How to Learn Cases

Many experienced language learners know about them and are scared of them. But surprisingly as an experienced language learner there are significantly few things that scare me and cases is not one of them.

Cases are a sure way to scare all but the most hardened of languages learners on this planet. They’re not unique to the Indo-European Languages (Uyghur, Finnish and Greenlandic, Turkic, Finno-Ugric and Eskimo-Aleut respectively both have them.) For those of who you don’t know what they are, cases occur in inflected languages in which nouns will change depending on what function they form in the sentence.

In Germanic and in Slavic Languages, cases will usually serve the following roles:

  • Direct object of a verb (e.g. I ate the apple, the apple is the thing I am eating and thereby it will go in an accusative case).
  • Indirect object of a verb (e.g. I gave YOU the apple, the YOU is the thing I’m giving it TO and therefore it is in a dative case)
  • Indicate that the noun owns something (the flight of Jared, Jared is the one who owns the flight and so Jared will go in the GENITIVE case).

In other languages with more cases, their roles can be expanded. Usually translating to straight-up prepositions.

  • Illoqarfimmut (Greenlandic for “to the city”) -> the “-mut” at the end indicates “to”
  • Talossa (Finnish for “in a house”) -> the “-ssa” at the end indicates “in”.

Let me describe my difficulties I’ve had with cases and how I’ve overcome them:

  • In Russian class as a Junior / Senior in high school, I was introduced by some of Russian’s six cases one-by-one, enabling that I could “digest” each of them accordingly without feeling overwhelmed.
  • In Greenlandic, well…let me put it this well, the amount of suffixes in Greenlandic are STAGGERING. Hundreds of them for all occasions! But cases indicating ownership and prepositions I distinctly remember learning through song names that featured them.
  • In Finnish, it was extremely hard for me to understand the spoken language because, while I could recognize some of the cases that served as straight-up prepositions, my brain had trouble putting all of it together. My brain often felt that I was watching a table-tennis game at hyperspeed but ultimately, after putting together the system, that game slowed down to normal speed.

 

What happened in each of these “cases”? (HA!)

For one, like many other aspects in language-learning ,it became an issue of putting together a puzzle. It’s not enough to recognize the pieces by themselves, you have to put them together with other pieces so as to be able to create something coherent in all directions.

The stages of learning a case:

  • Passive Recognition: you recognize that your target language has a case that does something (e.g. Finnish has a case that indicates “from” or “about”). You may not be able to form anything from it yet.
  • Active recognition: you recognize that that case has a form that can be regularly identified (that case is noted with “-sta” at the end, I’m not getting into Finnish vowel harmony right now because I’m keeping it simplified)
  • Usage: you know how to put that case on a basic noun in order to convey meaning: (I can say “Suomi” meaning “Finland” but now I can say “Suomesta” meaning “from Finland”, all because of the case!)
  • Advanced usage: you learn if there are any special exceptions involving that case or any general rules for prepositional usage. Some languages will use prepositions and then have it followed by a noun in a certain case (Slavic languages are infamous for this, as is Ancient Greek). Other languages will use the case to indicate the preposition (as is the case with the word “Suomesta” so you can skip this if that’s the case.)

 

The first thing you can do is to ensure that the “plant blooms” is to realize step 1 as soon as you can.

 

Afterwards everything else will be on its way to locking into place as long as you have regular exposure.

 

One way you can genuinely ensure that you can get usage correct is by using a mixture of (1) minimal book learning and (2) sentences, preferably those that are memorable (a lot of inflected languages on Clozemaster, mind you!)

 

Book learning and “real-world usage” complement each other, even for your native language. And with learning a language with cases, it is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that you keep this balance in place.

 

Also, don’t expect to wolf down absolutely everything at once. Relish not knowing for a while and then you’ll grow into your role as a master of the language, bit by bit.

 

Traps to avoid:

 

  • Staring a grammar tables and hoping that you’ll master cases that way.
  • Spending too much time on irregularities when you don’t have a solid grounding in the case to begin with.
  • Believing that it is too hard and that “you can’t do it”
  • Any other variety of self-defeating belief.

 

I’ll leave you with this, having phrases and sentences that use your case are essential. I learned a lot of cases through song lyrics or even, as mentioned above, song titles. In Hungarian right now I’m also learning the cases through exposure through sentences (and not just through Duolingo, mind you. I’m going on record saying that the Hungarian course is the hardest Duolingo course out there, given that it uses arcane sentence structure that threatens repetitive-strain-injury at any moment!)

6

Siddur Helsinki, a.k.a. a Jewish Prayer book with Finnish Translation! 

You know what you should be doing right now? Learning your cases, that’s what! Have fun with that!

September 2017 Weekend Trip Mini-Mission! (Improving Hungarian + Two Creoles!)

 This in: I’ll be headed to Buffalo, New York this weekend. This is the first time I’ll be back there since two years ago (roughly when I began my teaching career).

The one thing I associate the trip with is very long drives, and this time (given that I’m not going to be driving) I’ve decided to develop a routine to maximize language learning in passive car travel (active car travel, such as when you’re the driver, is another thing with significantly more limits, and it becomes a different animal depending on how many people you have with you, and also if they will tolerate you learning the language there or not.)

I decided that I’ll be filming my next polyglot video in Milwaukee, the only place that I have had consistent memories of since my…infancy.

As things stand, I intend to use the following languages in the video, probably for about thirty second each: English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Finnish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Icelandic, Irish, Krio, Polish, Hungarian, Palauan, Mossi / Moore, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), Guarani, Lao, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Tongan, Trinidadian English Creole and Bileez Kriol.

I have about half of these in very good shape, and the other half I’ll probably only say very simple things. It is also likely that I’ll just do one with my fluent languages before the year is up in ADDITION to that.

This practice really isn’t entirely about that video, however (and I’m likely taking a week off beforehand so that I can hone my pronunciation to ideal heights. Also, I’m putting this out there, I’m going to be coming out with these videos regularly and I literally will not stop until one of them goes viral. I know that I may be subject to a lot of pain and criticism, but we need more global polyglots that genuinely go for rarer languages and we deserve to have be watched by millions. Tim Doner himself became a voice for languages like Hausa and some indigenous languages of Canada, and it would be great if I can do the same with my rarer languages. Words cannot capture how determined I am).

Anyhow, enough of me being lightly arrogant (or am I?)

Let’s detail my goals and my plan. I’ll be improving three languages this weekend: Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole and Bileez Kriol.

 

Hungarian

magyar

Probably the only language I’m working on right now that I want to be professionally fluent in. Sure, being professionally fluent in something like Breton or Gilbertese is cool, but Hungarian means a lot to me because it is one of my ancestral languages. My one living grandparent has memories of Hungarian being used in her family and I want to connect to that piece of my story before it is gone (note to the curious: she herself doesn’t speak Hungarian or understand it, I even wrote “Happy Birthday” on her Facebook wall in Hungarian and she didn’t even recognize the language until I told her.)

I’ve found Hungarian a relief because of the sheer amount of materials both for learners and native speakers. One thing I definitely could do is watch more animated films and cartoons in Hungarian and I really haven’t been doing that, instead focusing more on learning materials. Maybe that’s a bad sign.

Also, the Hungarian Duolingo course is very, very difficult (and I’ve heard even native speakers found it moderately painful to go through). I’m on Level 9 with one-third of the tree completed and I doubt I can complete the course without a notebook. What’s more, that voice is something I’m hearing in my nightmares already. (I’ll go on record saying that the Catalan voice is the worst that Duolingo has, period. It literally sounds like an alien parasite. My favorites among the courses are Vietnamese, Irish and Guarani, in that order)

Goal: Long-term, I want to be able to talk about my life, my job, the Kaverini games, language learning and my family. Short-term, I want to master cases, verbs and the most common 300 words in the language.

Where I am: I have the Colloquial Hungarian book and the audio for the book on my phone, I have an Anki deck of 3,000 Hungarian sentences that are surprisingly useful in demonstrating the grammar. I’ve plugged 17+ hours into Hungarian Mango Languages during my commute (you can play it on auto mode when is helpful if I’m on a crowded subway and I still want to learn things).  I also have a Memrise course with 3,000+ sentences in Hungarian and I’m about 800 sentences in.

In short, I have everything deployed and I’ve begun to see results. I’ve begun to have conversations with some non-native speakers of the language although sometimes I have to slow down.

I tried immersion (with Let’s Play Videos, etc.) and while I’m picking up some vocabulary with them I feel that I can only understand 15%. But the idea that I’m using the language of my ancestors that came to this country in the past 150 years gave me the same warm feeling when I was learning Yiddish, Swedish and Russian.

Tried finding Hungarian music I liked, so far haven’t found anything that clicked…

Plan: Part of me thinks “you’re doing a great job, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fluent in no time!” But I want to sprint further.

I don’t want to be “manageable”. I want to be great.

To that end, I need to change my routine.

In a car ride, I only have so many things (and made even more complicated by the fact that I tend to get ill when reading in a car).

Luckily, the book will never run out of electricity it doesn’t need.

But what exactly should I do with the book?

  • Study vowel harmony. This is important because I think I mess it up a little bit (For those unaware: Hungarian suffixes will change form depending on the vowel makeup of the word it is attached to. Hungarian uses suffixes to indicate “to”, “in”, “on”, “of”, etc. That’s called vowel harmony, and given how often Hungarian uses suffixes this is not something I can afford to screw up. In Finnish it came by more easily but in Hungarian there are some suffixes with two forms and others with three. Unless you’ve studied a language like this, this probably means absolutely nothing to you and so I’ll stop writing it at this point).
  • Study possessives. Possessives come in two forms in English. We have “my book” and “the book is mine”. Both of these exist in Hungarian. The “my book” is expressed with a suffix and “the book is mine” with a separate word. The possessive suffixes (e.g. letters you put at the end that make the word change meaning to say “this belongs to you / me / us / etc.”) are VERY important in Hungarian because without them, you can’t express any concept of “to have” clearly enough to have a conversation. (Hungarian has no “to have”, it just has “there is my book” instead of “I have a book”)
  • Study relative pronouns. These were an almighty pain in Finnish that I literally NEVER would have learned properly if it weren’t for immersion. For those of you who don’t know what a relative pronoun is: the book that is mine is good. (the “that” is a relative pronoun, saying that it is a pronoun relative to the other elements of the sentence). The only thing I can really say about relative pronouns in Hungarian right now is that I think that they tend to start with the letter “a” somehow.
  • Study transitive verbs. This is a big one. In English we say “I choose you” (totally not think about Pokémon here, I promise!) In Hungarian, the “you” bit is actually expressed to a suffix on the verb. I literally can’t converse without these, so I need ‘em.
  • On top of the book, I should go through the Anki deck and review as many sentences as I can. (I know some people don’t like “turbospeeding” through Anki decks, but with some languages like Tok Pisin I’ve done it with no problem. I’m also probably going to go on an Anki-binge with Hungarian shortly before my trip to Milwaukee, actually. That binge, if all goes according to plan, is more likely to be review).

 

 

Weaknesses to keep in mind: Sometimes my eyes get weakened from staring at screens too much, and sometimes I can’t manage reading in a vehicle for very long. I expect the latter point to be less of an issue if I am reading VERY small bits of information. I can always put the book down and rest. Or use it over the course of the weekend when I’m actually not in a vehicle.

 

 

 

Trinidadian Creole

t n t

I have one (1) book for this language, one that I got as a gift upon recovering from Lyme Disease and moving to Crown Heights in Brooklyn shortly thereafter.

Immersion in Trini Creole has been both easy and hard. Easy because I can understand a lot of it already, hard because Creole is often interspersed with Standard English very often among Trinidadians. (Again, keep in mind that there are those that don’t even consider it a separate language!)

Where am I?

I have excellent vocabulary except for the loan words from Indian Languages. I have a good although not great grasp of every grammatical concept and I understand how the grammar of Trini and English are different.

So what’s my plan?

  • When I have internet access, undergo immersion with Calypso music and Radio and PAY ATTENTION. What sort of verb forms are left out? What words are different from standard English? How do Trinidadians pronounce their vowels and consonants, in both Creole and Standard English?
  • Learn the Loan-Words from Indian Languages. Got a list of them in my book (the Kauderwelsch book which is literally the only learning-book for Trinidadian Creole I’ve ever encountered anywhere). I never heard of any of them before.
  • Master all aspects of grammar with a thorough review by reading out every sentence from your book in the “grammar” sections.

Combined with occasional speaking exercises, I think I could make very deep progress.

Unlike Hungarian, I’ll be using primarily book sources (or, more accurately, book source) for this rather than for a combination of digital and book sources.

 

Bileez Kriol

 Bileez

I literally have no good book for this and what I’m using now is…well…the Memrise course that I have in development (in which I’m writing all the sentences and words from the dictionary published by the Belize Creole Project [Bileez Kriol Projek]).

I’m going to literally have to be a detective and note general patterns in the sentences. Before I go, I should get the dictionary as a PDF on my phone and any other devices I’m taking with me.

Another thing I need to do is read things out loud in the course, otherwise my memory development isn’t going to be as honed.

Where do I stand now with Bileez Kriol? I know pronouns and a rusty form of verb conjugations, but that’s pretty much it. And I’m supposed to be speaking it on camera in less than a month. Great place I’m in!

But given how close it is to Trinidadian Creole, I expect to sprint much in the same way I’ve done with similar languages before (such as within the Scandinavian family and within the Melanesian Creole family).

I may need a notebook of sorts with this. Of all of the projects that I think will take the most effort to succeed this weekend, this one will be it.

Reading resources I found online: the Bileez Kriol Wikipedia Incubator, the Gospels in the language (I’ve only read Matthew and pieces of Mark in English in my college courses), my Memrise course, the dictionary.

And the one song that I’ve encountered so far in the language is probably not appropriate for younger audiences. (For the curious: just put “Belizean Music” in YouTube and see if something in the first few results catches your eye…)

The dictionary is probably going to be my best friend during this time.

 

I’ll let you know how it goes when the week is over.

Wish me luck!

How Similar Are Finnish and Hungarian?

When I was working my way up the Finnish ladder, I got comments from lots of people saying that it was similar to Hungarian, and interestingly when learning Hungarian now, I don’t get the reverse as often (or ever, actually, come to think of it).

So here comes the pieces you have all been waiting for, answering definitively once and for all how similar these two languages really are.

suomi magyar

My Gut Feeling:

I usually tell people that there are grammatical similarities and a handful of words in common between them (not also to mention the similarities in pronunciation and ESPECIALLY syllable stress), but that’s about it.

The Finno-Ugric Languages, which include Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian and the Sami Languages, do include a number of similarities:

  • A lot of cases (in the double digits in all of them, their dirty secret is that most of these cases are literally straight-up prepositions, which for some reason remains a secret to everyone except for those who actually, y’know, study these languages!)
  • No genuine future tense (use auxiliary verbs instead, much like English uses “I will” or “I shall” as opposed to verb alterations undertaken in a language like French. Some languages, like Estonian, use the present to indicate the future with no changes).
  • No he/she distinction (true in all of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • No verb indicate “to have” (a lot of languages in the world are like this, in Finnish you use “there is upon me a book” and in Hungarian you would use something like “there is my book” to indicate “I have a book”)
  • The syllable stress is on the first syllable. Always. This actually makes spoken comprehension LOADS easier!

There may be others that I forgot about.

But there are still a handful of words that resemble each other, not also to mention grammatical concepts that exist in one and not the other.

To say “I don’t know” in Hungarian, you would say “nem tudom”. The Finnish equivalent would be “en tiedä”. You can tell how similar these two phrases are just by looking at them.

But if you are expecting an advantage in one of these two languages because you know the other one, keep this in mind:

Finnish and Hungarian have a lot of grammatical similarities, but few words in common.

However, one odd trait that both of them actually do share is influence from Germanic Languages that rubbed off on both (Swedish idioms and loan-words in Finnish, German expressions translated literally into Hungarian. One such example of the later is that you would wish someone a “beautiful thanks” in both German and in Hungarian).

Interestingly Estonian AND Northern Sami ALSO have this trait (Estonian from German, Danish and Swedish and Northern Sami from Norwegian / Swedish). Your neighbors really do rub off on you, suffice it to say.

What’s more, Finnish and Hungarian also share a sense of vowel harmony as well.

What is vowel harmony, you ask?

Well, in Finnish there is a rule that states that all words (excluding a handful of loanwords and proper names from other languages) may contain vowels from one of the two sets of vowels:

There are front vowels: ä ö y

There are back vowels: a o u

And there are ones that can go in any word: e i

Words in Finnish that contain front vowel words MAY NOT contain back vowels (unless it is a compound word with multiple pieces in it). Likewise, back vowel words may not contain front vowels in them. Also, if a word contains only e’s or i’s in terms of vowels, it is a front vowel word.

This means that suffixes in Finnish take two forms, usually (unless these suffixes only contain e’s and i’s in their vowel makeup): you put the front vowel version at the end of a front-vowel word, and a back-vowel version at the end of a back-vowel word. The last noun determines which suffix you add (this is important with hyper-long compound words).

To turn a verb (or any non-question word) into a question, you put –ko or –kö at the end. Olet – you are. Oletko? – are you? En – I am not (or, more accurately I … not, where … is a verb stem put after the word en) enkö? – am I not?

In Hungarian, vowel harmony functions in the same way, and suffixes (including case endings, like in Finnish) will change their forms depending on the vowel makeup of the noun.

This is really funny to see in my Hungarian-translated Facebook, because the translation will determine the vowel harmony status of your name (and the names of your friends) and apply suffixes accordingly.(The Finnish translation worded things, last I checked, so as to avoid declining the names of people or places. Hungarian also avoids this when possible).

In the case of Hungarian (no pun intended), the same rules appear but with more instances of words that appear to violate vowel harmony.

Like in Finnish, suffixes appear in two (or sometimes THREE) forms, depending on the vowel makeup of the word. Like in Finnish, Hungarian has front and back vowels. Like in Finnish, Hungarian only factors in the last element in regards to what variety of suffixes go on the word as a whole.

So, now here comes a big question: If I know Hungarian or Finnish, how much will it help with the other one?

Answer: many of the grammatical concepts will align very, very well. In learning how to put words together, you’ll have déjà vu significantly often. You may even encounter words in common here and there.

But don’t expect to understand a significant amount of the other language, and concerning mutual intelligibility? Forget it. Because Finnish and Hungarian are as closely related as English and Albanian. Sure, there might be some occasional things in common, and they are distantly-related members of the same language family, as well as having similar influences  from nations that spoke similar languages, but aside from that, expect only the smallest fraction of a head-start in regards to vocabulary, and a significant head-start in understanding the grammar (even though the suffixes in their makeup have no resemblance to each other).

Have you had an experience learning any Finno-Ugric Language? Let me know in the comments!

 

The Jigsaw Puzzle

Learning a language (or any other skill) is task that requires you to understand how pieces fit together.

Take a jigsaw puzzle, for example. You see the final product on the box cover (that is to say, what the completed puzzle will look like) and then choose to pick a puzzle based on which picture you like (I also know that there are three-dimensional puzzles as well so I won’t come to exclude those.)

You take it home, you open the box and all of the pieces come out.

That confusion is relatable in language learning.

I’ve experienced it many times. So much confusion in coming to grips with a new language (although obviously if it is closely related to one you already know, you already have a significant amount of the puzzle done for you).

I remember feeling similarly overwhelmed with a number of “frontier” languages that weren’t similar to those that I already knew. Hungarian felt like this (and I’m still studying it during my commutes), as did Greenlandic, Burmese, Finnish, Hebrew and Yiddish during the early stages. Even some languages that were closer to my native tongue—like Danish, Tok Pisin and Krio—also qualified.

In Hungarian, I was confused with how to use the cases (and I still haven’t mastered all of them despite the fact that they function very closely to the Finnish ones) as well as when to use “nem” and when to use “nincs” (the first is more like “not” with verbs and the second is more like “there isn’t”).

Burmese had me perplexed as it was a language in which a lot of sentences left out the pronoun. To say “we have it”, you would just say “is + present tense marker”. A lot of aspects that were not touched upon too readily in my previous language-learning projects came to the fore with Burmese (like classifier words or using different pronouns for yourself in various situations).

I could give more examples, but let’s delve into what this jigsaw puzzle means for you…

For one, especially in a two-dimensional puzzle, you want to separate the edge pieces first. In so doing, you will have the basis to fill in the rest of the puzzle.

The edge pieces in language learning are having mastered:

  • Pronouns (for some languages like Japanese with a lot of pronouns I would recommend focusing on the ones you are most likely to use or hear used given your environment)
  • Being able to conjugate verbs so that you can express the past, the present and the future in a significant capacity without struggling.
  • Being able to say things like “thank you”, “where are you from?” “do you speak (name of language)?” and basic question words, not also to mention speak about yourself in a small capacity.
  • Asking for directions
  • Being able to use adjectives and adverbs
  • Prepositions
  • A case system (if there is one. In the case [no pun intended] of the Finno-Ugric languages, the case system overlaps with prepositions).
  • Sentence structure (does the verb go first like in Irish? Or at the end like in Japanese and Turkish? Can I put sentences together with the same sentence structure found in my native language or in the other languages I know? If not, what’s different?
  • Articles and noun gender patterns (if any. Entire language families lack articles entirely, such as the Finno-Ugric Languages)
  • Conjunctions (although there are some languages like Rapa Nui that, according to wikitionary, “supplant the need for conjunctions”)

Your goal is to master all of these ten elements, and in so doing you will have assembled the edge of your dream puzzle. Some of these are going to be harder than others, depending on what your dream language is (and yes, sometimes entire items on that list will be lacking altogether. Bislama and Spanish have no case systems, but Finnish has no articles or noun-gender patterns).

Now what exactly do you do when you’re done with the puzzle?

You fill in the rest, but unlike the jigsaw puzzle in real life, the language-learning process never ends. Even for your native language, you’ll always be learning new words and new expressions. I’ve been speaking Yiddish for nearly a decade now, and nearly seven-eight years as a fluent speaker, and I’m always discovering new expressions, new words and new surprises. The same is even true with English, even if I count American English by itself! (And after having studied Trinidadian Creole and Krio, I’ve realized the true extent to which African-American culture has developed this unique language and made it distinct, expressive and admired the world over! And my journeys with Irish and Yiddish and German have also made me realize how many other immigrant groups made their mark on it as well! )

The portions you fill in next will be those that you deem the most important to apply in your life. You’ll notice exactly what you’re missing from your time spent with the language, whether it be with native speakers or using the language online or with your books (whether they are books for learners or books for native-speakers).

And perhaps the most important thing about the jigsaw puzzle is that it will involve rearranging the pieces and finding out how they fit together. You’ll look at the huge collection of pieces and think, “well this one goes over there, and I think it fits with that one? No? Well maybe I’ll need to try something else…all of these eight pieces go together! Great job!”

You may indeed be able to memorize words very quickly, but understanding how they fit together is another thing that may take time. If I were learning a language like Slovak (which I’m sort of letting sleep at the moment), given its similarities to Polish (for which I have already assembled the edge of the puzzle), I wouldn’t need to really “assemble” the edge again. But for Palauan I had absolutely no prior advantages, and I had to assemble the whole thing from scratch. Fun times.

Here’s hoping to you finding all of the edge pieces and putting them together! Happy puzzling!

DSC00069

Yah, I know, it ain’t no jigsaw puzzle, but it’s all I got!