Saturday, August 29, 2009

Astonishing New Language Learning Tool: Flash cards!

Some years ago, I ran across a set of flashcards that were color coded for nouns, verbs and adjectives. It was pretty cool because you could take one of each and make a sentence. Some of the sentences made sense. Others didn't. But even the sentences that didn't make sense served their purpose: it gets you in the habit of grammar to be able to create unreal sentences and know why at one level they're right even though at another level they're not really sentences you'd expect from a native speaker ("The bicycle eats a sleepy goldfish").

For learning words or, better, whole sentences, flash card tools like Anki are clearly the way to go. But for play? In this case, especially if you're having trouble with the grammar of a language you're learning, it may be that physical cards are the way to go. Here's what you need on the cards:

1) Headword
2) Forms of word the way it will most likely appear in simple sentences
3) Indication of the part of speech
4) Indication of where it will most likely fit in a sentence

Let's take three examples using Latin:

Nauta (Sailor)
Nauta (nom) / Nautam (acc) / Nautae (dat)
Subj / Indirect Object

Dare (Give)
Do / Das / Dat

Liber (Book)
Liber (nom) / Librum (acc)
Subj / Direct Object

With the three cards, I can make sentences like:

Nauta (subj) librum (dir obj) dat (he gives). The sailor gives the book.
Nautae (indir obj) librum (dir obj) do (I give). I give the sailor a book.

Make yourself cards for three things/people likely to be subjects, direct objects and indirect objects. Then pick three verbs that take both direct and indirect objects. Then you can start shuffling them up and come up with a two dozen sentences give or take. And every time you add a few cards, the number of practice sentences multiply. After that, you can note your new sentences in a notebook, indicating which ones work, which ones don't feel right and why. Or if you're trying to make a specific sentence, you'll have the information handy for how to put the pieces together.

While electronic flash cards are great for memorization, as a tool for language play, there's something handy about the paper kind. So if you're new to a language and trying to get a handle on things, give mix-and-match language try!

Friday, August 21, 2009

True Confessions of a Language Addict

Last week, I lamented the lack of good resources for learning, say, Gaulish or Indo-European. I stand partially corrected.

If you want to learn "reconstructed Gaulish," apparently for druids, there's something called Labarion. It came up on google in a search for Gaulish vocabulary. Here's your link.

Labarion is not exactly Gaulish, but its noun declensions are quite close to those posited for Gaulish, at least the few I've found. I'm a bit less sure of the verbal system, but then again you've got to fill in the blanks with something and the Gaulish inscriptions didn't leave a lot to go on. The big problem with the Labarion site is that it's a bit like picking up those old Latin textbooks that had tables and a vocabulary and figured that somehow you could make do with that. That said, the tables are pretty clear and the exercises, though too few, give you an idea of what Labarion's creator(s) had in mind. So kudos to whoever came up with Labarion. If you showed up in ancient Gaul, they might know you're not from around there, but you'd be able to get your point across at least and maybe even convince them that yours was the way people were talking these days if you go three valleys over.

Then, there's Indo-European. Apparently, some folks are creating "Modern Indo-European." And they want to make it the language of the EU! Here's the link. For the record, I think this effort has about as much chance of success as Esperanto. Which is to say that if they can get Britney Spears to record an album (of really dirty songs) in it and the teenyboppers take it up as a form of rebellion, there's no telling what might happen. Right now, though, the IAL is bad English. In other words, if you want to promote your IAL, you don't need rational arguments. You need to get it associated with money, power, rebellion and cool stuff. (All of which adds up to sex, I think.) Anyway, what about Modern Indo-European? The site is fantastic if you're interested in Indo-European, are looking for free downloads of info about Indo-European, have always wanted to see what short form texts might have been like in Indo-European. But if you're a goofball who wants to make a really ancient character for your role-playing games, you're probably not going to last long at this site. It's too driven by documenting Indo-European, as opposed to bringing it to life. There are associated wikis, linked at the sidebar, where efforts are being made. But a cursory glance at the grammar links and such did not win me over. The Labarion site, though far poorer in content, was clear enough that someone with a little background in Latin, Greek, Russian or German - or any other language with complex declensions and conjugations - could get started in fairly short order. The modern Indo-European site, on the other hand, has too much content for you to pick through on your own but not enough guidance for you to hang around and learn a little Indo-European on a lark. And let's face it, the one thing going for Esperanto is that if someone wants to learn it on a lark, it's possible.

This post is called True Confessions of a Language Addict, so here they are:

I know you can put a few sentences of Labarion together (badly) in fairly short order because I have.

I'm back on the Breton. Reading about Gaulish and Labarion left me trying to recall the Breton for comparison. I'm delighted and distressed at how much I remembered, at at how quickly things came back when I dragged out the Assimil books, in addition to listening to Breton on the iPod. I offer this as a word of hope to other language learners who lost track of one of their languages - it comes back far faster than you'd think.

After a week or two off, I listened to a few Pimsleur Farsi lessons again. I'm dead if you ask me to do math. But my pleases and thank yous are in good working order and if you ask me to lunch I'll know just what to say.

I ran across a copy of Italian through Pictures some time ago. I've been reading it again, along with a conversation book I stumbled across.

For Uzbek, I've been skimming the Lonely Planet Central Asia phrasebook, just to keep key phrases in mind.

Finally, of course, I've been chattering in French and Spanish with colleagues.

Pretty scattershot, I know. But there are so many delightful languages out there to explore. If you feel the same way, explore away. You'll be surprised at how many connections you'll make and how in tune with the world you feel when you've got at least a word or two for most everyone you meet. Or, if you prefer, you can visit Ramses and see the benefits of picking one language and sticking to it. :)

Sunday, August 16, 2009


The other day, I ran across the Grammar of Arvorec. Arvorec is a Celtic language that appears to be a direct descendant of Gaulish. It's spoken on some islands off of Armorica, as well as here, there and elsewhere. It better preserves the lexicon of Gaulish than most any other language out there - track back a few basic sound changes and you're there. The grammar is greatly simplified, or at least it might be. Since nobody knows that much about how Gaulish grammar worked, who knows? If you are interested, though, in Gaulish, Arvorec would be one hell of a language to stumble across.

Too bad it's made up.

Arvorec is a conlang. Somebody with way too much time on his hands has written a grammar, compiled a lexicon and even created a corpus with everything from religious texts in earlier variants to recent newspapers.

I hope to have this much time on my hands one day!

What the creator of the Arvorec site has done, however, is something of a wonder. Were it not for the occasional acknowledgment of what he's up to, it would be easy to take his site for the product of a grad student documenting some little known dialect that he encountered while researching, say, Celtic language maintenance in the face of Francophone hegemony.

* * *

Looking at the Arvorec site, my thoughts went along a path they've been down before, but maybe a little further... It would be neat to see something like this for dead languages. The Arvorec site gives you everything you need to know to make a start in the language. If you found yourself where it was spoken with only a print-up of the website, you'd be happily chatting away in a day or three. Looking at the site, I thought it would be neat to find something like it, only, say, for Gaulish, or proto-Celtic or - imagine it! - proto-Indo-European!

I know the preliminary objection, of course. Arvorec is alive, if only in the imagination of its creator. The other languages are dead. And from a pragmatic standpoint, it's helpful to keep them that way - easier to pin 'em down. Yet, just as no two butterflies are exactly alike, no two speakers of a language are exactly alike. Pinning one butterfly does not mean you've figured out what Lepidoptera is all about. You've got to see them crawling as caterpillars, then flying, then withering all too soon, before you've got the slightest idea what butterflies are for. Just so, documenting a dead language is still an effort to hit a moving target. Sometimes you've got too much information - like Latin. Sometimes you've got too little, like Gaulish. And sometimes, like Indo-European, you've no concrete evidence at all. And so, be it Latin, Gaulish or Proto-Indo-European, what you've got is not an imperfect idea of something that exists somewhere in perfection, the Platonic essence of the Latin Language. What you've got is something that only exists here, today, and fleetingly, in the minds of those who try to understand and reconstruct. We reconstruct, then, for us, not for the past.

When we take a language like Gaulish and try to put it back together, we are trying, of course, to walk in the footsteps of a people from long ago, to see what they saw, to feel what they felt, and so, to know a little more about where we came from. But in the end, there's far less distance between reconstructing Gaulic from a couple thousand inscriptions and reconstructing Quenya from Tolkien's notes than one might think. In both cases, you're constructing a world you'll never see except in your mind's eye. So, why don't we run with it?

One of the big problems we have investigating a language like Gaulish is that even when we find a new inscription someplace, there's no one to tell us what it says. Sure, some experts piece it together as best they can. And then they write some articles arguing about this or that. But there are no native speakers handy. And there won't be. But could we get closer to having some?

Anybody who has studied French or Italian can read a bit of Spanish. Anybody with English and German can pick through Dutch. What if in addition to our careful reconstructions, limited only to what is specifically documented, we also created conlang versions of these tongues. You'd still want to be conservative in how you formulated them, but if it really made sense, you could be a little more generous with the forms that weren't attested but seemed likely based on the sound shifts and the way the morphology of subsequent languages went. The idea would be to create different versions - call them scholarly dialects - of how the languages might have turned out. Sample texts could be churned out in the different variants. Rather than looking for the one true version of the language, you'd be trying to get a feel for how much variation was permissible, the same way that even modern speakers have to work out, eg, how much language variation is permissible so that your grandparents can still understand you without your talking the way they do.

You can already see a little bit of this when you read, eg, the different versions of the Indo-European fairy tale that was dreamed up some years ago. It would be good to go a little crazier with it though. It would be fun to pick up a guide and learn how to order a beer if you found yourself in France a century or two before the Romans arrived. Or to know what to say if Genghis Khan's oldest ancestors arrived from a time warp and needed directions to Ulan Bator. Beyond the novelty, though, there's a serious scholarly aim, here. We don't study these languages and civilizations for the hell of it. We do so to learn about ourselves, about where we came from, where were going. To answer the question of whether democratic capitalism, global trade and the internet have made us something new or whether, 1500-5000 years on, people are still, basically, people. To be able to answer that question, we need to get past the 3rd person formulations about Proto-Celtic man ate this, hunted that and lived in a culture where goddesses as well as gods were much revered. We need to look for a way to live it. That way, when we find the next scroll or inscription, maybe our scholars will be conversant enough to read past the word or two they don't know, get the gist and have a real feel for what they're working on before the hard work begins.

To some extent, of course, what I'm proposing is already done. The museum diorama is certainly a conworld, and our reconstructions of Indo-European, from the standpoint of lexicon, at least, is one of the most developed of conlangs. I guess what I'm calling for, then, is the element of play that brings the page to life. While much of what the scholars offer is documented, much, too, is a leap of imagination - specifically the imagining that humans really were then and remain today basically the same so that we have any basis for interpretation at all. It would be neat to let our imaginations run still a little more wild so that maybe we could rouse as much enthusiasm in understanding where the Celts or the Goths or the earliest Turks came from, what they believed and how they talked, as we have for joining a few hobbits to capture a ring in the imaginings of one man who lived pretty close to our own lifetime.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

iPods, MP3s and the "Lyrics" tab

One of the great things about the iPod is that there's one way or another to make it bring up just about any data you can stick in an MP3. One of those things is lyrics. Now, the nice thing about the lyrics field is it's really just a text box. You can put anything you want in there. All you need to do is go to iTunes (the app, not the store), right-click on your song, select "Get info" and click on the lyrics tab. After that you can put in any text you want, either by typing or by pasting. Save it and you're good to go. Then, when you sync your iPod, the lyrics will be uploaded. To access them, just click the center button 4 times while the song is playing. (This works on my Classic; I assume it works roughly the same way on the others.)

At first, I wasn't very creative with the lyrics tab. I downloaded the lyrics to some of my favorite foreign songs so that if I wasn't sure about a line, I could look. (A little googling will get you lots of lyrics ready for cutting and pasting.) Then I started adding lyrics with translations when I could find a good translation. Then I realized, hey, it's just a text box, I can put anything I want in there!

Lately, I've been putting Assimil dialogs and their translations in one week at a time. This way, I can review my current lesson two or three times a day without carrying around the book. Or I can review a week's worth of lessons from two or three week's back, knowing that if I've forgotten something I've got a good written reminder just four clicks away.

As I said, you can use the lyrics tab any way you want. Do you like vocabulary lists? Put your Teach Yourself dialogs on the MP3 and fill the lyrics tab with the vocabulary list that comes after. Do you like to follow along with the dialogs? Put 'em in? Do you have a pretty good memory for language learning but need to refresh your memory from time to time? Type up your notes in a text file and associate them with the MP3 for whatever program you're learning with.

I'm sure that others have suggested this before - I just wasn't paying attention since I was still using a cheapie MP3. But just in case anybody out there hasn't taken advantage of this, know that the "Lyrics" tab is your friend. With Pimsleur and Michel Thomas programs, of course, you can load up your iPod or other MP3 to make it a language learning audio library. But thanks to the "Lyrics" tab (and the wonders of cut and paste), you can make it do even more. So if you find yourself listening to to stuff to practice your language(s) and wishing there were a way to look up that word, recall exactly what the dialog means or what have you, don't get frustrated. Just make a note, look it up when you get home and add it to the lyrics tab. That way whenever you want that reminder again, it'll be there, just four center clicks away.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Can You Take a Break? / Making the most of your iPod

Josh the Language Geek is, as he puts it, "returning from a hiatus." This happens to language learners, both in and out of schools, all the time. Life intrudes on those great plans you made to study an hour and twenty minutes a day so that you'd finish this book in one month, that one in two months and hopefully be practically fluent by Christmas... So how'd things come out for Josh?
Thankfully, languages are much more forgiving than people are. Shelve them for a week or four, and they’ll wait around for you. Furthermore, while I do regret having been away from my languages for so many weeks, the break is proving to have been helpful, as I’ve been able to see that what I’ve learned so far won’t disappear if I miss a few weeks. For a long while, I was quite in the mindset that if I missed a day or two, what I’d learned would drain out of my head like water out of a sink.
Fortunately, it doesn't work quite like that. Language is a structure you build up in your head, and while you do have to maintain it, it's more like a building that becomes a bit dilapidated if you don't maintain it. As long as you patch it up now and again before the main framework rots, you're okay.

This weekend, I went through old CDs, continuing to update my iPod. I stumbled upon Michel Thomas' Advanced Italian course. While I've listened a bit to the iPod programs I got and to music, I haven't really hit Italian hard in a long time. But listening to the first lesson of the advanced program, the language came back in just a few minutes and by the end I wasn't even hitting the pause button for my answers, just speaking them in tandem with the students on the program.

Moral of the story: If you want to learn and maintain a language, it is a lifetime committment. But it's not one that has to be mapped out hour by hour, day by day or even week by week. It's more a matter of making the initial push needed to get a basic framework into your head and coming back to it often enough to maintain that framework. So don't be afraid to take up a language because you'll never learn or you'll forget or whatever other excuse comes to mind. To rework a phrase from Josh, the language will be a lot more forgiving if you don't study every day than you will. So get started, keep at it, and if you have to let it drop for a while, make sure to think of the break as a hiatus from which you'll return and you'll do fine.


Incidentally, I mentioned loading up the iPod. For the language learner, especially the aspiring polyglot, this is a must. The iPod, to my mind, is the new deck of flashcards. Only you can carry around tens of thousands of cards and flip through whatever deck you want whenever you want. One word on that: The real beauty of the iPod is not that you can work through all your Pimsleur lessons or all your Michel Thomas lessons or whatever. The real beauty is that by making playlists of music in the language, playlists of the word entries from the different iPod flashcard programs, and having your long form programs, you can grab a few minutes with what you feel like doing at the moment and have time for the at the moment. In short, the iPod (or similar MP3 player with playlists) makes language learning something you can do conveniently and on the fly so that your all-important comprehensible input is always available. Very cool.

[Update: If you really want to organize your listening, check out this from John Biesnecker.]