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Sunday, January 24, 2010 -- 6:57 am

In the course of studying the various languages on my wishlist, I've had occasion to observe that every speaker of Language X is speaking a slightly different language. I realize that this is not a controversial proposition, and that a lot of people through around vaguely relativistic and post-modern sounding jargon like "idiolect" as shorthand for the assertion-in-passing that "my manner of speech is equally valid". (I take no issue with such a view today. Whether or not I agree with it does not lend itself to clean and concise summary.) But it does have some practical consequences of significance that varies according to the language in question. More than a decade ago when I was reading novels in French, I typically found that for any new author I encountered, I would have to rely heavily on the dictionary for the first part of the book because each book always seemed to open up new vistas of vocabulary. In looking for good instruction in Hindi, I have seen critical reviews saying that the dialect spoken in a particular audio course -- by a reputable company that I normally consider first -- was laughably archaic. And I have recently discovered that the Cantonese I've been studying through one audio course is noticeably different, even on the level of personal pronouns, from the colloquial language being taught in a podcast. (It should surprise no one that, glutton that I am, my new ipod is loaded up with hundreds of language-learning podcasts, and that I'm working through them at a paced schedule of my own devise.)

Another thing I've noticed is that the vast majority of language-instruction books seem to be dialogue-based. Each chapter tends to be centered around a different situation (customs, coffee shop, post office, etc.) and the reader is taught just enough vocabulary to make it through the streamlined and somewhat contrived exchange before we move on to the next situation. The result is that if you're relying on this book to learn the language, you'll be helpless in all of the situations identified, because the conversations never go so smoothly, and real life is unlikely to be tailored to the words and phrases you've been taught. Although it may not be practical in a single-volume course, I would have thought that a more effective and appropriate approach would be to pick *one* starter situation in which to make the student an expert -- restaurants, for example -- and then have a whole series of dialogues in which the student learns, among other things, to make a reservation, ask for the check, locate the bathroom, complain that there's a staple in her food, and say that her water glass hasn't been filled in over an hour. As a result, instead of being helpless in all situations for a very long time, the student would develop some early competence and confidence in one frequent situation, and in this thorough manner then move through common situations and then to less common ones. Then they can say more meaningfully that "I speak some Fukianese" or whatever, because they can articulate at least one area of heightened competence.

I do not see these two observations as being unrelated. To attain fluency, it seems that you have to acquire a certain critical mass of vocabulary as well as facility with the idiosyncratic sentence patterns (as well as pronunciation styles, etc.) that different speakers even within a single dialect tend to prefer. And when considered in this way, it seems frustrating that so few textbook authors or publishers seem inclined to invest the time and expense required to prepare a complete and effective course. I'm tempted to try that with one of the less-common languages I study.