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Taking the plunge or how I learned French


At about the end of my second year as an undergraduate student in the Classics Department, specifically in the philology program, having completed two years of Latin and one of Greek plus a semester of German, various professors advised all of the students at my level (hence including myself) that we now had sufficient background to teach ourselves (for reading purposes at least) both Italian and French. No special emphasis might seem to accompany this statement but the apparent casualness of the statement fooled no one who had any intention of advancing within the program. The time had come to take the plunge and attempt to teach myself these languages as I had been told two years earlier I would be expected to.


At one level, I remained skeptical but I had already seen how easy German was for me, and I also knew that generations of Classicists had successfully done what I was being asked to do. Thus, it must be possible. When students asked questions about how to proceed, they were simply informed that the Romance languages should be treated as effectively simplified forms of Latin with admixtures to varying degrees of loanwords from various sources. Most of those sources were Indo-European languages themselves anyway, and so they should not present much difficulty. The approach I settled on was to review the grammar and forms of the target language and then with a dictionary in hand to begin to read something (a light novel of some sort) in the target language. I did something similar with my long disused Spanish to boost my confidence (as I’ve referred to before). That was during the week-long break after my second year, shortly after the plan of how to proceed began to form in my head.


Cover of "Robots and Empire"

Cover of Robots and Empire


That summer was momentous for any number of reasons in my personal life but avoiding th more personal goings-on, I moved into an apartment for the first time in my life. Finances were extremely tight, and my best friend had just transferred universities. Naturally she knew my situation and knew that I liked classic science fiction, which I had been introduced to through a collection of stories by Isaac Asimov as a young teenager. So for an early birthday present, she sent me a single tome (the second of two parts) of Asimov’s novel Robots and Empire translated into French– exactly what I needed. To refresh myself, I looked to see where the French started and re-read my copy of the English original up to that point. The summer semester was split into two parts with a break in-between (except for the Greek class on Plato which went straight through) and so I had time to devote to trying to learn French.


The derivation of the grammatical forms from the Latin seemed so obvious after studying for two years the changes in languages over time that I simply looked over a grammatical summary for an hour or so before I opened my book in French and began trying to read. The book was a normal size paperback novel and so the pages were not large. Even so, I had to look up three or four words on the first page to make sense of what was going on. The second and third pages were about the same, but then I caught the flow of the narrative and of the language. Words started to be clear from context. Also from the first page I had noticed something which in retrospect I felt I ought have expected but which surprised me; a tremendous number of French words existed as words in English albeit with different pronunciations. Naturally, those words had British spellings, but that was no problem for me since my older sisters had begun their schooling in Australia and then South Africa. With each page, I seemed to need to look up fewer and fewer words until the dictionary started to remain mostly on the bookshelf.


By the time I finished the book, I was reading French as comfortably as English but I did not feel it had solidified in my mind. I needed to keep reading in French. First I tried the campus library which had books in French but locating those books was proving more difficult than expected. The computer which housed the reference information was not set up to search for the library’s holdings by language and the librarians could not shake the idea that I must want only English translations. So, I ordered a book online: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers by Jules Verne. The simple reportorial style turned out to be perfect for my needs, and when I finished it, I just kept reading.


At university I looked for something for French but analogous to the regular meeting of German speakers to began to attend, but nothing of the sort existed. The best I could find while at college was internet relay chat (IRC) which let me use French, at least typing to communicate. Where I came to regularly speak in French was during the three and a half years I spent teaching in south central Florida. Many of my students came from Haiti or less commonly other parts of the French-speaking Caribbean. Among the Haitian immigrants, most spoke actual French rather than Creole by preference, at least in the area where I was teaching. The francophone community in Haiti, so they told me, was apparently a politically persecuted minority whose existence was officially denied. I was reading so much in French and so often that bringing words into my active speaking vocabulary took much less effort than it might have. The IRC use had helped tremendously too, albeit without actually pronouncing the words. In any case the conversations grew slowly over time as the students got to know me and to feel they could talk to me.


From then on, I used French whenever the opportunity arose. Now having married a French-speaker and living in a place with a large francophone community, such occasions are not rare. Now and again I even watch films on my computer which are in French, but I simply don’t watch movies often in any language.





Why I still often think in German

As mentioned in previous blog-posts in this serious about my own history of learning languages, the fourth language I studied formally is German. I started it the Spring semester of my second full year at university as an undergrad, and it left me unimpressed about how modern languages were taught.

I can only imagine what my instructor thought of me as a student. I consistently arrived on time for class every day, but I took little if any notes in class and probably came across as terribly arrogant because of my attitude which regarded the material as easy. Thus, I would hand in assignments and they were normally done correctly but often they were done in the last five minutes of the previous class. In my dorm room (for the first semester) and later my apartment, I made flashcards to memorize unfamiliar vocabulary but I found two things which greatly reduced both the amount of the material which needed to be learned  and the effort needed to do so:

  1. 1. The grammar of German had in almost every instance exact analogs in Latin and/or Greek. Thus, I encountered no new concepts grammatically except that German always puts the primary verb in second position and any auxiliary verbs at the end of the relevant clause. The case usage was standard Indo-European and inflection for cases was minimal but not outside the general patterns of Indo-European inflections. Thus, I encountered only a single new grammatical concept in the entire language and that one was not very complicated to say the least.
  2. The overwhelming majority of the vocabulary had cognates in languages I knew, especially after the first term when I achieved reading-fluency in French in a bit less than a week, doing the same for Italian during the next break in the terms. So I still had to learn the German forms of the cognates and what little non-cognate vocabulary there was but naturally the cognates were quick to learn. So really I had comparatively few words to learn from scratch.

I remember that for whatever reason one of the words I had the hardest time remembering was the verb wiederholen, meaning to repeat. As vocabulary, it had been assigned earlier that day or possibly the previous day. The language policy in the classroom was not to use English unless it were unavoidable. Unfortunately, I had not heard something that the instructor had said. So I asked him in English to repeat it, not yet being able to say that in German. His only response was, “Kein Englisch bitte”. A bit frustrated therefore I immediately replied, “Repítete for favor”. Naturally the class, including the instructor, laughed. The benefit of going to class for me was that it forced me to learn the vocabulary and to practice the language everyday. Still the practice the class offered was not the same as listening to and holding real conversations in the language with fluent speakers.

Thus, towards the end of my first semester, I began every week going regularly to an event called Deutsch Tisch (literally, German table). Every Wednesday night at a local restaurant easily in walking distance, faculty and students from the German department and other German speakers gathered in a large ground where for a few hours only German was spoken. People at all levels were encouraged to participate and people would politely offer others correction as needed. I attended religiously and would arrive early as well as leaving late. As a college student with little money, it was a welcome social outlet as well as an immersive environment for language practice. At first, I listened to the conversations all round me more than spoke, attuning my ear to the language and almost unconsciously at the same time adjusting my pronunciation. At the same time, I would more and more try to express myself as I understood a conversation enough to respond to it meaningfully and simply accepted that I would make mistakes. Hence I quickly became one of the more advanced students. Yet I was frustrated at not progressing more.

At this stage, I had gained a functional fluent knowledge of French and Italian and revitalized my Spanish all by reading and so naturally I judged (correctly in retrospect) that what I needed to advance was to begin reading in German. I decided that I should apply the same sort of logic to German used with the other languages and so wanted something fun and light to read with which I was already familiar. I settled on a German translation of Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings. (Later I sold the set of three books, having read it twice, because I wanted to force myself to read actual German literature; I sometimes regret doing so though.) Even with a heavy class load, I read it within a week and doing so had exactly the effect I had hoped for, especially since my reading in German did not stop there. Soon thereafter, I was among the fluent German speakers and made friends with regular attendees who effectively ignored (politely) the students who came and went. I stopped seeing those friends only at the weekly events. We were regularly together and always speaking German. Hence for the next approximately three years, when I was not in class, I was probably thinking, speaking and generally operating in German as the default language.

After college, the opportunities to speak German became rare but I still continued to read in German and to speak it whenever possible. To this day, I tend to talk to myself mostly in German. My current job also has me regularly using German. I even have relative my marriage in Germany and Austria, and my wife knows German if not as well as I do. Then again her French is probably better than mine.

How I fell in love with Classical Greek

In my previous blog-post, I describes how I came to be at university studying Classical Philology and why. From the beginning, I intended to begin Classical Greek at the start of my second year in the program. I was advised to start Greek after Latin and the first course in the sequence of introductory classes was only taught during the Fall term. The language had a daunting reputation. Repeatedly students assured me that ancient Greek would be the most difficult subject I would likely ever study. Yet I was determined and so prepared to give maximum effort and attention to the subject, which I did. I  also had the good fortune that the book which had been used for years (called Reading Greek) stopped being used and that a new professor, Dr. Golden took over teaching the introductory Greek sequence of courses. The book Reading Greek had taken a sink or swim approach to learning Greek which from my perusal of the book at the time seemed more geared towards strengthening the reading skills of students already exposed to Greek than fully introducing the subject. The new book Dr. Golden used is call Athenaze and did start students reading in Greek from the start but also genuinely introduced the grammar and

English: Ancient Greek Grammar: Present Indica...

English: Ancient Greek Grammar: Present Indicative Active of luo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

vocabulary without assuming any previous knowledge. Dr. Golden, who was head of the department at the time, looked notable only for how unremarkable he was until he started talking. Then within minutes, the fact that he was brilliant, loved his subject area and knew it inside out became obvious. Moreover, while speaking English (his native language) he stammered terribly; yet in spite of that, his lectures were fascinating. Of course when he read or recited Greek, his eyes would either close or mostly close and absolutely flawless, beautiful Greek would come out of his mouth with no stammering whatsoever. He was also a gifted teacher and a genuinely nice man. I never learned who the previous instructor was and did not want to do so, but whoever that was had a reputation as a pompous jerk. Between the new book and instructor, the level of difficulty of Classical Greek was radically reduced. I still approached the subject as if it was going to be difficult but that it was something I greatly wanted to learn.

Learning the rules of Classical Greek pronunciation and memorizing the Greek alphabet took me about an hour. All the letters were familiar from math and science classes in high school. Use of a dictionary reinforced the knowledge of the Greek alphabet through the next few years. Towards the end of college, I won a minor wager at an end of term party because I was able while rather intoxicated to recite the Greek alphabet backwards without either mistakes or hesitation. As I recall, nothing was on the line in the wager except pride, but no one else could match the feat.

My previous exposure to ancient Greek consisted of a few words of Greek I had picked up from my father. Since I do not wish to make this post about religion, I will only say that although I am a Jew and specifically an Orthodox Jew, born a Jew, my father is or was a Christian minister. All the Greek I had picked up in this manner (about Greek words for love, the nature of the Koine dialect, etc.) had turned out to be flat wrong. The reason I mention that point (which I do not wish to belabor) is that follows from the basic philosophy of language used in philology, and that philosophy of languages in turn informed the approach to languages. The Church has its traditions about what words mean and what grammar is used in the Christian Bible. In philology, meaning of words is fundamentally established by meaning in context whenever a word is used throughout the extant corpus of documents in a given language; when cases are ambiguous, they are treated as such. Then the definition which occurs most frequently is treated as the most probable meaning of a word and so forth. Modification of meaning by other words, such as syntactical combinations, are treated in roughly the same manner. Since philologists use different methodology for understanding texts than do Christian clergy, one should not be surprised that the two groups of people reach different conclusions.

One of the great things about taking Classical Greek was that no one who took the class was doing so to fulfill an arbitrary language requirement for a degree. The combination of an instructor who knew and loved the subject and students who wanted to be there for the subject was phenomenal. The most important piece of advice that Dr. Golden gave us students was that the Greeks never took an introductory Greek course and hence the rules of grammar should be regarded as merely guidelines to understanding the patterns within the Greek language. Virtually all “rules” of Greek grammar had clear extant exceptions. (Dr. Golden cited a passage in the Odyssey describing the interaction between Odysseus and Nausikaa by the river where Homer uses the “wrong” case with a preposition; yet clearly regarding Homer’s use of Greek as “wrong” is absurd. The usage is just unusual.) Thus I was introduced to the concept of the role of grammar being to merely explain (i.e., descriptive grammar) as consistently as possible how a language is normally used as opposed to delineating how it must be used (i.e., prescriptive grammar). I drove my roommate a bit nuts that year doing flashcards for Latin, Greek and German. I took the exact same approach to learning material previously described that I had used for Latin in my first year. Thus, I memorized vocabulary and constructions as if I wished to speak the language and used no notes in class.

Where Greek began to particularly shine for me as more interesting than Latin was when I reached the stage of beginning to read literature. For my third semester of Greek, taught over the summer again by Dr. Golden, we read The Apology of Socrates by Plato. Had I waited until the Fall term, I would have been reading the Anabasis by Xenophon which even Dr. Golden reluctantly characterized as rather repetitive and boring. In contrast, the Apology was, according to Plato at least, the speech given in court by Socrates when dragged before court on ludicrous charges. Dr. Golden characterized the charges as accusing Socrates of actually holding and teaching the youth elitist and seditious views like Aristophanes’ caricature of him in the play The Clouds; he compared this to charging a politician in court based on how he was depicted in a political cartoon. Socrates refused to treat the trial seriously and was determined to show the tria up for the mockery of justice that it was. I simply loved it. Reading unaltered real Classical Greek I got to read a piece of literature which made me laugh with and root for the hero, Socrates, while seeing how and why this work was still worth reading more than two millennia after the events it describes. My next literature classes after that in Greek was on the Odyssey. The works in Greek being studied in the department simply held for me far more interest than those in Latin being studied. That feeling has never gone away.

The interconnectivity of language

Partial tree of Indo-European languages. Branc...

Partial tree of Indo-European languages. Branches are in order of first attestation; those to the left are Centum, those to the right are Satem. Languages in red are extinct. White labels indicate categories / un-attested proto-languages. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One aspect of how I learned Latin and later ancient Greek which my previous blog-post did not address but which is extremely important in terms of how I did and do learn languages is the constant comparison of languages in terms of both words and of grammar and syntax. Many non-specialists know about cognates, but few if any realize just how disparate cognates can be or know enough about the history of languages to understand when useful comparisons can and cannot be made across languages. To specialists, two words are cognates if three conditions are fulfilled:

  1. The words share an ordered pattern of vowels and consonants such that known phonological shifts applied to one word can lead to the other.
  2. A relationship exists between the two languages involved to suggest either a shared origin of the words in the evolution of languages or mutual contact between the languages to enable borrowing.
  3. The meanings of the words are sufficiently related that a logical connection can be made from one to the other via gradual changes of meaning appropriate to the linguistic and cultural context.

Naturally, each of these conditions requires explanation in and of themselves.

The first relates to phonological patterns.

  1. English: Vowel triangle, filled in with some E...

    English: Vowel triangle, filled in with some English vowels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Vowels (including diphthongs) are the most changeable of the three classes of phonemes and have two main groups: I. a, o and u vowels, which are variations of these vowels treating the Continental values as the basic forms, and II. e and i vowels, which again are variations of these vowels treating the Continental values as the basic forms. Unaccented vowels change fairly freely but even so a shift within one of these groups in more common than otherwise. Even in accented syllables, shifts from one group to the other do happen but typically that occurs via the change from u to i. The reverse is far more rare.

  2. Neutral vowels tend to harden to more distinct vowels or become silent.
  3. e and i vowels can tend to palatalize adjacent consonants, especially those which precede these vowels.
  4. Intervocalic consonants are particularly prone to processes such as voicing.
  5. Nasal consonants can tend to nasalize adjacent vowels, often being absorbed in the process.
  6. Consonants in a word tend to change to other consonants which share a common point of inflection without changing relative position in the word. Hence consonants tend to form groups.
  7. Aspects of consonants such as voicing, aspiration, etc., are particularly mutable and subject to the influence of adjacent consonants.
  8. Semi-vowels u/w and i/y often interchange and/or harden to either strict vowels or strict consonants.
  9. Initial or final sibilants and vowels or semi-vowels are often dropped.

Changes in vowels of consonants happen via a gradual process of minimal changes. Thus for example, an f-sound may gain voicing to become a v-sound or lose aspiration to become a p-sound. One learns which processes occur by comparison of related languages.

The second criteria gauges how closely languages are related when different possible cognate sets exist. Thus for example, the English word man is more likely to be cognate with German than with Spanish because man is a part of a language’s core basic vocabulary and English is far more Germanic than Romance for that type of vocabulary.

A similar use of categories for vocabulary applies to cognates acquired by linguistic borrowing to create loanwords. The context of linguistic contact should reasonably allow for such borrowing of words associated with the context. E.g., English of the 21st century most often contributes words to other languages related to computers and/or the internet, technical and/or scientific terminology or aspects of American culture which if viewed negatively– which they need not be– are often characterized as “American cultural imperialism“.

Core vocabulary is entirely culturally dependent and tends to include words for basic familial relationships and common things (man, fire, horse, etc.) in the related culture. Notably for example the words for man are more commonly cognate in Indo-European languages than the words for woman, but the words for father and mother are cognate with roughly the same frequency.

The connection of words’ meanings in not always obvious as well. One starts by comparing words with identical meanings but slowly and gradually one considers words where some core commonality has been extended or applied in different ways. The comparison of Yiddish and German words mentsch in a previous blog-post is an example of cognates involving a cultural shift of meaning.

That the introduction to Wheelock’s Latin (at least in its third edition) entirely addresses this kind of philological connection between similar words in related languages in no coincidence. That discussion starts with common words in English which are cognate with the majority of Indo-European languages, with charts comparing words in languages from most branches of the Indo-European language family. The various languages of that family are described and more and more precise comparisons are made through the lengthy introductory article. Then in each lesson similar comparisons are made. No assumption is made that the student knows the other languages mentioned but the importance lies in making the connection among what is regarded as a single word taking different forms in a number of related languages.

One I began learning ancient Greek, similar comparisons were made in that language too– this time including comparisons between dialects of Greek and between different periods of Greek’s linguistic evolution, not to mention between Greek and Latin. Through constant practice, I like many other students in the field developed an instinct so that I did not have to think about how a word in different languages was related; seeing those connections became automatic. Without that skill, teaching oneself related languages with minimal or even only nominal effort would be impossible. One must know the Latin and Greek well to develop that skill. The reason students were told German should be easy after Greek and that one should be able to quickly teach oneself French and Italian is because these require the application of this skill.


Latin, history and the beginnings of becoming a polyglot

Detail from the Lapis Niger from Forum Romanum...

Detail from the Lapis Niger from Forum Romanum. Oldest known example of writing in Latin language. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When in high school people would mention taking Latin, I flatly failed to see the attraction. If they tried to press me to take a course in the language, I would quip, “The Romans are dead; let them rest in peace,” meaning that I unquestioningly accepted the notion that studying languages was for communication. No one spoke Latin anymore except a few hobbyists, and they could not possibly speak it like a Roman would have. The notion of learning a language purely for reading purposes had not yet occurred to me, avid reader though I was and am. If my oversight is to be justified, I would point out that when asking what languages a person knows, people will commonly ask, “What languages do you speak?” not “What languages can you read?” Yet I would admit that if someone had a practical reason for studying Latin, I could see doing so. Taking the subject for one’s requirement of two years of a foreign language seemed both silly and impractical.

My attitude did not really change but I did develop a practical reason. When facing the end of high school and contemplating college, I asked myself what I wanted to do as a career for the rest of my life. The first part of my dawning self-awareness was that personality-wise, I was most suited to academic research. I could see myself passionately pursuing any number of subjects but the question was then which one to pick. After considerable thought, I concluded that my favorite subject was history, especially ancient history, and that the most appealing civilization was the Roman empire. I had an in-state scholarship and one of the state universities, Florida State University, was known for Classics; when I interviewed with the history department at the rival school, the University of Florida, the people I spoke to were upfront enough to recommend that I attend FSU instead. I remembered only well after the fact that they had told me I should apply to the Classics department and not the history department, but that mistake did not in the end lead to any problems. As time wore on through my last year of high school and the summer afterwards, I got increasingly more excited at the prospect of becoming a Roman historian. My parents were not thrilled at the idea, but they would not be paying for my college anyway.

Florida State University

Florida State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I entered FSU as a history major but that changed before orientation was over to a Classics major. Each student entering the university for the first time was required to come for a week-long orientation during which the student was shown the campus, took a battery of academic assessment exams and, after consulting a member of faculty assigned to the student as an adviser, signed up for classes. When I explained my intended career path, my adviser informed me that I should declare a Classics major instead of a history major, which I promptly did. So, I walked over to the Classics department and described to the departmental adviser (Mr. Dr. de Grummond, as opposed to his ex-wife Mrs. Dr. de Grummond whom I later had as an instructor– both impressive people) what my intended career path was; he listened and informed me that, while he was the department’s undergraduate adviser, the chief Roman historian was Dr. Tatum and so he should best advise me. While I would eventually change academic fields and my academic career has hit a few snags to say the least, the conversation that followed when I went down to Dr. Tatum’s office and introduced myself changed my life forever– in a good way.

To set the stage, one should bear in mind that I have always looked significantly younger than I actually am, and I was barely 18 at the time. Yet I matter-of-factly informed Dr. Tatum that I intended to pursue a career as a Roman historian, which I knew required earning a doctorate, before I had attended my first day of college. To his credit, like Mr. Dr. de Grummond before him, he did not laugh but described to me what I would need to do in order to follow that career path, emphasizing the difficulties. Yes, I would need to get a doctorate, but additionally I would need to know Latin and Classical Greek (for the primary sources) as well as German, French and Italian (for the scholarship since I was fortunate enough to be a native English speaker) just to function in graduate school. College needed to be about preparing me for graduate school, and so he recommended concentrating on the languages while at most minoring in history. For the modern languages, I would need to take classes for German (which should be easy after Greek) but after a grounding in Latin and Greek, I ought be able to pick up French and Italian (at least as research languages) readily on my own. Leaving his office, the notion of teaching myself a language sounded absurd but I was willing to accept that Dr. Tatum must know what he was talking about (as indeed he did); the task seemed daunting but feasible with sufficient hard work and so I was determined to do whatever I had to do. From that moment, I was (whether I knew it or not) on the road to becoming a polyglot.

Thus, I began taking Latin my first semester at college but as advised waited on Greek and German in order to stagger the languages; the idea was that I would be at a different stage of learning each in order to reduce confusion of languages. From the beginning, I approached Latin as one of the most important things I had ever studied because the life I wanted for myself demanded I know the language.

On the first day, two things happened of importance. The first was that we were set the task of learning the rules of Latin pronunciation according to the Classical rules. As the book (Wheelock’s Latin, third edition– a boring-looking but fabulous book with a plain red cover) explained this material in detail, the instructor promised to answer any questions the next day but he did not seem to expect any.From the beginning, I pronounced Latin as authentically as I could, essentially modifying my Spanish pronunciation to accord with the rules of the parent language. Consistently, I got complimented on my pronunciation. Of course, as a boy in Texas, the trilled r-sound had been the noise all of us boys would use for an engine when playing with toy cars. I played with toy cars a lot. Learning the Latin alphabet took me about ten minutes.

The second and more important thing which took up the entire class time was that I, along with the rest of the class, was introduced to the notion of a case system. In my experience, one of the greatest and most important differences between how modern and Classical languages are taught (when relevant) is the approach to a case system. At least in the United States, the conventional approach in modern languages is to try to minimize the amount of grammar students need to learn, to the detriment of the students’ learning. I saw in the German case I later took that the concept of a case system was never mentioned and the cases were not introduced together. So, students would not think in terms of a case system but would rather default to the nominative case except for the exceptions they had been taught. (Hence, they might reply to the question, “Wie geht’s?” with “Gut– und du?” instead of the correct “Gut– und dir?” In both Latin and Greek (not to mention Sanskrit) the student is told on the first day that a noun or pronoun and its modifiers change form according to their usage in the sentence. These forms are called cases, and when a person expresses him- or herself in Latin, a noun, pronoun, etc., must take the appropriate case to best fit the desired meaning. We then went over how each case was used. The instructor assured us that he did not expect us to master the material from the first day and that learning to think in terms of a case system would take time and practice; nevertheless if we were to learn Latin, we had to do it. (Notably a number of students did not return for the next class.)

In my dorm room, I would each day do whatever exercises I had to for class so that my homework was done, but then I would put all vocabulary, grammar and constructions on flashcards I made myself. I studied the language as if I were learning to speak it so that for example I would look at the meaning or description in English and try to give the corresponding Latin. Every time I made a mistake, I would start over going through the cards at the beginning until I could go through the cards twice without a mistake or hesitation. Then I would shuffle them and do it all again. Finally, after the second time doing this procedure, I would put aside the flashcards, go do something else and afterwards see if I could still go through the cards (having again shuffled them) twice without a mistake or hesitation. This procedure is the only way I have ever found to successfully memorize material. In class, I would hand in the assignments at the start of class but would have no notes in front of me. If I were called upon to translate something and to explain its grammar, as I would be in every class at least once, I made myself rely on my learning of vocabulary and grammar.

A notable point about the vocabulary though. Ultimately I wanted to be able to think in Latin, even if I never had a conversation in it with anyone else (although I would talk to myself in it when no one else was about). When looking at the English on my flashcards, I did my best to mentally associate the Latin word on the other side not with the English word itself but with whatever I mentally associated with that word. Thus, I tried to associate the word vinum with my mental picture of wine, not with the four-letter word on a page, and so forth. The idea was to attempt from the beginning to skip the step of translating in my head but rather to mentally operate in the language itself (in this instance, in Latin). While doing so makes the learning initially more difficult, it greatly facilitates getting over the mental barrier involved in thinking in a target language. That reasoning explained also why I did not refer to notes in class even after my instructors alloyed students to do so. (My first instructor in Latin, a graduate student and excellent teacher, set a policy from the beginning of banning notes in class, which introduced me to the idea, but I was quickly convinced of the idea’s merits.)

In my first two semesters at college, we finished the lessons in Wheelock, and I stayed for the summer term. (As I did each summer term there.) The third semester was a transition from grammar to reading genuine Latin literature. The text was an adapted version of the Cupid and Psyche episode from the Metamorphoses by Apuleius. (The nickname for it in the department was Cupid and Stupid.) It is a version of the beauty and the beast fable more or less. The instructor was Mrs. Dr. de Grummond. Whenever she thought the class was going to sleep, she would have us all stand by our desks and sing together a medieval Latin drinking song from Germany:

Gaudeamus igitur

iuvenes dum sumus. (repeat)

Post iucundum iuventutem,

post molestam senectutem,

nos habebit humus. (Repeat last line.)

The sentiment expressed accords with the saying, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die!” I absolutely loved the class, which was taught at the beginning of my second full year at college. (At began Greek the same term and German the next term.) By this time, I was driving a number of class-mates crazy because I would mostly prepare for class by memorizing unfamiliar vocabulary and reading through the text. Yet even if I did fully translate it beforehand, I used no notes in class.

The first text of unmodified Latin by an ancient author I studied was the speech Pro Archia by Cicero. I would diligently translate each assigned passage in my dorm room each day on a computer that did little more than word processing. Still, I used no notes in class, although I took plenty of notes for later use in the dorm room. At this point though, I had begun to realize that as much as I loved Classics, I loved Physics more. So because I wanted to finish my Classics degree requirements to concentrate on my new major, I made a mistake from a language learning point of view. Beyond the introductory courses, Latin courses consisted of two levels. The first concentrated on translation. The second was supposed to get the student to the point of reading Latin as readily as English. After one semester of Latin literature, I was not fully ready for that second level perhaps. Yet even if I was, I signed up for a class which was co-taught with a graduate course (the latter assuming students already could read Latin as well as English) and so the instructor blithely informed us all that she assumed everyone in the class could already read Latin like English. Frankly, I should have dropped the class that first day, but foolishly and stubbornly I did not. Although I managed to pass the class, I did not do well. At that point I no longer cared so much, but I did not get out of the class what I should have. Over the years, I have found that I can read Latin comfortably, but not as easily as I would like. I think at some level, I let the bad experience leave a bad mental association.

So, it has been a longstanding goal of mine to return to a focus on Latin that intense in order to improve my Latin. Of course, my Latin is not bad for reading by any means, but it is not as good as it could be and I use it less often than I should. I bought Latin translations of Winnie the Pooh and of the first two Harry Potter books for the purpose and have used them. Still, I think I ought read them again with greater focus and follow them up with genuine Latin texts read for fun.

How I learned Spanish

English: Spanish language (major differences)

English: Spanish language (major differences) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am not a native speaker of Spanish but sometimes to me it seems almost as if I were. Before I was old enough to remember, my family moved to a border-town in Texas where the default language on the streets was Spanish, not English. In pre-school and then school official instruction was in English but many students spoke among themselves in Spanish and often teachers would address the class in Spanish. At age four I certainly knew the admonition, “Sientate y callete la boca!” In third grade, native Spanish speakers went to the main school where third grade was taught and those who chose not to have their children given classes on Spanish language and literature for native Spanish speakers (a choice made by were relatively few there) went to the school I attended. An old class-mate of mine met me one day and was shocked to see me. He assumed I must have moved and then when it was clear I hadn’t left town asked if I had flunked. The statement I did not know Spanish (or at least that my parents decided not to send me to the other school) that I made to him merely elicited a stunned look as if I were claiming to be bad at math (at which I excelled). Nobody had asked me which school I wanted to go to, and I’m not sure anyone even bothered to ask my parents who spoke no Spanish. In all the time I lived in Texas, I was only allowed by my parents to go to a friend’s house once that I recall, and as perfect as my friend’s English was, the grandmother who was raising him did not speak nor understand a word. If I were asked at that point if I spoke Spanish, I am sure I would have said, “No,” but if someone spoke to me in Spanish, I probably would have simply responded without thinking about what I was doing. Of course, I would have responded in English if speaking were involved but correctly for the situation otherwise. Then a few months before I turned nine, we left town.

That involves an adventure which would be an interesting digression but (sticking to the point of this post) the family eventually settled in Florida where until the age of sixteen I lived on a boat. This was south-central Florida, not certain parts of Miami, and so few people spoke Spanish. I dealt with the massive culture shock of which my parents seemed completely oblivious for the most part and did not think about Spanish again until eighth grade when I learned on the first day that, with my parents’ consent but without them mentioning it to me, I had been signed up for a Spanish class. While the fact I was neither asked nor told irritated me, I accepted the fait accompli. Through the first quarter and into the second I struggled to make sense of the material I was being taught. I found myself (when I said things aloud to myself doing homework) mentally correcting myself and doing it right to my own surprise. Specifically, I would find myself saying, “That doesn’t sound right,” and if I listened to my subconscious, changing things to the right way of saying them in comprehensible and normal-sounding Spanish. How my mental suggestions could be right was something I did not understand, and so often I second-guessed myself. In class, my conscious mind was fully engaged trying to make sense of unfamiliar patterns and to understand apparent exceptions while my subconscious mind just kept telling me how to do it when the thinking part of my brain was silent. It was never silent in class except for odd moments here and there, but my pronunciation was always perfect and natural Spanish with an accent of the border-region in northeastern Mexico. No academic subject had ever so confused me in my life and that first quarter I got the first C grade of my life. I learned later that the teacher had to go to bat for me to allow me to be kept in the school’s pilot Spanish program, and I am deeply grateful that she did. That teacher whose name I sadly forget had faith in me, and that faith soon paid off because– relatively shortly into the second quarter of the school year— something mentally clicked and the two parts of my mind began to work together. Thereafter Spanish was easy for me.

Strangely, I had not yet discovered my passion for languages. My only reason for taking Spanish was that colleges required two years of a foreign language. I took for granted that Spanish had become easy because all academic subjects were easy for me. Notably, in spite of promises made the previous year of high school credit for Spanish I, I was told I and my fellow students entering high school who had taken the Spanish class would have to either repeat Spanish I for high school credit or take Spanish II and III for our two years of a high school foreign language. Naturally, I would have been bored silly to repeat a year, and so I chose to take at least the second and third year of a four-year sequence of classes in Spanish.

While my first Spanish teacher in middle school was a good teacher, my teacher (Mrs. Kopp) during my first two years of high school was absolutely brilliant. When for a period some years later I was a teacher, she was the teacher who most stood out in my mind as someone to emulate professionally. She made people work, set high standards and genuinely cared about her students. What she excelled at though was motivating students. A classmate my first year desperately struggled with Spanish II, never had the mental breakthrough that I did and was constantly embarrassed that he could not shake his thick Alabama accent; yet Mrs. Kopp gave him the help and encouragement he needed to do the work and at least pass the class. Her classes were also fun so that for example laughing and joking were often allowed in class, so long as they were done only through Spanish. She also got us (i.e., her students) to speak to her and to each other outside of class in Spanish as much as possible. For those who did not struggle with the material, her Spanish II class provided a basic level of fluency, albeit with comparatively limited vocabulary. Then third year Spanish was taught as a literature class entirely in Spanish with books to read individually, daily sets of essay questions in Spanish to be answered in Spanish about what we were reading and one on one conversations with her about anything and everything, all in Spanish. When at age fifteen (just shortly before my 16th birthday) I left that high school to go to another county because my family moved, I could effortlessly talk about anything in Spanish, thinking in Spanish, reading books in Spanish and knowing enough about the various Spanish language cultures and histories to be a fluent Spanish speaker with a passable level of cultural understanding.

At my new high school, I enrolled into Spanish IV for my third year of high school because I figured I may as well finish the program, but the class was a terrible joke. Except for the teacher and three native speakers in the class, no one knew Spanish and no one tried. The four people who did use Spanish just spoke quietly among themselves. I was simply assumed not to be able to hold a conversation in Spanish and was made to feel unwelcome to try. To add insult to the proverbial injury, the assignments in each class were photocopied of pages I recognized from the workbook I had used in the first quarter of my first year of Spanish. I was so disgusted that I would do the assignments in a couple of minutes and use the class as a study hall. Of course, once it became clear that I could effortlessly do the assignments quickly, I had to be careful of classmates stealing my work off the teacher’s desk to copy. No one seemed to notice or care; I only realized it when a girl in the class trying to copy my work complained that she could not read my handwriting. I became simply disgusted with the whole situation and stopped using any Spanish at all except when I had to.

When I entered university, I started Latin (a subject I intend to talk about in a future post) and I drew on my dormant Spanish for pronunciation, to help understand grammatical concepts like the subjunctive and to help learn vocabulary via cognates. Yet I did not really consider attempting to revive my Spanish (in spite of having chosen a career path for which I needed to know Latin, Greek, German, French and Italian as well as English) until an encounter on a bus after my second year at college. During a break between the Spring and Summer terms, I took a Greyhound bus down to visit my family in central Florida and another back. On the bus during the return trip (as I think it was) were a pair of migrant workers who reminded me strongly of the people I’d grown up about in Texas and they clearly spoke no English. Mostly I ignored them and read the book I had brought along for entertainment on the trip. Yet at one point I saw and heard an exchange between the two men. They had misunderstood an announcement saying that the next stop was Cocoa Beach but that the last stop before a change of bus would be needed was New Smyrna. From what they clearly said, they thought New Smyrna was the next stop. I struggled trying to think of the words to tell them but just drew a mental blank. At last as the bus stopped, I stood up from my seat because I simply had to say something to help them and stop them getting off. My conscious mind was panicking with no idea what to say, but instinct took over and a simply said, “Estamos en Cocoa Beach,” telling them where they were. They looked at me confused and asked, “No New Smyrna?” With a sigh of relief suppressed as much as I could, I just repeated, “No New Smyrna,” and everything was okay. I decided to get my Spanish back up to speed, even if all I could do it for was reading. At a flea market run in the student union each week, I found a Spanish translation of a novel by Jules Verne I’d read in English translation, “Voyage au centre de la terre.” Shortly thereafter I got my own apartment and that first week between terms, I read that book.

That was more than twenty years ago. Since then I try to read something in Spanish at least every now and then, and I use it for speaking or listening whenever possible. I am routinely accepted as a fluent Spanish speaker but I do not get to speak the language often anymore. Certainly conversations do not come as easily to me in the language as they did when I was fifteen. Still, whatever vocabulary I may have forgotten, I daresay I hope I am a better conversationalist now than I was as a teenager.

Build a basis for language learning.

1. Introduction

My first advice to anyone wishing to learn a number of languages (or in fact any more languages at all) would be to know and analyze one’s native language thoroughly. A person’s native language will serve as his or her most basic tool in language acquisition, and the better the person knows that language the better equipped he or she will be.  Vocabulary allows for cognates, and often true cognates may involve words which are obscure or archaic in one or the other language. Without a solid command of the grammar and syntax of one’s native language, understanding of the grammar and syntax of foreign languages will prove far more difficult, even if not entirely impossible. Basic grammatical concepts are clarified and comprehended more readily via concrete example which will tend to be clearest in one’s native language. The notions of linguistic context and language evolution will also be best exemplified by one’s native language.

English is my native tongue. Clearly I do not remember learning English. From watching my own children, I have come to the view that children when learning to speak are simultaneously forging new mental pathways; they are leaping a mental gap between creatures who cannot think in words and those whose thinking is dominated by the vehicle of language even while using that vehicle to encompass broader ways of thinking.

2. Vocabulary

A native speaker of English is at a relative advantage in learning languages compared to native speaker’s of many other languages. Not only is English a global language so that many languages borrow words from it, but it also borrows much more frequently than a number of other languages. Thus, for any given language, the probability that at least some true cognate words (i.e., ones where the connection is real and not merely misleading) will exist in that language, either natively or by virtue of borrowed words going one way or the other. Of course, more often than not, borrowed or otherwise cognate words will have differences in in meaning, sometimes fairly subtle and other times not. The more and finer shades of meaning one knows for a word, the more likely one is to make a mental connection which may not be obviously. While attempts to quantify the number of words in the English language given a ball-park figure of a million (give or take a quarter million) the typical amount of vocabulary used in daily speech is closer to two thousand. Hence a person familiar with most of the words in the modern English language has far more words with which a connection might be made than a person whose vocabulary resembles typical day-to-day speech due simply to numbers.

An example can be found in the differences in meaning for the word Mentsch in German and in Yiddish. In German, the word Mentsch means simply a human being or a person. The classic short story by German author Hermann Hesse Ein Mentsch mit Namen Ziegler has an evocative title because the word Mentsch in its title suggests simultaneously that the title character Ziegler is an everyman and that perhaps the most or best that can be said about Ziegler is that Ziegler is a human being at least. By contrast, in Yiddish, the exact same word Mentsch means a good or admirable person. A common Yiddishism in English-speaking (Ashkenazic) Jewish circles is to say, “So-and-so is a real mentsch!” as praise of the person referred to’s character. (One should notice therefore that the Yididsh word exists in English too.) On that basis, I have more than once heard people contend that the word Mentsch is either Yiddish or German is a false cognate. They are in fact as close cognates as one can possibly get in that they derive from the same word in the same language (Middle German). In English, human being is most often used only to refer to a member of the human species, but in less common it is also used to praise someone. One might say, “So-and-so is a genuine human being,” admiringly. Without the vocabulary to know the less common usage of the phrase human being in English, one could not make the connection.

Grammar and syntax

Some words with hwair (Ƕ, ), from Grammar of t...

Some words with hwair (Ƕ, ), from Grammar of the Gothic Language (1910) by Jospeh Wright (1855-1930). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grammar and syntax are ways of describing a language. If grammar explains how to link words together to form clauses or sentences, syntax then explains how to link clauses or sentences together to make paragraphs, discourses, etc. Many people think of proscriptive grammar when they think of grammar, the kind which aims to tell people how a language should be used (e.g., rules like “No dangling prepositions” or “First person pronouns go last in a series”). Linguists and philologists more often use descriptive grammar which aims to characterize the patterns people actually do you in a language rather than want by some standard they ought use. Naturally such descriptions may not be unique, but they are useful if they work.

For example, as a boy in American schools, I was taught that English has eight parts of speech: 1. nouns, 2. pronouns, 3. adjectives, 4. verbs, 5. adverbs, 6. prepositions, 7. conjunctions and 8. interjections. Within the category adjectives, articles– both definite and indefinite articles— were treated as a special sub-category. Nouns represent people, places, things and ideas. Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. Adjectives describe nouns or more rarely pronouns. Verbs describe the action or state of being of the nouns or pronouns. Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Prepositions are words that take nouns or pronouns as objects and make phrases which then act as either adjectives or adverbs. Conjunctions link a series of words of the same type or clauses together. Interjections are particles mostly (in English) used for emphasis. Growing up in Ireland, my wife learned a different system. Yet I find that with some modification, the system I learned as a child works remarkably well for every language I have encountered. One major modification is that I would use the term particles in lieu of interjections. Also in many languages it is helpful to group adjectives and adverbs as modifiers but also to distinguish between articles and other adjectival modifiers; articles are often treated differently for one thing.

A foreign language textbook is going to talk about nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., and if a person does not know and thoroughly understand these terms one will quickly get lost. Studying a foreign language without thoroughly understanding grammar can be compared to trying to study algebra without knowing one’s multiplication tables.

Language history

Knowing the history of one’s own native language and one’s target language helps tremendously with identifying false cognates and hence with knowing when to trust cognates to be genuinely related. English in its most ancient form, Old English (sometimes called Anglo-Saxon, although this is regarded as referring to a population group anymore), was originally mutually intelligible with Old Norse, a Germanic language of Scandinavia. As Old Norse developed into those dialects which became the modern Scandinavian languages, Old English was sometimes itself regarded as such a dialect, albeit perhaps a more radical one. (The influence of the Celtic languages previously dominating England is remarkably small under the historical circumstances.) After a time, a group of Danes came and settled in what became known as the Danelaw and so added the Danish dialect evolving out of Old Norse to the mix which was Old English. Finally, the Normans imposed Old French as the language of government and culture, bringing with it influence of Latin and Greek.

To see how this knowledge can be useful in language learning one considers a true and a false cognate with the English word (a noun) man. German has the pronoun man which is used like the pronoun one for an arbitrary person, as well as the word Mann which means exactly the same as the English noun man. Spanish has the noun mano meaning hand, which has counter-parts in virtually every Romance language. Now let’s imagine our language learner has difficulty remembering which of these similar words is which. German is far more likely to be cognate with English for a common noun like man than is Spanish because English and German are both Germanic languages and share a common history to a far greater extent than English does with Spanish. (Within German, one might remember that nouns are capitalized but pronouns aren’t.)

Final remarks

Formal study of languages in descriptive terms allows a person to use one language to better help learn another. This kind of study uses linguistic patterns.If one understands these patterns, one should naturally be able to see how they apply to the language one naturally knows best, one’s native language. Hence conversely not knowing how those patterns apply to one’s own native language implies that the patterns are not as well understood as they should be. The purpose of grammar, etc., is to make learning languages easier but one does need to put in the effort to learn the grammar in order to benefit.

Vocabulary is a pool of words to draw on when learning vocabulary. The more words one can mentally recognize as essentially familiar, the less work one has to do learning vocabulary. The catch of course is that one reduces the work of learning foreign vocabulary by learning English vocabulary. The latter should be easier to do though.