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European languages - Arabic - Asian languages
On this page: Latin, Irish, Old English, Old Norse, Danish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Lao and Uzbek
(still expanding; coming soon: additional resources for French, Italian, Spanish and German and recommendations for Portuguese, Greek, Hebrew and more)
A note from the creator and operator of gbarto.com, Geoffrey Barto:
As something of an amateur linguist, I've been studying one language or another since 1986. While I only speak French and my native English with any real fluency, I can muddle through Spanish, Italian and German. I know just enough Latin to get myself in trouble. I've translated at least short passages from all these languages, as well as Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Old Norse and Provençal, just to name a few. And in acquiring the skills to do this, I've met up with a lot of materials both good and bad. On this page, I give my recommendations for the best materials I've run across for a variety of languages that I took an interest in at one point or another.
If you want to be the sort of person who knows at least a little bit about a lot of languages, there's only one book to buy. Frederick Bodmer's The Loom of Language shows the interrelation of the Germanic languages (German, Dutch, etc.) and the Romance languages (French, Spanish, etc.) and shows how you can use the common points between language families to pick up the basics of 8 (!) languages with maximum efficiency. The Loom of Language
While few speak the language any more, there's a lot of great stuff written in Latin; furthermore a familiarity with the language will give you a head start on French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. It will also make those more eclectic English words make sense. But if you're learning a bit of Latin to make other things go easier, you probably don't want to work too hard on Latin. Herewith, three great picks for making Latin pretty easy to learn and even kind of fun.
GDA Sharpley's Teach Yourself Beginner's Latin is about as cool as it gets. In it, you read about the adventures of Paulus and Lucia, a couple medieval teenagers who get caught in an intrigue involving love, money, faith and treason! And as the story progresses, you get some of the sharpest things ever said in Latin about the subjects in question. When you get done with this book, you won't be fluent in Latin (nor able to read, say, the Aeneid, in the original) but you'll have an idea of how the language works and what it has to offer. And if you decide to go on, you'll have enough background that the kinds of books that do teach you to read the Aeneid won't seem so daunting.
Wheelock's Latin Grammar is the standard in self-taught Latin. The presentation of grammar is about as good as it gets and from about the second lesson you're reading things people actually said or wrote in Latin (though cleaned up to help you get through them). The upside to Wheelock is that from the get-go you're doing some serious Latin. That's also the downside. If you're enthralled with the idea of learning Latin, Wheelock's will give you a solid foundation for becoming a full-fledged Latinist. If you're just curious, though, I'd recommend Sharpley since the unfolding story pulls you from chapter to chapter and gives a better context for guessing what's going on when a particular problem of vocabulary or grammar eludes you.
Balme and Morwood's Oxford, Latin Course (part 1) probably offers the best approach to learning Latin. Unfortunately, it's also the most expensive. In it, you read a largely made up biography of Horace designed to show the bare facts of what we know of the poet's life combined with what we know about life in the Latin speaking world at the time. The story isn't as fast-paced as the one in Sharpley, but it's more in depth and does an excellent job of making difficult structures gradually make sense as they pop up throughout. There are also specific sections on Roman culture full of interesting stuff. If you're really serious about learning Latin but aren't the sort who can memorize grammar tables and internalize them automatically, this is a great book to work with. It is divided into three volumes plus a fourth book with original Latin selections that one can try out having learned all the material in the first three.
So you're going to the Emerald Isle and want to communicate. Prepare for strongly accented English. But if you want to show an appreciation of the heritage out in the Gaeltacht (hope I spelled that right), a good place to start is Pimsleur Quick and Simple Irish, which will have you quite unconsciously saying "God be with you," responding "God and Mary with you," (both in Irish, of course) and mumbling "nee higgum gaylan" (very bad transcription of how one says "I don't really understand Irish") should the resulting torrent escape you. At the end of the set, you'll know how to navigate a few basic travel situations, including ordering a beer at the local pub.
For the scholar of Irish, there's also the possibility of learning to write the language. This is no mean feat, since you have to learn about broad and slender consonants, even before diving into such as lenition. This leads to all sorts of interesting things like the male first name "Niam" becoming the female name we pronounce "Nève" (it's spelled "Niamh"!) and worse. It's a beautiful language that makes perfect sense to those who really know it to the core. (I'm not there yet). It's also a challenge, but if you want to start on that challenge I would recommend Learning Irish by Micheal O Siadhail.
As far as dictionaries go, I've used two. Hippocrene's Irish/English English/Irish Dictionary and Phrasebook, like most of its dictionary/phrase book offerings, is not entirely satisfactory in either case. But ... does give you a little assistance in saying things and it's handy to be able to look up how to say "I like..." or "I want..." and be able to finish the sentence with something you've located in the dictionary. While it's not as traveler friendly, I prefer the The Oxford Irish Minidictionary for looking things up; it covers a broader vocabulary and gives more information about individual words and usages.
Really hard-core Irish fans also might check out An Introduction to Old Irish, a wonderful reader/grammar for those for whom reading Beowulf in Old English just wasn't enough of a challenge.
For those learning Old English/Anglo-Saxon, Bruce Mitchell's A Guide to Old English is the book to have with a marvelous selection of texts and a reasonably comprehensible grammar (save for the phonology part, where certain concepts most certainly would have eluded me had I not had historical linguistics - albeit in French). A second book, the one on which I cut my teeth in OE, is Diamond's Old English Grammar and Reader, whose facing page translations allow you to sort of read OE before you truly know it, which can be heartening when taking on such a subject. Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer has much to recommend it and many still favor it eons after its first publication. It's not a bad book but I prefer Mitchell.
For reading a bit of Old English, the favored text (after the very short Caedmon's hymn and Dream of the Rood - both appear in Mitchell and Diamond; I'm not sure about Sweet) is Beowulf. For this, there are only two versions to have. Howell Chickering's Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition offers a fairly literal translation designed to help struggling English and linguistic students negotiate the text. If you want to approach Beowulf and know what's in the Old English, I'd recommend it. If you want to feel Beowulf, to know it in your heart and soul, the much acclaimed Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heamey is a must have. In fact, even if you don't care about the Anglo-Saxons or their literature, this is a brilliantly executed work that could claim pride of place on your bookshelves.
Sadly, E.V. Gordon's Introduction to Old Norse is hard to come by. For an intro to Old Norse's closest living relative, try PJT Glendening's Icelandic (Teach Yourself Books), which won't teach you ON but will make the texts seem oddly comprehensible should you lay hands upon them (If I run across a good ON guide, I'll note it here).
Just one book to recommend here because it's the only one I've read: Teach Yourself Danish (Teach Yourself) by Hans Koefoed offers a little bit about speaking, a little bit about reading and writing. It gives a very clear picture of the phonetics of the language, a solid foundation in everyday grammar and a useful range of vocabulary. And as a bonus, when you're done, you get to read Hans Christian Andersen's The Princess and the Pea in the original Danish as proof of how far you've come. By the way, the "Teach Yourself" people have released another TY Danish by a different author, formally titled Danish: A Complete Course for Beginners. I have not used this book so cannot evaluate it.
Duff and Makaroff's Russian for Beginners is a pretty good intro to the language, if a bit didactic. Like too many such books, the vocabulary selections can be a bit pedantic, but one will emerge with an understanding of the basics of how Russian works and the ability to actually read and write things (though you'll have to go beyond this book if you want to read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy in the original, newspapers should be decipherable).
We're giving this one its own section since it spans from North Africa to India.A good place to start, I believe, is with Jack Smart's Teach Yourself Arabic. He also seems to have a book book for Gulf Arabic out, though the original TY Arabic on my shelf is no longer in print. Note that if you're going to Saudi Arabia or some such place, you may want the latter item: While the Koran is the Koran is the Koran, modern spoken Arabic varies from region to region to the point where someone from Libya would have trouble communicating with someone from India (the most commonly understood dialect is the Egyptian because their movies have the widest distribution). If you do this language in-depth, get resources for the region you're going to.
When it comes to writing Arabic and getting used to the script for reading, The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read and Write It by Awde and Samuno isn't half bad. Much easier to deal with than the Teach Yourself book for Arabic script.
It costs too much, especially since it's only Arabic-English, but if you're going to seriously work with Arabic you should consider the Wehr-Cowan Arabic English Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. It's the only dictionary I could recommend sight unseen. Beware: if you find a cheap Arabic dictionary, there's often a reason. (I have seen reasonably priced Oxford dictionaries; some of these are better than others so make sure you're getting one that works for you).
Incidentally, there is the Wortabet-Porter Arabic-English/English-Arabic Hippocrene Standard Dictionary. I am not overly fond of this dictionary and will not promise that it's worth every penny. For one thing, it does not go out of its way to help you locate the meaning of words whose roots may be hard to figure out (unless you've studied Arabic, you don't know just how big an issue this can be). However, it is cheaper than the Wehr-Cowan and goes both ways. If you just can't see purchasing Wehr-Cowan because of its cost and its being only Arabic-English, you might consider this one.
Finally, for those who are curious but don't want to become Arabic scholars, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an by Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall is the most trustworthy translation of the Koran out there. If you want to know what's actually in the book Muslims take as their holiest text, I wouldn't buy any other.
Pimsleur Quick & Simple Chinese: Mandarin is a great place to start with basic speaking.
If it's the mystical writing that piques your curiousity, a good place to start is John De Francis' Beginning Chinese Reader (Part I), which starts you slow and easy and has you reading basic conversational material in no time flat. It's not cheap but isn't outrageously priced for the grounding it gives. And if you're translating, you should try out The Starter Oxford Chinese Dictionary, which does a lovely job of not only defining words but showing what to do with them.
If you're looking for practice with reading, check bookstores for old copies of the Tao Te Ching with the facing Chinese. Alas, my edition seems to be out of print and I don't have one to recommend. But if you've learned to identify a few characters and you can pick some of them out in the copy you're looking at, have a go at it. With a dictionary, of course.
For speaking a new language, Pimsleur is always a great place to start: Pimsleur Instant Conversation Japanese
Boyd de Mente's Instant Japanese: Everything You Need in 100 Words may not give you everything you need, but it teaches an amazing amount of basic Japanese with amazingly little effort.
If you want to read and write, you'll need to start with the Hiragana, a syllabic "alphabet" for spelling things out and writing grammar stuff in Japanese. This workbook is a capital place to start: Easy Hiragana: First Steps to Reading...
Once you've learned the Hiragana, it's time to get serious. There's also Katakana, for spelling foreign words, and Kanji, a recycling of Chinese characters. To get a fuller sense of what Japanese writing involves, try the Guide to Writing Kanji and Kana, Book 1 for a very thorough inspection of kanji, or take the less comprehensive but more user friendly Easy Kanji: A Basic Guide to Writing by the author of Easy Hiragana.
Lao (by Karen Barto)
Lonely Planet Lao Phrasebook. Joe Cummings with Lonely Planet is the man for Lao, with his Lao Phrasebook of 1995 and an even better second edition from 2002. Out of all materials that I've used, his transliteration is the easiest to follow and he demonstrates best how to put the alphabet together. In addition, as a phrasebook, it's thematically organized with vocab lists and cultural notes that actually seem useful. It also has good explanations of some tricky stuff, like which "to be" (there are four) to use in which situations, and how modals and adverbial tense markers work. I find Cummings' explanations clearer than others' who claim to be writing language learning materials.
English-Lao/Lao-English Dictionary. Of note is the English-Lao Lao-English dictionary from Russell Marcus. This is the only dictionary I've found that gives you the actual Lao alphabet and then a transliteration. Most dictionaries don't even offer the real Lao words, just whatever random system of transliteration they've used. I would love to find an updated version of this, or a bigger one. A caveat: according to my Lao sources, a lot of the words are actually defined wrong.* I use it as a starting point and then ask Lao speakers if my guesses are right.
*Karen has close ties to a family that emigrated from Laos just under 20 years ago and that remains in close contact with friends and family still in Laos.
Mother's Beloved: Stories from Laos is important because it's the first work of contemporary Lao fiction to be published in English in the USA. It is also side by side Lao/English so you get both if you can read both. From that vantage point it is very interesting to me as a student of Lao language. It is also quite interesting, though not necessarily pleasant, from a literary standpoint. Having studied highly political Francophone African literature, I know a political text when I see one. Unfortunately, Bounyavong lacks subtlety in his moralistic tales, and they read more like parents lecturing children on proper behavior, or like tales of a Pollyanna who is too ignorant to be aware of the ills in the world. However, I know little about Lao literary history or rhetorical style, so I must admit that my reading is charged with another background. It's definitely worth checking out, in any case, so you can decide for yourself.
Hippocrene's language guides aren't the best in the world, but there really isn't much available for Uzbek. This title gives the briefest of grammar guides, but has a passable dictionary and a relatively good glossary of travel phrases. If you want to learn Uzbek, I don't have any great ideas. But if you're curious, this is an acceptable place to start. Uzbek Dictionary & Phrasebook:...
If you're going to Central Asia soon (and aren't we all?), this is the book to have. The grammar explanations are, alas, almost nonexistent. But there's an incredible stock of information on a variety of languages and societies in this little book. And if you're curious about Turkic languages - including Uzbek, it gives a great database to work from for comparing. Lonely Planet Central Asia Phrasebook
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