A diagram showing lots of connections between coloured dots, representing a network. Image from FreeImages.com

Everything In Order : Fascinating Correspondences

When you have a finger in many pies – as those of us who love gorging on languages tend to – you start to realise that the flavour of those pies, the individual ingredients, turn up again and again. And sometimes, those repeated recipes surprise the palate. A hint of savoury in a sweet dish; a dash of sweetness in the salty. Unexpected culinary correspondences are always a delectable treat.

OK, enough with the fodder metaphors. Here, we use our tongues for speaking, not tasting. (Well, both, if we’re totally honest.) But one unexpected correspondence popped up for me this week, which linked together two of my languages that I thought were otherwise fairly distant from each other otherwise: Gaelic and German.

Order, Order

German is famously particular about its word order. Its hallmark is the verb-final phrase, where we get sentences like:

Ich will eine Banane essen. (I want a banana to-eat.)
Ich habe versucht, die Banane zu essen. (I have tried, the banana to eat.)
Ich habe eine Banane gegessen. (I have a banana eaten.)

I know, more food. Can’t help myself, can I?

But foody or not, this kind of sentence is something that becomes instinctive after a while learning and speaking the language. It is so quintessentially German, that I was surprised to see the same kind of thing crop up in Gaelic.

Where verb phrases are governed by a matrix element containing modal expressions like ‘is urrainn’ (can) or ‘feumaidh’ (must), we see verb-object inversion, leaving the verb at the end of the phrase. And the word order of the subordinate verb phrase is curiously like the German:

Feumaidh mi biadh a cheannach (Must I food to buy)
Ich muß Essen kaufen (I must food to-buy)

What’s afoot here?

Explaining Correspondences

Now, it could all be chance, of course (recalling Dawkins’ independently developing eyes). Or does it point towards some distant echo of Proto-Indo-European word order? The latter makes me happy, like an archaeologist unearthing a fossil that connects two distantly related prehistoric creatures. In fact, many believe that, as far as PIE had a ‘default’ word order, it was probably verb-final. Perhaps Gaelic and German both preserved this in their lexical amber.

On the other hand, maybe it’s all down to language contact. Proto-Celtic and German occupied the same kind of geographical space once upon a time. Maybe bilingual speakers of one influenced the word order of the other.

Fascinating questions. It all makes me wish I were an historical syntactician.

In any case, I love spotting language correspondences like these, especially if I haven’t read about them specifically before. And the more you dabble, the more they pop up.

Are there any joy-inspiring crossovers that you’ve spotted in your languages recently?

The number one on a post. Image by Ulrik De Wachter, freeimages.com

Basics Fatigue : Conquer Chapter One Boredom and Fill Those Gaps

Do you ever get ‘basics fatigue’? No, not ‘basic fatigues’ (although you can do your language learning in military clothing if you so wish). Basics fatigue is when you know you should go back to basics to fill in foundational gaps in your language knowledge. The problem is, you have no motivation to do so as you feel you should be beyond that level already and the prospect is, well, just dull.

I’ve been experiencing this with Polish a lot lately. The culprit is largely unsystematic and haphazard learning in the beginning – an advert for planning your learning if ever there was one. In any case, I’ve suspected for ages that I’d benefit from getting reacquainted with the first few chapters of Colloquial Polish. But the fact that I probably know 75% of the material in those early chapters already is really off-putting.

Unless I get over it, though, that stubborn, motivation-resistant 25% will keep tripping me up again and again.

So how to conquer basics fatigue?

Seek Novelty

The most obvious way to increase interest is to look for novelty. That is to say, seek out new courses rather than your old books. For instance, in some form or other, Teach Yourself Polish and Colloquial Polish have been lying on my shelves for years. For a change, I gave the home-grown Krok po kroku a look. It worked a treat; it’s a big, glossy, bold and colourful title that really pimped up my basics game.

In fact, there’s the obvious added benefit to sourcing these kinds of resources from a pure target language approach. Reading through materials completely in Polish, including all instructions and explanations, added enough of an extra challenge to keep my focus for longer than books teaching through English.

Widen the Net

Similarly, language guides that teach the basics via the medium of another language – neither your native or target one – can mix things up a bit.

In my case, I was lucky enough to have one close to hand already. The Polish edition of Langenscheidts Praktisches Lehrbuch had languished, forgotten on my shelf, shamefully untouched for a few years. Then, I rediscovered it. Seeing basic Polish through the lens of my German gave me a whole new perspective on its structure. It joined up the dots between my languages, and gave me a stronger linkage between two of my foreign languages without the need for my native language as support. And what a great, solid course it is too, by the way.

Originally, I picked it up on a trip to Germany in the early noughties, transporting it proudly home as part of my language learning bookshop swag (including, if I remember rightly, a German-Estonian dictionary for reasons that were probably clear at the time). I love this kind of thing, of course – learning materials in a language other than your native one. 

Langenscheidt's Polish course - great for the basics if you already have German.

Langenscheidt’s Polish course – great for the basics if you already have German.

Langenscheidt's Polish course - sample page

My old Langenscheidt handbook seems to have been long since replaced by its successor, Polnisch mit System, if you want to give something similar a go. Failing that, Polnisch ohne Mühe is a good option for Polish learners with decent German.

Incidentally, I also recently came across Polisch-Deutsch für die Pflege zu Hause. The book is intended for Polish heath care workers in German-speaking countries, but has some great bilingual dialogues and vocabulary lists that cover the basics in a fresh and interesting new context (at least for me!).

A Practical, Active Approach

If you regularly take one-to-one language learning lessons on platforms like iTalki, there is a very practical way you can retread the basics. Namely, a lot of the social glue of everyday conversation finds itself in those first few chapters. Greetings, niceties, friendly goodbyes – the basics of language learning – they’re all in there. And when it’s those things that are missing, conversation can grind to an unnatural halt. It can take some very focused intervention to put that right.

Instead, what about attacking those chapters methodically, creating a speaking scaffold list of phrases from them? This can help structure iTalki lessons, for example, with a better defined beginning, middle and end. Using book sections to create your own resources beats a purely passive review of them.

Teach the Basics

If all else fails, and those basics really aren’t inspiring you, then you could always try teaching them to someone else. It’s often said that to teach something is to really get to know it. Are there any other budding polyglots around you? Use those foundational chapters to put together a mini lesson for them.

Willing participants can come from the most unlikely sources. My mum recently approached me, in fact; as an NHS vaccine jabber, she was meeting more and more Polish people daily, and wanted to learn a few basic phrases. Out came the books. Suddenly, all those Chapter Ones were a lot more fun.

How do you overcome basics fatigue? Do you have any tricks for reinvigorating foundation material for revision? Let us know in the comments!

Let's dally in the valley: rhyme can be a great aide memoire. Picture from freeimages.com.

A Rhyme to Remember : Wordplay Vocab Fun

I was really struggling to learn a new word lately. It was κοιλάδα (kiládha), or valley, in Greek. Nothing would make it stick. That is, until I realised the power of rhyme.

The word  has an obvious and natural rhyme in Greek: a much more foundational, essential word, namely Ελλάδα (Elládha), meaning Greece. Suddenly, I had a way to anchor the new word to the existing one in memory:

η κοιλάδα στην Ελλάδα
i kiládha stin Elládha
the valley in Greece

It creates such a musical phrase, and one that is so easy to picture in the mind, that suddenly, remembering it is no longer a bane. Finally, it stuck!

Rhyme is a brilliant aide memoire for words that stubbornly refuse to settle in your mental lexicon. Like other techniques such as rhythm, rhyming enlists sound effects and wordplay to add a memorable dimension to learning material.

So why is it so effective?

Rhyme and Reason

Rhyming is a triple whammy when it comes to language learning. First of all, the creation of a rhyme anchors one new word to another existing one, neural-networking on what you already know. But it also creates a story, a vivid mental picture that helps with recall (much like a beefed-up version of the Linkword system). That valley in Greece of mine is a really nice tableau to bolster the words with a visual cue.

But even more powerfully, rhyme circumvents the ‘words in isolation’ problem of learning new vocabulary. Instead of a lone word, we have added value in the grammatical context of the rhyming snippet, even if that is simply the odd article or conjunction as above. Every little helps. 

Like Lego, rhymes are extendable, too. You can expand the lexical scene by tagging on more and more rhyming words, with your memory the only limit. Another difficult-to-remember word for me in Greek, for example, is χιονοστιβάδα (chionostivádha), meaning avalanche. As another -άδα (-ádha) word, I can simply build it into my little poem:

η χιονοστιβάδα στην κοιλάδα στην ελλάδα
i chionostivádha stin kiládha stin elládha
the avalanche in the valley in Greece

Read phrases like this out loud, and the rhythmic dimension also becomes very clear – yet another support to bolster the memory.

Rhyming Grammar

In fact, learning whole snippets of language in rhyming couplets, rather than individual words, can support grammar acquisition. The following German pair serves as a great example of the dative case with feminine singular nouns:

  • an der Wand (on the wall)
  • in der Hand (in the hand)

You can build rhythmic rhymes like this into more extensive ‘mini poems’ to contain a range of vocab and grammar points. This can be a lot of fun: teaching German, I regularly worked the rhyming game into my lessons. In advance, I would put together a daft bit of verse containing the central words and structures for the current topic. Nothing too extensive – just a few lines of rhyming couplets. Perhaps something like this:

Ich habe einen grünen Hund, er ist ziemlich klug,
Er spricht mit Katzen jeden Tag, und fährt dann mit dem Zug.
I have a green dog, he’s pretty clever,
He talks to cats every day, and then takes the train.

Admittedly, that is a pretty nonsensical scene. And you have to think a little creatively to make this stuff scan! But it is worth the effort: in there, we have some animal vocab, a transport word, and a host of important grammatical points: adjective endings, verb conjugations and so on. Two lines, but packed with handy language learning gems.

These poetical delights would be on the whiteboard when my students entered the room. As the lesson kicked off, we would read through the lines together. Then, I would rub out a few random words, and we read again, reciting the missing words from memory. The process would repeat – rubbing out, reading, rubbing out, reading –  until nothing would be left on the board.

But – as if by magic! – the students could now recite the whole thing. At the end of the lesson, I would ask them to try again from memory once again, and, to their surprise, they could reproduce the whole thing. What a great confidence boost for kids who so often doubted their language learning abilities.

A Rhyme-Honoured Tradition

The power of rhyme is hardly a secret – it is a famously great technique for aiding memory. We have myriad oral traditions of epic poetry to prove the point. For millennia, stories have been passed from generation to generation through memorised verse; ancient texts such as Beowulf may have literary lives stretching back long before they were ever written down.

But you don’t need to be a literary genius to benefit personally – just a handful of words will suffice for some verse. And let’s face it: as beginners, we only have a handful of words to play with. But that makes more a greater creative challenge, right? 

And for when words fail, you can turn to online, multilingual rhyming dictionaries like the following:

The wordplays needn’t stop at rhyme, either. You can play around with other techniques, such as alliteration, to create more memorable vocabulary notes. Duolingo has recently introduced the phrase deiseil agus deònach (ready and willing) into its Gaelic course, for example. Doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?

Rhyme Stone Cowboy

So, a little rogue rhyming can go a long way to making tricky vocab stick. Next time you feel the uphill struggle, maybe try going for a ride in the kiládha stin Elládha