Lockdown language learning

As mentioned in Life under lockdown, I am currently trying to re-learn Latin, partly for self-fulfillment purposes and also because I’d like to be able to understand texts used when I attend classics and ancient history lectures, or when I deliver them and need to translate sections for notes. I’m also trying to re-learn French for the intellectual challenge as it’s the only language I’ve been formally taught for more than a year (I did Spanish for one year at high school, but chose French for GCSE).

The experience of re-learning both languages has exposed some gaps in my education. First of all, I wasn’t taught the basics of English grammar at school. Until I started Latin at university, I didn’t know what the subject and object of a sentence were – I had never heard these names before (as soon as I was told the definitions, I had no problem identifying them). Reflexive verbs either were not a thing in English, or I used them without knowing, and recently messed up a French translation as a result.

Secondly, I realised that my French lessons at school were mostly ‘learn by memorisation’. For example, I could tell you J’habite à Manchester (I live in Manchester), but I couldn’t move that into the past or future tenses. This didn’t matter at the time, because the focus was on passing exams, and you could get away with memorising a bunch of phrases because you knew that most of the exam questions would revolve around who you were, where you lived etc. In that sense the process worked, as I got an A (the second highest grade) in French GCSE, but I left without a full understanding of the language.

I am also finding it difficult to learn all aspects of a human language from books – as opposed to computer languages, where I have self-taught PHP, Python and C. Translating from written French to written English is relatively easy, but I have already made some embarrassing gaffes (or should I say faux pas) when going in the opposite direction, mainly because I have translated something literally but its meaning varies based on context (e.g. formal vs informal). I think at some point I may need to sign up for lessons with a tutor rather than just going it alone.

For anyone in a similar position, I’m using the following learning resources:

French all-in-one for dummies: Hefty tome which seems to cover all the basics, although I am only about 70 pages in. I haven’t tried the accompanying CD yet, which may help with pronunciation.

Unlocking French with Paul Noble: This doesn’t attempt to teach you vocabulary or grammar by memorisation. Instead you’re gradually introduced to new vocabulary and then repeatedly try to translate to and from French. I was a bit sceptical about the methodology, but the book had lots of positive reviews so I gave it a try, and it has turned out to be very effective.

Duolingo: People rave about using this to learn a new language, although I’ve yet to be convinced. It’s certainly addictive and competitive, and I’m plowing ahead in the French lessons, but I’m finding its Latin coverage less helpful. It is good for learning new words, less so for grammar.

Latin for dummies: Whilst significantly slimmer than its French counterpart, this seems more useful than Duolingo for the very early stages of learning, when you are still trying to work out the rules of a language.