Friday, May 29, 2009

Michel Thomas Portuguese/Bilinguals & L3s

Foreign Language Blog has a post on whether bilinguals learn new languages more easily. Suggests the FLD, it's probably easiest for people who have learned their second language when they're old enough to have learned the adult way, not by soaking them up as kids. Certainly, this is on target:
As Dr. Marian states, the facility of L3 learning by bilinguals is often attributed to natural aptitude towards language learning, but it’s much more attributable to the greater linguistic awareness enjoyed by bilinguals. Simply put, they have more resources (phonetically, grammatically, etc.) to pull from when learning the new language. I’ve always told people that after about 3 languages, new ones become progressively easier…
Learning your second language is a challenge because it's going to seem to you like language, in general, should work the way your language works. When you've got a good handle on a second language, you know a fair amount about the pitfalls and stumbles of language learning, so you know more about what to do with your next efforts.


The other day, I picked up Michel Thomas Portuguese. I listened to disc 1 last week and to discs 2-4 today. This is the first Romance language program from Michel Thomas not by Michel Thomas. It's clear, however, that Virginia Catmur has a handle on the Method and how to apply it to another Romance language. This is the best of the post-Michel Michel Thomas programs that I've encountered (I've also used the Arabic and Mandarin). One caveat: It's European Portuguese. That said, if you're looking for a foundation course in Portuguese, the 8-disc set looks like a good investment.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Confessions Wordled

Wordle: Confessions of a Language Addict

Visit to make one of your own.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Language Learning and Translation

I had a glance at Eco's Experiences in Translation today. He talks about the problems of translation and the difference between literal translation and capturing in another language what the author was trying to convey. He posits an artificial language capable of expressing any idea. The beauty of such a language would be that you could test your translation by translating both your translated sentence and the original into this third language. If they translated the same, you'd know you had a good translation.

Unfortunately, I don't think it's possible. Eco, himself, in his Open Work, talked about writing as an interaction between text and reader and, in my experience, part of what make fiction - and even factual narrative - work is that the reader brings enough of himself to the text. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and yet in a single sentence we can create an image and lay the foundations for an imagined world. Take, since it is handy, the opening of Borges' "The Shape of the Sword":
A spiteful scar crossed his face: an ash-colored and nearly perfect arc that creased his temple at one tip and his cheek at the other.
You'll note, of course, that this passage is translated from Borges' Spanish. But two things stand out for me: 1) Twenty-five words are more than enough for you form a picture of this guy. 2) Whether in English or Spanish, the picture you're going to get has less to do with these 25 words than with your own ideas about what sort of person has a scar like this. So a perfect translation, in a sense, would not cause someone from Brooklyn to form the same mental image as someone from Buenos Aires. Rather, it would cause the guy from Brooklyn to get exactly the same image from the English that he would have formed were he to have lived an identical life except for speaking Spanish as his native language. (Which is already a paradox.)

In learning a foreign language, there's an urge to translate, as though it's only in getting something back into your own tongue that you know that you really understood it. In the end, however, it doesn't work that way. What you really need to get to is a place where those 25 words give you your own image based on your own experience of living life through the language.

The other day, Josh was writing about global understanding vs. individual words. I sympathize, because I often find, especially with Spanish and Italian, that I get the gist but that I could neither translate nor diagram a given sentence from a passage which I understood globally. I think long term fluency requires that you be able to dissect a passage about as well as a native speaker could. But I'm not sure whether this is something to be consciously attempted (though Lord knows it's what I had to do for French in grad school) or something you just need to let yourself develop through long-term exposure or at least wait to develop until you can use the same tools native speakers use. I do think there is a question you can use, though, to make the decision for yourself:

Do you want to get that individual word understanding because its lack is actively impeding your ability to use the language, or because at some level you are trying to prop up your confidence of understanding through subconsciously translating? If you're really out of your depth with a text in another language, you may well need to use supporting tools to make sure you actually understood. Or you may need to work on simpler texts first. But if you understand what's going on at the end of a text, just not enough to re-create it yourself yet, what you probably need is more exposure to comprehensible input, either with new texts or by running through the same texts until their patterns echo familiarly in your mind, whether you could diagram them or not.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Random Notes: Made-Up Languages

The Foreign Language Doctor was writing about made-up languages the other day. I, myself, am usually skeptical of made-up languages. But then I came across this:
Psalm 23

1 Ceiling Cat iz mai sheprd (which is funni if u knowz teh joek about herdin catz LOL.)
He givz me evrithin I need.

2 He letz me sleeps in teh sunni spot
an haz liek nice waterz r ovar thar.

3 He makez mai soul happi
an maeks sure I go teh riet wai for him. Liek thru teh cat flap insted of out teh opin windo LOL.

4 I iz in teh valli of dogz, fearin no pooch,
bcz Ceiling Cat iz besied me rubbin' mah ears, an it maek me so kumfy.

5 He letz me sit at teh taebl evn when peepl who duzint liek me iz watchn.
He givz me a flea baff an so much gooshy fud it runz out of mai bowl LOL.

6 Niec things an luck wil chase me evrydai
an I wil liv in teh Ceiling Cats houz forevr.

Okay, actually it's a made-up dialect of English. Still, if I were to aspire to true fluency in a made-up, um, idiom, I think LOLcat's high on my list of choices.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Problem of Memorization and the Utility of Forgetting

Concerning culture as a process, one would say that it means learning a great many things and then forgetting them; and the forgetting is as necessary as the learning. Diligent as one must be in learning, one must be as diligent in forgetting; otherwise the process is one of pedantry, not culture. The trouble with the pedant is not that be has learned too much, for one can never do that, but that he has not forgotten enough. In the view of culture, the human spirit is somewhat like the old fashioned hectograph which had to be laid aside for a day or so after each use, to let the surface impression sink down into the gelatine pad. The pedant's learning remains too long on the surface of his mind; it confuses and distorts succeeding impressions, thus aiding him only to give himself a conventional account of things, rather than leaving his consciousness free to penetrate as close as possible to their reality, and to see them as they actually are. [my italics]
- Albert Jay Nock

What Nock has to say about culture applies in great measure to language learning. When you know, say, the rules for the subjunctive in French, you've learned a lot. But it's only when you use the subjunctive without thinking about it or even realizing you've done it that you've actually learned French (as opposed to knowing about French).

The other day, I wrote about memorization. This is the pedant's part. The next step is forgetting - i.e., knowing so naturally that you needn't use your knowledge consciously.

Whether you learn words or phrases, whether you learn with an SRS, through mnemonics or through, as I put it, brute force, the prime value in learning "language items" is as a crutch so that you can get through real-life language more easily, that is, expand the range of comprehensible input at a fast enough pace that you can more easily build that critical mass of knowledge that enables you to process language automatically rather than consciously.

How do you apply memorization, then? Well, if you have a Teach Yourself course or Routledge Colloquial, you can learn all the vocabulary. Then, when you read the dialogs instead of flipping back and forth to the glossary, you'll be able to focus on what the words are doing. If you're working through newspaper articles, you can skim for vocabulary you don't know, then learn it before reading so that the experience will be more natural. If you like to learn with music, you can find the lyrics for a song and memorize any words you don't know so that you'll know what you're listening for the next time you hear it.

The one key thing to understand is that memorization, however you approach it, is not language learning per se. It's the conscious part of learning that carries you through between ignorance of a language and the ability to speak it - to use it unconsciously. If you memorize words you aren't going to be using, you'll lose them. But if you memorize words or phrases that you're likely to encounter in your interactions with the language you're learning, then you're doing something even better than memorizing - you're getting ready to forget!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What if the key to memorization is... memorization?

Yes, it's yet another Renshaw post. I haven't gotten around to doing a full 52-card pack, but I've discovered that by simply stating the number in the sequence and the name of the card, I can learn half a deck (26 cards) in ten to fifteen minutes. It seems to stick in my head as a sort of poem. The first two or three times, I may even fail to remember the first card as I start the next run through. But by the fifth or sixth time through I know half the cards and by the tenth time, I'm mostly calling cards before I lay them down.

I've been working through language flashcards in a similar manner: I read the English silently, pronounce the word out loud twice and move on to the next. I just keep going through the items until I'm coming up with answers before I check. In a way, it lines up with Charles Berlitz' assertion that you need to see/hear/use a word however many times before it sticks. Having a deck and flipping through it is a quick way to get those exposures.

The most important thing I've noticed with both the deck of cards and the flash cards is the importance of relaxing and not worrying about whether you're actually doing anything. I've found that when I try to memorize, try to notice a pattern, try to remember a sequence... try to do just about anything... it takes longer. The key is to keep going through your items while giving an answer if you know it and checking the answer if you don't - until you've got it. By having 20+ cards or 20+ language items, you've got enough space between reviews that your brain has to have picked up the information for you to have it.

One thing Renshaw mentioned, contrary to a lot of memory people, is that mnemonics can actually mess you up. They make you spend time processing rather than just having the answer. If a mnemonic helps and comes naturally, I suppose there's nothing wrong with using it because it will fall away when your memory is sure. But there could be a danger in trying to come up with a mnemonic for every item you're learning - you'll have too many associations and will get them confused if they're too forced. At least this has been my experience since I started playing with this.

They used to say that people really only used ten percent of the brain, and imagine what you could do if you could use the whole thing. I believe that's been shown to be a canard. That said, most people have the potential to learn or do more than they realize if they let go of preconceptions of their limitations and just do it. Indeed, some have suggested that memory programs work less because of their science than because they make people focus on the power of the device instead of their own, self-imposed limitations. (See this from Victoria on the importance of believing you can.) Either way, if it works, it works.

So, if you want to ramp up your vocabulary, or want to get comfortable with something like a sentence pattern that you can't quite get the hang of, when all else fails try brute force: keep working through the wordlists or running through the sample sentences until you know them so well that they bore you to tears. You'll find you reach this point sooner than you'd ever expect, just so long as you relax about knowing and just keep working through to you realize you do.

Monday, May 11, 2009

More on Memory and on Thinking

Earlier, I wrote about Dr. Samuel Renshaw, who researched how we use our senses but stumbled into some interesting things about memory and learning along the way. That essay, found here, is part of a truly bizarre site, Alexei Panshin’s The Abyss of Wonder. Panshin is the author of Heinlein in Dimension, among other things, which is why his site has both an essay on Renshaw and Heinlein and, as a follow-up, the article about Renshaw in particular.

Part of language learning is, well, learning language. But another part is getting your brain around different ways of thinking about and approaching the world. For some people, it can be helpful to try out a whole lot of wacky ideas as a way of staying in mental form for the quirks you encounter in your language studies. If you are or have a sense that you might be one of those people, check out the site.Also, for a more skeptical approach to Renshaw and a more detailed look at Heinlein’s ideas about language, check out “Tenser,” said the Tensor.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Renshaw and Learning Breakthroughs

Reading Robert Heinlein's Gulf, I came across a reference to Samuel Renshaw. He's also mentioned in Stranger in a Strange Land. Renshaw was a psychologist who specialized in how we process sensory information. His biggest success was a program to help Navy soldiers identify enemy aircraft more quickly by flashing images of them on a screen and drilling them on them until they could identify them in as little as 1/100th of a second. He did other things with these flash images, but his aim wasn't speed learning, per se. It was getting people to pay attention better and faster so they could learn and understand better. Some of his stuff got applied to things like speed reading. Other of his ideas paved the way for better quality control for, get this, whiskey!

There's a nice article about Renshaw here. It's not directly applicable to language learning (though Heinlein's stories tended to use his work for speedlearning including the made-up SpeedTalk. Anyway, the other day I noted that the next breakthroughs in language learning would likely come not from language people but from learning specialists. And then I find this article which talks about, among other things, how to do some memory tricks through the astonishing trick of simply memorizing and forgetting about all those silly memory tricks.

A propos of that article from the other day, William had a nice comment including the following:
You point to books and say 'they haven't changed!' but that's the same as pointing to the same old needle and saying 'it doesn't work any different!' The needle had to be changed to get the job done, and books probably do, too. By that, I mean that a static bunch of information is nice as a reference, but as a learning tool, it's vastly inferior to truly interactive learning devices.
I think he's right, but it will be curious to see whether delivery or content will provide the biggest breakthroughs. That is, if we can figure out how to learn faster, we'll still have to figure out what to learn in order to have our brains turn language data into actual language. My thinking on this is still a touch muddled (in case you didn't pick up on that already). More thoughts to come.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Who Let the Cat out of the Bag?

Today we have a guest post from Katie Wilson, who can be found at Be sure to pay her a visit at her site for lots of great information about all the learning resources you can find online.

Idioms have become a way of life for many languages, but it is transcribing each culture’s various phrases that can be tricky to an inspiring polyglot. For example, languages that are so closely related to our own are understandably going to be easier to decipher. There is a reason “Vini, Vidi, Vici” is transferrable to our own English language because of our Latin roots. But it is translating idioms such as “don’t look a gift horse in a mouth” wherein you run into problems. Even when you manage to accurately translate the statement, the hidden meaning gets lost in translation. This has been the bane of language teachers for decades when attempting to get students to no longer translate word by word, but sentence by sentence, in order to achieve the greater meaning.

Idioms have become so ingrained in society today that it is difficult to have a conversation without one slipping out. For someone who is new to the language, whatever language it may be, this is bound to become confusing when attempting to pick up various dialects. In order to accurately translate the meaning of the idiom, many times the language has to be tweaked and different words are chosen to be translated. Translations need to be carefully determined based on the specific language’s customs and social patterns, in order to gain the full picture of the idiom. “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” is another classic American idiom that would become completely lost in translation unless properly paralleled in the new language.

Idioms by definition are figurative expressions that cannot be translated literally, which causes many problems for translators and new language-learners alike. Many phrases no longer seem like idioms anymore because of their assimilation into pop culture, but are still considered to be as such when translated into another language. For example, Pepsi’s “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated in China as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. These slight changes in the translation have vast implications on a global scale. Many direct translations have obscene and vulgar meanings in different countries, which makes it all the more worthwhile to intensely study a language before visiting a country. Idioms in general can be found to have very amusing connotations and are part of the “soul” structure of a given language and culture, giving each its own playful side. Who can imagine everyday life in America without “last but not least!” or to “pay an arm and a leg for”? They have become so infused into our culture that it would be difficult to go through life without such expressions now.

This post was contributed by Katie Wilson, who writes about the top universities online. She welcomes your feedback at KatieWilson06 at

Sewing Machines and Language Learning

Isn't foreign language learning due for a conceptual leap?

We live in a marvelous age: When I dial Fed-Ex, the computer converses with me easily about my shipping needs. An off-the-shelf Bluetooth earpiece/microphone understands "Call Home" the first time you attach it to your mobile. If your cholesterol is too high, they've got a drug for that. And don't even get me started on the internet and what it's wrought... And yet, if you look at a language learning book from 40 years ago and compare to what's on the shelves, there's often not a lot of difference. Sure, the book is cheap and comes with a CD instead of being extremely expensive and coming with a phonograph record. But there haven't been that many conceptual leaps forward from the old Language/30 dual rep cassette packs. There are two exceptions that come to mind: Michel Thomas and Pimsleur. Thomas apparently had a theory about how to teach just about anything and chose language to demonstrate it. And Pimsleur had a theory about memory and language that his programs implement (making him the audio forerunner of the SRS). What's interesting is that both Thomas and Pimsleur were thinking less about language and more about how we learn, and so their programs escape what seems to hold back many programs: They don't simply describe (or, like Rosetta Stone, merely present quasi-structured content) and rely on the learner to assimilate the teaching. They're actively engaged in making learning happen.

I think Thomas and Pimsleur are/were on to something, but I think we're going to find ways to take it further. I'm not sure what these will be, or when they will come, but there's one thing I'm fairly sure of: It's going to be psychologists and learning specialists, not language teachers, that show the way. Because what we need to get started in a language is not more knowledge, but a faster, more efficient way of getting the knack for a language's patterns as a native speaker (unconsciously) understands them.

Conceptual Leaps in Understanding - Recent Experiences

In my Uzbek, I recently got bored with continued efforts at mastering the content of the DLI phrasebook. So I've done two things lately: 1) skimmed a late 1800s grammar of Uighur and 2) started flipping through the Lonely Planet Central Asia phrasebook. I noticed two things: First of all, while I would have no hope of memorizing all the tables in the 1800s grammar, I had no trouble making sense of the more common paradigms with a couple hundred phrases memorized, many of whose patterns were familiar to me but not completely understood. Second, going back to the LP phrasebook sentence patterns started leaping off the page at me and even when I didn't understand why a particular sentence was put together a certain way I could certainly see the constituent elements. What I'm describing, of course, is nothing novel. It's what happens to any language learner at different points along his/her progression in learning. The question is: How do we speed it up?

Here comes the sewing machine!

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, a law-blog, there have recently been a series of guest posts about, of all things, the sewing machine. In a nutshell, the sewing machine is a pretty mundane thing today, but at the time of its creation there were two big issues that came into play: 1) A new conception of what sewing is was needed in order to mechanize it. 2) A way was needed to recompense inventors from multiple teams through patents and licensing without causing invention and improvement to come to a halt because the possibility of infringement limited new inventors' wiggle room for improving on an as-yet imperfect idea.

Here's the conceptual part:
The fundamental problem with these many independent inventions of the eye-pointed needle was primarily conceptual, not mechanical. The early efforts at using machines for sewing attempted to replicate the motions of the human hand in sewing fabric, i.e., driving a needle with a thread through a piece of fabric and then pulling the same needle back through to the other side of the fabric. In 1804, for instance, Thomas Stone and James Henderson received a French patent for a sewing machine that replicated hand-sewing motions by using mechanical pincers. Unsurprisingly, their machine was unsuccessful and saw only “some limited use.” As with the invention of the typewriter in the late nineteenth century, sewing-machine inventors needed to make a conceptual break between human-hand motion and mechanical motion.
There's a key point here for language learners. Some language learning methods like Berlitz and Rosetta Stone try to provide a faster, better organized way of learning a new language the way you learned your first one. Pimsleur and Michel Thomas are more like a 19th century sewing machine: You've still got thread put through cloth by a needle (vocabulary used in sentences shaped by grammatical patterns) but the process for learning and using the material is different from the way people learn a language "naturally," just as a sewing machine does not in fact replicate hand motions. Not yet clear: As we learn more about how people learn and conceptualize language, will we ultimately discover that we need something closer to a natural method? Or something even more "unnatural"?

Invention, Refinement and Ownership
There's a second element here, and it's as big a concern as making a conceptual leap from our traditional understanding of language learning should such a leap appear to be needed or useful: Today we have Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, Tell Me More, Assimil, Berlitz and more. They're all companies with trademarks, licensing arrangements and patents. But they're also companies with a wealth of experience creating language content. So, if the big breakthrough comes, do we leave all these companies, their talent and their experience behind while one company sits on the secret for learning languages well and quickly but can only bring out one or two language programs a year? What if the breakthrough is found at a public university? We have the language materials we have, both good and poor, for two reasons: 1) Language is an intriguing thing that draws people into studying it, hence university programs. 2) Language is big business.

I have a feeling that with advances in technology for studying the brain, plus an internet that lets people keep track of great amounts of information on arcane subjects, we're headed for some breakthroughs in learning in general and language learning in particular. It will be curious to see how things unfold when it's time to bring these to market.

A final note: Humanity worked out a way to stitch together clothes a hundred times faster than before once we stopped focusing on how we had sewn before and looked instead at what we were trying to achieve with sewing. So if in your own learning you stumble across an approach that seems bizarre but really works for you, keep at it and ask your friends to see if it works for them. And then, if you can, patent it!