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Learning Families of Languages

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
jmlgws
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Canada
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 Message 1 of 6
02 December 2007 at 7:53am | IP Logged 
Professor Arguelles and Iverson,

Iverson wrote:

Quote:
For instance I participated in a course whose subject was the comparison between modern Romance languages with the explicit purpose of making it possible to read them all.


Would either of you have good suggested references on how to do this, i.e. how to learn to read all Romance languages (or for that matter, all Germanic languages)? The closest I have seen to this is "The Loom of Language" by Bodmer/Hogben, which I find has many fascinating comparisons between different Romance languages and different Germanic languages, but I never knew how to use all these bits of information coherently.

Thank you and regards,

Lleweilun Smith
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Iversen
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 Message 2 of 6
02 December 2007 at 1:10pm | IP Logged 
I'm sorry that I cannot be more specific, but it is almost thirty years ago, and even if we had used a specific book it might be sold out by now. As far as I remember we didn't even use a text book, but just an assortment of dictionaries and grammars plus the stenciled notes of our professor. I have read "The Loom of Language" long ago, but don't remember much about the content.

If I wanted to get an overview of the Romance languages then I would look for an old-fashioned, but not too detailed language history with lots of sound shifts, because all the parallels are due to historical developments that can be pinpointed quite accurately.


Edited by Iversen on 03 December 2007 at 8:34am

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daristani
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 Message 3 of 6
02 December 2007 at 2:38pm | IP Logged 
For an approach to dealing with the Romance languages as a whole, see the links in this old thread:

http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?T ID=4493&PN=8

It takes you to a website that, although exceedingly confusing in structure, at least to me, has a fairly large number of "lessons" in learning some of the Romance languages based on short texts, as well as a book (in German) called "Die Sieben Siebe" (The Seven Sieves) which presents a systematic approach to the process. It's also available in English from the site.

A number of years ago, I saw a small book to teach three Romance languages at once, and I've been looking to buy a copy ever since. (It's very difficult to find, and exceedingly expensive when used copies go up for sale.) The book is:

Heatwole, Oliver. A Comparative Practical Grammar of French, Spanish and Italian. New York: Vanni. 1949.

You might find a copy in a library somewhere.
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ProfArguelles
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 Message 4 of 6
02 December 2007 at 4:52pm | IP Logged 
I do not think there are any shortcuts to really learning to read a whole family of languages. At the University of Chicago, there was a general requirement that all doctoral students pass both French and German reading exams. This is as it should be, but the university sadly collaborates with the students in faking the ability by offering special “French/German for reading,” i.e., “for passing the reading exam” courses. Acquaintances who took these classes told me that they were basically taught the core several hundred little words that appear on almost every page of a given language, plus how to effectively use a dictionary in the language. The courses lasted about six weeks, and within six weeks of passing the ridiculously easy tests (take 90 minutes to translate a single short paragraph, accuracy not required, just the gist), the universal consensus of my acquaintances was that all had been forgotten.

If you truly aspire to this, you must learn a well-chosen handful of languages by good old-fashioned systematic and intelligent study. After a certain point, you will be able to access the other members of the family without study. That is, you can pretty much jump right into the practice of reading them, but without regular exercise in this practice, and without taking the time to clarify the murky and dark points, you will not make much progress. As there are an odd-dozen major representatives of each of the major European families, you will want to study at least one variant of each branch within the family, and if you do this with comparative philological consciousness, you should come to that threshold crossing all the sooner. The Loom of Language is an excellent book overall, a true classic that should be savored by anyone interested in polyglottery, and in particular its chapters on this theme for Romance and Germanic are the only readily available resource for the kind of historical parallel sound charts that Mr. Iversen so sagely already mentioned above. There are many such books available for the older Germanic languages, but I cannot at the moment recall one for the living exponents. For Romance there is Peter-Boyd-Bowman’s From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts (Georgetown University Press, 1954/1980), which unfortunately and inexplicably leaves out Romanian, but which does give 43 specifically useful rules for perceiving the historical relationships between French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

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Iversen
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 Message 5 of 6
08 December 2007 at 8:48pm | IP Logged 
I have been thinking much about what it really means to learn whole language families (mostly because I'm personally heavily involved in such projects).

It is clear that in order to say that you know a family of languages you must know a repræsentative number of its languages quite well, and in practice I can't see that you can learn them to the necessary level without learning them as active languages. I'm not going to discuss learning methods here, but the bottom line is that you have to absorb the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary from inherently heterogenous sources. Therefore your personal idiolekt in each of the languages you learn will be formed on the basis of sources that straddles across dialects, sociolects and registers. The only way to avoid this is probably to put yourself in a situation where one variant of a given language is absolutely dominating, and that will in practice mean immersion in a suitable place for a long time.

In another thread (on native-like pronunciation) I have had the audacity to declare that I don't see it as a problem that my English, Spanish, Portuguese and so forth are eclectic collocations of elements that may derive from several dialects of each language. My argument is that when I do find myself in an immersion situation (i.e. when I travel) I quickly adapt to the surroundings (at least until I return back home). The eclecticism of my idiolects is in my opinion the main factor behind my adaptability, but as I said: I know that this is a controversial question, and the prevailing theory is probably that you ought to choose one native dialect per language and stick to that.

As I see it, adaptability is a prerequisite for dealing with dialects and closely related languages that you haven't learnt in a formal way. For instance we once had a thread that included references to the Sardic language, and I read quite a lot of Sardic texts on the internet during that period. I had never studied Sardic before, not even during my study years in the 70s, but I didn't really have problems, and of course the simple explanation would that I already know Italian fairly well. But my thesis is that it also plays a role that I'm quite lenient towards variants within the languages I know, in this case Italian. Understanding Sardic on the basis of Italian is not fundamentally different from understanding a libretto of Metastasio (which I had to do because of another thread on this excellent forum) or from having a conversation with a dialect-speaking Sicilian shark fisher (which happened during one of my train travels in Italy).

At some point guesswork on the basis of a related language isn't enough, and then you of course have to resort to dictionaries and grammars. This can eventually lead to taking up a formal study of the target language (or dialect), but even in that situation the new language may initially be understood on the basis on a wellknown language, and if the learning process can be cut down to for instance a month or less then I am willing to accept a certain level of interference during that short period, - I expect that those extraneous elements will disappear as soon as the new language becomes firmly established.

Professor Arguelles, it would interest me very much to know how you see the relationship between eclecticism and adaptability when it comes to learning whole language families and seeing them as units. Can you strive towards this goal without also accepting a certain degree of 'fuzziness' in the demarcation of each single language?


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ProfArguelles
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foreignlanguageexper
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 Message 6 of 6
09 December 2007 at 5:42pm | IP Logged 
Mr. Iversen, if I follow you correctly, then I concur, but I suppose I have always subjectively perceived the demarcation lines between members of the Germanic and Romance families to fade away naturally as I gained a wider perspective on the families as a whole. Hence, this has not perturbed me, and it is certainly more important to me to know Romance and Germanic than it is to know any of their constituent parts. Still, I have to say that thinking about all of this certainly makes me yearn to take an extended language-refreshing excursion through Europe once again, but that is not possible at the moment.


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