Zombie Literature. Bedrock of any good homeschool program.

Christian LeBlanc says in the combox on the grammar book:

Except for God, the most interesting thing in the world is grammar. Consider that grammar is the operating system for your brain; now speak another language for a bit.

That frisson you get is the brain imagining itself with a whole ‘nother OS.

Hmmn.  Maybe so, maybe so.

But look here: Jimmy Akin links to the ASL version of Re: Your Brains.   Which is maybe more appealing to certain boys than “Signing Time”.  Great way to see the difference in grammar between English and ASL.


other people’s words

Hey, look I’m being like Dorian and outsourcing.  Because I’m teaching tonight, plus I was being responsible today (reduced goofing off), plus Christian LeBlanc e-mailed this link to an article of his on the origins of the French language.

So go read that.  It’s interesting.  And then if you’re still bored, you can come back here and click on the link to the Verb Conjugator (many, many languages offered) and entertain yourself with that for a while.  That’s what he was doing when he had the presence of mind to entertain me.

–> Try not to blush when your boss asks you what you’re doing, and you insist you were just, er, conjugating.  Oh yes, one of THOSE sites.  Sure.

Figuring Out What’s What in Medieval French

I’ve been reading The Story of French by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow on and off for a while now.  Picked it up from the library about a year or so ago and never got past the introduction; got it out again recently, and have been browsing through it in spurts.  Pleasantly surprised tonight to discover I have one more renewal left before it goes back, so I may yet make some headway.

I should say right now that if you pick up this book, go straight to a chapter that interests you.  I had to slog through the introduction (I’m not saying *you* shouldn’t read it, just saying, don’t judge a book by its intro), but was rewarded in chapter one with a great lesson on the basics of what-was-what in medieval french languages.

So far I’m up to p. 100 in the cover-to-cover reading of the book, but I’ve also skipped ahead and read some bits farther along, and it was all good.  Assuming you have at least a smidgen of background on the topic, you can pretty safely just pick up and read wherever you like, and come away entertained and educated.  You do not, by the way, need to know French — English translations provided for all the non-obvious French words tossed out as linguistic examples, and some of the obvious ones, too.  (Say you couldn’t figure out that the word zéro meant, er, zero?  Don’t worry, there’s a translation there for you on p. 30.)


What struck me in reading the chapter on medieval ‘french’ is just how busy a time it was, linguistically.  By the year 800 a language distinct from latin had emerged, to the point that the church had to require homilies be given in the vernacular.  But this new language was both very local — not so much a unified language as a collection of more or less mutally understandable regional dialects — and vigorously international.  In addition to the exportation of Norman French to England with William the Conquerer, there was the development of the lingua franca, an italian-french dialect used in the mediterranean.

(Why did French become the, er, lingua franca of this region?  It was the dominant foreign culture.  Not unlike how the Amish call the rest of America ‘the English’, or a non-hispanic American might be called an ‘Anglo’, the Arabs apparently call all the crusaders, regardless of country of origin, ‘French’.)

–> And still more going on in addition to all that, over the five or so centuries that are especially middle of the middle ages.  Borrow the book and read Chapter 1 to get the introductory course.

There’s something worth understanding here.  When we think about language and geography and politics and culture, we Americans come from a perspective of a single highly standardized common language that has been fairly stable since as long as we can remember.  It is important in looking at medieval history and culture to understand that it was not this way then.  By getting a grasp of what was going on linguistically, we can avoid some common blunders in our historical analysis, and even hope to understand why certain elements of medieval society worked as they did.  Good stuff.  Well worth your time.

Surprising Foreign Language Helps

4th Friday, so it’s an education-related topic. I originally started this article for my homeschooling blog, but never got around to finishing it. I’m putting it here because I think that plenty of non-homeschooling (and non-any-kind-of-schooling) readers may be interested as well. So many reasons to want or need to learn a foreign language.


In teaching the kids French, and in toying around with assorted languages on my own (I’m purely a hobbyist: I love to study languages, but I am only competent in the two), I’ve stumbled on a handful of little language-learning helps that don’t get much press. I wanted to share them, in the hopes that they could be of use to others.

1. The Joys of Bad Latin Last summer when I first began my long slow effort to learn Latin, I picked up a copy of a Latina Christiana CD at a used book fair. It was a bit surreal, hearing Latin spoken in a light southern accent. I imagine a meticulous homeschooling mother living in the suburbs Charleston, sitting in her tidy living room and calling out vocabulary words. Fitting, of course, for ecclesiastical Latin, the epitome of second languages – it’s supposed to be used by foreigners, why try to hide your inner barbarian?

I agree, of course, that a language program ought to include instruction on the correct (native) pronunciation; but there are times when it is helpful to hear that foreign language spoken by someone with *your* accent. The reason is that your ear identifies the sounds better. If you are having trouble hearing where one word ends and another begins, or telling whether that was an “r” or an “l” in the middle of that word, this method helps. Especially so in cases when reading the language is difficult, such as for young children.

With my kids I usually give them the normal (native) pronunciation of the word first. If they look at me funny and repeat back something horribly off-base, I give them the word again with a solid american accent, so they can clearly differentiate each sound. We go back to the native pronunciation once they have a better idea what they are trying to say.

2. Bad English: More Useful than You Knew Now it is painful to hear a language mangled. Even more importantly, learning good pronunciation and intonation is essential if you want people to actually understand you. So the second helpful technique is the exact opposite of the first: Listen to your own language (probably English, if you are reading this) spoken by someone who has a heavy accent in the foreign language you are trying to learn. [Ahem: you want a real fluent speaker of the language, not your dearly beloved doing a bad stage accent.] This trains your ear to be able to distinguish the sounds of the foreign language, and gives you a feel for the pace and intonation of the language. You can start learning the sound of the foreign language as spoken fluently, long before you are able to understand whole conversations. Bonus: What trains your ear trains your mouth, as well.

A series that does this is the Bonjour Les Amis videos for children. Not a perfect program, and the style of presentation would be frustrating to some types of learners — but its great strength is that the narrator speaks his English in a powerfully-Parisian accent. A good choice for accent-training as a supplement to whatever else you are using. Presumably the Hola Amigos series does the same, but I have not yet checked them out (our local public library carries both).

[Keep in mind that if you are trying to a learn a language spoken by residents of your own town, you can probably find real live people who would like to practice their English with you. Not that spending an hour with a DVD is somehow inferior to spending an hour with a real person . . . ]

3. Partial Immersion Around here a popular source homeschool-inferiority-complex are the outstanding academic programs available at some of our public schools. Several of our elementary schools have started early-years foreign-language-immersion programs. The children spend half their school day learning entirely in the second langauge. (The program begins in kindergarten – good timing, since recall that back in the day children used to only go to kindegarten half a day, anyway. So no real loss of academic time, by my reckoning.)

Immersion is a very effective way — I would say, the most effective way — to gain fluency in a foreign language. (You still need to study grammar if you wish to be literate, same as a native speaker). To that end, sometimes you read that families learning a second language ought to have a “French night” or “Spanish night” when only the new language can be spoken.

It’s a lovely idea, except you end up saying, “Paul, I present my friend Stephanie. Would you like a blue pencil? Where is the train to Lyons?” Fine things to say, but what you really wanted was the French for, “No you may not put ketchup in your sister’s water glass, even if she did tell you it is her favorite drink.” (And even if *you* knew the french, your young bartender would swear he heard you say, “yes, go ahead.”)

A more realistic method for those of us who can’t pull off total-immersion is foreign-language wading. Use the language, and use it all the time, but combine it with your own. As in, “Non, you may not put le ketchup in your soeur‘s water glass, even if she did tell you it was her boisson preferée.” Gradually it will contain more foreign vocabulary and syntax, but even at the beginning you can practice using what little you have learned. My kids have learned 98% of what they know from this approach.* (Though Mr. Boy is about to start a regular grammar book, now that he’s able to work from a textbook on his own.)

–> Another advantage to this method over total-immersion is that everyone can participate, even if there are widely-varying skill levels. People who don’t know how to ask for the train to Lyons can still get in a mention about the blue pencil from time to time. (“Please take my crayon bleu out of your mouth.”) Perfectly acceptable to use a word in the foreign language, pause to translate if your listener doesn’t get it, and then keep moving.

So you don’t think I made up this last approach myself: A program that effectively uses partial-immersion is the 10 Minutes a Day series, which are geared towards preparation for tourist travel. If you need to know how to ask directions and buy lunch, this is your course. Lightweight and compact, too. I have some of the older editions, so I can’t tell you how good the CD’s are – back in the day we just used the children’s-encyclopedia-style pronunciation guides in the text, and that got us close enough.


So there you have it, three handy techniques that may be helpful in your foreign language learning efforts. Next week we’re back to economics, continuing with the living wage series. Probable topic will be one of those “They can’t really mean that!” bits of the catechism — you know, the ones that make you think the pope must be a communist or something. (Hint: he isn’t.) TBD, though, as my nieces arrive from out of town on Tuesday, and you never know what will happen from there.

*Combined with method #2, my daughter has also learned how to fake the French language, causing her great-grandparents to be inappropriately impressed with her language skills. But I promise grandma, I am teaching her *real* French, too.