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Archive for June, 2008

Romancing Languages

A month has passed since my last post. I’ve been learning how to tinker with the blogger template but need to hone my Illustrator and Javascript skills before attempting any significant design upgrades.

I love learning foreign languages. In high school, I took four years of Spanish; in college, three semesters of German. When I got to grad school, I wanted to learn French but only had time to take a reading course. This summer, I’m attempting to teach myself Latin so I can fulfill my classical language degree requirement. Though I can speak, read, and write in Spanish, my German and French have suffered from underuse. Latin is more fresh in my mind. For whatever reason, I have an easier time learning and conjugating the verbs than I do declining the nouns, whose genders and cases always trip me up. All this, I hope, will change.

In my quest for language learning aids for the twenty-first century, I discovered a number of online resources entirely free of charge. I recommend them to anyone who wishes to learn a foreign language on his own time but doesn’t want to pay the big bucks for programs like Berlitz or Rosetta Stone. Here are some of my favorites finds for learning romance languages.

Modern European Languages

  • Annenberg Media: In the 80s and 90s, Annenberg used to air a number of educational series for public television. Though I used to mock many of these shows for their out-of-date production values, I’ve changed my tune since reacquainting myself with their foreign language series, which you can watch in full on their website via videostream: French in Action (52 half-hour videos), Fokus Deutsch (48 quarter-hour videos), Destinos (52 half-hour videos), and Connect with English (ESL) (50 half-hour videos). At the moment, I’m watching French in Action, a production of Yale and Wellesley Colleges. Narrated entirely in French, the series follows the story of Mireille and Robert as collectively imagined by an enthusiastic French professor and his bright yet bored class of students. Comic notes of resistance are provided by the smart-mouthed Michael who, for instance, fights the professor to rename the heroine Ethel instead of Mireille.
  • BBC Languages: More up-to-date than Annenberg is the BBC’s interactive video programs. In addition to the languages listed above, the BBC also caters to viewers interested in learning Greek, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese. The site includes useful features such as diagnostic tests, video captioning, and interactive assignments, but the programs are far less immersive and ambitious than Annenberg’s.
  • Online Dictionaries: While there are a number of foreign language dictionaries available online, not all of them have user forums where members, both newbies and experienced speakers, can discuss the living language. For students of German, there’s LEO, whose interface lets you look up words in English, French, Spanish, and Chinese for their German equivalents and vice versa. For non-Germanic romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese), there is

Classical Languages

  • Textkit: Greek and Latin Learning Tools: With seven cases, five species of declensions, and as many conjugation paradigms to memorize, it’s no wonder Latin has fallen out of favor. Despite the fact that you only need to learn a mere fourteen hundred words to become proficient, learning Latin, or any other languages with its case system in tact, can be an arduous process. Sites like Textkit, however, will help you earn your coveted laurels. On Textkit, you’ll find a number of downloadable resources including Latin and Greek grammars in the public domain as well as an answer key to the much touted Latin textbook, Wheelock’s Latin. I visit their discussion forum to ask questions regarding translation and get my homework checked by the friendly Latin aficionados.
  • Perseus Digital Library: For advanced students, my friend Anne recommends Perseus, which hosts a wide selection of Latin and Greek texts. Clicking on any word in the etext will bring up a popup window displaying its grammatical profile (part of speech, number, gender, case, voice, etc.) as well as a link to a dictionary entry.
  • Nuntii Latini: In its efforts to keep the language alive, the Finnish radio station YLE streams a five-minute news podcast in Latin every week.

All Languages (Building Vocabulary)

  • The best way to absorb vocabulary is to put it to use, but for those with difficulty finding a language buddy, there’s Wordchamp. With Wordchamp, you can create flashcards and synchronize them to any text you happen to be studying. The site has support for a remarkable number of world languages including Basque, Chinese, Uzbek, Yoruba, even Klingon. Whatever flashcards you make (or borrow from someone else’s stockpile) form the basis of a set of drills which test everything from definitions to comprehensive verb conjugation. Many of the words in Wordchamp’s database are accompanied by audio mp3s which means you can also practice pronunciation. The site even lets you download these files to upload to your Ipod. Complete conjugation charts are available for common verbs in many, but not all, languages. You can hook up with other members or tutors to form study groups (though the latter will cost you money). The most awesome feature of the site is the Webreader, which lets you to dock to a foreign language website (e.g. try a German or French newspaper), whereupon you can make instant flashcards from any unfamiliar words as well as access definitions if those words happen to be in Wordchamp’s database.

If you know of any other language learning sites, drop me a line.

2 comments June 26th, 2008


June 2008


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