Saturday, July 26, 2008

Asking for a Coke in Arabic

When I was pulling out a CD from my Michel Thomas Mandarin program, I noticed a reference to on the back cover. That's MH as in McGraw-Hill, the publishers. You can try out snippets of the other Michel Thomas programs at the website. Just search for "Michel Thomas" and you'll find the links on the product pages. I tried out the Arabic, linked here.

The Michel Thomas programs usually go a bit slow, so this isn't going to be the biggest jump start ever to your language learning, but if you want to get a sense for the feel of the program and whether these are people you could spend eight hours listening to it's worth a look, especially since the new programs are with people other than Michel Thomas and some are better than others.

And if I got it right, you can get your Coke with "Mumkin kola min fadlik."


Monday, July 21, 2008

"But I already know that..."

Whether you're a teacher or a learner, you're going to find yourself looking at certain language points and saying, "already covered that." Which is very nice, but that's not the same as knowing something automatically so you can focus on what you're talking about instead of how you're saying it. This is another reason you should use multiple study aids if you're learning on your own.

For more on learning versus knowing and the dangers of over-optimistic self-assessment, visit the ForeignLanguageBlog, from which the post title was shamelessly lifted.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Consolidating and... Kanji?

A bit worn out on my Assimil Breton, I've been working through Brezhoneg Buan hag Aes (Quick and Easy Breton), a more traditional text. I've worked through the first three chapter (not a whole lot) and have firmed up my understanding of the verb bezañ (to be - it has different forms depending on whether the subject is at the beginning or end, you're describing location, existence or qualities, whether your sentence is negative or affirmative and more...). At the same time, I've been looking up the Breton correspondents to the vocabulary of Basic English (about which more here) and have been both pleasantly surprised by things I knew and embarrassed by things I'd forgotten.

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On a completely unrelated note, I am most assuredly not learning Japanese at the moment, and particularly not the written form. But if you are, check out the Cunning Linguist and Babelhut, who have had some ideas in the last month or so. With reference to Thomas' Babelhut post, I ran across Heisig years ago when I was messing around with Japanese. I never got far with the language, but Heisig did give me a solid read on the kanji that subsequently proved of help with hanzi - even if it didn't teach me the precise meanings and usages, it's great for learning how to look at a character and see what goes into it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary - a thought and a tool

When you're starting to learn a language, one of the trickiest things is building a core vocabulary. For one thing, while you can find word frequency lists, these tell you what to recognize for reading, but not what you actually need to know for basic communication. Speaking of basic communication, a long time ago, CK Ogden proposed Basic English, a subset of English with 850 words that should be sufficient for everyday communication, with the suggestion that for any particular specialty another 100 words of so should be sufficient for specialized communication. This has led to standards for, eg, aircraft manuals, since there needs to be a way to be sure - very sure! - that a non-native has a better than average chance of understanding perfectly for certain technical subjects.

If you're learning English, the Basic English vocabulary makes a darn good core to start with. But it's particular to English (and to a lesser extent to Germanic languages) in its assumptions about how ideas can be combined to form new meanings without an overly burdensome vocabulary. So if you're building a core vocabulary for a new language, the list can give you inspiration for figuring out the sorts of things you'd like to be able to say but haven't thought of looking up yet, but a one-to-one translation into a different language may prove more interesting than useful. Still, the ideas behind Basic English may, as I said, give some sense of how you want to put together your own studies to build a core vocabulary for the language you're learning.

The 850 items in Basic English are here. The Wikipedia article on Basic English and with lots of links to other efforts to simplify English is here.

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I stumbled across a great website the other day - and how could I not, it's at the top of the Google listings for online dictionaries - but I hadn't used it before and have been greatly impressed since I started: It has the Oxford dictionaries for Spanish, French, Italian, German and Russian, but since you're searching online, not flipping through paper pages, you can get a ton of words, phrases and other entries to look up with a minimum of effort. What I like best of all is it's ability to make recommendations when you give it two or three word phrases for translation. If you're trying to translate idiomatic English and just can't remember which specialized verb+preposition combination does what in the Romance language you're working in, it's great (at least that's been my experience with French and Spanish so far).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Freedom of Speech, Critical Thinking and the Best Way to Learn a Language

Over at The Linguist, Steve's been looking at critical thinking and freedom of speech. Notes Steve, those who mean well are often the quickest to want both to teach critical thinking and to limit the freedom of speech. This, to me, is like teaching someone to make cookies but forbidding them from acquiring flour and chocolate chips: free speech is the raw material on which one exercises one's critical faculties in a free society.

On the question of critical thinking, I think there's a very basic misconception which leads all sorts of well-meaning people astray: critical thinking is not always a tool for arriving at the right answer so much as a means of finding the right answer for you. If I love to work with my hands and am therefore contemplating becoming an accountant - I'll get to push pencils all day! - critical thinking may cause me to reexamine my premises and become a mechanic or a sculptor instead. In the larger scheme of things, likewise, critical thinking will not tell us whether we should invade Iraq, have national health care or criminalize duck hunting. Absolute answers to these questions don't exist. Critical thinking may, however, help a nation decide whether the decision it makes is congruent with the kind of nation its people want it to be.

Robert Heinlein noted that if it can't be expressed in figures, it's opinion, not fact. But that's countered by the old quip that figures don't lie but liars figure. Most often, the liars who are figuring start by lying to themselves. The other day, a colleague remarked that another person in the company had gone about things the wrong way, perhaps, but that he meant well. I breezily chirped in that Hitler had meant well too, but things could have turned out better where he was involved. I was surprised by the vociferousness with which the response came: "He did not!" To this person, it was inconceivable that a person she conceived of as being evil could have had any intention other than to go down in history as synonymous with cruelty, barbarism and megalomania. This is usually the response I get because if even Hitler meant well, people sense, that means that it's not good enough that their own intentions are good. They also have to make sure that the things they do have a positive outcome and this requires thinking before acting and acting according to a mixture of reason and feeling, not feeling alone.

Critical thinking, per se, probably cannot be taught. It can be modeled, to a degree of course. But when it comes to procedures and processes, critical thinking is better for telling us what not to do than what we should do. An acquaintance with the more common logical fallacies won't lead to you acting according to unerring good sense, but it will keep you from repeating the most common mistakes over and over again: at least if you make a mistake, it will be a new one! But in the end, critical thinking tells us more about whether our conclusions emerge logically from our premises or whether we're using the kind of wishful thinking that says, "I'm very pragmatic: since I couldn't afford a Rolls-Royce on my minimum wage income, I settled for a Porsche and saved $200,000. Now I've got enough to make a down payment on a house!"

The reason freedom of speech is so important is that in a world where absolute right answers are relatively scarce, a people has to work to find the right answers for having the kind of country they want to have and living the kinds of lives they want to lead. You can't have perfect order and absolute freedom - the crazies will use their freedom to disrupt order. But you can't have perfect order with no freedom either - the crazies will step outside of the order and lots of people will follow them. So society has to strike a balance, figuring out what it will put up with and in what measure in return for the freedoms and opportunities for growth that are associated versus the restrictions it will put up with in order to maintain order and security. Societies that decide wrongly - Zimbabwe is a strikingly horrifying example these days - pay the price for not finding that balance. Societies that do better - much of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia come to mind - tend to make the money and live the good life. These are, incidentally, the places where open discussion and even downright nasty discussion can take place in the open and where political and financial marketplaces can quickly determine what citizens and consumers will accept as right for them in the aggregate, if not locating the Platonic essence of correctness.

Aristotle said that the good is that at which all things aim. He meant to say that we all mean to do well, unless we are mad, and that in the long run we'll find our way to virtue and intelligent action by the observation of what reasonable and reasonably well off people tend towards. It's sort of circular - something is good because it's aimed at, and it's aimed at because it's good. But this hit or miss notion does well at explaining how self-causing moralities and notions of justice wind up creating stable and profitable societies that march along across the centuries, adjusting here and there but evolving more than changing outright. Freedom of speech and the exercise of critical faculties in deciding what to do with the content of that free speech have tended to create societies that may not be the best by some objective criteria, but that are the ones that everyone seems to want to emigrate to, and so we're back to the good as that at which all things aim.

The above may seem like an idle meditation. In fact, it is but prelude.

The good news is that what follows is much shorter!

What Steve has to say about critical thinking and freedom of speech dovetails nicely with something closer to our focus here: The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language. To put it simply, there is none. While we tend all of us to grow up in societies and learn languages according to a combination of assimilation and instruction, we are all different. Our backgrounds are different, our experiences in the world are different, the wiring of our brains varies.

It is safe to say that if someone came up with "the food method" - you eat tuna fish to learn German, roast beef to learn French and rice to learn Russian, and that's all you need to do - you could call that person crazy and say that he had no business being a language teacher. Our critical faculties will tell us that we're unlikely to find a mechanism whereby the consumption of certain foods would alter our environment or perception of it sufficiently to cause a new language to come into our brains. But when it comes to Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, The Linguist and those old Dover Essential Grammar of... books, it's plausible to see them as language learning tools. That given, some will want to say, "Yeah, but which one's the best?" That depends on who you are and how you learn.

A certain company whose name escapes me boasts that more people have learned with that company's products than any other. Given the number of monolinguals in the United States, I'd be keeping my mouth shut or somebody's going to notice that twice as many people bought the CDs as speak Spanish and wonder what happened! At any rate, it's great that we haven't found the best way of learning languages, because if we had, all the people it didn't work for would be in trouble. Instead, there's a marketplace of ideas about learning and marketplaces to purchase implementations of those ideas. So have a look around, see what feels right for you and move on if something isn't working for you. If nothing works for you, you will need to examine your commitment to learning and the dedication with which you study. But the odds are that if you're learning one of the more common languages, the right book or CD set to get you started is sitting in a bookstore or online retailer just waiting for you to discover it. Happy searching. And remember, even if it says you'll learn everything you need to know in ten days, it still might have some good stuff and be worth looking at, even if the publisher's marketing department needs a good scolding.

Personal Update Tired of shirking my Breton studies with Assimil, I've deliberately put them on the back burner for the moment. I'm rereading a lesson every two or three days or doing the scriptorium variation I mentioned the other day. In the meantime, I've gotten a hold of a good Breton dictionary and Turn of the Ermine - an anthology of Breton literature - and have been reading, translating and listening to music. I'll come back to the Assimil in a week or two when I get tired of looking things up and decide it's time to expand my knowledge a little more systematically again.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Notes on Language Learning and Breton

Language Learning

1. Acting as if... and believing it!
Every now and again, there's some chatter about polyglots past and present. And as soon as the polyglots show up, there are others who will notice the polyglot doesn't speak their language that well. But if you know a language perfectly and never open your mouth, then the person who knows four words poorly and deploys them wherever possible is ahead of you. Likewise, the polyglots who aren't really fluent in twenty languages but can make a reasonable effort at communicating ought be given their due. And we can learn from them: Thinking you're a polyglot won't make you a polyglot, of course. But thinking you're not a polyglot will assure you don't become one.

One of the contradictions of language learning is that you have to have the humility to demure about your abilities yet be willing to put them on display. Je parle français... un peu. Hablo español... un poquito... This requires maintaining a different internal conversation from what you project to the outside world. You need to tell yourself Je parle français très bien so that you'll feel comfortable speaking up even as the words coming out of your mouth tell your interlocutor the absurd Je ne parle pas français, pas vraiment - which is an obvious contradiction.

The point here is to watch your internal conversations closely. Because while you don't want to be one of those polyglots about whom native speakers say "He doesn't really speak my language," you do want to have that confidence that allows you to believe in yourself, believe in your skills and believe in the work you've put in.

Do you find yourself saying I'll never speak... or I just can't find the time to study or This is too hard for me... Or any of the other excuses we make to ourselves for not doing our best? Once you decide to learn a language, you should commit yourself to being an improving speaker of the language - humble about your talents, but not utterly dismissive of them. Keep a healthy internal dialog and things will come more naturally since your feelings about the challenges of learning won't be getting in the way of the actual learning.

Speaking of which...

2. Getting back into learning
Over at the Cunning Linguist, there's a short note on the pain of getting back into language learning when you've been away for a while. If there's one thing harder than sticking to your routine when life gets busy, it's getting back in the groove when things settle down. But the right attitude can help.

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but if not, it's worth checking out the courses at Wikiversity. Here's the Language School. And here's the Breton page. Note that for some reason, the Breton lessons are much more developed than for some other languages. Depending on your language, this may be a pleasant surprise or something rather less.

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