In a recent article published in the French daily Le Monde, an argument is made that some foreign languages can be learnt by association. For instance languages of Romance, Slavic or Scandinavian origin are so close, at least in their written form, that their similarities make them easy to understand for the speaker of one of them. The example given in the article draws a comparison between Romanian and French.

This phenomenon is known as ‘intercompréhension’ in French, which could be translated as Inter-linguistic Understanding.

The article follows on by putting forward some unusual ideas (well, unusual to me): for such language combinations and their learning, pronunciation is not essential, at least not at the beginning, and knowledge of grammar is not necessarily a prerequisite for learning a language. This new way of understanding the language would rely on intuition and natural responses. As you can imagine, it is not highly regarded in academic and conservative circles.

A few years ago I tried to learn Welsh for 9 months on an Adult Community Education evening course, and I’m afraid I failed. Our teacher’s methods relied, in the first six months at least, on endless repetitions and chanting of sentences, or monotonous association games, and this did not work for me at all. Only in the last couple of months did we actually look at the mechanics of the language, but I had lost all motivation by then. I need to understand the grammar of a language, i.e. what role each word has in the sentence. I see grammar as essential, not for ‘grammar’s sake’ but as a tool to give me the confidence to build my own sentences and to expand my understanding of what I read or hear. As for pronunciation, starting with approximate sounds is, in my opinion, a mistake. The longer bad habits are entertained, the longer it takes to shift them. Therefore spending time reproducing foreign sounds at the beginning goes a long way. It also helps with recognising words which are close across two languages. Take the words ‘qualité’ in French and ‘quality’ in English – very easy to understand on paper, not so when they are pronounced out loud. And yet, once it has been understood that the French ‘qua’ is pronounced ‘ka’, it becomes a lot easier, doesn’t it? The only thing I really like about this method is the intuition aspect. Although it can and does lead to mistakes (with the so called ‘false friends’), it also helps develop a more natural affinity with the language studied, taking away some apprehensions and inhibitions, and making the whole process less daunting.

Having said this, we all have different learning styles and a good teacher should always endeavour to find out how a student learns best.

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