Saturday, June 14, 2008

Talk Now and grammar

A hundred years ago, I had put to me a question that boils down to the following: "What's the last sound in the following French words - arbres, beaux, prends?" The answer, of course, is [z]. The trick is asking yourself whether that [z] is a sound you add where liaison is called for or a sound you drop when it is not. The problem is that you can take other French words like "est" and you wind up a different sound for the liaison. So the terminal consonant, though rarely pronounced, is indeed there at some level. Otherwise, it wouldn't be available when you needed to make a liaison.

So, how do you say "arbres"? It's arbrez and you drop the "z" if the next word starts with a consonant.

That was a bit pedantic, I know, but it relates to an issue I'm having with Talk Now Breton. Talk Now is a program that teaches a bunch of basic vocabulary through a computer game format not unlike a television game show. Yesterday, I zipped through the "First Words" section, in which we learned among other things that a boat is "bag." We also learned that a bank is "ti-bank" and a credit or debit card is "kartenn-vank." We didn't, however, learn that "vank" is a mutated form of "bank" and we didn't learn that "the boat" is "ar vag." Nor did we learn that in the phrase, "Pelec'h emañ ar malizennoù?" that "malizennoù" is the plural of "malizenn," whose mutated form is "valizenn" (like the French valise). This means that knowing "Pelec'h emañ an ti-bank?" (Where's the bank?) and "Pelec'h emañ ar malizennoù?" (Where are the suitcases?) and "Bag" (Boat) doesn't mean you know enough to ask "Where's the boat?" (Pelec'h emañ ar vag?).

I don't want to fault or single out Talk Now here. It gave me a good refresher for some vocabulary and a few new words as well. But it also reminded me on an important truism: In language, words do not exist in isolation. For French, you learn nouns with the article, that way you've got the gender built in. With Breton, it's trickier - you need to know, eg, "Bag/Ar vag" so that you'll know that "boat" is feminine because it changes after the article. Without both, you wouldn't be sure when and where it mutates.

Whatever language you are learning, it's a good idea to look for the quirks of the language that affect how words are used in combination with other words. That runs the gamut from verb morphology to knowing which prepositions come after which verbs to which measure words go with which nouns, depending on your language. If you're buying a program, be aware that however many words it teaches you, if it teaches them in isolation you've got some work of your own. And if you're making your own flashcards, lighten your load by finding out about some of this stuff first. It's a shame to master 800 words but not be able to use half of them correctly in a sentence.

In the Michel Thomas programs (I'm sure I've quoted this before), Thomas says that what you understand you'll remember. To make your grammar learning easier, eschew learning grammar per se. Instead, find functional sentences where you understand the relationship among the different components. In that way, you'll not just know vocabulary - you'll understand how to use the words of your language to express the things you want to say.

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