Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Esperanto expectations

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I plunged into studying Esperanto a little more than two months ago with a specific goal: I wanted to have the experience of being bilingual, something not all that unusual. Some grow up bilingual — in the southern part of the US West, for example, being bilingual in Spanish and English is common, and in New Mexico being trilingual is not all that uncommon (Spanish, English, and a Native American language such as Navaho).

But I personally have not had the experience of being bilingual, and I want to see what it’s like. Esperanto is an obvious choice for that goal: if I must learn another language to the point of fluency, it makes sense to pick an easy language — and Esperanto, as an international language, was designed to be easy.

In addition to ease of learning, Esperanto is for me a fascinating language. I’ve been exposed to several languages: two years of Spanish in high school and another years as an adult, two years of Classical Green, a year of German, a year of French. Esperanto interests me more — as a language — than any of those. Partly that is because it is a constructed language, and that means it is the result of deliberate choices and conscious design.

The list of constructed languages is lengthy. The reasons I picked Esperanto, in addition to easy of learning, include:

a. Esperanto has a fairly large number of speakers and a fairly extensive body of (original) literature — which means that, once I learn the language, I can use it (vs., say, the language Ithkuil, which is also interesting though far from being easy to learn).

b. Esperanto is an expressive language. Its structure and methods are fascinating to me because it allows Lego-like combinations of roots and affixes to express clearly in a word or phrase shades of meaning with a conciseness English cannot manage — at least not without a certain amount of set-up, as in a poem or short story that builds a context in which a word or phrase can resonate. This aspect of Esperanto reminds me of Forth, my favorite programming language (though I can see that some might go for APL — but I actually did a fair amount of programming in Forth, and I find all the APL special characters distracting.

So I chose Esperanto for three reasons:

  1. Ease of learning
  2. Volume of activity (number of speakers and literary works)
  3. Intrinsic interest

And I might even add a fourth: the spirit of the language (“la interna ideo”) as expressed in its goals (to enable people of all languages to communicate with one another through learning one easy language).

When I started this most recent foray into Esperanto I had some unrealistic expectations, for although Esperanto is an easy language, it still is a language, which means not only must one acquire a large enough vocabulary for fluency, one must also develop new habits of thought, since you cannot simply translate one language, word by word, into another. Different languages approach things differently: their maps from raw experience into language differ. New patterns of speech (and thought) must be learned to the point that they are automatic, new common expressions must come readily to the tongue (without requiring conscious thought).

For example, as I type this, I am not thinking of the individual letters or keystrokes. I have a train of thought and my fingers automatically find the right keys to express the thought with no conscious effort on my part: I have learned to type. Musicians who can improvise are not thinking about the fingering of their instrument, they are thinking about the flow of music and their hands do the work to voice the music of their thoughts. And when you learn a language, you just speak (or write) it to express your thoughts, and what you hear (or read) goes directly to the thought, not parsing the thought word by word.

To develop such patterns of recognition is a slow process that requires time, patience, and repetition. We — or at least I — tend to become accustomed to the speed of insight (or even the speed of two-day delivery) and (unless we are, say, gardeners or have bonsai as a hobby) forget the speed of growth. Growth is slower: it takes time and maintaining the proper conditions. In the case of learning a language, the proper conditions include daily exercise in each of the four skills: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The skills are to a great degree independent, though they all require learning well a vocabulary of sufficient depth.

So now my day includes:

  1. Going through the various Anki flashcard decks I have active. Some decks are now review-only: no new words left in the deck. However, I have one deck, Daily Words, to which I add new words that I have encountered or have looked up because I needed the word. This develops vocabulary, which is needed for the four skills.
  2. Doing a Duolingo level and repairing any “broken” skills. I was doing 3 or 4 levels a day — when I thought I could rush the project — but now I do one level (6-7 lessons) or two at the most. “Broken skills” are those that have been completed long enough ago that Duolingo thinks a practice session is in order (spaced repetition is an important part of learning new things). I average around 100XP per day now, down from 300XP in the past but well above the 50XP that Duolingo offers as the highest goal (“Intense”). Duolingo helps with listening skills, reading skills, and to a degree with writing skills.
  3. Free-writing a page in Esperanto in my journal. This is still quite difficult (and a good source of new words for Daily Words. Obviously this helps develop my writing skill, but in figuring out how to say things and establishing patterns of expression, I believe it will also help with my speaking skills: in both cases (free-writing and speaking in conversation), I am not trying to translate a specific English passage but rather trying to express a thought in Esperanto.
  4. Listen to an Esperanto podcast and/or watch an Esperanto video on YouTube to (a) train my ear and mind to easily understand spoken Esperanto, and (b) to check my progress.
  5. Read at least one lesson in Ivy Kellerman’s book A Complete Grammar of Esperanto, doing all the exercises orally. The book comprises 60 lessons, so that will keep me busy a while.  By doing the exercises aloud, I practice speaking skills (pronunciation, common word groupings, etc.).
  6. I have done a Zoom session 1-1 with an Esperantist, and I want to continue that at least once a week. Right now it is exhausting: 30 minutes and I’m wrung out. This directly exercises speaking and listening skills.

When I finish Duolingo, then I’ll finish the course (I still have 14 lessons left in the Lernu course), and I will expand my reading, listening, and viewing. There’s a Saturday Zoom-based local Esperanto club meeting, and I attend that, though comprehension is still iffy. My thought is to continue an intense effort for one year and see where that takes me. It should take me quite a ways: see this article.

When I started, I intended to work quite solidly for two months and then take stock. Having done that, I am now going to continue to work solidly for one year, and then again take stock. I believe that a solid year will produce some fluency, though the progress from one day to the next or even from one week to the next may not be perceptible.

Still, I do see signs that my skills ar improving. For example, now I can quite often transcribe spoken Esperanto in Duolingo exercises — certainly not always, but now often (whereas before I had to listen over and over and often still could not get it). And about a week ago I completed a Duolingo lesson without make an error and was surprised by a little “Perfect!” display at the end. I had not seen that in the first 60 days, but now it’s happened several times. Those are objective indications of progress.

Scott Chacon suggests in Medium article gives encouragement to adult learners of a foreign language. He writes:

Many late learners become native-like

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some interesting charts and graphs.


Written by Leisureguy

30 June 2020 at 11:14 am

Posted in Education, Esperanto

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