Ji Xianlin: Tips for Learning Foreign Languages

There is a culture of learning foreign languages permeating the country right now. The main thing that is being studied is English, and this is a perfectly valid choice. Because English has practically become a world language. If you learn English, you can travel almost everywhere and run into no difficulty with the language barrier. A poor level of proficiency is sometimes supplemented by a little hand gesture. That doesn’t hurt either. The function of language is to communicate ideas. In general life, ideas are never too complicated. If you know a little bit of a foreign language, even if it is a little bit of a ranch, it does not matter, as long as the ideas of the “old insider” and the “foreigner” can communicate, that’s all that matters.

   Is it difficult to learn a foreign language? What are the shortcuts? As the saying goes, “Nothing is difficult in this world, but for those who have the will.” The so-called “people with a will”, as I understand it, are those who have the will to learn and are willing to use their brains. Those who can’t afford to lie down and wait for a pie to fall from the sky will never be able to learn a foreign language, nor will they be able to learn anything else.

   As for the question of “shortcuts”, I would like to cite Euclid (or maybe it was someone else, old and ignorant), the great European geometer of ancient times. Euclid, the great ancient European geometrician (or perhaps it was someone else, who was old and deaf and unsure) said to the king: “There is no royal road in geometry! The “royal road” is the road the emperor took. There are no shortcuts to learning a foreign language; everyone is equal and has to work. This and that method of learning sold in the market is not credible. No method is possible without individual effort and diligence. It is a cliché, but there is no harm in talking about it.

   According to my personal experience, it is not very difficult to learn a foreign language at a level of 50-60% or even 70-80%. However, if we don’t learn it, we should learn more than 90%, the higher the better. Below this level, your language is useless and you may even get into trouble. There is no contradiction between what I have said and what I have said above. The above is only about communicating simple ideas, but here it is about scholarship, translating books and doing important interpretation work. The few translations now available on the market are full of mistakes and bizarre translations. These are the work of translators who are too eager for quick success, too poorly trained, and too lazy to even look up a dictionary. To put it bluntly, these are all counterfeit products that should be put under the category of severe punishment.

   I often have an analogy: we foreign language learners are like a bunch of carp under the undercurrent of the gates of a foreign language. One day, the carp, who has the talent to work hard, after hard work, studies hard, and perseveres, neither plays tricks nor looks for shortcuts, jumps through the dragon’s door with one jump, and from then on becomes a dragon of a foreign language. If he does not do so, he will swim under the dragon’s gate, refusing to make any effort or study, and he will remain a carp for a hundred years. If he is a peaceful carp, he is not yet harmful to others. If he is not, he will certainly fall into the category of counterfeiters, harming others and himself.

   We must be honest in life, and we must also be honest in learning foreign languages. There is no universal trick to learning a foreign language. As the saying goes, “There is a path to be followed diligently, and there is no end to the sea of learning.” This is the trick.

   Not long ago, I wrote about learning a foreign language, but it was limited to space and was not enough, so I’ll add a few points now.

   Learning a foreign language has to do with teaching a foreign language, that is, with pedagogy, and as far as I know, the teaching of foreign languages differs between France and the country, and the disparity is immediately apparent in comparing China with Germany alone. China is slow and gradual, learning for a long time, but students are not allowed to look up the dictionary and read the original work. In Germany, on the other hand, the opposite is true.

   A great linguist of the nineteenth century is said to have said, “Learning a foreign language is like learning to swim; take the students to the swimming pool and push them into the water one by one, and if they don’t drown, they will learn to swim, and there is no such thing as drowning.” When I learned Russian, my teacher only taught me the alphabet, taught me some noun changes and verb changes, immediately made us read Gogol’s “The Nose,” and every day we struggled to look up the dictionary and suffered. Yet the students were completely motivated. In one semester, they finished reading “The Nose” and a textbook.

   Practice is the only criterion for testing truth. In Germany, this proved to be effective. During the unprecedented catastrophe, when I was wearing all kinds of unwarranted hats, some of the “young revolutionaries” criticized the teaching methods I advocated as fascist, which made me weep and laugh.

   I would also like to offer a word of caution based on my experience and observation: can those scholars who have jumped through the hoops of foreign languages just eat their own words once and for all? In my opinion, this old-fashioned thinking is very dangerous. One simple fact is often overlooked: everything in the world is changing all the time, but not language! A foreign language scholar, even if he has mastered a foreign language very well, is bound to find himself outdated one day if he does not keep track of the changes in that language. Even one’s own mother tongue is no exception. When one returns to one’s hometown after a long stay abroad, even though one’s accent has not changed, the language, especially the vocabulary, has changed and sometimes one does not understand it anymore.

   Let me tell you something from personal experience. When I returned to my homeland after spending nearly eleven years in Europe, I was passing through Sai Kung and Hong Kong and heard the word “foxing” and “nerve-wracking” from the Chinese and overseas Chinese, which made me very “nerve-wracking”. “. I had never heard of it before I left the country. The word “fuck” is an extremely useful word, a bit like the English word “do”, which is now flying all over the place. When I revisited Germany in the eighties, I walked into a restaurant and called the waiter Hever ofer, as was the custom forty or fifty years ago, and he was astonished. It turns out that this term of endearment has long since been abolished.

   So it occurred to me that no matter how good a foreign language you are today, no matter how smart a dragon you are, you must always be aware of the language changes, or else you will make jokes. As an ancient Chinese saying goes, “Learning is like rowing against the current, if you don’t advance, you’ll fall back.” Always remember this saying. I would also like to suggest: teachers who teach foreign languages in universities or high schools today should ideally go abroad for six months every five years so that they are not left behind by the times.

   Not long ago, I published two essays on foreign language learning in the Luminous Cup, talking about my personal experience. Some readers wrote directly to me, some wrote to the editor of the Night Light Goblet. It seems to have to write one more can’t. I can’t possibly in a short article. It is impossible for me to answer all the questions in a short article. I will now give my personal opinion on the questions raised by Comrade Hu Yingqiong of Shanghai, which are of somewhat general interest, and so still occupy the space of the Luminous Goblet.

   The observations I have made in the two thousand-word essays mentioned above do not, in summary, lead to the following ends.

   First, it is important to get in touch with the original text as soon as possible and not let the grammar get tangled up in the process of getting in touch with it.

   Second, both talent and hard work are needed, with the latter being the most important.

   Thirdly, don’t expect shortcuts – there are no “imperial roads” in foreign languages.

   After learning English, it is easy to learn German as a second language. English and German belong to the same language family, but while the grammar of the former is superficially simple and difficult to grasp, the grammar of the latter is complex, especially when it comes to the yin, yang and neutrality of nouns, which are extremely difficult to remember and cause headaches even for native speakers. When memorizing a word, it is necessary to memorize it together with the morphemes der, die, and das, not just the word as in English. Pronunciation, on the other hand, is extremely difficult in English, and English dictionaries must use the International Phonetic Alphabet. German, on the other hand, is one word and one sound and does not need international phonetic symbols.

   The method of learning is still the same as I said: contact the original language as soon as possible, look up the dictionary frequently without any scruples, and lazy people cannot learn any foreign language well, not even their own language. Comrade Hu Yingqiong’s specific situation and specific requirements are completely unclear to me. The letter only talks about German-language scientific and technical information. Probably Comrade Hu now wants to concentrate on overcoming this difficulty.

   I would like to venture to suggest a “self-taught” solution for Comrade Hu and other readers. All you need to do is to find someone who knows German and spend two or three hours learning how to pronounce the letters of the alphabet. From then on, you can throw away the crutch of your teacher and walk on your own. You find a German tech book with a reliable Chinese translation, accompanied by a light German grammar. Get a general idea of the grammar first, without going too deep, and read the original German immediately.

   A dictionary is not at hand anyway, and the grammar is at hand. If you don’t understand it, read it again, maybe more than once or twice. When you think you have a rough idea of the original text, just to check how well you understand it, you bring in a reliable translation to see how well you understand it. You read one page at a time, and when you have finished reading the original, you will gradually be able to read the original German without the Chinese translation.

   It is not difficult to remember technical terms, which are similar in English and German, and generally speaking, the grammar of technical books is very strict and standardized, not as elusive as in literature. Why do I say “reliable” translations again and again? The reason is extremely simple: there are now too many unreliable translations.

   March 27, 1997.

   This article was originally published in Ji Xianlin’s book Xuehai Panroucher: An Academic Memoir (New Century Press, 2015).