Friday, September 30, 2005

What is not found in textbooks

It's been a tiring trip but also a valuable experience in terms of learning Kyrgyz. I wrote about the importance of exposure to the language, and I got plenty of that during this week.

Last night as I read a text in my Kyrgyz textbook I was surprised by the ease with which I could pronounce the words. Although I did not get much speaking practice, I now feel much more confident about my pronunciation. All that just from listening to the native speakers.

I get the feeling that what you find in the textbooks is a language that is often very different from what is actually spoken. This is inevitable, of course, but sometimes the differences are too great.

When you are just starting to learn Kyrgyz, one of the first words you learn is "ооба" (meaning "yes"). However, it is rarely used. Most of the time the natives use a word that sounds like a nasal [ji:] to express agreement. "Анан" (which means "so") is heard a lot in conversations. Of course, none of this is found in the textbooks.

I also got an interesting kind of feedback on the Peace Corps textbook. One local lady told me about a Peace Corps volunteer who came to their village. "We use Russian words here and there when we speak Kyrgyz," the lady said. "But this girl [the volunteer] spoke pure Kyrgyz. For example, we would say 'конфета' [Russian for 'candy'], but she used 'момпосуй'."

While the lady who told me this story was impressed by the volunteer's mastery of the Kyrgyz language, she also made it clear that this "pure language", as she called it, sounded strange to a native speaker's ear.

"Момпосуй", a word borrowed from the Russian "монпансье" (which was in turn borrowed from the French "Montpensier") seems to have fallen out of use. "Конфет" (cf. the Russian "конфета") is used widely instead. This is true for many words. So following what is written in the textbooks can, in fact, make you sound rather weird. The only way to avoid this is to get as much exposure to the language (as it is actually spoken) as possible.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Blog updates: coming soon

I will add several new features to this blog in once I'm back in town (in about a week from now). One is an announcement list for those of you who want to subscribe to Learning Kyrgyz updates. The other is an e-mail form to contact me. I am also thinking about starting something like "the word of the day" (week?). So please check back soon. And if you have any suggestions or ideas, your comments are always welcome.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sign on the yurt: "Cafe Bar"

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Kyrgyz language day

Yesterday, after a long day of running between the university and the seminar I'm interpreting, I flopped on the couch to watch the evening news. It turned out that September 23 was the Kyrgyz Language Day and it suddenly dawned on me that it's been a long, long time since I last updated the blog.

So here is the update. All of a sudden I have an excellent opportunity to practice Kyrgyz for real (I now wish I'd spent more time actually studying the language!). I am leaving on Monday to spend five days in some remote village, mingling with the locals and trying to overcome the language barrier. Very exciting but also very intimidating.

I think it is very important to become comfortable with the new language during the first stages of language learning. I find that if I spend some time simply absorbing the language, after a while it ceases to be something "foreign".

This can be done in a variety of ways. When you listen to conversations, audio recordings, or news on television let go of the thought that you don't understand. Learn to appreciate the natural flow of the language and take it all in. Casually browse through a dictionary to see if anything catches your eye. Read some texts without the pressure of trying to decipher their meaning.

This advice may seem strange, but it helps a lot. Once you are comfortable with the language, you are a long way toward mastering it. Once you stop focusing on what you don't know or don't understand, you free your mind to actually learn something.