Saturday, September 23, 2006

Shopping and Learning - and Lojban!

Polyglottery notes that when it comes to language learning, you can have too many materials, as well as too few. This is exactly where I've found myself of late. I am finishing Mandarin, in a manner of speaking. I'm far from fluent, but am at a stage where I can self-talk comfortably and can even talk to real Mandarin speakers (much less comfortably) about at least some very basic day to day stuff. And a glance at my pile of Mandarin materials could prompt one to reasonably ask if I'm a language addict or a shopping addict who hangs out in the language section.

In recent times, I've found myself fantasizing about finding a language for which there were three good books, one decent audio course and absolutely nothing else, that way I could tackle those four things and know that aside from surfing the net for real life usage, I was done, nothing left to do with the language but enjoy it. This isn't a good attitude for a language addict or someone trying to maintain polyglot status, but when the bookshelves start to sag with books that had one useful chapter tucked within hundreds of pages of lousy grammar explanations, this desire for compactness, if not conciseness, can arise.

This weekend, therefore, instead of purchasing another language book, I picked up Barry Farber's How to Learn Any Language - my old copy is in one of the boxes of foreign language books I'm done with for the moment. I also picked up Ron Hale-Evans Mind Performance Hacks. The first, obviously, is to get me back on track as far as language study is concerned. The second is for thinking in general, and is nice for some of its stuff on memorization and creativity, as well as for a simpler approach to self-hypnosis that should help with attaining a receptive state of mind for learning.

The problem with the Hale-Evans book is that it is perfectly suited to a reader like me: It wanders in a dozen directions, takes tangential interest in everything and is on to the next deep subject worth serious investigation within pages of starting! One place it sent me is lojban.org. Lojban is an artificial language created to investigate how people use language. It professes to be very logical and able to explore a virtually unlimited array of subjects. It works, though, like those math majors who write out symbolic propositions the way Hugo wrote poetry. While lojban may be able to rationally express any sentiment natural language can, there are elements that don't quite feel natural, which leaves one yearning for the stupidities of Esperanto (why have an accusative? if there's no unnecessary grammar, how would you know it's a human language?...). That said, it is an interesting proposition if you're into that sort of thing.

In working through the Lojban site, I ran across a neat little program for learning it, however. Click on the learning page and you'll find a program called something like "parallel". It comes with a module for lojban, but if you can use Notepad and Audacity and follow a template, you can create your own lists for any language you wish. I'm a big fan of byki, but if you're looking for something more rudimentary and better suited to working through phrases, it's not a bad program to use. That's what I'm doing with a small vocabulary of Mandarin to make sure the language sticks with me when I move to my next projects.

All of which brings us back to a point I think I've made earlier: While you should push forward with your studies as best you can, when you start to burn out or lose excitement over a language you're working on, it's time to take a step back, rest a little and work on solidifying what you know, rather than wearing yourself out entirely. That's what I've done with Mandarin today, relearning some very familiar stuff with some new tools while deciding what to do next. And while this required having one or two new books around, it didn't require buying up the Mandarin section at the local bookstore in case there was a book I didn't have yet. So while I wouldn't advocate the nose to the grindstone, finish one program before starting the next, I'd definitely recommend - à la Farber - having a few good books around and working with them as appropriate to what you're doing now, which is not the same thing as buying every book on the shelf and wondering which one you won't read next.

Next plans: Finish Michel Thomas Advanced German. It's helped a lot and when I think in German, I feel a lot less intellectually stymied - okay, just plain stupid - than I have in the past, but I needed a break from the importance of Handles. And for my next language, I'm wavering between Uzbek and Malay/Indonesian. I'd resolved upon Indonesian because I wanted something easy to recharge my batteries. But then, at an Omniglot post, I stumbled upon the Uzbek for "Once upon a time..." and found the wisdom in this survey because if level of interest is a factor, the mystery of the old silk road still trumps Jakarta for me. So it looks like next week we're back to the Turkic family.

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