Friday, March 27, 2009

Grammar and Language Learning

Vincent is looking for a middle position in the question of learning with or without grammar. It goes like this:
Get the grammar rules in front of you. Read them. Organize them into a way that makes sense for you, whether in your head or otherwise. Understand them. This allows you to know what's out there and what to expect.


Once you've got the rules in your head, even if only lightly so, jump into exposure. By seeing the rules in action rather than starting from a rule and going through abstract and inane drills, you'll learn how native speakers use the rules in practice and end up sounding more natural than grammar-centric learning would leave you.
I think there's a lot to be said for this approach, and I think it's what people like Josh and I are undertaking, piecemeal. I think, though, that it's something that has to be done piecemeal. There are three reasons for this, one relating to materials and two relating to the learner.

1) When I was in grad school, we talked about the spiral syllabus. Imagine a spiral staircase going up multiple floors: You keep coming back to the same points, but at a higher level each time. Unfortunately, conventional grammars don't do this. They typically are divided into, eg, phonology, morphology, syntax with morphology broken down into nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs. The treatments can get pretty exhaustive and the learner has to figure out how deep to dive in.

2) A beginning learner will not understand the significance of what's covered in a traditionally structured grammar because of a tendency to think that what's important in the new language is what's important in his own. As a result, he will master the wrong points. For example, in learning Uzbek, the possessive endings are tremendously important because you use them with "bor" (to exist) to indicate ownership: Mashinam bor = My car is = I have a car. In French, on the other hand, possessives disappear in places we'd expect them with the indirect object in its place: Je me lave les mains = I wash myself the hands = I wash my hands.

3) A beginning learner figures out what's important by meeting up with things that make no sense and making sense of them. The two examples at the end of part two are the sort of thing that you can read about at length. But until you've actually faced them, the point about how they work is likely not to stick - it's too foreign.

I think Vincent is right that you should have a grammar handy (if you can find a good one) and that you should use it to get a preliminary idea of what you're getting into. But there's a danger in overestimating how far you'll get with the grammar before you get the exposure to understand the reality of the things that differ from your own language.

My secondary concern is with the question of production vs. comprehension. I still believe it's best to use grammar for decoding content and what you're comfortable with (or model sentences that you understand really well) for encoding. That's my hunch from years of speaking grammatically correct but unnatural French because I had more French grammar than French exposure.

One side note that will seem to slide me firmly back into the no grammar camp: I recently ran across book2. They publish books with 100 lessons consisting of simple text in your native language and simple text in the language you're learning. The sentences are designed to model grammar, but there are, ahem, no explicit grammar explanations. They suggest they are best used as supplements, and I'm inclined to agree. However, for figuring out some of the quirks of Turkish (like using "var" the same way Uzbek uses "bor") I suspect their string of examples will take you as far as many grammar explanations. In any case, after you get your grammar, you should have a look at their books if you're looking for some basic comprehensible input.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Music and Language Learning

After visiting AJATT last week, I've spent a lot of time on the Uzbek content I most enjoy - the music. You know how it goes... you get a song stuck in your head and you can't get it out. That means if you know what the song says, ta-da, language retention!

You can read a little bit about how it works over at Street-Smart Language Learning. Vincent quotes the NYT:
“The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University.
What about deliberately learning with language then? Well, most English speakers have some experience with this: the ABC song. However, there are other products out there - Rapanese, Earworms and Berlitz Rush Hour come quickly to mind - that are intended to teach basic vocabulary and conversation for foreign languages using music to make it stick. And yet there are songs you want to get out of your head. I always think back to this couplet from the cheesy Rush Hour Italian:
We have a reservation - una prenotazione/
And this is our song, la nostra canzone
And then I hear it in my mind again, and again, and again. I've had somewhat less success with Earworms, though I was using it with Mandarin and regular readers know about my love-hate relationship with that product. One thing to say for Earworms, however, is that it covers a wider variety of languages than most other programs like this. I wish they made one for Uzbek.

With Uzbek, however, the listening comes easy. It was curiosity about the music videos that prompted me to give in and make an effort at studying it even though I have absolutely no practical reason to learn it. The hard part is that while I can not only hum along but even sing along for many phrases, that doesn't mean I have any idea what they mean. Still I find that the more I listen, the more I find myself going, wait a minute, I know that word. So if you're using the music and listening approach, remember, lots and lots and lots of listening. When you were a baby you took a year of listening or so to figure out mama, dada and no! So be sure to find more than five minutes a day to listen to the language you're studying.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Steve mentioned AJATT the other day. And Josh mentioned it in a comment thread.

I hadn't been by in quite some time, so I wandered over and started reading it, in order.

I should be listening to Uzbek or Turkish instead, since even a little study would count as some sort of win. But it's also a win to reminded to focus on the small wins.

There's one underlying question: Do you want to be fluent?

If yes, do you really want it? Enough to put in the time?

If not, why not?

One big point on which I'll agree with Khatzumoto: You don't have to be a genius to be a successful learner:
Anyway, as I see it, language is not an act, nor is it a skill; it cannot be possessed. Language is a habit. You don’t “learn” a language as such, you live it. You don’t need to get “good” at language, you get used to it. You don’t become fluent at a language, you become it. And that pretty much covers it.
Working at a language school, I see so many people who are "learning" a language, and who are filled with questions "about" it so that they can learn "how" to speak it. Meanwhile, with the Pimsleur, I'm finding that if you can first repeat, then understand a sentence like "Yarin aksham beraber yemek iyelimmi?" (forgive the lousy transcription, not at a computer with a Turkish keyboard) then soon you can speak it and before long you don't even have to think to understand or produce it.

Think of the child pointing and going, "Doggy!" She's not thinking, "a quadruped, canine in nature, as distinct from a cat, also a quadruped, but feline in nature, for reasons that native speakers of English may not know even though they would never mistake a cat for a dog..." She's just identifying a known object by the cutesy name her parents indicated for it while baby-talking to her. By the time she's six, there's virtually no chance that she'll confuse a dog for a cat even though it's highly unlikely that anyone will sit her down and give an explanation beyond the fact that cats have whiskers and while dogs do too, it's different. (Why?)

Language is a funny thing. Anyone can learn it if they put in the time. And with the exception of select savants (curse them all!), those who don't can't.

Which is why I'm going to end this post and look for some Uzbek or Turkish to read or listen to. If you want to learn a language, this might be a good thing for you to do to. If you'd rather think about learning a language, though, you can follow my lead and go visit Khatzumoto for some thoughts and some inspiration to just do it.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

More Fun with Uzbek and Turkish

On January 1st, I wrote:
I set the intention to regularly use and rebuild my French toward regaining fluency.

I set the intention to regularly study Spanish and build toward conversational competence.

I set the intention to regularly study Italian and rebuild toward basic conversational competence.

I set the intention to rebuild and regain basic skills in spoken Mandarin.

Two weeks from now, I will be starting a class at the local Alliance Française, so there's some hope for number one. As far as studying Italian and Spanish, I've done some Pimsleur lessons off and on and listened to enough music not to lose them. As for Mandarin, as I remarked in my interview with the Aspiring Polyglot:
I’m actively avoiding studying Mandarin, though I’ll get back to it eventually.
I've had a love-hate relationship with Mandarin for a long time: If I spend enough time away, something happens that makes me wish I knew more and I get back to it for a while. Right now is one of the away periods.

What I have been doing, and enjoying greatly, is playing with the Turkic languages. And with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan back in the news (regarding where the U.S. will stage operations into Afghanistan), it seems like a good time to be interested in the Turkic languages.

To read about Central Asia is to experience a mix of horror and fascination. The famous names, like Genghis Khan, do not generally set one singing Kumbayah. The most hopeful Western reference I have is Coleridge:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree...
But amidst all the violence, you've got the famous bazaars, the Silk Road and the gorgeous mosques:
Boasting a different mosque for every day of the year, drawing the finest minds of the East with its cultural and commercial vitality, the city well deserved the title Bukhara the Holy. Everywhere else, it was said, light shone down from heaven; in Bukhara the light shone up. (MacLeod and Mayhew, Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand, p. 11)
Of late, I've been reading about Uzbekistan (text cited above), as well as working with a couple Uzbek textbooks. And I've been working through Pimsleur Conversational Turkish - just finished lesson 11.

The Turkic languages are fun. It's like building with Legos. You take a word like "istemiyorum" - I don't want - and you can take it apart, see the different elements, and put them back together. Of course, you have to get pieces that fit together correctly, that is you have to follow the rules of vowel harmony and adjust a few consonants here and there. But there's a certain logic to it. It really seems like it ought to be a language of engineers, rather than the nomadic herders and ruthless warriors that it evokes.

What's been fun with the Pimsleur lessons is seeing how much Turkish goes together like Uzbek and seeing how ingeniously the Pimsleur folks have introduced the different verbal constructions of Turkish.

Coming up: More adventures with the Turkic languages, and a new project.