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!

Progress on Kannada Duolingo

I recently completed a preliminary version of the Kannada Duolingo course by creating a course on Memrise. If you don’t know, Duolingo is a language learning site and application available on computers, iOS, and Android. Duolingo provides free language instruction to anyone who has a computer or a smartphone. This is a revolutionary service, since it is extremely accessible and democratic. The courses rely contributors from around the world to improve and revise the courses, using a cloud-based system. Naturally, they do screen contributors for genuine knowledge of the language in question and commitment. Now, there are already a few courses on Duolingo that teach minority or at least non-mainstream languages, including Welsh, Irish, Romanian, and Polish. Duolingo’s service is an important tool for ethnic groups around the world to preserve their languages and inform the world. However, because Duolingo is not working on languages that require learners to learn a new script to read the language, languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Hindi are significantly delayed. Duolingo also relies on its employees’ internal knowledge of the languages. I am pushing for Duolingo to create a course for Kannada, so as to preserve the language of the Kannada-speaking community, particularly in expatriate communities.

Memrise is another useful service for language learners, and has a simple but very accessible way for people to write their own courses. The Kannada learning course that I wrote and recorded is up and running already! You can check it out here: http://www.memrise.com/course/990976/learn-kannada-3/

I’m considering putting up the full text as a textbook at some point, but I’m having some people review at the moment. Please keep an eye out!

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!

The Foreign Language Study Assocation

If you’re a language aspirant in high school, and you want show others the wonder of the study of foreign language, make a club! I made an organization this year, in my high school, as a sort of pre-collegiate Alpha Mu Gamma, called the Foreign Language Study Association. Another thing: this site will be very helpful when it comes to self-studying languages!

http://www.wordreference.com

Anyway, here’s a quote for you:

学一门语言,就是多一个观察世界的窗户。
(xué yì mén yǔyán, jiù shì duō yí ge guānchá shìjiè de chuānghu.)
To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.