Friday, November 30, 2007

Learning Language One Sentence at a Time

It seems a given that in learning a language it's important to practice, to speak aloud, etc. But there's an element that gets missed too often - the importance of approaching language as a vehicle for uttering complete thoughts. You'll find fill-in-the-blank drills, translations and such in most language textbooks. But at the back, what do you have? A glossary and verb conjugations (and sometimes noun declensions). At the beginning or end of the chapter, there's a vocabulary. And in the middle, there's usually ten pages of morphology for every page of syntax. These things are useful for learning about a language and decoding what's going on in a language with which you have some familiarity. But do they teach you the language per se?

I've written about Anki earlier. In the past few weeks, it's helped me do a better job of studying my Mandarin and Italian. But there's one change I've made from my usual flashcard preparation that has also helped: Almost half my cards are full sentences. And having those complete sentences is making me think about how the language goes together and get a much better handle on what's going on than if I tried, per tradition, to start with vocabulary, adjust with morphology and arrange with syntax. Just like English, my sentences come as one piece, even if they are few in number.

When you learned your own language, you did not follow the vocabulary, morphology, syntax sequence per se. You just returned the sounds that were made at you. Of course it took you a long time to decode, and of course you're free to consult the handbooks if a point is really confusing you. But to improve automacity in your language, it might be helpful to stop making word lists and start making sentence lists. For example, here is an old form word list:

questo - this (m), libro - book (m), essere - to be, è - is, azzurro - blue, giallo - yellow, questa - this (f), sedia - chair (f)

You can then learn the pattern "x è y" = "x is y" while remembering that adjectives and demonstrative adjectives agree in number and gender with the nouns to which they refer. And then you can forever drill these constituent elements.

Or you can learn four sentences:
Questo libro è azzuro = This book is blue
Questo libro è giallo = This book is yellow
Questa sedia è azzurra = This chair is blue
Questa sedia è gialla = This chair is yellow

Now, if I tell you that the word for box is scatola, you should be able to quickly come up with:
Questa scatola è azzurra = This box is blue
Questa scatola è gialla = This box is yellow

And if I add that black is nero, you can add:
Questo libro è nero = This book is black
Questa sedia è nera = This chair is black
Questa scatola è nera = This box is black

This would be true whether you learned in pieces or by playing with fully formed sentences. The difference is that if you're playing with fully formed sentences then when you want to say something is black, you'll be used to saying Questo ... è nero and Questa ... è nera with no thought. You'll make the whole sentence agree with the noun, instead of the individual words one by one.

Now, I'm not saying you have to learn every vocabulary item as part of a fully-formed sentence or that you have to drill yourself on every sentence type with all the words you can plug into it. But if you devote a good portion of your drilling, say 25%-30%, to fully formed stock sentences, it will help you make your new language something that flows more naturally, rather than that comes out haltingly and in disconnected bits and pieces. If you're doing okay on word tests but can't talk, give this a try.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Learning 2.0, etc, etc, etc

On Chinese Quest (found at Dragon Fruit), I stumbled upon a couple of posts from earlier this month (including this one) about something called Learning 2.0. And here I've been stuck on Learning 1.1.7 all this time. (a joke) Actually, I think I've run across the idea a few other places, but John had a nice explanation of how to make the most of the Learning 2.0 thing:
When you boil it down, L2.0 is about the learner being in control of his education. Sure, the concept gets tied to Web 2.0 tools like blogging, wikis, etc., but the meat and potatoes of the philosophy is choice. It isn't about message boards, networking, or being an ultra hip techie (though that is fun). It's about making your own decisions about what you learn, when you learn it, and how. And the material sticks because you learn it when you're ready to.
I think there's only one problem with Learning 2.0, and it's the same problem - or should I say delightful complication - we're going to see with Web 2.0 and all the other stuff: It's not just about choice. It's also about serendipity. The explosion of the web hasn't just given us language lessons online, it's given us shows to watch in the language we're learning and articles to read and music to listen to. And it has put us all, I think, in the position of the Russian immigrant in an American supermarket circa 1985 - there's too much choice to choose.

Now is not just a time to take control of your learning. Now is a time to have fun! It used to be said that when the student was ready, the master would appear. That seems to be what's going on when "the material sticks because you learn it when you're ready to." But we've got lots of masters to choose from these days. How many google hits does your language choice bring up? Don't waste your time studying with something that will make you resent your learning time instead of celebrating it.

This brings us to a second post from John, here, in which he laments not sticking with his FSI course. I think that by the first post I've pointed to, he realizes that he doesn't have to push forward with a course that isn't working for him, and that he would be pushing forward with if it were. One of the things we language learners get hung up on - it's the subject of the post - is persistence. But it's important to remember to stick with your language, not with a method. In the past, successful language learners were those who could sit down with a book or a program and work all the way through. But we're in a multi-tasking, multi-source, multi-everything world, which means that those who succeed today are going to be those who find the love for the language and the persisting desire to learn sufficient to keep looking for something new to try so that they keep learning without burning out.

Recently I've been fussing with Anki, as I've mentioned below. And right now, I love it. I've learned (and re-learned) a lot of Chinese and found a way to enjoy reviewing some Italian that I need to get a better handle on but kept getting bored to tears trying to work through. Does this mean that everybody should use Anki? Does this even mean that I'll be sticking with Anki in 6 months? Anki is a good fit for what I needed to work on right now to build a bridge to whatever it is that I'm going to do next. It might be right for you too. But be sure to keep your eye on the ball: the language. Make sure you're having fun. Make sure you've got a program that will keep you spending some time with the language every day, rather than promising yourself you'll do twice as much tomorrow to make up for skipping. And remember that in most cases, language learning is a lifelong journey, so don't be discouraged if you're feeling discouraged. Look for a new direction.

There is one thing that Learning 1.0 and Learning 2.0, and Learning 3.0 to come, I'm sure, have in common. And that is one fundamental choice: The choice to keep learning or to give up. With all the new choices Learning 2.0 brings, make sure to make the right choice about this one and your other choices will have a way of taking care of themselves for you.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hello Anki

The other day, some Language Geek mentioned switching to a new flashcard program, Anki. It's a pretty nice program, with two great things going for it. And these two things go to the heart of some big problems language learners get into:

1. Stop relearning what you already know! Too often, when getting started with a language, there is the temptation to keep studying something that you've already learned because you're not 100% confident about it but it feels good to fuss with something you're 90% positive about. The other day, I got a flashcard set (Accent on Iraq) and started flipping through it. Boy do I know the first four cards (30 or 40 words and phrases)! And I keep meaning to get out another card, but I'm not sure I'm ready to file away the first and I'm not sure how many cards I want to carry around.

A lot of language learners keep reviewing chapter 1, lesson 1 or track 1 until they know it perfectly, and by the time they get to chapter 4, lesson 4 or track 4, they wonder if they're ever going to really get anywhere with the language. With a good spaced-interval flashcard program (one that brings up your weak areas often and your strong spots only every few days) you can't fool yourself about how you're doing, either by going too fast without learning or going too slowly without truly pushing forward. Anki and similar programs keep you on task.

2. You do have to study, and that means finding the time. The second great thing about Anki is that you can sync with an online account so that you can practice anywhere you can get an internet connection. Physical flashcards are nice, but you have to carry them and organize them. And you have to physically pull them out of your pocket and put them back in. It doesn't sound like much, of course, but an awful lot of people who try it get bogged down.

Anki, sitting there one the internet, can be pulled up while you're waiting for a call back, minimized when the call actually comes, and given back the focus the next time you've got a minute or two. It really does provide a way to use pointless surfing time on actual language learning.

The Language Geek already wrote a pretty good plug for the program, so I'll leave off here except to remind that whatever your language program/learning plans, you can only make progress by working on the things that still give you trouble while moving forward from those that you have mastered, and that can only happen if you make time to do the learning in the first place. So however you're studying and whatever you're studying, make sure 1) that you're really moving forward and learning and 2) that you find an approach that fits into your real schedule.

Update: Having used Anki a few more days, I'm even more pleased with the ability to sync from computer to web to computer. If you've had bad luck with online or computer flashcard systems before, this really is worth a look.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

How Many People Can You Talk To?

The Cunning Linguist offers one good reason to learn Mandarin: It allows you to talk to over a billion people! Victoria links to a Wikipedia article on the number of speakers of different languages. Here's the top 20 in millions of people (for native language only; does not include 2nd language):


I've gone with the figures in the Ethnologue column in the Wikipedia article, but of course these numbers are constantly changing and a bit inaccurate. Still, they provide a way to guesstimate how well you can get around the world. Setting as a minimum standard the ability to exchange pleasantries, introduce yourself, request food, drink and shelter and make small purchases, I can (barely, in some cases) survive in English (309), French (65), Spanish (322), Italian (62), German (95) and Mandarin (878). That gives me 1,731 million people to talk to (though for more extended conversation, I'm limited to around 700 million). At the same time, even the ability to exchange pleasantries and use please and thank you makes the weary traveler to one's own country smile. So while Tim Ferriss' guide to deconstructing a language may get you started working out what you can/will seriously learn, the linked Wikipedia article can give you another way to think about the possibilities that come with learning a new language.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Deconstructing Languages and Minimizing Learning Time

One of the challenges for the would-be polyglot is figuring out how to use your time well. This is already an issue for a person who is only learning one language and for the very practical purpose of preparing to live in another country, carry on a relationship with someone from another country or work with people from another country. But if you're just learning languages because it's neat to know them or to get along a little more easily in places where you could survive with just your native tongue, that takes a mixture of extra internal motivation and a good enough system to get the results to keep that motivation going.

I have the good fortune to work in a language school. This means that I can swap pleasantries with French, Spanish, German, Italian and Mandarin teachers, occasionally clarify something for a confused student and, to put it honestly, show off what I've learned before beating a hasty retreat if the conversation goes over my head. (Fortunately, the phones ring all the time.) But lots of people have to take more trouble than I do to get a chance to converse with people who speak a variety of languages. And then come the questions: How many should I learn? Which ones? How well? How hard will I have to study?

There are sites like How to Learn Any Language that provide some good advice for the would-be polyglot. But if you're looking for a quick and dirty approach, you know the Four-Hour Workweek guy is going to have one. And so, here's Tim Ferris' Guide to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in Hour, Part 1. Says Tim, just 6 sentences, translated, plus one or two more, can show you what you're in for. And the sentences he's picked, properly translated, really can tell you an awful lot about an awful lot of languages: Are there declensions (like Russian and German)? Is negation done with a freestanding word or is it built into the verb (like Turkish and Japanese)? Are verb conjugations minor affairs (like English), or are they complicated by person and number (most European languages) or even gender (like Arabic and Hebrew)? Are modals (can, would, will) freestanding (Germanic languages, usually), sometimes built into the verb (Romance languages have subjunctive and conditional built into the verb, but can, must and should aren't) or pretty much part of what you have to learn in the verb tables (Turkic languages)? With Tim's sentences, you can learn a lot about how the language works, and help you make a more educated guess about whether you're really looking at a language you want to add to your collection.

One thing Tim's post didn't cover, alas, is how to learn, as opposed to evaluating, a new language. Hopefully, that will be coming up soon. Still, have a look. If you're thinking about learning a new language, there's good advice. And if you're struggling, you might just have an a-ha moment about why you can't get the knack for a certain structure or type of sentence and how to rethink it.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Play Reading and Habit Forming

In the last week or so, life's been pretty busy, so I haven't pushed as far forward with Breton as I would like. But that doesn't mean I've stopped. Rather, I've been re-reading lessons, including some that I did quite some time ago.

Often in book-centered households, the children will insist upon sitting with their book for reading time, even if they cannot read, or cannot read at the level of the book they're looking at. This can be more productive than one would think: It helps form the physical habit of spending time with books. What's most amusing, though, is to listen to the child reading aloud a story so often heard that all the words are known, even if the child has no ability to actually read them. At some level, I imagine, this helps.

Foreign language learners aren't in quite the same boat, but it is likely they'll be spending some time with books they can only read because they've already read them - or, rather, worked through select passages before. This is somewhat like talking to yourself - you're unlikely to learn anything you didn't already know. But in talking to ourselves, we sometimes realize which of the things we already knew was important and that leads to new insights. In the same way, reading what we've already read won't teach us anything new, but it might help us understand something we already knew better.

I'm learning Breton with Assimil, and since I'm at the start of the game I've developed an awareness of how changes occur at the beginnings of words without learning rules expressly. But with re-reading, grooves are nonetheless being laid down. For example, teacher is kelenner. But I will never say "Ma kelenner" for my teacher. I've read "ma c'helenner" enough times that the words flow naturally, even though I don't officially know the rule for the change. Especially for languages that work differently from your own, play-reading with texts you can already understand is a good idea then, that way you're saying what you've already said 100 times when you make your own sentences, not trying to remember tables. And once you've read enough snippets, instead of getting stuck in "Me - Tarzan, you - Jane" language, you'll have some good, fully formed thoughts to use as your language building blocks.


Monday, November 05, 2007

We're Back!

For the three of you who check (Hi, Mom!), we had a bit of downtime this weekend. This site is hosted at ITXDesign, and a server migration took a lot longer than expected.

Needless to say, I've not been thrilled with the downtime, and they could have been a little clearer about what was going on. But I've been with ITX since 2001, and have generally been pleased with the level of service, so I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment.

The good news is there should be better, faster and more reliable connections now, as they're directly tied into a different node into the internet at large.

I'm just starting to poke around, but it looks like everything's back online. Happy reading.

Incidentally, we've had some troubles getting blogger and the new server to talk. If you're reading this, though, that has hopefully been resolved.

More to come.