dimanche 1 janvier 2012

2012 Plans: Dutch and French

Like many blogs, I'm sure I'm not the only person posting laying out grand plans for 2012 and what they hope to achieve.

I was a little busy last year, but things have calmed down now and all the side-projects I was able to work in the fall, and especialy December, have showed me that I am now certainly able to find real chunks of time to do work.

So, plans:


Reddit is hosting a GEB seminar/read-along beginning in January. I'm going to do the do the readings both in English and French. The schedule for this is approximately one chapter per week so this should take 6 months or so to complete. If this goes well, my plan is to keep reading technical material in French.

I need to restart learning Dutch. My previous failures I think have been due mostly to motivation. "This time, it's different". Well, anyways, I've felt more strongly that I want to learn Dutch seeing as it looks like I'm not leaving Amsterdam anytime soon. So, that at least is a good start. I probably won't do exclusively Assimil, but I will try to get through the entire course.

Since I'm doing language stuff again, I'll start keeping this blog updated just to keep me honest. If nothing, it'll be a place to keep my notes for the French GEB read-through.

Happy New Year to my few remaining subscribers!

samedi 27 novembre 2010

Critique de "The Polyglot Project"

Voici une traduction de la note précédente.  Je l'ai mis aussi sur Lang-8 si vous voulez faire des corrections.  Merci!

En mai, Claude “syzygycc” Cartaginese a mis en ligne une vidéo et a sollicité des chapitres pour un livre. Il voulait rassembler les expériences et les méthodes d’apprentissages d’autant d'apprenants des langues que possible. Cinq mois plus tard, "The Polyglot Project" est sorti et disponible pour téléchargement gratuit. Claude a fini par rassembler 43 histoires stimulantes sur 524 pages. Les articles vont des petits mots de deux pages jusqu’à de longues entrées de Mike “Glossika” Campbell (50 pages) et David “Huliganov” James (100 pages), avec la plupart d'environ 10 pages. La police de grande taille fait augmenter le nombre de pages, mais rend le livre plus facile à lire sur un écran.

J’avais hâte de lire ce livre pas parce que je trouve les vies des autres intéressantes (je n’aime pas les biographies) mais parce que je voulais en tirer les points communs. Nous entendons jour après jour les mêmes histoires des blogueurs importants dans la communauté d’apprentissage des langues et je voulais savoir si ces thèmes se trouvent aussi dans la vraie vie. En lisant les articles, une chose s’est fait voir: les membres viennent de partout, en comparaison avec le stéréotype d’un utilisateur de Reddit, par exemple.

Quelles tendances ai-je aperçues? D’abord, tous les articles sont remplis d’enthousiasme pour les langues et l’apprentissage. J’ai vu souvent certains mots: le désir, la fascination, l’obsession, la passion, la curiosité. Un certain nombre d’étudiants dit que les langues ne leur intéressent pas, ou bien qu’ils avaient essayé d’apprendre une langue à l’école, mais qu'ils n’avaient pas réussit. Il leur a fallu un évènement clé pour mettre le feu aux poudres de leurs volontés. C’était peut-être une chanson, une rencontre accidentelle, un voyage à l’étranger. Dans presque tous les cas, leurs curiosités s’éveillent et ils se disent « Il faut absolument que j’apprenne cette langue». Je pense que personne ne dit «Je suis doué pour les langues»; c’est toujours «Je suis passionné par X». C’est cette volonté, cette passion qui garde les apprenants sur la bonne route. Apprendre une langue, ce n’est pas facile et il en compte bien beaucoup de travail. Il n’y a pas de balle en argent, comme on dit.

Mais, si vous êtes passionné, le travail n’est pas comme du travail, ou du moins le travail dur est plus agréable. Ce n’est pas du travail si c’est amusant. Ça vaut la peine de noter ici la vidéo de FluentCzech "Become a Polyglot in Minutes not Years" parce que la «chute» (qui est aussi répétée dans son article) s’y intègre parfaitement.

Si on me demandait, je dirais qu’être «doué» pour les langues, c’est juste être «hypermotivé». C’est la discipline de ne pas laisser tomber les études et la motivation pour continuer à travers les périodes frustrantes. C’est la passion pour le contenu, la culture, et les gens qui en vaut la peine. Je cite l’article de Stu Jay Raj, «Je ne veux pas apprendre une langue pour m’exprimer. Je l’apprends pour découvrir tout sur les gens qui la parlent.»

Il est intéressant aussi de comparer les histoires d’études sans motivation. Si on étudie juste assez pour réussir le cours, la motivation se diminue aussitôt qu’on a terminé l’examen. Mais ceux qui sont passionnés n’ont pas limité leurs études à l’école. Les gens qui n’étudient qu’à l’école ont tous échoué, systématiquement, à atteindre la maitrise de leur langue cible.

Ceci est en rapport avec un autre point que j’ai vu plusieurs fois: on n’a pas besoin de cours chers pour apprendre une langue. En fait, les gens qui les achètent se plaignent du fait que ces cours ne marchent pas. Il y en a qui ont réussi avec quelques Cds, un livre ou deux, un dictionnaire, et la radio, les forums, et les sites web disponibles gratuitement sur Internet.

Il y a aussi des messages des gens qui ont eu la chance d’être exposés à nombreuses langues comme enfant, et donc ont voulu devenir polyglottes. Cependant, ce n’est pas qu’ils ont eu des domestiques qui leur parlent tous dans une langue différente, mais que c’était en écoutant ces langues qu’ils sont devenus plus curieux. Cité une enfance internationale comme «la raison» telle ou telle personne est bilingue cache le fait que c’est quand même beaucoup de travail. Les langues ne s’apprennent pas plus facilement, mais le contact crée l’intérêt qui influence sa mode de vie. Cet intérêt peut exister à tous les âges, comme les récits des gens qui n’ont pas commencé à apprendre des langues que lorsqu’ils ont une vingtaine, une trentaine, ou bien plus tard!

Comment apprend-on alors? J’en ai tiré la suite:
  • Il faut du contenu intéressant et agréable à écouter.
  • Il faut être passionné par la culture cible.
  • Il faut être en contact constamment avec la langue.
  • Il faut être content de ne pas être parfait.
  • Il faut se faire plaisir avec le voyage.
J’ai aimé lire les rapports des blogueurs bien connus. Plusieurs ont répété les idées de leurs blogues ou vidéos, mais certains ont éclairé un peu leurs trajets personnels. Pour moi, deux rapports importants viennent de Mike «Glossika» Campbell et Stu Jay Raj. La volonté de Mike et l’excitation de Stu Jay se font voir sur la page. Ce sont des mots que je vais surement relire. J’ai beaucoup aimé l’article d’Anthony «FluentCzech» Lauder. J’entendais sa voix calme dans ma tête quand je le lisais. Ses vidéos sont un ilot de rationalité dans le monde parfois agressif et bruyant des bloggeurs et forums de langues en ligne. En fin de compte, si l’apprentissage des langues vous intéresse, je vous conseille de le lire. C’est un bon complément au Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them.

samedi 13 novembre 2010

"The Polyglot Project" review

Back in May, Claude “syzygycc” Cartaginese put out a video asking for submissions. He wanted to put together a book with entries from as many language learners as possible detailing how they learned their languages. Five months later, "The Polyglot Project" is finished and available as a free download. Claude managed to collect 43 inspirational submissions totaling 524 pages. The entries range from 2 pages in length to long sprawling entries from Mike “Glossika” Campbell (50 pages) and David “Huliganov” James (100 pages), with most entries just under 10 pages. The large font inflates the page counts slightly, although it does make reading the book on a computer screen more comfortable.

I was eager to read this book not because I’m particularly interested in other people’s lives (I generally don’t enjoy biographies) but because I wanted to find common threads running through the stories. We hear the same kinds of things day after day from the “big names” in the language blogging world, but I wanted to see if they were reflected in Real Life.  Reading about other people's lives did make one thing stand out though: how varied the language community is compared with (for example) the stereotypical Reddit user.

So, what trends did I notice? First, every article bubbles with enthusiasm for languages and learning. Certain words kept popping up: desire, fascination, obsession, passion, curiosity. A number of learners wrote that they had no interest in languages, or that they had tried studying languages in school but got nowhere, until some key event ignited their inner drive. Perhaps it was a song, a chance meeting, or a trip aboard. In almost every case, the curiosity awoke and something inside them said “I must learn this”. In fact, I don’t think anybody says “I’m talented at languages” ; the phrasing is always “I’m passionate about X”. It’s this drive, this passion, that keeps language learners going. Language learning isn’t easy and it is a lot of work. There is no silver bullet, as they say.

But if you have passion, the work doesn’t seem like work, or at least makes the hard work more enjoyable. It’s not work if it’s fun. I think it’s worth mentioning FluentCzech's "Become a Polyglot in Minutes not Years" video, since the “punchline” of that video (repeated in his entry in the project) ties in perfectly here.

If anything, I think language learning “talent” is simply “to be driven”. It’s to have the discipline to not give up, the motivation to keep pressing on through the frustration. It is the passion for the content, the culture, and the people that makes the hard work worthwhile. To quote Stu Jay Raj's submission: “I don’t like learning a language to express ‘myself’ in the language. I learn it so that I can learn about the people who use it”.

It’s also interesting to compare stories of learning without motivation. If you’re studying just enough to pass the course, the motivation trails off as soon as the test is written. But those who were driven by their passion didn’t confine their learning to school. The school-only learners consistently failed to reach fluency in their target language.

This ties in to something else that came up a couple times: You don’t need expensive courses to learn a language. In fact, most people who were buying expensive courses complained they didn’t work. People reached fluency with a couple of CDs, a book or two, a dictionary, and radio, forums, and websites available for free.

There are also a few stories from people who were exposed to many languages at a young age, and this exposure drew them to polyglottery. However, the common thread was not that people had servants who each spoke different languages to them, but rather that seeing and hearing these languages made them curious. Crediting an international childhood as “the reason” somebody speaks multiple languages hides the fact that it’s still hard work. The languages don’t necessarily come any easier, but early exposure sparks the interest that influences the rest of their lives. You can have that interest at any age, as evidenced by the stories of people who only started out learning languages in their 20s, 30s, or later!

How does one learn, then? The lessons I’ve taken away from this project are:
  • you must have content that is interesting and enjoyable to listen to
  • you must be passionate about your target culture
  • you must have constant exposure to the language
  • you must be happy being non-perfect
  • you must enjoy the journey
I also enjoyed reading the entries from some of the well-known bloggers. Many repeated ideas from their blogs or videos, although some expanded more on their personal history. Two entries that really stood out for me were Mike “Glossika” Campbell and Stu Jay Raj. Mike’s drive and Stu Jay’s excitement both come across very well on the page. These are two entries I will definitely reread. I also enjoyed Anthony “FluentCzech” Lauder’s entry, and I could hear his calming voice in my head as I read. His videos are a rational outpost of sanity in the sometimes aggressive, noisy land of online language forums and blogs. 

All in all, if you’re interested in language learning I recommend reading this. It makes a good supplement to Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them.

dimanche 7 novembre 2010

Books on Translation

I read a couple of books on translation this summer: Le Ton beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter and Dire presque la même chose by Umberto Eco. Although both book titles are French, Hofstadter's work is in English, and I read a French translation (from the Italian) of Eco's work.

Le Ton beau de Marot is a multitude (80+) translations of the same 28-line poem by Clément Marot, interleaved with musings on translation and meaning. Hofstadter's translation problem can be summed up as "What happens where you take something from over there and put it over here". What does something mean if meaning is tied to context and the context changes? How can we transmit meaning without transmitting the entire context? Where does this do to the problem of artificial intelligence and computer understanding? No translation is exact -- some aspect of the source text is lost because of the differences between the source context and the destination context. The job of the translator is to find the best mapping between the two, and to choose which aspects are important and which can be discarded or minimized. The eighty or so translations come to play as examples of choosing to honour (or not) different aspects of Marot's original poem.

I loved Le Ton beau de Marot. I think this book really benefits from the reader having an understanding of French, although it's not strictly required. Hofstadter speaks French fluently and his love of French comes across in the book. As a language learner, I also really enjoyed reading about his experiences learning and speaking foreign languages. Finally, the chapter discussing the process of translating Gödel, Escher, Bach into Chinese and French made me more excited to read the French version. The challenges here were also interesting, since some of GEB is autobiographical. Hofstadter had to negotiate with his translators to "forge" certain aspects of his life to capture the larger ideas he wanted to get across, while in other cases details of Americana and his life were given importance over a pun or other wordplay.

Eco's book, Dire presque la même chose has essentially two parts. The first half deals with his experiences translating and being translated; the second part is more academic and delves deeper into the theory of semiotics and how it relates to translation work. As Le Ton beau de Marot benefits from a knowledge of French, so I think would Dire presque la même chose benefit from a knowledge of (at least) Italian. Most of Eco's examples from the first half of the book are edge cases and shades of meaning either from or to Italian. I say "at least" Italian since there are plenty of example translations to and from German, English, French and Spanish as well.

I enjoyed Dire presque la même chose less. Eco is a very erudite writer, and so many of the examples from his works are similarly dense and obscure. I probably wouldn't have understood them even if they were in English. Discussions of shades of meaning between words in Italian and the word the Spanish translator chose is not that interesting for me as I don't speak either of those languages. The second half of the book I found a bit too beyond my level in terms of the semiotics discussed. Again, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it had it been in English, although I would have been able to skim it faster.

One interesting thing I did get out of Dire presque la même chose was the fact that Eco wrote The Name of the Rose to be deliberately difficult to read. That makes me feel better about not understanding it.

mardi 2 novembre 2010

Dutch audio courses: Pimsleur and Michel Thomas

About a year ago I posted some thoughts on three weeks of Dutch that included comments on Pimsleur and Michel Thomas. As part of my renewed Dutch effort, I'm taking a second look at them. I'm about halfway through the courses, (13/30 for Pimsleur, 7/12 CDs for MT), averaging 2 MT lessons and 4 Pimsleur lessons per week.

Most of my complaints about these courses come from my experiences with the French versions back in Montreal. In both cases I was an intermediate student using these for review -- I had never actually used either of them for learning a language from scratch.

My previous study efforts had been with Assimil. I was doing fine with the passive wave, but was bogged down during the active wave. I had no motivation to shadow and couldn't keep on a schedule. My production skills stayed minimal. Because of this, I've decided that (for me, anyway), Assimil is a good source of content but insufficient for developing non-trivial speaking skills from scratch. (Again, my success with "New French with Ease" must be tempered with the amount of "background French" I had from my schooling, something I continue to underestimate.)

Pimsleur is disliked by many people, as evidenced by the long heated threads on HTLAL and even more recently Benny's recent review and comments. For once, I agree with most of his points. While I agree Pimsleur is too slow, too formal, and too English, I disagree with his claim it only teaches you to translate. For me, Pimsleur had a very specific role in my language learning. For all its faults, it got me to respond instinctively to small talk and in restaurants and shops. It worked for me for French, and I believe it's working again for Dutch.

The Pimsleur dialogs are still silly and sexist. Many of the dialogs sound like a lonely middle manager frantically trying to have an affair with a foreign colleague while on a business trip.

MT is a bit more complicated. The upside is the drills have a larger variety of sentence structures. The massive downside is the other students with their terrible pronunciation. They're always asking for confirmation from the instructor so their intonation is always a rising question tone. They make mistakes. Their pronunciation is not corrected, even consistent errors on simple sounds that exist in English. (Don't get me started on their butchering of the Dutch vowels...) An example: "alsjeblieft". The "sj" becomes a [ʃ], and the students can't hear it and the teacher doesn't correct them. The teacher doesn't explain any of the other Dutch consonants either, like the v/w/f mix. All in all I find them incredibly frustrating to listen to. In my opinion, the students should be replaced with a second native speaker. Finally, I dislike the stupid mnemonics and non-standard grammar terminology. I'm sure that some of these were designed to make the course more user friendly for first time language learners. However, I'm sure it alienates the subset of people who have the slightest clue as to what they're doing. (A much smaller market unfortunately.)

However, MT is not all negatives. I like the drills of slight changes to the example sentences to clearly show how the new pieces fit together. The gradually increasingly complex sentences do teach the grammar intuitively, something Assimil claims to do (but I think falls short).

I'm also finding it interesting to be doing two beginners courses which essentially teach the same materials. The MT course uses almost exclusively "je". It mentions "u", but it mostly teaches the informal language. (It justifies this by saying that, as a non-native speaker, you will never offend somebody by using "je" instead of "u".) Pimsleur is at the other end of the scale with no mention of "je" and more formal constructs. For the Dutch speakers, compare "Zou U iets willen eaten” vs “wil je iets eaten”, and “Ik zou iets willen drinken” vs. “Ik wil graag iets drinken”. The other differing translation I find interesting is Pimsleur translates "not now" as "niet nu", while MT uses "nu niet". I haven't looked into this more.

I'm not finding either of these courses particularly difficult. I'm not making enough mistakes to make me want to repeat any of the lessons. I'd say this is probably due to my earlier Assimil and other Input Only studies. One of the "great" features of Input Only is that you don't realize you're learning. This is a downside too if you're looking for tangible benefits like a progress bar.

So, my two sentence review: Pimsleur for pronunciation, MT for grammar and structures. And both only as supplementary materials.

As for my non-audio-only courses, I'll probably go back to Assimil after I've finished these ones. I'll be able to look at the gramar and sentences in a new light and hopefully the speaking practice will let me absorb more of the shadowing (and I won't hate it as much.)

I've also given up on my flash cards again. A discussion I had with a friend I think pointed out why. For me, I learn by introducing things that I've book-learned in other (preferably real-world) environments. With sentences on flash cards, the context doesn't change. Even if I can read the sentence, I haven't gotten something that I can usefully apply elsewhere. The "same word in multiple contexts" is something that the Assimil dialogs do well.

dimanche 10 octobre 2010

Paris, and back on the Dutch wagon.

We went to Paris at the start of September. We stayed in a B&B and spoke French with the hosts. I know I could have spoken more, and there were things I wasn't able to adequately articulate, but I know now that my French is sufficient that if I _needed_ to live entirely in French I could. This is a bit of a mental milestone for me -- accepting that I do in fact Speak French(tm).

Actually being in Paris was quite strange. It was oddly familiar, except of course that I had never been there before: I had only ever read/heard/seen stuff about it in my studies. Seeing locations from French In Action, knowing the names of streets and intersections and restaurants and neighbourhoods and metro lines and flea markets. (I suppose some of this matches with the experience of people who memorized all six seasons of "Sex and the City" and then head to NY.) We also of course hit some locations from Amélie, but that just felt like a touristy thing to do.

I also took advantage of the bookstores and picked up a number of French books: "Le Nom de la Rose" and "La Pendule de Foucault" both by Umberto Eco, "Le Cygne Noir" by Nassim Nicolas Taleb (to go with the copy of "Le Hasard Sauvage" I already had), and the French translation of Hofstadter's "Goedel, Escher, Bach". I've been enjoying Eco's "Dire Presque La Même Chose", but I'm progressing though it slowly mostly because I'm not making the time to read it in the evenings.

It's always nice to feel comfortable in a foreign place. I still feel bad speaking English in the markets in Amsterdam.

The other thing that happened was that I came back from Paris with more energy for speaking Dutch. I've slowly started studying again: I'm working through some audio courses and phrasebooks at the moment, trying to get my 'utility' dutch up and being able to speak what I know. I also picked up a couple more Dutch books so that should help me with looking for interesting content: I'm really feeling fed up with the material in the courses. I think I've lost my patience for "fake Dutch" much faster than with French: I stuck with stupid materials for French for _years_.

Looking forward with French, there's obviously a lot of work I need to do. Working in English in an environment with so many non-native speakers has made me (again) realise that I basically need to redo my entire math/cs undergrad in French. I've tried reading Wikipedia but I just can't get into it on my laptop. Maybe a tablet would be better, but I'm going to try to find a French CS textbook. More grammar work would probably help too -- maybe a CLE workbook or something. I wish I had taken notes on what I was unable to say when talking with the hosts at the B&B, because that would have at least given me a starting point on the vocab I'm missing (even if it's quite situation specific -- math/cs is probably more generally useful for me anyway..)

lundi 6 septembre 2010

Utility Italian, Utility Dutch

As I mentioned previously, when in Rome I did as the Romans did: I spoke Italian. Or rather, what little bits I had managed to pick up. My wife had gone through BBC's Italian travel course so she was a little more comfortable in her interactions with waiters and ice cream servers. Her take on the BBC's course was that she learned more useful Italian in the week or so she did the 6 lessons than in all the time she had spent with Assimil. Looking at the first few lessons of a number of courses, they all seem to have the same problem: small talk ("hello my name is..") isn't useful if you're a tourist or if you're living in the country. The waiter doesn't care what your name is, but he'd certainly want to know that you'd like a table in the shade and two iced-coffees please.

Goal-driven learning based on a set of common tourist (and other basic-living) tasks I think is the way to get started with a language if you're actually living where it's spoken. Only the FSI FAST courses seem to have this goal in mind. Oh, and phrasebooks. Leaving phrasebooks out of your study materials (like I had been doing -- oops) will leave you lapsing back into your common language in situations where you-as-an-expat are likely to use it the most: stores and restaurants.

I've also been having motivation problems with Dutch. At the start (january/march-ish) my studies were more forced labour. The intrinsic "Yes I want to do this" feeling wasn't there -- just the obligation that now that I was in Amsterdam I should speak Dutch. I expected to fall in love with the language as I learned more about it, as I had with French. That didn't happen. I was hoping I'd find materials in Dutch I wanted to read. That didn't happen either. I've had Dutch people tell me not to learn Dutch. Recommendations for good Dutch TV and movies are met with blank stares. "There isn't any. That's why we watch American shows instead." Most of the best-sellers are translations into Dutch.

So, do I reframe my goals to eliminate "dutch fluency" and replace it with "utility dutch"? Enough to get by in a restaurant and deal with bureaucracy, but not to bother with deciphering slang in movies and word play and humour and novels? My answer for the moment might be "yes". Hopefully with smaller goals that I _can_ be motivated to accomplish, I'll at least get somewhere. "Utility Dutch" I see as useful. Full fluency, for the moment, I do not.

The Polyglot meet up was fun and I'll probably go to more.