Doing Saturday

Since my visit to Catalonia last August, I have been working quite a bit, if not entirely steadily, on my Spanish, and also having a go at learning some Catalan.

I will shortly be going out there again for another visit, so it will be a good opportunity to assess how much I’ve learned in the past 14 months.  My feeling is that it will turn out to be quite a lot, though there’s still much more to learn of both languages.

When I first started trying to learn Spanish, just over 20 years ago, it was from a book entitled (rather optimistically) Spanish in Three Months.  Suffice it to say that it took me somewhat more than 3 months to get through the book – in fact, I didn’t get round to systematically working through all the chapters until some time after my last visit to Spain.  I don’t suppose many people would buy a book called Spanish in Twenty Years and, to be fair, I don’t think the author or publishers can be blamed for the amount of time it took me to finish the book.  In fact, I’ve used quite a few different resources in my quest to learn Spanish and in many respects this book is probably one of my favourites (though I think that any study of something as complex as a language really needs to make use of multiple sources of information).

After getting back from Catalonia last year, I initially decided that I would concentrate on improving my Spanish for several months, if not years, before taking more than a cursory look at Catalan, but I quickly acquired several Catalan books so that I’d be prepared when the time came.  One of these was Catalan in Three Months, a sister to my first Spanish book.  Several times over the last year I have dipped into this book but about a month ago I decided to systematically work through it (tackling the exercises and writing down vocabulary, etc.) and this time I was able to reach the end within about a fortnight.  Admittedly, it’s a slightly shorter book than the other one (or at least breaks its material into fewer chapters) and I was going at a slightly too fast pace in order to get a broad overview of the language, so I haven’t fully assimilated a lot of the grammar or vocabulary (though the same can be said of Spanish, which I’ve been working at for a lot longer).

The fact that I already knew a reasonable amount of Spanish also helped me to work through the Catalan book much more quickly as, while there are many significant differences between the two languages, there is also a lot of overlap so I had a big headstart in terms of getting to grips with the basic nuts and bolts of the language.  Having a reasonable, if rather rusty, command of French helped quite a bit too, since Catalan falls somewhere between French and Spanish linguistically as well as geographically.

As I was approaching the end of Catalan in Three Months, I had a look round to see what other Catalan resources were available and I came across one in the Dummies series of books that I’ve previously found useful for getting a handle on things ranging from knitting to quantum mechanics.  The twist here was that the book was written in Spanish, and there doesn’t seem to be an English version available.  Still, I reasoned that this might be quite a good way of consolidating my grasp on Spanish as well as learning a bit more Catalan (and, significantly, some more about the culture, which was rather lacking in the other book), so I purchased myself an e-book version of Catalán Para Dummies and have gradually been working my way through it.

Amongst the things I’ve learned from studying this book are the following two gems that I wanted to make a note of:

Firstly, the Catalan word for a pestle (as in pestle & mortar) is, apparently, la mà de morter, which means “the hand of the mortar”.  Apart from being quite poetic, I find this useful because I’ve always had trouble remembering which one is the pestle and which one is the mortar.  Somehow I find the idea of thinking of the pestle as the hand of the mortar seems to make it easier to remember that it is the one shaped roughly like a small club (or perhaps an arm with a fist on the end of it), while the mortar is the bowl shaped bit.  Incidentally, I gather that the Spanish is similar (el mortero for mortar and la mano for pestle, although both Spanish and Catalan seem to have at least one other word – el pilón / el piló respectively – for the latter).

Secondly, there is a lovely Catalan idiom – fer dissabte (literally, “to make/do Saturday”) – which essentially refers to pottering round the house, doing cleaning and such other tasks as are often done on Saturdays but may equally be done at other times when you’re at home rather than out at work.  Another source I found (also in Spanish – I’ve not yet managed to track down any in English) to explain this phrase seems to suggest that it’s more about an intensive cleaning session rather than pottering around.  In either case, it’s based around the home and not necessarily confined to Saturday.  A literal translation into Spanish would be hacer sábado but this would, apparently, make as much sense as “to do Saturday” in English, so it is a Catalan-only idiom (but it joins the likes of the German word ausschlafen – literally “to sleep out” but meaning to sleep until you wake up naturally, rather than using an alarm – on my list of words or phrases that we really ought to adopt into English).

Technology-assisted language learning #1

Recently I’ve been quite busy with language-learning related stuff (mostly Spanish, but also bits of several other languages) and I’ve been exploring some technological aids to help me.

My previous language learning efforts have mostly focused on traditional media such as books and tapes/CDs, although I have made a fair amount of use of things like flashcard software (Anki is my favourite) and internet radio stations.

In the past couple of years, I have explored some of the language apps available for my Android phone.  However, this is a device of fairly limited capacity running on an old version of the Android OS (2.something) so there were several apps I’d heard of from friends (including Simon who runs the Omniglot website) and other sources that I wanted to check out but couldn’t get to run on my phone.

A few weeks ago I got myself a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet.  This has a much beefier processor than my phone, as well as a lot more memory and storage space, and runs Android 4 (the wonderfully named Ice Cream Sandwich), so should have no trouble running the pick of the current crop of apps, language-related or otherwise.

Since then I’ve been trying out several different apps for Spanish and other languages.  I will probably write about some of them in forthcoming posts.  For now, though, I want to talk about the latest one I’ve been checking out: Duolingo, which exists as both a website and an Android app (I think there’s also an iPhone version).

As far as I can make out, Duolingo is basically a community-driven project.   On their website I found the slogan “We believe everyone should have access to education of the highest quality – for free”, which is a sentiment I share.  As the name suggests, their particular focus is on language education.  They provide courses in a variety of languages, both as source (the language via which instruction is given) and target (the language you’re learning).

A couple of the friends with whom I went to Spain in August used Duolingo to pick up a bit of Spanish in advance of our trip (the most notable result of which was one of them declaring “Yo soy una manzana”, which means “I am an apple”) and have been continuing to use it since then.  At the time, I didn’t check it out myself, partly because I didn’t have my tablet and didn’t know if my phone could handle it (nor that there was a website interface) and partly because I mistakenly assumed it would only be a beginner level course that wouldn’t have anything useful to teach me.

Yesterday, I got round to installing Duolingo on my tablet for a closer look and I was pleasantly surprised.  There are courses for English-speakers on about 8 or 9 languages at present (though a few of them only seem to be available via the website), as well as courses aimed at speakers of other languages.  One nice feature is that when you start a course you can either go from the beginning or take a placement test to assess your existing level of knowledge of the target language and fast-track you to a suitable starting point.

Out of curiosity (and a desire to learn/improve all the languages I can) I started the courses not only for Spanish but also French, German, Dutch, Italian and Irish, opting for the placement test in each case.

I was quite gratified to reach Level 10 in Spanish (I’m not sure how many levels there are, and it may vary between languages, but I seem to have ended up about three quarters of the way through the available units, and poised ready to start a lesson on the subjunctive).   There seems to be a reasonable variety of different lessons and exercises, with a combination of reading, writing, listening and even speaking, so I expect that working my way through the rest of the course should be quite useful. Apparently it is based on a generalised Latin American version of Spanish, in contrast to the peninsular Spanish focus of most of the instructional material I’ve used to date, but I don’t think that should be too much of a problem.

Given that I still consider my French to be a lot stronger than my Spanish (and I can generally string together a vaguely correct sentence in French much more easily than in Spanish) I was moderately surprised that I only reached Level 7 in French.  This is probably largely due to mistakes with accents, which are generally much harder in French than Spanish (as there are more to choose from and they aren’t always entirely obvious from pronunciation) as well as the fact I’ve done a lot more writing in Spanish than French recently (I think it was mostly the written exercises that let me down in the French test).

In German, I achieved Level 5 – not too surprising considering my German was never quite as strong as my French (though in theory I studied them to the same level) and is much rustier.  I was pleasantly surprised to get up to Level 3 in Dutch since, although it’s less than a year since I last had a go at learning it, I didn’t get very far in my lessons then. Both my Irish and my Italian are languishing down at Level 1.

My main goal remains to focus primarily on Spanish for the moment but also to do some gentle revision of French and German and probably do a bit of Dutch, using Duolingo alongside various other tools for each language.  Doubtless I’ll do at least a bit with both Irish and Italian too, although those are definitely lower priorities at the moment.

Amongst the other languages apparently in development (for English-medium courses) on Duolingo are Swedish, Russian and Hungarian.  All three have for some time been on my shortlist of languages to work on (I speak some Russian, though considerably less than German or French, and a little bit of Hungarian, though only a negligible amount of Swedish as yet), so I’m looking forward to trying out those languages when they go live.

There’s no sign, yet, of any courses in English for non-Indo-European languages on Duolingo, which is a shame as I’d definitely like to break further out of the Eurocentric mould in my language studies (Swahili being the non-IE language that interests me most, though there are plenty of others).  For now, at least, it looks like I’ll have to stick with other tools for explorations in that direction, as well as for IE languages such as Catalan that are not on the Duolingo menu.  However, for the languages that are available I think Duolingo will be a very handy addition to the toolbox.


Plumming the depths of memory

Memory is a funny thing.

You can forget about something for many years and then, due to a random association (or even no discernible cause whatsoever), remember it suddenly.

This happened to me yesterday while I was eating a plum. All of a sudden, a couple of lines from a German poem that I vaguely learned almost 20 years ago (and haven’t looked at or thought about at all for several years) came floating into my mind.

In this case, the association wasn’t too random since it is actually a short poem about a plum tree by Bertold Brecht (who, I believe, was more famous as a playwright, though certainly also a well-respected poet).  It is called Der Pflaumenbaum (the Plum Tree) and it runs like this:

Im Hofe steht ein Pflaumenbaum,
Der ist klein, man glaubt es kaum.
Er hat ein Gitter drum,
So tritt ihn keiner um.

Der Kleine kann nicht größer wer’n.
Ja, größer wer’n, das möcht er gern;
‘s ist keine Red davon,
Er hat zu wenig Sonn.

Den Pflaumenbaum glaubt man ihm kaum,
Weil er nie eine Pflaume hat.
Doch er ist ein Pflaumenbaum,
Man kennt es an dem Blatt.

Here’s my own rough prose translation: “There’s a plum tree in the yard. It’s small and you hardly notice it. It has a fence round it, to stop people tripping over it. The small thing can’t grow any bigger. Yes, it would love to grow bigger; but there’s no way it can – it gets too little sun. You’d scarcely believe it’s a plum tree as it never has any plums. But it is a plum tree – you can tell by the leaves.”

On one level it’s quite a mundane, almost banal little tale and the simplicity of the meter coupled with the strong rhyming makes it sound suspiciously like doggerel verse.  However, I think it’s quite charming and also, especially in the middle stanza, rather sad.

One detail that I find quite interesting is that while the first two stanzas follow an AABB rhyming scheme, the third stanza switches to ABAB.  Also, there are a couple of places where the basic rhythm of the stanzas is varied, most notably in the penultimate line (which is emphasing the identity of the plum tree against all evidence to the contrary and perhaps, therefore, most needs to be a stand-out line).  This slight break in the regularity, I think, makes a huge difference to the sonic impact of the poem (though it would make it slightly more difficult to set it to music – an exercise which I might one day try).


Last night, I was planning to watch a DVD of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

As it happens, I didn’t get round to doing so (I’m hoping to watch it tonight instead) but while I was still intending to watch it yesterday I happened to be searching through some little used cupboards and drawers in my house, looking for something or other.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, but instead I turned up a programme for Lucia di Lammermoor that I picked up when I went to see it at the Bielefeld Opera House during a visit to Germany about 12 years ago.

This was particularly surprising since, although I remember that trip to the opera quite well, I’d entirely forgotten that I had picked up a programme there, let alone kept it.

Of course, the programme is completely in German, which makes it a little difficult to read since my knowledge of that fine language was limited at the best of times and is now quite rusty to boot.  Still, I can remember enough to get the gist of what the programme says.

Interestingly, while it has a synopsis of the plot and quite a bit about the history of the opera, it doesn’t seem to contain anything about the specific performance, such as a list of the cast (as far as I’m aware it was essentially the regular Bielefeld Opera House artists, without any internationally famous guests or anything).  It may be that they had different casts for different performances (assuming it was being shown several times over the season) and there was an insert (either long-lost or never picked up with my copy of the programme) giving details, or that the information is actually there and I just missed it on my fairly brief perusal.

I haven’t yet tried to read the programme in any detail but it’s nice to find a physical link between my current mostly-home-media-based opera enjoyment and my previous visits to the Opera House.

Malwod noeth

Last night I went for my second meeting of the Bangor Polyglots (their third meeting overall).

When I first arrived, shortly after my brass band practice had finished, the only people already there were the three from last week; I don’t know if anyone else had been and gone before I got there.  I was able to greet both Rhian and Sam in Icelandic, as I’ve been working through a free online course that Sam pointed me to last week.  However, I haven’t yet got as far as learning the plural forms of the greetings, so I had to greet them individually.

Fairly shortly after I arrived we were joined by Edith, who is from Germany and teaches German through the medium of Welsh at Bangor University.  She speaks several other languages in addition to German, Welsh and English, including Finnish, Icelandic and French, and she’s planning soon to add Greek to the list.  As well as the modern languages, she has a good knowledge of Old Norse and Middle Welsh (and, I suspect, probably a few other archaic languages too).  She’s from the southern part of Germany and speaks the local Swabian dialect in addition to standard HIgh German (in fact, I think she was only half joking – if at all – when she said that German was her first foreign language).

A bit later we were joined by Jochen, who is also German, works at the university (in the music department) and speaks several languages to a high standard.  I have met Jochen several times on the local music scene, although we have never previously spoken to each other at great length.  He brought with him a girl from Paris who is over here to do a gig with him (she’s a singer).  Unfortunately I didn’t catch her name, or at least didn’t manage to make it stick in my memory, and since we were at opposite ends of the table I didn’t get much chance to speak to her.

Once everyone was there, we got a truly multilingual conversation going, with usually at least two threads running concurrently and languages being mixed freely.  French and German seemed to dominate, with a fairly healthy amount of Welsh and relatively little English.  Bits of other languages were used or spoken about, with a particular emphasis on Finnish in the discussion at my end of the table (and I also threw in a bit of Hungarian – which is similarly structured to Finnish but somewhat more familiar to me, although my knowledge of it is still extremely rudimentary – for comparison).

Last week, I learned that the Cornish word for snail is bulhorn, which has immediately become my favourite word for snail that I’ve so far discovered in any language and will probably retain that position for quite some time.  It is quite different from the Welsh word, malwoden, and while I don’t know the etymology of either word it seems obvious (and may well indeed be true) that they come from totally different roots.  This week there was some further discussion about snails and I learned (or possibly relearned, as it’s likely to be a word I once knew and had forgotten) that the German for snail is die Schnecke.  Even better, the German for slug is Nacktschnecke, which literally means “naked snail”.  I still loathe slugs, and resent the devastation they regularly wreak on my attempts to grow pretty much anything in my garden, but I think that’s a cool name for them.

I’m looking forward to many more meetings with the Bangor Polyglots.  The only trouble is that there are so many languages to learn and so little time to do it.