Monday, 9 May 2016

My Language Learning Manifesto

Looking back on previous posts, I realise that I've never really set out my approach to learning languages.

When I was studying for my MSc (in psychological research methods), I was fascinated by how irregular natural language is. Grammar based models of language didn't seem to me to give an elegant, sufficient-and-no-more-so account of how the brain handles language.

Plaut & Shallice's 1993 paper gives an excellent connectionist account of irregular noun learning, and how it may relate to forms of dyslexia. As part of my studies I recreated their model (with the kind help of Prof. Plaut and my long suffering project supervisor Dr M LeVoi) using different source data, derived directly from English word lists rather than synthetically created. The difference is functionally rather trivial, but I thought it made it more obvious that the effect was valid. More than anything else it gave me chance to get very deeply engrossed in their findings and the surrounding literature.

I've yet to retrieve (or rewrite) my original 'basic introduction to connectionist modelling' text, but I'll link that to this post when I do. In the meantime, here's an article by Prof. Plaut that explains it.

Back to language learning.

Anecdotally, people often claim that the best way of learning a language is by 'immersion'. If you're surrounded by it constantly, you pick it up very rapidly. Realistically, that's how children learn their milk language - we don't teach 2 year olds formal grammar, they just learn it gradually. Connectionist models give a really good account of that. I've written about how phrases lend themselves to that process here.

So far then:

  • The models suggest that immersion/repeated presentation of linguistic units will lead to 'spontaneously' learning grammar.
  • Learning grammar rules by rote and trying to apply them is tedious and demotivating.
  • Attempting to translate every utterance from your native language into a foreign language with perfect grammar on the fly is going to be far too slow for meaningful conversation.
  • Most of us speak informally with shortcuts, slang and incorrect grammar in our native languages.

This led me to think that the best way is just to be exposed to as much language as possible. Effectively, as many presentations of as wide a set of sample data as possible. So my approach to learning French is:

  • Read as many books as possible
  • Watch French TV
  • Listen to French pop music
  • Read the news in French (especially specialist news, to build up the technical vocabulary. I subscribe to various archery, beekeeping & computing websites)
  • Read cartoons in French. I've learned some really quite startling phrases from Phiip. (Warning, frequently NSFW language)
  • We also have formal lessons, but they point out how words I've already encountered fit together, rather than being an exercise in 'memorising rules'.

This seems to me a more natural way of learning, conforming more to how our brains actually work.


Monday, 7 March 2016

Some information about subtitling

In my last post, I noted that 'Les Revenants' on DVD in French comes without any subtitles. It seems that subtitles are a more complex topic than they first appear.

For example, if you watch 'Engrenages' on French DVD with subtitles, towards the end of the titles there appears (in the subtitles) the information that the subtitles are by 'Lezard'. It looks like subtitles are in this case farmed out to another company, separate to other parts of production/publication.

A couple of weeks back I was enquiring whether netflix offers French subtitles if you watch French programs on an British netflix account. The answer is 'no', and the reason is interesting - the subtitles for 'Engrenages' are not licenced for use outside France. There's that 'different companies' thing in action.

Before I had occasion to use non-English subtitles, I just assumed that DVDs came with all the subtitles/languages that the program is available in. It seems not, there's a lot of variation from country to country. If you want to watch something with subtitles in a language other than that of your country of residence, you're probably going to have to get the disc imported (especially since netflix now forbid VPN connections).

One other thing - we watched 'Adele Blanc Sec' at the weekend. If you buy a British edition of a French film, with English subtitles, you can't switch them off. Subtitles on foreign language films are not switchable using the DVD subtitle facility, they're built into the picture.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Using TV as a learning medium

A simple explanation of the approach we're taking to learning is as follows:

take a unit of language (word, phrase, 'utterance') and present it over and over. Little variations in the presentations won't matter, what you end up with is a mental representation of a 'prototype' of that presentation.

(One of these days I'll dig out the laymans introduction to connectionist approaches I wrote for my MSc, which will explain this better.)

The key to this is, as I've said before, repeated presentation. The more language you can be exposed to the better you will learn. As part of that, we've taken to watching French TV programmes. Handily, French TV is going through a bit of an export drive at the moment, and lots of good, engaging stuff is appearing.

To start with, we watched 'Engrenages' in French, but with English subtitles. I found that I wasn't really attending the spoken language, because my mind was engaged with the written subtitles. This tallies with the findings of 'split attention' tasks - if your speech centres are engaged with reading, they can't simultaneously process verbal input.

Next, we switched to French audio, French subtitles. That's much better - my French is good enough now to follow the subtitles (and my partner's has been for a long time - I've been at this for about 3 years, she's been learning on and off for more like ten). Some of the time I hear the spoken words, some of the time I just read. It's good for speed of reading as well as listening.

Last week, I ordered series 4 of 'Engrenages' and series 1 of 'Les Revenants'. I've been ordering from, because if you get the UK editions, they only come with English subtitles.

Friday, I slotted series 1 of 'Les Revenants' into the dvd player and hit 'play'.

"now, how do you get this disc to play subtitles? Can't find it anywhere"

Looks at the box: "sous-titres: sans".

Merde. The next step is now forced on us. We're managing ok, but it's challenging.