What next for surface languages?

I am (which isn’t surprising) as I run Surface Languages interested in language learning.

I’m not a particularly talented learner (I learn languages extremely slowly)  but I get a large amount of enjoyment through learning what I do, and as I do this my ideas on learning change and evolve over time.

I’ve been wondering for sometime how to best improve this site (other than adding further languages), and I think I know how to do this in part inspired by an email I received and in part by my rather frustrating attempts at learning Polish.

One of the great things about not selling a product or method is that you are free to experiment with different ideas, and you can (if you are me) implement these ideas on this website.

Look at Rosetta Stone (the language product that is). The manufacturers have this idea that clicking on pictures of horses jumping, people eating ice-creams and so on will help you learn a language.  Now, they can’t say ‘this isn’t effective’ even if they suddenly discover that clicking on pictures doesn’t equip you to walk into a bar and start chatting. Their whole product range is based on this concept.

I have started to believe that speaking and understanding (are while linked) such different skills that it is useful to treat them as such while in the initial stages of language learning. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the resources I’m using to improve my Polish comprehension, and there are many other resources to aid comprehension for other languages – in particular French and Spanish.

But what about speaking?

One way to improve is to learn the sentences by heart that you want to say in your target language. The difficulty with this is choosing sentences which are generally useful. I want sentences which use common verbs and high frequency vocabulary and that are also useful to me. E.g. ‘I’m going to the shop’ but not ‘the house needs to be rewired’. I also want sentences which use different tenses such as ‘I went to the shop’, and sentences expressing opinions ‘I’m happy because …’

I’ve started writing down sentences which I would like to be able to say in Polish, and these will form the basis of the sentences used on surface languages.

I’ve made a few observations which I’ve written down, partly so I don’t forget and partly for your delight and delectation.

The first observation is that languages themselves are structured differently, meaning you can’t pick one sentence to illustrate a grammatical point in say Spanish and assume that this will illustrate the same point in Polish.

I don’t think this matters. The sentences I will choose are ones which I want to use in normal life, and not specifically to illustrate structures and grammar.

The second observation is that many languages have different levels of formality depending on who you are speaking to, and different structures depending on the number of people you are speaking to.

The solution is to assume that you are talking to one person who is a friend. i.e casual but not slangy conversation.

The third observation is that in some languages (e.g. Polish) there can be  a difference depending on whether a man or woman is speaking, or being spoken to.

Adding these different combinations would be too complicated for what I have in mind (see below), and as I am male I’ve made the arbitrary decision that all the sentences are spoken by a male to a male. I don’t feel particularly happy about this, but I am one person and can only deal with a certain level of complexity.

I received an e-mail in Spanish basically asking why Surface Languages didn’t have any English phrases. The answer is that it was designed for English speakers, but that is only because I didn’t think about language learners other than English speaking using it.

But now I have. If all the sentences have the same translations in English, Spanish, French, Polish and so on, there is no reason why you can’t learn English from Spanish or French from Polish or any other combination that you wish. This is also great if you are trying to maintain a language.

And so dear reader, over the coming months and years I am going to add a ‘learn by sentences’ section to Surface Languages using some sort of Spaced Repetition System which will allow me (and you) to learn sentences using different language pairs.

But first, I need to decide on the first 1000.





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