Saturday, May 31, 2008

Learning, Understanding and Assimilating

The other day, the Omniglot mentioned MyLanguageNotebook, a free program for keeping language notes in your computer and online. I gave it a try while reading one of my Breton Spot stories. A few observations:
  • The program is fairly easy to use. The interface is pretty clear. And since it's a notebook system, not a flashcard system, it's a little better for noting what you're trying to learn than flash card programs, for example.
  • For me, the drawback with MyLanguageNotebook is with me, not the program. It works as advertised. But it doesn't work the way I work.
  • Neither, unfortunately, do flashcard programs.
  • Michel Thomas says that what you understand, you know and will not forget. Conversely, what you don't understand, you probably will forget.
  • Whenever I set up a flash card program, take notes, etc, what I find is that the information I note divides into two categories: things I already know-and don't need to learn-and things I don't understand whose memorization doesn't help me. Unfortunately, MyLanguageNotebook doesn't remedy this. It just divides into things that I know and don't need to note, and things that confuse me so that I'm not sure what I should note down.
We sometimes hear about the "eureka" moment when what was unknown becomes apparent. When you research these moments, you find out that a lot of prior thought and observation went into preparing the mind for that magic moment when everything fell into place.

What I find, when I'm studying language - or anything else - is that I learn far more from making notes than studying them. The chief benefit, for me, is thinking things through till I've decided what's worth making a note about and what isn't. When I'm done, I can pretty much throw away the notes - they've served their purpose.

Making notes for Spot, I made some nice leaps in recognizing tenses and internalizing the "emphatic" form (he does run vs. he runs). But when I reviewed the notes later, I didn't get nearly as much out of them.

Two points that I'll offer from the mishmash above:
1) If you're looking for a program to store language information that's more free-form than the typical flash card program, try MyLanguageNotebook.

2) Be wary of the idea that you can learn something you don't understand by rote learning; whether you're diligently deciphering with a grammar translation book or absorbing with Assimil, put the emphasis on finding a meaning or logic to what you're learning and the memorizing will follow almost automatically; do it the other way and you'll be like the guy who dreamed in French and wanted to take a course to find out what he was dreaming about.

Update: As I said above, I get more out of taking notes than reviewing them. But re-reading "Spot's Windy Day" with the notes alongside did speed up the process. If you do the re-read, revise thing a lot, this could be a good tool. Incidentally, I heard from Jim of MyLanguageNotebook below. If you've been using this program, he'd appreciate you uploading your notes. I put up my notes on Spot, so if anyone wants to know how to say "it was windy" or "the leaves swirled about" in Breton, today's your lucky day :)


Wednesday, May 28, 2008, Assimil and real life resources

The other day, I stumbled upon, a website with books and music in Breton. Two weeks later, I got Spot's Bedtime Stories in Breton. It's a simple book, but fun, with pictures that make it clear what's being talked about. And what I found is that while children's books in Chinese, Arabic and Kazakh (among other languages over the years) have utterly stymied me, I had very little trouble making out enough Breton to learn of how Spot lost his kite in a tree and Mr. Kangaroo helped him get it back.

Stories about Spot are an easy read, of course. But I think there's another factor in play: Every morning, every evening and many noon-times as well, I've been reading Breton with Assimil. And while it's taught me a lot about Breton, taught me a lot of vocabulary, etc., it's taught me something else: how to read without perfect comprehension. When I finished my first Spot story, I realized that there were all sorts of grammar structures I recognized but didn't know cold, and lots of turns of phrase that were familiar but that might not have been completely mastered. But it didn't matter. And then I thought back on children's books past, and my efforts to understand every word, and to be sure I knew how every sentence went together.

What I'm offering here isn't particularly new or novel. It's something I've known for years. But as I've written many times before, language isn't about knowledge - it's about habit. And when you're coming from a structured textbook where everything reinforces, rather than contradicting, what you've learned so far, there's a tendency to be used to having everything make sense in the context of what you've learned - which makes it hard to let go of that even if you know you should.

My Assimil Breton is full of "this means this, we'll learn why later" comments. It tells you about watching for certain types of mutations, but doesn't push you to learn them up front. And so, when I started reading about Spot, I was in the habit of getting the gist, not perfect mastery of the material I'd learned to date. And so, even though I'm at a lower level, I was reading Breton with the same comfort level as I read Spanish or Italian.

So, two parting thoughts: 1) At some point, if you're learning a language, you're going to want to confront it on its own terms. So look for resources (like for Breton) that will expose you early to the language as used. 2) When you're learning a language, supplement with a resource like Assimil if you can find one, that way you'll have a sort of set of training wheels for moving from the structured presentation of textbooks to real-life material.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Gratitude, Inspiration and Language Learning

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

- Tennyson's "Ulysses"

In the last week or so, I've been thinking about the different methods I've used for study, and the different languages I've studied. This started when, via the Omniglot, I visited Professor Arguelles's website. Among other things, he talks about the languages he's stuck with, and the languages he's had to abandon. While I haven't gone nearly so far as the professor, I couldn't help but think, Yeah, me too, as he talked about the realization that maybe you can't learn 'em all, and about letting go of something in which you've invested a lot of time.

The life of a language learner can get frustrating. First you get bogged down with a method that's not working for you. Then you find something that works better and take stock of the time wasted. But it probably doesn't work that way. And even if it does, it's best not to think of it that way.

With Breton, I started with some resources that just didn't work for me, including Colloquial Breton. There was too much grammar and too much enumeration of rules. Assimil has treated me much better. On the other hand, I got the Colloquial Breton because I wasn't picking up what was in the Assimil. The Colloquial book didn't teach me Breton, nor even the grammar. But it gave me enough warning that on my next effort with Assimil I had a better idea what I was looking at. At least, telling myself this, I am reminded of the value of using multiple methods and am able to treat my efforts with Breton as a steady if slow progression.

The same thing goes for the multiple languages I've studied over the years. Spending a summer with Arabic twenty years ago (was it really twenty?) did not make me a fluent Arabic speaker. But it expanded the world I lived in. It exposed me to the idea of languages with a completely different writing system and grammar from English. It pointed me toward a new culture. And it gave me an entrée into Persian and the Turkic languages. Not that I'm fluent in any of these. But with every language I've studied, there have come new cultures, new worlds, new ways of thinking.

I've written a lot in the past about attitude. One of the problems you run into with language learning is is getting on the right track when you've been on the wrong track. Taking a moment to take full measure of what you've learned can put things in perspective and carry you forward. So remember that whether you're moving to a new book or a new language, or even giving a language up, it's key to keep your eye on that expanded world that your efforts have brought you. Then keep moving forward.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Finishing Initiation au breton sans peine...

As of this morning, I have finished Assimil's Initiation au breton. It's a wonderful book, and I wish they made more like it. The typical "sans peine" series is conversational, and over the course of it, you can pick up a lot. That's the case with the actual Breton sans peine program in two volumes. The problem is that while you assimilate a lot of language, it's trickier picking up structures. I've found that Assimil works best for me for languages where I already know some vocabulary and structure but just can't make the transition from conscious knowledge about a language to unconscious use of the language. Yes, there are manuals in the grammar-translation style, or the quasi-communicative, quasi-grammar translation variety found in Teach Yourself and Routledge's Colloquial texts. But the Initiation has been fantastic because in lieu of drilling and explication, it deliberately guides you to pick up the basic structures of Breton as a matter of habit.

The only languages I truly speak unconsciously are English and French. English, of course, is my native tongue, so that's easy. French is a slightly different matter: I speak imperfectly, but naturally and fluidly. For example, when I use the subjunctive in a subordinate clause or the imperfect in describing a situation in the past, it's not because I've remembered the rule that requires it and selected the appropriate form; it just comes out of my mouth according to my internalization of the grammar rules and of what I've heard. It may be right (most of the time), it may be wrong (occasionally), but in either case, I'm on autopilot.

When I'm speaking Spanish and Italian, things shift. In Spanish, for the present tense and everyday things, at least, I just talk. But when I use the future or the preterit, for example, there's a lag and I have a sense that my brain is processing, looking up what form is called for and consulting the table to find it. In ways, I know more Spanish than many of my Spanish-speaking clients know English, but they speak English more effectively because even if their habits are bad - only speaking in the present tense, messing up articles, etc, - at least they've formed those habits so they can focus on what they're communicating instead of how. My Italian exists even more as knowledge - I'd be much more comfortable translating Dante than explaining to a barista that I'd gotten the wrong change. It's not to say that I can't use Spanish or Italian. I use Spanish all the time, and Italian occasionally. But I am often quite conscious of the fact that I'm speaking a foreign language.

My Breton, of course, is far from perfect. Or even adequate. But that said, the Initiation has laid down some grooves in my brain. Structures that utterly baffled me when I started I can skim through with ease. "Ema ar glaw oc'h ober" - Is the rain at doing - reads as "It's raining now," as does the more emphatic "Glaw a ran" - Rain does. A sentence like "Ema ar mestr-skol e-kichen an ti-krampouezh" - Is the master (of) school be-side the house-crêpes (The teacher is next to/near the crêperie) doesn't bother me in the least. This was not the case when I started with Le Breton sans peine, and certainly not the case when I tried at the exercises in Colloquial Breton.

The question is, what does one do since Assimil doesn't make these wonderful Initiation courses for most languages? I've written in the past about self-talk (ad nauseam), about the language walk, about making language a part of your life, and more. But there's something I've been missing. Some months ago, I wrote about the transition from "unconscious incompetence" to "unconscious competence" in any learning process. I think it's fair to say that the typical textbook takes you from "unconscious incompetence" - knowing nothing - to the edge of "conscious competence" - you have the tools to do it right if you follow the steps and think things through. But I've always assumed - and it's something I've oft heard expressed - that the transition from "conscious competence" - knowing how to say something - to "unconscious competence" - just saying it - was something you had to wait for. If you really want to speak a language, you're supposed to learn enough to use it, then go to the country and after a while you'll discover that "Hey, I'm talking and I wasn't even thinking about it!" But is there a way to do this deliberately?

The Initiation course hasn't made me competent in Breton, not by a long-shot. But it has made me competent for certain tasks, tasks that were proving utterly maddening with other materials. This leads me to think, first of all, that the best thing to do with those grammar drills in the old style books is to do the exercises once - or look up the answers in the back - but read the answers aloud several times. And it makes me wonder if the real value in putting full sentences in a program like Anki isn't to learn vocabulary in context, but to see the same sentence structures time and again.

I'm going to have to give some more thought, myself, to what to take from all this, and to see whether it gives me the motivation to put together some new study materials for myself. But in the mean time, based on the positive sense I got about the Initiation text, I wanted to put the idea out there that if you're having a hard time moving from understanding your textbook exercises to speaking your language comfortably, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to go live in the country for six months or forget about it. If you've got the time and money, and circumstances permit it, I'd go for it in a heartbeat. But too often, the autodidact doesn't. Which means you should keep your eye out not just for interesting materials that keep you engaged, but maybe also for materials that help you pick up grammar the same way we so often look for materials that help us pick up vocabulary.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Orality and Literacy

I was wandering through the bookstore today when I came upon a title I hadn't looked at since undergrad - Walter J. Ong's Orality and Literacy. Ong was looking at a problem that affects students of linguistics and comparative literature: the extent to which the assumptions of a literate culture affect our understanding of non-literate societies. But there is much in his opening chapters that might give food for thought to students of language.

In oral cultures, you can't write things down in books, so both knowledge and, er, literature, have to be maintained in ways more conducive to memorization. Hence epics with set meters or rhymes. Hence apprenticeships where a student learns at the side of the master. One of the things that goes with this is smaller vocabularies: you can't look up words in non-existent dictionaries, so oral cultures have to stick to less specialized and more figurative ways of communication if they want knowledge to be transmitted across time and space. This pops up in, er, literature too - lots of stock figures like wine dark seas and the Shining Achilles because these a) are easy to remember and b) have the right meter so that if you forget what the bard you heard the story from said you've got something you can drop in on the fly.

In literate cultures, language ceases to be what people say to one another and becomes a thing unto itself. Written - and recorded - language outlives the context in which it was uttered, indeed outlives its speakers. This creates an interplay between the language as maintained in writing and the language as used by its current speakers. We can write "I cannot" or even "I can't" for the three words "I can not" because these were in use before the writing of English became standardized. But we can't write "I'm gonna," even though it's what we say. And then, if we're giving a proper speech, we can't say "I'm gonna" because it's not what we'd write. Likewise, the French can and must write "je ne sais pas," even though the "pas" had no negative meaning and just reinforced the "ne" when it came into use. But they can't write "chépa" even though it's what they say all the time, because it's not what they were saying when the language came to be widely written and it doesn't represent the three words that have merged into one unit of thought, ie, "I dunno." And when they're giving a formal speech, they can't say, "chépa" because that's not what they'd write.

The interplay between the written and spoken word has both its advantages and disadvantages. The first advantage is clear enough - at least until recently, most language learners got their start with a book. The downside is that whether you're starting with a book, CDs or DVDs, if you're from a high literacy culture, you're going to be looking for rules and patterns that on the one hand will help you make sense of the language but on the other hand can lead you to trying to make more sense of the language than is there to be had.

In studying Breton, one of the most frustrating things for me has been the lack of a written standard. It's not just that there are four dialects. It's the presence of multiple writing systems, and that every time I get something new for Breton, it's using a different one. However, the more I've worked with Breton, the more I've found myself reading sotto voce and piecing together what's going on with the language. But it's been a struggle, and a big part of that struggle is because I wanted to make Breton work the way English does in terms of its set forms - except that English actually doesn't.

I mentioned that in oral cultures, the poets and rhetoriticians would memorize certain stock phrases and epithets that they would then string together. That made me think of the debate over whether to learn words or whole sentences with one's preferred flashcard system. It might even be worth it to put small conversations on one's flashcards, that way the language exists in context. Working with Assimil, and reading text on the internet, etc, I'm finding that I learn a lot more by being around the language than I do in conscious study. That's why neither Talk Now nor the Colloquial program have done that much for me. That's not to say that beginning materials are unneeded, nor that we should retreat to some pre-literate mindset to learn language. But when we learn, we should keep in mind that even the greatest materials, whether written or recorded, are just an entrée into something that goes beyond what can actually be captured however many books and materials we might buy.