Saturday, December 27, 2008

Spaced Repetition and Knowledge Overload

I've been listening to Know Can Do by Ken Blanchard, Paul Meyer and Dick Ruhe. According to Blanchard and Co., while we read lots of books and attend lots of classes and seminars, we don't really get around to absorbing the content, never mind applying it. The problem is two-fold: On the one hand, we try to learn too much. On the other hand, we don't have an effective way even of learning much less. The answer is to "learn less more" rather than to "learn more less." The key to this is spaced repetition.

Now, those who frequent language blogs are familiar with spaced repetition systems, or SRSs. I personally use Anki, as do a lot of other language bloggers. This helps us with the first part of language learning - the spacing. But there's a second issue, as I mention in my title, and that's information overload. If you've got 10,000 items in your Anki deck, you may get to where you can recognize them all with time, but until then you've still got a lot of language you might not be able to apply on the spur of the moment.

The other day, I mentioned fussing with Speak in a Week Spanish. My first temptation was to skim through it quickly since I knew most of the material, while maybe doing something to study the words from the glossary that I didn't know ("las colgaduras" means "draperies"?). Then I decided to take it slow, doing one chapter a night and putting the glossary words into Anki for only one chapter at a time. While I'm working through the booklets more slowly, my memory for the vocabulary words is solidifying more quickly.

Once I've finished the book, I'll pass along anything else of use that I've found about broader learning strategies. For the moment, though, I would recommend avoiding a mistake I've made in the past of loading up your Anki decks faster than you can memorize them. You really can learn more if you can just be patient about learning less.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lost on Planet China...

I've been listening to J. Maarten Troost's Lost on Planet China, which chronicles a trip to that nation by the author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific. Troost has been called a travel writer but insists that he's mainly written about places he's actually lived, so he should be called a domestic writer. In any case, he's an entertaining and informative writer, providing both his humorous perspective on what it's like for a Westerner in China and a wealth of data and historical detail on what a country becomes when it tries to be ancient China, a communist state and a vanguard of capitalism all at once. What he sees and learn both astonish and frighten him, and will the reader as well.

But right now, I've been hearing about Tibet, the "Roof of the World" and the latest site that the Han Chinese are taking over. For the author, it was a sort of escape, because even if it's becoming Chinese it's still cleaner and less crowded. That sent me to my own sort of escape, looking for information on Tibet and the Tibetan language. Among other things, I found a book - a short book, but still an entire book - at this site. If you're looking for a friendly, minimalist introduction to how Tibetan works, you couldn't do better.

As to my own escape, well, that was from Spanish. Over at the new Aspiring Polyglot, Kelly has a post on the Never-ending Journey that is learning a language. She excerpts from a poster at How to Learn Any Language and tosses in her own thoughts. Here are some of mine to add: For quite some time, I've been dutifully doing my Pimsleur lessons, skimming various other sources for review and the like and my Spanish has improved a lot. Really. But the other night, I found myself in a multi-party conversation about life, the universe and everything in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. And while my Spanish comes faster and more naturally than ever before, boy, there's a lot it still can't do. So listening to J. Maarten Troost's tales of a beautiful, almost alien land high in the hills on the far end of China, I thought, why not?

Having had a look at Tibetan, its beautiful characters, its interesting structure... I know why not - Spanish is a language I have the chance to use and I've got a lot more knowledge to build on. With determination, I can do something with it. And determination is what's needed, of course, for all language learners when they find themselves on the plateau between "Hey, I'm really getting good at X!" and the reasonable approximation of fluency that is the best most non-natives can hope for. One difference, however - and Kelly will find this in reading Il Nome della rosa, is that if you know one Romance language and are learning another, your skill sets will come in a different order. Looking at Japanese and Mandarin, the sense one gets is that first you get pretty good at speaking and then you discover you can't read a newspaper, never mind a novel. For me, I pick up a novel or skim the headlines and feel good about my Spanish. It's when I go to make a wry observation about the weather or offer a nuanced sentiment about a colleague that my Spanish goes to hell. Still, with time and determination...

Go read Kelly's post. Hopefully this will make more sense in light of it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Verbs, Verbs, Verbs

I have here before me a little book, Live Action English, which is in essence a manual for teaching English through Total Physical Response (TPR). Flipping through the book, one's first thought is how simple the content seems. Then one mentally translates a few of the exercises from L1 -the native language - into L2 - the second language - and realizes how hard language is! And here's the thing: It's the verbs that are the killers.

What are the component steps in unlocking a door? Unwrapping a hunk of cheese, cutting off a corner and nibbling at that corner? Yes, it's easy enough to express the ideas, but with le mot juste? Going from English to a Romance language, this is an especially messy business. You "take off," "take out" "take away," "take back" and on and on. You "put down," "put back, "put away" and more. So how do you "take a bite out of" something and "put down" the rest? And where do you put it? These are things that you have to think about in going from English to French, and it makes you realize how many shades of meaning you can express in L1, when here you'd been thinking that for the linguistic tasks you can accomplish in L2 you're in pretty good shape. Of course, part of the problem is translation: You don't approach the world in L2 the same way and, more importantly, your L2 doesn't approach the world the way your L1 does. Especially with the verbs.

I'm thinking about verbs, of course, because I'm looking at Live Action English, and action is what verbs are all about. (Or mostly about, if you listen to the Michel Thomas rant about linking verbs - those who don't do MT courses, don't worry about this.) Live Action English is an early TPR manual, but the focus on action goes back further than this, back at least to a man named François Gouin. You can read a bit about Gouin here, and a shorter but better bit here. Let's take a look at what the second one has to say:
[Gouin] found himself in conversation with his nephew, who, when he had left had been unable to speak, but who, six months later, was able to hold his own in a conversation. This convinced him of the inefficiency of his own methods, and he decided to watch the child, to see how he picked up his language. One day, the little boy was taken on a visit to a mill. He continually asked questions, climbed all over the place, and watched what the workers were doing. Back at home, the child reflected on his experience, and then recited it to his listeners, ten times over, with variations, attempting to produce a logical sequence of activities.

After thus expressing himself, the child became active; with the aid of the adults, he constructs a miniature water-mill, fills sacks with sand, and plays out to his own satisfaction the scenes that he had observed during the day. What he had done, according to Gouin, was to construct the series of events, structured according to a logical progression, and accompanied, at each stage, with the appropriate language.

Prior to Gouin, or so says the article, people thought of language as being about naming things. After his experience with his nephew, Gouin concluded that language was about describing how things happen. The methodology Gouin produced to focus on verbs stayed rooted in the spoken language -he did not invent TPR. But his sequencing of material is well suited to TPR, as it treats language as a tool for describing what is lived across time, not cataloging archetypes in a seemingly static world. To put it another way, is the essence of the squirrel to be found in the bushy tail and the cute little face and "hands" one sees in the children's picture dictionary, or is it experienced in life as the fuzzy blur that runs up a tree when you get too close? It sounds like Gouin's nephew would have noted the latter, and his uncle would have approved.

Where do you go with this stuff as a language learner? Well there's one thing you can do, and it's a challenge: When you're out and about and collecting language you need, you can think about the verbs. When I see construction workers, I try and remember to look up "jackhammer" because the item is missing from my French vocabulary. I am far less likely to look up the verb that goes with using one. I know that in English I can either "turn off" or "shut down" the computer. But I cannot "shut down" my car, nor my television set. Is there a similar situation with your L2?

Want to be fluent in your L2? Have a look at the verbs. Find out which birds tweet, which ones chirp, which ones caw and which ones cheep. Find out what you say when you're mashing the potatoes, straining the beets and dicing the onions. But before you go overboard, see if you can find a Live Action or similar book for the language you're learning. No need to act it out, but do give it a careful read. Because if you think you need a lot of vocabulary to read Flaubert, just try baking a cake!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Giving the Gift of Language

With the holiday season barreling down upon us, a few gift recommendations if someone you know is planning to travel (or has a paramour who speaks another language, etc.):

For getting comfortable saying some everyday travel phrases, Pimsleur can't be beat. Every lesson starts with a conversation. Over the next thirty minutes, you learn to participate in the conversation, as well as getting some preparation for the next lesson. It doesn't teach as many phrases as, say, Learn In Your Car, but what it teaches you learn.

Michel Thomas:
A cranky old man and two students! What could be more fun? By the time the lessons were recorded, Michel Thomas was getting on in years and was maybe less patient than in earlier days. But his lessons are still excellent for getting a handle on basic vocabulary and grammar. Be forewarned, his accent isn't perfect. But the two-disc "Getting Started" programs teach an astonishing amount in a very short time.

Oxford Take Off In...
The "Take Off In..." series does not have the oomph of the Pimsleur and Michel Thomas methods. But it does have something else: reading. Unlike the usual text-audio course, the audio contains actual instructions for how to use the course and get the most out of the exercises, not just readings of the dialogs. Pop in the CD, open the book and follow the directions. Soon, you'll be getting the basics of the language in both spoken and written forms. I prefer Pimsleur, but if you need to see what you're learning written down, this is a good course to look at.

I should mention that if you are looking for the old school, read through a text style course, the Berlitz in 30 Days series is actually pretty good. The CD doesn't offer a whole lot more than how to pronounce what's in the book, but the lessons are nicely put together and there are neatly organized quizzes every so often to make sure you're up to speed. I do prefer them to the Teach Yourself packages for the amount of language you get and for the more natural, less grammar driven presentation.

The Pods:
For the language enthusiast in your family, check out ChinesePod, SpanishPod, FrenchPod and ItalianPod. Learn or improve a language in 10-15 minute lessons for four levels, with new lessons coming all the time. The shows start with a dialog, often with fun sound effects. Then the hosts explain what just happened, and what you can learn about the language and culture from what you've just heard. Fun stuff. And there are supplemental exercises in PDF. They're located in Shanghai, and do not appear to have caught on to market the gift of language for this holiday season, but surely there's a way if you follow the sign-up instructions.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Humpty-Dumpty Effect

Josh has taken a look at some "traditional language learning methods" and is finding them helpful at the moment. He notes:
If you were to believe many modern, trendy language programs, why, all you’d have to do is listen to recordings and repeat after them, and in a matter of 3 hours, you’d be fluent! ... I’d much rather study grammar tables and “cram” isolated words into my vocabulary than spend who knows how many hours listening to the same stuff over and over, wondering, “What’s with the words changing so much?”
This is my problem with not confronting grammar: You can wind up spending way too much time constructing a faulty picture of how a language works in your own mind when 20 minutes with a table would give a much better, clearer idea what's going on. Still, grammar has one problem, neatly expressed by Ken Carrol:
Grammar offers a set of abstractions to be used, theoretically, in a deductive way to generate accurate sentences. In reality, however, it suffers from the humpty-dumpty effect: good for breaking language down, but not for putting it back together again.
Where do you go with this? We all know that to "pick up" a language, you need comprehensible input. We also know that it takes a small child years to piece things together to a point where they can handle the kind of comprehensible input on offer in kindergarten. Learning grammar and vocabulary explicitly won't give you language per se, but it will increase the amount of input that is comprehensible in a relatively shorter period of time. It's common to notice a word you've never known used a half dozen times in the week after you learn it. Learning vocabulary and figuring out how to identify grammatical structures will give you this effect, magnified, as long as you go find yourself some input once you've learned the information in a more abstract or artificial context.

I've been flipping through the Speak in a Week books (mentioned here). A lot of it is pretty simple, but then again I've never furnished a house in Spanish, for example, so I'd never committed to memory the word for draperies. Come to think of it, I still haven't. But there are other words that I've heard in restaurants, in stores or on the street, in many cases many times. Lacking sufficient context, I've put them in my mental list of Spanish words I should know but don't. But having seen them on the list, when I hear them the memory is jogged and after that I've got them. Neither the book, nor real life would have done the trick. But the two together... that's what was needed.

Should you try to learn a language purely by the old grammar-translation approach? Certainly not. We've better tools. But should you try to learn it solely through immersion? Not unless you've got a lot of time on your hands. I've said many times that you'll need multiple courses and methods, as well as real-life exposure, if you're really planning to learn a language. That can include traditional approaches like using grammar to break the language down. Just be forewarned: You'll have to put it back together on your own!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Not Enough Languages on the Web?

According to this Pajamas Media article, folks at the latest ICANN conference are concerned that there isn't enough linguistic variety on the web, what with English, Mandarin and Spanish speakers accounting for half of internet users. I think they're a bit off.

Visit Wikipedia: There's lots of content in lots of languages! Speaking of Wikipedia, if you take the figures in this article, there are around 1.2 billion Chinese speakers, 850 million English speakers and 400 million Spanish speakers. That's nearing 2.5 billion people. Take the larger estimate for English - 1.5 billion people - and you get 3.1 billion people. It looks like the dominant languages on the web are simply a reflection of the dominant international languages in the real world. (With Hindustani lacking broader reach because English is so prevalent as a second or third language in the places where it is spoken.) I'm frankly a lot more concerned about the things all those Chinese speakers can't say or read than about the language distribution at present.

The PJM article I link is a bit skeptical about the language planning biz, thinking these folks are barking up the wrong tree and pointing both to online translators and to online language learning options:
Why learn every language on earth when the massive computational power at our disposal can do it for us?

Okay, so even with the power of the web to provide your translations, you still want to become multilingual for your personal growth and amusement-don’t decry the Web-use it. Check out a fascinating new service called which allows the world’s poor to teach their local languages to others for a few small fee.More than any effort to dictate the wider adoption of languages on the Web, iTalki demonstrates the best of Net culture: the service may promote wider use and even preservation of local languages and dialects; it will help the world’s abject poor make a little money; it may promote better awareness and understanding of the world’s-and the Net’s - many cultures.
And once you've learned a bit of that obscure language, why not make a page of your own in it? Contribute to linguistic diversity on the web all on your own!

The article concludes with a pitch about Globish that is well-meaning, but that I think misses the point. If English standardizes on the web (and I think it will, to a degree), the model by which it happens isn't going to be Ogden's Basic, never mind something as artificial as Esperanto. It's going to be a spontaneous creation like LOLcat, only serious. And so we'll come full circle: Gutenberg's printing press fixed language. The web's going to turn it loose and let it run free to become what it becomes.