Monday, April 27, 2009

Ideas, thoughts... rushing at you, like gusts of the wind at the cobweb, and coming through, and all you are left with is some filmsy patches with threaded edges...

Long time ago, the nights used to be black-and-white. Now what we see, or at least what you can see walking along the channels at night in the centre of Amsterdam, are different shades of ochre against dark blue sky. Little neon lanterns, starring into the night with a miriad of orange eyes, did that trick. Orange and blue are psychodelic colors. The night in Amsterdam is psychodelic by definition.

Still, Amsterdam, the center, is one of the most beatiful places at night. Walking down the quiet streets along the channels with the dark glistening water, along the big trees with spacious crowns made from fresh spring leaves, passing here and there little cafes and restaurants, brightly lit, with the late public quietly talking at the outside, near big mansions huddling together along the channels, just like 200 years feels almost like being in love; may be, even better, for Amsterdam will always give you some love back - you can be certain of that...

I feel myself almost helpless now, playing with bits of pieces at the entrance to the big and misterious grotto of the English language... it's all what I can do...

My train is coming to my destination. Thank you, Amsterdam, for a beautiful night.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Years and humans, folks and heroes,
All will run away for good,
Like the streams from thoughtless flood.
In the Nature´s vibrant mirror
Stars are fishnet, we are draught,
Gods are wights from mirky naught.

from Velimir Chlebnikov

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rosetta Stone: the goods and the bads :)

As I am almost finishing the complete Rosetta Stone language course (I took Spanish levels 1-3) I think I am in a position to more or less summarize my experience, the goods and the bads, so to say.

The goods (in no particular order):

- once you've got a subscription, you can access the course from every computer, every operational system which has sound input/output and graphics;

- you can train your pronunciation for the given language;

- the learning sequences are created in such way that you really barely need any explanation while learning new words and even phrases;

- you'll get a good (although very basic) set of really "common denominator" words and standard phrases, including everyday vocabulary (e.g. basic colors, parts of the house, furniture, body parts, common activities etc);

- you will pronounce, hear and read the same words and phrases so often that you will definitely remember some. Repetition is the mother of learning;

- with some luck, you'll be able to pick up some grammar features: tenses, cases (if applicable), mood etc.

- at the end of the course (complete 3 levels) you'll seem to arrive somewhere in between A1 and A2 levels (see explanation of them here). You will be able to understand basic stuff and even utter some very basic sentences. Of course, if you will stop using the language every day, you'll forget it very quickly, but that's another story.

The bads (also, in no particular order):

- The context. The principle of Rosetta Stone (hence the name) is that all languages are treated exactly the same way: you'll get learning sequences describing the everyday situations in the context which is supposed to be standard Western life environment, but to me, it seems that it is US urban life environment in particular. I mean, it doesn't look European enough :) Jokes aside, you are learning the language completely separated from the native language context. It is OK to have this knowledge if you are going to talk to, for example, French or Chinese people who have emigrated to US, probably. But expecting to use it in the land of the given language seems to be a bit far call.

- Logically follows from the previous one: you learn the very standard vocabulary, no colloquial words or phrases, and practically no synonims. That's enough to make yourself understood but not always enough to understand (unless the other person is ready to help) - exactly the description of A1 language competence level.

- "No explanations" principle doesn't work well for the grammar (especially for the complicated parts, like tenses and moods of the verbs). As I've already mused in my previous post, you'll probably create some system based on what you have been exposed to (and it's way less than the real child would be exposed to in the real life!) but there is practically no guarantee that this system would correspond to the real grammar 100%. Remember, when you have been a child you went to school and got grammar lessons in your own language. And even before that, when your mother or father spotted what they perceived as a systematic mistake in your speech, they not only corrected you, but probably also tried to explain the rule behind it (e.g. "when you talk about what one person does, put an "s" at the end of the action word: Pete reads but we read" - or something like that; I do not know exactly how English-speaking parents do it, but I am almost confident that they do it.).

- The clarity of the course seems to dwindle by the end, plus the learning curve becomes too steep (not enough data for the real osmosis, see above). You simply don't have time to figure out how on Earth all these tenses and mood are constructed. As a suggestion for improvement, I would propose adding formal grammar reference in some form.

- You don't really exercise in speaking (i.e. in creating phrases yourself): you are always supposed to create phrases according to very rigid patterns (which does not require extremely advanced speech recognition software, as far as I know :) ) - no synonyms, changing the order of the words even if it's valid, etc. A bit boring.

Summary: Rosetta is a reasonably acceptable tool for getting the very basics of the language and/or memorizing some everyday vocabulary. If you want anything more than that, you have to get it from somewhere else :) E.g. if you want to get a feeling of the language, you need to try putting yourself into the context (and if we are talking about "osmosis like a child does it", books for little kids are a great resource). Otherwise you'll learn a projection of the real language into a different context, if that's what you need, fine, but you'll encounter the limits as soon as you try to get beyond social trifleties and start speaking/reading/thinking about Stuff That Matters.

Important: The price of 6 months subscription for Rosetta Stone is 180 euro (last time when I checked). It is a bit at the high side but still not skyhigh. I've got the subscription through my employer though.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

I have just started to read the book "Language Instinct" written by Steven Pinker. The beginning of this book, and my recent experiments with Rosetta Stone course (I have been following Spanish course and almost done with it by now...) have inspired some thinking.

First, I really don't like Rosetta's principle to rely to full osmosis, when it concerns the grammar. I'll try to explain why.

The point of Rosetta Stone system is that every human being, when he or she was a child, has learned his own language via osmosis, therefore if you try to (very roughly) simulate the environment in which the child learns the language (as much as the structure of the computer program allows it) you can teach an adult person the new language without actually explaining anything, just by trial-and-error method.

Well, to some extent, it works. It is a great way to remember the meaning of words. But but but!.. The grammar!.. Don't you have to go to school for the grammar lessons in your own mother tongue?.. And if you don't, will you be speaking properly? (You know the answer - chances are big that you will end up speaking some dialect but not the language the way as it should...)

Now, Pinker comes into picture. He mentiones there the interesting phenomenon known as "creolization". The schema is the following:
- first, many people from different cultures are brought together; they don't know each other language and have to choose some "common" language (historically, those chosen languages happened to be English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese) to commicate with those who brought them (the bosses) and the other coworkers (the peers).
- as a result, "pidgeon English" (or whatever) comes into being - not a language, but rather a crude simulacrum, most importantly without a consistent grammar; you need lots of nonverbal help to understand those who speak it;
- then, as soon as there are the children who get to know this language at the age of language acquisition (below 6 years), they will create the "right" grammar and make the language suitable for communication; this, according to Pinker, is how the Creole languages were created;
- same process took place in other situations (for example, Pinker describes the development of the languages deaf people use in US and in Latin America).

What is the point? Well, for me, one very important point is that if you don't get a formal education in the language you speak,you end up creating dialect which will mirror the way _you_ understood how the grammar works. Examples: the Creole languages; the dialects of ethnic or social groups; may be, even the Roman languages (which have all, more or less, stemmed from Latin long time ago) initially could fall into this category.

The explanation is also quite simple: a language (real language) is a fruit of labor of more people then any dialect. This gives the mainstream languages their finesse and beauty. A small group is just not capable to do the same - it does not have the resources for that. A dialect can be nice but that's all you can say about it....

Which brings the following conclusion: if even in the content-rich real life environment without any additional education you might never really master the grammar of the language you learn to speak, in the extremely meager learning environment you won't get perfect grammar, either. Which is fine with me because I would not be using Rosetta Stone as a single point of reference for language learning (can't help remembering the words of polyglot Ilya Frank: learning language is like assembling little threads into one huge ball; you should get these threads from all possible places to succeed). But they really shouldn't claim that their method is the only thing needed to master the language.

Nevertheless, as I have already noted, for memorizing basic vocabulary and grammar constructs Rosetta is great. But there are several things you have to take along: a good grammar reference (with exercises), plenty of books (starting from simple ones) and then, live speech examples (e.g. radio or podcasts). And all this won't save you from very clumsy way of communicating until you create your own little collection of set phrases and canned responses :)

Still, learning language is great. It would be even greater if a system for language learning would have been an open-source one, with the possibility for everybody to add new modules, and with the dictionary which would also show the context usage of requested words. But for now, it looks like a dream... (and it's high time to go and get some :) )
Language belongs to everybody, because it can't exist without everybody's input to it. Therefore, it can never be copyrighted. (Which is good) But the works created in this language can and do get copyrighted. Where is the line that distinguishes between part of the language and a creative work? Is an aphorism produced by a person copyrighted? Will it no longer be copyrighted if everybody starts using it on regular basis, and just become part of the language? (Which is actually true). How about longer pieces of work? If anybody would now create a work which is a spinoff from a Shakespeare tragedy would he or she have to pay money to Shakespeare's heirs? (Apparently not). And if this will be a spinoff from a Harry Potter book? (You know the answer). It's only an arbitrary law which distinguishes these two situations from one another, which tells that you have to wait a given number of years after the author dies to be able to freely play with his/her ideas; doesn't it actually hinder creative process?..

Back to the topic: I wonder whether one day the right to learn a language would not be considered one of the basic human rights. I also wonder whether the same would be applicable to translations, and if true, what will happen to all those companies which are producing language courses, dictionaries and the like. Will they become fed from the public money? (If there will still be money at that point in time...)