Starter Kit for Romance Languages

A lot of you may wonder about what language to learn, and while I have written in the past on the utility of languages, I’m thinking that it might be better to write a series of posts about what separates different languages, through their grammar, history, or their unique difficulties. Many languages belong to what is known as a “language family”, which is a grouping of languages that have common roots and features. This means that the languages in a particular family are usually structurally similar, and given what level they’re being examined, may even have similar vocabulary. Families themselves may be part of a larger family, where the commonalities are fewer.

The language family I’m going to be discussing in this post is the Romance language family, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. Romance languages are related by the fact they all are evolved forms of Latin in different parts of the Western Roman Empire, where Latin was the lingua franca. Some examples of Romance languages include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. There are other, smaller Romance languages spoken throughout Western Europe, as well as creoles and pidgins that developed in colonial territories of Western European countries. Nowadays, the Romance languages are spoken in many different regions of the world, including Africa, North/Central/South America, and even parts of Asia.

The value of learning a Romance language varies from language to language, since each language has its own charms. Spanish is the most widely spoken Romance language and is the language of many famous works of magical realism. Italian is the language of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, though in a medieval form, as well as of Italo Calvino, a renowned modernist writer. Many lyrics of classical opera and vocal pieces are written in Italian, as well as in French. French is often said to be the “language of love”, and some writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, and the author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, were speakers of French. Romanian and Portuguese are unfortunately the unnoticed children of the Romance family, since very few major works of literature were ever written in these languages and did not spread extensively to many territories (except perhaps Portuguese in Brazil). However, every one of these languages is worth learning in its own way!

Basic features

The basic rundown of how all Romance languages work is that they are moderately inflective, since verbs drop affixes and add others that reflect multiple meanings, such as tense, person, etc.

The general sentence order of Romance languages is SVO (Subject-Verb-Object), which is to say the default form of a sentence is to order it in that way. This is the way English orders sentences. However, it’s not as strict in Romance languages, since verbs conjugate according to person and tense. For questions, Romance languages typically flip the sentence order, but the simply making the original statement a question by inflecting has a slightly different meaning. For example, take the sentence “They eat apples” in Spanish: Ellos comen manzanas. The usual question form is ¿Comen manzanas ellos? (Do they eat apples?). However, saying ¿Ellos comen manzanas? is slightly different, as it’s asking about what they’re eating, rather than who’s doing the eating.

Verbs

Romance language verbs are fairly straightforward. There six groups of conjugations, each corresponding to person and plurality. They are: “I”, “you (non-polite)”, “he/she/it/you (polite)”, “we”, “you all (non-polite)”, and “they (male)/they (female)/you all (polite)”. The word for “it” usually doesn’t have its own word, and speakers simply use the pronoun according to the grammatical gender of the noun in question (we’ll get to this in just a bit). This varies from language to language, as some do not use certain forms anymore. Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t use the “you (non-polite)” form anymore and Latin American Spanish doesn’t use the “you all (non-polite)” form anymore, for example.

Verbs belong to one of three categories, each with their own slightly different conjugational endings. These endings reflect tense and person. While the verb “to love” in English only changes for “he/she/it”, in Romance languages, there is a unique form for each category mentioned before. So, “I love” in Italian, for example, is io amo, but “we love” is noi amiamo. Because of these distinctions, Romance languages are almost all pro-drop languages, which is to say that you can drop the pronoun subject if it is obvious from context who you’re talking about.

French might be the only exception, because even though spellings are distinct, some verb conjugations are said the same way. Even many nouns can sound identical and other contextual clues as well as a pronunciation rule known as liaison are required to understand spoken French properly. For this reason, French is not as much a pro-drop language (if at all).

Every Romance language also has unpredictably irregular verbs (which you have to commit to memory) and certain types of verbs with (sometimes) predictable irregularities.

The tenses that you absolutely need to know are present, preterite, imperfect, future, as well as conditional. You also need to know their perfect forms (“have done, had done, will have done, etc.). Most Romance languages distinguish preterite and present perfect, whereas in French and Italian, they are the same, since the actual preterite in those languages has passed out of common use.

You will also need to learn a mood known as the subjunctive, an essential part of Romance languages. The subjunctive mood is a verbal mood that indicates hypotheticals or uncertain actions, to put it very simply. There’s a little more to it than that, but you can learn more about it if you decide to learn a Romance language. That’s more or less all the basics to verbs.

Noun Properties

Nouns in Romance languages have singular and plural forms, the latter of which, depending on the language, are extremely straightforward to construct. Even the languages with different ways to pluralize different nouns have easily understood patterns (except for possibly French). All nouns have definite and indefinite articles, the words for the and a/an.

Nouns also generally do not have declensional cases, except for Romanian, which has retained many features from Latin, including the neuter gender. This brings us to grammatical gender, something that confuses many novice language learners. All Romance languages have grammatical gender for nouns, and it almost never has anything to do with biology or any kind of logic whatsoever. That is, unless the noun in question is a person, in which case, grammatical gender corresponds to biological gender.

Now, adjectives and adjectival phrases behave much like nouns, having to agree in gender and number. Take the word o urso (bear), in Portuguese. If I want to say “black bear”, the word “black” has to be of the same gender and number as “bear”. So that means, “black bear” is o urso preto, where both urso and preto are singular and masculine. If I wanted to make it plural, it would become os ursos pretos.

Nouns can also be replaced by object pronouns, so as not to be repetitive. Take the following exchange in Italian as an example:

—Where is the key that I gave you?
—I put it in the box.

—Dov’è la chiave che ti ho dato?
L‘ho posta nella scatola.

The word for “key” (la chiave) is replaced by the direct object pronoun (DOP) la (contracted to l’ due to Italian conventions), which as with adjectives, corresponds to the feminine gender of la chiave. The word for “you (non-polite” (tu) is implicitly referred to by the indirect object (IOP) ti. There are a variety of double object pronoun combinations in most Romance languages, which are all fairly easy to learn. That’s about it on nouns.

Learning strategies

You may already know this, but vocabulary in Romance languages is simply a matter of memorization when it comes to irregular forms and grammatical gender. Just use flashcards and spaced repetition programs like Quizlet, Memrise, and Anki.

For verbs and other grammatical features, all you can do is just do lots of exercises and write a lot. Also, read! Reading in the language (and this goes for any other language as well) helps immensely in gaining vocabulary as well as contact with native-level uses of the language.

If you are a reasonably well-read speaker of English, you will probably notice that many words in Romance languages sound familiar. Like la biología in Spanish, or il sistema in Italian. This is because these words are of Greek and Latin origin. A handy thing to note is that in all Romance languages, words of Greek origin are all masculine! For Latin origin words, the original gender of the word transfers to their Romance language form; feminine stays feminine, masculine stays masculine, and neuter becomes masculine (except in Romanian, where the neuter gender is still around). In the end, it’s just a lot of diligent practice and a willingness to learn.

I also recommend using the WordReference dictionary, as their Romance language dictionaries are great. For language lessons, about.com’s lessons are OK, though not to my liking. There are many language learning textbooks out there and I cross-reference materials a lot. Of course, you could just use my books on Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, if you plan to learn those languages!

For Spanish books, I don’t recommend Realidades past Realidades 2 or if you can avoid it, mostly because you’ll end up with very, very politically correct Spanish that doesn’t sound native in any particular way. Temas is a great book for advanced learners, since it’s written for the  AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam. For advanced Italian textbooks, you can definitely use Con Fantasia: Reviewing and Expanding Functional Italian Skills (also an AP textboko). Learning Portuguese with Rafa is a great start to learning Portuguese grammar. There’s always Duolingo as well, since it gives you a good start, and keeps you practicing. Fair warning, Duolingo doesn’t help advanced learners very much.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and please don’t forget to share and comment on Facebook, Tumblr, or here. I’m planning to write more of these Starter’s Kits in the future, so keep an eye out!

TTMIK Review

As a Korean learner, I find TTMIK (Talk To Me In Korean) extremely helpful. It doesn’t place too much stress on the grammar, but also makes it relatively important. You can visit the site here. There are three cool features of this site that I’d like to point out.

1. The grammar lessons. While not excessively centered on this aspect, TTMIK stresses grammatical structures enough to make the learner want to learn. By giving various examples for proper usage and the basic form of expressions, the learner can be more flexible with their sentences, instead of just repeating phrases from a traveler’s guide. Moreover, the lessons are brief, concise, and clear, which makes grammar that much easier. If you want more in-depth grammar stuff, you’re better off looking at Luke Park’s Guide to Korean Grammar, which you can download from his site.

2. The miscellaneous lessons. I call them miscellaneous because they don’t fall under any one category, and concern idioms, culture, and other things with something to do with Korean. There are a variety of ways to practice your Korean and get help, including “Ask Hyojin”, “Idiomatic Expressions,” and “Learn Korean Through K-Pop”. These resources are invaluable to any Korean learner, and I highly suggest you visit the site frequently!

3. Books. If you’re not willing/looking to spend any money, then this may not matter to you. But TTMIK has a couple of books that supplement Korean learning, including, “Street Korean,” and, “My Weekly Korean Vocabulary.” They have dialogues and videos to help you practice your listening skills, too.

Even though this was a relatively short review, I hope this convinces you enough to take a look! Leave any comments if you have any thoughts. And don’t forget to share this on Facebook, Tumblr, and Google Plus!

A Challenge!

As the end of the school term and beginning of summer vacation for many draws near, I’ve thought up a challenge for all of you language learners! Even if you’re just starting a language now, this is a great way to get a head-start, especially if you’re planning on taking formal classes. There are three main parts to this challenge:

Part 1: Vocabulary

You’re never going to be able to hold coherent conversations unless you have some amount of varied vocabulary. So, in this part of the challenge, you or another person will assign 5-10 new words every day for you to learn. Having another person do this for you is not only a fun social experience, but that person will also keep you on your toes to study the words. This is a pretty manageable number of words for most people to learn in a day. Make sure to change the themes of the words every two weeks! So, for weeks 1-2, you learn 70-140  words relating to food and cooking. Then, for weeks 3-4, you learn 70-140 words relating to travel. Feel free to change the themes to whatever suits you at that time!

Part 2: Speaking

You’re obviously going to need to practice speaking the language if you want to actually speak to people. This is extremely helpful if you can’t actually find someone to talk to. The solution is… talk to yourself. Try to express yourself in the language you’re learning. It doesn’t matter that no one can hear you and correct you. Eventually, when you can talk to someone, they’ll help you out with pronunciation and accent more. Native speakers obviously think in their own language, so you should too when you speak that language. So, don’t say I have to go to school, when you’re learning Korean. Say 학교에 가야 돼요 (hak-gyo-e gaya dwae-yo)!

Part 3: Reading

Find children’s books or simple literature in the target language, and try to identify the meaning of the sentences. You should definitely try to be literate in the language you’re learning, because you’ll be able to build more vocabulary that way. Obviously, this is going to be harder for languages like Catalán or Basque, but you should definitely try your best to find books. Of course, you shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to read the I Ching in Chinese right away!

So, I issue this challenge to you, and wish you the best of luck!

Practicing a Foreign Language By Yourself

Even if you’re enrolled in a class for a foreign language at school, chances are it’s mostly grammar drills and writing exercises, in my experience. I’ve started to read Fluent in 3 Months (the book), by Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot who runs a blog with same name as his book (here’s a link: http://www.fluentin3months.com). In his book, he describes how conventional methods that schools use to teach foreign language might work for some people, but it’s hard to practice outside the classroom. I highly recommend that language learners read his book, by the way. It’s fascinating and really helpful. Thinking about this conundrum, I’ve thought of a couple of my own methods (which may look similar to other methods you’ve seen on the Internet):

1. Talk to yourself. This may sound really strange, but trying to speak the language you’re learning to yourself lets you practice and iron out awkwardness when you talk. If you don’t know a word, say it in English (or whatever your first language may be), and write it down to get the word later from a dictionary.

2. Go electronic with your learning. Take your electronic device (a good example is a smart phone), and go to settings, and change the language of your device. Recently, I changed my phone and computer to be in Italian, to practice my ability to read it. This helps because you begin to correlate words that you’d normally see in English with words in the target language, because they physically replace those words, and your usual instinct is to go to the location, without really looking at the word. Changing Siri on iPhones also helps, because then you can practice speaking a little bit.

3. Write more in the target language. Whether it’s posting on Facebook and/or Twitter, or going old-school with a notebook, write as much as you can in the language you’re learning, because it helps you become more literate in the language, and for kinesthetic (learn by doing) learners like me, it solidifies the foundation in your brain for learning the language. Although when you post on the Internet in your language, you should probably include a translation, so that friends who are fluent speakers can correct your mistakes by seeing what you want to say, and non-learner friends can read your posts without feeling excluded. Italki is a great way to do this with its notebook feature.

4. Get books in the target language. Whether they be children’s books or full-on Michael Crichton novels, reading is a surefire way to build vocabulary, due to the variety of contexts, and the fact the good writers usually use a wide range of vocabulary, allowing for a potentially greater number of words for you to learn to appear. Highlight words or phrases you don’t understand, or write them down. For popular book series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians or the Harry Potter series, compare your native version and the target language version to see what it might be trying to say. You should also read out loud to practice your speaking.

5. Talk with other learners! You generally have more confidence when speaking with other learners of your language, because you know that you’re both still learning, and can’t be expected to be perfect right off the bat. Besides, it can be more social experience, and they’re more accessible, if you’re good friends with them (as you’ll probably become while learning together). Language is inherently social, so not talking with others is no excuse!

Anyway, thanks for reading! Please leave any thoughts you might have on this!

What Makes A Good Language Textbook?

In my experience, I’ve come across different textbooks for different languages, and I think there are some basic criteria that a good textbook needs to follow. These requirements are what I’m going to address in this post. Having written a language learning guide myself, and being a student who uses textbooks frequently, I should be able to cover this topic pretty adequately. Hopefully, you can use this list to assess whether a book is good enough for you, or if you’re writing one yourself!

1) Consider the audience of the book when writing it and assess the language when reading it. If the book in question is an AP or college-level book, chances are that it uses more technical language and goes more in-depth on certain topics. For example, in my Spanish class, we use Encuentros Maravillosos from Prentice Hall, by Abby Kanter, to cover Spanish literature at basic level, before going on to the AP level. The audience here is almost exclusively made up of high school students, as the language of the book is meant to prepare the student for an AP or college-level course. On the other hand, the Realidades series, which I had used in all my Spanish classes up until Spanish III, is oversimplified sometimes. There is a Realidades 4, but it is not considered good enough for a high school honors class. The language aims more at a younger class range, using largely nontechnical language, so as not to confuse learners who may not be able to understand higher level texts. For a non-school example, Complete Catalan: A Teach Yourself Guide, by Anna Poch Gasau and Alan Yates, I feel, is written almost exclusively in technical language. While I understand some amount of the technical language, it seems that this book is aimed at a wide audience, which may not include linguists or language-obsessed people such as me, who know what open and closed vowels are. The commonly used version of the preterite tense is called periphrastic! While this may be true, you can’t expect that the average person will know what that means, as it’s not even relevant for the purposes of the book. I also feel that it is kind of pompous in phrasing anyway, which is not good for helping people learn. Basically, a book can’t be too simple and can’t be too complex, otherwise the average audience isn’t going to get it. This tends to be a matter of preference when it comes to learning, because some people learn more with all the technical talk, but overall, the best approach is the semi-technical form.

2) What is the purpose of the book? Textbooks can vary in purpose from curriculum-based learning to learn new skills, to practicing current ones, to reviewing. A book focused on practice is basically a workbook or collection of readings and/or dialogues to use skills in context. A review textbook is a book that covers all the material that you should have learned to that point, to some standard, and the book may even be written entirely in the target language to facilitate review. Choose the way a book is structured wisely, depending on how you (the writer) want it to be used, or how you (the reader) want to learn, or what you need the book for. For example, Con Fantasia by Marcel Danesi, Michael Lettieri, and Salvatore Bancheri, is an AP-level review book for Italian. The book is written mostly in Italian, because it’s aimed at helping AP-level Italian students review material for the AP Exam, featuring comprehensive reviews of grammar, conventions, vocabulary, and idioms, and also has some readings for the student to use, as well as being accompanied by a workbook.

3) The text is organized meaningfully. When you’re learning a language, you should be learning vocabulary and grammar in a constructive manner, preferably in the way of themes. For example, if you’re learning vocabulary about vacationing and leisure time, that would be a good time to introduce the past tense(s). When you’re discussing purchases and sales, you should include info about structures concerning such things. Vocabulary, especially, needs to be organized in a pertinent way. Vocabulary should be related when given in lists. I can’t express how important this is, especially after starting to use Complete Catalan, which has the most disorganized vocabulary lists I’ve ever seen. They didn’t even bother to group words by topic, part of speech, or anything. So, organization is important!

I may or may not add some more to this post, but for now, this is my piece on this topic. Feel free to leave your comments!

Book Availability!

http://www.amazon.com/Scoprendo-litaliano-Accessible-Learning-Italian/dp/1495411702/ref=sr_sp-atf_title_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391897837&sr=8-1&keywords=scoprendo

https://www.createspace.com/4650011

If you wish to purchase a print version of Scoprendo l’italiano!, it is available at these links for $39.18 (for Amazon Prime members and $43.78 for non-Prime members) and $43.78 on my Createspace eStore, for which I have a discount code: LZDAWJA2, which should give a $20 discount when applied.

Book Availability!

http://www.amazon.com/Scoprendo-litaliano-Accessible-Learning-Italian/dp/1495411702/ref=sr_sp-atf_title_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391897837&sr=8-1&keywords=scoprendo

https://www.createspace.com/4650011

If you wish to purchase a print version of Scoprendo l’italiano!, it is available at these links for $39.18 (for Amazon Prime members and $43.78 for non-Prime members) and $43.78 on my Createspace eStore, for which I have a discount code: LZDAWJA2, which should give a $20 discount when applied.

Updates on Scoprendo l’italiano! (Part 2) and Other News

Scoprendo l’italiano is now available in print on Createspace and Amazon for $43.78! A bit pricy for the first release, but I will be releasing a discount code in the somewhat near future.

In other news, I’ve begun work on Hindi Sikho!, a Hindi counterpart to Italian, with help from my parents, both of whom are much more accomplished speakers than I am. You should most likely expect to see it available in early to mid-March. I hope you guys purchase my book on the Kindle Store or a print version, if you prefer. 

Updates on Scoprendo l’italiano!

So, firstly, I’ve completely revamped the setup of the book on the Kindle, and I’ve also made significant progress in getting a print version made available on Createspace, so hopefully, you’ll purchase one of the two. I definitely hope you enjoy learning Italian from it, as there are many beautiful, high quality photographs, and integrated exercises for practicing concepts.

As for the Kindle, however, the formats seems a little off, and I’ll need to get to learn how to fix that, but you’ll have to live with it for now, if you have a copy. It should still be pretty usable. And even better, it’s been discounted to $3.99!