Saving Aramaic

Recently, a friend forwarded this article on efforts to save Aramaic. Now I see that NPR has done a story too (mentioned on this HTLAL thread). However, if you want to learn a little Aramaic yourself, it’s not too late. There’s a blog which teach snippets in short posts. Just keep going through the archives and you’ll find everything from how to make short sentences to key Biblical quotes: LearnAramaic.blogspot.com.

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Writing for computers, writing for people

Of late, I’ve been taking a computer class on C, and doing a little side-study of Go and C++. Most people know about the importance of writing your code so that the computer can understand it. But it’s also important to write your code in a way that your fellow humans can understand it. By the comments you insert and the way you format your code, you can either create a nightmare of gibberish that does only the last thing it was doing when you compile it or a structure on which others can build or from which they can take pieces to create new things. Just as literature has allusions and quotes at the chapter heads, a coder often makes use of others’ ideas in new ways. But for that to happen, the code has to be written in such a way that you can see what’s going on it.

This is also something that crops up in our use of ordinary language. When we “transcribe” a speech, we don’t usually capture all the “umms” and “ers”. And if it’s a transcription of a speech or something else being put out for public consumption, only the cruel scribe will leave in all the “likes” and “y’knows” or punctuate unfinished sentences to suggest that the speaker lost his train of thought and had to start over, as opposed to elucidating or rephrasing for clarity. In short, the system we use for talking to each other also needs polishing up for someone else to understand it.

In learning a language, one of the toughest elements is getting the hang of the way people actually use the language, as opposed to the way they claim to use it. And one of the toughest things for someone who learns the spoken language is to get the hang of what you do and don’t write down and what you need to rephrase. So whether you’re learning a human language or a computer language, always be on the alert not just for the rules, but also for the conventions that help people know that they’re on the same page.

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Learning by doing

There’s no question that some people learn better by sight (visual learners) or by hearing (audial). But at some point, learning requires that you practice the skills you want to use. I wrote earlier about the value of typing in programs so you get used to physically typing the key combinations that may be unfamiliar but that you need to get right for your programs to work. Lately, I’ve been finding the same thing with Egyptian: I’d gone a few weeks into my course and I stalled. Now, for two weeks, I’ve been methodically copying out all the exercises, looking up the recommended steps for writing simplified versions of characters as I go. It’s another form of “act as if…” If you go through the motions of being a scribe, you become one. So as you work on your language, or anything else, make sure your practice makes you work through the mechanics of what you’re learning – how it comes together – and then your thinking and your automatic memory can work together all the better.

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More Assimilating

Some time ago, I did an experiment to see just how much I could learn with an Assimil course when learning with ease, as the books are titled. It turned out I could pick up a fair amount of Alsatian, at least for passive use. Now there’s a group experiment at HTLAL. If you’d like to see how a variety of people do with Assimil courses for different languages, you can read the log here.

Last time, I wrote about Python. But then something came up in the middle. I signed up for CS50x, a Harvard computer science course through edx.org. The course is mainly using C, with a bit of PHP and JavaScript to come. It’s been years since I waded through a C course, but the little bit I picked up is not entirely forgotten. So I’ve adopted the method of the Teach Yourself Python the Hard Way, by taking pains to physically type in all the programs as they come up in the outside text for the course. And again, the things you get in the habit of typing come much faster than those which are read, then cut and pasted.

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A Different Kind of Language Learning – Python

I recently picked up Learn Python the Hard Way: A Very Simple Introduction to the Terrifyingly Beautiful World of Computers and Code (3rd Edition) by Zed Shaw. Shaw’s approach to teaching you Python is to have you set up your computer to program in Python, then have you type in program after program and see what it does with a bit of guidance along the way. Says he:

At first, you will not understand anything. It’ll be weird, just like with learning any human language. You will struggle with words, and not know what symbols are what, and it’ll all be very confusing. Then one day BANG your brain will snap and you will suddenly “get it”.

One of the things he emphasizes is the value of making mistakes, typing in code wrong and having to debug it so that you can get a clear idea what is and isn’t important in making the program run, and making sure you really understand what you’re supposed to be typing. What’s striking though is that phrase, “just like any human language,” and joined up with the idea of “BANG“. It puts me in mind of my first time in France, where for two weeks, I knew all the rules and seemed to make sentences okay but then, one day, I was suddenly speaking French without thought or effort because I’d just done it enough that that was how my brain worked.
I recently did something similar to this with Sumerian, working through each passage in Hayes’ A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts and copying it down. A lot of the passages were like this:

For God So-and-so/His lord/King So-and-So/King of Certain lands/Built this temple/rampart.

Phrases like “nitah kalaga, lugal Urimak, lugal Kiengi Kiurik” (Strongman, King of Ur, King of Sumer and Akkadia) get pretty ingrained in the memory after you’ve been doing this for a while. In a sense, the key may be “varied repetition”. That is, if you repeat or write the same phrase over and over, it becomes a mantra and becomes too automatic. But if you repeat or write a variety of sentences – be they inscriptions or lines of code – that often contain the same elements, then what you get familiar with is mixing and matching those elements.

I should mention why the author says his book teaches “the hard way.” He makes the point that we often look for an easy way, but that what is easily understood doesn’t necessarily stick. So for him, the hard way – exposing yourself, over and over, to what you need to know until it sinks in, is actually the easy way in the long run. Just so, you can learn a language quickly, but only if you are putting everything you learn to use by really speaking and/or reading and writing so that your newly found knowledge has time to become a part of your thinking.

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If you want to learn Québecois…

If you speak French, but want something more exciting than that dreary Parisian accent and all that goes with it, why not give Québecois a look? Actually, there’s long been a good reason not to… decent materials are virtually non-existent.

Alexandre Coutu, known to HTLAL members as Arekkusu, has made an effort to fill the gap with Le québecois en 10 leçons. You can preview the first lesson here. And you can buy the book from Lulu here. Note that the book is in French, and you’ll need an intermediate level to read it. If you want to learn to speak like a Quebecker, here’s your chance!

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Self-rate your language skills

A little while back, I wrote about the question, Do you really want to be fluent? Here’s a chance to see where your language skills now stand. Just remember, C2 isn’t your automatic goal. If you only need to be a B1 to enjoy your language for the purposes for which you learned it, then a score of B1 is your indication to focus on maintenance and take advantage of being able to use a little bit of time and brainpower for other things.

Click here for the link.

(via Polyglossic)

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