Sunday, October 28, 2007

Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary

It seems fair to say that an important part of progressing in a language is comprehensible input. The hard part is that you already have to know some of the language, or there won't be much input that's comprehensible. This leads to the question of how you get there. With Breton, I've found that the more I learn, the more I can figure out. Not only within the confines of Assimil, but also when looking at song lyrics, poetry and the lessons I've found online, I keep finding little bits of the language that are familiar enough for the idea of learning this language to seem not quite so preposterous.

I notice now that Steve has put "Learn words, lots of words," at the top of his list for things to do to learn language efficiently.

The one issue I run into is, which words? I've noticed that when you look at things like the 100 most frequent words in English or Chinese, there's a lot of grammar woven in. Whether you're talking "a," "the" and "is" in English or "hao," "shi" and "de" in Mandarin, there's the problem that the words that top the frequency tables 1) do not line up with vocabulary items in other languages and 2) require a certain degree of savvy in the language. In the past, the grammar translation method tried to deal with this by giving you the rules for constructing, but with the material offered by grammar point. The direct method tries to walk you through using the language authentically. It would be nice to find a middle ground where you were taught, for example:

1) greetings, used authentically
2) simple sentences - this is nice, this is big, this is expensive...
3) buying things - please, thank you and I'll take...
4) simple sentences with comparative and adjectives - I'll take a smaller one, I'll take a red one...

The basic idea would be to alternate real language and simplified structures that let you say a little more, functionally if less than elegantly. In this way, you could expand the range of comprehensible input more quickly. Some of the Teach Yourself books follow this track, too many don't. The closest I've seen as far as the grammatical part of this goes would be the See It and Say It In... series by Margarita Madrigal. Wish they made 'em for Mandarin and Breton...


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Breton and Breton Heritage

For those learning Breton, the resources are few and far between. There are two good places to go, however. If you speak French, there's a tricky to use but relatively thorough dictionary at And for Breton phrases, lessons and stories, there's

Naming a site after Kervarker is interesting. Kervarker is a Breton rendering of the name Villemarque: kêr = village, and note how the "m" in marque mutates to a "v" - these initial mutations, of which Breton has multiple types, are part of what makes learning Celtic languages such a joy. In the 19th century, Villemarque gathered a lot of folk songs (including the "Marzhin, Marzhin...") and noted them down to preserve a bit of the old Breton heritage. On the other hand, some suggest that he gussied them up a bit to fit with French notions of what good folk poetry ought to look like. So he preserved his vision of the old Breton heritage, perhaps. Still,, like Kervarker before, is doing a nice turn to keep Breton available for the interested.

(For all your island Celtic tongues, of course, visit the Omniglot.)


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ar Broella

The Broella is a funeral rite for islanders from the Ile de Ouessant who are lost at sea. Dan Ar Braz wrote a song about it that appears on Finisterres - which features a few songs in Irish and Breton. Below are the third, fourth and last verses in Breton with my translation (pieced together from the Breton and the included French translation):

Kalon digor er mor
Ken leun a vuhez
Laosket en donder
Tre daouarn an noz

Heart open to the sea
A heart so full of life
Left behind in the depths
In the hands of the night

D'ar vro out distro
Gant ar groas wenn
Laouenn o'h adkavout
Hent an enezenn

To your country returned
With the white cross' aid
Glad to find once again
Your old island's way

Ken gwenn eo ar groas
'Vit ar Broella
Ken gwenn hag al leor
A zerron ennon

So white is the cross
For the Broella
As white as the book
That I close within

A little vocabulary for those interested in Celtic languages:
kalon - heart (cardio-); mor - sea (Fr. mer); buhez - life; laosket - left (Fr. laisser); noz - night (Lat. nox); bro - country; kroas - cross (Fr. croix); gwenn - white (Guinevere means "white wave"); leor (levr) - book (Fr. livre)


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Finding Inspiration...

The other day, I mentioned a poem in Breton. Here is the poem, with my loose English rendering:

Merzhin Divinour
Merzhin, Merzhin, pelec'h it-hu
Ken beure-se gant ho ki du?
Bet on bet kass kaout an tu,
Da gaout dre-mañ ar vi ruz,
Ar vi ruz eus an naer-vorek
War lez an aod, toull ar garreg.
Mont a ran da glask d'ar flourenn
Ar beler glas hag an aour yeoten,
Koulz hag uhel-varr an dervenn
E-kreiz ar c'hoad, lez ar feunteun.

Divine Merlin
Merlin, Merlin, where goest thou
This early morn, with thy black hound?
I am just come from the seacoast,
Where I went seeking the red egg -
The red egg of the sea dragon,
Laid at shore in a rock hollow.
Now I go to search the meadow
For blue cress and the golden herb.
Then I shall gather mistletoe
In the forest by the fountain.

While translation isn't the best way to learn a foreign language, sometimes it's nice to find something above your level and get a sense for it. It's one more opportunity to get the language running through your mind and make the culture a part of you. And thanks to Google, it's easy to find a short sample in just about any language.


Monday, October 08, 2007

Learning with Minimal Effort...

The other day, Edwin remarked upon learning languages the hard way, then cast doubts on some of the minimal effort approaches, including sleep learning. He's right, of course. But I wish he weren't. But there's a secondary issue that comes up with effortless learning: it's not always so effortless.

As a student of hypnosis, I was curious what the alternative, hypnopaedia, would have to offer. So I've been reading about sleep learning. It's true, of course, that we hear and react to things in our sleep. A mother will wake when her baby cries. And most of us awaken when the alarm clock goes off. Yet we don't awaken for the even louder train that goes by every night at midnight, or the sound of the next door neighbor's teenager pulling in at 1 a.m. On the other hand, we do integrate some of that information into dreams. So, then, can you learn in your sleep?

As a general rule, we don't remember our dreams. But things that come up later may spur us to remember them. Slipping foreign language into your dreamland might hold some potential for reinforcement, then, but I think you'll probably have to start with study in your waking hours. Alas.

That said, I've been a bit under the weather, so when I lie down, I've been putting on Berlitz Think and Talk cassettes, just to see what happens. I'm under the impression that when I drift off, I'm not learning much if anything - though sleep learning advocates advise to keep it simple and repetitive, which this isn't. On the other hand, it feels perfectly natural to wake up to people speaking simplified Italian.

Tonight, I've put some other foreign language stuff onto an MP3 player. We'll see if it sticks.

My advice: It seems unlikely that putting on a CD when you go to sleep and hoping for the best is the way to learn a foreign language. But to take advantage of your time drifting off to sleep from theta to delta - meditating on the day gone by to actual sleep - it wouldn't hurt to make a bit of simple foreign language the last thing you hear before you hit your first deep sleep. Just keep it simple, since you're in a receiving, not processing, state. In other words, if you've already got an MP3 player, it won't hurt anything to listen and it will quite possibly even help. But to take full advantage of the fun and excitement of learning a new language, you probably ought to try it while you're awake!

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Another Approach to Celtic...

Today I ran across the Ogmios Project, a website to help pagans learn about Celtic languages so they can get a better feel for the culture of the original druids. The site features analyses of poems in a variety of Celtic languages, and a limited bit of information about learning Irish. Most interesting, though, was this article about getting in touch with native speakers of Celtic languages. The advice is geared to avoiding kerfuffles with people who might not appreciate pagans, but there are useful reminders about comporting oneself properly in another language and culture that apply to all language learners.

For me, the point of interest was this article, which introduces a bit of Breton verse about Merlin. I spent a semester in Brittany/Bretagne/Breizh and while there found the time to visit what is reputed to be Merlin's grave. So it was fun to get to work through a poem imagining a short conversation with him.