Saturday, March 29, 2008

What's the point of language learning?

A few weeks ago, I mentioned Diana Beaver's nlp for lazy learning. Today I thought I'd share one of her observations on language learning. Asks Beaver, how did we learn our first language to begin with? An answer:
Our attention was on the communication, not upon the language itself. (122)
This leads to a bit of advice for language learning:
Remember: you are communicating - everything else is irrelevant. (123)
When you're learning a language on your own it can be frustrating because it seems like the language is all you've got. It gets too easy to think that if you've learned this rule or memorized that phrase, you've got it. This can especially be the case because that sort of thing is measurable - how many words you've learned, or grammar sections you've covered, or chapters you've finished... it gives you a way of saying, I have done 'x'. But the true test of how well you're learning is how ready you are to use the language and get the results you want from that effort. And if you're self-taught, you might - often won't - be able to do so, at least not on a regular basis. What to do? Pretend. Or, so it sounds more serious, model.

Beaver suggests you imagine yourself to be a competent speaker, or emulate a native speaker, and tell yourself you understand, even when you don't. The name of the game here is to get your mind used to the idea that this is a language you use as a human being, not a collection of sounds that you decode as a student. How do you do that?

I've written (ad nauseam) about self-talk. And I will again advise that you learn the phrases for the kinds of things you say everyday ("I'd like a hamburger and a Coke, please") and practice the conversations in your head as you go about your routines. Automacity is important. But another approach to your attitude, if not your learning, is to "take the language for granted." Put on a movie, but don't try to understand or play the "I know that word" game that beginning learners play. Instead, just watch, and if you try to understand, do so from the action and the characters' tone of voice. Let the language just be there. If you buy a CD, don't translate the songs, just listen until you find yourself singing along. When you get a newspaper or magazine, flip through it the way you would in the doctor's office. As you do all this, keep at the back of your mind the knowledge that one day you may interact as lazily with this language as you do your own and that this, not the language, is what you are practicing.

Obviously, you will have to continue with your studies. If you're learning Russian, declensions will have to be assimilated, somehow. If you're learning a Celtic language (God help you!), the fact that words change at the beginning will have to be dealt with. And if you're learning Chinese, yes, you'll have to learn the character and the sounds. But by taking some time, especially when you're all studied out, to just let the language be there and a part of your life will help you avoid some of the burnout and to be more comfortable leaving something for later if you're just not getting it right now.

The reason these little mental exercises are of value is that as language learners we often get the idea that what we do with these languages - it's even in the name! - is to learn them... not to live them. And so we sit with our dictionaries and grammars and other study material and take account of all we're doing to learn, when the real value of learning is to be able to actually do something else, with your knowledge of the language a necessary component, not the end goal. So if you find yourself either burned out on studying or caught up in the process of your learning, take a moment to redefine yourself not as a learner of 'x' language, but as a speaker of the language who already can do some things (say hi, buy dinner, whatever) but can imagine being able to do much more.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Breton resources

For the past few weeks, I've been working back through Le Breton sans peine from the beginning. I'm back up to chapter 18. Since this is about the third time I've gone through the first 3 weeks, I'm getting pretty clear on what I've covered so far. Of course I'm not following the instructions as well as I might. I should just push through the passive phase so that I can get started on the active phase. But because Breton is so different, structure wise, from the other languages I've studied, this seems to me to provide a little bit of security: even if I haven't learned a lot, I've learned a little bit well. On the other hand, I've been spending a fair amount of time looking for and making use of other resources. My favorite, which I've mentioned before, is But I've stumbled upon some others and thought I'd post it here so that I'll remember where to find them. If you're learning Breton or another Celtic language, there might be something of interest:

1) An English language online course with recorded dialogues.

2) Gwalarn's intro to Breton: An intro to Breton vocab, and to Breton's place in the Celtic family. (In French)

3) Ar bed keltiek (Celtic world): A nice spot to find out about Breton books and courses.

4) Breton-French-English Dictionary: The interface isn't great, but lots of good info.

5) Breton expressions: Nice interface for practicing some basic phrases. Be sure to use the drop-down for other categories of expressions.

6) Lexilogos Breton: Lots of great links to Breton resources.

7) Lexilogos Bible texts: links to the Bible in lots of languages, including Breton.


Thursday, March 20, 2008


This is an odd word I ran across the other day. Etymologically, it means foreign tongue, or the speaking of a foreign tongue. But it seems to go beyond that to speaking a language you haven't actually learned. The context I ran across it in was a claim that past life regression must be true because people under hypnosis started speaking in a language they didn't know so must have known in a past life. I think a comparable context would be the person who wakes from a coma speaking in a different language. (The Omniglot had a story about this a few months ago, but I haven't been able to find the link. Update: It's here. Thanks to Thomas at Babelhut for the link.)

In both cases, I'm pretty skeptical. There usually don't seem to be any linguists on hand for these things, and while that's understandable enough - it's not like people keep a linguist on staff in case these things pop up - it still leaves the question of whether there's anyone on hand who can seriously evaluate the case. Linguists listening to recordings of people speaking in tongues, for example, don't usually find anything in the way of linguistic structure - it's just random sounds. I suspect that we're seeing the same thing with past life regressions and xenoglossic accident victims: not speech, per se, but random sounds or, at most, learned but almost forgotten words from a language encountered long ago.

In a way, it's a shame. It would be very nice if, in our efforts to decipher Babylonian texts for example, we could just regress people till we found someone who used to be a Babylonian scribe. But it's more likely that regressions just stir up jumbled input and the brain makes it into a past life for want of a better way of interpreting it, just as speaking in tongues appears to involve a jumble of misfires in the speech system in a state of excitation, not a conduit between this world and forces beyond.

This does all raise an interesting question for the polyglot, however. When we talk of someone who's had a life-changing event - a serious accident or illness, a near-death experience or a religious conversion, for example - those closest to them will note that they're looking at a whole new person. For those who get swept up in it, learning a new language - and how to use it appropriately within a new culture - go through a life-changing experience of their own. So maybe the distance between the exotic xenoglossy and the sort language learners go through isn't so great. In fact, since our xenoglossy involves a concentrated and deliberate effort to open doors to new worlds, maybe it's all the more extraordinary.

In Foucault's Pendulum,, there's a character, Diotallevi, who was not raised Jewish but was convinced of his Jewish roots and so spied on Jewish neighbors and imagined himself a part of their world on Jewish holidays. That's where the most dedicated language learners seem to wind up - on the outside but trying to get into that life that others lead but that isn't, at least yet, theirs. So while the stories of xenoglossy fascinate, and the promises of "learn in ten days!" thrill, the dedicated language learner should remember that learning a language isn't just about picking up some words and making some sounds; it's about growing into a mindset and mentality where a new language has personal meaning for you as something that you live.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Online Courses has a listing and ranking of online foreign language courses. At the top of the list, they have MIT's open courseware (and check out their site for lots of other stuff, from physics to economics). Other options, like the BBC's pages and FSI Languages will be familiar. But just in case there's a course for your language that you haven't found yet, you might want to have a look.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Is your language learning program right for your learning style?

I've been reading Diana Beaver's nlp for lazy learning. One of the book's central points is that if we've been raised with a certain mindset, we think learning is something you have to work at. And yet, we learn most easily when we are between theta - mentally relaxed and receptive - and alpha - slightly more alert and creative, but still calm - states, and when we are learning in an environment in harmony with the way we take in information. The bottom line is that the most effective learning is easy.

In the past few years, some people have pushed TPR - total physical response - as the best way to learn, because you're totally engaged with the material. Others have suggested the value of all audio learning, so that you can focus on the sounds of a language and repeating them authentically. Some people offer computer programs where you get the information on screen and through headphones. Other people just like to flip through flashcards.

Which is best?

Wrong question.

Which is best for you?

If you're a kinesthetic learner, TPR is great. But if you're a visual learner, all that movement will keep you from concentrating on what is written on the board or in your book. And if you're an auditory learner, it might have you trying to keep track of too many other things, when what you really need to do is just listen. Often times, language learners - including yours truly - get focused on what works for them, and make well-meaning recommendations for others. Or we take someone else's recommendation because we haven't found a program that meets our needs for the language we're learning. In both cases, it's important to be aware of how you learn - of what feels right.

So if you're stalled in your learning, or just feel like you could be doing more, think back to a really great class you had or a really great program you used, and ask yourself - what were the elements that really made learning in this environment/with this program work for me? This will not only help you pick out the best program for you. It will also give you clues about the kind of self-study materials to create that will help you most. If you're an inveterate doodler, you might be a visual person who needs sketches with key sentences, not just neat and tidy lists in your notebook. If you're an auditory learner, making cassettes and listening to them may help you, even though it bores other people to tears. And if you're a kinesthetic learner, taking the time to visualize acting out the use of language may help you. The possibilities are as endless as you are unique. So to borrow from an old time expression, when it comes to language learning, if it feels good, do it!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Phatic Speech and Self-Talk

The other day, the Omniglot had a nice post on phatic speech. For the non-native, phatic speech can be among the hardest bits to master, or at least to recognize, for it consists in knowing the right words to say absolutely nothing. It's also sometimes referred to as "elevator talk," the elevator being just the kind of place where you'd want to say a few words to break the silence but without feeling that something has been lost when you arrive at your floor before your interlocutor and the conversation must come to a halt.

I've written in the past about self-talk - using spare moments in line, or while finding a parking spot, to rehearse what you'd say in the language you're learning if only you were actually in Beijing, Paris, Rome, Madrid or Tregor, as opposed to being, well, at home. It's a good technique for living the language even when you can't, at least in real life. But I don't think I'd ever hit on the importance of elevator talk.

Simon's post reminded me just how much my true conversion to French fluency was marked not by understanding what people said, but by my understanding of which questions weren't actually questions and which responses could be offered without saying anything. The surest way to mark a non-native in most cultures is to see him seek a meaningful response to a question like "How are you?" or "Sure is cold today, isn't it?"

So if you want to be fluent in your new language, work hard and study hard. But if you want to seem fluent, pay extra special attention to the sections on greetings and social rituals. When you need something, you'll still have to betray your status as a learner. But if you've got a good handle on phatic speech, you'll be able to make it through more than half your conversations as a seemingly solid speaker of the language even though you've neither learned nor said a thing of importance.

Take this conversation in Breton (from
Herve ha Nolwenn.
H. Salud dit, Nolwenn.
N. Salud dit, Herve.
H. Mat an traoĆ¹ ganit ?
N. Ya, mat-tre. Ha ganit ?
H. Mat-tre ivez.
Greetings to you, Nolwenn. / Greetings to you, Herve. / Good are things with you? / Yes, good-indeed. And with you? / Good-indeed, also

Notice that there's absolutely no information exchanged there. And yet, if you can cap off this conversation with a cheery Kenavo, you can make it through an entire Breton conversation without even knowing ten words!

If you're just starting to learn a language, or if you know quite a bit of one, but don't feel at all natural when speaking, it never hurts to learn some more. But sometimes, first, you'll want to learn the words to say nothing at all - and say it well!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Some nice ideas for language learners, from language learners...

The Cunning Linguist recommends setting up an iGoogle page for your language so you get more exposure. Alas, there's no iGoogle for Breton. But my French had been getting a bit rusty, so I've set up a French iGoogle page including the latest headlines from Le Monde and Le Figaro.

The Omniglot has a nice bit on timeboxing, a time-management strategy for making sure you don't spend too little or too much time on a given task.

And the Language Geek explains why it's really better to learn sentences, rather than individual words.