Total (Onscreen) Immersion
A guide to some electronic gadgets that make navigating and learning a foreign language easier. By James Fallows
Thoughts on Writing This Column
James Fallows on what most surprised him about this topic and the biggest development that happened after press time.
Here is a truth I have finally accepted about foreign languages: Some are just impossibly hard. Before you reply “Duh,” in any language, let me explain an underappreciated aspect of the varying difficulties in learning languages, which in turn highlights the importance of some new computerized language tools.
Why are major Asian languages—Chinese, Japanese, Korean—so much harder for English speakers to cope with than, say, Spanish? By the U.S. State Department’s classification system, the “Category Four” languages, “super-hard” for English speakers, also include Arabic, but I know firsthand only about the East Asian ones and will use them as examples.
Chinese and Japanese are hard because of their writing systems, which take their own native speakers many years to master. (Not Korean, whose alphabet can be learned in a day.) Japanese is particularly hard because of its grammar, which has many inflections and distinctions that don’t exist in English. (For their part, Chinese speakers have trouble with some distinctions made in English. In spoken Chinese, the same word is used for both he and she. Even very accomplished Chinese speakers of English often mix the words up: “Your son is getting big; how old is she now?”) And in general, hard languages are hard because they offer so few shortcuts or entry points. I have never studied Portuguese, but I can guess what aeroporto means. The counterpart in Chinese is written and pronounced jichang. In Japanese, and kuko. No one who hasn’t studied them would have a clue.