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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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Super Polyglot
Joined 5178 days ago

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 Message 9 of 11
08 October 2012 at 1:06pm | IP Logged 
Training phonemic awareness

(from Phonemic awareness: transcriptions, 8. Oct. 2012)

Personally I don't think that the transcriptions in language guides and textbooks and dictionaries are precise enough - and those in IPA are only relevant if you already have spent a lot of time first learning the signs, then using them passively and actively. The problem is that we have to do a phonematic reduction of the information to get the meaning of the things we here, and in this process we deliberately disregard the details and variations and intonations and everything else that isn't absolutely necessary for the choice between different meanings. So phonetic awareness means going back to the original sounds and listening to them. You need to know which words were intended in order to know which phonemes are intended, but at this level the meaning itself isn't important. If we speak about intonation you need to consider larger blcks of speech and you need to know the grammatical structure, but even here the general meaning is a background rather than your study object.

The most efficient technique I have used for studying minute differences is problematic because it demands concentration and absence of outside disturbances. The idea is that you find a short snippet of speech which you can repeat again and again while you try to write down exactly what you hear. Ideally you should do this in a recognized transcription system like IPA, but then you have to learn that first. I use homebrewed 'alphabets' and keep telling myself that this is OK because I don't have to communicate the results to others - the important thing being the listening process itself.

When you have learnt how the sounds in a language really sound you can translate the rough indications in dictionaries etc. to real sound which you have heard with you own ears.

But few people do this exercise, and instead they rely on an automatic osmosis mechanism which means that the correct pronunciations seep into their system, where they replace erroneous preconceptions based upon standard orthography and even the supposedly phonetical spellings in dictionaries etc. And this doesn't always work out as intended because you hear what you expect to hear and not what really is said. You may be one of the exceptional individuals who can remember and repeat any spoken spoken sequence with 100% precision, but don't count on it.

At the other end of the scale we have got the suprasegmental intonation patterns, which almost never are indicated in language learning materials - you are (once again) expected to absorb them from the things you listen to through some kind of unconscious pattern building. Again there is one thing you can do to to make this process partly conscious: get some text in both a spoken and a written version and print out the written version with large spaces between the lines. Now mark up two things: stress patterns and tone level (in practice you may have to do one thing at a time).

Write a wawering red line for the tone level - and check this against the type of sentence. Is it a question? An order? A triumphant conclusion? Sometimes there a jumps in the tone level which seemingly don't have any grammatical explanation, but they may still be necessary for the authentic 'nativelike' sound.

With the stress patterns the main error is to assume that there are a few localized stressed syllables and then no stress at all around them. But there are many levels of stress, and different languages have different patterns - some have large variations, some have small variations and some have regular intervals like telegraph poles in a landscape, others aren't nearly as regular. We all try to learn these patterns by listening and listening and listening, but my claim is that you can listen more efficiently when you have made clear what you are listening for. And having to notate exactly what you hear is an excellent way of forcing yourself to listen carefully.

Edited by Iversen on 18 February 2013 at 10:12am

4 persons have voted this message useful

Super Polyglot
Joined 5178 days ago

9078 posts - 16471 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
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 Message 10 of 11
18 February 2013 at 10:13am | IP Logged 
Can you learn a language only by reading?

(from the thread with that name)

My preferred and most efficient learning methods are all based on the written language, so I know that you can get far - but you can't get all the way. Just as you can't learn to read just by listening to speech (millions of analphabets testify to that!) you can't learn the sound of a language just by reading phonetical renderings of a language. What you can do is to push your writing-based knowledge so far that a relatively small investment in listening and speaking can give a very fast development in those areas.

There is however one more aspect of this. Some people (including a number of of misguided linguists) claim that writing isn't language, only speech is. That's nonsense, but it is a fact that speech is more fundamental than writing - we learn it earlier, and even when we read we hear speech in our heads. So having to learn a language totally without hearing it is against nature - and I guess that even those who study extinct languages develop some kind of phonic representation of the weird cuneiform of ideogrammatic signs in order to be able to read the stuff. But this doesn't mean that writing can't be an efficient way of accumulating vocabulary and grammar, it just says that the process can't be based on writing alone.

For me there is one state of consciousness which is almost a necessity if I want to activate a language. I think of it as 'the buzz' (no Danish name, sorry). This state occurs when you get so much input that your head starts spinning. If you accept this chaotic state you can try to turn it in the direction of organized thinking, which is just one step ahead of speaking. I primarily achieve this with a combination of extensive reading and listening to comprehensible sources. The snag is that without a lot of preparation those sources wouldn't be comprehensible at all - and at least for me, intensive work primarily with written sources is my principal tool to make them comprehensible.

On the other hand, writing without 'the buzz' is possible because the speed is so much lower - actually so much lower that you have time to look things up and reread the things you already have written. But even writing isn't enough to activate your thinking and your speech - it's a valuable part of the preparations, but you need to hear a language not only to know how it sounds, but also to get an idea about the speed you need to achieve.

Edited by Iversen on 24 January 2014 at 10:01am

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Super Polyglot
Joined 5178 days ago

9078 posts - 16471 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
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 Message 11 of 11
24 January 2014 at 10:10am | IP Logged 
Don't let a weird spelling lead you astray

(Based on excerpts from the thread Early Modern English, Jan 23-24 2014)

Well, Beowulf can't be read without some study of Anglosaxon even when using a bilingual edition. But the Pearl poet? I didn't know this author so I had to look him up, and luckily Wikiquote had the Pearl poem with a translation by Brian Stone. And frankly, I can't see why this stuff should be a problem for advanced learners and even less for native speakers. Sometimes you have to think creatively to understand a word, but with the help of the translation you can make decent guesses. Let's have a look at the 1. verse:

Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Þurз gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle wythouten spot.

Alas! In a garden I lost it, let
It go to the ground on a grassy plot.
Bereft of love, I am racked by regret
For Pearl, my own Pearl without a spot.

The letter Þ (still found in Icelandic) is the same as "th" (which again is the real culprit behind the "y" of "Ye olde shoppe" and similar aberrations). If you didn't know it you should be able to guess it when you reach "þat" ('that'). "leste" is one wowel away from "lost", but this is just another dialect from another time - so look out for other cases where "o" is rendered as "e" by the pearl poet. "erbere": think 'herbal'. "Þurз" may not be the same word as 'turf' (as in 'home turf'), but pretend that it is, and "gresse" looks distinctly like "grassy" (again with an 'e' in place of something else, - now you should almost be able to imagine how this dialect sounded! - something like /wek wek wek/).

I won't go through the whole thing, but with a translation anybody who can cope with Shakespeare should also be able to understand this poem, and once you have conquered one poem like this one you are ready to tackle other writings from the 14. century, with or without a translation. There will probably be a number of unknown words in them, and once in a while you may even suspect that something more is going on than a simple translation can render. Am I the only one to see a saucy reference in the last stanza?

"Moteleз may so meke and mylde",
Þen sayde I to þat lufly flor,
"Bryng me to þat bygly bylde
And let me se þy blysful bor."
Þat schene sayde: "Þat God wyl schylde;
Þou may not enter wythinne hys tor."

"Moteless maiden so meek and mild,"
Then said I to that fairest flower,
Bring me to that bountiful pile
And let me see your blissful bower."
"God will forbid it," the bright one said.
"You shall not enter his holy place."

Or in modern language: Poet: May I **** you? Fair maid's answer: No!!

At this point two competent native speakers declared that the Pearl still was a problem for them, so I added the following tip - which is my real pretext for copying this discussion to my Guide:

Well, maybe my timid ventures into the world of Anglosaxon, mediocre knowledge of Old Norse plus rudiments of Icelandic, French and Latin plus ample, but not recent reading of works by people like Chaucer and Shakespeare has given me a background which makes the Pearl seem almost understandable. On the other hand I'm not a native Anglophone and that should drag me in the opposite direction. But I have to accept the statements from two competent HTLAL members: the Pearl may be just one step beyond comprehensible even for smart native speakers.

But what is there to do about this? Short of following courses in Early Middle English there may be one trick you could try. I have sometimes read texts in dialects or languages related to something I already knew, and then it helped to try to see through the spelling and just listen to the the words in your mind. As I said this poem has often an e (probably open) instead of a and o, which I irreverendly rendered as wek-wek-wek. Imagine that you close your nostrils and try to sound slightly tired, detached and ironical - then I think the accent will be there. And then listen to the poem while you read the letters. Then the spelling "gresse" won't lead you astray - you'll hear 'grassy'. The unknown words will of course pose a problem, but there the translation should help you out - although this is a typical literary translation - with all the vagaries this entails - and not a hyperliteral one. But even with this caveat you should have less problems understanding the poem than when you just looked at the aberrant spelling and said: "no way, this is not my kind of English".



part 1 (about learning languages in general)
part 2 (about translations)
part 3 (about grammar studies)
part 4 (about wordlists and vocabulary)

Edited by Iversen on 24 January 2014 at 10:11am

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