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

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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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Speaking of Old Norse

Read all the sagas and eddas? Looking for something else to read in Old Norse? Here’s a curiosity: A grimoire from the 1600s called Galdrabok. You can find a (less than perfect) scan of a 1921 reprint with Swedish translation here: En Isländsk Svartkonstbok.

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Another Year, no new resolutions

I’ve written in the past about the problem with New Year’s Resolutions and won’t do so again. What I will suggest, though, is that this is the year to learn Old Norse, the Viking Language. Two years ago, Jesse Byock released the first book in the delightful Viking Language series. The first book uses a grammar-translation approach, but with an aim to reading, not situating the language in the context of the Germanic family. This requires some memorization but it is a far cry from Gordon where you’re asked to read grammar excerpts and figure out what to do with the readings when you’re done.

This December, the second book in the Viking Language series came out. It provides a series of passages for translation and helps you get a better sense for poetry. The two books together are definitely old-school. But they provide a self-contained course where you learn to read Old Norse by reading Old Norse so when you’re done, you know you can do it. And the readings for book 1 are available in MP3. So whether you’re into Asatru, a fan of the sagas or interested in Norse mythology, there’s now a manageable path into reading Old Norse and pronouncing it in a way that makes the language come alive.

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The Importance of Doing

In the run-up to the holiday season, I’ve managed to get a week off. I’ve been devoting my time to two languages: Old English and Elixir. For Old English, I’ve been working through Learn Old English with Leofwin, which includes audio on the website. Rather than simply memorizing forms, you read sentences and form your own sentences from the beginning, including exercises like talking about yourself and your family. It makes the language meaningful, and learnable. I can now announce that “Ic hate Geoff and ic haebbe ane sweostor” as naturally as I speak German, at least. Language is not something you know. It’s something that you use. The words – the vocabulary – make nice tools for specifying meaning, but the construction of grammatically correct sentences is done on the fly and can be done even with nonsense words by native speakers.

For Elixir, I’ve been using Programming Elixir: Functional |> Concurrent |> Pragmatic |> Fun, by Dave Thomas. Thomas’ so-called Pickaxe book is the bible of Ruby for many, documenting the ins and outs of the language in detail. Programming Elixir, on the other hand, is more of a tour of the language and with lots of exercises that mimic the examples and get you used to writing Elixir as well as reading it. Since Elixir is just a language for giving instructions to a computer, this nicely introduces how to communicate with Elixir.

The key in both cases is that using a language will do more for you than learning it. So if you’re learning a human language, keep earbuds and your mouth handy. And keep your laptop open to learn a computer language. But either way, keep talking and see what captures your message.

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Serial Enthusiasm and other musings

For the last year or so, I’ve spent a lot more time on one computer language – R – than I’ve spent on human languages. It’s not a question of foregoing human languages. It’s just that I’ve been able to use R in my work and so I’ve been taking the Coursera Data Science Specialization to formalize my learning and fill in gaps. One thing I’ve learned about R is while the language isn’t the best ever created, the wealth of libraries and the solid design of R Studio make it a great language for data analysis, and for extending my ability to “talk about” and “talk with” data objects. This makes me think of the natural language I’ve grown up with, English. The grammar is a mess, the spelling system is atrocious and yet the language comes in for widespread use, even and especially as a second language. But part of what makes English work is the ability of people to modify it for their own use. Every day, millions of e-mails are written in English that test the limits of what English is. If the language were French, the Académie would be horrified. But English is an open-source language. Everyone is free to make a contribution and if people find it useful, eventually their additions will be accepted. If not, as long as communication was effected in the moment, it’s okay.


I have not abandoned human languages altogether. Far from it. I’ve been through the full Pimsleur Dari course (both levels) twice this year and can string together basic sentences for getting food and shelter, and displaying a minimal level of politeness. And this enabled me to stumble through a fair number of the quatrains of Khayyam while getting familiar with the profusion of words that refer to wine. And of late, I’ve been working through Pimsleur Norwegian, Norwegian in 10 Minutes a Day and The Mystery of Nils, a Norwegian language learning adventure. Of the most delightful and distressing elements is how easily a Germanic language comes. While I’ve put a lot of time into Farsi/Dari, I’m sure that for far less effort I’d do far better is Oslo than Kabul, and not just because the first isn’t a war zone.


The real inspiration for coming back to say a few words, however, is a term I may have seen before, but just stumbled upon: Serial enthusiasm. There is an excellent blog post, Confessions of a Serial Enthusiast, in which Les Orchard describes his tendency to flit from project to project in the open source world as a hobbyist, even though he certainly sticks to projects he’s being paid for. His thoughts should resonate with those language addicts who retain the languages they use and need, even as they pick up and let drop other language learning projects. There might be some useful food for thought here if you’re bored with one language and eager to start another: What you devote your time to is your decision, and it should be based on getting something out of that finite amount of time allocated to us all. So you should draw a clear distinction between the languages you’re using with a specific aim in mind and those you are learning for the pleasure of learning. In this way you can be more rational about whether studying a language and letting it drop was a waste of time, or a way of finding pleasure and mental stimulation at a particular time. If your job or life requires you to use a language, you need to stick with it. But if it’s just for fun, then insisting you stick with one language till you’ve learned it to completion is like insisting you can’t have chocolate ice cream for dessert because you haven’t eaten enough vanilla yet.

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Ha ha ha plans

I see at the end of December, I wrote about this being the year I’d hit French. We all know how that goes…

I have now finished 39 lessons of Pimsleur Dari – the whole first phase and the first 9 of the second phase. I expect I’ll finish phase 2, but I know better than to make predictions by now.

I did run across one exceptionally useful idea though: The emotions of motivation don’t last, so if you want to do something, you need a plan beyond staying motivated. Doing the Dari course, there have been some moments when things clicked, especially around lesson 20 of the first phase and lesson 4 of the second phase. But what has mostly kept me going is routine: I do a lesson after eating dinner and then I can consider myself done for the day. There are days I look forward to the lesson, and days I groan, but the good thing is I’m not counting on motivation, just going through the motions. There’s an inspirational thought!

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A New Year, An Old Language

After years and years of knowing French, this year I’m relearning it to get my speaking back up to a halfway decent level again. I’ll be working with the beginning Assimil book, just for content to read, and Using French. I’m also working through Teach Yourself’s Perfecting French and making an effort to speak more.

On a slightly different note, if you are wanting to learn Sanskrit, I would check out Sanskrit by the Fireside, a beginners’ book for self-study. It’s a bit pedantic, but provides really simple content to get started. Here’s your link at

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