8 June 2005

Ishihara Shintaro and French

The Governor of Tokyo managed to get into Le Monde newspaper this morning. I am spending a few days in the little town of Brulon near the Loire valley in France. The town is small, charming and Medieval in its architecture. I went out for my pre-breakfast shopping which included a copy of Le Monde newspaper. As I looked at the newspaper over my coffee I noticed a headline that said that Ishihara Shintaro insulted the French language. Ishihara likes to make outrageous statements which appeal to certain Japanese people who like it when their leaders are allowed to say things that people usually only say after a few drinks.

It appears that Ishihara said that French did not have the qualities of an international language because it was not good for computation?? If he had said that French was not as important as at least a handful of other languages that are spoken by more people, even many French people would have agreed with him. But what was he referring to  when he said that it was not suitable for computation? The French have produced brilliant mathematicians. Is it the fact that in French eighty is called four-twenty? Ishihara would be aghast at Danish where fifty is half-threes, sixty is threes, seventy is half-fours and so on. Yet this did not prevent Denmark from producing a Niels Bohr.

Every language has its idiosyncrasies, not the least Japanese ( is “ashi” foot or leg, “ude” hand or arm etc.) . Yet somehow it all works and people communicate just as well in all languages more or less. I can only speak for the ten languages that I know, yet I suspect it is true for all or at least most languages.

7 June 2005

Benchmarks

I welcome the comments from Pauline McNaughton explaining that the Canadian Benchmarks system is going to be made easier to understand. I look forward to that. Right now I feel that the Common European Framework levels are easier to understand. Having only 6 levels is also an advantage with the CEF.

At The Linguist we have more or less adopted the European benchmarks and added our own known words count to further describe learners levels. But we are open to all ideas. Simplicity has to be a major concern where learners are concerned.

The more the learner can evaluate him or herself, or understand the evaluation criteria, the better for everyone.

I am having trouble with this French keyboard and hope I did not leave too many typos here.

3 June 2005

Sprachen und Beruf

I just finished attending a conference on “language training and the corporate sector” which took place in Duesseldorf, Germany. As soon as I have good access to the Internet I will send some observations.

Two intensive days of discussion on language training in Duesseldorf only confirmed my conviction that language learning is all about communication and not complicated instruction of grammar, quizzes, tests, role playing and the rest. I do not agree with the comment below that you just need a good teacher, a good student and a good textbook. Most of all you need a motivated learner (and that is where the teacher can be the most effective, in motivating the learner), interesting authentic language resources and an efficient system to enable the learner to take advantage of these language resources.

26 May 2005

More on Globish

Let me continue on the subject of Globish, the proposition that the solution for international communication across language barriers is a new language called Globish. According to author J-P Nerriere, if people would just concentrate on learning 1,500 words of English everyone will be able to communicate more easily.

The underlying assumption in Globish is that a language is a static technique that you learn. Once you have learned it, you can communicate. Another assumption is that having a basic knowledge of one language, English, is enough. But the reality is that even for English, people will always want to know more, to understand the movie they are watching, or a song, or a political discussion with friends. The knowledge of 1,500 words will simply not be enough. That is without even considering all the specialized technical terms that are needed in different areas of activity today. And then there are other languages that matter besides English.

At The Linguist we believe that most people can learn more than one language. Most people can continue to progress in any language and need not set limits on their knowledge of the language. I feel that the knowledge of 1,500 words in just one second language is not enough for practical and satisfactory communication with different people and cultures. Nor is it enough for business. Most people who start to learn a second language will continue to need lots of exposure to that language. This will inevitably mean exposure to new words outside the 1,5000 word range. They will want to learn these words. With a good system they can do so and enjoy the process.

In fact it requires an emotional commitment to learn a language. You have to enjoy the language to be effective in communicating in that language. You need to enjoy the language in order to learn it. Using the language and learning the language are part of one continuous process. You do not first learn the language and then start using it. You learn the language as you use it, and continue to get better and better at it. The whole process can and should be enjoyable and interesting, from the beginning.

At the Linguist that is our basic principle. Language learning is all about communicating and enjoying it. If learners can choose short interesting subjects in the new language, and if it is made possible for them to understand these items of content, they will improve while following their interests. We encourage learners not to worry about perfection and just try to listen, understand and communicate. With more and more exposure to the language, the learners continue to improve and get a better feel for the language. We have built a system for vocabulary retention that links new words to the contexts that learners are listening to and reading. These links are used in many different ways which I will not describe here, but this system ensures steady vocabulary growth and an increasing ability to put natural phrases together.

Our system is based on two key concepts that guided me, enjoyment and efficiency. If the learners can choose items of interest at an appropriate level to learn from, they will become motivated. If the learning process is efficient, the learners will remain motivated and learn surprisingly quickly.

What we need is not a simplified version of one language, but a simplified way to learn languages so that more people can learn each other’s languages. We need to get away from the unnecessarily complicated and structured way languages have been taught.

That is what we have tried to do at The Linguist. We are continuing our work. We emphasize exposure to the language, enjoyment and efficiency. Our tutors are available for advice, explanation and feedback, but only if asked. We emphasize writing correction as the best place to work on accuracy of expression. Otherwise we just let the learners communicate, listen and read, while our vocabulary link system provides a systematic way to learn the natural use of words and phrases in the language. It seems to work.

We need more true multi-linguists in the world. I am not in favour of a stripped-down version of English becoming the main tool of communication between cultures.

23 May 2005

Speaking globish

I was driving home the other day and listened to an interview on the radio with a certain Jean-Paul Nerriere, who has written a book and “invented” a language called Globish. It appears that Globish refers to a simplified form of English which uses a total of only 1,500 words, avoids slang and sticks to short and simple sentences. This Globish is a form of English that all speakers, especially those who are non-native, can easily understand.

I agree with some of this but disagree with most of it as I will explain in the next few posts. First of all I agree that non-native speakers should avoid slang or overly idiomatic language when they speak. I also agree that everyone, native or non-native should use simple, short and direct sentences for clarity. I agree that every non-native speaker should make a special effort to completely master the most common 1,500 words of English.

Beyond that it gets more complicated. Even the simplest natural conversation in English will only have 90% or so of its vocabulary consist of these high frequency words. Any more specialized content will see this ratio of frequent words drop down to 75%. It is simply not possible to be effective in many situations with so small a vocabulary.

Learning new vocabulary is on ongoing part of language learning. If done in a systematic way it can be done efficiently and be a source of satisfaction and sense of achievement. The solution to better communication across language barriers is to simplify the process of language learning and make it more enjoyable and more efficient. In this way more people will be able to communicate in two or three languages.

One more thought, it may be easier for a Frenchman or European language speaker to get by with 1,500 English words, since he or she can guess at the meaning of new Latin or Greek based words. The same is not true for someone coming from a non European background. But there will be more on this in upcoming posts.

22 May 2005

Linking texts-in response to Autumnsky

For beginner and low intermediate learners it is beneficial to repeatedly listen and read the same content. This helps to train the mind to process a new language. The familiarity of the content helps to ingrain the flow and intonation of the new language. This kind of practice will improve the learner’s reading skill and speed.

However, for the higher intermediate and more advanced learners, acquiring more vocabulary becomes the main task. In this case it is important to read more extensively. In fact, in The Linguist system, if the learners want to maintain their target number of saved words and phrases, they need to cover a lot of material.

Doing as Autumnsky suggests in the note below, that is concentrating on a specific area of interest, is an excellent strategy. This will ensure that new words and phrases reoccur often, facilitating learning. This is another form of linking, so important in language learning. Using the Internet, it is easy to find articles in newspapers or elsewhere that are about a narrow subject. It might be international finance, or soccer, or cooking. If learners stay focused on that subject for a while, the articles are linked together, so to speak. As a result the vocabulary used will be “linked” because similar words and expressions occur often. This will make them easier to learn.

I nevertheless recommend that when advanced learners find texts where the content and voice are pleasing and interesting, they occasionally go back to repetitively listening to these, if they want to work on developing more natural phrasing and pronunciation.

The distinctions between the intensive strategy of the lower intermediate learner and the extensive strategy of the advanced learner are not hard and fast. The lower intermediate learner can, from time to time, do some extensive study, and the advanced learner benefits from occasional intensive or repetitive study. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.

22 May 2005

Learning Japanese – in response to James

We hope to be able to offer Japanese as well as other languages, like Chinese, French, Spanish and others on The Linguist, before the end of the year. The principles will be the same; lots of interesting and authentic content to choose from; the ability to link words and phrases to the content you are reading and listening to; the chance to write and have errors corrected and analyzed; lots of measurement; voice chat over internet and so forth. We also look forward to creating a chance for language learners to share their native language with others via The Linguist. But that will take a while.

In your Japanese studies I think you just have to persevere with whatever texts you can find for now. When I studied Japanese there was not that much either. I listened repetitively to audio books like 伊豆の踊り子 by川端康成、and an excellent NHK tape and text called 昭和の記録 as well as others、I suggest that you read on the computer. That way it is easier to look words up in an online dictionary. You should keep an excel file of new words and the phrases in which you find them. You can copy and paste dictionary definitions into your excel file. You do not have all the functions of The Linguist but you can improvise.

You will need to work hard to learn Kanji. You should target 5 per day, get it up to 10 and then try to reach 20 per day. You have to realize that you will constantly forget most of the words and charactaers that you learn. However, if you keep reading and listening and studying the words eventually you will remember more and more. All of this would be much more efficient with The Linguist. And remember, efficiency is important because there is so much to cover! Good luck!

21 May 2005

There are so many words to learn!

I often see people working their way through newspaper articles and writing long lists of words into an exercise book. It is painstaking and time consuming. Usually the learner does not choose the article for study. The teacher  chooses it. The words are written down but they do not enter our usable vocabulary until we have encountered them many times in different contexts.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, which is perhaps the most common way in which intermediate students of English study. However, it is just not going to enable the learner to cover the vast amount of material necessary to become really fluent and literate in English.

There are so many words to learn. One has to meet these words in so many different contexts. The method of study has to be more efficient. Efficiency is achieved when the learner can choose content of interest and at an appropriate level of difficulty. The learning of words and phrases is made much more efficient when we take advantage of the wonders of electronic text to link new words and phrases to the contexts where they occur.

The key reason why The Linguist system works for so many intermediate learners is the enjoyment afforded by being able to chose content and the efficiency of saving new words and phrases to a database for systematic review. This is all combined with repetitive listening and reading, writing and speaking.

There is just so much to learn, that efficiency becomes a key factor determining success or failure.

20 May 2005

Visualization, play acting and language learning

Language learning is a long road, but it can (or must ) be an enjoyable one. At times the progress seems slow, as Autumnsky points out in a comment to this blog. It is important to enjoy all the wonderful moments when we are communicating in another language, speaking or reading or listening in another language. It is important not to think of what we have not yet achieved, but rather to feel happy at what we have already achieved and are achieving.

When I learn a new language I try to visualize myself as a native speaker of that language. I try to put myself in the position of a Korean, or a Brazilian or a Russian or an Arab. I visualize myself as a native speaker. I imitate the native speaker, especially one whose voice and intonation I find pleasing. There is no obstacle, cultural or otherwise, which prevents me from projecting myself into the position of another person. That means that the way I emphasize my ideas, my intonation,  my facial expressions and body language start to imitate people of another culture. This is all part of acting out my visualization. It is the play acting part of language learning.

Language learning is a game. It is in some ways an escape from reality, from the reality of what I am as a speaker of my native language. This is part of the enjoyment of language learning. The fact that I am an imperfect imitation of the native speaker does not bother me. If I am playing a role in a play, I cannot completely become the person that I am playing. I still enjoy throwing myself into it.

If we can keep this visualization in front of us and enjoy trying to act it out, language learning remains a game and enjoyable one. If in addition we are dealing with subjects of learning and discussion that are interesting to us, then we are not so easily discouraged by the length of our journey.

Visualization is also an important element in the process of using your will power and determination to stimulate neurochemical changes in your brain. I will comment more on that later.

16 May 2005

More on the upside-down hockey stick

There are two stages in language learning, the intense study of a limited number of words, or the blade of the stick. Here you are learning the high frequency words and basic structures of the language. The most common 2,000 words account for between 75% to over 90% of all content. These words appear frequently and so they are easier to learn.

You should be listening and reading a lot without worrying too much whether you understand all that well. Keep listening over and over, slowly moving on to new content. The more you see words in different contexts, the more likely you are to remember them. You need to master these words. You need to do a lot of intensive reading and listening. You need to listen to the same content over and over again. You should use these common words over and over in your writing.

But at some point you move to a more extensive approach to learning in order to acquire the up to 10,000 words you need to function at a professional level. This is the long shaft of the hockey stick. A comment to this blog expressed frustration at not being able to remember new words and phrases. It can at times seem like a journey without any progress.

Nevertheless you must continue. You need to expose yourself to a lot of content. You need to listen and read a lot. Now you move on to new content more frequently. You need extensive exposure, rather than the intensive exposure of the early period. You also need to to review new words and phrases on their own. This will help you when you meet them again in new contexts. But at times it feels as if nothing sticks. But you are learning all the time.

If what you are reading and listening to is interesting, you keep going. It is your interest in the subjects of your reading and listening that keeps you going. Read widely. Read in your area of professional interest. Also read novels and literature. Gradually you start to notice these new words and phrases more and more. Naturally and ever so slowly you start to use the new words and phrases and they become a part of you.

If you are using The Linguist you should print lists of your new words and phrases and make sure you use them in your writing and speaking.

If you read and listen a lot in order to meet your “saved words” and “saved phrases” targets in The Linguist, you will train other language skills. The more you read, the better you get at reading. The faster you read the words you already know. The better you understand the meaning of what you are reading. Yes, there are still words that you do not know, or have learned and forgotten. But you overall comprehension skills improve. You understand the surrounding context better. And soon you start to master those elusive new words.

Stay positive, keep listening and reading, and all of a sudden, when you least expect it, you will feel that you have made a great deal of progress along the shaft of the hockey stick.