Freitag, 3. Juli 2009


French, week 2.
Once again I'm reminded of why I generally skip over numbers and dates at the initial stages of learning a language. Admittedly this is partly self-indulgence: I want to get on to the more juicy bits of grammar as quickly as possible, and numbers are usually irregular and not very useful for understanding the working of the language as a whole. Because I'm usually learning the language for reading knowledge, rather than for travel or communication in a foreign country, it's also not extremely urgent, since in written texts numbers typically play a relatively small role.

This approach is of course the opposite of most contemporary language courses, which teach numbers quite early on, usually in the first month or so (one notable exception is Russian, where numbers are usually delayed -- for good reason -- until after the genitive plural has been taught, sometimes until the second semester). However, if immediate survival skills in the language are not at issue, I think there are some good reasons why putting off numbers actually makes sense. Numbers are (I find) actually one of the more difficult parts of a language to learn. We process them differently. Fine, it's easy enough to recite the numbers from 1 to 10 or whatever, but it takes much longer until we actually are able to connect them to something. Try doing mental arithmetic or remembering a phone number in a foreign language: not so simple. Furthermore, numbers are relatively separate from the rest of a language. Most words we use only in connection with other words; we have to know what forms they take, how to distinguish an object from a subject or a past tense from a present, how an adjective changes when used with a feminine noun rather than a masculine, what complements a verb takes. But numbers remain fairly isolated. They're more like placeholders, they don't have particular characteristics of their own, they don't mark out syntactical or rhetorical relationships. Instead, they refer to a separate symbolic system with its own set of rules.

At the initial stages of learning a language, I'm inclined to see this as a distraction. Instead of spending time constructing sentences and getting comfortable with the way the language works, its patterns and rhythms, the student is forced to divert his attention to mastering a bunch of idiosyncratic expressions and performing the double process of trying to produce sentences in an unfamiliar language and at the same time do mental calculations which may actually hinder the process of trying to think in the language.

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