Friday, December 29, 2006

New Year's Resolutions

The Aspiring Polyglot posted her New Year's Resolutions, which got me thinking that I should look at the goals I set for myself last year and how I'd done. To choose a generous phrasing, I could have done better. In 2006, I fussed with a number of languages and learned alot. In my work - at a language school - I have been able to do a lot in terms of helping potential and struggling students get a sense of what's up with their languages because of the breadth of languages I've looked at. Depth is another story, and one thing I've concluded is that, to be honest, while there are some languages I really want to be able to use, there are a lot that I'd just like to fuss with to satisfy my curiosity, without any real purpose in mind. For these languages, I'm going to try to stay away from serious goal setting.

Giving myself a little credit where it is due, my Spanish is much improved, my Italian is more solid and I have renewed my French. Additionally, I completed the beginning program for Mandarin at my language school and have the certificate in my office to prove it. Finally, though I'm light years from being able to use either of them, I've learned a great deal about Turkish and Uzbek and how they fit together. The year wasn't a wash, but I did come way short of my oversized goals.

My biggest goal for 2007 is to stick to a limited number of goals for a limited number of languages so that I can enjoy my fussing with other languages without eroding my skills in my core languages or spending too much time or money on "curiosity" languages. My more precise goals follow:

Low-level conversational: Able to tell stories, use past, present and future and have basic conversations without those awkward "I know this but I have to remember" pauses.
-Regular reading from self-teaching manuals to get structured examples of the language in use.
Update: Starting with Hippocrene's Mastering Spanish by Robert Clark.
-Regular reading of stories and poetry in Spanish.
-Read Borges' Ficciones in the original.
-Learn 4 songs in Spanish.

Really low-level conversational: Able to handle basic conversations in the present tense.
-Michel Thomas Beginning and Advanced Italian courses
-Regular reading from self-teaching manuals to get structured examples of the language in use.
Update: Starting with Assimil's L'italien sans peine.
-Read Pinocchio in the original.
-Learn 4 songs in Italian.

Regain at least basic functionality.
-Michel Thomas Beginning and Advanced German Courses

-Re-read Les Misérables.
-Finish my translation of "Melancholia" from the Contemplations.

Turkish (a curiosity language):
Slightly greater familiarity
-Finish Pimsleur Turkish Basic Conversation (16 lessons).
-Read Le Petit prince in the Turkish translation.

Uzbek (a curiosity language):
Slightly greater familiarity
-Learn at least 3 songs in Uzbek.

This pared down list still has six languages, but with real expectations for only three - French, Italian and Spanish. There are a million other things I'd like to do, of course, and I will do many of them. But this is my checklist for 2007. Should I be able to cross off every item, I'll set second stage goals. In the meantime, I'll be starting the new year with the hope of building on the enthusiasm that comes when you can say, "I accomplished X."

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Different language, same old song

One of the biggest problems with trying to become multilingual or polyglot is hanging on to several languages. I've already spoken about the problems of what I call serial bilingualism or serial trilingualism a little bit. But there's another potential problem: When your languages start to run together. I believe it was Twain who said that anyone who speaks more than one language speaks none at all. This is especially true if you speak two closely related languages like Spanish and Italian or Czech and Slovak. You're likely to wind up speaking a mix of the two, a sort of Spitalian, for example, that doesn't fit the bill for either Spanish or Italian.

I've already referred to the Linguist's suggestion of listening to multiple languages on your MP3 player, so that you get used to switching. Lately, I've been taking things one step further: Because Italy doesn't offer a super large market, some Italian singers record their albums in Spanish too. I've been listening to Laura Pausini's Resta in ascolta, alongside the Spanish version, Escucha atento. It's interesting to see how closely the translation tracks the original in places. It's equally interesting, though, to see where things just couldn't be made to fit. Even though the lyrics sheets are very similar, the rhythm shifts, phrasings alter and the differences between Spanish and Italian are heightened. And where the translations differ most, there's a real opportunity to explore the language and find a richness that doesn't usually emerge when dissecting pop music.

My favorite song on Resta in ascolto - the Italian - is Come se non fosse stato mai amore. In the Italian version, there's a metaphor about the erasing the pictures of the departing lover (cancellare tutte le pagine con la tua imagine). The memories are so real that it will require a physical effort to move beyond them. And they're intentional: Even if these are just the metaphorical pages of the story of her life, these are images she has preserved and arranged so that her past, present and future will fit together properly. And now she is frozen (immobile), in danger of being trapped in those pages (non mi lasciare tra queste pagine) because she doesn't know where her story is going (io sopreviverò, adesso ancora come no lo so - I'll survive but I don't know how yet).

In the Italian, even the old saw about "time heals all wounds" is in doubt: il tempo qualche volta può aiutare (sometimes time can help). Finally, there is the question of where the girl stands with respect to her lover. He has an absent air (l'aria assente) - he's gone already. And she wants to run and hide from all this (vorrei fuggire via e nascondermi da tutto questo). But to him, she's already out of the picture, and he looks at her cosi si io fosse trasparente - as though I were transparent. Overall, this is a very sad and desperate song about a girl who built her life around a lover who is leaving, and taking away not just himself but the meaning of this phase of her life, so that even her vow to one day live come se non fosse stato mai amore - as though there were never love here - requires her to erase her own past, not just her pictures of him.

In Spanish (Como si no nos hubiéramos amado), it breaks down. The absent air (aire ausente), her transparency (casi como si yo fuese transparente), her desire to hide (alejándome de todo escapar de mi tormento - I distance myself to escape from my torment), and so much else is still there. But we have two big breakdowns. First, time does now heal all wounds: el tiempo cura todo y va a ayudarme (time heals all and is going to help me). And second, and more important, the image of erased pages is gone. Now, her struggle is to get rid of moments the wind has brought (eliminar cada momento que nos trajo el viento). The wind brings debris, scraps of paper and puffs of exhaust - transitory things. You don't save and cherish what the wind brings. You certainly don't organize it. You let it blow on by. And so, in the Spanish version, the emotional depth isn't strong because you know that time will heal her wounds because her life consists, as it were, in waiting to see what the wind brings next.

In Spanish, my favorite song is not Como si no... The Italian was so sharply written, and so seamlessly joined to the music. And so the Spanish wound up like a young man in his shorter cousin's tailored suit: the resemblance is there, but the fit isn't quite right. Whatever the syllable count, you can hear Pausini scrambling to get "como si no nos hubiéramos amado" into the space once occupied by "come se non fosse stato mai amado," and it is the lyrical equivalent of a jacket being too tight in the shoulders.

I offer the above not as a review, but as an example of what you can get out of putting a song and its translation side by side. This is an extreme, and to their credit the team (including Pausini) that translated the album did a masterful job on most of the songs.

My favorite song on the Spanish album is Escucha atento. It starts like so in Spanish and Italian:
Hay volví a pensar en ti / Ogni tanto penso a te
Hace siglos que / E'una vita che
No te llamo ni tú a mí / Non ti chiamo o chiami me
Suele suceder / Può succedere

Again, the meanings aren't identical. But the song is more loosely constructed, so it works in both Spanish and Italian. The nice thing here is that there are enough differences that you have to pay attention, but they are close enough that you can pick up things in your weaker language (in my case, Italian) that you would have missed altogether without the skeleton outline your stronger language provides.

Listening to the same music in two languages will seem a better idea to some than to others. And just as Italian isn't really a freebie for Spanish speakers (you have to be careful not to pay for it with your Spanish!), learning the same song in two languages is a proposition involving work if you want to get into it and fewer results if you don't. But for the work involved, there's fun too, and as much as language learners may strive to become those dedicated souls who study ten hours a day for the passion of language alone, the most effective students are those who find the fun that makes language learning less of a chore.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Il est né le divin enfant...

A little late for Christmas posting, but at the Tower of Confusion, Edwin put up a link to the classic carrol, "Il est né le divin enfant..." When I was at the university, multicultural diversity in foreign language departments meant things like singing Christmas carrols in the language you were learning, and I'll always be grateful to Professor Delaney for teaching us this delightful song (among other things, of course). Click the link to get lyrics and a short sound sample.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Christmas

Joyeux Noël


Feliz Navidad

or whatever flavor suits you best.

In the meantime, here's an Arabic PodClass found at PajamasMedia. Episode 6 is a short passage from Kahlil Gibran. Enjoy.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Tower of Confusion

The Aspiring Polyglot points out another new language blog, the Tower of Confusion. So far, the focus seems to be Cantonese and Mandarin though there are nods to French and Vietnamese. For some fun stories to keep you going when you're wondering just why you took up language learning in the first place, drop by. Let us hope for many stories and tips to come.

On a somewhat related note that I've been meaning to get to, let's hope that all is well with Polyglottery and he has merely found something better to do with his time, as the postings stopped some time ago but were both regular and informative up to the end date. If you're new to language blogs, you should drop by in those idle moments awaiting the next posts from the Aspiring Polyglot and the Omniglot, who is currently on vacation.

The Language Addict, for his part, will be listening to at least lessons 6 and 7 of Pimsleur Turkish in the next day or so. And I've been making a regular habit of listening to Laura Pausini, whose style very much fits the adult contempo demographic to which I belong. As a result I'm feeling pretty good about my Spanish and (to a lesser extent) Italian lately, and my French is as good as usual. Now I just need to find something good to listen to in German. So far, I've ruled out listening to the complete Ring cycle!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Multilingual Weekend

I've spent most of the last few days convalescing from a nasty cold, but have found the time to do some reading and listening, if not too much speaking. As I was too worn out for serious study anyway, I've focused on maintaining multiple languages. On the language learning front, I've done the first four lessons of the new Pimsleur Turkish. That means that we've learned about forming the present continuous tense for affirmative, negative and questions (for 1st and 2nd person), had hints about vowel harmony and run across the 1st person past tense. As well as learning 1st person possessive. Not that they've said as much, but there have been a decent number of structures introduced, laying a lot of groundwork in a relatively short time. I'll be curious to see if anything is made explicit before the 16th lesson (my interest was sufficient for me to purchase the Conversational course for $33 on Amazon, but not the full first level).

On the maintenance/multilingualism front, I've been listening to Lola in Uzbek, the Spice-Girlish Hepsi for Turkish, Georges Brassens, Mylène Farmer and Jean-Louis Murat for French and Laura Pausini for Italian and Spanish. I should find the time to download some podcasts in each language to get used to the spoken word, but it feels less like work if I'm just sitting and listening to music.

Studying one language alone can get tedious. Keeping up motivation can be tricky if you allow it to feel too much like work. Studying multiple languages, on the hand, can leave you a bit scattered. But supplementing your study of one language with fun background activities in your other languages - be it reading, music, youtube videos or whatever - is a great way to avoid serial bilingualism or trilingualism - and get greater rewards and enjoyment out of your efforts.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Multiple language maintenance

Yesterday, I wrote about the need to maintain your old languages while learning new ones. In a minute, I'm off to do my second Pimsleur Turkish lesson, but I will also read at least a little German and Spanish today and, if I'm smart, a little French.

This post at The Linguist has a really great suggestion, though: Get yourself an iPod Shuffle or other MP3 player with a randomizing function, load it up with short bits of content in different languages and turn it loose. In this way, instead of practicing your new language all the time, while the others shrivel away, you acclimate your mind to monitoring what language you're using and switching between languages automatically.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Serial bilingualism and more

One of the questions that comes up for the polyglot is how many languages to tackle at once, and the answer is usually one. I'm coming to think that the answer to that is "yes" and "no". The problem is that when I look at the number of languages I've fussed with, I've plainly forgotten way more than I learned.

Kelly at Aspiring Polyglot has a post today where she's fussing with multiple languages. She notes that for a few of them, she's not really learning anything new. I think there is some wisdom in this.

There was a period where I was sort of serially trilingual - I spoke English, French and a not bad bit of whatever else I was studying at the moment. But the third language never went anywhere and when I started the next one it disappeared. By reading things in Spanish, German and French and listening to Italian music, though actively studying other languages, I've found that I'm maintaining my (barely) functional Spanish and my poor German and Italian, while enjoying the new serial language acquisition projects of choice - first Chinese, then Uzbek. So now I'm up to two languages I speak passing fair and two that I can at least stumble along in. I think it's progress.

In my business, I've run across some serious serial bilinguals. The list of languages they knew is impressive, but if they had to go to, say, Beijing, tomorrow, they'd be in deep water, because they just got back from Curaçao and their Chinese is gone. Others don't really get that good at any particular language, but wherever they go they can get by. I don't think one approach or the other is right or wrong, but it is a choice you have to make.

For the Aspiring Polyglot, in literal terms, it makes sense to maintain at least a baseline level of the languages you've got, choosing to focus on one or another but living a life where you get used to all those languages rattling around inside your skull. Otherwise, you wake up one morning and your Spanish is just bad Italian or vice-versa. Especially with similar languages, I'm starting to think it's useful to read or listen to some easy stuff in the old language while working on the new one, otherwise the language you're using as a crutch will cease to exist as its own language and become a tool for using the new one. I've only been playing with this for a month or two, and accidentally, not by design, but it's what I'm finding necessary if I want to be multilingual. If you're having your own troubles learning Dutch without losing your German or somesuch, it's worth looking for some intentional efforts to keep the one alive while you learn the other.

I hope.

It's fair to note, however, that this is written under the influence of cough syrup. Earlier today, Pimsleur Turkish arrived. I put on lesson one, started playing along and woke up halfway through lesson two. The funny part is when I woke up, I was mumbling a phrase in Turkish and a half second later, the voice on the recording confirmed that I was correct. I wonder if I learned anything!

I'm hoping to learn just enough Turkish to get a little better feel for how Turkic languages work in real life, since materials for Uzbek are poor. Though that means in just a minute I'm going to be listening to Uzbek music. Hopefully, this will help. It will be a good test of what I wrote about above.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

German, Spanish and Italian!

The other day, I made reference to a book by a Mr. Stevick that dealt with learning strategies for effective adult language learners. One of the interesting bits that I didn't get into was the difference between learning and acquiring language - does an adult master and implement processes or pick up and internalize them in order to learn a new language? Clearly, it's both, but to what degree makes a difference. When I lived in France, life on the streets, in the shops and in a home exposed me to tons of language. School helped me make sense of it. But the French that stuck is the French I acquired - French that I first absorbed and then understood later.

For some people - smart, gifted and dedicated people - it is possible to more systematically learn language. What I find for myself, however, is that I can remember words and structures when I've made sense of them, but building in the other direction is problematic. The other day, I wrote about A lot of what they have to offer has helped me in terms of staying on task, and keeping up my language exposure, etc. But the tools for learning, as opposed to interfacing with, a new language haven't taken me as far as I would like. That is, I just can't push myself to do the vocabulary lists and grammar exercises. So what I'm thinking about for Uzbek now is learning lines from songs that I've managed to decode. These stick with me because they have some meaning outside of being Uzbek.

Uzbek is more of a long-term project, but it's nice to build on languages you already sort of have. I've been reading my dual language Siddhartha, which is delightful for German because the structures are straightforward, enabling you to decipher even complex vocabulary without recourse to a dictionary. For Spanish, I've stumbled upon the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, which can be trickier conceptually but for which vocabulary decoding is a breeze. For the moment I'm sticking with these, though I hope to find something for Italian soon. But desiring not to get to scattered, I shall work all the way through Siddhartha before I return to Italian.

Thoughts for this week: Learning language ideas are only truly helpful if you'll actually make use of them. Douglas Adams often remarked that he liked having written novels much more than writing them. I think it's similar for languages. Yes, when you start there is that thrill of something brand new. But then comes that rough period between having learned one-hundred words and knowing enough to understand short stories, pop songs or the introductory paragraphs of newspaper articles. If there were some technique - even painful, like hitting your thumb with a hammer repeatedly - that would get you through this stage in a week or two, I'd love to find it! Instead, I shall return to my German lit and Spanish poetry in order to reinforce and build on those two languages and remind myself how exotic Uzbek seems as a prelude to getting to the next step with that language.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sanskrit Conversation

A while back, I wished for decent materials for conversational Latin. While there are some Latin phrasebooks, the closest thing I've seen is still the Assimil Latin course. But looking up Sanskrit mantras the other night, I did come across Sanskrit conversation. It seems that they are teaching it for use as a living language, something I'd heard about, and that resources are out there on the web, which I ought to have guessed.

One site to visit is, which has several pamphlets for downloading and printing out. Unfortunately, the 1000 phrases for conversation is only in nagari - no Latin transcription. But some of the other resources are in both nagari and transliteration.

A second site of interest is Learn Sanskrit through Self Study. There are lessons for online use with sound or, if you just want text, you can download the written lessons in PDF.

I don't have any immediate plans for learning Sanskrit, but for those who do, check these free resources out.

Monday, December 04, 2006

More on Schliemann, learning

For those intrigued by Schliemann's language learning practice - reading and parsing a book in the new language alongside a book in a language he knew - it's worth looking into the Penguin and Dover bilingual books. In the past, I've used these with the idea of the English serving as a crutch in a language I knew but not too well (my French, long ago, plus Spanish and Italian). Where I would always run aground was that it was tedious picking through the new language, so I would make too frequent reference to the English, and in the end the exercise proved pointless. By contrary, these books are quite good if you want to do a point by point comparison.

This weekend, I picked up Siddharta with German and facing English. I like this better than the Penguin Reader for German that I already had in that it's one long novella or short novel by one person. The readers give you broader exposure, of course, but I don't want broad exposure. I want a model for German that will show enough internal consistency in style, phrasing and unnecessary flourish so that by the end I can manage at one form of German, even if it is that of a pseudomystic from early in the last century. By contrast, the readers change subject, tone, meaning and the whole ball of wax every fifteen pages.

There are also bilingual editions for Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther and (for Italian) Pinocchio. And there are editions aplenty for French, though that doesn't serve me particularly well.

I am looking for similar books for more exotic languages, out of curiosity as to how this works with unfamiliar languages and would welcome pointers in the comment section.

One other note: This site tries a lot of language learning styles, techniques and approaches. Having a love of language but limited patience and perserverance, I enjoy making of myself a guinea pig for the different ideas out there. Looking for ideas, I stumbled upon a Stevick's book on the approaches of successful adult language learners at Uztranslations. If you're looking for something new to try out, set aside an hour or two and have a read.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Schliemann and Language Learning

Over at, one of the essays is on Heinrich Schliemann, archaeologist and linguistic genius. Schliemann taught himself a number of languages by reading books he knew in a language he knew alongside translations in the language he was learning. Among his languages - for archeological purposes - was Greek.

Right now, I have Agatha Christie's Poirot Investigates and the Spanish translation, Poirot investiga. Spanish is a language I'm already quite familiar with. I often joke that living in California I speak it so much I might as well give up and learn it. That said, my year of Spanish in college and my subsequent experience, plus my knowledge of French, Italian and Latin mainly enables me to trade bad Spanish for bad English. So I thought I'd give Schliemann a try.

What I'm finding so far - one week at this - is that my Spanish isn't improving in quality, but it is getting more fluid. Exposure always helps, of course, and I already thought in Spanish - muddled thoughts, but in Spanish. But I've started thinking in longer, more complex sentences, adjectives are popping up for nouns with a little less effort and, most importantly, I'm enjoying it.

Spanish is a nice enough language, of course, and highly useful. But perhaps too useful. It's not as exotic as it might be, and learning it has always seemed like one part adventure, one part chore. Reading in Spanish, while not too difficult, has not thrilled. But matching English and Spanish and reading for a sense of the variety of expression possible, rather than for simple comprehension, has been a help.

My Spanish Poirot is covered in written notes, but less for individual words I don't know than for long expressions that I wouldn't have known how to say. We'll see where this goes, and whether I can find some Uzbek texts suitable for trying this with, but at least I'm enjoying improving my Spanish, and that in itself is a good thing. In other words, unless you've got the time, focus and patience of Schliemann, I still don't think we've got the silver bullet. But it's one more fun thing to try to make the language you're learning come to life for you.