Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Amazing Race 16, Episode 5

Hamburg (Germany) - Les Monthairons (France) - Sainte-Menehould (France) - Massiges (France) - Wargemoulin-Hurlus (France)

Morse Code is probably among the least useful languages for world travellers. So the challenge that eliminated Heidi and Joe from The Amazing Race 16 — transcribing a Morse code message while surrounded by the sound of a World War I reenactment in the trenches of a battlefield near Verdun, France — might have seemed unrelated to any real-world travel task.

The nature of the difficulty the racers had with the Morse Code challenge, however, provided some surprisingly general lessons for travellers about learning other foreign languages.

We tend to think of the problem of understanding a foreign language in terms of “knowing what the words” (or maybe sentences) mean. But If that were true, all we would need anywhere would be a phrase book. Anyone who’s ever tried, and failed, to use a phrase book to communicate in a completely unknown language has quickly realized that there are multiple layers of coding that one must master before one can look up a foreign word in a dictionary or phrase book.

One layer down in a spoken language, which groups of sounds or syllables form a “word”? We conceptualize spoken English sentences as being composed of discrete words separated by at least momentary silences. But we don’t really speak like that, nor do native speakers of most other languages. We run our words together, and the listener is able to separate the words only because they recognize them as words. One of the most difficult challenges in computerized voice recognition has proven to be figuring out which syllables to group together as words. And the characteristic errors of voice recognition (some of which you’ve probably seen from time to time in my writing, because they are peculiar but peculiarly hard to proofread for) are those that involve not a simple substitution of a word homonym, but erroneous grouping of syllables into “words” (each of which is then misrecognized).

A second layer down in a spoken language, which are the meaningful “phonemes” (sounds) of which words and sentences are composed? We take this for granted in our native language, but in a language that uses phonemes that aren’t used in English, it can be difficult to tell whether a particular sound is meaningless noise (like “umm” in English) or a meaningful syllable, or whether two sounds are linguistically the “same” or “different” (i.e. whether they are intended to be different phonemes, or are merely normal variations in production of the same phoneme).

Similarly, without knowing something of an unfamiliar writing system it can be difficult to tell which marks or symbols to group together into a word, letter, or character, or, conversely, which portions of a single cursive line constitute “separate” letters.

It’s one thing to carry out one-to-one matching of individual letters against a finite alphabet, or of individual words we hear against our memories of hearing those same individual words in language practice, and quite another to try to attribute meaning to the continuous stream of sounds — without end-of-word or end-of-sentence markers — that is real-world speech, or an inscription in a script that we don’t know how to break down into words or characters.

Our most basic problem in learning to cope with a truly foreign language, therefore, is not learning the meaning of words but learning the vocabulary of sounds and the elements of the writing system so that we can decode speech or writing into words. Decoding is a prerequisite to any possibility of translation. And learning the coding system can help us as travellers even if we don’t learn what any of the words mean. If you can decode speech sounds or writing, you can recognize whether someone trying to help you is saying the name of the place you want to go, or whether what is written on the sign in front of you includes that name — regardless of whether you know what that word or name means, or can reproduce it yourself.

Similarly, the first step in learning Morse Code is to learn to distinguish the sound of a dot from that of a dash. A written dash is easy to tell from a dot, but it’s not so clear to a novice what duration of audible “beep” is a dot and which is a dash. Then one learns to recognize individual groupings of dots and dashes as letters, when they are keyed with an artificially large separation between them. As recognition of sound groups as letters becomes more automatic, the gaps between them can be reduced, and with more practice (I never got this far in my limited attempts to learn Morse) one can shift to recognizing entire words without having to mentally separate the sounds of the letters of which they are composed.

At the micro level, the racers’ problem with the Morse Code challenge wasn’t so much recognizing discrete letters (a task analogous to looking up words in a phrase book or dictionary), but distinguishing the sounds of dots from dashes and breaking the continuous-sounding stream of dots and dashes into letters and words.

At the macro level, the racers had difficulty figuring out an entire sentence — in English or French — when they had been able to transcribe only some of the letters or words from Morse Code. That’s a typical problem when you are listening to, or reading, any language in which you aren’t fluent, or even listening to your native language with an unfamiliar accent or poor acoustics. With anything less than perfect fluency and acoustics, you can’t expect to understand every word.

What fraction of the sounds or symbols do you need to understand in order to make a reasonable guess as to the approximate meaning of the entire utterance? Some people are “naturally” better at this than others, but I think this is an important travel skill and one that, at least to a degree, can be improved significantly by practice. It’s also greatly influenced by trust and tolerance for risk: if you aren’t 100% sure of the meaning of what you’ve heard or read, how willing are you to take action in spite of your uncertainty?

At least the racers knew that what they were listening to was Morse Code. In the real world, especially if we know more than one language, or are in a place where more than one language is used, we don’t always know what language to “listen for” — that is, against which language’s set of phonemes or letters and words to try to match what we are hearing or seeing. A stranger’s speech that makes no sense when I try to interpret it according to my rudimentary knowledge of, say, Spanish, may suddenly become comprehensible when they repeat themselves and I realize that they are actually speaking in heavily accented broken English. Or vice versa.

Switching between languages is its own skill. It’s much easier to understand or use a foreign language when we are expecting it. The racers were driven by chartered bus from Germany to France, without having been told where they were going, so they had no chance to prepare themselves to speak or listen for French. When they got off the bus and found themselves in France, Brandy noted that, “My high school French is coming back, but it’s really getting jumbled with Spanish.” Understandable, since they only spent a day in Germany after four or five days in Spanish-speaking countries in South America.

It’s easier to learn multiple languages that share vocabulary, cognates, sounds, grammar, and writing systems, but it can be harder to keep them separate. You’re more likely to mix up French and Romanian or Spanish and Portuguese then, say, to mix up Greek and Japanese vocabulary. On the other hand, there’s a good chance that if you don’t know the right word in Portuguese, and use the Spanish word instead, it will turn out to be a recognizable cognate.

If this has gotten you motivated to try to learn a new language or alphabet, I’ve written previously about what I think are the most useful languages for world travellers who already know English. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 14 March 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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