Word of the Week: Hlonipa

This is the first of a new series of blog posts from me, which I am rather ambitiously calling “Word of the Week”. I intend for it to be something interesting, a word or a phrase, representing some cultural information, or colloquial speech. I don’t intend to present myself as an expert in anyway. These will just be snippets that I pick up on my language learning journey.

Hlonipa is a Xhosa word, a verb. The ‘hl’ is pronounced as the welsh ‘ll’ (according to Teach Yourself Xhosa, I know nothing about Welsh myself). The only way I can describe it is like a combination of the ‘ch’ from loch, and ‘l’.

I had never heard of hlonipa before I read about it recently, and I don’t know how widely it is practised. It refers to a Nguni practice of avoidance of saying certain words because of taboo. For example, when a woman marries, she has to avoid saying the names of her husband’s male family members. As Xhosa names have meaning, this means avoiding saying those words. I belive there is a set of replacement words for this.

The power of words seems to be quite a big aspect of Nguni culture. See this link for some interesting info on the issue of taboo as it relates to HIV/AIDS – http://www.africanvoices.co.za/research/aidsresearch.html

2 factors that affect success in second language learning (and a comforting thought)

Okay, so we all learned our first language no problem. But amongst people who start learning a second language later in life, there is such a wide range of success levels. According to David Birdsong, age remains the ‘strongest predictor of ultimate attainment’ in learning a second language’. But here’s the thing: this is not necessarily because we are getting older and our brains are not structured the same as when we were younger, etc.
Many late learners seem to ‘fail’ at language learning. But the fact is that there are plenty of success stories; people who could pass as native speakers, even though they started as adults.
So, what affects our success as second language learners? The myriad factors that come into play as we get older and our ‘selves’ develop…

1. Input

Are you immersed in the second language environment? What kind of input are you getting? Obviously the more the better. If you are teaching yourself, as I am, remember the L + 1 idea: your input at any given time should not be too much beyond your current level. For example, it is said, by such people as Paul Nation, that to maximise ‘incidental vocabulary acquisition’ from extensive reading, you need to understand 98% of it. Then it is likely that you will be able to figure out what the additional words mean from context. On the other hand, if you have to look up 50% of the words, you won’t remember them, and probably won’t understand very well what you are reading.

2. Motivation

Motivation is important. And sad to say (for me), being immersed in the second language environment is probably a pretty motivating factor.. I also find from a self-instructional perspective, finding the right materials that work for me, interest me and/or aren’t so much work I get tired, is quite important. If I don’t WANT to, I probably won’t.

A comforting thought

Another academic in the field, Vivian Cook, has pointed out that it makes more sense to compare a second language learner to a bilingual than a monolingual native speaker. Bilinguals’ languages affect each other. Think of any bilingual you know; they don’t sound like monolingual speakers of their less dominant language. I find that a rather comforting thought: unless you’re training to become a spy, don’t worry that you don’t sound exactly ‘right’.

Rather, understand that the mistakes you make are part of your ‘interlanguage’ on your way to being a successful polyglot. In partially understanding another language, you are already more than a monolingual!

Knowing when to pause

I am nearing the end of Teach Yourself Russian. Well, I have pretty much skipped over all the exercises, but my main goal is understanding. I have been spending a lot of time over the past couple of weeks focusing on Russian, and it can tell my vocabulary has increased a lot more recently than previously. And now that I am nearing the end of the book, I feel myself already trying to decide what language to move on to next. I keep making a start on various languages, but then I don’t get very far with them.

I think it’s time to stop. Or at least to pause. I have enough languages begun to keep me busy for a long time improving my understanding of them. The only other language I definitely want to make a start on first is Portuguese. It should be fairly easy, since I have a bit of a grounding in French, Italian and (very little, self-taught) Spanish. Portuguese is a pretty widespread language and I would like to include it in the group I go forward with.

So there, a new resolution, to improve on the languages I’ve made a start on until they are as good as my German (B1 level). And, of course, I wouldn’t want to neglect German. Try my best to forget, for now, about Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Swedish, Polish…. oh let me not even continue.  “Jack of all trades, master of none” – much as I hate to admit it (I want absolutely everything, is that too much to ask?).

Library Troubles and Another Month Gone

I realised on Friday evening that my library books were due on Friday, so I rushed myself off to the library during my lunch break on Monday (it’s a ten minute walk from where I work) to renew them. Now here is the sad story about the libraries in the city where I live. For the past few months there has been a strike (as far as I know they are asking for overtime pay for Saturdays, though I don’t understand how they can demand that when they would have known from the start that working Saturdays is part of the contract) so the libraries have been understaffed. They have been closing for an hour at lunch time (just when I like to go) and closing for the day an hour earlier (at the same time as I finish work), opening only every second Saturday.  All very sad for those of us who still read books.

Now there is a whole new issue. When I got to the library on Monday, there were two ladies sitting at the door doing renewals – nobody allowed in. They have been offline for two weeks and the backlog is too much, so they are not issuing any more books. According to the newspaper, the service provider of the new software has halted service due to an issue with their service level agreement with the municipality (and it was suggested they haven’t been paid yet for the past few month).  Very frustrating.

One of the books I have out at the moment is Teach Yourself Russian. I have renewed it probably three times now ( which means I have had it for over three months) and I am only about halfway through the book. I feel very acutely that I have not progressed much. Oh the shame! The terrible thing is that every time the due date comes around again, it just reminds me that another month has passed and I cannot yet read Russian.

Yes, read Russian.  That is my main end goal in learning languages. I’m an introvert, so I’m not likely to talk to many foreigners, but I do love the written word.  My end goal generally is to be able to read the news in that language.  (It’s also my main form of practice for French, Italian & Spanish). Understanding the spoken word and getting the pronunciation correct is also important to me. But reading is probably more what I would end up doing with the language.  Also, if reading books in your native language can improve your vocabulary, then surely the same is true of foreign languages!

So yes, my learning process is a bit slower than some, but I’m happy with just understanding something new today that I would not have understood last week, or a month ago. I love the feeling of seeing or hearing some foreign word out of the blue somewhere and actually understanding it.

BBC Active & Russian Stuff

At the moment, I am trying to teach myself Russian. The most useful book I have found so far is a Teach Yourself Russian book borrowed from the library. I also own a BBC Active Russian Phrasebook and Dictionary and the BBC Active Talk Russian book with 2 CDs.  This audio course cost more than twice the price of the phrasebook, and quite frankly, I don’t think it was worth it.

I bought it because I wanted the audio, and in that sense it is useful, but I think it could have been done much better. It seems to be aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is not a lot of vocabulary in the book, in fact, there is plenty more vocab in the phrasebook. That is my first problem – you won’t get far with the audio series.

The audio has so much time wasted with the voice saying “if you want to say … in Russian then the word you would use is …”.   Too much of the audio is taken up with english. The book should be doing that job.

What I would have appreciated from this course would have been: a conversation for each chapter, in audio, and the book should make it clear what the conversation means. A little bit more explanation of grammar (though I don’t think too much is necessary). They could have gotten a lot more spoken Russian into the same two CDs, and a lot more vocab into the same size book.

The phrasebook on the other hand, is great. They know how to do a phrasebook. I find the pronunciation guide very logical; each phrase is transcribed into the roman  alphabet, in a way that makes sense to an English speaker. Well, it makes sense to me anyway. There is plenty of vocab, like a list of body part names, list of menu items, list of shopping vocab, etc. You can’t really learn Russian properly from that alone, but it is a great extra resource. And I think it would work really well as a phrasebook if that was all you wanted it for.

A useful resources for Russian is Master Russian. The site doesn’t look like much (I’m ashamed to say a boring looking website can put me off – what can I say I’m a graphic designer for a living), but it does contain some useful stuff.

Then there is a website of a university in Sussex that has some Russian texts online with the translation (prioritizing word-for-word accuracy) and a glossary, as well as exercises (which I have not yet tried) and audio (which I couldn’t get to work). But it’s great because you can start getting into Russian literature, while still learning Russian.

Happy learning!

Sun of May

With the World Cup™ (not taking any chances with They Who Shall Not Be Named) being hosted in my country, it has been interesting to look at all the different flags of the participating nations. As a graphic designer, I’ve had to put together artwork of the various flags for printing. During this process I have learned a few things. Firstly, the word vexillology, which is the study of flags, and all the stuff that goes along with that. Like how it’s a dire insult to hang it the wrong way – this just says to me that humans like to create ways in which we can be insulted, so that we can fight for our honour or something. This symbol represents me / my country. Display it incorrectly and I’ll… Oh I think you get what I mean.

So the correct way to hang a flag vertically is to keep the upper left hand corner in the upper left hand corner. Which means you can’t just rotate 90 degrees; you have to then invert it along the vertical axis. But what about all those flags that have crests on them? I assume they would need to stay right-way-up… And then some like the Brazilian flag leave the mind somewhat boggled. Information on how to deal with these specifics does not appear to be that readily available on the internet. The good flag websites I found often referred to some obscure book or text.

But enough about my flag troubles. World Cup™ is nearly over and what an interesting one it has been (she says as if she actually follows soccer).

The Sun of May in the title of this post is an object of my recent curiosity. I noticed that the Uruguay and Argentina flags shared the same sun emblem and I just had to know why. Apparently, the origin of the image is an Inca sun god (info here and here). But the reason for the name and it’s appearance on the flag is related to it being a symbol from the South American May Revolution – the beginning of the fight for independence from Spain.

So I learned a little something about South American history. Not that I would really go into any more detail here. I am interested in history, but only really the big picture. Even reading a Wikipedia article about history makes my eyes cross. But I see this as a challenge!

Lexiophiles – reading practice

I discovered a few interesting websites this week. The first is Lexiophiles. It is a project of bab.la. I haven’t looked into Bab.la enough to comment on it here. The reason I like Lexiophiles is that it has articles in a number of different languages, some of them translated either into or out of English. So in some cases, if you really don’t understand so well, you could check the English version. The articles are generally about language, culture, or countries as far as I can see. They also have interviews with various linguists, language teachers, etc, who give their advice on language learning. I find it just a generally interesting site, and being interested in the subject matter is important when practice-reading a language.

A couple of sites for practicing your reading. Firstly EuroNews. Each news piece has multiple language versions, so you can read it in English as well as in whatever language you want to practice. Another cool one – though this may just be me – is the European Space Agency portal. It helps to be interested in Space exploration. I’m sure there are plenty more multi-lingual sites out there, whatever your interests. And if you need to look up a word here and there, WordReference is a pretty good online dictionary.