I have been dutifully listening to the RFA Tibetan podcasts, and the experience so far tells me that I should slightly augment my strategy.
To review, my so-called osmosis theory is that if you listen to enough audio of a foreign language, you will eventually come to understand basically everything, without ever having to sit down & formally study the language (memorize vocabulary, grammar, etc.).
I still believe in that theory.
My concern is that I’d need the patience and (more importantly) lifespan of a giant tortoise to prove it. And if there is some low fruit I could pick now to accelerate the learning curve, I should go for it. After all, taking advantage of asking Tibetan language questions of real Tibetans while in Berkeley and Palo Alto was invaluable.
In my opinion, learning to understand a spoken foreign language is a lot like conquering a hard crossword puzzle. In the beginning you know nothing and can’t figure out anything. Then you finally get the answer to one question, which gives minor hints at what some of the others might be. By the time you near the finish, you’re filling out blanks left & right because of the abundance of clues.
Same goes for understanding sentences in a foreign language. If the sentence has 10 words and you understand 8 of them, you can probably guess what the other 2 mean. But if it’s the other way around…
Wait a minute! How can you possibly get a first toehold in the foreign language if you don’t know even one of the language’s words?
The answer is, people and places. They’re often the same or similar to their English counterparts. For example…
After listening to about three Tibetan podcasts, I had already learned my first word in Tibetan, si-zin, and it didn’t come from a memorized vocab list. My brain just noticed on its own that si-zin often came before names.
si-zin George W. Bush
si-zin Pervez Musharraf
si-zin Hu Jintao
After about the second podcast, I thought it probably meant “mister”. But by the end of the third I realized it didn’t precede all names, just leaders of countries.
Of course, si-zin means “president”.
A couple podcasts later I noticed an additional word, a-ri that sometimes preceeded si-zin George W. Bush, and was used in the vicinity of other American government figures. Must mean “American” – after all it sort of sounds like an abbreviation of the English.
But recently while surfing the web, I came across this. Skip down to #3. The claim is that, 100 words make up 50% of all words used in conversation!
Now my situation is a little different because I’m listening to news. But I’d be willing to bet that the “100 words 50% rule” still applies, though they may be a different 100 words than in the link above.
A quick test – this is news for Tibet, surely the word “China” must be sprinkled all throughout these news reports. But if it is, the Tibetan for “China” doesn’t sound like its English counterpart – ’cause I would have noticed it by now. I looked it up and found that it’s pronounced gya-na. Once I knew that, I started hearing it all the time.
A second test – “today” is always used in newscasts. I looked it up and in Tibetan it’s te-ring. I now also hear te-ring many, many times per newscast.
A third guess – “government”. In Tibetan it is shoong and guess what – I not only hear it all the time, but I also hear it used with “China” – gya-na shoong or “Chinese government”.
So you see, this is just too good not to take advantage of. I still don’t plan on memorizing huge vocabulary lists, but I do plan on looking up words that I believe are being often used.
Why languish in the doldrums when I have oars? It’s a simple way to begin filling in some Acrosses and Downs of this huge Tibetan crossword that I’ve started.