good command of words is best accomplished with lots of practice, apparently.

Sometime in 2005 I realized that I was understanding what I read and heard in Swedish without having to first translate to English. Especially when I am reading, there is a tendency to switch back into translation mode, but it's almost switchable.

Then there is the issue of word leakage between languages. It's easy for English words to slip into my Swedish speaking, but I find that it works the other way, too. Talking to a friend tonight, I almost said goodbye with "hejdå." I find that some words cover a meaning better in one language than the other.

It has turned out to be far more pleasure and interest than I would have guessed.

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