The Music of Language: Gaelic Summer

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7.01.2014

Summer is for many things—for getting much needed rest, for enjoying the sun, for catching up on all the reading that has been put off, and for rediscovering one's hobbies. One of the passions that I will be pouring myself into during the coming months is language learning, specifically investing some time into my old friend Scottish Gaelic or Gàidhlig.

I've been attracted to Gàidhlig for a long time. I'm sure it has a lot to do with learning to play the tin whistle in elementary school and watching Braveheart in junior high. There was just something about the look of the words, the melodious guttural sounds, the familiar and unfamiliar patterns and structures. I can remember eagerly scouring the internet in my father's home office for lists of phrases and vocabulary, dutifully drilling myself on grammatical constructions with James MacLaren's Beginner's Gaelic (1923) during lunch breaks as a sales associate at Border's Books, and struggling through Prof. Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh's complex phonological analyses at Fuaimean na Gàidhlig.

Credit: Joe Fox, A82 Bi-lingual Scottish Gaelic English Road Sign Scotland Uk
Link.

As enjoyable and useful as these endeavors were, the approaches all suffered from the same drawback: they all took reading and writing as their starting point. For Gàidhlig this poses a particular challenge due to the complex and seemingly enigmatic relationship between the way the language is written and the way it is spoken. As I learned, I would continually find myself put in the frustrating position of either learning to speak phrases or words incorrectly, or of tiptoeing through a dense thicket of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) rules. It would begin to feel less and less like learning a vibrant language, and more like doing calculus or pitch-class-set analysis. There had to be another way!

I think I've found another way.

I've written previous posts about a language learning technique called "shadowing". It involves immersing yourself in a language's sounds in real time, internalizing its vocal patterns, rhythmic cadences, and phrase structures. Shadowing is essentially about the music of language; at its base level it allows you to engage with the raw sounds of a language freed from the distractions of writing, semantics and grammar. This is not to say that those aspects of the language are unimportant, but rather that the initial focus upon the musical characteristics of music engages your brain in a unique and powerful manner. It's a way of establishing a strong foundation upon which the rest of the language can confidently stand.

Here is my summer plan:

  • I am shadowing with Litir Beag, a podcast by Roddy MacIean on BBC Alba, the Gàidhlig language branch of the BBC. These "little letters" are for intermediate learners and Roddy specifically speaks the words slowly and clearly—ideal for shadowing! I do not read the Litir Beag transcripts, nor do I read the English translations—not yet. This stage is all about engaging with the sounds. Already I have noticed two interesting developments:
    • I can match sounds with much more accuracy and fluency in Gàidhlig than in a language which I know much better. Shadowing in German, for instance, is more overwhelming because my mind not only listens to sounds while speaking them back, but additionally keeps busy parsing grammatical functions, imagining written text, and visualizing descriptive or narrative meaning.
    • I can begin to intuit meaning through musical and contextual patterns in the recordings. Strings of numbers or dates have their own particular sound and cadence. Also phrases such as "he said" or "she said" stand out loud and clear because of the way Roddy performs the narrative dialogues.
  • I have just begun to shadow to another program on BBC Alba, Beag air Bheag, an educational website. Geared towards absolute beginners, this program takes you "bit by bit" through graded lessons, each unit ending with a conversational dialogue that sums up all the main points of the chapter. Again, I am avoiding reading the transcripts and the translations for the time being. The back-and-forth format of these simple dialogues allow me to intuit conversational characteristics such as questions, answers, frustration, incredulity, and affirmation.
  • The next stage in my plan involves carefully introducing the transcripts and translations to my sound world. The music of the language and the sounds that I've already internalized should continually act as the foundation. As I slowly look through Litir Beag and Beag air Bheag texts, I hope to continually say, "Oh! That's how you spell it and that's what it means!" and not "Oh! That's how you pronounce it!" There should be little to no renegotiation of the spoken sounds, though some tricky ones (such as the hurriedly spoken definite articles "an" and "am") which were unclear in the recordings can now be solidified. The point is that the writing should further illuminate and give definition to the sounds that I already know, not visa versa. 
  • This method should result in the following improvements and opportunities by the end of the summer:
    • I will have spoken a lot of Gàidhlig sounds, continually intuiting its musical patterns, cadences, and rhythms.
    • I will have a better chance of understanding the writing system and its correspondence to the sounds. Now the two can work in tandem rather than in tension and I can begin to read books with confidence.
    • I will have enjoyed myself, succeeding at doing something difficult that I love!
  • Perhaps by next summer I could be in the position to actually speak Gàidhlig with living people. It would be somewhat challenging given and sparsity of Highland villages in Southern California. :) But who knows? Skype has opened up the doors to exciting new communication opportunities, and institutions like Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Colaisde na Gàidhlig provide plenty of pedagogical resources both through distance learning and on-site visits.
Credit: Steve Greaves, Scottish Highlands
Link.

I am very excited about this plan and think that it will prove very helpful. By engaging directly with the sounds, I will have more confidence as I move into the more theoretical and structural aspects of the language. Let me know if these ideas are inspirational, confusing, or if you have other techniques that work for you. Bottom line, I am enjoying myself and my summer. I hope you do too!


Sumer is icumen in!

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6.20.2014

Happy summer everyone!

A. Rackham perfectly capturing the feeling of making it through finals...

Graduate school gives summer an extra feeling of arrival and victory. As of today, all grades have been finalized, all papers have been turned in, all boxes have been checked. Now is when we finally have the opportunity to turn to those things which we haven't had the time, mental energy and spiritual fortitude to enjoy. Here's what I'm excited about this summer:

  • Reading more George MacDonald just for fun
  • Playing more piano and chamber music with some friends
  • Actually visiting the beach, and improving my freestyle stroke
  • Meeting up with friends more often
  • Make new friends to improve German and French skills
  • Take naps!

This summer feels even more different from previous ones because not only is my wife no longer working in a job that had her busy the whole summer, but we just moved to a new house! It is such a beautiful, small, functional building with a wonderful landlord who lives on the property. Everything feels so full of life!

What are you doing this summer?


Dur und Moll*

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5.16.2014

Kay Nielsen
The Giant who had no Heart in his Body
(1914)
"On that island stands a church;
in that church is a well;
in that well swims a duck."

  • The Merest Set of Blocks: In continuation of last Monday's post, a children's orchestra in a Paraguayan slum plays on instruments made out of trash (clip here). Obviously any discussion about the dual nature of music as canon and music as freedom need to be situated geographically and synchronically.
  • Robert Fuchs (1847–1927): I've been enjoying the music of this little-known Austrian composer (#santabeard). Today his small modicum of fame rests upon his being the composition teacher of such notables as Mahler, Sibelius, Wolf, and Korngold. (There I go being canonical...) During his lifetime he was known as "Serenaden-Fuchs" due to the popularity of his five Serenades for chamber orchestra. Check out No. 1; the finale is particularly fun (recording here). I like his chamber music, especially his piano quartets (no recordings available) and the cello sonatas (recording of No. 2 in E-flat minor here). He also wrote piano music for children, perhaps a product of his being a life-long pedagogue... or due to memories of having been the youngest of thirteen children! 
  • Orientation: Where are you headed this weekend? These two blogposts explore the visual and linguistic complexities of orientation. Allison Taylor-Adams of Polyglossic jumps into the fascinating arena of world maps (link here) while Simon Ager of Omniglot Blog points out the peculiarities of the word "orientation" (link here).
  • Nap Time: Admit it! You miss it from Kindergarten! Here's a little article that lays out some parameters for catching some sleep during the day to boost productivity all while not crumpling beneath the weight of an arduous day's work (link here). Personally, I'm all for the 11 minute power nap, preferably on one of the squishy couches in the GSA lounge at UCSB (squishy couches not shown). Where's your ideal napping spot?
  • First Line Quiz: Who wrote this? (Answer revealed next week.)
    • Once upon a time, so long ago that I have quite forgotten the date, their lived a king and a queen who had no children.

* The title Dur und Moll (Eng. "major and minor") was a section of miscellaneous notices in the latter half of the Leipzig periodical Signale für die musikalische Welt (1843–1941). Just be glad it's not written in Fraktur.

"The Merest Set of Blocks"

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5.12.2014

It has been a while since I have written on this blog. The wonderfully fruitful collaboration with the Subverting Laughter Project as well as a little thing called "PhD musicology grad student, Year Two" have taken precedence over my time and creative energies. After such a hiatus, coming back to a project like this can feel a bit daunting: creative ideas need to be dusted off, intellectual tools taken out of the shed, logistical plans redrafted. To build and to rebuild is to strike off into the potentially frightening zones of the unknown. (But really, who would have it any other way?)

In the spirit of adventurous rebuilding, and in celebration of the imminent release of the Lego Movie to DVD (a veritable nostalgia-explosion for people of my generation), I present to you a meditative constellation. First, some sociology of childhood from Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957). Here he is decrying the blatant socializing impact of toy culture in France. In his view, specialized toys (such as plastic telephones, model Vespas, or "diaper dollies") constrain children to passively and automatically reenact miniature versions of the adult world:
  • The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all... the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [However,] the merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property. (Cited from Jenks The Construction of Childhood, 1982)
In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis, in an attempt to develop a theory of literary reception, highlights the importance of active and imaginative utilization in both religious ikons as well as children's toys. He states:
  • A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshiper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. (Lewis An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)

Retro LEGO add
Fat Brain Toys
Now to apply these criticisms and insights to the realm of music: How does music "literally prefigure the world of adult functions?" Does it have a "changeless and expressionless face?" I would say that both these questions bring up issues of canonicity. Any musical genre establishes its foundations as a socially meaningful activity or object upon some sort of musical canon, typically an established (changeless and expressionless?) and hierarchical list of (adult-approved?) exemplars, be they composers or artists or recordings or techniques or rituals. Consider Katherine Bergeron's chilling insights into the proscriptive implications of canon:

  • Indeed, once a principle of order is made into a standard, it becomes all the more accessible; translated into a "practice," its values can be internalized... [implying] a type of social control—a control that inevitably extends to larger social bodies as individual players learn not only to monitor themselves but to keep an eye (and an ear) on others. To play in tune, to uphold the canon, is ultimately to interiorize those values that would maintain, so to speak, social "harmony." Practice makes the scale—and evidently all of its players—perfect. (Bergeron and Bohlman Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, 1992).
"Young Beckie" by Rackham
One the other hand, how is music about creating "life, not property?" How is it the activity of a "demiurge?" How does it "stimulate and liberate?" We do after all play music: homo ludens (see Johan Huizinga, 1937), ludus tonalis (see Paul Hindemith, 1943), prelude (see J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, etc.). Is there room in canonical works by canonical composers for childlike play? Or are the barlines of a notated score literally prison bars that constrain both performers and listeners to proscriptive, ready-made conclusions?

Regardless of your music of choice, these issues remain. Have you experienced either of these reactions? Let me know what you think!


Operation Trilingual: 22 Week Assessment

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1.01.2014

It has been 22 weeks since I first began my Operation Trilingual Language Learning System. As outlined in my previous post, I planned on dividing my time between different types of Input and Output to create a perpetuum mobile of linguistic beauty. Now that some time has passed I need to take stock of what has been accomplished and decide whether or not my efforts are pushing me in the direction I want to go.

I recorded my progress on the following chart:


The green column shows the date in weekly groups.
The red section charts German activity and the blue French.
For each day I wrote what type of Activity (Narrative Input, Culling Input, Output), what Material was used (text, audio, flashcard program, etc.), Duration of time spent on that activity, and any special Notes.

That's how it worked; here's how I assess the journey:

  • Accomplishments
    • Daily Incentive: I didn't like having to write N/A and 0hrs for a given day. Kept up my work in both languages daily.
      • Highest weekly total: 16hrs 22mins
      • Lowest weekly total: 1hr 33mins
    • Lots of Narrative Input: By far the easiest Activity, I have made my way through a healthy helping of audio books of C.S. Lewis' Prinz Kaspian (finished) and Der Reise auf der Morgenröte (in progress) in German, reading German translations of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, and reading French, literary fairy tales by the Comtesse d'Aulnoy. Yum!
    • Academic Culling Input: in addition to passing my French language test for UCSB, I had to put in some time to translate foreign documents and articles for my classes and papers. One source included reading a German keyboard treatise from the early 1700s written in a very difficult to read fraktur script.
    • Exciting Output: I got the chance to have a lengthy conversation with a German speaker, exchange friendly emails with a Swiss pianist in German, and send some Facebook messages to a French friend.
    • Free Speak Output Focus: Sometimes it's hard to decide what to yak about. Aaron's Sentence Expansion Drill and Sentence Transformation Drill are excellent to warm up a language's rules and rhythms.
I see these accomplishments as a MAJOR VICTORY given the insanely busy life of the PhD graduate student. It probably wouldn't be an understatement to say that 80% of my Input was done on the bus to or from school and the other 20% in bed while trying to calm down and go to sleep after a busy day.

But the system still requires some revamping:

  • Short on Goals: My way of tracking progress works as a documentation of what I've done, but does not challenge me to meet self-imposed goals. The "do something every day" mandate has been great to keep up the momentum, but now I think it's best to give myself some specific goals I can aim for:
    • Not enough Output: Going forward, I'm going to try to have Output, probably in the form of writing, at least 3 times a week in each language. Perhaps I can make it a running story that I continue to enlarge, or I can rewrite sentences from my Culling Input with verb tense transformation. I'll have to experiment to figure out what works best, but definitely increasing the Output.
    • I need to go to the German restaurant (Brummis) and the French restaurant (Pacific Crêpes) in a few months to keep up the waiter-chatting inspiration.
  • Interesting vs. Useful Materials
    • I've made sure to read or listen to Materials that I enjoy. Thus the great wealth of fairy tales. This has been excellent for my enjoyment, but a little light on the vocabulary that is most helpful in conversation or reading academic documents. Perhaps a little sprinkling of those types would be beneficial. The former may mean more shadowing to podcasts and the latter more Wikipedia articles on composers or musical terminology.
    • (I just got an audio book of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers for Christmas!)


With the new year starting today, I think I'm in a pretty good place as far as my desire to be trilingual. I had wanted to start adding Russian, but I need to wait on that for a while as I take the time to set and meet these goals, especially the Output. Close the loop!

My best to everyone in the coming year on all your linguistic adventures. Keep the fire going!

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