Friday, July 25, 2008

A personal update

I always advise those who ask that self-study is by far the least effective way to learn a new language, and that goes for me too. Though I'm still determined to go through with my plan for learning Arabic, which was to be language #8, I can't seem to make any meaningful progress without the aid of a teacher and conversation partners. So, that goal will be deferred until next summer or fall, when my schedule becomes more flexible and I'm able to enroll in at the Esteban Language Center.

A few months ago my husband and I were contemplating a trip to Italy at the end of the summer, so the new language #8 was Italian for a short time. Learning Italian when one is already fluent in Spanish and competent in Latin is like a violinist learning to play the viola or the mandolin; a few tweaks are necessary but it's pretty close to what you're used to. (Learning Arabic, however, was more like learning the French horn for me!) But those travel plans have been delayed in favor of a family trip to Taiwan in the fall... I'm backtracking and working on improving my competence in Mandarin (which was either language #7 or language #3, depending on whether you count my childhood "baby" Mandarin). After getting most of the way through the full Pimsleur course last year I've got basic conversational abilities, but I can't read more than about fifty characters or discuss anything remotely substantial. It's time to get better.

Most schools these days will teach simplified rather than traditional Chinese characters. I, being from Taiwan, am primarily interested in learning the traditional characters. (To quote my mother, "Simplified character has no character!") I've found an online course which will teach them, but the Taiwanese-run school near my home only teaches children. I hope that between the former and enrolling my daughter in the latter, I'll be able to learn what I want.

My Chinese coworker gave me some interesting insights this morning when we were discussing the effect of technology on the traditional vs. simplified character debate. Back in the days of low-resolution VGA monitors, it was actually quite difficult to display traditional characters on a computer screen ("they just look like a black blob"). However, one argument in favor of simplified characters is that they're faster to write by hand, though that's moot in the age of computers where input is performed by pinyin or Bopomofo. I recommend reading the debate linked above; it's quite fascinating.

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