Learning a Language

by MHK Library staff

Learning a Language

By Jared Richards, LIS Technology Supervisor

A common thread throughout my life has been language. Which is true for billions of people, so it’s not really that noteworthy, but it remains a thread nonetheless. I have spent decades now trying to develop a passable level of proficiency in the English language. Being a native speaker makes that endeavor easier, and much less impressive, but I have also tried my hand at other languages. I have dabbled in various computer-related languages, most recently HTML and CSS to work on a website. Starting in elementary school, I took several years of Spanish (with a brief, misguided attempt at Latin along the way), but unfortunately I was never terribly committed.

There is still a hint of that commitment issue, but I am trying to do better in my latest effort to learn French. I am taking a multipronged approach, and the Manhattan Public Library facilitates two of said prongs. The first is the use of the Pimsleur audio French course. I was unfamiliar with the Pimsleur method before this course, but I have heard a lot of people swear by it, and for good reason. It starts out with a simple but intimidating conversation, that is then completely deconstructed, even down to individual syllables. And you’re not just training your ear: you’re repeating what you hear, so you’re also training your mouth to form new words (and new ways of pronouncing the letter ‘R,’ which is by far the trickiest thing I’ve encountered). Within the first few minutes, I was speaking French, slowly building to a full conversation, which is a lot more fun than just memorizing grammar rules.

We have ten different languages using the Pimsleur method in our audiobook collection at the library. There is also a whole series of “Little Pim” videos available on Hoopla, one of our online resources. It is a series developed for kids by the daughter of Dr. Pimsleur, which is helpful for building vocabulary, regardless of your age.

The second library-affiliated prong in my language-learning odyssey is the use of Mango Languages, another one of our online resources. Mango Languages offers access to over seventy different languages, from Arabic to Yiddish. You can access it from your computer or smartphone, and you can create an account (for free) to save your progress.

I always struggled at the beginning of a school year when we would spend so much time reviewing what we had already learned. My mind would wander to more interesting things, often not making its way back before new material started, leaving me lost. One feature I really like about Mango Languages is that it starts with a placement test. I needed to start from square one, obviously, but if you already have some experience with a language, you can take the test, and Mango will start you at the appropriate place, hopefully skipping over the stuff you already know.

There are several other small features that I like about Mango Languages. One is how they will show you a sentence in English and the language you’re learning, and then color-code each part, so you can easily connect the translation. This is especially helpful when one word in one language translates to multiple words in the other. Mango also shows you the understood translation, as well as the literal translation. Cultural notes are spread throughout the lessons, and these give you further insight into the language and these translations. An example early on is the translation of ‘tiens,’ which literally means ‘hold it,’ but is used colloquially as an exclamation meaning ‘oh.’

Another helpful aspect of Mango Languages is that when you hover over a word in the language you’re learning, it will show you how to pronounce it phonetically. To put it in musical terms, trying to sight-read French, at my current level of understanding, is a train wreck. But I’m slowly learning the rules, and getting better every day.

This thread of language will forever be intertwined with my general curiosity in learning new things, which I get to do on a daily basis at the library. Whether I’m helping someone find information, or figuring out novel ways to accomplish work-related tasks, every day is interesting. Most of the knowledge I acquire is fleeting, maybe lasting long enough to be an interesting tidbit in a random conversation if I’m lucky, but it is always worthwhile. And I love that the library has a wide variety of resources to supplement each new curiosity, for me and our patrons.


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