You’re already learning languages like a baby (Don’t be fooled)

Babies have a language advantage: Cuteness!
Babies have a language advantage: Cuteness!

No language-learning program knows what it’s talking about when they say they can show you how to learn a language like a baby. There’s no other way.

My kids revealed the secrets of language-learning to me. I was teaching them Russian with they were between 4 and 7 years old. I spoke with them and they went to a Russian class for an hour per week.

I knew the difficulties of learning Russian, but I was fluent by that point, even having worked as an interpreter and translator. I had figured out the tricky parts of the grammar, but my kids’ grammar was hopeless. I didn’t know what to do.

I told their teacher that the kids always messed up verb conjugations and noun declensions, so that all verbs were second person and all feminine nouns were in the accusative. He smiled and said, “Yeah, kids always mess those up.”

I always messed those up, too!

Russian is just hard!

Week 29 of Loving Somali: More fruit, thanks to the labor of me and others

Speaking your language in a cafe can really pay off!
Speaking your language in a cafe can really pay off!

Persistence paid off. Please forgive the cliche, but I’ve been trying to manifest in the past several posts—at least to myself—the progress I’ve been able to make over many months. This week I:

  • found a local teacher;
  • carried on a decent conversation;
  • dedicated some time every day to study; and
  • won a Somali grammar contest.

An additional truth came to me this week: I can’t do this alone. If it weren’t for my on-line tutor and my new conversation partner—not to mention my friends at work—my progress would be even slower than it is. I’m very grateful for these supporters I have.
Read how I did it

Week 24 of Loving Somali: Somali grammar is still beautifully crazy

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

 

HELP! How do I get out of the intermediate level doldrums?

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.

Continue reading “HELP! How do I get out of the intermediate level doldrums?”

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe

Prescriptive grammar just punishes people for talking normally
Prescriptive grammar punishes people for talking normally.

This post follows on 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.”

2. We describe grammar, we don’t prescribe it.
Rules such as “no split infinitives” or “There’s no such word as ‘ain’t’” don’t exist in the linguistics that I study. Such rules are called “prescriptive” because they prescribe a particular way of speaking that goes against how people actually speak. The linguistic school to which I belong does not impose a certain way of speaking; instead, we aim to describe the way people actually speak. In this way, everyone who speaks a language is  valued equally in how he or she speaks.

Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe”

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain

Every brain contains the grammar of a language
Every brain contains the grammar of a language

This post follows on 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.

1. Grammar resides in every human brain.
Chomsky defines grammar as the rules that produce and decode language. As a result, grammar resides inside the human language-speaker. It doesn’t exist “out there” in a book or only well-trained minds.. Moreover, this grammar is not something learned in school; it’s acquired as a child engages in the community of your native language. Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain”

Week 18 of Loving Somali: The challenge and benefits of writing

How does writing your language inspire and enlighten you?
How does writing your language inspire and enlighten you?

I listened this week to an episode of the “Language as Culture” podcast by David Mansaray. It was called “How to Make the Most of a Language Tutor,” and featured the young German polyglot, Judith Meyer. Ms. Meyer offered several great tips for work that can be done on one’s own preparing for your next lesson.

Following one piece of advice from her, I decided to write a short piece in Somali, describing a friend of mine. Ms. Meyer recommended that one pick a topic that will be relevant, so that the vocabulary and syntax will be useful in more conversations.

Read what I learned

Week 17 of Loving Somali: And…or…and…

I had no idea that conjunctions could be complicated.

Before that, though, I need to relate my big accomplishment this week…

Studying Somali means learning grammar and vocabulary while eating Sambuas
Studying Somali means learning grammar and vocabulary while eating Sambuas

My big accomplishment was on New Year’s Day. I went for tea and sambusas at the Somali restaurant in my my area. I spoke nearly the whole time in Somali. Continue reading “Week 17 of Loving Somali: And…or…and…”

Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension

Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty
Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty

Languages bring me into a world I do not understand and reveal complexities I never imagined. Sometimes I feel like Darwin in the Galapagos. Study and observation bring me joy, and when I immerse myself in these complex phenomena, I discover deeper truths. The more complexity, the more beauty, even if comprehension eludes me. And exploring the facets of language lead me to the subtle dynamics of the culture around it. Continue reading “Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension”

Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue

A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!
A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!

Without my languages I feel anxious and unfulfilled. While I don’t have a lot of time for Somali, I feel the need every day to work on my language, even if it’s five minutes of Anki flash cards or four minutes scanning BBC Somali headlines of which I may only grasp a few words.

Fortunately, I found a Somali teacher who will work with me over Skype. He is very knowledgable about the Somali language, and he has experience teaching foreigners. I am very grateful that he is willing to work with me. Part of me still asks: Will this sustain my language love? Will Skype provide the connection I need?

This week, language love came to my rescue and brought me joy in a moment of stress and anxiety. Work was difficult, and took up a lot of time, causing me stress. I missed my language tables as a result, so I didn’t get to experience much language. I had to go work at offices in different areas, where I luckily got to mix with new people. On the way to a meeting I heard a guy working at a food stand speaking Arabic to another man as I was walking by. On the way back to my car after the meeting, I said to him, Ahlan! Masa ilkheir!” (“Hi! Good afternoon!”) Business was slow for him in the mid-afternoon, so he gave me a can of Coke and told me to sit down.
Continue reading “Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue”