Languages and Life: Gary's log (Italian, Spanish, bits of French)

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garyb
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Languages and Life: Gary's log (Italian, Spanish, bits of French)

Postby garyb » Mon Jan 04, 2016 4:53 pm

New year, time for a new log!

I'm Gary, I'm from Scotland, and I've been learning languages and writing about it on here and on the old forum for a good few years now. Here's my log from last year, or rather the portion on this site.

About the name: it's for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I see languages as a part of my life, as opposed to just some isolated academic subject, and I like to write about how they fit into my life and my experiences of using them when socialising and travelling. Secondly, it's about the balance between languages and the rest of life, and how I feel that I should base my language learning on what's happening in my life as opposed to trying to fit my life around the language I'm learning as I have in the past.

For this second reason, I've come to realise that long-term goals and challenges aren't right for me: life is unpredictable and always changing, and committing to a plan doesn't allow me to be flexible and adapt. Goals just add stress to something that I'm doing for fun, and in the past they've led to me continuing down a path that was no longer right for me. So I'm not going to participate in the TAC, Super Challenge, or Output Challenge this time around. That's not to say I don't have long term ambitions though; I've been interested in and committed to my languages for a long time, and I don't really do wanderlust. It's just about keeping a flexible approach to my priorities and activities.

Onto the interesting part: Languages!

Italian
I've been studying Italian for four years now, and it's been my main focus recently. In CEFR terms I'd say my receptive skills are in the Cs and my speaking is a high B2. In other words, I understand very well and I speak quite well but there's plenty room for improvement. My main interest is in conversational ability, but I'm currently undecided on whether to aim for improvement or just maintenance. I started learning the language because I had Italian friends and became very interested in the country and culture, but these days I have fewer opportunities to use it. I do think I could squeeze out some more improvement, but it's a question of whether it's worthwhile.

Currently I watch films and TV, I speak when I have the opportunity, and I'm trying to improve my pronunciation and accent as that's still a weak area. I usually visit Italy once per year and probably will do again this year. If I do decide to keep working on improving my speaking, I'll aim for regular iTalki lessons and/or language exchanges.

Spanish
I decided to learn this for similar reasons to Italian: social, travel, culture. I live in a city with tens of thousands of Spanish speakers, mostly from Spain. I've studied it on and off over the past couple of years; thanks to my Italian I picked up the basics and decent listening comprehension fairly quickly, but my speaking is limited by a weak grasp on the verbs and a small vocabulary.

For the moment I'm mostly focusing on input and listening comprehension, and I converse occasionally. Sooner or later, hopefully this year, I intend to make it a higher priority: work through the FSI course to help activate my knowledge, and start conversing more regularly. I might well travel to Spain at some point in the year.

French
French was my first language love, but I lost interest a while ago due to lack of opportunities to use it and too many negative experiences with native speakers. For now it's firmly in maintenance mode: I occasionally watch a film, read a book, or have a conversation. It was at a similar level to my Italian (good understanding, quite good speaking) but now it's gotten rusty and my Italian has overtaken. I plan to continue this way, but if it became useful again for social or travel reasons I'd happily pick it up again.

Other possibilities
- I'm considering a visit to Portugal, and since it would be low-hanging fruit with my current Romance knowledge, I'd happily learn some Portuguese basics before going. Covering at least the phonetic system and the important similarities and differences with related languages would make it much more transparent.
- Greek has been on my mind for a long time, because of my family roots: I'm half-Greek but I didn't learn the language as a child and I've not really had strong connections to Greece other than a few relatives who I see very occasionally. I'd like to get more in touch with this side sooner or later, especially since my grandparents there won't be around forever. So maybe this year I'll find time for it. It's not an easy language, certainly a whole difficulty level above the Romance ones, but even basic speaking ability and decent comprehension would be nice to have. I did learn some basics a couple of years ago before a trip there, but I don't remember them well.

Learning methods and resources
I've been thinking a bit about my general philosophy and strategy for learning languages recently, and trying to apply my ideas. It's all a work in progress, so I don't claim to have all the answers. But over the years I have tried to consider what is important for me. My main priority is conversational ability; anything else is secondary.

Everyday language, focus on the basics
I believe that a good grasp on the basics of conversational language is the most important thing, as opposed to having a huge vocabulary or knowing fancy expressions. 20% of the language makes up 80% of conversation and all. Even in my more advanced languages I feel that there are big gaps in my speaking knowledge and I could improve my ability and automaticity with basic verbs and structures. I try to focus on TV/films/books that have a lot of everyday conversation, and practise this stuff with conversations, self-talk, and writing. For Spanish, FSI drills should help. When I write, I try to write as I would speak, avoiding the temptation to use more literary language. This year I'm going to make a conscious effort to focus more on conversational language and less on literature, journalism, etc.

Input versus Output?
I'm still not sure where the right balance is here. Input helps but I seem to need specific practice for speaking too, so I aim for a balanced approach. I think the important part is to be focused. As I said in my last log, the important thing is to be focused and present on whatever I'm doing: pay full attention when watching films, be in the moment when conversing, concentrate. This has been a difficulty in the past.

Pronunciation
I think good pronunciation and accent are important, but it's something I've always struggled with and I'm still trying to figure out the "secret" to learning good pronunciation and keeping it without old incorrect habits coming back. It seems to just be a very slow iterative process of finding mistakes and replacing them with more correct habits. I've recently started reading a book aimed at actors, "How to do Accents". It's focused on different English accents as opposed to accents in foreign languages, so some of it isn't relevant, but it seems light-years ahead of most of the material aimed at language learners. I'll write more on this soon.

Confidence
Recently I've been becoming less shy and more confident about using my languages, mistakes and all, so I'm hoping to continue with this! Speaking is the most difficult skill for me, but part of that is just mental obstacles rather than technical ones. I've also often been too perfectionistic with my goals so I'd like to be more realistic, accepting that I'm in an English-speaking country and my time and speaking opportunities are limited so I'm probably not going to reach a very advanced level.
Last edited by garyb on Mon Jan 09, 2017 4:29 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Rebecca
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby Rebecca » Mon Jan 04, 2016 5:00 pm

Hi Gary! I'm new to the forum and learning French. Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading through your old log. I hope you pick up your French again in 2016. Good luck with your goals! :)
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garyb
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby garyb » Mon Jan 04, 2016 5:33 pm

Rebecca wrote:Hi Gary! I'm new to the forum and learning French. Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading through your old log. I hope you pick up your French again in 2016. Good luck with your goals! :)


Thanks, and welcome to the forum! I see you're in Scotland too. Right now I don't have much reason (or time) to pick up French again, but who knows what might come up. Seems like you have a good one :).
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby Elenia » Mon Jan 04, 2016 5:37 pm

The most important thing is doing what makes you happy and gives you a sense of fulfillment. I hope you move further towards the perfect language-life balance this year, and get to have fun in all of your languages (even French!) Good luck going forward :)
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby Mooby » Mon Jan 04, 2016 6:18 pm

I'll be keeping an eye on your log too, even though the languages themselves are not ones I am currently learning. But I appreciate your insights, and your periodic self-questionings.
Best wishes and greetings from soaking-wet Aberdeenshire!
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby Expugnator » Tue Jan 05, 2016 12:41 am

Great start for a member with so many invaluable insights during the short life of this forum (and also on old HTLAL, of course). Enjoy 2016 and your languages, Gary!
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby iguanamon » Tue Jan 05, 2016 2:02 am

I totally agree with Expug. It's great to see your new log and a new, balanced approach. I wish you the best of luck and health in the New Year! I'm glad to see I can keep following your observations and take on language-learning in this new log.
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby garyb » Tue Jan 05, 2016 12:13 pm

Thanks everyone. The new year's always a good time to think about changing things up a little, and my ideas now are just the next step in my evolution, figuring out what is important and what is realistic and concentrating on that rather than trying to learn everything and learn it now like a typical beginner.

After some relaxation and thinking, I've decided to continue working on spoken Italian for the time being. Especially with this language, whose native speakers usually struggle to understand why anyone would learn it, I often feel the need to come up with justifications for my study or else feel like it's a waste of time. Well, the fact is I just really like it, and even if I don't get to speak it every day, I speak it enough and enjoy it enough to want to do it well. Surely that's adequate justification in itself? At least as long as I'm realistic and don't expect perfection.

Again I'm not going to make rigid goals, but having rough plans for what to focus on in the short term is useful, so I'm going to try to do most of these most days:

  • Writing: I can find time for a paragraph or two most days. I mostly write in a personal diary type document, but I sometimes also do Italian posts on my log.
  • Pronunciation work: usually a DuoLingo practice session or two, repeating the phrases aloud (Duo is also good for revising basic structure and vocab, so two birds with one stone), then some reading aloud from a book or article, or watching a video and imitating some phrases.
  • Self-talk or conversation: If there's an opportunity to converse, great. I have an Italian flatmate; we see each other a few times per week, and when we do we usually speak English out of habit and because her English is far better than my Italian, but she doesn't mind speaking Italian sometimes so it's up to me to be more assertive and less lazy to make this happen more. I also have a few other Italian friends/acquaintances and a couple of Skype exchange contacts. If not, talk to myself. One idea I've had is to go through the list of films I've watched or books I've read, pick one, and talk a little bit about the story and my thoughts on it. Summarising and giving opinions on things is challenging and useful training for conversations, as it's "everyday" but not just small-talk.
  • Input: I'm thinking that as well as or instead of the usual TV series and films, it could be good to watch things with genuine spontaneous conversation rather than rehearsed speech. Interviews, talk shows, vlogs, that kind of thing. Suggestions for these are welcome!

I'll also see how my schedule's looking for organising iTalki lessons. I found a couple of great teachers in the past but they're no longer available at times that suit me so I'll have to look for another.

How To Do Accents

I said I'd talk more about How To Do Accents, a book aimed at actors, so I'll give my thoughts so far.

Material on pronunciation and accent for language learners is usually limited to discussion of individual sounds, and if you're lucky, there's a mention of prosody (rhythm, intonation, stress). I've always thought that there's more to it than just that, especially regarding the overall quality and sound of the voice. An old French exchange partner always said my voice was "too throaty" and I should speak "more from the mouth", but he didn't have any practical ideas on how I should do this. When I listen to recordings of myself speaking, even if the sounds and prosody are okay, my overall voice still seems "too Scottish" or "not Italian".

The first chapter of the book sheds some light on that. It considers Zone, Tone, Setting, and Direction:

  • Zone is the area that the overall voice is "focused" on and resonates in most. The book includes downloadable recordings and listening to them makes this clearer. This varies hugely in English accents, but Scottish indeed tends to be around the back of the mouth and the throat. From my understanding, Italian's spot seems much more forward, typically around the gum ridge, or slightly further back at the hard palate for some speakers.
  • Tone is the overall sound/quality of the voice, often described in subjective terms such as "like a foghorn" or "smooth and velvety". You can get a sense for this by listening to a speaker and thinking about which overall sounds characterise their speech, for example the "euh" sounds of French or the full and clear vowels of Italian, or the "eih" kind of sound of a Scottish accent. My normal voice is quite deep while Romance language speakers tend to have a more high voice.
  • Setting is the general position of the speech apparatus. For example, jaw loose or tight, tongue back or forward, soft palate low or high, lips narrow or wide. For Scottish, the jaw is fairly loose, the lips are slightly pursed, the tongue is high and forward, the soft palate is loose so more sound gets through the nose, the mouth doesn't open too much. In Italian, the lips tend to be a bit wider (think of the strong I, E, A vowels), the back of the tongue seems lower, the soft palate seems higher, the mouth opens and closes much more. The hesitation sound of a speaker is a big giveaway of this: the position for an "uhm" or "eh" tends to be the "neutral" one. I found a video on doing an Italian accent in English and at the start it suggests setting your mouth as if you're about to do a trilled R. This seems to work well.
  • Direction: different accents direct the voice in different ways. Scottish accents tend to be directed around the back of the mouth, while a typical English accent (and an Italian one, I'd say) is projected more forwards and outwards and some others tend to "leak out" to the sides (I think Liverpool was the example, or was it Manchester?) or go back and forth (Newcastle).

This is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for, that material for language learners doesn't touch. The book only considers accents in English, and this chapter only uses examples from England and Scotland (the Scottish example is Glasgow, which isn't exactly mine but it's not too far off), but the whole point is to learn how to identify them in any accent. My observations about Italian are just educated guesses so far and I'm sure I'll refine them as I learn more. I'm trying to apply them, and while I'm not hearing overwhelming changes, my Italian is sounding a little more "clean" and projected. Bit hit or miss so far, I sometimes overshoot and end up too nasal or whatever and it's a lot of things to remember at once, but that'll improve with practice. DuoLingo's voice recognition is understanding me much better, if that means anything...

The rest is more specific to English accents. I skimmed over the section on rhoticity and non-rhoticity. The following chapter about individual consonant sounds had some useful stuff, like the distinction between light and dark L. In Scotland we always use dark L, Italian always uses light L, and most English accents use both depending on position. Personally I can't tell the difference when hearing them, and it's a distinction I only really became aware of quite recently and fixed. I think it was Sarnek who pointed it out in one of my recordings. In the past Italians sometimes misunderstood me when I said words containing Ls. I also found out that there are many types of "English R", not just the standard alveolar approximant that I was familiar with. Another reason why so many people mishear my name. Lastly, there's a great explanation of the uvular trill which could interest French learners who struggle with it, as it's apparently present in older Newcastle accents.

Coming next is vowels, which I again expect to be mostly for English accents but might have some useful tips. Maybe I'll finally learn to pronounce the English /ɪ/ properly! Everybody outside Scotland mishears mine as an /ɛ/ and it's particularly problematic when I try to help foreigners with English pronunciation. Then it covers prosody, which should be interesting.

Again here the goal isn't perfection or trying to pass for a native, it's just to go from bad to decent in Italian and more importantly to improve my general ability to hear and imitate accents so I can apply it to future languages or even to French if I ever pick it up again.

I'm also taking singing lessons and that's helping with breathing and using the voice correctly, so it should contribute too. I bought another book for actors at the same time as the accents one, Freeing the Natural Voice, which has some great stuff on the subject, but I put it aside for now because there's so much overlap with the singing and working on both at once would be confusing.
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby iguanamon » Tue Jan 05, 2016 12:50 pm

Of course, it makes most sense for you to concentrate on Iberian Spanish being in the UK with so many cheap flights to Spain. You also live in a city with a lot of Spanish immigrants. Still, you asked for natural videos of speech, and, well, Spanish is Spanish and I recommend the UT (University of Texas) Austin Spanish Proficiency videos. These are from all over the Spanish-speaking world (including some from la madre patria- España). They are garded as to CEFR level and come with a transcript and translation. It's just people talking about everyday life. I discovered these while looking for Portuguese material a few years ago and have looked at a few of them. These would be useful as you go through a course. I've probably recommended them before.
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Re: Languages and Life: Gary's 2016 log (Italian, Spanish)

Postby garyb » Tue Jan 05, 2016 1:07 pm

iguanamon wrote:...I recommend the UT (University of Texas) Austin Spanish Proficiency videos.


I think you mentioned these in my old log but of course I forgot so thanks for the reminder! It's Italian ones I'm particularly looking for but Spanish is great too and these look very useful. I'm sure there's no shortage of stuff on YouTube, but it can be hard to know where to start.
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