Sunday, 22 September 2013

Learning Languages

I spent part of this morning watching childrens' TV with my son, in particular we watched Unna Junna - a children's programme broadcast on the Finnish YLE network in the Sami language which was conveniently subtitled in Finnish.

Aside from the discussion about what the presenter was saying and its translation into Finnish, at least for the words I recognised or could guess, this ended up for me as an early morning exercise in comparitive linguistics.

For almost as long as I can remember linguistics and language excited me and this morning was just one of those exciting lingustic experiences so belolved of polyglots. After studying Finnish for many years I find myself getting excited about reading road signs in Estonian, children's TV in Sami, etc and mapping these to my knowledge of Finnish. I find this pretty cool.

I also came across today a video of a presentation by Anthony Lauder on "PolyNots" given at a Polyglot conference in Budapest in 2013. This video is worth watching for just for Anthony's presentation skills alone. From this video (if the YouTube Dieties are smiling on you) you'll get links to a host of other videos on multilingualism and language.

Something I've noted is that many polyglots and people who are generally interested in languages all seem to admit that they were never any good in school. Now, for me, I certainly remember been rote schooled in French and German much to my disappointment and also to much detriment of the learning process; enjoyment was quite literally a foreign concept. To this day I recall German lessons in one school as being a pedagogical nightmare: crammed into a small room with over 40 other teenagers all hell bent on not learning with a teacher whose attiude to teaching was less than exemplary.

During these times I took solice in buying dictionaries and book on languages. I still have a dogeared copy of Russian Made Simple [1] which I studied intently.

Though having no support in terms of another Russian speaker and nor as it turned out any help with certain linguistic concepts made things `difficult' to say the least. I remember one incident with a school teacher when I asked what the dative case was - sadly the answer wasn't an explanation of how indirect objects and transitive verbs work but rather a full scale dressing down of my poor performance in French and German lessons - I wonder why?

So if I were to learn another language again it obviously couldn't be on the terms of the UK secondary education system. University was quite a different matter but I spend most of my time studying computer science and mathematics. These however provided me with an interesting set of tools for natural language learning.

Aside: I wrote my bachelor's degree dissertation on machine translation - coincidence?

The first tool is that all languages follow some general patterns. At least most Indo-European and Finno-Ugric languages do. There will be numbers, there will be pronouns, there will be nouns of various kinds, there will be verbs and tenses, possibly even adjectives and adverbs too. All sentences have a mix of subject, verb and object in various orders. So at that level there isn't too much difference eh?

Actually for the most part you can make a one-to-one mapping from your mother tongue to any other langauge and get by. For example:

English:  I, He, She, We, You, Red, Blue, House, Dog,...
Welsh: Fi, Fe, Hi, Ni, Chi, Coch, Glas, Ty, Ci,...
Finnish: Minä, Hän, Hän, Me, Te, Punainen, Sininen, Talo, Koira,...
RussianЯ, он, она, мы, вы, красный, синий, дом, собака, ...
Estonian: Mina, Ta, Ta, Me, Sa, Punane, Sinine, Maja, Koer, ...

Note the similarities between Estonian and Finnish, learn one and you almost get the other for free! The only thing that makes Russian a little more difficult is the script.

Once you get by, then you can build vocabulary, attune yourself to the subtlies in expressing yourself in the new language and most importantly gain confidence.

Actually let's emphasise the latter: GAIN CONFIDENCE. The difference between a child learning a language and an adult is that children have infinite confidence and don't care about not understanding, making mistakes and playing with the language.

Learn a small core set of words: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, red, blue, green, one, two three, come, go, buy, want, please, thankyou, hello, big small, "help! I'm trying to learn!" etc etc etc

Learn words that you find interesting: if you like Formula 1 then learn the words relevant there: race, win, crash, speed, overtake etc (acutally these could be very useful in any conversation with motorsport obsessed Finns).

Don't worry about perfect or sometimes even vaguely correct grammar.

The more you use a langauge and the more you TRY to use a language the better you will become and the more accepting of your mistakes. The better you will become in terms of grammar and style.

You WILL MAKE MISTAKES ... if you analyse to two native speakers against what the books tell you then you will notice immediately that they are making huge amounts of "mistakes" with the grammar, phrasing etc. Remember what we said about how children learn languages.

Read stuff that you find interesting: many learners books and I remember one newspaper for Finnish learners are so simplified and grammatically correct they were totally uninteresting and demoralising to read. If you're trying to learn Finnish go read Mika Valtari's books from the Komisario Palmu books to his literary classics such as Sinuhe. Palmu is Finland's answer to James Bond.

Here you will learn three things:
  1. there's huge amount you don't understand
  2. the bits that you do understand greatly compensate for the bits you don't understand and you'll learn to guess and work around the bits you don't understand.
  3. you'll have fun and gain confidence
If you don't understand something GUESS! This works really well in speech as well in comprehension and reading.

In Anthony's talk he described the two step process for learning 10 languages (based on Peano's Axioms apparently!!)
  • Step 1: Learn 9
  • Step 2: Add 1
Of course, the first new language is the hardest, but once you've learnt the patterns, a core vocabulary and found out what you like reading and discussing the next one is much easier; just like applying the successor function in Peano's axioms.

Actually at the end of the day you'll be surprised what a little vocabulary and a heap of confidence will do. I'm in no way fluent or even reasonably competent in French, but a knowledge of menus, how to order beer and food gets me remarkably far in France and seems to be very appreciated by the natives. In other words a level of fluency my school language teachers could only have hoped for.

One final word, when speaking with a native in that person's language, resist as much as you can any attempts by that native to speak your language: Finns will almost invariably speak English to a foreigner because "no foreigner learns Finnish" and that "they need the practice in English anyway" (despite most Finns speak English better than most native English speakers). Don't worry about code switching, that is, mixing languages if you don't know a word, keep the flow of conversation going rather than worry about correct grammar, pronunciation etc...indeed that is the very essence of fluency.


[1] Eugene Jackson, Elizabeth Gordon, Geoffrey Braithwaite, Albina Tarasova (1977) Russian Made Simple. W.H.Allen, London. 0-491-01582-B

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