Friday, July 31, 2009

Contest: Congratus to the Linguist

The Lexiophiles contest is over and, well, this was not one of the top 100 blogs. But Steve, the Linguist, won in the Language Learning category, so at least I voted for one of the winners. Congratulations to Steve!

And let me echo one of Steve's sentiments:
I am glad for the whole community of bloggers who talk about their own enthusiasm for language and their own ways of learning and getting into different languages. We are a community, and so are all of you who follow us.
Keep reading - anything and everything that keeps you motivated and learning. And if you've been blogging, keep blogging. Everyone has something to share.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A week of puttering about

It has been a week of puttering about, language wise. I've review a couple Pimsleur lessons for Farsi and read a dialog or two. I've worked through a bit of Uzbek, and translated a few phrases (quite probably incorrectly) for my amusement. And I've flipped through some of the Speak in a Week Verb Book for Italian. I've also skimmed bits of the poorly reviewed Tojik phrasebook from Hippocrene (which seems to me no better nor worse than most of Hippocrene's offerings,). Most of all, though, I've enjoyed listening to music, be it in French or Spanish or Italian or Uzbek or Turkish, and enjoyed life in a world where thanks to the internet you can find and find out about lots of other cultures. And I've enjoyed being plugged in to them to one degree or another - for French, I listen almost without paying attention; for Uzbek I stop every so often to say, "I know that word" or, better, "I knew four words in that last phrase!"

I'll give Steve the Linguist (link at right) his due here: We know that comprehension proceeds production and his readers know how obstinately he insists on the point. I think this is what I've found for the Central Asian languages. Thanks to Pimsleur, I can go through at least some rote social stuff in Turkish and Farsi. But absent resources like these for the languages of Central Asia proper, it's a little bit harder to put in 30 minutes and expect a voice to earnestly inform you that "now you do speak a little Farsi" (Anyone who's done a Pimsleur course will get the reference; no one else will). If I met a speaker of Uzbek, I think I could do the pleasantries at this point and even have a short conversation as long as it was about nothing of importance. For the other Central Asian languages, between Turkish, Uzbek and Farsi a lot looks familiar, but I don't think that put on the spot I'd do more than say hi, offer a cup of tea and apologize that I don't speak the language better. Still, they're coming. It's been fun looking at Tajik because it's evidently Persian and yet a lot of the vocabulary is familiar from Uzbek due to the cross-borrowings between the Turkic and Persian families and their borrowing from Arabic.

Anyway, this week's object lesson is that if you don't have anything useful to do, you should do it anyway! Over time, exposure to your language or languages gives your brain enough material to play with that it starts doing things with it even if you haven't been hitting the books as hard as you might. In other words, if you feel like you should have done more, let it go and view what you have done as letting things settle - think concrete setting or the base coat of paint drying - so that you'll be ready for the next phase.


Tomorrow (the 27th), the Lexiophiles contest runs out. Whether you want to vote, or just have a look at all the language blogs out there and all they have to offer, you can go and see who's nominated. Here's the main page. You'll find this blog, and lots of other great blogs, under Language Learning. And in case you're wondering where the Aspiring Polyglot went, she's on the technology page.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Is there a right way to speak/write your language?

I've had another glance at Quenya, Tolkien's made-up elf language, in the last few days. One of the more amusing elements is figuring out the proper forms as they changed from time to time according to Tolkien's whim, here, and his reasoning about linguistic change, there. Then there is the question of transliteration - some like k, some like c and Tolkien used both, sometimes apparently on the same page. I read all this and cannot help but muse on how shocking it is that a language might not have a perfectly regularized grammar and orthography, or that the orthography might not lend itself to obvious English transliteration...

I jest, of course. I have Uzbek resources in Cyrillic script, Uzbek resources in transliterations from the Cyrillic, Uzbek resources in transcriptions of the authors' own devising (no less than two) and a few resources, astoundingly enough, in the new more or less accepted Latin orthography. I've remarked more than once that if I'm curious about how to notate a word, all I need do is pick up three books, note the three different ways of writing it suggested and go back to square one.

Breton finds itself in another place: There are orthographies from the old days, as well as spelling schemes to accommodate all the different dialects or three of the four... But it's not a state language, which means not merely that there's no governing body like the Académie française to govern its usage (without which English does just fine) but there's also no mandate to use it in that many official communications. It's used by its speakers as they choose to use it. So, as long as there are at least ten Breton speakers, I'm sure there will be at least three ways to write their language.

The truth is that language is complicated. The advent of the printing press smoothed only seemed to smooth over the complications. If you look at Chaucer, Shakespeare or the King James, it can be confusing, but anything since about Milton will look pretty familiar save for the thees and thous. On the other hand, if you look at a Middle English anthology without regularized spelling, forget it. Sight reading is out. Sometimes all you can do is read aloud while imagining what you think you'd get from it if you were listening on a cell phone with a bad connection. What's worse is for all that the ME texts won't tell you what ME sounded like - they'll tell you how moderately educated monks thought it should be transcribed with some of their local habits coming through and others suppressed. But does this mean that with our standard dictionaries and wide distribution of edited texts, the mess of Middle English has been sorted out? Not exactly.

When you're learning a language, real or made-up, one of the struggles you're going to face is that no resource is going to be completely accurate, at least not for the time you're learning it. Study French and you'll think that "I don't know" is je ne sais pas, pronounced "zhuh nuh say pah." But you're more likely to hear "shay pas." Orthography hasn't caught up to speech - and probably won't. That's because of the strange byplay between orthography and speech: People will still say "zhuh nuh say pah" for emphasis because when you're carefully sounding something out, you sound it out as it is written, not as it is transcribed. Likewise in English, "I'm gonna go ta New York tamara" turns into "I am going to go to New York to-morrow" if you're asked to repeat yourself. So writing isn't always great for everyday speech, but it's marvelous if you want to talk to someone as if he is half deaf.

In learning a language, you need to be alert to the gaps between "correct" speech, the vernacular of the educated and the various muddle-headed ways the pedants try to codify them. So whether you're just starting a new language or have been working on it for awhile, be sure to use audio resources wherever available, and be prepared to hear native speakers say things that aren't in your textbook. And when you hear those native speakers, emulate them - unless you want to be one of those people who is "plus français que les français" (more French than the French) or is identifiably foreign because of speaking the Queen's English better than the Queen.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Artificial Languages/Contest

I've spent some time this last week or so at It started when I ran across a Xurnese grammar, prompting the question, "What the heck is Xurnese?" It turns out it's out of this world. Specifically, it's one of the languages from a made-up world called Verduria whose languages (and their creation) are discussed at The whole thing is a lot like Borges "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" - a fictional world made real by its meticulous documentation.

One of the things to be found at Zompist is the Language Construction kit, a set of recommendations of things to think about if you want to make up or construct your own con lang (constructed language). Note that there are at least three kinds of con langs, two that come in for a lot of treatment. The first is the so-called IAL (international auxiliary language), like Esperanto, whose authors would like lots of people to use it as a medium of communication. I'm dubious on these - a simple language offered for ease of international communication will most likely be learned by the kind of people who pick up some French, Spanish or English anyway. (Please don't take offense if you're a partisan of an IAL; my skepticism isn't about your language, but about your monolingual's initiative). The second kind is the sort of code, à la Pig Latin, that kids use to chat around grown-ups. This doesn't get much serious treatment.

The third type of con lang, and the one that has caught my interest, is what this guy calls an art language. These are creations carefully brought into being to imitate natural languages with all their flaws, all their inconsistencies, all their life. What you find at Zompist is one specimen of this. The most famous con langs, though, are those put together by Tolkien as he composed the Lord of the Rings and associated books.

The reason art languages caught my interest is that they are generally designed to go with an unknown world, a creation of the author's imagination. If you're making an IAL, you need the words for getting a hotel, buying a newspaper, etc. If you're making an art language, on the other hand, the words may go with lives lived in entirely different ways.

For some time, I've taken an interest in the languages of Central Asia. I study the languages, I listen to the music, I watch videos and movies and read articles. Yet until last few weeks, these studies could have been like reading Borges about Tlön. Sure, Uzbekistan came up in the news now and again. And Afghanistan, at the lower end of Central Asia, has been quite the topic in the news. Yet the violence in Iran and then in Urumqi has suddenly given a new and much starker reality to these places I read about and the languages spoken there. This is in contrast to French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese - I know people who speak all these languages and I speak with them in them, if only to exchange pleasantries. The languages of Central Asia, though, are still exotic creations in far off lands - the lands and the people are imagined to me, more than known.

If you're approaching a brand new language and culture with a past and traditions markedly different from those of your own country, maybe you should approach it more like a con lang. In particular, you need to read, read, read, to know what people actually talk about, and how they think about life. If you're going to the Pamirs, you need to know about the Ismailis. If you're going anywhere in Central Asia, you need to be acquainted with the branches of Islam, where which ones are practiced, and to what extent all those Arabic and Persian phrases arise out of custom vs. belief, not to mention the extend to which ritualized language makes people believe and the extent to which it dulls belief. In English, we say "Goodbye," shortened from "God be with ye." Yet if you say "Goodbye," you're less likely to be thinking fatalistically about the protections God will and won't offer than about the person you're talking to and whether they'll really e-mail. Yet in the last few days, I've met two people who took seriously the idea of adding as an afterthought to an intention a humble, "God willing." I've got a little of the same attitude, but not so pronounced, and it's pretty rare in California. Less so, I imagine, in Central Asia. But then, that's just what I imagine. To what extent it's so will have a lot to do with how things turn out from Iran to Urumqi. In the meantime, though, I'm back to Uzbek, cousin of Uyghur, a language whose speakers live under a nasty dictatorship - a new one after the Soviets - that keeps things mostly calm so that life looks much like what you'd expect in say, Eastern Europe, only with minarets in the background. And they say learning Tolkien's languages is an exercise in fantasy!

So, a final thought to try to make the meandering useful: If you're working to get your head around a language and it's not working, try getting your head around the people first. Your understanding of both the language and the culture will probably be oversimplified - almost as though you're learning an art language created for an invented place - but it just might open your mind to newer and truer understanding with time.

Note: Voting has started for Lexiophile's Top 100 Language Blogs. There's voting in four categories, starting with general language learning (which I'm in). You can find the main page here and the page for language learning here. I was too modest to vote for myself, so I'd encourage my readers (both of you) to drop by, that way I might get two votes. While you're there, check out all the nominees. There are a lot of great blogs out there and there's a wealth of sites gathered to explore if you're looking for new ideas.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Getting and Keeping Your Studies on Track

The hardest part of learning a language is picking up that book or putting on that CD when you don't feel like you're getting anywhere. If you can just overcome this problem, you will learn your language in time.

A lot of people think you need the best method to learn. But go to a used book store and find a Berlitz Self-Teacher from the 40s, or a Teach Yourself book from the 50s. For that matter, check out the Dover reprints of self-teaching manuals from the late 1800s. People learned from these. Really! Not everybody learned from them, of course. And not everybody is going to learn from Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, even though they may be the best teach yourself audio programs devised to date. And not everybody is going to learn from the fancy stuff they're coming out with for the computer, the iPhone, the iPod, etc. Still, a trip to Amazon or Barnes and Noble opens you up to resources whose clarity and simplicity would have made a linguaphile from the 40s weep. So if you're going to be one of those people who actually learn, now's a great time to be alive, though 20 years from now will doubtless be better.

What you need, as I say, is not a better, easier, clearer method per se. What you need is something to keep you going when you hit those lulls where your brain is consolidating information. A lot of people think that some people have a gift for languages. True enough, some do have a better ear or a sharper memory. But what drives most successful language learners is not talent, but enthusiasm. Because what you need more than anything is comprehensible input - lots and lots and lots of it - so that your brain can work out and automate at the subconscious level all those words and all those structures that distinguish language from gibberish.

Here's the big idea for today: The biggest skill required for learning a language successfully is to keep doing it. And that has nothing to do with language learning per se. So, how do you keep doing something, even when you're not feeling yourself making progress the way you once did? Let's look at some thoughts from Robert Collier in Secret of the Ages:
First. Center your thoughts on the thing that you want. Visualize it. Make a mental image of it - in fact, make an actual picture of it if you can...
Want to be a polyglot? Go to google images and find a blank world map (here). The do a search for "[language] map" for each language you want to learn. Print out your world map and color in each country where they speak the languages you know or are learning. With just four languages - English, French, Spanish and Arabic - you'll see that the world is yours. So print the map, color it in and look at it every day. The more you see it, the more you'll see that if you just "build and maintain" - don't say "learn," as though they're as yet unknow to you - your languages, the more the possibilities of the world are open to you.

What if you're just learning one language? Well, you still want to be smart about it. People carry around flashcards and think of them as "words I don't know" or "words I still need to learn." That's the spirit! Make a habit of calling your flashcards "Words I'm Reviewing" or "Words I'm Mastering." Or be bold: Call it, "Words I know!" Then every time you get one right, you'll think, yeah, I knew that!

Whatever the case, transform your future aspirations into the actual present tense. If the current you doesn't have in mind a conscious image of the thing you're building, the future you won't have a house!

Back to Collier:
[Your aspirations] must be warmed by Faith, nurtured by constant belief. So-

Second. Read the 91st and 23rd Psalms, just as a reminder of God's power and His readiness to help you in all your needs.
I know this will be a sticking point for some. Whatever your faith, however, there's probably a similar quote about the power of God. It's trickier for those with no religion, yet we're all moved by faith. Just last week, I met a woman who knew her daughter could learn Spanish - because she's seven and kids that age are good at language - but that she could not. The woman had no linguistics degree, had not even read up on the matter beyond the occasional newspaper article about the benefits of language learning for children, but it was an article of faith with her that she could not learn another language. This is what you need to counteract. So look for a successfull language learner and tell yourself, I can do that too. Learning Italian? Find an Italian guy who learned English - and who you think is an idiot! Tell yourself, If he could learn English, I can learn Italian! The point is, you need something to point to beyond your own insecurities when the going gets rough and you wonder if you're ever going to learn.

For what it's worth I personally prefer this bit:
What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them and ye shall have them.
Matthew 11:24
But whatever works for you. Just make sure that when doubt creeps into your mind, you've got a good comeback.

Back to Collier:
Third. Don't forget to be thankful, not merely for past favors, but for the granting of this favor you are now asking! To be able to thank God for it sincerely, in advance of its actual material manifestation, is the finest evidence of belief.
Again, if you're not religious, you should still be able to muster gratitude. Be grateful not just for what you have learned but that you have the tools to learn more and you will learn more so that the you who speaks Swahili is not some potential self in an abstract future but the real and present you in becoming.

And back:
Fourth. BELIEVE! See it as an accomplished fact. When the thought of it occurs to you, and doubts and fears creep in, say to yourself - "God is attending to that," and KNOW THAT HE IS!
For God, you may substitute "my subconscious," "my dedication," "my plan"; but again, be sure that when those doubts creep in, you've got an answer for them thats bigger than your fears.

The passage I have excerpted and elaborated on is, I know, a bit odd - one part The Secret and one part Christian mysticism. It's also a bit repetitive, stripped to its essence. Faith, gratitude and belief interact in a way that makes it seem like steps 2-4 could be rolled into one. But the questions of faith, gratitude and belief are actually responses to different flavors of the "yes, but"s that we're tempted to offer when we don't believe we can do it. And as the "yes, but"s will likely multiply when we're not so sure of our vision, it's good to nip them all in the bud, even if it takes a little extra time. That way, when you go to your studies, you can review your vocabary instead of rehashing your doubts.

Working through the above will not make you a language genius. But it will make you a persevering language learner, which for most of us is a lot more important. Now that you've got the idea and the reasoning, here's a final summary, more basic, to keep in mind. I have reworked this one a bit so that if you can at least believe in Nature's God, in the phrase of the Declaration of Independence, it shouldn't trouble:

You need:
1) A vision represented as something already real: You speak this language!
2) Faith that you have been given the tools to make the vision real: You can speak this language!
3) Gratitude for both what is done and what will be done: This language is already yours; you're just in the process of claiming it.
4) Belief that success is yours: You speak this language; you're just waiting for reality to catch up, and with every word you read, with every phrase you utter, you see your belief is true.

So, there you have it. A strange little sermonette based on a strange little sermonette. Then again, it's being published on an internet that didn't exist 20 years ago with a personal computer that didn't exist 40 years ago thanks in part to telecommunications strategies barely conceived of 120 years ago in a country that was unimaginable 250 years ago. If you look at all the things humankind has done when they took a new idea as far as it would go, believing that not only can you speak Chinese, but that you already do and you're glad and grateful for it doesn't seem like quite that big of a stretch.