As I’ve mentioned before, I love rare languages. From Swiss German to Oromo, their exoticness and unique characteristics draw me in. They’re like the strong, silent types of language: cute, mysterious, captivating. They do their own thing, and you need effort to work your way into their heart.
Since I recently started learning a little Portuguese for work, the difficulty of breaking into the rare set became acute. With Portuguese, I immediately found broad vocabulary exercises and podcasts on-line, all geared towards non-native speakers. Portuguese is unique in that its two main dialects, Brazilian and European, both attract large numbers of learners. I found materials for both dialects.
This situation brought into focus the main problems I have with rare languages, namely, a dearth of materials for non-native speakers. These rare languages assume you’re native or not interested (true, for most of the population).
I need help from my readers! What can you suggest I do? Here are the roadblocks I’ve run into, as well as the stop-gap measures I’ve employed.
- Graded readings. I have no problem finding greetings in almost every language. Then I find newspaper articles and podcasts aimed at native speakers. I can’t find anything in between that would move into the intermediate realm.
- Real speech. Without something like Pimsleur, I can’t find anything in these languages that approaches normal conversation, but with a vocabulary and pace designed for beginners. Texts and podcasts that one finds are generally monologues, often journalistic (eg, the news).
- Teachers. I try to find teachers of these languages. Granted, I prefer people who live where I live, but that’s nearly impossible to find. The nature of these languages signifies that few people have little interest in learning them. Hence, professional teachers with experience, methods, and training pretty much do not exist.
- Grammar. If I take what texts I can find, often articles, I need some sort of grammar to “extract” the words out of them. I understand that grammar gets poo-pooed by polyglots, as it can be dreary. When you’re trying to understand if this word is a verb or a noun, or if it really is the word you think with a couple of letters attached, grammar really comes in handy. Is it a noun in the dative? an irregular plural? Is this a verb, but in the reflexive? a verb used as a noun? Where’s the subject?
- Dictionaries. Ok, I guess this is probably the word. So what does it mean? Without a decent dictionary, I’m working a second-hand jigsaw puzzle. I’ll assume I’ll get 90% of the puzzle, but I’ll never see the complete picture. I depend on the kindness of crowdsourced translators and free dictionary apps.
Basically, I get stuck at a very basic level. This is where I stand on several of my languages. The book How to Learn Any Language (see my post about this book here) says to just work through a newspaper. It assumes that you can find a decent grammar and dictionary, though. I want to memorize vocabulary, but I need a way to cement the vocabulary to break through to the next level. And I have nothing.
As a result, I’ve had to come up with some of my own methods and resources, and the most effective method I’ve found is creating dialogues in the language, with an English parallel. I need a native speaker, who has a decent command of another language that I know. I’ve started using this method, but I need to develop it more. Let me know what you think!
- Graded readings. Since I’m writing these dialogues, I can make them at whatever level I want. I can talk about the present or the past, address a man or a woman, use the vocabulary I think is most important for me.
- Real speech. I chose dialogues because I want something resembling speech. It doesn’t have to be natives chatting and joking, but a very basic dialogue that can get me through a situation in a fun and gracious way.
- Teachers. The method doesn’t require a teacher, just a native speaker. I write out the dialogue in English, and then have the native speaker translate into their language. When I have them read through it, they tend to streamline it towards the natural form of their language, rather than some stilted, word-for-word translation. That offers cool constructions and vocabulary that come in handy.
- Grammar. With actual sentences from real speech, I have examples of the language in its “natural habitat.” The grammatical structures are real. Building grammar from the ground up is guaranteed to be clear and understandable when I’ve already decided that the sentences are useful. I can also test grammatical structures with my native speaker.
- Dictionaries. The native speaker can give the correct translation for the textual and cultural context. For example, “to cook” may be translated differently, but if we’re talking about our lunches and who cooked them, maybe I should say “prepared.” In another example, I asked my Somali friend how to say, “How’s your wife?” He looked at me funny and said, “You should ask, ‘How’s your family?’ Otherwise, they’ll ask you, ‘Why are you wondering about my wife?'” The best dictionaries won’t tell you these sorts of things.
Now I’ve explained why I base my rare-language learning around dialogues. They allow me to overcome several of the roadblocks I’ve encountered.
I already understand that this might not be the best way. First, they assume a native speaker. Second, I haven’t gotten past a really beginner phase with any of these languages, so I can’t guage how far it would get me in the long run.
Have you had to invent your own methods for learning languages? What have you come up with? Anyone interested in trying out the method I outlined and letting me know how it goes? Any suggestions?
I appreciate your help!
Photo credit: NeilGHamilton / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)