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Guide to Learning Languages, part 5

 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
17 September 2009 at 12:34am | IP Logged 
This thread is part of a series of guides to langage learning, and no. 1 thread in this series is found HERE. The necessary caveats can also be seen there.


Listening and understanding NOTHING:

A quote from the thread Listening and understanding NOTHING, 25 August 2008:

I see two strategies for the beginner. The first is using comprehensible input from the beginning, and in the very beginning that means single words or very short expressions in short conversations - such as those of a tourist who can't speak a certain language, but who learns how to say "beer", "no thanks", "where is the toilet (ladies/gentlemen)", "go away" and "I want your money" from the local people. The second is using listening-reading techniques where the use of translations and spoken words together gives you the opportunity to sort of understand some genuine utterances which are objectively seen above your level. Listening to somebody speaking an unknown language is not totally idiotic if you have an idea about the content from a written translation because you can to some extent pinpoint where you are in the text based on loanwords, intonation and other factors.

When you have absorbed the 'sound' of the language to the extent that you can pronounce the words you may think that the next step would be to understand the meaning of what is being said. But no, the next step in understanding a foreign language in its spoken form is to be able to parse the stream of words into single words and grammatical structures, and while you are training that you don't have time to ransack your memory for the meaning of words or idiomatic expressions. You have to know something about the pronunciation and know at least the most common words to perform this task so it is not for the absolute beginner, but you can do it before you understand the meaning in detail. Some day - if you keep up your efforts to learn new words and expressions using whatever techniques you prefer - the meaning will suddenly pop up into your mind without any particular effort. In other words - learning how to parse spoken words and and learning words/expressions should not be seen as one task, but as two, that will eventually merge.

With written texts the situation is easier because you can read at your own pace. You can do intensive reading where the goal is to understand every word or expression and every grammatical feature, morphological as well as syntactically, and you can gradually introduce extensive reading where you don't let minor problems of understanding deter you from hammering through the text. The smart thing to do in the beginning has for me been to do literal translations, if necessary with the help of bilingual texts, followed by intensive reading where I just skip writing down the transation but demand the same level of understanding. If I have worked my way through a text in this way (using the unknown words in word lists) then that text will be useable for extensive reading until I get to the level where I can directly attack new genuine texts. In this way I can avoid having a teacher speak baby talk to me which is one thing in this world which I absolutely can't stand.

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Iversen
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 Message 2 of 11
17 September 2009 at 12:34am | IP Logged 
"Listening like a bloodhound follows a trail"

Quoting Additional listening practice?, 18 August 2009:

Let me understand this: you can pick out every syllable, but they don't combine into words? Not even if you actually know the words?

When I ask this it is because one reason for being unable to understand spoken words from f.eks. TV is that people are obsessed with understanding what is being said, when the basic problem may be that they can't even parse the stream of sounds. Parsing is precisely the process of dividing the stream of sounds into syllables and words on the fly, and to understand this you must be able to perform the operation automatically. If you try to understand everything at this stage then each unknown word will block you, and you will loose the next couple of sentences. Therefore 'listening like a bloodhound follows a trail' can sometimes be a help, even though it goes right against all the other good advice about listening to films, music etc.

However this only applies if your parsing isn't automatic, and therefore it is a problem that you say that you can catch the syllables, but not the words on the fly. But even in this situation it might be worth trying to separate the words without bothering about the meaning (even though this sounds crazy to many people). If you in fact can do this operation without problems then at least one possible cause for your problems can be eliminated.

Quoting Passive Listening, 31 March 2008 at 12:35pm:

You can listen for meaning if you understand enough of the language, or you can just have something running in the background, which is the truly passive kind of listening. Then there is the L-R listenning where you try to follow a translation with the help of clues in the form of international words and proper names, combined with clues in the intonation (of course you can also use a transcript, but personally I prefer using a translation in this situation).

And as the last form you can do active listening even with languages that you can't understand yet, provided that you know the written form. Here you deliberately don't care at all about the meaning, but try to parse the stream of sounds into sentences and words, following the speaker 'like a bloodhound on a trail'. As your vocabulary grows and you become adept at reading the language, you will discover that the meaning of the spoken form suddenly becomes crystal clear even though you haven't tried to understand it.

When I have done this I have sometimes seen a string of grey words running across my inner field of vision, though blurred so that only the shape of the words is seen. At other times I just listen for the borderlines between words, phrases and sentences. In both cases you should focus on changes in intonation, pauses, words you have heard before and common endings and affixes, which means that all those things will seep into your mind. Then some day the meaning appears, and you will have learnt to understand that language without passing through the perilous stage of translation.

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Iversen
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 Message 3 of 11
17 September 2009 at 12:35am | IP Logged 
Phonetics - how to learn the sounds of a language

Phonetics and language learning?, 08 October 2007:

I think that several members have recommended that budding polyglots get a solid foundation in phonetics. I have personally made the recommandation several times that the sounds of a certain languages should not be learnt by comparing them to sounds in other languages, but rather by placing them in a theoretical framework based on the shape of the mouth. In many books about phonetics you find a polygon that illustrates a 'wowel space' based on oppositions like back-front and open-closed (with a second polygon for the nasal vowels). Simple vowels can be identified with one dot in such a figure, while diphtongs can be identified with a short line from one position to another. The consonants have rarely been described in the same succinct way, probably because there are all kinds of tongue shapes, flaps and pressure points to take in account. However I tend to think in such graphical terms when I compare different languages, rather in the traditional terms like apical, velar, spirant, fricative and so forth. Back in the seventies I learnt all the words needed to describe the French language, and I still remember most of the terms, but I don't use them, and they don't help me to remember how to make a certain sound in a new language.
(end of quote)

The vowel polygon I'm speaking about is shown in the article of Wikipedia, but it should be mentioned that there really are two polygons, one for the ordinary vowels and a parallel one for the nasal vowels. If you want to compare the sounds of two languages or dialects, then you can show their position in such a table - diphtongs will then be arrows going from one from to another in the polygon. As a supplement to recordings of the sounds in question this will pinpoint exactly not only the sounds, but also how they are produced.

What I would like to see are similar graphics showing schematized mouthpositions for subgroups among the consonants. I deliberately say subgroups because I think that a table showing all consonants at once would be too complicated for comfort. However it might be worth showing exactly where and how for instance the French and German r-sounds are produced, - this forum has lots of threads where people lament about their problems with these sounds. And frankly I don't see how you can learn the produce them just by listening (because the action happens within a closed mouth), - but a combination of exact articulatory directions and recorded sounds would be an excellent help. A scientific description with the usual terminology is irrelevant unless you already know the reality behind the words: nasals, plosives, fricatives etc. - pure 'flatus vocis' until you already know the sounds. And the same can be said about sound-alphabets like IPA: you can't learn the sounds from either the terminology or IPA, those things are meant to organize knowledge you already have from other sources.

So in purely practical terms, what should you do when you se a textbook or language guide define the sounds of a language in this way (with inserted dots to keep the columns tidy)::

Phonetic       
transcription    Pronunciation . . Notes     

ă . . . . . . as in cat
ah . . . . . . as in father
ai . . . . . . as in hair
(....)
ēr . . . . . . as in her . . . . No exact equivalent in English. Round the lips as if to say oh but say ah   

etc. etc. (quoted from "Say it in Danish", Dover Publications)

What happens here is that the authors don't dare use IPA because it is a simple language guide. Instead they introduce their own phonetic alphabet for use exclusively in this book. And no, I won't criticize that decision, - many language guides etc. function on this principle. But as the user of such a book who might want to learn how to pronounce Danish this is of course not enough. As a minimum you should listen to some of the words that contain each of the sound signs, and the easiest place to do this is in the absence of a teacher is definitely a textbook system with a CD or tape. Some sites on the internet offer recordings of single sounds, but even though this sounds smart it doesn't function in practice - sounds simply don't sound the same when pronounced in isolatiion, you need to hear them in complete words.

There is another system, which was much more common earlier, namely a list of the letters of the letters with pronunciation directives:

Symbol  English Indo.letter/ex. Translitteration

a . . . . .park . . . a . lagu . . . . . la-goo   
ai . . .. .aisle . . . ai . ramai . . . . ra-mai   
e . . . . .bed . . . e . . helm . . . . helm

This is nearest I can come to a rendering of the start of a list taken from the Lonely Planet Phrasebook for Indonesian, and the only reason that this doesn't go terribly wrong is that the writing system of Bahasa has an extremely regular orthography with an almost perfect 1-to-1 correspondance between letters and phonemes. Phonemes are roughly speaking the equivalent of letters, but in the spoken language, and you distinguish two phonemes on the basis that there is at least one sequence where exchanging one sound with another results in a difference of meaning. In other words: each phoneme covers a range of actual sounds. So a good orthography is one where the letters and the phonemes match. And it is no secret that one of the most rotten orthographies on this planet is the English one, which forces learners of English more or less to learn the pronunciation with each new word.

But even in this sad case you need to know exactly what the phonetical transliterations in your dictionary mean, and this will be practically impossible without listening to words while comparing the sound with the transcribed version.

I probably don't need to stress that English can be learnt without reference to writing - millions of kids have done it - and let me add that the English sound system in itself isn't particularly messy. In fact English would be easier to learn if it was written in IPA. But this is not going to happen, and therefore it serves no purpose to speculate about learning English from books written in IPA - they don't exist.


Prosody etc.

Now I ought to write something about tones, but I leave that to the specialists. However there are other more or less localised elements in speech which you have to learn. Vowels (and sometimes consonants) can be long or short, and syllables can be more or less stressed. I remember that while I was trying to learn Modern Greek I had a simple rule of thumb: the stress must lie on one of the three last syllables in any word, and a always guessed at the wrong one - so it had to be one of the other two. Since then I have developed a modicum of knowledge about stress in Greek words, so now I sometimes guess at the right syllable (with the paradoxical result that the true stress now can be of any of the three last syllables). Well, at least the Greeks write accents in all words with more than one syllable, and since the latest orthography reform they have even reduced their repertoire of accent signs to one and thrown out some aspiration markers that had lost any shred of justification in the modern language.

Not so in Russian: here the accent can be anywhere, and it has a tendency to move around even in the forms of a single word. Ultimately you have to listen to a lot of Russian to get a feeling for the correct placement of the stress, but luckily good dictionaries mark the stress (and the really good ones even indicate whether a concrete word is one of those that have a moving accent); this means that you can mark the stress in your wordlists (or flashcard etc.) and learn it that way. There are also pedagogical editions of some books where the accents are included, even though this isn't the normal way of doing things in Russian. Be happy if you can find one of those.

Btw. in many European languages differences in stress can lead to differences in meaning, so either should stress in itself be seen as a phoneme, or stressed versus unstressed vowels are different phonemes. This problem is almost always ignored in the phoneme lists that you see in books and on the net. The same applies to for instance the glottal stop, which occurs as the 'stød' (literally 'push') in Danish. It is never written (unlike Arabic, where there is a letter for it), but can separate words with different meanings, - so it effectively is a phoneme in Danish. But it is rarely mentioned.

Stress on a broader scale is called prosody, and our Nordic brethren the Swedes and Norwegians are notorious for the active use they have of their prosodies -to the extent that some regard their languages as tone languages, which probably is to go a bit too far. How do you learn these intonation patterns? Not by listening strictly for meaning, but rather for the 'melody' in specific sentences. If you can get a transcript of for instance some Swedish sentences, then try to draw the melody line through each sentence as a line above the text, - and try to figure out what the typical patterns are. I have yet to see a just minimally useful description of these things, so you probably have to make the empirical research yourself if you want to get a truly Swedish intonation. Or rely on shadowing and similar techniques, where you supposedly can absorb the relevant patterns without ever involving your conscious mind.



Edited by Iversen on 05 July 2010 at 3:16pm

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Iversen
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 Message 4 of 11
17 September 2009 at 12:42am | IP Logged 
SHADOWING


It would be absurd to discuss listening on this forum without taking ProfArguelles' Shadowing method into consideration. Among the first references to it is this one:


Quote from a post by ProfArguelles from the very old thread Shadowing vs Echoing, 18 April 2005:

Let us define:

Echoing = listen, then repeat
Shadowing = listen and repeat simultaneously

I believe that echoing can be an invaluable technique when you are working one on one with a phonetician who can correct your pronunciation and intonation. However, when you are working on your own, you really have no way of determining the accuracy of your rendition. When you shadow through earphones, however, you should at least instinctively and immediately perceive when you are "flat," and with constant repetition of the same material, you will begin to automatically compensate by modifying your pronunciation.
(end of quote)

Three years (10 March 2008) later he made a video, and in the introduction to this on the forum he wrote these lines (from the thread Shadowing demonstration video:

In order to shadow most effectively, it is important to observe three points:

1.     Walk outdoors as swiftly as possible.
2.     Maintain perfectly upright posture.
3.     Articulate thoroughly in a loud, clear voice.

(....)

In the video, you see me initially shadowing without looking at a book, then while looking at one. You will want to shadow without a book when you are in the very initial stages of language study, focusing on phonetics only (= “blind shadowing”), before you study any individual lesson, and then again finally after you have worked through your lessons thoroughly.
(end of quote)

In one of his videos on accent formation he explicitely states that shadowing gives much better results than echoing. Nevertheless echoing is the technique that is used not only in classrooms, but also in the kind of language labs I remember from my study years - and I doubt that they have changed.

Unfortunately 'shadowing' is one of the methods which I haven't found congenial to my mentality and habits. In the thread How does shadowing improve fluency? I wrote this (10 November 2008):

(I have) tried out the shadowing method as described here (except that I didn't walk), but it didn't function for me. However there is a reason for this, namely that when I speak mostly hear my own talk and all the details in what is said from outside get lost in the process. Besides I find it very tiring to try to compete with somebody else, even if it is a recorded voice (or maybe that is even part of the problem, because it just keeps going and going). This problem is probably something that could be eliminated through hours of training, but right now I haven't got time. Instead I have concluded that I have to do two things instead of one, namely shadow-THINKING and reading aloud, partly things I have heard, but mostly things I only have in their written form.

Reading aloud is necessary because it takes stamina and practice to pronounce all those foreign sounds (even if I have a pretty idea about what I'm aiming for I still have to be able to do it). So I'll just have to leave some time for that, - and for talking to myself, which I can do when I'm walking to the bus or alone at at home. It is a fairly mechanical function, not something with deep theoretical ramifications.

However shadowing silently is more congenial to the way I function. It struck me that I have described something similar in another context (namely how to learn to understand without translating mentally): I then described this kind of listening as 'following the speaker like a bloodhound follows a trail', i.e. without deliberately trying to understand what is said, but just parsing it into words and sentences and hoping for the epiphany moment where the meaning seemingly just appear out of the blue. In reality this moment only comes when you already know quite a lot of the language, and for me it certainly won't occur until long after I had learnt to read fluently. But this concerns only the meaning aspect, - to me the basic activity of listening, parsing and and even 'writing' the words on some kind of mental subtitle line does seem to have something in common with shadowing, except that you have to open your mouth to shadow.

For those who can speak and listen carefully at the same time shadowing may be a very efficient technique, but I feel that I get a better result when I separate the actual talking from the listening process. And I can think for much longer than I can speak without getting tired.

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Iversen
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 Message 5 of 11
17 September 2009 at 12:43am | IP Logged 
To know NOTHING but still understand something:

If you read or listen to something in a dialect or language that is closely related to something you already know then you will often be able to understand it. THe reason for this is that most words are the same in the two languages, just with some differences that reflect the different sound developments in each language. The historic linguists of the 18th century worked out long lists over the systematic changes of different sounds in different surroundings that led to the modern languagesd, and by rolling backwards through these changes and comparing different languages they have even been able to propose something called Proto-Indoeuropean, - and it was apparently very different from the modern languages on several points. But the relevant thing here and now is not how people spoke many thousand years ago, but the fact that the changes have led to parallel sound systems, so that you just have to find out which sound transformations lead from one language or dialect to its neighbour.

Lets for instance take High and Low German. They really separated from a common stem during the socalled second Germanic consonant shift, which for instance changed p into ff or pf, depending on the context, - there is a long list of similar changes which have been traced back to this event. Add to that some changes in the vowels, that for instance changed long u into au, and then it is suddenly not surprising that the following sentence from "Geiht das ok 'n beten fixer?" of Ines Barber ...

Suurkruut schmeckt opwarmt erst richtig goot.

... looks like this in standard High German:

Sauerkraut schmeckt aufgewärmt erst richtig gut.

When the systematic side to sound shifts was discovered the lingvists hoped that all differences between the sound systems could be explained through series of shifts, which could be put in chronological order for each and every dialect or dialect. The world turned out to be more complicated than that, but finding the resulting systematic differences is still the basis for understanding any foreign speak through something that ressembles it. But notice also the word "richtig" which is the same in both languages. I am fairly sure that the original form - if it existed - in Low German must have been something like *"riktig" (similar to "rigtig" with a hard first 'g' in Danish), because 'ch' in High German is another typical result of the second consonant shift. Such loanwords will of course not adhere to the normal transformation rules. Notice also the missing "ge" in Low German. Unlike both Dutch and High German this prefix isn't used in Low German, - and on this point it ressembles the Nordic languages. The reasons for this are not relevant for the ordinary language learner, - just notice that things are like they are.

If you have learnt a number of simple conversion rules, some tips about grammar and some of the more conspicuous false friends, then you are ready to read and understand Low German ('Plattdeutsch'), and that is probably more than you can expect of most people from the Northern part of Germany, especially among the younger generation. You can discover much of this without really doing any formal studies, but to learn to use Platt actively you should de the same things as you would do to learn any other language. The good news is that each phase will be shorter.

Now let's consider a slightly more distant relative, - Albanian. Here the conversion rules aren't simple at all, so you have to use other methods. I recently visited the country and there I bought some bilingual guidebooks to Albanian towns. Below I quote a passage and its translation into  English (slightly 'hyperliteralized' by me, - and first used in my profile thread):

Pozite gjeografike
Position geographical

Rrethi i Korçës shrtihet në pësën Juglindore të Shquipërisë, në Krahinën Malore Qëndrore.
District of Korça* lies in [Eastern South]** of Albania, in region-mountain(eous) Central
     
Përfshin tre qytete: Korça, qendër e rrethit, Bilishti e Maliqi dhe 27 komuna.
(it) contains three towns: Korça, center of district, Bilishti + Maliqi and 27 communes.

Qyteti i Korçës është një nga qytet kryesore të Shqipërisë.
TownThe of Korça is on of (from) town(S) mostimportant of Albania.

* the name of the town is Korçë, the -a is a postclitic definite article, which is used here because that's what you do to feminine town names in Albanian, - and ë is a schwa sound, mostly silent in the final position of a word
*** deliberately erroneous translation by me - see below

You can probably already now see the parallels between the two versions, helped by the geographical names which are easily recognisable. If you want to find texts which almost can be understood alone from their loanwords then don't look for common babble or serious literature, - check out scientific or historical or geographical magazines, because it is here you have the highest proportion of loanwords, and with an unknown language you need those to grasp the structure of the foreign sentences. And often this will be enough to let you guess at the general meaning of the foreign texts, - in particular if you have got some context (such as you have when you are looking at a thing in a museum and there is a label telling you what it is called in Albanian).

With a bilingual text you can almost start building your own dictionary: "Pozite" = 'position' (noun), "gjeografike" = 'geographical', "rrethi" = 'district' etc. etc. I have assumed that "juglindore" meant South (because it ressembles "jug" in Serbian, which means 'South') and "pësën" would then have to be "Eastern", - but the capital letter in just one of the two words was confusing. I therefore took a peek in a dictionary I bought in Kosovo last year and the thruth was revealed: "Juglindore" alone means "Southeastern" and "pësën" means 'five' (which doesn't appear in the English translation). So I had nearly misunderstood the word "pësën" - but the dictionary saved me.

This example suggests that Albanian sentences aren't totally incomprehensible if you have some loanwords and proper names to start with. You can guess the meaning of other words ("i" = 'and', "në" = 'in' etc.), and by simple logical thinking and some guesswork you can soon extend your knowledge of Albanian, and you can even begin to dream about reading extremely hardcore stuff, such as books for youngsters and silly gossip magazines.

However I also tried the same technique on the bilingual inflight magazine of Maleev, and I soon had to realize that Hungarian isn't nearly as close to English as Albanian apparently is, - but after looking up most of the words I'm still fairly sure that you could learn much about Hungarian by comparing the Hungarian and the English versions of a simple airline magazine.

I have since my Albanian/Hungarian experience tried the same technique on TV-programmes.I have for instance watched a program in Finnish at TV1 (Swedish TV), i.e. with Swedish subtitles whenever a Finn spoke and in Finnish whenever a (Finland)Swedish spoke, i.e. a member of the Swedish speaking minority in Suomi. I don't speak Finnish (yet), but I have recently read the Kauderwälsch guide to Finnish. So I didn't try to understand what the Finns said, but I set myself a much more limited goal: trying to catch some words here and there and determining whether the words in Finnish seemed to follow in roughly the same order as those in the Swedish subtitles. And it was not totally impossible to do this: for instance there was a passage about "the next trends", and almost at the same time I heard something like "kommia hottia" (as usual with stress on the first syllable and long double consonants). I could also recognize some numbers and placenames and the word "ruotsi" (Sweden or Swedish).

OK, would I be able to learn Finnish by listening to TV programs? My guess is that it would take forever, and I would end up speaking Finnish like a Spanish donkey. But as a preparation for learning to understand spoken Finnish it would function very well (mycket brå!), and you could probably also pick up some of the language melody and individual sounds with your right brain hemisphere while trying to find recognizable words with the left one.


Edited by Iversen on 05 July 2010 at 3:21pm

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Iversen
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 Message 6 of 11
28 October 2009 at 11:02am | IP Logged 
Speed reading

Speed reading is not one single technique, but several tricks that all have one goal: to bring up a person's reading speed without sacrificing (too much of the) comprehension. There are many places where you can read about it, so I'll just give a few examples: a Wikipedia article, a tutorial, a method list. There are even offers of commercial courses in speed reading, but it is not really something that you need to pay for.

It should not be confused with skimming, where you deliberately skip irrelevant information. However when done properly it does ressemble extensive reading, which I described in the first part of this guide as follows: "The other kind of reading is the extensive reading. Here the goal is not to understand everything, but to acquire a kind of momentum while reading, and to get through as much genuine stuff as possible."

Many of the tricks that are used for speed reading can also be used with extensive reading, but the goal is different: speed reading is done exclusively to absorb the content, and the formulation of that content is just something like a necessary evil - and the phonetic side of the text is even seen as an unnecessary evil (that's why you are urged to suppress subvocalization while speed reading). However in extensive reading you should of course find something interesting to read, but your focus should be on understanding the general meaning of the text WHILE sucking up the way it is written. If you can't keep up the momentum then the text is too difficult; you can then either find something easier or prepare yourself by looking up some words before and or reading through a translation and then trying once more. But it is the steady, but not excessively fast pace that defines extensive reading.

So what role does true speed reading have in language learning?

(the following section quoted verbatim from Speed Reading for faster learning?, 30 September 2009)

If you read something to find something specific then you can of course do speed reading, but if your goal is to learn a language then it is just about the most silly thing you can do. The principle behind speed reading is to pick out just enough of the text to be able to piece together the meaning, - and you should certainly not start looking at the formal side of the text. In other words you skip exactly those elements in the text that are relevant for a language learner.

Reading for general content is another matter, and I have done my share of that. The most extreme case was probably when I was writing my final dissertation at the university about a grammatical topic. If I needed an illustration of a certain phenomenon and I didn't have a suitable example in my notes then I would look through book after book, turning the pages at a rate at about one page per 2-3 seconds, first looking at the right side pages, then the left side pages. But this (skimming) has nothing to do with language learning, and I didn't even notice the content(so it was not even speed reading) .

The fastest true 'pseudoreading' I have done was done while I studied literature and came unprepared for a lesson where I should have read a whole book (it happened fairly often as my interest in literature was waning already during my study years). In this situation you can actually zip through a few hundred pages of a standard paperback novel in 15-20 minutes, catching some of the plot, noting down some pages where there are things that probably will be discussed, getting a sense of the writing style in general and so on. This was actually enough to be able to participate in the discussion even at a university level course, and paradoxically I still remember some of the content of books I have peroused in this way. But it is clearly not enough to really learn anything new, and certainly not to learn anything of the language because you already have to know it well to speed-read like that.

Speed reading has its uses, but not in language learning.



Edited by Iversen on 20 December 2009 at 5:26pm

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Iversen
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 Message 7 of 11
20 December 2009 at 5:19pm | IP Logged 
(revised quote from the thread "Perfect pronunciation", 07 December 2007 - and it should ideally have been placed midway through the preceding page, near message no. 3):

Trusting pronunciation directives in text books

Comparing your own pronunciation against a standard you aren't quite sure of is notoriously difficult. You have to learn it, but the question is how. Nobody would probably deny that this involves listening to as much native speeach as possible. I would however like to point to one major problem, namely the tendency in many text books to compare the sounds of one language to English or another irrelevant base language. When you have to come to grips with the sound system of a new language it may be practical to explain it like that at the very beginning of the study just to gain a foothold, but when you later have to refine your listening skills it is just about the worst thing you could do.

Instead you should listen to the sounds on their own terms: how open is this vowel, how many flaps are there in this R, is there a whiff of air in connection with this T and so forth. Paradoxically this does not really involve the meaning, - meaning is not really a product of single sounds, but of some standardized abstractions called phonemes. This means that the phoneme lists in textbooks by definition have to cut out a lot of that information about the sounds that you need to pronounce the language. So you have to learn those variations by listening.

I remember that we once had a discussion on the relationship between nasalised and non-nasalized wovels in French. The central problem here is that to my ears the two series are gravely out of synch (and have probably been so for at least 600 years). However the text books describe the situation as if 'a' corresponded to 'an', 'ai' to 'ain' etc. The details are not important, but this is just one case where I have to choose between trusting the text books or trusting my own ears - and then I trust my ears.

However the question is whether a listener without experience in listening for sound can hear the subtle differences that may separate not only different phonemes, but also the purely phonetically differences that may characterize different dialects or idiolects. In message 3: "Phonetics - how to learn the sounds of a language" I wrote something about the things that would help people to learn this. As usual my credo is that you need to deal with as much authentic language as possible, but also that your chances of catching the relevant details is much bigger if you take care of getting some theoretical ballast. For vocabulary this means dictionaries, for grammar grammar books, and for pronunciation it means getting some hardcore knowledge about phonetics, both in general and related to your chosen language.

However the quality of phonetical annotations in texts books, language guides and dictionaries is generally nothing to write home about. I have already given one example where the proposed model as far as I can hear simply is wrong, but this is overshadowed by the many cases where the information is totally inadequate - for instance Russian or Danish dictionaries without indications of stress. Unfortunately the obvious solution, a phonetic alphabet like IPA doesn't solve the problem. It is as complicated as Chinese writing, and there is absolutely no connection between the graphic representation of anything and the articulatory reality behind it. And the treatment of intonation patterns is generally dismal - a red line over a written sentence would be better than any description in words, and the combination of a spoken version plus the written form PLUS a thin red line would just be perfect.

Similarly the main problem with serious treatises on phonetics is that they spend more time on attaching Latin labels to families of phonemes than they do on the graphical illustration of how to move your own mouth. Maybe you need the words, but only as labels to a graphical illustration.

For these reasons I don't think that the problem will ever be solved with books on paper, so we have to hope for a digital solution (which includes that portable dictionaries etc. must be able to both play the sounds, show graphical representations of their production and attach mnemotic symbols to them - and here I believe more in stylized graphics than in Latin names.


Edited by Iversen on 22 April 2012 at 6:03pm

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Iversen
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 Message 8 of 11
22 April 2012 at 6:06pm | IP Logged 
Close listening while notating the sounds

(Revised quote from 21. april 2012)

I have started to do detailed listening while notating the individual sounds and (to some extent) prosody - cfr. my log thread for the last month or so. This technique fills out a hole in my previous practices by forcing me to learn how a language actually is pronounced. If you listen in a casual way or listen for the meaning you won't notice all the small details (unless you have some natural gift which I haven't got) - you need to know the variants below the phonemic level to pronounce a language well, and for me that means making them conscious.

I have had my share of well-meaning teachers telling me to pronounce something like this, not like that - and it has had little effect because I tend to close my ears when a person starts yelling at me, even if it is done in a hypocritical friendly way. Listening and relistening to a prerecorded sound recording while analysing it as detailed as possible is much less distracting and stressful, and then I can start communicating with living humans when my own skills have been built up to the necessarily level. And that pattern of course also holds water with all other parameters of language learning - at least for me. Others may have other preferences.

(Amended quotes from 27/26 March 2012):

Of course I have listened to speech before and done some parroting of the usual kind, but seeing how long time it takes me really to hear what is said is shocking because it tells me how much I have missed earlier - even when I have replayed a certain passage several times. It is like walking from platform 9 to 10 at King's Cross, and suddenly you discover that there is something weird in between.

Let's take a few concrete examples:

Is príomhoide teagaisc mé
/Ish pri·vɔdjə tægæshχmæ/
Is! principal (of)teaching I
I am a teaching principal

Irish Phonology is a study in itself. I have for some time used the Cabóigín speech synthesizer at abair.ie, but it has occurred to me that I have used it the wrong way - I have just listened to the voice as any other fool would have done. What a waste of time! Actually I should have realized this long ago, because I have for years copied small samples of text manually in order to slow myself down and really catch all details - and that's of course also how the intensive study of the sounds of a language with a voice recording or synthesizer should be conducted: transcribe short passages and mark everything you can hear as precisely as possible without caring about the phonems of the language in question. The ideal conterpart to this would be to try to pronounce the sounds, but that's phase two (or seven or whatever in the case of Irish). I ought to use IPA for my transcriptions, but I prefer my own homemade transcription system, with the result you can see above. I learnt some of the special signs during my courses in French phonetics in the 70s, while others are snatched from special signs in other alphabets.

Or let's try a bit of Dutch. I took a Dutch sentence from a zoo-page and put it into Acapela Box - another fine speech synthesizer which contrary to Abair offers several voices* for most languages - which gives you the opportunity to explore the variations within those languages:

* I wonder how they got Queen Elisabeth to speak her parts!

U kunt tegenwoordig een combi-kaart voor Burgers' Zoo en het Nederlands Openluchtmuseum kopen

/e könt teχəvo·Rdeχ e·n kɔmbikαRRt fo·R BöRhɔrs so· æn ət ne·dɔlansə-öpənleχtmyseåm kåubə /
/y könt teχəvo·RRdeχ e·n kɔmbikαRRt fo·R BöRgɔs so· æn-ət ne·dɔla·Rns opɔlöχtmyseöm ko·pə /
/y könt teχəvo·Rdeχ en kɔmbikαRt fo·R BøRgɔs so· æn (h)ət ne·dɔlansə opɔ(R)löRχtmyzæöm kåbə/
/y könt teχəvɔ·Rdeχ e·n kɔmbikαRRt fo·R BøRχɔRs so· æn ət ne·dɔla(R)ns opɔ(R)löRχtmyzæjöm kåupə/

I vaguely remember having done something like this during my study time long ago, but with prescribed signs - this time I'm just trying to find out how to write something which I as a Dane with a certain past automatically will 'hear' as something close to the real McCoy.

At this point it should also be stressed that this is a speech synthesizer based on sampled sounds and not naturally flowing speech. However I have some time ago done a special study of Dutch diphtongs, where I noted down variations in the pronunciations of ui, ei etc. in podcasts from Dutch Zoos, and I also found enormous differences in that experiment (where I didn't go into extreme details as I have done here).

For a number of languages the only available speech synthethizer is that of Google Translate which especially in the beginning sounded like an evil robot in an old science fiction film. But at least for some major languages the sound quality has improved.
(end of quotes)

You can also go for short sequences of genuine speech by humans - for instance from Youtube or other sources. I have of course also tried this out (with Icelandic). The main problem is to be absolutely certain about what is said, and with languages where the orthography isn't crystal clear and the pronunciation even less this can be a problem. In any case: you should listen to max. one sentence at a time (or less), otherwise the whole point of the exercise is lost. And this is easier to achieve with synthethizers than with true flowing speech. And what about the CD's which accompany many text book systems? Well, can you roll the same short snippet again and again then it's OK, but my CD player can't do that - so you have to rip it first. And besides the speech on those CD's tend to be even more unnatural than that of a speech synthesizer.

Of course this listening technique doesn't make extensive listening to massive amounts of spoken sources superfluous. Even I know that. To get truly active (i.e. being able to have free conversations) I need to listen and read extensively in massive amounts - the language has to be 'buzzing' in my head, and I get that by watching TV, reading for hours and (if possible) travelling. The irony is that I don't necessarily have to speak to natives during this phase - the 'buzzing' is the thing I need, not communication in se (actually it could cheat me into parroting prelearned phrases).

However extensive listening has a tendency to develop into listening mostly for meaning. The technique above functions as a way to slow you down and force you to listen to your target language as it really is spoken - and then you know at least what to aim for - even if it is a moving target..




Edited by Iversen on 08 October 2012 at 1:02pm



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