SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: Lockdown language learning (hazardous foreigner edition).


It is a matter of considerable disappointment that I’ve never learned to speak a foreign language, at least outside of Restaurant Menu German, Ask for a Beer in Russian and Really Simple Numbers Spanish.

Accordingly, it annoys me when a writer inserts a foreign language phrase into the narrative without translation, especially when it’s French. Stray Latin words creeping into our vernacular (“Et tu, Brute?”) are one thing, but interrupting the account of a soccer match to quote Montesquieu strikes me as both pretentious and unnecessary.

At any rate, it’s good to know a language other than our own, and maybe this is something I can finally get to conquering in the coming months.

How to learn a language in the lockdown at The Economist

It is a quintessentially social skill—but easier than ever to develop at home

Living in lockdown has led many people to undertake some self-improvement. Alongside baking or cramped fitness regimes, some have chosen intellectual projects—such as picking up or mastering a foreign language. This interactive skill might not seem to be one that is best honed alone. But learning a language in isolation is much easier than it used to be.

One summer many years ago, as he spent many hours driving alone to work, your columnist learned French with the help of an ancient course developed to train American diplomats. Not only were its text basic and cassettes low-tech; it was also low-concept. Exercises seemed to have much more repetition than was necessary: Mon frère va bien. Mon père va bien. Mon fils va bien. Mon ami va bien,murmured the tape, with pauses for repetition. (My brother is doing well. My father is doing well…)

There was method in this drudgery. The skeleton of the sentence was drummed in, with just one word changing: Mon X va bien. Next, another variable was altered. A new list of six sentences cited feminine nouns instead: Ma Z va bien. With little instruction, the variation between feminine and masculine was pounded home. It was slow, not much fun—and incredibly effective. (Many of these old courses are now free online at …