The role of grammar descriptions in language learning


In my mind, there’s a difference between grammar-only methods (like most classroom settings I’ve encountered), grammar-light methods, and no-grammar methods.

In many classrooms there’s such an exclusive focus on memorizing grammar rules that students don’t get enough exposure to the actual language to internalize it. It’s clear that at some point, the language must somehow be internalized, because we don’t speak our native language through a series of calculations, as grammar is taught.

Instead, I feel that grammar is more efficiently used as a reminder or a hint of what exists, and what patterns may occur as you read. This way, it becomes a helpful pointer toward what patterns you might notice. Sometimes it can be hard to notice those patterns on your own, if they have too many exceptions. Once you’ve had it pointed out though, then it becomes much easier to internalize it through extensive reading, which is where Krashen’s advice becomes valuable.

That said, if the patterns are already familiar, then you can just read. I’ve never in my life looked at any Dutch grammar, I just read parallel texts to learn it. The ideas were similar enough to German that I picked up the patterns very easily. And I was able to learn to understand German quite well without reading about grammar as well, although I did remember the basic conjugations from my high school classes more than a decade before.

In the coming months, as I start to get acquainted with Polish, I’m going to follow a similar strategy, even though the grammar is apparently much more complicated and unfamiliar. I’ll look at some simple examples just to see what’s out there, and then as I read I’ll mentally make a note of the patterns as I see them, and that way I’ll become familiar with them through exposure. I don’t think there’s really a need to suffer through a bunch of boring textbook exercises. I plan to just keep doing something fun.

How we confuse minor failure with genetic impossibility


There’s a problem that many people have, where they think that the only learning that occurs is explicit learning, where they consciously add little bits of knowledge into their brain one by one in a deliberate order. This is commonly the idea transmitted by our school systems, where it’s required that the teachers test the students on the topic. It’s easiest to test the results when the students have to explicitly learn certain well-defined concepts, and then regurgitate them in an exam.

The big problem with this, however, is that many of the really interesting things that we can do with our minds can not be explicitly learned or assembled like an architect in this fashion. We have to absorb them through experience, and our mind automatically adapts itself in order to succeed at them. This sort of learning is not encouraged in schools, and many people are unaware of it. In fact, most people are so opposed to this idea that when they encounter a skill that must be “absorbed” in this way and can’t be explicitly learned, then they will start to claim that they’re actually completely unable to do that skill.

One example of this is juggling. I love juggling, but when I started I was completely horrible at it. I’d throw the balls up, miss them, and they’d all drop to the ground. Every time. It took me a lot of practice to actually just do the basic 3-ball pattern correctly for more than a couple of throws. Now I’m fully confident in my 3-ball juggling, and I enjoy learning new tricks. To other people, it appears that I just do it naturally.

When I’ve tried to teach other people, though, I’ve found that a lot of them are ready to give up really early. When they see me do it effortlessly, and then they totally fail, they somehow jump to the illogical conclusion that they’re actually genetically predisposed to not be able to juggle. Even if I tell them emphatically that I started at the exact same place as them, they tend not to believe me.

What I think is happening, is that they’re trying to follow my step-by-step instructions (which are very simple to understand), but they can’t successfully complete the task I’ve given them, they decide that they will never be able to. They say things like “I just don’t have the talent”, or “I’ve never been coordinated anyway”. They don’t seem to realize that even though the instructions are simple, it takes practice before your brain will adapt and be able to perform the skill accurately. You can’t just “decide” to juggle and then it suddenly happens. Your brain must actually reconfigure itself in some way in order to succeed.

Another interesting example is riding a bike. This is an interesting case, because many people can do it, and most of those people are actually convinced that they explicitly know how they’re doing it, but it can be conclusively proven that most of the time they don’t. Bike riding is an unconscious, adapted skill, not an explicitly learned step-by-step conscious calculation, but many people don’t think this is the case.

When you ask someone how they’re riding a bike, they’ll say something like “you steer with your hands on the handlebars, and you pedal with your feet”. Then if you ask them how the bike stays up instead of tipping over sideways, most people will mumble something they’ve heard about the spinning wheels acting like gyroscopes to keep the bike upright.

This is actually wrong, and it can be proven by fixing the front wheel so it can’t turn. Give somebody a bike that can’t be steered, and they’re guaranteed to fall over. It just can’t be ridden. The reason is that what keeps the bike up is not the spinning of the wheels, but the tiny unconscious steering motions that we make. When you learn to ride a bike, what you’re doing is training your brain to make those tiny corrections, which act to keep the bike underneath your body. If you can’t steer, you can’t make those tiny corrections, and the bike will tip, guaranteed.

Unicyclists tend to know this, because they’ve actually been explicitly taught that they must steer the unicycle back underneath them in order to stay up. It becomes much more clear somehow when you only have one wheel, perhaps because those tiny corrections have been magnified, and you have to learn how to do rather large corrections.

Either way, the lesson learned here is that there are many things we take for granted that are actually unconscious skills, and can’t be learned through consciously following a sequence of steps written down on paper. Our minds must adapt to them through experience, but some of us have been fooled into thinking that everything must be doable purely by following explicit steps, or it’s not doable at all.

Now, if we come back to the topic of languages, I think the same principles apply. There are many people who try to memorize some explicit rules in a classroom, but then they still can’t read or understand or speak the language. They have been trained to think that the memorization of explicit rules IS language learning, when in fact what they need to do is supply their brain with enough understandable experiences that it will adapt itself to the new language. Sometimes this can happen to a small degree by accident because they’ve spent so much time doing pointless grammar drills, but the real action happens when they get exposed to the language over and over again in comprehensible ways. This supplies the experiential material that the brain needs in order to get familiar with this new skill.

There aren’t really that many people who “just aren’t good at languages”, which I think should be obvious by the fact that everyone speaks one (certain extreme exceptions aside). The big problem is that people give up on learning a second one when they think that it must be done through explicit memorization of rules, which it just can’t. The real skill we need to learn is to let go of the feeling of control that those explicit rules give us. We need to trust our brain to do its job, which it does every day on many other things which sometimes escape our notice.

As I said in my previous article about breaking through plateaus, we need to find ways to expose ourselves to thing that are mostly comprehensible, but a little bit challenging…enough so that we’ll make some errors. With some correction or feedback, or just through experiencing the situation over and over, our brains will adapt to this new stimulus and we’ll get better.

Just like everyone sucks at juggling when they start, you have to realize that you’re going to suck at a new language when you start. In fact you might suck for a long time. You just need to keep exposing yourself to somewhat comprehensible bits of it that are a little bit challenging, and you’ll slowly adapt to it over time. It’ll become familiar.

The real process behind language learning is figuring out how to keep yourself exposed to it in various ways until it becomes familiar to you. You can’t know which parts will be familiar first. It’s an unconscious process, but you can consciously keep feeding yourself the material. That’s the job of the conscious mind in language learning…purely a logistical job. You arrange for various materials to be placed in front of your eyeballs and for sounds to enter your ears. You can choose what small distinctions to pay attention to, so that the unconscious can better train itself about those differences. Beyond this, most of the work is in reconfiguring neurons, and it’s not a conscious activity.

I’ll continue in a further article about those small things we can notice that will help us absorb the language and become familiar with it, but for now I’ll just leave you with a few thoughts. How many things did your brain unconsciously do for you today? Did you consciously walk to the kitchen by following an algorithm of “move left foot 45cm forward. Now move right foot 45cm forward”? No, you just walked. Did you talk to your friend by calculating the correct grammar order and conjugation of the words? No, you just talked.

Neither of these tasks were in-born…you had to learn them. But they still function unconsciously, similar to breathing or swallowing. And knowing this gives us a powerful understanding of how to teach ourselves a new language.

Studying Polish, day 2: getting familiar with some grammar concepts


So I spent a few hours playing with parallel texts, trying to solve the puzzle of Polish. I tried to stay curious, and pretended that I was searching through the text of a secret language that I had to figure out. One of the tools that I used for this was a firefox plugin called “Babelfish”, which allowed me to hold my mouse over a Polish word and have it pop up a translation. I can also highlight several words at once and get a translation of the phrase. This is just an additional tool to the parallel text, which already gives me the proper translation of the full sentence, but in a language like this that is really different from the ones I know, it helps to break it down even further to a word-by-word translation.

I gained some familiarity with the language – what it looks like and sounds like, and some of the words. I’ve started today with a different approach, though. I looked online for collections of example sentences that show the structure of Polish. I’m briefly reading about the different cases, genders, verb tenses, and all that sort of stuff. I’m not trying to memorize the tables; I’m focusing on finding easy example sentences that illustrate the concepts, so that I’ll be able to recognize some of them when I go back to reading my books.

I think it was important to try the books first, because it gave me some questions that need answering. As I read through the grammar examples, I’m not seeing the concepts for the first time. Instead, they are explanations of things that I’ve already seen in the real language, and therefore it’s more of an “Aha!” moment of realization when I see something. This helps to cement the concept in my mind, because I’m relating it to something that is already in there.

The same idea will help when I go back to my books to try and read more. When I see a certain case ending, or verb conjugation, perhaps I’ll be reminded of one of the example sentences that I read this morning.

My emphasis is always curiousity and enjoyment. If I’m finding the grammar examples interesting, then I’ll continue. If they get boring, I won’t feel any guilt or pressure to continue; it just means I need to go back to my books and find something that’s fun. To keep up the motivation to study, you just have to follow what’s fun. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.

After that brief overview of Polish grammar, I’m finding it much easier to pick out which words match with which, in my parallel text. Although I don’t necessarily remember which ending means which case, what I do remember is enough to indicate that a certain word is a noun and the word beside it is an adjective, and another word is a verb in past tense. This allows me to match up the words with the English equivalents much faster, which means I have to spend less time investigating each word.

My book for today is Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, called “Alchemik” in Polish. Earthsea is a rather challenging book in comparison, and I decided to try something simpler. I really enjoyed reading The Alchemist in Swedish, and I know the story quite well, so I figured it’d be fun to try in Polish. It uses simple language, but still has a deep and interesting plot. There’s lots of very simple dialog between the characters. I like the way that he conveys interesting ideas without using too much flowery language, which also makes it ideal for learning languages.

Because I’m very familiar with the book, I also know which words will be repeated often in the coming pages, so I try to focus my attention on those. Hopefully I’ll recognize them when they come up again. I’m also trying to pay more attention to sentences that have a really common verb like read, eat, drink, walk. I know that those sorts of words will come up again everywhere, so I want to focus more on them instead of the more obscure verbs.

I find it fun to give myself a small task when I read too. It could be paying attention to certain sounds, or looking for common words, focusing on endings, etc. It just gives some extra meaning to my activity, along with enjoying the story. At this point, I’m not getting any of the story from the Polish side, so that’s another reason why I find it helpful to have a small sub-task to work on too, which keeps my attention focused on the Polish words, even if I don’t understand them yet.

My first experiences studying Polish with parallel texts


Although my first brief foray into the Slavic languages was with Bulgarian, I basically only learned a few phrases to say to my friends, as it seemed too intimidating at the time to try and really learn it. Since then, I’ve become a lot more experienced at learning languages, but Bulgarian still suffers from a lack of decent materials; the opposite is true of Polish, though.

Polish draws me for several reasons. My father’s father spoke Polish as a boy, and his parents (my great-grandparents) immigrated to Canada from Poland in 1909. Although no living member of my family speaks Polish, it’s still part of the family history. Beyond that, I have several friends at home in Vancouver who are native Polish speakers, so I’ve thought about learning it several times.

So, here I am, starting something new. This month I’m planning to divide my time amongst several languages, and part of that will be a little bit of work on Polish. The internet is absolutely full of excellent Polish materials. There are dozens of interesting books that I want to read, some translated, and some native to Polish. A lot of them seem to have both audiobooks and ebooks available, which is perfect for me.

Today I’m starting with a translation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I’ve given myself a vocabulary “pre-test” using another book, and I’ve discovered that I understand about 1% of the words on an average page of Polish. This is much different than Dutch, where I could at least figure out a bunch of them. Polish is pretty much opaque to me at this point, and I only recognize the obvious “international” words, such as those related to science.

Despite this, I’m diving right into real texts. No stupid textbook dialogs for me, thanks. In the first few minutes of listening to the audiobook as I read the parallel text (English/Polish), I’ve learned several things right away. First, I synch myself according to the capitalized words, which are usually place names. From those, I can recognize the other words that occur near them. What follows here is a running description of what I’m seeing and learning as I read a book like this in Polish.

In the case of Earthsea, I see the proper noun “Gont”, which is the name of an island. Nothing really learned from this, since it’s a made-up name. But it always occurs with “the island of” in English, and wyspa in Polish, so I guess that that’s “island”, perhaps with a possessive case. Shortly after that, I got confirmation when I saw “from isle to isle” corresponding with od wyspy do wyspy.

I also easily found the word for wizard, which seems to be czarnoksiężnik, and it looks like the plural of that might be czarnoksiężników, and from this I could conclude that czarami was probably “magic”. I sort of stumbled upon the word braci for “brothers”, since it sounds similar. Then another thing from capitalization: Doliny Północnej for “Northern Vale”, although I’m not really sure which of those corresponds to northern and which to vale.

I’m not only looking for vocabulary. I’m also trying to get used to the phonetic inventory of Polish. Before starting to read, I read the wikipedia page on Polish phonetics. I found out that there are several sounds that English speakers usually perceive as the same, but which Poles consider distinct sounds (specifically, cz and ć, sz and ś, etc). So I’m paying very close attention to which sounds are where, and how they are different from the sounds I’m familiar with.

This relates back to the idea of plateaus. As babies listen to the language around them, they slowly adapt to which sounds are present in their developing native language, and they lose the ability to distinguish those from other similar sounds that might be distinct in other languages. In a sense, as they adapt they also create a plateau beyond which they can no longer reach. Automaticity allows them to learn to understand and speak their first language, but becomes a hindrance later if they want to learn another one.

Overcoming this is just like busting through the plateau of typing speed or whatever else, as I mentioned in a previous article. You need to learn how to notice those differences, perhaps by reading a description of them and where to find them. Then you need some exposure to them that challenges you. You need to seek them out, sometimes making mistakes, by listening to something that is not easy. Push yourself a bit. And then you need a way to get some feedback. I usually use a text transcript for this. I listen to audio to try and find the different sounds that I’m not used to, and I use the text transcript to give the answers of where they were. This allows me to train my perception of those sounds.

This is something I can do immediately with Polish, despite knowing basically zero vocabulary. Working on my perception (and then production) of sounds is something that will help me throughout my learning process, and will later be a great help when I want to read some books that no longer have a corresponding audiobook, so that I have the right “voice” in my head as I read. This is not only a matter of knowing the sounds, but also the orthography, so that I know what sounds go with the letters in something like wykrzyknął (which at this point looks like total gibberish to me, honestly).

I’ll leave it at that for today, but I’ll make some more notes about my discovery process as it develops. Basically I’m just trying to follow my curiousity wherever it takes me, and learn any polish words I can through any method that’s interesting. I need to make sure that I have a variety of source materials, so that I can switch to another one if I get bored of one of them, and I’ve installed a firefox plugin called “BabelFish” that does popup translations of words that I hold my mouse over. Other than that, I’m just doing whatever feels fun 🙂

Improving your learning skills: busting through plateaus


I’ve been thinking lately about my German skills, and comparing my feelings about German to other languages. In German, there are certain grammatical aspects that I find annoying, but I’ve found ways to function without having to learn them totally precisely. I can understand everything I read in books, for example, but I’m not good enough to write these grammatical details completely correctly (although I can get them mostly right by gut intuition).

When I compare with Dutch, I find that I’m more willing to try writing Dutch, because Dutch has simpler grammar and I feel more confident because the adjective endings aren’t so tricky. When I compare to Chinese, it feels more like an adventure to try and learn thousands of characters, but in German it just feels like a chore to try and memorize thousands of noun genders, and the appropriate adjective endings according to gender and case.

Logically, German should be easier to work on than Chinese characters, but I think another thing that’s holding me back is that I’m somewhat complacent. I can read without problems (unlike in Chinese, where it’s a strain still). In some sense, I’m “good enough”, and this has led me to an educational dead-end, a plateau beyond which I won’t advance.

I think the situation is similar to learning to type, as mentioned in this fantastic article about training your memory skills. The author explains that as we start typing, we have to hunt around and think about things a lot, and it goes slowly. In the beginning, you’re just looking for patterns, and the more examples you get, the more that pattern becomes familiar to you. Then it gradually gets easier until one day we’re just typing along on “auto-pilot” without thinking about it. Conscious thought is no longer required…it just “happens”.

This can be a great feeling…juggling some balls without needing to calculate where they all go…riding a bike without thinking about staying upright…speaking without halting and searching for words. Although this is a great place to be, it’s also a plateau, an educational dead-end. People don’t improve their speed after this, even if they type for hours each day (as many of us do). If you want to improve further, you have to challenge yourself somehow, rather than continuing to type the same way you do every day. You have to push yourself until you make mistakes, and then figure out how to correct those mistakes.

I think I’m currently at a plateau with German. I read books without thinking…I just enjoy them. But I know that there are words in there that I don’t know, and grammar points that I recognize, but can’t reproduce 100% correctly. I’m not as good as I want to be, but most of the time I’m just content where I am. To break out of this, I have to challenge myself to notice new things. I have to force myself into the places where I’m uncertain, instead of letting them pass me by so that I can stay comfortable.

So, although I sometimes still want to read for pleasure, it’s no longer that much of a learning experience. To remake it into a learning experience, I need to actively search out those places where I make mistakes, and I need to have immediate correction so that I can evaluate my responses.

The first task I’ve given myself is to be able to produce noun genders correctly, as well as the adjective endings that go along with them in the various cases. Right now, I mostly ignore these as I’m reading, since I recognize just enough to get me the correct meaning, but I can’t reproduce them on my own 100% reliably. In order to really learn them, I have to make myself intently aware of them as I read, and try to state explicitly what they imply and how they’d look in a similar situation. I just try to really be aware of all aspects of these patterns in any way I can.

Then, in order to complete the learning process, I need immediate feedback. While I’m reading, I keep open a grammar table that lists the possibilities, and I double check on there to make sure my guesses were correct, or to figure things out when I get stuck. So, 3 things: intentional awareness, an attempt to produce something on my own (to build the active skill), and then double-check / confirmation. All of this ensures that I won’t read right past the potential learning experiences, and that I’m putting myself into unknown territory that will push me out of the plateau.

Another important aspect of this process is to remember that you don’t need to be perfect at the start. Don’t try super hard to do everything 100%, you just need to make those learning experiences more “available” to your mind, and they will get absorbed. I know that if I keep reading and try to recite the noun genders as I go, I may not be perfect at the start, but it will come. I don’t have to be super diligent about drilling each individual word 100 times each…I just have to make each one into a conscious learning experience, and all of those experiences will add up.

This is in contrast to the situation before, where I would just read past them. I was reading for comprehension and vocabulary, rather than grammatical perfection. Now my vocabulary is excellent…I know 99.5% of the words in an adult novel in German, but it’s time to really work on those pesky remaining grammar features.

I think this entire process applies well to other tasks, and other language features. Take, for example, the people who speak a language for a long time but still have a strong accent. I believe that they’ve become “good enough” to function, and they’ve stopped pushing themselves to watch for those subtle differences in pronunciation. They use the sounds from their native language, and haven’t quite figured out what makes the new sounds different. When you don’t consciously try to notice the new sounds, you can’t train yourself to hear them properly, and you never improve. Complacency and auto-pilot keep you at a plateau, and your accent will never improve until you really push hard to notice what’s going on in detail.

How to create parallel texts for language learning, part 2


I wrote previously about how to manually create a parallel text for language learning, which basically involved lining up paragraphs using a common spreadsheet program. Now I’m going to dive into my preferred method of parallelizing, which is by using special software to create a sentence-aligned text. This article is intended for a more computer-savvy audience, so if you’re confused by the tech terminology, then I recommend going back to the previous article.

The main feature of a parallel text is that it has aligned sections of text in at least two languages, enabling you to quickly understand the meaning in a new language using a language that you already understand. Having each section aligned means that you can totally eliminate annoying dictionary lookups, and you also get the benefit of having sentence-level translations that better represent the meaning of each word in context. This is an extremely valuable tool for language learning because it enables you to learn much faster, and to learn more in-depth features of the language quickly.
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Report from the Talenfestival in Leuven


Yesterday we spent the day in Leuven at the “Talenfestival” (Language festival), organized by a group called “Esperanto 3000”. The idea of a language festival is to have an event where people can be introduced to many different world languages in a short period of time.

From what I can tell, the original Language Festival was a 4-day event in a city in Russia, about 12 hours’ train ride from Moscow. There’s a room for each language and you can just wander around attending talks about whatever language you’re interested in. The language festival we attended here in Belgium was a bit different; there were 4 1-hour sessions spread over a single afternoon, so you had to choose wisely.

There were about 6 to 8 different rooms active during the afternoon, each with a different language lecture. Only a couple of the languages were repeated, so you really had to choose well. There was a non-european languages track, so you could spend the afternoon learning about Tshiluba, Lingala and Swahili, and Sinhalese. Since it was anticipated that some people would be interested in several of these, they were timed so that they wouldn’t conflict with each other.

For my first choice, I went to a Polish course. It was all in Dutch, but I found it quite easy to understand, which was comforting. The intimidating part was when the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves first, and say why we were interested in Polish. I was 6th in line for that, so a had a few moments to prepare, but then got through it pretty easily. I also got many questions about my Dutch-learning methods later in the break, since people were quite interested in how I managed to learn so much in less than 2 months. I told them that Harry Potter is magic in more ways than one 😉

In the intermission, I went to grab a beer in the common room. As a Canadian, I’m still a bit amused at the situation, since I bought my beer from a teenager who was the drink selling volunteer for the event, and then it was assumed that I would naturally want to take my tasty Belgian beer with me to further lectures (which I did). In Canada, both of these things would be illegal…there’d have to be a tightly controlled area for beer drinking and selling where no one under 19 would be allowed, and you would never be allowed to walk to another room with your beer. It’s rather ridiculous. I love being treated like a rational adult here.

Next for me was a talk on Kurdish. I was rather disappointed with this one, since it started with a lame video with not much actual information on Kurdish. They had some video clips of kids being taught Kurdish in school, which is perhaps really important for the Kurds since their language is banned in Turkey if I remember correctly, but I wanted to actually learn something about the language instead of just watching a bunch of smiling kids in a class with a music track overlayed.

Things turned around when I went to the next talk though, which was about Lingala. It’s a Bantu language from Congo and the surrounding area, which is apparently expanding in usage because of the spread of Congolese music in the area. The talk was given in French, so I only understood the “technical” words that are common in many languages, but luckily there was a translation into Dutch so that gave me most of the nuances of the talk. Between the bits of French that I was able to grasp, and the concepts of Lingala that looked similar to those I had heard about Swahili already, and then the Dutch translation of it all, I managed to actually learn bits of both French and Lingala from the talk.

Lingala seems to share many Bantu features with Swahili, such as having many classes of nouns that are indicated by prefixes that must match with other words in the sentence. You can think of it like the European idea of word “genders”, but instead of two or three genders, you have more than 10, and each gender has a different way to indicate plurals. It’s mostly a spoken language, and there are many more people who speak it as a second language, using it for communication in the region.

Finally, I attended a talk on Czech. The instructor was an Esperanto speaker that I’d met before, who had actually studied for a while in Leuven, so he spoke pretty decent Dutch. He explained a lot of the basic structures of Czech, and I noticed that there were many close similarities with Polish from earlier in the day. This makes sense, since they’re both part of the Western Slavic language family.

It appears to me that Czech is probably easier than Polish, but as a language learner I’m drawn more to Polish because of the wide variety of resources available on the internet. Polish has a more difficult distinction between the “hard” and “soft” versions of several sounds, many of which I’m currently incapable of distinguishing, but I think I could remedy that with a lot of listening. I’ve met a lot of Esperantists from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, so I was interested in how much Polish would be understood by speakers of the other Western Slavic languages. Our instructor confirmed this by saying that through slow and careful speech, Czech speakers can make themselves understood by Polish speakers, and they have quite an easy time learning each others’ languages. This bodes well for my plan of entering the realm of Slavic languages through Polish.

After 4 sessions, the festival came to an end. We had a final beer and found more Esperanto speakers to chat with before heading out to find food. We went to a nice Indian restaurant (which actually gave me decently spicy food) and proceeded to have an amusing multilingual conversation. Most of it was in Dutch and Esperanto, but there were some brief interludes in English too. The most interesting of which was a joke that required all three languages to understand. To understand, you need to know first that the Dutch word for “to breed animals” is “fokken”, which always amuses me when I see it. This means a breeder of animals is then a “fokker”. The other word you need is “paarden” which is “horses” in Dutch.

So, the joke starts out with an Esperanto speaker asking “Kion vi faras?” (What do you do?). A Dutch speaker wants to try out his English skills, so he mistakenly responds “I fok horses”. An English speaker is appropriately shocked by this statement, and exclaims “Pardon???”, to which the Dutch speaker confirms “Ja, paarden!”. I found it extra amusing trying to explain all this in German to the guy next to me who didn’t catch all of it the first time. Needless to say, it was a wonderfully multilingual evening.

It’s now Sunday, and we’re having a relaxing day back in Brussels. I think we’ll take one more opportunity to drink some beer before we by some extra chocolate to take home, and then we fly back to Berlin this evening, carrying our heavy load of new Dutch books home with us. All in all, a successful trip, and I hope to come back here again at some point. Until then, I have tons of reading to do 😉

Belgium day 2: a visit to Antwerp and some Esperanto practice


Today we set off to Antwerp to get a taste of a true Flemish city to get some language practice. We took the train from Brussels and got there quite quickly.

Antwerp was just as beautiful as Brussels, with lots of great architecture, and beautiful little streets. The train station was particularly beautiful inside. We got some lunch first, before starting to explore. As we fumbled our way through ordering things, I realized that this is a huge weak-point in my Dutch, since I’ve just never encountered that sort of situation in any of my learning materials. I don’t know any of the common everyday expressions that happen in regular business transactions.

After lunch, we went straight to a bookstore that we had researched. It was better than we expected; much better selection and prices than the Dutch bookstore in Brussels. I first picked up 3 novels for €10 on the sale shelf (nice and cheap compared with the €20 novels in Brussels). Then I found a big fat fantasy book that’ll take me a while to work through, but looks fun. As I wandered through the other sections of the store, I also found a book on Anarchism in Spain (by a Dutch author), so I’ll get my fill of political and philosophical sorts of words, to broaden my vocabulary. After hauling my bag of treasures out of the store, I felt great knowing that I have a new pile of books that I really want to read, rather than my previous materials that were just whatever I could find at the time that happened to be in Dutch.

Next we hung out in a cafe for a while, reading books and sipping coffees, then beers. We had arranged to go to an Esperanto club meeting in the evening, so we had some time to kill.

The Esperanto meeting was quite fun too. It was at a building in downtown owned by the Flemish Esperanto League (FEL), and they put on a big dinner. There were probably 30 people there for dinner, anywhere from beginners to advanced. I actually got to practice my Dutch a lot with some friends of attendees, who didn’t really know that much Esperanto. They were a bit reluctant to speak Dutch in front of the foreign guests at an Esperanto event, but we assured them that we understood Dutch too.

It was an interesting experience, since my Esperanto now seems to flow reasonably well. I chatted away to some people in Esperanto for a bit about various topics, but then decided to push Dutch a bit more with the others. They were quite happy to help me out, and nobody tried to switch to English at all. I was able to get my ideas across in Dutch without too much trouble, which was very gratifying.

So, now we’re back at our hosts’ apartment in Brussels, speaking Esperanto yet again. Tomorrow is the big day of the Language Festival in the neighbouring city of Leuven, which we’re all looking forward too. I’m now quite confident that I’ll be able to enjoy the talks in Dutch, and that I’ll be able to converse with people there. It should be a blast.

I’ve also been reading through my new books, and I find that I can actually read them pretty easily. I’m finally reaching the level of reading skill that feels very satisfying. I can read novels and non-fiction without too much trouble in Dutch now, so I just need to work on my vocab and reading speed a bit more. I’m nowhere near “done”, whatever that may mean, but I’m very happy with my level so far.

I still need more practice speaking, and that’s my goal for the next while. I don’t think I could really pass my “fun bar conversation” test yet, so I’ll have to search out some Dutch speakers in Berlin once I get back so I can practice more. I suspect I’ll be able to speak fairly well before I leave Europe, though.

Time for sleep now. I’ll report more after the Language Festival tomorrow 🙂

Learning Dutch while traveling: first impressions of Belgium


I’ve just spent my first day in Belgium, in the capitol city of Brussels. I’m here with two friends from Berlin in order to attend a “language festival” on Saturday in Leuven. For the next few days, we’ll be staying with some Esperanto-speaking friends here in Brussels while we explore the surrounding area.

Today we wandered around downtown Brussels. We joked to each other that pretty much every store here has either a) waffles, b) chocolate, c) fries, or d) beer. It’s not totally true, but nearly. Unfortunately (for us), the majority of the people in Brussels speak French, even though it’s in the northern part of Belgium that is majority Dutch-speaking. Apparently it’s a large exception in the area.

Brussels is a very beautiful city. Lots of small streets, beautiful old architecture mixed with a lot of modern buildings too. It would be fun to have more time to explore around and try out all the local beers, and see more of the city. One thing that surprised me, though, was that the “Grand Place / Grote Markt” (a big square in the middle of town) seemed to be quite littered with trash and empty beer bottles, and was full of beer-swilling rowdies.

My friends and I began searching out bookstores (naturally ;), and found a decent-sized Dutch bookstore. It seems that book prices are quite high here, mostly around €20 for a novel. I managed to find “De Da Vinci Code” in Dutch for €5 though, so I have something new to read. Speaking of prices, I find food quite expensive here too, compared to Berlin anyway…although Berlin is widely known as a very cheap city.

We’ve been staying with some Esperanto speakers, one from Croatia and one from Slovenia, who met each other at an Esperanto event. It’s been quite fun practicing Esperanto with them. Tomorrow we’re heading to Antwerp where we’ll meet up with more Esperanto speakers, although we’ll be focusing on practicing our Dutch with them.

Saturday is the Language Festival in Leuven, where we’ll be attending several 1-hr seminars about various languages. I think I signed up for Polish, Lingala (from central Africa), and two others. All of the seminars will be given in Dutch, so it should be interesting to see how much I understand.

More soon, when I get some spare time 🙂

Language education in British Columbia, Canada


There’s been some controversy in British Columbia lately, about the new proposed curriculum changes for teaching languages in public schools (available here in PDF: Additional Languages draft). The vast majority of the fuss revolves around the political ideology of nationalism, proponents of which believe that the country of Canada can only remain whole if everyone in the country has some education in both of the official languages, English and French. This ignores the reality of most peoples’ lives in BC, in which French is nonexistent, but languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Punjabi are everywhere, spoken by their neighbours and many other people in their cities.
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