Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fun with Turkish - and with listening

I took a few days off this week and thought it would be fun to do something different with them. I just wasn't sure what. Then I noticed a copy of One Day Turkish that I'd picked up but not listened to.

One Day Turkish follows the format of Elisabeth Smith's other One Day programs, though the teacher is a different person. The premise is that a British tourist - always Andy Johnson - is going on holiday and a bit nervous because he doesn't know the language and is lousy at languages. Then his seat mate offers to teach him a few key words - 50 - and a few simple sentences so that he'll be able to communicate. It's a bit contrived, but a fair measure more engaging than listening to someone read lists. I listened to One Day Turkish twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Of course, I already knew some Turkish so it was mostly review. At least, it was review as far as my visual memory was concerned: I knew what those words looked like. However, I've never had much of an ear for Turkish, and this program helped with that.

The next day, I popped in Pimsleur Turkish, Lesson 1. That was pretty easy, so I did the first 4 lessons that day, and lesson 5 the next. Normally, you're supposed to do one lesson a day, but what I found was that since I had a little background, continuing to listen just kept the conversation going. Rather than getting overwhelmed with things to remember, I stayed in the groove and coming up with the review vocabulary from lesson to lesson came easily. That was a change, as I discuss below.

I also popped in Berlitz Turkish in 60 minutes for the first couple tracks, and found that I knew most of what was there and had little trouble remembering the few new phrases (although the tracks I listened to were for greetings and simple questions, so it was mostly redundant.

* * *

There are two things I'd point out. First of all, coming back to what I've said about "really spaced repetition," when you come back to a language or only study it intermittently, you may be surprised by how much you actually pick up and remember, just as long as you lay in some good structures and vocabulary and come back before you've completely forgotten it.

Second of all, there's a lot of value in extended listening. I remember the first time I popped in the Pimsleur Turkish CD, some months ago. Even though I'd started to get comfortable picking out the elements in Uzbek "words," it was not so with Turkish! With a sentence like "Türkçe biliyor musunuz?" everything ran together. This was especially the case with keeping questions and negatives straight:

biliyor sunuz - you know
biliyor musunuz - do you know?
bilmiyor sunuz - you don't know

I'd always get confused about which "m" syllable did what where. In this case, actually, I think I was helped by doing four Pimsleur lessons at once: the flow of the different words finally started to sink in subconsciously and I was no longer paying attention to how or where the syllables went together, just which marker was there.

While I love Pimsleur, I've had issues with those languages that slap together a bunch of unfamiliar sounds or sound combinations (to the Anglophone ear). I'm not sure to what extent listening to an Anglophone botch Turkish (Andy Johnson in the One Day program) helped, but I think there's something worth trying in here: If you can't make out what's going on with the audio for a language program you're using, don't worry about it. Just keep listening to repetitive content and you'll start to pick out patterns, even if you have no idea what any of them mean yet. Then you can go back and redo the lessons once your ear is okay with the new sounds you've got to deal with.

This goes hand in hand, by the way, with a few posts about the value of listening from other bloggers. Here are a few links from the past couple weeks:
Yellow Experiment
The Linguist

Note that Yellow Experiment and Omniglot both point to this article. Key point for the self-taught:
"Teachers should recognise the importance of extensive aural exposure to a language. One hour a day of studying French text in a classroom is not enough—but an extra hour listening to it on the iPod would make a huge difference," Dr Sulzberger says.

"Language is a skill, it's not like learning a fact. If you want to be a weight lifter, you’ve got to develop the muscle - you can't learn weightlifting from a book. To learn a language you have to grow the appropriate brain tissue, and you do this by lots of listening—songs and movies are great!"

So, as I found with Turkish, even listening without understanding is preparation for listening with preparation. Not progressing in your listening? Don't worry. It's not lack of progress: It's pattern recognition development!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Figuring out language from phrasebooks: Pashto

A while back, I wrote about using sentences from phrasebooks to piece together an informal understanding of grammar, and offered a few examples from Uzbek. Of course, since I already knew a fair amount about Uzbek, it came relatively easily. So today, I pulled out Accent on Afghanistan: Pashto to see how it would work with a language I don’t know much of anything about.

What I am doing here is simply taking phrases where I see common elements in both the Pashto transliteration and the English translation. Using this will not unravel all the mysteries of Pashto, but it will clear up one or two details and reveal some tricks to make the learner’s task easier:

1. mo peh khair and staasay… ham peh khair
Good morning: Sahaar mo peh khair
in reply: Staasay sahaar ham peh khair
Good evening: Maakhaam mo peh khair
in reply: Staasay maakhaam ham peh khair
Good night: Shpa mo peh khair
in reply: Staasay shpa ham peh khair

So, to form a greeting, you tack “mo peh khair” on after the time of day. To form the reply, you do “staasay… time of day… ham peh khair.”

Note that welcome is “Peh khair raaghlay.” It doesn’t follow our rule, but it still has “peh khair” so you can still keep track of it as a greeting.

2. zeh… yum.
I am fine: Zeh kheh yum.
I am sorry: Zeh mutaasif yum.
I am ready: Zeh tayaar yum.
I am from: Zeh yum de…

So, “I am” is “zeh yum” but adjectives go between the “zeh” and the “yum.”

3. Daa… dai.
It is good: Daa kheh dai.
It is bad: Daa kharaab dai.
It is expensive: Daa Graan dai.
It is expensive: Daa Qeematah dai.

So, “It is” is “Daa… dai.”

4. …num…dai
What is your name?: Sta num tseh dai?
My name is…: Zmaa numdai.

It looks like you ask, “Your name what is?” and the answer is “My name [name] is.” If so, then “sta” is “your,” “zmaa” is “my” and “tseh” is “what”. Of course, some of this is conjecture, so you’d need to look for other phrases that support the conclusions you’ve drawn. But if you flip to card 21, you find that “tseh dai” is “what is it?” and there you go.

On the phrase cards I’m drawing from, there are roughly 40 phrases. As you can see, just by doing comparison and without a dictionary or grammar, it was possible to find a structure for 16 of them. What’s more, it was possible to identify around four basic structures, two of which (zeh… yum; …dai) seem to have broad potential application.

Does this mean you need never study grammar? Or that you can write your own grammar? Probably not, unless you’ve got a lot of time – and a lot of trust that the phrasebook authors got everything right. But exercises like this help you spot patterns to the language that your textbooks will take chapter upon chapter to get to – if they cover them at all. This will help you remember – both the phrases and the structures! –, and it will make it so that when you’re learning formally, you’re merely putting a formal structure under something you already know, the way you learned grammar for your native language.

Actually, as I think about it, something that would be great is a grammar guide for a language that eschews a systematic presentation of the language, instead going through a phrasebook, section by section, and explaining the grammar underlying each phrase. That way, you could learn the structures you need for everyday survival language and build from there.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Latin Immersion

The other day, in a comment at Aspiring Polyglot, Unzum of SoYouWantToLearnALanguage, noted some under-appreciated podcasts. One of them was the Latinum podcast. I'd seen this podcast listed at Unzum's site before, but hadn't gone to visit.

What a wealth of stuff! The core of the Latinum podcasts is an audio version of a Latin textbook by Adler designed to teach conversational Latin. In addition, there are Latin stories, poems, etc. Yes, the site can be a bit tricky to navigate, and can run a little slow sometimes. But it's worth the trouble for the gems to be found.

The creator of Latinum says you need 2 hours a day for 3 years - at a minimum! - to become fluent in Latin. That could be a bit discouraging unless there is some really important long term reason for you to speak Latin fluently. Of course, there is one reason to speak Latin fluently - so that you can read the classics with a Roman ear. Learning enough Latin to decipher Ovid and Vergil may open you up to the greatness of their craft and the versatility of Latin, but it won't move you. It's more like understanding the humor of a joke after it's been explained to you. You may enjoy it and even retell it for its cleverness, but your experience of it won't include the shock of spontaneous discovery.

One of the features of the podcasts is lessons where Latin phrases are introduced interspersed with either French or German translation. It's a bit odd, but a nice brushup for a polyglot. What's best, however, is that this program, by extended listening, causes Latin to seep into your brain. The first lesson includes a lot of question forms. While I've looked at Latin off and on for years, I never really got the hang of things like tacking a "ne" on the verb to form a question. After 45 minutes listening, the "habesne"s and "estne"s come almost as easily as tossing est-ce que onto the front of a question in French.

If you're serious about knowing Latin, not just knowing about it, be sure to check this out.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Learning Without Grammar?

Ramses has a nice post on language learning without grammar. He makes a very important point:
It’s just a pity to see that many people in the pro-grammar and anti-grammar camp just focus on LEARN grammar or DON’T LEARN grammar, and don’t come up with alternatives.
Indeed, it sometimes seems like some people make a fetish of not learning or teaching grammar, as though how you learn a language is more important than whether you learn it.

I personally favor the use of grammar for decoding, but am more reluctant to use it for encoding. That is, it's good to find out what's going on with a language when you're getting frustrated trying to "just take it in." But the more I play with Assimil programs, phrasebooks and Pimsleur, the more convinced I am that the way you master grammatical patterns is to say a lot of sentences the right way and let your brain do the grammar processing based on habits formed rather than through deliberate conscious processing.

One of the hard parts with learning grammar without explicit study is getting enough exposure to those different sentences. It's easy to memorize a table with six endings. Maybe easier than finding time to do enough reading to be exposed to the same verb form in fifty contexts a hundred times. One of my suggestions would be to learn whole phrases (with Anki or flashcards) from phrase books, not just individual words, or even the kinds of sentences you find in beginning grammar books. Ramses has some other ideas, starting with letting go of the idea that, eg, sé and saben are two forms of the same word, and learning them individually since your brain is going to need them for different things in different circumstances. Check out his post for more, including a comment from Thomas of Babelhut about how letting go of grammar makes grammatically complex languages like Pali easier.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Succeeding with Goals

Note: I was interviewed via e-mail the other day by the Aspiring Polyglot. You can find that here. You can find lots of other great stuff including more interviews by visiting her site, linked by name and in the sidebar.

I've been digging into hypnosis and NLP stuff again and ran across the rules for a well-formed goal. I'm drawing from Richard Bandler's Guide to TRANCEformation, which looks at hypnosis, NLP, therapy and self-improvement and how the language we use shapes our approaches to life for good and for ill. In NLP, one sets goals to achieve a "well-formed outcome" because if your goals don't make sense, not only are you unlikely to achieve them but you may well regret it if you do. Thinking about a well-formed outcome also occasions thoughts about a what a well-thought plan for learning a language should take into account. Below are Bandler's rules (p. 62) for defining a well-formed outcome in bold and my thoughts about application to language learning in italics.

"1. Stated in positives"

Language learners tend to have positive goals anyway. Even if your problem is not studying enough, you're more likely to set a goal like "I will study more" (positive) rather than "I will not fail to study as much" (negative). It's not like dieting where you vow that "I will eat less" and your subconscious identifies the core of the goal to be "I eat." However, there is a place where language learners can shift easily to the negative goal: error correction. Don't tell yourself that you need to stop making a certain mistake. Instead, identify the right form and tell yourself that the new way is what you will do from now on.

"2. Initiated and maintained by the individual"

If a person decides to quit smoking because his or her partner is complaining, the chances of success are limited. Success comes when you make a decision to make something happen. So make sure you're setting short-, mid- and long-term goals based on what you want to achieve and that you have your own means of gauging whether you're sticking to it. Use that book on goal-setting or that website (including this one) to get ideas but make sure your plans are your own.

"3. Ecological"

Will achieving your outcome have a negative impact on other aspects of your life? What about the process of achieving your goal? If you want to be a polygot - or even fluent in just one other language - the people around you are going to have to put up with you carrying around flashcards, muttering strange things, buying books and getting distracted because you're not thinking in English at the moment. Fair enough. But asking them to move with you to Vanuatu so you can perfect your Bislama may be pushing things too far. Try to find a balance where your language studies and the rest of your life complement each other, not conflict with each other.

4. Testable in experience

What will achieving your goal look like? Feel like? And since we're talking about language, what will it sound like? You're not learning for a chart or a checklist. You're learning for you. So make sure you've got a real sense of what success means to you. And if your results aren't resonating with you, consider moving in a new direction.

I think it's especially important to consider the "ecological" and the "testable" components. A great study plan is not a great study plan if you don't have time both to implement it and to get to work on time. Likewise, if every box is checked on the goal list but you don't feel good about your progress, you need to make sure you're setting goals that are meaningful, not just measurable.

For lots more on how people think and act, and why it works out better some times than others, check out Richard Bandler's Guide to TRANCEformation.