Artificial intelligence solves an intermediate learning problem

Artificial intelligence solves an intermediate learning problem

My learning Somali hits some difficult spots, similar to when I was learning Farsi. The problem is intermediate language learning. I’ve discussed this with multiple polyglots and language-learning companies. I even posted about it here, here, and here. What do I do when I have learned most of the grammar and acquired a decent amount of vocabulary, but cannot understand basic articles or podcasts aimed at native speakers? This week, I discovered a fantastic way out: Bliu Bliu. And they even work with Somali!

See what I learned

You can't keep language pure. They always adapt.

You can’t keep languages pure. They always adapt.

This post concludes the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe,” and the third, Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate.”

4. Borrowing words from other languages is par for the course.
This is a corollary to point 2, “Describe, don’t prescribe.” Many speakers of certain languages work hard to keep their language “pure,” that is, not to utter words from other languages while speaking their language. No language ever existed in a vacuum, however, as far as we can tell. When the first Europeans came to what is today the Northeast US, they found speakers of Mohawk and Mahican (completely unrelated languages) communicating with each other, and soon after they came, Pidgin languages developed between the Dutch and some of the native peoples. (See my earlier post, “A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland.”) Surely words mixed among all of these languages.

How much more so today, when speakers of so many languages are constantly bumping into one another by virtue of jet travel and the internet? Every language is adapting to a new state of affairs.

While I believe that languages can’t help but borrow from one another, I still like the work of language academies, even if I disagree with their self-understanding. French, Modern Hebrew, and other languages have designated groups that sanction the use of new words. I don’t believe in the mission of keeping the language “pure,” but I like the resourcefulness and creativity of these groups. They look to the native verbal resources of the language to express a new concept. Hence the French word “ordinateur” and the Hebrew word מחשב maxshev entered into these languages.

Furthermore, I like academies because they help speakers not forget words of their languages in order to pass on as much as possible to the next generation. For example, I knew someone whose father is Navajo and a scholar of Navajo folk literature. He purposely uses obscure Navajo words when he delivers public talks in his native language; otherwise, those words might disappear entirely from the language.

How do you feel about the “purity” of your language? Do you feel that young or less educated people are “ruining” it?

Photo credit: melolou / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND


A six-month victory to celebrate!

A six-month victory to celebrate!

I realized that this week marks six months of learning Somali for me. A couple years ago, I learned from some friends a few phrases that we used often, but I wasn’t learning any grammar or vocabulary regularly. A half-year ago, though, I started getting more serious. Focusing on Somali has been difficult, but looking back I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made. I live a busy life, so I can’t dedicate large chunks to language-study. As a result, I learned what I can accomplish in 6 months.

Are you a busy professional with a full social and domestic life? Do you have lots of demands on you from your home and community? That’s my life. I hope that this list shows what you too can accomplish, even with a busy life.

See what I accomplished!

Curiosity of language is shared by many of us

Curiosity of language is shared by many of us across languages and cultures

This week a Somali friend of mine at work was willing to help me with my Somali. I know my questions are unintuitive to native speakers, so I feel uncomfortable imposing sometimes. I was so grateful when he accepted my invitation to lunch. I learned a ton about grammar and relations among words, and he made me feel very comfortable, and even said that he enjoyed forcing himself to think about this language on a deep, detailed level. We were able to spend a nice time admiring and loving the Somali language together.

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Loving Language:

If you would like to learn more about my path to and through learning Somali, please visit the guest post at The Polyglotist blog.

Originally posted on The Polyglotist:

richardI “met” Richard Benton when he left a comment about the difficulties of studying rare languages in one of my Nahuatl related posts, and was instantly curious when I found out through his blog, Loving Language, that he’s studying Somali. As a fellow aficionada of the so-called minor languages, the languages that have millions of speakers and yet very little popularity, I just had to know why, and so asked him if he’d share a bit of his love of Somali with The Polyglotist. Happily, he agreed! Read on to learn more. First of all, Richard, tell us…

Why Somali?

Why would a white, corporate-employed, Midwesterner decide to study the Somali language? I’m often asked some version of this question by Somalis and native Minnesotans, alike. My standard answer is, Minnesota waan degganahay! “I live in Minnesota!”

I moved a few years ago from Seattle to the Twin Cities…

View original 995 more words

Obscure is exotic, and exotic is beautiful.

Obscure is exotic, and exotic is beautiful.

Today was a good Somali day, in spite of some challenges over the past few weeks. I listened to a brief news podcast. (I found that SBS Australia has news podcasts in lots of languages, including obscure ones. Samoan or Assyrian, anyone?) I didn’t understand much and I didn’t have time to look up words, as I was driving.

I spent a long time translating a news article from ”War Somali”. It took about 90 minutes to translate a 74-word article, including the headline. Time-consuming, but I ran across a couple of tough grammatical features that my book doesn’t cover.

Imagine a language where you take all the nouns and put them together, and then you take all the pronouns and prepositions and put them together, along with some adverbs. The latter also form contractions, so the original pronouns and prepositions are not transparent. Your job then is to intuit which preposition belongs with which noun or group of nouns. Genitive constructions are not marked, so you also have to intuit which nouns go with which other nouns. In the meantime, I’m still seeing some prepositions among the nouns.

I can understand why my book hasn’t tackled this yet. I need to spend some time searching for more information and working with my tutor. If I can figure this issue out, then I’ll certainly be way ahead of where I am now.

Any suggestions on how to figure this out? Do you know any resources that explain these issues?
What baffles you about your language?

Photo credit: KyL 2014 / Foter / CC BY-NC


How can you help me progress to the next level?

How can you help me progress to the next level?

I’m running into the doldrums of language-learning, making slow, even imperceptible progress. What do the following language-learning activities have in common?

  1. Translating sentences in my book;
  2. Translating actual news articles or podcasts;
  3. Visiting a Somali cafe.

They are all a) great activities and b) very time-consuming.

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