Saturday, June 28, 2008

Getting Back to Work

The other day, I mentioned that I'd sort of stalled on my Breton sans peine and needed to get back to it. The challenge is that I'd been hitting some passages where Breton really thinks things through differently from English - sentences like this:

Hag ur wech erruet en e gampr,
And one time arrived in his room,
e salaou gant dudi
listens (to) with pleasure
ar pennadoù bet enrollet gantañ
the conversations been recorded with him
war seizenn e vagnetofon.
on tape (of) his recorder.

Once he's back in his room, he listens with pleasure to the conversations he's recorded on the tape in his recorder.

Of course we string together long sentences in English too, but we have a different notion of how the pieces fit together. Breton loves to use "conjugated prepositions" - prepositions marked for person, number and (for 3rd person singular) gender - to link up bit of sentences, for example.

Given time, of course, one can not only break down individual sentences but also develop an eye (and maybe one day an ear!) for relating the elements more automatically. The hard part is getting through to that stage. Looking for some way to keep myself moving through the readings while getting something from it, I started thinking about Professor Arguelles' Scriptorium. Says the good professor:
The whole purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to slow down and pay attention to detail. This is the stage at which you should check all unknowns in grammars or dictionaries...
This is exactly what I needed - to slow myself down and think through what I was reading without descending into grammar-translation.

Professor Arguelles' exercise, of course, is for regular use in language learning, and if you've the time and patience I commend his advice to you for broader application. That said, I think this works even for specific passages because it gets you more wholly involved in working with the language - physically manifesting it almost - so that you don't just keep skimming over bits you don't quite get until you suddenly realize you're not quite getting any of it.

One other thing: This exercise, and indeed numerous other exercises, may not be for you when you're stalled. What's important is that somewhere out there, there probably is something that will work for you, or at least that can be modified for you. So check out the links on this site, and on all the other sites, and keep in mind what you're reading. As long as you keep working with the language and keep building on what you're learning you will progress, whatever the tools you use.

So if you're here to kill some time after doing your lessons, take a little time to visit Professor Arguelles's site and see if there's something else you might want to make use of in your learning. But if you're here because you wanted to do something language related but just don't have the heart to crack open your book or listen to your CDs right now, make an extra special point of looking at the Scriptorium and Shadowing technique and maybe at a few other sites till you find something you haven't tried before, or haven't tried in a while. And then, get back to work.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

What to do with your old language tapes?

In my previous post, I mentioned going to European Book Company, but not what I found there. I'd been looking for a multilingual bookstore and was sure there would be one in San Francisco. I just didn't know where. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to googling it, but when I did, there it was.

I'd gone to the bookstore mainly out of curiosity for what I'd find. The website indicated a lot of Assimil programs and I was especially curious about that. One thing I'd intended to get was Using Spanish, the Assimil advanced Spanish course, both for my long-term aim of speaking better Spanish and for the short-term aim of spurring myself to work more diligently at L'Espagnol sans peine. This I found right away.

Going through the foreign language section, I was quite surprised to find passen gentañ ar brezhoneg didorr - the cassettes for Initiation au breton sans peine! Needless to say, I grabbed them up. But what to do with cassettes these days? I got home and found my old cassette player didn't even work. And given that the tapes are old, I didn't want to be going about listening to them over and over anyway.

What to do with your old language tapes

Many of you will know this already. But for those who don't fuss with the computer so much, there's lots of great software out there for recording mic input (or line input if you're using a desktop with a decent sound card - I've got a laptop). What you need are:

1) 3.5mm Stereo Male To Male Cable

2) a full-size cassette player with headphone output (I have the Memorex MB1055 Full Size Cassette Recorder, which works for the purpose)

3) some sort of audio software (I use Audacity - free open-source - for editing and ARWizard - $25, has voice-activation, file-size controls, etc - for the recording, but you could just use Audacity for everything)

Follow these steps:

1) Set the computer volume controls for wave, all and mic around 80%. Mute all the other controls. Make sure any mic boost options are off.

2) Connect the 3.5mm cable from the cassette headphone jack to the computer mic jack.

3) Set the cassette volume at zero, hit play and turn it up until you're getting decent sound through your computer headphones.

4) Rewind cassette, start computer recording with your audio software and start cassette playback.

5) When the cassette is done, stop recording on the computer.

6) Use Audacity or other software to chop up the file into smaller MP3 tracks, usually one per lesson.

Using the steps above (with a shortcut here or there), I was able to get the first two weeks of recordings into the computer and split up into mp3 tracks, one per lesson, in about 45 minutes. Half an hour of that was waiting for the cassette to finish playing.

Note that for some, the instructions will provoke a "duh!" In which case, you already knew how to do this. Sorry, no great new secrets here. If the instructions are confusing to you, check the documentation for you audio software and sound card and play around with them. You'll figure it out.

Disclaimer: Use this information at your own discretion. multilingua.info and Confessions of a Language Addict are for general interest and provide no warranty or technical support for any computer information on these sites.

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Random Notes

Edwin mentioned visiting Sophia Books in Vancouver the other day. For my part, I visited European Book Company in San Francisco yesterday. It has the look and feel of a used bookstore, but with some good stuff in the way of French - and one of the biggest collections of Assimil I've seen outside of Europe. If you're looking for Assimil courses or French children's books, they're worth a visit.

Edwin mentioned that Sophia Books seems to be the only multilingual bookstore in Canada. Here in the US we're not exactly spilling over with them either. But there's also Europa Books in Chicago, which seems to be connected with Schoenhofs in Boston. Finally, for language learning, I'd mention LanguageQuest, which I used to visit in Los Altos before they moved to Mount Shasta.

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I've plateaued on my Assimil Breton sans peine again - happens every so often - so I am reviewing and doing outside reading. Next week, I plan to hit the ground running, but in the meantime, I've been enjoying Breton music, my Spot stories and Peter Rabbit. I've also been fussing with Talk Now Breton, as I mentioned the other day. Remember: if your method isn't working for you right at the moment, make sure you're doing something to enjoy your language. You'll need to either get back on track or find a new track soon enough, but as long as you keep the language in your brain and in your life you're fine for the short term.

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Last note: Thanks to the folks at edufire for recognizing this among their top 20 language learning blogs. You'll see a lot of the others in the link list to the right, by the way. Check 'em out.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Language Immersion

Whenever I read about language immersion, I wonder if we maybe shouldn't teach people to drive by putting them in a car, sending them out on the freeway and seeing what happens. That's what language immersion is the way that some would go about it.

A couple weeks ago, the LinguistBlogger put up his thoughts on the matter. His suggestion: Language immersion is something you do after you understand the fundamentals:
If you don’t have enough desire to get at least to a solid 2 [limited proficiency] in the target language before you start your language immersion it’s doubtful that you will get much better than that. I recommend getting to a 3 [proficiency] which is entirely possible for most languages. Getting to a 3 first will make it so getting to a 4 [advanced proficiency] in the foreign country becomes very doable and even fun and enjoyable.
The problem is that if you don't have a decent handle on things before you go for the immersion, 1) you won't know what to listen for and build on and 2) you'll probably play it safe, avoiding those linguistic situations that will make you grow.

When I went to France, I had a fair amount of French under my belt. And I lived with a family. So I went from, say, 2 1/2 to 4. I had friends in my program with weaker backgrounds who got a little better at everyday stuff but never took it to the next level. For my part, I came to California at about a level 1 in Spanish. While I talk on a regular basis with native Spanish speakers, my Spanish improves or falters based much more on whether I've been studying than the degree of interaction. At my level, language immersion mainly activates what I know latently but I'm not plugged in enough to automatically assimilate things as they come up.

I've been a big booster of Assimil on this page, and I'd toss out this one point: While raw immersion is a bad idea for beginners, it's a slightly different story with guided immersion. Because of the way we learn and use language, the old grammar translation is usually better for laying the foundation to learn to speak naturally than for actually speaking naturally. But if you intend to "pick up" a language, what you pick up will be sorely limited by the sophistication you bring to the operation. Best to find a method where you work with real language but in a format that eases you into it and helps keep you up to speed with what's going on. If you can find a method where the end of the book looks incomprehensible but the level of difficulty between chapters 1 and 2 is negligible, you might just have something that can take you by the hand and lead you into the language at a pace where one day you'll be ready for a real immersion. Then all you need is the will to keep working with it till you get there.

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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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Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Little Rebuilding

In my best weeks, I find twenty minutes a every day to work on language learning - five in the morning, five in the evening and ten at lunch. Under this system, I push forward at lunch, review in the evening and consolidate the previous day's learning in the morning.

Last week was not one of my best weeks. Things were crazy at the office, I was dog tired in the evening and eager to use every last minute of available sleep time in the morning.

I didn't stop learning, of course. I finished up my notes on a Spot story and sent them off to the MyLanguageNotebook.com site. And Peter Rabbit came in the mail on Wednesday: I've read the first five or six pages. And Friday evening, I sat down in front of the computer and listened to Breton, French and Italian music for a few hours. And I found time to do a perfunctory scan of the Assimil lessons most days.

Next week, though, I'll go back and redo this week's lessons. I fear they won't seem as repetitive as they should. But that's okay.

I write a lot about attitude here. And this week I've also been skimming a self-confidence course from uncommonknowledge.co.uk. One of the biggest places where we trip ourselves up in language learning is that when we get off track, we make too much of it. I run across students who miss class for two weeks, struggle in a lesson and proclaim, "I'll never learn X language."

If you've got a program that's working for you, except that sometimes it doesn't work, it's important to ask yourself what's gone wrong when things aren't quite right. As you learn and grow, you'll change, and it may be that what was the right program for you a month ago isn't the right program for who you've become. Or it may be that other factors in your life leave you thinking you don't have time to learn, even though it doesn't really take that much time - in which case it's just a matter of slowing yourself down so you can squeeze in time again. The main thing is to stay a little bit in touch with the language, say with the passive exposure I've talked about in the past, so the connection is still there when you return, whether with your old program or a new one.

So if you're surfing the net and reading language sites this weekend but you haven't found time to study, don't worry too much. Just make sure to get yourself back on track as you go into the new week, and to look for your reasons if the thought of doing so doesn't give your spirits a little lift.