Effective Twitter for the Polyglot Wanna-be

Here are some principles:

Create one account per language. I mute people who tweet in too many languages. Don’t abuse your audience’s attention. Now reread this principle and translate it into all the languages you know. This is one top item that ruins the twitter experience when it comes to foreign languages. Exceptions would be Swedish/English or Tagalog/English where bilingualism is the norm. But Swedish/Chinese is still stupid.

Be a poseur. Google translate exists, use it. It’s better to cheat and use google translate than to never interact with people on twitter. When you interact with people, your brain takes communication seriously. This is powerful stuff. If Google translate gets you to read and interact more, go for it. Your reading skills will improve. Your motivation will improve. Don’t hold an aesthetic disapproval of google translate hold you back.

Use google translate effectively. Fix all the errors you can find in the google translate before you post it. If you don’t get “this feels right,” then try different English until it looks right. Simplify.  If you know zero of your target language, this might not work– I haven’t tried it. It works best if you know just enough of the language to have a feel for what looks right.

Follow a lot of people. Follow 500 to 1000 accounts. Turn off the retweets or a stream that large is unmanageable. Anyone tweeting 50,000 tweets over a small number of years needs to be followed & muted. They are good for interaction but will flood your feed.

Mute! Mute! Mute! If they tweet-flood: mute ‘em. If they tweet in 5 languages, mute ‘em. If they know language X (which you care about), but only tweet in Y, mute ‘em. They won’t know they have been muted, but will still be able to interact with you should they ever follow you. Think about it, the Esperantist that tweets only (or 98%) in Chinese: they want to be muted, don’t consider it rude. If you don’t want to be muted, see principle #1, one language per account.

Schedule conversation starters. Don’t schedule low quality content like proverbs, inspirational quotes and other crap. Instead tweet questions, jokes and so on. When I tweet on my professional account, there are lots of organic reasons that I want to write something. For language this or that, unless I’m traveling, I got nothing driving my chatter, so I need something else to keep things moving forward.

Don’t cross post from facebook. Invariably this leads to the content getting cut in half or worse, it’s a bare link, the lowest quality tweet possible.

Hold back on the meta. It is tedious to listen to people talk about how well they speak language X, or how many they know, or so on. Do talk about linguistic musings, funny observations, etc.  Don’t tweet too much about twitter.

Books for Linguistics Book Club

This is the reading list for a popular linguistics book club that I ran for a few years. Wow I read a lot of books. I recommend these for any linguistics book club that has a general audience. Not all of them are strictly about the science of linguistics, some of them are just related to the world of words. I’d re-read all except about one or two of these

How Babies Talk- Golinkoff
Elivish to Klingon- Evans
Babel No More- Erard
Empires of the Word- Ostler (too long for a book club!)
Talking Hands- Fox
You are What you Speak – Robert Greene
Atoms of Language- Baker
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue- McWorter (Everything by McWorter is good for a book club)
The Talking Ape- Burling
In the Beginning- Hoffman
Bastard Tongues- Bickerton
Origins of the Specious: Myths of English- O’Connor
Speak Like a Native- Janish- (I actually don’t recommend this book, there are better ones)
Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes- Everett
The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, Ostler
“The Horse, the Wheel, and Language”, by D W Anthony
“The Origin of Language” – Ruhlen
Dreaming in Chinese- Fallows
Through The Language Glass- Deutscher
“The Professor and the Madman”, by Simon Winchester
Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought
Adam’s Tongue, Bickerton
Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich
Land of the Invented Language by Arika Okrent
Language Death
“Language, Bananas, and Bonobos”, by Neil Smith
“Talking from 9-5″, Tannen
The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
“Metaphors we Live By”, by George Lakoff
Words and Rules, Pinker
The Language Imperative Haden-Elgin
The Unfolding of Language, Deutscher
“Power of Babel”, McWhorter
“Mother Tongue”, Bill Bryson

Benefits of Bilingualism

I was recently asked this and didn’t have a very clear answer.

There is one obvious answer for learning a language: you might need it to get a job, go to school, or otherwise get ahead in life. In the US, this applies to English. All languages that are learned primarily for these reasons are lingua francas and are the most widely spoken and taught languages in the world. But English is such a successful lingua franca, even in countries where other successful lingua francas are spoken, such as Chinese, French and Spanish– there are large numbers of people that use English for business and academia.

The motivation for learning/teaching a heritage language (one that someone in your family speaks, but isn’t necessarily the local lingua franca) has to go beyond the benefits that accrue to speakers of successful and widespread lingua francas.

Advantanges that go beyond “This language is useful as a lingua franca”
1. It delays the onset of Alzheimers by about 5 years.
2. Bilingual kids have a better intuitive sense for grammar.
3. Bilinguals can multitask better as tested by seeing how they perform by doing multiple tasks in a driving simulator aka performing while distracted. (Also this article has more evidence about the same ability)
4. Bilinguals solve certain non-verbal standardized tests faster than monolinguals.

The benefits don’t come from occasional use, i.e. High school French + reading an occasional menu.

Above from this NYT article

5. Bilingualism increases brain density, and more so when the 2nd language is learned early i.e. childhood vs high school or college

Ref. Web Md

6. Children who are bilingual early on can learn a third language more easily later in life. Ref This Faq.

That is the the well documented benefits I could find on the web, there might be more but there aren’t good studies for it yet, for example, it is fairly common in articles about the benefits of bilingualism to list vague benefits.

Chamorro Language

I’m thinking of reading up on this language to figure out how it ticks, but not following through to learn it. It takes more than a dictionary to learn a language– in particular you need a community. I’m in the DC area, so I’d have to track down what tiny number of Chamorro speakers there are in DC. By my rough estimates, most Chamorro speakers in North America are in Washington state. In DC, I’d have to be build a community out of people who don’t speak the language as a first language, which means finding a group of incredibly motivated and linguistically talented people. Outside of Guam, typical cultural events would be book, movie, and potluck events– which works well if the language in question has a good set of books in translation, movies with subtitles.

I found sources of Guamian music, esp Betelnut Radio, but not so much in the way of books and movies. Update! I found the independent movie Shiro’s Head, an authentic Guam/Chamorro movie that is English-Chamorro with subtitles. And another Chamorro indie film on the way. A few more movies are not really Chamorro movies: Noon Sunday, Max Havoc, Godzilla, No Man an Island (the last has the Chamorro speaking Tagalog!, the first three just take place/were filmed in Guam.)

As for me personally, as a vegetarian, at a Chamorro potluck I’m too picky to eat most Chamorro authentic foods– a problem I have at Icelandic potlucks as well–and Russian for that matter. This isn’t to say things are too hard for someone else to pull it off, but probably too hard for me to pull it off, especially with so many additional great language out there to study.

Resources for learners
There is a dictionary, it’s online and suitable for converting to Anki flash cards (with some processing).
There is a grammar. (and others)
There is a text book.
There is an online version of the bible, which appears to be the largest online corpora of Chammoro.
There is sort-of a Chamorro wikipedia.

There isn’t an online forum or mailing list that I could find.
There is a Facebook page.

There are cook books. (Cookbooks? In every language group I’ve been in, there is a significant subgroup who is there just for the food) I have no idea how I’m going to make vegan spam balls.

I couldn’t find any Chamorro comics– another language learning tool I found invaluable when learning Icelandic.

There are youtube videos, and Betelnut Radio, but no obvious publishing of Chamorro language books, movies, music or other media.

To find more, google “Fino’ Chamoru

Chamorro on the Social Web
There are a handful of people tweeting in Chamorro. By handful, I mean about 2 who tweet a non-trivial amount of Chamorro.

I don’t see a suitable hashtag yet- #cha is Chattanooga, TN. #ch means Switzerland.

Chamorro Language Blogs




http://inadaggao.blogspot.com/ – about the language, not in the language

Chamorro in Washington, DC
(Why DC? As I said above, I happen to live around there)

I couldn’t find any Chamorro language resources, but as it turns out there is a non-trivial sized Chamorro community here represented by the Guam Society.

Other Chamorro Clubs/Societies/Organizations outside of Guam
Starting with a meta-site “Guam Liberation” (a list of chamorro clubs/events world wide)
Kutturan also aggregates Chamorro events world wide and as I write this, they mention a Chamorro language class in Long Beach, CA
Che’lu in San Diego
Chamorro Assoc of Central Texas
Chamorro Golf Club in Washington State
Chamorro Club in Hawaii

Language Goals & Progress

Significant progress in Icelandic. I can read a more than 10% of newspaper article summaries without dictionary lookups and understand about 5% of the news on a podcast. I can tell when the movie subtitles lack parallelism. However, obsession fatigue is setting in.

Progress on Russian is stalled, but not getting worse. Various logistic hassles in the way of further progress in Russian (difficulties in buying media, still not knowing how to type Cyrillic). I listen to a lot of Russian music at work, but don’t do much else with Russian.

Progress on French is stalled, maybe worth continuing since son is studying French at school. I sometimes watch movies in French, but outside of that I don’t use French much.

Progress on Swedish/Norwegian/Danish/Mongolian is stalled. Possibly permanently.

In the realm of fake languages, I’ve stalled on toki pona– I mostly am writing a sentence here and there and am spending more time on meta-toki-pona, i.e. talking about toki pona & various mini-projects that don’t directly involve creating & reading it.

Is this working?
It is the mad man that keeps repeating the same thing and expecting something different. I study languages, but then not finding myself in a situation where I can use them, let alone must use them, I don’t and then then start to lose what skills I had.

Linguistic Touring
I’m thinking I should keep this in mind in advance and do more “linguistic touring” rather than studying as if I were going to use it. I plan to just walk through a few languages, see the sights and not focus so much on proficiency in reading, speaking or writing.

I’d like to
- Learn how to type in Russian.
- Figure out what it means to do a linguistic tour of a language (does it mean learning the top 50 common can phrases? memorizing a list of features? being able to laboriously write a single, reasonably accurate sentence? Being able to read with 100% dictionary lookups a single paragraph? I don’t know yet)
- Finish up a conlang up to the sketch level, if not the reference grammar level.
- Do some but not all my toki pona mini-project ideas
- Do a linguistic tour of lojban, esperanto, Klingon, Na’vi.
- Do a linguistic tour of Cherokee or Choctaw
- Maybe publish a website for reviving Virginia/Chesapeake Algonquian based on the conlang created for the movie. It would involve a field trip.
- Take a field trip to a research library and publish to the web the secret cat phonetics research held there.
- Get to the next level for Icelandic. I’m not sure what that entails.

The null domain for rare and endangered languages

The null domain is where only you are using the language and no one else is.

  • Diary writing.
  • Prayer.
  • Thinking.
  • Dreaming.
  • Talking to the cat.
  • Writing codes (e.g. your accounting books for income not reported to the tax authorities)

The null domain is for the language that isn’t ready for public use (like a new conlang), for when you’re studying a language outside of it’s normal range (Icelandic in Washington DC), or if you are in fact the last speaker of a rare language.

The null domain doesn’t really have a community, so in that respect, it isn’t fully a language.  I would say it is a full language in the sense that it will evolve and be subject to the forces of erosion, sound shifts, etc.

Learning a Second Language Passively

Answer to a post on a forum.

I have being doing this exact experiment with Icelandic for ~2 years– I listen to about 1-2 hours of Icelandic talk shows and podcasts a day while commuting, always new material, I never repeat.

Initially, I was chuffed if I could distinguish words (that I didn’t know) from the buzzing noise. Initially only the grammatical particals pop out (definite articles, suffixes on adverbs, etc) One day, I realized that gjaldProta meant bankrupt, which was a word I’d never looked up in a dictionary. More interestingly, I didn’t really understand the news article where I heard the word. I learned hrigja aftur means “call back” on a call in talk show where the caller had a obviously bad connection. There is more context in a stream on noise than you might imagine, after all, the blind learn English largely on input from a stream of noise with no visual context.

There are now 100s of words I’ve heard the point where I recognize them but still don’t know what they mean. However, next time I see the work krof, I will learn it in one repetition because they talk about it all the time on the radio. (It turns out to mean something like central bank reserves)

I used to be able to listen to Icelandic news and read English at the same time. It is getting to the point where I understand enough that it breaks my concentration. When I didn’t understand, it didn’t bother me that they were reviewing a book on knitting.

I think this has helped my pronunciation– I’ve heard a lot of people’s speaking styles. Young girls, academics, men and journalists trying to act serious all have different qualities to their intonation and you can’t learn that from re-listening the same CD over and over.

I’ve a long ways to go, but I think it’s helped.   (Listening to foreign language music on the other hand, has never helped me. Dunno why.

Locally Dead Languages, like French, and What they’ve in common with Conlangs.

Are we studying locally living, dying or dead languages? If one “learns” French and you never meet anyone to speak French with, or don’t move to France, you will join the ranks of people who can say, “I took 16 semesters of French in High School and College and still can’t converse very well.”  It’s a still born language with regards to your household– in your community French is dead, and never really was alive.

Like biological species that can thrive in one area and be extinct in another, languages fail to thrive outside their range or wither until their gone.  French is a living language in Quebec, Louisiana, France, not so much in Washington DC.  In DC, I’d call it an endangered language.   French, Spanish, German, Russian and Italian are all dieing languages in Washington DC. The domains of their use is vanishingly small and could disappear any year now.

A truly dead language can only be used to write messages to your self and read the messages from people who can never respond to you.  Knowing a locally dead language is a clever party trick, but otherwise a colossal waste of time.

How do you recognize the languages near you that aren’t dead yet?

A language is dead for you when you can’t use it in any domain- not at home, school, work, church, or on the street.  I haven’t made up my mind about if a language is dead or not if you can still use it on the internet on a forum or mailing list.

-Are there social events that are conducted in something other than English? This is the case with Russian.  Most of the events are in DC and Maryland.
- Are there play groups and immersian schools? If children don’t have an opportunity to use a second language in their community, they will stop using it.  Ordinary schools that offer French and Spanish don’t count because probably 99.98% of those who study French and Spanish and school will never attempt to use it in any forum and generally their students never achieve any interesting level of fluency.  The exception to this would be the various immersion schools in the area– there is one for Russian, German, Mongolian, Swedish, one in the works for Icelandic and so on.
- Is mass media available? The internet has only been half a solution.  Many languages don’t have very good internet resources and many communities don’t have a high ratio of tech savy people.  Locally in DC, there is cable TV and Radio for Spanish and some other languages, but out of the 50+ languages some one might want to study, the local availability is sparse.  Books, libraries and news stands generally a pretty grim picture for non-English materials–hard to find and expensive.
- Is this a job skill in demand for both native and non-native speakers?

If we are studying a locally living language, is a open or closed social group?
I get a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that some language are alive in the DC area, but if that language group is closed to me, it might as well be dead.

Some existing language groups are open.  This is a subtle distinction, I doubt any social group is formally closed.  Do the existing groups go out of their way to advertise and gain new members? In the case of Russian, general when you meet a bilingual Russian, the like to speak Russian to you. If you meet a Swede, generally, they like to speak English because listening to broken Swedish is a tedious chore.

Enclaves are largely restricted to recent immigrants and their descendants.  Enclaves are another scenario of interest–outsiders will never be invited, many members of an enclave plan to go home at any time, so they’re not motivated to reach out to the local community.  For example, the Vietnamese and Mongolian community is fairly closed, in part because sometimes they’re monolingual.  You can’t find  them until you’re fluent, if you can’t find them, you can’t learn the language except through books, a challenge only the most academically expert can pull off.

Enclaves are the most linguistically fragile systems, especially if they stop teaching the language to their children or if immigration from the home country drops off.  The Scandinavian languages are the best example of this.  If I had a nickle for monolingual person who showed up at a Scandinavian language meetup saying “My grandfather spoke Swedish”, I’d be rich.

How to revive a language or bring a language to life?
The Welsh, the tiny community of conlangers and the Esperanto community have something to teach us.  A language needs to have prestige, a open community, tolerant of low proficiency speakers and lots of in person social events.

To bring a new language to life, it needs to have prestige factors. Esperanto speakers are working on world peace, Lojban speakers are working on clear thought. Klingon and Na’vi speakers are Sci-fi fans who can win points for being a competent fan, where as anyone can say they watched a movie and liked it.

So what would a prestige factor for a natural language be? Icelandic for some reason is prestigious among linguists and polyglots-wanna-bes.  Chinese has a prestige factor because the pronunciation and writing system are so difficult for English speakers.  I have no idea what the prestige factor is for French and Spanish and I don’t think anyone in Washington DC knows either.  Arabic and Pashto (and previously Russian) have prestige because a noticeable number of government and military jobs exist that require it.

There are a few prestige factors which I think are junk.

“It’s a beautiful language”  What language isn’t?  Even Klingon is beautiful once you get used to it and even Italian is ugly if you aren’t used to it.  I’ve gotten used to French and Spanish, so Latin strikes me as a rather ugly counterfeit.

“Grampa speaks it.”  Who wants to talk to old farts?  It’s difficult enough to talk to family in English.

“100 million people speak it”.  Do they live in Washington DC?  What’s the odds of you ever meeting 1 of those people and needing to speak to them?

The community needs to tolerate extremely sloppy speech.  Fluent speakers of Finnish and Hungarian tend to tolerate language learners attempts because it is so rare to find anyone who is trying at all.  French and Japanese fluent speakers have a reputation of tolerating only extremely fluent speakers attempting to speak their language.  US English speakers are the same, but it’s because we are sure as hell not going to learn someone else’s language.

The community needs to have public social events.  A tribe in the Ukraine used to have fabulous feasts, were they sacrificed horses to their god the sky father.  They invited everyone to the sacrifices and everyone ate, sang, danced and had a great time.  The people who showed up got free food and learned the language of the host of the sacrifice.  This tradition sparked off the greatest expansion of a language in known times, and in my opinion, explains why the Indoeuropean languages are alive anywhere other than along a particular river in the Ukraine.

Without potlucks, French, and any other second language being pursued in the DC area, will remain a dead language, an amusing party trick and a colossal waste of time and money.

Why I study the langauges I do.

I read French comics, listen to French music–but only in the morning, French movies.  It’s all about mass media.

I listen to Russian music, and sometimes make Russian food, although I’m more likely to read the recipes in English than Russian.  I’m trying to start reading the news in Russian on Mondays, but it isn’t looking to promising.

I watch Icelandic movies, read Andres Ond (the comic), and read the news in Icelandic every Tuesday.  I occasionally hold an Icelandic themed potluck at my apartment.  I read Scandinavian novels (but in translation) as part of a book club.

I study all languages as a part of my linguistics book club.  Most of the time I’m interested in linguistics as a way to figure out who we are and how we work, as a species.

I write toki pona the toki pona forum, twitter and toki lili because the language is so simple, I’m almost competent, something I can’t say about my L2, or L3, etc.

I periodially attempt to learn a language just to see if there is anything there to make me want to go any further. I’ve attempted (at some point in my life) and failed to progress at: Japanese, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Korean, Klingon, Esperanto, Ute, Cherokee, Chinese, Bulgarian, Mongolian, Estonian and Latin.  Of these, Japanese, Spanish and Latin involved semesters of class work.  For all the rest of I’ve sunk time and money into them, generally with not much to show for it.  Probably an equally long list of languages I’ve at least checked out the relevant book from the library.

I have never tried to learn German and I never will.  I won’t study Ukrainian because it sounds wrong.

I never have the good fortune of having to desperately (or otherwise) need to communicate with anyone in a language other than English, and the few times at are close to that, the colocutor is highly motivated that they speak English and not me attempt to speak their language.

I have never searched the internet and having failed to find the answer had a nagging feeling that the answer is out there, but written in French.  Or Chinese.  Unless I’m looking for the recipe for snuther, which is only in Icelandic.

I have never searched for a book to learn that it isn’t available in English translation, except for maybe “Morðið í Rockville”

Is it any wonder that us DC residents are so hopelessly monolingual?