Mezzofanti and Vocabooster

A few weeks ago, I followed an Agnieska Murdoch Youtube and wound up hearing about Vocabooster. As I am on layoff for the Coronavirus, when I saw the opportunity to get the full Vocabooster package for too much money, I jumped with dreams of all the languages I would learn in my newly found free time. Then comes the question: Does it work? So that meant trying a language I hadn’t before. I settled on Estonian. I’ve now worked my way through 200 words while plodding through the Anki deck. And what I sense I have here is a framework not unlike what you’d get from a Michel Thomas course – one of the ones that was actually taught by Michel Thomas, mind you. There are lots of pieces you can put together. After the third time that you get the Anki card about not understanding Estonian (Ma ei saa aru eesti keelest) and almost thought “eesti keelt” instead of “eesti keelest” you can hear a voice chiding you that with “saama aru,” the noun needs to end in “-est” even if you’re not quite sure why.

I have been copying the contents of the course onto notecards, 10 entries to a card, Estonian only, to get some kinesthetic learning in and have something to skim from time to time. Anki is nice for the individual phrases, but it doesn’t allow you to quickly look for similar sentences to bring up to date the point you just got wrong but think you now understand. And here’s the funny thing: Skimming this set of cards, it would be completely useless for someone learning Estonian. But it’s very useful for jogging the memory about all sorts of things. And this made me think of Mezzofanti.

Mezzofanti, of course, was a sort of prototype for the internet polyglot. A cardinal and diplomat by trade, he was reputed to know oodles of languages, though for many of them he probably knew just enough to fake it with people who were both generous and extremely excited that someone so august had even heard of the language they spoke. But there is no question that in some languages his knowledge was solid. After Mezzofanti’s death, they found stacks and stacks of cards with snippets of language information that he used to prompt himself. These cards, call them proto-flashcards, are not so novel today. But they point to both a solution and a problem. The solution, of course, is to summarize things you want to remember on little note cards. The problem is knowing what would be useful to write on them so that they truly jog the memory of things not there written.

The Vocabooster lists do not carry the typical lists of numbers, declensions, conjugations, etc. What they have, instead, are a lot of words used in context in ways that show the different grammar patterns needed for everyday expression. If you try to out and out learn from them, you are sunk. But if you content yourself with picking up lots of phrases and letting your brain sort it out later as familiar patterns emerge, you’ll absorb a spot of grammar of the sort descriptivists like in lieu of prescriptivist rules that you may learn more precisely, but only to forget them. And when you’re done, you’ll have a stack of fifty cards of the sort that would have served a Mezzofanti well.

One other minor point: Vocabooster starts you on learning a language with sentences, which is nice because Glossika will take you along this path but is not a very good place to start. After I finish the Vocabooster program, I will be going to Glossika along with a more traditional manual. I’ll be curious to see what this heavily sentence based audio/text approach will do as opposed to more traditional methods.

Here is the link for Vocabooster.

Here is the link for Glossika.

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The Linguistics Research Center at UT-Austin

Over the years, I’ve referred to the Early Indo-European On-Line resources at the University of Austin many times. They are hosted by UT-Austin’s Linguistic Resources Center. The LRC, like many other university resources these days, is facing budget cuts, possibly even closure. They are trying to make the case to keep it going. If you have used any of the LRC’s resources online, you can fill out a survey at the link below expressing your support:

LRC Survey

Predictably, it will also ask for a donation at the end. If you’ve got a few nickels to rub together, a donation would not only help finance wise but probably also show that people are committed to the importance of such resources.

The page for the language lessons also has a donation button:

Early Indo-European Online

If you haven’t been, take a look while it’s still there, because it’s the best collection of scholarly but readable introductions to ancient Indo-European languages I’ve found.

 

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For the truly ambitious polyglot

A little while ago, I wrote about just how many languages there are to learn and John McWhorter’s Language Families of the World. Today, though, I stumbled upon something truly incredible: Handbook of Descriptive Language Knowledge. The author, Harald Hammarström, was good enough to upload this fantastic guide to Academia.edu. In it, he provides categorizations, by region and language family, of pretty much every language for which documentation exists, along with references to the newest or most comprehensive studies of that language. Here’s Mongolian, for example:

3.19 Mongolian (14)
Core area: Mongolia
Canonical source: [510]

[510] Janhunen, J. (2003b). Proto-mongolic. In Janhunen, J., editor,
The Mongolic Languages, Routledge Family Series, pages 1-27.
Routledge, London & New York
Janhunen has written an excellent handbook with many sketches [511]. A
recent grammar is [512].

[511] Janhunen, J., editor (2003a). The Mongolic Languages. Routledge
Family Series. Routledge, London & New York
[512] Slater, K. W. (2003). A grammar of Mangghuer: a Mongolic language
of China’s Quinghai-Gansu Sprachbund. Routledge, London & New York

If you’re studying a language like French or German, of course, there are lots of non-academic resources. But if you’re interested in a language that’s way off the beaten path, this is a great place to start.

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Romagnolo Starter Dictionary now available

I have been studying the regional languages of Europe off and on for quite some time. One of the languages which includes a nice catalog of poetry and plays yet is probably on its last legs is Romagnolo. At a certain point, tiring of forever searching PDFs with Italian keywords in hopes of finding the proper Romagnolo word, I started putting words into a LexiquePro dictionary so that I could generate an English-Romagnolo dictionary for my use. Unfortunately, the spelling conventions among sources are not exactly standardized, so I did my best to put each word into a more or less Italian spelling. The accent marks over vowels are lesson certain to be useful. That said, I have put the whole thing into a little dictionary and published it on Amazon. The Romagnolo page has been on this site for quite some time with links to PDFs of the latest updates. You can now find a PDF of the whole book at the Romagnolo page. You can also purchase the paperback book at Amazon for $9.95.

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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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