Language Study:


I can communicate in Spanish. I am neither smooth nor elegant, but I get the message across. I have a some small abilities with German. I can read a basic German sentence and can understand and speak a little. I know some basic American Sign Language, but I am NOT fast nor am I particularly talented with ASL. I can identify the basic Japanese kana and write many of them without prompting. I've played with some Chinese characters, but what little I learned, I've forgotten.

My observations are those of a person with a lot to learn about languages and should be understood to be general impressions of a student and not the view of an expert.

I also include other rambling thoughts about different languages. None of these languages will be on the test later, so feel free to skim over anything you don't find interesting.

I started learning Spanish because it seems that the Spanish language is becoming more and more useful in the United States. I work at a company that has people who speak Spanish, so I can occasionally take a stab at conversational speech.

Like any typical English speaker learning his first foreign language, I've been occasionally frustrated by the conjugations and by nouns having their own gender. Why is a table, "mesa" female? The bottom line is that each language has its quirks and twists and turns, so I haven't been all that frustrated.

I don't claim fluency. I have read all of the Harry Potter books in Spanish. I try to visit some Spanish web sites every now and then. I've found the newspaper sites elpais.com and elmundo.es are both nice for reading current happenings in Spain. The very best daily news from Spain is at http://www.20minutos.es/, I visit that site every day.  I am watching and listening to http://www.milenio.com/portal/tv_live.html for television news from Mexico. Whenever I buy a DVD that has a Spanish language track, I do NOT listen to the English version. The constant line in Buffy episodes, "¡Cuidado! ¡Hay un Vampiro!" is pure magic!

I started learning with the Rosetta Stone program. I completed levels one and two. I have gone through some of level three. Rosetta Stone didn't help me much with conversation but it did give me some vocabulary and show some of the spelling. I went through all of the Pimsleur courses for Latin American Spanish. The Pimsleur was great for conversation and did give me some confidence, which was a big help. I have also gone through the Michel Thomas basic and advanced audio courses. The Michel Thomas course is the best damned method of learning conjugations anyone will ever find. Michel makes the the tenses so damned simple! I've gone through the advanced Rocket Spanish course. I walked away from it with one very useful tip. The conjugated version of coger has a crude meaning in some Latin American countries that it does not have in others. It is safer to go with agarrarse! I have also gone through level one and two of Learning Spanish Like Crazy. That program is not a bad addition to Pimsleur, Rosetta, and Michel Thomas. It also came with both clean and crude insult tracks. I'm playing with some of the Transparent Language course.

I'm just listening to the occasional podcast and watching Milenio TV. My ability with Spanish is sufficient enough to communicate.

AUDIO SAMPLE OF SPANISH

When I was younger, I read a German science fiction series, Perry Rhodan. I read the 130 books that were available in English. Since then, I have learned that there are over 2450 volumes in the series that are not translated into English. I have found other German science fiction series that have not been translated into English; Raumpatrouille, Sternenfaust, and many others. My goal is to learn to read German for the purposes of reading some of those books.

Since I had already learned some Spanish, I thought the problems would be similar. I was shocked to see how similar some German words are to English. The grammar in German feels a lot more comfortable to me than the Spanish. English being my first language, I find the ease with which precision is possible for me in German is a pleasant change from the sometimes vague Spanish.

I have found LOTS of written German on the web. There are also podcasts and videos available on the web. I have a few DVDs with movies in German. I have also run into some television series in German. You really haven't lived until you've listened to the original Knight Rider series in German . . . The show isn't any better, but it is much more interesting. The German version of VIP is hysterical. Whoever was responsible for casting a very serious sounding German woman to do the voice dubs for Pamela Anderson has one hell of a sense of humor! Hearing Daleks from Doctor Who gliding around yelling "Exterminieren" is a treasure to be enjoyed.

My German needs LOTS of work, but I am getting there!

I've gone through the Pimsleur levels one and two. I've finished Rosetta Stone German level two. I've gone through the first 8 CDs of the Michel Thomas course.

I have slowly gone through reading some books in German. The first was Buffy Im Bann Der Dämonen: Die verlorene Jägerin 1 - Die Prophezeiung. The second was Sternen Faust: Ein neuer Captain. It was slow going and I was using a translation dictionary constantly. Every now and then, when learning a foreign language, I find that I need to try something totally different to keep the learning process going. The books show me several things. The first is clear; I have a LONG way to go. The second was that I am learning! There were some passages that I understood with little help. The third thing was the most important, I can do this!

AUDIO SAMPLE GERMAN

One day at work, a visitor from China had a problem with her computer. The issue was complicated by my complete lack of knowledge about oriental character-sets and just how one goes about entering those characters. This was one of the few times in my professional life that I was caught COMPLETELY off guard and was completely clueless.

This experience lead me to start looking into the whole "oriental character" thing on Windows PCs. The more I looked at the reference material available on the internet, the more fascinated I was by the Chinese characters. In addition to other reference materials, I purchased a book, "Learn to Write Chinese Characters" by Johan Björkstén. This book discusses the two major types of Chinese characters, traditional and simplified, and shows examples of each for the characters that it covers. With this book, the student is encouraged to practice the most common of Chinese characters using a fountain pen. From approximately 7/8/2005 through 6/14/2006, I filled out at least one practice sheet of 106 character iterations for one simplified and one traditional character each day. Today, June 8th of 2014, I don't remember many of the symbols.

Sometimes I used a fountain pen, other times I used calligraphic dip pens, and I even played with bamboo shafts. In the end my three preferred writing utensils were the following:

  • Pilot Varsity disposable fountain pens (these are INCREDIBLE!)
  • Dip Pens using the British standard fine point Post Office pen steel nibs. I had to import these from a distributor in Australia. For unique things like this, I LOVE e-bay!
  • EnerGel Liquid Gel with 0.7 Needle Tip.

Each type of writing utensil gave me a different look for my Chinese characters. Unfortunately, my handwriting has always been terrible. It did not improve, no matter the nifty writing toy nor the daily practice. I found the practice very relaxing because I had no expectations. I made the characters and had fun doing it. Using the dip pen with the steel nib is always an adventure!

To understand even the most basic parts of the Chinese characters, you need to understand a little bit about the history of the Chinese written language. The short version of the modern history of Chinese characters boils down to this: Until about 1900, the Chinese "Classical" language was the standard for Chinese writing. It was used by and for the ruling bureaucratic class, the Mandarins. It depended on a long period of study in which the student would learn the ancient Chinese classics and thus the thinking behind the concepts expressed by the Mandarins. Unless you understood the classics, the written language did not have a great deal of meaning. Around 1900, pressure from Western missionaries and a focus on the future of Chinese literacy by the Chinese lead to attempts at Latinazation of the characters for the purposes of supplementing learning. These attempts lead to a few interesting teaching tools but did little to change the written language. In 1950, the communists decided to simplify the Chinese characters. A confusing collection of about 50,000 distinct characters had another 3,000 plus simplified variants added by the ever-helpful commies . . . The good news is that a reasonably educated individual can get by with learning around 5,000 of the most common characters. If that person want to use both traditional characters (Taiwan) and the simplified characters (China), that person might need about 10,000 characters . . . Making this whole mess even more interesting is the culturally unifying function that the written form serves. Specifically, the different Chinese ethnic groups don't speak the same language. The written form of Chinese, with its meaning-based characters, is basically understood by all of the groups. In other words, the sounds of the different dialects don't matter since the written form has a mutual intelligibility . . . If you've followed the story this far, you are beginning to see just how complicated the ancient Chinese writing system with all of its antiquated thinking is. I managed to partially learn about 215 characters before moving on to other goals.

I learned how to use Chinese dictionaries, such as "Chinese Characters A Genealogy and Dictionary". If you are interested, the contents of the book are duplicated by the author(s) at: Zhongwen.com. It is fun to see Chinese characters in a Japanese anime and look them up to see if they have any apparent interesting meanings.

In addition to learning a little about Chinese characters, I learned a little about the differences between the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and the Korean characters. Japanese and Korean have a similar language family background. Linguist family-wise, they share NOTHING with either the Vietnamese or the Chinese languages. Vietnamese and Chinese also have nothing in common, as far as the linguistic families go.

I discovered a fascinating book discussing Chinese, Korean, and Japanese writing. The title is "Studies in Written Language and Literacy 3 - Writing and Literacy in Chinese, Korean and Japanese" by Insup Taylor and Marting M. Taylor. Anyone wanting to know about how those writing systems started and grew and how they relate to their spoken versions will find this book a treasure!

When it is all said and done, I just don't believe that written Chinese has a future. Yes, there are those who say, "The Chinese are becoming more and more significant, their language will follow!" I believe that those who say that just don't understand the horrid state of the Chinese language. There is ONE thing that the Chinese language does well. On a small LCD screen, think cell phone, where space is limited, a few Chinese characters CAN sometimes communicate far more than the equivalent of phonetic languages. Personally, I would prefer to buy a slightly larger LCD screen . . .

Click HERE to see a Chinese poem in both traditional and simplified Chinese characters. This document, sadly, represents my Chinese calligraphy at its best. The poem is a traditional Chinese poem. A smooth translation goes like this;

A Thought on a Still Night

Before my bed the bright moonlight
looks like frost upon the ground.
I raise my head to watch the moon,
then lower my head and think of home.

To see a basic Chinese character and how it is constructed, click HERE

I found two pieces of software to be useful. Clavis Sinica is a useful program for learning the glyphs. Wenlin is the Rolls Royce for learning Chinese characters. Both are useful for identifying unknown symbols and seeing the right way to construct them. Wenlin also has a REALLY nice flashcard type of learning system. Both will pronounce the character for you. Wenlin also serves as a primitive editing environment. Wenlin is expensive but, if you really intend to tackle this language seriously, I wouldn't be without it!

Why would any reasonably sane person tackle Japanese? It is considered to be one of the most complicated writing systems in use today.

I would love to give you an answer that involved solving the world's problems, providing an incredible boon to humanity, or something involving the preservation of some obscure cultural art form that is currently in danger. But, I can't. I am tackling Japanese for two reasons. The first is to be able to read some of the sign-age and credits in Japanning. The other is to learn Kanji characters. That is just one of those itches that must be scratched.

Japanese has three basic writing/character systems.

The first, and oldest, is the Chinese characters. This character set is called Kanji and has 2000 officially recognized frequently used characters. It has the same basic meaning as the Chinese versions.

In addition to Kanji, there is a phonetic system, which is divided into two character sets or kana; the katakana and the hiragana. Each of the two kana consists of 56 characters each with an addition 25 modified versions, giving us a total of 81 characters each. Hiragana, the cursive form, is predominately used to write native Japanese words and inflections. Katakana, the squarish form, is used to make foreign words readable by Japanese. Katakana is used for plant names and the names of animals. Both character sets have 25 characters that are designated by one of two special symbols. The first symbol looks like an English quote symbol at an angle. This symbol is call a "dakuten". The second symbol is a small circle that is slightly above and to the right of the character being modified. This symbol is called a "handakuten".

"Otaku" is a Japanese term for people with intense interests, often to the exclusion all else, especially anime and manga. I have written the word Otaku below in both kana:

The first is the Hiragana version:

The second is the Katakana version:

When I have some time, I want to tackle "Remembering the Kanji 1, 6th ed." by James W. Heisig. The cover describes his book "A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters". I have read a few reviews that indicate that this book is the best way to absorb 2200 Japanese kanji. The fascinating angle that this book has is that the author discourages combining it with formal classroom Japanese learning. He indicates that the Kanji should be tackled separately from the language. This book is perfect for my goal set.

Statistically, those who learn some sign language tend to learn foreign languages faster. Why? Who knows? Is it possible that there is a false statistical correlation because linguists, language polyglots, and people who are more intellectually curious learn to sign in addition to other languages? Sure. Is possible that signing helps to visualize language concepts? Makes sense to me. Whether the statistic is pointing out a valid cause and effect or not, I'm going to learn a little sign language to help me with my German and Spanish.

I've already learned a little and what I've seen so far is interesting. I'm finding out interesting little bits like the fact that ASL (American Sign Language) has its own grammar. This makes a lot of sense. The ASL is a big clue to the next little gem, different sign language exist in different countries/social groups. Who would of thought that the British (BSL) and the United States (ASL) use different signs? BSL also has a great deal of regional variation! The whole ASL thing is an interesting puzzle with lots of interesting pieces.

I've already started talking with people about ASL and I am learning that there a a LOT of people who have some signing ability! Once you start to learn the basics of ASL, you start finding new facets of people you thought you knew.

With an estimated 16 million deaf people in the United States and adding 4,000 to 5,000 deaf babies each year, this is a very useful language to learn. Those numbers come from the American Sign Language Dictionary Unabridged, 2008 edition by Elaine Costello, PhD. If you also factor in the Americans with Disabilities Act, you have an even more useful language.

My original goal of using ASL to help with my foreign languages may provide far more learning opportunities than I had hoped for. This is going to be a fun ride!

On September 1 of 2013, I decided to post a video showing how I am doing with ASL. The video is at http://youtu.be/67upgSP2XUQ. It is about 30 seconds long and has captions.

Klingon is the language of the Star Trek universe's warrior tough guys. It started out as a small thing for a movie and then grew into a fan-boy right of passage. Marc Okrand created this fictional language.

I have learned two words in this, the world's only copyrighted language. In a few years, I may add a third word, but I don't want to over-commit to this one.

If you find the idea interesting , go to kli.org, which is THE primary site for Klingon language education. They publish a journal called "HolQeD". The table of contents from volume 11, number 2 in the June 2002 edition includes items such as;

A Preliminary Classification of the Affixed of Klingon
matlh juppu' mu'mey
qepHommey
Beginners' Corner
qep'a' HutDlch
For those who just want a taste, back issues can sometimes be found on ebay.

For the truly hardcore Klingon speakers, there is a book titled "The Grammarian's Desk" by Captain Krankor. It is not easy to find but it is filled with Klingon language gold for advanced speakers.

If you would prefer audio courses, and who wouldn't, look for "Conversational Klingon" and "Power Klingon". Conversational Klingon can be found as an audio book, check your local library.

Marc Okrand has written several books on the subject. To get your feet wet, "The Klingon Dictionary" can be purchased from Amazon. "The Klingon Way, A Warrior's Guide" is more of an introduction to Klingon culture but has some Klingon phrases as well. "Star Trek Klingon for the Galactic Traveler" is a simple phrase book with lots of Klingon cultural hints.

If you are interested in why people learn the language and who they are, you might also want to watch the movie "Earthling: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water". The movie won't teach you anything about the Klingon language, but it does give a nice snapshot of the people who actually learn it and use it.

Hindi has interesting characters. I find its "clothesline" characters interesting. Hindi and Urdu are the same verbal language but Hindi is written in Hindi characters while Urdu is written in Arabic characters! If a babe like Diana Rigg speaks Hindi, it must be cool!

Who can't find Cuneiform interesting? The characters/symbols/ideograms are unique and interesting. I don't see it being a super useful written set of languages, but you never know when you will want to take a piece of rock and start writing your life story!

Like Chinese, it is a language of pictographs and ideograms or put more plainly "characters" that kind of look like symbols that represent pictures. What that really means is that it is a mess to figure out. Unlike modern character based languages, you have between 500 and 1500 symbols, not including multiple variants and cultural adjustments. Once you get past that tiny little hurdle, you have the issue of multiple languages starting with Sumerian then being adapted to Akkadian, Hittite, Hattic, Urarian, and who knows what others? Tackling the basic Syllabary is straightforward, but I wouldn't recommend much more than that!

Studying the history of Cuneiform, without worrying about the translation details is a little more interesting. Seeing how the writing system dispersed, changed, and was adapted is interesting.

Whatever you do, do NOT search "how to write in cuneiform" on youtube!

Egyptian hieroglyphs are the classic standard. Everyone should know a few glyphs. If I ever run into a misplaced pyramid, I want to be able to read the warning signs!

Wikipedia defines a conlang as follows:
...is a language whose phonology, grammar, and/or vocabulary have been consciously devised by an individual or group, instead of having evolved naturally. There are many possible reasons to create a constructed language: to ease human communication (see international auxiliary language and code); to bring fiction or an associated constructed world to life; for linguistic experimentation; for artistic creation; and for language games.

I have to admit that the whole Esperanto thing, see the next entry, brings up my dirty little secret. I am fascinated by constructed languages, a/k/a "conlangs"! There are so many different ideas that have lead to artificial languages, created to solve a variety of problems. Most of them are completely f***ing insane, but some are interesting. Even if you don't find the languages interesting, the political and interpersonal arguments and acrimony are a real party!

Anyone interested in the subject of constructed languages should try visiting inthelandofinventedlanguages.com where Arika Okrent, the author of "In the Land of Invented Languages", lists 500 constructed languages with some background information on many of them! This book is the finest introduction to the subject of constructed languages available! To be honest, it may be the only one . . .

A great site for those who are interested in creating their own constructed language is: http://zompist.com/. There is a companion book entitled "The Language Construction Kit" by Mark Rosenfelder. With this website and the book, you will be able to create your own conlang! I've looked through the book and it is brilliant!

Esperanto has goofy accent marks but is otherwise visually less than fascinating. The idea behind the language is an interesting one. As the most successful of the constructed languages, it has an interesting history and has the potential to create opportunities for those who are into travel. I am most interested by the claim that it is four times faster to learn than any other foreign language.

The offspring of the Loglan language, this is the language for all who advocate a "logical" approach to languages. This has been described as a nightmare language with the most exacting of implementation standards. Apparently, no one actually speaks in this language, because of its extreme complexity; it is more of a written language. I have to spend a weekend playing with this one; it looks like a computer geeks dream!

Some Interesting Language Sites

Special foreign language characters in MS Windows.

http://users.teilar.gr/~g1951d/ is a wonderful site for Unicode Fonts for Ancient Scripts. If you want to type or display ancient characters on your computer, this site is an absolute necessity!

This page sourcecode was last updated: August 27, 2013




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