Thursday, March 22, 2012

Language Diary Thursday

Well, it's that time of week again. Time for me to give my updates on my language progress.


It's embarrassing to say, but only one week into this experiment, I've already been slacking off. I haven't actually done any Malay study in the last week. I suppose I could make excuses by saying that I've been trying to get ahead with my homework before going to Iran at the end of next week, or by saying that I went to bed way too late Monday night, and consequently spent the next few days feeling sleep deprived (I handle lack of sleep very poorly), but ultimately those excuses only really apply to some of the days in the last week... 

Yeah. I'm bad. 


My Russian course is now finally beginning to move into learning how to use the language, rather than focussing solely on phonics. The class was actually a bit slack this week, with the teacher making it a ”culture" week, showing the movie "We Are From the Future" (Мы из будущего), and photos of Moscow. 

There has been some progress, though. Now we're actually beginning to get into more usable sentences. I can now say, "Меня зовут Луси. Моя фамилия Луриан. Я студеит." (My name's Lusy. My family name is Durian. I'm a student.) This pleases me. 

Our teacher, in typical Chinese educational style, likes to get people to recite stuff. I don't mind a bit of reciting, since I find it helps me get accustomed to saying common phrases. So far the class has only been asked to recite texts, which suits me fine (though I'd prefer more opportunities to create my own sentences), but I suspect that soon enough the teacher will ask us to recite vocab, at least as homework, which suits me less well.

On the one hand, I recognise the need to learn vocab. All the grammar structures in the world will do you no good if you don't have any words to put in them. On the other hand, I'm not sure if the constant recital of vocabulary is the best way to learn it. I always feel that merely reciting individual words doesn't give you the same feel for the language as using it in organic contexts. 

Take these three words as an example: книга (book), яблоко (apple) and дом (house, home). If I were to remember these words by recital, I would at the same time have to remember their gender (feminine, neuter and masculine, respectively), and I would have to do without any language context. This is actually pretty hard and I find it quite tedious as well, which leads me to put off doing it. 

Now take the same three words, except this time using them as part of a sentence:

Это моя книга.-  This is my book. 
Чьё это яблоко. -  Whose apple is this?
Это наш дом. - This is our home. 

By using these words in a sentence when I try to memorise them, rather than reciting individual words, I'm doing a few things that I'm not doing when I recite the individual words: 
  1. I'm practising the sentence structures I've learnt.
  2. I'm reinforcing the gender of the word through the use of corresponding pronouns, and thus forming a habit of gender association, rather than merely remembering it as an academic exercise.
  3. I'm getting a feel for how sentences sound in Russian.
  4. Even a sentence as simple as "This is my book" is more interesting than repeating the word "book" ten times, which means I'm less likely to put off doing this kind of vocab study.
  5. At these early stages, I still need to practice all my pronouns, so I'm practising them at the same time as I'm practising the other vocab. I find this method particularly useful for words that only have a grammatical function.
  6. I can act out the sentences, by pointing at objects in my room as I say the sentence. 
  7. I get to practise saying Чьё, which is good, because it is hard to pronounce, but (going back to point 4) like I really want to sit in my room just repeating the word "who" for half an hour. 
As you can see, I think the "reciting as part of a sentence" strategy is far superior. 

That said, focussing on learning individual words has its place: namely, if you have a vocab test. In such cases, though, the main reason is more to get a good grade than anything else. Historically, I've always done relatively poorly on vocab tests, because I don't really like the brute force  method of learning words. I like to think that I learn my words far more organically, through constant use. I feel that this is backed up by the fact that come the end of term test, I've usually mastered most of the vocabulary learnt during the term, despite putting very little effort into actual vocab study. 

I suppose that all of this is discussing/complaining about stuff that the teacher hasn't asked us to do yet (except for the reciting passages bit), but I figured that I'd use this post to discuss the way in which I typically learn languages, since that seems quite relevant here. 

I do have one question. I keep on finding myself aspirating* my unvoiced consonants, even though my understanding is that Russian unvoiced consonants are actually non-aspirated (aspiration being a weird feature that English shares with Asian languages, but not European languages). As a result of my being aware of this, and not really being used to pronouncing non-aspirated, unvoiced consonants, I have this constant fear that when I'm not aspirating, I'm also voicing (so pronouncing Т as Д, for example).  At the same time, I'm also aware that aspirating my consonants is "not standard", so to speak. I'm not so much worried about not being understood, but I do want to know how "bad" it sounds when English speakers let out their little breaths of air whenever they pronounce unvoiced consonants. Does it sound horrible, or does it just come across as a relatively neutral part of an English accent? Of course I'll still work on my pronunciation even if it doesn't sound really horrible, but at least I won't feel any need to get too cut up about it if I know that I sound ok even if I do accidentally aspirate occasionally. 

*Aspiration being the forceful breath of air that gets let out when pronouncing sounds like the English unvoiced consonants p, t, k, etc. 


  1. As a rule of thumb, words ending in a consonant are masculine, those ending in vowels (include "ь" as a vowel) are feminine, except those ending in "o" which are gender-neutral, and, of course, "и" is still plural.

    As to the other thing, an accent is a very individual thing so I can't really say until I've actually heard you speak.

  2. Yeah, I'll get to learn about that when I get up to chapter 4. Gender's still a pretty alien concept for me, though. Most of the languages I know don't even have grammatical distinctions for plurals!

  3. I've had an exactly opposite problem when I started learning English. How can you NOT have gendered nouns? It was all very confusing to me.