My name is Erin. My husband's name is Mark.
Je m'appelle Erin. Mon mari s'appelle Mark.
Mi chiamo Erin. Mio marito si chiama Mark.
We live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It's in the north of the U. S.
Nous habitons à Minneapolis dans l'état de Minnesota. C'est dans le nord des États-Unis.
Abitiamo a Minneapolis nello stato di Minnesota. È una città nel Nord dei Stati Uniti.
There are no mountains there. Only hills and river bluffs.
Il n'y a pas de montagnes chez nous. Seulement des collines et des falaises le long des rivières.
Non ci sono montagne in quel luogo. Solamente delle colline e scogliere lungo le fiume.
We have five children: four sons and a daughter.
Nous avons cinq enfants: quatre fils et une fille.
Abbiamo cinque figli: quattro figli maschi e una figlia.
The older children are homeschooled.
Les enfants les plus grands reçoivent l'instruction en famille.
I figli più grande sono insegnati a casa.
First we are going to Chamonix for two weeks, then we are going to Rome for ten days.
D'abord nous allons à Chamonix pendant deux semaines, puis nous allons à Rome pour un séjour de dix jours.
Dapprima andiamo a Chamonix-Mont-Blanc nella Francia...
...do I want to think "during two weeks" as it would be in French, or "for" or "through?" Prepositions are so tricky.
+ + +
I learned how to translate with a pair of dictionaries, French ones: the big hardcover Harper-Collins-Robert dictionary, all five pounds of which I lugged in my suitcase to France when I did my study tour in college; and a paperback Le Robert Micro Poche dictionary that I bought while I was there, French words with French definitions. I have pulled them out a few times since finishing college, mostly because Mark wanted to read ice climbing trip reports.
There is a trick to doing this with dictionaries, especially when you're trying to go from your native language to a target language. You have to look everything up twice, because the target language side of the dictionary is often where the specific examples are. So, taking the Cassell's Latin & English dictionary for an example, if I want to say I don't speak fluent Latin, and I look up "fluent," I find,
fluent, volubilis, disertus; adv. volubiter
The "adv." bit means that volubiter probably means the adverb fluently, which makes me think, "I bet it would be more likely to come out okay if I try to translate speak Latin fluently instead of speak fluent Latin." I turn to the Latin side and look up the first word and get
volubilis, -e rolling, revolving, turning round; changeable; inconstant; of speech, rapid, fluent; adv. volubiter, fluently.
The -e tells me for sure how to decline the adjective so I can apply it to a noun that's (as in this example) a feminine direct object (linguam Latinam volubilem), and the definition here with its note "of speech" confirms that it's the sort of meaning I want. It also tells me that, while in English the adjective literally means something that water does, in Latin the adjective literally means something that, say, a spool does.
(Now I will remember it: deleting the idea of a rapidly flowing river, I substitute the mental image of an old audiocassette, the spindles revolving, spooling tape from one side to another as Latin phrases burble from a speaker.)
I pick the adverb form because I have to fuss less with word order that way, and write Linguam latinam non volubiter loquor. (Choosing loquor itself requires several lookings-up, as "speak" in the dictionary gives me three choices and I need to check them all to see if one is more correct than the others; imagine someone telling you, "I don't talk fluent English" or, worse, "I don't lecture fluent English" and you see what I mean.)
+ + +
So, French is the only language that I have been taught in a formal setting, but I was fortunate to have had fantastic teachers who gave me exactly the right foundation for springboarding into self-teaching other languages -- Romance languages anyway; I haven't tried it on anything else. I'm guessing my grasp of Latin is about equivalent to two years of high school Latin by now, which is certainly enough to teach younger kids to go "amo, amas, amat" and is usually enough for me to assist my high-school-aged kid to navigate a textbook.
(People are always asking me why, since I already speak it pretty well, I'm not making the kids study French. My thought is, if I'm going to spend all this time working with my kids on a second language, why waste it on something I already know? I want to learn a new one! So we learn it together.)
I do make mistakes from time to time, most of which I can blame on the textbook. So, for instance, the primary-school Latin curriculum doesn't bother to mention the natural-gender rule: although nauta, nautae, "sailor," belongs to a class of nouns that are nearly all feminine, you always use a masculine adjective to describe a male sailor. (It's terra bona, good earth, but nauta bonus, good sailor.) The primary-school curriculum doesn't get as far as attaching adjectives to nouns and making them agree with each other, so it isn't in there. But of course the minute that the children have bonus and malus they want to be able to talk about good barbarians and bad barbarians, good bears and bad bears, good sailors and bad sailors.
And that's when the parent decides that it's okay to depart from the curriculum and reads a little bit about adjective agreement and thinks they get it and teaches the kids to say "barbarus bonus et barbarus malus, ursa bona et ursa mala, nauta bona et nauta mala" and then about eight months later when next year's textbook arrives has to say "Guess what, I taught you wrong. We have to unlearn something now."
(For the record, I have also had to backtrack concerning various points of word order and the entire list of I-stem nouns of the third declension. I made a game of it with the high school age kids. If they catch me making a mistake, they win a piece of candy.)
+ + +
Anyway, I am now trying to teach myself as much Italian as I can before traveling to Rome with the family later this fall. It's probably not entirely necessary; Mark, who never had a particular interest in languages, gets by happily with a phrasebook wherever he goes on business (well, there was the one time when he glanced too quickly at the dictionary entry and ordered "deaf coffee" instead of "decaf coffee"). It's more of a personal challenge: how well can I do with a few months' preparation?
My oldest son has also embraced the challenge. He's mostly using Duolingo online, and has gotten farther with it than I have. I'm dabbling a little bit in Duolingo but I'm mostly using Pimsleur audio lessons in the car. The result is that he has more vocabulary than I do, but I feel more comfortable with the flow of conversation. I'm pretty sure I can make decent cognate-based guesses about vocabulary. I'm also studying lists of prepositions (before, after, around, across) and common adverbs (left, right, more, less, always, never) because in my experience these are extremely helpful cues to the meaning of entire sentences. And are good for asking directions, a useful skill when you visit an unfamiliar place.
And then, I'm writing out the "who are we and what are we doing here in Europe" script. I want to have the vocabulary for our names, our kids' ages, where we are from, what we hope to see in town, how we managed to get away for a month during the school year, that sort of thing. I managed most of the French without lots of research, but the Italian is trickier.
And you know what?
Foreign language dictionaries?
You don't really need them anymore, if you have an Internet connection. I'm discovering that the English-Italian resources at Wordreference.com and Wikibooks.org have everything I need to figure out -- closely enough -- how to write what I want to say in Italian. It's very easy to look up fluently and get two examples:
- (language: with ease) fluentemente, correntemente
- (motion: gracefully, smoothly) in maniera aggraziata, agilmente
followed by links to the entry for the English word "eloquently" and the Italian phrase parlare correntemente, which would give me a clue that the "to speak" verb I want is parlare (if I wouldn't have already guessed that from the French parler). Not only that but there are links to a forum where people are discussing several different ways to say "she speaks fluently" and "we should speak Italian fluently by year 12"; the words fluentemente and correntemente are themselves links to the Italian-English "side" of the dictionary; and if you click the "in context" link on the fluentemente page you'll go to Google News articles that contain the word, for example, an obituary in America Oggi about an orchestral conductor:
"...oltre al francese, parlava fluentemente anche l'inglese, l'italiano, il portoghese, lo spagnolo e il tedesco."
I can tell you what that means: besides French, he also fluently spoke English, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and... er...
(back to WordReference.com)
... German. (Tedesco? Really? What does that have to do with Germania? Or Deutsch? I guess I can kind of see it in there somewhere. The cognate approach can only get you so far.)
Which brings me to an interesting question.
How does this change teaching translation?
Last year I gave the 8th- and 9th-graders an introduction to Spanish (another language that I've dabbled in self-teaching). I approached it experimentally, to see if we could use what we'd already learned in Latin to save time on grammar; they already knew about masculine and feminine nouns, for example, and adjective agreement, and verb conjugations. I was really pleased with it -- we got through a year's worth of grammar in about three months, and then we settled into a routine of listening to audio lessons and translating paragraphs from a YA novel. (Here's the novel, by the way.)
I gave them all English-Spanish dictionaries and showed them how to use them, including teaching them the look-it-up-twice technique -- but it did not take long for them to discover that they could do better with a website called Spanishdict.com . I checked it out and I had to admit it was much faster to decipher text with a web-based dictionary tool (including conjugation tables at a glance) than with a paper dictionary. I forbade them from typing entire sentences into the machine translator box and made them proceed word-by-word, which seemed to have the effect I was going for. But I wondered if the different technique would somehow change the way they incorporated new words and grammatical structures into their mental model, and if so, whether it would be for better or for worse.
The whole experience reminds me of teaching my kids how to use the library. When I was a child, I intuitively understood the threefold mapping of the shelves of books -- author, title, subject -- onto the cards in the card catalogue. The orderliness of it satisfied me deeply, and like so many bookish people my age and older, I can instantly recall the scent of the cards and the feel of the thumb running along the edge of the stack, and remember taking slips of paper (cut-up sheets that had been printed on one side) from a tray and writing down the call numbers with a pen chained to the massive oak cabinet.
Of course now we don't have a card catalogue and in many ways it is much easier; you type in a search field and the call numbers are returned from a databas. But in my mind the idea of the online library database is a superstructure built on the idea of the card catalogue, with its neat nested subjects, its titles and authors. (Ask me how often I use this newfangled 'keyword' field to find a book.) So I found it difficult, pedagogically speaking, to explain how the whole thing works. I wound up starting with a history lesson explaining how the old card catalogues worked, and then going from there to say, "but today we type the subject we are looking for in the 'subject' search field."
Nobody has to alphabetize anything anymore; is that an unadulterated advance, a saving of time spent on tedium, or is it a lost chance to develop the mental circuits that help us organize all kinds of information?
I wonder the same thing about language learning. It's faster and easier to translate because of the web-based tools we have on hand. This is great for quickly understanding a news article or quickly composing a message so that the content will be understood (especially if you don't care too much about getting the grammar precisely correct). I wonder how to take advantage of the new tools while still getting the benefits, whatever they might be, of having to puzzle through sentences the old-fashioned way.
There aren't nearly as many online tools available for Latin as for languages of the non-dead variety, so I'm guessing my kids will be forced to do some things the old-fashioned way, at least for a while. But our forays into Spanish and Italian have looked very different from the way I learned French il y avait une fois.