Category Archives: Languages and Linguistics

All language and linguistics related matters, including the Huliganov Russian Course and the Gold List Methodology can be found in here.

Steps in language learning for those who have no track record of success yet.


cropped-20130930_191133.jpgIf someone wishes to learn from English with no previous success in language learning either French, Spanish, German or Italian then I recommend starting with Paul Noble’s audio only courses, published by Collins. For 8 further languages, namely Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Greek, Russian, Polish, Dutch and Portuguese I recommend the Michel Thomas series to absolute beginners. After these courses, or from the start for languages not covered by those courses, I recommend Pimsleur courses. All these are audio only courses and are done with no teacher following the instructions outlined by the presenter.

Once this audio material has been front loaded, it is time, if the learner is still enthusiastic, to work through a written course. Most of these also have audio which should be used earlier in the process rather than later. Good courses include such series as Colloquial by Routledge, the Teach Yourself series (older courses tend to be better than new in that series) Living Languages and the Essential grammar series.

To learn the material in the written courses I recommend my own method called the Goldlist method which is free on the internet if you google for it. It helps to memorise written material to the long-term memory with the least possible total time of engagement per word or phrase. It is more effective than having a teacher who will try to activate sparse knowledge too soon.

You should aim to develop fluency in reading because the difference between fluent reading and fluent speaking is three days of immersion. Not a hundred lessons at 20 dollars a shot. Teachers are only really necessary for languages where you cannot tell the pronunciation from the writing or which have highly complex writing systems – and for tonal languages for those encountering this for the first time. A teacher is more likely to impede the adult learner in most Inter-European language learning.

One small word of warning to the absolute beginner – be ready for words and phrases in the language you know to be used completely differently in the other language. Just to give you an example, take the English “What’s happening now?” In French this would be “qu’est ce qu’il se passe maintenant?” Now this means exactly the same in terms of what the French would understand as the English phrase “What’s happening now?” but if you literally translate each of the elements in the French phrase, you get “What is this that he passes handholding?” If a French person tried to learn English using a verbatim approach as you can see he would not make himself understood, but equally anyone trying to put “What is happening now?” word for word into French will find that they come up with something equally nonsensical to the French, moreover the words you would need to do it do not even exist.

I met an Australian one time who said he was “orry” when I asked him how he was. I said “Orry? What’s that?”
“That’s French, mate”,
“You mean ‘horrible’?”
“No, mate, it’s French for “good”, I’m good, mate”
“How is “orry” French for “good”?”
“What? You’re a linguist and you don’t know the French for “goodbye” which is “orry-vwar”?”
I smiled at the wit and then it gradually dawned on me that the guy wasn’t joking. This is the biggest hurdle people have at the beginning, an expectation that the target language is going to work just like their own, you just slot other sounds in instead of the English ones. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

If you can get your head around that, then you are ready to approach a foreign language.

An article of ten … Not!


Monty_python_footIt’s interesting, is it not, to consider how many ways the English language has developed for saying that something is not something else.  Now it seems  that to get anywhere these days an article has to have a list of ten items in it. Let’s see if I get much of a readership by jumping on that bandwagon…

1. !=, ≠
In mathematical notation, we have for instance  !=  or if someone wants to go to the trouble of finding the classical symbol ≠ (Unicode numer 2260) then they have a very elegant way of noting “is not equal to” in a mathematical or logical sense.

2. In-, im-, un-

Then we have the classic prefixes, which encapsulate the diglossia in English: un- prefixes grace Germanic roots in the main and in- or im- go with the Latin or French roots (the latter if the root begins with b, p, or m but for some reason not the other labials f and v) However, the cut-off is not strict, because in- can refer to something going into something also. So “information” does not mean a lack of formation – to get back to that idea you can non- or borrow un- from the Germanic stock for it, so for example you could comment that you found this whole article “uninformative”.

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3. Dys-, dis-

Or there is disinformation. This dis- is an additional Latin based prefix showing that something has gone off in all directions, or in a wrong direction, with a more common version of that being dys- from Greek, which isn’t fussy about attaching to Latin roots either, so that you get dysfunctional people … Read the rest of this entry

Answer to the question “How many languages can I learn in a lifetime”?


This is all a question of how you define things.

Firstly the problem is defining languages. Do you define them so that Serbo-Croat is still one language or six, for example? Is Malay and Indonesia a separate language? What about the languages of India, and Africa, where there are many mutually partly intelligible languages. Is Flemish and Dutch one language or two in the way you are defining it? In my opinion it is better to define these broadly and cut it down to a smaller number of claimed languages. After all, where do you stop? Maybe American and British English could be claimed as two – I heard some people try that, ridiculous though it is.

Secondly, there is the problem of desired fluency. A person who only needs to say certain fixed sentences, like a street seller or a receptionist, can say what they know with fluency, but they are not able to synthesis accurate language. Others can do so, but not in speaking as they never mastered it. I tend to go on passive vocabulary learned and put 10,000 as a very reasonable target for learning a language.

Thirdly, you need to define “lifetime”. You don’t know yet how long you will live, nor whether you will still be so keen on learning languages if it is to the detriment of learning other useful things. The day may come – and does to many a polyglot (this is why most of the older polyglots you meet are people who leave it and come back to it – or old people who used to be polyglots but have not studied actively for a long time) where you say “instead of learning Javanese, I think it’s time to learn Java”.

If a person uses optimal methods and gives 400 hours to each language, then if they study for 40 years at 20 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, they’ll have given 400 hours each to 100 languages. With good methods, that should mean the ability to demonstrate reasonable proficiency at least in the reading of those 100 languages. One might choose to spend the same time doing 4,000 hours each to only 10 languages, and show a high degree of fluency in just those ten languages. One might also go down the performing seal route and do 40 hours on a thousand languages just in order to be able to recognise maybe a thousand words and in some cases read or write very basic words in those 1,000 languages. Here one of your biggest problems is going to be materials. Which ever way you cut it, 40,000 hours of study is a large achievement, and it is really up to whether the learner has more utility for what he or she wants from their study whether to be more academic on a smaller number or more hobbyist on a larger number.

The difference between tense and aspect, in a nutshell.


This morning I received a question about how the present perfect tense works in English:

Is the following sentence correct in terms of grammar ‘Yet ongoing political stabilization has been beneficial for further political and legal development of the country’? I am a little bit embarrassed by the use of present perfect tense for the event which has not been completed yet but is progressing, so it is impossible so far to predict for sure an outcome of it.

Here is my reply.

The “has been” refers not to the state of completion of the stabilization, nor even that the benefits are already palpable and therefore contain some complete benefits. The use of this tense is predicated by the fact that we are still in the time period the writer has in mind. It does not really equate to perfective aspect, but to cut-off or periodization of times.

This is the difference between tense and aspect, in a nutshell.
Read the rest of this entry

The promised activation article…


Today since I finally have half an hour of free time in peace and quiet, I would like to come back to the very good question posed by Fintan (I won’t say his surname as that would identify him, I’ll leave you guessing which Fintan it is) several weeks ago already (sorry about that), and in particular the second part of his question where he raises the issue of activation and asks what I think about things like “full circle method” by Luca Lampariello.

The first thing I want to say, is far be it from me to detract from what any accomplished polyglot, be that Signor Lampariello (who is a capital fellow on top of being a great polyglot) or any other of the well-known polyglots who do follow some form of activation. I make the assumption that these people know what they’re doing, and that they do what they enjoy and what works for them.

If continually activating during the process of language learning is something that keeps you motivated in which you enjoy doing, then it’s valuable. Anything which keeps you going in the marathon of learning languages, is your friend. Anything which you find demotivating which detracts from the pleasure of doing it, is not your friend.

And in the above I said the most important thing that needed to be said. Having said that, I will now go on to explain the core of my own approach and philosophy with regard to the question of activating language knowledge in the whole course of study. Read the rest of this entry

Batching (Batch-based scheduling) with Goldlist Method explained in full.


One reader with the pleasant name of Marlon wrote in one comment recently the following great question, and thus coaxed me to impart some advanced goldlisting knowledge which I was keeping back for the book:

Hello,

I am eager to start the Goldlist method. However, I need further clarification about scheduling. I read your post responding to Abdul some years back but I am still not sure how I can avoid distillations and new headlist overlapping. I do understand I could simply insert a batch of words and not use the step system, but it is not my desire to take that route.

I would prefer to use the step Goldlist method. I think I am most confused by time allotment. I decided to use the 20mins/25words/10min break format. When distilling to the first set (from 25 to 17), I believe you suggest use the same format, that is to use 20mins/25words/10mins. What about D2? Do I still need to use 20 mins to go from D1–>D2 (and D2—>D3)? In other words, do I perform as many distillations as possible after D1 is completed in the 20 min allotment? For example, Would it be prudent to distill maybe 2 sets from 17–>12 in one 20 min block?

I am looking forward to your response.

I will write the answer to this as a main article, partly because it’s a better way to get more readers to read it, and it is a good and useful topic for those who are using the Goldlist, and partly because I can use tables better in a new article than in a response.

I think it’s an excellent question, which shows that you’ve understood most of what I need you to understand in order to work successfully with the method.

I have in the past left people to fill in the blanks for this one themselves, as there are a number of ways in which you could fill in the blanks and they would all be good as long as the basic tenets are agreed to, and also I was leaving something back for the book, but just to give you an example of what works for me, imagine that you decide to do a project in which you have a good idea how many lines will be in the headlist in total, and lets say it’s going to be 3000 lines of headlist.

I would split that task into Batches, and each batch I give letters of the Alphabet, so Batch A, Batch B, etc.

Now because we want to avoid running into within two weeks of ourselves, as well as not have too long periods of not getting to review the same material (more than a quarter of a year is not necessarily harmful, but means you have little momentum, in practice, which can be demotivating) we need to plan it so that the first batch is the biggest batch, and then they get gradually smaller.

So the last batch will be 100 words, the second from last will be 200 words, etc.

Now follow me through this logic: Read the rest of this entry

Slicing the onion – does dumbing-down language mean dumbing-down thought?


I recently came across a fine example of how keeping language “simple” means that a really deep understanding of concepts becomes impossible. Thinking depends absolutely and directly on language – people say that the purest thinking is mathematics, but all that is is words and grammar replaced by symbols. 1 means “one” or “jeden” or “uno” or whatever that is in your language – I think I can pretty much guarantee nobody reading here has abandoned their language’s word for 1, 0 etc and simply thinks about those terms in the non-linguistic way a binary circuit regards them.

So when we simplify language and remove harder constructions and any vocabulary beyond a few thousand words, what happens? The BASIC ideas may be more understandable to more people, but they are like explanations given to children.

Let’s look at the examples I found. Both are from the same source and both refer to something familiar probably to all of us, namely: why do cut onions make us cry? First the Wikipedia entry in standard English:

Eye irritation[edit]

Cut onions emit certain compounds which cause the lachrymal glands in the eyes to become irritated, releasing tears.
Chopping an onion causes damage to cells which allows enzymes called alliinases to break down amino acid sulfoxides and generate sulfenic acids. A specific sulfenic acid, 1-propenesulfenic acid, is rapidly acted on by a second enzyme, the lachrymatory factor synthase (LFS), giving syn-propanethial-S-oxide, a volatile gas known as the onion lachrymatory factor or LF.[5] This gas diffuses through the air and soon reaches the eye, where it activates sensory neurons, creating a stinging sensation. Tear glands produce tears in order to dilute and flush out the irritant.[42]

Eye irritation can be avoided by cutting onions under running water or submerged in a basin of water.[42] Leaving the root end intact also reduces irritation as the onion base has a higher concentration of sulphur compounds than the rest of the bulb.[43] Refrigerating the onions before use reduces the enzyme reaction rate and using a fan can blow the gas away from the eyes. The more often one chops onions, the less one experiences eye irritation.[44]

The amount of sulfenic acids and LF released and the irritation effect differs among Allium species. In 2008, the New Zealand Crop and Food institute created a strain of “no tears” onions by using gene-silencing biotechnology to prevent synthesis by the onions of the LFS enzyme.[45]

 

And now, the same, but from the Simple English Wikipedia set:

Why onions make eyes water[edit source]

When you cut an onion, you open some cells of the onion. Then, some chemicals react. When one chemical floats through the air and reaches your eyes, they sting. There are ways to keep the chemical away. You can:

  • Cut the onion under water
  • Keep the onion in the fridge, and cut when it is cold
  • Leave the root end on until last
  • Use a sharper knife
  • Have a fan blowing away from you on the onion
  • Wear goggles, like for swimming or skiing

 

The Simple Version keeps the practical parts, like cutting from the top, but it just can’t handle what the chemicals actually are.

The good news is of course that these “Hard words” are the most international and, paradoxically, it is often the “hard” words which give the least trouble to the polyglot, so you end up with multi-language speakers who tend to talk like this:

This gas is diffusing through air and is reaching soon eye, where it’s activate a sensory neurons, created stinking sensation.

And the equivalent in four to forty different languages.

Some surprising things about Turkish and English


I thought I’d note down a couple of things which have arisen in the course of my learning Turkish, which strangely reflect certain aspects of English. Some people might regard as completely coincidental such items appearing between languages from completely different groups — my question is how many such coincidences can there be before it becomes more than a coincidence?

1) adjectival suffix -LI

In Turkish, an adjective derived from a noun can be formed by adding -li or one of the equivalents of -li in vowel harmony. Example – ev (house) gives evli (having a house – ie married, compare the Spanish “casado”), tedbir is caution – having caution, ie “prudent” is “tedbirli”. Resim is picture, and resimli means illustrated. Interesting how this reflects the -ly of “shapely” in English.

2) Past tense in d or t. The suffix -di or -ti in Turkish closely reflects the way in which English forms past tense from most of its verbs

3) In English, the “geographicals” such as “where?”, “Here”, “there” all have a -re suffix. Same in Turkish, although you have to bear in mind that because of vowel harmony the suffix often appears as “ra”. “Where” is “nere” plus “de” making “nerede” if you mean “where at”, “nere” plus “ye” making “nereye” meaning “where to”, while nereden is wherefrom, “burada” means “here”, “orada” means “there”, etc.

This is in addition to the numerous similarities which can be explained by the fact that they appear in many languages because that’s what languages do, and also the later borrowings.

Turkish also gives us insights into the Russian language and into Ukrainian. The Russian expressions “my s toboy” or “soviet da lyubov” can be traced into Turkic, along with a sizeable amount of that vocabulary which Russian does not share with, for instance, Polish.

And of course for the Westerner Turkish offers an ease in to languages such as Arabic and Persian, given that in learning Turkish you will learn a certain quantity of loan words which you will recognise again coming to those languages.

If all this was not enough, and the logical, quite delightful structure of Turkish and the pleasantness of its sound were not enough, and the way it opens a route to a large country to explore for business or pleasure with about 80 million people, Turkish is also the best-known language and in a sense the mother ship for learning other Turkic languages, 4 out of the 5 Central Asia countries and also Azerbaydzhan as well as peoples found in many other countries, the Qirimtatarca and Tatars of Russia, the Uyghurs of China, among others. Turkish is a silk route into a very interesting, cross-continental linguistic adventure.

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