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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”.

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

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

Final Thoughts (for now) on the Four Function Diagram


I don’t really like the term “final thoughts” as it sounds as if I am planning to stop thinking afterwards, or maybe stop existing altogether, which I am certainly not considering if I can help it, however I do need, as Victor Berrjod kindly reminds me, to round this off, hence the title.

Let me just get a coffee, this could be a longish article, maybe you would like one as well?

Right, let’s continue. The story so far is that we’ve divided the things or activities that you can do in a language, be it counting, swearing, praying, reading the paper, watching TV, learning the songs of the language or filling in a visa form or a job application into four basic types or functions, as shown in the above table:

1. Reading
2. Writing
3. Listening
4. Speaking

Just about anything you can do in a language bases on one or more of these four functions.

Take a moment if you like to see of you can think of any activity involving language that is an exception, and by all means tell me in the comments. Personally I could not think of any exceptions.

We’ve also considered that for one pair of these functions, listening and reading, the learner is on the receiving end of polished language and therefore is able to use his or her passive knowledge to engage in the function and its related activities. Listening is more challenging than reading because the user has less ability to control the speed, although there are instruments available based on developing listening skills where you can control the pace of listening. We talked about audio courses where you have your pause button, and another good one is Audible where you can buy audiobooks in other languages and set a slower narrator speed, or a higher one in order to develop ‘listening fluency’. However, in the main, for the passive pair as long as a word is known passively the learner will not be put off his or her stride by reading or hearing it as they will be able to recall its meaning when it is given in the language much easier than when he or she needs to generate the expression and knows it passively, but is not in an active state, and the mind goes blank.

Conversely, we’ve recognised that the other pair of functions, speaking and writing, are ones in which we the learner are called upon to generate the learned language and not just fluently recognise meaning and stay with the flow of the presented foreign language material. This represents an additional challenge but one essential to get to grips with sooner or later if you want to SPEAK the language. We are always hearing the term “what languages do you speak?” rather than which can you read, listen to with understanding or even write in. Now more than ever nobody seem to be all that impressed by the ability to write in a foreign language – unless they actually watch you forming calligraphic kanjis with your hand – because things like Google Translate are available. And even though in the main the Google Translate users do give themselves away pretty quickly, seeing that the quality of that service is not yet all one might be led to expect, nevertheless sometimes quite convincing written language comes at you over the internet from people who don’t really know the language in question at all. They are having fun, but it also serves to undermine the value placed by the online community on written foreign language skills and so now, more than ever, the gold standard is really what you can speak. Read the rest of this entry

Should you first master your own language before learning another?

English: Belarusian as native language among u...

English: Belarusian as native language among urban population in Belarus according to the 2009 census Українська: Білоруська мова, як рідна серед міського населення Білорусі за даними перепису 2009 року. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning on Facebook someone cleverly asked the question whether one should first master one’s native language before learning another. The person asking the question later in the thread comes out in favour of the answer no, one does not have to first master one’s native language before starting another. Quite right too, but I was negatively surprised to see a number of people siding with the proposition. Do they think that they can even measure what it is to “master” one’s native tongue?

I think it is even actually impossible to master one’s own language without learning another. It is impossible to be properly analytic about one’s own native language without stepping out of it. A common denominator among people who use their native language particularly poorly is that they have never undertaken serious study of a second one.

I had a friend from Australia once who was completely ignorant of whether he was using a word in English as a noun or an adjective or an adverb – in English words don’t necessarily change their form to show you what they are. As a result his reading comprehension was a hoot, he made incorrect inferences the whole time from what people wrote to him. You could see that his whole world view was hemmed in by the fact that he didn’t even have a proper grasp of how his tool for thought, ie language, actually worked. It was not until he started learning other languages that his eyes began to open. This is before we even get to the deepening of thought and the opening of the mind that comes ones we are able to understand word origins better, or start to think in the other language or begin experiencing the world through the linguistic apparatus of another people. Read the rest of this entry

On the Origins of Speeches

Tower of Babel Русский: Вавилонская башня

Tower of Babel Русский: Вавилонская башня (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the Origins of Language Species
(or: “We don’t know what’s right, except that the Bible‘s account of language origins must be wrong!”)

Way back over eight years ago now, on 26th January 2004, I wrote this article in, free.christians and which kicked off no little furore, and got me labelled by Aaron Clausen, a regular, as a “science-fiction writer” and “the most dangerous and mischievous kind of Creationist“.  He called my account “nothing more than a piece of fiction. It’s like good science fiction, it weaves fact and fiction together in such a way as the improbable seems no more surprising than the probable.” He also wrote on 2nd February 2004 “To my mind, Davey, you are the most mischievous and dangerous kind of Creationist. … You even know the holes in the knowledge of the study of language, and you can use the terminology to great effect. People … seeing your essay, would likely fall for it hook, line and sinker. Because it mixes fact and myth so very well, you give it an air of plausibility.” That was in amongst admitting that he didn’t know any better answer to the origin of language families, and when I asked him what he would tell his kids on the subject if they asked him whether there was a polygenesis of language families or linguistic monogenesis, (this being the sort of thing they ask at the breakfast table in American skeptics’ households) he said he would tell them “we don’t know“.

It seems like even no explanation at all is better for these “knowledge-thirsty” evolutionists than the Bible’s one, if and whenever the Bible invokes supernatural intervention by God, as at Babel.  And their counter to the perfectly reasonable claim, (straight out of atheist Conan Doyle, by the way) that if you cannot disprove a theory it must be true, is that that’s the ‘goddidit’ argument, also known as the “God of the gaps” argument.  They think that by giving silly, mocking designations to the perfectly logical and consistent lines of thought that Christians have, they have somehow effectively dealt with them. Either that or they make out that the questions which we raise are invalid in some way. In all they do they are like lawyers who, having trouble with the evidence, use odd points of law to attack the procedure, so that justice and fairness and true rationale flee out of the window, pursued by the harrying hounds of unscrupulous rhetoric.

Obviously, I’m not out to deceive anybody or produce fiction or stir up mischief as Aaron Clausen claimed, but I really think that if someone knows the facts about where we are in the reconstruction of earlier languages, and doesn’t have a world view that excludes a priori the chance for God to work directly on the human mind, en masse, they will say that the explanation I gave, based on the Babel account of scripture, is just as valid an account of how we got to today’s languages as any other. Only prejudice against the possibility of such action by God is a reason not to acknowledge that I have offered a workable and valid theory, and one that reflects observable fact more clearly than such theories as would dovetail well with evolutionary views of the origin of man.

Anyway, the person who got me started is ‘Sloggoth’ and he/she is in the quotes.

Some of the following is quoted from the time, and some has been added since to improve the communication of the ideas.

Well, Uncle Davey, you’ve confused a lurker pretty well here. If you would be so kind as to clarify:
When you speak of linguistic evolution do you mean:
 1) The evolution of the *capacity for language* in humans? Biological evolution must indeed be able to explain this.
 2) What everyone else means, i.e. change in language, such as that which produced French and Spanish from Latin? There is no reason why a theory which deals with genetic change should address a purely cultural phenomenon, beyond explaining how it is biologically possible in the first place.
or even
 3) If one cannot trace linguistic evolution beyond the known families, (which probably arose at some time in the past that could very loosely fit the Babel account), then the Babel account is thereby not contradicted?

The way I see it is that what happened at Babel everyone received their own language. Even husbands and wives could not talk and little kids could not communicate with their parents. This meant that in order to have an established family language, families needed to isolate themselves, and then they would all learn the language of the mother of that family, as mothers are and always have been the main one to teach the little children language. The men therefore would also have needed to take their wive’s grammar and syntax, but the wife would in return take a lot of the lexicon from her husband, and in the process already the family language would become at once grammatically simpler but also lexically richer than the Babel exit languages each member spoke. We have the expression ‘mother tongue’ in almost every language but Welsh, which is like the exception that proves the rule, exactly from this time, which was only one generation in the history of man.

That’s right. There was only one generation from Babel in which individual languages became family languages. The majority of the languages that came out from Babel would have gone into disremembrance when that person dies. In some cases the vocabulary will have been loaned into the family language, and in most cases the phonetics will have influenced to some degree the family language. People who had no families and no successors therefore had their individual languages vanish probably without trace.

You see, this was the mechanism that would have driven people out of Babel into their own place, so that they could quietly re-  establish a common language with those who meant most to them, their family, without linguistic interference from all the others who would come babbling over the horizon, preventing their children from achieving any linguistic competence.

Within a further forty years, that one language per family (already maybe only one fifth of the number actually made at Babel) was similar conflating and merging into tribal languages. The basic model would then be the family language of the most dominant family in the tribe. This process took longer than the family language process, as the new languages were being learned as foreign languages by all in the tribe but the dominant family. These dominant families are the ancestors of the aristocratic families that grew up later in almost every culture.

The tribal languages would have taken over from the family languages so that by about four hundred years after Babel the single family language was as redundant and extinct as the single person language had been forty years after the Babel event. But each of these tribal languages would have been a selection of grammars, phonologies and lexical materials that came out of the Babel event. We are told in scripture that God confused the language, which may suggest that he took things which were already in the Adamic language and mixed them up. However, my personal belief is that none of the exit languages had all of the material that was in the Adamic language. When given directly to Adam by God, this language was a perfect thought vehicle for the man that He had made, and to be able to be taught and used by future generations. In Isaiah 65v20 as well as in the early Genesis chapters we see indications that the original plan for the length of human childhood was 100 years, setting up for a lifetime of up to 1000 years. Up to the Flood we see nobody doing any “begetting” until they are over one hundred, that’s for sure. The language given by God originally would have been a rich language taking the full measure of 100 years to acquire from parents and enabling thought and worship on a level unparalleled by people living today. Because there were relatively few of them and the Flood was such a huge cataclysm, we cannot see any indications of the achievements they had made with this linguistic tool, but they must have been amazing.

Once we arrive at post-Flood times and you see in scripture the lives of post-Flood generations going down to below what would have counted as infant mortality before the Flood, people maturing already in the second decade of their lives and then expected to have finished their educations (one of the reasons why there is this conundrum that we barely use a fraction of our brains’ synaptic capabilities – they are still the same size as those brains were which held Adamic, but now our childhoods are too short to learn it properly anyway) so the Adamic language was probably already deteriorating – probably people started to use a debased, pidgin version of the old language at Babel, although as a Community they may still have possessed the totality of it.

So the size of the confounded languages were probably much smaller – it’s reasonable to suggest about 20% of the complexity and richness of the original Adamic language. Each individual language probably held a unique mix and match combination of about 20% of what was in Adamic, but shifted and confused so that Adamic could not be put back together again.

And of such languages, getting back to the story, tribal languages emerge within up to 400 years and we come to the rise of the supertribal language.

Some of these early tribal languages exist until today. Basque is a good example. It isn’t visibly related to other languages around it, it has simply been there, carried in a small tribe in enveloped in the Pyrenees, for thousands of years.

Other tribes conflated again into the supertribe, and the supertribe is where we find the original languages at the heads of the family trees that we can easily recognise. The Aryan supertribe spoke a language whose name we don’t know, but we know it must have existed and we call it Proto-Indo-European. They themsleves could have called it Yaspriyakis, Blurbnurb or something like that, or just “Smith’s Tongue”, for all we know. It was a supertribe, and as with all supertribes, it fell apart, with people who spoke it leaving
and mingling with the languages of the substrate where they went, which were generally tribal, not supertribal peoples, and could not compete with them.

So we have a tendency for common grammatical elements to be seen, but a lot of different lexical stock from the borrowings. Even the supertribe itself had not been stable long when the emigrations started; some thought the word for ‘a hundred’ should be ‘kentum’ and others thought it should be ‘sati’. About all they could really agree on was the words for beech trees, snow, and about twenty other matters.

So the supertribal language was the turning point. From Babel to the supertribal period, maybe a hundred thousand languages got down to maybe ten thousand. After that time the supertribal languages started to have multiple descendents, and even some descendents had multiple descendents themselves, so that they replaced the exit languages being spoken by peoples like the
pre-Celtic cultures of Ireland, and then many of those languages, like Irish Celtic, themselves became forced into a minor role or often made extinct altogether, like Cornish, by more vigorous languages of their distant cousins, such as English.

In sum, if we have had six thousand years since Babel, one of those thousand has seen the rise of the linguistic supertribe, and the other five thousand has seen mainly supertribal languages disintegrating into the language families we know today (and others which have gone extinct with no trace). In some parts of the world smaller languages, even ones that have resulted from supertribal disintegration, have started to grow again into supertribal languages, so the whole ebb and flow described here is something which didn’t necessarily happen just once in that length of history.

Incidently, even broader groups than Nostratic have been proposed, including attempts to reconstruct words of Proto-World. Unfortunately the only one I recall at the moment is rather indelicate.

There’s every chance that we can guess at a word that was in the vocabulary of somebody who walked out of Babel, maybe in a sound-shifted or abbreviated form. After all, all the material in every tribal or supertribal language came from someone or other’s Babel exit language. It’s not common for languages to invent words, so even ‘shit’ has good cognates in Greek. If we say that ‘skata’ is closer to the Babel exit languages, because we can tell it didn’t go through the Germanic sound shifts which we know all about thanks to the Brothers Grimm, then we can assert with a good probability of truth that some rather powerful man or his wife, with a penchant for talking about his or her bodily functions, received the ancestor word for ‘skata/shit’ in his or her personal language at Babel. It is very interesting how reluctant mankind is to introduce linguistuc material out of nothing. Almost everything is a loanword or a calque or an  omatopoeia, or a contraction of other words.  Even on the internet existing language was massaged to create the terms we are now using worldwide over the  last 25 years. Very little by way of truly random words have been used. Even the search engine “Google”‘ links from “go ogle” and “Facebook” comes from two very basic monosyllablic English words.

Anyway, this account, which has no shortage of fantasy in it as I am more than aware, and make no apology for in the face of the fantasy required to make a dinosaur drawing complete with colours and habits from a couple of bones, this being the sort of trick on which most people’s understanding of evolution seems to base, is consistent nevertheless with both on the one hand the observable fact that we cannot get back any further than PIE or PFU, and find further common ancestors, obviates the absurd and counter-intuitive notion that language systems fairly equal in complexity could have evolved in the human race at different times and places, but without the organs of speech of the races then changing so that an infant could not acquire a perfect accent in a non related system, and where we do not see easier grammars compounding into harder grammars, but rather the reverse, and one the other hand it is consistent with what scripture says about language origins.

And so, in conclusion, evolutionary science is at odds with what is known of philology, and the Bible is not.

By the way, in the rest of the original discussion,  it became apparent that the evolutionists have nothing to offer but rhetoric, and try to divert the uncomfortable topic onto archaeology, where they attempted to argue from negatives assuming that Babel hinges on the archaeological work of Babylon, when there is no reason at all to expect to find any traces of Babel and its tower. However large it was, it was doubtless less in terms of mass of fabric than the Berlin Wall was, and people recycled that in the space of a few months, let alone a few thousand years.  If anything has changed, and any evolutionist has something to offer which is new, please go ahead and make your comments.

I remind evolutionists reading this article of their right of immediate and public reply on the bulletin board of this site, which as I said earlier is not edited or moderated except for things that are illegal and for spam.

I hope Christians are encouraged by all this not to believe that science has all the answers, it doesn’t. But as we see evolutionists, especially those who are only using the evolutionary fallacy as their charter for atheism or apostasy, will fill in the gaps between real science and their world view and then try to convince us that this philosophical putty of theirs is good science too.

(DJJ, based on material added to the old site 29/4/04, original debate from Jan-Feb 2004, now with 25% added material)

Goldlist thoughts by Cyderspace

The gender of countries in the French language...

Sometimes maps and charts can help the remembering of gender names for countries, as this one for French, for example. You can do similar things for months of the year, etc. There's no reason why drawing a map on one double page of a Goldlist book and retracing it shouldn't be a nice break from the usual modalities of Goldlisting.

An excellent comment appeared in the Goldlist page, which I thought deserved to be elevated here as a main article together with my answers. So here goes:

I just thought I’d write a bit about your Goldlist method while I’ve got a few spare minutes. I have just started using it and wonder what your thoughts are on a few issues I have.

First a little background:

I had, by chance really, happened upon my own method of learning vocab but without really thinking much about the function or structure . Like yourself I had an instant aversion to the standard mnemonic memory tricks, thinking that I just didn’t need all of that extra baggage to learn simple words. I also didn’t get on with flashcards very well. Since I was getting all of my vocab from reading literature I was looking up a lot of words in order to simply follow the story. This was time consuming and I would frequently realise that I had already looked up a certain word, sometimes several times already, only at the point of once again looking it up.

This all changed when I purchased a brilliant dictionary for my Iphone which had a ‘favourites’ folder where you could bookmark words for learning later. However I found that I didn’t ‘learn them later’- I simply looked them up again and again. It was much quicker to type half a word than search through the pages of a dictionary and it would also tell me if I had that word already in my favourites list. After about a month or so, I would go through the list of favourites and delete the ones I definitely knew. So, depending on how common the word was, I was, by default almost, using a spaced repetition system, though I knew nothing of this type of system at that time. I found that I was learning the words without trying, just by reading them. And it won’t surprise you to learn that some words would ‘stick’ first time and others took many ‘passes’. There are obviously problems with this rather disorganised method , for instance the slow rate of vocabulary acquisition and the limited source of the vocabulary to name but two.

So when I found out about your goldlist system I immediately thought of the similarities to what I was doing and thought that it could definitely be an improvement. I agree with you about our relationship with the subconscious long-term memory and that explains why words can simply ’appear’ into my vocabulary without me remembering even remembering having heard them – if that makes sense. My subconscious has ‘sampled’ them from a radio program or somewhere without me realising. I also see the same process occurring with my kids who can grab the strangest words and phrases from seemingly nowhere.

I have only been using the goldlist for a month or so and so have only done a hand-full of distillations but I was wandering what you thought about a couple of issues I have come across so far:

If I still get most of my vocabulary from reading literature then I cannot avoid coming across a certain amount of the words again, by accident, before its time to distil, simply by looking them up whilst trying to follow the story.

I would be inclined not to worry about that unduly. These are probably the words which are coming up so often that in the grander scheme of things you won’t get too far in the language without automatically knowing them very well anyway.

I sometimes find that I am very familiar with the word itself but have trouble remembering the translation. This can be exacerbated when I look again at the headlist and remember the word itself very well but not necessarily the meaning. I have ‘sampled’ the word but not the meaning.

You could find it useful just briefly to think about the object or activity or idea of the word while saying it aloud, but don’t repeat it or drill it or construct contrived mnemonics. Just the way you woul have done it for yourself as a child when you met a new word you had some kind of image in your head that it got associated with, and that has stood you in good stead till today even though it might have been a very childish image or a very idiosyncratic, personalised image.

I don’t yet find it easy to remember the genders of words using this method.

The genders of nouns (which are the words carrying implicit genders, not all words do so) can be learned best by applying general rules to them. For most languages that have gender, there are rules that enable you to predict the gender of most words. A clear example are languages like Italian, Russian, Czech, Spanish, where if a noun ends in “-” then by default it’s feminine unless there’s a reason.  Beyond that there is what you might call ‘natural gender‘ – nouns talking about men are usually masculine even if they have an ending that looks feminine. The next thing is etymological gender. In Spanish you will find that a lot of words ending in -ma are el and not la because Castillian likes to reflect the classic origin of its vocabulary, and in Greek nouns like sistema and problema were neuter and so they are subsumed as in most of the vulgar Latin fall-out languages into the masculine.

If you look carefully at most languages with genders, rules giving the gender from the structure of the noun cover from 30 to 90% of cases. If you are learning a language with 90% then you are nearly home and dry, but for 30% ones you have to rely more on the natural gender clues and the etymology. They are least will help you make sense of it. Taking for an example three feminine nouns in German, Leidenschaft, Mutter and Jugend, we have an example of each kind I am talking about. Leidenschaft you learn as feminine because there is a rule that any book worth its salt should be telling you and that is that all the words ending in -schaft, heit, taet, keit and several others are feminine. So that is structural gender. Die Mutter has no structural gender, it ends in -er like Vater but it has a clear natural gender. You would automatically say “she” for mother in English. Maedchen (girl) you would say ‘she’ for in English too, but in German it remains “es” because the structural gender of -chen is stronger than natural gender, and neutral gender in German doesn’t carry to quite the extent as in English the dehumanizing effect when applied to people. It simply carries a desexualising effect. But why “die Jugend”? It doesn’t look like a feminine word, there is no real reason why youth should be seen as feminine, but it is down to the etymology.  Assuming we don’t want to look at OHG and Gothic and try to reconstruct a version of “jugend” in which the gender is more visible, we can simply learn “die Jugend” as an exception and always Goldlist it with the appropriate der/die/das form (which you wouldn’t have to with more obvious cases), but it we do start to scratch the matter using Wiktionary or some other etymological sources we see that it goes back to “jugunth” in West Germanic and “geogiuth” (pronounced “yoyouth”, becoming later “youth”) in Anglo-Saxon. How does this help, you may well ask. Well, consider a common ancestor of ‘geogiuth’ and ‘jugunth’ and you might see something that could also be related to the French “jeunesse” which is structurally feminine. So going down the etymological road can help!

Simply asking yourself “why might this word be the gender it is” can do a lot to help you remember, even if all you do is speculate for two seconds. Glossing over it entirely as you Goldlist may not be as helpful, but trying to rote learn genders by senseless on the spot repetition is even less helpful. 

My active vocabulary can only be increased by ‘needing’ to say a word and I still may need to look it up to do this. Therefore, have I really learned the word if I can only recognise it whilst reading?

In fact yes, as you will always slip back into not having words on the tip of your tongue and the reactivation perio is three days of immersion only, whereas language learners waste time on this Holy Grail of imagined fluency and it prevents them building up a larger vocabulary base in the language. There is nothing wrong with being able to follow a written text and spoken text without losing the drift. If you can do this then you are fluent and the difference between this latent fluency and active fluency is being there in an immersed situation for three days. The brain by that time switches on the whole synapse set you need to be finding the words you actually know at speech speed, and the fact you understand them when someone else says them – and would know if they were using those words wrongly or saying them wrongly if it were for example another learner – means you do know the word and ought to relax on that score.

Language schools make a lot of money by the way out of cultivating the learner’s expectation that they will be  able to do the performing seal act in a language at the drop of a hat. That’s how they pad out a small amount of course material in class over a longer time, and take years and years of your money to do what can be done on your own and in months not years.

Still, some people just enjoy going to language lessons. Some enjoy the social setting. Fine, it’s their money…

I don’t see these questions as problems as such since my goal is increasing the speed of my vocabulary acquisition and that is already working. It was just to find out what you think.

Well, the above is what I think. What do you think of what I think?

Also as a separate question: How would you define being fluent in a language.? At what level do you consider yourself fluent? Or is this question relevant at all anyway. I only ask this last question because it’s one I am asked a lot and cannot usually give people a satisfactory answer. I feel it’s a distraction at best. It’s easy to tell when someone is fluent and just as easy to say when someone isn’t. As for the in between?

I think that ‘fluency’ is a funny concept when you really get down to it. Let’s imagine someone who likes to say very little even in his own language, but reads a lot and listens a lot. He understands everything but like the wise old owl in the nursery rhyme, “the more he heard, the less he spoke”. Someone else , let’s say his brother, talks nineteen to the dozen and can speak about 200 words a minute and will if you let him, but doesn’t actually know half the words or understand half the concepts of his silent brother.

Who in this case is the more “fluent”? Why, according to the standard definitions of fluency, it is the one who can talk and not let anyone else get a word in edgeways. He is so fluent he is superfluent, and one might even say effluent! But who has the more useful knowledge of language? Who can use the language to get at deeper concepts? Who, when it comes to sitting back and writing three lines that express perfectly what they mean, will prove the more competent in their language?

And there are many mileposts. For the missionary, he is not fluent until he can pray in the language of the people to whom he is sent. The accountant working in a foreign country is not fluent until he has mastered the technical terms, but may still prefer to address God in his native tongue, that is, that of the learner, as we don’t know for sure if even Adam spoke the Divine language, if there is one. The mileposts should be set as individual KPIs for the individual learner, and one of them is the individual learner’s definition of fluency. We shouldn’t set “fluency” in a language as meaning to be able to talk for half an hour for somebody who like the taciturn brother above has no inclination to sound off like that even in his native language.  For the other brother, who wants to be able to talk like that, then for him the definition of fluency might well be that he can get the same points over and with the same style and persuasion, or lack of it, as he has in his native language. Their individual definitions of fluency are determined by their individual need profiles and the applications of language that they are likely to encounter.

Given the above, decide what fluency is for you, you’re welcome to share that here, and for you that becomes the goal, if fluency is your goal. Don’t call fluency in German being able to do the Frankfurter Allgemeiner crossword in ten minutes if you can’t do your own paper’s crossword in ten minutes, though, because that is asking for more than equivalent functionality in the new language than you used in the native one, and that’s not a fair definition of fluency in language. That doesn’t make it an invalid goal, it is just something other than pure language acquisition. And please don’t confuse the performing seal act you tend to see done by YouTube polyglots as necessarily genuine linguistic fluency. You don’t know if they’ve memorised a text or not.

 Many thanks for some excellent considerations!

Just a few thoughts to round off the quarter

The title page to the 1611 first edition of th...

Happy 400th birthday to thee

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we are at the end of another quarter, known in the mouth of the people as Q3 – 2011.  You can call me a typical accountant if you like, but I always tend to be aware of these quarter ends and I tend to have certain aims and goals for what I like to achieve both professionally and in my hobbies each quarter and so days like today are an opportunity to take stock of where I am.

Doing so generated just a couple of thoughts which I thought I’d like to share with you.

I had a nice long time in the UK, and was supposed to be taking time off, but in the event work kept me fairly involved even though at a distance, and I made little progress on the writing projects I had in mind, especially the Goldlist book and the workbook for the Huliganov Russian course. Hence these are not really ready to show yet, apologies to those of my viewers and readers whom I may have led to hope that they would be. Work has to come first, I have to be able to look after my family.

It’s also three quarters through the 400th anniversary year of the KJV and I also didn’t get far with the readings of the KJV I wanted to do – this is all in the last quarter now if I’m going to do it at all in this year.

In Japanese I made a slight breakthrough while discovering a way to adapt goldlist principles to working through the Heising book and getting the best of both worlds – more on that when I get further on with it. In any event I registered for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, level 5, which is on Decmber 4th in Warsaw, which is a target to work towards,

World events seem to be leaving something to be desired, with hurricanes in the UK, people defrauding UBS out of money that makes Nick Leeson look like a small timer, and the continuing threat of the EURO going down the tubes at the hands of defaults by Greece and other weaker countries, as well as a few nights of crazy behaviour in the UK by vandals and malcontents out for some fun at the expense of working people have made the last quarter a very strange time. We are edging nearer and nearer to a precipice. Winter will draw in soon, the nights will be longer, the days colder, and we are going to be in for a long and hard winter.

Last winter I wrote an article explaining to UK people and others from places where the winters are normally mild how to go about surviving a Siberian style winter. I recommend you read this once again and think about it. is the place to go for it.

Many thanks again to my loyal viewers and readers, which here on this blog currently number 96. Thanks especially to those of you who join in on discussions, I hope for more of that. If I am sometimes slow in getting to moderate them, sorry. I have to keep the mod thing on because otherwise a lot of spam will get on, which thanks to the new technology is not the case at the moment, and sometimes I don’t have the ability to go online every evening.

Every comment is valued, even if I don’t have anything to say back to some.

The stubborn ear of the first-time linguist.

Portrait of Jane Austen, from the memoir by J....

Meet your new English teacher...

This is an answer to the question received from Grzegorz Siwiec which I’ve answered also where he put it in the Goldlist section, and also I wanted to make an article of it in its own right as it’s a great question. I’ve added a bit more here than in the answer to his question, so hopefully you’ll read it here as well. The additional bit is at the end.

You basically said that when you read English you understand a lot, but when you hear even the same text spoken, you understand a lot less. You asked whether the Goldlist method would help with listening.

OK, so here’s the answer.

Firstly, reading and listening are two sides of the same discipline. They are both the passive sides of linguistic activity. Linguistic activity, like mathematical activity, has four main functions. In maths we have addition, multiplication, subtraction and division. And just as division is like the opposite or passive side of multiplication, so hearing is the passive side of speaking. And just as subtraction is the passive side of addition, so reading is the passive side of writing. And just as it is easier to do big subration sums than it is to do long division without a calculator, so it is that the beginner until fluency is gained will find the passive activity of reading to be easier than the passive activity of hearing.

In reading, we provide in our heads our own “voice” for the words and we “listen” to that. But it is a voice that we have made and therefore it will contain the mispronunciations that we have picked up. We may hear the same word back read by a native speaker and it may sound different because the pronunciation is not what we expected. The Goldlist can help here if you note with words in the goldlist any unexpected pronunciation to an English word if you’re learning English or other not precisely phonetic language.

In the main the reason why we do not understand a spoken text as well is that the tempo it is presented in will be someone else’s tempo. When we read we adjust the speed of the internal voice to match what we are comfortable with. We pause when we need to think about a word, whereas in a spoken text the voice carries on while we still need to chew on an earlier word, and we get lost. We can also see an unfamiliar word and analyse it for etymological clues, and do things that we don’t have time for when listening to a text. If we do get lost we can repeat it.

So don’t expect following a spoken text to be equally easy as following a written one. Not unless you are learning Japanese, that is. And even there, the speech of some speakers, especially male speakers, is quite hard to follow. Bear in mind also that some languages swallow half the letters, for instance French and Danish, and many accents of English. Accents in themselves cause listening comprehension to be much tougher than reading comprehension, especially in languages like German or English which contain strong dialects. In Polish even the Zakopane accent is not so hard to follow – I heard some on the radio this morning as a local was commenting record visitors to the place last long weekend. Kashubian is the biggest challenge maybe, or a thick Silesian, but Kashubian counts as another language and even Silesian is not as far from Polish as some of the dialects around England are from one another. People speaking southern England dialect can follow standard Australian or American with much greater facility than they can follow broad Geordie or Scouser once they get going. Please make sure you are following people who are speaking a form of English that is fairly standard. Many Poles went to Ireland and pride themselves on getting an Irish brogue, but the downside is that they aren’t all that understandable to other native speakers. Irish is a lovely accent when it’s authentic, but it’s not one the foreigner should be aiming to copy for international use if they can help it. I’m not talking Terry Wogan here, I’m talking a strong Irish accent.

So, what tools can one use to improve listening comprehension? In the good old days, in schools we used to be given dictees in French – less so in German as it was more self evident how things were written as long as a person wasn’t speaking to us in Schwaebisch. I understand that ‘dyktando’ was also used in Polish schools. You can actually give yourself a dictation by taking an audiobook and sampling a paragraph at random on the mp3, writing it out from listening to the actor read and then checking it back to the book.

You don’t even need to write it, you can simply listen to an audiobook paragraph by paragraph, then read the original to see if you understood everything, and then mark the words you still don’t know, and then use the translation to get those words, which by the way should be added to the Goldlist headlist. This linguistic Triathlon is a great way to develop both the passive skills.

The best way to go about it is to see if you can get three things for the same novel or short story: first the audiobook read by a good actor on mp3 on or other sources. There’s no shortage of material out there on the net and not all of it is paid, if you get my drift. second you need the English original and finally you need a Polish translation. It probably helps if at least one of the two written ones is in printed form – a print-out if not a book bought or borrowed from the library. By using this method you’ll gradually come to see that you need the Polish translation less and less and you need to read the material in addition to just hearing it less and less. Also you’ll familiarise yourself with some of the jewels of English literature. Take twentieth century literature in order to have a more modern standard – we tend not to talk these days in the way people did in Dickens or Jane Austen, but in due course if you like the process you’ll be able to graduate to them.

If you cannot get into novels and literature, you could choose films. Films with a lot of talking in are preferable. Green Mile, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Fight Club – these are all better than pure action movies like James Bond which will take your time up with car chases and sexy women which could more profitably be spent on language learning. The thing to do here is to get DVDs – preferably hiring them, and play about with the soundtracks and titles. Basically when the DVD was born the language lab died.

Here are the additional bits I wanted to say:

The problem which you are encountering is particularly noticeable when learning your first foreign language. Sometimes the ear is slow in reacting to the different sounds of a language, especially when being in a country for the first time and hearing native speakers when all one has had has been other more adavcned foreign learners as speakers. This training the ear to accept strange sounds is different to activation, and can take a couple of months of being in a country. Once one has “broken” this stubborn ear then for subsequent languages the problem doesn’t tend to happen.

The other thing is that as long as you have a small vocabulary, of only a few thousand words, then you will come up against unfamiliar words more often and they will put the ear off track all the more often. A vocabulary of 15,000 words or more means that you are really familiar with 99.9% of what you hear so interruptions to the flow are that much rarer and one’s ability to follow for longer periods that much easier. Therefore working on the Goldlist to gain really large vocabularies will also help the ear to become attuned.


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