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?

Blah blah English blah blah

Blah blah

A Danish friend came to visit Bangor this week. He makes the ActualFluency podcast, and is one of the people behind such courses as Italian Uncovered.

We talked a lot about websites and marketing, particularly email marketing, which I haven’t done before, but am going to try.

As well as Danish and English, he also speaks Russian and Hungarian, and has studied other languages. He doesn’t know any Welsh though, and I was curious to find out what Welsh sounded like to him. As I speak and understand Welsh, I can’t get an outsider’s perspective on it. To him it sounded very foreign – something like “blah blah blah blah English word blah blah blah blah”.

When I listen to languages I don’t know, they may sound like that to me. Mostly mysterious sounds with occasional recognisable words. The recognisable words are borrowed from English, or from another language I know, or are the names of places or people.

When listening to languages related to ones I know, I can usually understand more, or at least recognise more words.

What do unknown languages sound like to you?

The hieroglyphs in the image mean “The cat dances when the crocodile hides” (iw ib(A) miw imn msH), and come from Hieroglyphs.net

A plethora of pronouns

Czech first person singular pronouns

Recently I have been learning some more Czech. I work through a few lessons on Duolingo and Mondly every day. Even though it’s many years since I last studied any Czech, I find I can understand quite a lot, and guess unknown words from context. One thing I struggle with though is all the noun declensions, and the many different forms of pronouns.

Czech has seven noun cases, so nouns and pronouns can come in up to fourteen different forms (6 or 7 in the singular and 6 or 7 in the plural), depending on the role they play in a sentence. In fact the plural forms are the same for some cases, but singular pronouns have long and short forms, and different forms after prepositions.

For example, I is in the nominative, which is mainly used for emphasis and is generally dropped – (Já) vidím tě = I see you. The nominative singular of you is ty: is the accusative (and genitive) short form – the long form is tebe. Word order is flexible, so you could also say Tě vidím or Já tě vidím. Is there any difference in emphasis between the different word orders?

Some more examples:

  • Vidíš = You see me
  • Mluvíš se mnou = You are talking to me
  • Dáváš mi peníze = You are giving me money
  • Nemluv o mně = Don’t look at me
  • Vidíš můj dům = You see my house (dům [house] is masculine)
  • Vidíš moje domy = You see my houses
  • Vidíš mou kočku = You see my cat (kočka [cat] is feminine)
  • Vidíš moje kočky = You see my cats
  • Vidíš moje auto = You see my car (auto [car] is neuter)
  • Vidíš moje auta = You see my cars
  • k mému překvapení = to my surprise
  • Odpovězte, prosím, na mou otázku = Please answer my question
  • Váš dům je blízko mého = Your house is near mine

This are some forms of the first person singular pronoun (I, me, my, mine). There are as many, it not more, for other pronouns. Maybe one day I’ll be able to recognize and use them all.

More about Czech declension.

A Review of Mondly

Mondly screenshot

Recently I was approached by the people behind Mondly, a newish language-learning app, who wanted to advertise on Omniglot.

Before agreeing to advertise such apps, I usually try them out for myself to see if I can recommend them. So I’m currently learning Czech on Mondly. It’s a language I’ve studied on and off for years, so I have a basic knowledge of it. Mondly lets you start at beginning, or at an intermediate or advanced level – I chose the intermediate level.

The app presents you with a daily lesson, and you can choose to study other lessons as well. These have various themes such as family, travel, food & drink, and so on. There is also a chatbot, with which you can have conversations using the words and phrases you’ve learnt, and at the end of each week there’s a quiz.

It looks good, the interface works well for me, the lessons teach you a manageable number of words and phrases, and show you how to put them into sentences, and the audio is clear.

33 different languages are available on Mondly, including major European languages, and Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Hindi, Indonesian and Thai.

You can get lifetime access to all of those languages for just US$99 (normal price US$1,999.99).

Disclaimer – although I will receive a commission if you subscribe to Mondly after clicking on the links in this post, I do think this app is worth a try.

Polyglot Plans

Polyglot - definition

I just registered for the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava at the end of May / beginning of June. This will be the fifth time I’ve been to the Gathering – the second in Bratislava, and I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll be staying in the same AirBnB as last time, which is close to the Gathering venue, and not too far from the centre of Bratislava. It’s easier that way as I already know my way around the area.

I haven’t decided if I’ll give a presentation or run a workshop at the Gathering. At previous polyglot events I’ve given talks on writing systems, the origins of languages, the origins of words, Manx, and language death and revival, and helped with a Welsh language workshop. Any suggestions for what I could talk about at this and future polyglot events?

At the end of January I’m going to Edinburgh for LingoFringo, a fringe event to the main polyglot conferences and gatherings with a focus on workshops, community and networking events. I’ll be running a workshop on traditional Scottish Gaelic songs there.

So this month I’ll be brushing up my Scottish Gaelic, preparing for the workshop, and continuing to work on other languages. The languages I’m focusing on currently are Swedish, Danish, Russian, Esperanto, Cornish and Scots. This year I also plan to learn some more British Sign Language and Slovak, and maybe some German, Czech and Spanish.

I don’t plan to start any new languages this year – we’ll see how that works out.

What are your language-related plans for this year?

500 days of Duolingo

Duolingo screenshot

Today my streak on Duolingo reached 500 days. Before then I had a 96 day streak, but lost that one day when I didn’t quite get enough points. So for the past 596 days I have studied a bit of various languages every day. This is the longest continuous period of study I’ve managed, and I plan to maintain it for as long as possible.

Back in early 2017 I started studying Swedish and Russian on Duolingo. Later I added Romanian to the mix, and this year I added Danish and Esperanto. I’ve finished all the Swedish and Russian lessons, and am continuing to study them on Memrise. I decided to take a break from the Romanian last year, and am currently working on Danish and Esperanto. When I finish them I may add other languages I want to improve, such as Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German.

I can’t say that I’ve become fluent in any of these languages, but my knowledge of them certainly has improved. I’ve made more progress with Swedish and Danish than with Russian or Romanian, which I find more challenging.

On Memrise I’m currently studying Swedish, Danish, Russian and Cornish, and have learnt bits of Icelandic, Slovak and Slovenian over the past year or so. I may start Slovak again in preparation for the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava next year.

What’s your longest streak on Duolingo, or other language learning apps?

What do you think of this aspect of such apps?

Polyglot Conference – Day 1

The Polyglot Conference officially started today. There were talks and workshops all day on all sorts of interesting topics. I went to talks on Slovenian, linguistic relavtivity, Romani, the Cathars, and audiolinguistics. They were all interesting, especially the linguistic ones.

There was plenty of time between the talks to talk to other participants, and I managed to make some recordings in quite a variety of languages for the next episode of my podcast. I hope to make more recordings tomorrow.

I had conversations in English, Welsh, French, Irish, German, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, and tried to speak a few other languages.

They are preparing Ljubljana for the Ljubljana Marathon tomorrow, and quite a few streets are being lined with barriers. I hope I’ll be able to get to the conference venue tomorrow.

Slovenian (slovenščina)

I’ve been learning Slovenian for nearly three months now, and will have chances to use it when I go to Slovenia in a few days. I’ll be there for the Polyglot Conference.

While I can’t say a lot in Slovenian yet, I have at least learnt the basics. I’ve been using a Memrise course based on Slovenian for Travelers, another version of which is available here.

As I’ve studied other Slavic languages to varying degrees – Russian, Czech, Slovak and Serbian – I can recognise quite a few words in Slovenian, and the grammar seems similar. I like the sound of Slovenian, and may continue learning it after the conference.

My favourite Slovenian words are currently: predvčerajšnjim (the day before yesterday) and pojutrišnjem (the day after tomorrow).

I plan to record an episode of the Radio Omniglot Podcast at the conference. It will be about the conference, and the people there, and will hopefully include recordings of participants speaking as many different languages as possible. Looking forward to it!