Thursday, February 27, 2014

Interlinear Books: Bring Literature Into Your Language Learning

Have you heard about a language learning method called interlinear translation? I hadn’t, until recently. A few days ago, I got an email from Linas Vaštakas, a guy who runs a project - Interlinear Books for learning languages. In the project, they translate books for language learners in an innovative way, and they have recently released a bilingual Russian book. I found his project quite interesting and decided to ask him a few questions about the method, his project, and the books he and his team are translating.

Eugenia Vlasova: Could you please give a definition for the interlinear translation method in one or two sentences?

Linas Vaštakas: Interlinear is a method of translating where the original text is followed by an English translation below each word or expression. Interlinear Books has been translating popular literature for language learners in the Interlinear format, currently featuring Russian, Swedish, Lithuanian, German books.

EV: What are the major advantages of interlinear reading as a learning tool versus ordinary bilingual books?

LV: Interlinear translation is potentially faster to read and thus allows more efficient learning. In Interlinear, you don’t need to re-read the sentences twice (once in the original language and then in translation), nor analyze which word stands for what. You can quickly see the translations of the exact words you need. This also allows you to be more engaged in the original story in the original language, providing more excitement in reading and saving you time.

EV: Who would benefit most from your method - beginners or advanced students?

LV: Anybody can try the method. We have seen people at different levels benefiting from the interlinear translation. Ideally, however, it is probably best if you are already an intermediate - advanced learner, as it is easier for you to read in the original language and you get the most fun out of reading then.



EV: What are the shortcomings of this method that a learner should be aware of?

LV: As always, when using translations for learning, a learner should try not to get too engaged in translation, so as to neglect the original language. Fortunately, Interlinear minimizes the desire to read the translation alone, because the translation does not flow as accurately and as nicely as the original text - after all, the English in the translation, while understandable, is a bit butchered and doesn't flow as beautifully as the original. Another problem with using translation in language learning is that different languages rarely overlap completely literally, and words can have different meanings in different contexts. The learner should be aware of that and remember that translation is almost always only approximation.

EV: Word-by-word rather than sense-by-sense translation could be misleading and confusing. How should language learners treat the interlinear text in this regard?

LV: Indeed, at Interlinear Books, our translations are made to be as literal as possible. It's important to note the "as possible" part: when we see that Interlinear translation wouldn't be understandable if it was completely literal, we go for a more figurative translation. So, you would have sentences like "Very much I want there to go." However, you wouldn't have translations like "For you needed him understand" for "Тебе надо его понять" as we would go for something a little bit less literal. The most important thing to understand for learners is that Interlinear translation is supposed to keep encouraging the reader to read the original instead of the translation. The purpose of an Interlinear translation is making the original text understandable, not replacing the original text.

EV: Have you tried this method for learning new languages?

LV: I have tried reading German in Interlinear, and I have improved my German quite a bit. I have, however, also combined it with other ways of learning (additional reading, speaking with natives and other language learners). Interlinear is not a silver bullet, I don't think such a thing exists: each learner should try to find what works best for them. Interlinear is just a good way to bring literature into your language learning, and, I believe, literature is often neglected, but it may work well for many people.



EV: How do you pick books for translation?

LV: We usually look for popular languages that we have the capacity to translate at the moment, and look for fascinating classical texts which are not too long. Novellas are currently our main focus

EV: Who makes interlinear translation of books for your website? Is your website a solo project or do you have a team?

LV: There is only one person mainly responsible for the project, that is me. I am a law graduate, who is also very interested in language learning, literature and building things. There are, however, other people who contribute with translation, editing, making the website usable and other things, so it isn't a solo project in the full sense. Interlinear Books is also looking to expand the team in the near future.

EV: Can we expect more Russian books on your website?

LV: I can't answer this question yet. I would love to add more Russian books, but we have to see how this one goes first. If and when we do make other Russian translations, expect us to cover classical writers first (so we would be likely to translate Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin and other great Russian writers.)

EV: Do you plan to add more languages to your platform?

LV: Definitely, Interlinear Books is currently focused on making new translations in new languages. We have two missions in this respect: first, we want to cover popular languages - ones like German. Second, we also want to promote language learning for less-popular languages, such as Swedish (which is a very interesting and quite easy language to start learning if you already speak English, by the way). It has been somewhat of a struggle to combine these two things, but we're doing our best.

EV: Anything else you would like to tell language learners?

LV: Literature is an important and fascinating way to learn languages, and I advise you to look for ways to combine literature into your language learning, even if isn't with Interlinear books. At the end of the day, each learner will have to decide what works best for them, but trying many things helps!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Q&A: Russian Reflexive Verbs

Here is a question from my reader:

I was reading the document on verb prefixes, and it got me thinking about suffixes. For example, there are the words хотеть and хотеться, which both mean 'to want'. But what does the 'ся' say? What extra information does it give? I find it hard to know when to use which.

-ся is a short for себя, -self. This is why the verbs ending with -ся are called reflexive verbs.

For example, купаться, if I were to translated it literally, would mean to bathe oneself, i.e. to take a bath, while купать means to give a bath, to wash smb.

-ся may also indicate a mutual action: целоваться = to kiss (each other) vs. целовать = to give a kiss.

-ся may show that some action is immanent to smth. or smb. For example, собака кусается = a dog bites, it is natural for dogs to bite. -ся here doesn’t mean that a dog bites itself, it shows that biting is the dog’s attribute.

Finally, -ся is used with impersonal verbs. Хочется is an impersonal verb. Хотеть requires a subject. There should be somebody who wants. Хочется refers to ‘it’, impersonal something that makes me want something. For example, Я хочу тебя поцеловать. I want to kiss you. vs. Мне хочется тебя поцеловать. Literally, “it is pleased, desired to me to kiss you”.

Here is a little bit more about Russian impersonal verbs.

I hope my explanation helped. Good luck with learning Russian!


Photo by Steven Mueller

Monday, February 17, 2014

Speaking Language vs Communicating

We use language to describe the world around us. We tell each other how things are, and this is one of the important functions of human language. We name things, put labels on them and thus reconstruct our immediate reality in our speech. However, language does much more than that. It helps us to express our wishes and dreams to others. We tell each other how we want things to be or how things could be. We describe desirable and possible realities with our language. If you record your talks with other people, you will find that telling others how things are takes a tiny part of your communication. You convince, demand, persuade, beg, insist – you communicate with others to change something in your status quo rather than simply informing about things.

Language courses and text books for non-native speakers usually start with describing reality. We first learn how name things and state facts. This approach, quite justified and rational in many points, has one significant drawback: grammar works differently when we use language differently. This is why when a student first visits a country of a language she's been studying for a while, she finds it extremely difficult to imply her knowledge to real life. She was taught to speak, not to communicate in a language (this implies to he-students too, of course).

In Russian, the gap between the standard grammar and its communicative implementations is huge. For example, the phrase “Пошли в кино?” is technically a question, and the verb here is in the Past tense, however, in reality, this is not a question about something in the past. It is a politely and informally expressed desire/ request or an offer to go to the cinema. This is how a girl may let her friend know that she wants to go to the cinema, without sounding too pushy or demanding. Formal grammar here has nothing to do with the real meaning of the message. Another example: “Готовим документы,” (Get your documents prepared) a border control officer may say to tourists in a bus when they cross the border. Formal grammar sees the verb готовим as 1 person, plural, we. Literally, this phrase could be translated as “We are preparing our documents”. Of course, the officer doesn't mean 'we' here, he is not going to prepare his documents, he is going to check yours. By using the imperfective verb in the form of the first person, plural, present the officer makes a powerful command. He demonstrates his power, he convinces you that you have to obey his order. He sounds slightly impolite, but not rude. The rude form of the same command would be “Документы приготовили” with a perfective verb in the past. Again, the formal grammar here is helpless.

Odds are you won't learn about those nuances from your textbooks. You can learn it by communicating with native speakers, watching movies and reading good fiction books. These are the more reliable sources of the information about how people use their language. Quite often, students think that they may get frustrated and lose their motivation by dealing with real life conversations. “I'm still at the beginning of my studies, it would be too hard for me to dive into the real things now,” they say. The truth is the more you delay this moment, the more you'll get frustrated. Hard is good, because by pushing yourself to the very edge of your abilities, you speed up your progress and save a lot of time for things much more interesting than repeating a meaningless “My little dog eats nothing*”.

* This is an actual example from my French textbook. Duh!


Photo by Dan Mason

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Q&A: the Russian sounds for Ш and Щ

Here is a question from my reader:
"I struggle with ш and щ. I guess it will come naturally later on, but how am I supposed to be able to differentiate between them? They are so similar!"
They are very similar, indeed. Many of my students confuse these letters.The only difference here is that ш is always hard while щ is always soft. What exactly does it mean and why should you care?

First, a bit of theory. Most non-Russian speakers find it difficult to distinguish hard and soft consonants. In Russian, hard and soft consonants are as important as, for example, long and short vowels in English. The meaning of a word may change because of hard or soft consonant. I’m sure you can differentiate between sheet and shit, right? I can’t because in Russian, we don’t differentiate short and long vowels.

The easiest part of your question is the visual difference between Ш and Щ. the latter has a small tail.

Technically, English sh is closer to щ. However, many Russians tend to pronounce sh too hard, like ш. Mock the Russian accent and you’ll probably get the idea.

There are not many words (actually, I don’t know any) that would be identical except that one has ш and the other is spelt with a щ. So, you won’t confuse two words just because you can not differentiate between these two sounds, don’t worry.

However, it is important to pronounce these sounds distinctively. To master Ш, form a cup with your tongue: let the middle of your tongue relax and lie down, and place (but don't press) the tip of your tongue against the back of the alveolar ridge (post-alveolar). Pronouncing Щ is pretty much the same as the sh in she, but you should raise the middle of your tongue slightly higher to the roof of your mouth.

Here is my recording of some words with Ш and Щ in different positions, so you can train your ear

I hope, this helps.

Good luck!


Photo by Steven Mueller

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Q&A: Russian Cases

From time to time, I receive questions from my readers about the Russian grammar. I decided to post my answers here, on this blog under the tag "Q&A". You can send me your questions at eugenia@properrusisan.com, and I'll try my best to answer you promptly. Please remember, there's no such thing as a stupid question, all your questions are very welcome!

Question: Can you please explain cases to me? I don't understand them in English nor in Russian what do they do?

Generally, cases show correlations, i.e. how things connect to each other. In Russian, they often do the job of prepositions.

  • Nominative is the case for subjects, the main topic of a sentence.
  • Example: Я люблю грамматику. I like grammar. It is me, who acts here, so I is in nominative here to show who is the subject.
  • Accusative usually shows a direct object. It uses no prepositions both in English and in Russian.
  • Example: Я люблю грамматику. I like grammar. My love to grammar is directed toward grammar. Grammar is a direct object of my passion. So we put it in Accusative: грамматику. Remember, in Russian, word order is flexible, not to say chaotic. Without proper endings, it would be unclear whether it is me who likes grammar, or is it grammar who likes me.
  • Genitive helps to show possessive relations. In English the preposition “of” plays this role.
  • Example: Я люблю грамматику русского языка. Literally: I like the grammar of the Russian language. (Note: adjectives should agree with nouns in numbers and cases). Also, Genitive comes with numbers. Шесть падежей. Six (of) cases. Think of it as a part of the whole (total amount of cases in the world).
  • Dative shows the direction of the action, like the English preposition ‘to’.
  • Example: Он посвятил свою жизнь грамматике. He devoted his life to grammar. There are other meanings of Dative, but all of them indicate the direction of the action in this or that way. Even in the example: "Мне нравится грамматика." the literal translation should be Grammar is pleasant to me (though we translate it in the reverse fashion, as ‘I like grammar’).
  • Instrumental comes where “by/with” comes in English. Instrumental shows your tools, your means.
  • Example: Я объелась грамматикой! I’m fed up with grammar! Your way of getting fed up was by grammar, so we put it into instrumental.
  • Prepositional. Generally, prepositional equals to ‘about’. There are some nuances, but they all could be summarize in the preposition “about”.
  • Example: Мы говорили о грамматике. We talked about grammar.

Some scientists would add another two-three cases, but let me stop here.

The idea is: cases show how one thing relates to another. I hope my explanation wasn’t too confusing.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Sunday, February 2, 2014

How Not To Die Of Boredom

The first steps into a new language are the hardest ones. You know so little, you have to look up every word in a dictionary. You struggle with unfamiliar grammar forms, you can't distinguish one part of a speech from another, and fail to recognize new grammatical forms of familiar words. It is so frustrating! And as if it's not enough, you feel humiliated with boring exercises. You are supposed to produce phrases that are too dumb for anybody older than 6 months, and that you would never ever say in your mother-tongue. They call it 'basic level'.

Is it true that basic level should be that boring? My personal learning experience and teaching practice prove this wrong. Starting with such 'basics' may kill your desire at the very beginning of your new language affair.

Build your own basic vocabulary. You do need to expand your vocabulary and understand grammar, but how often do you say 'I have a room. She has a room. The room is mine. The room is hers' in a real conversation? I suggest my students to start building their vocabulary with the words they would really use in real life. For example, a passionate cooker would more likely memorize new words for food and kitchenware, because (s)he wants to read original recipes and try something new. A gamer would learn the gamers' jargon first. A philosopher would seek for vocabulary that covers the area of her intellectual interests, so for her, 'epistemology' would be an easy word, while 'colander' would go to the remote periphery of her consciousness.

Don't be afraid of long and complex words. For many languages, complex doesn't mean hard to memorize. Break long words into pieces, learn the functions of each part, and while doing so, you'll memorize the word. Moreover, this simple procedure will help you to understand word formation rules, thus you'll be able to construct words (sometimes correctly). Another benefit from dealing with a long word is that when you understand what its parts mean, the next word with similar parts will be a piece of cake for you. You'll start expanding your vocabulary rapidly.

Start writing as early as possible. When you do grammar exercises and use the grammar clichés provided by the authors of your textbook, you learn very dry, artificial language (I wish I could secretly observe a group of linguists working on sample sentences for their new text book). When you write what you want, you acquire your target language actively. You try to find a way to express your thoughts, and this is the best and most efficient way to achieve fluency. We are lucky to live in the Internet epoch, so you can always post your text on lang-8 for native speakers to correct you.

The entrance to the new language lies in the area that brought you to the language.Don't make your learning process insipid. After all, we are here to enjoy ourselves, right?


Image: Bored
Photo by Steven Feather