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.

About G Barto

Geoffrey Barto has been teaching language and culture for more than twenty years. His focus is helping people use language to achieve their goals, both for personal growth and in building their careers. The right words can make all the difference in the world!
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