Learning languages ain’t easy, so don’t beat yourself up over it

Final Fantasy 2

Final Fantasy II (1988)

Still looking for a New Year’s resolution? Learning to speak and write in foreign languages is a pursuit most noble, you know. It’s a sure-fire way to broaden your pathetic, shallow mind. For language learning purposes, there are all kinds of devices you can make use of that’ll make you a proverbial polyglot.

In the old days you’d have to use books, which is never ideal. That’s what they keep trying to do in schools, and school is the last place you want to try learning a language in. Case in point, I tried learning Irish for 13 years in school, and French for 6 years, and what can I show for it?

A stilted, almost broken conversation in which I still mix up the two languages. This is actually more disastrous and damaging than when I mix up the brake and the accelerator, and it’s socially mutilating when I end up asking for permission to go to the nearest brothel, or telling everyone I’m pregnant with false friends.

No, if you want to learn a language, there are far better ways to drill it into you. It’s almost a rite of passage that language learners put their abilities to the test by picking up a few Harry Potter books in their chosen language – it’s here where’ll you’ll get that goofy thrill of reading about Harry Potter’s baguette in the French version.

Voldemort’s middle name becomes Elvis as well, by consequence of his full name having to be an anagram in some way of Tom Riddle. Elvis, isn’t that a dog’s name? Anyway, the French versions of the Potter books never featured a wizarding equivalent of Daft Punk. And since Daft Punk are the only remotely cool thing that’s ever been associated with France, you have to ask yourself: what’s the point?

I’m also a big fan of playing though text heavy video games in a foreign language – Pokémon is a great one for this, although to my knowledge they’ve never put out a Gaeilge version of Pokémon. Wonder why that is? Don’t they know the demand for Pokémon in Gaeltacht areas?

Actually, I don’t think there’s even a demand for any kind of Irish teaching in Gaeltacht areas anymore – we’re sitting on a critically endangered language volcano over here, and judging by some of the pilchard teachers I encountered in my schooldays, it isn’t going to erupt into a linguistic explosion anytime soon.

No, the man you want for stringing a few more tongues to your bow is a fellow silver fox of mine – Michel Thomas, a much more exotic moniker than his original name, Moniek Kroskof. He was a Polish Jew, interned in more than one concentration camp during the war. He survived this terrible ordeal and, after the war ended, he spent his latter years developing his famous language learning method.

Quite an interesting life already, and better than that, it’s no scam – he really will have you speaking good Spanish in just a few hours of listening to his audio tapes, with a few shortcuts taken, of course.

His method succeeds and appeals mainly for two reasons: one, there’s absolutely no rote learning, memorisation or homework involved. In fact, he even discourages behaviour like this, usually by making a scoffing noise from his very loud, very watery mouth.

I should warn you, especially if you hate the sound of chewing like I do, that every single noise the man’s mouth makes is audible, picked up by the most sensitive microphone in the world – that’s a Michel Thomas trademark, that.

The second reason for his system’s success is that the great man doesn’t faff around, going through dull prepositions and verb endings and all that nonsense – he gives you as many words as you need early on, useful ones too.

This means it won’t be long before you can talk about the economic situation in your country of choice. A lot more impressive than spending weeks learning how to draw three Chinese characters, which only puts you on par with a low-rate tattooist – know what I mean?

Some life this man led, before he sadly passed away in 2005. He even incorporated German into his language learning classes. That’s right, the man subjected to death camps by the Nazis, where most of his family perished, later went out and taught German as one of his languages. An astounding show of understanding and forgiveness, or an example of a businessman doing anything to obtain the filthy lucre? I’ll let you decide that.

You might supplement Micky Thomas with a bit of Duolingo, that more modern solution where the pushy green owl stalks you every day, trying to bring you through odd sentences with heaps of repetition, sentences like your hovercraft being full of eels.

But I’m leaving out the one and only way to properly get fluent in a language, so much so that it becomes your main thinking language, and that’s by immersing yourself in it. This even worked for Arnie – obviously his Austrian accent was beyond repair, but in his gubernatorial years he admitted he was actually forgetting his German, and his mental monologues (I wonder if these included his best movie quotes?) were all coming to him in English.

Really, using a second language usually just descends into a bit of a farce, where you throw whatever few phrases you do know at your target, and they offer some initial resistance, until they finally take enough pity on you to help you along your way.

In this way, Final Fantasy II does a pretty good job at prepping you for the realm of language learning. In fact, it goes above and beyond – it doesn’t just matter how you learn the skill, but it also gives you an insight on using this skill in the real world.

But this is where things get a little bit scary. You see, every so often in the news, you’ll see an item about a backpacking European traveller getting hacked to pieces in some godforsaken part of Central America or Africa, right when they were in the middle of ‘discovering themselves’.

Desperately unlucky for them, but that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t travel much in my student days. I’m precisely that kind of poor unfortunate who gets set upon by groups with hatchets, and who you’ll later see in LiveLeak videos. I don’t exactly charm a room when I walk in there, so my pidgin Spanish or Portuguese or Ndebele or whatever I’d armed myself with would hardly break the ice.

So as tempting as it sounded to head to a tropical paradise where you can live off two US dollars a day, and that includes big bummed village callgirls into the bargain, no way was I going to tempt fate like that. Final Fantasy II emulates this fearful unknown beautifully – take a wrong turn in the game (and there’s never an indication about where the right turn is) and you’ve had it.

Suddenly the safe goblins and Hornets give way to enemies far more vicious and brutal than you could have ever anticipated. Although, a key difference here is that in FF2 you won’t even get the chance to run away or hand over all your Gil and possessions before being summarily killed.

One of the most interesting innovations in this game is a kind of pen-and-paper RPG feature where you can learn key phrases from NPCs, and then use those phrases in later dialogue to try and uncover new clues.

Of course, we both know that this usually descends into you trying and failing to get a multitude of phrases over the line with everyone you meet, until finally you get some sort of a result – or failing all that, you’ll suffer the ultimate ignominy of having to consult a guide.

Apart from that, you’ve got a very early Final Fantasy battle system at probably its most perverse – your characters’ stats will go up, or even down, based on your actions in battle. This rather infamously led to some ridiculous, though highly viable tactics, such as having your protagonists beat each other over the head to increase their defence and HP.

This type of strategic mutiny, the absurdity of spending time beating up your own guys, is what most people know about Final Fantasy II, if they know nothing else about the game. And reputation wise, there isn’t really much coming back from that. It’s like the fake blood scandal in Rugby, or Crashgate in F1 – not really in the spirit of the game, you know?

This all ends up making Final Fantasy II the most obscure, esoteric, difficult to assail game of the whole series, and that’s true whether you go for the Famicom original or, what I’d recommend, Dawn of Souls on GBA. You need quite a brave stomach to tackle it, you’ll be in it for the long haul, and ultimately it’s probably not even worth it anyway. A lot like learning Mandarin Chinese, then.

1 January 2021

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