Saturday, July 05, 2008

Notes on Language Learning and Breton

Language Learning

1. Acting as if... and believing it!
Every now and again, there's some chatter about polyglots past and present. And as soon as the polyglots show up, there are others who will notice the polyglot doesn't speak their language that well. But if you know a language perfectly and never open your mouth, then the person who knows four words poorly and deploys them wherever possible is ahead of you. Likewise, the polyglots who aren't really fluent in twenty languages but can make a reasonable effort at communicating ought be given their due. And we can learn from them: Thinking you're a polyglot won't make you a polyglot, of course. But thinking you're not a polyglot will assure you don't become one.

One of the contradictions of language learning is that you have to have the humility to demure about your abilities yet be willing to put them on display. Je parle français... un peu. Hablo español... un poquito... This requires maintaining a different internal conversation from what you project to the outside world. You need to tell yourself Je parle français très bien so that you'll feel comfortable speaking up even as the words coming out of your mouth tell your interlocutor the absurd Je ne parle pas français, pas vraiment - which is an obvious contradiction.

The point here is to watch your internal conversations closely. Because while you don't want to be one of those polyglots about whom native speakers say "He doesn't really speak my language," you do want to have that confidence that allows you to believe in yourself, believe in your skills and believe in the work you've put in.

Do you find yourself saying I'll never speak... or I just can't find the time to study or This is too hard for me... Or any of the other excuses we make to ourselves for not doing our best? Once you decide to learn a language, you should commit yourself to being an improving speaker of the language - humble about your talents, but not utterly dismissive of them. Keep a healthy internal dialog and things will come more naturally since your feelings about the challenges of learning won't be getting in the way of the actual learning.

Speaking of which...

2. Getting back into learning
Over at the Cunning Linguist, there's a short note on the pain of getting back into language learning when you've been away for a while. If there's one thing harder than sticking to your routine when life gets busy, it's getting back in the groove when things settle down. But the right attitude can help.

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but if not, it's worth checking out the courses at Wikiversity. Here's the Language School. And here's the Breton page. Note that for some reason, the Breton lessons are much more developed than for some other languages. Depending on your language, this may be a pleasant surprise or something rather less.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Getting Back to Work

The other day, I mentioned that I'd sort of stalled on my Breton sans peine and needed to get back to it. The challenge is that I'd been hitting some passages where Breton really thinks things through differently from English - sentences like this:

Hag ur wech erruet en e gampr,
And one time arrived in his room,
e salaou gant dudi
listens (to) with pleasure
ar pennadoù bet enrollet gantañ
the conversations been recorded with him
war seizenn e vagnetofon.
on tape (of) his recorder.

Once he's back in his room, he listens with pleasure to the conversations he's recorded on the tape in his recorder.

Of course we string together long sentences in English too, but we have a different notion of how the pieces fit together. Breton loves to use "conjugated prepositions" - prepositions marked for person, number and (for 3rd person singular) gender - to link up bit of sentences, for example.

Given time, of course, one can not only break down individual sentences but also develop an eye (and maybe one day an ear!) for relating the elements more automatically. The hard part is getting through to that stage. Looking for some way to keep myself moving through the readings while getting something from it, I started thinking about Professor Arguelles' Scriptorium. Says the good professor:
The whole purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to slow down and pay attention to detail. This is the stage at which you should check all unknowns in grammars or dictionaries...
This is exactly what I needed - to slow myself down and think through what I was reading without descending into grammar-translation.

Professor Arguelles' exercise, of course, is for regular use in language learning, and if you've the time and patience I commend his advice to you for broader application. That said, I think this works even for specific passages because it gets you more wholly involved in working with the language - physically manifesting it almost - so that you don't just keep skimming over bits you don't quite get until you suddenly realize you're not quite getting any of it.

One other thing: This exercise, and indeed numerous other exercises, may not be for you when you're stalled. What's important is that somewhere out there, there probably is something that will work for you, or at least that can be modified for you. So check out the links on this site, and on all the other sites, and keep in mind what you're reading. As long as you keep working with the language and keep building on what you're learning you will progress, whatever the tools you use.

So if you're here to kill some time after doing your lessons, take a little time to visit Professor Arguelles's site and see if there's something else you might want to make use of in your learning. But if you're here because you wanted to do something language related but just don't have the heart to crack open your book or listen to your CDs right now, make an extra special point of looking at the Scriptorium and Shadowing technique and maybe at a few other sites till you find something you haven't tried before, or haven't tried in a while. And then, get back to work.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Breton resources

For the past few weeks, I've been working back through Le Breton sans peine from the beginning. I'm back up to chapter 18. Since this is about the third time I've gone through the first 3 weeks, I'm getting pretty clear on what I've covered so far. Of course I'm not following the instructions as well as I might. I should just push through the passive phase so that I can get started on the active phase. But because Breton is so different, structure wise, from the other languages I've studied, this seems to me to provide a little bit of security: even if I haven't learned a lot, I've learned a little bit well. On the other hand, I've been spending a fair amount of time looking for and making use of other resources. My favorite, which I've mentioned before, is But I've stumbled upon some others and thought I'd post it here so that I'll remember where to find them. If you're learning Breton or another Celtic language, there might be something of interest:

1) An English language online course with recorded dialogues.

2) Gwalarn's intro to Breton: An intro to Breton vocab, and to Breton's place in the Celtic family. (In French)

3) Ar bed keltiek (Celtic world): A nice spot to find out about Breton books and courses.

4) Breton-French-English Dictionary: The interface isn't great, but lots of good info.

5) Breton expressions: Nice interface for practicing some basic phrases. Be sure to use the drop-down for other categories of expressions.

6) Lexilogos Breton: Lots of great links to Breton resources.

7) Lexilogos Bible texts: links to the Bible in lots of languages, including Breton.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Breton and Breton Heritage

For those learning Breton, the resources are few and far between. There are two good places to go, however. If you speak French, there's a tricky to use but relatively thorough dictionary at And for Breton phrases, lessons and stories, there's

Naming a site after Kervarker is interesting. Kervarker is a Breton rendering of the name Villemarque: kêr = village, and note how the "m" in marque mutates to a "v" - these initial mutations, of which Breton has multiple types, are part of what makes learning Celtic languages such a joy. In the 19th century, Villemarque gathered a lot of folk songs (including the "Marzhin, Marzhin...") and noted them down to preserve a bit of the old Breton heritage. On the other hand, some suggest that he gussied them up a bit to fit with French notions of what good folk poetry ought to look like. So he preserved his vision of the old Breton heritage, perhaps. Still,, like Kervarker before, is doing a nice turn to keep Breton available for the interested.

(For all your island Celtic tongues, of course, visit the Omniglot.)


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ar Broella

The Broella is a funeral rite for islanders from the Ile de Ouessant who are lost at sea. Dan Ar Braz wrote a song about it that appears on Finisterres - which features a few songs in Irish and Breton. Below are the third, fourth and last verses in Breton with my translation (pieced together from the Breton and the included French translation):

Kalon digor er mor
Ken leun a vuhez
Laosket en donder
Tre daouarn an noz

Heart open to the sea
A heart so full of life
Left behind in the depths
In the hands of the night

D'ar vro out distro
Gant ar groas wenn
Laouenn o'h adkavout
Hent an enezenn

To your country returned
With the white cross' aid
Glad to find once again
Your old island's way

Ken gwenn eo ar groas
'Vit ar Broella
Ken gwenn hag al leor
A zerron ennon

So white is the cross
For the Broella
As white as the book
That I close within

A little vocabulary for those interested in Celtic languages:
kalon - heart (cardio-); mor - sea (Fr. mer); buhez - life; laosket - left (Fr. laisser); noz - night (Lat. nox); bro - country; kroas - cross (Fr. croix); gwenn - white (Guinevere means "white wave"); leor (levr) - book (Fr. livre)


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Finding Inspiration...

The other day, I mentioned a poem in Breton. Here is the poem, with my loose English rendering:

Merzhin Divinour
Merzhin, Merzhin, pelec'h it-hu
Ken beure-se gant ho ki du?
Bet on bet kass kaout an tu,
Da gaout dre-mañ ar vi ruz,
Ar vi ruz eus an naer-vorek
War lez an aod, toull ar garreg.
Mont a ran da glask d'ar flourenn
Ar beler glas hag an aour yeoten,
Koulz hag uhel-varr an dervenn
E-kreiz ar c'hoad, lez ar feunteun.

Divine Merlin
Merlin, Merlin, where goest thou
This early morn, with thy black hound?
I am just come from the seacoast,
Where I went seeking the red egg -
The red egg of the sea dragon,
Laid at shore in a rock hollow.
Now I go to search the meadow
For blue cress and the golden herb.
Then I shall gather mistletoe
In the forest by the fountain.

While translation isn't the best way to learn a foreign language, sometimes it's nice to find something above your level and get a sense for it. It's one more opportunity to get the language running through your mind and make the culture a part of you. And thanks to Google, it's easy to find a short sample in just about any language.


Friday, October 05, 2007

Another Approach to Celtic...

Today I ran across the Ogmios Project, a website to help pagans learn about Celtic languages so they can get a better feel for the culture of the original druids. The site features analyses of poems in a variety of Celtic languages, and a limited bit of information about learning Irish. Most interesting, though, was this article about getting in touch with native speakers of Celtic languages. The advice is geared to avoiding kerfuffles with people who might not appreciate pagans, but there are useful reminders about comporting oneself properly in another language and culture that apply to all language learners.

For me, the point of interest was this article, which introduces a bit of Breton verse about Merlin. I spent a semester in Brittany/Bretagne/Breizh and while there found the time to visit what is reputed to be Merlin's grave. So it was fun to get to work through a poem imagining a short conversation with him.