swedish phonetics question

2009-12-15

Since I’ve been listening to lots of Swedish lately, from a variety of sources, I’ve come across a sound that I can’t quite figure out how to duplicate, and I can’t find it mentioned in the pronunciation articles I’ve been reading. I’m hoping some Swedes can come to my rescue and explain how to make this sound.

I’ve gathered 4 examples of it. I’ve been referring to it as “the strangling sound” because it sounds to me like there’s a throat-constricting thing going on during this vowel. It only occurs in one accent, which occurs in one of my audiobooks and in one of the speakers from the Swedish Pimsleur lessons.

Sample 1 is from an audiobook. Listen for about the 6th word or so, which sounds like “li”, except the vowel has this weird quality that I’m having trouble describing.

Sample 2 is from the same audiobook, and has a couple examples of the strangling sound. Again, a “li” sound at about the 5th word, and then another word a few words later.

Sample 3 is from Pimsleur. The word is “Hej”, right at the beginning.

Sample 4 is also from Pimsleur, and the last word, “vin”, has this sort of sound. This might actually be the most clear example.

If anyone can tell me anything about this…like how to reproduce it, and maybe what accent this is, it would be much appreciated 🙂


the value of conversation

2009-12-13

Last Tuesday I went to meet a bunch of Germans at a local bar near my workplace. It was a German “meetup” organized through Meetup.com. They get every week or two at a bar or restaurant, and sometimes they do other things like going to see a movie (if it’s in German).

Up until now, my studies have mainly focused on absorbing content, such as books and tv. I’ve barely done any speaking, mostly because I was nervous about how much I’d understand. After finally deciding it was time to practice speaking, and going out to chat with some Germans, I was pleasantly surprised in two ways.

The first was that I was able to hang out in a bar having a beer with a bunch of Germans and I was able to understand everything they said. This was very encouraging for me, especially since I attempted to do the same thing about 10 years ago the last time I was in Germany, and it was mostly a lesson in how little I knew at the time. I sort of expected it to be pretty easy this time, though, because I can so easily understand most of what’s said on the TV shows I watch, so I figured talking in the bar wouldn’t be much different (except for the extra distracting noise of the music and other conversations).

Secondly, I was surprised that my ability to read things out loud seems to be improved. I have a better sense of how a sentence is supposed to sound when I say it. Maybe I was paying much more attention to everything that was being said when it was important for me to get everything in order to respond properly. Something about that activity felt clearly more beneficial than just trying to understand TV and Radio. This is quite encouraging since it was such a short period of only a couple hours, so it’s encouraging me to go back again for more practice.

What I need to work on next time is my ability to just keep saying words, even if they’re perhaps not the perfect word that I was trying to think of. There are many many ways to say things, and I just need to work on having something sub-optimal flow out. I can work on refining things later.


new side-project: Swedish

2009-12-09

As part of my challenge for the coming year, I’m adding Swedish to my plate. I’m quite eager to try out another Germanic language now that I can understand so much German.

My strategy at the start will be to do a lot of listening to native materials right away. I’ve got several audiobooks as mp3s for this. I’ve done some brief reading about the major features of the language on wikipedia, such as the types of vowel sounds that exist, and some interesting things like the tones that some of the words have (which is vaguely similar to chinese).

I’ve ordered a book online, and once it arrives then I’ll be reading it at the same time as I listen to the audio version. Before the book arrives, I’m hoping to do around 30 hours of pure listening to native materials to train my ear a bit.

What I’ve found so far, even after only about 5 hours of raw listening, is that I’m starting to grow accustomed to the sounds and I’m starting to relate some of the Swedish words to some of their German or English cognates. For example, I immediately noticed that “uppmärksamhet” is clearly related to “aufmerksamkeit” in German (meaning “attention” in English). I’m hoping that by starting with many hours of pure listening in my spare time (like with headphones at work), then I can both absorb the phonology and start to connect the cognates and gain some ability for free. I’m also looking up some very basic words from beginner pages, such as the Swedish page from ielanguages.com, which will supplement my basic knowledge of words that are very frequent.

With that sort of background, I’ll be more able to start with an L-R (“listening-reading”) strategy later in the month, and at that point I can start focusing on specific new words that I want to learn from the text. I think this’ll be an interesting exercise, as I’ll be able to test the ideas I have about starting a language completely from scratch. I’ve never listened to anything in Swedish before, so anything I learn about it now will be completely due to my own methods.

One other thing that I might do is find a list of common words to work through, which I could perhaps add to Anki in order to gain some more familiarity with those. I could also find some sort of exercise book that would introduce me to certain parts of the language (like maybe one of the “Teach Yourself” series). I like to use a variety of sources, with primary focus on the words and phrases that are the most common.

I’ll post some more updates as things progress 🙂


thinking too much in your native language

2009-12-01

(part of this post was formulated as a response to a question on HTLAL. several people seemed to find my response useful, so I decided to elaborate here)

A question came up recently about what to do when you get stuck thinking in your native language (L1) too much while trying to learn a new language (L2). Maybe you don’t get things when you don’t translate them back to something comfortable. And then you start to worry that you’ll ever start to actually think in your target language.

I suggest that you try this: Try reading but “ignoring” the meanings of the words. Instead of reading like you have been, just try to go through a whole page where you just look at each L2 word sequentially, and try to say each word out loud or in your head. Don’t even try to “understand” anything, just look at those words and hear their sound in your head. focus on that sound.

If there are any words you don’t know, it doesn’t matter. Pretend they’re all words that you don’t know, and just look at them and think of their sound in your head. just keep moving slowly and steadily through the entire page, looking at every word, but not consciously trying to understand.

I think what you’ll actually find is that you really will understand a lot of it. What this should help with is removing any anxiety about needing to know the meaning of every single word, which is probably one of the reasons you’re trying to translate them in your head. By focusing purely on the sounds, and their feel, you can remove the temptation to do any English, and just absorb yourself in the experience of looking at and sounding out L2 words.

Perhaps part of the frustration is that you’ve been trained by school to think that you must get everything 100% right. This is a useless habit to be in when learning languages, because you’re guaranteed to get some things wrong for a long long time. You have to learn how to accept this and move on. You learn a lot by simple exposure to the language, especially exposure to content that is just a little bit challenging, a little bit out of reach.

Another part of the problem might be that your balance of Intensive and Extensive reading is out of whack. Intensive reading is where you investigate every detail of a small portion of text, whereas Extensive reading is focused on letting go and just reading lots and lots. During Extensive reading you have a much higher chance of enjoying the material, and of being absorbed into it. You want to lose track of time and fall into the book so that nothing else matters. Ignore all problems, ignore all words that you don’t know. Just read them and move on.

It’s important to cultivate this skill of Extensive reading. Don’t stick purely to the perfectionism of Intensive work. This comes in handy when watching TV in your L2, for example. When I worry about understanding every word, I’m constantly rewinding and turning on subtitles and looking up words, and I lose all enjoyment of the show. It becomes too much about “work” and I don’t want to do it anymore. On the other hand, when I just take a deep breath and let go, I start to fall into it and enjoy it. To do this, I remind myself that we’re all supposed to suck at the start. It’s just the way things are. There’s no way I can expect to know all these words they’re saying, but if I hear them enough in context then they’ll at least start to become familiar.

If I succeed in letting go of my inhibitions and I just watch the show, an interesting thing will happen. I’ll start to feel like I’m actually understanding what they’re saying. I won’t need a little English voice in my head translating, I’ll just get it. I’m not getting every single word; in fact there might be lots and lots of words that I’m missing. But by being absorbed in the show, it doesn’t matter anymore.

This “feeling” is not the same as total comprehension. If someone suddenly asks me “hey, what did he just say?” then it can be very difficult or impossible to translate that phrase into English. It’s like waking from a dream and not being able to remember the events. You know you understood it at the time, but now the feeling is gone.

You want to cultivate this feeling of immersion when you do Extensive reading too. Later on, when you go look up a couple of the problem words, you’ll still remember the scene of the book where they happened. Remembering this scene will help you remember the words much better, but you won’t remember the scene if it never got created in your head in the first place. To create the scenes of the book in your head, you have to let the words flow over you. You have to immerse yourself in it, get lost in it. This is very hard to do if you’re constantly translating back to English.

To get yourself into that L2 trance, focus on the sounds of the words like a mantra. Follow the sounds, just try to BE in the language.

One of the long-term benefits of Extensive reading is that you’ll be able to absorb information at a glance. In the past month, I’ve done very little Intensive reading. Instead, I’ve spent my time just reading for enjoyment and not trying to study any of the words specifically. After a month of this, I have trouble pointing to any specific words that I “learned”, but everything has become much easier to comprehend at a glance. When I do my German flashcards, I can go through them much much faster, because I can read the whole card in just one look, and I know exactly what it means. No translating to English.

Another benefit is that I can now read German out loud at a normal speaking pace. Before I would stutter and stop, and my eyes and mind couldn’t move fast enough to comprehend the text in order to speak it out at the right speed. I…would…read…it….like…this. Now I can look ahead and the words just pop into my mind because I’m understanding them in German, not translated into English.

So, don’t give up. This will happen. It just takes time and exposure. Keep your motivation up by doing fun things, and it’ll be more fun if you can get more absorbed in it and stop caring so much about every single word. Later if you go back to studying specific words, those individual words will also make more sense. Do something every day and enjoy it. It will all start to make sense over time.