Saturday, November 21, 2009

Children with Picture Books, Adults with Facing Translations

Via languagefixation, I stumbed across this bit at HTLAL from Iverson of Iverson list fame:
Reading something in a language where you have to look up several words in each sentence feels frustrating, and doing something that makes you feel frustrated also makes you feel tired, and then it is 'hard' in my book. But I still do it in order to 'crack the code' in a new language.

If it's a matter of missing a few words here and here in order to get the meaning then it isn't too bad, and only then I would use the term "comprehensible input". And if I can read all of it without having any doubts then it isn't hard at all - even if I haven't really learnt the language or the dialect in question - but then I also wouldn't learn much from it.
(end of quote)

The idea of using bilingual texts to overcome this problem is not new, but with the advent of the internet it has become much easier to find short bilingual texts to use in intensive reading (finding transcripts/translations of texts is not quite as easy, but still better than in the evil old days).
Iverson talks about the difference between intensive reading - puzzling every word and how it works in a short text - versus extensive reading - going through longer passages for the gist. He makes the point that beginners need more intensive reading, while more advanced students need more extensive reading to maximize their exposure.

Of late, I've taken a look at texts in Old Irish, Latin and Ancient Sanskrit at Early Indo-European Online. While my Latin is so-so, for Old Irish and Ancient Sanksrit, I'm definitely at a low level. And for this, I've found the EIEOL lessons to be ideal. They're an invitation to intensive reading where the work has been done for you. To wit, first you get a passage of one sentence or three or four lines of poetry. Then you get a word by word breakdown with meaning and grammar explained. Then you get the whole text with a semi-literal translation. I've gone the next step by copying text and translation into a little notebook - my own parallel translation - then returning to the texts at a later time to see how much I can come up with on my own and how much I can piece together once I've glanced again at the translation.

When little children "read" their favorite books, they're often going on memory. The words aren't coming from "reading" but from their memory of what a grown-up said when the book was turned to that page. And yet, bit by bit, they start to make the associations. This, I think, is what's happening with my facing translation notebook. The prompt is the translation, rather than the pictures, but the point is the same, namely to start to associate chunks of words with a particular sense or meaning. Using a facing page translation for extensive reading is, of course, useful. It lets you keep moving without suddenly discovering you have no idea what's going on. For intensive reading, though, there's a different purpose: encouraging you to mentally fit together the words in the text to recapture what you've forgotten from your intensive reading.

What I've found with my re-"reading" of texts I've studied intensively is that there's another moment that ought be given more attention in language learning. We all know about the epiphany, the ah-ha moment when a language starts to fall into place. But there's also the "oh yeah" moment when something half-forgotten comes back. Much of the process of learning comes in remembering something just before you'd otherwise forget it. This is the point of the Pimsleur method with graduated interval recall, not to mention SRSs like Anki. So when something comes back to us that we were stumbling on, we ought to celebrate in the knowledge that we've strengthened our "memory muscles" through exercising them. Celebrate your "oh yeahs"!

We often think of small children as sponges, soaking up language. But if we recall the fifty-thousand times we made our parents re-re-re-re-read our favorite books to us, correcting them if they got a word wrong, it's clear that we got a lot of repetitive content that made some chunks of language so much a part of us that even twenty or thirty years later we can fill in the next line to "Green Eggs and Ham." Krashen emphasizes the importance of comprehensible input that tests our abilities. Maybe one form this input might take is difficult texts we've already worked, the struggle being to re-make tenuous connections till they become more solid. So, here's the method:

1) find a challenging text
2) analyze the hell out of it
3) find (or make) a quasi-literal translation - something designed to help you remember what's going on in the text
4) come back to the text in a day and see how much you can get on your own, how much you can get with the translation and how much sends you back to your detailed notes
5) repeat until the text is either an old friend or someone you're sick of listening to

I've found that after the fifth or sixth time through, I'm having my "oh yeah" moments before I've gotten back to the translation. And that prepares me for new "oh yeah" moments when I encounter the word again and instead of forgetting that I ever learned it, I recall where I've seen it before when I see it defined again.

This method won't be for everyone or every language. But if you're working with a difficult language (ie one with a very different grammar and vocabulary than any other that you speak), it's a great way to start feeling comfortable with the language, especially if a dearth of resources to play with enhances the value of getting the most you can out of what you have. Give it a try!

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