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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Another year without resolutions

Way back in January 2009, I shifted from New Year’s Resolutions to directional intentions. In January 2015, I gave up ascribing any importance to the changing of the years for my language learning. I’ve found that I’m learning more, though about rather odd and disparate things, and am more happy for the change. The problem is that language is a thing for a few weeks of inspiration and something for a lifetime. A year is too long to keep momentum and too short to truly evolve. So consider this my latest update. That it comes in January is solely because I didn’t get to it the month or two before but didn’t delay it till a month or two after.

Minority languages and cultures

Not that long ago, I wrote about what’s happening to Europe and her nation states. In the latest update, the separatist Catalans won a majority in the parliament but the situation on the ground really hasn’t changed. Nobody is too happy with Spain, but nobody is quite ready to find out and pay the price of true independence. And who can blame them? In America’s Declaration of Independence, it was noted:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. 

The Catalonians may feel that they have endured a long train of abuses and usurpations, but they’ve not yet come under the kind of Despotism that they’ll take up arms over.  Which may well be for the best. Nonetheless, it is important to try to hang onto those local languages and cultures which have been tolerated at best and deliberately stamped out at worst. I’m thinking especially of the treatment of the Bretons in France here. But the minority language I’ve studied most of late is…


Emiliano-Romagnolo is a dialect continuum spoken along the eastern coast of Italy. The leading dialect is the Emilian dialect, Bulgnais, spoken around Bologna. Romagnolo variants are found from Ravenna to Rimini and in San Marino. I’ve been studied the Romagnolo of Saludecio, for the simple reason that there’s a Corso Multimediale – really just a grammar and vocabulary, but with sound – at http://marcelpachiot.altervista.org/Dialetto/Indice.htm. In the process, I’ve been creating my own course of sorts. A fellow named Baas has put up a wealth of courses at Memrise including a short one for Romagnolo whose spelling is closer to the Pachiot than to the older resources which deal in all manner of accents and markings to transcribe, as opposed to capturing just enough in writing for speakers to distinguish what is being said. I’ve also started adding my own little Memrise courses. So far, these are drawn from tables in Pachiot’s course. At the same time, I’ve been filling out Romagnolo vocabulary in the Quick and Dirty Guide to Learning Languages Fast, an imperfect but useful tool for documenting from phrasebooks and dictionaries the things you need to learn if there is not a good textbook available. Memrise courses on these lists will come I’m sure. My journey with Romagnolo is, of course, my own, but if you’re learning a language for which good and complete learning solutions are lacking, have a look at the resources I’ve mentioned.

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Whither Europe?

In the past few months, Catalonia has been very much in the news. And it’s got me thinking about the Catalan language. For one thing, as a French speaker, I’m very much aware of what happens to other languages in France, including Catalan’s close relative, Occitan. And if a failed bid for independence leads to loss of autonomy for Catalonia, as seems to be happening, will the Catalan language also suffer in the crackdown?

While Catalonia is widely discussed, it’s not the only place where nation states are fraying. Of course there is Scotland, which hasn’t quite been ready to leave England but hasn’t been enthusiastic about staying, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to England’s attitudes toward Europe and the E.U. At the same time, though, Lombardy and Veneto just declared, in non-binding resolutions, that they’d like more economic and cultural autonomy from Rome. Emiliana-Romagna may be next. And local languages persist, in rural areas, in all three of these. Will there be a bounce-back for reasons of local pride? It may be that the European Union is creating enough of an umbrella for Europe that the umbrella provided by nation states seems less necessary.

As a language learner, then, it’s an interesting and scary time. Will the minority languages of Europe flourish under the EU umbrella, or will the nation states within clamp down on them? At any rate, it’s exactly the kind of time where language addicts start thinking about all their languages again. So, it’s old, but here’s a post someone wrote on learning the major Romance languages:

How to learn all 8 Romance Languages

And do check out the latest developments at Glossika, now at ai.glossika.com. They’re moving from the old model of selling audio programs to a web app with similar audio content but more flexibility in how it’s delivered. And to try it out, they have free access to some minority languages around the world including Catalan, Welsh, Manx and Sorani Kurdish.




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Idahosa Ness of Mimic Method does a lot of cool and sometimes strange stuff with pronunciation. He just posted a nice bit on how to figure out a sound in your target language that doesn’t exist in your native language, even if it’s a rare language with lousy resources available. See it here.

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Be Prepared for the Challenges in Language Learning

Agnieska Murdoch warn’s about The Dark Side of Language Learning.

While learning a language can be an exciting adventure, it’s not just a question of putting in the time and maintaining motivation. You will encounter actual stumbling blocks and a critical language learning skill is dealing with frustration. A lot of language learning programs aren’t very direct about this, which is unfortunate because it can leave the learner feeling that they’re doing something wrong. This is why it’s useful to read the experiences and advice of veteran learners, not just the book jacket or promo blurb for language learning programs.

There’s also a pretty nice take on this in Viktor Dessov’s Everyone Can Learn a Language Efficiently:

[L]earning a new language is not a straight-forward process of getting more and more confidence in one’s speaking abilities. It has its uphills and downhills. On several occasions you may feel quite unhappy with having initiated this endeavour in the first place.

Dessov, Viktor. Everyone Can Learn Languages Efficiently: A Comprehensive Guide to Becoming a Polyglot (Kindle Locations 75-77). Kindle Edition.

In this passage, Viktor goes on to explain some of the highs and lows you’ll encounter, like moving from triumph at your first real sentences to frustration that you sound like a caveman, and from being able to chat about everything to realizing you’re hopelessly outmatched if you want to argue a point with a native speaker.

We should be more honest about the ups and downs of language learning, though it’s true that most of the Learn Fast with No Effort books and programs only carry you to the first high of making your own sentences. If you’re learning a language for any reason other than because it’s what those around you speak and you won’t survive if you don’t learn, be aware these frustrations are coming and have strategies prepared like switching between programs or taking a break to consolidate with listening because you won’t have a lot of extrinsic motivation to learn.

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Remembrance and Recollection

When asked if you remember something, the condition on which you answer yes is if you can consciously recall it. But remembering how to ride a bike is not the same as remembering the Pythagorean theorem. In older times, there was drawn a distinction between remembrance – that which comes spontaneously – and recollection – that which you can recall on command. In Memory: How to Develop, Train, and Use It, William Walker Atkinston notes:

The New Psychology goes much further than this. While pointing out the most improved and scientific methods for “re-collecting” the impressions and ideas of the memory, it also instructs the student in the use of the proper methods whereby the memory may be stored with clear and distinct impressions which will, thereafter, flow naturally and involuntarily into the field of consciousness when the mind is thinking upon the associated subject or line of thought; and which may also be “re-collected” by a voluntary effort with far less expenditure of energy than under the old methods and systems.

One of the challenges of language learning is that we use so many methods like flashcards that work for conscious memory. But when we speak a language well, the words come automatically, spontaneously, and we do not seek them actively but let them flow from the impressions or ideas we would impart. Indeed, the virtue of the flashcard is that with enough conscious recollections, the word finally begins to be used unconsciously, but only if we actually use it. Otherwise, our ability to recall it while flipping through flashcards won’t translate to using it in real life.

The last few posts I’ve put up suggest that our use of language is less a matter of rule and application than pattern matching within our memories. Atkinson indicates this in a different way: Are you memorizing things to recollect? Or absorbing things that you’ll remember? This is not to say that you should throw away your flashcards. But be aware that when you learn something for recollection, it’s only the first step. Make sure you’re using the language enough for real that the memorized data from your flashcards can become a part of personal experience that you’ll remember.

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Further thoughts on Welsh and Sentences

After a year’s disappearance, I know I must seem to be brimming with chatter to post twice in a week. That said, after a long time of muddling around, I have the sense that things are picking up, and this thanks to Say Something in Welsh. Having completed level one of the old course for Northern, I’ve now done the first five lessons for the old course for the South and the first eight for the new lessons. It’s amazing how quickly Southern Welsh comes when you know a bit of Northern 😉 What’s really amazing, thought, is how quickly the learning comes when, as I said before, you are learning sentences and not words. Welsh is not the first Celtic language I’ve had a go at, but it’s the first I’ve had any luck with. What’s made the difference is a method that makes little effort to teach you mutations but has you using them over and over again. There are places where I understand the mutations and places where I don’t but I find myself going with one option instead of another only to hear my guess repeated back to me. At a certain point, it’s not luck. It’s just that you’ve been lulled into putting the words together that way though you’ve no idea how or when it happened. In short, whether for input or output, put your focus on complete sentences, not individual words. It will pay off.

And if you’ve ever wanted to actually speak a Celtic language, do visit saysomethingin.com.

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The end of universal grammar?

According to Scientific American, Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning. Chomsky had theorized that there was all languages had beneath them an underlying structure whose rules for use were embedded in the human brain and that when we encountered language, we fitted it to this universal grammar. This led to numerous attempts to define what was in that universal grammar and make sure all languages fit it. Too often, though, they didn’t. Now, according to the article:

A key flaw in Chomsky’s theories is that when applied to language learning, they stipulate that young children come equipped with the capacity to form sentences using abstract grammatical rules. (The precise ones depend on which version of the theory is in­­voked.) Yet much research now shows that language acquisition does not take place this way. Rather young children begin by learning simple grammatical patterns; then, gradually, they intuit the rules behind them bit by bit.

Thus, young children initially speak with only concrete and simple grammatical constructions based on specific patterns of words: “Where’s the X?”; “I wanna X”; “More X”; “It’s an X”; “I’m X-ing it”; “Put X here”; “Mommy’s X-ing it”; “Let’s X it”; “Throw X”; “X gone”; “Mommy X”; “I Xed it”; “Sit on the X”; “Open X”; “X here”; “There’s an X”; “X broken.” Later, children combine these early patterns into more complex ones, such as “Where’s the X that Mommy Xed?”

In other words, we grow our language skills by saying things we’ve heard before and mixing and matching to get desired results. This is not about fitting language to an underlying structure. It’s about pattern matching. The process, then, is closer to machine learning than equation solving. A year or two ago, I went through a data science curriculum that culminated in the building of a text prediction engine. To do this, I sorted through a million lines of text, collected around 10,000 bi-grams, then identified the most common tri-grams and 4-grams in which they were contained. From there, I built a simple algorithm to suggest whichever  word came after whichever bi-gram or tri-gram most often. It was a primitive thing and not my finest piece of work. And yet, if you type two words and follow its suggestions from there, you usually end up with understandable sentences. This works because it’s just reassembling sentences that have already been built. No grammar, just pattern recognition and matching.

The question comes: What does this mean for language learning? Lately, I’ve been doing Say Something in Welsh, which essentially just drills and drills you on using sentence patterns. I find myself capable of speaking proper Welsh even when I have no idea what I’m saying: The patterns are there and followed and only retrospectively do I determine that while I gave the wrong response, I gave a correct sentence. I’ve also been reading about Glossika, which gives you lots of sentences to practice. It advertises itself as a supplement for language exposure more than a language learning system, but I wonder, if you had enough sentences, how little initial knowledge you could get by with. At any rate, if patterns more than rules allow for language learning, then the place of content and speaking practice becomes all the more important. Something to keep in mind as you look for music and youtube videos instead of doing your grammar exercises when the language learning hits a plateau.



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I’ve been reading Learning Russian Marathon: How to Speak Russian in 10 Years and the author has an excellent suggestion (among many):

When speaking, we use language chunks. We don’t speak in separate words, sounds, syllables, or sentences, and especially not paragraphs.

As I read this, I thought of my (extremely problematic) efforts to learn Mandarin. I studied Mandarin many years before swearing never to study it again, a vow I’ve never quite kept. My Mandarin comes and goes, but one thing that stays with me is the phrases I learned from Pimsleur Mandarin I, and whenever I pull out one of these phrases, I get a compliment on my tones. The truth is that my tones are awful and my ability to pronounce Mandarin word by word is null. But if you give me a phrase to “sing along” with, I can do that. This, I think, is why programs like Vocabulearn never work for me. Better to do something like the Learn in Your Car programs where they make you repeat sentence after sentence.

As we approach the New Year when people take another try at languages, keep this in mind: Whether buying gifts for others or a program for yourself, don’t worry about how many words it has. Your focus should be on whether it makes you repeat whole phrases and sentences, that way your speaking will come naturally and sound natural.

And whether you’re learning Russian or another language (I’m working on my Latin again), I recommend Learning Russian Marathon for a lot of great advice on getting to grips with difficult languages.







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