Procrastination Chariots

Do you tend to leave things to the last minute, and then scramble around frantically trying to get them done in time?

I certainly have been known to do this on occasion. For example, for nearly two years, I’ve been meeting with a few friends once a month to share songs we’re working on. During this time I’ve written a new song every month, and often do so in the few days before we meet. I may have various ideas for songs before then, but don’t usually do much with them until the last minute. In this case, I find that having the monthly deadline of our meetings helps.

Before this group started meeting, I wrote songs when I felt inspired – sometimes I’d write several in a month, and at other times I didn’t write anything for ages.

What I indulge in could be called a charet(te), or “a period of intense work, especially group work undertaken to meet a deadline” [source], a word that comes from the Old French charrete (chariot).

The sense of last-minute work apparently comes from the practice of students at the École de Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris working together furiously at the last minute to finish their termly projects, which would be collected on a charette, a small wheeled chart. They were said to be working en charette (“in the chart”), and the night before the deadline was known as la nuit de charette (“charette night”). Any work not on the charette was not accepted for assessment. The word and concept was borrowed into English in the mid-19th century [source].

Vintage cart illustration

Do you find it helpful to have targets and deadlines, whether set by you or someone else?

I don’t usually set myself deadlines and targets when learning languages, unless I’m preparing for a particular trip, event or occasion.

Is VR ready for language learning?

Today we have a guest post by Ramon Brena of Avalinguo

When we see the acronym “VR”, we immediately think of headsets and gaming, as well as of fantasy dystopian worlds like in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, where everything, I mean everything, is done in VR.

Well, perhaps not everything in the real world, but could we learn to speak languages in VR? Now that travel is not possible because of COVID-19, could we engage in lively conversations with Parisians in a VR Montmartre pub?

Put like this, we have to answer “No”. To begin with, Paris is one of the worst places to practice French with the locals (as it was commented by Benny Lewis in the Language Hacking Podcast): if you want to speak French with the locals, you better go to a small town in France. Believe me on this, I lived for 6 years in France.

Then, a more basic question, Who are we going to talk to in VR? There are two broad answers to this question, and each of them takes a completely different approach to interaction in VR.

We call the first approach “simulation-based”. As you know, VR has been applied for educational purposes using the VR capabilities for simulating a world, could it be the bloodstream inside arteries in the body, or the working of complex mechanical contraptions, or… the situation inside a taxi in a foreign city.

The cab example was taken from the Mondly-VR app (headset plug-in for the Mondly app), which I bought for my Oculus. They use the synthetic worlds construction capabilities of VR to show you very compelling city views taken from inside the cab. The cab driver turns to you like expecting to have your instructions.

After that, things become a bit awkward. You have to interact with the driver using one of the options written for you on-screen and… Wait a moment, do you have to answer using predefined scripts? Here the magic starts to vanish. Dialogs are not natural, speech recognition leaves a lot to desire, and in general, the interaction doesn’t feel at all like a human conversation where only you know what you want to talk about.

To be fair, Mondly does a good job at the virtual scenario construction, but the interaction engagement wears off very quickly as the novelty fades out. Mondly-VR is available for several VR headsets and builds on top of its popular smartphone app. You can learn the language lessons on the smartphone alone, but of course, in the little cellphone screen, Mondly graphics look far less impressive than with the headset.

We call the second approach for language practice with VR “interaction-based” and it consists of putting in a virtual world the avatars of several humans. In this case, the language practice aspect is taken care of completely by those humans, who converse as they want. In this approach, the interaction is, of course, more natural just because it is done by humans, but then other less obvious problems arise.

There are several general VR platforms that can be used to have language practice conversations, like Mozilla Hubs (web browser-based), High Fidelity (audio only, I have used it for Meetup language gatherings), AltspaceVR (acquired by Microsoft some years ago), and others, which are not specifically intended to be used for language learning, but to some extent could.

I’m rather going to take as an example of this second approach the app Avalinguo, which is specifically intended for language learning (disclaimer: I’m the CEO of Avalinguo). I know, you are going to ask: In which headsets can I run Avalinguo? Right now in none. Avalinguo is a cellphone app.

Screenshot of the Avalinguo app

The value of VR in Avalinguo is, first of all, to replace the face and body of the participants by avatars in order to give privacy. You know, talking is the most stressful language learning activity, and research studies have found that many self-conscious or shy people find it difficult to deal with. Some beginners feel judged or stupid when babbling in the language they are starting to learn. Linguists such as Luca Lampariello have proposed to change the attitude and embrace making mistakes, which is a good idea, but we propose to reduce the stress of the situation in the first place, by using avatars instead of showing your babbling face.

Another advantage of VR in Avalinguo (not yet currently released) is that role-playing games, which is one of the best language-learning practice activities, is greatly enhanced by the use of avatars already using a costume like a nurse, travel agent, bell boy, you name it. Other mini-game props such as roulette can be easily implemented, and there are hundreds of ready-to-use graphic resources to plugin.

Now, the distinction between the “simulation” approach and the “interaction” one is not clear cut, because, for instance, the use of costumed-avatars and props is a form of simulation. There is plenty of room for “simulation-interactive” hybrid approaches. The tricky aspect is to build it in such a way that it makes sense from an educational point of view, while at the same time making it entertaining and coherent.

So, in the end, the question is not if VR is ready for language-learning, but rather if language-learning is ready for VR, isn’t it?

What do you do?

What do you do?

Language courses usually have lessons that explain how to talk about your job / profession / work. The examples they give might include jobs like doctor, nurse, teacher, secretary, engineer, architect, writer, ninja, etc. These are all mentioned in lessons I’ve done on Duolingo (and other apps).

If you tell someone you’re a teacher or a doctor, they probably have at least some idea of what that entails. However, there are many jobs and other ways to make a living that are more difficult to define and explain, even in your native language. I’ve never come across a language lesson that includes unusual or difficult-to-define jobs like influencer, game tester, snuggler, bounty hunter or youtuber, for example.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend and he asked how my business is doing. I’ve told him what I do before, and have shown him Omniglot and explained what the site is about, but he thinks that it involves translation in some way. He’s not the only one to think this.

I wouldn’t usually call myself a translator or interpreter, although I did do a bit of translating and interpreting many years ago, mainly between Mandarin and English. These days I sometimes translate mysterious inscriptions and other bits of writing sent to me by Omniglot visitors, and occasionally help friends with translations, mainly between English and Welsh.

Sometimes I say that I’m a linguist. This usually leads to questions about which languages I speak and/or teach. I might try to explain what linguistics is all about and what I mean by linguist, but often I don’t bother. It depends on the situation.

I did teach English for a short while in Taiwan, and occasionally I teach people juggling and other circus skills. Does that make me a teacher? I don’t think so – I have no teaching qualifications, and only limited experience.

Sometimes I say that I’m a writer, and when they hear this, people assume that I write books and ask where they can find them. Maybe one day I will write books, but in the meantime I have written about more than 1,800 languages and writing systems, over 3,500 blog posts, and some silly dialogues and a short story that I’ve made into videos.

I could call myself a musician, singer-songwriter, composer and/or arranger as I have written 80+ songs and tunes. I do this because I enjoy it, and don’t earn anything from it. I share my songs and tunes online and with my friends, and occasionally perform in public.

Sometimes I say that I run my own company, or that I run a language-related business. This is true, but the company consists of just me. I am the director, secretary, marketing and sales department, and everything else.

On Twitter I call myself a Wordherder, Tunesmith and Gravityweaver.

When trying to explain this in other languages, I might just say that I’m a linguist, writer, translator, depending on which of these words I know in the relevant language. If I’m asked for more details, I direct people to Omniglot.

In case you’re not sure what I do, and how I make a living from it, you can read about it here, and/or listen to my podcast about it.

Do you have a difficult-to-define or unusual job or way to make a living?

Double Dutch

This week I finally finished the Russian course I’ve been working through on Memrise, and am giving Russian a break for now. I may go back to it at some point, and try to get a better grip on the grammar, which I still find hard, even after three years of studying a little every day.

I promised myself that I’d start learning a different language once I’d finished the Russian lessons, and have decided to learn some more Dutch. I know a little already, and can understand it to some extent thanks to my knowledge of English, German and related languages. So it’s easier for me than Russian. I’m just learning it on Duolingo at the moment, and may try other apps as well.

I like the weird and wonderful phrases that come up on Duolingo, and expect there’ll be plenty in Dutch. A couple of very useful phrases that came up today were:

Pardon, ik ben een appel
Excuse me, I am an apple

Nee, je bent geen appel
No, you are not an apple

Perhaps a good way to start a conversation.

I’m collecting these on Omniglot, of course.

Holding Up

When faced with long words in languages like Russian, one thing that helps me remember them is to break them down into their constistuent parts and find out what each part means.

For example, a Russian word that came up in my lessons recently was поддерживать (podderživát’) [pɐˈdʲːerʐɨvətʲ], which means to support, keep up or maintain [source].

It comes from поддержать (podderžát’) – to support, help up, & -ивать (-ivat’) – a verb suffix.

поддержать comes from под- (pod-) – under, by, near, & держать (deržát’) – to keep, to hold. So you could see that you’re ‘underholding’ something or someone when you support them in Russian [source].

Related words include:

  • поддержка = support (financial, etc)
  • поддержание = maintenance, sustenance
  • поддерживаться = to be supported / maintained
  • поддерживающий = backer, supporting, supportive

There are many more words that have the prefix под-.

How do you remember words in languages you’re learning?

Upload a language straight to your brain

Have you ever tried to learn a language?

Maybe you’ve struggled with a language for years and never really got the hang of it.

Ever wished you could simply wave a magic wand and be able to speak another language fluently?

The lingoboffins at the secret Omniglot laboratory have been working on this problem for a long time, and believe that they have finally found a solution that will work for everybody.

It was announced today that a revolutionary new app will soon be available that will enable you to upload a whole new language directly into your brain.

apps

No more spending years learning vocabulary, trying to get to grips with grammar, and fumbling with the pronunciation. All you need to do is download the app, tune it to your brain, and upload a language. Then you will be able to understand and speak* that language almost immediately**.

*This app does not give you the ability to read and write in another language. We are working on another app which will do that.

**The actually time it takes to tune the app to your brain, and for the language to settle in, may vary from a few hours to several months, or even years.

Terms and conditions apply. This app is not currently available anywhere, but keep checking back, and one day it might be.

New Year

It seems that a new year, and indeed a new decade has started, so Happy New Year / Decade!

I’ve noticed that some people are looking back at what they’ve done / achieved, etc over the past decade, so I thought I’d do something similar.

Back in 2009 I was studying for an MA in Linguistics at Bangor University, while working on Omniglot in my spare time, and writing for a couple of other websites. I finished my course in September of that year, though didn’t officially graduate until the following year, and have been working full-time on Omniglot since then.

Over the past decade Omniglot has grown quite a bit – I add something new, or make improvements, almost every day. The site now contains:

… and much more.

Since 2009 Omniglot has been visited by 176 million people, who have made 234 milion visits and viewed 407 million pages. There have been visitors every single country and territory, even Antarctica and North Korea. The top ten countries vistors come from are USA, India, UK, Canada, Philippines, Australia, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa. The most spoken languages of visitors are: English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Dutch, Russian, Chinese and Polish.

Over the past decade I’ve studied and dabbled with a few languages, including: Breton, BSL, Cornish, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Icelandic, Irish, Latin, Manx, Romanian, Russian, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Toki Pona. I also started creating my own language: Laala, and made some con-scripts such as Crymeddau and Curvetic.

I joined a French conversation group back in 2009, and have been going almost every week since then. This has really helped to improve my French and I feel a lot more confident about using it now. When I can, I also go to a Welsh conversation group, and for a while I tried to run a polyglot conversation group.

Every summer I’ve been to Ireland to do courses in Irish language, traditional Irish songs, harp and/or bodhrán playing. I’ve also been to Scotland quite a few times to do courses in Scottish Gaelic songs.

In 2012 I started writing songs and tunes, and have written quite a few since then, especially in 2019, when I wrote a new song almost every month and several new tunes. I also started to write out the music for my tunes and songs, and to make new arrangements of them.

The first song I wrote was The Elephant Song, which came to me after going to a poetry writing workshop.

I haven’t made a good recording of my most recent song, but here’s one I wrote in November / December 2019:

Since 2014 I’ve been to a number of polyglot events, including the Polyglot Gathering and the Polyglot Conference. At most of these I’ve given talks or run workshops.

Polyglottery

In 2018 I started the Radio Omniglot Podcast, and have made 27 episodes so far. I try to make two episodes per month, but don’t always manage it.

In 2018 I also launched the Celtiadur, a collection of Celtic cognates, where I explore links between modern and ancient Celtic languages. This is an extension of the Celtic Cognates section on Omniglot.

Wow! Putting it together like this makes me realise that I haven’t been entirely idle.

Ungrammaticality

When learning a new language, it helps if you learn how to use its grammar. There is much debate about how to do this.

Some people might advise you just to speak a language as soon as you know anything, and not to worry about making mistakes. In fact, they might encourage you to make mistakes. You will eventually pick up the grammar through extensive use of and exposure to the language, and maybe occasional glances at grammar books.

A ‘traditional’ approach to language learning involves concentrating more on learning the grammar before you try to use the language.

A combination of these approaches might be most effective. This is something I discussed on my latest podcast.

Last night one of the people at the French conversation group seems to have taken the first approach – he knows quite a bit of French vocabulary, but is not very good at putting words together into coherent sentences, or at using the grammar. As a result, it was rather difficult to work out what he was trying to say. I imagine native speakers of French might have less patience than us when trying to understand him.

So while it is possible to speak a language without knowing much of the grammar, you might find it difficult to make yourself understood.

Depth v Breadth

Depth v Breadth

Yesterday I saw a post on Facebook saying that some polyglots “are just jumping from one language to another, only reaching beginner or at most intermediate level” and “They’re learning bits of many languages but mastering none of them.”

The person who wrote this states that he would prefer to focus on one or two languages and become really competent, learn them in depth, and learn about the culture, literature, poetry, and so.

If you learn many languages at a lower level, “[…] your language efforts make you nothing more than a glorified party trick. You can make people smile at a party when you can introduce yourself in 5 languages. But your language skills have no depth or breadth.”

There are as many ways to learn languages as there are language learners. Some prefer to focus on one or two languages and learn them to a high level, others prefer to learn more languages to a lower level. Some combine both approaches – they may learn some languages to a high level, and others to a lower level.

I can focus on one language or other interest, at least for a while, but usually have several projects on the go at the same time. As a result, it takes me quite a while to learn and improve my skills and knowledge, and I accept that I’m unlikely to become fluent in all my languages, or a virtuoso on any of my instruments, or a great singer or composer, or an amazing juggler / circus performer.

Are you a specialist, able to focus on one language, or other project / interest / hobby?

Or are you more of a generalist, flitting between different languages and interests?

Context Matters

Context
matters / Контекст имеет значение

When learning new words in foreign tongues I find that I can remember some words more easily than others, especially if they are similar to words I already know in English or other languages. Other words don’t seem to stick in my memory so easily, even if I try to connect their unfamiliar sounds to familiar words.

In Russian and Czech, for example, there are quite a few words that I can understand when I see them in a sentence, but may not be so sure what they mean when I encounter them on their own – having some context makes all the difference.

Another challange with Russian, at least for me, is recognising words at a glance. Words written in the Cyrillic alphabet don’t seem to have such distinctive shapes as those written in the Latin alphabet, which makes them more difficult to distinguish. This is probably because I haven’t spent enough time reading Russian texts.

Words in Swedish, Danish and Spanish, the other languages I’m working on at the moment, tend to be much easier for me to remember. Many of them are simliar to English, or to other languages I know. The ones that aren’t similiar tend to be short, especially in Swedish and Danish, and I find them easier to remember than longer Russian or Czech words.

Learning lists of words without any context can work with a lot of repetition, and maybe some mnemonic techniques, but it seems to be better to learn words in context.

How do you learn vocabulary?