I was thinking about
My blogging colleague Andreas Avester has written an interesting post on learning languages and what he found worked best for him. He raises several good and interesting points, others that I disagree with, and some that made me plain wonder about his university instructors. As you may remember, i am, in my heart of hearts, a language teacher. I currently rarely have the opportunity to teach foreign languages, and I am happy being a teacher no matter what, because I always teach kids first and subjects second, but this also means that I got the full training of a language teacher.
Language teaching has its history, just like all of teaching has and language teaching started out as Latin and Old Greek. For a long time these were the only languages a young man of renown would come in contact with, until the kids of the Bourgeoisie needed some modern languages to do trade. For a long time, Latin was the lingua franca ( a language used by two people of different native languages. Both Andreas and I use English as a lingua franca here), then French. German used to dominate the sciences but now the world speaks English.
Nevertheless, as modern language teaching rose in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, it simply took the Grammar Translation Approach from Latin and applied it to modern languages. And it’s damn amazing how long and how much of it is still present. When Andreas talks about having to memorize grammar tables and vocabulary lists, thank the fucking Romans.
Another approach was the Native Speaker Approach. This had its basis not in science or education but in the British Council’s need to find employment for tons of well educated Brits. The central paradigm is that nobody can teach a language like a native speaker. As a native speaker who taught her native language as a second language (and who still does) I call this bullshit. Native speakers often have very little abstract knowledge of their own languages and when I first did this I was very hard pressed by the most simple questions my students asked.
In Germany the Audiovisual Approach was in vogue following WWII when the West needed tons of translators for the American Forces and all the schools and universities got audio labs where you’d sit and listen to tapes and repeat the sentences. Mind you, those still have a part in phonetics training.
When I went to school the aim was to have “near native speaker competence” and the methods still echoed the old grammar translation approach. My English teacher (a full grown bully and bastard) used the following: whenever we had a unit text we had to copy the text into our workbooks and then translate the text. We also had to use file cards for our vocabulary. Front: English, back: German. I got into lots of trouble for refusing to do most of it, because at 12 I could already detect bullshit when I saw it and I developed some deep hatred for file cards. It took me 10 years to discover that they can be wonderful learning tools.
Grammar was taught deductively: The teacher explained the rule, then we applied the rule. Fun fact: the books were already geared towards inductive teaching, but most teachers are at least two generations behind in their teaching. They learn their teaching from some old geezer who teaches what was the current approach back when they were young and since many teachers think they know everything they never bothered to update their teaching.
Some time during my baby break the paradigm shifted again: Now the aim is to create an intercultural speaker: Somebody who cannot just speak another language, but who is also verse in the target culture or has at least a set of tools that allows them to notice cultural misunderstandings and navigate those pitfalls. The methods that are currently favoured are: task based, competence oriented, inductive. I’ll come to all of them in detail.
Andreas describes how he learned languages the best: not in school, but in contact with speakers of the target language:
By the time I was twelve years old, I got a Russian speaking friend. While we were playing hide-and-seek, whenever she found me, she would say the phrase “я тебя нашла” (“I found you”). Whenever I found her, I just repeated the same phrase. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I used the verb “to find” in past tense. I wasn’t thinking about the various forms of pronouns. Instead I was repeating the words after her and using the language in order to communicate. In the process, I learned the language, I also learned the grammar rules.
What Andreas describes here is what we call “language acquisition”: it’s a natural process that we all undergo when we learn our native language. It’s also something that happens when we learn secondary or foreign languages and it is the reason why your truly will use perfect American idioms pronounced in the nicest British RP you can imagine. As Andreas says, we don’t consciously learn any rules when we do that, but we do learn the rules. That’s why all kids will form ungrammatical sentences in their native language where they’re applying the wrong rule. A typical example in English would be “sheeps” or “he catched me”.
In language teaching this approach is described as as providing a “language bath”: give the student as much input as possible and language acquisition is what follows. Now, while this obviously worked a treat for Andreas, this often has issues when applied to teaching. First of all, we get 4, maybe 5 hours of language classes a week. We are not in the target culture, we have one person competent in the target language in the classroom, so it’s hard to “recreate” that natural acquisition. And also, this doesn’t work for everybody. I have migrant kids in my classes who, despite having been immersed in German language and culture and classes for two, three years, have not learned more than a few chunks. One approach never works for all.
Andreas said he had to take a class on how to teach foreign languages and that he keeps disregarding everything he learned there, which makes me wonder: what do they teach those kids at school?
In order to get my master’s degree in German philology, I had to take university courses about how to teach languages and also how to create language courses. As you can see, when I actually worked as a language teacher, I threw out of the window some of said ideas that my professors had taught me.
Here’s how I learned to teach a language: Create a context where the kids will want/need to use the new words/structures. So we create a shopping situation (numbers, prices, stationary, polite forms). Maybe bring the articles to class. I even have some British play money for real fake shopping. Demonstrate the forms, let them discover the words (hold up a pen when you say “pen”) , let them practise the new words and forms in a variety of contexts. One exercise my students really liked was as a quick succession of very short dialogues with a new structure. We do shopping? The kids get a card with the item they need on the front and the price on the back. They walk through the classroom and practise with a classmate:
“How can I help you?”
“I need two pencils, please”
“Here you are”
Then they do the classmate’s dialogue, swap cards, go to the next classmate, rinse and repeat. This gives them a lot of practise and they can practise with their peers (rather than having to speak in front of the class).
And grammar? Well, you still need to learn it. Not all kids learn rules intuitively. there are kids you can make absolutely unhappy with the answer “you just have to learn it” when they’re asking why on earth it is “caught” and not “catched” and there is no rule which verbs are strong verbs and which ones are not. In my experience they are very happy in Latin classes (which I almost failed spectacularly). If possible grammar is inductive: I give examples of a new structure, the kids find the rule. After 10 sentences “I like dogs, I don’t like slugs, I like horses, I don’t like bugs” most kids can tell you that to negate a sentence you need “don’t”.
To summarize, current language teaching prioritises tasks, active usage, cultural competences and lots of language input. Some good old-fashioned drill exercises still have their place, but a small one.
I was not struck by inspiration this week, so today’s Slavic Saturday is going to be a bit silly. I am going to show you the various forms that one word can take in Czech within the various cases.
Our word will be the word for a dog, which in Czech is a noun of the masculine (animate) gender and in its singular form is universal to slavic languages. Btw, Czech has four genders – masculine (animate), masculine (inanimate), feminine and neutral. That means a lot of fun.
Lets start with singular grammatical cases:
pes – nominative
psa – genitive and accusative
psu/psovi – dative, locative
pse – vocative
psem – instrumental
That is not all, there is also plural:
psi/psové – nominative and vocative
psů – genitive and accusative
psům – dative, locative
psech – locative
psy – instrumental
Of course that still is not all, there is also singular diminutive:
pejsek – nominative
pejska – genitive and accusative
pejskovi/pejsku – dative, locative
pejsku – vocative
pejskem – instrumental
And plural diminutive:
pejsci/pejskové – nominative, vocative
pejsků – genitive
pejskům – dative
pejsky – accusative, instrumental
But that is not the only diminutive. There is also alternative diminutive “psík”. And “psíček”. And “pejsánek”. And “pejsáneček”. The “če” you can then add for further diminution in principle ad infinity. It would sound silly to say it more than once, but it is gramatically correct.
And there is also augmentative “psisko”.
And the adjective “psí”. Which has different forms depending on the gender of the noun it qualifies.
But I won’t torture you with all their forms, you are brave enough if you read so far. To learn this is a torture even for native speakers. No wonder foreigners have rather hard time when they try to learn this. But at least we are not the worst, there are languages with more cases even here in Europe (looking sideways at the finno-ugric family).
These are from David who notes:
If it’s a murder of Crows
It’s a Parliament of Owls,
then surely it must be …
A brothel of shags?
To me a s a German, English collective nouns are both a delight and a bane. I mean, a pride of lions and a murmuration of starlings?
In German it’s quite easy: If it flies or swims, it’s a swarm (Schwarm), with the exception of marine mammals (they have Schule, schools like in English). Carnivores that hunt together are a Rudel, a pack like wolves. Grazers? Herde (herd). Trees? Forest, unless you’re my husband who once famously couldn’t remember “forest” and kept talking about a “pack of trees”.
These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.
In Czech we have a saying – how many languages you know is how many times you are a human. As a grown man I do appreciate the wisdom of this saying, since language barriers are difficult to breach and in combination with other things they do lead to a lot of nasty stuff. It is for example very easy to other people whose language you do not understand and with whom you therefore cannot effectively communicate. Even with all other barriers removed, language barrier in itself can be insurmountable obstacle. And when you can and do speak with people, all other differences tend to fade away.
As a child, I did not appreciate the saying at all. My parents were trying to get me to learn German from early age, but since they are not the pushy type and I was not too receptive, it did not work out. Later at school from age 10 Russian language was compulsory. But there we hit the snag of not only another language, but another alphabet as well – for me it was difficult enough to learn writing in one alphabet and sure enough, another one was difficult even more and soon I started to write fluently but illegibly in Azbuka as well.
I do not remember whether the explanation as to why we must learn Russian was given to us as a matter of course or whether someone asked, but it was given to us nevertheless. It was argued that it is useful to know at least one widely distributed language so one can communicate with more people. And that most widely distributed languages are English, Spanish and Russian, because USSR covers one eight of inhabitable land and Russian is spoken in all other countries of the Warsaw Pact, covering most of Europe and Asia, therefore Russian is the most useful language for us of them all. Q.E.D.
You probably have spotted already the flaw in that argument, as did I – the area of inhabited land is not as important as the amount of actual people with whom you can speak using given language. But lacking further data, I have not questioned the wisdom of this and I thought that it is a valid argument at the time. So I plodded on with difficulties trying to learn Russian, torturing my teacher in turn as much as she tortured me.
However it did not take long to learn how untrue this argument is in real life. It started when I saw how difficult it was for children to get help with homework in Russian language. Nobody could read it and nobody understood it much, despite the fact that they all learned it in school. That way I learned that actual use of Russian among ordinary people was so minimal that most of them forgot most of it as soon as they left the school. Second observation was when I was at a summer camp in German Democratic Republic. We were allowed to have some pocket-money and to do some shopping. Hooray! We are in a foreign country, but people here learned Russian in school, therefore we will be able to communicate with them! And to this day I remember the totally blank expression of a quite young shopkeeper when I told her that I would like to buy that aeroplane model of – (I forgot the exact type) and I had to resort to pointing and grunting instead. Huh, so much for that argument then.
By the time my elementary school education was nearing its end, I was convinced of two things – first was that I am hopeless at learning other languages and I hate it. Second was that learning foreign languages is nearly useless.
For the second conviction I actually had some solid data at the time – the Iron Curtain was an effective barrier going anywhere west of my home, making any need to understand people living there moot. And from experience I knew that even if I manage to get to some of the other eastern countries, Russian will be of nearly zero use.
To this day my generation and those older are still the least language-savvy generations in our country. And the country as a whole has therefore still abysmal proficiency in other languages, as well as in many other former east bloc countries. The Iron Curtain persists in this form, still fostering xenophobia and bigotry. A reminder that a regime change is not enough.
When I was reading today morning an article on RawStory This is why right-wingers are so threatened by hearing foreign languages in the Trump era, I honestly have thought to myself “Yes? And what else is new?”.
As some of you might recall from my comments in the past, I was in USA, twice, and I worked at Sun Valley resort in Idaho for the summer season as a laundry worker.
First time I and two of my friends have arrived at New York, with J-1 work and travel visa but without any specific plan as to where to go. We traveled by greyhound first to Atlantic City and after failing to find work and lodgings there one us stayed and two of us have split and traveled to Idaho. Again via greyhound.
In the greyhound we actually did not experience anything overtly unpleasant. Whenever we talked in Czech, the most that has happened was someone asking politely “Where are you guys from?” and after polite answer “From Czech Republic.” the matter was resolved and dropped. Nobody was pestering us (apart from two kids who kicked the back of my seat and their parents did not take them to task, aaargh!).
In retrospect, most of those polite people were Latinos and black. In retrospect the two of us stood out, with our pale skin and me with my blonde hair and blue-grey eyes.
It was only after we started to meet white “patriotic” Americans when we encountered some nastiness, some first hand, some second-hand.
There was a bunch of European workers at the resort for that season, a lot of Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Russians, a few Croats (and a lot of people from France because the catering manager was French and it wa seen as posh to have actual french waiters). Almost all these people were people with university degrees, at least Bachelor or higher. But a lot of us had rather basic English and with heavy accents – after all learning English was for many of us one of the reason for the travel.
Some of the white people, guests as well as workers, took this rather badly and it was not uncommon to meet the attitude “they are so stupid, they cannot even talk English properly”, sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly expressed. AFAIK always by people of lower education and with zero knowledge of the world outside USA. The people saying this were not hostile, but they were nasty.
One evening when we were drinking beer with one of the actually really friendly (and not only pretending to be so) Americans, the discussion steered towards this and he summed it up in a joke.
“How do you call someone who knows three languages?”
“How do you call someone who knows two languages?”
“How do you call someone who knows only one language?”
We all laughed, because it was true and therefore funny. He himself did not know second language, but he tried to learn Spanish and knew therefore that it is not an easy task. I only remember meeting one white American who actually really spoke second language (Spanish) with reasonable fluency.
When the season ended, I and my friend could either go straight home, or use the J-1 visa option and travel for one month to see a bit more of USA. We have decided to use that option and it was during this travel that we encountered actual overtly expressed hostility towards us.
The incident was very short, but it stuck in my mind. It was somewhere in California, and I do not remember whether it was in San Francisco or Santa Monica (probably the latter). We were just walking along the street, casually talking about something inconsequential when a smallish thin black-bearded man passing by shouted at us “You are in America, you should speak English!” with such force and venom in his voice, that we were startled and both paused. He gave us a scathing look and went on. We looked at each other and talked a bit about WTF just happened?
The stories that I am reading now about USA remind me of this incident and make me wonder whether it would turn out differently today. Whether today that man might feel bold enough not only to shout and give scathing looks, but to actually harm us.
Americans hate of foreigners is really nothing new. The “melting pot” was always a myth.
Colours in Old Norse. This was very interesting, thanks to Ice Swimmer for this, which came up in the discussion of Lurid, and it’s origin Luridus, meaning pale yellow. I’m familiar with the association between gold and red, that seems to have been a means of classification in many different cultures. As for blue being used to describe black people, that’s not unique to Old Norse either. I remember reading this post about the awful mistakes people make when trying to translate English into Gaelic. They have a similar use of colour classification having to do with hair, and…
The funny thing here is, the Irish word gorm actually does mean “blue” in most contexts. […] People of African descent, or with similarly dark skin, are described as “blue” in Irish (most likely because dubh (“black”) and dorcha (“dark”) have negative connotations in the language and donn (“brown”) would be understood to refer to hair color).
Zinnias make for wonderful summertime garden flowers, attracting all kinds of pollinators and many birds which feed on their seeds. Snails (and slugs) also seem to like them, not only the flowers but especially the seedlings. It’s kind of a spring tradition for me, sow zinnias and hand-pick snails and slugs around them every night until they grow to a certain stage or until snails estivate. This photo was taken in November, when snails are active again, and some zinnias are still standing.
Oh, what a poignant and beautiful photo! Click for full size.
© Nightjar, all rights reserved.
Xerophytes are drought-adapted plants, commonly found in environments where water is scarce. An example is the cactus Opuntia ficus-indica. The fruits, seen here, are delicious but harvesting and peeling them can be quite tricky because of all the small spines, it is almost guaranteed that at least one will find its way into your skin no matter how careful you are (speaking from experience here). Bonus wasp!
The wasp looks so tiny! Click for full size.
© Nightjar, all rights reserved.