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On the Inability to Vocalize Great Breakthroughs October 16, 2014

Filed under: Greek,Language Learning — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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As I write this, I’m preparing to wander into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. It’s been a pleasant day and my writing is now well ahead of schedule. It’s time to sink into the couch and spend some time working on my Greek. And perhaps I’ll even give the task longer than its allotted half-hour!

I confess that I really didn’t enjoy the work at first. Greek is, at its heart, a ridiculously over-complex language. While most tongues utilize context to alert the reader to who did what, Greek uses word endings. Like a matching game, you have to connect the end of the verb with the end of a noun. When you do so, you can state with some confidence that the noun performed the action named in the verb… or had it done to them… or something like that. I really can’t remember.

To make things even more difficult, the ending attached to the noun also indicates the who and the when and, in some cases, the how of the action performed in the verb which shares the ending just in case you missed it the first time. (At least, I think that’s how it works.)

Purchasing a good Greek grammar doesn’t really help. Grammars are written for educated people – for those who instantly understand what is meant by the term “pluperfect”. (FYI, that would be a verb indicating an action that took place prior to the action presently under consideration provided that the action under present consideration actually took place in the past.) I am not that educated. (Even having read the definitions of these impressive terms, I still find myself having to look them up on a regular basis.)

Because of this, I was a bit puzzled when all of a sudden, something clicked and I could look at a sentence and explain who did what to whom and when. In a heartbeat, I went from getting consistently wrong answers to consistently(ish) right ones. And to make things worse, I can’t explain why!

I know that I’ve picked up on a pattern in the word endings. So far, so good. But what is the pattern? Your guess is as good as mine. He, she, it, they – it all seems quite clear when I am translating. Sit me down and ask me to write out the pattern, however, and I am at a complete loss. Does “ein” at the end of a term mean something? What happens if you add the letter “o”? Ask me these questions and I’ll just stare dumbfounded. You might as well be speaking to me in Greek! (Oh, wait, you would be… wouldn’t you.)

Fortunately, my inability to vocalize whatever it was that clicked hasn’t proven a major setback. The “click”, itself, has been sufficient to speed my progress. Instead of making excuses for why I can’t study, I find myself looking forward to it. Maybe someday I’ll be able to explain why. For the time being, I’ll satisfy myself with the thought that instead of dreading half an hour’s labor, I’m wondering if I can nurse it and turn it into two. I guess Greek isn’t so bad after all


Greek to Me October 9, 2014

Muscles, when given a good workout, get stiff and sore. If the brain is a muscle, then mine will be unusable come tomorrow morning. In fact, it may cease to function well before bedtime. I have never considered myself linguistically “gifted” and today’s studies were a stretch for a large, disused portion of my gray matter.

I started my day with a Living Language Arabic, Platinum Edition tutoring session. My instructor began the lesson in Arabic and made it clear that she would continue in that mystical tongue for the duration. (This was rather surprising, given that my previous session had been conducted primarily in English.) Having never actually conversed with anyone in Arabic before, I almost instantly felt myself overwhelmed. Her speech was far more rapid than what I had listened to in the curriculum’s practice dialogue and, though I knew the vocabulary, my immediate response was one of panic.

It required several repetitions on her part before I let go of my tension and began attempting to respond to her inquiries. That these replies were not “up to snuff” was immediately obvious. My single word responses were not quite what she was looking for  and “A full reply, please,” became her mantra for the rest of the lesson.

The next half hour went much more quickly than I’d anticipated and, while I felt that I’d learned a great deal, it was almost a relief to be done. There would be another session next week and I would be better prepared, but for now it was on to my Greek.

I confess that I’ve tried to learn the language on several occasions, but with little success. A few vocabulary words and a distinct sense of my inadequacy is all that I carried away from the attempts.

This time, however, I am learning under the skilled tutelage of a friend who is fluent in the tongue… and who has strange ideas that involve ignoring the grammar books. (I confess that I find this method rather appealing. Despite my skill with the English language, I’m wholly incapable of describing any of the sentence parts which I so ably diagram.) It is his belief that inductive learning is best and, for this reason, he has equipped me with a lexicon, a text to be translated, and his phone number in case I happen to get stuck. (I have used this phone number several times, primarily for the purpose of arranging meetings to discuss my ever growing list of questions.)

My assignment is simply to work my way through the text, word by word, looking up any that I don’t know and double checking my verb endings to ensure proper translation. Thanks to an “aha” moment yesterday afternoon, the endings have become significantly less complicated, but this still doesn’t reduce the amount of labor involved with looking up a half-dozen words for every paragraph. (Or negate the need to insert each stem into the fancy verb chart at the back of the book to confirm my interpretation of its meaning.)

The result is that I begin to feel the “brain strain” after just a half an hour of intense work. After an hour and an half of work, my brain was about to explode. The line between translating and simply checking my guesses with the English-language volume was growing thinner. The temptation to cheat was becoming much too strong. It was time to quit.

Tomorrow will be another day in which, I deeply hope, the Greek will seem less Greek to me. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to an evening steeped in my mother tongue!


Language Learning with Duo Lingo January 30, 2014

Learning a new language takes dedication. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I never have. I don’t like conjugating verbs or rolling my r’s. The result is that I can speak a little Spanish (enough to get myself into trouble), a bit of Greek, and some Hebrew (my signature phrase is “Yesh bananot?” or “Do you have bananas?”). I can say “Yes” and “No” in Russian, French, German, Tagalog, and Klingon. But to be entirely honest, that’s the extent of my prowess.

This state of single language fluency is fairly common here in America, but far less so throughout most of the rest of the world. With nearly 7,000 spoken languages, it really isn’t surprising that, for many people, being dual-lingual or even multi-lingual is the norm. And this leaves me, sadly, at the back of the pack. When I travel, I do so in the hope that everyone I meet will be able to converse in English. Just in case they don’t, I carry a little phrase book that will allow me to point to the pre-translated version of whatever it is I think I want to say.

About twice a year, my frustration with my linguistic shortcomings reaches a peak and I rededicate myself to learning a foreign language. I’ve tried everything from traditional textbooks to immersion (which usually takes the form of cheap software which claims to be “as good as Rosetta Stone at a fraction of the cost”). I’ve used flashcards and foreign language podcasts. I’ve even tried reading familiar texts in an unfamiliar tongue. While each of these has its strengths, it usually isn’t long before I reach a roadblock and give up.

Several months ago, I heard about a new program for language learning: Duo Lingo. According to the webpage, instruction was offered in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. The program was entirely free and could be downloaded as an iPod app. Having received high praise from PC Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, I thought I’d give it a try.

The lessons involve a combination of image-association, speaking, writing, and translation (both from English into the language of choice and from the language of choice into English). Clicking on troublesome words brings up additional information regarding alternate translations, conjugations, and word usage, so I haven’t gotten lost, even when the learning isn’t as intuitive as I’d have liked. The program tracks when I’m struggling with specific words or syntax and reminds me to review lessons before continuing and, since the lessons are adaptive, I can’t simply memorize the material and move on. I have to internalize the lesson. This means that I’m not hitting the brick wall I’ve encountered when using other learning methods.

Each lesson takes approximately five minutes, so it can be neatly tucked into those “empty” spots in my schedule while I’m waiting in line, eating lunch, or between projects at work. The program provides “incentive” towards continued learning through a game-like interface and a link to Facebook which ensures that all of my multi-lingual friends can see my progress and cheer me on. (If you’re looking for even greater incentive, the program creators are actually using learners to help translate the World Wide Web into other languages. Click here to watch a great YouTube video which explains the process.)

With 52 levels, I’m sure it will take me some time to make it through the entire program for each of the five languages being offered, but so far, I’m impressed. I’m learning. I’m having fun. And I’m not hitting the brick wall.


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