The struggles of an introverted language learner

Today I have been getting back into the language learning saddle after as break to focus on other projects and I came across as a most excellent fellow called Donovan who is very introverted like myself but isn’t afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger and likes to travel to far flung places to learn languages fluently.

His blog is called Mezzofanti Guild (after a famous 18th c polyglot) and it details his journey towards proficiency in Irish, Russian, Arabic and Korean. These are very hard languages to learn and I admire him for the dedication, time and effort that it requires to go to the lengths that he does to study these to the degree that he does.

Now I’m not personally interested in learning Irish, Arabic or Korean but I do know people that have learnt/are learning those languages so it can be done even if your a mono-lingual English speaker.

Russian is a language I dabble in when I have time but it’s not a priority for me. Same could be said for Spanish. These are interesting (and I’m a very curious, inquisitive person) and it would help me with travel, socialising and my other hobby Eurovision but my main focus is on Greek. Not the biblical or ancient kind but the modern kind. This is so that I can strike up a conversation with a native and actually gain friendships out there (Lefkas) but due to the fact that a) I can’t drive and b) I couldn’t afford a mobile out there that’s never really going to happen as I so very rarely interact with people my own age.

I love words as I may have mentioned a few times before but the spoken word is a bit of a mystery to me as you can interpret the same phrases in so many different ways depending on how they are said. This presents quite a problem for a person learning Greek as there are many word pairs that I have come across that change their meaning depending on how they are pronounced. For a person with issues with their speech, this is quite a nightmare. Some examples are the word for safety and fuse, amusement and theme park, when and never, the most common swear word and straits of Malacca in Indonesia. There are countless more that could be listed as while English has about 1 million words as we steal from a myriad array of languages, Greek tends to be the originator so only has about 650,000 in comparison. This density is useful as you could possibly obtain fluency quicker but also increases the errors you could make as well and for socially anxious types like myself, this is never going to be a good idea.

It’s commonly put about that it’s easiest to learn a language through speech as that’s how we learn our first and while this is true it’s not very helpful if your shy, introverted, or just a person that doesn’t like talking. This is a daily struggle for myself having to get out into the wider world and converse with strangers. I most recently tried with a bunch of computer scientists which was doomed to failure almost from the outset because of the inherent qualities of being a girl meaning I’m was persona no gratis.

Going back to basics with Greek

Sometimes there is nothing like reading a proper old-school book (Collins Greek phrase book from 1977) to cement certain knowledge into your head that you know because you’ve seen it lots but you haven’t quite grasped it in its entirety. So far I have understood the Lefkas road sign (it wishes you a good voyage instead of welcoming you as your leaving), the reason why I can never say toothpick (οδοντογλυφιδα) correctly, why Bravo and only this is always said to congratulate me on speaking Greek correctly and the ever presence of οριστε (oriste) to mean a variety of things depending on the inflections used.

I know words are used to communicate but with the same phrase meaning so many different things, ποτε (pote) for instance, meaning both when and never depending on where you place the accent, it’s extremely difficult for me to differentiate between them yet alone reproduce them in speech or writing. Yes, I can deal with παρακαλω (parakalo) being please, your welcome but also a person in a shop getting your attention or even you getting theirs. Using it as excuse me too is pushing the boundaries but then there is also γειο σου (yia sou) which literally means your health but is a catch-all for hello, goodbye and goodness knows what else and is why I’m getting rather perplexed with the Greek language as these are just the most basic of phrases. Extend this to the 4 different ways to say my name is με λενε … (me lene …), Ποιο είναι το όνομα σου? (poio einai to onoma sou) etc and you get the picture as to why Greek is such a different language to learn as I haven’t even started on how are you? or anything more complex than an introductory phrase. As you can see I’m not even taking into account the gender changing the ends of words, the form in front of them, whether its single or plural, the formality that is required to be used here or sentence organization which can be rather flexible at the best of times. This is enough to drive any logically minded person like myself insane!

Others may look at that and think well that’s easy there are fewer words for me to remember but its the way you say them to infer the various meanings that gets to me the most and how are you to decipher this in text without the different stresses you can reproduce when talking?

Completed book projects

As you may know, April is Autism awareness month and since I have Aspergers Syndrome I wrote a book about our preferred forms of communication. Aspergers and preferred methods of communication

Also my most recent Autistic interest has been learning Modern Greek and I have learnt it sufficiently to write a small ebook about it. How I learnt Greek – An English Introvert’s guide

I published them at the same time as there both related to language and speaking and one helped the other etc.

Odd things about colours in English and Greek

I had a discussion yesterday about how in Greek you can have more than one sheep unlike in English. In fact you can have as many sheep as you like 2,3,4 … sheeps. Or I should say as I have mentioned before ena provato, duo provatos etc.

This then continued onto the fact that Greek differentiates between orange the colour, portokali and the fruit also portokali but the emphasis switches to the end of the word. We also talked about lemonia being a lemon tree but lemon being a single lemon and lemones being plural. There is also the colour aspect here but in English we don’t say a lemon lemon, it would be a yellow or green lemon even though we say lemon yellow. I think this is because lemons can be all different shades of yellow, not just lemon!

I also thought that we don’t say that lavender is lavender coloured although we can describe a particular shade of purple as lavender. The same for periwinkle which is a light blue/purple flower. I then went on to think about mint as since there are so many types ranging from ‘mint green’ to dark green and back to very pale green leaves. I also covered roses in this thought process as it’s a type of pale pink but we don’t describe roses as being rose coloured since they encompass so many different shades from white to  red, yellow, orange and combinations of the above.

This is just some of the odd thoughts that pass through my head and recently my head has been very odd indeed.

Aspergers and sound

I think I have figured out why I can’t speak very well. I led quite an isolated childhood on a farm with my parents and later on my brother with whom I spoke our own language that we made up. Sure my grandparents et al came to visit me but when all you normally interact with is a cat, a dog, a herd of cows, a litter of pigs, a flock of sheep and fish to keep you company, your not going to learn a lot of human speech regardless of language. Fishermen don’t really count here as they were too infrequent. This could also possibly be why it took me till I was almost 2 to learn English but when I did learn it you couldn’t shut me up. Everybody who knows me understands that I have 2 basic forms of communication, 1st I’m really shy so I don’t say anything and I’m generally just listening and absorbing my current surroundings, 2nd full on verbal diarrhoea. This includes all sorts of inappropriate and personal things (think Aunt Voulla in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 1+2) but I’m trying to get better by having my conversational skills somewhere in the middle. (When the social anxiety has passed away).

The origin of this language inability only just occurred to me today after I’ve spent the day listening to various polyglots talking in about 30 different languages and how some are usually quite distinctive French, Spanish, German, Italian, I’m learning to understand some like Greek and Russian and others I had no idea what they were saying like Farsi, Icelandic, Hungarian. Listening is a key point in acquiring language with or without an accent but if you don’t hear it frequently enough your not going to be able to reproduce it correctly. This is one of the reasons why my Aspergers was never picked up as I can’t do imitations which is a classic autistic trait. I have a lazy mouth according to the speech therapist who treated me at 4 years old. A lot of good they did as I still on a daily basis, come across people who know me well and can’t understand me correctly even if they see me on a regular basis.

I also have quite sensitive ears and hearing and my husband is always amazed when he borrows my headphones to listen to the same music as me at how low the volume is as he can barely hear what I’m listening to. This means that I can quite easily be overwhelmed in social situations as I can be the stereotypical wall-flower but also my speech is very quiet but doesn’t sound anything like I think it does. In fact, to me, it sounds horrid and when I’ve done karaoke, it’s equivalent to nails scraping down a chalkboard it’s that bad. I even hate to leave voice mails as I know the receiver will not be able to decipher my words as my parents never can. My husband, on the other hand, has a beautiful singing voice that he rarely uses as he is too embarrassed most of the time.

Music is also not a thing I’m any good at because as well as being unable to sing nicely, I can’t play any musical instrument which you think I would be capable of with good hearing and a good memory as after all isn’t it just muscle memory? Even hearing or sight is not required as there are famous musicians that have neither. It’s however not a quality I possess so it is another way my speaking ability is impaired and I sound like a robot as I can’t differentiate my voice sufficiently to produce all of the different tones that are required for proper speech. Pronunciation and intonation or diction if you want the posh words that my dad would use to describe my current linguistic problems.

I’m also trying to improve my friendship skills here which is another reason why quite frankly I suck at talking and even my own parents have to tune back in to how I speak if I haven’t spoken to them in a while. I do fear for the millions of people that will have to encounter this from me over the coming years and all those that already have had to suffer, with my constantly changing accent, quiet voice and incoherent voice. It doesn’t seem to matter in which language I speak, the words that I choose or even how there arranged, the same inherent difficulties are there which I ‘m working hard to overcome but it’s an uphill struggle for the majority of the time. I only hope that people continue to have patience with me.

Reading ability crossroads

An interesting thing has occurred to me recently. When I try to read Greek and there is English present, my brain either gets lazy and tries to read the English or just gets confused trying to process the Greek. Sometimes, yes, it’s easier to figure out the Greek upon seeing the English and then reverting back to the Greek but I must be at the stage where a new strategy is required. Since Greek has a different way of organizing its sentences, I have to stop thinking in English and trying to translate them as they don’t follow exactly. Continuing to read Greek in English mode needs a lot of cognitive effort as the sentences have to be reconstructed in order to be understood like a dyslexic would and this is therefore quite inefficient, at least for myself. This is no good really as it impedes progress. I am a fantastic reader but I’m approaching this all wrong. I’ve been able to read since I was able 18 months old which is incredibly early. In fact, I couldn’t even talk until 4 months later. This is why it’s so irritating when I try to read Greek. I’ve tried learning the verbs and the joining words but this doesn’t help as it’s a piecemeal approach more akin to pattern recognition ie how a dyslexic reads. In other sentences its more like I’m hyperlexic, ie I read but don’t understand. This is so unbearingly frustrating as I love my ability to consume knowledge in the printed form so very quickly. Reading in Greek at the moment is painful and I generally don’t get past the first couple of sentences. I’ve asked for help and got nowhere so I took to the internet and found 

Greek grammar 2

I’ve been trying to write a post on Greek grammar now for a while. The first one got interupted by my computer being a pain in the ass as it has Windows 10 and it got interupted in the middle of an update as my net dropped out so it decided the next time it turned on it would present me with a Cortana and start button aint working error. Fast forward to my Windows 7 disc fixing the error and the fact that I help out my mate Angelos by proof reading his website as translating from Russian to English and back when your a native Greek is quite difficult due to the different grammatical structures in place. He does a stellar job of it angelos’s website but there are various features that are inherant in each language that are difficult to get around and its tricky to remember which set of rules applies to each. For instance Greek is a gendered language and has male, female and neuter words as well as the single and plurals to account for. This means that word endings change, the phrases at the start of words change and you don’t always need to say I as sometimes you automatically assume its there. That’s why when translating from Greek to English you have to insert all those little words which simply are not necessary in Greek. This can create slight problems if you forget but due to the brain not reading everything anyway it doesn’t really matter. I’m going to say Russian is similar to Greek in this respect but even more complex as it has more cases.
This brings me to my next point what on earth does nominative, genitive, accusative, instrumental, dative, prepositional mean? These are probably terms you’ve never come across if you have not studied a foreign language or done your native language at say degree level. These are names for all the cases in Russian which is why it is perceived as such a difficult language along with say 14 words for motion. However the Inuit are supposed to have about 20 different words for snow and if you hear the English talk about rain you will get the same idea. So its a bit exaggerated but there are ways to get around this as usual. Take it slowly and only deal with them when necessary. You will be far more receptive to the words and what they represent if you don’t bite off more than you can chew in your quest to master a language. Create your own mind pictures like today I learnt aristera is left and dexia is right in Greek and thought that resisting arrest is wrong as they put cuffs on your wrist. Also in days gone by it was wrong to write with your left. So right is correct by the law and customs. Furthermore manual dexterity is working with your hands and so many people are right handed that I think you need special tools if your left handed proving again that if you want to do something dextrous use your right as you will be arrested for using your left.