Is Studying from Grammar Tables Helpful?

Back when I was studying Classical Greek in college, I thought that I would just look at the tables for a long time and that I would somehow internalize them that way.

I was regularly struggling a lot in classical languages (although I did end up graduating with a degree in classics) and this was in part because I had no idea how to study.

Spaced Repetition, memory devices and, of course, the app zoo were completely unknown to me (and in case of the apps, not invented yet).

One degree, many struggles and a lot of shame, as well as many “I hope I’ve gained wisdom from this experience” ‘s later, I found myself learning Finnish. It is a language that… surprisingly isn’t as complicated as classical Greek in terms of its grammatical structure!

Granted, I understand very well that learning an ancient language (note that I do NOT say “dead”)  and learning a living language are two very different things. For one, I need active knowledge of Finnish in order to have a definitive mastery of it, I need to write it in and understand it when it is spoken by native speakers (also, for those unaware, Finnish is the slowest language I’ve ever encountered, especially in news reports. Keep in mind that it is still faster when spoken by native speakers than any language spoken by non-native speakers, however well [e.g. Creole Languages or English as an L2]).

None of that is required in an ancient language (although it may surprise some of you to know that a Modern Latin actually EXISTS and IS SPOKEN!)

So, now to answer the question you’ve come here for…how should grammar tables be used?

Within the past few years, there are a handful of languages that I’ve been using grammar tables for:

  • Icelandic
  • Cornish
  • Breton

And, interestingly, in Irish and Finnish I didn’t really use them that much.

However, I do use some of them in my classes when I teach languages

Allow me to explain:

When using a table, you should recite everything in it OUT LOUD and, if possible, use it with a simple sentence. In a language like Hebrew I would usually ask my students to say “I have a fish” and “I don’t have a fish” (Hebrew has no verb “to have” or indefinite articles, so what they actually say is “there-is to-me fish”, “there-is to-you fish”, and so on).

You can do this with verbs that conjugate (all Indo-European languages), prepositions with personal endings (like in Irish or Hebrew), adjectives that adjust themselves for gender (as in the case in Hebrew or Spanish)  or declensions (Slavic languages, Icelandic and Faroese, the Finno-Ugric Languages).

However, looking back to my journey in Breton, I remember stupidly reciting a lot of the tables over and over again and hoping it would stick. And it usually didn’t ,except for the most basic sentences (like “I am Jared”).

However, now I can have conversations in Breton without any major issues, so how did I get there?

For one, did the following, AFTER having recited the tables (but not memorized them):

 

  • Used them in small sentences of my own creation (e.g. I am Jewish. Are you American?)
  • Learned a bunch of sentences that I might need (e.g. I’ll have a crepe, please). I got these sentences primarily from my Colloquial Breton book, my Kauderwelsch Breton book, and Clozemaster (not also to mention too many other websites to list). To remember these sentences, I associated them with imaginary places, emotions or situations. (A sentence like “I have a boyfriend!” is very likely to conjure mental images of an emotion AND a situation regardless of who you are)
  • After having poked around sentences that use these constructions, I returned to the table to fill in my gaps, and repeated the process.

 

That’s one way to do it.

Another way I managed it with a language like Faroese (before I forgot almost all of it) was that I not only did what I did above, but I also used immersion, listening to Faroese music regularly during my commutes, walking around, cleaning, etc. In so doing, I unconsciously picked up patterns as to what prepositions used what case. I developed, like native speakers of these languages, a sense of what “felt right”.

Even if you’re a memory master, you may not pick up the true sense of how to equip yourself with your declensions / conjugations / grammar immediately. You may come to recognize it, but like with any new tool, you’ll have to fiddle with it a while, try out new things, look at people using it on the internet, and be willing to experiment and even mess up more than a few times.

Sentences are also very helpful, in programs like Anki or Clozemaster or the Tatoeba Sentence Database, or even reading them out loud from phrasebooks or UniLang courses (these may be helpful with a translation into a language you understand as well!). In so doing, you’ll be able to note general patterns between them, and after five to sixteen exposures to a common word, you’ll find it fixed into your long-term memory.

The same is also true of various declensions as well. Now, there comes the case with irregular declensions and irregular verbs, and so you want to return to the tables and the grammar guides after you’ve made some satisfactory progress with your language and you want to fill in more gaps.

In so doing, you’ll soon put everything in the tables in your long-term memory before you know it!

And in some language, you may actually get exposed to irregular verbs via immersion on a regular basis (Spanish and the Scandinavian Languages did this for me), and you may come to associate particular sentences or song lyrics with an irregular verb form that may be useful to you!

So, to answer the questions, are tables useful?

 

Yes, but don’t cram your way into knowing them. You have to use them in tandem with the way the language is used in real life (in any form) in order to truly let them become a part of your understanding of that language.

I didn’t look at the Breton verb conjugations or the Icelandic declensions once and then memorized them forever. I didn’t do that with any language. Instead, I put it together in my understanding, piece by piece, by using the language in a genuine manner, actively and passively.

Yes, chanting verb tables can help, I know it did for Spanish (which I still remember) and Latin (which I don’t), but above all it is you that has to assemble the puzzle of your dream language together with using every tool you have—the book itself isn’t going to cut it, although it will help.

Happy learning!

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What Good Does a Forgotten Language Do?

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Milwaukee, WI

Everywhere I have been I have encountered people who learned a language to a certain degree and then forgot it. This occurred with languages learned in adulthood as well as those learned in childhood at any stage.

Forgetting a language, in my opinion, seems to pose a bit of a “half-life” scenario, in which knowledge not sustained tends to decrease over time by “halves”.

I have a handful of languages that I have forgotten and cannot form sentences in. French, which I learned as a child, slight amounts of Japanese, Chinese, and also having majored in Classics in college gave me Classical Greek and Latin, both of which have fallen out of use in favor of…ummm…other languages that I would rather devote my time to.

Estonian and Polish have also gone that way for me, although of the forgotten languages that I have, these ones are definitely the strongest (and I didn’t really feel strong in Polish at any point, despite having lived in the country…shame, shame, shame on me…)

Well, good news for those of you who have forgotten languages: there are still some benefits to be had with having learned it.

For one, there are friends made with any language journey that takes place in a public setting. Even in a private setting, there are songs and stories and cultural tidbits that are encountered. Even if the entire language fades, many of these remain, and you would be surprised about how much you may be capable of remembering.

There is a certain discipline that comes with the experience as well, and it is worth to glimpse a culture, however weakly.

I remember one time in the Heidelberg Sprachcafe in which I encountered a Spanish-speaker who had a good friend from Finland and then proceeded to give me basic phrases in Finnish with a very heavily intoned Spanish accent. I was amused and delighted, and you have the power to amuse and delight people just the same with whatever knowledge you may have left.

With a culture also comes a set of texts that you may have been able to read at one point, but can no longer. Even if you can’t read the text any more, the morals of the stories stay with you, as some may some obscure details about the language contained within the texts.

This may also manifest in the form of song lyrics or a tune of a certain song that became popular in your group or study session. Even when I had forgotten virtually all of the Russian that I knew, I did have certain tunes spring to mind from Kino, Mumij Troll, or the Cheburashka short films. With my steadily weakening Estonian, I still have Ott Lepland on my hard drive and those tunes don’t go away as easily!

Learning patterns and discipline and grammar in any form is helpful skill-building. In my Classical Greek classes, I remembered a lot of grammatical terms that became helpful when learning live languages further down the road. They helped me think about these languages more easily.

The fact is, it is a well-known fact that most students in foreign language classes tend to forget the languages due to disuse. But there is a reason that these classes exist to begin with! And you should realize that if you undertook this journey in the past, you still have something of that journey.

And if you undertake this journey in the future, remember that, should you forget it all, you will still have pieces as well.

And those pieces will glitter brightly. More than you think…

Lost in the Føroyskt: My First Impressions of Faroese

Richard Kölbl, the author of the Kauderwelsch Faroese Phrasebook/Mini-Textbook, writes in a tongue-in-cheek manner that the Faroese People spent the long winter nights in the Faroe Islands convoluting their written language and creating making their pronunciation system complicated.
That sounds like something that came to my mind upon receiving my very first impressions of Faroese (via the Lonely Planet Guide—the same one that featured this hilarious excerpt). Back then, I could not possibly comprehend how the written language corresponded to the spoken one. Not surprisingly, I had a similar struggle with Danish as well, and am undergoing much of the same with French (although I think that French has the most sensible system of the three).
Thanks largely to Kölbl’s book, my struggles with pronunciation have been readily been put at ease. Each word is usually provided with the phonetic German transcription that I will need.
The most important obstacle that comes out when I learn a language related to those that I already know well is the fact that I am sometimes less inclined to practice if I can recognize things easily (Dutch was the worst offender, by far—immersion sometimes didn’t help, because I would understand a lot of it already, even if I couldn’t actively call upon a good enough vocabulary to use it in conversation most of the time).
Faroese vocabulary in its simple bases presents almost no surprises at all. I found out that the word “ej” (no, none, not having any) and its ilk in the more modern Scandinavian Languages could be related to the Faroese word “einki”, (“ayn-tscheh”). After Swedish, Danish and Norwegian the words that I recognize actively are usually just written down in my notebook without definitions—“eldur” (fire) and “kanska” (maybe) are easily recognizable from “ild” and “kanske”, which mean the same (I used the Swedish examples here).
The grammar is the main reason why I have trouble building sentences. Interestingly, the book hasn’t been too helpful with that, but I did manage to find some other books with the verb tables and declensions that I will need.
Thankfully after Classical Greek (and many other languages), Faroese grammar can’t really surprise me anymore. That isn’t to say that it isn’t scary—I find the tables intimidating, but it isn’t nearly as scary as the guidebooks I have read make it out to be.
(An aside at this point: too many travel guide books make out various languages to be a lot scarier than they actually are. But most of you already knew that. Other travel guide books may make a point of saying that you should just use English anyway, if possible. I think I should address these issues in another post…)
I can’t help but think of the modern Scandinavian languages every minute of my studying Faroese. For one, “ein” (one) is both masculine and feminine, as opposed to the “common gender” in Swedish/Danish/Norwegian/Dutch. There is a neuter in Faroese as well: “eitt”. In Swedish, you have “en” and “ett”, and the connection is obvious.
Okay, Jared, stop talking about things we may not understand and get to something important. Like feelings!
Very well.
For one, Faroese has been a welcome break from many other languages that I have struggled with. I had no head start with Greenlandic (to say the least), save for a handful of Danish words. I listened to my first Radio broadcast in Greenlandic back in early 2013 and didn’t understand a word.
Faroese is different—thanks largely to my prior knowledge of Scandinavian Languages, I do have an extraordinary head start—and this accounts not only for the vocabulary but also for the accent as well. I think that Kringvarp Føroya’s voices do resemble some vague form of Swedish.
I do have another bit of a battle as well: so far, I haven’t encountered too many Faroese programs that I like very much (yet). KNR’s Greenlandic media I found instantly enchanting, even back when I understood almost none of it. As for Faroese media, I think it will very well be a bit of an acquired taste…or maybe I just need to play around with the site more…
I find Faroese Music very enchanting, very much like that of Greenland, and I have a knack for humming the National Anthem of the Faroe Islands (my first song in the language, even though I haven’t learned the lyrics by heart…yet).
Only yesterday evening did I get my first “remark” (and I usually appreciate things like this when they are delivered with a smile and more than a hint of admiration):
Me: “Next week is the Faroese National Holiday, it lasts for two days and everything in the Faroes is closed.
Friend: “Everything in the Faroe Islands is closed. What is there…three shops and one church?”
My collection of Greenlandic comments of this nature is already quite full. I can imagine that this one will be as well, but I’ll have to be patient…
I’ve even encountered a handful of Europeans who don’t even know that the Faroe Islands exist…so maybe this collection might not be as stunning…but something to smile at, nonetheless!
In summary, my progress (with a few more details that I haven’t mentioned before):
(1) Grammar? I’ve been here before. I don’t think it is too much to worry about it. People made a big deal out of grammar in the Finnish Language being tough stuff and I didn’t particularly feel that it was.
(2) Cognates? Cognate heaven. Moving on.
(3) Control of the language? I have the basics down. I’ve learned a number of interesting details about the culture and drawn connections to other languages that I know (which include the whole of the Germanic Language family, actually!)
(4) Pronunciation? I’m growing into it! And a lot more easily than I remember doing with Danish! Heck, I think it’s even easier than French pronunciation at this juncture! But I think the reason this is the case is because Swedish and Danish are hardly mysteries for me anymore, and Faroese can’t be too much of a departure…although it tries to be!
(5) The keyboard: installed, but painful. Need to really figure out how it works…
(6) Immersion: predictably, there are quotes from Danish politicians that are very clearly kept in Danish and not rendered into Faroese. I’m recognizing many words quite quickly, but sometimes have trouble putting the spoken language together with ease. The written language is far easier at this juncture…
(7) However, I don’t have many shows that I particularly crave to watch. This means: I need to find something that I like. It’s out there…
(8) I HAVE to pass from a passive understanding of the grammar and many aspects of vocabulary to an active understanding. Once I do that, then color me proficient.

As to when I will reach that point, well…depends on many factors…

So far, it has been a good journey! It doesn’t seem like it will be one that will ever end, though (any language learner knows this…)…and that’s a good thing!
Until next time…

“I’ve Heard It’s Really Hard…” : On The Finnish Language

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I began my journey with the Finnish Language in March 2013, during a few weeks off in the United States.

After having spent eight months in Sweden, I remember that many of my friends (Swedish and otherwise) found the Finnish Language odd, interesting, and completely unintelligible, despite the fact that there were Finnish translations on almost every single piece of food packaging in the country.

“Strange Language. Double Letters. Long Words.”

One time I asked a Swede why the Finnish language was understudied in Sweden. His answer: “You don’t study Cherokee in the United States, do you?”

And that was nothing to say of the fake Finnish thrown around by some Swedish comedians. What follows is likely the best-known example (with English subtitles):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAl9OyGYxOg

I’m not passing judgment on any of these phenomena. They are what they are.

I did research in Finland for my MA Thesis—an effort I will submit later this week. Obviously it made sense to show commitment to the culture by learning the language. While I was not fluent by the time I arrived in November 2013 (and I still am not, but I am almost there…), my efforts were appreciated by everyone whom I interviewed , and the following exchange I had with the Rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch in Helsinki was priceless:

 

Rabbi Wolff: “You obviously know a lot about the Finnish Language. When did you first arrive here?”

Jared: (with a smile) “…just a couple of hours ago…”

 

Only last night did I hear for the I-stopped-counting-how-many-th time that Finnish is super-hard. There is one thing in common with everyone that I hear this from:

None of them have tried!

Interestingly even for a few people who learned about twenty words of the language, they don’t find it especially difficult—just different.

I’ve had significant struggles with language grammars. Modern Greek’s future tense system gave me nightmares. The Hebrew binyanim became something I never wanted to think about. And then there was Finnish’s lesser-known relative, Northern Sami, which had consonant shifts across the board that I still struggle with.

I can tell who is informed about the Finnish Language if he or she uses one word to describe it: logical. Some have even said that it is a language that is possible for an outsider to learn perfectly (I would never say this about American English).

The grammar does take some effort to learn, but I found that in comparison to the grammar of Modern Greek and Modern Hebrew especially (not also to mention those of the ancient languages that I had forgotten), Finnish was an easy ride. It is true that there are about thirty-five different noun categories for declination (Greenlandic only has ten). Most of these are intuitive, however, and I couldn’t have said the same thing about anything regarding, let’s say, Classical Greek.

And then we get to the second part about what I constantly hear from outsiders about the Finnish language:

“lots of cases”

I always counter this with the following: “most of them are straight-up prepositions”

In the Slavic Languages that I have learned (Russian, Polish, and one Czech lesson), when there is a preposition, there is a case that goes with it:

 

“Polska” = Poland, “w Polsce” = in Poland.

 

Now note the equivalent in Finnish:

 

”Puolassa” = in Poland

 

The information about the preposition is contained within the case itself.

When I was first immersing myself in Finnish, I found it difficult to absorb native material because I felt that my brain was trying to watch a ball being thrown back and forth by professional athletes with unnatural reflexes. Namely—I couldn’t absorb all of the case information very quickly.

This, too, comes with practice. And this brings me to my next point about the Finnish Language:

As the accent is always on the first syllable, distinguishing words in spoken speech is very easy.

Even if you are relatively inexperienced, you can use this principle in order to type in words you hear into Google Translate just by hearing them.

The Finnish Language, in comparison to others that I have heard, is spoken slowly.

I’ve noticed very much the same in most instances of spoken Swedish as well.  This definitely isn’t Brazilian Portuguese or Andalusian Spanish that you are dealing with.

Maybe FinnAir stewardesses speak very quickly sometimes, but most of the time, I have noticed a significantly slower tempo—in both spoken speech and in the media.

Are you afraid of learning a language because people speak too quickly and that you can’t make out the words? Both problems solved! Just choose the Finnish Language.

There is only one real difficulty, however, and that is the fact that most words are not Indo-European at all. Never fear, there are a handful of Swedish import words (luvata = att lova = to promise), German idiomatic structures (pääkaupunki = Hauptstadt = capital city), internationalisms (dramaattinen, poliittinen), and English words (rooli, mestari).

Aside from that? Mostly it is an issue of getting out the flash cards, or the right software to assist with your memory. But you can do it!

You would have to be doing memorization like this anyway. I don’t see people complaining that Hebrew is an extraordinarily difficult language, and I know why not: it is more commonly studied.

Another reason why some people might believe Finnish to be difficult is because of the long- and short-vowels. The difference between these two sentences is well-known, and this paradigm was my first-ever exposure to the Finnish Language, back in 2008:

Minä tapaan sinut huomenna ´= I will meet you tomorrow

Minä tapan sinut huomenna = I will kill you tomorrow

Back when I was younger I was ready to give up right then. There would be no way I could manage anything like that! Or so I thought…

But one thing that I didn’t think about was this: I played lots of piano at the time and it never occurred to me that it was merely an issue of holding a note for longer. That is the same difference you would find between the long and the short vowels, not also to mention the long and the short consonants (valita = to choose, vallita = to govern).

Both of them, just like everything else in a language, takes time getting used to—and you’re not going to get people angry by accidentally using the short vowel when the long one should be used. Context is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Therefore, pronunciation isn’t actually a problem. In both Finnish and Hungarian I have heard that is it quite easy to sound like a genuine speaker (I still have yet to have extended experiences with Estonian and Northern Sami, not to mention the other Finno-Ugric Languages). My friends who would struggle with a few words of a Scandinavian Language like Norwegian could easily pronounce Finnish words with no difficulty.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Finnish pronunciation could very well be easier than that of Esperanto.

Then there is the issue that the written language is quite different from the spoken one, but start with the spoken language and then you will be able to read the billboards and even the newspapers with enough discipline and practice. The difference between the two sides of this language is no different than between the spoken and the written German Language.

And here’s a secret: the German Language and the Finnish Language, despite their differences, are very similar idiomatically!

Even better: almost everything you will need to become fluent is contained in one site: http://www.uusikielemme.fi/index.html

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use other resources—hearing the language is essential, and my progress in the language would have been impossible without it. There is lots of material to be found, American children’s classics included.

And here’s the best part: even if you learn the language to an “okay” or even rudimentary level, the mythology that the Finnish Language is extraordinarily hard means that you will command respect from people, most of who have never tried!

Aren’t you excited?