In 2021, just like in 2020, I will have three language learning priorities. The first two were easy to set: improving my English, a never-ending task, and learning Estonian, which I started chaotically in 2019 and continued systematically in 2020.
It took me a while to decide on the third language priority.
Finally, it is going to be German.
I spoke decent German in the late 1990s and read German books occasionally afterwards, but I did not put any deliberate efforts to improve it. My grammar is rusty, my vocabulary is primitive, and my listening skills are poor.
My interest for German language spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis better compared to its European neighbors. I consulted German epidemiologists’ articles as a source of reliable information about the virus, and much admired the corona speeches of Angela Merkel for their clarity, pragmatism, and scientific approach.
Given that we are not out of the woods yet, I thought it would be useful to have better, finer understanding of spoken and written German.
It would be useful for me professionally as well: at work, Germany is one of the countries we collaborate most.
But the moment I really said to myself ‘yes, German’, was in early December, when I read the beginning of this poem.
Das Jahr ward alt. Hat dünnes Haar. Ist gar nicht sehr gesund. Kennt seinen letzten Tag, das Jahr. Kennt gar die letzte Stund.
Ist viel geschehn. Ward viel versäumt. Ruht beides unterm Schnee. Weiß liegt die Welt, wie hingeträumt. Und Wehmut tut halt weh.
Noch wächst der Mond. Noch schmilzt er hin. Nichts bleibt. Und nichts vergeht. Ist alles Wahn. Hat alles Sinn. Nützt nichts, dass man’s versteht.
It is called Dezember (‘December’), is by Erich Kästner, and you can read it fully in German and in English translation here.
The comparison of the old year to an elderly gentleman with thinning hair, in poor health, who knows his last day and even his last hour, resonated with me. I found this image endearing and apt for the moment, and on the spot decided that I had to improve my German.
I will take stock of my German level after the celebrations and will set up a learning plan, but off the cuff, I need to learn the grammar properly, to enrich my vocabulary, and to work on my audio comprehension.
Meanwhile, happy new year! Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!
Unlike in 2019, when I had not planned my language learning ahead, in 2020, prompted by the first lock-down, I actually sat down and thought deeply about my language focus for the rest of the year.
I decided that three priorities would be more than enough: improving English, improving Italian, and learning Estonian.
These three languages were in focus in 2020, although I used more throughout the year. In fact, every day I use at least three languages, but the average is five.
So, how well did I do in 2020? Let’s look first at my three priorities.
I set myself tree goals: to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve these goals, I intended to learn idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs, to do pronunciation exercises, and to shadow native English speakers.
I managed to work only on the vocabulary, focusing in idioms, and learned plenty: colour idioms, food idioms, nature idioms, you name it. Although I still feel that improving my English is an uphill battle, sometime in September I caught myself using in professional setting the idiomatic expressions that I had learned. For example, I would write that a proposal was not ‘set in stone’, that two partners were working ‘hand in glove’, or that we needed to ‘keep the show on the road’. I was pleased like a cat that ate the cream.
Lesson learned from this experience: have fewer goals for English. In fact, with English, one goal at a time would be enough.
Estonian was the second focus of 2020, and I am pleased with my progress. I finished my 1980s Estonian manual, followed all 30 episodes of the first series of a radio programmeКак это по-эстонски? (‘How do you say it in Estonian?’), writing down all grammar rules and examples, and finished 13 out of 16 lessons of the free online course Keeleklikk for beginners. I have followed some Estonians on Twitter, managing to understand some tweets about current Estonian politics, and learned some useful words, such as valitsus ‘government’.
Back in June, I decided that 2020 would be an Italian year, and set myself three lofty goals.
First, learning Italian poems by heart. Total failure: I learned only one poem in the whole year, albeit a wonderful one, Meriggiare by Eugenio Montale.
Second, covering my gaps in grammar and vocabulary. 50/50: I learned quite a few idioms and wrote down expressions and idioms from the books I was reading.
Third, reading in Italian for pleasure. Bravissima: I read 12 Italian books, including BoccaccioDecameron, DanteInferno, Italo CalvinoI nostri antenati, and all four volumes of Amica geniale (Neapolitan novels) by ElenaFerrante.
I had a plan to revise some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar over summer, but did not do it. My spoken Italian is grammatically sound, hence, given traveling to Italy was out of question this year, I decided I would rather read books than revise subjunctive.
This year, I read my way through books 4 to 6 of Plato Republic. I read several sections each Saturday morning from January through June, then took a summer break, and resumed my reading in November, reading both on Saturdays and on Sundays. I finished the last chapters of book 6 by reading every day over the Christmas break.
In spring, I read one of the earliest accounts of an epidemic, namely chapters 2.47–2.54 of ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian Warwhere he described the Plague of Athens, which devastated the city in the 5th century BC.
For 2021, my plan is to finish the remaining four books of the Republic, and move on to my beloved and difficult Thucydides after that.
My interest for German spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis rather well and German epidemiologists were a good source of reliable information. I followed some of them on Twitter, listened to several Angela Merkel speeches, and read some articles. I also decided that improving German would be my priority in 2021.
I use French at work daily, and read some work-related stuff. I also followed French news and learned a couple of useful idiomatic expressions from my French colleagues.
I have not read a single book, but I followed the news, and spoke weekly with friends and acquaintances. This year, some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I had were in Latvian.
I read some twenty books by the 19th, 20th, and 21st century writers, ranging from Lev Tolstoi and Mikhail Lermontov to Dina Rubina and Narine Abgaryan.
I read one book in Spanish at the beginning of the year, and many articles. After that, I followed some Spanish speakers on Twitter, and read an occasional article. I made several trips to Spain before the pandemics, when I managed to speak in Spanish in professional context.
Throughout the year, I followed with delight all news related to a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo, whose book El infinito en el junco (‘Infinity in a reed’), about the invention of books in the ancient world, has been voted the Spanish book of the year 2020. Published in September 2019, the book is a bestseller: 26 editions, over 150 000 copies sold, multiple national awards, raving reviews, and translations rights to some 30 languages. I am a fan, and cannot wait to see how the world discovers this thoughtful and delicate writer.
In Spain, the book has been considered an antidote to the pandemics, as many readers reported the book gave them consolation in the times of darkness.
This year, I read fifty books in total, in English, Russian, Italian, Ancient Greek, and Spanish, and for me, too, reading was a star of light in the dark.
Yes, it is in Estonian, but invaluable for comparative Finno-Ugric and comparative linguistics. In fact, for anyone who already knows some Baltic, Slavic, or Germanic languages, understanding etymologies of Estonian words is a useful tool for remembering these words.
Let’s take an Estonian work raamat, meaning a ‘book’. At a first approximation, it resembles nothing. But when you look at its etymology, you realise it is related to the Latviangrāmata, meaning a ‘book’, which in turn is a borrowing from Slavic. In Russian, грамота means ‘official document’ and also ‘ability to read and write’. The Slavs borrowed the word from the Greekγράμματα ‘letters’, of which the English grammar is also a descendant.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To protect against infection, washing hands is a critical gesture, and to do so properly, the washing should take as long as singing Happy Birthday twice.
I don’t like the Happy Birthday song at all.
That’s why I decided that every week I would choose one song among those I do like but have never looked up the lyrics, and would learn them by heart, to accompany my hand washing routine.
The first song is in Italian, chosen in honour of our Italian friends, although its name is French, abat-jour, from abbattre (to through down) and jour (daylight).
It is a song from the 1960s. In a film Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), it accompanies the famous sensual scene with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.
Abat-jour che soffondi la luce blu
di lassù tu sospiri chissà perchè
Abat-jour mentre spandi la luce blu
anche tu cerchi forse chi non c’è più
In some versions of the song, the verb soffondi (you suffuse) is replaced by diffondi(you diffuse). The two verbs are related, but different: soffondere means to suffuse, to spread in a manner of light or fluid, and derives from Latinsuffundere, with the etymology of spreading upon (‘sub’ ). A more common diffondere, from diffundere, means to diffuse, to spread around, away (‘dis’).