Language Monthly, November 2020, Estonian

Tallinn, so close and yet so far

Given that every post about learning Estonian starts by explaining why one is learning Estonian, I would follow suit.

Why Estonian? For me, there is nothing exotic about learning Estonian. It is the closest non Indo-European language in my vicinity. Estonia is a neighbouring country: it will take me just a couple of hours to get there. There are numerous linguistic parallels between Estonian and Latvian, as well with Slavic and Germanic languages. In fact, when I am in Latvia, I see written Estonian daily, as most groceries and foodstuffs one buys in the Baltics carry labels at least in five languages, Estonian included. For me, learning Estonian is natural and logical.

Today, I share some links that I found particularly useful. I have used materials both in English and in Russian, which are probably two main target groups: English for international learners, Russian for local minorities.

Three articles (in Russian) on learning Estonian with plethora of resources for beginners and intermediates, including dictionaries, grammar manuals, and texts, through the Language Heroes library (which has resources on 60 languages).

Two articles on the first steps would be interesting for those who learn through the English medium. They discuss some Estonian grammar features, such as two possible cases for the direct object, considered ‘odd’.

Frankly, I do not like grammar explanations given in most English-language resources, as they tend to over-complicate. Yes, Estonian has 14 cases (sort of), but only the first three really matter and form the basis for the remaining eleven, which are logical and regular. Learning them is not more difficult than to learn “on the table” but “in the cupboard” in English, just instead of prepositions, Estonian uses case endings.

An online course Keeleklikk, which exists in English and in Russian both for the beginners and intermediates, has been sponsored by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science and the European Social Fund. It is said that over 50 thousand learners have followed the course.

I like the course a lot. The sort videos are hilarious, new grammar is introduced through funny model sentences, which are drilled until you recall them, there are many exercises and tests, you can practice speaking with a computer, which is called Samuel and has a deadpan humour, and you can write letters to a real Estonian e-teacher, who corrects them and replies to you within a couple of days. All this is entirely for free!

Among the things I dislike: grammar is explained in a haphazard sequence, and is unnecessarily over-simplified. For example, the three main cases – nimetav (from nimi, ‘name’), omastav (from oma, ‘own’), and osastav (from osa, ‘part’), are referred to as 1st, 2nd, an 3rd form, which does not help understanding their function and usage.

I used an old, the 1980s, grammar book to supplement the course and to inject some logic into my grammar learning.

But my favourite ever explanation of Estonian grammar comes from a radio series Как это по-эстонски? (‘How you say in Estonian?’). It consists of two series of short episodes, some 70 in total, each dedicated to some language feature: e.g. past tenses (in Estonian, there are three), comparisons, conditionals, case formation, use of cases… Here are the complete archives of the first and the second series.

I have become an absolute fan of the radio teacher, Jelena Tammjärv (Еленa Таммъярв), who is brilliant. A native Russian speaker, she has learned Estonian and now seeks to transmit to her pupils not only her knowledge, but also her enthusiasm and fondness for the language.

And yes, her explanation of the use of omastav and osastav for the direct object is so crystal clear and logical, I really pity those who are lead to believe this usage is something odd.

Everything in the garden is lovely

up the garden path

I spent the summer and early autumn in the countryside, where I decided to learn English idioms related to gardens, trees, plans, flowers, fences, and such. (All in a vain attempt to improve my English, stuck on a plateau for the last 15 years.)

The one expression I did not know before is ‘to lead somebody up the garden path’, meaning to deceive on purpose. This expression will surely come handy when I have to deal with a particularly manipulative business partner.

The next expression is ‘to rest on one’s laurels’, which has equivalents in many European languages.

In general, I have a quick rule of thumb: if the same expression exists in the three languages that come to my mind most quickly (English, French, and Russian), it implies a common origin — Classical, Biblical, or literary. Here, the origin is Classical: ‘s’endormir sur ses lauriers’ or ‘se reposer sur ses lauriers’ in French, ‘почивать на лаврах’ in Russian, point out to Ancient Greece and its tradition to crown winners with laurel wreaths.

Several expressions are Shakespearean: ‘to gild the lily’, ‘a rose by any other name / would smell as sweet’, and, the most mysterious, ‘primrose path’, which usually leads to ruin, destruction, or similar unwanted outcome.

But the one I found most congenial is ‘everything in the garden is lovely’, which often implies the loveliness only on surface, perhaps even a lull before the storm.

In Russian, an expression with a similar connotation is Всё хорошо, прекрасная маркиза!, which in turns is a translation from a French 1930s song Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise!

One year on

a trip down memory lane

Today, this blog celebrates its 1st birthday. On this day in 2019, I wrote my first post, explaining why I had named this blog 19 languages

One year later, I have not written as much as I would have wished. For obvious reasons, this year I have not traveled as much as I have done in 2019. My trips to Italy and Spain were purely virtual, more precisely, linguistic. I was overwhelmed with work more than once, too tired to write anything. I had a long summer hiatus, when I lived in the countryside, spent my time primarily offline, although my language learning never stopped.

Still, I was appreciative and surprised that readers like my infrequent posts, and would like to thank all of you for your interest.

Some vanity statistics:

The blog post that was most popular was about Rome-related expressions.

The one about an obscure topic that received attention was about a Latvian poet.

The one that I really enjoyed writing but that received zero attention was on English colour idioms, which made me see red.

They say you should write something that you yourself want to read. This is true in my case. I have devoured language-related articles on such sites as Language Heroes library on 60 languages and Multilingua Blog, written in Russian about Romance languages. I have always regretted these articles were not more frequent, or that similar style articles did not exist in other languages. Or, probably they exist, but I do not know about them. Hence, this blog.

They also say that to write well, you should start by writing frequently. I have not written as frequently as I would like, although it was not the lack of ideas nor material to chew on, but rather the lack of time. Something to improve over the next year.

As a birthday present, three language-related social media accounts that I have discover this past year and that my readers might appreciate.

For English, Susie Dent on Twitter, her word of the day choice is unrivaled.

For Spanish, also on Twitter, La Real Academia Española, which solves your linguistic doubts with a hashtag #dudaRAE and offers a word of the day with #PalabraDelDía .

For Italian, the best bilingual museum account is that of Gallerie degli Uffizi on Instagram, which artfully combines useful with beautiful.

Enjoy, and let continue together to the next year!

Not a day without a line

so many lines

I have always enjoyed reading long books, especially long novels. In my youth, my favourite novel was War and Peace, which I reread in Russian at least three times. Last year, the book I liked most was a 1575 pages novel in German. This year, a tetralogy in Italian.

Some of these books are difficult to read, either because of a complex subject matter, or of the language I do not master, or an older variety of a familiar language. Plato in Ancient Greek. Don Quixote in Spanish. Dante in Italian.

Still, if I want to read them, I plough on. Over the years, I developed a method of reading long and linguistically complicated texts, based on three principles.

First, as they say it in Latin, nulla dies sine linea, ‘not a day without a line’. To keep the momentum going yet not to get overwhelmed, I read a portion of text, be it a page, a chapter, or a section, every day, often, at a dedicated time in the day.

The daily lesson can vary in length, but it should be short enough not to tire me out.

Thus, I read Boccaccio’s Decameron over three months this summer, every morning going through three or four stories. Now, I am reading Dante’s Inferno, one canto every evening.

Second, I read every daily portion at least twice.

I first learned this principle many years ago, from a book on language learning by Kató Lomb, an accomplished Hungarian polyglot of the 20th century, who relied on reading as her main language learning method.

I adopted this principle of reading every passage multiple times, and have been using it ever since.

First time, I read to get the gist of what is going on. It is often surprising how much one can gather, guess, and deduce from the context. Second time, I read to understand what I have not understood the first time, sometimes looking up words in a dictionary or pieces of grammar in a manual. I might reread some passages the third time, if I did not get a critical aspect, or if I like a particular turn of phrase and would like to learn it.

Third, I do not really bother about unfamiliar words. At first, I skip them, and look them up only if I miss the meaning. Only when a word pops up repeatedly, and its precise understanding is critical, I will learn it by heart.

For example, in Decameron, I could easily guess the meaning of ‘cagione’ (an archaic variation of ‘occasione’), but really needed to know the precise meaning of ‘vago’ (the women are often referred to as ‘vaghe donne’), as the word has multiple interpretations.

I borrowed this approach from a report I read somewhere, on Anna Akhmatova, a famous Russian poet, learning English in mature age to read Shakespeare in the original. Allegedly, every time she consulted an unfamiliar word in a dictionary, she would put a dot next to it. Once a word had more than seven dots, she would learn it by heart.

I do not remember when I read this report neither whether it is authentic. Still, this vocabulary learning method works well for me.

“I am just a technician”

the islet of calm before the storm

After the enchanted summer parenthesis, which included September and October and when I read, saw friends, and swam in the sea, it is time to face the reality. The second corona wave, tragic events in many countries, and twilight of democracy all over, with a feeling that digital technology not only does not help us to combat the virus and protect the most vulnerable, but often serves the opposite goal, helping to exacerbate inequalities and foster division and violence.

I have been reading the volume of short sotires Tutte le cosmicosmiche (“Cosmicosmics”) by Italo Calvino, written in the 1960s. It assembles his modern cosmogonies, some funny, others dystopian.

In one of them, the protagonist Qfwfq and his female friend are kidnapped by a bandit Bm Bn amidst a major cosmic change, which will destroy most of their world.

Suddenly, in the last moment of calm before the storm, a scientist enters the scene. He introduces himself as an Inspector of High and Low Tides and explains that, according to his calculations, only their islet is going to survive. The protagonist wants to share this piece of information with everybody else, but is brutally interrupted by the bandit, who wants to be the only one to profit.

When Qfwfq seeks solidarity from the Inspector, the Inspector replies that he is ‘a technician’ and hence would put his knowledge at the disposal of whoever is ‘in command’.

Io sono un tecnico. Se qui, come mi pare d’aver capito, è il signore ad avere il commando,  – e fece un cenno di capo verso Bm Bn, – è alla sua attenzione che vorrei sottoporre i risultati dei miei calcoli.

Dangerous words, dangerous attitude, alas also typical for our own times.

Language Monthly, June 2020, Spanish

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puerto de barcelona

Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.

For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.

Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.

So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.

Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.

I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.

Another favourite media is XLSemanal, which publishes balanced articles on important societal topics, interesting interviews, and a series of columns, firmas, of which my favourites are Pequeñas infamias and Mi hermosa lavandería.

Talking about poetry, Desamor by Rosario Castellanos, a Mexican author and diplomat, brought by Zenda, struck me.

Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.

Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.

Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.

I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!

Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.

El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.

In praise of language maintenance

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no day without a word

How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.

Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.

For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.

With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.

I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.

The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.

Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.

Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.

The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.

For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.

Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.

For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.

To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.

Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.

For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.

I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.

I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.

At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.

A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.

If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue.  No day without a line, no day without a word.

With flying colours

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out of the blue

To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?

It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.

Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.

There are plenty of resources on the English colour idioms. I like this list of 90 colour idioms, this blog post from Cambridge English Dictionary, which is my go-to online dictionary, and this post, complete with a colour quiz and a hilarious colour song, which I immediately learned by heart:

I saw red coz she’d left me in the dark
She’d left me in the dark that we were in the red

Not to sail under false colours, I choose to learn only those expressions which I would naturally use, starting with those which I sort of know yet where I always make mistakes.

Each morning, bright and early, I have been revising and recalling my colour idioms.

The difference between revise and recall has been well explained by Gabriel Wyner in his book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It:

When you study by reading through a list multiple times, you’re practicing reading, not recall. If you want to get better at recalling something, you should practice recalling it.

I find both exercises, revising and recalling, useful.

To revise, I indeed read through my list and either say the idioms out loud, write them several times, or invent a story with them, the more colourful, extravagant, and absurd the better.

To recall, I stare at a blank page before me, or lie down at night in a pitch black room, and try to remember idioms in groups by colour.

Once I am done with colours, I will move to English idioms involving animals, food, and weather, until I pass the idiom test with flying colours.

An Italian year

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nell’angolo della terra

Among few positive things the lockdown has brought me, is the revival, albeit online, of the International Poetry Club. The club met regularly in the early 2000s, sporadically afterwards, and then came to halt. It was sorely missed, as its founder wrote:

If there is one thing I really miss in my life ever since it is this kind of meeting: I have never managed to establish something similar anywhere else.

All previous attempts to resume the readings had failed, because of our increasingly busy lives and scattered geography. But universal confinement means that we are stuck at home most of the time, thus we arranged to meet online last week-end.

Everyone recited a poem inspired by these unprecedented times. The one that struck me and my friends most was a short verse by Salvatore Quasimodo, a great Italian poet (1901-1968).

Ognuno sta sul cuor della terra,
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

This powerful verse, part of a larger poem called Solitudini, is extremely famous and was translated into English and other languages many times. Yet, I knew nothing about it and next to nothing about Quasimodo!

Va bene, I said to myself. It looks like 2020 is going to be an Italian year.

Last December, taking stock of my language progress, I realised my Italian was getting rusty, and was planning to remedy this.

This year I began by reading Il Gattopardo of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an old favourite, and then succumbing to Ferrantomania, when I casually opened the first volume of L’amica geniale.

Then, in March, as the epidemics arrived in Europe, I started reading Italian media, as they were the most reliable source of information on the virus.

Now, at the poetry event, I realised that my knowledge of Italian poetry was non-existent. Sure, I know the names of Leopardi, Montale e Pavesi, but know nothing about them, have no idea which poets I like, and, apart from ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, I cannot quote a single line!

Dunque, what is the game plan to improve my Italian in the next 6 months?

First, learn some Italian poems by heart. Learning by heart is not for everybody, but I like it and find it an effective way to memorise words, expressions, and grammatical constructions.

Second, decide which language skills I want to improve and which knowledge gaps I need to fill, and work methodically and regularly to achieve this.

And third, read in Italian for pleasure, especially as I finally got my hands on the three remaining volumes of Elena Ferrante’ Neapolitan novels.

Language Monthly: May 2020, English

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proud like an English lion

This May has been a busy month at work. In particular, it involved lots of writing: proposals, technical reports, and similar soulless documents.

Writing in English did not come easily to me, but after years of toiling and moiling, I began to enjoy it. I am not the smoothest writer, neither the most creative, nor the one with a flawless English prose. But I have developed some shortcuts that serve me well.

At work, when something needs to be written, I can sit down, focus, and just write it, claiming proudly better done than perfect. The expression big fish in a small pond truly applies to my English writing abilities, although I prefer a colourful Russian saying на безрыбье и рак рыба (‘when there is no fish, a crayfish would do’), roughly equivalent to better a small fish than an empty dish.

This is to say that after writing for a whole day at work, I did not have any bandwidth to write anything else after work, hence this hiatus.

Now I am back. Given that the focus of the month was English, I share three English-related discoveries I made recently.

I am a huge fan of etymology, and was excited to find a useful and reliable resource on English etymology, Online Etymology Dictionary. It publishes regular posts on language issues, for example, this one on the so-called Janus words, this one on language in a time of Corona, and this one on understanding relations between different languages by Mediaeval Europeans.

The second is also related to English etymology. It’s a website called World Wide Words, dedicated to ‘peculiarities and evolution of English language’. The website is not being updated any longer, but nearly 3000 published articles will keep the reader busy for a while!

The third discovery is an article on Farnam Street blog, about the difference between two words often treated as synonyms, although they differ in meaning, to convince and to persuade: the first applies to reason, the second to emotions.

This one will be helpful next time I have to write something where I both would need to convince and persuade.