Thursday, February 28, 2008

Is it worthwhile to save regional languages? part II

The topic of saving regional languages drew a few comments here, and quite a few more at Megan McArdle's blog at the Atlantic. Commenter Ryan raises one important point:
Should Breton, Cornish, Hakka and other "regional" languages be saved? I believe that that question can only be answered by its speakers. If a collective group is willing to be persistent in speaking its language, while making it suitable for the times, then it will survive and should survive.
However, this tells us what will happen, not what should.

I think there's a strong analogy between cultures maintaining their own distinct language and children growing up bilingual. In the past, in the U.S., both educators and parents discouraged immigrant children from speaking their old language, encouraging them to instead learn the dominant English. Most of them did. Today, many parents and educators consider it a positive for children to grow up bilingual, and some of them do. But a lot of them don't. It's the same with minority languages: Whether you're talking about a person or a culture, maintaining a separate language from the one in common use is a lot of effort. Government policies and adult pressure are sufficient to stifle the maintaining of multiple languages because it's just one more element to discourage a child or a people from doing something that can be intrinsically difficult. However, encouragements don't remove the inherent difficulties of maintaining two languages; at most they smooth the path for something that is still going to require some serious work. If the child of immigrant parents discovers they know English well enough that he doesn't have to use the home language to communicate with them anymore, the odds of his remaining bilingual plummet. The child was maintaining the language before because it was necessary to maintain a link to family. Things change when that necessity is gone. It is the same, I suspect, with minority languages: Not only must the culture be of sufficient value for people to maintain their ties to it, but the situation must be such that you can only truly be a part of that minority culture if you speak the language.

If you ask me if it is worthwhile to learn Breton, I would have to answer yes and no. Yes, because I am learning it - which means I must see some value in the effort - and no, because I am not learning it with the urgency of say, a Mandarin learner who knows he's going to Beijing next month. Breton connects me to a place that I adored when I lived there and gives me another point of access to Celtic and Arthurian lore of which I've already read in Middle English and Old French. These are motivations for one person to fuss around with something in his free time. They are not sufficient to sustain a civilization.

Is it worth it for a child to learn Breton if his schooling is in French, the shopkeepers in his town speak French, his television programs are in French and his parents, though native speakers of Breton, have learned enough French to go out into the larger world in their region? It's not a decision to be made by government ministers and sociology professors. The decision will be made by little boys and girls whose first thoughts are of who will get to the swing sets first at recess and whether there will be galettes for dinner tonight.

There are things that governments and sociology professors can do to make it easier for children to grow up in a Breton speaking world and to not leave. But these are limited. They can open up Breton schools, subsidize Breton movies, music and television programs and even give tax rebates to stores that conduct their business in Breton. But they cannot undo the effects of government efforts to destroy Breton in the past. Unless the Breton people can recreate a culture - now almost lost - that is vibrant and attractive enough for people to cleave to and for which the Breton language is the main access point, the odds for the language aren't good, fair or unfair though this might be.

I spent the first part of the week out east in meetings for the organization I work for. In one seminar, the speaker made the point that people don't buy products and services, they buy solutions. In my business, that means that people may show up with the perception they're buying language lessons. But what they're really looking for is the solution to the problem that they're going someplace where they don't know how to talk to anybody. When it comes to minority languages, the question is: What problems do they solve? What do they provide to their speakers that would otherwise be lost? If the speakers of Breton, or Welsh or Irish or any other minority language can find enough value in the extra bond that provides to a unique and special culture, the language has a chance at survival. But if efforts are made to maintain a language simply for the sake of maintaining it, or because outsiders are trying to make up for earlier actions that eroded the value of maintaining it for too long, that language's prospects are pretty dim.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Is it worthwhile to save regional languages?

Megan McArdle, writing at Instapundit, notes:
Like most Irish-Americans, I also would not want to actually live in a non-English-speaking nation. What I really want is to have learned Irish from my Grandmother, and be able to impress friends by ordering drinks in my ancestral tongue while on holiday. This is the sort of thing that makes my Irish friends complain--justly--that Irish-Americans would really like to see the whole country preserved as a sort of Colonial Williamsburg with shamrocks and twee wool caps.
She points to a Language Log article which worries about
self-serving demands that aboriginal tongues be kept alive (by poor people) for (comparatively wealthy) linguists to study
Unlike Megan, I have enjoyed living in a non-English-speaking nation - a great deal, in fact. But the nation I went was France, in the region of Brittany. This means, on the one hand, that I was studying the language of a people resisting anglicization and working to preserve their culture from being overrun by the Anglo-American version of democratic capitalism. On the other hand, I was studying the language of a people whose approach to the Breton culture has only comparatively recently shifted from efforts at outright eradication to a mix of benign neglect and commercial exploitation for purposes of tourism.

Ironically, the French people whose culture is slowly destroying Breton culture are largely other people whose regional cultures were destroyed by the Paris-dominated version of French culture. If you root for the Bretons to make a comeback, do you also root for the Provençaux, the Alsatians, etc.? If you do, soon there's no such thing as French culture, and that prestigious world language you spent so much time learning is just the regional dialect of the middle of what Caesar called Gaul.That's no good!

I loved my time in Brittany. And I enjoyed my time as a tourist both of the French culture and of the Breton culture that was supplanting it. I'd hate to see either of them go. But then I look back 15 years ago and see how much has changed. Life would be pretty dreary it it hadn't. And it's not fair to ask other cultures - and the people in them! - to put themselves on hold, eschewing progress as though our curiosity and entertainment were more important than their lives. Up until World War I, a lot of the regional patois endured to a greater or lesser extent in France. But then people of various regions had to start identifying themselves less as Normans, Burgundians, etc. and start identifying themselves as French in order to preserve the framework of the state within which their regions were located. Who knows but what a visitor to the south of France in 1895 mightn't have complained of the Frenchification of Provence on returning 30 years later?

I don't know whether Breton will hang on, though I'm not overly optimistic. And if it doesn't, I'm certainly not prepared to shrug my shoulders and mouth platitudes about the progress of civilization and how it's all for the best. On the other hand, it's not all for the worst. Truth be told, without the nationalization and globalization that threaten Breton culture and even make people uneasy about the status of French culture, a kid from rural Michigan would never have seen the Breton culture to mourn its passing - or gone to Brittany to study French!

I wish I had a neat wrap-up to this that summarized my thoughts and explained everything you need to know to form the reasonable and rational opinion of what it all means. But I'm frankly pretty torn on the whole thing. I'd love to be able to go back to Rennes, and St. Malo, and Vannes and even, God help me, Cancale, and find everything just as it was when I left. But I'd hate to leave the people I knew and who shared and taught me so much with nothing better to do than to be a living repository for my memories and idylls. They deserve better.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Instead of Sticking to Plan, Make Plans that will Stick

Know thyself.
-The Oracle at Delphi

How often do you get to work or the grocery store and discover that you've failed to put on clothes? Hopefully never! Yet I doubt that you get up in the morning and tell yourself, Okay, before I leave the house, I need to get dressed. I am so going to remember this time!

Are you as good at remembering to study your language as you are at remembering to get dressed in the morning? Not if you're working at it! A few months back, I saw an exercise program. It promised flat abs if you'd schedule in a daily work out for Eight Minutes in the Morning. I rolled my eyes and wondered who has that kind of time! Still, I bought the book. It's gathering dust.

Eventually, I realized that to be healthy, I needed to lose a little weight. But I lacked the willpower to diet. Still do. So now I walk to the fast food restaurant where I eat lunch - and walk the long way back! I've gone from 192 lbs to 169 lbs. We'll see if it sticks, but so far the most successful weight loss program I've found requires no effort and no motivation. All it requires is putting one foot in front of another to go to places I was going anyway.

The other day, I noted Aristotle's assertion that excellence is a habit, not an act. I mentioned that this means you have to stick to your language learning if you want to get anywhere. But I missed a second, crucial point: how to stick to your language learning. Hint: It's not motivation, willpower or whatever. The true secret: to find a place where your studies will fit into your routine and make them part of your routine.

Following up on my Language Habit post, Josh the Language Geek offered a glimpse of how he's put his studies on autopilot:
I’ve been extremely busy with college classwork, and so my language learning time has been pretty slim. However, I’ve been able to squeeze in 10-15 minutes a day for both French and Russian; German, as my primary language target, usually gets half an hour to an hour. While I certainly won’t win any language learning races by studying an hour and a half a day, luckily, I’m not in a race; I just want to continue learning, which I’ve been doing successfully.
Of course, what Josh does won't be right for everyone. But it works for him. Hence my citation of the Delphic Oracle: Know thyself. Too often when we formulate our language learning plans, we are making them not for ourselves but for our idealized version of a dedicated language learner. Then we beat ourselves up for not being motivated enough to stick to it. In laying out your language learning plans, think about how you live your life and how you do things. Try to lay out some routines you can actually see yourself sticking to. If you surf the net a lot, get an online course. If you tend to plunk yourself in front of the television, get some DVDs in the language. Regardless of your program, use your peak motivation time to assemble your materials in a way that they'll be easy to use and where you'll have something to fall back on to rebuild momentum at rough spots. In short, don't try to design the perfect plan for the perfect person, and get mad at yourself for being imperfect. Set yourself up for success by designing a plan where learning a new language will fit into your life until doing what you need to do to move forward is second nature, not against your nature.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Language Habit

We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.


In the last few days, I've found myself drifting more and more to, more and more picking up my Barzaz Breizh, more and more skimming my other Breton resources. And each time I do so, things come a little more naturally. Last night, I picked up the Assimil Breton sans peine and read through the first ten dialogs with as much ease as I read Spanish, a language far more familiar and that I've studied a lot longer. Is my competency in Breton anywhere close to my competence in Spanish? Of course not. But it is improving. And it is not improving by leaps and bounds because of some new miracle course. It's improving steadily by steady effort.

So for this weekend, there are no new earthshaking secrets to share. But there is one old and earthshaking secret too often forgotten about all aspects of our lives: If you work at doing something as well as you can and consistently, you are on the way to excellence. So whatever your method or technique for learning language these days, stick to it. If it fits with what you're trying to achieve, you'll soon be on your way.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Orality and Literacy: Why reading isn't enough

Hit befel in the dayes of Vther Pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond...
- Opening to Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

Those with a little Middle English know that this says, "It befell (came to pass) in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England..." A native speaker of English, reading aloud, could figure it out. A new student of English, dictionary in hand, would be up the proverbial creek. For modern English, this isn't that big a deal. Nor French, nor Spanish, nor Italian. These languages all have pretty standardized spelling and grammar rules. (Except that the English learner still needs to figure out things like buy/bought, swim/swam/swum etc.)

Unfortunately, not all languages are quite so simple. Even working with relatively recent materials, one finds multiple ways of writing the multiple dialects of Breton. With languages like Arabic, you have to know the words because the vowels aren't indicated. And in Japanese, when you encounter a kanji, you have to know the word to know which reading to use. Which points to a problem we run into in teaching: Writing isn't actually language. It's a way of recording a close enough approximation to what is said that a native speaker can reproduce it in his or her own mind.

When I first started learning Breton, I was continually baffled. Every time I looked at a new text or textbook, I was at a loss. When I looked up words in the dictionary, they weren't there. And then I got a little bit of vocabulary - just enough to be dangerous - and listened to some recordings at and all of a sudden I had a sense of what was going on and under what other headings to look things up if my first dictionary searches came up empty.

As you learn your new language, enjoy your reading, of course. But be sure to get some audio content as well, so that you can be sure to truly get the language going in your brain.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

What is language learning?

The other day, a client of mine asked if it would be profitable to work on vocabulary and verb conjugations outside of class since "it's just memorization."

I responded, and with a bit more vehemence than is the norm for me, "No, it's habit formation."

Often, we think of language as something we know. It's actually something that we do. Yes, working through language requires a large body of knowledge. But it's the application of that knowledge over and over that enables one to communicate - an action verb - and to tailor one's communication on the fly.

For language learning, it's good to know the rules and to have a way to know what's going on. But in the end, one excels in learning language but using language, the same way one learns to ride a bike by riding a bike. The virtue of systems like Steve's beloved Lingq, then, are that they provide a form of training wheels for making real and extensive use of language. Assimil does something similar.

This weekend, thinking about what I had said about language learning as habit formation, I reminded myself that I should maybe engage in the language habit myself. So I went to Project Gutenberg and found a book in Breton. I fussed for a while, looking up a few words and figuring out sentences here and there. And when I later went over to, I discovered that some of the sentence patterns that had annoyed me no longer did so. It's not that I knew them cold or instantly understood. But they were a little more familiar. And so I did some reading and exercises and found that my Breton brain was a little stronger - I did all the fill-in-the-blank and put-the-words-in-the-right-order exercises correctly and with relative ease. I also read a little Italian at Project Gutenberg (Collodi's translation of Perrault's Le Chat botté), and found my Italian flowing a little bit better.

So, to answer my title question - What is language learning? Language learning is the formation of habits for communication and understanding. Like any complex set of tasks, the more you use language, the surer your ability to perform. So keep reading, keep listening, keep speaking and keep writing. And if you, like me, want to search for that fast and easy way to learn, don't forget that in the end it's only by keeping at it that you'll truly build and maintain fluency.