Sunday, 29 March 2009

Words out of context

Lernesperanto came up with another enigma today: subten - back. This does not seem to make sense, what word class is it? It looks like a particle of some sorts, as in I looked back. But still odd. Also, back is quite ambiguous:

I've hurt my back when picking up this heavy item.
Back in 1970, petrol was much cheaper.
The damage was at the back of the house.
He was sitting in the back seat of the car.

When I finally looked up 'subten' in the on-line dictionary, I found the solution:

subtenajxo - abutment
subteni - abet, support, sustain

So it was neither of the above, but instead to back, the verb meaning 'to support somebody', as in I backed the winning candidate in the election. Another nice illustration that words don't have meaning out of context!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Esperanto Newspaper

Wow. I just looked at another blog which has language-related articles, and there was a tag esperanto. Curious, I looked what was there, and the first thing was an article about Le Monde being published in Turkish. So what? How is that related to Esperanto? The answer is, further down there was also a link to an Esperanto version of Le Monde!

Parallel Learning

I'm mainly doing the FEC, the correspondence course; here I get the basics, and also am in touch with an actual human being, so I can try out writing a few sentences and get feedback on those. A bit more of a personal touch than a simple self-study course. And I did try a few self-study courses in my time, not just with Esperanto. Getting through them is hard.

So while I'm waiting for the corrections of my exercises (which are turned around extremely fast!), and in idle time during the day (eg my lunch break) I'm having a look at what other learning resources there are, and there are a few Esperanto-related ones. Today I was curious if there was an Esperanto group on Facebook, and there are in fact several. In one of their postings I found a reference to Unilang, which has an Esperanto course for beginners. This is quite good, but has a few typos, and there are some answers which seem not quite right in English.

The best thing is that it's fun to practice different sentences, learn a different set of words, and repeat the basic grammar described from different angles. And, unlike the FEC, it's not as out-dated: I haven't yet come across sentences where a teacher beats a pupil, a bad girl smokes (only men smoke, good girls don't) and mother washes the children. And who drives to Paris with lemonade under their seats?!?

Progress: just finished lesson 7 today, which is a test. I wanted to do it without reference to the teaching materials, and it was quite easy. Translating vocabulary from Esperanto into English is not much of a problem if you've had some exposure to European languages--the other way round is much more tricky!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Word of the Day - Vorto de la tago

A very useful aid for learning a foreign language is to practice it "little and often". For this purpose I make use of two facilities that make it easier to acquire new words on a daily basis.

Vorto de la tago sends you an email every morning with a word. This email includes not only a definition (in Esperanto) but also, and this is very important, a couple of sentences in which that word is used. For example, today's word was klacxi. It means to chat or gossip. On of the example sentences gives you the right preposition: Mi aŭdis klaĉojn pri vi. Very useful!

The other service is on Twitter. There's a 'user' learnesperanto, under whose name a handful of words with their English glosses are tweeted. Not as useful, due to lack of context. See the previous post! But still helpful.

This is just brilliant: the Web makes these things so easy (and cheap). No need to send letters by surface mail, wait for ages until a reply comes, or pay subscriptions to newsletters or similar things.

La ttt estas mirinda!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Typical problems with dictionaries...

I can now comfortably compose simple sentences, those which just have a subject/verb/object, and even some prepositions. My (active) vocabulary is still fairly small, and that is one aspect I will have to work on over the next days (and weeks!). But what I really want to do is write more complex sentences.

One reason to use more complex grammatical structures is that you can avoid a lot of repetition. Instead of writing "I went to the theatre. I saw a play" you write "I went to the theatre and saw a play" - the "I" of the second clause has been dropped. This seems to be even more relevant in Esperanto (as compared to English) as there are fewer synonyms. In English you can easily choose a different word to avoid repeating yourself, but in Esperanto this is not that easy, and for good reason: the vast vocabulary is one of the aspects of English which make it hard to acquire full competence in it.

At present I play around a bit, and I have encountered some relative clauses which I can now use with some confidence at least. I have also found a grammar on-line, so I tried my first passive verb today. Slowly I make progress...

My lack of vocabulary re-raised my awareness of the deficiency of bi-lingual dictionaries: words usually have more than one meaning, and out of context it is not possible to decide which word exactly is the best translation. For example, I wanted to say about a play I saw recently (which was adapted from a book) that there was too much plot for the stage. So I looked at 'plot' in my on-line Esperanto-English dictionary, and found the following entries:
  • intrigo - plot
  • komploto - conspiracy, plot
  • rakontintrigo - plot

Neither of these seems to refer to the plot of a story, apart from perhaps the last one. Intrigo sounds too much like intrigue, so I decided it was probably wrong. But this is with my bias of being a speaker of German and English. In the end I settled for rakonto, which is glossed as "narrative, story, tale". I had a similar problem with "stage" which has a number of possible translations, mostly involving the kind of stage you're at in your life or something.

The best (if not only) way to acquire vocabulary properly is by use, in this case mainly reading. By seeing words in the context in which they are used you get a feeling for how to use them yourself, which is why immersion is always the best way to really learn a language. But I am not yet in a position to do much reading as I'm lacking the grammatical knowledge, and also the more complex morphology - suffixes modifying the meaning of a word.

But this is really the thing I need to aim for: expand the vocabulary, and then get reading.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


I am now halfway through the 10 lesson correspondence course, and I feel much more secure. Due to the speed I've been going through it (especially at the weekend) I need to go over the vocabulary again. Just about manage to get most of the pronouns right by now–practice makes more or less perfect.

The correlatives (45 combinations of 5 pre- and 9 suffixes) are very useful, but require some effort to be mastered. Part of the problem is probably that they don't map straightforwardly onto anything similar in English.

While searching our library catalogue for Esperanto-related material I came across a book by someone familar, Chris Gledhill, whom I know from his time at Aston. He wrote a corpus-based description of Esperanto, including a detailed linguistic account of the language itself. Interesting!

I can now write longer sentences without making too many mistakes, but complex structures still elude me.

Mi estas kapabla skribi pli longajn malerarajn frazojn, sed kompleksaj strukturoj estas tro malfacila nun ankoraux.

That sentence is probably full of mistakes, but at least it's a bit more complex than just La suno brilas hodiaux!

Monday, 23 March 2009

Starting off

Learning by yourself, especially a language, is quite hard. To begin with, you need to find the motivation/energy/time. Earlier this (academic) year I tried to teach myself Latin, or rather, refresh my school Latin from decades ago. I did manage to get some way into it, but it is not very satisfying when doing exercises that you need to self-correct. Often I had the impression I had come up with a valid paraphrase (but I wasn't sure), and I could also not tell what that sentence I erroneously wrote actually meant (if it meant anything at all!). But as soon as you involve a teacher you are restricted with time (as you need yet another regular slot in your busy schedule) and it also costs money (which you might not want to spend if it's just a for-fun-activity).

With Esperanto there is a correspondence course which works by email. You do exercises, send them by email to a tutor that has been assigned to you, and you get it back with comments. Brilliant. You also have a contact person now, and in my emails accompanying the exercises I can try out writing stuff in Esperanto. Pretty broken Esperanto, but at least it gives you a chance to practice.

In order to sign up, go to the site and follow the link. The pages look a bit old-fashioned, and I first wondered it it was still working, but shortly afterwards a got an email from a nice man living in Canada who told me I had not made any mistakes with my translations. How encouraging! I'm now looking forward to working my way through the ten lessons, and hopefully by the end I will be some way towards my goal. I'll keep you posted...

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Learning Esperanto

I'm currently teaching a final year module called "Language in the Information Society", where I cover aspects of modern society from a linguistic point of view, eg encryption, information retrieval, machine translation, knowledge representation, and last week, artificial/planned languages.

Years ago I tried learning Esperanto, but then gave up (can't remember why). Part of the problem I guess is the lack of a direct need if there's nobody around to talk to. Though apparently the Internet has been a very positive force with regard to giving Esperanto a vital boost: communication never was easier than in these days of email and skype.

My main interest in the past was in the linguistic features–as a computational linguist by trade I was fascinated by the supposed regularities of the language; building a morphological analyser should really be a piece of cake. But then I never had the time to do so. Now the seminar of planned languages re-kindled my interest, and I have decided to start again. In this blog I will try to keep track of my progress, and hopefully inspire other people to give it a try as well.