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!

5 Myths of Learning a Foreign Language and How to Get Past Them

There are a lot of misconceptions that people have about learning foreign languages and this can often discourage young aspiring polyglots (such as myself) newly coming to the fray. So, I’m going to show you here what is and isn’t true about learning another language.

1. It requires years and years of practice with native speakers to become fluent.

This one really depends on the language, as every language has its own bells and whistles to sort through. The embedded infographic is really interesting, as it shows what languages are hard or easy for a native English speaker. Some of these I might debate, but that’s not what I’m here to do. It does require effort and hard work on a learner’s part to gain even operational proficiency, but it certainly does not require retreating to the country (or countries) where the language is spoken to acquire the language. There are many methods of doing this, whether it be through grammatical foundations or immersive methods, such as Pimsleur and Glossika.

<a href=”https://voxy.com/blog/index.php/2011/03/hardest-languages-infographic/”><img src=”http://voxy.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/110329-VOXY-HARDLANGUAGES-FINAL-565×1993.png”></a><br/>Via: <a href=”https://voxy.com/blog”>Voxy Blog</a>

I taught myself to speak Hindi at a more or less conversational level and even though I speak Kannada, using its vocabulary to build my Hindi up would have resulted in a very pure and unnatural form of spoken Hindi. To learn a language, studying is imperative. A little bit every day will get you on the right track. Write notes on grammar, practice useful “canned” sentences you can use all the time, or use the dictionary to learn new words (yes, I’m actually suggesting that you read a dictionary), whatever works for you. Whether you’re learning Arabic or Romanian, the key to gaining operational proficiency is to divide up the work into manageable stages. It is not imperative that you learn how to have political discourse in Russian before your first trip to Russia. Ordering in a restaurant is likely to be the more important situation.

2. Fluency means complete mastery over the language, to the point of having native-level proficiency.

This varies with what desired level of proficiency is. I think most people would agree that only the set phrases in a travel phrasebook is not enough to be considered “fluent” by any standard. However, if your only objective is to be able to get around in a foreign country and have a semi-extended conversation with people every now and then, those phrases are important to know and you’re not exactly far off from that level of fluency. There is absolutely no rule that says that you need to be native-level in anything (except maybe pronunciation), so don’t be afraid to set many small goals instead of a few large ones.

3. You can’t learn a language through a book. My high school Spanish/French/Mandarin/etc. class is a perfect example.

I’ll be perfectly frank in saying that this is somewhat true. Your entire learning cannot consist only of “theory”, as eventually you need to put into practice. However, this does not mean that the converse is true: you can only learn a language through immersion. It is unreasonable to think that you will learn as quickly via immersion with no knowledge as you would have in a formal class. My post on the method of immersion explains why this is a bad idea. As for high school and even college level classes, you have to take everything with a grain of salt. Until you reach the upper levels of coursework, the classes are designed so that you have a very basic knowledge of the language in practice and can read/write much more. Speaking takes a priority toward the end, as by then you have learned all the grammar. It is equally unreasonable to expect that a single high school/college course will teach you to a functional level of use. Again, it’s a question of whether you will put in the effort to build up to operational proficiency. Language learning is a self driven process!

4. I’m too old to learn a language/I’m not good at learning languages.

As I said, learning a language is self-driven, and if you’re not putting in the work, you’re getting anywhere. There is no such thing as being “good” at learning a language, but there is such thing as finding the right method. Not everybody can learn through grammar and vocabulary drills, and not everybody finds it productive to learn with spaced repetition of sentences. You need to find what works best for you. And while there certainly is a ripe age for learning, there is no such thing as it being too late for you to learn a language. It may take you more time, but that doesn’t mean you’re not learning.

5. I didn’t understand a word of Person A speaking in Language B! What do I do? I didn’t learn anything!

Not being able to understand someone is perfectly normal. I still struggle with perfectionism and trying to understand as quickly as possible. But it is a gradual process. Native speakers are likely to speak much faster than a learner is comfortable with. And for all you know, the person in question speaks a dialect that is much more prone to speaking quickly and slurring words! The point is, don’t be disappointed when you don’t understand. Ask them to repeat themselves or tell them you don’t understand. It’s OK to make mistakes and it’s a part of learning.

I hope you found this article helpful and don’t forget to share it on Facebook and Tumblr!