Saturday, November 28, 2009

Michel Thomas programs without Michel Thomas?

We're all familiar by now with the range of "Michel Thomas Method" programs out there that have come out since his death: Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic, Dutch...

Unfortunately, the quality of these programs has varied somewhat. This is due in part to confusion over just what the Michel Thomas Method is. First of all, there's what the method is legally: The patent is for a system in which a teacher instructs two live students on audio and a home student is asked to participate by hitting the pause button and give responses as a third student. Then there is the Michel Thomas magic, which is different for everybody who enjoyed his courses.

Only people with the right paperwork can present a course the way the Michel Thomas Method audio courses are presented. His grab bag of tricks for making language learning easy, on the other hand, succeeds largely by its mix of pre-existing teaching and knowledge management techniques, not by one unique thing that would likely be patentable.

Some of the folks hanging out at the How To Learn Any Language forum have been talking about this, and at least one of them has made a course:

Michel Thomas Style Free Norwegian Course

If you go to the page, you'll find some rapidshare download links on the first and second pages. Sadly, the author had to quit after six lessons as he has a life of his own to live. This is probably the biggest problem with making your own MT, Pimsleur or other style lessons. Indeed, it can be hard enough to maintain your own studies, never mind prepare materials for others, if you don't have a full-time job in language curriculum development.

I listened to the first three of the six tracks last night, at any rate, and I'd say that Mads has done some nice stuff. In particular, he hit on the thing I liked best about MT courses: the use of building blocks so that you can make your own sentences with guidance, rather than just parroting other people's sentences. If you're interested in Norwegian, have a look. And if you're interested in something else, assuming you like the MT courses, why not think about how he would have taught the material? In particular, look for the building blocks you'd use to explain how to make pretty good sentences if you were trying to teach someone else what you'd learned so far. It's a good clarifying exercise, especially if you're at that phase where you understand all the readings but are having trouble saying things on your own.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Children with Picture Books, Adults with Facing Translations

Via languagefixation, I stumbed across this bit at HTLAL from Iverson of Iverson list fame:
Reading something in a language where you have to look up several words in each sentence feels frustrating, and doing something that makes you feel frustrated also makes you feel tired, and then it is 'hard' in my book. But I still do it in order to 'crack the code' in a new language.

If it's a matter of missing a few words here and here in order to get the meaning then it isn't too bad, and only then I would use the term "comprehensible input". And if I can read all of it without having any doubts then it isn't hard at all - even if I haven't really learnt the language or the dialect in question - but then I also wouldn't learn much from it.
(end of quote)

The idea of using bilingual texts to overcome this problem is not new, but with the advent of the internet it has become much easier to find short bilingual texts to use in intensive reading (finding transcripts/translations of texts is not quite as easy, but still better than in the evil old days).
Iverson talks about the difference between intensive reading - puzzling every word and how it works in a short text - versus extensive reading - going through longer passages for the gist. He makes the point that beginners need more intensive reading, while more advanced students need more extensive reading to maximize their exposure.

Of late, I've taken a look at texts in Old Irish, Latin and Ancient Sanskrit at Early Indo-European Online. While my Latin is so-so, for Old Irish and Ancient Sanksrit, I'm definitely at a low level. And for this, I've found the EIEOL lessons to be ideal. They're an invitation to intensive reading where the work has been done for you. To wit, first you get a passage of one sentence or three or four lines of poetry. Then you get a word by word breakdown with meaning and grammar explained. Then you get the whole text with a semi-literal translation. I've gone the next step by copying text and translation into a little notebook - my own parallel translation - then returning to the texts at a later time to see how much I can come up with on my own and how much I can piece together once I've glanced again at the translation.

When little children "read" their favorite books, they're often going on memory. The words aren't coming from "reading" but from their memory of what a grown-up said when the book was turned to that page. And yet, bit by bit, they start to make the associations. This, I think, is what's happening with my facing translation notebook. The prompt is the translation, rather than the pictures, but the point is the same, namely to start to associate chunks of words with a particular sense or meaning. Using a facing page translation for extensive reading is, of course, useful. It lets you keep moving without suddenly discovering you have no idea what's going on. For intensive reading, though, there's a different purpose: encouraging you to mentally fit together the words in the text to recapture what you've forgotten from your intensive reading.

What I've found with my re-"reading" of texts I've studied intensively is that there's another moment that ought be given more attention in language learning. We all know about the epiphany, the ah-ha moment when a language starts to fall into place. But there's also the "oh yeah" moment when something half-forgotten comes back. Much of the process of learning comes in remembering something just before you'd otherwise forget it. This is the point of the Pimsleur method with graduated interval recall, not to mention SRSs like Anki. So when something comes back to us that we were stumbling on, we ought to celebrate in the knowledge that we've strengthened our "memory muscles" through exercising them. Celebrate your "oh yeahs"!

We often think of small children as sponges, soaking up language. But if we recall the fifty-thousand times we made our parents re-re-re-re-read our favorite books to us, correcting them if they got a word wrong, it's clear that we got a lot of repetitive content that made some chunks of language so much a part of us that even twenty or thirty years later we can fill in the next line to "Green Eggs and Ham." Krashen emphasizes the importance of comprehensible input that tests our abilities. Maybe one form this input might take is difficult texts we've already worked, the struggle being to re-make tenuous connections till they become more solid. So, here's the method:

1) find a challenging text
2) analyze the hell out of it
3) find (or make) a quasi-literal translation - something designed to help you remember what's going on in the text
4) come back to the text in a day and see how much you can get on your own, how much you can get with the translation and how much sends you back to your detailed notes
5) repeat until the text is either an old friend or someone you're sick of listening to

I've found that after the fifth or sixth time through, I'm having my "oh yeah" moments before I've gotten back to the translation. And that prepares me for new "oh yeah" moments when I encounter the word again and instead of forgetting that I ever learned it, I recall where I've seen it before when I see it defined again.

This method won't be for everyone or every language. But if you're working with a difficult language (ie one with a very different grammar and vocabulary than any other that you speak), it's a great way to start feeling comfortable with the language, especially if a dearth of resources to play with enhances the value of getting the most you can out of what you have. Give it a try!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jack of All Language Trades?

The other day, Street Smart Language Learning was writing about serial language learning and its temptations. As he puts it:
As you progress farther and farther into the language, finding those discrete units that you don't already know takes more and more time. Thus, going from 90% to 99% proficiency will take a heckuva lot longer than going from 0% to 10%, or probably even 0% to 50%. The point of debate this brings up is whether it's better to get a bunch of languages up to 90% proficiency, or one or two up to 99% proficiency.

And that gets us to linguistic wanderlust, i.e., the desire to work on getting a new language up to 90% before the previous one is up to 99%. As Language Fixation describes, the speed at which you can do this always make it attractive to the serial language learner.
I think there's another element here, though: How much good does that last 9% do? I spent some time in grad school for French literature. As a result, I know a fair bit about how to discuss poetry in French. However, I don't know the word for monkey wrench. A few years ago, I sought to remedy this by asking a native French speaker. She didn't know the French word either, though she knew the English. For me, "monkey wrench" represents a gap in my French vocabulary. For her, it's a word she doesn't really need to use, so "Give me the wrench... no, the other one" is good enough for a native speaker. I think this is one of the really problematic parts of getting from 90% to 99% - you have to know more than a native speaker, because the language learning process tends to leave you with different lacunae in your vocabulary than the process of growing up in the culture. If your goal is to be grade-A fluent, that's something you have to deal with. But do you need to be at 99% to enjoy a language and its culture? Some people do, especially if the work or hobby that brings them to the language is really involved. But deciding to get acquainted with another language and culture, instead of developing a native's sensibilities for the one you're currently studying, is not an error. It's a choice.

* * *

I'm enjoying a four day vacation right now. I thought about using the time to burrow further into Old Irish. But something told me I ought consider a different direction. So I'm reviewing my Latin. Over the last few days, I've gone through 8 of 12 lessons in the Cambridge Latin Course (Unit 1), 5 of 35 lessons in Lingva Latina (Part 1) and I've been reading at random from the 3rd year Oxford Latin Course. It's amazing how quickly it comes back.

There was a time when I was a serial language learner. I'd learned beginner stuff for 20+ languages and had only a tenuous grasp on more than one or two. (Hence the blog title.) But where the question used to be, "What new language are you studying?" it's now, "What language are you back to?" French, Italian and Spanish are always with me, of course. But generally, the other languages I study are languages I've looked at before. And each time I return to a language, I find that what I've learned about language learning and related languages since the last time makes the experience richer and makes points that formerly baffled me seem obvious. It's an approach that works for me because I'm not on a deadline and my real world use of language is mainly in coaching other learners and offering the necessary pleasantries to help people feel more at home - breadth of language experience serves me better than depth would anyway.

If you want to be - or your circumstances require you to be - a polyglot, I think the old thing about how much to learn before moving on, etc., can be a canard. At some point, you're going to become not a serial language learner but a circular language learner. If you're a serious student of language, you're probably still learning words in your native tongue. If that's not done with all the practice you've got in it, what chance is there that your German is done so that you're ready to move on to French? The other thing is that if you want to be a polyglot, you can't learn German, then forget it to focus on French. Sooner or later, you're going to have to find a way for the two of them to co-exist in your head.

Street Smart Language Learning was pivoting off a post by Language Fixation which included the following observation:
Another horrible side effect of this perceptual problem [of it taking to long to move from intermediate to advanced], is language wanderlust. I’ve personally studied probably 15 languages or so, and in most of them i’m still at a beginner stage. I think one of the reasons that i flip around so much is that when i’m starting to lose track of my progress in one language, and i’m unable to see the constant motion that’s happening, i start to itch for that thrill that comes with the seemingly rapid increase at the start of another language.
The answer to the problem, for me, is to replace the thrill of learning a new language with the thrill of rediscovering an old one. In this way, you can build a core of languages that you get progressively more comfortable with, rather than feeling like, I'm thinking about French today, but I have to do my German.

Some people, I know, are very smart, very disciplined, very intelligent in their execution of learning languages. If you're one of those people, I salute you in learning a language to 99% before flitting off to another one, if that's what you want to do. But if your long term interest is in having a strong foundation in a number of languages, the circular model is something you're going to wind up following if you want to maintain multiple languages. So if you've got that Wanderlust, don't fight it. Channel it, and over time you'll see your understanding of multiple languages grow.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Covering some etymology

A few odds and ends on where words come from:

Let's take a look at an Indo-European root, *(s)tego-. It means "to cover." Here are some derivatives:
> *tog > Germanic *thakjan, which gives us thatch, as in a thatch roof.

>*tog-a > you guessed it, Latin toga!

> Latin tegere, to cover > Latin tectum (roof) > Sp. techo, It. tetto and Fr. toit - roof

But we haven't covered everything yet. There's also:

> proto-Celtic *tegos > Old Irish tech > Irish teach - all meaning house (it's ti in Breton)

Finally, you'll note that the root was *(s)tego-. That "(s)" does get used sometimes, specifically in the Greek stegos (covered): a stegosaurus is a "covered lizard," so called because it is almost fully covered in armor.

The real meaning of Ancient Sanskrit?

This weekend, I took a look at the Sanskrit lessons at Early Indo-European Online. It's a funny thing: these languages can be so old, and yet with a lot still unsettled. As an aside, I've been hanging around a forum for Gaulish where much is yet uncertain, and skimming various Old Irish resources, all of which have to leave plenty of blanks for unattested words and word forms, so I'm getting used to the idea that Indo-European studies is still a field with much to work out, if only the funds were there to do it. Which brings me back to Sanskrit. The EIEOL lessons take a different tack than what I've seen elsewhere, asserting that most of what we know about Ancient Sanskrit is wrong. The problem: The people who started the scholarly tradition were baffled themselves about how to interpret some of the oldest texts, and did their best with a mix of speculation, folk etymology and the conviction that the texts somehow related to the religious practices they had developed in the 400 or 500 years between the composition of the songs in the Rig Veda and those songs actually being written down. The authors of the lessons assert that sometimes the scholarly traditions can take you off the trail rather than keeping you on it. So, instead, they approach Sanskrit the way they would approach any other Indo-European language for which they had a few texts but little outside information, in essence doing with Sanskrit what we, of necessity, had to do with Hittite and Tocharian.

If you're into Sanskrit, but the Vedas have always given you trouble compared with texts from the classical period, have a look. For my own part, I don't know enough to know whether the authors, Slocum (and especially) Thomson are tilting at windmills or on to something. But it looks like there are some interesting insights into Ancient Sanskrit worthy of consideration here.

* * *

Speaking of Old Irish (wasn't I?), I've been digging into Stifter again, and looking at the forms for proto-Celtic and primitive Irish that he thoughtfully provides, and it seems like each time I look through, another element of the grammar seems to make sense in light of Latin, or Greek, or whatever. Who knows? Maybe some of my conjectures are even correct; but at the least they work for me. So a parting thought: if you're a budding polyglot, use anything you've got from any aspect of your language background that you can, if it helps, and keep an eye out for things that help you get a handle on how languages or language families work. There are a lot of associations to be made that are founded on actual knowledge, not just the silly tricks you find in the "you can remember anything" books.