Confessions in December 2010

Updated December 29, 2010

Palo Alto - Spot of Blue 3

December 29, 2010 - update

For the last few weeks, I've continued work on the Assimil Experiment. At right, there's a link for the log I'm keeping at HTLAL about that. The main thing I've found is that if you get daily or near-daily exposure to a language, it becomes a part of your daily life. A tautology, of course, but the neat thing about tautologies is that they are, ipso facto, true. Am I fluent in Alsatian? Far from it. Am I ready to visit the Haut Rhin area and strike up a conversation about any given subject? Not really. But reading Alsatian, if slowly, is no longer a remarkable thing. It's just something I can do, something I do almost every day in fact. And there are now a number of things I can express in Alsatian, from ordering a Beckeoffe with a glass of wine to complaining about the weather. Not bad for a project whose purpose is to learn a language with ease.

In The Four-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss talks about the most important ingredient for a successful diet, fitness regimen, etc. - Does it pass the Duct-tape test? That is, will it stick? The best thing about the Assimil Method is precisely that it sticks. That may be because it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. Or it may just be because it's easy and places minimal demands on one's time and patience. Either way... Doviende of Language Fixation had a nice piece the other day about "Methods vs. Activities" that is tangentially related. His point was to not get hung up on a method or system, but to make sure that you have lots of activities that keep you engaged in your language. Do something every day, you'll make the language a part of your daily life. It may really be that simple.

Palo Alto - Sky after rain 3

December 11, 2010 - Grammar Bits

Today, I ran across an excellent remark about grammar at HTLAL from poster Cainntear (his personal blog, LinguaFrankly, is linked at right):

The idea that a verb table is the natural form of a verb is risible -- verb tables are designed around efficient use of paper, not rigorous mental models.

Obviously, the point doesn't just apply to verbs. For a long time, our primary technology for information storage and transmission has been paper, and because paper and printing aren't cheap (and were even more expensive in labor before the advent of digital publishing), our traditional model of the grammar is a thing designed to cram as much information onto as little paper as possible. What's interesting is how little the evolution of new media have changed this. We still conceptualize of knowledge as being our understanding of a thing as best we can write it down. Buy yourself a DVD language course and you'll find them displaying that verb conjugation on the screen. Get your CD-ROM and you'll find that a tremendous amount of the content is the equivalent of book pages transferred to the monitor.

The use of the book as an information storage medium has a second consequence, of course. Books are easy to flip through, but hard to find things in. And so there's a tendency to keep related things all together in one place. This is great for looking things up. But it is not so great for learning. In the traditional grammar, you will find tens of pages about nouns, then tens of pages about verbs, then ten or twenty pages about other words followed by a short exposition on syntax. And there's usually little information about how far into each section you need to read to pick up the basics, on the extremely unlikely chance that the author actually put the useful stuff, as opposed to the theoretical models, first. In the modern textbook, this is a little better. But however much you hear about functional grammar or the like, the presentation of the language that you find is usually rooted in how the grammarian documents language, not how the speaker (unconsciously) uses it.

I understand, of course, how this happens. By the time I knew enough French to teach it, I'd formed a mental model of my own. And I'm aware that the mental model did not explain how I arrived at the French sentences I uttered, so much as justifying the choices I'd made in retrospect. That is, my mental grammar was again a documentation of the results of language processes, not the actual processes. There may be no way around this. However, there is one thing we can take into account: In teaching grammar, is our goal to transfer that retrospective mental model? Or to cause the spontaneous recreation of its results? Is the better grammar the one that properly analyzes how a language works? Or the one whose reader produces sentences that don't sound odd to the ears of native speakers?

I've written about Michel Thomas here before. And I doubtless will again. For today, though, I'd like to point to would-be-descendants of Thomas. Over at HTLAL, there has been a group effort to imagine what it would have looked like if Thomas had bothered to do a decent treatment of cases in his German course. The focus is on cases and the old line divisions like articles, adjectives, etc are in there. But there's something else: An effort to get you to easily and automatically create proper German sentences because you have assimilated the patterns, as opposed to having understood and memorized them. It is a step away from the piece of paper documenting language and a step toward language learning as a means of learning to use language. The discussion is still ongoing and the treatment of the case system still a work in progress. But if you'd like some exposure to a better way of thinking about cases in German, I recommend it. Even moreso, I'd recommend it for the chance to see some sharp people looking for a different way of thinking about teaching language. The thread is here.

Snowy Hillside 2

December 4, 2010 - What accent do you have?

Going through Assimil's L'Alsacien sans peine, one of the amusing points are the frequent references to how Alsatian words or phrasings show up in French as spoken in the Alsace region. Contrariwise, the French accent shows up in the Alsatian of Strassbourg, where there's a tendency, for example, to pronounce "ch" like French (English "sh") rather than German (like in "Bach").

Accents are funny things. When I went to France for the first time, I lived in Britanny. Early on, in a language class, they taught us that in Bretagne they still distinguished certain vowels that had leveled out in Parisian French. This was a real problem for fellow students who had learned their French from Paris-born teachers. But I learned my French from an American-born teacher who took "language vacations" in Nantes, a couple hours from Rennes, where I lived. For me, the local vowel system was what I'd always known, and I never could figure out the smaller Parisian vowel inventory - I couldn't keep track of which vowel collapsed into which.

Periodically, you'll run across the question of learning a language with one accent instead of another (Québecois rather than Parisian, for example). I suspect it's a moot point. You speak the way you're used to encountering the language, which means for self-study you'll wind up with Parisian for French, and Midwestern or Received Pronunciation for English (depending on whether you go for American or British materials). And if you study your language in a native context and you want to sound a certain way, you'd better go where they speak that way to study. My time learning proper pronunciation in language lab was nice, but it couldn't compete with all those hours talking and listening to the local pronunciation at dinnertime.

Speaking of accents, I ran across this thread at HTLAL where people were taking quizzes to identify which American accent they had. It's not perfect, but it's amazing how well a lot of people can be pinned down in less than 20 questions. Below are my results for two quizzes and links to take the quizzes yourself. Try it to check its accuracy if you're American. And if you're not, try it to see whether your understanding of American English pronunciation really lines up with the standard (that of Pennsylvania and Ohio, called the Midland in the first quiz) or a different variant.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Northeast
The Midland
The South
North Central
The West
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz
What American accent do you have?
Created by Xavier on

Northern. Whether you have the world famous Inland North accent of the Great Lakes area, or the radio-friendly sound of upstate NY and western New England, your accent is what used to set the standard for American English pronunciation (not much anymore now that the Inland North sounds like it does).

If you are not from the North, you are probably one of the following:
(a) A Southerner who hates Southern accents and tries really hard to "talk right"; or
(b) A New Yorker or New Jerseyan who doesn't have the full accent

Take this quiz now - it's easy!
We're going to start with "cot" and "caught." When you say those words do they sound the same or different?

Fall Colors - Swarm of Yellow Leaves

December 1, 2010 - Update

In the last few weeks, I've been working along on a couple of projects. The first of these, about which I've written before, is the Assimil experiment. I've now entered the Active Phase, where you try to come up with the target language, not just understand it. It's amazing how quickly old passages come back when you turn back to them. More surprising is how much you've come to take for granted features of the language that seemed alien at the time. This is not to say that all is remembered, just that an awful lot has sunk in. Interesting.

My second experiment is a little more novel. Some time ago, a poster at HTLAL was looking for an unusual method for learning a language. I suggested that since the teacher is supposed to learn more than the student, perhaps he should write a course for the language he was studying.

I first picked up a book about Sanskrit nearly 20 years ago, and have puttered around with Vedic Sanskrit off and on for the last two years or so. Deciding that looking through passages and convincing myself I'd understood "enough" wasn't adequate, I dusted off that idea of writing a course to teach yourself. Whether it will turn into a stack of notes to be discarded or an actual book only time will tell, but I've started imagining and laying out a course for easing into Vedic Sanskrit by way of reading the first hymn of the Rig Veda.

Struggling with an element of the language you are learning? Stop trying to learn it and imagine teaching it instead. Do what you need to do and read what you need to read until you know enough that you think you could explain the concepts to someone else.