What hump?

I cannot help myself – it is too tempting to use a moment from my favourite ever (comic) movie as a Post title.

With all due respect to the late great Marty Feldman, not only have I found my hump, I am embracing it.

What I mean here by the “hump” is that moment where you feel as if you belong in the new language. As I am an overly optimistic learner, this may not be at the same point where you might experience the hump. But whenever it comes, it is a great feeling.

I used to talk about three levels of competence:

  1. “Yes”, “No” and look interested in whatever the other person is saying.
  2. Order a beer or a glass of wine
  3. Survive half a day in the target language without getting a headache.

Where does the hump sit in this scale? Somewhere about 2.5. Realistically I should say about 2.3, but the feeling – that sense that the language is achievable, that you can start to truly communicate and to understand other people – this makes it feel more like a 2.9.

Suddenly, I have reached (if not yet gotten over) the hump in four of my five languages (and I have been inspired to take the extra step in the fifth.)

In Chinese, we are nearing the end of Level 3, which has largely been revision of Levels 1+2, with a little new vocabulary thrown in. But I am starting to be able to respond smoothly and appropriately. The nicest sign is the surprise of my teacher when I can answer a question (or translate a word.)

Hindi (after tweaking my program to allow for the purchase of a book+CD-Rom combo) has finally started to produce some written conversation with my colleagues in India. Real communication – that’s the name of the game.

Polish has been a steady progression – I am now at Lesson 67, and have had the occasional (imperfect) conversation at my Polish deli.

Arabic lessons are now onto the third textbook. After learning the written alphabet and working on basic introductions and grammar, the new vocabulary is starting to accelerate. With a solid foundation in place, the opportunities for expansion seem real and right in front of my nose.

Korean? Well my study-buddy has passed his English test to be able to apply for Permanent Residence status. This has been a pretty strong focus of our sessions. Admittedly, I have been lax in trying to practice any Korean language with him. But now I am seriously considering following the Hindi model, buying a book+CD-Rom and using this to kick-start some real conversations.

OK, that’s a nice little shopping list of “Where are we at?” But more importantly, how does it feel?

It feels amazing. After several months of sporadic slog, three weeks of hiatus (see previous post) and then about three more weeks of effort, I can suddenly feel it beginning to work.

What was just a collection of words, letters, grammatical concepts and cultural notes, is coming together to become a conversation, a mindset and a sense of flow. When I want to “switch on” a language, there is something there. Obviously not very comprehensive, but a starting place; introductions, queries, requests. The building blocks of communication.

This is why it feels like 2.9 on the levels of learning. I feel (delusional optimism, I know) that if I were now dropped into the relevant linguistic environment, I would have a strong enough foundation to be able to start absorbing. If I am not at Level 3, I can see the way there.

The goal now? Use this sensation to work more, get more practice and begin the accumulation phase – more vocabulary, more structures and more ways of learning and understanding the new language.

Once you are over the hump, you begin to pick up speed.

Posted in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Learning styles, Lessons learned, Polish, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Faster, higher, whatever?

What an interesting couple of weeks it has been. Some of you may have noticed a little thing called the Olympics make its way through town. In other news, I managed to come down with a chest cold and undergo a minor procedure.

How is this relevant to the Babel Project?

It all became part of the Babel Project stopping to a crawl. Juggling a full-time job and a family with this project was never going to be easy, but if you add distractions (both internal and external), it brings the momentum way down.

The effort involved in making progress in all five languages at once had been gradual, but was happening (see your own Personal Darwin for a report on the good old days). Most evenings would see me in front of a computer, a book or a notepad working on learning or revising one or several languages.

And then Lord Coe, BoJo and the rest of the London 2012 crew got to me. Evenings were no longer spent with the vagaries of Polish cases or Korean participles, but with rowers and swimmers, jumpers of all sorts and balls of every size.

As Sisyphus will tell you, momentum is not neutral – it is either for you or against you. The last few weeks have demonstrated to me how easy it can be to lose momentum and what a battle it is to regain it.

I confess to being largely a creature of habit, which had served me well as I got into a routine of one to two sessions of language learning or revision per evening. Just get the kids into bed and hit the materials. I am once again discovering what an effort it took to get me to that virtuous cycle.

At least some of the project maintained its shape; I have continued with my Chinese and Arabic classes, with just one or two missed sessions. I have also purchased a self-teaching book (+audio CD-Rom) for Hindi. I know that Hindi was supposed to be confined to free materials from the Internet, but I was struggling with my core resource, and I realised that I had “compromised myself” ages ago when I took up the recommendation of my Korean study-buddy and started using an online Korean resource.

Can I take anything positive out of this “hiatus”? I haven’t forgotten anything, which is probably the most important thing. Perhaps I can even try to convince myself that, as in weight training, it is the pause between the hard work that allows the rebuilding, the pattern-formation to take place.

Just like Sisyphus, I am trying to get that rock rolling back up the mountain. But this time I am not starting from the very bottom.

Posted in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Learning styles, Lessons learned, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hit the slopes

It’s winter-time down here, and some are thinking about skiing. Not your humble correspondent, who remains faithful to his obsession with language.

Nevertheless, the seasonal discussions have dented my bubble and that, along with a challenging couple of days with Arabic, have got me thinking about slopes and language.

The expectation at the beginning of the language journey is that it will be difficult. Indeed, that expectation is one of the barriers to more people seriously taking up a foreign language. But let’s drill down a little further; certainly learning a new language will be challenging, but in what way?

More specifically (hang in there, I will get to my point in just a moment), how consistently challenging will the new language be? On a scale of 1-10, will it be a constant 8?

Why does this matter? I think that very few (if any) language students commence with a clear idea of the amount (or profile) of challenge when they commence their language. I am an experienced language student, and I certainly didn’t think about this when I started.

I knew that I was commencing 5 new languages, but I didn’t have any kind of sense of the difficulty, absolute or relative, of any of them. Other than a few generalised received wisdoms; Chinese is tough because of the writing and the tones, Arabic will be OK because I already know some Hebrew; Korean?

Even more importantly, I didn’t think about the difficulty profile of each language. Is the language initially easy, but gets more difficult as you get further in? Does it start with a steep slope, but level out? (I’ve been watching the Tour de France)

This thinking was triggered by a conversation between a couple of work colleagues, one of whom is about to go to China to study, while the other is very keen to travel to Japan. In amongst the usual chat about whose language was harder, they came to an interesting conclusion; Chinese is initially more challenging, but reaches a kind of plateau of difficulty – the grammar and structures don’t get more complex, while Japanese is reasonably straightforward at the beginning, with simple pronunciation and the option of learning a syllabic alphabet, but the degree of difficulty increases as you progress further into the language, with more complex verb types, sentence structures and the introduction of the kanji Chinese characters.

Check out this blog post by John Pasden which delves more deeply into the challenges of Chinese, and graphically represents the different slopes of Chinese and Japanese. You can also click here to read an article by David Moser on the challenges of learning Chinese. I particularly like the game of pulling out random Chinese books and seeing who can be the first to guess what the book is about. One to try with radio news stories in a foreign language.

This got me reflecting on my previous experience learning French and German. I started on both at the same time, and found that the initial German was easier to recognise and understand than French. This was due to the nature of English, lots of Germanic “core” words (like eat, drink, go, come) but plenty of Latinate words in the more advanced “elegant” language. Even the word “elegant” is essentially the same in French.

What this meant in practical terms was that I was able to get a quicker grasp of the first thirty words of German, but once I had the basics, it was far easier to learn the more advanced French. German started smoothly, but then ramped up the difficulty; French was an initial challenge, but then got easier (in learning vocabulary – grammar is a different matter). If you are trying to learn “advanced” vocabulary, adjectives such as curious or jealous, the French equivalent is easy – essentially just the English word but in a French accent; the German equivalents are “neugierig” and “eifersüchtig.” Quite a lot more work to learn the German words.

And this is where I find myself in a number of my languages. Arabic was the most recent example of a classic language-learning dilemma. You start at the beginner stage, learning a couple of introductory phrases, some basic word-order and maybe a conjugation or two. It all feels pretty straight-forward, and you wonder why the teacher takes it so slowly and how much you can speed things up. Then all of a sudden, you hit the learning wall; you can’t remember the content you learned four weeks ago, the structures become more complex, and you feel like your brain has overflowed.

This is where the slope kicks in. If you are working hard, not just on learning new stuff, but also on revising what you learned 4-6 weeks previously, it should be manageable. If you are like me and most other students, and are just hanging on in between the rest of a full and active life, you start to struggle.

The message out of all of this? Be aware of the slope; don’t be fooled by any “false flats,” plateaux where the learning seems too easy and you just want to speed up. Take every opportunity to revise, because making your knowledge unconscious will diminish the slope by giving you more “brain space” for the new content.

Or to put it more simply; do the homework, regularly. Like I wish I did.

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The geography of language – jungle

Would anybody care to guess? I know, it’s an easy one. But strangely apt, because I have found Hindi to be my most challenging language to learn.

Not because of any innate complexities in the language – I am not far enough along to be able to assess that. I am simply struggling to find a quality resource that matches my Babel Project protocol. For Hindi, the brief was to use freely available Internet resources.

I initially thought that Hindi would be perfect for this, because I stumbled across a web-site quite early on that looked extremely promising. Podcasts with enough transcripts to support my learning the Devanagari script and to clarify any tricky pronunciation.

However, what I am rapidly learning is that not all programs are created equal. In the same way that the great authors make writing seem simple and straightforward, the best language programs (whether face-to-face or software) will guide you smoothly through the development of the necessary skills to speak a new language.

My Hindi experience is not quite there. The author of my chosen program has the best intentions, but it has become clear that the structural knowledge is not there. It is fine to say that you want to learn a language, but how – where do you begin, how do you revise and refine, what is the mix between grammar and vocabulary?

Still, the Project demands that I keep going and that I bend Hindi to my will. I have been a little more “aggressive” with the web-site, and am picking and choosing the lessons that I believe will help me get where I am going. Body parts can wait until I can introduce myself and shop.

Hindi seems at first glance to be reasonably manageable. There is no gender differentiation in nouns, nor even in pronouns; although there is in verbs. There are masculine and feminine versions of the same verb. A man will say “I go” differently to a woman.

I wish that I could offer more insights into Hindi. Hopefully, in another six months time, I will be able to do so.

If any of my esteemed readers (or even the un-esteemed ones) are familiar with any good, free online Hindi-learning resources, please link in the comments.

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The geography of language – mountain

Moving right along with the theme, I have chosen mountain to symbolise Chinese – in this instance specifically Mandarin Chinese. The tonal structure of Chinese can quite easily resemble the ups and downs of your average Himalayan (or other) mountain range.

I won’t go into too much detail about the structure of Chinese, largely because there are plenty of language learning sites on the Web looking at Chinese (apparently about 478,000,000). Also, I have only been trying to learn Chinese for 18 weeks now, so I can’t offer too much detail, even if I wanted to.

What I can offer is perceptions, and here is the first one. Imagine trying to hold a conversation with someone while you are both riding motorcycles; sometimes riding side-by-side but as often as not riding in different directions. There would be a lot of shouting and a lot of very short words. The sounds would rise and fall as you approached and separated.

This is my beginner’s guide to Chinese; biker talk. English homophones are confusing to the foreigner, but not usually too varied. We might struggle to find too many examples of triple homophones (pair, pare, pear; weather, whether, wether). Any readers who would like to contribute their own triples (or even aim for a quad) are welcome to do so in the comments below.

However, Chinese has four tones (some might argue for a fifth “untoned” tone).

First tone is straight along the ceiling;

Second tone rises, so floor to ceiling;

Third tone starts at the ceiling, drops to the floor and then rises back to the ceiling;

Fourth tone starts high, drops and that’s it.

As so many Chinese words are single syllables, you really have to get your tones right. The word “mai” changes meaning based on the tone. If it is third tone ‘măi’ then it means “buy”. If it is fourth tone ‘mài’ then it means “sell”. If you are intending to make some money, get it right or you might unintentionally start spending.

My approach to Chinese has been through private instruction, so my teacher has been trying to power through each lesson in the allotted sixty minutes – no easy task when this involves a dialogue (with the aforementioned challenging pronunciation), new vocabulary and the legendary Chinese characters.

I am moderately fortunate to have a little Japanese under my belt as the two languages share common written characters. White in Chinese ‘bái’ is the same character as the Japanese ‘shiroi’ 白.

Nevertheless, the challenge of trying to learn to read at the same time as speaking is significant. The tonal nature of Chinese means that each new word is twice as complex as a non-tonal language; I am attempting to learn the word and the music of the word, because one is meaningless without the other. Add to this the non-alphabetic nature of the script and each new word can be three times more difficult than the equivalent in Korean (alphabetic script) or Arabic (alphabetic script).

Fortunately there are about three times as many Chinese speakers as there are of almost every other language. Add to this the enormous Chinese diaspora in many non-Chinese countries and there are plenty of opportunities to practice.

Add a dash of sizzling Chinese economic growth and the natural pleasure that any national has in seeing a foreigner (and I look pretty darn foreign to your average Chinese citizen) and this creates plenty of incentive to hang in there, slog out the new vocabulary, and climb that Chinese mountain.

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The geography of language – valley

When I embarked on this series of posts, the first two were fairly straight-forward. Using the desert as an analogy for Arabic was a no-brainer. And I don’t know whether my esteemed readers ever think about Poland, but I have a strong image in my mind of forests, so that was another easy selection for me.

Along with the easy geographical choices, I felt confident in my ability to talk about those two languages. I came to Arabic with an expectation that my experience in having learned Hebrew would be of value, and so far I have not been disappointed. From simple words like “what” and “from where” to slightly more advanced words like “wind” and “house”, the analogies have been strong enough to allow me to pick up Arabic vocabulary reasonably easily (so far).

My learning approach to Polish was to use (purchased) language software, which I supplemented by buying a Polish grammar guide. This combination has allowed me to advance at my own pace, while also dipping into “explanatory” mode when I choose. In this way I was able (in my previous post) to combine my perceptions of the language (really challenging but fun) from the software, with the structural descriptions from the grammar guide (incredibly challenging).

So I now move further east. When I was allocating languages to methods, I worked by elimination – I doubted my ability to find language-swap partners for Arabic and Polish, so ticked off group class and software. I found a web-site for Hindi, so I selected that as my free online option, and the importance of the Chinese language in Australia meant that I was able to find a teacher who would give me individual instruction.

Which left Korean and language exchange. I felt confident initially, as there is now a sizeable Korean “strip” in central Melbourne, combining bar/restaurants (frequently playing KPop), Asian groceries and language schools teaching English. So I went to my favourite Korean grocery and put up a “Study buddy wanted!” sign. And waited.

And waited.

And waited (and tried a couple of internet-based searches for study buddies).

And waited.

And finally was rewarded with one hit. Which was enough.

Fortunately, my study buddy almost immediately referred me onto a Korean-language web-site. Which has proved to be a real winner, alongside the occasional catch-ups over tea and coffee to exchange English language conversation and support, for Korean instruction and travel tips.

So, why is Korean the “valley” of geography. I think that it sits (undeservedly) in the shadow of its two larger neighbours – Japan and China. Inasmuch as most people have a perception of Chinese and Japanese, even if they might struggle to speak more than “Kung Po” and “sayonara”, that level of awareness is almost non-existent for Korean.

As I am discovering, the Korean language has managed to borrow elements from its neighbours while remaining distinct. Korean contains particles which resemble Japanese particles; Korean has two separate sets of numbers, one native Korean, and one Sino-Korean. When I recently tweeted about the odd Korean word for Australia 호주 (hoju), a respondent (thanks CS Bogan) was able to explain that this probably had Chinese origins.

My SB also told me that there are distinctive regional variations in the different provinces (six?) of South Korea, never mind the linguistic development or otherwise taking place in the North.

Altogether this has given me the sense of a linguistic and cultural Shangri-La, hidden away from the sight of most of us rushing along and living our frantic lives, but waiting to open up all kinds of wonderful discoveries if we stop to check it out.

The pronunciation is not totally straight-forward for the English-speaker, with a separation between “eo” and “o” that causes me a few headaches, as well as some tricky consonants. “s” isn’t really an [s] sound but more of a sibilant; there is the classic Asian [r], [l] blend and the [g] and [k] sounds seem to flip around at will.

Grammar includes the afore-mentioned particles, but otherwise shares the North Asian simplicity of verbs. If I do (hae-yo) then we, she, you, they all “do” the same (hae-yo).

Add to this an alphabet (as opposed to logograms like Chinese or syllabic writing like the Japanese kana) and Korean is surprisingly approachable. After a few months, I am almost at the point of claiming to be able to read.

Now if someone could just convince Koreans to speak a little more slowly!

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The geography of language – forest

Each language has its own shining feature. Spanish and French are romance; German and Arabic are guttural; Italian and Japanese are bouncy while Chinese is up and down. English is ubiquitous.

I have already written about Arabic and the desert analogy. Within my new stable of languages, I think that the obvious candidate for the woodland situation would be Polish. The natural landscape of northern Europe with snowy winters and forested terrain seems to be fertile ground for the cultivation of a special linguistic crop – consonants.

Consider some of the Polish words that have graced my Twitter feed: krzyżyk, wykrzyknik, męczeństwo, spadochroniarstwo. Which mean (in order); hash (as in hashtag), exclamation mark, martyrdom and parachuting.

Incidentally, if any reader can come up with a sentence (in English) which includes the four words above, please do so in the comments. No Polish efforts please – my insurance won’t cover readers’ attempts to decipher the outcome.

Even a simple number like three becomes “trzy”. Thirty-nine is “trzydzieści dziewięć”. Although, to be fair in the opposite direction, one of my Polish contacts did raise the English “thirty-three” as the linguistic equivalent of a covert nuclear program. Perhaps we’ll call numbers a draw.

But pronunciation is just half of the battle. Let’s talk about Polish grammar. One usual suspect in terms of grammatical brutality is German. The English writer Saki (H.H. Munro) wrote a short story about a savant who taught his cat to speak. The punchline to the story concerned the death of the savant at the Dresden Zoo, trampled by a formerly docile elephant. One guest opines, “If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast, he deserved all he got.”

German has four cases (endings which show the relationships between nouns, pronouns and adjectives). Nominative (subject), accusative (direct object), dative (indirect object) and genitive (possessive).

Polish in all its glory fronts up to the counter with seven cases. These are:

Nominative, accusative, genitive, locative, instrumental, dative and vocative.

I can’t even begin to imagine where the language wants to go with all of these cases, but I suspect (I hope) that this will become clearer as I progress.

In addition to this, we can’t go past gender. English natives think that French is bad enough, assigning every noun to either masculine or feminine and requiring appropriate particles and adjectives. Polish goes the German route and adds the neutral gender to this, offering a choice of three options, or as I like to think of it – two ways of getting it WRONG.

Incidentally, the grammatical data included in this post is way beyond my true capabilities in the language. I need to acknowledge Dana Bielec, author of Polish, an Essential Grammar. (Click on the book title to learn more).

Nevertheless, the language is tremendous fun. The tongue-twisting of the pronunciation and the mind-mangling grammar simply add to the sense of accomplishment when one is able to trot out so basic a phrase as “Czy może nam pani przynieść dwa piwa?” – Can you bring us two beers, please?

I have also been fortunate enough to run into a couple of Polish natives who have been kind enough to listen to my feeble attempts and to give me good advice on improving my Polish and even travel tips should I ever get there. (More on that much later – I hope).

So, is Polish difficult? Indubitably (and try teaching that word to a non-English speaker). Can I see the woods for the trees? I’m getting there and I’m having a ball on the way.

Incidentally, Polish is also a crowd pleaser. I have been using language-learning software and sometimes my wife or kids will listen in on one of the lessons. Responses have ranged from, “You’re kidding!” to “You’re joking!” But they have all been impressed at my ability to converse at the Polish deli at the market. It may sound funny to the untutored ear, but from Krakow to Warsaw to Gdansk, it’s music.

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