Monday, March 28, 2011

Speed up your foreign language learning with Google's new add-on Ming-a-Ling

Want to speed up your acquisition of vocabulary in the foreign language you’re learning. Try the new browser add-on “Ming-a-Ling” from Google, which substitutes foreign words or phrases in the text of English language articles you read while you surf the Web.

Tell Ming-a-Ling which words and phrases you want to add to your list, and they will start showing up in their native glory on your English-language Web pages. Submit to Ming-a-Ling, for example, the German word “Wasser” (water). You may then find yourself reading an article in Yahoo News in a sentence which suddenly reads: “The boat gradually sank into the Wasser.”

If you forget a word or phrase, you can drag your cursor over it, and a small pop up box will remind you of the English definition. What if you get tired of this weirdness after your learning time? Just turn off the software.

This groundbreaking program, in fact, might become revolutionary if the developers were to add a feature that allowed the user to input all at once the most common 1,000 words in a foreign language. Then the next 500 most common. I could envision the English gradually melting away from your screen over the course of a few months as your vocabulary climbed.

You will have to exercise a little caution. Ming-a-Ling relies on software that is not infallible. It’s still weak on distinguishing between identically spelled words like “bark” (tree bark) and “bark” (the howl of a dog), so you may get some mistranslations. However, the software is expected to get smarter over time.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why Stop with 2 Languages? How to Become a “Polyglot,” a Speaker of Many Languages -– Even Without Limitless hero Eddie Morra’s Pill.

In this week’s new movie Limitless, clumsy loser Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) pops a smart pill that in 30 seconds turns him into a suave mental giant with a “four-digit I.Q.” He wins back his ex-girlfriend, impresses her by ordering their restaurant meals in fluent Italian and Chinese, and engages in other intellectual displays ranging from instant martial arts expertise to Warren Buffet-style money management that makes him a multi-millionaire in a matter of days. It's a mental zero to hero story.

But the fact is, you actually don’t need a pill or even genius to become a polyglot, a speaker of many languages (say, five or more). Just a strong desire and regular time devoted to studying each of your target languages several times a week in incidental moments that might be wasted, anyway, on pop music or just standing in line. Here are ten steps to becoming a linguistic Eddie Morra, without worrying about losing the pills, as he did in the movie:

1.      Win the mental game, or you’ll lose before you begin. The idea of polyglottery being utterly impossible for “ordinary” people keeps talented individuals from setting this lofty but achievable goal. Mogul Henry Ford who introduced the automobile assembly line, once said, "If you think you can, or if you think you can't, either way, you're right." Remember: The third language is far, far easier than the second if you stick to the same language family (see Step 2), and the fourth much, much easier than the third. This is because all the related languages will share the bulk of their vocabulary and grammar with easily manageable differences.

2.      Pick the right languages. All tongues are not created equal. If you speak English as your mother language, it will be much, much easier to learn other languages in the “Germanic” family, such as Dutch, German or Norwegian. In fact, Dutch and most of the Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish) are particularly easy, because their vocabularies and pronunciation are so similar to English and their grammars are simple.

3.      Choose your language learning material wisely. There are, alas, some poorly conceived products that you might spend a lifetime on without learning much. Among the best, however, are the Pimsleur courses, Learn in Your Car and Living Language. Pimsleur is exceptional for thorough teaching that forces you to interact with the CD and completely master the material. Learn in Your Car is strong for building vocabulary and speaking ability. Living Language, I find, is useful for developing comprehension.

4.      Use your car intensively. Maximize commuting time and short trips by listening to your language CDs. Keep in your car four or five separate portable CD players dedicated to each of your target languages. Many people will find that all the dead time spent alone in the car will suffice for the language listening time they need to devote to a polyglottery project.

5.      Start reading primers and children’s books and move up gradually through graded readers, as you did in English. When you get to a fifth or sixth grade level, use a dictionary and begin reading original materials in the target languages that you would ordinarily want to read in English, anyway. If you’re a fan of science fiction novels or romances, then get those works in the target languages and use a dictionary to look up words. I’m currently reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in Spanish, Philip Jose Farmer’s Lavalite World in French, George Orwell’s Animal Farm in Dutch, and  Michael Grant’s Caesar in German. Regular reading rapidly builds vocabulary, which will begin showing up in your spoken sentences.

6.      Check for language clubs in your city and attend the weekly meetings in your target languages. These clubs often meet over supper, and generally they only have one rule: No English!

7.      Find native speakers in your target languages who want to improve their English. You and they can meet in person regularly to spend, say, 30 minutes over lunch talking English, and the remaining 30 speaking your desired language.

8.      Use Web sites that bring together language learners. Select a few individuals, then make use of the Web-based Skype service to set up free international internet calls for further practice with these native speakers. If you like, get a Web cam to turn the call into a video conference.

9.      Make a game of expressing everyday sentences in all of your target languages. If you’re thinking at the grocery store: “Man, this cashier is slow” – then ask yourself how that would be said in your various target languages. My daughters and I have a game called Super Language Club that we occasionally enjoy over cups of coffee at Starbucks. One of us makes up a sentence, and we each take turns translating that sentence into the half dozen languages we are interested in.

10.  Practice your language skills at every random opportunity. If you run into a native speaker on the bus, at the supermarket or in the office, trot out some sentences. Be bold like English-learning Europeans who take full advantage of their encounters with English-speaking tourists.

To sum up, read and listen a lot every day. The speaking will come naturally, as long as you discipline yourself not to be too shy to speak up when you have a chance with a native speaker.

Put these ten principles into practice, and you won't need a smart pill or four-digit I.Q. to get to six languages. But watch out: language learning is exhilarating and addictive. You may be tempted to eventually aim for “hyper-polyglottery.”

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rescuers Fight to Save the Dying Irish Language

On St. Patrick’s Day four days from today, far more Irish may be spoken from parade floats or podiums than would ever actually be heard on the streets of many Irish cities or towns. That’s because the Celtic tongue used by St. Patrick to Christianize the Emerald Isle during the twilight years of the Roman Empire has been slowly dying out for three centuries. Irish is now among 632 “definitely endangered languages” in the United Nations’ Atlas of World Languages in Danger.

Out of 4.4 million Irishmen, probably no more than one or  two per cent are fluent now, so badly beaten down has Irish been by that 800-pound gorilla of world languages, English.

The downward slide for Irish began in earnest in the 1600s when an English army conquered the Island. While English influence spread slowly through imperial policy favoring English and banning Irish in some contexts, a turning point occurred when the Irish Potato Famine hit in 1845. That great hunger halved the island’s population, either through death or emigration. Most of the 1 million who died were Irish speakers.

Irish never recovered. By the time Ireland got its independence from Britain just after World War I, less than 15 per cent of the Irish were speaking their own tongue.

The new Irish government made Irish a mandatory subject in schools. But teaching methods were often so backward, tedious and ineffectual that many Irish students came to hate the language, rather than love it. Large numbers, some writers say most, never achieved competence, even after 14 years of study.

Meanwhile, mixed marriages of English and Irish speakers continued, cross-migration in and out of Irish-speaking enclaves picked up as people followed jobs, and many Irish parents encouraged their kids to abandon the Celtic language for English, perceiving a business and career advantage.

All this caused the “Gaeltacht,” the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland, to shrink further in geography and in their numbers of regular Irish speakers.

All told, from the early 1920s to today, the population of fluent Irish speakers has dropped about 90 % from 250,000 to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 today out of a total island population of 4.4 million.

But, as Newton said, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Efforts to rescue one of Europe’s most ancient written languages, the tongue of the Celtic story-telling bards and mystic Druid priests, have stepped up.

Activists have recently tried to fix the education problem by replacing the idea of teaching Irish as a single, boring subject in an otherwise English-language school. Instead, so-called “Gaelscoileanna,” (Irish schools) have been established by the hundreds in which the medium of instruction for all academic subjects is Irish.

More students from these Irish-only schools are going on to college than their counterparts in regular schools. Some believe there is already an expanding contingent of Irish speakers in cities that may form the nucleus of a future urban minority of well-educated, middle-class individuals who regularly use Irish among themselves.

Also, 26,000 students annually spend three weeks in 47 Irish-language Gaeltacht area summer schools called coláistí samhraidh for immersion in the Irish language. While surrounded by Irish, they also live with local families to obtain continual language practice.

Perhaps too little, too late, but rescuers will not surrender. As an Irish proverb itself puts it, “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” (A country without a language is a country without a soul).