This is way too cool. A page on the Hebrew Wikipedia about Celtic languages, links to my blog here because I blog in Welsh and English. Thus do I find out that my name in Hebrew is סו צ'רמן.
My friend Itamar tells me that “written Hebrew in most cases omits vowels, so it actually says 'Soo tz'rmn' with the understanding that the N probably has no vowel, and it could be read as 'So' rather than 'Soo'. Typically 'ch' is written as the letter for the 'tz' with an apostrophe as Hebrew doesn't really have that sound.”
You know what I love about this? Without having any idea, whomever wrote this entry transliterated my first name perfectly. For years I suffered people pronouncing my name 'syew', to rhyme with 'view', which I have always loathed. 'Soo' is, however, perfect.
And indeed, I'd rather 'So' than 'Syew', and in fact had a Latin teacher – Mr Briggs – who used to use a long, drawn out 'Sooooooooo' as a sort of verbal punctuation which always make me look up from whatever doodle I was drawing at the time. Never figured out if he did it on purpose or not.
On a slightly different note, reading this make me want to siarad Cymraeg mwy yn aml.
This is way too cool. A page on the Hebrew Wikipedia about Celtic languages, links to my blog here because I blog in Welsh and English. Thus do I find out that my name in Hebrew is סו צ'רמן.
There are two sorts of grammar, two ways of learning grammar and two sorts of people when it comes to grammar learning. Which does make it all far simpler than you might believe.
Sorts of grammar
If you've read any linguistics books, such as Words and Rules by Steven Pinker, then you may already be familiar with some of what I'm about to posit.
Despite the variety of grammatical styles you can come across when learning different languages, e.g. whether you use endings or auxiliary verbs to create tenses, there are only two types of grammar that count, which we can think of as explicit and implicit.
Explicit grammar is the sort you learn at school, the set of sometimes arbitrary rules which tell you how you should construct the perfect sentence. This is the sort of grammar that most of us hate. You know: don't split an infinitive; never end a sentence with a preposition; never kick a man in the goolies unless you can do it really, really hard. Oh, wait, that last one's something different.
Implicit grammar is the grammar you learn without thinking about it when learning to talk as a wee bairn. This is the grammar that's really important – it's what allows you to make sense of 'cat chimney up' or 'he tea make' even though those sentences get a definite F grade insofar as your English teacher goes.
The reason that sentences which pass the implicit grammar test but fail the explicit grammar test work is because implicit grammar is all about how your brain processes language. 'Cat chimney up' contains enough information for your brain to make sense of it. The data that is missing – like the words 'the' and 'is', and correct word order – are just the icing on the cake, they just refine or confirm the basic meaning.
Basically, you can break explicit grammar rules and till have a sentence that makes sense, because it doesn't break the implicit grammar rules. Break implicit grammar and you're stuffed. In some languages, implicit and explicit grammars are very similar, but English, for example, is particularly flexible, allowing you to totally murder 'proper' grammar and still be understood.
Two ways to learn grammar
There are two basic ways to learn grammar – through rules and through examples.
Most books use rules to teach grammar. You know: add '-ing' to form the continuous present tense; add '-s/-es' to form a plural; add vodka to melted chocolate to form a chocolate martini. Oops. There I go again.
Anyway, what happens with rule-based grammar teaching is that you memorise the rules, then every time you recognise that a rule needs applying, you remember the rule, apply it, and that helps you create your phrase or sentence. This means you have to both remember the rule and be able to recognise when you need to apply it. Eventually, your brain assimilates the information and you start applying the rule subconsciously, which is the point at which you've really properly learnt that bit of grammar.
Rule-based teaching depends upon explicit grammar.
Example-based learning skips the rule-learning stage and goes straight to assimilation stage. When we were children, we learnt language by the example of those around us. Admittedly our brains were wired for learning and we sucked up all the data without really thinking about it, but even as adults we can still benefit from child-like learning habits. The more examples we see of a given grammatical point, the easier we find it to learn, the more instinctive our understanding. (This is all tied into the way that memory works too, but that's a topic I am going to have to come back to.)
Example-based teaching depends upon implicit grammar.
Most language courses will give you the minimum number of examples that they think they can get away with, primarily I suspect, because it's easier not to have to sit down and think of them. My experiences with Get Fluent, which teaches through providing lots of examples alongside grammatical explanations (so that you know what the examples are illustrating), and the very positive feedback I had from people about this methodology emphasised that this was a good way of helping people get to grips with grammar.
Two types of people
In the years I've been running the Clwb Malu Cachu Welsh discussion group, I've seen two basic types of people when it comes to learning grammar: grammar fiends and grammarphobics.
Grammar fiends love grammar, they love rule-based learning, they love having everything set out in a net and tidy way that they can categorise and memorise. Fiends get on very well with explicit grammar.
Grammarphobics hate grammar, hate memorising rules and find explicit grammar to be scary, unwieldy and a major hurdle to the learning of languages. Grammarphobics prefer example-based learning and depend upon subconsciously learning implicit grammar.
It's very, very important that you know where on the fiend-phobic continuum you are, because that will influence which methodology suits you. Often grammarphobics feel overwhelmed when they try to learn through rule-based systems and grammar fiends feel disappointed with 'fuzzy' example-based systems.
In reality, we're all a bit fiendish and a bit phobic, but understanding how your mind functions will help you to create a set of learning techniques which work best for you.
Note: This post was updated after the discussions in the comments and on IRC helped me refine what I was trying to say. See, I love this blogging lark – I get to tell you what I think, and you get to correct me!
One of the easiest things to do when you've just started to learn a new language is learning your numbers. They're useful to know and submit well to chanting out aloud (and doing that will help you with pronunciation too).
So in the spirit of keeping your learning relevant to you, may I take this opportunity to suggest that you go through your address book, translate your ten most important telephone numbers into your target language and then memorise them. You can do that by chanting them out aloud, writing them down in your address book, and/or leaving notes by the phone and reading them out as you dial. Remember to memorise numbers in groups of five or less – it's easier on your grey matter that way.
And of course, the benefit of this is not just linguistic – if you lose your mobile phone or address book or adress book, you'll have at least ten numbers safely committed to memory.
This is post is for Derek and anyone else who needs to know how to pronounce the placename 'Arundel', where I am staying at the moment. Hint. It's not 'ah-RUN-dell'.
Back in school, French lessons were based on what might possibly have been one of the most tedious language courses known to man. I remember that it followed the plights of a French boy called Xavier and his family. I also remember wondering why I was supposed to give a toss about him as he was a boring, annoying little shit with all the personality of a brick.
Latin was slightly better, because at least there was a bit of mystique around the Roman Caecilius and his exploits in the Forum. Maybe it was down to the intonation in the voice of Mr Briggs, my erstwhile Latin teacher, but there always seemed to be a hint of some dirty little secret in the goings on at Caecilius' house. I never knew quite what the puella was up to in the culina, but I had a feeling it was something that innocent country girls should probably read up on.
Almost all of the course books I've seen since – and trust me, I've seen a lot – concentrate on a cast of characters in order to try to fake some sort of everyday life, to put what you're learning into the context. They all fail, because it's clear to anyone with half a brain cell that these scenarios are about as contrived as it is possible to be. Any American man who starts chatting up a Japanese woman, uninvited, at an airport these days more is likely to find himself clapped in irons and shipped off to an uncertain fate than talking about whether or not he can speak Japanese.
Maybe I'm just being cynical. But what I do know is that you absolutely have to bring your new language into your life, to give it context, to make it relevant. Relevance is essential. Do you really care whether or not the monkey is in the tree, under the table, or in the oven with an apple in its mouth, roasting slowly at Gas Mark 6 in a pan of olive oil with a rosemary garnish?
No. You care about being able to ask your friend if she wants a cup of tea, or finding out how to get back to your hotel, or telling someone that you can't understand a word they are saying and could they point to the phrase in the phrase book please. Even more importantly, you care about which phrases will be most effective in getting you into your dearly beloved's pants. (Pity me – I'm having to learn American for that.)
When I started writing the Get Fluent worksheets, everything revolved around the concept of giving people exercises to do which they could make relevant to their own life. Learning Xavier's sister's name is pointless. Learning that your own sister is your 'chwaer' and your brother is your 'brawd' is far more likely to stick.
Over the coming weeks, I am going to repurpose as many of the Get Fluent exercises as I can for you to take away and do on your own. In the worksheets as they originally were written, I set everything up, ensuring you had the vocabulary you needed, the grammar, all that stuff, but as I have no idea which language you're trying to learn, I'm afraid you're going to have to do all that work on your own. Don't fret – it'll be good for you.
One word of caution about digging up new vocabulary from your dictionary – make sure that the vocab you learn actually means what you think it means. If possible, find a fluent speaker, maybe a friend or someone on a mailing list, who can double check any words that you're unsure of. I have many times been told 'oh, yes, but that's a dictionary word. No one really says that.' So be careful. No point memorising a word that's archaic or doesn't mean what you think it means.
Keep your eyes peeled for Exercise 1 – it'll be coming your way shortly.
If you come across a website in a mystery language, try Linguid. Maciej Cegłowski's site is a “statistical language identifier” which requires “at least 20 characters of UTF-8 encoded text” in order to attempt to guess the language. It picks up Welsh, no problem at all.
One of the things that I find frustrating with most language learning courses is how little thought they put into teaching you how to pronounce words. Learning good pronunciation is essential for you to make any sort of progress with your language – you need to feel confident that you can be understood by other speakers, to be able to read aloud without stumbling over every word.
A tall order? Not really.
They key to pronunciation is listening and speaking. So many books give you a table of letters and words and maybe an audio track of someone speaking those words and they think that's it, that's all they need to do. Unfortunately, half the time their explanations of the sounds leave a lot to be desired and the sound file is about as far from inspiring as it is possible to get. So what do you end up doing? You skip over that chapter entirely and go straight to the first chapter of allegedly interesting stuff.
You have to resist that temptation. Instead, aim to be able to read your target language aloud with some degree of confidence and fluency, no matter whether you understand it or not. Being able to talk out loud will help you learn, so it's worth spending the time to learn pronunciation as thoroughly as you can, and to keep at it even whilst you are learning grammar and vocabulary. In fact, my advice? Never stop practising pronunciation.
Learning your alphabet
Some languages use the same Roman alphabet as we do in English. Some appear to, but either are missing some letters or have letter combinations that are pronounced differently to how you would expect.
Welsh is a great example of this. The Welsh alphabet, for example, has no K, Q, V, X, Z, and it is only recently that J has become part of the alphabet, used only in loan words from English.
However, the differences don't stop there. Welsh has a number of digraphs – two letters which correspond to one sound – which are in some cases very different to English pronunciation: Ch, Dd, Ff, Ng, Ll, Ph, Rh and Th. And then, of course, there are letters which look identical in Welsh to English, but are pronounced differently, e.g. F, which is really a V (FF is an F).
It's a good idea to learn your alphabet thoroughly and be aware of which letters might trip you up in the future.
Learn your А to Я
Of course, some languages don't just have a different alphabet, they have a really different alphabet. Russian, for example, uses Cyrillic, which can totally fry your brain if you let it. Some course books will throw you in at the deep end and give you only phrases in Cyrillic to learn but whilst understanding of the new alphabet is essential, it can be daunting when you're a beginner.
In order to learn that 'Добрый денъ!' means 'Hello!' you have to memorise it by rote, because there's little similarity between Roman and Cyrillic alphabets so there's nothing familiar upon which you could base a guess at pronunciation or translation. There's no way you're going to guess by looking at it that Паслорт is 'Passport' – you have to hear it spoken (it sounds very similar in Russian to the English). There's a fundamental disconnect between what your brain is hearing and what your eyes are seeing, and you have to bridge this gap before you can make good progress with the language.
One way to do this is through transliteration – writing Russian in the Roman alphabet. This renders Паспорт as Pasport, which is instantly recognisable, and Добрый денъ as 'Dobry den' which is very close to how Добрый денъ should be pronounced.
The drawback with transliteration is that although you will end up with a rough idea of what the words might sound like, it won't be accurate and if you rely on transliteration you will learn bad pronunciation habits that you will later have to break – and breaking bad habits is harder than not making them in the first place.
Transliteration can also be used for languages that use a completely different writing system, such as Japanese or Hindi, and it's a reasonable middle step to use whilst you're getting your head round it, but you keep your usage to a minimum and be careful not to mis-learn things.
Some books, such as Berlitz phrase books, have very good phonetic explanations of how to pronounce words, and they give them for every word or phrase in the book. These pocket-sized books are little gems. I have spent hours and hours sitting with my Polish for Travellers book just muttering Polish phrases and trying to get the pronunciation fluid:
Do you have any records by…? – Czy są płyty…? – chi sawng PWIti…?
Can I listen to this record? – Czy mogę przesłuchać tę płytę? – chi MOgeh pshehSWOOhahtsh teh PWIteh?
That's just what I want. – Właśnie to chcę. – VWAHSYñeh to htseh.
Be careful with phonetics though. Some explanations of the 'sounds like' type are subject to the vagaries of accent. For example, the explanation that A is pronounced 'as in grass' is too fuzzy to be useful. Do they mean the short A of the north of England, (rhymes with 'cat'), or the long A of the southern counties, (rhymes with 'car'). And how does your (likely not British) accent affect your pronunciation?
A real, live native speaker
The best way to learn how to pronounce words properly is with the help of a sympathetic and patient native speaker. I was about 22 when I first started learning Polish from a woman that I was working with at the time. She took me through my phrase book and helped me learn my numbers and learn how to speak Polish out loud. I rapidly got to the point where I could read any Polish text with what she told me was a great accent. Sadly, I didn't understand a word of what I was saying, but at least I sounded good.
Audio books and short stories
If you can, find some audio books or short stories online, with a text version, and download them. It doesn't matter if you don't understand what they are about, what matters is that you have an audio file to listen to and the written words to read.
When I was putting together Clwb Malu Cachu, my website for Welsh learners, one of the first things I did was write some short stories and get native Welsh speakers to narrate them for me. Short and sweet, they're not too demanding nor intimidating – perfect for learners who want to improve their pronunciation.
Once you've downloaded some material, I'd recommend listening to each story several times over, and then work on reading them out aloud yourself until you feel comfortable with the sounds.
The sound of music
I started learning Welsh mainly because I had a crush on Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals. (Just don't tell him that, ok?) I would listen to the songs he'd written in Welsh and I'd sing along. Loudly. Torra fy Ngwallt yn Hir was the very first Welsh song I learnt, but as time went on I discovered more and more Welsh music that I liked, which meant more and more lyrics to learn, more and more songs to sing along to.
Again, it didn't matter that I didn't understand what I was singing – in fact, in some cases my lack of comprehension just added to the mystique of lyrics which turned out to be quite banal when translated. Everything just sounds so much better, more meaningful, in Welsh – you can ask for beans on toast in Welsh and it sounds like you're asking for the food of the gods.
So find music in your target language, get a hold of the lyrics, and start warbling. It will do your pronunciation the world of good.
(Note: In theory, TV and radio would also be good places to learn pronunciation, but in practice I've found it to be a bit too daunting. All those people speaking far too fast about stuff you can't understand becomes frustrating instead of educational, so be careful. If you try listening to foreign language radio or watching TV, make sure you don't end up making yourself feel stupid in the process.)
Variety is the spice of life
Whatever you do, don't rely on one tactic for learning pronunciation. Mix and match. Do a bit every day – you'll learn more from working 10 minutes a day than an hour on the weekend. And remember to talk out loud as much as possible. Talk to your cat, talk to your plants, talk to anything that won't point and laugh. Read everything aloud, from the boring pronunciation exercises at the front of your course book to new words in the dictionary to the lyrics of foreign language songs. Listen to everything that you can, podcasts, audio books, music, your friends. Listen as often as you can. Instead of listening to the latest chart-topping hits on your commute to work, listen to stuff in your target language.
Eventually, your tongue will get used to the new sounds and will be able to say the words your eyes are reading with less and less effort. When that happens, you'll see the value in all that effort – you'll be able to read new words and phrases without hesitation, and you'll understand more of what people say to you.
You've decided that you want to learn a new language, or maybe brush up on an old one that you've mostly forgotten, but where on earth do you start? Maybe you don't want to spend too much money to start with, so those swanky language courses on CD-ROM are out of the question, but don't worry, you can achieve a lot on a very small budget.
Essential items that you need to have are:
- A source of information
- A way of keeping notes organised
- People to practice with
1. A source of information
I would always recommend that you splash out on a good dictionary and, if at all possible, buy a dictionary designed for learners. This is the one thing you can't skimp on because without a good dictionary you'll find life much harder. If possible your dictionary should:
- Explain nuances of meaning, rather than just give you a list of alternatives. If you are looking up 'row', for example, then you need to know which word you would use in 'row of houses', 'a blazing row', or 'row, row, row your boat'. The more examples your dictionary gives, the better.
- Provide information on irregular nouns and or verbs. If plurals can be formed in a non-regular way, the dictionary should give you those plurals with each noun. In Welsh, for example, there are dozens of ways to form a plural – and the rules are so complex as to be useless – so each plural is given with the noun. If a verb is irregular, then the dictionary should give you the irregular forms.
- Provide translations of common idioms or phrases, e.g. under 'course' you get 'of course' as well.
- Provide the gender of nouns in languages which use gender. In English, we're so used to nouns not having gender that we forget they are essential in other languages. If your dictionary doesn't provide gender information, it'll be useless.
When searching for a dictionary, try to do so offline so that you can flick through it and 'test' it. Does it give you explanations and examples? If you look up a word in the English side first, then in the foreign side, how well does it translate back? Is it easy to use? Do you feel comfortable with it?
Total immersion learning is undoubtedly the best way to learn a new language, but it's an option for very few people.
An evening or day course is the next best way to learn a new language – the benefits of working with other students and an experience tutor are immense. You'll get to start speaking almost immediately, you'll have people around you to give you moral support, and you'll be able to ask questions of the tutor every time you don't understand something.
Sometimes, however, courses aren't available in the right language at the right price and in the right location. But that doesn't mean that you can't learn your target language perfectly adequately using other methods.
If you're really broke, then some intensive searching online will undoubtedly turn up some learning material that you can use for free. However, the caveat emptor here is that while there are many excellent sources of information online, there are also a lot of sites that provide flawed material, so be careful.
If you can, buy yourself a good course book, one which explains the grammar clearly in terms that you understand and which gives you lots of examples. Frequently course material is very shallow – short explanations and few examples, but whilst that gives you the illusion of making rapid progress it doesn't actually help you remember stuff in the long term. Your aim should always be to learn thoroughly, not quickly.
Again, it's a good job to search for your course book in shops rather than online, so that you can look through it and try to assess how well you will get on with it. If at all possible, get a book that comes with a CD or CD-ROM so that you have the opportunity to hear the language spoken – that will really help you to learn pronunciation.
Of course, if you have the money, have a look at language learning software too, but beware – some courses aren't worth the money they charge.
2. A way of keeping notes organised
One challenge for every learner is figuring out how best to organise their notes. For some people, it's an A4 folder and notepad, for others it's a word processor. For others it's a set of index cards. I'll cover this in a bit more detail in another post, but your best bet to start with is to start simple. For that you need just two things.
Whether you prefer writing your notes by hand or in a word processor, you will need to find somewhere, such as an A4 notebooks, to keep some full-length notes and in which to do all the exercises from your course material. Although you may find it tedious, it's a good idea to write out each each exercise in full because it will help you remember it later on.
A great idea is to keep a small hardback notebook always to hand. The perfect size is A6 (148mm x 105mm). In it, keep concise grammar notes in the front and important vocabulary in the back.
A notebook of this size is perfect for lists of prepositions (like 'to', 'from', 'into'), conjugations of verbs (like amo – I love, amas – you love, amat – he, she, it loves, amamus – we love, amatis – you love, amant – they love – 'to love' in Latin), and declensions of nouns (like puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella, puellae, puellarum, puellis, puellas, puellis – 'girl' in Latin).
This gives you a quick and easy reference of the grammar that you've learnt and it will help you when you're constructing new, original sentences for yourself.
3. People to practice with
Most learners harbour a huge sense of embarrassment about their new language – they fear that they might sound stupid, or make an embarrassing mistake, or that people will laugh at them. Thus they say to themselves that they will start speaking or writing in their new language 'when they are good enough', but, of course, that day never comes because they never feel confident in what they have learnt.
The sooner you get over this, the faster you will learn. Use your new language from day one, regardless of how good or bad you think you are. Even if you just defnyddio isolated words in a sentence which is mostly written in Saesneg, you will be helping yourself to dysgu new vocabulary and will increase your confidence with the language.
There are plenty of places you can find other learners and penpals – here are just a few:
My Language Exchange
So, now you've collected together a dictionary, some course material, notebooks and penpals, you're ready to rock and roll!
language, language learning, languages
I've put a lot of effort into attempting to learn languages over the years, ever since I realised that there were languages other than English just sitting there ready to be learnt. I remember at middle school learning to sing carols in German, learning to count in French, and trying to make up my own language which no one but me would speak (which, ok, would be slightly less than useful, but the idea of having a secret language was so romantic).
At upper school I learnt French and Latin. French I gave up at the first opportunity, much against the advice of my teacher who was convinced I had an innate talent for languages. Due to changing schools, I had had a year less tuition than everyone else in my class and felt completely out of my depth in every lesson. I thought my teacher was barking mad to say I had a 'talent' for languages.
Latin, however, was great – particularly the racy poetry. You've never seen so many teenagers clustered around their Latin text books, dictionary held close, as when someone figured out that some of Catullus' poems – the ones that weren't in the syllabus – were a bit 'interesting'.
Since school, I've tried with varying levels of success (and effort) to learn Swahili, Norwegian, Dutch, Russian, Polish, Cornish. I've pretty much failed at all of them.
I did, however, learn to speak Welsh, and I spent two years running my own business providing people with Welsh practice material. In fact, you can still buy it if you're interested, at Get Fluent.
That's not a bad feat, really, considering that I learnt the hardest way, from books and dictionaries and friends. I had a few lessons and a have been on a couple of courses, but primarily I've learnt through friends emailing me in Welsh, and me having to translate in order to find out what the hell they were babbling on about.
For the last few years I've been thinking about pulling together all the stuff I've learnt about learning languages, all the research I've done into linguistics, memory and language processing. I guess now is as good a time as any to do it – after all, it's not like I'm doing anything more interesting with this blog at the moment.
This stuff isn't going to take over the blog – I am still going to be posting the usual ol' crap here – but I am going to try to write up some of the techniques that I've learnt, including even some exercises that people can do. I'll tackle grammar, vocabulary, memory, motivation and anything else I can think of as and when I think of it.
I'll bring together a whole variety of techniques too – so many language learning courses are a one horse race, relying on one technique which 'worked like a dream' for the author, but which may not suit everyone. Personally, I have the attention span of a gnat, and I've always found myself quick to get bored, so much of what I will suggest will be ways to try to keep you interested, to keep your motivation going.
Learning a language can potentially take years, and you need to figure out how your brain works, how you learn best, and what techniques work for you. But most of all, you need to have fun whilst you're learning. There's no reason why language learning should be a boring slog, and I'm going to do my best to ensure that whichever language you're learning, you have fun doing it.
languages, language learning
Ar ôl cael cinio efo Jimmy Wales cwpl o weithiau llynedd, I ended up yn siarad â newyddiadurwr arlein o'r enw Robert Andrews. Mae o wedi sgwennu erthygl am yr Wicipedia Gymraeg a'i le mewn dyfodol yr iaith (mae'r erthygl yn yr Saesneg). Dw i'n teimlo tipyn bach fel fraud o achos dw i ddim wedi treulio digon o amser yn gweithio ar y Wicipedia rîli. O'n i eisiau trio annog pobl o Glwb Malu Cachu i gyfrannu i'r prosiect, ond mae distributed cyfiethu'n anodd i drefnu.
Ond dw i'n hapus i weld Wicipedia yn cael gwasg dda. Prosiect pwysig am yr iaith ydy o, dw i'n meddwl, felly os ti'n siarad Cymraeg, plîs meddwl am gyfrannu. Mae un erthygl am dy hoff fand yn well 'na dim byd o gwbl. Dw i'n meddwl am sgwennu am rywbeth mwy gyfarwydd i fi, fel blogio neu llyfrau. Dim byd fawr, jyst petha bach. Efallai dw i'n gallu repurpose petha o'r wefan CMC? Bydda i ddim yn poeni am safon fy iaith – mae rhywun arall yn gallu fy nghywiro fi. Beth bynnag, bydda i'n trio.
(Summary: I was interviewed last year by Robert Andrews about the Welsh Wikipedia. You can read the resulting article on PingWales. I really do need to work more on the Welsh Wikipedia – maybe I'll try to repurpose some of the content from CMC.)