Tuesday, May 26

How Do I Improve My Language Skills?

Help! How do I improve my language skills?

  • 1. You're not the only one
  • 2. Ok, so what now?
    • (i) Vocabulary
    • (ii) Grammar
    • (iii) Listening skills
    • (iv) Accent
    • (v) Fluency
  • 3. My language is different!
    • (i) New alphabets
    • (ii) New scripts
    • (iii) Extinct / nearly extinct languages
  • 4. I'm learning two languages. How do I make sure I don't get confused?
  • 5. Ok, I'm doing all this. How long should I expect it to take?
  • 6. I'm still not sure. What if I get stuck? What if I have further questions?
  • 7. I have comments, suggestions, threats, and other general blah about this thread!
Whether you're a beginner, intermediate, advanced or anywhere in between, it's easy to feel like you're stuck in a rut... like everything is either too easy or too hard and there's no middle ground. You can't possibly get better by learning easy stuff over and over again, and the hard stuff just seems that tiny bit too far out of reach. We've all been there (many of us more than once!) and all aspiring linguists, whether you're learning to go on holiday, to prepare for university, to pass your exams or just for fun, will hit this barrier somewhere along the way. It's important to have some material in the target language which pushes you that tiny bit further every day and yet which holds your interest, both in terms of content and also linguistically.

1. You're not the only one

It's not just you who can't seem to improve, believe me. I felt the same way with French not long back. All the books I had were too hard to read, all the newspapers and news websites were too boring, but just making small talk with French people was too easy. There's plenty of people around with the same problems. It's important not to get too bogged down in the thought that you may never achieve the level you want to - everyone has the opportunity and the ability to learn a language (after all, you're reading English right now, aren't you?), and if you feel like it's not going anywhere, don't forget, at some stage or other, most linguists feel like this and just can't see how they could possibly overcome this huge learning curve they seem to be experiencing. So if you're feeling stressed about it, don't. You don't work best when you're panicky, annoyed or generally irritable... so sit back, relax, realise that all fluent linguists once felt like this, and that you will get there. Feeling enthusiastic? In that case...

2. Ok, so what now?

Well, where do your problem areas lie? Is it your vocabulary? Your grammar? Your listening skills? Your accent? Let's take each of these individually, and we'll talk about the most important bit, your general fluency - that is, making everything you learn stick - afterwards, separately. Because it's that important. ;)

(i) Vocabulary
I'm assuming you already have an exercise book, or equivalent, to write down all new vocab in. (You don't? Oh dear. Go get one.) Vocab is simple - get a vocab book (they're pretty cheap normally) and learn words from it. Anything you think is useful or interesting, write down. But that's not very exciting, really. So how about googling one of your interests, in another language? Google is multilingual - so if you're a football fanatic and you're studying Spanish, why not go along to google.es and search for fútbol? You get to do something interesting while learning a bit of Spanish. Are you learning German, and into heavy metal? Why not try finding Rammstein music online or buying it, and then looking up the lyrics online and trying to translate them? Is French politics more your thing? You'll find loads of interesting articles on news websites - again, Google and Yahoo normally have multilingual news pages, but if you want to get stuck into something a bit heavier, try googling the name of a popular newspaper in the target language. The Useful Links thread (link above) also has links to newspapers and news websites - you're never short of stuff to read!

Music is also an excellent resource which is now practically free (and legal) all over the internet. Magnatune is a collection of songs that are free to listen to on the internet - there are also songs from other languages on there. Of course you won't be able to look up the lyrics in this case... so why not try buying some more popular music (don't know of any? Go and google for a foreign lyrics website and look at their charts) and looking the lyrics up?

All a bit much for you? Of course, no one said it was going to be easy. But maybe you're simply not ready to pick up a copy of Le Figaro or read the website of Bayern München yet. Why not buy a book? The good thing about buying books is that you don't necessarily have to buy adult books. If that's too hard for you, why not try and find a Portuguese / Arabic / Catalan equivalent of Enid Blyton, or even a copy of a few books in the Unser Herr Glücklich und Seine Freunde collection? Why not come and talk to us in the societies? Of course you must have your vocab book and dictionary (online ones will do - see the Useful Links thread) handy at all times, and persevere!

(ii) Grammar
Yeah, ok. People don't like grammar and it's not hard to see why. Personally I love it. :D But grammar is just rules upon rules upon rules, and then, as if that wasn't enough, the exceptions normally take just as long to explain. I'm afraid there's nothing else for it - short of going and doing some general reading (see the vocabulary section), there's little you can do. Pick up a grammar book and read it, and then practise it. See the general fluency comments at the end of this section.

(iii) Listening skills
Listening material is harder to find, but a quick google search will do you good, and as usual there's some excellent material in the Useful Links thread. Or listen to music - see my comments in the vocabulary section. Occasionally the problem with listening skills isn't that you're poor at listening, it's simply that you don't know the words - in which case, go back up and learn something from the vocab section!

Sometimes, though, no matter how hard you try, you simply can't discern the words. In this case the problem is probably more in your mouth than in your ear, so to speak. And this is why I've introduced the next section...

(iv) Accent
Your accent doesn't just reflect on how you sound (although of course a laughable accent can make you sound stupid, and ideally you'd probably like to be able to develop a perfect accent), it also reflects on how you hear and how you think. I was talking on MSN to one of my friends recently, who is a rather poor linguist, and he remarked "sava ai twa?". It was only after ten seconds' thought that I realised that this was actually an attempt at French - he wasn't thinking in a French accent. Consequently, French just sounded like pretentious English to him, which is probably why he never did well. It's perfectly possible to be a good linguist without a good accent, but more often than not, you expect people to talk the way you talk (try going to Yorkshire, Scotland or London and trying to discern what they say first time every time like you can do where you live), and when they don't, it throws you for a second. This can have a devastating effect on your accent (obviously), your listening skills, your general comprehension and (believe it or not) your grammar and vocabulary too... not to mention that people won't understand you either if you're not talking right! So while it may seem a pedantic little point, it's actually really important you get your accent right.

How do you do that? A good place to start might be to learn pronunciation again. Assume you know absolutely nothing, and go and find a website or a CD teaching you the pronunciation of the language you're trying to learn. Listen to what they say, and repeat exactly what they say - don't anglicise it, and don't be afraid of sounding stupid! It's easier to slide into a natural accent from "above" (a really over-the-top accent, but which is phonetically correct) than from "below" (a "sava ai twa?" accent almost identical to your native language). Listen to foreigners speaking and repeat it until you sound exactly like them. Do this for different accents too - German in Berlin is different from German in Austria, even though they both speak the same language! While it may be more natural for you to fall into one accent (and indeed you should never spontaneously mix your accents), it's certainly good practice for you to experience a range of accents, because wherever you go in the world, no two people have exactly the same enunciation.

(v) Fluency
And now the important part (as if that wasn't important enough!) - your fluency. Fluency doesn't mean "ability to speak the language perfectly". I'd say I was quite fluent in German, but I'm far off perfect. Fluent (from Latin, incidentally :D) literally means flowing, and that's what I'm using the word to mean here - fluency in a language means you can speak it without hesitating, without pausing to think "argh does the verb go there or there!?", without the little deliberations in your mind over exactly which tense you should be using and which form of the noun you should be using. Of course it's ok not to know these things - after all, you're a learner - but you definitely want to be speaking to the best of your ability, don't you? It'd be nice to be able to speak French / Italian / Dutch / Russian just like you can speak English, straight off the top of your head, wouldn't it? Not only is it nice, but further on in language study or in the country itself, it becomes essential. That's why it gets its own special little section outside that indented bit above, because it's so important. Everyone should be reading this section, regardless of where they have trouble in a language, because this is the key to how languages are learnt and spoken. So without further ado...

Talk in the foreign language. Talk to yourself. Talk to the cat. Talk to your blancmange. Talk to your siblings or your goldfish or your mirror. Talk to the computer. "What am I doing right now? I'm brushing my teeth thank you very much." The good thing about speaking during your own time is that you have the opportunity to correct yourself without stress - and you should take advantage of this opportunity. This fixes the language you're learning in your system, not to mention improving your accent (which we decided was really important a few minutes back), and in no time you'll be able to speak it like you can speak your mother tongue. Another idea (but by no means a replacement) is to keep a diary in the target language, or try translating from your mother tongue to the target language.

You may laugh if I say anyone can learn a language because everyone once learnt their mother tongue, but it's true - and you know how you did it? "But why? Why? Why? Why? I don't get it! Tell me again! What's that over there? What's he doing? What's the point in that? How do birds fly? Why's the sky blue?" As a kid, there were probably times when you just didn't shut up. That's why you can speak English now. 15/18/21/24/27 years of being on this planet, and probably not a day has gone by when you haven't spoken in English. And it took you a few years to get there too - you probably weren't very fluent in English till you were anywhere between the ages of 4 and 8. But you kept talking, you persevered, you asked what things were called and you repeated their names ad nauseam, you sang, you asked irritating questions, and you had a lot of fun while doing it and you weren't ashamed if you got things wrong or sounded silly, you just carried on speaking. And before you knew it, it was second nature - you weren't just speaking English, you were thinking and dreaming in it too. Have I convinced you yet?

Of course, exposure to the language is also very important. As well as fixing the language into your blood stream, you need to have a constant input of the language into your system. The best way to do this is to go to the country and just stay there (and talk and talk and talk). But if you can't do that, you have to settle for second best. All my comments above still hold - read, listen to music, converse with people, watch TV and videos in other languages. (Go back and read through the other sections if you haven't already done so.) I know I use the computer a lot, so my Firefox and MSN (as well as my homepage, even if it is only Google) are currently in French. Find a penfriend you can talk to (MSN and email are surprisingly efficient, and of course they're free, but phone and post are also good) or join one of TSR's societies above. It's amazing how the language just stops seeming foreign to you once you gain enough exposure to it and keep it up. But most of all, persevere. You won't pick it up overnight and no one can pretend you will. But give it enough time and you will pick it up.
3. My language is different!

Of course, the above isn't a full list of all problems you might have with languages. They might do perfectly well for a lot of common languages like French, but what about something with a different alphabet, or a different script altogether? What about something like Latin that's barely spoken any more, or classical Greek where the resources are hard to come by? Fear not.

(i) New alphabets
Scream! There's nothing more likely to put you off learning a language if it's all written in shapes and squiggles. But don't panic. You learnt the Roman alphabet (that's this one ) before even learning to read - 26 letters, with 26 capital forms, and hundreds of different handwritten forms. There's no substitute for just filling reams of paper with your newly-learnt alphabet; of course, this may not be necessary in Greek or Russian where the alphabets are similar, but it can't hurt. On the other hand, you can't get away from it with Arabic, where each letter has up to four different forms, which - if we're honest here - look absolutely nothing like each other sometimes, and at other times are distinguishable from each other simply by crafty placement of dots. (It'll be good practice for your right-to-left writing anyway!) Grab a piece of paper, start with the first letter, and just write out a line or two of it until you feel comfortable with it. Then do that with the second. Then the third. After you've done maybe five or so, try writing them out in succession from memory - again, write them all out a few times, because the more you repeat it, the more easily it'll commit itself to memory. Got those five down? Then move on to the next five. This will take a good couple of hours, I won't lie; but don't forget that after that it'll never look like squiggles to you again. Pick up a newspaper or a book in the language and just read it through - not necessarily picking out words, just reading the individual letters that make up the words out in your head, just to make sure you recognise all letters in all positions in the word.

If you think about it, none of this should be foreign to you. Taking the example of the Greek sigma, which changes form according to where it is in the word (as do most Arabic letters, in fact), well, isn't that what capital letters do? You might be confused by the 'lunar' sigma (the one looking like a C, which doesn't change at all), until you realise that a lot of people handwrite their letter Zs like a 3. If the dots on words in Arabic confuse you, think of them as an integral part of the letter, just like the dot on a small letter I or J. (Turkish has a version of the letter I without a dot on top too. This is a separate letter too.) Don't forget we do similar - a little line through the middle of a small L and it becomes a small T; a small flick on an O and it becomes a Q. Put a little dot on top of a comma and it becomes a semicolon. This is all perfectly natural - don't be frightened by it. ;) Accept it, practise it, and sooner or later it'll stick like our alphabet has stuck, and it won't leave you.

(ii) New scripts
Ooh, now this is naughty. Languages like Chinese don't have alphabets as such; they have seemingly convoluted symbols that represent words. Again, though, this shouldn't be foreign to you; we use "%" for "percent(age)", "&" for "and", "#" for "number", "3" for "three", and, if we're honest, most of us use "2" not just for "two", but also for "to" and "too". Again, don't be scared by it, don't be put off, just sit there, copy a few characters out until they're firmly lodged into your brain just as described above, and then test yourself. Keep doing that and it'll stay there.

(iii) Extinct / nearly extinct languages
Yes, I know people still speak Latin in the Vatican. But the chances of you finding any penpals or taking a holiday there are remote, so for our purposes, it might as well be extinct. Same with Esperanto - there are a million fluent speakers, but there's no such thing as a "native" speaker, and frankly the chances that any given town containing one fluent speaker also contains a second are very slim indeed. Then talking to yourself, as described in section 2(v), becomes yet more important; there's no chance of you practising with anyone, and not many people will know whether you're right or wrong. People who do Latin will know that the verb "to hate" is "odisse" - but this isn't a standard verb form, and because of its oddities, there's no way to say "I will hate" using this verb. The best way to learn in this case is to try learning sentences and replacing the bits of them. Try to keep guessing to a minimum - there's almost certainly an "obvious" future tense of "odisse" that you might be tempted to use, but it'd be wrong, so try to only use words that you know exist through having seen them in a dictionary or in a text before. Don't feel tempted to invent your own sentences until you're definitely comfortable with the language, but when you are comfortable with it, go for it; the same rules apply as in section 2.
4. I'm learning two languages. How do I make sure I don't get confused?

It's tricky, isn't it? You sit there learning French for 12 years, then spend 10 days in Germany and suddenly can't speak a word of French (or English, for that matter). Happened to me. It is inevitable, when you learn two languages simultaneously, no matter what they are, that you'll get confused. This is almost invariably a one-way process, though; the language you're better at (or, more precisely, more fluent in - see 2(v)) will take over the language you're not so good at. The exception is if you're trying to learn two languages from scratch, where you will scrabble around and not really get anywhere with either for a while, and then eventually one of them will settle down and the other won't.

So why did this happen to me? Well, for all my 12 years of French, I'd never been to France. I was just a ridiculously interested, not to mention hugely irritating, kid; my parents aren't French, my relatives aren't French, I knew no French people till the age of 14 and to this day I still haven't been to France. My German was awful before I went, you might even say non-existent... but when I came back I'd spent 10 days speaking German constantly. I did better in my German GCSE mock than in my French GCSE mock, and not because I was better at German, but because I was more fluent. This is why I've put so much emphasis on fluency throughout this entire thread; it's absolutely central to all language learning. My 12 years of French learnt from books and cassettes and the odd lesson in school fell over and almost died in the face of 10 days' worth of raw exposure to the German language. To this day my German is better than my French.

Anecdote over; having passed my French A-level, I'd like to think I now had more of a clue of why that happened than I did back then. Not only was it down to my fluency, it was also down to my accent (see 2(iv)). Think about it; even if you're not really listening to what they're saying, you can always tell if someone's speaking English or not. I recently heard a French song on the radio. I didn't catch a single word of it because this particular radio was in the corner of a shop behind a load of boxes, but I know it was French, because I know what French sounds like. In the same way, there is no way I should ever be tempted to construct a French sentence and accidentally slip a Spanish word; training your accent to hear the Spanish word intercambio in a Spanish accent, and not in a French one, will ensure that you'll never slip it into a French sentence no matter how tired you are, because it simply won't sound right. Saying "j'ai fait un intercambio" will sound as wrong as saying "I went on a Schüleraustausch", because the sounds and the expression of those sounds are entirely different.

If you're learning two languages in parallel, you might find it helpful to attempt to separate the two languages more physically. Maybe you'll only learn Spanish at night in your underwear and only learn Portuguese in the morning while drinking tea with your hair in a pony tail. Maybe you'll make your German notes on pink paper and your French notes on turquoise paper. It's equivalent to a circadian rhythm; if you drink Horlicks before going to bed every night for a year, and then you drink Horlicks again the day after that, you'll feel tired and want to go to bed, because that's what you're used to doing. Similarly if you make sure you always talk French to one person and Arabic to another, or talk French in the evenings and Arabic in the mornings, or write French in blue ink and Arabic in black, it'll just feel wrong to do it the other way round. This is, of course, only a temporary measure, and simply wouldn't be practical in real life (you can't go to France and refuse to leave your hotel until the evening ;)), but it's very good for getting you started with two languages.

If you have a more visual memory, you might find it helpful to learn vocab for both languages at the same time. Maybe keeping the vocab in a table - English, German, Russian - again with different coloured inks, or different coloured columns of the table, not to mention the different alphabets, just to make it stick in your mind that tiny bit more.

Oh yeah, and everything I said in 2(v). ;)

5. Ok, I'm doing all this. How long should I expect it to take?

Well, this all depends on how good you are at languages, not to mention how good your technique is and how much exposure you're getting. It's possible to learn an entire language GCSE from scratch in a week if you're in the country and you're amazing at languages, or a few weeks if you're amazing at languages but can't get to the country, but if you're not quite so good and you're trying to get up to A-level standard, you might want to set aside a year or so. I learnt GCSE Spanish in a few weeks, but then I already knew Latin and French very well... Russian will be a lot harder for me because it's not connected. If you know German very well, don't expect Dutch to take too long. But don't rush it, it'll come in its own time.


Tuesday, May 5

Basic Phrases & Greetings

صباح الخير
(good morning)
Saba7 el-khayr!

صباح النور
(good morning to you too)
Saba7 en-noor!

مساء الخير
(good evening)
Masaa2 el-khayr!

مساء النور
(good evening to you too!)
Masaa2 en-noor!

السلام عليكم
(Peace be upon you)
es-salaam 3alaykum!

و عليكم السلام و رحمة الله و بركاته
(And the peace, blessings and mercy of Allah be upon you too)
es-salaam 3alaykum w ra7matullah w barakaatuh

(How are you?)
Izzayak? to male
Izzayik? to female

الحدلله تمام و انت ازيك؟
(Fine, and how are you?)
el-7amdulillah tamaam, w enta izzayak? to male
el-7amdulillah tamaam, w enty izzayik? to female

نهارك سعيد
(Have a happy day!)
nahaarak sa3eed - to a boy
nahaarik sa3eed - to a girl

نهارك سعيد مبارك
(Have a happy and blessed day too!)
nahaarak sa3eed mubaarak - to a boy
nahaarik sa3eed mubaarak - to a girl


الله يبارك فيك
(God bless you! Mabrook is usually replied in this way)
allah ybaarik feek - to a boy
allah ybaaraik feeki - to a girl

(thank you)

(you're welcome)

كل سنة و انت طيب
كل سنة و انت طيبة
(May every year find you in good health/ Happy Birthday/Special Occasions)
kull sana w enta Tayyib - to a boy
kull sana w enti Tayyiba - to a girl

و انت طيب
و انت طيبة
(And you too!)
w enta Tayyib - to a boy
w enti Tayyiba - to a girl

مع السلامة
(with peace/farewell! Bye! - said by the person staying behind)
ma3a es-salaama

الله يسلمك
(God be with you!)
allah ysallimak - to a boy
allah ysallimik - to a girl

Things to note from these phrases:

  1. ء - this sign is a HAMZA. It denotes a 'glottal stop'. This sounds like the start of any word that begins with an "a" in english. If you say "arm" you should notice a slight noise at the beggining. It's not vocal. It's like when people don't pronounce their T's.
  2. ة - this is a TA MARBUTA. TA MARBUTA literally means "tied T". Ta marbuta has the dots of T ت with the shape of H ه. It is put on the end of some words to make them feminine, and sounds like an "a". When another word comes after it, it becomes 'untied' and sounds like "t" not "a". So for example, you say ma3a salaama (مع السلامة) but ra7mat-ullah (رحمة الله).
  3. انت means YOU. When "you" is a female, it is pronounced enti. When "you" is a male, it is pronounced enta. Short vowels are not written, and since the difference is of short vowels, انت is written the same in both cases.
  4. Words that end in ك (k) referring to a person you are talking to change depending on if you are talking to a boy or a girl. For a boy, it is pronounced -ak. For a girl, it is pronounced -ik. For example; The word بنتك means "your girl". If you are saying this word to a man, it is pronounced bintak. If you are saying it to a woman, it is pronounced bintik. In both cases, it is spelled the same as it is only a short vowel that is different and short vowels are not written in Arabic.
  5. شكرا (thank you - shukran) is not written with an N ن . The same can be said of عفوا (you're welcome - 3awfan). It is written with an alif A ا instead. Strictly speaking, this ا alif is a special type. In formal writing, it is written as اً (with 2 small lines above it). The 2 small lines are called TANWIN which literally means "providing with N". This does what it says, it provides the word with an N sound. In normal typing, the 2 small lines are sometimes missed out and so shukran for example is written like شكرا rather than شكراً

Sunday, May 3

5 Things to Remember About Egyptian Arabic: American University of Cairo

By Dr. David Wilmsen, Director of Arabic and Translation Studies at the Center for Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) at the American University in Cairo.

1. It is not as difficult as people make it out to be. You CAN learn it!
“It is a language like any other, and you can learn to speak it and understand it by interacting with it.”

2. Anyone who is going to learn Arabic, unless driven by specific reasons to study Fus7a (Formal/Written) Arabic, should learn Colloquial Arabic first.
According to Dr. Wilmsen, many students approach learning Arabic in the opposite manner that a native speaker does. Typically, they begin with a concentration on Modern Standard Arabic first, then insert Modern Standard Arabic vocabulary into their Colloquial speech as they learn Colloquial. If you reverse that method, you are duplicating the native speaker experience. Native Egyptian speakers learn Colloquial until age 5 and then they begin Modern Standard when they enter school. In that case, when there is interference from their Modern Standard Arabic, it is native style interference.

3. Egyptian Colloquial Arabic is considered a “lingua franca” – a language that is understood and used across borders” – within the Arab world.
Regardless of which Arabic speaking destinations you may find yourself in, Egyptian Arabic is a good dialect to begin learning because Arabic speakers around the world will be able to understand you. You may have difficulty understanding their dialect at first, but they will at least be able to understand you. You can adjust your new colloquial Arabic accordingly from that point.

4. To do well with learning Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, you must be a good observer.
• You should live amidst the language as long as you can…a summer, a semester, a school year, etc. If you live in Cairo, or anywhere Arabic is spoken, and do not go out into the culture to speak with the people, you’re missing a GOLDEN opportunity.
• Adopt certain words and see their frequency and how to use them.
• Concentrate on set expressions people say all the time that will lend a great deal of fluency to your speech (expressions of surprise, dismay, politeness, etc.). Focus on how they are used and then exercise those phrases. Dr. Wilmsen describes these as “fluency markers” saying that “if you use them in native fashion, you’ll appear to be much more fluent than you actually are.” Egyptians find it amusing and impressive when foreigners use such fluency markers.
• Watch soap operas! Egyptian soap operas and plays are written and delivered in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. If seriously committed to learning the language, students can purchase a satellite which makes such programs easily available.
• Find Egyptian radio programs via radio or internet.
• CD software programs such as Egyptian Arabic Vocab Clinic are very useful language tools for functional practice.
• Find a university program where professors apply modern, communicative techniques of language teaching. Tip: People tend to get emotionally attached to their teachers. After you go through 2 sessions with the same teacher, change teachers to experience different dialects. It is always good to take a class, but a class by itself is never enough. It is only a start. You should take advantage of whatever else you can.

5. Learn the Arabic alphabet as soon as you can, and avoid transliteration if possible.
The actual Arabic alphabet can be learned very quickly, and it can benefit your Arabic learning in multiple ways. It will simplify accurate pronunciation of difficult words.

There are approximately 250 million native speakers of Arabic. Dr. Wilmsen says, “It’s often treated like a dead language and it’s nowhere near dying! You’re not just learning language, you are learning a whole new way of life and it’s enriching. That’s the way Arabic should be approached.”

Interview (abridged) from: