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Learning a second language

  1. Mar 7, 2010 #1

    I've always wanted to learn a little French. What's my first step? Does anybody have any experience with that Rosetta Stone thing (that thing's EXPENSIVE!)? Should I try to find a traditional course instead?

    My main goal is to learn the language for scholarly reasons -- I've always wanted to study some of Euler's original papers. I assume the French that was written in scientic papers in 1749 is a little bit different than the "where's the bathroom?" stuff I'd be learning. Ha.

    Any pointers?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 7, 2010 #2
    Move to France and force yourself to speak french.
  4. Mar 7, 2010 #3
    Night courses are at least as important as the language software because you can get answers to questions you may have. Regardless, practice is more important than studying. You need to get access to French speech you can listen to every day. Another advantage of night classes is that you get to practice speaking and get corrected when you make mistakes.
  5. Mar 7, 2010 #4


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    Translated papers should have the same importance as the originals. Most courses will not have the vocabulary necessary for you to understand a technical paper. It is therefore important to get a good grasp of the grammar of French and learn the specialised vocabulary you would need later.
  6. Mar 7, 2010 #5
    I happen just now to be reading The Broker by John Grisham. The main character is spirited away to Italy where he is forced to learn Italian in a hurry to maintain a new identity. His handler (who might be CIA or NSA) relates how he, himself, was dropped down in various countries (France, Russia, Turkey) with no papers or identification that would allow him to leave, thereby forcing him to learn to pass as a native in the shortest possible time.
  7. Mar 7, 2010 #6
    This is what I was thinking. I'd like to learn the language just for it's own sake, so I don't mind the work. I suppose being able to indulge my math-history interest would be a distant goal.
  8. Mar 7, 2010 #7
    However I have found that words that are less than a few hundred years old, as are most technical words, are very similar across the major languages. For instance I was able to read and understand a spec. sheet for a switching power supply written in German though I don't speak German. Now with translation sites on the internet it should be even easier.
  9. Mar 7, 2010 #8
    I did the french rosetta stone, and it was alright. The biggest complaint I have is that sometimes, you don't know exactly what sound you're making incorrectly, when on the speaking evaluation. It just tells you you're wrong. Meanwhile, in a class, they can better pinpoint exactly what part of the word is mispronounced.
  10. Mar 7, 2010 #9
    I guess the first three french words you learn are "retreat" and "we surrender"
  11. Mar 7, 2010 #10
    Just use "Google translate" and forget about learning a second language :smile:
  12. Mar 7, 2010 #11
    I guess I will never fully appreciate the subtleties in the american humor. By the way, which second language do you speak ?
  13. Mar 7, 2010 #12
    If you read the previous message beyond sarcasm, you may notice that learning a second language opens up your mind not only to a second culture, but a complete different way of thinking. If reading the headlines is enough for you to understand the newspapers, then yes, google translate will do the same job as learning a second language.
  14. Mar 7, 2010 #13
    If you're serious about learning a second language, I would suggest classes.

    I am currently taking German along with my Physics degree and I could not imagine becoming fluent through a learning program like Rosetta.
    I just wish my university had Japanese language courses, I'd take those too.
  15. Mar 8, 2010 #14
    I took 5 years of french.

    French is one of the more difficult of the romance languages. There are around 60 commonly used tenses, including some used only in writing, and some that aren't in use anymore.(thinking of your translation from the 1700's). On top of that, every noun is masculine or feminine, and there's no rule- you just have to know what's what in most cases. If you are looking to be able to translate the written language, you'll need more than a few rosetta stone CD's. Not trying to scare you, but it's a big undertaking for just a few academic translations.

    Take a class, and if you're still committed to learning it after that 1 class, then take more. Short of living in France, you'll need a few years of french study to learn enough for what you are looking for. Or just go to babelfish-much easier.
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2010
  16. Mar 8, 2010 #15


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    Are you sure Euler wrote in French and not in German ?
  17. Mar 8, 2010 #16
    Euler spoke at least two languages, German and Russian, and, having been born in Switzerland, he may have spoken French too. But he wrote in Latin, as did all major scientists of his time.

    As to the original question, Rosetta Stone and the likes (Pimsleur) are great if you want to learn to speak a language. Not so much if you want to learn to read or understand that language. As it turns out, those are two very different things. The way those audio courses are structured, after you spend a week working on one of those, let's say half hour a day, you'll know about 20 or 30 French words by heart (well enough to ask for directions to a restaurant in perfect French, even if you're woken up in the middle of the night.) After spending a similar amount of time with a textbook and a box of flash cards, you can memorize enough French to read children's folk tales and grasp the basic meaning of what's going on, but you may or may not be able to form coherent statements by yourself, and your pronunciation will likely be lacking.
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2010
  18. Mar 8, 2010 #17
    This has always amused me in spy novels/movies. In reality, every language has enough subtleties that it takes years of constant practice to be able to pass for a local. Furthermore, there are always accent/pronunciation issues which are incredibly hard to beat when you learn a language as an adult. Generally speaking, unless you're immersed in the environment when you're young enough, even an intensive accent reduction course isn't going to get all traces of your native language out. Quite often the issue as that the "new" language has sounds which are simply not part of the "old" language. For example, Eastern Europeans have a lot of trouble with English words that contain 'th'. The Japanese language does not distinguish between 'l' and 'r'. And so on.

    In this aspect, what I find more plausible is the scene in "The Beekeeper's Apprentice" where Sherlock Holmes talks to the protagonist for a while, then correctly identifies her as having grown up in London and spent two years in California.
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2010
  19. Mar 8, 2010 #18
    Watch a few movies with english subs but in french. Will at least give you a feel for it.
  20. Mar 9, 2010 #19
    "Recherches sur le Mouvement des Corps Celestes en General." Printed in "Memoires de l'Academie des Sciences" in 1749.

    According to some literature I have read, it was the first time Newton's second law was written in modern form with Leibniz notation -- we'd recognize it as a second-order ODE today.

    Most of Euler's work I have seen has been in Latin, but a good portion is written in French too.
  21. Mar 9, 2010 #20
    The book is fiction of course, but the point made is not: that the fastest way to learn a foreign language is to have no recourse but to use that language. Language students I know who've gone abroad for four months or more all report a kind of threshold or crisis where they realize that they have to stop thinking in English and translating to the native tongue, and start generating sentences directly in the native tongue. Likewise they have to start understanding the language directly without first translating it into English in their heads. Once that threshold is crossed their learning accelerates tremendously.
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