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!

しりとり (Shiritori) and Word Games

Today, while hanging out with a few of my Japanese friends, I learned about a game called しりとり (shiritori), which is a type of word game where people say words, take the final kana (or syllable) and use that to find another word that begins with it. It was pretty difficult for me, since I have a fairly limited knowledge of Japanese words. So, that means if I say umi, the person after me has to say word that begins with mi. Obviously, you have to know the kana spelling of a word in order to play this game properly. The catch is that you cannot play words that end in the kana ん (n), since no words in Japanese end with this kana. On top of that, you can only play common nouns, so no names of places or people. If you are in a position where you have no choice but to play a word that ends in ん, then you lose. A similar game called “word chain” exists in English, though this version has way fewer way to ways to lose, since very few letters in English are like ん for the purposes of the game.

Now, what this made me think about is the fact that the idea of “spelling” is an almost unique thing to English, since nearly all letters have more than one possible pronunciation that overlaps with other letters. In Spanish and Italian, for example, spelling is fundamentally unimportant, since every letter has a one pronunciation and one only, and all words are spelled exactly the way they sound. French could conceivably have spelling-based games, since more letters are ambiguous the way English is. Even if the letter or symbol of a language has multiple pronunciations depending on the position of it in a word, spelling is insignificant so long as there no overlaps with other letters. For example, the letter “f” and the combination “ph” make the same sound, but are used to spell things in different ways. “Ph” is used in almost exclusively words of Greek origin, like “philosophy” or “philanthropy”, and “f” for everything else. But for the unlearned player of word chain, these words have ambiguous spellings.

Another thing that this pointed out to me is that in many languages, this game can end very quickly. For example, in Italian, nearly every word ends in a vowel, and that significantly shrinks the bank of words you can use for the game. Spanish has a similar problem, since relatively few words end in consonants other than and s. In many (if not all0 Indian languages, this game is not feasible, at least if it’s played like shiritori. Using the final syllable is very difficult, since even though Indian languages use abugidas, where each letter is almost always syllable unto itself. The problems come up when you have a syllable that has more than one consonant in it. For example, if I were to use the Kannada word ಮಿತ್ರ (mitra), the next word has to begin with ತ್ರ (tra), of which there are very few. It’s even worse if you play a word that ends in the sound ಋ (ṛ), since there are very, very few words that actually start with this letter. It’s just that the writing system is not suited for such games. For what might be obvious reasons, Chinese languages cannot play this game, since hanzi don’t work that way. Using radicals to determine the next word requires too much knowledge on the part of the player. Also, pinyin finals can’t always start a word, and tones restrict syllables even more.

Some of the languages that I think are suitable for this game (using either the Japanese or English version of the rules) include Greek, Russian, Korean, possibly Vietnamese, maybe Irish, and Catalan. Correct me if you think I’m wrong. One of the keys to this game is that there has to be a letter or symbol that little to no words can start with.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I highly suggest playing it for practice in the languages mentioned. Please remember to share this wherever you think people will be interested!

How Big Is Your Dictionary?

English, unlike a lot of languages, has a rather large inventory of words, mostly in the way of synonyms. Take the word “blue”, for example. “Blue” can also be expressed as “sapphire, cyan, cobalt, aquamarine,” or “cerulean”. And that’s not even all of them! Granted, these are different shades or qualities of the color, but the fact remains that there are many ways to express almost any given sentence in English. This can be a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, it makes expression and poetry more versatile, and can allow people to describe the world and their experiences in a more precise. On the other hand, it makes English very complicated, dense, and difficult to learn past a certain level of proficiency for the non-native speaker. I can’t say for sure what that level is, but this problem is more present in reading than in speech.

The notion of having and using a lot of synonyms in basic, everyday speech is simply not as important in most other languages. The threshold of vocabulary at which one uses new words for things one already knows, such as for colors, is much higher in Spanish or Italian than in English. That is to say, Spanish or Italian looks different only at a very high level of education, somewhere in the realm of PhDs and intellectuals. English, on the other hand, begins employing varied and complex language in high school. Remember, I’m talking about this from the perspective of a non-native speaker.

But let’s consider why this is. A Romance language like Spanish derives most of its lexicon from Latin, as well as from the languages of indigenous people in South America. However, academic, or at least standardized Spanish, may not use these words, even in the country in which those words are in widespread use. It is much the same in English-speaking countries; there is no reason to use regionalisms in formal situations unless it is explicitly required. Now, from the viewpoint of a non-native speaker of Spanish, whose first language is English and has a pretty decent knowledge of English, technical and sometimes formal Spanish can be easily guessed through using a knowledge of Latin roots. This is because English has a technical lexicon drawing from Latin and Greek. However, this is not the case the other way around. English draws from many different languages across the world, due to its multinational presence and imperial history. The fundamentally Germanic vocabulary and syntax of English also prevents most non-natives of English from grasping the grammar and vocabulary very quickly.

The significance of having “larger” dictionary is hard to ascertain, because the use of language(s) varies by country, and even within those countries by region. In the United States, English is the primary language in all cases, and other languages are often used in a semi-official capacity, such as translation or interpretation. In contrast, India has a multitude of different languages within itself. The state languages, such as Kannada, Malayalam, or Marathi, are used on the state level, and are used in semi-official capacities at the federal level, where English is used, with Hindi occasionally alongside it. A larger number of synonyms for any given word may allow for more precision, but to the average speaker, native or non-native, subtle distinctions between such words are irrelevant. Very often, synonyms for things such as color are for descriptive effect and variation, rather than a genuine difference in color.

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and I would love to hear your comments. Don’t forget to 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!

Playing Final Fantasy X… in Italian! – Part 2

This is the second (and final) installment in the Final Fantasy X Italian series, as I’ve finished the game. Playing through the game is fun as well always, but it’s also very interesting to see how translators choose to get the meaning across of a work of fiction. In my opinion, fiction can be much harder to work with, especially if it’s of the fantasy genre. Fantasy invents entire worlds, languages, and hosts of new words to describe the universe. I qualify this with works such as The Lord of the Rings, which is the prime example of this situation, considering it has several whole languages translators have to deal with, as well as several cultures, which were concocted in English. The translators for The Lord of the Rings must have had their work cut out for them.

Anyway, the topic at hand is Final Fantasy X, a game from Square Enix, released in 2001, and re-released in HD on the PS3 in 2013. For the past week or so, I’ve been studying the game in Italian. The dub is in English, but subtitles and other game text are all in Italian. This makes for great study material, as you can accumulate vocabulary and immerse yourself in the language. You can read about my analysis of the first half of the game here, if you haven’t already. Now, let’s get started with Part 2!

The mode of address for authority figures and normal people is made very distinct.

I should have noted this in the first part of the game, but it is much more present in the second half, as the story much more heavily involves authorities and the government in the world of the game. In Italian, as in all Romance languages, there is a tu-vous distinction, or a distinction between a non-polite and polite form of address in the second person. Perhaps due to the pseudo-medieval context of the game, translators chose to include the third mode of address, reserved for authorities, particularly rulers and religious authorities, which is somewhat outdated in Italian in the real world. The central religious organization of the world of the game, the Church of Yevon, is run by four main figures, known as maesters. Lower on the social ladder are the summoners, who serve to protect the people under the Church’s control. Both of them are often addressed using the second person plural pronoun, voi. Though it is effectively the plural version of the pronoun tu, the non-polite second person pronoun, the use of voi toward a single person is a gesture of great respect, the second person version of the royal “we” in English. In the English version, this is not made apparent through the pronoun you, but rather addressing the figure in question as, “My lord/lady”, “Milord/milady”, “Lord/Lady summoner,” or “Your Grace”. This imparts the same effect as using voi, which is very interesting as a stylistic choice. Another nuance that has, perhaps unintentionally, been added to the game in translation, is the shift between tu (non-polite), lei (polite), and voi (royal “you”). For certain characters in different scenes, this can express intimacy or contempt. This is especially powerful for one of the characters who has unwaveringly followed the Church’s teachings, and once she is branded a traitor for doing her duty, she is shaken, and one of the antagonists who attempts to use her is one of the Church’s maesters. She noticeably shifts from addressing him with voi to using tu, which, under normal circumstances, would not only be rude, but is much more immediately indicative of her character development, from being polite and respectful to all superiors without question, to making decisions for herself. Since the game was originally in Japanese, this might also be more apparent about her in Japanese in a similar way, considering the much more complex system of formality, respect, and connotative pronouns than those in Western languages.

A very crucial detail to the story is completely left out until a point where it basically doesn’t matter!

This is less an analytical point, than it is, in my opinion, a mistake on the translators’ part. This detail (unavoidable spoilers here) concerns the objective of the summoners’ pilgrimages, which is to train to receive what is known as the Final Summoning. This is a supernatural power that allows the summoner to defeat the destructive force known as Sin. However, there is a catch: the act of doing so takes the summoner’s life in the process of the summoning. This calls into question as to whether this is even ethical or worth the effort, considering Sin reappears two years after it is defeated. Now, he translation in Italian does not articulate this at all. It simply states that the summoners will defeat Sin, and will die doing so. (“Sconfiggerà Sin.. ma anche lei morirà!“; that is the line from the game, almost verbatim.) For those of you who don’t know Italian, this line does not explain that the Final Summoning itself kills the summoner. In fact, it might actually imply that the summoner dies as a casualty of the battle against Sin!

This is repeated in the same manner over and over again, until a point much later in the game, where a person explains that the summoner will perform the Final Summoning, die, and Sin will be defeated temporarily. At this point in game, you’re about to fight the person responsible for granting the Final Summoning to the summoners, which completely eliminates it from the equation and as a plot device.

I suppose, if you’re an Italian speaker with some knowledge of English and you can understand most of what is said to you, this does not present a problem. However, what I feel is more likely, is that Italian speakers are depending more on the subtitles for information, rather than what is being spoken aloud. Not to mention that the Italian text that shows the fact explained above is somewhat “blink and you miss it”. This, I consider an egregious error.

The concept of an “unsent” has more than word used to translate it.

More explanation here: an “unsent” is a person who has not received a sending, a supernatural funeral of sorts, which was explained in Part 1. This ceremony is required to make sure that the souls are laid to rest in peace. If they do not receive this ceremony, they either become fiends due to their resentment of the living, or they become an “unsent”, which is effectively their body and mind (some simplification here) bound to the physical world by the sheer force of their will to stay alive and accomplish something they were not able to in life.

Now, the fact that this word has more than one translation is not an altogether bad thing, I think. Actually, it could be a good thing, since the word is a bit ambiguous or multi-faceted, whichever you think it is. Since an “unsent” is neither dead nor alive, and is still, in appearance, like any other person, it’s not exactly appropriate to translate it as spettro or fantasma (“specter” and “ghost” respectively). The words used to translate “unsent” are still debatable, however. Occasionally, in sentences where I might expect the translated word to be used, the word morto is used instead, which is just a dead person. Granted, this may not have been the intention, since the meaning of “dead person” is easily substituted for the same meaning in the sentences in question, in which case there’s no problem. The most consistently used word is non-trapassato, which is literally “non-passed-away” or “non-dead”. It’s just a negated form of trapassato, and in context, it implies a person who has been “sent”. Since the original Japanese used for the term is 死人/死者 (shibito/shibisha), which means “dead person/departed”, it’s probably the closest translation possible.

Despite my little qualms here and there with translation, it’s largely my opinion. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the game in a new way, and I still highly recommend this game in general. For language learners, changing the language of a game or a system is an invaluable tool to getting immersion practice, so I highly suggest that you do so at some point.

I hope you enjoyed this mini-post-series on Final Fantasy X. I’m considering doing this again for other games (in a different language, I suppose), among which I’m considering Final Fantasy XIII and Kingdom Hearts. Please share this post on Facebook and Tumblr!

I Just Graduated from High School… What Do I Do Now?

Since I recently graduated high school, and a friend of mine requested that I write this, I thought I’d write about keeping up your language skills after you leave high school. I’ve heard of a lot of adults who, after high school or college just completely stopped speaking whatever language they took. “It was too hard,” or “I wasn’t that good at it, anyway”. Those are things you hear the most. But that shouldn’t be the end.

If you just look, there are places to practice your language all around you. Talk to people who you know speak Spanish in Spanish. If you can, go on vacation to Quebec to practice your French. Whatever it is, you can find a way. There are sites like italki and WeSpeke, which help people exchange languages with others, to practice or simply as a form of cultural exchange. I used italki to practice my Italian, Catalan, and Portuguese. I didn’t even take classes on these languages in high school, so I had to be vigilant about keeping my skills up.

But since not everybody is as language-inclined (read: obsessed) as I am, there are a couple of ways that I recommend to keep up your language skills:

1. Watch movies or TV shows in a language made for native speakers. Or you can watch videos from the YouTube channels of those who speak the language. Just type in “X language YouTubers”, and there’ll be some article about it. Some YouTubers are more about learning the language, but there are also some that are more about entertainment, or even a little bit of both. Example: (Quite hilarious, I think!)

(YouTube Channel: 데이브: The World of Dave)

2. Read a book in your target language! I realize this can seem kind of daunting, but if you were more grammatically inclined when you studied your target language in high school, reading a book in the language can be really entertaining. You don’t have to read Don Quijote for Spanish (from what I’ve heard it’s rather boring when you’re trying to read the whole thing), but you can read Harry Potter in Spanish, if you liked that series. Note: If you’re doing this to learn more Spanish in general or improve your understanding of the culture, refer to my post on media.

3. Talk to yourself. I’m not joking. You may think it sounds crazy, but forcing yourself to think, talk, and conduct yourself using your target language will make it much harder to forget. After having gone through an entire year of speaking only Spanish in the morning every other day, I can vouch for this. Do whatever it takes: label all the things in your house with the words in the target language. Obviously, this changes if you live with other people. But you should try anyway.

4. As I mentioned before, there are many language exchange websites out there, where you can find people to speak with at leisure, all for free! The one site I recommend is italki, which I’ll link here. The site is incredibly useful, as you can specify different parameters for what kind of people you want to meet, and if you want actual lessons, you can find teachers for relatively cheap, as there are teachers without formal education in teaching who still teach very well, and there are professionals who are dedicated to the craft. Granted, you’ll have to put in a little money, but it’s well worth it if you want to maintain your skills.

I hope this post helps a lot of people, whether they graduated recently or will do so soon. Just because you had a hard time with it in high school doesn’t mean you have to give up. Just put your mind to it, and you can find all kinds of ways to practice speaking a foreign language.

“Is Watching Foreign Language Movies a Waste of Time?” from Fluent in 3 Months – Response

I recently read through a post about foreign language films from Fluent in 3 Months (run by the legendary Benny Lewis; you can read it here). In this post, I’m going to address points made in the post, as well as discuss the worth of media in general as a foreign language tool. With that, here we go!

Movies/Media have to be studied actively. Passive watching is unproductive.

I’ve paraphrased it, but this is a very big point, and is true of most media in general, when you’re using it to learn another language. Even though I’ve watched Bollywood films for a good part of my life, why isn’t my Hindi-Urdu really good? That’s because I’m not paying attention to what the actors are actually saying. By focusing on subtitles, you’re tuning out anything you can possibly learn.

It’s a good idea to have the remote with you while you watch. You should find yourself pausing and rewinding a lot, to closely examine what they’re saying. If you’re watching something on YouTube, you can slow down the video so the speech is slower and easier to understand. Writing down the words will help immensely for remembering what you hear.

However, even though the post breaks down the method into, “Focus”, “Segmentation”, “Repetition”, “Engagement”, and “Subtitles”, I think one more thing should be added: “Searching”. In almost every movie, song, TV show, or whatever it is, there will be words or phrases that are repeated over and over again. Look for these! It will make your life so much easier when you can pick out what you have learned and what you haven’t.

I find the tip about trying to respond in the role of a character by pausing before the character answers really interesting. I’d never really considered it before, and it’s a great way of practicing synthesis, putting sentences together by yourself, rather than using set phrases.

Warning: the media method isn’t for everyone.

I’m sure that Benny Lewis is aware of this, but using media such as television and music is inadvisable for people who are starting out. This is especially true of music; languages such as Hindi-Urdu and Mandarin use vocabulary that is exclusively poetic, literary, or figurative. This isn’t helpful for a person who doesn’t already know a lot of basic vocabulary and grammar. You can read my views regarding this phenomenon in Bollywood cinema here.

Even for television, which is more likely to use mundane or everyday words, cannot be of use to a person who’s not familiar with the language at least at an intermediate level. For example, I wouldn’t recommend watching a Spanish telenovela when you don’t know all the tenses and moods in the language. For a language like Spanish, more complicated structures involving the subjunctive are commonplace in everyday speaking, and are essential to certain nuances that people wish to convey.

Currently, I’m studying the Italian text of a video game, Final Fantasy X (you can read Part 1 of the analysis here), and I have to pause through a 2-minute cutscene several times from time to time because there are words that I don’t understand. It also helps that I did the blog post, actually. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what media form it is, you you have to be able to understand 40% of the text/speech from the start (most of which is grammar and basic vocabulary), and the other 60% (more advanced/specific vocabulary) will come in time. I might be over/understating the the ratio, but it just goes to show that prior knowledge is necessary.

Pick a movie/form of media that you like.

I also have some reservations about using films that you know. Depending on the film, your target language’s dub either uses cultural contexts and expressions that are completely foreign to itself, even if they’re totally normal for you. This is a problem because it will present situations that the language isn’t built for. Unless the societies of two languages have a lot in common in other ways, it is unlikely that the dub of a film that was originally in another language can fully render all the intricacies of the original language. I’m not saying don’t watch the French dub of Disney movies to practice your French; just don’t depend on it as your sole source of foreign language media. Watch a film that was made in France/Canada for French speakers. As the original post points out, these authentic films will give you a glimpse into real cultural situations that the language was made for.

This is where we have conflicts over the question of fictional works. By which I mean, films/books such as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a prime example of an unhelpful text for learning a foreign language, at least at lower levels. The Lord of the Rings is highly literary in its style, and consists of fictional cultures and languages that may or may not have anything in common with real world ones. The point of this warning is for you to have some variety in what you learn from; venture from your comfort zone (media you’re familiar with and understand on a basic level anyway) into the depths of authentic, original foreign language material made for the people who speak that language. It’s not to say that reading The Lord of the Rings in Russian would be entirely unhelpful; it would be, but it would give you only insight into how a Russian native might perceive the Tolkien’s fictional universe, which is not unhelpful in and of itself.

My experience with Final Fantasy X in Italian is another example of this predicament. The universe of the game is not Italian, and so it doesn’t give me any insight into Italian culture, not much anyway. On the other hand, it does let me see how Italian translators choose to render fantasy, which is still a useful thing to know. I get my dose of Italian culture through what I read on occasion (Italo Calvino in Italian is pretty helpful), so I’d like to think I’m not deficient. You should have a healthy balance of both in order to understand a language.

I realize that might have been a lot to process, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll answer them as best and as quickly as I can!

Food for Thought (About Italian!)

When I went to Italy two years ago, I got to experience how to cook real Italian food with Giglio Cooking in Florence. I was looking at some of our photos, and today, I decided that I’ll cover Italian food culture today! There are several things I’m going to go over in this post, including words for certain foods, Italian food-related etiquette, and about Italian food in general. As much as this blog is about language, it’s also about culture!

The size of a meal

While this obviously varies in different parts of the country, a good rule of thumb in Italy is that meals, ascending in size, are ordered so: breakfast, dinner, lunch. You might find it odd that dinner isn’t the largest meal, but this is completely normal in Italy! Lunchtime is often the biggest meal of the day partly because much of the family or coworkers have lunch together to relax. It is considered poor taste to discuss work at the lunch table if you can avoid it. Having a heavy meal also makes one sleepy, and it is not uncommon for cities to slow down a little after lunch, since many people go home to take a nap. This tiramisù looks delicious, doesn’t it? Too bad there’s already a bite taken out of it!

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Family meals VS Formal meals

Some people think that Italian meals are regularly extravagant, multi-course affairs. However, most Italian people are just like everybody else, and don’t have time to put together such a meal! A family meal can be very large as mentioned before, and often consists of fresh, homemade dishes. You probably have the image of an elderly Italian woman working away in the kitchen making dinner for her family, perhaps with help from her daughters. Italian family meals are informal affairs and focus on enjoying food with one’s family. As you can tell from the photo below, making fresh pasta, like pansotti, is a tiring process. (In case you’re wondering, the person making the pasta in the photo is me!) Fun fact: pansotti means “pot-bellied”, which is a fitting name for this stuffed pasta.

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Now, in contrast, formal Italian meals are very complex, and do consist of multiple courses, served in a specific order. Italian cuisine prides itself on serving only the freshest food to please diners. As a result, Italian restaurants in Italy avoid making too much food in advance, as it will get cold and won’t taste as good. A typical formal meal in Italy consists of the following courses in order: aperitivi, antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti con contorni, dolci, and digestivi. The first course, aperitivi, consists of alcoholic drinks meant to stimulate the appetite, particularly wines such as Prosecco, Cinzano, and Vermouth, and they accompany the antipastiAntipasti literally means “before the meal”, and consists of small appetizers, which may be cold foods like prosciutto and other cured meats, as well as cheeses, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and olives. The primi piatti (“first dishes”) are typically pasta, gnocchi, soups, or risotto. You might not know that strictly speaking, gnocchi aren’t considered pasta, as they are not prepared in the same way as pasta and are more like potato dumplings than anything. Secondi piatti (“second dishes”) are the largest portions of the meal, consisting of meat and fish. Dolci (“sweets”) follow those dishes, and are usually fruits, certain pastries, as well as other sweet dishes, such as the world-famous tiramisù. The word comes from the phrase tirami su, which means “pick me up”. Considering that it has rum and coffee in it, it’s bound to do so! To end the meal, diners often have coffee with digestivi (“digestives”), which are digestive liqueurs, also referred to as ammazzacaffè (“coffee-killers”).

Dining etiquette

Now, regardless of whether it is a family or formal gathering, there are few basic rules of dining etiquette in Italy. First, never start eating before the host has declared the meal to have started. In restaurants, putting your utensils on your plate signals that you are done eating, so put them to the side if you’re not done. It is highly improper to try and mop up all the sauce on your plate with bread; do it delicately!

Perhaps most surprising about Italian etiquette is that wishing someone Buon appetito! (Bon appetit in French and English) is impolite! It comes from a medieval Italian threat, in which the host would say this to his guests to effectively say “Eat well now, because if you don’t behave, you will not be invited again.” It is also seen as poor manners to fidget, touch oneself (very bad!), or put one’s hands or elbows on the table, for anything but eating.

Ingredients in Italian cuisine and dietary restrictions

If you’ve ever been to an Italian restaurant, you may be fond of the red and marinara sauces, the ones that are more famous. Well, here’s some trivia for you: the tomato is not a native ingredient to Italian cuisine, and was brought by the Spanish from the New World! It is now a popular ingredient in Southern Italy, due to being relatively cheap and easy to grow. The North uses more vegetables native to Italy, making much more frequent use of cattle and dairy products. Southern Italian cuisine has many influences from Arab traders and Spanish rule, using rice, spices, and most importantly, the tomato. Also, due its greater dependency on the coasts for economic reasons, Southern Italy makes heavy use of fish.

Now if you’re like me, a vegetarian and a non-drinker, you may feel that your lifestyle is practically anathema to the Italian way of eating. Like most cuisines of the world, the Italian diet is largely meat, particularly fish. Just as in many other countries, fish is not considered meat, because it’s a separate dish entirely. To add onto that, Italians will almost never go a meal without a glass of fine wine. Thankfully, the latter is a reasonably forgivable (to them anyway) thing. Alcohol in Italy is a traditionally moderate practice, and public drunken-ness (AKA going to a bar and getting wasted) is highly frowned upon. If you’re getting a little tipsy at an Italian dinner, it would be well-mannered to either drink less or simply not drink at all for the rest of the meal.

As for vegetarianism, this is a little harder. According to Life in Italy‘s post, “Vegetarians in Italy” (linked here), vegetarianism is gaining more traction in Italy, and in many big cities, if you ask, restaurants are happy to oblige. That being said, you have to be careful, as there are certain dishes that are secretly meat-based, such as soups (it’s not a bad idea to ask if there’s fish broth) and a few antipasti. Fortunately, many dishes in Italian cuisine are vegetarian, including a wide variety of vegetable contorni and hearty pasta dishes with delicious sauces.

For other dietary restrictions, such as halal, halal meat is gaining more visibility in Italy, due to a recent influx of Muslim immigrants. Vegans will have the hardest time in Italy, as milk, cream, and cheese are popular ingredients that would be difficult to omit from dishes, even if you asked. But it never hurts to try and ask for accommodations.
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“It’s Raining Husbands” and Other Idioms Translated into Different Languages

“It’s Raining Husbands” and Other Idioms Translated into Different Languages.

This is an interesting article from Lingholic. Just to add to the fun, I’m going to talk about a few idioms and proverbs from different languages that I know!

ಮಂಗನಿಗೆ ಮನಿಕ್ಕ್ಯ ಕೊಟ್ಟ ಹಂಗೆ. – Maṅganige manikkya koṭṭa haṅge. – As if giving a monkey a pearl.

This Kannada proverb is used when somebody does something for or gives something to somebody else, and that person has no need for it. This is usually in the context of that person not being able to use it or appreciate it.

l’espantacriatures – an intimidating person

This is an idiom from Catalan, and literally means “child-scarer”. The word criatura means child, and espantar means to scare. It’s pretty obvious that a person who scares children is intimidating!

 

Em casa de ferreiro, espeto de pau. – In the house of the blacksmith, a wood skewer.

This is an interesting proverb in Portuguese. It’s talking about a situation in which something or someone doesn’t belong. And that thing or person shouldn’t be there, or do whatever they’re doing. A wood skewer doesn’t belong in a blacksmith’s house, because it would burn and be of no use. It’s kind of like getting in someone’s way.

l’attaccabottoni – A person who corners and presses others with long and sad stories. 

This is an interesting Italian word, because it is one of several very specific words in Italian that we might find very useful in English. I wasn’t aware that this was a type of person until I learned the word. It literally means “attacks the buttons”. Ordinarily you’d think this is like the phrase “pushing someone’s buttons” in English, but it has a completely different meaning in Italian!

(नमक मिर्च/मसाला) लगाना – (Namak mirch/masala) lagaana – to put salt and pepper/spice

This Hindi idiom is pretty useful if you have a lot of friends who gossip. A lot of Indians and Indian Americans use this phrase in English, too! By putting salt and pepper (or masala, which means spice), you’re hiding other flavors or you’re changing the taste a lot. As you might be able to tell, this means to change the story or make it more dramatic or scandalous to make it more interesting when you tell other people.

This was a little short this time, but I hope you found it interesting! Follow Lingholic for more cool stuff on languages. Their tips are really good!

Playing Final Fantasy X… in Italian! – Part 1

Recently, I changed my PS3’s display language to Italian, just for practice, as I rarely get opportunities to use the language anymore. When I loaded my copy of Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster, I discovered that the game’s text had changed to Italian as well! The dubbing was the same as in the English version, though. I decided to take advantage of this is as a learning experience. Since I’m playing this game for the umpteenth time, I know the script and the events of the game almost verbatim (I exaggerate, but I know the game very well). So far, I’m almost halfway through the game (just started the Thunder Plains, for those of you who are familiar with the game).

I’ve taken great care to note translations of text and character lines, comparing them with the original text (in English), as much as I can remember, and when there are cutscenes, the English dialogue helps me contextualize the words used in the text. I’m not sure whether the Italian text has been translated from English or from the original Japanese. Despite my experiences with Italian, many lines in the game are surprisingly concise, which is not what I expect it to do. Here, I’m going to note some interesting things I’ve found about the game in Italian. (I think it goes without saying, but SPOILERS AHEAD if you’re planning on playing the game; I’m trying as best as I can to not reveal too much about the story.)

  1. Much of the narration, as well as character’s lines in real time, are written in a somewhat literary manner, making extensive use of the passato remoto, a simple (as opposed to compound) form of the past tense, also known as the preterite. 

The use of this tense is to be expected in narration, as many of the events up until a certain point are told in retrospect, as a story, to the player. However, I was struck more by its use in the lines of characters in conversation, rather than through narration. For those of you unfamiliar with the Italian language, the passato remoto is an archaic tense, whose use is restricted almost entirely to literary and legal language. Some parts of Southern Italy use it as well. In modern Italian, the passato prossimo, also known as the present perfect, takes the passato remoto’s place. Currently, I’m guessing that the translators were going for an older style of speech in between modern times and pre-Industrial revolution, where the passato remoto is still in use, but the language is changing. The setting of the game is 1000 years after a highly mechanized and industrialized civilization is wiped out by a supernatural force, setting back the world’s people in technological advances, as they fear it will bring them destruction again. It might make sense that they would speak an older form of Italian, simply to reflect the setback. Then again, this is all speculation, as if it were me aiming for an older style of speaking, I might have changed the third person pronouns as well. Italian’s current (or rather most common) third person pronouns are lui and lei. The older forms, egli and ella are largely reserved to formal and literary contexts. In the game, these pronouns are not used, which would be odd, considering the use of the passato remoto, which is also formal and literary in usage.

(A side note on grammar/syntax: If you talk to some of the elderly NPCs (non-playable characters) in one of the rooms in Guadosalam, their Italian text is changed to reflect what is called the “old language of the Guado”, which simply changes the syntax of their sentences to something like OVS, putting adjectives before verbs and subjects at the end of sentences.)

2. The translations of various in-game terms for aspects of the universe can be odd or decidedly ordinary.

Examples include the following words: fayth, Sin, maester, pyreflies, sending and the Farplane. Let me explain a couple of things first about the universe. In the game, the world is plagued by a supernatural force called Sin, which, according to the priesthood, is the embodiment of people’s vanity, and is their punishment for using machines to wage war, destroying many things and killing many people in the process. The people depend on gifted individuals, summoners, to protect them from Sin’s wrath. These summoners embark on pilgrimages throughout the world to train themselves to receive what is called the Final Summoning, which allows them to defeat Sin, banishing it for two years at a time. The Final Summoning, as well as the lesser summonings that these summoners can perform, are enabled by spirits that reside in the temples of the land, called the fayth. The summoners pray to the fayth for their power and the ability to defeat Sin.

Now, in the game, the word fayth is an intentional “misspelling” of the word, and in the Italian version, it is called l’intercessore, or an “intercessor”. An intercessor is a person that prays on the behalf of others, or communicates with the Divine, as a mediator, to grant something to other people. In a way, this is what the fayth do, though it is the summoner who receive power from the fayth to combat Sin, not the other way around. Either way, this word has religious connotations, which fits into the context of the game, though I might argue it’s not entirely parallel in meaning.

Next up is the word Sin itself, which is left untranslated. The word “sin” is peccato in Italian, though the game is not using the word literally, and to be honest, I don’t really mind it.

Then we have the word, “maester”, which is one of four religious authorities who lead the people, and act in more or less governor-like capacity. The word chosen to translate it into Italian is maestro, which, truthfully, has a completely different meaning in Italian. A maestro is usually a teacher or other person who instructs in some way, such as conductor of an orchestra. I’m not sure the word is appropriate, as it lacks the religious connotations that, “maester” has, at least for how it is used in the game. Now, there’s not much you can do, considering that it’s not a real word in English, and they’ve done the best they can.

The next three words are related, so I’m going to do them in one paragraph. First is pyreflies, which are luminescent wisps that float around dead organisms, embodying their souls, sort of. They are called lunioli in the Italian text (unless I’ve misread the game text), which leads me to assume associations with the moon, which is not really what is going on with them. The pyreflies appear when someone or something dies, and they act on people’s memories and feelings to produce images of the dead. Left alone long enough, the spirits of the dead manifested as the pyreflies grow resentful of and angry at the living, their hatred turning them into monsters called fiends (mostri in the Italian text). In order to prevent this (it’s physically required as opposed to a superstition), a ritual called the sending is performed to grant them peace, laying their souls to rest. This ceremony’s Italian name is trapassato, which comes from the verb trapassare, one of whose meanings is, “to pass away”, or more formally, “to depart”. It carries the sentiment of the original word very well. My only qualm is that the verb is used transitively in the same way, though the actual word’s only transitive meaning is, “to pierce” or “to perforate”, which, to the native speaker unfamiliar with the game, and/or unable to understand English, would be exceedingly strange. Now, the sending sends the souls of the departed to a place called the Farplane, which is basically the hereafter or the afterlife, and is dubbed l’Oltremondo in the Italian text, which is literally “the world beyond”, which fits perfectly, in my opinion.

That’s all for this post, and I will be sure to write Part 2 of this as I get farther in the game, and I’m definitely going to be using my Final Fantasy games in other languages to learn more. I encourage you gamers out there to do so as well. I realize this was kind of long read, but I hope you found it interesting! Don’t forget to share this post!