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January Language Challenge

In December I threw out the challenge to learn the 100 most common words of a new language. At the time, I thought it a rather clever approach. My reasoning was that mastering the most-used words in a language would jump-start one’s fluency. How wrong I was.

How wrong was I? Well, to start, as you may recall, I picked Sanskrit, which meant that before I could learn a single word, I had an entire alphabet to decipher. Somewhere between learning the symbols for “8” and “9” (which are gorgeous, by the way), I realized that learning Sanskrit was going to take more than a couple of weeks, so I switched to Catalan.

I made the 100 words into a list, organized by part of speech. The problems began when I came upon words that served multiple grammatical functions: was “about” used more commonly as an adverb or as a preposition? Better add it to both lists. “Sound”: noun or verb? And, oh, the verbs! In English “have” and “has” covers the gamut of ownership in the present tense. I have, you have, he has, we have, they have. Simple. But in Catalan, each verb has six conjugations. Multiply that by twenty verbs, and I had 100 more words to learn. Hmmm.

I persisted, and I learned those 200 words in Catalan, but I must confess that my “common words” method just might be the worst approach to language learning. Ever. It took me days and days of spadework, and all I got for my trouble was a jumble of disconnected parts of speech. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the words. Which is when I started cheating. I popped a copy of Talk Now! into my laptop, and within minutes I was happily “Jo entenc”-ing and “Parlo català”-ing with confidence. Thank heavens for language courses!

Last month’s language challenge was fruitless and exhausting. How about making January’s challenge fun and easy? Find a DVD of a foreign film in a language that you’re studying or would like to learn, and watch it the first time without the subtitles. Or use the foreign subtitles. But sit back and see how much you understand without any help in English. (If you want to check out our foreign DVD section to get some ideas, look here.) Enjoy!

And if you have a favorite foreign film or if you find a good one while taking the challenge, tell me about it.