Polyglot questions: How do we use languages for good?

Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!
Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!

During my short two days at the Polyglot Conference in NYC (in the midst of my public speaking tour), I spent much of the time chatting with people. Since my talk concerned how to use this talent/hobby/obsession of ours for bettering our community, my fellow polyglots offered their own ideas on this topic. We can use languages to help international aid and speakers of rare—or just less well-known—languages, as well as ourselves.

Here are ten people, in alphabetical order, who offered me some ideas and questions that enriched my thinking.

I recommend you stop by their web page and/or Twitter feed. Please stop by! When you visit them, please say hello from me! Let’s keep the conversation going.
Some important food for thought

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


Week 6 of loving Somali: Reduplication and the kitchen

What does a kitchen in Somalia look like?
What does a kitchen in Somalia look like?

Moving deeper into Somali, I’m discovering more unique, beautiful features of this language. The way of life coupled with grammatical features continue to reveal how exciting this language is. Discovering new verb formations and glimpsing into a Somali kitchen excited my curiosity. At the same time, I think I’m getting exhausted by my rate of vocabulary study; I literally fell asleep on the couch last night with my Anki app. My brain is crying out for different stimuli.
Continue reading “Week 6 of loving Somali: Reduplication and the kitchen”

Week 5 of loving Somali: Camel’s milk and hospitality

Yes, camel's milk. Cheers!
Yes, camel’s milk. Cheers!

What would it be like to live in Somalia, or even just to visit? What would strike me about the culture? Since love is learning to live with quirks that sometimes rub me the wrong way (in my humble opinion), what would I love about Somalia?

I know that I would love their helpfulness. I’ve found so many people already who want to help me with the language and who love doing so. I’m already grateful.

I wonder how I would love Somali hospitality. As an American, I love my space, but I sometimes feel lonely. I’ve found that Eastern forms of hospitality assume that people should be together, that being alone might indicate a problem. The negotiation between guest and host operates constantly. I love Eastern hospitality, but I know that as an American, I feel some tension with it. As an extrovert, I’m glad to experience cultures that value highly connecting with others, so I’ve tended to enjoy myself. If my lessons this week accurately represent Somali culture, I can see that Somalis are wonderfully hospitable. I look forward to experiencing it one day.

I have a couple questions about grammar this week (below), if anyone has a moment to help me. Thank you!
Continue reading “Week 5 of loving Somali: Camel’s milk and hospitality”

20,000 language loves!

Let's celebrate language-love together!
Let’s celebrate language-love together!

I’m pleased that this blog received its 20,000th view on March 14, 2014. That means that on 20,000 occasions people have plugged into the greatest love of my life: languages and connecting with others. I have learned so much from writing this blog, and from the challenging comments I’ve received from commentors here and on Twitter.

Language is humans’ principle means to connect to each other, to come out of ourselves. I hope to continue to advocate for language love in every way I can, and to serve my readers in bringing us all together under the umbrella of language-love. In modern culture, languages are looked at narrowly–if at all. I want to provide my readers and my culture every reason and means to study languages as I possibly can.

“Like” or share so we can spread more language-love to even more people!

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Intermediate language-learning: Beyond the basics

This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch -- one of several languages
This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch — one of several languages offered

At this point, the language-learning market is saturated with on-line tools. They tend to fit in two categories: 1) very basic vocabulary and exercises (eg, Transparent Language) and 2) social networks for language exchanges (eg, iTalki).  Very little exists, unfortunately, for more intermediate learning. What do you do if you have the basics of the language down fairly well (eg, verb tenses, noun declensions, 200+ vocabulary words), but want to move on? You don’t know enough for, say, movies without subtitles or podcasts. Conversations with native speakers can’t last very long yet. Linguistadores has imagined the next step by helping your learning through native-language content, geared to your level.

Your choice of media
Your choice of media

This platform offers access to real pop culture items, but broken down for language learners. I tried out Dutch as the language I was learning and English as my native language. First, you have to input your language ability level. Then, the application will serve up material for your level. Materials come from three categories: written, videos, or music. The written are articles from popular periodicals.

From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.
From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.

Videos are popular TV shows or movies hosted on another site (eg, YouTube), and music are videos of pop songs. The pop songs play the video with the words of the song next to the video, but I couldn’t find subtitles for the non-music videos. You can easily look up words from the articles and songs.

You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.
You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.

Linguistadores also offers you a way to keep track of new words. As you run into unfamiliar words, you can click on them and save them. You can use these lists as flash cards for memorizing the words.

The site is in its beginnings, so I hope that it will grow in a few areas. First, I hope they come up with a mobile platform very soon. I do all my language study on the go. If I’m on a computer, I’m at work. (And I better be working!) I could only watch videos and scroll through the songs’ texts on my iOS and Android devices.

A representative of Linguistadores let me know already (they were very responsive to me on Twitter) that they are working on a mobile platform. I will be giving them my ideas and suggestions — and I’m looking forward to the results. I’m hoping that the word lookup function and the videos will be available in the mobile version.

Second, I hope the language offerings are expanded. Right now, the choices are English, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish. I know these languages fairly well, and I would prefer to spend my time getting my lower languages up to a higher level. I think it will take some time to expand offerings, however, as the quality and quantity of the language materials are very high. It takes a lot of effort to keep things at this level. (How long till they get to Farsi and Somali? LOL)

Third, I wonder about the future of the material they have. How do they plan to keep the offerings fresh? There are only so many music videos, for example. I’m afraid I could possibly get bored if I have to watch the same ones too many times. Also, several of the videos I tried to watch were taken down by the original owner, which is bound to happen down the line.

Nevertheless, I believe that on-line language learning has to go the direction that Linguistadores laid out. As a kid, I stepped up my native language by looking up new words in the dictionary. I also spent a lot of time reading the lyrics to songs I liked, which gave me an ear for how people enunciate in music. I want to get to a point where I can learn on my own from native content, and Linguistadores offers a wonderful stepping-stone.

What are the on-line tools you’re using for language-learning? What do you love about them?

Don’t immigrants love our language?: @CocaCola and #AmericaisBeautiful

Which of these people speaks English?
Bet you can’t tell which of these people speaks English!

The Super Bowl set me on an emotional roller-coaster. First, I’m a Broncos fan. (Thank you for your condolences.) Second, the Coca Cola ad, “America is Beautiful,” got me so excited. How often do we get to hear so many languages during the second biggest US winter holiday festival? If you didn’t get to see this cool commercial, see it here.

Once I went on Twitter and searched #AmericaisBeautiful, though, I realized that some were less excited than me. I don’t want to give any press to the insulting, negative responses, so I won’t quote them here. One common spirit among them, however, was, “This is the US so speak English!” The commercial provoked this reaction because the ad reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly OK for immigrants to speak a language besides English. This sentiment arises from ignorance manifested by a wrong presupposition, namely, the prejudice that immigrants in the US choose not speak English.

Americans tend to be isolated. We’re famous for not knowing our neighbors, not knowing geography, and not knowing languages. We similarly don’t know immigrants. As a result, we don’t know what they are thinking, so we impose our own imagined perception on them.

How often have you heard a non-English speaker say they didn’t want to learn English? Probably never, if you are a “typical” American. The average American does not speak a foreign language, hence they cannot speak to non-English speakers. Most people who claim that non-English speakers do not want to learn English cannot have any direct information to back it up.

The non-English speaking immigrants I’ve talked to from multiple countries universally underscore the importance of learning English in the US. (Fortunately, they’re insulated from the “immigrants should learn English” discussion since it is entirely in English.) Statistics further support the experience that I’ve had. One study showed that about 90% of Hispanics believe that learning English in the US is necessary to succeed. The numbers actually go up among those who are more Spanish-dominant. (See the survey results from the Cato Institute here.)

Nevertheless, some immigrants in the US do not learn English. Why don’t they? Most of those who do not speak English tend to be older, and we know that learning a new language becomes harder the older one becomes. In addition, some simply do not have time, as they work multiple jobs, often physically grueling. (I must add, though, that I saw plenty of folks on the bus in Seattle studying English.) Finally, I know of one refugee where emotional trauma seemed to prevent learning effective English.

Facts show that immigrants believe that learning English is important for getting ahead. Only external circumstances–age, work, health–prevent them. So they agree with their critics, in fact. The critics are incorrect in that they believe that it’s a difference of opinion, that they need to convince non-English speaking immigrants to drop an anti-English “ideology.” These immigrants don’t hold this ideology, and they already have incentives to learn English.

One sees that ignorance breeds further ignorance. Because most Americans don’t speak other languages, they don’t know non-English speakers. Nature abhors a vacuum, so these people invent a “state of mind” for those people based on prejudice rather than facts. On this basis, they want to enact policies that correct this state, thus changing the way those non-English speakers think. The people who push back on such policies thus appear to cling stubbornly to a backwards way of thinking.

In fact, the US is full of intelligent, hardworking, loving bilingual people. (So many that Coke would like to spend millions of dollars to sell their sugary drink to them.) These people offer a different way of thinking about many issues than most Americans know about. For average Americans to benefit from the wealth of knowledge and cultural wisdom that already exists in the US, it would behoove them to learn another language or learn which of the Americans around them–like the girls in the advertisement–are already bilingual.

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

How to re-start learning a language

Get ready to get back on the horse!
Get ready to get back on the horse!

It’s easy to get off track in one’s language learning (unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets paid to do so).  Work projects become demanding, kids’ schedules take up time, and the spring cleaning needs to get done somehow.  I found myself in this situation over the past couple months; I got off track.  But languages always pull me back.  Fortunately, I’ve thought for a long time about methods for learning languages, and a few of my favorite on-line language-lovers offer good advice that got me going again.  The two pieces of advice that helped a lot: 1) work a little every day and 2) passive learning is important.

No shame in falling off the horse

I admit that I got out of the daily habit of setting aside time for my languages.  This happens to everyone.  I am not independently wealthy, so I spend a lot of time working.  I do not work professionally with languages, so I have to find the time amidst my spare time.  As we all know, spare time ebbs and flows; we have little control over how much we have.  Many voices call out for our spare time, as well.  Family, community, and relaxation all require some of our time–and that’s after coming home from work.

Nevertheless, I want back up on the language horse I fell off of.  I needed to find a way to work on my languages amidst all these demands.  So I recalled some great things I’ve learned from the web.

Everyday language-learning

Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner site constantly reminded me via his Twitter feed (@aarongmyers) to do something every day.  I love the name of his blog because the double-meaning fits me perfectly.  I need to learn languages “every day,” plus I’m a simple, garden-variety “everyday” language learner with cares, demands, and responsibilities like everyone else.

Finding 30 minutes to figure out what exercise I should do, though, was more than I could do.  Learning every day was too much.  So I was hardly learning anything.  This was demoralizing and out-of-character for me.  I had to learn how to do something every day, even if it was 5 minutes.

Passive learning jump-started my active learning

Passive learning allowed me to start up right away with little concentration and commitment, and then it led me easily–and unexpectedly–to more active study.  Steve Kaufmann, who blogs and vlogs about language-learning, advocates passive language input, which will aid language-learning when one turns to more active methods.  While I’m not beginning my language, I thought taking a passive-learning approach for now would help.

The BBC offers a one-hour daily news digest in Farsi, and I challenged myself this week to listen to the whole thing every day.  It’s certainly over my head, but it’s well-produced and discussing topics I already know a little about.  I listened a little in the morning while brushing my teeth, during my commute, and during some of my workouts.  Though I didn’t make it all the way through every episode, and on a couple days I listened to the last few minutes while I was falling asleep at night, I still benefited.  I was remembering words I thought I had forgotten and I looked up words occasionally.  My mind turned again towards Farsi–exactly what I’d hoped for!

On Saturday, then, I started using the great learning app, Anki.  This app soups up my old flash cards.  It offers universal accessibility–platforms for PC (Windows and Linux), Android, and on-line–and keeps track of what words I know best.  It also reminds me when it’s time to study.  Creating new cards I find the hardest, but the application makes it easy to cut and paste from emails, articles, or Google Translate.  I can also tag the source of my word.  Thanks to Anki, I spent 10 minutes in bed this morning reviewing some words, in addition to the 25 minutes (so far today) of listening to the BBC.  I’m back!

Quantity, not quality

Of course, the quality of your language-learning materials are important, but quantity got me back up into language-learning.  Doing something–anything–every day not only helped my language knowledge but also my motivation.  It’s easy to lose focus when life is busy, but 10 minutes that’s over your head is better than nothing.

Another thing I learned was that searching for quality input is important, but can’t stand in the way of practice.  When I’m looking for material more than I’m praticing, I’ve lost my balance.  I can tend to be a perfectionist, so I have to beware of this balance.  “Just do it!” has to be my motto.

This coming week, I’m going to try more of the same.  I’ll listen to the Persian BBC podcast as well as work my Anki cards as much as possible.  We’ll see where I end up.

Are you languishing in your language-study?  Did you fall off the horse?  What’s one thing you can do–even for one day–in the next day or two to work on your language?  Tweet this article and help spread the encouragement!

Photo credit: Eduardo Amorim / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA