Category Archives: Learning Other Languages

Collection of Articles & Sites Related to Languages, Learning, Education, etc. (from Twitter)

It’s been six months since I posted the last collection of links to language-related articles and sites from @ielanguages on Twitter. Here’s what I’ve been tweeting about recently:

Tomorrow is the European Day of Languages (September 26)

Studies on Language Learning & Acquisition
Education & Teaching / In the Classroom
Language in Society
In French / About French
General Language Learning
I’m also tweeting a colloquial French word/phrase of the day each weekday, so don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and/or “like” the Facebook page – and subscribe to the YouTube account for informal French videos and Flickr for travel photos of Europe.

The Shaping of Language on iTunes U from La Trobe University

La Trobe University in Australia is offering an interesting podcast on iTunes U that just became available this summer (or winter, depending on where you are). The Shaping of Language is about “the relationship between the structures of languages and their social, cultural, historical and natural environments.”  Looks like they’ve been updating it every week since the semester started in late July and they provide PDF handouts along with the mp3s.

The Research Centre for Linguistic Typology also has another podcast on iTunes U about the documentation and analysis of “the linguistic structures of endangered and previously undescribed or under-described languages.”

Just searching for linguistics, I also came across a few other interesting podcasts, such as Center for World Languages by UCLA and University of Arizona’s Introduction to Linguistics and Linguistics Lectures.

Free and/or Public Domain Materials for Listening to & Reading Languages Simultaneously

Previously I explained how reading subtitles while watching TV shows or movies helps enormously with foreign language comprehension. I wanted to expand on the Listening & Reading method – because it is what I use foremost when studying languages – and list some freely available resources where you can find text and audio in several languages.

When I first started learning languages in the mid 90’s, audio was an expensive component of language resources and even when cassettes or CDs were provided, the recordings were limited to an hour or so of common phrases and simple dialog. It was never enough to progress beyond the beginning stage. Luckily the internet and the ease with which materials can be accessed and downloaded changed all that – especially concerning materials in the public domain.

Below are websites with free and/or public domain audio files and transcripts to download for your personal use. There’s never any reason to spend hundreds of dollars on language courses!

  • When learning a new language, I like to start with Book2 because they offer 100 phrases & sound files in over 40 languages. You can choose any combination of languages instead of just using English as the first language. It’s handy for comparing two languages or using one language to help you learn another at the beginning A1/A2 level.
  • LangMedia offers many videos of common conversations and situations that you’re likely to encounter, filmed in the country where the language is spoken. A lot of cultural notes and even realia are also provided. About 30 languages are available.
  • If you already have a certain text in a foreign language, but you want to hear how it is pronounced, request a recording at Rhinospike. Native speakers will record an mp3 that you can listen to online or download – and usually more than one person will do the recording so you can learn from a variety of accents.
  • There are a lot of language podcasts these days, but many do not offer the transcripts for free. The type of speech available can be put into two categories: rehearsed and spontaneous. Sites like Spanish NewsBites, Radio Arlecchino, and Slow German provide recordings of native speakers reading a text with no mistakes because it has been rehearsed, while sites like France Bienvenue and my French Listening Resources provide spontaneous speech with false starts and fillers. I prefer the latter because it’s more representative of what you hear in normal everyday conversations, but spontaneous resources are much harder to find.

FSI Italian FAST course

  • Foreign Service Institute courses can be a bit boring because the vocabulary is aimed at diplomats serving abroad, but nevertheless, they do contain common phrases and useful conversations for everyday use – not to mention hours and hours of audio and materials for languages that have very little resources available. The books can be downloaded in PDF format, but I am still attempting to create HTML and perhaps eventually DOC or EPUB versions for some of the courses. (I just uploaded six more units of Italian FAST this weekend.)
  • For a more literary approach, Librivox and many other e-book sites, such as Logos, offer many classic books and children’s books in several languages, with recordings done by volunteers. I tend not to use these books as much as other materials because literature is very different from everyday speech, but they are helpful for pronunciation and vocabulary nonetheless.
  • News sites, such as Euronews which is available in nine languages, sometimes do not offer exact transcripts of what is said in each video. This is the same problem with subtitles for a lot of programs or films. The sentences are similar enough so the meaning is generally the same, but it can be really distracting for beginning learners. At an intermediate level, you can start comparing what is said to what is written and learn two ways to say the same thing.

Learning Italian through French, or a Third Language through a Second

I’ve mentioned before that I find learning a third language using my second language much easier than using my native language. Currently, I am improving my Italian by using resources written in French rather than English. Switching from French to Italian takes much less effort than switching from English to Italian, and the same is true regarding German, so I’m reluctant to say it’s merely because of the genetic relatedness between French and Italian. Granted, learning two Romance languages together is probably easier than learning two unrelated languages for most people, but for me it’s more of a question of my second language having priority over my native language when other foreign languages are involved.

Some people discourage learning two languages together, especially languages that are closely related such as Spanish and Portuguese, because they believe that learners will get too confused. That’s quite insulting to learners who are quite capable of learning several languages at once, or using one language to learn or improve their knowledge of another. Perhaps some people do confuse certain similar words, but once an advanced level is reached, everything sorts itself out and humans are able to speak several languages on a daily basis. Multilingualism, not bilingualism and certainly not monolingualism, is the norm throughout the world and is highly beneficial to the health of the human brain, so shouldn’t we all strive to be polyglots?


Once you’ve gained a sufficient level in one foreign language, all of the others that follow are increasingly easier and easier to learn. You’ve already learned how to learn a language and familiarize yourself with the grammar, so now you can focus on learning useful vocabulary and collocations for communication and trying not to get stumped by polysemous or homonymous words.

Italian through French

At first glance, Italian seems a million times easier than French, especially regarding pronunciation. There are only seven vowels and every word is pronounced how it is spelled. Compared to the 15 or so vowels in French, plus the nasals and numerous silent letters, I am in heaven. I don’t have to wonder why in the world a singular noun such as œuf ends in /f/ but the plural œufs contains no consonant sounds at all because Italian pronunciation is not a cruel joke against foreigners, unlike that of French. Italian does have some irregular plural forms, but they are still pronounced exactly as they are spelled. Uomo (man) becomes uomini (men) in the plural but at least -ini isn’t silent for no darn reason!

Articles are slightly more complicated (what’s with lo?) but the possessive adjectives and pronouns are the same. No new forms to learn. Changing from spoken to written Italian is much easier thanks to the phonetic spelling. I never have to worry about if I need to add that extra -e or -s for feminine or plural as in French (they’re silent! how mean is that?) because in Italian, the final vowel simply changes according to person and gender so there is no confusion.

Verb conjugations are also easier. A bunch of v’s? Imperfect! An r in the stem? Future or Conditional! Too many s’? Imperfect subjunctive! Just as in French, the preterit isn’t used in speech (except in southern Italy) so I can spend more time on recognizing the forms instead of producing them. Subject pronouns are rarely used with verb conjugations, which takes some getting used to since they are always required in French.

Some phrases are very similar – passer une nuit blanche / passare la notte in bianco (to have a sleepless night) –  while others can be deceiving: le monde entier / tutto il mondo (the entire world) compared to tout le monde / tutti (everyone). Of course, idioms between languages are often different and need to be learned individually. Yet it is these subtle differences between close languages that I find the most interesting and spend most of my time learning. Both French and Italian came from vulgar Latin, so how and why did the languages change over time and how can we use that to our advantage in learning both languages? The Loom of Language explains this rather well, though I am still looking for a more contemporary book on the subject.

As I reach fluency in Italian, I will continue to update both the Italian and French & Italian tutorials. I am also returning to Italy next week – to the Aosta Valley, where both Italian and French are official languages – so I should have more realia resources to upload.

Just out of curiosity, for those who are learning a third (or fourth, fifth, etc.) language, do you use resources in your native language or do you prefer to use resources in another language that you know well?

The Importance of Learning Collocations instead of Individual Words

As Randy from Yearlyglot pointed out recently, word pattern recognition is an important concept in language learning and attaining fluency. Word patterns or collocations are simply the way certain words (whether function or content) habitually occur together. These conventional sequences are instantly recognizable to native speakers of a language, but remain difficult for second language learners to acquire and use properly.

It is usually recommend to learn the gender along with the noun or the plural along with the singular or the feminine form of adjectives when studying vocabulary. But we should go a step further and include collocational information (as well as alternate meanings) for every word we learn. Every time you learn a new adjective or verb, make sure to learn if a preposition follows it before a noun and/or a verb. In French we say se marier avec quelqu’un while in Engish we get married to someone, not with someone. Even with closely related languages, such as French and Italian, the prepositions can differ. In French we are intéréssé par quelque chose, in Italian we are interessato a qualcosa and in English we are interested in something. The verbal counterparts of “to be interested in” in French and Italian are s’intéresser à and interessarsi di. Don’t you just love prepositions?

Translating collocations is also problematic even when there are no prepositions involved. In English we say safe and sound whereas in French it’s sain et sauf (healthy and safe).  Students who are unfamiliar with the concept of collocations will most likely attempt to translate literally from their native language, which results in the common mistakes that language teachers hear over and over again. Even after a year of university English, a lot of my students still said I listen music even though to listen to is one of the most basic verbs that is taught in their middle and high school classes. It is certainly not possible that they had never been exposed to this verb before freshman year of college. And yet, they still had not learned to express themselves properly in English by using fixed phrases instead of translating word for word.

Common two-word collocations in English

I remember learning vocabulary from my textbooks in college and being surprised that collocational information was often not included in the glossaries. In my first grammar class, I was confused that Je lui ai dit (I told him/her) was grammatically correct instead of Je l’ai dit because my textbook simply taught that dire meant to say/tell and did not specify that the correct phrase was dire quelque chose à quelqu’un (to say/tell something to someone or to say/tell someone something). I was also confused about seeing demander à and demander de and not understanding why both prepositions were used. Then I learned the expressions demander à faire quelque chose (to ask to do something) and demander à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose (to ask someone to do something) and the little light bulbs in my head went on all over the place. Why couldn’t my textbooks have taught those full expressions immediately instead of just the verbs dire and demander?


If only all uses of prepositions were this easy to learn…

Prepositions are highly idiomatic in all languages and therefore, can be quite unpredictable. Why does French say prêt à faire quelque chose (ready to do something) but content de faire quelque chose (happy to do something)? I suppose it doesn’t really matter why, the point is to simply memorize the collocation instead of the adjective. This also helps with verbs that change their meaning depending on what preposition and/or complement follow them. If you only learn that défendre means to defend, then the expression défendre à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose will make no sense until you learn that it actually means to forbid someone to do something. The same goes for assister – it doesn’t just mean to help. Assister à quelque chose means to attend something (an event, a performance, etc.)

A good dictionary will always include this information for each entry. There are also collocation dictionaries like Robert’s Dictionnaire des Combinaison de Mots that are useful for quick reference. And if you have no other resources, try Google or Google Battle to see which preposition you think should follow a certain word. Not that everything written on the internet is grammatically correct, but it’s at least something!

For other linguistics nerds who are interested in the lexical approach to language learning (i.e. that lexical items, such as collocations, and not simply individual words and definitely not grammar alone, is the basis of language and therefore should play a central role in language teaching and learning), check out books by Michael Lewis, Paul Nation, Alison Wray and Ann M. Peters. Related to collocations is the research done in the field of corpus linguistics and how we use concordance analysis of authentic language to create frequency lists of these lexical units. If you’re confused by this last sentence, read John Sinclair’s Corpus, Concordance, Collocation.  There is a lot of research in this area nowadays, especially with the emergence of CALL (computer-assisted language learning).

Improving Comprehension of Foreign Languages with TV Series, Movies and Subtitles

Watching television shows and movies in the target language is a great way to learn the (real) language, but it is even better if you can read along with the subtitles while watching and listening. Most linguistics studies and language students agree, but someone needs to tell the producers of DVDs this.  I am still amazed that there are several French movies and TV series on DVD that include absolutely NO subtitles at all – not even for the deaf & hard of hearing population, which is extremely unfair and a bit insulting.  Even though the loi sur le handicap from 2005 stated that the seven main French television stations must subtitle 100% of their programs from February 2010 on, this does not mean that the DVDs also include the subtitles.

I bought the first season of Les Bleus: Premiers Pas dans la Police last summer after seeing it on M6. It is actually a decent French show that is not a rip-off of an American show, and it includes plenty of slang and informal language. There are subtitles when it is broadcast on M6 and its sister channel W9, but the DVDs have no subtitles at all. Consequently, I am not going to buy the 2nd/3rd season DVD set because it’s not very useful to me. I’ll just wait until it is on TV again and record it on my Freebox.  Luckily the one other French TV series that I like, Kaamelott, does include subtitles and it’s really funny so I recommend it to all French learners.

 

You can find subtitles in various languages for major movies online at sites such as subsmax.comallsubs.org, opensubtitles.org, bestsubtitles.net, u-subtitles.com, subscene.com and even victoire.b.free.fr/VO.ST.FR./ for a bunch of French subtitles if you still feel like watching in the original language, but want to learn some vocabulary by reading the subtitles in French. I used to do that years ago with American DVDs that only had English as the audio but did provide a few other languages in subtitles.

However, finding subtitles for French series like Les Bleus is practically impossible since most subtitles are not created for language learning purposes or even for the deaf community, but so that foreign programs can be watched in the original language or because no one wants to wait months and months for a dubbed version to air in their country. Most of these subtitle websites offer .srt files which means you have to watch on your computer with VLC, though you can hardcode the subtitles if you really want to create your own DVD or just hook up your computer to your TV screen. Sometimes the synchronization is not exact, so you might need to add or subtract a few seconds.

For anyone else in France, adslTV is a great program for watching TV on your computer if you subscribe to Free, SFR, Orange, Alice or Bouygues. Not all channels can be watched through adslTV (most notably, TF1, M6 and W9 do not allow it) but you can turn on the subtitles and record programs to your hard drive. I use it often for watching and recording shows on the three RAI channels because I can’t always turn on the subtitles with my Freebox but I can with adslTV, so it’s helping a lot with improving my comprehension of Italian.

The site Medias-soustitres, which was created by volunteers for the deaf community, also has a list of French DVDs that do include subtitles since a lot of online stores (Amazon.fr I’m talking about you!) don’t always include proper information about what subtitles are available.

From Annecy to Bassano del Grappa: Taking Grandma to Her Parents’ Birthplace in Italy

David’s grandmother was born in France in 1932. Her parents are from the towns of Bassano del Grappa and Solagna, in the region of Veneto, Italy. Her father, Antonio Tosetto, came to France in 1929 to escape le camicie nere (the blackshirts, or Fascists) while her mother, Maria Todesco, stayed behind in Bassano until he could find a place to settle. He wasn’t heading for any particular town, but he came upon Annecy and decided to stay there. At this point, there were already 4 children born, though one would die at 18 months because an incompetent doctor gave her the wrong medicine. Maria finally went to Annecy with the 3 remaining children in 1931 and quickly became naturalized as a French citizen, just as her husband had done. Mamie (colloquial French for grandma) was born a year later, the first of the rest of the seven children to be born in France and not Italy. Mamie’s parents never spoke Italian again once they arrived in France (Annecy was occupied first by the Italians and then the Germans), and Mamie never learned to speak it. Even the first 3 children who had been born in Italy forgot their native language and only spoke French for the rest of their lives.


From Annecy to Bassano del Grappa

Mamie is now 78 years old and had been wanting to go to Italy to see where her parents came from practically her entire life. Bassano del Grappa is about 585 km / 365 miles from Annecy, which to my American brain means that it is right next door and incredibly easy to get to. But no one in the family had been able to take her there, whether because of the cost or the “distance” or the fact that it’s in a different country and a lot of the family members hate to travel or even leave Annecy. So when David mentioned it, I immediately set a date and booked the trip because unfortunately Mamie won’t be around forever and I did not want her to have any regrets in her life.  Even though it’s only about 6 hours from Annecy, we decided to fly so that she wouldn’t be stuck in a car all day with her aching legs since she wouldn’t be able to stretch them out properly. That turned out to be a huge mistake, but at least Mamie got to fly on a plane for the first time in her life.

Grandma on a plane for the first time in her life
First flight at 78 years old

I booked an apartment at Il Magicorto Agriturismo Bed & Breakfast in the countryside just outside of Bassano del Grappa after reading about it in Le Guide du Routard. It was AMAZING. If you are ever anywhere near Venice or Padova or Vicenza or Verona, you should stay here!  It was only about a 1.5 hour drive from the Venice airport. There are two apartments on the ground floor (with wide bathrooms for the handicapped) and six regular rooms upstairs, and they all have TV, internet and air conditioning.  There is also a restaurant, but it is closed in July & August.

Il Magicorto
Entrance of Il Magicorto

Elena was such a gracious host and made sure Mamie had everything she needed. Mamie adored her and said she reminded her of her own mother because she was so lovely and nice (and Italian, of course!). The Bed & Breakfast was in a beautiful yard next to the farm, so we had plenty of place to relax outside and we ate dinner at the picnic table every night. Every morning Elena offered us a delicious crostata with home-made jam and fresh cheese and salami. She even gave us eggs from the farm and they were the best eggs I have ever had in my life. Another great thing about Il Magicorto?

GATTINI!!! / KITTENS!!!

Everybody loves kittens!!!

EVERYBODY LOVES KITTENS!!!

Everybody loves kittens!!!
You have no idea how badly I wanted to bring them home…

We spent plenty of time in Bassano del Grappa, wandering the streets where Mamie’s parents walked, visiting the church where they got married, and taking photos of the Ponte Vecchio, also called the Ponte degli Alpini.  We drove north of Bassano to find Solagna, the village where Maria originally came from before meeting Antonio. Before WWII, the border with Austria was much closer to Bassano than it is today and Maria’s parents worked as tobacco smugglers, but Maria herself was too young to work. Antonio worked as a barber in Bassano. Maria and her sisters often went there because it was the larger city, and one day Antonio saw her in the street and thought she had le gambe più belle del mondo (the most beautiful legs in the world)… and the rest is history.

Ponte Vecchio

Bassano del Grappa

Piazza

Old buildings

We returned to Bassano the following day because of the mercato and Mamie bought herself an adorable hat. Then we ate pizza and gelato, of course.

Mamie and her hat

Pizza

Since we had plenty of time on Sunday, we drove down to Verona before heading to the airport in Venice. It was the hottest day yet so we only stayed for an hour, taking pictures around the arena and trying to stay in the shade.

Arena in Verona

Verona

I’m going to end the story there because you all know what happened next! In spite of how the trip ended, Mamie still said it was the best vacation she’s ever been on and the best gift anyone has ever given her. She has fully recovered -we hope – after resting all this week. I don’t know if she’ll ever go back to Italy, but David & I might try to drive her to Valle d’Aosta, an autonomous region bordering France that has both Italian & French as their official languages. It used to be a part of the Kingdom of Savoy, just like the pays de Savoie in France, except that it joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 instead of being annexed to France as Savoie was in 1860. But for now I think Mamie is content with her memories and photos of Bassano del Grappa, as well as the soil she took from the ground of Solagna to remember her mother.

Bassano del Grappa & Verona, Italy, Photo Album

Italian Realia Resources

Traveling through Germanic Languages and History

I’ve been traveling for the past week through Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and Munich. I have been trying to listen to as much Dutch and German as possible and collect all sorts of realia to learn more vocabulary. Of course I’ve also been going to educational places like Mini Europe, which I highly recommend for learning more about European Union geography and history.

I returned to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam after 5 years and it was still just as overwhelming, depressing, and humbling as before, yet it remained impossible to not be touched by Anne’s optimistic words in such a dark time. Otto Frank’s remarks on why he started the Anne Frank Foundation – to fight against the prejudice and discrimination of people of different races and religions – is partly the same reason why I learn languages. It’s not just so I can travel around Europe more easily. It’s so I can talk to people who are different from me and learn from them, and hopefully help them if they are being discriminated against because they are “too different” from everyone else.

Tomorrow morning I am going to Dachau, the very first concentration camp. Yet another reason why I learn languages: not merely to learn, but to experience, history. A lot of meaning can be lost in translation and we can never fully understand the how and the why unless we truly understand the language and culture. I know neither the perpetrators nor the prisoners spoke English so why should I only learn the history in English? I want to listen to the victims’ and survivors’ own words, not a translation.

I want to read Anne’s diary in its original version. The words that she actually wrote. When I read Hélène Berr’s diary in the original French last year, it really affected me because I knew the places and dates she mentioned and the significance of them. I could picture her life in occupied Paris until her arrest. It made the diary all the more real to me, instead of simply stories in a book. Anne’s diary is poignant enough in English, but I can only imagine at this point what it must be like to comprehend it in Dutch.

Multilingual Goodness of the Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision Song Contest is going on this week in Oslo and even though I’m not watching it, I am using the unofficial website to learn languages through song lyrics. It is called the Diggiloo Thrush and it includes the lyrics and translations into English of almost all of the songs ever performed for the contest. This year there are 39 participating countries, but far fewer languages are represented since countries are not required to choose a song in their official language. Nevertheless, the collection of lyrics starts in 1956 so there is plenty of material available to help you learn languages.

The quality of the songs isn’t always great but Eurovision always motivates me to learn more about my European neighbors and their languages. There are even a few countries outside of Europe that participate, such as Israel, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The official site has a webcast if you want to watch live (or on-demand later), or you can find some songs on YouTube or Spotify (if you live in a country that has access to it).

Using Realia Resources in Language Teaching & Learning

Realia resources are everyday, authentic objects, such as photographs, menus, brochures, receipts, maps, movies, television shows, commercials, etc. that are used to teach and learn languages. Some researchers include any items that can be used to prompt conversations or role-play, such as telephones, but those are generally meant to be employed in the classroom with other learners. For self-study, the most helpful realia illustrates how the language is actually used in the country where it is spoken. Visiting the country to experience the language is obviously the best way to learn, but in the absence of the time and money necessary for travel, the internet can provide much of the realia needed.


Online ad showing informal French: Yapamieux = Il n’y a pas mieux

The lack of authentic language in language learning materials was most striking to me upon arriving in France and realizing that what I had learned in my classes was not how people actually spoke. I still recall the dialog in my textbook for buying train tickets, which consisted of a mere 4 lines and completely lacked any cultural clues as to what country it was referring to. Most textbooks default to France and teach a little about the rail system, the SNCF, but they neglect to include the specific names of trains. It is very important to know the difference between the TGV and TER, or what types of trains Lunéa, Téoz and Intercités are, or what the Carte 12-25 or Carte Escapades are used for. And as soon as you cross the border into Switzerland or Belgium, there is a new list of names and acronyms for the rail systems and trains to deal with: CFF, SNCB, ICT, ICN, etc.

Realia Resources for learning languagesProbably need to find out what composter means before getting on the train…

So why didn’t my textbook (or teacher) provide us with an actual train ticket and schedule, or at least a copy of one? Why did I never see a real menu from an actual restaurant while we were learning food vocabulary? I realized it may be a little difficult for North American teachers to have access to these types of realia, which is why I started scanning my old train tickets and receipts. Then I started taking pictures of menus and signs; anything with the written language that I thought would be useful for learners. Currently my realia collection includes French, German, Croatian and Danish, and I will be adding Dutch and Italian in the next few months. Every time I travel, I make sure to gather as much visual realia as possible, as well as website addresses of stores, restaurants, museums, and public transportation companies since many offer downloads of catalogs or menus or schedules.

Authentic Language Realia Resources

You don’t necessarily have to be in the country in order to experience and learn its language. The internet allows you to get very close without leaving your home. I certainly wish I would have been able to look at menus before arriving. I would have known that everyone says cookie instead of biscuit and ice tea instead of thé glacé (the latter being the only words my books ever taught me). And if Youtube had been around when I was in school, I could have watched plenty of videos and listened to spoken, informal French instead of relying on scripted dialogs from a textbook. This is yet another reason why I started the Informal French and Listening Resources pages. Getting as much exposure to the real language as possible is now a priority for me when first learning a language (I learned my lesson with French!) and so I find myself using the internet much more often than any of my books, unless I specifically want to focus on grammar.