Friday, December 28, 2007

Blogs as scholarship vs. conversation

Glen Gordon, the Paleoglot, spends a lot of his time trying to figure out Etruscan. While I take an interest in historical linguistics for connecting words within language families and getting ideas to remember what I learn, I'm very glad not to be in the reconstruction biz. It's hard work, and harder still because obvious connections can be wrong while painfully tenuous connections turn out to be correct. One of the biggest problems is that conviction and/or wishful thinking are sometimes one's strongest guides in deciding whether or not to establish a connection between two words.

I've recently been limping through Philip Gardiner's Gateways to the Otherworld. As such books go, it's relatively sane, though some of the assumptions strike me as a bit too fantastical. But what has nagged at me the most (and it's something you find in a lot of books from the "the truth is out there" variety) is the wide-eyed recitation of almost identical words from different times and cultures and how this proves a universal.

Having studied historical linguistics and dabbled in multiple language families, I become extremely nervous when presented with two similar seeming words: because languages evolve in different directions and at different rates, if two words actually are derived from the same source, they are usually going to be different from each other and from the source word. Take the word "five": In Greek, it's "penta." In Latin, it's "quinque." In Italian and Spanish, that mutates to "cinque" and "cinco," respectively. The French, probably under Teutonic influence, clip it to "cinq." In German, it's "fünf," but in English, the nasalization is gone, leaving "five" (and ordinal "fifth"). And this is for a number, and numbers are supposed to be relatively stable within families.

If you look at the variations in the words for "five," there's a lot of flux. But there's also a certain stability: A historical linguist with sufficient patience and data can go back and discover roughly when changes took place and make fairly educated guesses about how and why, as well as showing that there are patterns, if not laws, that have operated on other words in similar ways. On the other hand, if you tried to argue that "pent" (as in "pent up") was connected to "penta" ("overwhelmed to the fifth degree"?) or that "kink" was connected to "quinque" ("bent in five directions"?), I'd be concerned that you were spending too much time at (if such a site exists).

Here's the thing. As a student of historical linguistics, I can (sometimes) follow what historical linguists have to say about connecting families, reconstructing words and deducing the meaning of words not previously accounted for. But I only study passively; I don't actively investigate to draw my own conclusions. However, when you shift from reading about historical linguistics to reading about historical linguists and their forerunners, the philologists, it's a story of few triumphs and many mistakes. And yet, without people willing to make mistakes, there probably wouldn't have been enough investigation for us to learn anything. In fact, the more people willing to make serious and sincere investigations, even at the risk of making mistakes, the more likely we are to increase those shining triumphs that make the history of human communication a little clearer for us all.

Now, the other day, it seems, Mr. Gordon made something of a bloomer, at least in his own estimation. And about this, he is concerned. He says:
I will admit it. There's a certain sense of unavoidable shame that comes with learning, particularly the kind of open day-to-day learning that a blog can convey. Blogs can be brutally personal, which explains no doubt why some people experience blogger burnout. It's taxing to the ego to make a booboo. We all want to be accepted in the beehive, not shunned as the town heretic. Communication, especially in our day and age is a double-edged sword that is both necessary to explore new answers and seek them out from others, and yet a potential source of embarassment if it should so happen that there's even a chance that you're horribly wrong.
While there is much to the disquisitions of Mr. Gordon, on this point, I think he goes in the wrong direction. There is no shame in the errors one makes while learning, as long as one finishes wiser than one started. And in the world of blogs, there's actually a tremendous opportunity to improve learning, sharing and understanding that was previously lacking. Back in the bad old days, Mr. Gordon's forays into Etruscan would have either gone unnoticed or required publication (self or through a journal). Once a manuscript was dispatched to the printers, a newly discovered error would have required the subsequent printing and distribution of an errata (erratum?) slip. This made getting things right imperative and getting them wrong expensive and tedious. This tends to stifle free exploration of new ideas or going off the beaten track. It increases the costs for attempting to contribute, so that few get involved. On the other hand, in the age of blogs, all Mr. Gordon had to do was write a new entry, press a button and consider the thing done with.

I hope to continue to see Paleoglot rants about the best way to understand Etruscan. More than that, I hope that those language learners and students of language with something to share will take advantage of the cheaper and easier information distribution channels available today to share their thoughts. Yes, a lot is written. And yes, not all of it is great. But by putting lots of ideas out there, we all get the chance to think about new things, explore new paths and take reassurance that we're not the only ones who run up against problems in our studies. So while bloggers shouldn't waste people's time, any more than old time scholars ought to have wasted trees, there's a lot of room out there for new ideas and new voices. So speak up, if you've got something to say. If you make an error, confess it. In that way, we can keep a sincere and open conversation going that will, in the long run, benefit us all.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Looking to the New Year...

Last year started with promising thoughts on New Year's resolutions, followed by monthly updates... for a while... that dwindled. Which seems to be the nature of things for a lot of people. Looking back on how last year's resolutions worked out, the answer is a resounding so-so. It is astonishing, in retrospect, to realize that with 8,500 hours to play with (nearly 6,000 of them being waking hours), I never got around to listening to 16 hours of Michel Thomas CDs. Still, all was not lost. My Spanish and Italian are much improved. My French is not so shaky as it was. While my Mandarin is still pitiful, it is not so weak as it was. And along the way, I've taken detours into other languages, and language learning methods, and have maintained a love for language that still leaves me heading first for the foreign language aisle whenever I enter a bookstore. That's something, too.

A fundamental problem confronts language learners which is not unlike Douglas Adams' declaration that he liked having written novels. Language learners like having picked up or acquired new languages. They like the thrill of starting new languages, with the rush of learning and the sense of something new. The day-in, day-out slogging through learning when you're past the point where your knowledge doubles every three days but not yet at the point that where you can go chat someone up is harder. It's a time to take stock.

If we had infinite time and resources, we could learn all the languages we wanted. And some of us, at least, would want to learn all of them. But we don't. Choices have to be made. Sometimes, the prudent choice is to say, "time to move on."

* * *

Marc Allen has a new book out, The Greatest Secret of All. The first part, "Discovering the Secret of Manifesting," is pretty stock stuff. It will seem quite familiar to Allen's previous readers, but won't catch readers of The Secret and such too much by surprise. The second part, though, is almost a take-down of the run-of-the-mill self-help book. Allen is too genteel and too relaxed to do anything like that, of course, but he still raises the crucial question that too many self-helpers don't: Why?

Allen's process for manifesting - Dream (the big idea), Imagine (put some flesh on the idea), Believe (conceive of the idea as something you can and will do) and Create (break down the idea into steps and, for God's sake, follow them) is a bit more prudent than what you find with the worst of the self-help literature. You don't just write down your idea fifty times a day and hope for the best. Faith is only of value if it leads to action, and Allen's process is designed to bridge the gap between the wish and the fact.

What makes Allen's latest worth the read, however, is his reminder that there has to be some reason why your goals are worth undertaking, and that this must harmonize with who you are and who you want to be. Scott Adams, a big proponent of manifestation, captured this nicely in a Dilbert cartoon: Dogbert had just learned about the "write down your idea and it will become reality" bit, and decided to try it. He had written "Dilbert is a garden slug" fifteen times. Dilbert doubted it would work, but Dogbert advised that he should still stay away from salt (which causes slugs to shrivel).

Mindless manifestation seems to pop up all over the place, and not just among new age mystics. It's not just that some befuddled new agers dream of lives of ease but lack the emotional depth to do something worthwhile with their time. Academics decimate forest to publish books that no one will ever read. Manufactures hire marketers to convince us to buy crap we don't need. Then builders get us to buy bigger houses to keep it in... And, sad but true, language learners undertake to learn languages that they have no reason to learn.

* * *

Looking back on my successes and failures with language learning last year, one common thread emerges: If I had some external motivation to stick with the language, I did. If not, I didn't. Most of the people in my office speak French; I kept up my French. Some of our teachers pretty much only speak Spanish; I maintained my Spanish in spite of myself. We had a couple Italian teachers around, and a handful of Italian artists are in my regular play list; I stayed with Italian. We have a couple Chinese teachers around and a small Chinese community in the area; while my Chinese is still lousy, it's better. As for Uzbek, I have to stop to remember how to say "my name is..." But when Uzbek music comes up in my play list, I catch all the "my love"s, "my heart"s, "my life"s and "my soul"s that are sprinkled so liberally through their romantic ballads - the language I actually encountered stayed with me. While I'm about to take another look at Turkish (Elisabeth Smith's new "One-Day Turkish"), the truth is I have no purpose for knowing Turkish, and will probably only learn rudiments. German and Arabic are also languages that I really feel like I ought to know, but because they're the kinds of languages polyglots know. But in truth, I'll probably get further with Breton because of my emotional attachment to Bretagne.

So, here is something to consider for the new year and for language resolutions:

1) Try to pick out languages and language goals that will fit in with and improve your life, not conflict with it.

2) If it is your dream to learn a language, imagine, realistically, how the language will be a part of your life, believe in your ability to learn and create and implement realistic, step-by-step plans to do so.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Christmas Shopping and Language Learning

For the Language GeekTM(x2?) in your family, the Cunning Linguist has some gift recommendations, along with links for some discount offers. Check it out for yourself or your loved ones.

While the Cunning Linguist has some top-notch offers, there are cheaper alternatives. LeTutor has a nice bit on his favorite language tools - pen and paper!

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Merry Christmas in Mandarin

DragonFruit has Christmas vocabulary in Mandarin. Now I've got something fun to add to my list on Anki.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Unforgettable Languages - Pluses and Minuses

The other day, I got a special offer for unforgettablelanguages, and decided to give it a try. I've used the mini-courses before, as well as the linkword book for Spanish, but had never used the software. So I ordered Chinese. In retrospect, I wish I'd gotten it for a European language.

The linkword system of necessity has its pluses and minuses. Since you're relating what you're learning to similar sounding phrases in your own language, there are going to be some deficiencies - the pronunciations aren't going to line up exactly. What's more problematic for the Chinese, however, is that 1) it works quite differently from English and 2) you have to decide how to represent it. Since the program is supposed to have you learning from the get-go, it doesn't take the trouble to teach pinyin. Unfortunately, it's not exactly written in pinyin either. Sometimes the transcriptions are quite close to English; other times they're nearer pinyin, but there doesn't seem to be a solid system in place. As a result, if you use this as a way to add some vocabulary fast before tackling, eg, a children's reader (these often have the pinyin below the characters), you're going to be spending some time on sounding things out and wondering (even more than you would anyway!) whether the word you're looking at is in fact the word you learned in the linkword course.

I haven't tried this program for languages written with a Latin alphabet, so I don't know how they are for teaching authentic spelling with accents, etc, but for Chinese you're definitely going to have some unlearning and relearning to do if you want to transfer what you've learned to other courses and to expand your use of the language in general. Be forewarned.

If you're looking for a way, then, to get some vocabulary and basic structures and, most importantly, build a little confidence for a new language, these courses aren't bad to start with. But be aware that for building toward fluency, this is a small first step in spite of how much vocabulary you can acquire and in a relatively short time.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Toki Pona and Minimal Vocabulary

The other day, Edward of Tower of Confusion ran across the author of Toki Pona, an interesting seeming constructed language. As a general rule, I'm dubious of conlangs: Language is organic, a thing that arises and evolves to meet the needs of a speech community. Even if you started with a conlang, for it to truly take off it would almost have to evolve beyond the intentions, even potentially in opposition to the intentions, of its creator. (See the Omniglot's discussion of EFL today for an example of how a language can get away from those to whom it seemingly belongs.) However, I do like thought experiments, and so I wandered over to the Toki Pona site and have done most of the lessons at the linked site (the official Toki Pona site's language lessons are being revised). A couple of observations:

1) The language does feel a bit more natural than others by virtue of the fact bits are a touch arbitrary, like not using "li" (subject marker) after "mi" - I and "sina" - you, even though they're used after everything else. On the one hand, this makes sense - if you and I are talking, we can clarify confusions since we're both present so the same level of formal grammatical distinction isn't necessary. On the other hand, it breaks a pattern. If we all started talking Toki Pona tomorrow, I think there's a good chance this rule would fall by the wayside. Ditto for only using "en" - and - in subjects, but not for objects (where the object particle "e" is put before each direct object and "tawa" before each indirect object if I read it right). In a way, this is nice, though, because forcing the learner/speaker to stick to these rules prompts new ways of thinking about language and clarifying exactly how the elements of the sentence relate. In other words, as a thought experiment, Toki Pona is great for thinking about language in new ways.

2) The really neat thing about Toki Pona is its vocabulary: There are only 118 dictionary words. And you can do a lot with them. Notes Edward:
It is designed to be a simple language with simple vocabulary. Yet it turns out that with such a small set of vocabulary, it is quite sufficient enough to express a lot of complicated ideas. In fact, when Sonja created the language, she wondered why the vocabularies in our natural languages have to be so complicated.
He later asks:
So why do we need such complicated vocabularies in our languages. This just made life difficult for language learners and lovers like us.
This is a question that often troubles me, and I'm forever looking for that tiny nucleus of a language that will be enough to get by with. But as I said before, language is organic. It grows the way it grows. And the way it grows is to meet the needs of those who speak it. If people and societies could constrain themselves for going in new directions, doing new things and dreaming new dreams, language could be greatly simplified and standardized. But whenever we change or alter our frames of reference, language shifts because not only are we talking about new things, but we are living in worlds different from the worlds our ancestors inherited when they worked their language into a form that worked for them.

Someone who has never studied Mandarin before and picks up a book on beginning to write the language could be forgiven for thinking all words are one syllable and represented by one character. But take the word for train, "huoche." It means "fire-car". Fine, you say, it's a nice little word that does the job. But here's the thing: If you look at someone and say "hen duo ren de che" - many-people-car - instead, people aren't going to nod in recognition. They're going to stare at you a little wide-eyed, then assume you're a simpleton who hasn't yet learned the word - and it's one word, thank you - huoche. That is, huo, che and huoche are three distinct words, just as surely as are rail, way and railway.

In Toki Pona, we are told, there is no word for friend. Rather, you say "jan pona" - good person. But say you want to mention your friend's house. The word for house is "tomo." To say "my house," you say "tomo mi." But to say "friend's house," it's "tomo pi jan pona" - with the "pi" to show that the "jan pona" goes together. Otherwise, someone might decide, eg, that "tomo jan" means people house, decide that can stand for hotel, and then mistakenly think that "tomo jan pona" means "good people house" or "nice hotel." These examples are, of course, conjecture. Being new to Toki Pona, I'm unaware of a compound, "tomo jan," but one might exist. The point is that once these compounds start to standardize, we find that Toki Pona may have 118 words on its own terms, but it's got a lot more lexical items. And once people start automatically putting things together, the game's up on simplicity because all new speakers then have to learn that of course "jan pona" means "friend" and not just, eg, nice person.

* * *

It's my intent to keep looking at Toki Pona, and I'm eager to learn enough to start reading through the blogs and cartoons with it. And it's given me some new ideas for continuing my quest to figure out just how little of a language you can learn and still know enough to communicate in it. But at the same time, my few days with Toki Pona have given me, I think, an answer to Edward's question about why we have to have all these words that make life so hard on language learners - we need them! For language to approximate life to a reasonable degree, it's going to have to be approximately as complex (or is "complicated" the better word here?).