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Learning Languages
Language Material and Philosophy

This is a kind of online diary of my journey into 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 below and decided to open the blog for all language experiences and my thoughts about them.

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.