Sunday, December 30, 2007

French reference materials

This post will be updated occasionally.

Le Petit Robert is a great monolingual French dictionary. Mine is from 1979 and it still rocks.

Le Nouveau Petit Robert 2008 : Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française


Legendary Mauger's "Cours de langue et de civilisation françaises." Four books, the last being mostly literary texts. An old course, but I still have to see a better one.


Cours De Langue Et De Civilisation Francaise (Vol. 1)

Cours de langue et de civilisation françaises II

Cours de Langue et de Civilisation Francaises III


Grevisse. A household name if you're a teacher of French. I'd look for a newer edition.

Precis de Grammaire Francaise


Le Bon Usage is a heavy-duty grammar. Advanced students only:

Le Bon Usage

Saturday, December 29, 2007

How long does it take to learn a language?

What's the number of hours necessary to learn a language up to a certain level? Before we answer the first question we have to ask (and answer) two more questions. What level of proficiency are we talking (or writing) about and who's asking?

The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale is a set of descriptions of abilities to communicate in a language. It was originally developed by the Interagency Language Roundtable which included the United States Foreign Service Institute. It describes five levels of language proficiency. One big caveat is that this scale was developed with English language speakers in mind. A native speaker of an Indo-European language with a certain level of language learning experience may try adapting it to his needs. The five levels on the ILR scale:

1 Elementary proficiency
2 Limited Working proficiency
3 Professional Working proficiency
4 Full Professional proficiency
5 Native or Bilingual proficiency

The scale can be fine-tuned to a range from 0 and 0+, 1, 1+ etc to 5. Level 5 is that of an educated native speaker of the target language (a bit of a murky concept nowadays).

Level 1 to 1+ is about “most survival needs and limited social demands.”

Level 2 is about routine social demands and limited/routine work requirements. Level 2+ would require some ability to communicate on concrete topics.

Level 3-3+ is about being able to speak with sufficient structural accuracy and having a sufficient vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations. Few courses would be able to take you any further. From this point on, you’re on your own, the language will either progress or deteriorate. Use it or lose it.

Level 4 A speaker would possess a great deal of fluency, and be able to employ grammatical constructs, vocabulary and idiomatic expressions with accuracy.

Level 5 is about complete fluency, rich vocabulary and competent use of and idioms, cultural references and colloquialisms.

Each level is progressively more time consuming. All 5 levels measure independently speaking, listening and reading skills.

American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) scale is compatible with the FSI scale and assesses all four language skills. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, or CEFR scale is a somewhat wordy name for a scale designed to help teachers assess and validate all four language skills. The UNIcert scale is based on the CEFR scale for university accreditation purposes.

Learning expectations – number of study hours needed to achieve level 3 proficiency in speaking and reading: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3) according to the ILR scale. I have loosely lumped languages together for easy reading according to linguistic, geographic criteria. Languages marked by an asterisk are considered somewhat more difficult than other languages in the same group.

This is a RELATIVE language difficulty list. A more optimistic and correct name would be "approximate learning time" or "approximate learning expectation" list.

The most commonly used language difficulty scale is the one developed by the Foreign Service Institute (The "FSI scale").

The Defense Language Institute (DLI) has developed a separate foreign language difficulty scale (the "DLI scale") based on language relationships and "practical experience". The DLI scale has four categories.

The FSI scale

Group I (24 weeks) Approximately 575-600 hours

Dutch
French
Italian
Portuguese
Romanian
Scandinavian languages
Spanish

German is between the two groups as it requires 750 hours

Group II (30 weeks) Approximately 1100 hours
Albanian
Amharic
Armenian, Azerbaijani, *Georgian
Slavic languages
Greek
Hebrew
Hindi (all Indian languages belonging to the Indo-European branch)
*Hungarian, Finnish
Khmer, Lao, *Vietnamese, *Thai ,Burmese
Baltic languages
*Mongolian
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Tagalog
Turkish, Uzbek
Xhosa, Zulu

Group III (44 weeks) Approximately 2200 hours. Usual description for this group is “exceptionally difficult” for native English speakers.

Arabic
Cantonese
Mandarin
*Japanese
Korean

Please note that the three groups reflect experiences of motivated adult students with some previous knowledge of foreign languages in a class setting. The FSI students are described as having a "good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of several other foreign languages". Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with 3-4 hours per day of directed self-study. Accounting for self-study, the student needs approximately...

Category I: 1,100 HOURS

Category II: 2000 HOURS

Category III: 4000 HOURS

... to reach level 3 on the ILR proficiency scale (professional working proficiency) in speaking, listening and reading.

What about the CEFR scale? The DELF (“Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française”) and DALF (“Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française”) consists of 6 diplomas independent from each other. They correspond to the 6 levels of the Common European Framework of References for languages.

Each DELF / DALF exam corresponds to the following hours of teaching :
DELF A1 :   60 hours from Beginner level
DELF A2 : 160 hours from Beginner level (100 hours from DELF A1)
DELF B1 : 310 hours from Beginner level (150 hours from DELF A2)
DELF B2 : 490 hours from Beginner level (180 hours from DELF B1)
DALF C1 : 690 hours from Beginner level (200 hours from DELF B2)
DALF C2 : 890 hours from Beginner level (200 hours from DALF C1)

Another description is also current:

Levels A1 and A2: Elementary Levels
DELF A1 (from 60 to 100 hours of French)
DELF A2 (about 200 hours of French)

Levels B1 and B2: Independent Levels
DELF B1 (about 400 hours of French)
DELF B2 (about 600 hours of French)

Levels C1 and C2: Experienced Levels
DALF C1 (about 800 hours of French)
DALF C2 (900 hours or more of French)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Japanese books

Japanese learning materials I bought in the past couple of years. Mostly from Amazon, where the links point to. I get referral credit should someone decide to purchase. I intend to go through some of this in 2008.

Audiocourses:

Vocabulearn Japanese Complete (VocabuLearn)

All three levels. Thousands of words. Works best if you just relax and DON'T try to memorize anything. What I particularly like about it is that it's the only audiocourse I can do while working. It just does not bother me. Very ight classical music in the background form time to time. Some people don't like it, but it did not bother me any.


Pimsleur 1-3

Japanese I - 3rd Ed.: Learn to Speak and Understand Japanese with Pimsleur Language Programs (Comprehensive)

Japanese II - 2nd Ed.: Learn to Speak and Understand Japanese with Pimsleur Language Programs (Comprehensive)

Japanese III - 2nd Ed.: Learn to Speak and Understand Japanese with Pimsleur Language Programs (Pimsleur Language Program)

For serious language learners only. Not because it's particularly difficult but because it's pricey. Check your local library. Some people swear by Pimsleur, some don't like it. Audio only (45 hours in total), it's supposed to bring you to ACTFL Intermediate–high proficiency level (1+). For Japanese, according to the FSI/ILR relative language difficulty list or "approximate learning time" scale you'd need approximately 360 class hours. That would mean that Pimsleur can shave off some good 300 hours of beginner's pain.
I believe it serves its purpose and especially so for "difficult" languages. Whatever breaks the ice with Japanese, cannot be bad.

Oxford Takeoff in Japanese + 4CDs

Genki I & II

Genki 1: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese 1

Genki I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese I - Workbook

Genki II: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese II

This is what people planning to take Japanese language proficiency tests (JLPT) study from. A serious coursebook. Comes with CDs and workbooks. Sigh...

Japanese for Busy People I: Kana Version includes CD (Japanese for Busy People Series)

Japanese for Busy People II: Third Revised Edition incl. 1 CD (Japanese for Busy People)

Japanese for Busy People III: Third Revised Edition incl. 1 CD (Japanese for Busy People)

Get either Genki or Japanese for busy people. Both would be an overkill of basic to intermediate stuff. Genki will start drilling kanji from the very start. Based on the edition you buy, you can finish Japanese for busy people without touching kanji.

Barron's Pronounce it Perfectly in Japanese

Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text

Textbooks, grammars & vocabulary builders

Barron's Japanese Grammar &

Barron’s Master the Basics Japanese (Master the Basics Series) (same as the previous book except for larger, nicer print and a few additions)

Gene Nishi

Japanese Step by Step : An Innovative Approach to Speaking and Reading Japanese

Heisig: Remembering the Kanji - new edition

Remembering the Kanji: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters (Manoa)

Remembering the Kanji 2: A Systematic Guide to Reading the Japanese Characters

Remembering the Kanji 3: Writing and Reading Japanese Characters for Upper-level Proficiency

A set of mnemonic devices for Japanese characters. They say you can get by just with the first book. Did a few hundred kanji in a couple of days. It really works, but you need a backbone. If you fancy lighter stuff:



Japanese Living Language (coursebook only) A gift.

Kakuko Shoji: Basic Connections: Making Your Japanese Flow (Power Japanese Series) (Kodansha's Children's Classics)

I was feeling optimistic

Janet Ashby: Read Real Japanese: All You Need to Enjoy Eight Contemporary Writers

I was feeling real optimistic. A very nice book. Hmmm...

Akiyama & Akiyama: 2001 Japanese and English Idioms (2001 Idioms Series)

Giles Murray: 13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese

Now, I liked this one from the start. I learned how to say beef stew a year or so ago while perusing it in the store. I still haven't forgotten thanks to a very disturbing mnemonic device involving a celebrity.

Guide to Reading & Writing Japanese: Third Edition (Tuttle Publishing) 

Let's Learn Japanese Picture Dictionary (McGraw–Hill).

This one looks/sounds the least serious of all but I like it the most. Some 1600 words and illustrations.

Carol and Nobuo Akiyama Japanese Vocabulary (Barron's Vocabulary Series)

Divided into thematic categories. I mined this one for my personal pictionary.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

How many languages can we learn? The Rule of Seven

How many languages can a normal person (with a life) hope to learn well?

Cardinal Mezzofanti whom Byron called “a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech, a walking polyglot, and more” and Emil Krebs who learned Armenian in 9 weeks are rare exceptions. Krebs reportedly spoke 60 languages. He was a professional interpreter and linguist. Krebs is significant because he donated his body to science and his brain was analyzed. The scientists discovered that the brain’s Broca’s region, which is associated with language, was organized differently than that of other people. Did he work on languages for so long that he altered his brain or was he genetically predisposed? An interesting question but of little practical use for most people.

What are the limits for a normal person, taking into account things like an 8-hour work day that is not necessarily related to foreign languages or generally speaking a lifestyle that is far from the tranquil surroundings of a monastery? We want to target a number that will be manageable as we might conquer 10, but eventually only defend 5. So, how many? Scientific studies concentrate on how we learn languages – not on how many we can possibly learn.

There’s no research that I’m aware of except for a book by a certain Dr. Dmitri L. Spivak: Kak stat' poliglotom - How One Becomes a Polyglot (1989). The book is recommended by Erik V. Gunnemark, the co-author of The Art and Science of Learning Languages. Unfortunately there are only a three or four translations of this book into other languages and none of them are in English. The book features among other things several interviews with polyglots from the former USSR. Most of the interviewees agreed that they were not able to speak and read more than about seven foreign languages. He called this “The Law of Seven.” The "law" or more likely "rule" states that most people can learn between five and nine languages.

These guys likely had above-average aptitude and more importantly a backbone and a willingness to sacrifice a lot of time on language learning. They attempted to learn more but were able to learn “completely” about seven languages. A lot of the languages some of them learned or attempted to learn were related but the number of languages they were able to learn remained the same.

In his book Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One Edward Trimnell indirectly mentions Spivak's Law calling it the "Rule of Seven" and says that "there is a commonly accepted notion amongst polyglots that seven languages is the maximum that a person can learn to a high level of fluency." He also mentions that the Rule of Seven proscribes that seven foreign languages is the "practical upper limit" for most people. Spivak's uppermost limit is nine languages. Trimnell then suggests that the upper number is actually far less for those who are not professionally occupied with languages - something like three languages. He reached this conclusion based on online profiles of the members of American Translators Association and their working languages. While he found that it was common to find translators with three working foreign languages, he was unable to find translators who worked with more than five. While I do take objection to Mr Trimnell's idea about what constitutes foreign language proficiency (translating and interpreting requires a very special set of skills) he does offer some very useful advice. Among other things he urges the part-time linguists to make up a list of languages that interest them and narrow it down to three.

Kato Lomb, from the foreword to the first edition of her book "How I Learn Languages":

“...it is not possible [to know 16 languages]—at least not at the same level of ability.”

“I only have one mother tongue: Hungarian. Russian, English, French, and German live inside me simultaneously with Hungarian. I can switch between any of these languages with great ease, from one word to the next.

“Translating texts in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Polish generally requires me to spend about half a day brushing up on my language skills and perusing the material to be translated.

“The other six languages [Bulgarian, Danish, Latin, Romanian, Czech, Ukrainian] I know only through translating literature and technical material.”

Emil Krebs in 1913:

Englisch, Französisch, Italienisch, Spanisch, Russisch, Ungarisch, Chinesisch beherrsche ich außerdem derartig, dass ich aus dem Deutschen in diese Sprachen korrekt Übersetzungen anzufertigen im Stande bin. Auch im Finnischen habe ich soviel Übung, dass ich mir zutrauen kann, aus dem Deutschen ins Finnische Übersetzungen anzufertigen, die den Sinn des Deutschen verständlich wiedergeben.

In short Krebs was extremely proficient in nine languages - including his native German and Finnish. He thought it necessary to single out Finnish and mention that he believed he could "also" translate from German into this language. Translating into a foreign language requires a very high set of skills.

Kato had extreme proficiency in 5 languages. She was also very proficient in the other five that she mentions needed half a day of brushing up.

Monday, December 24, 2007

foreign languages, cartoons and comics

You know, the fun stuff

If we asked a young lad in the US or even Europe what are the top languages of the animation and comic book industries he'll answer (perhaps a little too enthusiastically) Japanese and English. If asked to name the third, he'll most likely hesitate.

France is the third largest producer of animation in the world, after the U.S. and Japan. Are unsubsidized cinemas more vibrant cinemas just because they're unsubsidized? English-language countries produced 500 movies per year on average during the last decade. These countries offer fewest subsidies. French-speaking ones produced some 200 per year and France is taking the subsidy business, its language and cinematography seriously. French broadcasters invest directly in French animation. The French Centre National de la Cinematographie and other government bodies provide additional funding. France is the only European country with broadcasting quotas reserved specifically for animation. Special incentives are in place for labor-intensive cel animation if produced directly in France. Although the French animation budget is dwarfed by the likes of Pixar and Toei French funding and talent combined with resources in Canada and Belgium have insured that French is firmly established as the third language of animation. In the comic book arena French is on a more level playing field. Europe's biggest comic book fair is in Angouleme, France. According to some accounts France has the second largest comic book market in the world after Japan. France is one of the largest foreign markets for Japanese manga. French is the best bet to enjoy "exotic" stuff, like comics from Korea, China and other parts of the world. Beyond these three languages it's difficult to find a language with a significant strength on both sides of the animation/comic book business. Perhaps Spanish. Other markets worth mentioning: Korea and China look promising. Italy deserves a mention for comic book accomplishments and Russia for wonderful animated fairy tales and some very artistic and entertaining shorts. Croatia and Serbia may be mentioned for past accomplishments and an unusually strong comics scene.

If you're looking for a nice French cartoon check out Le Roi et l'Oiseau (Original French Version) (The King and the Mockingbird).

Script by Paul Grimault and the poet Jacques Prévert, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Anime fanboys will appreciate that Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki cites Grimault's work as an influence.

Here's an interesting article about manga fever in France.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Some unorthodox metrics

Human development Index (literacy, life expectancy, education, standard of living).

Major (and majority) languages spoken in the top 30 scoring countries. Ranked loosely by HDI score:

English
French
Japanese
German
Spanish
Italian
Korean

The 2007/2008 Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum covers 131 countries and assesses the ability of countries to provide high levels of prosperity to their citizens. Country rankings are based on a variety of factors including infrastructure quality, property rights, ethics and corruption, judicial independence, government inefficiency, government deficit,
national savings, inflation, government debt, HIV/AIDS, infant mortality and many others.

Major languages spoken in the top thirty scoring countries. Except for Chinese these are also the majority languages of this group.

English
German
Japanese
French
Korean
Chinese (Taiwan, HK, Singapore)
Spanish

Mercer 2007 quality of living survey (215 major cities)

Top 50 cities

English spoken in 22 cities
German in 9
French in 5
Japanese in 4
Spanish in 2
Italian in 1
Portuguese in 1

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Translations

"By the early 1970s, close to half of the world's book production was made up of translations, the chief source languages being English, French, Russian, German, Spanish, and Italian, the chief target languages German, Russian, Spanish, English, Japanese, and French. Because of worldwide demand for translation of all kinds, the 20c has been referred to as ‘the age of translation’".

Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1998.

World's yearly book production. Books published by language.
English 28%
Chinese 13.3%
German 11.8%
French 7.7
Spanish 6.7
Japanese 5.1
Russian 4.7
Portuguese 4.5
Korean 4.4
Italian 4.0
Dutch 2.4
Swedish 1.6
Arabic around 1%

Graddoll, Future of English 1997 (figures for Arabic pulled from a more recent UN report). Current UNESCO figures would not justify the effort. Graddoll’s report is well worth reading. For lazy readers out there, the future of English is generally bright but monolinguals beware.

Translations as percentage of the total book production, by language
French 14%
German 13%
English 3%
Spain 28% (no figure for Spanish)
Japanese 10%
Russian 10%
Chinese 6%
Korean 29%
Portuguese 11%

Around one half of all translated books worldwide are based on English-language originals. (Unesco, 2002).

Index translationum is a database containing information on books translated and published in about one hundred of the UNESCO member states since 1979. It contains more than 1,600,000 entries in disciplines like literature, social and human sciences, natural and exact sciences, art, history etc. These figures are not complete. According to Bowker Italy translated over 12,000 books in 2002. The most translated languages 1979-2007 :

By original language (translations from a particular language):

English 942,087
French 176,129
German 160,573
Russian 92,003
Italian 52,030
Spanish 40,440
Swedish 29,488
Latin 15,896
Danish 15,426
Dutch 15,084
Greek, Ancient 13,816

By target language (translations into a particular language):

German 259,602
Spanish 193,951
French 184,642
English 109,702
Japanese 104,393
Dutch 99,191
Portuguese 69,829
Russian 61,661
Polish 59,772
Italian 58,097

English is not the first choice to make in order to learn about the non-English speaking world. According to Bowker's bibliographic database English-speaking countries published some 375,000 new books worldwide in 2004. Translations accounted for a little over 3% of total book sales. If we look at the languages that provide the highest number of translations from some key world languages both past and present we'll get the perhaps most relevant comparison:

Original  Top target languages (translations)
Sumerian: German English
Egyptian: French German English
Greek (ancient): German Spanish Fr. Engl. It.
Latin: German Spanish French Italian English
Sanskrit: Hindi German English French Spanish
Hebrew: English German French Spanish Italian
Chinese: Japanese English French German
Japanese: French English German
Korean: Japanese French German English
Thai: Japanese English French
Burmese: Japanese
Khmer: French English German Japanese
Vietnamese: French English Russian
Indonesian: English Japanese
French: Spanish German English Italian Japanese
Italian: Spanish French German English
Spanish: French English German Portuguese It.
Portuguese: Spanish English French German It.
Romanian: English French German
Catalan: Spanish English French German
Russian: English German French
Polish: German English Russian French
Czech: Slovak German English Hung. Russian Fr.
Croatian: English German Italian French
Bulgarian: Russian English German French
English: German French Spanish Japanese
Dutch: German French English
German: English French Spanish
Danish: English German Norwegian Swedish
Swedish: Danish Fin. Nor. German English
Norwegian: Danish German English
Finnish: Swedish English Estonian German
Hungarian English German French
Arabic: French Spanish English German
Farsi: English Russian German French
Turkish: German English French
Hindi: English Russian German French
Former USSR (CIS) languages: Russian
Swahili: German French English

Looking at Unesco's index translationum and eliminating the main Western languages as sources (English, French, Spanish, German and Italian) the following languages offer the highest number of translations for the majority of the world's languages.

1 French
2 German
3 English
4 Spanish
5 Japanese
6 Russian
7 Italian

More about historical book production and translation here

Choosing the right language

How do we decide on the right foreign language? I suppose one can also ask why learn foreign languages at all? “If it’s not worth saying in English, then it’s not worth saying at all!” “If English was good enough for Jesus…” These pearls are now famous. More often one will hear that foreign languages are nice but…useless/impractical/not for me etc.

Here are some common reasons given when trying to decide on choosing a foreign language. In no particular order:

1 Culture. Usually a very general “exploring other cultures” kumbaya sort of thing. A more sensible approach would be perhaps to look at cultural products and their appeal to the learner.

2 Tourism - places to visit. Wouldn’t it be “nice” to spend a week in >insert country name here< and be able to communicate with the natives?

3 Number of speakers. Very important and also very overrated. The speakers of different languages also have very different purchasing power, culture and literacy, they live concentrated in areas that may be of little interest or simply too far. There are 525,600 minutes in a year. If we spent one minute on one person for 75 years straight (bathroom breaks only during leap years) we could possibly meet and say hello or konnichiwa to 39,420,000 people – basically less than the population of Italy or even Spain.

4 Usefulness/importance.  This one ranges from very practical reasons to visions of the “languages of the future”. Often the downfall of many a budding language learner. Some very personal reasons can be listed here as well.

5 Map method - the larger the area the more places to visit. This one’s very true until you try to define what qualifies as a “place to visit". Some countries may have way too much sand – and not the beach kind. A language covering a very wide area does present interesting opportunities and is more likely to have an international status.

6 Difficulty What are the pros and cons of difficult languages vs. new and exciting cultures, usefulness etc. What are my limits? Do I care to explore them?

7 Choose what you'll enjoy Now, I really LIKE THIS ONE but I would like to find something positive in all of these points, create an informed decision and build a personal target list.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Ok, let's start

New Year's resolution. Learn a new language and improve and brush up on what I already know. New language? Spanish or Japanese. Improve French and German. Brush up on Italian. This journal will track my personal language learning odyssey and record some musings on language learning and languages in general.

Edit: I should mention that "learning" a new language depending on the language and the timeframe in my vocabulary simply means establishing a solid foundation in the language, bringing it to a useable level and adding it permanently to the list of languages that I intend to continue learning. I am still learning English, French, German etc.