Saturday, August 25, 2007

Another Language Book...

I love language memoirs like those of Barry Farber and, of course, Steve Kaufmann. They provide inspiration and lots of great advice from someone who's been there. But there is another perspective out there... yours.

The other day, Simon at Omniglot received a review copy of Ultimate Language Secrets. I read about it, got the free sample introductory and bought the damn thing. Ultimate Language Secrets, like all books, draws on the authors biases and experiences. But the perspective is slightly tilted. In style, at least, this is a book about how you are going to learn new languages, not how someone else already did. The advice is practical, step by step, and is better than most at addressing the biggest challenge most self-taught learners face - finding the time and the motivation to keep going till you've actually accomplished your goals.

Readers of Ultimate Language Secrets probably won't find anything they didn't already know at some level - especially experienced learners. But Socrates already noted that we can only be taught what we already know, which means the big problem is taking stock of what we know and doing something with it, not actually finding some great secret. If you're going to learn a language but can't seem to get started, or if you're learning a language but can't seem to keep going, visit the ULLS home page (linked above) and check it out. This might just be what you need.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Blake 2004-2007


A single being missing
And everyone is gone

- Lamartine
I won't say that I've gone so far as Lamartine, but it's amazing how much space a 3 pound ball of fluff can fill up in one's life. Blake was a real personality, stomping about, following us around and racing to beg alongside his brother, Pascal (the Wonder Dog).

Pascal didn't quite know what to make of the bunny, whom we introduced to him as a puppy. Pascal would always try to sniff his bottom, a dog's way of marking dominance over another dog, but the bunny never caught on to show respect in return.

When we got home Thursday evening, we found Blake laying on his side, unresponsive. We rushed him to the vet, but it was too late. Up in the mountains, it had been going from cold in the evenings to extremely hot during the day, and it was too much for his little system to bear. He died of pneumonia, not even having shown signs of the sniffles until the morning of his death.

I have a million more things to say about this little guy, but there's too much going through my mind to put any of it down coherently. So I'll close by just noting how thrilled I'd be to hear him stomp one more time. They really do become a part of you.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Multiple Methods

In recent days, I've touched on Lingq and Assimil, but also on the idea of real language and pretend language and bridging the gap between the two. Looking back, I have a sense that this is always how my language journey has progressed, except that it's not a case of crossing that bridge once but of going along a river between pretend land and real land, crossing the bridge every time the walk gets too easy from the pretend side or too hard from the real side. I've been trying to come up with a way to make some sense of this, or see if there's an underlying method.

So far, alas, the answer is "no". A new language blogger, Frodo Lives, has gathered a few observations of his own. If you're new to the language learning game, have a look for some ideas. The most important bit of advice, in my view, is to use multiple methods. But this is not purely a matter of pedagogy. Using multiple materials or methods doesn't just give you multiple perspectives on the language. It also gives you someplace to turn when things get too easy (boring) or too difficult (frustrating) - gives you bridges to cross - so that you can keep up motivation. And, let's face it, what finally prevents a person from learning a foreign language is not a book, a teacher or the nature of a language but rather the fact of the person stopping before reaching his or her goals.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Assimil, Ling-Q and "natural" language learning

The other day, Steve provided a short summary of the Natural Approach by way of explaining why he set up LingQ the way he did. The most important point, I think, is that language acquisition and language learning are not always the same thing. Often, in fact, there's a world of difference between them.

Learning a new language can be frustrating. The most discouraging experience is turning from one's textbook to an example of the actual language. At such times, we may try to retreat into familiar material and to the use of familiar constructions. This can feel reassuring, but it doesn't cause us to stretch and grow and become proficient in the language. This sort of "language learning" actually fits a rather sharp but apt phrase I once heard - "the perfect approach to pretending to learn a language."

When you start learning a language, a certain amount of your efforts will be with pretend language, almost inevitably. This was also the case with your own language - almost every culture has a form of baby-talk that downplays distinctions between problematic phonemes and simplifies tricky structures. However, if you want to be a grown-up sooner rather than later, you've got to deal with grown-up language fairly early on.

Assimil is probably the best program widely available once you're ready to leave behind pretend language. I don't recommend their beginner courses for absolute beginners in a language unrelated to any other they've studied. But they're great for starting to confront the language once you've got a little bit of background. The problem, of course, is that the 2nd or 3rd time you've read a lesson, you're no longer stretching.

I won't say that LingQ is the end-all, be-all solution, because nothing is. But with the variety of texts for study that it should ultimately admit, it looks like it will be a great place to cross the bridge from pretending to learn a language to actual language acquisition. That, at least, has been my experience with the Spanish texts available there now. If you're looking for a handy book to practice with, the overpriced Assimil is still often worth it. If you're looking for something to skim on your computer screen, meanwhile, have a look at LingQ.

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