Saturday, September 27, 2008

Song of the Druid

Let us sing of the Source
That makes the trees to grow
That makes the grasses soft
And makes the birds to sing
In vallies of silence
Pouring forth health and joy

from "Song of the Druid" by Urvan Perennes

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Should you learn Cyrillic Handwriting?

Should you even learn Russian?

Josh asks whether it's worth it to learn Russian handwriting. He notes that Iverson (creator of Iverson lists, described in earlier posts) doesn't see the value. I think there's another question that needs to be asked before approaching the handwriting question, though:

Why do we bother with this at all?

I face a similar question with Chinese - Do I learn the characters, or content myself with a smattering of the spoken language? If I were talking to someone else, I would pose the following question: And how do you envisage using Mandarin?

My answer, for better or worse: If Mandarin comes up, and it comes out that I've studied a little myself, I'd like to be able to give some evidence of that.

Q: So, it's a face thing - as in saving face.

A: You make it sound like that's a bad thing.

This is a danger that those who love languages for their own sake - or at least develop love-hate relationships with them - must face: How do you set practical goals for an endeavor that doesn't have a fundamentally practical application? It's all up to you.

If you've got Russian ancestry and might come into possession of their papers, it would be worth it to learn the handwriting, so you could go through old letters. If you were thinking of getting a Russian pen pal, it would probably be through e-mail, but who knows? But if you want to read literature, the printed letters are probably enough. The thing is, if you're learning Russian in the style of Hillary - because it's there - then you have to decide for yourself what learning Russian means to you, and how much you're willing to invest.

For my part, I'd say that even if knowing Russian script serves no practical purpose, it only takes a few hours to learn and it looks a lot cooler to be sitting there scribbling notes in Russian, as though you just toss of your thoughts in the language, than to limit yourself to duplicating the characters in the book. If you're going to learn Russian, you might as well look the part, no?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ChinesePod, etc.

It's from awhile back, but I thought it worth pointing back to this post by Edwin on ChinesePod and company going paid. His essential point, as Heinlein would have put it: TANSTAAFL - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. ChinesePod's excellent podcasts were sort of an exception for a while: the premium content, of course, was charged, but the heart of the thing for many is the excellent podcasts, better in aggregate than most audio courses. Says Edwin:
When I look at the language learning market, it always amazes me how people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for language books, tools, and classes, but they expect everything free from the Internet. One thing I have found from the online language learning communities in the past year-or-so is that, free stuff has no good quality. Contents or services that are of good quality that are free are either being paid for by someone else already, or they are going out of business very soon.
Yup. Edwin also notes:
I would expect in the next few days, the Praxis servers will be bombarded by people trying to get their last “free lunches”.
Guilty as charged. But now I'm running out of FrenchPods and it is a distressing thing. I'm trying to decide whether to sign up for FrenchPod or ItalianPod, but it will be one of them this weekend.

Now that ChinesePod and company are paid, I'm getting requests to become an affiliate. And I'd love to, except that it's PayPal. It seems like I get fifty messages a week to check my PayPal account - all phishing, of course. So I quit using it. I've no idea when I last checked my PayPal account, and I love being free of the hassle. So I may become an affiliate if I feel up to the pain of the fuss. In the mean time, even though I'm missing out on the big bucks, I'd heartily encourage newcomers to check out the Newbie lessons and to, by all means, sign up. It's not that expensive and you'll get more out of it than most of the audio courses out there.

Visit for all your pod fun.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Thinking about thinking

A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.
Alexander Pope

Jack of all trades, master of none / Though oft-times better than master of one.

So, which is it? Should you learn everything? Or should you "focus like a laser beam" on one thing? In a truly rational and reasonable world, it might make sense to pick one subject and systematically work through it. In this topsy-turvy world we live in, however, it's turtles all the way down: Every time we approach the final, or foundational answers, we discover there's a whole world beneath. The physical world had the atomic world beneath. But the atom turned out to be divisible after all, and so the quantum world was discovered. In fifty years, I imagine, there will be much rolling of eyes at those who had thought that strings would prove to be the ultimate root of reality.

The Enlightenment project supposed that with careful application of the emerging scientific method, the light of reason would show all. Some time later, with the Romantics, we got Tennyson's Ulysses, who planned "To follow knowledge like a sinking star / Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought." It's one of my favorite quotes, and it's of a piece with electron microscopes that let us see things we can't, and of a piece with the Large Hadron Collider that will let us envision the creation of universes and try to get a better sense of how it works. The thing is, there's a limit to how "meta" we can get. Ultimately, even if we move beyond what our eyes can see and our ears can hear, we can still only conceive what we can actually conceive - everything we know has to eventually reduce to analogies comprehensible to our real-life experience.

In language learning, we're making great strides in understanding how the brain learns, how it organizes information, and how it works with the body, including operating the speech organs and interpreting sound. They may even be getting a handle on how and where memories are stored. But for us language learners in the real world, we cannot reach in, tweak a few neurons and learn French better. Because humans are highly variable, we're probably always going to learn languages in highly variable ways. Our pedagogical research, then, won't truly take off until we move from finding the best way to teach in the aggregate to thinking about how to more efficiently identify learning styles and adapt methods to individuals. This is of a piece with the old-line mass manufacturers falling behind while mass-customization and the tailored retail experience brought by the likes of become the new order. This is going to go further.

Today, when you visit a good size bookstore, you'll find a variety of language learning materials. And there's some degree of specialization: The Michel Thomas Method differs from the Pimsleur differs from the In Your Car series differs from Berlitz Rush Hour and other novelty offerings. Throw in Anki, Before You Know it and LingQ and we're moving toward a world where you don't have to just love double rep cassettes if you want to learn to speak a new language. New programs like iSpeak are also coming along, though they seem to have been designed around the interface and adapted to new learning approaches, rather than the other way around. (But you could say the same of the old "read along with this dialog and listen to the record" approach of the first audio courses.) And so we're reaching a strange point: 15 years ago, there weren't enough resources. Now there are too many to know which way to turn.

What to do? Vary your learning. Probably the best analog to our learning today is the internet: the more links, the more traffic, the more popular a site becomes. The more you know, the more you can learn, because we learn by analogy and the more analogies we have about something, the more ways we can explain it to ourselves as we learn, cement the knowledge and retrieve it.

It's true that a little learning is a dangerous thing - if your intent is to be learned. But in the world of language, which goes across all areas of life, it's best to be a jack of all trades - if you know a little bit about everything, you'll have that much more to go on as you learn a little bit more.

Practical application: Go to the bookstore and find one of those phrasebooks for Western Europe or South Asia or whatever. Start thumbing through it and learn a few key phrases. You'll find that a little Arabic gives you a little Persian, a little Turkish, even a little Indonesian and a little Swahili. And they're all from totally different language families! Look at a pidgin from your own language (like Tok Pisin, if you're an English speaker) and see if you aren't more comfortable with foreign grammatical constructions once you've started thinking of using your own familiar vocabulary in totally different ways. If you're learning Italian, look at Spanish phrases. Yes, you'll jumble things and confuse the two, perhaps, but in the end you'll remember the similarities and differences between Buenas noches and Buona notte and because you've got two Romance equivalents of Good night in mind (and one of them is plural, can you believe that?!) you'll have a stronger memory of both. So read, read, read, learn, learn, learn. But do this with everything and all things. In time you'll find that you know more and learn more easily about the things you're focused on and your knowledge will organize itself so that random facts become a network of linked and self-reinforcing knowledge. And even better, you've got an excuse to skip your German for one night (but not more than two!) if that's what you were going to do anyway.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Polyglots, Language Maintenance and Lucky Seven


As a language addict, I start with the best of intentions for sticking to one particular language till I've achieved a particular goal. It doesn't always work. Lately, I've been reading about famous polyglots again. I blame The Linguist Blogger. Sure, I'd been straying a little bit - listening to ItalianPod and FrenchPod (and even some SpanishPod), while listening to my Michel Thomas Mandarin and fussing with my Brezhoneg Buan hag Aes. But mostly I was focused on learning Breton and trying to make something of my Mandarin. Then, yesterday, I encountered this: How Many Languages Is It Possible to Learn? What's worse, it included links to earlier posts on famous linguists past and present. And then there's this sad piece of news:
If you have a life that not only gives you the opportunity but also necessitates that or greatly benefits from knowing thirteen languages well then you will probably speak thirteen languages well. If you have a very monolingual lifestyle then even maintaining one other language will most likely be quite difficult.
Well, actually it's good news if your life's journey requires you to be a polyglot - you have a fair shot at pulling it off. But for the aspiring polyglot who lives a monolingual life, it's a tough thing to hear. It jibes with my own experience however: I make almost no effort to learn Spanish, but my Spanish keeps improving, albeit at a glacial pace, because I use it at work. My French is humming along because I speak it with several colleagues. And my Mandarin and Italian - which I've far less occasion to use - always seem rusty, no matter whether I study hard or let my studies slide. For Mandarin, especially, I'm tempted to think that I need either to ramp up my studies enough to use it almost exclusively with the Mandarin speakers I know, or forget it.

Which brings us to language maintenance...

You always hear about bilingual children and how great it is to teach your kid a second language. Actually working in the language business, I know better: Children will do everything they can to avoid having to maintain an extra language unless it's absolutely necessary. I expect it's the same thing with adults, though we never think of it that way: The world traveler maintains at least the basics in a few languages because frankly his life is all the easier for the mental exertion required to maintain them. If you're maintaining your Russian because you like to imagine yourself the kind of person who would read Dostoevsky in the original, but you've no one to actually speak with or who will even understand your explanations of why it makes the difference, your brain is going to be very cross with you for all the energy you make it spend on something that doesn't otherwise make it easier to plan out your life. That's why we do the stuff with movies, chat groups, etc. You're not just immersing yourself in the language so you can absorb it better. You're also fooling your neurons into believing its worth their time to make the connections to maintain another language. This makes me wonder: Maybe the answer isn't just more exposure, longer immersion periods, better memory tricks, etc. Maybe what we really need is a way to replicate the psychological pain of being in a foreign environment and not being able to communicate unless you really learn.

And now something completely different...

Lucky Seven

Isn't it funny that the great lucky number would be the number of things we could keep in our mind at once! Isn't it funnier still that we don't do more to exploit this!

I've been fooling around with Iverson lists still more. I'm finding that even going through the process once is far better than anything I've used before. Yet when I pick up my language books, the vocabularies are for thirty and forty items. Michel Thomas Mandarin is teaching one or two things at a time. Phrasebooks have four items for one thing and thirty-four for the next. I'm thinking there's another way to do this. Imagine if when you opened your Lonely Planet phrasebook before going into the restaurant, you found a list of seven things to say and seven things you might like to eat and drink. Imagine if your textbook broke vocabulary down into blocks of seven or less, with the items in each block related. Would it make a difference?

A lesson might go like this:

I would like... please.
Please give me...
Cup of coffee
Cup of tea

I would like a cup of coffee, please.
I would like another cup.
Please give me a cup of tea.
Please give me another cup.

Once you've got those, the next lesson could be seven items about glasses of water and mugs of beer and such, with one or two more structures ("I could go for...", "There's something wrong with this..."). In seven items, you've got eight sentences. In fourteen items, you can drink tons of stuff or send it back.

This sort of thing always looks good in theory, is harder to do in practice. But I notice that lots of little books do things by the tens, when humans do things by the sevens. Where one goes with these musings is hard to say. But one thing that could be immensely useful is to find out how the top polyglots chunk the language data they're learning. Maybe the key isn't whether they use bilingual or monolingual dictionaries or listen to the radio instead of watching movies. Maybe the key is to find out how many words they jot down before skipping a line, and how many flashcards feels like too many, that sort of thing.

Just a thought.