alan little’s weblog

pushy parent

13th January 2008 permanent link

A couple of email/comment conversations I’ve been having elsewhere:

Brian Micklethwait praiseworthily does volunteer teaching at a school in London, helping kids with reading difficulties. I have a kid whose reading difficulty is that he hasn’t learned yet, but would like to start. I’ve been making stumbling attempts to help him using the following technique: he suggests a simple word; I write it then he writes it. But I don’t really know how to do this systematically and effectively. Brian does, and he wrote about a phonics book that is apparently hugely popular among pushy parents in the UK. On his recommendation I plan to buy it and use it.

We also got into a little comment conversation on the definition of “pushy parent” and whether I am one. My point of view:

"Pushy parent” is indeed a tricky term. The worst interpretation, I guess, would be parents who drive their kids to Achieve, Achieve, Achieve whether they want to or not, and make the poor little sods stressed and neurotic. A bad teacher might well use it to mean a parent who puts pressure on a school to remedy deficiencies in the way a child is being taught.

Others could take it to mean simply parents - like me - who believe in taking an active role in encouraging their child’s development, but without pushing the child to do more than it is ready for, whilst at the same time always trying to make it clear that Daddy’s attention and approval aren’t dependent on whether he can read the word or ride the bike. It’s a tricky balancing act.

My attempt to be non-pushy but cunning yesterday was to stop Jack’s writing session while he still wanted to do more, (a) so that he doesn’t run out of ability to concentrate and (b) in the hope that he’ll then be more motivated to do more the next day.

I also agree with John Kersey’s comment on Brian’s earlier piece on music lessons:

It makes sense to introduce children to music and to encourage them to enjoy learning an instrument and singing.

However, if they don’t enjoy it or want to continue, I don’t believe it is right to force them.

My parents sent me to judo classes when I was about six. I was by far the smallest in the class and quickly got fed up with being chucked around. With hindsight I can see how I could have benefited from sticking with it, but I didn’t, and my parents were right not to force me.

Barbara Sawhill also emailed me in response to my rather harsh assessment of her reaction to Tim Ferriss’s sentences. She doesn’t seem to be too terribly offended, thankfully, and whilst emailing and on reading her latest blog entry, I realised she’s actually trying to achieve more or less the same thing, just in different circumstances. Tim is writing for people who already are, or plan to be, in a foreign country, and wants them to get out of the classroom and into having real conversations in the local language as quickly as possible. Barbara’s business is teaching foreign languages effectively to people who are still in their own country, and how best to simulate the “real conversations in the local language” experience when you can’t do it outside the classroom.

(I’m astonished that Textmate’s spelling checker doesn’t choke on “praiseworthily”)

hindi and urdu

12th January 2008 permanent link

Here’s a great way, through being interested in a language, “to learn about culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language”. I stumbled across a series of blog postings by Mark Liberman at Language Log on the politically-driven history and development of Hindi and Urdu as separate languages. One. Two. Three. Short version: “Hindustani” was/is a family of dialects spoken across much of North India, originally descended from Sanskrit. “Urdu” was the heavily Persianised(*) formal literary dialect spoken by the Mughal aristocracy and subsequently pushed by Pakistani nationalists as “the” standard language of South Asian Muslims (even though it’s a minority language even in Pakistan). “Hindi” is a back-to-Sanskrit version propagated by Hindu Indian nationalists during and after the Independence movement. The formal official/literary versions are pretty much mutually incomprehensible but here are plenty of dialects in between, e.g. Bollywoodese, that aren’t. See also this interesting and well informed follow-up comment thread by native speakers of a variety of Indian languages at Sepia Mutiny.

I wondered when I was in India about what language(s) to learn. English works among younger educated people in big cities; out in the country it will usually just about get you food and a bed for the night, but forget reliably finding anybody you can actually have a conversation with.

I did some Sanskrit classes in order to be able to (one day) read the yoga scriptures. Try traveling around Europe with a few phrases of rudimentary Latin and see how far they get you. Learning Sanskrit at least means you can read the Devanagari alphabet that’s used for Hindi and several other north Indian languages. Kannada – the main local language in Karnataka where I mostly was – is written in an entirely different script of which after four months I could just about make out enough to work out where buses were going. Which was useful, but I was surprised what a huge relief it was when I travelled to the north of the state where people speak Konkani, the Goan language that is also written in Devanagari, and hey presto I could suddenly read road signs fairly easily.

The script thing is a major hassle for south Indians too. The main languages of south India are from the Dravidian language family and closely related, but all use different scripts. I had a Tamil acquaintance in Kannada-speaking Mysore who said he could pretty much make out a lot of what people were talking about, but couldn’t read anything.

Anyway: I pretty much reached the conclusion that, had I been planning to spend years in Mysore as some western yoga students do, then learning Kannada would have been a worthwhile time investment. Otherwise, learning a language that‘s only useful in one state didn’t seem like such a great idea and a standard, generic dialect of Hindi seemed to be the thing to go for. Except there doesn’t appear to be such a thing.

(*) Persian itself is an Indo-European language originally very closely related to Sanskrit, but subsequently heavily loaded with Arabic and Turkic(**) loan-words due to religious and political connections; not surprisingly it was largely the Arabic religious terms that tended to make it into Urdu.

(**) “Urdu” originally meant something like “the language of the army camp”, from the same Turkic root as English “horde”. [Also “yurt”??]

on learning languages

9th January 2008 permanent link

A few more general thoughts and ramblings on the subject of learning languages.

The comment two down from mine on Tim Ferriss’s blog posting leads to some reactions to Tim that I find rather wrong-headed.

The comment comes from Barbara, who maintains a blog for professional foreign language teachers, and I presume is one herself.

this superficial survey of the mechanics of the language does not ever approach the deep, nuanced learning that in depth (those pesky “Wasted” hours) of immersive language learning could provide. And God forbid should anyone mention the ability, through learning a language, to learn about culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language.

The basic questionable (i.e. wrong) is that language teachers are for some reason the people best equipped to convey anything about “culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language”.

I’m willing to be sceptical of Tim’s claim to be “fluent” in a large number of languages – I suspect him of using a more relaxed definition of “fluent” than I ever would – but that doesn’t mean his techniques can’t be of value. I entirely agree with his basic premise that you only actually learn to speak a language when you get out of the classroom and into situations where you’re trying to have real conversations about real things with native speakers. I’m sorry, but however demotivating it may be for language teachers the point of language classes isn’t to provide students with “cultural and historical contexts that are rich, complex, chaotic, intellectually tension-filled” (to quote one of Barbara’s commenters). That’s what real conversations are for. The purpose of learning tools, including classes, is get as quickly as possible to the point where you can start attempting to have those conversations. For that, I’m willing to believe for the time being that Tim’s short cuts might be useful.

As Brian Micklethwait – not even slightly wrong-headedly – points out, what Tim is getting at in the particular blog posting we’re discussing is not learning a language, but rather assessing how to learn how easy a language will be to learn.

Somewhat but not entirely at a tangent: you can tell you are proficient enough in a foreign language when you can both score reasonably in and laugh at the country in question’s equivalent of Der Grosser Deutschtest. The Big German Test is a yearly Saturday night TV extravaganza in which Germans enjoy making themselves feel insecure about their (supposed) inadequate command of their own damn language. Understand this and you can legitimately claim a deep and nuanced understanding of twenty first century German culture.

The show runs over several hours, during which celebrities and several other groups compete as individuals and teams at German grammar and spelling tests. There’s always a group of non-native speakers that always does surprisingly well (go expats!), but the teachers always win (Barbara & co. can rest easy on that score at least).

Here are the attributes of Germans that make this interesting. One: they have a language with a moderately complex grammatical structure, whose formal written form differs considerably from what most people actually say most of the time. So far, so normal. This is true to some degree of every single language that has a written form.

However, Two: there are descriptive and prescriptive views of language. Descriptivists, of whom I am one, believe that “correct” language is whatever a native speaker would naturally say that is comprehensible to a reasonably large number of other native speakers. According to this view the formal written version is just one among several dialects with no special elevated status. Prescriptivists believe there a single Correct version of a language - usually assumed to be the formal written version – to which other forms are inferior. Germans tend (generalising wildly, doubtless with numerous individual exceptions etc. et.) towards prescriptivist views on a whole range of subjects of which language is but one.

A recent prescriptivist coup that gives Germans a whole new range of opportunities to be wrong is the Rechtschreibreform of the late 1990s. “Spelling Reform” was a doubtless well-meaning attempt to standardise and rationalise some historical quirks of German spelling and grammar. Every history of the English language mentions several attempts to do this with English in the last couple of centuries, all completely abortive even though English spelling irregularities are far, far worse than any German dialect ever was. German Reformed Spelling is proving slightly less abortive. It’s taught in schools and used in government documents, at least in Germany. The Austrians and the Swiss are ignoring it – in the Swiss case by getting some of their variants written into the new rules as officially ok for use by Swiss people. Several major German publishers, including the two largest daily newspapers, have declared against it too. Nevertheless it’s the official standard now in schools and in The Big German Test, with the result that a lot of what most people learned in school and have used all their lives, that was perfectly ok ten years ago, is officially not ok any more.

Three: insecurity. For reasons to do with both its catastrophic history in the last century and its rather dire financial and demographic predicament in this one, Germany is a society deeply lacking in self-confidence just now. Being persuaded that you can’t even speak your own language properly fits rather well into the twenty-first century German psyche.

My wife and I generally do ok competing in The Big German Test from the comfort of our sofa (go expats!), whilst also grasping the irony of the whole thing. Would students pick up much of this stuff in rich, complex, chaotic, intellectually tension-filled language classes? I fear not.

Less tangentially, Julian Tarkhanov wrote a while ago to recommend wikipedia as a language learning tool:

1) Go to the Wikipedia page on something in the language you know. Let's take your recent example:ümmel

2) Look left and under in the toolbar. Over there, you see the list of other languages on Wikipedia that have the same entry. In German it's called "Andere Sprachen" but you get the point. Click on Russian. This will promptly reveal

Тмин (лат. Carum) — род растений семейства зонтичных, из которых наиболее известен вид Carum carvi — тмин обыкновенный, используемый как специя.

I consider it much more lovely than the dictionaries. because it gives you a stimulus not only to lookup the translation, but to read about the subject as well! (which might lead you to implicitly learn other words, contexts and idioms).

… which strikes me as an interesting approach, certainly ending towards rich, complex cultural and historical context; but also one requiring a rather higher base level of skill than I have yet in Russian. Also, Julian’s mail had the misfortune to arrive just before I went on holiday in the summer, thus falling into an email black hole from which I didn’t get round to thanking him until now. Thank you Julian.

she gives it to him

9th January 2008 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Six in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Two, Sentence Three, Sentence Four, Sentence Five)

She gives it to him
Она даёт его ему

“Ana dayot yevo yemu”. She gives it to him.

  1. Move along, nothing much to see here, except the stress not on the “o” in “oна”/“ana”, she, a very common word.

Then Tim recommends playing around with some more variations on the theme: negations, changes of tense, conditionals. Let’s try:

She did not take it from them
Она не взяла его у них

“Ana ne vsyala yevo u nich”. She did not take it from them.

  1. … in order to expose Russian’s horrifying gender forms of verbs. “vsyala” is the feminine past tense of “take”. Do I as a man need to worry much about learning this? Sadly, yes. One of my most common occasions for speaking Russian in everyday life, should I ever get good enough at it, would be responding to enquiries from my mother-in-law or my wife’s friends about things my wife said or did. Other male students’ mileage may vary.
  2. Furthermore, unlike English and French which both have four commonly used past tenses, and German which has three – Ancient Greek I seem to recall reading somewhere had lots & lots – Russian has one past tense, but two things called moods. I haven’t the slightest idea why these need a special separate name instead of just calling them “tenses”
  3. I had also rather hoped ablative might be one of Russian’s six noun cases, but it isn’t, and in any case “них”/“nich”, them, has no declensions. Its role in the sentence is made clear by the presence of the preposition “у”, “from”.

Where do I go from here? The American military rates Russian as a Category Three (out of Four) difficulty language for native English speakers, and I saw this article saying it requires 780 hours of immersive study to reach “intermediate” proficiency. Oops. Tim would want me to take that number with a pinch of salt, especially coming as it does from a company that exists to sell those immersive study hours. Instead elsewhere on his site he suggests starting vocabulary with a list of the hundred most common words in the language in question. So let’s see where I can find one of those. (I’m already ok with the twenty or so nouns most interesting to small boys, but disappointingly few everyday conversations tend to be about ships, planes, elephants or crocodiles.)

he gives it to john

29th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Five in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Two, Sentence Three, Sentence Four, Sentence Six)

He gives it to John
Он даёт его Ивану

“On dayot yevo Ivanu”. He gives it to John.

  1. Third person singular verbs are normally with “-т”
  2. “т” can, now she tells me, be written either like a latin “m” or like it is printed. Whereas there are no exceptions to the handwritten “д” looking like a latin “g”
  3. The other non-phonetic spelling irregularity: “его”/“it” (accusative) is written with “г”/“g” but pronounced in modern Russian as “в”/“v”. My wife explained some rules for some other places where this crops up but I didn’t fully grasp them at the first attempt. Apparently in archaic Church Slavonic it’s still pronounced as it’s written.

we give him the apple

28th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Four in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Two, Sentence Three, Sentence Five, Sentence Six)

We give him the apple
Ми даём ему яаблоко

“Mi dayem yemu yablaka”. We give him [the] apple.

  1. First person plural verbs are normally with “-m”
  2. “ему”, “him”, has the same dative masculine ending as the noun in Sentence Three.

i give john the apple

28th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Three in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Two, Sentence Four, Sentence Five, Sentence Six)

I give John the apple
Я даю яаблоко Ивану

“Ya dayu yablaka Ivanu”. I give [the] apple to John.

  1. First person singular verbs are normally with “-ю” or “-у” (“-yu” or “-u”)
  2. The accusative (direct object) form of neuter nouns ending in “-о” is the same as the nominative.
  3. The “Ивану” (Ivanu) is dative masculine.
  4. A lowercase handwritten “д” looks nothing like a printed one either. It looks like a latin “g”.

it is john’s apple

27th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Two in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Three, Sentence Four, Sentence Five, Sentence Six)

It is John’s apple
Зто яаблоко Ивана

“Eta yablaka Ivana”. This apple [is] John’s.

  1. In this sentence, unlike Sentence One, it is necessary to specify which apple. “Зто”, “this”, takes the place that the definite article would in English, although it isn’t one.
  2. “Зто”, a preposition, agrees with the nominative neuter noun яаблоко. Once again, the stress isn’t on the final “о”, so it’s transliterated/pronounced more like “eta”
  3. (“Translating” personal names isn’t normally good practice. In this case, however, it helps us to spot that …) The cyrillic letter “в” looks like a latin “B” but is transliterated as “v” and sounds like a softer version of an English “v”, somewhere between English “v” and “w”.
  4. The genitive “-’s” on the end of “John’s” is the only surviving noun declension in English. In the only other language in which I’m fluent, German, it is normally the article/preposition/adjective/whatever, and not the noun itself, that changes to indicate case, gender etc. As in English, German’s one surviving historical relic of noun declensions is a genitive “-s” ending. In Russian, since there are no articles, nouns always have declensions. The “-а” on the end of “Ivana”, is the masculine genitive (possessive) form of the noun.
  5. The lowercase handwritten form of cyrillic “т” is completely unlike the printed form and looks like a latin “m”. Oh joy. I have no chance of ever being able to read handwritten notes from my wife.

Equally acceptable alternative form:

Зто Иваново яаблоко Ивану

“Eta Ivanava yablaka”. This [is] John’s apple.

  1. Here “Иваново”, “Ivanava” is an adjectival form instead of a genitive noun.

the apple is red

26th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss has some smart hints on how to learn languages quickly. Since Step One of one of the more common methods – fall in love with, and subsequently marry, a native speaker of the language – doesn’t seem to have worked out for me, language-wise, I thought I’d give some of Tim’s hints a try.

He has six deceptively simple little sentences that, he says “expose much of the language, and quite a few potential deal killers.”

Let’s see what we can do in Russian with Sentence One:

the apple is red
Яаблоко красное

Approximately phonetically transliterated: “Yablaka krasnaya”. [The] apple [is] red.

It turns out we can derive rather a lot from looking at these two to four words. Such as:

  1. Nouns in Russian, as in most Indo-European languages except English, have genders. “Яаблоко” (yablaka) is neuter, as are (reliably enough for students of Russian For Foreigners) all nouns ending in “о”
  2. The cyrillic letter “о” is pronounced is only pronounced like an English “o” when it’s the stressed vowel in a word. When it’s not stressed it sounds something like an un-stressed English “a”, or like the generic/indeterminate vowel sound that linguists call a “schwa” – the “e” in “mother”. This rule is universal enough to be one of the first things mentioned in all Russian For Foreigners learning materials, but the exact pronunciation does vary somewhat. My wife pronounces it very much like an “a”, her aunt almost but not quite like a normal “o”. A generational thing? Regional accent? Random variation between individuals? Don’t know. Un-stressed “о” is often transliterated as “a”, as I have done here and my wife learned in school, but not always.
  3. With this and one other fairly common exception, which crops up conveniently in Sentence Five, Russian is written pretty much phonetically. Unlike, say, English.
  4. There doesn’t seem to be much by way of reliable universal rules for the language learner as to where the stress might fall in a Russian word. But never on a final “о”, I’m pretty sure.
  5. There isn’t a universal, standard, accurate cyrillic-to-latin transliteration system.
  6. No verb “is”. The verb “to be” is rarely necessary/used in a Russian sentence.
  7. No article “the”. Articles don’t exist in Russian language.
  8. Adjectives agree with the nouns they describe. “-ое” is the nominative neuter adjective ending. My wife – among her many other talents a former professional Russian-German translator – recommends transliterating it, too, phonetically as “-aya” because it is unstressed, although more literally it would be “-oye”.
  9. I can’t show it here because I don’t have a flatbed scanner or a pen tablet, but all the letters in these two words look pretty much the same handwritten as they do printed. There are (oh joy!) letters that don’t. And you can’t save yourself in those cases by writing the printed forms of the cyrillic letters. Print-style letters in handwriting aren’t merely eccentric or childish, they are outright incorrect.
  10. Word order in Russian, as in many other languages where conjugations and declensions carry much of the meaning, and unlike in English, is generally very flexible/interchangeable. In this particular case, however, “Яаблоко красное” is a complete grammatical sentence whereas “красное яаблоко” – [a/the] red apple – isn’t.

Not bad for one harmless little sentence, Tim. Having a native speaker and former professional translator sitting next to us on the sofa does admittedly help quite a bit with deriving this sort of information, but I’m sure a smart and motivated student would quickly pick up at least (1), (2), (6), (7) & (8) from any half-decent textbook.

Sentence Two. Sentence Three. Sentence Four. Sentence Five. Sentence Six.

not learning russian

30th July 2007 permanent link

Isho ras zdrastvuite, dear readers. Progress report on learning to speak Russian: almost nil.

Listening to BBC Talk Russian in the subway isn’t working. As far as I can see my options now are: wait until my mother-in-law arrives and see if I can make some pathetic attempts to talk to her – I have quite a bit of vocabulary, the problem is stringing it together into halfway comprehensible sentences. And if that doesn’t work, then I’m just going to have to go to nightschool before the Siberian Expedition.

I’m not being helped either by dictionaries that lie to me. I cooked Indian food (masala dosas) last night and we invited my wife’s friend. She wanted to know that one of the spices was. We told her cumin, in English, and kreuzkümmel in German, and she was none the wiser. Now I know cumin is heavily used in Central Asian cookery because I ate lots of it in a very good Uzbek restaurant in Moscow. My wife’s friend grew up in Kirghizstan, so she must know what it is. I suggest trying to look it up in a dictionary. But, says my wife, her big German-Russian dictionary isn’t really German-Russian, it’s East German-Soviet and exotic concepts like kreuzkümmel definitely don’t feature. In fact, she says, never trust a Soviet dictionary. (So why do we have an entire shelf full of them?)

Why don’t we try looking in this big English-Russian dictionary, I ask? Oh, says she, I didn’t know I had a big English-Russian dictionary. But she does, and voilà, cumin is in there translated as тмин (tmin). Never trust a foreign language dictionary without cross-checking. тмин looked up in Russian-German dictionary comes back not as kreuzkümmel (cumin) but as kümmel - caraway. Different thing entirely. The English-Russian dictionary also says тмин for caraway.

If you can’t trust a dictionary for a perfectly normal, everyday word like cumin, what hope do you have?

UPDATE: Saved. No language is complete these days without a good online dictionary. I couldn’t do the German email-writing part of my job without LEO. And I may have discovered the Russian equivalent – looks pretty good, assuming you can deal with cyrillic. I’m ok on that part at least, if not much else.

on learning german

30th July 2007 permanent link

Since I now want to learn Russian, some thoughts on what I’ve learned about learning languages since I’ve lived in Germany.

fließend in wort und schrift

“Fluent in speech and writing” is the standard German phrase that you need to put in your CV if you’re a foreigner looking for a job in Germany. For job purposes I can claim it, and do, with a clear conscience. How fluent am I really?

I operate successfully in a job that’s mainly but not exclusively German-speaking, and have done for about five years. I spoke German at home too for a couple of years, although I don’t any more because my wife decided she needed to practice her English at home when she went back to work after our son was born.

I have some of the classic symptoms of fluency. I (usually) don’t have to think of things in English and then translate them. In honour of a new, non-German CEO my employer a couple of weeks ago switched the required language for project status reports from German to English. I had some difficulty remembering idiomatic English equivalents for German phrases in my own report from the week before.

I am not, and will never be, fully bilingual

I read very few books in German. I read books for relaxation, and reading German is still hard enough work that it isn’t relaxing. I didn’t even make it all the way through Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha which is (a) a famous literary classic (b) about something I’m very interested in and (c), short.

I have a foreign accent. It’s indistinct enough that it’s not always obviously English. Nobody would ever take me for a native speaker, but I sometimes get asked if I’m Dutch.

Most importantly, operating in German is still harder work. I distinctly remember my first long business meeting in German: I was so tired, I went home and was in bed by eight o’clock. It isn’t still like that – obviously, otherwise I would have given up and gone home years ago – but I still notice how suddenly pleasant and easy it is when I get to do a meeting in English now and again.

you’re not as young as you used to be (1)

One reason I took a contract in Germany eight years ago was that I thought I was “good at languages” at school, and so I also thought it would be interesting, and easy, to live abroad for a little while and really learn to speak a foreign language properly. Which I guess I did, but it was a lot harder work than I thought it would be.

What I was actually good at at school, because I trained myself for years to be good at it, was remembering lots of stuff and repeating it in order to pass exams. Only later and with considerable disappointment did I discover that this is not a particularly useful skill in real life. Stuff that I could memorise included lists of vocabulary and tables of declensions, so I was “good at languages”. Exams were mostly written and actually being able to have real conversations with real people wasn’t high on the agenda.

So I arrived in Germany, with remnants of my two years of school German still nestled somewhere in the back of my head, and was taken aback to find that my brain was no longer trained to operate in that way and I had discovered better things to do with it in the meantime. I had to learn by other means, such as actually conversing with people in bars and business meetings. It seems to have worked, but it took a while.

you’re not as young as you used to be (2)

Since my son is growing up in Germany with an English dad and a Russian mum, I’ve read quite a bit on the development of the multilingual child. More than two languages can be tricky, apparently, and my son has great difficulty filtering German words out of his English/Russian when he is talking to one of his grandmothers; but my wife is watching very carefully and he’ll be ok.

What I also picked up that’s relevant to me, among others from Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, is that instinctive language learning as a child and conscious language learning as an adult are two entirely different mental processes. Beyond the age of about five the window of opportunity for learning a language instinctively and with true fluency is gone.

For example, Pinker says there is a limited range of sounds the human vocal system is capable of. We are born with the ability to hear and make all of them, but we quickly lose the ability to both make and hear the ones that don’t happen to be used in our native language(s). How many non-Indians can distinguish the four separate D-like sounds that occur in sanskrit and other Indian languages? This is why it’s almost impossible, or very rare, for somebody to be able to learn a language as an adult and speak it without an obvious foreign accent.

A friend of mine says he saw an article saying that speaking a language one learned as an adult lights up different parts of the brain than speaking a language one learned as a child. Makes sense.

So I’m sceptical when I read about language prodigies who can speak lots of languages “fluently”. You often read it about various figures in British imperial history. A lot of them would have grown up in India and been more or less bilingual in English and an Indian language. But Persian, Arabic and a couple of extra Indian languages too? Depends what you mean by “fluent”. Fluent enough to fool an Englishman, perhaps.

one at a time, please

I only seem to be able to use one foreign language at a time. I did seven years of French at school and only two years of German, and when I arrived in Germany I could speak French quite reasonably. This turned out to be useful: my first landlady was a French teacher; she didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much German at that point.

As my German improved, though, my ability to speak French decayed. I can still pick up a French newspaper and read it, but I can’t get through a sentence without German words drifting in.

english speakers are lazy

Native English speakers can be, and frequently are, lazy about learning other languages. I’ve known people who lived in Germany for years who, though they could obviously read menus and street signs and so on, could barely begin to hold a conversation. Contrary to common preconceptions, Brits and Irish tend to be worse in this respect than Americans. I guess for an American to come and live in Europe is a big decision requiring commitment, whereas for Brits it’s pretty easy, and common, to come over on a whim for a short term contract and then just not go home for a few years.

I’m not lazy with my German, but nor am I as motivated with it as somebody who has no other chance of getting by. My wife hasn’t lived in Germany all that much longer than I have but her German is way better. I can only hear that she has a foreign accent if I deliberately listen for it.

on learning russian

3rd July 2007 permanent link

Zdra[v*]stvuite, dear readers. I have five weeks in which to learn to speak Russian. Why do I have five weeks in which to learn to speak Russian?

  1. Embarrassment. My original plan for learning Russian was by osmosis along with my son. He would learn Russian without conscious effort by hearing his mother speak it to him and hey! I would too by listening in. That didn’t work. He is four years old now and his Russian has been significantly ahead of mine for about two years. A little while ago he asked me “Daddy, why can you not speak Russian?”
  2. Good manners. Here’s the crucial time deadline: in five weeks my apartment will be full of Russian women. This is not in itself a bad thing. And my wife’s friends who are planning to stop by at various times in the summer can all speak English and/or German perfectly adequately. My mother in law cannot, however, and she will be staying for a few weeks. She is a hero; the last time she was here she looked after a toddler for a week on her own in a country where she can’t speak a word of the language, so that my wife and I could have a proper honeymoon. She deserves a son in law who can at least make some attempt to communicate with her.
  3. Self Preservation. My wife has a Plan to visit her long-lost aunt in Siberia in the not too distant future. On the few occasions when I’ve been let loose on my own in Moscow I’ve learned that getting by there with sub-rudimentary language skills is sketchy. Then I try to picture myself in a village in the forest a few hundred kilometres from Irkutsk …

Learning to speak Russian is a daunting task. Learning to speak any language as an adult is, as I learned when I first came to Germany eight years ago. More on that later. But Russian particularly so. I’m not bothered by the alphabet, which is nowhere near as big an obstacle as it first appears. More cases than German doesn’t scare me either, Latin has more cases than German too and I didn’t find that a problem at school. I look through tables of declensions and think ok, they’re a pain in the ass but I’ve learned them before in other languages, there are usually patterns to them and I can learn them again.

The fact that “o” is only pronounced as “o” if it is stressed otherwise it sounds like “a”, and you as a learner have no good way of knowing where the stress is in any given word, is a bummer – especially given that my wife pronounces a huge difference between her stressed and un-stressed “o”s, and other people I’ve heard do it much less, so there’s clearly no consistency there. But I can live with it.

No, the thing that really finally made my blood run cold as I was reading my grammar book last night is that verbs have masculine and feminine forms. What the f*ck? Now you’re just trying to be arbitrarily complicated and give foreigners extra opportunities to sound stupid. I know how languages with declensions work. I understand the value of redundancy for error-checking in data streams. I understand how unusual English is in having dropped almost all its declensions in favour of word order and prepositions, and how very weird and hard to parse that makes it. But really. Masculine and feminine forms of verbs? Don’t be silly.

The weapons I have at my disposal are: Russian Grammar by Natalia Lusin, which seems good but intimidating (and gets four and a half stars on; BBC Talk Russian book and CDs, which alarmingly has no reviews on and irritating snippets of crap music between phrases; my wife’s extensive collection of Russian-German and some Russian-English dictionaries; and, all too soon, numerous Russian women. I’ll let you know how I get on.

(*) The first “в” in “здравствуйте” is silent (just try pronouncing it), and therefore normally (always?) omitted when the word is transliterated. This is the sort of arbitrary fact that makes learning languages such a pain in the ass, because there is no way round just memorising it and heaps of other things like it.

credit where credit’s due

28th May 2006 permanent link

Credit where credit’s due: I just noticed the bug I reported to Apple a while ago in Safari’s rendering of Sanskrit text is fixed in Safari version 2.0.3

Camino 1.0 and Firefox 1.5 on the other hand, don’t even try to render it, at least not on the Mac.


29th October 2004 permanent link

I did my bit for open source software quality today, by raising bugs against Apple’s Safari browser and Mozilla’s Firefox. Both have – different – serious errors in the way they display Devanagari. Devanagari is the script in which Sanskrit, Hindi and several other Indian languages totalling a few hundred million native speakers are written, so this is not exactly an obscure problem. See here for details and examples, which will look different depending on what browser you’re using.

Internet Explorer 6, I discovered, displays Devanagari correctly. I’m quite surprised to see a case where Microsoft do standards compliance correctly and the open source browsers (Safari is based on an open-source core) get it wrong. Maybe Microsoft have already outsourced their browser development to India? Maybe the world needs more Indian open source developers.

NOTE: I have the highest respect for the programming skills of anybody who would even attempt to write a rendering engine for Devanagari, or any other script that builds compound characters for letter combinations. I wouldn’t like to try it. But it really should be a solved problem by now.

Why did I notice this? Because I started last night on a little project to pull together my notes & thoughts on the Yoga Sutras (योग सुत्र - or not, depending on what browser you’re using) of Patanjali and I thought it would be nice to include the original text. More on this if I ever actually get anywhere with it.

indo-european languages update

11th February 2004 permanent link

In December I wrote about a paper on the origin of the Indo-European languages by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The paper used statistical techniques derived from evolutionary biology and applied them to Indo-European vocabulary to come up with a date for proto-Indo-European that was about two thousand years older than linguists generally believe. And linguists were, shall we say, sceptical.

It looks as though Russell Gray, to his great credit, is serious about explaining and defending what he has done. He now has the full text [pdf] of the original paper up on his website (must read it and see if I understand any of it!), together with a response [Word document] to criticims of the paper by Larry Trask, a leading historical linguist. Gray says he and Atkinson are preparing a more detailed (book chapter) explanation of their method.

Another observation regarding linguists’ responses to the original paper – I re-read the abstract in the course of some email correspondence on the subject with Michael Jennings, and it does not say that Gray & Atkinson believe anything in their findings points towards Anatolia – just that their date ties in with others (i.e. Renfrew?) who have suggested an Anatolian origin in the same timeframe.

I am alarmed to see that my weblog entry from December is the number two hit for a google search for “gray atkinson indo european”. (At least the abstract of the original paper is number one). Goodness knows what anybody who actually knows anything about this stuff (i.e. actual real linguists or statisticians) would think about that.

Update: linguists are still sceptical - here is the latest discussion on sci.lang.

origins of the indo-european languages

29th December 2003 permanent link

Continuing our late December theme of heated-but-probably-ultimately-futile historical controversies involving the term “Aryan”: apparently some geneticists think they have convincingly traced the origin of Indo-Euopean languages to around 9 to 10 thousand years ago in Anatolia. The original Nature article is subscription only; the abstract is here. And just like the last time a non-linguist came to this conclusion (the archaeologist Colin Renfrew in his 1987 book Archaeology and Language : The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins ), apparently linguists are unimpressed.

utter bollocks

part of their results are the fruit of begging the question, and the rest (circa 80%) is at the mercy of the “glottochronological clock”, which is as accurate as a sundial at night … the basic tenets of glottochronology are rubbish
Jacques Guy on sci.lang (original messages)

all their time estimates come from fourteen data points, deliberately chosen to have wide error bars … I should note that the selection of languages is dodgy as well
a commenter at languagehat

The geneticists in question are Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. They reached their conclusions by applying statical techniques normally used in evolutionary biology to linguistics. Linguists seem to have two basic issues with their conclusions. One is that they published in Nature – a journal with no linguistics expertise – and in the form of a five-page letter with nowhere near enough detail for a serious assessment of their methods. The other is that, from what little their letter describes of their method, it appears to be similar to a discredited technique in historical linguistics known as glottochronology, dating from the 1950s. Glottochronology attempted to date when languages that are known or assumed to have a common ancestor diverged by measuring differences in their vocabulary. Unfortunately the key assumption on which it was based – that the rate of vocabulary change over time in all languages is known and constant – is completely groundless. Gray and Atkinson are aware of this problem and claim that the statistical technique they used is somehow immune to it, but don’t provide any convincing explanation of how. It also seems to be unclear whether they did basic credibility checks, like using their technique to date historically known language splits (e.g. French, Italian and Spanish from Latin, Old English from Old German).

The most detailed explanation of the apparent problems that I’ve found is by Bill Poser in Language Log, a group weblog that is actually written by real linguists (oh no, not another bloody interesting weblog to read). There is another detailed critique by Peter Daniels in the sci.lang newsgroup – the whole thread is worth reading.

My attention was originally drawn to this by the gene expression weblog. The folks there seem to think the general hostility to Gray & Atkinson from linguists is at least partly a tribal reaction to outsiders trespassing on their turf. From what I’ve read, I disagree. It looks very much to me like the linguists are right – Gray & Atkinson at the very least have made some wild claims based on an unproven technique, and provided nowhere near enough explanation of what they have done to actually convince anybody.

Update on chariots: in the course of reading up on Gray & Atkinson, I came across references to chariots dated to 2100BC having been found in the southern Urals. A while ago I wrote at length about Robert Drews’ theories on chariots and Bronze Age warfare, and why I think the Rig Veda cannot be much older than western scholars generally think it is – i.e. somewhere around 1500 BC. The Urals chariot finds knock a rather large hole in Drews’ theory about the Greeks, which is based on the belief that the chariot was invented (a) south of the Caucasus and (b) not much earlier than about 1800 BC. I don’t see that it materially affects my opinion on the Vedas, though – chariots being known before 2100 BC on the Steppes still isn’t any kind of evidence that they were in use hundreds or thousands of years before that in northern India. More on this later.



18th September 2003 permanent link

Lepcha (Róng-Ríng)

Anybody who has any interest at all in languages or typography needs to look at Simon Ager's beautiful and fascinating website,

The font above is Lepcha, a script related to Tibetan and used in India's north eastern states, Nepal and Bhutan. This one is Balinese:


(Link courtesy of Ronaldo at reflective surface)


2nd August 2003 permanent link

One of the things I enjoy about living in Germany and learning the language is how direct German vocabulary is – there's just one set of words, they don't have the English thing of every word having a down-to-earth Anglo-Saxon (aka German) version for some purposes and a fancy French or Latin version for other purposes(*), or every concept having six nearly-synonyms with slightly different shades of meaning. There are some cases though, where German has words that are more expressive than any English equivalents. One of these you only get to learn, as a man, if you live with a breastfeeding mother and her baby.

German has a special word, nukkeln, for “being on the breast and appearing to go through the motions of sucking, but not actually eating anything either because the baby is too lazy or because it just wants its mum for comfort”(**), which is different from the word for feeding properly, which is saugen. Strangely the leading brand of baby-feeding products in Germany is called “Nuk”. Both of these words are different again from the word for a baby sucking its thumb, which is lutschen. And none of the above, as far as I know, has the same negative meaning as the English word “suck” when used non-literally.

(*) take as an example the German word for the holes in your nose that you breathe through. The Germans don't need some fancy French nonsense like nostrils – what for when you can just say Nasenlöcher, “nose holes”? How could anybody not like a language where the word for nostrils is “nose holes”?

(**) Nukkeln is particularly expressive when said in a strong Bavarian accent by our visiting midwife Frau Mayer. Frau Mayer is a saint without whom I would not be a sane man today. Although you might reasonably question whether writing a weblog entry on German terms for breastfeeding for no apparent reason is evidence of being a sane man.

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