Starting up a New Language: Some Case Studies

Photo by Ryan Buterbaugh 

How best to tackle a new language depends on many factors:

1. How difficult do you expect it to be?

2. Is a new script involved?

3. What's your immediate goal? Your ultimate goal?

4. What tools are available?

5. How much time do you have available?

Herewith some examples of how I chose to attack some new languages.

Swahili. (First of all, my answers to the questions above: 1: easy. 2: no. 3: just want to make incremental progress. 4: fair number of courses and books available. 5: almost none.)

The approach: I use the Language/30 Swahili course and an old edition of Teach Yourself Swahili, which gives a bare-bones presentation of grammar and vocabulary.  I use Audacity to clip audio sentences from the Language/30 course and put the sentences with text into Anki flashcards. I create additional cards with words and sentences from the Teach Yourself book. The Teach Yourself cards have no audio, unless and until I find a good source for ad-hoc Swahili audio.

But Swahili pronunciation is pretty easy. The Language/30 samples should provide ample pronunciation practice, as well as providing a storehouse of useful sentences "in the bank." So far, at the rate of one new card per day (one new word or sentence every two or three days) it takes less than a minute a day, plus occasional prep time to create new cards.

Thai. (1: moderate to difficult. 2: yes. 3: just want to make incremental progress. 4: fair number of courses and books available. 5: very little.)

The approach. First I designed some mnemonics to help me memorize the Thai alphabet. I spent about a minute a day for some months just practicing the letters. I made Anki cards from the first few reading lessons of the Thai Pimsleur course, mostly just nonsense syllables, but it helped me get a foothold on reading. I continued with the Teach Yourself Thai book (with accompanying CD's--some form of audio companion is a huge advantage). Sample sentences from the book go onto flashcards, while I download audio for individual words from Google translate. (Note: I don't do this for Swahili because Google Translate's Swahili voice is a weird robot which I have no desire to emulate.) I also picked up Stu Jay Raj's unusual book Cracking Thai Fundamentals and started reading through it and making flash cards as necessary (it has less memory-intensive content). And by dint of some effort, I devised a streamlined formulation of the rules for determining tones from the Thai script.

Generally speaking, for each word, phrase, or sentence I have as many as five cards:

(1 "English to Thai") Input: English. Output: Thai audio.
(2 "Reading") Input: Thai script. Output: English and incidentally Thai audio.
(3 "Listening") Input: Thai audio. Output: English and incidentally Thai script.
(4 "Spelling") Input: English and Thai audio. Output: Thai script.

In line with a principle that good flash cards should expect a single response, the term "incidentally" here indicates that the card presents the information as part of the response but I need not reproduce it as a "correct" response.

Only a few cards are of type 4. I am ramping up gradually to writing Thai. I use conditional compilation for Anki to generate these cards only when I specify.

On the other hand, I like the daily exposure to reading Thai.

I currently spend about four minutes a day working through my Thai Anki deck, adding new cards from the Teach Yourself book, Cracking Thai Fundamentals, or occasionally the Pimsleur reading lessons as necessary.

Starting up Khmer and Burmese was very similar, the main difference being a relative paucity of available resources.

Sumerian. (1: moderate. 2: yes. 3: finish Hayes book [see below]. 4. Chiefly books. 5. very little [see a trend here?])

Sumerian is a dead language, which entails both advantages and disadvantages.


(1) You need not be concerned about acquiring a perfect accent. For most dead languages, scholars are happy to inform you about the pronunciation with considerable detail and subtlety, but I'm always a little skeptical that they know quite as much as they think they do. Whether or not they really know what they're talking about, there's no harm in making things easy on yourself. This does not mean pronunciation can be ignored. I have yet to come across a writing system in which sound does not play some partial role at least. In the case of Sumerian, the writing is a combination of ideographic and phonetic symbols. Many words and phrases have alternate spellings. Having a crude idea of the pronunciation makes it much easier to recognize these.

(2) Likewise, you may choose to (or be forced to) downplay skills of writing and listening in favor of reading. Focusing on just one of the four standard language skills certainly simplifies matters.

For Sumerian, I depended on a single resource: John Hayes' book A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and TextsIncidentally I see the hardcover edition of the book is now going for $4000. which makes me feel strangely wealthy. The book provides many samples of Sumerian texts, with vocabulary lists and extensive discussions of each.

Sumerian is written in a cuneiform script, which my computer does not support. Certainly the computer would not reproduce the variety of sizes and shapes of the historical texts. Here Anki's ability to handle images facilitates greatly. By scanning a page, and clipping out samples of text, I can reproduce any word or phrase from the book.

Generally I use two Anki cards for each item of Sumerian text:

(1 "Reading") Input: Sumerian text. Output: the transliteration (phonetic reading) of the text.
(2 "English") Input: Sumerian text and transliteration. Output: the English translation.

I also use Anki Cloze cards for grammar rules, historical facts, etc.

This approach lets me work through at a steady (if slow) pace, while committing to heart the memorization-related content and reading some phrases of text (while reviewing Anki cards) every day.

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