So many languages!

If you go into the typical bookstore these days, you’ll get the impression there are about 10 languages, starting with Mandarin, Spanish and French, German and Italian. Oh yes, and there’s Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. These are the only languages represented by more than pocket phrasebooks in the little bookstore I just left. But what are the actual top 10 languages?

Top 10 languages by native speaker

  1. Mandarin
  2. Spanish
  3. English
  4. Hindi
  5. Bengali
  6. Portuguese
  7. Russian
  8. Japanese
  9. Marathi
  10. Western Punjabi

Interestingly, 8 of the 10 are Indo-European. But half of those, 4, are languages spoken in South Asia, and they aren’t represented in most bookstores. I mention this because, as a Language Addict, my thought about languages has always been that I want to know them all. Based on the bookstore I just left, it might just seem doable. But…

Recently, I’ve been listening to John McWhorter’s Language Families of the World from the Great Courses. And it turns out there are a lot of languages, most of which even language geeks haven’t heard. You talk about leveraging families to learn more languages and you think of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese; or English, German, Dutch, Danish. But what about Tagalog, Indonesian, Hawaiian, Tahitian and Malagasy? Or Amharic and Tigrinya? Soon, you realize you’re in unfamiliar territory once you leave Europe and East Asia.

For those who love languages, I highly recommend McWhorter’s course. It’s a great introduction to how much language variety there actually is, and how rapidly it’s disappearing. For example, among the Romance languages, most people can come up with Romanian and Catalan if you ask them to go beyond the big 4. But there’s also Franco-Provençal, Piedmontese, Galician, Venetian and more. Many, like Emilian0-Romagnolo and Gallo, are on their last legs. And in Australia, soon they’ll be down to about 12 of the 250 languages that were spoken when European colonists arrived. So how can you be truly international? First of all, you should listen to the course and try to find out more about anything that sounds interesting. But second, you will probably want to check DuoLingo or Memrise to find cheap, easy introductions, if only so you can say, yeah, I learned a few words in that once. A suggested list for DuoLingo:

  • Indo-European: Germanic: English
  • Indo-European: Romance: Spanish
  • Indo-European: Celtic: Welsh
  • Indo-European: Hellenic: Greek
  • Indo-European: Slavic: Russian
  • Indo-European: Indo-Aryan: Hindi
  • Finno-Ugric: Hungarian
  • Turkic: Turkish
  • Afro-Asiatic: Arabic
  • Niger-Congo: Swahili
  • Sino-Tibetan: Chinese
  • Austro-Asiatic: Vietnamese
  • Austronesian: Indonesian
  • Na-Dené: Navajo

Listen to McWhorter, so you know about the language families these all come from, and then you can set yourself to becoming a truly international polyglot next year.

(Usual disclaimer: The Amazon link implies no actual relationship with Amazon beyond the Affiliate program.)

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New Approaches to Polyglottery for the Language Addict

Recently, I ran across a reference to EuRom5, a book for studying French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, using one as your base and developing your intercomprehension skills to gain a reading knowledge of the other four. I’d read about it before, and I suspect I’ve even bought it before. But I ordered it and started reading the introduction. This lead me to Wikipedia’s discussion of Plurilingualism. Plurilingualism stands in contrast to multilingualism in that the idea is not to learn multiple languages individually, but to relate different languages sufficiently that you can get by in certain tasks. In multilingualism, substituting the Italian word into your Spanish conversation and hoping it’s the same is a failing; your mastery is incomplete. With plurilingualism, the same move is a success: your knowledge may be imperfect, but it doesn’t prevent you from completing the linguistic task at hand.

I find the distinction between plurilingualism and multilingualism to be an important one, because I think it captures where a lot of borderline polyglots are. We are probably multilingual for two or three languages: they really are separate entitities with separate contexts and separate feelings when speaking them. But as we add other languages, they represent extensions of our knowledge of our strongest language in the family less than a complete and separate mental construct. And for most of us, that’s okay. It’s largely a matter of how seamless your linguistic and cultural aptitudes need to fit where you’re speaking a different language. A court interpreter or the guy translating contracts needs to be solidly multilingual, with full comprehension of the linguistic and cultural nuances present in each language’s version of the discourse. An international traveler or someone reading for pleasure, not so much.

This brings us to a bit of a detour. I recently read this bit, “How I came to read Latin extensively” and it feels like it’s the kind of thing a plurilingual would enjoy. Latin specialists may write articles about the importance of an author using one word instead of another or using the subjunctive in an unexpected place. For most of us, though, experiencing Latin as something you read and enjoy, instead of something you copy out and translate line by line, is plenty. You can find out how he did it at the link and simultaneously get a better sense of how to develop intercomprehension for reading in languages you lack the time or inclination to master.

With a refined sense of what you can do with intercomprehension and plurilingualism, it feels like it may be possible to learn all the languages, at least a little bit. Good news for language addicts everywhere.

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It’s Black Friday! Language learning bargains

One of my key recommendations for language learning is that you use lots of different materials and techniques so you can find things that fit you and things that challenge you. But, alas, that doesn’t come cheap. So here’s a look at some online resources available for cheap right now:

Agnieszka Murdoch at 5 Minute languages has gathered deals from herself, Olly Richards and Benny Lewis here: https://www.5minutelanguage.com/black-friday-2019

Idahosa Ness has a “liquidation” sale on his old courses: You can get sound masterclasses for $47. I went for the Mandarin. You can find his deals here: https://www.mimicmethod.com/black-friday-2019/?ref=idahosanessu

Outlier Linguistics has nice deals on all their products. I use the add-on for Pleco with character histories and explanations. Site is here: https://www.outlier-linguistics.com/collections/chinese/ If they forget your discount, you can use code: BFCM2019

Happy shopping!

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Place to start listening?

I just ran across a program called LingoJump. It’s a collection of audios where a native speaker pronounces at normal speed, then really drawn out, then less drawn out, then back at normal speed. I’ve been listening for Turkish and Mandarin. For Turkish, I don’t know yet. But a nice thing about the Mandarin is that you can hear the shifts in the tones. Very useful. As with most programs, this advertises itself as perfect for learners of any level. I’d say it’s most useful for someone with comprehension of basic phrases and some vocabulary, otherwise it’s going to take some serious time to figure out what you’re listening to. But if you’ve got that basic background, this is a nice way to figure out how to put together phrases that you just can’t make come out all at once.

LingoJump comes in a variety of languages. For a language addict, your best bet might be a subscription to Scribd.com, where you can download most of them to your phone as part of the service. (Note to self: You really need to sign up with affiliate programs for some of these things again.)

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AI to decipher old languages?

Interesting article from the MIT Technology Review:

Machine learning has been used to automatically translate long-lost languages

But speaking about new research into AI translation of lost languages, the article notes, “In this paper, Linear A is conspicuous by its absence.” Indeed, the two languages the AI decoded are Linear B and Ugaritic. We already know both these languages, if not well. And the AI used what was known about languages like Ancient Greek and Classical Hebrew, to construct models to test Linear B and Ugaritic against. With languages like Linear A or, God help us, whatever the Voynich Manuscript is written in, we don’t have the needed information to guess that language Y will be close enough to language X to decide they’re worth doing brute force comparisons with. Indeed, the decipherment of Linear B owes much to Ventris’ guess that it was a form of Greek. Had it not been, Ventris’ work would have wound up like what we have for Linear A now: Some idea how the elements go together but no idea what they actually are.

One bit of food for thought, though: How similar are these AI processes to what a Spanish speaker does to learn Italian? And could it turn out, as with Linear B, that computers can do a better and faster job investigating a human hunch, but still require that human hunch to know where to begin?

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Ijo li awen lon tenpo suli…

I recently had surgery and, as always happens when I’ll have some time to do nothing, I set great goals for working on, say, Sanskrit or Tibetan. That happened…

Actually, I stumbled again upon Toki Pona and Esperanto and really liked the idea of languages designed for ease of use. After a quick trip to Memrise, I learned the vocabulary of Toki Pona and started working through 1) the original book, in Kindle Unlimited, and 2) somebody else’s lessons, found on Scribd. And then, a challenge appeared in my mind: Toki Pona is the language of good and I wondered how it would do for translating Lovecraft. I’ve got a ways to go but will add this to the list of long-term projects I’ll likely never get to. That said, I have this, from The Nameless City. Critiques welcomed:

ijo li awen lon tenpo suli la: ni li moli ala.

tenpo suli la, moli kin li ken moli.

And of course:

ijo Kutulu moli li awen li lape li sona.

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Romagnolo Dictionary

In the past few months, I’ve been working on a dictionary of Romagnolo. If you look in the header for the site, you’ll notice there’s an article for it. The dictionary should come some time this summer. In the mean time, you can see sources and the preliminary indexes (posted on Github) linked on the Romagnolo page for this site.

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