Monday, December 28, 2009

If you're curious about Latin...

... but just want a little idea what it's all about, here's a three-step program that can be done in less than a month:

1) Do this C J Cherryh Latin course - 8 lessons, all rather short - and learn how basic sentences go together in the present tense.

2) Get a look at Medieval Latin in Britain with the UK National Archive's Beginners' Course.

3) Strengthen your Medieval Latin with the UK National Archive's Advanced Course.

This program won't have you reading Vergil or Cicero, of course. But it will give you the tools to pick apart Medieval Latin prose, as well as giving you a good head start on textbooks for Classical Latin like Wheelock's.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2010 Intentions/Resolutions

Last year, I set New Year's Intentions, rather than resolutions. This year, I'm sticking with that, but with one added element: Jumping off points.

The problem with New Year's Resolutions, of course, is that a lot can happen in a year. Setting a goal that will take a year to achieve is just asking for trouble. What's needed, then, is a general idea of what you want to achieve, the direction it will point you in, and how to get started.

Over on the right hand side is a link to my long-term language goals. They boil down to basically two elements: 1) building familiarity with modern languages from the Indo-European and Turkic families, thus opening up a large stretch of Eurasia to basic understanding and 2) getting a better sense of the Indo-European part of that equation in looking at the older languages that underline what is today spoken from Portugal in the West to Tajikistan in the East. This is a big project that will take years.

Here's what I'm looking at to get started this year:

Modern Indo-European:

I intend to maintain and build on my Spanish.
Jumping off point: Review Michel Thomas Spanish, do Michel Thomas Advanced Spanish

I intend to maintain and build on my Italian.
Jumping off point: Review Michel Thomas Italian, do Michel Thomas Advanced Italian.

I intend to resurrect my (limited) German.
Jumping off point: Review Michel Thomas German.

Early Indo-European:

I intend to improve my Latin and make it more natural.
Jumping off point: Work through the Assimil Latin course passively.

I intend to revive and build on my NT Greek.
Jumping off point: Complete the EIEOL NT Greek course.

I intend to acquaint myself with Gothic in the Germanic family.
Jumping off point: Complete the EIEOL Gothic course (which has several readings in common with the NT Greek course).

I intend to revive my limited Turkish.
Jumping off point: Redo the Pimsleur Conversational Turkish course.

This is not, of course, everything I'll do this year. There's nothing about the Iranian languages, the Celtic languages, the Turkic languages to the East or French, for example. Given my tendency to drift hither and thither, I'll come to them in time. But this gives me seven concrete things to do in building toward larger goals whose specific nature I can adjust depending on what the New Year brings.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Irritated by Sanskrit Translators/Beginning to see Thomson's Point

A while back, I wrote about Karen Thomson's quest to rescue Vedic Sanskrit from the Indologists. This week, I got hold of the lyrics to Rasa's "Prabhupada-padam." It turns out they are from a poem in Sanskrit. Not knowing much in the way of Sanskrit, I next needed a translation.

I still don't know enough to speak to Thomson's thoughts on the Penguin translation of the Rig Veda, etc. But if what I've found for "Prabhupada-padam" is indicative, I think I see her point.

As I mentioned, I don't know that much Sanskrit myself. But here's the line that ends all four verses of the song (and all 11 verses of the poem):

pranamami sada prabhupada-padam

At this site, this line is translated:
I eternally offer my respects unto that charming effulgence that shines from the radiant lotus toe-tips of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada.
The line is not again translated until the final verse.

Now, let's have a look at this site. Here, it is given a different translation each time! The first three are:
I make my obeisance unto the lotus feet of that illustrious great soul, worshippable by one and all - perpetually do I make my obeisance unto the radiance emanating from the toenails of the holy feet of my Lord. (1)

I make my obeisance unto his lotus feet - perpetually do I make my obeisance unto the radiance emanating from the toenails of the holy feet of my Lord. (2)

Perpetually do I make my obeisance unto that effulgence emanating from the toenails of the holy feet of my Lord. (3)
Call me old school, but when every verse of a poem ends with the same line, the translation ought to come pretty close to doing this - there might be variations in tense, or aspect, or mood or number that the language translated from distinguishes differently, but lexical items should not leap about taking on new forms willy-nilly. While we're at it, did you see how many words it took to translate these four from Sanskrit (comprising about six lexemes from what I can see, by the way)?

If you did this with New Testament Greek... [shudder]

Here's are my suggestions, following notes on the lexical items:

pranamami (I bend myself) sada (always, ever) prabhupada (prabhu=lord; pad=foot - a suffix like "-ship" in English) - padam (foot)

Ever I bow to my lordship's feet.
(most concise)

I always bow before my lordship's feet.
(tottering iambic pentamenter; the third beat is off)

Ever I do bend down before my lordship's feet.
(12 syllables, mimicking the verse form, jagati (term found here), in which it was composed)

I'm not saying you can't go for the elegant choice here and there when translating, or try to unpack some of the meaning that would be lost by a too literal translation. But "effulgence emanating from the toenails of the holy feet of my Lord"? It's not even close to all being in the text. And even if you want to find it there, then it ought not be "radiance" in one verse, "brilliance" in another and "effulgence" in still another. The original author used an ancient verse form and packed in meaning by making use of Classical Sanskrit's love of compound words. And he rounded it off with a repeating refrain, a point to be drummed home. A proper translation ought to reflect this.

Now, I am far from being able to do a full translation of this, and I don't intend to learn enough to get super close anytime soon. But if you follow classic advice for learning a language - find a song you like and get the lyrics and a translation - then if this is the norm in Sanskrit translation I can only wish you the best of luck!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wanting to Speak / Wanting to Learn

In my last post, I commented:
Now might be an amusing time to review last year’s resolutions...
I decided to do just that. Now, last year I set intentions, not resolutions, and I think I'm sticking with that. So, here are last year's intentions, with updates on how I did in [square brackets]:
I set the intention to regularly use and rebuild my French toward regaining fluency.

[I took a course at the Alliance française, read quite a bit and made a point of speaking more French with the Francophones I work with.]

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

[I did Pimsleur Spanish I & II, listened to some Michel Thomas and encouraged a Spanish teacher at our school to correct me more often. There's one other thing below...]

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

[I did Pimsleur Italian I and the Michel Thomas course, and listened to a lot of Italian music. I should have done more, but my Italian is better now than it was last year.]

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

I should note that in the middle of the year, I did a Language Goals page where I refined my plans. But it's the intentions I want to focus on for the moment because they highlight a dichotomy I've touched on before but not in quite a while and not in this way. It goes like this:

Which languages do you want to learn?

Which languages do you wish you could speak?

Earlier this week, I got David Brodsky's Spanish Vocabulary. In it, he shows how Latin roots gave rise to words in Spanish and to similar words, via Old French, in English. Just as I love tracing Indo-European roots to see connections between Latin, Greek and other languages, this is right up my alley. It's a place where I love learning language and I love learning about language. If you told me I could either wave a magic wand and instantly speak great French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, or I could spend years figuring out how they derived from Latin and finding the connections between them, I'd ask if I could use the wand for the budget to buy books and figure out the Romance languages on my own. In short, the process of learning the Romance languages has rewards in its own right. One of my favorite classes in grad school was History of the French Language, and there are still few things that delight me more than making the connection between words in French, Spanish and Italian that I hadn't seen before.

So, what languages do I want to learn or learn better? French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, Greek and Uzbek come to mind.

Returning to the magic wand, though, which languages do I wish I spoke? If you let me pick a language that I could instantly know and without effort, it would be Mandarin. I've done the "learn Mandarin" thing off and on for a while, and what I find is that I like the idea of knowing Mandarin much better than the idea of learning it. It would be neat to go into the shops and restaurants in Cupertino and show off my Mandarin. It would be neat to meet Mandarin speakers and be able to have a conversation with them. But when I imagine the thrill of poring over character charts, and mastering tones, etc, that thrill just isn't there.

I think the Wanting to Speak/Wanting to Learn distinction is an important one. And let's break it down to this test:

If you had a magic wand and could choose, would you:
  1. Have all the resources you could possibly want to learn the language?
  2. Instantly know the language?
If your answer is number two, and you don't have a really strong external motivation to learn the language, it's probably not the one you want to take up for self-study. And if you want to be a polyglot, languages for which you answer 2 are probably going to be the ones that hold you back and drag you down. So before you make that resolution that this year you're going to learn German, really, try this little test. Because if you really want to learn a new language, it's likely not going to be something that you "do," then check off your list. Rather, it's something you're going to be working at and coming back to for a long time to come.

Last words: The picture I painted at the end there could sound a little grim. But actually, it's an immensely positive thing. If you really are interested in a language, the further in you get the more you'll discover there is to know, and the more there is left to learn. And that means that unlike a really great book or movie, once you get into a really great language for you it never ends.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Getting Language Back

The other day, I needed a flashlight. Sure enough, the batteries in my regular one were dead. I did have another flashlight, one of those models where you turn a crank to charge the built in battery. I tend to avoid this one because you have to turn the crank a full two minutes to get it to do anything if you haven’t used it in a while. But in this case, it’s all that was to hand so I cranked it up and after a few minutes I had a weak beam, but enough for my purpose. Two minutes later, the light had faded so I had to crank it up again. But after the third crank, it gave pretty decent light and it lasted until my work was done.

There’s a lesson here in terms of language skills. If you let a language lie dormant, it’s not going to come back all at once. But that doesn’t mean there’s no point. Sometimes it takes a while to recharge your skills. But if you do enough to activate them, take it as far as you can and then push on, you’ll be amazed to discover how much is not in fact forgotten, but is just waiting to come to light again.

For the past few months, I’ve been idly traipsing among the various Indo-European families, trying to get a sense of how some of the languages I’ve studied fit together. It’s no great surprise that French, Spanish and Italian come easily – I’m always speaking and working with them. On the other hand, I’ve been astonished to see my Latin pop back in little time. And looking at New Testament Greek, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much of my Classical Greek vocabulary still lingers.

Right now, I believe, people are focused on the holiday season with Christmas just around the corner. But we’re almost to the new year, and resolution season again. Now might be an amusing time to review last year’s resolutions and maybe use time on the airplane or time in the car to re-awaken that language you were going to learn this year for sure. Or you could fall asleep listening to Michel Thomas instead of the big game on a Sunday afternoon. Whatever the case, as long as you’re breathing, language skills you’ve once acquired are never truly dead. So if you had language learning plans that didn’t work out, don’t despair. Use any free time you can spare this holiday season to reawaken that language you really meant to learn last year and come January 1st you can feel good about resolving to continue your studies.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Tell me a story...

The other day, I wrote about using bilingual texts to get to know bits of a language the same way a child comes to know the content of a story book. There's another possibility, of course, and that's getting your iPod to read you the same story over and over. I've been doing this with the first ten lessons or so of Lingva Latina. First I follow along as the text is read to me, understanding what I understand and not understanding what I don't. Then I go through the text more carefully (though not what you'd call an intensive reading) to make sure I understand fairly well what's going on. After that, in spare moments, I put on a lesson and listen. If I'm not understanding, I'll go back and look up the text, but usually that's not the case.

What I'm talking about here is, of course, nothing new. But I'd like to think I have one thing to contribute here: I'm being completely unscientific about it! No log book, no documented number of hours listening, no careful shadowing of the phrases. The idea is to get to where I follow (extremely simple) Latin in the background, as though someone else were listening to it on the radio and I caught a snippet, for example.

We all need exposure to comprehensible input. What could be better, then, than content you've already worked out? You just need a way to get exposure without being bored to tears.

I'd like to tip my hat to Steve the Linguist a little bit here. In the past, I've been agitated that there aren't a lot of good resources for learning to speak languages likes Latin, Ancient Greek and Old English. I'd add Sanskrit (resources exist but I'm largely unimpressed; suggestions in the comments?) and Old Irish to that list (though they're working on Gothic!). And in the long run, I still think it would be neat to be able to chat in them. But right now, that's not where I am. In fact, at the moment I'm delighted to be able to pick up some Latin and get a sense of what's going on. And the other day, after painstakingly working through a Sanskrit lesson at EIEOL I was thrilled to feel a bit of the Rig Veda seeing the ways words related to Savitar's name echoed through the text. Seeing as I have no plans to be a Vedic or Latin scholar and no Romans or Ancient Indo-Aryans are due in town next week, these are not languages I need to start producing speech in and so I'm really just enjoying the content and the fun of language learning.

Reading and listening a set number of hours can be good things. First and most important, it's a good motivational tool - it lets you document that you're doing something and it drives you to do something during the slow periods. Learning to speak is also a good thing - the active side of language knowledge is important. That said, language learning burnout is pretty common, and one of the reasons is that people forget they're doing it for fun. As the holidays approach, a lot of people will be busy traveling, preparing for guests, squeezing in all the stuff at work that needs to be done before year-end, etc. It's a rough time for steady work at a hobby. So if things start to slip, don't worry about it. Instead, find yourself some audio or simple text, listen and read when you can, and make sure you're enjoying your time with the language(s) you're learning.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Gothic for Goths!

If you've ever wanted to learn a little Gothic, but wading though Wulfilas' Bible translations wasn't where you wanted to start, boy is there a site for you!

Gothic for Goths is a handful of youtube lessons (so far) with copies of the scripts, vocabularies (with grammar information) and even a video-style alphabet book for the little ones. It was created by a student of Germanic linguists who with his neighbor was making fun of "goths" - that specimen of pale, made-up teen that runs about all in black - by using the real Gothic language for things they imagined "goths" might say - "My black underwear is chafing," "Do you want fries with that?" and so forth. If you've ever wanted to say, "Where's my chupacabra?" in an medieval language now's your chance!

Click here for the lessons and lesson info.

(To get more in-depth, albeit with Wulfilas, visit EIEOL)