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Are English speakers louder than others, or do I just notice English more?

I’m torn on this. I live in a country and especially a city with a LOT of English speaking residents and visitors, but where it is not (quite) an official language. (Things aren’t quite so simple, but basically it’s not.) One can certainly get by with just English, although I have no desire so to do, and don’t. I definitely notice when I hear English being spoken on the bus/street/wherever, but then I notice when I hear French too, and I’m starting to notice more when I hear Russian as well. German doesn’t seem to come up as often, but I have picked it out a time or two in the more touristy areas. (I’ve never heard Irish here, although I’m sure its possible.) I don’t tend to notice Hebrew in the same way, but then it’s the default in most areas. (When I’m in a more English-speaking context I do notice the bits of Hebrew more.)

So absolutely I feel I tune in to all the languages I know, and I do find myself eavesdropping on people’s public conversations, although I usually couldn’t and wouldn’t want to recognise the person who had the conversation five minutes later. I don’t really want to know about them; I’m just enjoying deciphering the conversation. Probably a bad habit in terms of manners, if a good one for language learning.

I do still think, however, that English comes across significantly louder to me, and that perhaps at least some English speakers are particularly loud and open about their public conversations. (Not mentioning particular nations/regions of English speakers here!)



Beyond the grammar basics

I’ve been having an interesting conversation (it starts in post 6, and you don’t have to register/log in to read the thread) on a relatively subtle (but still potentially reasonably common) structure in Hebrew that I can’t find specifically addressed in any of  the three grammars DH and I have looked up today, either for Biblical or Modern Hebrew. (We read and discuss both, although we only speak the modern variety.)

I’ve asked some other native speaker friends (apparently this is one of those issues of prescriptive preference versus actual practice) and plan to email my most recent teacher for her opinion. I’ve been overthinking the issue, and can’t really remember at this point either what I would naturally say, or may have been taught to say (although I’m still not convinced this was ever specifically addressed). It sounds like either way would likely be acceptable for me to use, as someone with enough of an accent that I’m obviously not a native speaker. (That’s something to work on, but not right now.) The question is, do I want to follow the prescriptive preference, or the naturally practised form of the construction? Personally I’d like to sound educated, but not archaic, and most of all, comfortable and fluent in the language. I will, therefore, be investigating further, but also trying not to overthink things when I need to use the construction.

This isn’t the only instance of variations in grammar and register I’ve come across in Hebrew. The present tense of the verb to sleep, for instance, has an older (but widely used) irregular form that is regularised by many speakers. While I normally use the ‘correct’ form, I’ve been known to use the newer form when it was used first to me by someone offering to help (with my baby). There’s no point sounding snobby!

Some questions for you my blog-readers:

  • How do you investigate grammatical structures not covered by your preferred textbook or grammar?
  • Do you choose to use the ‘preferred’ form, or the more widely used form, in your second and further languages, or do you try to use both in different contexts?

I haven’t gone into the specifics of the question I’m dealing with here, because I’m more interested in the general question, for the sake of this blog. If you have comments either way, I’d be delighted to hear them.

Listening hard

Deutsche Welle

Image via Wikipedia

I saw a recommendation today of Deutsche Welle (“Germany’s International Broadcaster”) and in particular their Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten (News read slowly). While I don’t really need the slow version, I do like having a transcript of the broadcast while listening (and you can choose which version to listen to from the same page). If I’m feeling enthusiastic, this lets me look up the words I don’t know before, during or after, and even if not, it simply gives my eyes something relevant to be doing while listening. (I’m one of those kinetic learners who does a whole lot better using my hands while listening, or if not, using at least two senses at a time.)

I hadn’t come across Deutsche Welle before, but a quick look around suggests there’s plenty more for the German-learner there as well, which I shall have to investigate. It appears to me to be somewhat equivalent to the BBC World Service, offering news and information on Germany and German perspectives to people around the world in up to 30 languages.

New motivations

I had pretty much been thinking that German was going to get worked on pretty much solely as a language for reading for the time being, but then my little brother got engaged and decided his wedding is most likely going to be in Germany. There’s over a year to go, I believe, but presuming we’ll be able to go, both DH and I would want to get our spoken German as good as we can, for use while travelling and with local wedding guests. (From what DH has said, his is probably better than mine, although neither of us has used it regularly in several years.)

Somehow, reviving what feels right now in my nervousness like a fairly pitiful level of spoken German (although I don’t think I’m that bad at reading) is far more scary than starting from scratch with Russian, probably because I feel I should be better at German. I just have to prevent that from holding me back…

Lost along the way

Ogham StoneAfter writing yesterday’s post, I remembered four more alphabet systems I half-learned as a child, but have basically forgotten through lack of use. Ogham came up several times in school, as of local and historical interest, and Arthur Ransome‘s Swallows and Amazons series inspired me to want to learn both Semaphore and the nautical flag alphabet. (I can still read mirror writing!)  Morse Code may have come up in those too, but if not, it certainly did in other stories I liked. As I said yesterday, with enough motivation for the required application it wouldn’t take more than a couple of days to get to know those better than I ever did as a child, but really I don’t need any of them at the moment.

More of a pity not to have learned more of is Irish Sign Language. Some friends arranged ten weekly lessons for us when we were in school, and although we had a very good teacher and enjoyed the classes, somehow the sessions never got renewed, probably because none of us had the opportunity to use the language with anyone but our teacher. As I was taught in my linguistics degree, sign languages meet all the same criteria as other natural languages, (this is not the fact for manually coded versions of spoken languages) and they aren’t all the same. For that reason, if I were to find an opportunity/motivation/need to learn one now, it would likely be Israeli Sign Language, or whichever one used by my expected interlocuters.

Learning alphabets

As with most things language related, saying precisely how many alphabets I can read and write isn’t easy. I learnt the

The spreading of main alphabets in Europe and ...

Image via Wikipedia - spread of the main alphabets used in Europe.

Latin alphabet before I remember, by the age of four or five, for English and Irish. That also sufficed, with the addition of a few more accents/diacritics (modern Irish has one, the fada) for French and the ß for German. We got introduced to a few of the Greek letters in studying maths and sciences, but I still haven’t gone through and learned the whole thing properly, although I suppose I should.

Learning the Hebrew alphabet happened in fits and starts over several years. I first tried as a child, from a book that was meant for younger children in a taught class, and wasn’t really very friendly for learning alone, so I only got about half the way through. I really got it as a young adult, when I had more personal motivation, and sat down and just did it over a couple of days. That’s been the strategy which later worked for Braille (BAUK) about three years ago and Cyrillic most recently. I had a go at Cyrillic a few years before, on a two week visit to Bulgaria, but it didn’t stick until I started using it lately. (And yes, Bulgarian Cyrillic is slightly different from Russian Cyrillic, although I don’t at this moment recall exactly how.)

Venn diagram of Greek, Latin and Russian Cyril...

Image via Wikipedia - Venn diagram of Cyrillic, Latin and Greek capital letters.

So that’s the strategy I’d suggest: don’t make it a major big deal, but when you are motivated and will get the practice because you’ll be trying to read, and maybe write, regularly, simply take a few days and go over your chosen alphabet, a few letters at a time. Take advantage of the strong similarities in order and beware the sometimes false similarities in shape, and don’t worry if you make mistakes and ‘silly’ mix-ups between letters.

I haven’t yet tried learning a non-alphabetic script. How do those who have find they compare?

The swift decline in fluency

Yeouch! I haven’t been getting out and speaking to people regularly in Hebrew (after five months of four hours per day intensive classes, I’m suddenly down to random and generally brief conversations a couple of times a week) and it really shows in how easily I speak. This is a lot of why I don’t define fluency as to do with how many words I know or anything like that: I still understand all that stuff I learned, and can read or listen to it just as well, as I can in French, but my production is already far more stilted and slow. Not only is that frustrating for me, but it discourages the people I do get to talk to from broadening the conversation, as they are unsure what I can cope with, which in turn means I’m getting less advanced practice.

Yes, I know what I need to do to overcome this: find some people (preferably face-to-face people) to get to know and speak to in Hebrew on a regular basis, at least once a week. I’m thinking about looking for a mother-and-toddler group locally, as that would help to integrate me and the baby into the area (I’ve been here 2.5 years, but I don’t know that many people, and most of those are English speakers – I’m not very good at this), expose her to other children and the language, and give me more opportunity to make friends and speak to actual adults other than my husband on more occasions. (He’s wonderful, of course, but I do need to be more sociable for myself.) Depending on the group, this might just mean discussing childcare, but that’s useful too, and hopefully it’d be more extensive.

So, now I’m making the plan public I have to follow through with it, right? You can all keep me accountable!