Japanese on Duolingo! Yay! … Or Not.

I recently read an article from Kuma Sensei, a Japanese learning blog, commenting on the recent addition of Japanese to Duolingo. I have used Duolingo in the past, both commending and criticizing it. When I saw that Japanese was added to Duolingo, I had to bite my tongue so that I wouldn’t start screaming about other languages that should be added. Before I jump into this article’s main point, I’d suggest reading the article first: https://kumasensei.net/learn-japanese-duolingo-review/.  Kuma Sensei offers a qualified and in-depth evaluation of Duolingo’s Japanese course, which, to my knowledge, is currently available only on iOS and eventually Android. Given that Duolingo is a primarily web-based application, this is a bit odd. Kuma Sensei’s overall evaluation seems to be summed up with one quote:

“Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and want to just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.”

This is a totally fair observation, since in my experience, most language learners do not seem particularly keen on academically-oriented study programs. That said, Duolingo’s Japanese doesn’t escape Kuma Sensei unscathed. There’s a remarkable lack of grammatical explanation, which seems to be the case for most Duolingo courses.

Even for Italian and Spanish, arguably fairly simple languages in terms of grammar, the explanations of when to use certain verbal forms leaves much to be desired. And again, maybe that’s Duolingo’s appeal. But context-based translations and nuance, which are key skills to acquire as a language learner (no matter who you are) are completely lost on our beloved owl. However, Japanese’s more complex features, such as the mandatory mixed use of hiragana, katakana, and kanji are not at all explained, which I label as a serious deficiency of the course. Although, to quote Kuma Sensei: “You’re lucky you’re still in beta phase, punk.” It’s unfortunately apt that in Kannada (and most of India’s languages), being compared to an owl is to be considered unintelligent.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve been pushing for Kannada to be added to Duolingo for almost four years now, and I’ve yet to actually receive any kind of communication from Duolingo to discuss the potential project. My growing frustrations with Duolingo’s apparent disinclination to support minority languages, compounded with the flaws of the Japanese course are eating away at my faith in its ability to support language learning. I’m well aware that Duolingo is not a great tool for those aiming to become even conversational in a given language, but ostensibly, that is what Duolingo purports to do.

I want to like Duolingo, really, I do. The game-like aspects make it a really powerful starting tool for language learners, but unfortunately no more than that. There’s a lot of further work to be done on your own, which is kind of unavoidable. Duolingo has a lot of potential for bringing up minority languages, which it already has shown it can do, given the availability of Welsh, Irish, Vietnamese, and Turkish courses. Granted, these languages are rendered in Latin script anyway, so that may make things easier. But knowing that the Japanese course is so flawed, it might not be that these other courses are any better.

I’d be really glad to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, and please don’t forget to share this on your social media!

Grammar and Mezzofanti: My Take

Grammar is a tricky and notoriously fussy subject when it comes to learning languages. Recently, I read a post on the Mezzofanti Guild website, by Donovan Nagel. The post talks about the role of grammar in language learning in both self-study and institutions. Nagel concludes that grammar is not necessary and is even detrimental to learning to speak a language.

Why I agree

Grammar does make people fuss over the technicalities and intricacies of language. I myself am guilty of doing so. And Nagel’s right: you don’t need grammar to speak a language. Nobody thinks about the structure of the language as they speak. It just flows. You should be practicing full phrases (“prefabricated multi word items”) rather than individual words. Sure, it pays to know a lot of words and all the possible things you could say. But it’s important to focus on what people do say. You want to sound like a native speaker? Then listen to what they say and imitate. It doesn’t make any sense to speak a language unnaturally. Talking in a way that is technically correct but is stilted and unwieldy in speech is just a pain for no reason.

Why I disagree (sort of):

Nagel states the following:

The primary reason why we actually learn the grammar of our own language in school is to enhance our literacy skills (reading and writing) – not to make us better speakers.

This is absolutely true and I don’t disagree. But what I do disagree with is that you don’t need grammar to learn a language at all. Granted, that’s not what Nagel is saying. I imagine that he’s focusing on the learning to speak part.

Now, I want to be literate and versed in the spoken language. So naturally, I think grammar is important for reading and acquiring vocabulary. It makes you more learned and educated. It pays to be able to learn more about a language and the culture, and one of the best ways is to learn is by reading. (Obviously, reading is not an option for every language.)

What’s that? You’re not trying to learn to read/write?

Then good for you.

Everyone has different goals for the language they want to learn. Sometimes that means learning to be literate, and other times not.

Many language learners don’t like to learn grammar and that’s fine. But I do write my guides with a grammatical perspective anyway, since it helps me organize my lessons. More importantly, it’s there to act also as source material. That way, people who want to use a more immersive method as mentioned in Nagel’s article can convert it into their own format.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that people’s goals differ. And I guess I don’t really disagree per se either. I’m just clarifying some stuff for people who may misunderstand his article as an attack on learning grammar entirely. If I’m wrong, I’d love a clarification.

Hope this article clears up some things! Please share this article and don’t forget to follow and like this page if you enjoy my content!

Language: You’re Doing It Wrong

In a lot of high school foreign language programs the instruction is often loaded down with grammar exercises. For someone enjoys grammar, this isn’t a problem, but it is for many people who have less patience for it. Grammar can be tedious and often doesn’t convey any of the vibrancy of that language. It can be difficult to pick up Spanish when they drill you on conjugations in the present indicative versus the present subjunctive. As a result, people treat language classes like medicine; the sooner you take it, the sooner it’s over.

Sometimes, people try again in their later years, whether it’s through a class or buying Rosetta Stone. I can personally attest that picking up a language through Rosetta Stone is irritating and unhelpful, by the way. To me, Rosetta Stone presents the opposite extreme: loaded down with sentences with no way to parse them.

The reason that you couldn’t pick up Spanish in high school was because you were too immersed in grammar. It was hard to see that a language is organic and sometimes behaves in ways you don’t expect. You couldn’t pick up Spanish later in your life because you focused too much on getting individual sentences. You couldn’t see the structure and use that to your advantage in understanding it.

So how should I learn a language, then?

Rather than excessively focus on repetition of phrases or simply grammar exercises, it’s better to have both in equal proportions. Picking up the grammar is important, no matter how much you might not like it. If you don’t have a blueprint for the fundamental structure of that language, your ability to acquire that language in the long run is fairly inhibited. Why? Because you’re memorizing phrases more than patterns. The important part is to be able to synthesize your own sentences, instead of spitting out rote-memorized sentences. Rather than understanding the sentences intuitively, you’re just memorizing a bunch of sound that has a given meaning.

In simpler, so-called “easier” languages like French or Spanish, you can get away with the rote method much more easily. Compared with some other languages, there’s minimal futzing around that you need to do with the sentences. This doesn’t work in a language like Korean, with a complex system of honorifics and verb styles. A keen awareness of how to form words, especially with respect to formality and politeness, is of the utmost importance. For a polyglot, it’s better to have a fairly consistent method, or at least a flexible one.

In my opinion, you need an even mix of formal grammatical training as well as real world experience. You need to ride with training wheels before you can ride without them. Sure, there are some people who can just pick things up by listening. But for a more complete and functional knowledge, you should combine grammar and real experience.

In conclusion

Obviously, not everybody has the same needs. Sometimes, you’re a linguist who may not really need to pick up the whole language, but rather understand it formally or in theory. Other times, you’re just a tourist or frequent traveler who could use a few phrases to get around once in a while. This post is more for those who want to learn a large part of if not the whole language in question, and long-term strategies are key for developing your skills.

Don’t feel weighed down by grammar, but don’t rely too much on set phrases. Learning a language is learning to interact with an organic part of people’s lives. It’s OK to depend on videos of the language in practice to reinforce your understanding of a grammatical concept, and you can try parsing recurring forms through the phrases you learn. But relying on either in excess could very well make you give up. Take the happier and more efficient route to learning a language! Pick up a book, pull up some YouTube videos, and get to work!

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!

Accent and Dialect: Do You Get to Be Choosy?

As many people know, there are frequently regional varieties and accents of almost every language, even within languages spread over fairly small areas. This presents an interesting problem for non-native speakers and new learners of any given language. For certain languages, the accents aren’t sufficiently different from the standard or most commonly spoken variety. However, for others, such as those spoken in different countries, particularly ones that are far apart, the accents and dialects can be distinct, and to a degree, somewhat unintelligible. So, what do you learn? Is one more “right” than the other? Do we non-natives even have the right to choose? I discussed this in a previous post, but recently I’ve been rethinking this idea.

In order to consider this problem properly, let’s look at a few different languages where dialects and accents are reasonably present. What I mean by that is that the language in question has regional varieties and pronunciation variations that are fairly apparent to natives of the language. These dialects may even constitute social barriers. The languages I’m going to discuss are Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic.

First, let’s consider Spanish. The Spanish language is spoken in many countries, most notably in the majority of nations in South and Central America, Spain, and the United States. The varieties of Spanish in each country are generally viewed as fairly distinct. For example, Cuban Spanish, is very different from the Spanish spoken in Spain. The principal difference is the use of ceceo, a rule of pronunciation of the letters s, c, and z. However, Cuban Spanish has its own peculiarities. Take the word pescado (seafood/fish). In Castilian Spanish, the variety spoken in Spain, it is pronounced as written, but in Cuban Spanish, it is widely pronounced as pe-ca-o. This can be seen as an almost intolerable difference, to the point that you might have to devote separate studying to understanding spoken Cuban Spanish. However, this is an extreme example. Mexican Spanish, though spoken with its own accent, is not incomprehensible to the average foreign learner of Spanish, and in fact is used as the de facto “natural example” in most classrooms in the United States. (I say “natural example” to denote a variety used most often in the classroom for practical purposes.) The point is that most varieties of Spanish have their regional differences, mostly in the way of slang and regionally exclusive concepts (such as food, items in daily use, etc.), but are, overall, fairly mutually intelligible. Now, this brings us to the main problem: do learners of Spanish get to choose what variety they learn or speak? Usually, classrooms teach a version of Spanish that is politically correct, without much slang or regionalisms. Personally, I don’t view this as a huge problem, because, in the beginning, it gives a learner a decent foundation to work up from. But, in the long run, if one continues to use this approach, the end result is an overly newscaster-y sounding Spanish that everyone understands but nobody really uses in everyday conversation. I believe the solution to this problem is that students learn the “politically correct” version to a point, perhaps to the lower intermediate level (B1), and then specialize or at least become familiar with the regional dialect of one country. For example, I would say I understand most varieties of Spanish, but I personally speak and am most comfortable using Castilian Spanish. But it is not a terrible thing if you can’t do so, since the “standard form” of Spanish is readily understood and can be switched to by most, if not all speakers of the language. However, not all languages are the same, since Japanese and Arabic present different problems.

Japanese is spoken only within Japan, but the effect of regional differences is widely recognized. The Japanese spoken in Tokyo is the standard, but if one goes to the Kansai region and Hokkaido region, one will notice a marked difference in pronunciation and use of the copula (the verb “to be”) and even conjugation of verbs. This poses a particular problem for learners of Japanese, because even if one never leaves Tokyo, there are people from all over living there. It’s very similar to New York City, where I’m living right now, and I have met all sorts of different Spanish speakers. Sure, these speakers might speak the standard Japanese when they’re talking to you, but if you go to their hometown, or you end up working in Osaka as an English teacher or something, it would be in your best interest to learn how locals speak. Just because standard Tokyo Japanese is the most commonly spoken version and it’s convenient to learn only that, doesn’t mean that it’s the only one you’ll ever hear. A responsibility of non-native speakers of different languages, I think, is to understand as many people as one can. It is pretentious and even offensive to say “I don’t like the way Kansai-ben sounds, so I’m only going to speak Tokyo-ben” (-ben is a Japanese prefix referring to the dialect of a region). This is different from Spanish, because you can avoid going to Cuba, and have no contact with the Spanish spoken there. Japan is much smaller, and it is significantly less likely that you can worm your way out of going to a specific region of Japan, if you are sent there. Think about it: it is less likely that you’ll be sent to an entirely different country versus a different region within a country. Therefore, it is easier to not have to learn all the different varieties of Spanish, but in Japanese, it would be a good idea to at least understand, if not speak, a localized variety of the language.

Now, we come to the curious case of Arabic, which I have discussed several times before. Unlike some other languages of the world, Arabic’s regional varieties differ greatly, to the point that some are not mutually intelligible. According to some speakers of Arabic that I have met, this is mostly in the way of slang, but formal sources say that even the written and common, non-slang instances of the language vary. The Egyptian and Levantine versions of the sentence “I read the book” can differ greatly in pronunciation, syntax, and even sentence order, for example. When it comes to learner, they must make a choice, I believe. Modern Standard Arabic is used only in formal, pan-Arab announcements and news broadcasts, and learners should decide from there, what variety of Arabic they will learn and use more often. If you’re going to be spending most of your time in Syria or Lebanon, you should learn Levantine Arabic, and even within that, there are national and sub-national variations in the language. Likewise, if you’re working in Morocco, Moroccan Arabic is your best bet. Arabic is a language that forces you to pick a dialect, since you can’t really get away with speaking only the standard form.

The overall conclusion is that the more unintelligible two given varieties of the same language are (though you should definitely compare all of them), the more likely it is that you’ll need to become familiar with one in detail. In a way, learners do have the right, and depending on the way you look at it, and even the responsibility to choose a dialect or accent to emulate.

I hope you found this piece informative and interesting! Feel free to leave any comments and please share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Challenges in the Life of a Polyglot-in-Training

This is something that all polyglots, and even language learners who aren’t planning to learn any more languages, should read. Working on a language is a long and grueling process, which catches up to even the best of us. That said, we shouldn’t get lazy because we feel like we’re not getting anywhere. In fact, if you’re in that place, chances are that there’s an area you need to focus on. But it’s not wrong to take a break once in a while. In this post, I’m going to talk about the things that challenge me when learning languages, and what to do about it.

Leafing through so many resources to find certain information.

This is a big part of my work on language learning and on my books. Depending on the language, this can be incredibly frustrating. This is actually why the Hindi book is coming along so slowly. There are very few good sites out there that describe Hindi grammar, though my personal favorites are hindilanguage.info and learning-hindi.com. Even those either are largely restricted to very basic things or don’t explain the grammar in a way that makes sense to me. This is coming from a person who prefers to use grammar as the basis for language learning! But whether the language is Hindi or Italian, it takes a while for me to compile the information into notes and coherent lessons. Sometimes, I just find it all so tiring that I just let it be for a little bit. I’ll go watch some television or read and let my mind unwind a bit. Never be afraid to get up and walk around for an hour to just take a break. Don’t do what I did and work all day and all night, going to sleep at 1 or 2 in the morning on a regular basis for an entire summer. Believe me, it wrecks your sleep schedule and wears you out.

Learning from others and not being afraid to do so.

This has two situations packed into it. First, there’s learning from native speakers. The whole point of learning a language is to talk to these people! Don’t be afraid to speak up, try out your skills, and see what they say! Most of the time, they’re happy to oblige to correct you if you’re wrong about something. You should be careful about what and how you say things, though. I’m attending university in New York City, and while there are plenty of people to practice my languages with (particularly Mandarin for me right now), there are definitely people who are not in the mood! The other situation in with this piece of advice is other polyglots or learners who are fairly advanced in their learning. If they speak your target language better than you, then listen to them! Other people’s experience is invaluable to building your own. Standing on the shoulders of giants, in a way (I realize that’s not what it means but it works for the situation). Ask them about what they did to get so good at speaking a language or learning in general. It will help you in the long run, especially if you’re in a slump.

Find what works for you. Experiment!

When it comes to method, there is no one method that works. Software like Pimsleur and Glossika (the latter of which I love) can be touted as the best way to learn a language, but everyone has their own way. For example, Duolingo is a good way to keep some practice going, but personally, I find it very bland to a point. The language used in Duolingo is restricted to as many phrases are put in the system (nothing you can do about this), which does an admirable job. But to be honest, Duolingo should encourage what I call the “synthesis” skill, which is crucial to learning a language. “Synthesis” is being able to concoct and put together new sentences yourself without having to pause too much. But that’s just my opinion. Don’t take my word for it and try it out for yourself! It’s important to test out different things and find a sure-fire method tailored for your needs.

Take a break!

I already said this, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to do this. Set your materials and notes aside for a moment, and do something else! You need give your brain time to process all the information you’re taking in. That’s why sleep is important, too, so don’t sacrifice your physical well-being! By taking a break, you’ll be able to test how well you retain information in the long-term. Even though Memrise prompts me to work on it every day, I only do it once in a while to refresh my memory, at least for the languages I’m already quite familiar with.

That’s my piece for now, but I hope you guys re-read some of the older articles as well. Please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

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.

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The Method of Immersion: Bogus?

I have many relatives who believe that the only way I would ever learn Hindi is by sticking myself in a place where Hindi is the only language spoken. This way, I would supposedly adapt to the situation and pick up Hindi in pieces. However, this has only worked partially for me. The majority of my learning has come from traditional methods, through grammar, vocabulary, and reading. However, I will not deny the merits of immersion, because it has helped me grasp some concepts of the language in practice, and also some more idiomatic usages.

However, as a method of learning in its entirety, I am against the immersion method, particularly for beginners with no experience in the target language whatsoever. It is for the same reason that I greatly dislike Rosetta Stone. The immersion method exists on the principle of building up from an existing foundation, which assumes that the learner actually has one. However, those who are not familiar with even the trappings of a language or its roots will find it extremely difficult to benefit from this at all. Think about it; Why would you learn anything significant from somebody talking to you in what is, for all intents and purposes, gibberish? Living for six months in Seoul, knowing not a word of Korean or not being familiar with the language at all, will yield absolutely nothing in getting ahead in learning the language. Even a phrasebook would help you more than that.

The immersion method relies greatly on pictures, context, and most importantly, an environment that is dedicated to learning. The last one is the nail in the coffin, so to speak. Living in a place where you do not know the language is not conducive to learning for several reasons. One, the people around you have their own lives and probably won’t stop to help you learn, unless they know that you’re expressly there for that reason. Next is the fact that you don’t even know what you’re supposed to be learning, which is why you need to be familiar with the language’s grammar and vocabulary. It’s as if you were searching for a needle in haystack where there is no needle in the first place. As for pictures and context, those can be found in abundance, but are hardly useful if the script of the language is not the same as one you already know.

Therefore, I believe that is better to have some knowledge of the language on an analytical level, and then expose yourself to immersive situations in increasing degrees. That’s my piece for today, and even though it was relatively short, I hope you found it interesting. Please leave your comments, and feel free to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Process of “Conlanging” – Avreça, My Conlang

Since I joined a group called “Constructed languages” on Facebook, a conlanging side project of mine, called Avreça, has seen significant progress. From a document of a measly six pages, it has become an expansive grammar and vocabulary list of forty-two pages. I must confess that not long ago, I was highly opposed to the entire principle of a conlang. You can see a post from that time right here. I used to think that it was fundamentally pointless to create a language, especially out of existing ones, for use by the international community. You run into a number of important issues, such as: is it equitable to only include some languages and not others? is the range of expression of the constructed language vastly more limited than its constituent sources? is this practical to learn?

To address the first question, there is almost no solution. Actively including only a set category of languages, such as Slavic or Romance, is inherently exclusive. Whether it is difficult to learn is not the question here. This does indeed create the impression of superiority of that language family over others.

Second question: It’s almost a given that the expression in the constructed language won’t be as well developed. To arbitrarily give new meanings and connotations to words that didn’t have any previously is simply not appropriate, because those meanings develop with time and history. There has to be a context for it. However, the reason that Tolkien’s conlangs can do this is because his worldbuilding gives the context for the expression in those languages. If the con-universe gives a history to the language, then the vocabulary ought to reflect that history.

Third issue: The practicality of a language is entirely dependent on how the person chooses to construct the language. However, including certain features of the constituent languages is also a question of expression and equitability, the grammars of each languages have different nuances.

Granted, these things largely apply to conlangs that draw on existing languages for their lexicons and grammars. In the case of Tolkien, he built from the ground up. However, my conlang is the former, because I’m not experienced enough to build the morphology and roots from scratch.

I never intended my conlang to be used by a large community, but they certainly could if they so wished. As such, the issues mentioned above don’t necessarily apply, but I still stress practicality. It is a bit Romance-centric in terms of its general vocabulary and grammar, but its poetic and literary features draw from Dravidian languages, Sanskrit, and Hindi-Urdu. I started my conlang mostly for recreational purposes, but I had also started writing a story into which I wanted to incorporate my conlang. And thus, Avreça was born. You can download a document detailing the conlang here: http://www.mediafire.com/view/92ijw6jx0ii957a/Avreça.pdf.

Avreça’s grammar, as previously mentioned, is primarily Romance-centric. There exists an indicative and subjunctive version of each verb conjugation. Currently, all verbs are regular, but if it were to be used more often by actual people, I’m certain that many verbs would be become irregular. As per the tradition, so to speak, of Romance languages, there are three types of verbs, -ar, -er, and -ir.

A rather curious feature of Avreça is that it actively distinguishes between poetic/literary language and common language, which are nearly always separate. The actual poetic/literary lexicon, as I said, is largely Dravidian, Sanskrit, and Hindi-Urdu in origin. Only two words come from Japanese, al ossache and al hyachia, which are derived from sake and hyakki yagyō. The concept of ossache is similar to the Japanese tea ceremony, whereas hyachia describes any shady or suspicious part of society, usually in an abstract way.

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When and Why Grammar (Is/Can Be) Important

As a something of proponent of grammar-based learning, I should admit that I’m biased when it comes to whether grammar is important or not. When my peers and I learned English in elementary school (which ironically is called grammar school everywhere else, for a reason), we were told that good grammar was important because it showed that you were educated. But when I’m at school, there are still some people who speak with minor grammar infractions. But why is that? It could be that grammar in speech is not enforced as much as it is in writing. We see this in a lot of places; while the sign of a business may be written in good English, the people running the establishment may have less-than-perfect speaking skills.

But you may be wondering what this has to do with foreign language. There are numerous people who give up on foreign language because they have trouble grasping the grammar. But this is not their fault; it’s not a question of studying enough. Some people simply don’t learn that way. Many respected linguists and teachers of foreign languages have said that grammar shouldn’t be stressed as much as it is in most classes. And that is true; grammar can be overwhelming if you’re not interested in it. However, this is not to say that grammar shouldn’t be taught at all. Now, I’m going to discuss reasons for whether grammar is a necessity.

Better Reading and Writing

This is a bit of a given. The written form of almost any language is expected to be flawless for the majority of the speaking populace. Again: grammar-wise. The actual written content and the mechanics of the language used to convey it are separate. Good grammar is essential to not be only understood but also show yourself as an educated, intelligent person. I realize that there are people who may view educated writing as pretentious, but I feel that is more a product of word choice and actual content. Good grammar knowledge also enables you to understand more advanced texts, because certain meanings and nuances are conveyed by more complex grammatical structures, some of which include different moods and cases.

Enhanced Understanding of Nuances

As I said before, a good grammatical understanding allows you to get certain nuances of the language. This is especially relevant when the language that you’re learning is not at all connected with your own, meaning that you have no foundation to work up from. When Romance language speakers use the subjunctive, certain uses suggest a notion of uncertainty, doubt, hypothetical conditions, etc., in a way that English doesn’t. When Korean speakers shift between the “modes” of formality and politeness, this provides certain undertones to the speech. Memorizing phrases and substituting words is no better than memorizing lists upon lists of vocabulary and rules. I think it’s important to encourage synthesis, rather than mechanical/robotic repetition.

Stress Undermines Motivation and Appreciation

As you’re probably very aware, an overt stress of grammar is detrimental to learning. It creates the impression that language is just grammar rules and words. This is not only hugely demoralizing, but also a huge underestimation of the power of language to convey the human experience. Each language is unique in its capacity to express the history, emotions, and experiences of a people.

Narrowed Understanding of the Language as a Whole

Not everyone says the same thing the same way. This is a fact of life. As much as knowing the grammar lets you make your own sentences independently, it also limits your ability to understand other dialects and expressions. Whatever you’re taught in a class or grammar book is the standardized version of the language, which not everyone speaks on a daily basis. Sometimes, the standardized version of the language is seen as pretentious, arrogant, uptight, or downright unnatural. Granted, the remedy to this requires that you go to various regions where the language is spoken, so that you can get exposed.

I hope you got something out of reading this! Please share this with your friends and feel free to leave any comments!