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Guide to Learning Languages, part 3

 Language Learning Forum : Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies (Topic Closed Topic Closed) Post Reply
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Iversen
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 Message 1 of 11
16 September 2009 at 3:03pm | IP Logged 
This thread is the third part of a series of guides to language learning, and no. 1 thread in this series is found HERE. The necessary caveats can also be seen there.


Grammar in general:

Quoted from my profile thread, 09 January 2008:

When it comes to learning grammar you should consider two cases: the easily specifiable morphology and the more elusive syntax (and the even more elusive idiomatics).

To learn morphology I make simplified tables according to my own ideas. I normally write them on thick green paper so that they don't get lost among all the white paper I soil every day. While I'm still learning the morphology of a language I keep these green sheets within sight so that I can always check an obscure ending when I need to, - that's as least as efficient memorywise as repeating conjugations and declensions all day long. But of course I have to study the tables in the books throroughly in order to write my own green sheets, and that is also part of the learning process. When I write "simplified" I take it to mean that I cut out everything that are only based on a few words. Exceptions should be learnt as exceptions, they shouldn't clutter your 'general case' tables. I normally don't use example words, but just indicate the infixes and the endings, plus maybe an indication of forms with likely vowel changes etc., but that has to be decided for each language.

Syntax should generally be learnt in close conjunction with actual reading and listening. You take a problem area and then look for cases in real life. Of course you have to get an overview over for instance types of subordinate phrases with their conjunctions even at the early stages, but to master the details and make them productive in your own speech and writing, nothing beats spending some time with your attention tuned in to a certain kind of grammatical phenomenon.

If you have learnt the basics of grammar in your target language (i.e. the whole morphological system plus the use of conjunctions, infinite verbal forms, the cases that goes with specific prepositions and things like that), then the learning the rest of the syntax will be fairly close to learning the idiomatics of a your target language.

And that can be done through reading, provided that you stay alert to these things and don't focus entirely on the meaning. One trick to do this is to choose a certain grammatical phenomen and then keep that on your mind while reading or listening. It really doesn't matter which phenomenon you choose (it could for instance be prepositions after verbs in English or aspect in Russian), because being alert to one phenomenon will also make you notice other things in the grammar of the message. The imporant thing is to avoid being focused entirely on the meaning.

But those things in grammar that can be formalized and put into a system will be more efficiently learned if you do consult a grammar when you are intrigued by something. And you can only consult a grammar efficiently if you know where to find what in at least one specific grammar book.


Edited by Iversen on 22 September 2009 at 9:30am

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Iversen
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 Message 2 of 11
16 September 2009 at 3:04pm | IP Logged 
How to learn morphology

Quoted from my profile thread, 16 July 2008:

Morphology is dominated by tables. Nobody in their sane mind believe that you can learn a language by memorizing these tables plus x words, but the reaction against learning morphology by heart has in my opinion gone too far. If you compare old editions of for instance Teach yourself with newer editions then the authors have tried to hide the tables by dividing them into bits and pieces so that you never get the full picture. Other systems avoid giving you the canonical names for cases and verbal forms. Instead they use circumlocutions and homemade descriptions in the base language of the courseware, which is even more idiotic than using the old Latin-based systems which could at least be used again and again. I'm aware that many classical and traditional distinctions with Latin names are too detailed and to irrelevant to be taken seriously, but using an international set of case names for (roughly) equivalent cases is a blessing for those that try to learn several languages, and if those names are Latin then that's just fine with me.

The alternative to learning the formal names and tables by heart is to expect everything to sort itself out if you just get enough input (and make enough errors to elicit a sufficient number of corrections). I'm aware that children learn their first language in this way, and I have nothing against these activities - on the contrary! However as grown-ups who can read we have to chance to use some tools that children can't yet use, and as long as we remember that these tools aren't the main point about learning languages I don't see why we shouldn't use them to speed up the process and avoid misunderstandings.

And now for the more practical side of morphology learning. When I want to get a first impression of a new language (even if I don't intend to learn it) the morphological tables are among the first things I check out. I want to know which forms I can expect to meet later and what the regular forms look like, - the different kinds or irregularities don't interest me at this point, except in verbs like 'to be' and 'to have' which are fundamental in the language. I also read about the different uses of the different forms, but without going into details. Getting an overview before learning the details is important for me.

If it is a language that I intend to learn then the next step is to make my own tables, preferably based on several books. At this point I decide how the presentation should be (with the option of changing my opinion later). That is not necessarily the way that things are set up in the grammar books. For instance I prefer to have the nominal case order   Vocative Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative Instrumental Prepositional/Locative[/ablative in Latin] ... so far I haven't learnt languages with more cases than this. The reason that I want to have exactly the same case order in all languages I know is that I use the spatial arrangement as a visual memory tool, and having a lot of fluctuating sorting orders would totally spoil that.    

In some cases my analysis lead to a result that is different from those in the books. For instance it is evident that Greek verbs have two stems, and there is a present and a past simple form for each of them (in active and passive). However the 'present' of the aorist isn't really used as a present, but with θα and να it is used as future resp. subjunctive (there are a few cases where it can be seen in isolation, but a beginner can ignore these). So we get a simple 2 x 2 x 2 matrix, where the endings to a large extent are reused or - in the passive - a set of endings inspired by the passive of the verb 'to be'. The books tend to use other setups based mainly on historical principles, but I can learn those when I decide to learn old Greek - I can ignore these considerations now.

Another example: in Russian my preferred grammar denies that perfective verbs have a present, - instead they have a future, that happens to look exactly like the present of the imperfective verbs. What really happens is that the present tense of perfective verbs take on a futuric meaning, but it is exactly the same form as that of the imperfective verbs and it should be treated as that. The only true future is a compund formed with the verb "быть" (to be) + the infinitive, but only imperfective verbs need to use this form - the perfective use their present instead for semantic reasons.

Complex verbal forms should generally be learnt as some auxiliary verb plus an infinite form of the regular verb - so there is absolutely no reason to write all the forms in a table for the regular verbs. Auxiliary verbs are few and generally irregular so you should learn those in a process separate from the study of the regular verbs. There are certain exceptions where the finite part of a composite verbal form can't be used in isolation. For instance in the case of the Romanian futuric forms with (v)oi + infinitive there aren't any simple verbform voi or oi, even though these forms historically come from the verb for 'to go'. Nevermind, just learn these forms as the forms of a any other irregular verb.

The real problem with complex forms is how to draw the line between constructions that really should be mentioned in any conjugation table because they are used instead of simple forms - versus constructions that more look like idiomatic expressions. And while we are at it, I am surprised that those grammars I have seen don't stress more clearly that English has developed two complete sets of parallel verbal forms: simple form + compound forms with a past participle versus the 'progressive' (or 'imperfective') forms based on a present participle (or 'gerund'): "I have done" vs. "I have been doing". The general tendency in the modern Indoeuropean languages is that compound forms invade the realm of the simple forms, and this is something that can be illustrated graphically. But everywhere I just see tables with a mixture of simple and compound forms.

Truly irregular words don't belong in tables for regular verb declension or noun conjugation. They should be studied one word at a time with a table containing all their forms, combined with lots of examples drawn from reality. In fact these words are often so common so that you will meet them in almost any text so it's easy to make a collection. But don't let them clutter your tables.

Systematic irregularities based on phonological criteria are best learnt with each word in the language. But you have to know where the irregularities occur, and luckily there are mostly a systematic side to this. For instance Spanish verbs with 'o' normally have 'ue' in certain forms, and this is so regular a feature that you have to make room for it in your regular tables. But you don't have to clutter your tables with each and every type of phonological alternation because they generally run in parallel - so it is enough to mark those forms in your table where these alterations occur, and then the plethora of possible changes can be shown in a note to the table.

Another case: Russian nouns and adjectives. There are different sets of endings that corresponds to situations with a preceding soft sound vs. situations with a hard sound, - which in practical terms just means that you have either Ы or и in the endings (resp.о or е/ё). This is different from cases where there is a non-phonological irregularity (датчанин, where the suffix нин disappears in certain forms), and cases where one form only is affected. You can make a note in your table that certain masculine nouns have -a in Nominative plural insted of Ы or и, but put the actual list of such nouns somewhere else, don't quote it in your table.

There are in fact cases where two sets of endings exist, each for a certain class of words. For instance all the Germanic languages have strong and weak verbs and strong and weak nouns. A strong verb generally uses a vowel shift to indicate its past tense (swim swam) while a weak verb relies on the ending (jump jumped). Of course there are irregularities (do did), but as usual: learn the system as a system and learn the exceptions as exceptions one at a time. Classically oriented grammars make separate classes for each and every combination of vowel changes in the strong verbs, but you don't have to make tables for all these. Learn the endings for strong verbs in general, learn the most common vowel combinations and finally learn with each new verb what its present, it preterite and its participle is, then you don't need a name. I remember when I learnt Latin in school we had to memorize the main forms of all verbs and the irregular verbs in particular. Just do the same thing with the strong verbs in the Germanic languages.

There are also strong and weak nouns in the Germanic languages, but in spite of most grammars it is nonsense to speak about strong and weak adjectives in for instance the Nordic languages and German. What happens is that in some cases there is a definitive determiner of some kind (typically a definite article) and then ALL adjectives have another set of endings - called weak - than in the absence of such a determiner. So there aren't too classes of adjectives, but only two parallel sets of endings. It is idiotic that the same words (strong vs. weak) are used to describe so different phenomena.

I won't say more about this kind of analysis because it will inevitably be different from language to language, and there are just too many things to mention here. The main point is that you should identify truly irregular cases and kick them out of your regular tables, you should identify groups of minor irregularities and mention them - but write the list of affected words somewhere else, and if there are really two or more sets of regular endings then you have to include them.

One beneficial sideeffect of this analysis is that you may accidentally learn the forms, but to be sure I have made it a habit to write my final versions af the tables on green sheets of cardboard which I try to keep within sight whenever I work with a certain language. If I then see a dubious ending I can check the table, and in this way I will soon learn all the regular forms without doing any memorizing in the strict sense of the word.

Besides I make a limited number of morphological annotations when I make word lists: in Greek I make a note of the form af the aorist with any verb unless it is formed in a trivial way, in Russian I make a note of the gender of nouns on -ь and I always learn imperfective and perfective verbs in pairs. I rarely make lists of German words, but when I do I mark feminine and neutral nouns, but not masculine ones - because most German nouns are masculine so unless there is an indication to the contrary your best guess will be that any given new word is masculine.      

As I wrote in the beginning you don't learn morphology for its own sake. The positive thing about morphology is that it CAN be learnt from a combination of reading + listening and a wee bit of old fashion black school table trashing.


Edited by Iversen on 26 October 2009 at 11:23am

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Iversen
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 Message 3 of 11
16 September 2009 at 3:05pm | IP Logged 
Green sheets

Quoted from my profile thread, 16 July 2008:


I am going to write about analyzing and learning grammar. I haven't had time to check out my old posts, so I may be repeating myself (or worse: repeating myself). Besides I have to warn you: some people can't get my methods to work for them. No problem, provided that that you have an alternative.

First, if you want to learn grammar you have to be able to make at least a rough analysis of a sentence in its main parts (subject, direct and indirect object, verb, etc) and you have to know what nouns (substantives), finite and infinite verbal forms, cases and such things are. If you already know one foreign language then you have probably learnt the correct terms and analysis techniques there, otherwise you you have to learn these things from scratch with your own language as an example. But you HAVE to know at least the basic grammatical wordstock before you set out to learn a new language with the help of grammars, otherwise it will be a complete waste of your time. When you open the grammars for your new language then be prepared to add some terms and even revise your conceptions about other terms to suit the new language, but you have to start somewhere.

Next: try to get more than one grammar. If you can't get more than one full size grammar then even the short sketchy grammatical sections of travellers' language guides will be better than nothing. Your first task will be to look through the morphological sections and compare them. Do they agree on the terminology? The order of cases? The number of declensions? Do the divide the verbs into corresponding groups, and do they list the same verbal forms? Probably not, which may come as a nasty surprise to many learners.

Now look at the adjectives and the substantives. Do their endings in the different cases - if there are cases at all - look almost similar or not? Are there articles? Look at the verbs in the same way, - try to get a comprehensive view of the whole morphology in this way. Then leave the morphology aside and read the syntactical sections with the same critical attitude. Which kinds of subordinate sentences are there, and which constructions with infinite verbal forms do you find, which may or may not correspond to subordinate constructions and vice versa in the languages you already know. Remember, you are not supposed to learn any of these things by heart yet, just find out what there is to learn later.

Next step, - you have to learn something by heart, sorry. But don't do it without also having some texts to use at the same time. I say texts because I find it easier to read than to understand spoken words in the beginning, - if you have a teacher then by all means listen to him/her, but find some things to read also, - preferably bilingual texts. The internet may be a good source for parallel texts, or you can get some from text books or touristical guidebooks, but DO try to use bilingual texts in the beginning, it will spare you a lot of misunderstandings and a lot of half-understood constructions along the way. And most translations aren't so precise that they will do all the work for you - you will still have to look things up. If you can find hyperliteral translations then just be happy, but they are rare.

Among the first things to learn by heart would be the main forms of the most common verbs til 'to be' and 'to have', the personal pronouns and things like that. You will have to learn them by heart eventually so you can just as well start now. Do what most people do: read them aloud many times, write them, find them in your texts and identify the forms, make associations (if you can) and so forth. Do the same kind of forced slave labour with some of the forms of articles and substantives (you don't have to learn everything by heart now, but you should be aware of which forms you have left for later - unlike the way most text books work!).

But do one thing more: get some coloured paper and write all the main forms down on such paper for reference. You are now entering the next phase.

As you probably have noted your grammars aren't in total agreement. Maybe you can even spot some inconsistencies. Now think hard about a way to organize the forms of articles and adjectives and nouns on one sheet (maybe two), and all the verbal forms on another - and do it in a logical fashion. For instance all Germanic languages have strong and weak verbs (the first group basically change the verb through the tenses), so your tables should show that in some way - use colors or special signs or different kinds of dividing lines for such things. Don't put irregular forms into your tables for the regular forms, - if a set of endings is used only by two or three verbs then leave them for a list over irregular nouns or verbs or whatever - these tables aren't meant to contain everything, but only the basic things which you must learn soon.

The idea is that you keep these colored sheets whithin in sight whenever you work with the language - personally I use a note stand. If you see a form that bothers you (or you need it while writing) then look at your collection of coloured sheets. Making these sheets yourself makes you think about each single form, and looking at them daily for maybe a month will make them into something like an extension of your brain. Therefore it is also extremely important that you settle for a specific way of presenting the facts, because you then have the added possibility of remembering for instance a certain verbal form as a specific spot on a specific sheet (but only until you can remember the form without help, of course).

When I first wrote about my 'green sheets' almost everybody criticised that I only wrote the endings. But this criticism was misguided: by using whole example words you tie the tables to some irrelevant example words. However in practice you will almost always have a specific word in mind when you use these tables, so it doesn't matter that they only contain the endings. And with only the endings you can make the tables much more compact so that you ideally can fit the whole regular part of the morphology of any (friendly) language into maybe 4 or 5 sheets. Plus a number of sheets for pronouns and other more or less irregular adjectives, nouns and verbs.    

To learn syntax you can to some degree make 'green sheets', for instance for the verbal forms used in different kinds of subordinates or the different kinds of pronouns. But most of the syntax has to be learnt using other methods. One of these is to first compare a few descriptions of some problem to find out what the main issues are, and then make your own collection of examples, using some from your grammars, some from your own texts - though you probably won't be able to illustrate everything without perusing hundreds of pages - don't spend your time on that, but just go through for instance ten pages. If the thing you are looking for is common then it is there, and otherwise it isn't common and then it is less important to know about it (!) But even looking for something without finding it will help you to remember what it should look like.

One little, but important warning: don't waste time on writing down the examples in their full length, but cut them down to the important part - and don't try to remember the examples you find as as full sentences, but cut them down to short mnemonic formulas such as "to do something to somebody" (with suitable dummy words).

Later on you should keep a notebook for funny syntactical items, not least those that you have been looking in vain for. This will keep you alert, and being alert is one of the most efficient things when it comes to learning languages. This also applies to idiomatic expressions, which is in a sense the continuation of syntax when it has become too individualized to put into a fixed structure.
(end of quote)

Quote from my profile thread, 16 July 2008:

Here are a couple of 'green sheets' to illustrate the method sketched out in the preceding post. The first is the table of regular Russian adjectival and nominal endings, the second is the table for regular Modern Greek verbs. And no, these tables are not meant for memorizing - otherwise I would have used full words in the Russian table. They are meant for learning while I make them and for later reference, and therefore it is enough to indicate the regular endings if space is scarce. And because they until now only have been for my personal use I have also dropped long case names and things like that. Of course these sheets are just meant as a memory aid for one specific person on this planet - but hopefully they can inspire others to take a more independent look at their study materials.







Edited by Iversen on 16 September 2009 at 3:13pm

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Iversen
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 Message 4 of 11
16 September 2009 at 3:10pm | IP Logged 
How to learn syntactical patterns

For me the key to memorizing syntactical patterns is reduction of these patterns to something I can visualize. To take a concrete example: let's assume that I have seen the French relativ pronoun 'lequel' for the first time, and now I want to learn to use it. My grammar tells me that it is both a relative pronoun and an interrogative pronoun, and a big fat old grammar like Grevisse would also give some examples from venerated and famous authors, - including examples written in a style that even in written French has become obsolete. I am perfectly aware that these quotes are necessary for the linguist who has to research something before writing a paper about it, but they are too complicated for me who just want to learn the use of the word "lequel". So what I want to see is the morphological information that "lequel" is inflected ("laquelle" if the reference is feminine, lesquelles in plural, "duquel", "auquel" when combined with the prepositions "de" and "à") plus some simplified examples of its use in different constructions:

As interrogative pronoun:
Lequel?
Lequel des [noun phrase in plural] … - which among a number of things … (partitive use of 'de')

As relative pronoun, nominal function:
[antecedent], lequel ….
[antecedent], lequel ….

As relative pronoun, adjectival function:
[antecedent], lequel [noun]….   (stonedead, but can be seen in older litterature)

This simplistic requirement means that it may be difficult to find suitable quotes from world famous authors, but who cares? Then the author of the grammar just has to produce some examples him/herself - I'm here to learn grammar, not to read nobelprize-winning literature.

OK, I have become interested in "lequel", and based on the grammars I have conconcted a list of the constructions it is supposed to occur in. Next phase in the evil old days would be to be on the lookout for examples for several weeks, and during that time I would check all occurences of "lequel" against my list. With the advent of the search machines and the internet this has become much simpler: I still have to know the different forms of lequel, but I can now make a quick search for each of them. Let's try not "lequel" itself, but the feminine form "laquelle". Leaving aside company names and references to dictionaries and wiktionaries and other rubbish, I find these quotes:

Histoire des insectes; dans laquelle ces animaux sont rangés suivant un ordre méthodique…
(book title from 1799, so maybe a bit oldfashioned)   -- relative pronoun

PERCUSSION! MAIS LAQUELLE? - interrogative pronoun, - used without "de", but in a very short question

Laquelle des trois M te ressemble le plus? - interrogative pronoun, - used with "de" in a nominal phrase in a more extended phrase

Raison pour laquelle je blogue -- relative pronoun, but the whole thing is part of an implied main phrase ("[this is the] reason for which I blog")


This should be enough, - the following examples are just repeats of these patterns. But looking through such a series of examples with the simplified patterns in your head is one sure way of making you understand the mechanics of at least this corner of French grammar. In my opinion it is the combination of a simple catalogue of patterns and a lot of relevant examples is the best way of learning syntax.

The example with 'lequel' was easy because you could search for a single word in a limited number of shapes. Other syntactical phenomena are less easy to find through a simple search, - such as rules that concern word order. But the proposed method is still to consider how the rules should be formulated and then to have a look in the real world to check the usefulness of those rules. To formularte the rules it is necessary to know a number of grammatical terms, and I prefer using the Latin ones across language borders (insofar they can be adapted to the different languages).

The poor newbie who never has learnt anything about grammar has of course a problem, but you have to start somewhere. You may say that a small child doesn't know Latin syntactical terms and yet the kid somehow learns a whole language - but it is with these grammatical terms as it is with other words: you can't describe the content of a typical house without learning the words for bed, chair, table and lamp. But once you have learnt these terms you can use them to describe a lot of very different houses.

The alternative to learning grammatical terms is that you have to analyze absorb syntactical patterns without knowing how to call the things you see. It is too late for me to experience this, but I think I would feel like an aphatic person in a conversation club.


Edited by Iversen on 21 December 2011 at 1:19pm

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Iversen
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 Message 5 of 11
16 September 2009 at 3:15pm | IP Logged 
My own hybrid kind of grammar


Warning: the following rant is a bit technical

In a post in another thread I briefly mentioned that I had concocted my own kind of grammar, and I was asked by a member what I meant by that. So at 3.10 in the night July 31 2007 I began to sketch my system. It isn't really a system for learning the grammar of a specific language, it is more like a tool to judge and organize the understanding of written grammars.

There is a general thought: sentences are organized like Chinese boxes (or Russian dolls), and at each level the central 'organizer' normally is a verb, - at least in the Indoeuropean languages. Attached to this verb are some fields, which can be filled out with other organized structures, generically known as syntagmas (syntagmata in correct Greek), and the most important type of syntagmas is the nominal syntagma which has a noun as its core. So I personally see a sentence as a system of boxes with concrete words at different levels, and these words are connected by rods. One kind of rod connect a verb and for instance a direct object, another kind connects pronouns with their 'antecedents', i.e. the things they points to (with interrogative pronouns this is expected to occur in the answer). Ths helps me to understand the structure of sentences, and it also gives me a framework to understand grammar books. However I am aware that the following text is somewhat technical, and I don't expect the readers just to gobble it all up and start analyzing sentences in the same way as me.

Quote from the thread A hybrid kind of grammar,
31 July 2007:


I don't want to assume the responsability of making a language-machine that can produce all correct sentences and only those. That was Chomskys lofty dream (at least before he gave up and became a minimalist), and the result was a kind of grammar that I can't use when I try to learn a new language because it is too abstract. Maybe some of the programmers who try to make translation software carry that dream on, but that's their project, not mine, and I won't interfere in their choice of methods. I just noticed that the words - which in my world are the main carriers of meaning - are much more central to old-fashioned grammars, and that makes them easier to use during the learning process - in spite of some deficiencies that can be repaired.

The most talked-about grammar in recent years has been the transformational grammar of Chomsky. I have never liked it: it starts out with some empty symbols and through a series of transformations it ends up with empty symbols that corresponds one-to-one with the elements of a meaningful sentence in a real language. My gut feeling tells me to start with something that has meaning (basically words, but affixes and certain combinations of words also qualify). The entities have certain construction possibilities, and on that basis I want to construct all the sentences in the universe. This is in fact how an old-fashioned grammar functions. Chomsky has coined the term constituent-structure for this kind of grammar, but some of its adherents prefer to speak about fields, and therefore you could also call it a field structure grammar. But sometimes it is evident that sentence structures have some kind of internal connection, that cannot be expressed in a more elegant way than through transformations. So the ideal grammar for me is basically a field structure grammar with the addition of transformation possibilities.

The transformations can be something as simple as adding an adjective to a nominal phrase, but they can also transform a whole sentence. The most complicated field structures are organized around finite verbs, and in any field structure a sentence is basically seen as the field around one or more finite verbs with all the subfieklds included therein. However there are cases where a sentence lacks a finite verb, for instance the Russian combinations of a subject and a subject predicat without any verb at all to connect them. That construction is called a nexus. Or it could be a sentence structured around an infinite verbal form like an infinitive ("Que faire?" in French). Or even just a nominal phrase, if the context is clear enough to interpret it ("Two one-way tickets to Tombouctou, please"). But let's for illustration purposes - and because the time is now 3.29 a.M.) just consider the true sentences that have a finite verb as their center. This verb is the main ingredient of the verbal field, and around this you find infintie verbal forms, subjects, several kinds of objects and something called adverbials. We'll return to those later.

If a field of any kind (except the verbal field of the complete sentence) contains a finit verb as the center of its own verbal field, then we have a construction with a subordinate sentence. This sentence is inside the 'big' sentence like a Chinese box inside another box, and it can contain its own subordinate sentences.



Edited by Iversen on 16 September 2009 at 3:16pm

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Iversen
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 Message 6 of 11
16 September 2009 at 3:18pm | IP Logged 
Pronouns and the structure of subordinate phrases

Warning: the following rant is also a bit technical


Amended quote from the thread A hybrid kind of grammar (continued), 31 July 2007:

There is something called an pronoun and another thing called a conjunction. An pronoun is a word that points to something else. If it has an implied reference in the real world it is a demonstrative, if the reference is just something vague somewhere then it is an indefinite, if the solution is expected to come in an answer to a question then it is interrogative, and if the reference goes to something in the (main) sentence then it can in certain cases be a relative pronoun, or it can be a demonstrative. I'm not going into any philosophical hairsplitting about these traditional categories, - show me a language where they are irrelevant, and we'll work out a solution from there.

Conjunctions are things that tie subordinate sentences to something in the main sentence, or they can tie two or more elements together within one sentence. Some pronouns are also conjunctions but there are a few seemingly meaningless conjunctions, as for instance "that" in English completive sentences. However historically these often can be traced to demonstrative pronouns that pointed to a whole phrase: "I see that he has come" <--- "I see this: he has come". "If" is more enigmatic: it probably derives from a form of the word for "give": "given that…, (then)…..". But here and now "that" and "if" are seen as an empty conjunctions, and we analyze them as part of the subordinate.

We also have to broaden the definition of the word 'pronoun'. This word literally says that it is something that replaces a substantive, though most grammars in spite of the name also accept adjectival pronouns. For me there is no reason to exclude words that typically have adverbial functions from the pronouns, so I consider words like "then", "how", "so" and "sometimes" as just as much pronouns as "me" or "what" or "somebody".

I will now just sketch the main types of subordinate clauses, using the notions that I have just introduced.

The first group is called the 'partial' interrogative clauses. Their conjunctions are interrogative pronouns (but not "if"), and the whole clause functions in a substantival role somewhere inside the main sentence. The typical case is "Subject + (transitive) verb + interrogative clause", but it can also be the regimen of a prepositional clause, - the prepositions of these constructions tend to 'slide' into the verbal field, leaving the subordinate clause outside, but basically it is still a combination of a preposition and an interrogative clause. It is important to note that the function and meaning of the pronoun/conjunction inside the clause cannot be predicted from the rest of the main clause, - the clause so to say forms it own little world.

The same applies to the next group: the completive clauses, in English typically with "that" as the conjunction (though I include the interrogative clauses with "if" in the same group). Here the reference of the conjunction/pronoun is in principle the content of the subordinate clause, but in practice you don't care about this reference, you just see a completive or interrogative clause with a conjunction (that can be missing).

If you have a 'partial' interrogative clause then the conjunction/pronoun has a role in the subordinate clause. In "I don't know where she is" it is an indication of a place, which normally is seen as an adverbial funktion. You could detach the subordinate clause and insert an indefinite or demonstrative pronoun instead: "she is SOMEWHERE" or "she is HERE" (note that when the function as a conjunctional is lost the field is no longer tied to the start of the sentence"). A subordinate sentence that has been treated like this could be called an "intrapositional sentence" (I have put something inside it!), and of course there must be a welldefined transformation that takes this figment of the imagination and transforms it back into a subordinate clause inside a main sentence.

With the relative clauses the reference is somewhere in the main clause: "I don't know the house that she has bought". This "that" isn't empty, it refers to "(the) house" and the whole subordinate clause has the role of a complement inside a nominal phrase. In many cases you could use another kind of modifier instead: "I don't know HER house". The intraposition sentence is something like "She has bought A HOUSE", i.e. the reference can replace the relative conjunction/pronoun. This is the defining characteristic of relatives, and - the funny thing is that it also works with adverbial stuff: "She has found somewhere where she can hide" --> "she can hide somewhere".

The really funny thing is that 'correlative constructions', typically comparisons, generally can be seen as relative constructions. Here you normally have a demonstrative pronoun as a modifier (in my extended definition) in the main clause and a relative conjunction/pronoun in the subordinate clause: "He is not SO BIG as his sister is" ---> "His sister is SO BIG" In Latin and its offspring, the Romance languages, you often have a neat pair of a demonstrative versus a relative pronoun: talis - qualis, tantus - quantus, but the mechanism is the same. However comparison constructions have a tendency to degenerate: first you skip the verb, and with time certain constructions develop into something that can hardly be seen as clauses: "as good as new".

The last kind of subordinates are the "independent clauses". Many traditional grammars speak about "independent relative clauses" in a case like this: "Whoever enters through this door must be shot without warning". We don't know who it is, so we make up an intraposition sentence: "Somebody enters through this door". Whoever it is can also be smuggled into the main clause, - "That mister somebody-who-enters-through-the-door must be shot without warning". So the characteristic feature of this construction is that the whole subordinate clause has a role in the main sentence that is compatible with the role of the pronoun/conjunction alone in the subordinate clause, - and there is nothing 'relative' about that, so I prefer to use the term 'independent clause'. Again we can make the same kind of construction with adverbial elements: "I leave when that man enters through the door" ---> "that man enters ... sometime tomorrow" ---> "I leave tomorrow". The whole subordinate clause indicates a point in time, and so does the conjunction/pronoun ("when"). Normally the pronoun in an independent subordinate clause is an interrogative pronoun or a variation of one of these. There are complications (which I have studied in detail in the case of French long ago), but now it is 4.57 in the morning, and I have to stop soon.

So the only thing that I have left to say is that there is a connection between the independent clauses and the relative clauses: if you take something neutral, for instance a demonstrative, and put into the main clause, you can transform almost any construction with an independent clause into a construction with a relative clause. That explains for instance the French constructions with "ce qui", "là où" and so forth. But now it is 5.01 and I have to get some rest. Goodnight.



Edited by Iversen on 06 October 2009 at 1:11pm

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Iversen
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 Message 7 of 11
06 October 2009 at 2:09pm | IP Logged 
The rhythm of grammar study

When you start learning a new language you basically need a little of everything: morphology, syntax and idiomatics. But you have to start somewhere. Contrary to most text books I prefer getting a total overview from the start, but without trying to learn the specific forms - and certainly not the exceptions. A language guide like those from Berlitz or Lonely Planet are quite sufficient for this, but if you already have some experience with real grammar books then reading cursorily through one of these is even better.

But sooner or later you have get some flesh on that skeleton, and for most people reading through the whole grammar and then trying to apply it isn't the way to go.

Some things like morphology can to a large extent be put into tables, and I have earlier described how you can make 'green sheets' to learn this part of the grammar. However even morphology should be learnt with some real texts within reach (or a person who is willing to speak really slowly and repeat endlessly, such as the average parent). Lets say you see a verbal ending and you wonder what it is. OK, check your green sheet (or if that isn't enough, consult your true grammar). When you have found it then look at some related forms while you are at it. If it was a 3. person singular preterite indicative form, then run through the other forms in the same tense, and maybe you should also briefly remind yourself of its uses - if you are in doubt then consult your grammar. Now back to the example: did your identification function in the context? Did your general impression of the uses of this form suit the present case? If not, then back to the sheets and books again. Maybe it is a totally different form, maybe it is a known form in a new context, maybe you can't make up your mind and have to leave the case for later, but you have definitely learnt something now.

And this is of course also the right moment to look for more examples of the same kind. At least with morphology it is likely that similar forms will pop up soon so you just have to read or listen on with your attention focussed on this particular form (and being alert in general is a good thing). With syntax you may have to be patient, or you can try to figure out a way to find more examples (for instance through Google or by consulting one more grammar).

The same technique can be used on syntactical patterns. Now syntax is the part of grammar that isn't as prone to table building as the morphology, but still so regular that you can infer rules. Try to think about those rules in the same terms as I described for morphological green sheets: which are the central rules? Which are the exceptions? What do you most urgently need to learn?

(amended entry from the thread Can you master grammar by reading a LOT?, 22 September 2009:)

Learning the more fluid part of syntax will be fairly close to learning the idiomatics of your target language - i.e. you have to do it from real texts. And that can be done, provided that you stay alert to form and don't focus entirely on the meaning. One trick to do this is to choose a certain grammatical phenomen and then keep that on your mind while reading or listening. It really doesn't matter which phenomenon you choose (it could for instance be prepositions after verbs in English), because being alert to one phenomenon will also make you notice other things in the form of the message. The important thing is to avoid being focused entirely on the meaning.

But those things in grammar that can be formalized and put into a system will be more efficiently learned if you do consult a grammar when you are intrigued by something. And you can only consult a grammar efficiently if you know where to find what in that book. That's one more reason for looking through a true grammar book before even trying to learn the language - and yes, I know that there are people who can't stand reading about grammar, but I dont like celery, and yet there are people who eat the stuff and pretend that it is good for you. It is exactly the same thing with language learning methods.

From Tips for grammar focused studies, 04 October 2009:

Try to imagine how you can write all the most important regular morphology on a few pages - you obviously have to cut it down, and thinking about this is part of the memorizing process. Leave out the irregular words and learn them separately, but keep your 'concentrated' tables within reach. I write mine on green paper in order to separate them from ordinary notes. Doing this may also help you to remember the forms, but the purpose is to force you to become aware of what there is to learn, so that you can spot relevant structures in genuine texts or things you hear.

The same basic idea should be used for syntax. Don't try to learn everything by heart fra a grammar or textbook, but concentrate on a certain phenomen: read about it, search for examples, write some of the better ones down for later reference, and then go back to see what the rules are for the things you have been looking for. The main point is to get into a rhythm where you look for the syntax hidden in things you read or hear, then you go back to the grammar to get the rules ironed out, then back to your genuine texts to try out the rules you just have learnt and so forth.
(end of quote)

Grammar shouldn't be seen as something you learn by rote memorization, - instead see your grammar book as a source for interesting things to look for AND a place to get your own assumptions confirmed, rejected or maybe reformulated in a way that also takes examples into account which you haven't even seen yet.

Edited by Iversen on 06 October 2009 at 7:55pm

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 Message 8 of 11
06 October 2009 at 4:02pm | IP Logged 
Drills

Most people hate them - me too. And because they are used to check the pupils and cement those things they already are supposed to know - rather than teaching them new tricks - they can't be funny. Drills are basically requests for very standardized, repetitive output, and some study methods are based upon the idea that repetition is good for you - and there is indeed some truth in this. But just as simple repetition is relatively inefficient for vocabulary learning, it is also inefficient for learning syntactical patterns. You would have to get through a lot of expressions one by one to learn them by blind repetition. What you really need is a machine that can produce those patterns, and here some way of introducing suitable amounts of variation is necessary - preferably without introducing a lot of irrelevant stuff.

So let's first eliminate two cardinal sins in modern language teaching: multiple choice and pairing (or whatever it is called). Multiple choice is a methode where you give 2,3 false answers to a question and add one and only one that is true. So basically you show the pupils 2,3 errors for each correct construction - this can't be healthy! And you invite to blind or partly blind guessing, which is almost as silly and demoralizing. But there is something even worse, namely the very popular 'game' where you have two columns and are told to couple the elements in pairs. So you are looking at nonsense most of the time, and the rule "garbage in, garbage out" will of course also function in language learning.

OK, what then?

Let's take a detour: can language guides be used for language learning? I have already written (in the preceding post) that their grammar sections can be used for a quick overview, and their touristical part may in theory be useful during actual travels if you have to ask a local person about something - though in practice you rarely get the chance to use them for this. But can you learn anything but fixed expressions from them? I doubt, and the reason is that they aren't repetitive enough. If you want to study something non-repetitive then go for a genuine text (if necessary with a translation) - it will almost certainly be more interesting and probably more informative than than any language guide. To suck out any grammatical information from a text it should be fairly repetitive so that you can see the pattern. I once wrote something about a Cebuan language guide that was so repetitive that I could learn a lot about this language from it just by comparing the examples. A more complete discussion is found in the thread Armchair field linguistics experiment (with Turkish as the unknown language).

OK, now let's return to the world of textbooks. In those that I have seen there is little consistency in the input. Either the 'empty space' can be filled with just about anything without changing the surroundings: "What's your name? My name is____" (fill in the blanks). Or the whole thing looks like a translation exercise in the old black school, because there isn't any pattern that is common to successive items.

So ideally a drill be built in such a way that you can't take the rest of the sentence for granted: "My name is James Bond", and then the text book author could suggest some items that challenged this pattern (for instance suggest two persons, someone who has got a new name, 'you' etc.) It is the capability to make systematic changes to preexisting patterns that is the real goal behind doing drills, not mere repetition for memorization. And of course you should limit the exercise to constructions where the mechanics behind the relevant transformations already has been taught. Drills are not meant for learning new things, but for training the old ones.


Edited by Iversen on 06 March 2012 at 1:09pm



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