Travails of a Language Autodidact

A couple months ago, I put my Japanese study on hiatus and bought a copy of French for Reading, by Carl Sandburg and Edison Tatham. I did so partly because four years of studying Japanese started beating me down. Though I’d made several strides with James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji, my progress with that slowed to a crawl. So, I decided to move to a textbook that could be completed relatively quickly, but still give me something to show for my efforts at the end.

I intend to return to Japanese once I complete French for Reading, and set out a programme for it (probably still involving Heisig). The past two years have helped me, though, and I feel like something of an expert autodidact from all I’ve learned about learning a new language. For one, flash cards could well be man’s greatest invention, behind fire, the wheel, and indoor plumbing. For some reason, I didn’t really use them in high school, and not much at university, either. I apparently assumed I’d pick up vocabulary in context, or in the course of doing general exercises? In any case, they are the best way to learn vocabulary, especially when paired with a spaced repetition system like Anki, which I have on my iPhone. That’s doubly true for someone like me, who picks up grammar fairly quickly, but struggles to recall individual words.

Up to beginning Japanese, I’d assumed that reading, writing, speaking, and listening all went together, and that if you could do one, the others should come easily. They do come easier, but I found in Japanese that I could read with relatively little effort, while writing and listening were more problematic, and speaking was outright perilous. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, the same scale applies to my English.

That points to what I like so much about French for Reading. It focuses on just one skill, so in just a couple months I’ve progressed to where I can read moderately complex French. Of course, producing the language requires much more effort, especially in speaking. Listening remains wholly untested, at least since watching The Visitors early on in this endeavour.

As any language student or instructor will say, it’s key to consistently expose oneself to the target language, not just through the textbook but in supplementary material. Often, while going through Heisig, I found I couldn’t quite master a kanji until I saw it used in context somewhere.

Such encounters with the language in the wild also gives some encouragement by reminding one of the whole point of learning a language. French for Reading does a nice job selecting lengthy reading passages from real French writers like Voltaire and Baudelaire. That’s just what I hope to read after finishing, though of course I’ll start with something simpler. Ultimately, I hope to reach the goal I set for myself in high school, of reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.