Language Blogging

You can't be Jason Bourne without mastering a bunch of languages. During the course of the series we get to see him speak French, Swiss German, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish, all with exceeding fluency (except he seems slightly less comfortable in Russian). This scene shows him speaking French and Dutch at a less frenetic moment, when he still knows nothing of his identity. The point is: Jason Bourne has learned so well that he's not even sure what his native language is.

…whereby this blog introduces a new feature. As a rule I don’t use this blog to imitate what I see others doing elsewhere. This is why, for example, I rarely blog about politics.

Lately I’ve been reading several language blogs (that is, blogs about foreign-language study). I particularly like Steve Kaufmann’s Linguist blog, Benny the Irish Polyglot, and Tim Ferriss’s occasional posts on language. I’ve noticed two things: (1) There is a lot of valuable information to be had out there; however (2) In line with the theme of this blog, there are also blind sports that most everyone seems to be overlooking, Henceforth I’ll be working to fill in some of the gaps (starting with a small tidbit at the bottom of this post).

Time-honored language-blogging tradition now demands that I display a few foreign-language credentials, and henceforth periodically report on ongoing progress.

Rule of thumb: Never ask a polyglot how many languages he or she speaks. The problem is that if the answer is large enough to be interesting the only honest answer is It's complicated. Such as: Well, I read this one fairly well but can’t speak much. Or: I can ask for directions and get the price of a train ticket but I got in big trouble the last time I tried to pick up a girl in a bar.

So with this caveat, here is my current list. These are arranged in roughly descending order of proficiency, ranging from serious fluency at the top of the list to the ability to ask directions and order dinner at the end. Future posts will flesh out some of these descriptions.

Languages so far:
English (my mother tongue)
Mandarin Chinese

The three starred items at the bottom are dead languages (which most language bloggers apparently won’t touch). These are difficult to compare with the others on an apples-to-apples basis—the concept of “conversation,” for example, has little meaning in a dead language.

Languages in progress: The list above also doesn’t include the languages I am actively studying at present: Arabic and (modern) Tibetan, both to be the subject of future progress reports in future posts.

And some for the future: I haven’t started these yet, but I hope to someday. This list is extremely fluid--I just added one today. In no particular order: *Latin, Hebrew, Czech, Mongolian, Modern and *Ancient Greek, *Akkadian, *Avestan, Indonesian, Swahili, Farsi, Nepali, Norwegian, *Mayan, *Old English, Vietnamese, *Hittite.

Chinese-English wordplay: To close out this post, here’s the exclusive tidbit I promised: a bilingual pun. It makes a good icebreaker when you meet someone from China—provided he or she speaks English fairly well.

First, write the following Chinese character:

(It helps if you can write it with the proper stroke order, but that’s a subject for another post.) Ask them what it means. (In fact, this is pronounced “yan” with a falling tone and It means “to swallow.”)

Next, write the following character:

…and ask them now what does this mean? Notice it looks almost exactly like the first one except the little square on the left is missing.

Generally at this point your Chinese acquaintance will display momentary bemusement followed by amusement. See, this second character is also pronounced “yan” with a falling tone, and it also means “swallow”, but it’s the name of the bird.

(Linguistic note, for those who like to know what’s going on: The fact that the two words sound the same in both Chinese in English is total coincidence, but the fact that the characters look similar is not. These two characters illustrate two out of several methods of forming Chinese character.

The bird character is a pictograph, a picture of a swallow, although so highly evolved and stylized that it no longer looks like a bird. The four dots on the bottom were originally tail feathers.

The other character is formed by adjoining the Chinese character for “mouth” (the little square). The bird is there to show the pronunciation. In other words: “Something to do with the mouth, that sounds like “swallow.”)


P_ter said...

Hello Serge,
you mentioned here that you have a mnemonics for sanskrit. I would appreciate when you point me to such sanskrit mnemonics.

Serge Gorodish said...

Hawm... I would love to help, but I don't recall mentioning mnemonics for Sanskrit. Can you be more specific?

I am currently in "incremental recovery" mode for Sanskrit--which means that I converted my old data set to an Anki deck and am gradually working my way through it (available for download as "Michael Coulson Teach Yourself Sanskrit"). But I spend less than two minutes a day on this and am not otherwise putting effort into Sanskrit at present.

My approach to memorizing gender is certainly applicable to Sanskrit. I'm also making more use generally of ad-hoc mnemonics to address particular points of difficulty for particular languages.