Tired of learning languages from tame textbooks? Some musings on second (and third, and fourth...) language learning from a geeky linguaphile.

Friday, October 07, 2005


It sometimes seems like I'll take books out and return them without ever having read more than a few pages of them; I feel incredibly guilty about this, but I should learn that if I can't get through more than a few pages, I probably should just try a different book.

I returned El Arpa y la Sombra yesterday, and took out instead Carlos Ruiz Zafón's La Sombra del Viento, (The Shadow of the Wind in English).

Everything I'd read about it previously brought it to my attention as the sort of book that I would like very, very much; a book about books, about the power of stories. And when I picked it up, it had that sleek, transparent sort of prose that I absolutely need when reading books in languages I don't know that well. Murakami Haruki can do it too, and I believe he's the main reason I persisted in the belief that Japanese is really not all that difficult after all.

Jay Rubin's written, previously, in Making Sense of Japanese that the pleasure you get from figuring out what a paragraph means is absolutely unrelated to the pleasure you get from literary quality, and that it's easy to mix them up; that's true. But I don't particularly care, as I love the books that I love without the slighest regard to literary quality.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The thing is...

If you've seen the anime 彼氏彼女の事情(Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou), think of that. Alternately, you may think of Reese Witherspoon's character in Election.

That would be me. The compulsive over-achiever.

I'm taking a short break, it seems, to finish revising my novel and to finish some costumes that I'm supposed to be making--and I don't say that to boast. I find it a little lame and a little silly (the costumes especially. 23 is on the old end of 'young enough to cosplay without embarrassment,' but that's precisely why I have to do it--when else will I get the chance?) But there you have it.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Hacking The Sims to learn German

This is really nifty.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Long time no post

I'm back from a trip up to Montreal, and subsequent week decompressing.

I saw my best friend from high school this weekend, and promptly remembered--she had most of the manga series Song of the Wind and Trees, one of my favorite manga ever in all its lurid melodramatic glory, in Chinese, which her mother had serendipitously picked up at a garage sale some years earlier.

I'm picking through it with the advantage of having my Japanese editions to refer to for help. Still, it's a painstaking process. I remember when it was like this for Japanese, looking up every character three different ways and often still not finding it, happy when I can make out so much as a sentence. It's long, it's fairly boring, and I know that I'd barely understand a word if I didn't have the original text to fall back on. Why did I ever push myself like this, years ago?

A couple years ago, I really dug Simon Singh's The Code Book. And there's something about codes that really gets to me...tapping away at some impenetrable message, bit by bit, by trial and error, until finally a little piece of it reveals itself to you and the rest starts to fall into place. It takes a bit of an obsessive mind. (No wonder I'm not nearly so diligent about my Japanese now that I can muddle through just about anything!)

Anyway, as thanks to my friend for loaning me her Chinese editions, I'm doing a translation--from Japanese, of course. It's accepted wisdom among a lot of foreign language teachers that you shouldn't have students translate, because they won't learn to think in the language, but I think there are some positives to it too. When I'm reading, I'm very likely to look up as little as I can look up and still get the gist of the story, relying on context to push me through. And that's not a bad way to read; it's fast. My AP French Lit teacher in high school tried to break us of the habit of looking up too many words, because we were reading novels at a fairly breakneck pace. But translating means forcing myself to look up every single word I don't know, and that can be a good thing too.

If my Japanese vocabulary isn't adequate to perfectly understand a manga written for 13-year-old girls, then I desperately need to look up more words.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

David Moser writes about Why Chinese is So Damn Hard.

I'm currently displaying that variety of insanity known as "Hey! Wouldn't it be cool to know Chinese?"; I should have known I was vulnerable after the debacle of "Hey! Wouldn't it be cool to know classical Japanese?"

And I think he just might have a point--something I'm reluctant to admit, considering I'm so ready to defend the peculiarities of the Japanese writing system. But while people faint at two different alphabets plus a couple thousand characters, I think it works quite nicely, in a rhythm of content words and functional words or verbal endings marked by hiragana, katakana, and kanji. In Chinese, you have a wall of text. And that makes it excruciatingly hard to jump in and read materials that are above one's level... if you can't make out at least the large majority of the characters, you can't push forward anyway. Dictionary lookup takes forever. (So too with Japanese, but for a long time I stuck with manga, annotated on the side with furigana to mark the pronunciations of words, so it was easy to look up words phonetically).

So the Chinese writing system is hard. But one thing my linguistics professors drilled into me is that a language--linguistically speaking--is the spoken language, and the written language is just a more-or-less flawed way of transcribing it. Mandarin Chinese, the spoken language, shouldn't be all that hard. And this is part of the rationale in some methods of teaching Japanese, for not teaching even hiragana in the first semester, but doing everything orally (hopefully not with romaji). In my case it's certainly true that I have to learn words as spoken words before I have any hope of retaining them as kanji compounds.

The problem is, unless you live in a country where the language is spoken, it's awfully hard to get enough aural learning materials. (This assumes, of course, that you don't have access to classes. Those are ideal, but at the moment I'm on my own). You can get language tapes, which take you up to maybe a low intermediate level, and you can order CDs, and you can listen to internet radio, but overall your resources are a lot more limited. It's easier to find books, internet texts, and so forth. As of now, I don't even get TV in Spanish--though local cable offers two Spanish channels in basic cable, and I'm getting hooked up soon.

There are other advantages to reading--it's faster, it's much easier to look things up in the dictionary because the words stay put, it's easier to find something that caters to your interests, and the vocabulary can potentially be more varied. (If I learned all my Spanish from Buffy, I'd be able to say very little except "I love you," "I'm sorry," "Let's kill it," and "high school.") But it's much harder with Chinese.

So I'm proceeding with language tapes on my iPod, which I dutifully transcribe with a dictionary, and easy readers from the school library. I'm following the annoying proscribed path of study, with "Where is the restaurant?" and "My name is..."--but it's giving me enough characters so that, by the time I'm finished, maybe I'll have enough basic knowledge to try tackling a real text with a dictionary. Also, I'm going up to Montreal this week, where I can pick up some manga and Mandarin CDs.

I'll update when I have a better idea of how it's going.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Dictionary dependence

One of the Livejournal language communities brought to mind recently how much people have the tendency, when composing in a language not their own, to just look up a word in the dictionary, assume they have the right meaning, and not go any further.

In French class (and this was a fairly advanced class), "Les gens que je pends dehors." The people I hang (as in 'by the neck, until dead') outside. The person in question wasn't talking about mass executions, but "the people I hang out with." How can you go to French class for four years without a whack on the head with the "don't translate idioms literally" clue-by-four?

It's not even idioms, all the time. Mixing up the word for the introduction of a book with the word for the introduction of two people to each other; writing "altavoz de español" (Spanish loudpseaker) to mean a person who speaks Spanish; writing "is it hard [as in "diamonds are hard"] to read inside Spanish?"

I'm sympathetic, you know. I don't have native-speaker intuitions in any of the non-English languages I speak, and any time I write an essay I certainly make a couple howlers, except maybe in French. But how hard is it to realize that there isn't a one-to-one correspondence between words in English and words in other languages? I probably have more of an advantage than I sometimes realize, having learned to speak two languages by the time I was eight, because I was able to internalize that. You just can't expect the words to be the same. Example sentences and clarifications in dictionaries help. Google helps surprisingly much. Etymology and learning other languages helps a little, depending on the language--you get a lot of mileage out of this in Romance languages, anyway. Back-translation also helps--you find the word you want in the English-X side, and then you look it up again in the X-English side to see a (usually more extensive) English definition.

But the most important thing is to internalize the expectation that things may be different.

Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries are sold separately, and I recently realized that I haven't used my E-J dictionary very much at all. Granted, I certainly have in the past, when I had to write essays for school. But the thing I realized, sooner or later, was that I was a lot more likely to write good sentences if I stuck to the words that I already had seen in print and knew how to use. (On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for writing sentences you think are fun, whether or not they're any good. My high school Japanese teacher thought I was so interesting, or possibly deranged).

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

More on reading

There are very few resources that tell you what you should read when you are studying X, either in the form of general principles, or a specific reading list. Both are important; you need the general principles because books go out of print, they can't be found in your library, or maybe because no one's bothered to make a list for Armenian or Tamil. Specific reading lists are good because as a foreign language learner, you're not familiar with genre classifications, popular authors, book reviews, and the like in the same way that native speakers are--and it's very time-consuming trying to determine, in a language you don't speak all that well, what a book's about. You can default to the authors everyone has heard of, but then you end up reading something by Natsume Soseki, or another of the famous Japanese authors from before the writing reforms, which still take an amazing amount of effort for me to read.

Japan-blogger ButterflyBlue posted a list of ways to tell if a book is readable in a foreign language. I think that these are a great starting point.

A list of my own would go something like this:

1) Choose a modern book, because language changes.
2) Don't choose fantasy or SF, because you'll spend all day looking up "entmoot" only to realize it's a made-up word. Or, in the case of magical realism, you may well look at the sentence you'vejust read with no idea whether you understood it rightly or not, because if you understood it rightly it would be weird.
3) Choose within your own limits for bleakness. What I mean by this is: in my senior year of high school, when I was having some personal issues, I began reading Murakami Haruki's Norwegian Wood. I got about 2/3 of the way through, and by then it had racked up enough bleakness and pessimism that I just could not go forward. Consider that you'll be spending several times as much time reading the book as you would in English, so you'll get through the depressing parts that much more slowly.
4) Corollary to 3: choose genre fiction or popular fiction over literary fiction. Not only is the prose easier, but they're also usually happier.
5) If it's a language with a lot of regional variation, pick a region and go with it. You can drive yourself crazy trying to pick up the peninsular Spanish dialect(s) plus the Cuban, Mexican, Chilean...etc... dialects.
6) In the bookstore/library, try reading a few paragraphs with a dictionary. That'll be enough to give you a good idea of the difficulty level. Why with a dictionary? I once brought home a book that looked easy in sentence structure, with a fair number of words I didn't know, but that was to be expected because I was just starting out. Turned out a lot of those words were some kind of slang that I couldn't find anywhere.
7) Interest trumps everything. Unless you have a burning desire to read The Tale of Genji in the original Japanese, then it's a lot better to read something you're interested in than something you aren't interested in.

I just finished reading my first novel in Spanish-- Like Water for Chocolate. It was far from my first attempt. It does break my rules, insofar as it's magical realism. Two books I'd attempted before, and not finished, were Isabel Allende's The City of Beasts (part of a Young Adult trilogy) and the Spanish translation of the first Harry Potter book. I know exactly why I didn't finish them, too. The City of Beasts had a mother who was dying of cancer, and I'm sick of YA books where the mother's dying of cancer--it seemed to pick up after a while, but it lost me because I read so slowly. As for Harry Potter, I'd read it in English. The 1/3 or so of it that I read taught me a lot, but I had no burning need to find out what happened next.

Let me mention, while I'm on the subject, the Leer en Español series. It's a series of graded readers, going from level 1 at "less than 400 words" to level 6 at "less than 2500 words." I'm not sure how much of a story you can tell in 400 words--I started at level 3--but they're reasonably authentic and interesting texts, either original or adapted from known literary works. Definitely not a bad choice if you're learning Spanish.

Reading and decoding

Firstly, I've found a rather amusing site on Japanese kanji.
Kanji with really long kun-yomi, kanji with the highest stroke counts, kanji that look like they're upside down.

I want to look at reading material from a position of "I can just barely start decoding," first of all. I've often heard that if what you're doing is "decoding" rather than reading--if you have to look up every second word in the dictionary and you still have a very weak grasp of how everything goes together in a sentence--you shouldn't even bother. I'm not so sure about that. I'll happily agree that it's not good as your sole method of learning a language, but... well, here's what happened with me.

I was fifteen, sixteen years old, and I liked Sailor Moon. And one day I saw a Sailor Moon manga at the local comic book store, and I bought it, and at that time my sister and I still had that adolescent naivete that says that summer is a perfect time for starting impossible projects. So we got a dictionary, and a grammar book, and we started painstakingly decoding it with absolutely no knowledge of Japanese. But here's what happened. First of all we learned the hiragana. And then we started to learn the katakana. And there were a couple of kanji that kept coming up again and again, so I started to recognize those too. The pictures kept me following the story, and by the end I had a slight, very slight, grasp of reading in Japanese. At the same time I was getting textbooks from the library and working through them, and I doubt I'd have made any progress at all otherwise. Japanese can be such a difficult language to learn that you feel like you can't read authentic texts even after struggling for three years, and if I had thought that to be the case I would have just given up. Somehow, reading, and looking everything up in the dictionary, gave me enough sense of the story for me to have a sense of achievement and mastery.

On the other hand, there's French. I was brought up Anglophone in Quebec--I had a year and a half in France, and my English schooling had partial French immersion until I moved to the U.S. when I was twelve. Then, when I started high school, I was enrolled in French, mostly because it was easy--I didn't at that point have any particular linguistic inclination.
Year 3 of French was textbook dialogues and endless verb conjugations and I think maybe we read one poem.
Repeat the above for year 4. I think at the end of the year we read Le Petit Prince.
And the thing is, even though I was functionally bilingual at 8 or 9, my French is pretty poor now. For one thing, I largely have the vocabulary of a 9-year-old. This is what happens if you wait on reading authentic material until you've already been slaving through it for four years. French is hard, I'll admit, because fiction is mostly written in a tense that doesn't exist at all in spoken French--one can make an argument for not reading it based on that. But I think that the curriculum just doesn't allow for really challenging students to go beyond their boundaries. When I was taking French, no one ever suggested to me that I ought to be doing anything more than copying over my verb conjugations. (I refuse to blame the teachers. I had a kick-ass French teacher--and some who weren't so good).

So I'm highly in favor of jumping in anywhere you're able to and seeing what you can understand.

I've been studying Spanish for maybe a year, and I'm reading a novel. For adults. Actually reading, not decoding, though with frequent dictionary lookup. Partly that's because Spanish is so closely related to French, but I think it's also partly because, from the first day I started learning Spanish, I wasn't afraid to muddle through things.