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It’s been a while since I published a blog post. I’ve been updating the look of my website after moving to a self-hosted WordPress site, which was really easy using Michael Hyatt’s method, which you can find in the link.
Today I want to share with you my YouTube channel. My username is kieranmaynard, so you can find me at youtube.com/user/kieranmaynard. Please take a look at my intro video, in three languages! (English, Chinese, and Japanese, with subtitles.)
Thanks for watching!
A young woman describes the third generation drop-off of her grandmother’s native language, Chuvash (a Turkic language spoken in Russia and the Chuvash Republic), in the post Ep Sana Yoradap, or How a Language Dies, on the blog In Search of Perfect.
“My grandmother and her sisters speak Chuvash fluently. My mother understands the language, but does not speak it. I cannot claim even that, because I only know three words in Chuvash, albeit these are the most important words in the world, Ep Sana Yoradap [I love you]. It is not difficult to imagine what happens to Chuvash when my mom and grandma are no longer here.” – Yulia, “Ep Sana Yoradap, or How a Language Dies”
The “third generation drop-off” is so named because the phenomenon that that Yulia describes is quite common; a language is spoken natively by grandparents, only partially by their children, and not at all by their grandchildren. In three generations, a language can go completely extinct!
What do you think? Is language diversity important? Should we try to preserve languages?
I once thought that the Romance Languages were “descended” from Latin. In linguistics class at the University of Georgia I was taught to understand language relatedness in the form of a tree diagram. The proto-language (i.e. hypothetical mother language of which we have no records) Indo-European contains an Italic branch that becomes Latin, which further down the line spawns Italian, French, Romansch, Romanian, etc. Indeed, with today’s advances in comparative linguistics one could hardly miss the similarities between these languages. But are they really descended from Latin? Did so-called Classical Latin really evolve into French and Spanish?
When I brought this up with Dr. Haneda Masashi of the University of Tokyo, he was skeptical of the idea. The influence of the Roman empire did not extend into all fields of linguistic endeavor. More likely than not, people did not consciously emulate the speech of Rome. They may have adopted Roman ways, but they simply did not have the means to emulate the speech of the capital. Why? I surmise because they never went there, they had no radios or recording devices of any kind, and there was no standardized education system. In his class on Chinese Topolect Studies at Fudan, Dr. Tao Huan（陶寰） said that linguists no longer consider the “Romance Languages” to be the descendants of the Latin language as spoken in Rome. Likely, they developed their own local dialects as Latin spread with Roman rule, and these evolved into the myriad “Romance Languages” of Europe.
What does this tell us about modern languages?
The modern languages most of us are likely to study are very likely recent constructs. I learned at conferences at Fudan that “Standard Japanese” and “Mandarin Chinese” were created in the late 19th and early 20th Century, respectively, fashioned out of different dialects by philologists who followed the European trend of creating a “national language.” After all, if you are going to create a “modern nation,” shouldn’t you also create a “national language,” a “national religion,” and a “national people?” In Japan, these were “Standard Japanese,” “Shinto,” and “the Japanese people.” The greatly varied topolects of Japan were stigmatized (and mostly driven to extinction), Buddhism was outlawed (temporarily, but many temples were destroyed and never rebuilt), and the diverse cultural makeup of the archipelago was denied in favor of a mythical “Japanese race.” In the 19th Century, much of what Japanese knew about nation building they learned from Europeans like Lorenz von Stein. Europeans were engaged in their own nation building projects, which they believed necessitated the creation of “national languages” like “German” and “Italian.”
This week Fudan is holding a series of guest lectures by James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University. Today he lectured on the “Old Story of the Old World,” or the traditional story of the “rise of Greece” and the “decline and fall of the Roman empire.” As he sees it, the Roman empire didn’t fall until 1924, when the Ottoman Empire, which had inherited the territory of Rome, was finally dissolved. I asked about the linguistic situation in the ancient world, and he told us a story. He said there was a German writer who grew up in Bulgaria, and he remembers that his uncle could speak 17 languages. By “speak,” he probably meant his uncle could ask directions, find a place to sleep, and make a little conversation. He could read only one language, but he could get around in a lot more. This is the “natural state” of language. People speak one way in their village; walk across the hill to the next village and they will laugh at their neighbors’ funny accents (or shake their heads in dismay when they understand nothing at all). St. Augustine, who was from Africa, was laughed at for his funny accent in Rome. Language is naturally extremely varied, and like nationality and ethnicity, “national language” is a cultural construct.
What does this teach us about studying languages?
Only understand that language is extremely varied, and modern national languages are a convenience. They are a tool to be used, not a bill to be filled. Stick to one language variety, and eventually the great variety will become apparent. Language isn’t perfect—it’s just something people do.
There’s a lot of great writing out there about learning languages (much of it better than mine), but there are some things I’ve learned studying languages that I wish I had known a long time ago. For one, I have found that learning a language may be thought of as divided into four phases. I have only anecdotal evidence, but this has been my experience learning Chinese and Japanese.
Assuming you start out with no prior knowledge, in the beginning you know nothing. In reality you almost never know “nothing”—Japanese, for example, is full of English words that are readily understandable, and Spanish is full of Latin cognates—but in the beginning you can’t understand more than a word or two of what you read or hear. The first step is to learn how to pronounce the language you are learning, and how to read and write it in a phonetic script (like Chinese pinyin, Japanese romaji, or the Spanish alphabet). After this stage I would begin to memorize the most frequent words, preferably embedded in short phrases and sentences with English translations. Some people do pictures. I find it’s easier to copy English translations, and the most common words are so common they don’t need much help to remember. In the Beginner stage you need English translations to make heads or tails of most sentences and spend a lot of time sounding out words.
After Beginner you will reach the Intermediate stage. I define intermediate as the point where you can read texts and listen to speech and understand some parts with the aid of a dictionary. There’s no fine line between Beginner and Intermediate. I probably spent more than a year as a Beginner in Japanese, but not more than a week as a Beginner in Spanish. This was only partly due to differences in the languages themselves, but mostly due to the fact that I made almost no effort to engage with real Japanese (for native speakers, by native speakers) in the first year I learned that language, whereas I began Spanish with Borges and Wikipedia pages. The Intermediate stage is what is usually stretched indefinitely by language courses of all stripes. (Perhaps because by the time you level up, you no longer feel the need to pay them for what you can get for free?)
When you are fluent, you are Advanced. I get asked a lot how I define fluency, and the honest answer is: I don’t. At some point I just didn’t need to check the dictionary all that much to read Japanese, and the same thing happened with Chinese. At some point, I didn’t have to keep asking people, “What did you just say?” It’s not that I was suddenly able to understand everything, but that I was able to understand enough. I believe a dedicated learning can skip the Beginner stage in a couple of weeks and make it to Advanced in not more than a year. The key variables are your level of interest and how much input you receive. The former depends upon your ability to know thyself and pick engaging materials, and the latter depends on your consumption.
4. “Native Fluency”
Like many language learners, I too hope to someday evolve into a “native speaker.” Do the scare quotes betray my skepticism? I have a gut feeling that a native speaker is nothing more than a speaker who is really good at matching patterns in sound to memorized patterns in speech, and at catching high-frequency words while ignoring words they don’t quite understand. In other words, just someone who is Really Advanced because they kept getting better until they were “good enough” at their language to do what they want with it. That is, they have internalized the most frequent patterns of speech and text so as to know what to expect, and how to break those patterns to be “creative.” (Or how to follow the patterns and bore us to death.) I talk a lot about “patterns” because I think they are the key to efficient learning and effective use of language. My teacher Dr. Kretzchmar once said that on the level of language, almost all “creative writing” depends upon the manipulation of expected patterns of language. Grasp the patterns, and you hold the key of the mundane. Open the door to the garden of language delights.
On CouchSurfing a woman from Japan made an interesting post about her plan to couchsurf in Finland. She didn’t speak much English, so she asked other CSers for advice on how to better reach mutual understanding with her Finnish hosts. We don’t always (if ever) have time to reach native fluency before we engage with native speakers, so how can we say a lot with a little language?
The four tips from surfers were as follows:
4 Use a dictionary
Keep a dictionary or phrasebook on hand. She later said her cell phone dictionary came in handy.
3 Use everything you know
No matter how limited your vocabulary, you will find you can bring it all to bear when face to face with someone you want to talk to. Your speaking partner will likely fill in gaps and correct you.
2 Talk face to face
It’s proven that understanding speech over the phone is harder than understanding speech face-to-face. This isn’t only because of gestures and facial expressions. The phone actually cuts off high frequency sound waves, making it hard to distinguish between words like “sip” and “ship.” (The distinction occurs in the high frequencies.) The poster said that a combination of exaggerated gestures and drawings helped things along.
1 Speak up
Whatever you do, don’t keep silent. The worst pronunciation is a mouth closed. The more you say, the more likely your speaking partner will be able to follow and infer what you mean, and the more friendly and open to conversation you will seem!
Keep speaking, my friends.