As a polyglot and a former translator, I am a huge advocate for software localization, which also means testing software in multiple languages. Code that works flawlessly in English can totally break down in another language — whether it’s due to missing translations, translations that don’t fit into the space provided by the UI, or bugs that only pop up in other languages. (I found examples of all three while testing the WordPress apps today.)
But that’s not the only reason I like testing in other languages. As soon as I switch to one of my non-native languages, I’m forced to slow down and take a fresh look at the interface. Is everything where I expect it to be? Am I seeing what I’m supposed to see on this screen? Do all the buttons work the way they should? Working in another language can help you look at the software with a fresh set of eyes and find bugs that occur across languages — even in English.
Give it a try! Pick another language you speak — or one you’re trying to learn — and use it while you test. I’m trying to spend at least one day a month using WordPress.com and the WordPress apps in another language. It’ll help my testing, and I’m sure it’ll also help my language skills. 🙂
Do different languages make us think differently? In graduate school, I took a course in second language acquisition and psycholinguistics, and this was a hot topic. What do second languages do to our modes of thinking, to our brains?
Aneta Pavlenko points out that we likely have this relationship backwards. Rather than our second language (L2) making us think differently, we have to think differently to speak the L2 like a native speaker. We’re more aware of that effort when we’re speaking, but it surprises us when it pops up while we’re thinking:
… emergence of a new inner voice in the L2 often catches us by surprise. For some, the experience of hearing yourself ‘think’ in the new language is the embodiment of ‘thinking in the L2.’ The reality, however, is more complex and less dramatic. The ‘new’ voice of inner speech is not a guarantee that we attend and categorize similarly to speakers of the L2 – we may still speak the L1 in the L2. By the same token, not hearing yourself ‘think in the L2’ does not mean that you don’t.
I don’t think I ever got to a point where I noticed myself thinking in German. But I definitely internalized German ways of thinking. In a lot of situations with native German speakers, because of the social setting, I ended up speaking English with them. But I found myself picking up German sentence structure based on how they spoke. For example, German places time phrases closer to the start of the sentence. Instead of this:
We went to the store yesterday.
You’d say this:
We went yesterday to the store.
Many of my German friends and acquaintances retained this way of thinking when they spoke English, and I adopted it. In that sense, they kept speaking their L1 (using the German way of thinking) even in English, and I started thinking in my L2 despite not using German words.
Read more: What Does it Mean to Think in a Second Language?
In “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things,” Ta-Nehisi Coates shares this lovely observation about learning French:
Studying French is like setting in a canoe from California to China. You arrive on the coast of Hawaii and think, “Wow that was really far.” And then you realize that China is still so very far away.
I’ve been there. When I was living in Germany, I was thrilled every time something went right: a phone call, an appointment, a shopping trip. Those little moments when I succeeded at communicating. And then I would have a conversation that left me befuddled and frustrated, and I would see that immense gap between the German I knew and the German I needed to know, and I felt like a failure.
But it’s really about celebrating those successes, as tiny as they may be. Enjoying the moments when you feel you’ve finally done it (whatever “it” is) and letting those moments carry you as you struggle onward.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m in the midst of learning Farsi (Persian). There aren’t any Farsi classes nearby, so my learning has mainly been self-study. Learning by yourself is hard — even more so when you’re learning a less popular language. (There are tons of online resources for teaching yourself Spanish. Farsi? Not so much.)
I tried a number of methods before settling on something that seems to be working. Approaches that didn’t work so well for me:
- Pimsleur: Although the audio lessons were great for learning some basic expressions and pronunciation early on, the language they taught was too formal and limited to be practical beyond those basics.
- Modern Persian (Teach Yourself Books, by John Case): This book helped for learning to read and write, but the vocabulary was odd and the approach just didn’t click with me.
- Farsi Asan (by Dr. Alaeddin Pazargadi): This set of 5 books came with CDs for listening practice. Unfortunately, they are also designed to be used in a classroom setting. The books have some interesting speaking exercises and passages for reading comprehension, but the lessons are a bit hard to follow and don’t work so well for self-study. I plan to come back to them when I’m ready to practice my reading skills, though.
- Persian Grammar: For Reference and Revision (by John Case): This is an excellent grammar book. I’m really glad to have it for reference and would recommend it to anyone who’s learning Farsi, but it isn’t designed as a primary language-learning tool.
- Osmosis: On days when I don’t feel like studying, I rely on picking up a word or phrase here or there from one of the Farsi speakers around me. This approach is fun and can lead you to more slang and everyday phrases, but it’s definitely not recommended for serious learning. 🙂
After a lot of trial, error, and procrastination, I settled on a combination of Easy Persian and Memrise. With these two resources, I’m feeling more accomplished and learning faster than ever.
Easy Persian is a completely free and comprehensive set of online language lessons. The teaching style works really well for a me: A focus on reading and writing and a more grammar-based lesson structure, but with everyday vocabulary and recordings to help with pronunciation. The only downside is there isn’t a lot of vocabulary repetition or reinforcement — as a result, I tend to forget the words I learned in previous lessons. (This is also my weakest point in learning languages. I adore grammar, but learning new vocabulary is slow-going.)
That’s where Memrise comes in. If you aren’t familiar with it, Memrise is basically a souped-up flash card service. You can create your own set of flash cards or use any of the existing courses already available there. I used Memrise while I was living and taking language classes in Germany. It really helped me solidify all the German vocabulary included in the B1 German language test.
This time around, I decided to create my own, private Memrise course. I took the vocabulary from each Easy Persian lesson I’d finished and created a matching lesson in Memrise. And I keep adding more vocabulary as I go through more and more lessons, which gives me a great way to review new words and keep older ones fresh in my head. I’m retaining way more vocabulary than I did before!
My only problem now is consistency. I still go through phases where I slack off and don’t study. So now that I’ve hit on a method that works well for me, I’m going to try to commit to more regular studying. For the next 4 weeks, I plan to spend at least 30 minutes a day going through a new lesson and reviewing the vocabulary. I’ll let you know how it goes!