Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Speaking of resolutions...

Earlier, I updated on my New Year's Resolutions progress. Now the Tower of Confusion has his up. Meanwhile, John Biesnecker is working on a non-language resolution by going vegan for six weeks. As I sit here munching on a celery stick, I have some understanding of where he is coming from. Granted, I'm not going vegan. But I'm hoping the celery and carrots will fill me up so that at lunch a small hamburger is good enough, instead of my usual chicken strips, big hamburger or jumbo fish sandwich. Empty calorie question aside, the celery and carrots are high in water content which means they won't clog the arteries and keep the rest of the system sorting out what to do with them the way a hamburger does. John also has notes on a new innovation for language learning: hypermobile resources.

Death to Whom!

Well, maybe that's a little strong. But the fact is, I like language change. I like to see how we find new ways of saying things to get around old problems. I like it when we find easier ways to achieve communication objectives. Ways that require less thought. And that means dropping stuff you don't need.

Once upon a time, English had cases (subject, object, etc.). Now we're down to a genitive (possessive) case and an everything else case. French even got rid of the genitive, making use of "de" (of) the same way it uses "à" for dative -indirect object - just as we use "to".

Now, says the Linguistic Mystic, whom is on the chopping block. And it's about time. If people use it incorrectly half the time, then the distinction isn't actually communicating anything except the grammatical abilities of the speaker (provided the interlocutor is even paying attention).

Up next: Will all the Romance languages follow French in dumping the imperfect subjunctive? Will Italian follow French and Spanish and find a way to use "andare" for future so that the conjugationally deficient can duck that problem. (Yes, I know it's just "avere," but I always goof up the stress.)

I actually have a rather long wish list of grammatical features I'm ready to see go in different languages I've worked on, and smile a little smile every time I read about one fading. But so far, either my cultural context is limited or they're falling away the fastest in English.

There are some people who want to keep languages the way they know them, feeling that how they were is how they should be. But languages are living things. To stop growing is to die, because it means that people no longer need them to say new things and share new ideas in new and better (to them) ways. So I am glad to see "whom" going away, both because it is unnecessary and because its disappearance means my native tongue is continuing to evolve to communicate what I and my fellow Anglophones have to communicate, rather than making distinctions we no longer need or want.

N0te that there is an earlier piece on another development I love: the semi-spontaneous emergence of the gender-neutral "their".

Monday, January 29, 2007

Latin dying?

I'd thought it already dead, but Omniglot reports that the Papal Latinist, Father Reginald Foster, fears that it is dying. Notes the Omniglot, while Latin is still taught in Italian schools, the methodology leaves something to be desired. He would like it to be taught like any living language.

Hear, hear!

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How about those resolutions?

We're coming up on the end of the first month for 2007, and resolutions are useless without accountability. In fact, they're of limited efficaciousness with accountability!

Here's the list, with updates in italics.

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.
January 29: Learn in Your Car 1-1st 7 lessons; Lonely Planet grammar section; Mastering Spanish - 1st four chapters
-Regular reading of stories and poetry in Spanish.
January 29: First 50 pages of El Poder de Ahora.
-Read Borges' Ficciones in the original.
January 29: Section I of "El Inmortal"
-Learn 4 songs in Spanish.
January 29: Most of lyrics for Pausini's "Escucha atento" - can't learn song lyrics

Really low-level conversational: Able to handle basic conversations in the present tense.

-Michel Thomas Beginning and Advanced Italian courses
January 29: not yet
-Regular reading from self-teaching manuals to get structured examples of the language in use.
January 29: Opening chapter of Berlitz' Shortcut to Italian
-Read Pinocchio in the original.
January 29: First five pages
-Learn 4 songs in Italian.
January 29: Come se non fosse...

January 29: All items below - not yet, at least not really
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.

I know I'm not setting the best example for the full-bore polyglot, but my Spanish is picking up considerably without destroying my Italian. And my French is as fine as it has been in the last couple years, thanks to other reading plus everyday conversation. Part of setting resolutions for a year is you can put off till later. It's just a question of remembering that you can't put things off a whole year! But I've actually been surprised by how much I've been doing with Spanish.

Next update on resolutions in one month, with an update on Spanish and a review of Learn in Your Car in the next day or so.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

The Tower of Confusion muddled the American and British words for fried potatoes the other day and offers his thoughts. After giving brief thanks that the "Freedom fries" thing never caught on, it's worth offering a few notes on American fried potato terminology.

French fry. When you take a slice of potato running the potato's length, and fry it in batter, you get a French fry. It is soft on the inside. It's crispiness on the outside depends on frying time, type of oil, etc, but there is definitely potato inside.

Potato chip. Once upon a time, a snooty diner complained that his French-fried potatoes were too thick and sent them back. The disgruntled chef cut some potatoes as thinly as he could, dipped them in the fryer and served the crunchy confection to the diner's delight. The potato chip was born.

Potato crisp. In an effort to get prettier and more regular potato chips, some companies started taking potato buds - i.e. reconstituted flakes from dried potatoes - and pressing them into perfect form before frying. Pringles is the most famous of these companies. For years, Americans unknowingly ate these as though they were the same as potato chips. Then the government saved us from our ignorance by renaming them potato crisps. We still call them potato chips but the packaging now has a label informing that you are not in fact eating fried potato slices, but molded fried potato stuff.

Baked chips. Only the packaging refers to them as such. They are potato chips that were baked, rather than fried, in order to reduce fattiness. And taste.

Curly fries. Sometimes potatoes are cut into thin curls, rather than in straight strips. They are then made into French fries. Except that the zaniness of curled fries seemingly demands the addition of spices beside salt to underscore by flavor just how zany the whole thing is.

In America's fast food eateries, chips are not usually available. French fries may come in the standard or curly variety. If both are available, there is usually a surcharge for the curly variety. In sandwich shops, including Subway, chips are usually served in single serving pre-packaged bags. They may or may not come with the sandwich. If French fries are available, there will usually be a charge, even if chips are free (and they won't give you chips if you get fries). Finally, in burger joints and greasy spoons - restaurants with an assortment of burgers and sometimes some sandwiches or small entrees as well - it's anybody's guess. The menu should have the details.

By the way, note that in America the entree is the main course, not the first course. We started having problems with French and eating terminology well before the Freedom fries debacle.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Her waes Eadward gehalgod to cinge...

One of the frustrating things about learning dead languages is that there isn't good material to, well, bring them alive. There is no Pimsleur Latin, no Michel Thomas Sanskrit. There is a Talk-Now Latin, but it doesn't really get you talking Latin now. Which is a shame. Virgil and Homer would be a lot more exciting if you could listen with the ear of an ancient, forgetting about scansion and declensions and just letting the story pulse in your mind.

While I have yet to run across any books that really get you jabbering in ancient languages, there are three nice books for engaging the past, and I thought I'd make mention.

The first of these is Assimil's Le Latin sans peine. This book does do some simple Latin conversation and by the time you're done you're reading both serious ancient texts and some relatively lighter fare. I hope one day to find the time to go through it properly and maybe finish by actually speaking Latin.

The second is Teach Yourself Beginners' Latin. In this book, you read about the adventures of Paulus and Lucia as they uncover a sinister plot involving the local monastery. The bits with the donkey are funny, and when you're done, you can work through basic Latin prose and have deciphered some short but more complicated passages. If you want to have fun learning a little Latin, this is a great book.

Our third entry is a new Teach Yourself book, TY Old English. I hope that its author will get the chance to write a Beginners' Old English on the TY Beg. Latin, though I'm doubtful. Still, this book allows you to engage Old English. It offers multiple approaches to thinking about and getting things out of Old English texts. It offers cultural context that is sorely needed for such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. And, most delightfully, it is attuned to getting you to learn to work with Old English. Older books on Anglo-Saxon and Old English tend to be dreary grammars for philologists to leaf through and go a-ha when they notice a footnote to Table 7 that reminds them of an unusual vowel mutation is a certain vocabulary item in Old Norse. Other and more recent introductions seem geared to helping you through a key text or two but without getting a feel for Old English. The sense I get from this book is that, like TY Beg. Latin, when you're done, you won't actually know the language, but you will have fun learning what you do learn and will have a better sense about it than those who have picked their way through Beowulf with notes.

While it would be nice to one day see Pimsleur programs for Latin, Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Old Norse and more, enabling one to hit the textbooks with a little higher comfort level for the old tonuges, these three books make a nice start for communicating with the ancients on their terms.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Culture Clash in Azerbaijan

In the past, I've pointed to Uzbek music. Today, it's Azeri. No, I'm not taking up the language anytime soon. But today Andrew Stuttaford had a piece up on National Review's the Corner about one possible antidote to Islamic fundamentalism: Western decadence. In question, the Azeri pop star Roya, who reportedly sings outrageous songs while running around half-naked.

However, the first song I've run across, Dostum (my friend) sounds awfully Middle-Eastern. I prefer a little bit more of a pop sound.

If you are interested in hearing, go here, select a song and click on skatchat (looks like CKAYATb) in the middle of the page.

If you're interested in seeing, go here, download and play. Note: it's AVI, 42MB and censored. If you're fascinated by Azeri music or the Islamic world's surrender to Western decadence, you'll be impressed by what they're getting away with in cultures on the edge of total oppression. Otherwise, there are better videos and better songs out there.

And by the way, if you're interested in Azeri music and videos, check out all the offers at

Monday, January 15, 2007

Spanish - undiluted, uncorrected, almost understood!

My post below referenced a Linguist post on correction that poked at a common problem in language learning: an excessive desire to understand and get everything right while learning.

When I first started learning languages, I would hunt down grammars that explained every last word and readers where I could understand every sentence. I would make rapid progress. And then I would stall. Either I reached a point where it was too hard or, more often, it wouldn't ramp up fast enough and I would get bored.

Taking up Uzbek cured me of some of my attitude about having everything explained, because nothing I was prepared to pay for explained everything. And so, when I learned something new, it was very often something I'd already figured out. My Uzbek is still barely sufficient to order a sandwich, though I could find a bathroom, as well as booking a hotel room that had one - I focus on the important stuff! But when I fuss with Uzbek, I always find things that I'd already sort of figured out and when I listen to the music, I'm continually catching words and sentences that I'd missed before. Exposing yourself to the same language is like doing a crossword puzzle: Once you've filled in some of the blanks, it's easier to figure out what's in the others. So, for example, you can distinguish whether that muffled word was "hayot"-life or "hayol"-dream from context you lacked on the first hearing.

This weekend, I picked up a copy of Eco's La misteriosa llama de la reina Loana, the Spanish translation of his most recent novel. I read the first five pages, with a sense that I understood around 85%. I picked up the English translation, learned two new words that I hadn't figured out in context in the Spanish and confirmed that I'd understood 85%-90%. Of course I've read a lot of Eco - most in English, some in French, a little bit in Italian - and I've read one of Eco's major inspirations, Borges, in both Spanish and French. The result: Eco, who most consider a challenge, was easier for me in Spanish than a lot of other writers. With all due deference, he tends to repeat themes, and so I had the context.

I also got an abridged audio of El Código Da Vinci (Angels and Demons was better, but more expensive). I've listened to the first track twice now. The first time, I would have been lost if I hadn't read it in English, but by the second listening my poor Spanish ear was picking out quite a bit.

I could neither have read Eco nor listened to Mr. Brown if I'd insisted on my earlier standards for language learning. Nor could I enjoy Uzbek and Turkish music. But sometimes sitting there smiling and nodding and jumping for joy because you recognized one word in ten, or even one word in a hundred, is necessary to approaching the language as it is.

I still think that if you aspire to learn a language, you need to start with some structure and vocabulary. Entirely direct methods are a bit much unless you have time to relive your childhood in another language, which most of us don't. But that said, I don't think you need as much concrete learning about a language and how it functions before engaging it as I once thought. What you need most, once you've got enough structure and vocabulary to have some context about what you need to watch for in your language, is to mix learning and exposure in a way that makes you feel comfortable so that you can let your mind run wild discovering all the things you can do from day to day that you hadn't been able to do the day before.

In this vein, there are two types of self-correction in language: the good self-correction, where you've learned enough to recognize and fix your errors on the fly when they create a problem; and the bad self-correction, where fear of making a mistake or misunderstanding causes you to not stretch or challenge yourself.

I've given myself till the end of the year to get through Borges, so it's on hold except for occasionally skimming parts that I've already parsed the hell out of. In the meantime, I've been enjoying understanding as much of Eco as I can (and if you can get 80% in your own language, isn't that enough!) and achieving self-actualization, inner-peace and, hopefully soon, fame and fortune (though I can't find that part in the table of contents) with Tolle's El Poder del Ahora.

To sum up for those interested in language learning hints, not the exciting details of my own language learning: In the same way that excessive correction from a teacher can discourage you from learning, limiting yourself to study materials where you won't make mistakes or get the language wrong can keep you from making the discoveries and mental leaps you need to get the most out of your language learning. So if you're going to get one book in your language where you understand everything, to practice your reading, be sure to pick up another that's going to be harder. In real life, neither authors nor people are going to limit themselves to the skills and vocabulary in the materials you've studied from. So prepare yourself to be baffled, overwhelmed, and then surprised at how much you actually managed to figure out on your own. It will build your skills and build your confidence. And once you've learned that it's okay to not understand everything, it can be fun.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Correctional Facility

Steve at TheLinguist took a look at the frustration of being corrected when speaking the other day. Based on the comments, some people like being corrected, others are convinced of the value their corrections offer and still others, including me, are a bit wary about them.

I think that too much language correction has two big problems: 1) It puts the focus on what the learner is getting wrong. 2) It makes the learner focus on language instead of communication.

A post or two back, I noted that I was now reading two books in Spanish - Borges meticulously and new-age guru Tolle rather carelessly. What I've found is that I need to have places to go where Spanish is something I just use. In my conversations at work, likewise, by picking up on the way teachers say things, I'm gradually improving. But we'd never get anywhere if they corrected too many of my errors, because I'd never speak to them in Spanish again.

When I read Borges, I drift back to my grad school days doing close readings, where the reason you're verifying the meanings of words and sentences precisely is to look for something hidden, something new or something revealing - about the language or the author. It's not the kind of exercise that makes you feel stupid about your language. I think likewise that, properly approached, careful consideration of language in a classroom setting can be beneficial. It gives the illusion of progress if you get a grammar point or some such thing right when the teacher calls on you. But language is ultimately about communication. If the communication is there, it's irritating to have it interrupted by someone who thinks usage is more important than message, in the same way that it's irritating to look up a word you're 99% sure of in case you get called on in class, when you would otherwise keep reading. In this vein, dissecting Borges helps me understand something a little more removed from everyday life (unless you spend your time with troglodytes who eat snakes and don't talk), while not dissecting Tolle helps me get something out of Spanish without making myself tired of it.

Because some people feel good about error correction, or productive for getting it, I'm not prepared to pass judgment on the whole thing. Some of my favorite stories from my learning of French relate to big errors that were thankfully corrected. I think, in a nutshell, that when the correction of errors speeds up your communication and consultation of a dictionary makes your reading easier, go for it. But don't fetishize perfection of speech or comprehension. If error corrections either make you (or your interlocutor) nervous about communication or radically slow a conversation that could otherwise go forward, drop it. And if doublechecking words you could guess keeps you from enjoying a text so that you're ready to give up on it altogether, drop it. This, at least, is my advice. And to update an old expression, that and $1.89 will get you a cup of coffee. Happy reading and talking.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Updated Links

The other day, AspiringPolyglot noted the disappearance of a few blogs, including her own Learning Dutch. So I've updated my links, lost them, refound them and re-updated. If I'm missing your link, my apologies. Please leave a note in the comments and I'll fix it. Note that if the links are missing altogether, you're probably on a specific page, not the main blog. Since some of the ramblings on this site are entries at the main site, I wound up trimming the page so that short articles wouldn't look funny.

Note Kelly's commenters, maintaining multiple blogs can be a challenge. I've used blogger for some time to generate pre-formatted content for my sites, but almost everything new that I've created for in the last few months has been on this blog. It's just easier than messing with the Romance Blog, Germanic Blog... So I understand Kelly's desire to fold Learning Dutch into Aspiring Polyglot. But it's a shame to see Polyglottery go, and I hope that some of the new folks like Tower of Confusion will stick around.

Lose weight and learn a language!

John Biesnecker comments on language and lots of other things. The other day, he linked an article on weight loss (forgive the title) with some good advice for most any self-directed endeavor. Most of this is familiar stuff, but it's good to be reminded. Below, I've noted a few of the points and their application for language learning:

1. Run your diet past your doctor before you begin
Consult with someone who has actually learned your language to get tips on what to focus on.

2. Ignore magazine covers that claim to teach you how to lose 10lbs in 7 days
If the program promises to teach you X in 3 days, it probably won't. Some of these programs offer a nice introduction to the barest basics, but learning a language takes time and effort.

3. Cut the cable
If you can watch television in the language you're learning, that's good. But in your own language, all you'll be practicing is thinking in your native tongue, and usually not very interesting thoughts at that.

6. When you get bored, mix it up
If you're really not looking forward to your next study session, use a different book, or listen to music, or watch a movie. You don't want to associate your language with boredom, drudgery or worse. So when motivation slips, you need to do something else to keep the language in your brain, preferably something fun that will motivate you to want to know more.

8. Make sure there is plenty of variety in your diet
If you've only got one book and you aren't surfing the net or renting movies, you're likely to get worn out on the project. Make sure to hit your language from multiple angles. It will give you fresh perspectives on what you're learning and assure that when you get bored, you'll have something else to look at (see tip 6).

9. If you plateau, kick it up a notch
Starting to learn a language is easy. Continuing to learn a language when you're no longer doubling your knowledge every week is hard. Motivation is key, and results are the biggest motivator. If you feel like you're not progressing, it's time to listen to music, watch a movie or challenge yourself in some other way with real, authentic language. This will a) stretch you and b) show you that you can do more than you might have realized.

My favorite:
10. Brainwash yourself
Now that I'm reading Borges, Spanish is exciting after all. Now that I'm reading Spanish, Borges is exciting after all. Reading Borges in Spanish helps me make progress and see how much progress I'm making. Not reading a little Spanish makes me disappointed in myself, because I miss out on reading Borges, and now that I'm reading Borges, Spanish is exciting after all...

Seriously, mindset is important, and avoiding negative phrases about your language and brainwashing yourself with the idea that working at it makes you feel better about yourself - and not working at it doesn't - is a way of reinforcing the initial enthusiasm that prompted you to start learning a language in the first place.

In addition to reading Borges, which is making Spanish exciting after all, I've been reading El Poder de Ahora, a Spanish translation of The Power of Now,. With Borges, I've been meticulously verifying that I understand everything, making notes in the margin and trying, seriously, to get the most I can out of it. With Tolle (El Poder...), I've just been reading. If I don't understand a sentence, I re-read it. If I still don't understand, I read the next one and keep going. I've found that switching between these two approaches is helping me build my vocabulary and better understand structures without skipping over too much or getting bogged down. Not only that, but I hope to soon appreciate the miracle that is me in this moment... ;)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Slow and Steady Progress

Some weeks go better than others. This week, I have been listening to the soundtrack for "Notre Dame de Paris," which has my French coming back a bit. And I've been listening to Spanish and Italian regularly enough that they are coming more easily, or at least feel more natural when I use them.

Lately, my interest in Spanish has picked up a bit, thanks to the Borges. I say this because even though - or perhaps because - I can use Spanish just about any day that I choose to, the appeal just isn't there. Spanish as a daily medium of communication allows me to speak poorly in the process of doing things I would anyway. There's no adventure. Reading bizarre tales about distant lands, while deciphering Borges' more varied vocabulary, is another matter. I won't say I'm going quickly; I'm getting around to reading two or three times a week for half an hour at a stretch. But I've been using some of this time for re-reading, which makes me feel, till I get to where I left off, like my Spanish is good enough to read Borges without a dictionary! This is motivational. And it's getting me used to the past tenses, which I never get to use in real life. Because I also do French and Italian, where you usually just use a compound tense, the preterit has always mystified me. But some of it is starting to come as a tense I naturally produce, not just recognize.

One thing I've noticed in all my studies is that there has to be an element of challenge. If something comes too easily, I just glide over it until I look up and realize I've been tuned out for twenty minutes. If I have to stop and think, that makes me start to think. This is one problem I run into with readers, whether they be at a simpler level or with a facing translation: it's too easy to just keep moving without actually learning. Whereas if you're reading something you can work through, but with five or six words a page that you might not know, you have to decide whether you're going to take the trouble to look the words up or take the trouble to make sure you're guessing right in the context. Either way, you have to force yourself to figure out meanings, which means approaching the language head on, not just skating over it.

One other recommendation: if you can, you should really be using a standard dictionary for speakers of your language, not a translation dictionary. In this way, you will find words that you are pretty sure you understand, then find definitions that confirm it, all without lapsing out of the language you're learning and, in the process, finding other ways of expressing those words and ideas that give you trouble.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

How special is English?

As a native speaker, I like the language well enough. As someone who is at least borderline multilingual, I like other languages, too, though. Others, however, take their love of English a bit far. Notes The Language Log:
English is said to have a humongous vocabulary, as a result of several factors: the combination of Germanic and Romance sources; within the latter, layers of earlier borrowings and later ones, based more directly on Latin (and Greek); and the willingness of English speakers to take in loans from a great variety of languages. All this is commonplace, though annoying. Now it's taken to the next level, in Sol Steinmetz and Barbara Ann Kipfer's The Life of Language (2006), on English words. After a discussion of doublets like legal/loyal, regal/royal, and tradition/treason, Steinmetz and Kipfer conclude:

This is partly why English is the only language that has books of synonyms like Roget's Thesaurus.

Whoa! English must be REALLY special, with so many words that it needs a special resource to catalogue them.
Perhaps I'm ready to write my book on languages after all! I had thought a surer knowledge would be necessary, but apparently not.

Having used both synonym dictionaries and word-by-theme books for French and Spanish (of the variety for natives, not language learners), I immediately rolled my eyes at the claim, which the poster at LL, for his part, took apart quite nicely. What's sad is that 20 seconds at Amazon is all it took for me to verify how far off the claim was. Still, it got me thinking of another language I know that, like English, uses words of Greek, Latin, Germanic and Romance stock. I refer, of course, to French:

bleu (blue) - German blau (Italian also has blu)
téléphone - Greek
télévision - Greek and Latin(!)
français - German Frank (France has a German name, from when the Franks ruled it)

In addition to drawing on multiple sources, French has lots of ways of interesting word families. These emerge because the same words get brought in from Latin in a formal sense or adapted from Old French for a more general sense. Whether related words were built on the Latin root or the Old French root has its effect. Whether prefixes and suffixes were added before or after the language was codifiel also has an impact. Look at this:

Royal refers to the roi, or king, régale refers to his rights or law; féodal refers to the feudal system, feudataire refers to a feudal lord, feudiste is a specialist in feudal law, the whole thing is about fiefs. The roots for all these is the Latin feudum.

Then there's féal, fidèle, foi, fidélité, fiduciaire, se fier, all connected to the Latin fidelis, meaning loyal or trustworthy, which also yields the French confiance, now that I think about it.

We've drifted far afield of our initial question, does the existence of Thesauri make English special, but the reasons are first that English is not, and second, that this offers an opportunity for learning. If you know a couple hundred words of a language, I'm not sure this exercise will do you much good. But if you know 1000 or 2000, it's worth a try: Get a dictionary for your language that includes etymologies and, that offers translations for the etymon (?) if it's not apparent. Look up words for basic civilizational concepts like law, trust, faith, money, government, power and justice. Start with your initial item, noting the word, its meaning and its origin. If the word came from a word that meant something else before, look that up. If the etymon (?) meant the same thing, but is rather different in form, look and see if there are more obscure words similar to the etymon (?). This will send you on a wild goose chase where you discover relationships between tons of words, shades of meaning and more. A good vocabulary building exercise. And now, if someone tells you (in French) that they've always been interested in feudal systems and how they actually functioned, you can ask if they are aspiring feudistes, or just have an unhealthy interest in the droit du seigneur (see Le Mariage de Figaro).

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An Italian Resource and some language humor

Since I'm concentrating on Spanish and Italian right now, I've had an eye out for resources available. One I didn't know about, and wish I'd encountered some time ago, is Berlitz' Shortcut to Italian. This little book promises to teach you 100 words, lining you up for 500 phrases, and setting you on course to get by in Italian. The words are fairly well chosen - a mix of grammar words and everyday vocabulary items - and the usage explanations are clear, concise, and free of the sort of information that is supposed to make you a better speaker but really just tangles you up in rules and exceptions. Whether you're extremely rusty and in need of a quick review of articles, demonstratives, etc., or you're a complete beginner trying to clarify what you've been hearing on discs 1 and 2 of Michel Thomas, this is a handy little book to have. If you're an intermediate-advanced speaker with questions about the subjunctive, of course, this probably isn't the book for you.

And now for something completely different...

Whenever languages come up, it seems like it's always the Germanic languages that get the bum rap. As I was reminded, flipping through the section on "Nations and Nationalities" in Des McHale's delightful quotation collection, Wit. It is not clear whether the Germanic languages are held in universally low esteem, however, or if it is just that Mark Twain is commonly taken to be the Anglo-American wit where languages are concerned. In any case, here are three from Twain, one for French, one for German and one for Dutch. Enjoy. And if you don't, remember that Twain wrote 'em, not me.
In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.

* * *

The Germans take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and then they take the other part of it and put it over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German.

* * *

Dutch is not so much a language as a disease of the throat.
Again, please direct any complaints to the estate of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year!

... and an update...

While I will not be doing daily updates on the New Year's resolutions, I would like to point out that it's important to act on them now, with the feeling you've a new year before you, that this is the year you'll get them done, etc. Most New Year's Resolutions, of course, are forgotten after a month and only remembered in late December when you decide, once again, that this will be the year. To make it the year things come together, you must act while the excitement is with you. To that end, an update to keep me accountable for at least starting:

I have learned all the lyrics to Laura Pausini's Come se non fosse.... I realize that learning four songs in Spanish and Italian is not the toughest goal, but being able to check off one goal is encouragement to try to check off the others. And so I'm 1/4 of the way through one goal for Italian.

On the Spanish front, I have switched from Borges' Ficciones to Borges' El Aleph. Skimming the two at the bookstore, I realized that I had read more of Ficciones than I had taken account of, especially since I made extensive use of "La muerta y la brújula" for a seminar paper in grad school. So it's Aleph, and I have read the first section (4 pages!) of "El inmortal". Were you to ask me if I wanted ice in my drink, I'd still be lost, but I'm now prepared to discuss bloodied horsemen, deserting mercenaries and the habits of troglodytes. More importantly, the preterite is starting to sink in, which it never has.

Elsewhere, I see that Edwin at Tower of Confusion has been thinking about resolutions too. He's going to try to learn three new French words a day for a month, and see if it looks like a good plan for a year. I think this is smart. It should be doable for a month. If it's a chore, he's got a foundation of 90 new words and ready practice to add 2 words a day - 60 words a month - thereafter. If it's not so rough, he can keep adding 90 all year. If it's a bust, he's only lost a month and isn't committed to a plan that doesn't work for him. The main thing, whatever you're doing, is to keep working at it, understanding that it's not about methods or programs, but about your learning, and that if something works for you then you should stick with it and if it stops working for you, you need to find something else. As they say, nothing succeeds like success!