The biggest struggles language-lovers face: Solved!

Let's overcome the struggle together!
Let’s overcome the struggle together!

I need your help. I’m to solve some of these, the most difficult questions any language-lover has encountered.

Are you learning to speak a language? What do you do if you have the following problems?

  1. You are studying a rare language, or one that is not taught often.
  2. You passed the beginners stage, are fluent in basic greetings and introductions, but want to learn more.
  3. You listen to native speakers, but only understand every tenth word, sounding something like, “He…with…five…that…was.”
  4. When you try to speak to native speakers, they switch to English.
  5. You’re dying to know how people “actually talk” in your language, but they oversimplify everything for you.
  6. Once you think you understood, you ask native speakers to repeat what they said, but they rephrase it and defeat the purpose.

Are you a linguist working on a rare language? Have you had these problems?

  1. You need more data, but data in your language is hard to come by.
  2. You want to hear how people actually speak when they’re not speaking with a linguist in the room.
  3. You want native speakers to explain variations in the language, for example, whether a given expression is common or rare.
  4. You want to discuss with other linguists about a particular dilemma.

In this blog I’ve mentioned here and here the large problem of self-study, that is, pulling up after one plateaus. What brings success at the early stage of self-study does not work in the next stages.

Moving from producing and comprehending a few rote phrases to the broader range of actual speech can frustrate me to tears. I want so badly to understand what native speakers are saying, whether on a podcast or in a cafe. I try to keep a conversation going around the few topics where I own a good chunk of vocabulary, but I can’t do that more than a few minutes.

Many of the “native speaker” programs on line haven’t helped. I’ve found that iTalki can help find a teacher who can get me over the hump, but some languages do not have teachers representing them. The multitude of Hello Talk-type apps put me in touch with people who are beyond my level and who prefer to speak English to learn. And texting takes a lot of time.

Some languages don’t offer a lot of learning material. I discussed the main issues I’ve run into here. I’ve picked up a few languages to work on over the past 5 years, but none of them offer a breadth of material suitable for intermediate learners, because not many people learn the languages. These languages include Farsi, Somali, Swiss German, and Oromo.

Recently I’ve been working with the language-preservation-minded folks at Wikitongues, so I’m thinking more about the work of strengthening a dying language. Many linguists record words that the speakers know, creating a “talking dictionary” for the next generation. Disembodied words—as anyone who studies flashcards knows—only helps us so much. We need to know how sentences are made, and how those sentences fit into an conversation.

So what do we do?

Sorry, I don’t have any solutions today. Please see the posts I link to, but I’m feeling against a wall today. I need your help!

How have you solved these issues? Can you imagine a solution to any of them? Have you read a solution?

By Masum-al-hasan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

5 thoughts on “The biggest struggles language-lovers face: Solved!

  1. I’m the founder of Glossika and this is exactly our goal: building access to native-spoken full sentences for as many sentence structures as possible. I can’t help you at every stage or every plateau right now, but we’re thinking about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I heard your interview on “Actual Fluency” a while ago. I love what you’re doing. You don’t have materials on the languages I’m working on–but I’d love to try out your method some day.


  2. Rachel

    Gaelic has a number of resources for that level; mostly things aimed at native speakers but repurposed for proficient learners, often by providing a transcript or something similar.

    An Sgeulachd Goirid:
    Seallaibh Ghaidhlig:
    An Litir Bheag:

    I suppose it’s a language which has thrown a lot of money at growing the number of “native speakers”, and for the latter half of the last century, the way to do that was to bring adults from learner to fluent in the hopes that they’d pass it on… These days, the emphasis is more on immersion education it seems.

    It’s a bit odd in that, where a lot of languages have a phrasebook or a short course or something like that available, and then nothing before native-speaker stuff, Gaelic has few functioning “teach yourself” courses (none that I know of which teach grammar), and then a decent amount for higher-level learners, and then not actually all that much for native speakers.

    It might be different in Scotland – I think the aim is to get people functioning within a Gaelic-speaking community once they reach a certain level.

    Some of the points stand. Native speakers, particularly those who think they speak a “non-standard” variety such as Lewis (even though there is no “standard Gaelic”) often swap to a more “neutral” accent around learners, or swap words they would normally use (again, in Lewis they use “bon” for water instead of “uisge”, or say “is caomh leam” rather than “is toigh leam”; but most wouldn’t say either of those things around someone from another island or especially a learner/ non-native), so it can be difficult to get a handle on how a native speaker sounds, rather than how a native speaker thinks YOU should sound.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Móran taing, a Rachel (dé G. air sin?) airson na goireasan nach fhaca mi riamh roimhe 🙂
      As for grammar based beginners’ books for Scots Gaelic, looking at my bookshelf I see I have somehow collected the ones listed below. Be aware though that some may well be long out of print by now, and others replaced by newer versions using quite different teaching methods. Which is not to say that there aren’t also newer and better resources available now. So here we go :
      *** Gaelic without Groans, John MacKechnie, Oliver & Boyd, 2nd Ed. 1962, reprinted 1966.
      Having overheard a Gaelic conversation outside a highland general store, sometime around 1968, I set out to learn the language (I’d thought it extinct since the Clearances) and this was the only book I could find. Rather chatty and not quite comprehensive, it nevertheless covers the bulk of the grammar while pretending not be a ‘grammar book’. An interesting experiment at the time and useful for an initial run through. Of course I almost never again heard G. spoken ‘in the wild’, perhaps the speakers I heard were unaware of my presence, I was sitting in a van.
      *** Teach Yourself Books : Gaelic, Roderick MacKinnon, English Universities Press, 1971.
      Comprehensively works through the grammar with exercises, key, tables, vocab, but little in the way of connected texts. This type of book can get a little turgid. I generally run out of steam around Ch. 6 and take three or four attempts, often months apart, before being able to complete a course like this.
      *** Scottish Gaelic in Three Months, Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh & Iain MacAonghuis, Hugo’s Language Books, 1996.
      I’m not sure when, how or why I got this one. A bit like a slimmed-down version of the above, less exercises etc. Could be useful for revision. The ‘three months’ of the title is IMO enthusiastically optimistic 🙂
      *** Colloquial Scottish Gaelic, K. MacLeod Spadaro & Katie Graham, Routledge, 2nd Ed. 2014.
      A more modern topical approach. The grammar seems to be taught in passing as it were, but there is at least a grammar index where you can find the page(s) that deal(s) with e.g the genitive case or the passive voice etc. and there’s a short-ish Grammar Supplement. The exercises are far too few, just short isolated sentences. TBH, I’d quite forgotten I had this book. Again probably useful for revision and filling gaps.
      *** A Gaelic Grammar, George Calder, Alex MacLaren & Sons, 1923.
      This was the standard hard-core academic grammar at one time. I have an original bought second hand. I’m fairly sure there are poorer quality photolitho reprints around too. This is an old-fashioned reference grammar, not a tutor.
      *** How to Learn Gaelic, John Whyte, 4th Ed. 1906, reprinted by Forgotten Books, 2012.
      A quick run-through of the basic grammar is followed by extensive reading passages. Bit of a curiosity I suppose. The quality of the photolitho reprint could be better!
      *** Barrachd Gàidhlig, Ruairidh MacFhionghain, An Comunn Gaidhealach, 1977.
      A collection of reading passages, generally around 3pp each of smallish print, for intermediate learners, the title translates as ‘More G.’, with vocab and notes. Maybe less useful now we have the internet?
      *** Gaelic for O-Grade (Learners), Bill Blacklaw, Gairm Publications, 1974.
      Forty short passages of 2-4 paras with Q. and A. in English, presumably as practice for the O-grade exam.
      Well to tell you the truth, I’d honestly forgotten I had some of these … and while I’m at it, look what’s just turned up 😉
      +++ The Somali Language, C. R. V. Bell, Longmans, Green & Co., 1953.
      Chan eil fhios agam có as a thàinig am fear sin!


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