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Family language learning challenge

Deb over on Sixtine and the Little Things just today linked to the Language Challenge 180 on Multilingual Living, which looks intriguing enough that I’ve signed up pretty much sight unseen. The six-month whole family language learning challenge starts on March 1st, and will hopefully include inspiration and practical experience on sharing one’s languages with one’s children.

Deb and I had pretty similar posts yesterday too, but that’s coincidental – mine went up first and she didn’t know I had this one.

I should have more time tomorrow and can get back to more thoughtful posts, but I thought this would be of interest to some of you, too.



Just some quick links to a story of interest today: the BBC reports today that a 20 year old has won a competition to find the most polyglot student in the UK:

Twenty-year-old Alex Rawlings has won a national competition to find the UK’s most multi-lingual student.

The Oxford University undergraduate can currently speak 11 languages – English, Greek, German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Hebrew, Catalan and Italian.

Entrants in the competition run by the publishers Collins had to be aged between 16 and 22 and conversant in multiple languages.

They also have a longer article on other “hyperpolyglot” people, the most interesting part of which, in my personal opinion, is the suggestion that 11 languages is a significant watershed, with those who speak more languages than this being particularly rare. This is apparently the opinion of the author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard, which sounds like it might be an interesting book.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get the videos attached to the two articles to display, so can’t comment on those. I also haven’t found the announcement from Collins itself.

How do you approach grammar?

English: illustration from Leech's comic latin...

Image via Wikipedia

Working on Russian as I have been for the last week or two, using Memrise and one or two other online resources, as well as a textbook that is meant for those working alone, I realise that I’ve been pushed to try to make sense of grammatical forms I haven’t officially learned about yet, pretty much right from the beginning. I don’t know that I’d have planned to do it this way, but it seems to be suiting me down to the ground!

I’m coming across word forms and having to try to work out out, without explanations, why they are spelt/pronounced in certain ways and in certain combinations, and then go to my book and learn the rule. Doing it this way forces me to think about what is going on far more that I would if first presented with the rule and gobs of examples, and thus I tend to understand those rules and examples far better than I do if presented with them passively, even if my suppositions had been slightly incorrect and had to be amended.

It’s possible that I am somewhat unusual in this interest in working out grammar for myself – I studied linguistics at university, specialising in syntax (not morphology, although it came up in the more general classes) and strongly considered staying in the academic field before trying other things instead (I still wonder about going back to it some day) – and yet it would seem to me pedagogically obvious that complex structures are going to be learnt more easily actively than passively.

So why do I feel like none of my language teachers ever asked me to attack grammatical tables, or better yet true life examples, this way and try to make sense of them, rather than just learning the charts off by rote? (My linguistics tutors/lecturers certainly did, often with languages we weren’t learning at all.) Some have got closer to that when reviewing structures we were supposed to have learned already, and it often helped, but by then many times people (including me, on occasion) would be feeling overwhelmed and for some it seemed simply too late.

I’m certainly neither the first nor the last to decry grammar education in all our languages; what I want is to work out the best way(s) for me to familiarise myself with how to speak Russian well, and if I get to share thoughts on the topic with others along the way then so much the better!

Fluency versus Erudition

In a rather fruitful and interesting exchange around last Thursday’s post about the Goldlist method, its originator seemed surprised that I denied his contention that fluency in a language requires at least 10,000 words. I still do, but I certainly take his point that to be an interesting and apparently well-educated user of the language does require a large vocabulary. I do continue to maintain that one can be fluent (at least in particular fields) with far fewer expressions known, and that one could be able to recite back 20,000 or more words and still be a stilted, stumbling speaker, if not completely familiar with the grammar of the language.

To my way of thinking, then, the erudite speaker is both fluent and of a broad and productive vocabulary which is capably used within flowing, precise, grammatical discourse.

The question is, of course, is this the kind of speaker one is aiming to be. In principle I would opine that the majority of us would like to speak our second and further languages as well as we do our first, but it may have to be acknowledged that this means different things for each of us. Those of us who anticipate being erudite speakers of our native tongues will likely wish to be likewise in our second and further languages also.

I must admit, then, that as someone who has always been told she has an unusually extensive vocabulary in English (yes, the picture is a screenshot from a few minutes ago, from the first site I found that claimed to test one’s vocabulary – I got the maximum score, although with a quiz of just ten questions I am unconvinced by the accuracy of the test) I was surprised to realise just how much lower I’m setting my sights  in my other languages.

This site, where a study of the topic is being undertaken, seems probably more accurate, credits me with knowing 37,100 words, slightly above the 20,000-35,000 they have mostly been finding for adult native-English speakers among their respondents. They do state, however, that their respondents appear to be more verbal than the American average. Interestingly, their non-native-English speaking respondents mostly fall in the range of knowing 2,500-9,000 words, although again the participants are self-selecting, and in this case know enough English to understand the test instructions. I also found an interesting article comparing the expected vocabulary sizes of average college-educated native speakers (up to 20,000 words) with what an intelligent and determined ESL student might accomplish.

I have not so far come across a reasonably accurate such test for French, Hebrew or German, to see where I am currently at. If anyone knows of some I’d be happy to try them out for comparison purposes. It should be noted however, that French and English share a lot of their vocabulary, particularly as one approaches the more recondite terminology, and German will also benefit from some of this overlap. This applies to Hebrew to a somewhat lesser extent, but one should always find that learning a second language increases one’s vocabulary the others. (I can still be fairly accurate about my vocabulary in Russian, which is 100+ words and steadily rising.) While FreeRice, which is a great site for challenging one’s English vocabulary, does offer other subjects as well, its French and German offerings are only for learners at a fairly basic level.

Reading widely is, in my opinion, likely to remain the best way to enhance one’s passive vocabulary, and making use of that wordbank in one’s speech and writing the best way to make it active, but upon further consideration I do now see far more point than I did just a few days ago in making a specific effort to learn words and phrases even beyond the beginning stages. How one should make this effort may still be in question for me personally, but the goal is certainly a start.

Encouraging others to speak

This evening my 15 month old daughter decided she wanted to climb up the stairs (our front door opens at the top of a flight of uncarpeted stone stairs leading down to our single level apartment – there is a gate two steps from the bottom which we keep closed so that she cannot climb up unsupervised) and since this is a skill we want her to develop so long as she is safe, I allowed her through the gate and followed her up, a step or two behind. She steadily and speedily climbed to two steps from the top, and began to come down again, backwards as is appropriate at this stage. I encouraged her verbally, however, to climb all the way up to the top step, at which point she noticed the banister, which was barely within her reach. Going for that, she began to fall, and while I caught her before she could hurt herself, she did get rather a fright, so I carried her down again and comforted her. I will, however, be encouraging her to climb the stairs again in the near future, under careful supervision, of course!

What has this to do with language learning, beyond the fact that she understood my verbal encouragements to continue to the top? Well, just as a baby has to be allowed to take some small risks in learning to move about the world, so a language learner needs to feel both enticed and supported to actively use the tongue they are studying. While most of the courage will have to come from the learner, there are ways native and fluent speakers can be helpful, both to child and adult learners. Some ideas of mine, with a focus on older second language learners:

  • Respect the attempt to communicate; be friendly and continue the conversation, if you possibly can. Time and circumstance wait for none of us, but there are people (especially our children) we should make time for, if this is an issue, and it should always be feasible to be polite at least, and enthusiastic at best.
  • Speak more slowly and clearly, where that will help, but don’t make the person feel bad just because you aren’t willing to accommodate them. I have lost count of the times a telephone ‘customer service’ agent or salesperson insisted on speaking (what felt to me like) 10,000 words to the minute and when I couldn’t keep up declared they were transferring me to someone who spoke English. Nine times out of ten, I then converse with their more considerate or just naturally clear-spoken colleague perfectly happily and effectively in Hebrew or French, as appropriate.
  • Don’t rush to change to another mutual language, when someone is making a sincere effort to speak yours. Obviously this will take judgement; where the point is information which needs to be exchanged, a second language user may appreciate an official who speaks their native language, but it is generally polite to ask if they would prefer that. It is also possible to use both languages within a conversation, in many instances.
  • Use careful judgement and always be polite in correcting errors. Obviously there may be ambiguities which need clarification, but especially with (advanced) beginners, don’t risk shutting down their desire to speak by correcting every minor thing. In most cases you will understand what they are trying to say, and would do better to keep the conversation going. They may realise the error themselves, either immediately or later, but if you see a persistent fault (i.e. something that you hear a few times, possibly on more than one occasion) in someone you are acquainted with well enough to think they would appreciate the correction, then quietly (i.e. not in front of a crowd – I am not addressing this post to class-teachers) explain the one or two points where they seem to be going wrong in a friendly and encouraging manner. From what I’ve learned about child language acquisition, however, I wouldn’t bother correcting young children – they’ll work it out in their own time and probably won’t listen to your correction anyhow. (Again, not addressing this to situations which require a qualified speech and language therapist, who will have specific professional advice where appropriate.)

Basically, be the native speaker you want to encounter, and if nothing else, remember your manners!

Flashcard systems

I’m sure I’ve never spent as much time thinking about flashcards or other vocabulary learning systems as I have this week. As I concluded yesterday, I can personally only see the point in trying to take in large quantities of new vocabulary at a time in a structured way at the early stages of learning a language, so for me right now that means I’m only making the attempt with Russian.

For my other languages I’m proceeding much as I do in English – reading and talking as much as I can, and when I come across new words ascertaining their meaning from context and/or dictionaries etc, and then when convenient writing them down for the benefit that gives me. I figure if I need them, they’ll come up again or will be memorable enough to stick. Basically I’m being lazy, and justifying it, but I’m also being realistic for myself.

Still, I certainly am at that early stage with Russian, and thus want a system beyond just writing the words down once (which I’m also doing). When offline, I’m using the set of Vis-Ed flashcards I mentioned on Saturday night, but I’ve seen so much about how helpful some of the computer-based systems can be that I’ve been briefly looking into some of those too. Anki is highly recommended, from what I’ve seen, but requires downloading the program to one’s computer, and neither of our decrepit machines is really up to new software right now, so I’ve dismissed it for the time being. (There is some online access to one’s decks that I found, but it still seems to require setting up from the downloaded program.) I already had a Quizlet account, and the website certainly works and has plenty of functionality, but I’ve been finding it a bit awkward to use, and therefore don’t generally feel called back to do more.

Memrise LogoMy father sent me an article the other day about Memrise, so I’ve been trying that out and enjoying the process quite a bit. I am learning new words and phrases, but more importantly, it’s sent me back to the book I’m using to work on the grammar a bit more, which then helps me to understand the spellings and usages I’m coming across in the shared Russian introductory lists. I haven’t tried adding any cards/lists of my own, so can’t comment on that, but the system of learning and being tested on the words and phrases is a lot more comfortable and enjoyable than the Quizlet version. It also recognises when one is close to spelling something right, and gives the chance to redo it correctly, rather than just marking it as wrong. The multiple choice questions do often allow one to ‘cheat’ slightly (e.g. the phrase to identify is “we live” and there is only one card beginning “Мы…” (“we…”), but I don’t mind that at this stage when the pronouns are also pretty new to me. As I said, the fact that it’s encouraging me to learn, think about and use the grammar that I think is the greatest benefit. The vocab is also useful, but secondary for me.

Initial thoughts on a long term vocab learning system

I’m sorry if I seem to be obsessing over vocabulary learning, but it always seems to be a large and looming topic in any discussion of language learning, and I’ve had leads to a couple of new resources/ideas in the last day or two, so have been mulling things over more.

The first was actually a WordPress link to another blog by the propounder of the Goldlist system for vocabulary retention. He and some of his ‘followers’ have several Youtube videos on the system, and while I haven’t watched them all, I don’t think I’ll be taking on this system in full, although it may encourage me in the parts that I do anyway. Basically, my very rough understanding (and I only spend about an hour reading/watching information on the system, if that, and a few more making some lists and thinking about some of the pros and cons, so it’s quite possible I have misunderstood) is that Mr James (not sure about the name – he seems to go by several online) is proposing his system for putting (and testing) words, phrases and concepts in the long term memory, rather than the short term memory he feels flashcards and the like focus on.

He suggests using handwriting as a method of engaging the body in one’s learning of vocabulary, and setting aside a nice notebook (not scrappy bits of paper – this is something you’re going to go back to and want to spend some time over) to make lists of the words etc you are interested in learning. Taking time and enjoying the process of making the link (and presumably thoroughly understanding it) between the phrase and its translation/short explanation is important, but after that process, one basically ignores that list for a period of between a fortnight and two months. I believe one is encouraged to make other lists in the meantime, even many in a given day (although leaving some time between making two lists, to let the first one sink in), so that this become a rolling process. After two weeks, or however long you give it, you go back and see how many of the idea/words you remember, and make a new list of the ones you don’t (a retention rate of about 30% is expected, so don’t be disappointed if/when the list doesn’t dwindle that fast) and then repeat the process.

Some of the Youtube videos I saw were by people who have been using the method for some years, and swear by it, so it has plenty of proponents. I can certainly relate to the benefits of writing down vocab and concepts by hand, in a nice notebook (I put them in my diary, mixed in with my thoughts and experiences, and often there’s interplay between the two), and even to rewriting the things one has forgotten, but I don’t think this system is for me, for a few reasons:

  • Time: I don’t necessarily have 25 uninterrupted minutes to give to writing something out nicely by hand – every time I try my baby wants my pen and notebook to write with herself!
  • More importantly, I know myself and I wouldn’t keep up the practice of going back to the lists regularly. I made a few yesterday, while I was intrigued by the method, and as above I had my older diaries to garner words from, but this isn’t the kind of thing I can see myself committing to.
  • Most importantly, however, I don’t really see the point. If I haven’t needed a word or phrase in that amount of time, do I now? How long am I supposed to go on learning words in lists, rather than as they come along, as I do in my native tongue?

That last point really is the clincher for me, and after a lot of thinking and discussing with my husband, I came to the conclusion that I just don’t feel the need to learn lists of words once I’m beyond the beginner stages with a language. This is why the flashcards, and some online systems I was going to discuss in this post but will at this point put off till tomorrow or later, are great for me at the moment with Russian, but are just boring in Hebrew, French, or even German. I don’t believe vocabulary makes for fluency, at all – fluency is what you do with the words you know, and how you get around the ones you don’t, in my opinion. Mr James suggests 10,000 words in long-term memory for fluency, and so devised this system, but I feel it encourages knowing words for the sake of knowing them, without any real focus on which words or phrases will ever be needed again. I agree that to an extent we are at the mercy of which words take our brain’s fancy, but I tend to prefer a relevance (to me) focus. I may be mistaking his system, and I will be inviting the gentleman himself to comment on this post. I’m not sure he’ll make me a devotee, but I can see enough good in the system not to want to misrepresent it.

Okay, I’ve found some reasonably clear videos on the system. The first is about making lists and initially distilling them, while the second is more of an overview of the system as a whole.