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Learning Languages
Blog, Material and Philosophy

This is an online diary of my journey to the fascinating world of languages. I started it in June 2016 with my Farsi blog. Five months later I discovered Somali for myself, so I wrote the entry at the bottom and decided to open the blog for all language experiences and my thoughts about them. My hope is to inspire people and to give them déjà vu moments.

Die Wörterkiste

(Mar 20, 2019) In February I resumed my work on the Wörterkiste (word box) after a one-year break. As the subtitle suggests, the book is a list of major words, made for self-learners of any language. As I am putting quite an effort into this project, I would like to explain it a little.

When you learn languages you will encounter the same topics over and over again in every language: words, grammar, texts. So I thought: Why not collect one single structured word list that can be used for every new (and previous) language? Of course, such lists already exist. Yet, as a cognitive linguist with a specific set of languages and as a learner, it seemed to make sense to come up with a list of my own, the Wörterkiste.

The idea of the book is that the user fills in the word translations by her- or himself, as part of the learning process. Maybe this is a silly idea, I don't know. But as I learn this way myself anyway, I can just as well offer this method and the material to others. So I brought it into manuscript form relatively early, with a foreword, a table of content, then the main part with about 130 pages in the form of the sample on the right, followed by a summary of all the words in the same order on 20 pages and finally a register for looking up words alphabetically.

Last year I spent about two months on collecting and arranging words, all in German, my mother tongue. I did browse through word lists in different languages, but mostly found the words by myself, keeping a notebook handy wherever I went. So the list was in constant change, which it still is. I realized that it was necessary to test the words by translating parts into different languages, preferably not all from the same language family. As could be expected, some words were no problem at all, for example animals and plants. But even when you only translate into one single language you will soon discover how many words are ambiguous in ways you would never have thought of. "Youth", for example, can be a bunch of youngsters, but it can also refer to the time opposite to old age. And there are languages that distinguish the two, like Malay. The first one would be "orang muda", the second "masa muda".

Apart from taxonomic lists like body parts, colors, countries, numbers etc., the Wörterkiste creates contexts. So underneath the entry for "mouth" you will find the verb "to suck" and under "tongue" there is "to lick". Words connected to pets and pet-keeping are collected together, as they form a semantic group, and they are easier to grasp in this context. Positive character traits like generosity, modesty, sincerety are subsumed in the subchapter "My Hero/Heroin" and negative traits like stinginess, impoliteness, laziness are grouped under "The Black Sheep". In most cases, though, I kept opposites together, as they help clarify meaning. Other scenarios are concepts we use in the context of telephones: call, busy line, hanging up, dial etc. So they are not just lists, but the words are provided in some kind of context.

About a month ago I resumed the work, as mentioned, and this time I started using an excel document. This is much more convenient, as now I can search for and find any word in the Wörterkiste in no-time. The other day I had a Syrian guest who told me the Arabic verb for the sound doves make, "hadala", and I added it immediately to the excel spreadsheet. This word is a bit specific, but I like to know the verbs for animal sounds in different languages. And why not? With the new document I am also able to fit in new languages according to language families, and I can switch the columns the way I like, make excerpts etc.

It did not take long until I had added new languages, so that now the Wörterkiste is evolving in twenty-five languages. The speadsheet is so broad that I have to show you this sample in two parts, see above and below. So now I am getting to the nitty-gritty. When I work on the Wörterkiste I sometimes concentrate on one language and try to translate one chapter or half of it. At other times I take a cluster of five or ten words and go through the individual languages. Often I shift words and whole groups from one place to another, there are always new words to add and some existing entries to cross out, as they turned out to be not as clear-cut or as relevant as I had originally thought.

But how can I know the right translation when I have no idea of the language, maybe don't even read the alphabet? Well, there are tricks. First of all, there are the big multi-lingual online dictionaries like Langenscheidt, Pons and World Hippo, also Glosbe, Reverso, Bab.la, Dict and some others. The Lexilogos site connects you with major online dictionaries for each language, but they don't have all the good stuff, you must search for yourself, too. Among the dictionaries there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones explain word context by defining in detail the German/English word, some provide compound words that clarify, for example, whether the word "language" means "human speech" (as in language ability) or "set of vocabulary and grammar" (as in foreign language). In Somali, the first will be translated as "lughad", the second as "af". Bilingual dictionaries are also helpful, of course. I found Cambridge for Malay and Collins for Hindi, for example. And I don't need German- or English-based dictionaries, for French and Arabic are ok for me, too. Even Italian and Dutch work. And my knowledge of Persian often helps when it comes to Kurdish and Urdu/Hindi words.

Then there is Wikipedia. It has many words with context, and it is a very useful tool. Double- and triple-checking is another important method, using different sources for the same word. And when nothing helps, you can still type "How do you say X in the Language Y?" into your search engine or ask a native. In the process, there is so much to learn. One day I spend with some alphabets I am not yet familiar with, another day I focus on one language or on a specific word group. Some grammar here and there plus language videos from time to time. Right now, after a month of working like this, I feel equipped and ready to go. Well, to go ... on. It will take about four years to accomplish it, if I don't leave the task for longer spells. Looking forward to it!

Toki Pona, the Minimal Language, and How I Discovered It

(Jan 16, 2019) It was twelve days ago. I turned on Paul's Langfocus Channel (YouTube) during my lunch break, being in the middle of analyzing the 82-item YouTube playlist of French TED talks with subtitles. Paul has a nice way of introducing languages and he certainly shares a general love for them. I chose the video by mere accident; it was one of the few I had not watched before. So Toki Pona, OK. He explained that it is an invented language. "Boring", I thought, but let's see. Then Paul said that it is a special language because it consists of only 120 words. Suddenly I was all awake. What? What - was - this? While watching the video to the end I learned with sample sentences that "li" separates subject from predicate, that "e" introduces a direct object after a transitive verb and that you can order multifold compound nouns/adjectives via the separator "pi". But my mind was already detached from terrestrial spheres and going its own way. What - is - this?!

My Background

In order to communicate my epiphany adequately, there are some things to be explained. Toki Pona is a minimalist language, and I am a minimalist artist. That's number one. It has always been part of my art to reduce meaning, material etc. to a minimum, avoiding verbiage, waste and abstraction (Ezra Pound: "No verbiage!"; "Go in fear of abstraction!" - search for the mind-blowing "Imagistes", 105 years ago, London/Paris), getting to the core of things, no mincing of words. Particularly in my poetry and songwriting. Number two is even cooler because both Toki Pona and my way of life are heavily influenced by Taoism. The experimental Bamboo series of 250 one-pagers, for example, the backbone of my literary production, was immediately inspired by Lao Tse, as you can read right on top of the preface of the first book (in German).

With number three we are getting to the linguistic part. When I studied Anglistics in Hamburg in the early nineties, there was an interesting kind of movement going on in the linguistics department. It attracted me so much that I soon decided to enter the linguistic rather than the literary department of the branch. In Germany's humanities you usually have one major and two minor subjects, but two major subjects are also possible, and so I settled on Islamic Studies (Arabic + history) and Anglistics. I was intrigued by the innovative Dr. Roger Böhm and Prof. Radden on the basis of my knowledge of Wittgenstein from school days.

For example, I learned about case grammar. There were some blokes in recent history who said: OK, we have different sets of cases in different languages, like nominative, genetive, accusative, dative, instrumental, locative etc. Couldn't there be a deep level where all languages meet? So one guy came up with a list of over 100 cases and others thought: Wait a minute! Let's take the minimum number and combine them! So they said: abs (absolutive), loc (locative), abl (ablative), erg (ergative). And then they combined them, like in the sentence: The pirate (erg, abl) handed us (loc, erg, abs) the loot (abs). - I liked that, just as I liked George Lakoff's theories in cognitive science: metaphors, metonymies, prototypes etc. And Noam's deep grammar to begin with. It was all about how language works (in the mind).

Lakoff had just published his groundbreaking "Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf" plus follow-ups via a new thing called the Internet, he was my total hero. And in the department, students and staff were collecting everyday metaphors by the thousands.

My primary interest in linguistics has always been understanding. Not, for example, coming up with a new theory or making money. The idea rather is: when you understand your own language you will better understand your own mind. We people have these incredibly complex and beautiful abilities to speak and create art.

We want to understand what this is all about. I want to know what it does to my mind when I have gathered experience in this language. Will it reduce my thoughts to an essence? Will it bring out the essence of my thoughts? How deep can Toki Pona go? Does it make sense to write poems in Toki Pona? Are there enough "atoms"? Will the expressed thoughts be hollow or vague? There are some poems from Loving Jay I want to translate at a later stage, and more flea cartoons. To see how it is when Anis language meets Toki Pona.

The Garden of Eden

So OK, we have (slightly more than) 120 words at our disposal. The first interesting question is: which concepts are NOT included? Taoist question. No day and night - wow - no danger, part, joy, help, anger, peace, friend, sister. This means: even such basic seeming concepts can be broken down, like molecules into atoms. Yeah, OK, they can, but does it work? Well, seventeen years of visibly growing success say: yes. What started as a private game by the Canadian linguist Sonja Lang was first publicized in 2001. Her official book "Toki Pona. The Language of Good" only appeared in 2014, and then the language became a ... what? Community, inspiration, whim without borders, computer language guinee pig, playground for freaks, addictive game? In any case, it obviously works and thrives.

Sonja Lang constructed a language similar to the case grammar mentioned above: she combined minimal semantic entities. If you now take into account - as number four - the work on the Wörterkiste (word box) I mentioned in the previous post you will understand why I spent three consecutive days producing a chart of the Toki Pona words, like a taxonomy of chemical elements. I will always remember these days as being a long trance vacation in the Garden of Eden. On the picture above you can see an excerpt of the three-page chart. I spent happy hours shifting the boxes from here to there, giving them colors according to meaning (social activity, body parts, measurements, physical objects, etc.) and adding meanings from different online lists. It was as if I knew exactly was I was doing and what I wanted as a result. It is still being updated, but basically finished.

Entering the inspiring game we can watch how minimal language works, indeed how language works, deprived of all fat, rid of skin and flesh, down to the bone. I translated and posted a flea cartoon on the toki pona facebook page. That was fun. "Fleas" are "pipi lili" (little insect). The translation is: "Mama, why are the fleas in the sky all white?"

I also asked myself how it will be like when you have invented a language privately, and then suddenly it takes off like that. I mean: search for Toki Pona on YouTube alone and you will know what I mean. I listened to the 40-minute interview by Kris Broholm (2014) with Sonja Lang (interview starts at min 5:00), and she explained that indeed the language has developed due to usage. Well, this is what languages do, they develop when they are used. It is hard to imagine what it is like for Sonja, though. Surely an adventure.

Once I came up with parts of a language myself, when I wrote the sci-fi fragment Omega 5. This was long before I even heard the term con(structed) language. But in that case it was not an attempt to construct a full language, I just needed some philosophical terms that were not so well-worn and that combined different concepts.

How to Approach Toki Pona?

For me, all languages are different to learn. Toki Pona is special because you cannot turn on a news channel or radio stream. You cannot listen to natives talking in their natural habitat because there is no such thing.

So after the collection and ordering of the Toki Pona words I went over to grammar and syntax, using sample sentences and giving them colors again: Noun phrases in orange, predicates in blue, prepositions and adverbial phrases and the rest in green. For the small words I used lighter colors. When you really dig into it you will find incoherences, but for working purposes it is fine.

We have little grammar, as there is no (grammatical) singular and plural in Toki Pona, only one case marker "e" for the direct object, no conjugation, no gender, no tenses, no mode except for the imperative. Therefore, it is best to learn with examples and to integrate idiomatic usages in the grammatical features, like the ways to ask questions or to talk about time. Grammar in Toki Pona is syntax-focused and much closer to idiomatic terms than elsewhere.

The picture above is an excerpt of a dense page with sample sentences to explain all grammar, syntax and typical usage of more complex words like "lon" or "tawa". So whenever I come across a new idiom or a structure I newly understand, there will be a place to store it.

I still felt unable to find my way around in this language until I had produced a list of Toki Pona compound words. There can never be a real dictionary because it is part of the tp philosophy and challenge to make things up according to context. But there are some very often used compounds you will have to know, anyway. My simple alphabetical list consists of 440 entries now, including some that are not obvious. When I come across a new one I will add it. Reading through the list also deepens the knowledge of some tp concepts and grammatical/semantic relations.

The final element are texts. There are some collections with and without translations online, and I filled some pages and read them again and again as I get closer to the end of my 14-day intense trip. It is true: you can really learn this mini-language to a considerable extent within a fortnight.

Once I browsed Toki Pona links I realized how much is going on. There are dozens, no, hundreds of contributions: blog entries like this one here, descriptions in many different languages, poetry and prose, articles about grammatical details, link lists and meta link lists (this here is the most comprehensive one I found). There is a lot of love in all this.

Now I have arrived, and it is a good feeling. While being on the brink of resuming other languages, every now and then I will see a facebook post in Toki Pona, like the riddle of the day. I will keep on trying out links and reading stuff. It is like a new companion. Also, with this new experience, my other languages are starting to ... change. They seem less complicated than usual. Amazing side-effect.

Try It Out Yourself!

There is enough learning material on the internet for everybody. The 12 short videos lessons by jan Misali are a good start, together with these sentence translations, the 93-page textbook by jan Pije and the 76 illustrated lessons by Eliazar Parra Cárdenas. When you feel that Toki Pona is your thing you should get the original book by jan Sonja because you will want to have this book and show your appreciation. (My copy is ordered, hasn't arrived yet.)

The official website is tokipona.org and there is the extensive tokipona.net. Wikipedia has a lot of material. See jan Pije and John Clifford, too. The new YouTube channel seme li sin? (= What's New?) is posting news bulletins in Toki Pona. With these links you will be able to find your way around and get hold of even more material.

There is a lot of motion and development in the field of Toki Pona. It surely is an established language by now and has gone through some minor changes. At the same time, there is a lot left to do for people who want to contribute in one way or another.

To conclude (for the time being) I would like to support "Fingtam Languages" (YouTube)'s view that it pays to learn Toki Pona, this constructed language that does not claim to serve as a world language like Esperanto. To wrap it up: Toki Pona is extremely simple to learn, it shows you how language works, it is fun, it brings you to essential talk and thought, and it is quite a phenomenon if ever I saw one.

© Eequor (Wiki)

I Didn't Write Much Here Lately Because I Learned French

(Jan 08, 2019) It's been a long time and a lot of things happened. I just didn't keep up with this blog as it would have distracted me from the things I actually wanted to do. So what has happened on the language front since April 2017? Well, I delved into chess and go for a while and found myself affirmed when I heard ex-chess world champion Anand in his Hawaii interview on YouTube, where he stated that chess is like a language. Later I started with Dutch and followed the cute series "Heb je zin?" (Are you up to?). I also began learning Italian on a mild scale, just to get used to the sounds and most frequent words. I went back to the Goethe 2 (Fifty Languages) site and made myself new audio copies: French with Turkish translation, Italian with Dutch, Spanish with Danish.

In 2018 I started thinking about a general vocabulary inventory that can be used for learning all kinds of languages. I developed "Die Wörterkiste" (word box), a book with now around 7000 German words, ordered according to context (e.g. animals, colors, science words). I also created association chains like "In the House", there you walk through the individual rooms and look at the inventory and some verbs. Or "Travel". For months I had been shifting words and clusters from here to there, reconsidering, enlarging things, melting things together etc. In April I started translating parts of the Word Box into nine languages to check its validity and usefulness. I had time because in my bread job that year there was nothing much to do.

At first, I was going to publish the book as a tool for language learners like myself: you acquaint yourself with the book and then start to fill in the words in your target language as a game or an exercise, according to your personal approach. But then I was not content and felt the need to know more languages before finalizing the Word Box. I should have at least a forth fluent language at my disposal before resuming the box. So I chose French because I had one year in school, then an intense phase in 1993 and at least two more intense phases, all in all with little success.

Thus from May until the end of the year I had an intense French course with at least five daily hours on average. I translated all 172 Brel songs into German and listened to them often. I collected texts with audios, inserted vocabulary where needed and read while listening. Le Petit Prince (5x), Monsieur Ibrahim (4x), Boule de Suif (5x) and many others. Cyprien, L'Histoire racontée par des chaussettes, TED en Français ... I listened to Stendhal, Le Rouge et le Noir, and to Jule Verne's long novel "Les enfants de Capitaine Grant". I watched documentaries, with and without subtitles, arte, c'est pas sorcier, RT France, comedy, grammar videos and what not. I did not talk, though, and hardly wrote anything. But that's OK, as long as I feel I am learning a lot. I don't need French in my daily life. I just want to understand EVERYTHING about it, that's all.

Toward the very end of the year I slowed down the gallop. This was when I re-discovered
citybooks.eu and understood its true value. I took the half-hour text by Cees Nooteboom about Venice and ordered the languages next to each other: English, Dutch, French and Italian. There are high quality audios in all four languages. Here is the top bit of 25 pages:

So this is where I stood on January 4, 2019, when I came across Toki Pona ...

PS: On Jan 18, citybooks published my fan article about them on their website in English and Dutch. Very enjoyable.

How You Can Improve a Language You Don't Even Use

(April 24, 2017) My French got better. How can that be, as I don't do French, at all? I did, though. Once. Twice. Some intense phases. In one of them I developed a distinctive French identity to boost the learning procedure. You kind of pretend you forgot your home tongue and try to get it back quickly, mais je suis français, alors! Ecoutez, je vous en pris :-)

I just started two languages from scratch, you see. That's why I got more confident in the languages I already dealt with, like good ole French. Or Turkish, for that matter. I just relearned to listen better. And to understand foreign words. Better threshold management. Interesting phenomenon, discovered by chance when some French and Tunesian and Maghribi Facebook friends posted videos and news items I followed. How easy to understand! A more than 60% rate. So it is about self-confidence. (Oh, and I almost forgot that by now I got used to teach at length in Arabic in front of my class - I usually have a translator among the students for Farsi -, as complicated subjects as German history, traffic rules or grammatical phenomenons. I don't even think about it anymore, I just do it.)

There is a secret why children between 2 and 5 can learn their language so quickly. It has to do with the identity theme above. Other techniques are better suited for adults, like literature and grammar books. I want to get a bit closer into the art of learning languages, because all of my clients at work are confronted with learning German as one of their three priorities in life right now. So how can I assist them? By sharing, OK, checked, I learn a language, too. By providing them materials for learning, OK, checked, I collected a good pool of materials for refugees on the
Flücht-Links page. In some people I see that they need motivation rather than language material itself. So the 'new identity theme' and the confidence experience are useful hints.

Learning Languages

(April 15, 2017) In the video I linked here, polyglot Alexander Arguelles opens a horizon for people who love learning languages. One of his example arguments is that in the world of sports the world record for running 100 meters had for a long time been stable. But as soon as the record was broken, it was broken several times in a row. Arguelles compares this to language acquisition: Once it becomes normal to know several languages one realizes that the human limitations are not as narrow as one thought they were. Arguelles, for example, is learning languages by clusters, not just one at a time.
For me, after a first in-depth study of Somali I got back to Farsi and am entering a new level because I use my Farsi almost every day when I talk to people from Afghanistan and Iran. There is a guy in the camp, where my office is, and we knew each other before I started learning Farsi last June. When we sit together now, the situation is much different. We can talk in full sentences :-)

04.11.2016 - Somali

(November 17, 2016) This is a free-time language blog, successor of the Farsi blog. It turned out that my interest in languages is or has become more general and more intense. The main reason for that, I guess, is the fact that I have not worked as an artist for more than a year now after 17 years of action, and I need something to fill the void. Language actually is a good substitute. There are many parallels and a similar complexity in languages and art. Besides, people usually look at voluntary language learners with some respect, and, if they are natives, mostly with benevolence and joy. Not to mention the practical value and the personal challenge.

From time to time I will post something here, not too often. The blog serves two purposes: to document my development and some sources, similar to the way one documents the records in sports (and we will get back to this metaphor in a special post), and to write down some potential points of inspiration for you people. There are incredible, fascinating and truly amazing stories out there from the world of language. Did I say 'world'? Pah! If every single of the more than 7000 languages is a universe, what kind of word do we need to describe the sum of it? Let me start by telling you about my first Somali experience, as long as the memories of the very beginnings are still fresh and at hand.

Friday before last I launched my rocket into the Somali language universe and returned unharmed on Sunday night. I met
Sam, a man from Cornwell, who explained some basics to me. His wife is from Somalia, and he is acquainted with Arabic. Generally, the YouTube harvest was meagre, not like Farsi. Enough for a weekend, though. This language is different from everything I learned before, a real challenge. It needs a different approach from Farsi. I wrote words and expressions in a word document, some grammar. Quickly I came to music and discovered Nimcaan Hilaac iyo Heestii Qalbi (2.3 million clicks today), found the lyrics, and, after digging deep into the comments of the video, also a usable translation.

After that weekend I came across Mitsurugi's blog 'Nabad iyo Caano' and found that he gave a very useful overview with grammar, vocabulary and texts for beginners, and with the spirit of a student who is able to think as a linguist. Most of the 229 entries date back to 2011/2012. I copied and pasted everything into one word document and at first reduced it from 150 pages to 50. Then I had some extra time due to a one-week vacation. I thoroughly worked on Mitsurugi's paper and printed out a new version every day for five consecutive days, until everything was perfectly formatted, all Somali words in red color, similar parts fused, reduced to the substantial, ordered. The focused occupation with this text gave me a fundament for learning the language. In the end - that was yesterday - I got the whole text on nine sheets of paper, duplex print with two pages on one, 36 pages total. Total working time was something around 40 hours. I kept the previous versions as a souvenir. Tidying up and making order is my life-theme, this is why I can learn so well while doing it. I love it.

Also yesterday I expanded my vocabulary page from half a page to three pages with a total of about 1000 words and English translation. A mini-dictionary in one paragraph: Somali word in red + hyphen + English word + semicolon; Somali word in red + hyphen + English word + semicolon etc. Then I changed the colors of the verbs to blue, adjectives to green, colors to light green and linguistic technical terms in brown.

There is a good grammar out in German, I ordered it, although it is 60 euros. Online I found the complete amazing 'Qaamuuska Af Soomaaliga' (Puglielli/Mansuur, Rome 2012, PDF), a modern Somali-Somali dictionary with 970 pages (!) and a fine grammar section in the end with charts and tables. I am working on that right now, until Jörg Berchem's grammar arrives. I still have some days vacation, today is only Thursday.

I found four online dictionaries: translate.google.com, freelang.net/online/somali.php, glosbe.com/en/so and lexilogos.com/english/somali_dictionary.htm, but I cannot yet say how good they are. I did not need them much yet. Good is learnsomali.com. Then for audios, there is a zip file on mylanguages.org with about 700 mp3s, each with one word or expression or sentence spoken in American and twice in Somali. Seems to be a manual for US soldiers, the choice of sentences leaves no doubt ('Stop, or I will shoot!', Follow our orders!', 'We are Americans, you are safe' etc., but also normal stuff.) There is no written text to go with it, but I don't miss it. I know many of the words from my recent hours of private editing. Yesterday night I listened through it, I think it was more than an hour. (PS on April 24, 2017: After some research I also found the written text online plus several more chapters of audios with PDF. The politics behind the material inhibits me, but I do use it.)

OK, this is where I stand right now. So why Somali to begin with? Well, the next larger refugee nationalities in my surroundings are Somali and Eritrean. Somali is spoken by about 17 million people, Tigrinya (the main language in Eritrea) has less than half that amount of speakers. It also has a complicated script of its own, while Somali today is written in Latin characters. That was basically enough for the choice. Many Somalis speak Arabic, and there are many loan words from Arabic, too. But not a quarter as many as in Farsi.

There are some peculiarities in Somali, like two 'we's, one is 'we without you', one is 'we including you'. There are so-called focus words and classifyers 'baa', 'waa' etc. which put the focus on a specific part of the sentence to highlight it. Grammar is full of small words like prepositions, suffixes and pronouns that fuse with each other and with other words, often with shifting consonants and vowels. For me, this language is far out. It is not similar to any language I learned before. It is not related to Arabic, but shares some significant phonemes like emphatic q, 'ain and emphatic h, all produced deep in the throat. The d sound is close to r sometimes like in India and Pakistan, some other times it sounds like a usual d sound, then again like a voiced th sound as in 'the'. The tone and melody of the words and sentences are much different from what I know. All in all, I am - you can see it - fascinated with this language in a new way. And I can relate to the music, this is important. I don't go much for Arabic music, you see, and this here is close to blues, reggae and other styles that I know from US music. The language is very musical, very oral. The throat sounds and occasional staccatos give it a rough, Klingon touch, but then there is this tender and almost sung overall discourse that embeds it.