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.

Breton
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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Monday, June 16, 2008

Language Immersion

Whenever I read about language immersion, I wonder if we maybe shouldn't teach people to drive by putting them in a car, sending them out on the freeway and seeing what happens. That's what language immersion is the way that some would go about it.

A couple weeks ago, the LinguistBlogger put up his thoughts on the matter. His suggestion: Language immersion is something you do after you understand the fundamentals:
If you don’t have enough desire to get at least to a solid 2 [limited proficiency] in the target language before you start your language immersion it’s doubtful that you will get much better than that. I recommend getting to a 3 [proficiency] which is entirely possible for most languages. Getting to a 3 first will make it so getting to a 4 [advanced proficiency] in the foreign country becomes very doable and even fun and enjoyable.
The problem is that if you don't have a decent handle on things before you go for the immersion, 1) you won't know what to listen for and build on and 2) you'll probably play it safe, avoiding those linguistic situations that will make you grow.

When I went to France, I had a fair amount of French under my belt. And I lived with a family. So I went from, say, 2 1/2 to 4. I had friends in my program with weaker backgrounds who got a little better at everyday stuff but never took it to the next level. For my part, I came to California at about a level 1 in Spanish. While I talk on a regular basis with native Spanish speakers, my Spanish improves or falters based much more on whether I've been studying than the degree of interaction. At my level, language immersion mainly activates what I know latently but I'm not plugged in enough to automatically assimilate things as they come up.

I've been a big booster of Assimil on this page, and I'd toss out this one point: While raw immersion is a bad idea for beginners, it's a slightly different story with guided immersion. Because of the way we learn and use language, the old grammar translation is usually better for laying the foundation to learn to speak naturally than for actually speaking naturally. But if you intend to "pick up" a language, what you pick up will be sorely limited by the sophistication you bring to the operation. Best to find a method where you work with real language but in a format that eases you into it and helps keep you up to speed with what's going on. If you can find a method where the end of the book looks incomprehensible but the level of difficulty between chapters 1 and 2 is negligible, you might just have something that can take you by the hand and lead you into the language at a pace where one day you'll be ready for a real immersion. Then all you need is the will to keep working with it till you get there.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Gratitude, Inspiration and Language Learning

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

- Tennyson's "Ulysses"

In the last week or so, I've been thinking about the different methods I've used for study, and the different languages I've studied. This started when, via the Omniglot, I visited Professor Arguelles's website. Among other things, he talks about the languages he's stuck with, and the languages he's had to abandon. While I haven't gone nearly so far as the professor, I couldn't help but think, Yeah, me too, as he talked about the realization that maybe you can't learn 'em all, and about letting go of something in which you've invested a lot of time.

The life of a language learner can get frustrating. First you get bogged down with a method that's not working for you. Then you find something that works better and take stock of the time wasted. But it probably doesn't work that way. And even if it does, it's best not to think of it that way.

With Breton, I started with some resources that just didn't work for me, including Colloquial Breton. There was too much grammar and too much enumeration of rules. Assimil has treated me much better. On the other hand, I got the Colloquial Breton because I wasn't picking up what was in the Assimil. The Colloquial book didn't teach me Breton, nor even the grammar. But it gave me enough warning that on my next effort with Assimil I had a better idea what I was looking at. At least, telling myself this, I am reminded of the value of using multiple methods and am able to treat my efforts with Breton as a steady if slow progression.

The same thing goes for the multiple languages I've studied over the years. Spending a summer with Arabic twenty years ago (was it really twenty?) did not make me a fluent Arabic speaker. But it expanded the world I lived in. It exposed me to the idea of languages with a completely different writing system and grammar from English. It pointed me toward a new culture. And it gave me an entrée into Persian and the Turkic languages. Not that I'm fluent in any of these. But with every language I've studied, there have come new cultures, new worlds, new ways of thinking.

I've written a lot in the past about attitude. One of the problems you run into with language learning is is getting on the right track when you've been on the wrong track. Taking a moment to take full measure of what you've learned can put things in perspective and carry you forward. So remember that whether you're moving to a new book or a new language, or even giving a language up, it's key to keep your eye on that expanded world that your efforts have brought you. Then keep moving forward.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Language Habit

We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

-Aristotle

In the last few days, I've found myself drifting more and more to kervarker.org, more and more picking up my Barzaz Breizh, more and more skimming my other Breton resources. And each time I do so, things come a little more naturally. Last night, I picked up the Assimil Breton sans peine and read through the first ten dialogs with as much ease as I read Spanish, a language far more familiar and that I've studied a lot longer. Is my competency in Breton anywhere close to my competence in Spanish? Of course not. But it is improving. And it is not improving by leaps and bounds because of some new miracle course. It's improving steadily by steady effort.

So for this weekend, there are no new earthshaking secrets to share. But there is one old and earthshaking secret too often forgotten about all aspects of our lives: If you work at doing something as well as you can and consistently, you are on the way to excellence. So whatever your method or technique for learning language these days, stick to it. If it fits with what you're trying to achieve, you'll soon be on your way.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Orality and Literacy: Why reading isn't enough

Hit befel in the dayes of Vther Pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond...
- Opening to Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

Those with a little Middle English know that this says, "It befell (came to pass) in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England..." A native speaker of English, reading aloud, could figure it out. A new student of English, dictionary in hand, would be up the proverbial creek. For modern English, this isn't that big a deal. Nor French, nor Spanish, nor Italian. These languages all have pretty standardized spelling and grammar rules. (Except that the English learner still needs to figure out things like buy/bought, swim/swam/swum etc.)

Unfortunately, not all languages are quite so simple. Even working with relatively recent materials, one finds multiple ways of writing the multiple dialects of Breton. With languages like Arabic, you have to know the words because the vowels aren't indicated. And in Japanese, when you encounter a kanji, you have to know the word to know which reading to use. Which points to a problem we run into in teaching: Writing isn't actually language. It's a way of recording a close enough approximation to what is said that a native speaker can reproduce it in his or her own mind.

When I first started learning Breton, I was continually baffled. Every time I looked at a new text or textbook, I was at a loss. When I looked up words in the dictionary, they weren't there. And then I got a little bit of vocabulary - just enough to be dangerous - and listened to some recordings at kervarker.org and all of a sudden I had a sense of what was going on and under what other headings to look things up if my first dictionary searches came up empty.

As you learn your new language, enjoy your reading, of course. But be sure to get some audio content as well, so that you can be sure to truly get the language going in your brain.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

What is language learning?

The other day, a client of mine asked if it would be profitable to work on vocabulary and verb conjugations outside of class since "it's just memorization."

I responded, and with a bit more vehemence than is the norm for me, "No, it's habit formation."

Often, we think of language as something we know. It's actually something that we do. Yes, working through language requires a large body of knowledge. But it's the application of that knowledge over and over that enables one to communicate - an action verb - and to tailor one's communication on the fly.

For language learning, it's good to know the rules and to have a way to know what's going on. But in the end, one excels in learning language but using language, the same way one learns to ride a bike by riding a bike. The virtue of systems like Steve's beloved Lingq, then, are that they provide a form of training wheels for making real and extensive use of language. Assimil does something similar.

This weekend, thinking about what I had said about language learning as habit formation, I reminded myself that I should maybe engage in the language habit myself. So I went to Project Gutenberg and found a book in Breton. I fussed for a while, looking up a few words and figuring out sentences here and there. And when I later went over to kervarker.org, I discovered that some of the sentence patterns that had annoyed me no longer did so. It's not that I knew them cold or instantly understood. But they were a little more familiar. And so I did some reading and exercises and found that my Breton brain was a little stronger - I did all the fill-in-the-blank and put-the-words-in-the-right-order exercises correctly and with relative ease. I also read a little Italian at Project Gutenberg (Collodi's translation of Perrault's Le Chat botté), and found my Italian flowing a little bit better.

So, to answer my title question - What is language learning? Language learning is the formation of habits for communication and understanding. Like any complex set of tasks, the more you use language, the surer your ability to perform. So keep reading, keep listening, keep speaking and keep writing. And if you, like me, want to search for that fast and easy way to learn, don't forget that in the end it's only by keeping at it that you'll truly build and maintain fluency.

Alas.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Vary your resources for more effective learning

This week, via Amazon, I got Colloquial Breton. A lot of the material in the opening chapters is familiar from my reading of the Assimil Breton sans peine. But I'm a little clearer on what's going on with the language.

When I took French in high school, the course was very much grammar-translation, and as a result, my speech was far from fluid when I hit university. But I had a core knowledge of French just waiting to be activated, and between university courses and living in France, the French language became a part of me.

With Breton, I've sort of been doing it the other way around - I've seen a bit of what the language looks like on the surface, but with only a limited view of the structure underneath. This works for some people and some languages. It doesn't work so well for me. I've learned a tremendous amount from the Assimil and from working through poems I've found online. Leafing through the dialogs in my new book, I'm astonished at how much is familiar. But I haven't known what to do with that knowledge.

Working in a language school, I often run into people who think they know more than they do. Because they recognize most of the words, they think they are ready to study something else - that they need more challenging comprehensible input. But comprehension doesn't rest in words alone. Knowing what's going on at the structural level (is the verb indicative or subjunctive, past or present, eg) conveys a lot of information about how to evaluate what's going on with the vocabulary elements. And that's been lacking - I've known what was being talked about, but not how it was being talked about. While the Colloquial Breton course is far from perfect, it gives me another window on the language, so that I can see it at another angle.

I might have said this before (eye roll) but... Whatever language you're learning, it's a good idea to have multiple resources, that way when something is giving you trouble, you can go back to something easier with another book, or learn about the concept that's giving you trouble from another perspective. To this longstanding suggestion, I would add that it's a good idea to have at least one grammar focused resource and one everyday usage resource, if possible, so that you can get a sense for how the language is supposed to work, as well as a feel for how it works in practice.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Christmas Shopping and Language Learning

For the Language GeekTM(x2?) in your family, the Cunning Linguist has some gift recommendations, along with links for some discount offers. Check it out for yourself or your loved ones.

While the Cunning Linguist has some top-notch offers, there are cheaper alternatives. LeTutor has a nice bit on his favorite language tools - pen and paper!

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Learning Language One Sentence at a Time

It seems a given that in learning a language it's important to practice, to speak aloud, etc. But there's an element that gets missed too often - the importance of approaching language as a vehicle for uttering complete thoughts. You'll find fill-in-the-blank drills, translations and such in most language textbooks. But at the back, what do you have? A glossary and verb conjugations (and sometimes noun declensions). At the beginning or end of the chapter, there's a vocabulary. And in the middle, there's usually ten pages of morphology for every page of syntax. These things are useful for learning about a language and decoding what's going on in a language with which you have some familiarity. But do they teach you the language per se?

I've written about Anki earlier. In the past few weeks, it's helped me do a better job of studying my Mandarin and Italian. But there's one change I've made from my usual flashcard preparation that has also helped: Almost half my cards are full sentences. And having those complete sentences is making me think about how the language goes together and get a much better handle on what's going on than if I tried, per tradition, to start with vocabulary, adjust with morphology and arrange with syntax. Just like English, my sentences come as one piece, even if they are few in number.

When you learned your own language, you did not follow the vocabulary, morphology, syntax sequence per se. You just returned the sounds that were made at you. Of course it took you a long time to decode, and of course you're free to consult the handbooks if a point is really confusing you. But to improve automacity in your language, it might be helpful to stop making word lists and start making sentence lists. For example, here is an old form word list:

questo - this (m), libro - book (m), essere - to be, è - is, azzurro - blue, giallo - yellow, questa - this (f), sedia - chair (f)

You can then learn the pattern "x è y" = "x is y" while remembering that adjectives and demonstrative adjectives agree in number and gender with the nouns to which they refer. And then you can forever drill these constituent elements.

Or you can learn four sentences:
Questo libro è azzuro = This book is blue
Questo libro è giallo = This book is yellow
Questa sedia è azzurra = This chair is blue
Questa sedia è gialla = This chair is yellow

Now, if I tell you that the word for box is scatola, you should be able to quickly come up with:
Questa scatola è azzurra = This box is blue
Questa scatola è gialla = This box is yellow

And if I add that black is nero, you can add:
Questo libro è nero = This book is black
Questa sedia è nera = This chair is black
Questa scatola è nera = This box is black

This would be true whether you learned in pieces or by playing with fully formed sentences. The difference is that if you're playing with fully formed sentences then when you want to say something is black, you'll be used to saying Questo ... è nero and Questa ... è nera with no thought. You'll make the whole sentence agree with the noun, instead of the individual words one by one.

Now, I'm not saying you have to learn every vocabulary item as part of a fully-formed sentence or that you have to drill yourself on every sentence type with all the words you can plug into it. But if you devote a good portion of your drilling, say 25%-30%, to fully formed stock sentences, it will help you make your new language something that flows more naturally, rather than that comes out haltingly and in disconnected bits and pieces. If you're doing okay on word tests but can't talk, give this a try.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Learning 2.0, etc, etc, etc

On Chinese Quest (found at Dragon Fruit), I stumbled upon a couple of posts from earlier this month (including this one) about something called Learning 2.0. And here I've been stuck on Learning 1.1.7 all this time. (a joke) Actually, I think I've run across the idea a few other places, but John had a nice explanation of how to make the most of the Learning 2.0 thing:
When you boil it down, L2.0 is about the learner being in control of his education. Sure, the concept gets tied to Web 2.0 tools like blogging, wikis, etc., but the meat and potatoes of the philosophy is choice. It isn't about message boards, networking, or being an ultra hip techie (though that is fun). It's about making your own decisions about what you learn, when you learn it, and how. And the material sticks because you learn it when you're ready to.
I think there's only one problem with Learning 2.0, and it's the same problem - or should I say delightful complication - we're going to see with Web 2.0 and all the other stuff: It's not just about choice. It's also about serendipity. The explosion of the web hasn't just given us language lessons online, it's given us shows to watch in the language we're learning and articles to read and music to listen to. And it has put us all, I think, in the position of the Russian immigrant in an American supermarket circa 1985 - there's too much choice to choose.

Now is not just a time to take control of your learning. Now is a time to have fun! It used to be said that when the student was ready, the master would appear. That seems to be what's going on when "the material sticks because you learn it when you're ready to." But we've got lots of masters to choose from these days. How many google hits does your language choice bring up? Don't waste your time studying with something that will make you resent your learning time instead of celebrating it.

This brings us to a second post from John, here, in which he laments not sticking with his FSI course. I think that by the first post I've pointed to, he realizes that he doesn't have to push forward with a course that isn't working for him, and that he would be pushing forward with if it were. One of the things we language learners get hung up on - it's the subject of the post - is persistence. But it's important to remember to stick with your language, not with a method. In the past, successful language learners were those who could sit down with a book or a program and work all the way through. But we're in a multi-tasking, multi-source, multi-everything world, which means that those who succeed today are going to be those who find the love for the language and the persisting desire to learn sufficient to keep looking for something new to try so that they keep learning without burning out.

Recently I've been fussing with Anki, as I've mentioned below. And right now, I love it. I've learned (and re-learned) a lot of Chinese and found a way to enjoy reviewing some Italian that I need to get a better handle on but kept getting bored to tears trying to work through. Does this mean that everybody should use Anki? Does this even mean that I'll be sticking with Anki in 6 months? Anki is a good fit for what I needed to work on right now to build a bridge to whatever it is that I'm going to do next. It might be right for you too. But be sure to keep your eye on the ball: the language. Make sure you're having fun. Make sure you've got a program that will keep you spending some time with the language every day, rather than promising yourself you'll do twice as much tomorrow to make up for skipping. And remember that in most cases, language learning is a lifelong journey, so don't be discouraged if you're feeling discouraged. Look for a new direction.

There is one thing that Learning 1.0 and Learning 2.0, and Learning 3.0 to come, I'm sure, have in common. And that is one fundamental choice: The choice to keep learning or to give up. With all the new choices Learning 2.0 brings, make sure to make the right choice about this one and your other choices will have a way of taking care of themselves for you.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Deconstructing Languages and Minimizing Learning Time

One of the challenges for the would-be polyglot is figuring out how to use your time well. This is already an issue for a person who is only learning one language and for the very practical purpose of preparing to live in another country, carry on a relationship with someone from another country or work with people from another country. But if you're just learning languages because it's neat to know them or to get along a little more easily in places where you could survive with just your native tongue, that takes a mixture of extra internal motivation and a good enough system to get the results to keep that motivation going.

I have the good fortune to work in a language school. This means that I can swap pleasantries with French, Spanish, German, Italian and Mandarin teachers, occasionally clarify something for a confused student and, to put it honestly, show off what I've learned before beating a hasty retreat if the conversation goes over my head. (Fortunately, the phones ring all the time.) But lots of people have to take more trouble than I do to get a chance to converse with people who speak a variety of languages. And then come the questions: How many should I learn? Which ones? How well? How hard will I have to study?

There are sites like How to Learn Any Language that provide some good advice for the would-be polyglot. But if you're looking for a quick and dirty approach, you know the Four-Hour Workweek guy is going to have one. And so, here's Tim Ferris' Guide to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in Hour, Part 1. Says Tim, just 6 sentences, translated, plus one or two more, can show you what you're in for. And the sentences he's picked, properly translated, really can tell you an awful lot about an awful lot of languages: Are there declensions (like Russian and German)? Is negation done with a freestanding word or is it built into the verb (like Turkish and Japanese)? Are verb conjugations minor affairs (like English), or are they complicated by person and number (most European languages) or even gender (like Arabic and Hebrew)? Are modals (can, would, will) freestanding (Germanic languages, usually), sometimes built into the verb (Romance languages have subjunctive and conditional built into the verb, but can, must and should aren't) or pretty much part of what you have to learn in the verb tables (Turkic languages)? With Tim's sentences, you can learn a lot about how the language works, and help you make a more educated guess about whether you're really looking at a language you want to add to your collection.

One thing Tim's post didn't cover, alas, is how to learn, as opposed to evaluating, a new language. Hopefully, that will be coming up soon. Still, have a look. If you're thinking about learning a new language, there's good advice. And if you're struggling, you might just have an a-ha moment about why you can't get the knack for a certain structure or type of sentence and how to rethink it.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Play Reading and Habit Forming

In the last week or so, life's been pretty busy, so I haven't pushed as far forward with Breton as I would like. But that doesn't mean I've stopped. Rather, I've been re-reading lessons, including some that I did quite some time ago.

Often in book-centered households, the children will insist upon sitting with their book for reading time, even if they cannot read, or cannot read at the level of the book they're looking at. This can be more productive than one would think: It helps form the physical habit of spending time with books. What's most amusing, though, is to listen to the child reading aloud a story so often heard that all the words are known, even if the child has no ability to actually read them. At some level, I imagine, this helps.

Foreign language learners aren't in quite the same boat, but it is likely they'll be spending some time with books they can only read because they've already read them - or, rather, worked through select passages before. This is somewhat like talking to yourself - you're unlikely to learn anything you didn't already know. But in talking to ourselves, we sometimes realize which of the things we already knew was important and that leads to new insights. In the same way, reading what we've already read won't teach us anything new, but it might help us understand something we already knew better.

I'm learning Breton with Assimil, and since I'm at the start of the game I've developed an awareness of how changes occur at the beginnings of words without learning rules expressly. But with re-reading, grooves are nonetheless being laid down. For example, teacher is kelenner. But I will never say "Ma kelenner" for my teacher. I've read "ma c'helenner" enough times that the words flow naturally, even though I don't officially know the rule for the change. Especially for languages that work differently from your own, play-reading with texts you can already understand is a good idea then, that way you're saying what you've already said 100 times when you make your own sentences, not trying to remember tables. And once you've read enough snippets, instead of getting stuck in "Me - Tarzan, you - Jane" language, you'll have some good, fully formed thoughts to use as your language building blocks.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary

It seems fair to say that an important part of progressing in a language is comprehensible input. The hard part is that you already have to know some of the language, or there won't be much input that's comprehensible. This leads to the question of how you get there. With Breton, I've found that the more I learn, the more I can figure out. Not only within the confines of Assimil, but also when looking at song lyrics, poetry and the lessons I've found online, I keep finding little bits of the language that are familiar enough for the idea of learning this language to seem not quite so preposterous.

I notice now that Steve has put "Learn words, lots of words," at the top of his list for things to do to learn language efficiently.

The one issue I run into is, which words? I've noticed that when you look at things like the 100 most frequent words in English or Chinese, there's a lot of grammar woven in. Whether you're talking "a," "the" and "is" in English or "hao," "shi" and "de" in Mandarin, there's the problem that the words that top the frequency tables 1) do not line up with vocabulary items in other languages and 2) require a certain degree of savvy in the language. In the past, the grammar translation method tried to deal with this by giving you the rules for constructing, but with the material offered by grammar point. The direct method tries to walk you through using the language authentically. It would be nice to find a middle ground where you were taught, for example:

1) greetings, used authentically
2) simple sentences - this is nice, this is big, this is expensive...
3) buying things - please, thank you and I'll take...
4) simple sentences with comparative and adjectives - I'll take a smaller one, I'll take a red one...

The basic idea would be to alternate real language and simplified structures that let you say a little more, functionally if less than elegantly. In this way, you could expand the range of comprehensible input more quickly. Some of the Teach Yourself books follow this track, too many don't. The closest I've seen as far as the grammatical part of this goes would be the See It and Say It In... series by Margarita Madrigal. Wish they made 'em for Mandarin and Breton...

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Learning with Minimal Effort...

The other day, Edwin remarked upon learning languages the hard way, then cast doubts on some of the minimal effort approaches, including sleep learning. He's right, of course. But I wish he weren't. But there's a secondary issue that comes up with effortless learning: it's not always so effortless.

As a student of hypnosis, I was curious what the alternative, hypnopaedia, would have to offer. So I've been reading about sleep learning. It's true, of course, that we hear and react to things in our sleep. A mother will wake when her baby cries. And most of us awaken when the alarm clock goes off. Yet we don't awaken for the even louder train that goes by every night at midnight, or the sound of the next door neighbor's teenager pulling in at 1 a.m. On the other hand, we do integrate some of that information into dreams. So, then, can you learn in your sleep?

As a general rule, we don't remember our dreams. But things that come up later may spur us to remember them. Slipping foreign language into your dreamland might hold some potential for reinforcement, then, but I think you'll probably have to start with study in your waking hours. Alas.

That said, I've been a bit under the weather, so when I lie down, I've been putting on Berlitz Think and Talk cassettes, just to see what happens. I'm under the impression that when I drift off, I'm not learning much if anything - though sleep learning advocates advise to keep it simple and repetitive, which this isn't. On the other hand, it feels perfectly natural to wake up to people speaking simplified Italian.

Tonight, I've put some other foreign language stuff onto an MP3 player. We'll see if it sticks.

My advice: It seems unlikely that putting on a CD when you go to sleep and hoping for the best is the way to learn a foreign language. But to take advantage of your time drifting off to sleep from theta to delta - meditating on the day gone by to actual sleep - it wouldn't hurt to make a bit of simple foreign language the last thing you hear before you hit your first deep sleep. Just keep it simple, since you're in a receiving, not processing, state. In other words, if you've already got an MP3 player, it won't hurt anything to listen and it will quite possibly even help. But to take full advantage of the fun and excitement of learning a new language, you probably ought to try it while you're awake!

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Staying a Polyglot...

In my last post, I wrote about what makes for a polyglot. In it, I looked at Tim Ferriss' idea that it's better to have a basic idea about a language in mind and refresh before a trip than to try to maintain multiple languages. From a practical standpoint, if his refresh methods work for you and you don't need to be able to immediately use all the languages you've learned, it is an awful lot to maintain languages. From the point of view of pride, however, if you assert you're a polyglot, mention you speak German and have somebody come back at you with a well-chosen phrase in German, it's going to be ego-wounding not to have a response.

In discussion forums for polyglots, new language learners always wonder how many languages they should try to learn at once. And great argument ensues over whether mastering a family of tongues will reinforce or distract from the learning. But there's another question: How many languages should you maintain at once?

If you look up famous polyglots, you find occasional references to someone having known x number of languages but needing some time to refresh if asked to use one of the odder selections. I'd propose that the typical language addict is going to wind up studying a lot more languages than he or she will actually learn. I've read Hans Christian Andersen in the original. It doesn't mean I know Danish today. I've read the opening of the Iliad by way of Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek. Don't ask me to translate it for you this evening, though. So, if you visit the main page for multilingua.info, you'll find lots of languages and you'll find a reference in my bio to some of the languages I'd played with at the time I started the site. How many languages do I know? Four: English - native; French - pretty darn good; Spanish - I read fairly easily and can limp through a conversation; Italian - I can handle basic conversations and my reading isn't bad. For the record, I can also buy a meal or get a room in Beijing, but I'll have no idea what I actually paid for it. My goal, for the short term, is to speak five languages - the aforementioned - reasonably well. And I'd like to learn some more. How to go about that?

In the past few months, I've really become a fan of Assimil. It's not that they're a panacea. But they do provide a lot of content, good explanations, and a format where once you've learned the lessons you can cover up the translations and tackle the language head on. So for the past week, I have been reading one chapter a day from Using French, L'italien sans peine, L'espagnol sans peine and Chinese with Ease. (I've also been limping through a chapter of Le breton sans peine about every other day.) At the same time, I've been making a point of listening to music in French, Spanish and Italian at least a couple times a week, with Chinese music thrown in when I'm in the mood. On the one hand, it sounds suspiciously like pretending to be a polyglot. On the other hand, all the "getting ahead" books tell you to "act as if..." and living a multilingual life has a way of making it feel natural and fun to have five languages floating around in your head. I'll update later on regarding how well this works.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Keep up or Catch Up? - What's it take to be a polyglot?

Tim Ferriss is getting ready for a media tour in Germany. So he's reactivating his German. Says Tim, there's no need to maintain languages if you've attained reasonable fluency, because it will come back quickly when you're ready to use it again.

Comes the question: What's a polyglot? Are you a polyglot if you've known five languages and can get them back in short order, but can't summon them right now? I think part of it comes down to how you relate to language - whether language is a tool for travel or something more. For the linguist, of course, language acquisition and language maintenance go together: languages aren't merely tools for talking; they're an important part of one's mental environment. For people whose language goals are more utilitarian...

In the meantime, Tim's tips might help you get back one of those missing languages, even though you'll have to figure out how to maintain it on your own.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

What is Self-Taught?

In the Meno, Socrates argued that we can only be taught what we already know. He demonstrated this by having an uneducated slave solve geometrical problems with his guidance. Socrates' notion fits in well with the idea of education - a process of drawing out a learner's unrealized understanding. When we educate a native speaker to use his or her native language better, this is surely what's in play: effective language teachers help their pupils activate their innate capabilities for organizing lexical, grammatical and syntactical information. Those who try to force feed their pupils information, by contrast, seem to spend a lot of time wandering around wondering what's wrong with kids these days.

It may be true that we can only be taught what we already know, but can we teach ourselves or do we need someone else to help us along? How much? And what does this mean for how we learn new languages?

To revisit once more Edwin's Tarzan post, is it smart for us to teach ourselves our own version of a language we're learning and hope we'll figure out the bits we messed up later? I don't believe it's necessary for us to get every utterance right as we learn a language. I even see merit in starting with reasonably accurate but highly simplified versions of language to get started (following the natural progression from baby talk to adult speech). But in order to avoid the time and trouble a child takes to get started speaking his or her language properly, I think it's best to work in line with the language you're learning, whereas Me-Tarzan, you-Jane type language would be a sort of creole - your grammar with someone else's vocabulary. That's no good.

Aside from the question of whether we should teach ourselves a language our way, though, there's the question of whether we can. The more I think about this, the more it seems to me that what we're really talking about is the difference between teachers who educate, however indirectly, and those who go in for the data dump. All language learning systems teach us (as opposed to us teaching ourselves), but some of them do so in a way that helps us use and expand our language acquisition capabilities, while others... don't.

When I was getting my hypnosis certification, one thing that was constantly emphasized was the difference between self-hypnosis and hetero-hypnosis (being hypnotized by someone else). The thing is, knowing how to pop in a CD and listen doesn't mean you can do self-hypnosis. Reading someone else's script after filling in some blanks comes closer, but it's still not you driving the process. As for true self-hypnosis, only a trained hypnotist can do it, and at that you can't go in nearly as deep or achieve the same kind of results because you can't be an operator (the one hypnotizing) without being outside of the trance at some level. Comes the question: If you're listening to Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, are you self-taught at all? It sounds to me like hetero-hypnosis with a CD to me. With Teach Yourself, you're reading someone else's script. It's your voice (and thus, the words are probably mispronounced), but you're still working with someone else's agenda. At the outer end, you might sit down with some vocabularies, some grammars and some dialogs. At this point, like self-hypnosis, you're pretty close to being in charge. But unless you already know how language learning works, you're also probably wasting your time.

Whether you're self-taught or not, technically speaking, is irrelevant if we're talking pride points. If you're managing to learn a language without mortgaging your house to pay for travel and schooling, pat yourself on the back. The real issue is what this means for how you should structure your program. Some people think you should talk right away. Others think you should wait. With programs like Michel Thomas and Pimsleur there's no question: the whole point is to start talking right away. The thing is, if you're under the guidance of a language teacher (or language teaching system) that helps you talk from the start, building good habits as you go, that's okay. If you're teaching yourself a language for which such resources aren't available (or don't float your boat), you need to be more careful.

When I look at French, the a-ha moments aren't so many. I've been working with it a long time, I've got a pretty good grasp of how it works. With Spanish and Italian, things are dicier. I certainly can read, and I can make perfectly good simple and even moderately complex sentences. This works because I've already got an underlying understanding of them. On the other hand, studying Mandarin and Uzbek, I spend a lot of time muttering, so that's how you're supposed to say that. These are languages where I have to use familiar structures in limited contexts to stay out of trouble.

In Spanish and Italian, my understanding is better than my production, and me-Tarzan, you-Jane moments do come. I try to avoid them and to use structures I'm rock solid sure of whenever I can. And when I'm out of my depth, I usually know it and so cringe and promise myself to study more. This is a mixed bag - I try to avoid developing bad habits, but circumstances sometimes pull me in that direction.

What's painful is meeting someone who doesn't know their limitations. We get e-mails from Europeans all the time who have taught English in their home country and volunteer that they can teach English in addition to their native language if we hire them. Sometimes, it's true. Usually, it's not. It's for this reason that I would especially advise my fellow language learners first of all to be modest about their efforts, and second of all, to go with the self-teaching methods that really aren't whenever possible. Saying simple things in what you know to be the right way gives you a great foundation for when you get to try out your language and build your skills. Teaching yourself from the ground up, by contrast, can be like buying into the premise of "Me-Tarzan, you-Jane" only without realizing you've done so!

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Language Learning Myths

In my last post, I looked at the problems of speaking a language "Me-Tarzan, you-Jane" style (after reading about it at Tower of Confusion) and suggested an alternative for getting started speaking, but not too fast. This evening, looking around for memory tricks for language learning (nothing new found, sorry), I stumbled upon a site warning people not to fall for seven myths about language learning. Myths two through four go to the heart of problems with speaking for the sake of speaking.

The myths section of the site, of course, tells you more about what not to do than what you should be doing, but a perusal of the home page (antimoon.com) suggests that language learners focus on pronunciation, input and attitude and let production follow.

For a little food for thought for language learning, have a look. And if you've got a better memory trick than linkword, Roman rooms and Tony Buzan's 100 words, feel free to mention it in the comments.

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Tarzan Talk and Getting Started in a Language

Edwin got himself involved in a thread at How-to-learn-any-language regarding language learning and the Tarzan approach. That is, put together whatever words come to mind however they come to mind.

Now, here at multilingua, I've written about - and even advocated - some pretty crazy ideas. So I wanted to take a look at this one, if only to distinguish it from some of the wild and crazy ideas that I have suggested.

On this site, I have talked about self-talk and even written some little programs for self-talking yourself toward a language. Let's put a big emphasis on the self there - what you do in your own brain to get used to new vocabulary is one thing. What you do to build your comfort zone talking with native speakers is another.

As a language teacher in college, and now working at a language school, I see value in getting started talking as quickly as possible. But I see a lot of merit in Steve's belief that it's best not to talk before you're ready. Harmonizing the two, I would say that it's important not to rush talking until your knowledge and the environment allow productive communication. For a self-teaching student, this will take longer. With a teacher who knows how to help you along, it may take less time. But conscripting people to be your language guides who have neither the time to fuss with you, nor the training to know how to guide you can be a recipe for disaster. There is the off-chance you'll get a nice, sympathetic person willing to play "Me Tarzan, You Jane" games. But there's a better chance you'll learn that native speakers think you're an incoherent idiot, both hopeless and helpless in their tongue. That's not useful.

So... yes, you should expose yourself to your new language early and often; yes, you should practice what you're comfortable with and; yes, you should stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone sometimes so you can grow. But Tarzan-Jane games don't quite fit the bill. If you're in a situation where you need to communicate, by all means, do what you need to. But don't seek out these encounters - you don't need to practice communicating poorly!

There is an alternative to the Tarzan-Jane game, of course, which is found in such as the Lonely Planet guides: Don't go up to a stranger and talk gibberish. Instead, set a small communication goal, make sure you know the key phrases, and have an exit strategy. That way your experience with natives will reinforce that you can handle certain interactions. Compare these two approaches:

Tarzan:
You: Apples!
Merchant: Yes, they're fresh.
You: Want apples!
Merchant: How many would you like?
You: How much?
Merchant: How many do you want?
You: One apple, how much?
Merchant: It's fifty cents for an apple.
You: Want two...

Planned but simple interaction:
You: Do you have apples?
Merchant: Yes, they're fresh.
You: Good, I would like one apple.
Merchant: That will be fifty cents.
You: [pay] Thank you.

In both cases, the work got done. But in the second case, the person had a goal for the conversation - 1 apple, and a conversational strategy for getting it - yes/no questions that drove the conversation toward that goal. This approach allowed the person to have complete sentences at the ready, focus on getting them out and come across as a functional non-native instead of a novice. In the first conversation, the person had to listen constantly and formulate responses constantly. In the second conversation, the person only needed to listen for 1) whether there were apples and 2) what the price was. Everything else was taken care of. For communication and confidence building, I think that's a lot better way to go.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Link up your learning

The other day, Tim Ferriss had a post on how to memorize lists and number sequences. A commenter passed along another site, memorizeeverything.com. Now, memorization and language learning have a somewhat uneasy coexistence: Language isn't a discrete information set that one knows, it's a highly complex and intricate habit that one develops. Discrete information is of use for filling in gaps where automaticity fails us, but the end-all be-all of successful interpersonal communication in a foreign tongue it ain't. As such, memorization is like carrying around an easy-to-use dictionary: it's handy to have when you get stuck, but memorizing word lists is not the same thing as learning a language.

While memorization can't replace language learning, can it help? Of course it can. Knowing a word list by heart can't get you talking, but it can help you with reading, where you can pause half a second to remember something you don't understand automatically. It's better than a dictionary, because a half-second pause will be less likely to derail your train of thought as you try to understand the whole sentence you're reading. And if you're reading passages where some of the words are unfamiliar, but known at some level, you can keep at it until understanding of the passages comes automatically, without the dictionary work getting so tedious that you give up on it. (This is the same reason people would want to use LingQ, by the way).

In recent times, I've been thumbing through Spanish and Italian translations of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This is good practice for me because the unusual nature of the writing and of the story line, plus the fact it's above my level, forces me to do my best just to go along for the ride. The one thing in my favor is my excessive familiarity with the book, which means even if I only understand every other word in some passages I still know what's going on. Memorization can play a similar role, if it's targeted to memorizing words that you will actually encounter and use within a short period of memorizing them.

In going the memorization route, targeting is all-important. If you have a bilingual book and memorize the difficult but critical words for a story, it can enhance your enjoyment of the story and keep your eyes on the foreign text and off the translation. But if you just memorize a list of words for the heck of it, you'll probably find that those you haven't actually used are gone within a relatively short period of time. (Whether you'll remember the words from your bilingual book when you go on to something else is another matter. I don't know that this approach would aid in the learning of a new language; what it would do is increase your enjoyment of something in the language and connected to the culture, which - as Steve discusses here - has a great deal of value on its own.)

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Monday, September 03, 2007

How we learn

I'm reading a (rather old) book on NLP and stumbled across a nice summary of the four stages of learning:

1) Unconscious incompetence - you don't even know what you don't know
2) Conscious incompetence - you're learning, but you realize you've got a ways to go
3) Conscious competence - you know what you're doing, but you really have to think about it
4) Unconscious competence - you don't know what you're doing, you just do it automatically

If you're looking for a way to spend an afternoon, try to tie your shoes one step at a time. When that doesn't work, see if you can do it in one automaticized fit of tying your shoes, or if thinking about the process has temporarily disabled your shoe-tying abilities.

This is the name of the game, of course, for language learning. If you handed me a text in, say, Swahili, I would be literally clueless about what it said. In time, with study of the language, I might recognize some word endings and beginnings. Maybe, knowing about the phonetic system, I'd be able to pick out some Arabic borrowings. But I'd still be in rough shape. Later, I'd be able to function in the language, but still with a sense of terror that somebody might start speaking to me too quickly. Finally, with enough practice, I'd use the language the same way I use French: there would be lacunae in my knowledge, but I'd use that large slice of the language I did know with reasonable ease and competence.

The hard part for language learners is finding the quickest way from steps 1 to 4. The harder part is accepting that they're there. All the time, I see adds about "downloading a language to your brain" or "learning the natural way" or "start speaking tomorrow." The methods involved all may have their utility, and they may all get you to your goals in due course, but there's no such thing as learning a language - or anything else - fully formed and ready to go.

What's really important for language learning, though, is unlearning and relearning. This means going from step 4 back to step 2 with the simplifications, generalizations and misunderstandings that popped up in your earlier learning, then, once you've mastered being totally flummoxed by something you thought you knew, relearning it the right way until the right way comes naturally.

I think the unlearning and relearning part comes in for inadequate attention. The truth is that a natural method - one that replicated how we learn our native language - would have this, because as small children, we get by with all sorts of things that the grammar school teachers are left to sort out later. It would be too much to learn it all at once; we'd never get to talking at all. We should be prepared for this in our second (and third and fourth and so on...) language learning as well, because we often waste time and discourage ourselves by trying to get things right that we aren't really ready to get right because we don't have enough of a feel for the language yet for the exceptions to the rules to have a logic of their own.

All of this is by way of saying that if you're having trouble learning a language well, learn it poorly. Ignore the foolishness about having your language forever messed up if you don't learn it right the first time. If that were true, no one would ever get past mama and dada, because they'd be afraid of ruining their chances with their native tongue the first time they tried to actually conjugate a verb or put the components of a sentence in the proper order.

There are a lot of ways to structure your learning. Some people like to talk right away. Others like to wait. Some like to read and write first. Some prefer to talk, even if they'll be baffled the first time they encounter the new language in its own writing system. One thing applies to every method, though. Sooner or later - sooner, if you're honest with yourself - you're going to find yourself saying, "Well, I'll be... I never realized that." That means that for that one problem at least, you're on your way to conscious competence. It also means that you've learned enough that you're ready to start unlearning. And that means, strangely enough, that you'll probably reach full competence just about the time that you've forgotten more than you ever knew to begin with. :)

So learn, read, talk, listen, speak - do whatever it takes to keep yourself exposed to and learning your language. Because until you've been at it long enough to have mistakes to unlearn, you've got a long ways to go.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Multiple Methods

In recent days, I've touched on Lingq and Assimil, but also on the idea of real language and pretend language and bridging the gap between the two. Looking back, I have a sense that this is always how my language journey has progressed, except that it's not a case of crossing that bridge once but of going along a river between pretend land and real land, crossing the bridge every time the walk gets too easy from the pretend side or too hard from the real side. I've been trying to come up with a way to make some sense of this, or see if there's an underlying method.

So far, alas, the answer is "no". A new language blogger, Frodo Lives, has gathered a few observations of his own. If you're new to the language learning game, have a look for some ideas. The most important bit of advice, in my view, is to use multiple methods. But this is not purely a matter of pedagogy. Using multiple materials or methods doesn't just give you multiple perspectives on the language. It also gives you someplace to turn when things get too easy (boring) or too difficult (frustrating) - gives you bridges to cross - so that you can keep up motivation. And, let's face it, what finally prevents a person from learning a foreign language is not a book, a teacher or the nature of a language but rather the fact of the person stopping before reaching his or her goals.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Assimil, Ling-Q and "natural" language learning

The other day, Steve provided a short summary of the Natural Approach by way of explaining why he set up LingQ the way he did. The most important point, I think, is that language acquisition and language learning are not always the same thing. Often, in fact, there's a world of difference between them.

Learning a new language can be frustrating. The most discouraging experience is turning from one's textbook to an example of the actual language. At such times, we may try to retreat into familiar material and to the use of familiar constructions. This can feel reassuring, but it doesn't cause us to stretch and grow and become proficient in the language. This sort of "language learning" actually fits a rather sharp but apt phrase I once heard - "the perfect approach to pretending to learn a language."

When you start learning a language, a certain amount of your efforts will be with pretend language, almost inevitably. This was also the case with your own language - almost every culture has a form of baby-talk that downplays distinctions between problematic phonemes and simplifies tricky structures. However, if you want to be a grown-up sooner rather than later, you've got to deal with grown-up language fairly early on.

Assimil is probably the best program widely available once you're ready to leave behind pretend language. I don't recommend their beginner courses for absolute beginners in a language unrelated to any other they've studied. But they're great for starting to confront the language once you've got a little bit of background. The problem, of course, is that the 2nd or 3rd time you've read a lesson, you're no longer stretching.

I won't say that LingQ is the end-all, be-all solution, because nothing is. But with the variety of texts for study that it should ultimately admit, it looks like it will be a great place to cross the bridge from pretending to learn a language to actual language acquisition. That, at least, has been my experience with the Spanish texts available there now. If you're looking for a handy book to practice with, the overpriced Assimil is still often worth it. If you're looking for something to skim on your computer screen, meanwhile, have a look at LingQ.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Mental Banking and Language Learning

The other day, the outfit where I got my hypnosis certification (www.hypnosis.edu) sent me a link for a program called "The Mental Bank." Since I talked about the $36.00/hour nickel in the last post, I thought I'd pass along another money approach to learning, personal growth, etc.

The Mental Bank is a program for funneling positive suggestions into your subconscious without having to go into hypnosis. The idea is to handwrite - motor connection with the idea - the things you are doing for improving your life within a half-hour before bed, so that they'll be the last thing you're thinking about as you drift off to sleep and hit the "what does my life mean and what does tomorrow hold?" phase of dreaming. There's a lot more to it, including putting a dollar value on what you do to take care of yourself, and I'm not going to get into that because 1) it's complicated and 2) it's not my program to give away. But here's a way to use one of the ideas:

1) Figure out what you earn per hour.
2) Take the number of hours (or fraction of hours) you spent on language learning each day.
3) Write down (for example): "45 min x $10/hr = $7.50."
4) Then write, longhand, "Today, I invested $7.50 in learning Russian."
5) Keep a running tally. At the end of each week, also write, "As of this week, I have invested $172.50 in learning Russian."

Keep your records in a notebook where you are noting vocabulary or some such thing. Do it every day that you study. And do the exercise right before bed. This will put into your mind the idea that you're investing in your language learning and that you are steadily adding to your efforts. It will also make you study lest you have to see missing days when you go to fill out the next entry.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Getting Past the Dip

Seth Godin has a cute little book called The Dip - it's only 80 pages. Within those pages, though, is a bit of useful information. Says Godin, there are three kinds of projects, jobs, endeavors, etc.: The cul-de-sac - you'll never get anywhere; the cliff - it will seem pretty good till it all falls apart; and the dip. The dip is the most common, and it's what you're looking for. It's the kind of challenge that not everyone will succeed in - otherwise it wouldn't be a challenge - but that those who persevere and have some talent should be able to get through.

This bit struck me as particularly useful for the aspiring polyglot (in general, not in particular):
Whatever you do for a living, or for fun, it's probably somehow based on a system that's based on quitting. Quitting creates scarcity. Scarcity creates value.
If everyone could learn to speak five or six languages comfortably and with ease, there'd be no value in being a polyglot. Let's be candid: Along with a love of language and culture and a desire for knowledge, there's also a point of pride in mastering multiple languages. It's an interesting thing to mention about yourself at parties, it gives prospective employers the impression that you're smart and it allows you to talk amiably with people that others cannot. There's a prestige factor, because whether or not everyone can learn multiple languages, the fact is that most people don't. That's one side of the dip and the value of quitting: if others quit, then those of us who don't are by default special in some way.

The problem with being special for not quitting is knowing whether it's foolish stubbornness or perseverance and dedication that is keeping you from quitting. Most aspiring polyglots have a language or two that they'd rather not talk about, one where they bought all the books, studied really hard, then gradually ceased to study or to remember much of the language. Godin makes the point that sometimes it's time to quit. Unfortunately, instead of quitting deliberately to better use our resources elsewhere, we often let the process of quitting without admitting it sap our energy and keep us wasting resources on something we know in our gut isn't going to happen.

Finally, there's the problem of trying to quit and not managing it. This is what happened to me with Mandarin. And the process has led me to believe that it's one of my dips, in Godin's framing of the matter: something that will be worth it to me for sticking with it at the point when I was ready to hang it up.

When we decide to learn a language, we need to have a better reason than "because it's there." There should be something that comes after knowing the language, some change in the way you live your life. For me, for Mandarin, it's access to a local culture that intrigues me but that I'm way outside of that is my motivation. And that has dragged me back in, multiple times. When I can go to the bookshop, follow what the people in front of me in line are talking about and make small talk with the clerk, I might be satisfied. But until then, there's something I sense I'm missing out on that makes it worth learning. So I'll push through my dip and get a decent handle on Mandarin in time. But there are other languages in my past that will likely stay in my past.

How is your language learning going? Are you in a dip? Or a cul-de-sac? If you know why you want to learn, and can keep yourself convinced of it, but energy's low right now, you're probably in a dip and will one day come out the other side into an even more exciting world than the new, novel one you so enjoyed when you started your studies. But if you've been burned out on a language, slow to pick up your textbooks and can't remember why you started, maybe you're not in that dip. Maybe you're in a cul-de-sac and it's time to do something better with your time than assiduously not studying that language when you could be throwing yourself into a new and more promising pursuit.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Passive and Active Learning - Use Multiple Books

The other day, Steve had a(nother) post on the importance of input in language learning. This reminds me of the passive phase in Assimil - you read and do exercises but focus on soaking up, rather than producing, the language.

What I would suggest, however, is that while Assimil envisages a passive phase to start and an active phase to follow, a long-term language learner is actually going to go through many passive and active phases. Native speakers of a language can, of course, buy books to build their vocabulary, just like anyone else. But the best way to build your knowledge of a language is to read just a little above your reading level.

With both the Assimil and with other readers I've been using for Chinese, lately, what I've found is that when I know all the characters, it puts me to sleep. And when I know few of the characters, I get frustrated and put it down. It's when I know 90% of what's in a text that I take off. And because a second and third reading will be a challenge to make sure I've remembered the new characters, I'm more likely to re-read them. It would be nice if there were more and better readers on the market. Too often, they either spoon-feed or, more often, give a list of brand-new vocabulary for each reading, which doesn't give you the feeling of getting progressively further into the language.

One thing you can do, though, to simulate the feeling of getting progressively into the language is to use several beginner books. Most language textbooks take similar but not identical approaches to language learning, and teach similar but not identical vocabulary. An experiment I've been meaning to try because I carried out part of it by accident is to take, eg, A Teach Yourself Beginners' book paired with the comprehensive course, and go through the chapters in sequence. (I've done this with the Assimil and a Chinese reader for English speakers that has characters only, doing a bit of Assimil, then going to the reader till it gets too hard, then doing Assimil again for a while.) The result will be that you've got easy stuff around the corner when you're doing the hard stuff, and that you've got challenging stuff around the corner when it feels like you're coasting instead of learning new stuff. I'm not saying, of course, that this is the perfect approach. But it is another thing to try when your learning stalls.

(For more on input, passive learning and setting up your learning program, check out this essay by Konstantin - found at Tower of Confusion).

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Learning a foreign language shouldn't have to be too hard...

but could it be too easy?

Last week, I wrote about Katrina Firlik's Another Day in the Frontal Lobe and the possibility of getting an implantable chip to improve one's memory for language learning. I wondered if language learning could become a surgical procedure, as opposed to a lifestyle. Steve responded:
Language learning is about fun. It is about the enjoyment of the language, of reading, listening and speaking in the language. There are no shortcuts, and I do not believe that operations will provide shortcuts, or at least they will eliminate the enjoyment of the language as a necessary step to getting there.
This response seems to put him in the lifestyle camp. And frankly, that's where I am too. But I wonder...

Depending on who you talk to, generation-y has the shortest attention span or the fastest visual processing abilities of any humans in history. Nintendo gives these couch potatoes top notch reflexes. MTV gives them the ability to decode, process and context disparate images while older generations scratch their heads. Cell phones, text messages, the internet and expanding travel possibilities give them a different sense of distance, proximity and immediacy: They've grown up in a CNN world where people in Dubuque know more about what's happening on the other side of Baghdad than correspondents in a hotel in that same city and the cell phone and wireless internet have brought that full circle because now the person you get your information from may be a friend on the other side of town who's even closer than the CNN crew. The internet has also given a whole new standard about the availability and reliability of information. And finally, 200 channels and a seemingly infinite internet mean that you can't know it all, only instead of the whole nation knowing the same thing - what Cronkite says - and being blissfully ignorant about everything else - whatever Cronkite didn't say, we're now faintly aware of how much we don't know, and we can pick and choose what to know.

Firlik talks about the plasticity of the brain: most of our brains are pretty much the same, physically, but we do different things with different parts. Blind people process braille where sighted people process text. People with brain injuries find other ways to access information behind neural pathways that were cut off. Stroke patients learn to walk and talk again because another, similar part of the brain steps in.

We know the brain changes if you change its inputs. We know it figures out how to function another way if one way isn't working. We know, as well, that the essence of a brain doesn't have to change too much for this too happen. So, is it possible that the generation-y brain is evolving or altering because we live in a world that is epistemologically different from that which came before? Would it even need to alter? Or could it just adapt the way a Chinese baby's brain figures out Mandarin while and English baby's brain figures out English?

When I started as a self-taught language learner, 20 long years ago, I took a passing interest in Arabic. I went to Books in Print (I worked in a bookstore) and found approximately 30 books. Most of them were over $100. I was 16, and purchased the 3 or 4 books I could afford and that was what was available to me to learn Arabic. Today, I can type in "free Arabic lessons" in google, "Arabic music" in youtube and so much more. Further, the internet, Amazon and the growth of Barnes and Noble and Borders has broadened commerce so that Arabic language learners and publishers can meet up more easily. Consequently, there are as many Arabic titles available and affordable at a decent size Barnes and Noble as there were in the whole Books in Print 20 years ago.

In a generation, it has become amazingly easier to get the resources to learn a language. The advantage the me of today has over the me of 20 years ago boggles my mind. Granted, there's a lot of work, still, and it's a long way from having a chip in my brain that makes the memorization a piece of cake. But it's fair to ask: Are my efforts to learn Chinese today less meaningful than my efforts to learn Arabic 20 years ago? Am I less a language learner because after playing games with the Pimsleur narrator, I speak more Chinese after a week than I learned Arabic in 4 months with J.R. Smart's Teach Yourself Arabic? I don't think so. Which makes me vaguely uneasy about the language chip possibilities. Will they water down what language learning's about? Or make it better for those who get the procedure and take the follow-up training?

Every polyglot or would-be polyglot knows that some languages have more cachet than others. Learning Italian will take you cool places, but language geeks give a lot more points for Mandarin, Korean and Tibetan because the resources are less plentiful and the learning's a lot harder for Western non-natives (forgive the pleonasm). On the other hand, even though basic Spanish isn't that hard, I know a lot of people in San Jose, California who have no idea beyond Buenos diás. Would language chips be used by everybody to broaden communication and usher in that universal understanding and consequent world peace that language planners use to dream of? Would American xenophobes make them mandatory for immigrants so no one any longer had an excuse for not knowing English? Would the rest of the world get them while the Anglosphere rested on its laurels, unaware that its lunch was about to be eaten by people who knew English but also their native languages? Or would we find out, alas, that even if it were as easy as getting a chip popped in and taking a few weeks lessons, multlingualism is really a lifestyle choice and only the usual suspects would bother.

I suspect that if the language chip came available, the list of languages known or being studied on the typical language learning blog would get longer. But until somebody invents something as easy as a Babel Fish, I don't know how much further things would go. Generation-Y has taught us that with the whole world at your feet, you have to pick and choose which bits to take. One channel at a time (maybe 4). One internet site at a time (maybe 4 or 5). One conversation at a time (okay, six or seven). And, likely, one or two improving chips at a time. Until humanity figures out omnipresence, we'll always have the advantage of our limitations. Which brings us to the conversation of two weary mothers in 2045:

First mother: I don't know what to do about our Jimmy. I tried to get him to get an empathy chip, because he's got all the other skills for person to person selling. But he says he's happy being a mechanic.

Second mother: Even when they do get a chip, it's hopeless. Tommy got a language boost. He's learning Nepalese now - met some girl from Kathmandu on the internet. I wish he'd find something to do with his life.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Pleasure, Pain and Language Learning II

What's more fun? Studying language? Or going to work? For most of the people who visit this blog, language wins hands down. And yet we go to work every day and make excuses for falling behind in our language studies. And this isn't just about too much television or poor use of our free time. It is about how we set priorities. As a practical matter, we prioritize the avoidance of punishment over the gaining of pleasure. Which means we go to work to keep from getting fired, even if it leaves us lacking the energy to do the things we enjoy.

Now, obviously we can't have our boss threaten to fire us if we don't study three times a week. (Or at least, it's not a likely solution!) But we can attempt to replicate some of the sentiment that keeps us getting up and going to work like responsible adults every day. I'd like to offer three scenarios for contemplation that have an upside - if you study - and a downside - if you don't. The name of the game is that it hurts to let your enthusiasm for a language die, but we let it slide away, rationalize it away and repress it. We could be using it. So as you prepare to study, if you're wavering think of one of these scenarios or make up one of your own, and then go study!

1. You've just met an attractive member of the opposite sex who is having trouble communicating. You're studying his or her language. You may be happily attached, but hey, everyone likes to make a pretty girl/handsome guy smile.

Pleasure: You introduce yourself, apologize for your weak language skills, then help the person with skills far surpassing those you claimed. All eyes are on the attractive person, and now they're on you too. You have fun with onlookers, and more with your new charge, until, at last, you elegantly take your leave.

Pain: You're sure you recognize the accent. You're equally sure you can't pull it off. You stand there trying to remember the appropriate greeting for this type of situation and plot your answer to the most likely responses. In the meantime, some monolingual do-gooder has pantomimed their way into some form of communication, and your chance for glory - even for practice (!) is walking the other way.

2. You've always been fascinated by Europe/the Middle East/the Orient. The ad says there's an unusual employment opportunity for those willing to travel to the area. International travel experience is preferred, but the ability to speak X is a must.

Pleasure: You look at the stack of FSI courses, Pimsleur sets, textbooks and dictionaries weighing down your bookcase and smile because you've done them all, know them all and know you can do this. You re-read the ad, and aren't sure if this is the job for you, but you are sure that this is some kind of sign and that soon you'll be back in the region again, because you didn't learn X for nothing.

Pain: You look at the stack of FSI courses, Pimsleur sets, textbooks and dictionaries weighing down your bookcase and sigh, because you've started them all, given up on them all and will be staying right where you are while they stay right where they are because this ad is someone else's opportunity.

3. A few friends are in from out of town. Everyone's debating where to go out to eat. One of your friends wonders if the French/Thai/Persian place is still open and then opens his or her mouth to remark that you can order in the language.

Pleasure: You smile, and joke that if everyone wants horsemeat stew and shoe leather for dinner, you'll be glad to order for them. But at the restaurant, your smooth request gets the group the best table in the house and dinner, ordered with equal smoothness, is a hit with everyone except Jack/Jackie, who is a jerk and the one ounce of you that isn't pure virtue and wit is sort of glad to see them looking a little put-out.

Pain: You smile, and joke that you probably don't remember four words. At dinner with the other non-sophisticates, you try to have fun, but your shoulders are tense because you keep thinking that jerk, Jack/Jackie, is going to put you on the spot to say something and all you remember is "My desk is blue," which doesn't even make any sense but was on page 2 of the last reader you didn't finish.

I'm not saying that visualizing the two outcomes to each scenario will make you a language wizard. But they'll hopefully give your language learning a boost by making you contemplate the upside and downside of sticking with your language learning. You've got a whole culture to teach you the incentives for behaving the same way as everyone else and focusing on someone else. But dedicated self-study of languages is rarer. You've got to work out your own incentives for yourself to keep you going when things get bad, and keep you grounded when you might otherwise push yourself too hard on the way to burnout.

Note: Simon wonders if I'm a Learning Chinese sadomasochist. I can't tell from his comment, though, if he has any particular feelings about Learning Chinese. When it comes to language study, though, the masochism involved in wading through some of the self-study materials out there should be offset by constructing thought patterns and routines that give you pleasure when you study and, as importantly, a feeling that you're missing out on something if you miss your regular study time. Because you're going to hit plateaus where [sarcasm: start] the thrill of another subjunctive form or the excitement of discovering a declension just like two others with one crucial and painfully minute difference [sarcasm: end] just won't be enough to keep you going.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Pleasure, Pain and Language Learning

The motivation people say you need a mix of pleasure and pain to achieve any meaningful goals - pleasure to keep you going, and pain to push you on if you stop. They're right.

I know this, because this week I went to work for 40 hours, even when I was tired, felt a bit like I was catching a cold, etc. On the other hand, when I got home from work, completely worn out, instead of deciding not to go to work the next morning, I decided to skip Chinese that night to get a little extra rest.

What's going on? There's more pain in missing a paycheck than pleasure in learning Chinese, apparently. This is the origin of the excuses we make when we fall behind.

When we think about going to work but don't want to, we can instantly generate pain scenarios to get us moving. What about our language learning?

I am working on generating 3 pleasure points for study - things that make me want to work on Chinese - and 3 pain points on stopping - things where I will feel worse about myself or my circumstances if I don't find at least 15 minutes a day for study. Since I started playing with this, I've been reading at least one page of (simplified for beginners) Chinese a day.

Having trouble with your language learning? Don't just ask yourself how to get moving. Find reasons why you really shouldn't quit. If you can't, your enthusiasm will only take you so far before the things that give you trouble take precedence.

Coming next: Ways to make yourself feel like you need to study.

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