Saving Endangered Languages…. With Math!

There’s a really interesting article over on Discover Magazine discussing how a mathematician named Anne Kandler used a formula to calculate how many people learning Scottish Gaelic were needed per year in order to keep the language alive (860) in association with the Gaelic Development Agency, so that they could increase their chances of saving the language from extinction, and how we can use her techniques to come up with formulas for other languages in order to save them. Knowing how many new speakers per year are needed to save a language can help programs and governments better target their efforts and budget funds for teaching initiatives. And I think it might also be a good idea to begin international campaigns using these numbers. And it’s nice to know that at least one of the endangered languages on the list stands a really good chance of being saved. So, if you’re thinking about learning a language, I’d encourage you to pick Scottish Gaelic. I may not be much help over here in America, but at least I can help promote the efforts to keep the language going and know that, if you include me, they only need 859 more people this year.


And now the fun part

Where you get to judge my progress and laugh at my mistakes! Woot!! TYG Lesson 2 in three parts:

A Note on Methodology and Tools for Language Learning

When learning a new language, choosing the right textbook or program is really important. The wrong book can lead to frustration, confusion, or cause you to give up entirely. If you’re taking a formal class, a really good teacher might be able to make any book work, but when you’re learning on your own that book might be the difference between success and failure.

So today I thought I would explain the reasons why I chose the book I initially planned to use, why I switched, and why I like the new one better. My reasons for preferring one source over another may not work for you, you may go about learning in a different way, but you might still be able to take something from the way I considered my options. And, the whole discussion can relate back to some observations I made about lesson 2, so you get some videos too. Bonus!

Now, if you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you know that when I began this crazy adventure in blogging I was using a book called Colloquial Scottish Gaelic, and you know that after only a week of working with it, I suddenly switched to something called Teach Yourself Gaelic. If you hadn’t been paying attention… well, now you know. You should try to keep up though.

The reasons I decided to drop CSG are many, but it mainly comes down to the fact that the book was obviously intended to be used in a classroom setting, and I was learning on my own. I was doing a great job of memorizing phrases, and I knew what the meant, but I couldn’t tell you what I was saying. I had no idea which word meant what or how to formulate a sentence. I couldn’t plug new vocabulary into basic structures. I was just learning a semantics without the structure that underlies it. And without tests and grades, I wasn’t retaining anything. I needed a book that would teach me how to make sentences, not recite them.

so I went looking, and I came across a simple little book called Teach Yourself Gaelic. Now, this is actually an entire course, with two textbooks and audio files corresponding to units in the main book. (You can find the whole course on Amazon), but I’m not bothering with all that. I’m just using the little grammar book by Boyd Robertson that goes along with it. This little textbook has a very simple structure; each lessons begins by introducing a new grammatical rule or two (word order, inflectional morphology, etc), then gives you a list of vocabulary words that will be used in this lesson, and finally asks you to complete two exercises and read a few paragraphs. Exercise one gives you a number of sentences using the grammatical rule for the lesson in Gaelic and asks you to translate them into English. Exercise 2 gives you some very very similar sentences in English and has you translate them into Gaelic. and that’s where the genius is. Nowhere is there a direct translation of any of the sentences. But by working translation from one direction to the other and back you can start to identify patterns and understand more than just the particular rule your presented with, but corresponding rules the book does not address. And, because you are often expected to figure it out for yourself, rather than be presented with some lesson and dialogue and translation, your investing more brain power and retaining more information. Using the same basic sentences and building them in new and complex ways also causes you to review the old information as you practice the new. It’s a system perfect for someone doing exactly what the title says, teaching themselves Gaelic.

For an example, you can look at Lesson 2, which teaches you to use various forms of the verb ‘to be’ to form statements, questiions, negative statements, and negative questions. In the list of vocabulary words, you’re given ‘seo’ and ‘sin,’ which mean ‘this/these/this is’ and ‘that/those/that is’ respectively. You are, however, never given any instructions on how to use them, so the natural assumption is that they work the same way the equivalent words do in English. To say this cat, you assume you should say ‘seo cat.’ So when presented with the sentence ‘A bheil an seomar seo blath’ you translate it to ‘is the room this warm’. seems right. But later on you’re given the English sentence ‘isn’t this room warm’ and asked to translate it to Gaelic. You realize that the two sentences should be almost the same, that the demonstrative functions as an adjective in Gaelic, and can be used in conjunction with a definite article, unlike in English. You’ve figured out how a part of speech functions without being told. Rather than rote memorization, we have active analysis, which leads to greater comprehension and flexibility.

This style of teaching language has taken a lot of hard hits recently. There are complaints that the simple ‘see Spot run’ style sentences feel useless, that students get frustrated because they aren’t being taught to say anything that might actually be used in conversation, and that the method is too far removed from the way we learned our first language. And I don’t disagree. My video lessons are full of snarky asides about the strange conversations we’re presented with with. But that’s a problem with the writers, not the system. We simply need to change the vocabulary we pick to be more relevant to our students and try writing conversations that people might actually have, with an obvious connection between thoughts. Which is easy to do. We simply put new words which are the apppropriate parts of speech and plug them into the grammatical structure you’ve been taught. Which is precisely why this system is so good. Once you understand how to formulate a sentence of a certain type, you can take new words you learn later and use them in meaningful ways. The conversational method does not share this feature. By presenting dialogues without any explanation of the underlying structure, you are limited in what you might say. You aren’t able to apply your knowledge to new situations. You won’t talk, you’ll recite.

And as for the movement to make second-language acquisition as similar to first language acquisition as possible; I think that’s just plain silly. Yes, immersion will cerainly help you learn a language faster and more effectively, it requires that you actually be immersed. This cannot happen in a classroom. Immersion works because it increases your motivation; it puts you in a position where your survival, or at least immediate feeling of safety and security, entirely depends on you learning to communicate. The language is necessary, so you put your brain in overtime to learn it. This is, indeed, the way we learn our first language. But no matter how much your teacher stresses that grades are important, they do not produce that level of motivation. Instead, we should embrace the fact that we already have a language under our belts. We have metalinguistic knowledge that allows us to better focus our efforts and grasp rules and morphological changes far faster than any child. We can arrange the order we teach various concepts so that they build on each other logically. We can change the system if it isn’t working. Children simply do not have this option. We have control and the ability to improve. Shifting to this conversational format because students want to learn just the part of the language that’ll help them be a tourist for a week is doing a disservice to those students. Instead, we should be encouraging them to learn the structures that will give them the freedom respond appropriately in any situation. Teach them to search for the rules that allow the world to work instead of just using the results.

Wow, that was quite a rant. But now that the serious stuff is out of the way, you can has videos! Namely, me working my way through Lesson 2 in three parts (which I am now going to put in a new entry since this one’s so awfully long.)

Addressing that Atrocious Accent

I’ve been thinking about the troubles I’ve been having with pronunciation, and I think I’ve managed to identify my two main problems. First, my ‘ch’ sound, that fricative sound down in the back of your throat, sounds far too much like the German version. In German the ‘ch’ in, for instance, ich, is a low drawn out sound. Sort of like a cat hissing. The Scottish ‘ch’ is, on the other hand, a harder, stronger, higher sound. It’s like a k with a bad throat cold. Loch sounds like lock for a reason. Ich is closer to ish.

And then there’s the rhythm of my sentences. Gaelic has a kind of sing-song, melodic flow to it which comes from the stress pattern of words. The accent is always on the first syllable. English, however, uses stress to mark case or importance, since we don’t have endings to do that for us. So our stress patterns are variable. When I read Gaelic sentences, I have a tendency to place the stresses where they would be in English, which makes me sound wrong. Especially because I’m also infecting improperly. Tonal inflection in many sentences is a reflection of the semantics. We change the pitch of our voices to indicate what type of statement we’re making, and we adjust our pitch at various points in the statement to identify important information. So, in a language with a subject-verb-object structure, pitch often starts high and lowers throughout the sentence, jumping up again at the end if it’s a question. This is because we’re marking the subject, the important thing. However, Gaelic doesn’t use that structure. So when my vocal intonation reflects that structure, the tones don’t match up with the proper words. I sound like a bad actor who doesn’t know what they’re supposed to be feeling. I have to start thinking in a verb-subject-object format. And the same order discrepancy has me putting pauses in the wrong places. You pause between constituent parts of a sentence to mark the words as part of a group. I keep pausing after nouns (because English puts nouns at the end of noun phrases), which makes the adjectives sound like they aren’t modifying anything. It sounds odd.

But now that I recognize where I’m going wrong, I can be more aware of my vocal patterns. And thanks to Simon over at Omniglot, who sent me a bunch of really helpful resources, I have some pronunciation guides and audio files to listen to. I should be sounding more Scottish in no time!

I think language teachers should pay more attention to this kind of thing. If my Japanese teacher had explained to me that I was inflecting improperly because I was using the rhythm of a language with a different structure, I might have stopped sounding like I was practicing my racist generic Asian accent. It also helps the structure of the language become more natural to you when your vocal patterns reflect it. It gets easier and faster to translate things when you say them with the right pattern. A little linguistic knowledge of the language you’re learning can really help sometimes.

Later on today I’ll put up the videos for Lesson 2 from TYG and we’ll see if my speaking has improved. Fingers crossed.

The Adjectival Inflection Question

There is a strange inflectional morphology in Scottish Gaelic called lenition, where word initial consonants are made weaker through the addition of h just behind them when in certain environments. Teach Yourself Gaelic introduces this initially in lesson 1A, and expands on it later. All it has to say in 1A, which is mostly about adjectives, is that adjectives modifying feminine nouns are lenited. So, for instance, take the word beag [BAY uck]. When used with a masculine noun, it appears in its standard form (eg. ‘an cat beag’ or ‘the small cat’) But when used with a feminine noun, the initial sound changes (eg. ‘an iolair bheag’ [VAY uck]). The stop becomes a fricative. Since not all sounds are capable of lenition (vowels aren’t, and in some cases S’s aren’t) there are instances where the sound change doesn’t occur in this environment, but for the most part it’s there. And feminine noun phrases aren’t the only environments that cause it. Direct address of a person leads to lenition, but only if it’s a woman, and the adjective gle [glay] (which means very) causes lenition when it modifies another adjective. Words can be lenited when they are in specific cases or when proceeded by by possessive determiners in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd masculine persons. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern by which I can determine what causes the sound change though. It’s grammatical, not phonological, but the instances don’t seem to have anything in common. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t, kind of randomly. Why should masculine nouns lenite in genitive and feminine in nominative? Why not the other way around? I’m really curious as to why the change happens.

You’ll also note that in Scottish Gaelic the adjective follows the noun it’s modifying. I was surprised to learn that that is actually the case in most languages. Twice as many languages use a noun-adjective formation than use the adjective-noun structure found in English. I guess we just like being the underdogs.

That’s really all the linguistically interesting stuff you can pull out of Lesson 1A, which I really think could easily have just been included in Lesson 1, rather than given it’s own super-special section. It was only two pages. But, despite my complaints about formatting and lack of creativity in the text, I’m really glad I switched to this book. While it would be nice to have audio to improve my speaking, I find my ability to read Gaelic has dramatically improved in the past couple of days. I’m retaining the information well and I’m picking it up fast. CSG had you memorize phrases and then told you what they meant, but you still didn’t know what you were saying. The individual words were just as foreign as before you started. By explaining how to formulate any and all sentences, TYG allows me to expand beyond just recitation. I can figure out new words in context and use old words in new places. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I really think that’s a better system.

You can see for yourself the considerable improvement in translation as I stumble through this sections exercises.

Immerse Yourself

This is going to be a completely non-Scottish Gaelic related post. I know, both shocking and disappointing, but I promise you’ll get more of my inept attempts to speak the language later on today, scout’s honor. Besides, linguistic news is relevant to our interests (at least, to mine, and I imagine if you’re reading this probably yours too.)

News item the first: There was recently a post on Language Geek letting all those of us who’ve been living in a cave know that Google Chrome offers a language immersion app, which is pretty darn cool. You select whatever level of fluency you consider yourself, and the program takes whatever website you’re on and starts randomly changing words to their equivalent in your desired language. The higher your fluency level, the more words get replaced. Which is a nice way to start learning some serious vocabulary (though it won’t help with grammar at all). Sadly, the program uses Google’s translation software, so you can only get it for the 64 languages Google Translate is capable of… um… translating. Which does not include Scottish Gaelic. But if you want to bone up on your German, it seems like a great plan. Learn more about the app over here.

And the second bit of interesting news in the linguistic world comes from the awesome folks at Language Log. Apparently there was an essay published in Psychological Science not long ago which showed that bilingual speakers are less emotional, instinctive, and prone to cognitive biases or framing tricks (check it out here)There is now a whole bunch of speculation as to why this is. Julie Sedivy writes in Discover Magazine (in this article) that it could be because we have to think harder and take more time when using a non-native language than when we use our native tongue. It’s less natural. I wonder, though, if it might not have more to do with the process by which we learn the language to begin with. Second-language acquisition is slower, more methodical, and more analytic by nature. This blog is a perfect example. We examine the language thoroughly, a little at a time, gathering knowledge instead of a survival skill. They’re two completely different processes of learning something, and I’m not really surprised to find that that we use the results of those efforts in a way that reflects the efforts themselves. It just shows how much learning and language are connected to the way our brains work and how much of our perception of the world or ways of examining it are influenced by how we talk about it.

ETA: I just came across this very interesting interview of three Australian linguists explaining why it’s so important to save endangered languages. As this blog is pretty much all about helping save an endangered language, it seemed too appropriate to not post. Also, the aging cheese metaphor is kind of amazing. Go listen to it here.

I’m Back Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

I can’t bring myself to leave a lesson only half finished when I’ve been so lax lately already, so here’s part two of Teach Yourself Gaelic Lesson 1, in which I tackle exercise two, which is pretty much the same thing as exercise one, except in reverse. Which I’m afraid doesn’t make it terribly interesting as far as linguistic analysis is concerned. N o new information. I did however have a lot of snarky things to say about the semantic choices made by the textbook’s authors, so that’s fun. The people who write these things really do come up with the strangest sentences to have you translate. If I ever write a language textbook, I cross my heart anything I ask the students to translate will be stolen directly from Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes or something. Quirky stuff, so once they figure out what it means you’ll get a room full of startled laughter. Anyways, enough of my rambling. Just see it for yourself.