Saturday, January 28, 2017

Portuguese through incomprehensible input

Sept. 18, 2016

Portuguesification. What an ugly word. Nevertheless, I am happy to report that I have watched 10 hours of Portuguese-language programming this weekend. That's the most time I've ever spent on Portuguese. Prior to this, I may have spent a few hours listening to a Portuguese-language audiobook in short 5-10 minute bursts. That was maybe 2 years ago. I have noticed a difference in my comprehension level between yesterday and today. I needed the full ten hours and one night of sleep to be able to make such a claim. I am far from being able to claim I actually understand Brazilian Portuguese, but I can now catch entire sentences. Portuguese is still largely incomprehensible.
Jensen (1989) showed that the Portuguese (speakers) understand speakers of Spanish to a significantly higher degree than the other way around. I am still far from being considered a speaker of Spanish but I am hopeful that my background in Italian will be of help too.

Sept. 23, 2016 Portuguese: 20+ hours of TV.

Spanish TV: 500 hours since January. I can now follow some crazy "fast" stuff in Castilian.

I have also sampled some audiobooks. Feels like a walk high in the Alps. One moment you're groping around and the next you can see for miles. Listening to a passage from Brothers Karamazov was easier than watching Caillou. A show glorifying Roman debauchery was easy. Abelha Maja, in European Portuguese, was incomprehensible several days ago. Today I was able to follow the story. Maja is still hard, however.

Sept. 26, 2016 30+ hours of TV.

"Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

2. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting...

The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more."

Sun Tzu (also) said:

"There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:

1. By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey.

This is called hobbling the army."

In other words, at the very least, learn to differentiate your front from your rear. Learn the pronunciation, master some vocabulary and develop basic listening skills before you start engaging in other activities.

Portuguese castle:

I estimate that the friendlies outnumber the enemies 3:1. There are numerous ogres in the tunnels below (low frequency items), but they come out rarely and when they do, more often than not, they're on my side. Half of the remaining enemy force are potential deserters. The rest can easily be surrounded and captured once the friendlies become a cohesive, maneuverable force. The friendlies' uniforms take a little getting used to, but I can now easily recognize entire regiments charging full speed in the heat of battle.

Portuguese subtitles are not available for any of the programs that interest me at the moment. Maybe it's a good thing. I didn't look up any words. I don't own a Portuguese dictionary. I could live without it, but in order to have the freedom NOT to use a dictionary, you need to own at least one.

Sept. 30, 2016 TV (Br. Portuguese) 40+ hours

I listened carefully to three different episodes from the same TV series. In each case I counted 30 consecutive sentences and in each case I fully understood approximately 28 sentences. When I hit a hard spot the main reason for a breakdown of comprehension seems to be the inability to make out individual syllables. I didn't try to assess whether I would have been able to understand a troublesome word/words. I can spot new words and I have picked up new vocabulary and expressions. I am able to sink into the content at which time my ability to make observations is limited. Recognizing and decoding cognates in real time leaves no time for thinking (or conscious recognizing). If the sentence is isolated and I hear something like "O meu chapéu!" I may snap out of it and notice the similarity to French. If I heard "melhor" in a similar situation I am not sure I'd be comparing it to other languages. I don't think I can remember when or how I first noticed most of the words I am now able to comprehend. Sleeping on previously covered material helps. I am more likely to analyze and notice if I'm not particularly interested in the content. The more vocabulary the better, of course, but decoding and processing takes precedence.

Oct. 1, 2016 Br. Portuguese is going well. Regarding Portuguese being an enemy castle... it turns out I missed the "hotel e churrascaria" sign in the back. Everything's 50% off. Live and learn.

I can follow detective shows. My comprehension dropped after I switched to a different show but it quickly recovered. Today I spent 50 mins watching a program in European Portuguese. Listening to European Portuguese feels like I've just started listening to the language. I got a bit of a discount compared to where I was when I started listening to Br. Portuguese, but in order to cash in that IOU I'll need to spend at least 20-40 hours listening to European Portuguese.

The idea to start listening to Portuguese was born while I was watching a football game in Romanian. I'm tired of being a conformist so I officially give up calling the game "soccer".

Oct. 19, 2016 According to Kodi, I have spent around 150 hours on Portuguese-language TV programming. The first 20-30 hours were almost pure incomprehensible input and now I have no trouble understanding detective type TV shows. The best way I can describe the process is that it's a bit like turning on the world's slowest defogger. I cannot routinely string together 30 fully understood sentences with some material but I am getting close. I am learning new vocabulary daily. I am also hearing the newly learned words and expressions on a daily basis: droga, cara, legal, Nossa, mandachuva, a gente, ainda, barulho, turma, tá ligado, tá this, tô that, achar (several meanings), lembrar... My Oxford Portuguese is still shrink-wrapped. Cognates remain my no.1 priority. Not bad for a month's worth of TV watching.

Conscious vs subconscious noticing. Eh, I don't have time to contemplate what's happening between my ears. Here's a couple of studies instead:

An Evaluation of the Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning

The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning

Nov. 06, 2016

The idea to start listening to Portuguese was born while I was watching a football game in Romanian. The game was at first impossible to follow. Before the game was over, however, I was able to pick up words, expressions and shorter sentences. Watching the commercials was very motivating.

"Mastering the vocabulary of most European languages means simply learning to recognize a number of old friends under slight disguises, and making a certain effort to learn a residue of irrecognizable words, which, however, offer less difficulty than they otherwise would through being imbedded in a context of familiar words. The higher vocabulary of science, art, and abstract thought hardly requires to be learnt at all; for it so consists either of Latin and Greek terms common to most European languages or of translations of them."

Henry Sweet, The Practical Study of Languages (1899) .

Portuguese: around 250 hours of TV watching. No subtitles. I can comfortably understand dubbed shows.


You are still watching a staggering amount of TV every day Unless you are a millennial. Then you’re only watching an enormous amount of TV every day.

Nov. 16, 2015 Portuguese-language TV: 300+ hours. My Portuguese dictionary is still shrink-wrapped. My listening comprehension keeps improving. The idea that I would not improve, that I would keep parsing Portuguese through my knowledge of other Romance languages and that my knowledge wouldn't grow because the brain is "happy" with simply understanding a message and everything superfluous gets ignored... is a load of theorizing nonsense. On the other hand I do believe that particles and word endings do take a fair bit of time to filter out from the stream of (in)comprehensible audio input. There's always a chance that the brain isn't catching everything. Tá Falado, "Brazilian Portuguese Pronunciation" course is supposedly good and I should probably check it out. Wireless headphones are the best language learning tool I've been able to discover in my quest for improvement.

I will soon start watching "real" Brazilian movies:

I've ordered over a dozen books in Br. Port. including non-fiction (mostly history) and a couple of Portuguese classics (Saramago). I'm aware of the spelling reform since newer books advertise their compliance with the new rules but I'll be damned if I pay $50-$90 for popular fiction. Since I'm shopping the bargain bin my collection is rather varied and contains books by Umberto Eco, Dan Brown, Brazilian pulp etc.

Speaking... Brazil is already full of parrots and while the same can be said for Mexico I have plenty of practical reasons to practice Spanish.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is alive and well. Most of the time, however, I am not encountering obscure words and the a-ha moment is a culmination of many encounters.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Spanish through (in)comprehensible input

I believe it's time to learn some Spanish. I intend to follow the "incomprehensible input" approach I also undertook with Italian and German. By that I really mean I will first watch and then read whatever I please. I don't intend to study any grammar or engage in any sort of explicit study. Thanks to numerous cognates and phonological transparency I have plenty of comprehensible input to work with right from the start.

1/9/2016 Completed the free vocabulary test at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language: Prueba de vocabulario
"En función de tus resultados, estimamos que conoces 63% de palabras del español.Este es el nivel aceptable para una persona nativa." Yay! I am native level and I haven't even started learning the language.

1/15/16 I completed the Cervantes online placement test. The results suggest I could be placed at C1.3-C1.4 levels.

1/17/16  As of today, there is still no such thing as "my Spanish". I have never studied this language and the little I know is from short bursts of casual listening. I don't know how to conjugate basic Spanish verbs. I don't think my C1 placement rating was a fluke though since the test is passive and for all practical purposes I can follow the gist of fairly advanced stories, I can read newspapers and follow TV programs. I can recognize moods and tenses, habitual action and many other grammatical forms and patterns. The degree of transparency is almost random. I don't know a fair number of basic words that don't have a readily recognizable equivalent in other languages.

Z Nation temporadas 1 y 2
Spartacus ep 1-6
El Chavo del Ocho 6 episodes
Rome ep 1-4
Lum la chica invasora 1-15 (toughish)

1/25 Candy Candy (español) 1-14
1/26 Candy Candy (español) 15-24
1/27 read a number of online reviews
1/28 Rome ep. 5, Candy Candy ep 25-28

2/1-2/3 a lot of cartoons; Rome 2 episodes

2/15/16 I look words up only when I am especially curious. Currently that means less
than once per week. I picked up Italian watching TV as a kid. By the time I studied it
at the university I was reading books without a dictionary. I picked up German as a
teenager in a similar manner. I opened the dictionary in each case maybe a few dozen
times. I do own several visual dictionaries and vocabulary builders that I never use. "Mastering Spanish" has created a dent in my ottoman.

I studied French in school. Through Italian, French and English I can understand thousands of Spanish words. I probably understand north of 10,000 words. I understand words, phrases and expressions that have very approximate equivalents in other languages. I am currently mapping between these languages. Given that I have a wealth of cognates at my disposal, I am mapping more than Magellan. While I'm internalizing the cognates I am also learning new words. Stopping to look up one word would break the magic and slow things down.

On the list of the most common words in Spanish ranked from 9,001-10,000 I understand easily more than half. Of the other half, I partially understand many words. I may recognize that a word is a a verb, that it has something to do with a negative emotion etc but I cannot provide the exact meaning. Maybe I'll just end up knowing these words. Some I may learn in a single eureka-type discovery. Half-learned words may be forgotten or half-forgotten, relearned...

I just finished watching an episode of a lengthy anime series. We learn that the main character, a girl, is sick. Her grandfather calls her in sick at school, the teacher mentions it to other pupils, her schoolmates discuss her illness, they go to visit her, they say hi, offer remedies... During the first 3 minutes "resfriada" was repeated 10 times. In the latter half of the episode the word occurs 3-4 times. In the next episode the key developments from the past episode will get summed up. That's all the spaced repetition I need.

2/18/2016 Today I clocked in 100 "sterling" hours of listening to Spanish. To celebrate, I decided to read my first book. I first grabbed Ficciones, but I settled on something more colorful:

"El lobo que quería ser una oveja" by Mario Ramos:

2/21/16 I'm almost finished with the first Torpedo album. In my memory "Torpedo 1936" has always been a super-cool cult comic. Upon second reading, I have discovered themes that may not be appreciated by all the readers. I looked up some vocabulary. I was especially curious :) Gangster vocabulary and some very colorful expressions keep getting repeated in other albums.

2/27 Animé: learned puente (computer jumper) and huella from two different cartoons. "Huella"was hard to miss with all the characters standing around a giant footprint. I heard the word again in a TV segment about an actual crime. I learned a lot more, actually. I "heard"for the first time a lot of the slang I picked up in Torpedo. While looking up resources I scanned a lot of book and DVD titles and I learned plenty of words this way. Titles stick in one's memory. El clan del oso cavernario was easy to recognize. Oso is not far from Italian orso but I believe I could work out the words in most European languages.

 I learned "cueva" from cartoons. It's very hard to miss the big gaping hole as is the very word for "hole", which is "agujero." "Entregas a domicilio" was easy thanks to Kiki's Delivery Service. I heard these words several times since. "Garras" or "claws" were easy to figure out, as this is a common word in animated shows. In a cartoon about car racing I learned that neumáticos agarran... I forget the word for the racetrack tarmac. I heard agarrar many times. I just double checked the spelling for neumáticos as I was tempted to write pneu...

2/28/16 Breaking into a European language without paying attention to what I was doing was never an issue for me. For at least two of my languages I have always only sought pretty pictures and pretty sounds, pretty words and then pretty thoughts - language learning was an afterthought. With others, the first thought I had after coming out of the textbook stage was: "I can't understand what the heck they're saying". I don't remember my second thought about the language or language learning after that.

03/07/16 One of the first expressions I heard watching Nación Z an eternity or so ago
was "rueda pinchada". I didn't have to look it up. After some 220 hours of listening I heard it again. RAE'S CREA lists "pinchar" at 31,329th place and "pinchada" is much lower than that. I have traveled over 1.2 million words in between.

I am mostly watching cartoons. Last night I was watching Chicho Terremoto, better known in Italy as Gigi la Trottola. I am currently watching/reading Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese (Corto Maltés in Spanish). Comics are good for children and language learners. I will soon dust off Hermann's Jeremiah and Jodorowsky's Metabarones.

I have moved from "literatura infantil" to "literatura juvenil". In practice this means there are no more pretty pictures, or that they are few and far between. The novels are under 150 pages long.

Soon I will read Historia de la Literatura Española by Ángel del Rio. It's an easy read. I picked up a beautiful hardcover version from Amazon for $4. The book has probably not been touched since 1967. I am not surprised :) Books like these are a great source of easy, descriptive, essayistic language. I also bought a Spanish-Spanish dictionary, el Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado and Duden's pictorial dictionary. I may play with them from time to time when I'm ready.

I've re-watched a Spanish movie I found especially difficult to follow in January. The movie was much easier to follow. I examined one especially difficult scene. Spanish subtitles helped me determine that I knew all the words except one (from the entire scene) already prior to January and that all the comprehension trouble was due to the rapid rate of speech and the peculiarities of continental Spanish pronunciation.

6/02/2016 I just learned "loco como una cabra" from Gatchaman. Yeah, those guys in funny bird suits.

I also wanted to save this:

"In an attempt to summarise all the information available, John De Jong (personal communication) recently presented ranges of time required to reach different levels. The 400 hours for B1 is optimistic according to his calculations, which suggests a range from 380 hours (fast learners) to 1386 (slow learners). For C1 the range is from 1,520 hours (fast learners) to 4,490 hours (slow learners) which neatly straddles Takka’s estimate" of an average of 3,000 hours. "Taking all of these factors into account, only the person asking the question can answer it by logging the progress of the learners in their context. There is no simple answer.” The CEFR in practice, p.98-100

C2 = 4600 - 12,000 hours? My freestyle diving into native material suddenly looks very reasonable.

6/19 I have been watching mostly cartoons and live TV including things such as the Spanish version of "Cops," investigative journalism (sometimes subtitled in Spanish), religious TV, commercials (not on purpose), a bit of Galician programming, talk shows, agriculture programming (very short - I did catch some "bovine" references), soccer.... My TV watching was pronunciation practice, listening, reading and listening-while-reading all rolled into one.

A few observations:

- Don't confuse telenovela-watching or any single source of entertainment with live TV.
- Don't get intimidated with different regional accents.
- Don't believe the hype: regular people and their idiosyncrasies are perfectly intelligible after some live TV watching. If you have trouble following a simple life story your troubles are likely due to general listening comprehension issues OR the person is mixing in elements of a dialect.
- Channel surfing is very useful.
- Read in your strongest languages and watch TV in your weakest language. Always begin with pronunciation and listening comprehension.

In short, I love TV as a language-learning tool. That's how I learned Italian and German from scratch and that's how I improved on my other languages.

6/20 A visual representation of language learning theories:

I am sticking with (in)comprehensible input.

7/5 Slam Dunk (TV series), Stephen King (audiobook), The Tale of Despereaux (60 pages).
7/6 TV - cartoons
7/7 4 short stories; TV - cartoons
7/8 Live TV - 1990's corruption cases, Mafia, Intelligence (TV segment)

Update (September 2016) I have started watching Portuguese TV programs.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dramatic decline in number of university students taking modern foreign languages

Dramatic decline in number of university students taking modern foreign languages
The Telegraph, 14 Feb 2015
UK figures:

Entrants for modern foreign language degree courses fell by 16 per cent between 2007/08 and 2013/14, Higher Education Statistics Agency's latest (HESA) data shows. French and German entrants have sharply declined over the past seven years.

"The statistics will spark fresh concerns about the future of language study, amid reports that some university departments are being forced to cut back or close down due to a lack of demand."

US figures:

US Language Enrollments and Percentage change (2009-2013)
Published by MLA in February 2015.

Spanish 790,756 -8.2%
French 197,757 -8.1%
American Sign Language 109,577 19%
German 86,000 -9.3%
Italian 71,285 -11.3%
Japanese 66,740 -7.8%
Chinese 61,055 2%
Arabic 32,285 -7.5 %
Latin 27,192 -16.2%
Russian 21,962 -17.9%
Greek, Ancient  12,917 -35.5%
Hebrew, Biblical 12,551 -8.75%
Portuguese 12,415 10.1%
Korean 12,229 44.7%
Hebrew, Modern 6,698 -19.4%
Other languages 40,059 -6.7%

MLA attributes part of the decline in enrollments to departments and programs shutting down across the country.

Inside Higher Ed has interesting commentary on this reversal:

Not a Small World After All

See also:

Job Openings Down in English, Foreign Languages
Inside Higher Ed, 29 Feb 2015

Faculty positions decline for third year in a row, MLA report finds.

Global job search by language  skill

Neural changes underlying successful second language learning

The schematics of connectivity in the brain showing connectivity at two different times with strength indicated by line thickness. Credit: Li Lab, Penn State.

Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study Link

Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning: Anatomical changes in the human brain Link

Science Daily Article

Learning languages is a workout for brains, both young, old


"Learning a new language changes your brain network both structurally and functionally, according to researchers. "Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger," said the lead investigator."

Language learning makes your brain buff! Language learning turns your brain connections into an even bigger bowl of spaghetti! Take your pick.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Major languages are simpler than minor ones (yes, Chinese too)

Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure



Languages differ greatly both in their syntactic and morphological systems and in the social environments in which they exist. We challenge the view that language grammars are unrelated to social environments in which they are learned and used.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We conducted a statistical analysis of >2,000 languages using a combination of demographic sources and the World Atlas of Language Structures— a database of structural language properties. We found strong relationships between linguistic factors related to morphological complexity, and demographic/socio-historical factors such as the number of language users, geographic spread, and degree of language contact. The analyses suggest that languages spoken by large groups have simpler inflectional morphology than languages spoken by smaller groups as measured on a variety of factors such as case systems and complexity of conjugations. Additionally, languages spoken by large groups are much more likely to use lexical strategies in place of inflectional morphology to encode evidentiality, negation, aspect, and possession. Our findings indicate that just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used. As adults learn a language, features that are difficult for them to acquire, are less likely to be passed on to subsequent learners. Languages used for communication in large groups that include adult learners appear to have been subjected to such selection. Conversely, the morphological complexity common to languages used in small groups increases redundancy which may facilitate language learning by infants.


We hypothesize that language structures are subjected to different evolutionary pressures in different social environments. Just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used. The proposed Linguistic Niche Hypothesis has implications for answering the broad question of why languages differ in the way they do and makes empirical predictions regarding language acquisition capacities of children versus adults."


 "In Mandarin or Thai, which express both tense and remoteness lexically, speakers have the option of omitting the past tense entirely."

"Yagua, a language of Peru, has inflections that differentiate 5 levels of remoteness."

The link leads to the full text of the study which is worth checking out.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Phonology in Second Language Reading: Not an Optional Extra

Phonology in Second Language Reading:
Not an Optional Extra
Institute of Education, University of London
London, England

TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 42, No. 3, September 2008

"In examining reading comprehension in a second language (L2), I have demonstrated that the prevailing metaphor of transfer of skills is misleading, and that what happens is access to an already existing general cognitive skill. There is evidence in first language (L1) and in L2 that accessing this skill when reading in an alphabetic language involves efficient use of verbal working memory (VWM). This article reports a study of a component of VWM, the phonological loop, which serves to hold recently read material available in a phonological form. The study investigated whether the unreliability of learners’ mental L2 phonological inventories contributed to reading comprehension problems. Lower intermediate learners with L2 reading comprehension problems attempted to recall similar and dissimilar sequences of words in L1 (French) and L2 (English). Their performance was consistent with their having unreliable L2 phonological inventories; their upper intermediate counterparts, who had no L2 reading comprehension problems, had significantly more reliable L2 phonological inventories. This finding has important implications for the classroom: Rather than attempting to teach components of a cognitive skill that learners already possess, teachers would do better to spend the equivalent time increasing exposure to the spoken language, and improving receptive and productive phonology."


"Whatever the detailed explanation, this study has provided evidence that the development of a reliable phonological repertoire in L2 provides an important basis for skilful reading."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Individual differences in language learning

Dörnyei, Z., & Skehan, P. (2003). Individual differences in second language learning. In C. J. Doughty, & M. H. Long (Eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 589-630). Oxford: Blackwell.


i Is such a talent innate?
ii Is it relatively fixed?
iii If it is not fixed, is it amenable to training?
iv Is foreign language aptitude a distinct ability, or does it relate to more
general abilities, such as intelligence...

Carroll's four-component model of aptitude

1 Phonemic coding ability Capacity to code unfamiliar sound so that it can be retained over more than a few seconds and subsequently retrieved or recognized
2 Grammatical sensitivity Capacity to identify the grammatical functions that words fulfill in sentences
3 Inductive language Capacity to extract syntactic and morphological learning ability patterns from a given corpus of language material and to extrapolate from such patterns
4 Associative memory Capacity to form associative bonds in memory between LI and L2 vocabulary items

The link leads to the full text which is is very good and very long. The list of professor Dörnyei's selected publications includes some other downloadable content.

Rod Ellis Individual Differences in Second Language Learning
The Handbook of Applied Linguistics

Extract: "Learners vary enormously in how successful they are in learning a language. This is true for both first language (L1) and second language (L2) acquisition, although there is an important difference. In the case of L1 acquisition, children vary in their rate of acquisition but all, except in cases of severe environmental deprivation, achieve full competence in their mother tongue; in the case of L2 acquisition (SLA), learners vary not only in the speed of acquisition but also in their ultimate level of achievement, with a few achieving native-like competence and others stopping far short. How can we explain these differences in achievement? Broadly speaking, three different sets of explanatory factors have been identified; social, cognitive, and affective. This chapter, however, will consider only those factors that lie inside the learner - the cognitive and affective factors - and will focus on L2 learning. Individual difference research has a considerable history in applied linguistics. Horwitz (2000a) , reviewing publications in The Modern Language Journal from the 1920s up to the end of the 1970s, documents how interest in L2 learners’ differences evolved over the decades. She notes a marked change in the labels used to refer to individual differences: “The terms good and bad, intelligent and dull, motivated and unmotivated have given way to a myriad of new terms such as..."