Wednesday, August 26, 2015

French View of the Sad Puppies

Les « Sad Puppies » n’auront pas les Hugo Awards, prix littéraires de science-fiction

Part of the fun of reading a foreign language is getting a very different perspective on issues. As a science-fiction fan, I've been curious what the Europeans would make of this year's "Sad Puppy" affair. Sure enough, I found an article about it in Le Monde, the French "newspaper of record."

For anyone who's completely unfamiliar with the story, Wired magazine has a lengthy account of the Sad Puppies affair.

So what did Le Monde have to say about all this? Here's my attempt at a translation. As always, I'd appreciate any corrections.

The Sad Puppies Won't Get Hugo Awards, Science-Fiction Literary Prizes

The "Sad Puppies" movement, a politically conservative group of science-fiction fans, has lost their bet.

During the Hugo Awards, one of the most prestigious science-fiction literary prizes, the candidates supported by the group were left empty-handed, with no prizes. The prize for best novel, the most prestigious, was awarded to the Chinese author Liu Cixin for "The Three Body Problem." 

The Sad Puppies presented themselves as defenders of a conservative type of science fiction and of the general public. For three years, they accused left-wing writers and readers of practicing selection by political correctness, which, de facto, excluded conservative authors. At the very heart of the Sad Puppies, a second group, the "Rabid Puppies," sometimes given to overtly misogynist and racist speech, formed this year under the leadership of a handful of ultraconservative writers.

No Prizes in Five Categories

The Sad Puppies were accused of attempting a veritable hijack of the Hugo Awards ceremony, whose nominees and prize-winners are chosen by the vote of the public. During the nomination step, they had managed to place a very great number of their candidates in the different prize categories--in five categories only authors supported by the Sad Puppies were in competition.

Nevertheless, this stunt seems to have provoked a storm of opposition to the movement--participation in the final vote, which is subject to purchase of a ticket to one of the greatest science-fiction conventions in the world, greatly increased for the 2015 gathering. About 6,000 people participated in the final vote (almost a 60% increase over what was reported in 2014), and the result ended in a debacle for the Sad Puppies. None of the candidates featured on their list of "recommended votes" received a prize--in the five categories where only candidates supported by the group were in the running, the voters preferred to award no prize.


Le Monde generally gets a better quality of comment that most web sites, and since there's only one so far, I'll translate it too.

Azimov, 8/26/2015--17h53

Obscurantism reveals itself in all climates. I understand these individuals perfectly; they are totally correct to distrust ideas that depart from the traditional frame of Earthlings. Have no doubt, these writings amount to the promotion of reconciliation with aliens and of transcendence without religious basis (if you doubt that, see the Hyperion Saga). Worse, there are even brilliant writers like Lois MacMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan saga) capable of very subtly defending feminist theories! Oh, bring on Farenheit 451!

Final Thoughts

Well, the comment was hilarious. 

I had half-expected the article to make a connection between the Puppies and the various far-right groups that are vexing Europe, but it never did. Perhaps it's only people in the US who think they see that connection.

I didn't find anything in Italian, but I did find a Spanish article about the Hugo Awards in El País, the big Spanish newspaper, but it focuses on the marvel that an American award went to a Chinese writer. It devotes only two-and-a-half paragraphs to Puppygate, much of it material translated from English-language sources.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Language Levels

What do you say when someone asks you "how well do you speak French?" (Or whatever language you have studied.) Or if they ask "are you fluent?" Sometimes you will hear people give very precise answers, such as "I'm a C1 reader but only a B2 speaker" or "Spanish is my L1" or even "I'm a heritage Spanish speaker." This post aims to give a straightforward explanation of all of these terms so you can figure out where you stand and describe it to others.

The language-level system most people know about is called the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The CEFR is a very well-thought-out system for rating how well someone speaks a foreign language, but the published explanations are awfully complex and can be hard to get your head around. This post aims to simplify the explanations to make it easier for people to understand what language levels are all about. Like any simplification, it will leave some things out, but I think it will make a good starting point--better than starting by leafing through dozens of pages of dense rules, at least.

Native and Foreign Speakers

L1 Speakers (Native Speakers)

A child is able to learn a language without actually trying to do so. Plop them into a new environment where most people speak a different language, and in a few months they'll be chatting like natives. An L1 language is one that was acquired in this fashion. The ability to do this starts to diminish at around age 10 or 12 and seems to be completely gone by age 18 or 20. This is called the "critical period." A "native speaker" is an L1 speaker.

Children who are immersed in a language during the critical period will essentially all rocket up to native proficiency, given time. As a result, there is no rating system for L1 speakers. For the purposes of foreign-language learning, all L1 speakers are the same (but see the section on heritage speakers below).

L2 Speakers (Foreign Speakers)

A adult (anyone past the critical period) cannot learn a language "by osmosis," the way a child can. Adults need some organized study plan. A person who learns a language this way is say to be an L2 speaker of that language. (People who study multilingualism will talk about L3, L4, etc. but everyone else uses L2 for any language acquired through deliberate study.) An L2 speaker is a "foreign speaker."

L2 speakers make slow, steady progress, and many stop after a point, so it is very worthwhile to have a system to rate a given person's ability with a foreign language. In particular, businesses and universities need to be able to set requirements for language proficiency, and having a standard rating system helps them do that. Europe needs this more than most, and their CEFR is hugely influential.

L2 speakers never (or almost never) become good enough to regularly fool L1 speakers. No matter how long they live in complete immersion (decades even), and no matter how much study they put into it, they never become perfect L1 speakers. There is some debate as to whether this is truly impossible or merely very rare. Without getting into the argument, suffice it to say that if it is possible at all, it is so rare that people write papers debating the point. But even if perfection is impossible, excellence is not. Also, although only a child can learn an L1, age doesn't seem to matter much for learning an L2.

For an excellent discussion on the difference between how children and adults learn foreign languages, read Chapter 2, "Is There a Best Age For Learning a Second Language," from Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition (Cook and Singleton, Multilingual Matters, 2014).

What To Measure

Learning a language actually requires mastering four different skills
  1. Reading.
  2. Writing.
  3. Conversation.
  4. Passive listening.
To see how different these are, note that it's possible to be an excellent reader who is almost unable to hold a conversation or to be great at conversation but functionally illiterate. The formal tests that people take to measure language competence generally rate these four abilities separately, even when they give a final, composite grade. In my chart below, I'm going to mix them together to some extent, but keep in mind that you do need to develop them separately. That said, it is also true that improvement in one ability generally benefits the others to some degree.

Levels of Speakers


The chart below summarizes what I just described plus it includes all the CEFR levels. Again, a reasonably complete description of the CEFR can be found on Wikipedia.

No knowledge of the language at all.
Smattering of the language. Knows a few words and phrases. Can recognize the written form and identify what language it is.
Phrasebook speaker. Uses a few templates to create sentences. Can read some signs. Understands responses if they're what he/she was expecting.
Creates original sentences, but doesn't know the whole grammar yet. Can express a lot, but often frustrated by ideas he/she has no idea how to say.
Knows essentially the whole grammar (excluding some of the fine points) but has to think hard to use it. Can eventually say just about anything, but the process can be painful. Can read almost anything, given enough time, a good reference grammar, and unlimited use of a dictionary. Movies are hopeless without subtitles.
Fluent, but with errors and omissions. Can hold real conversations with non-English speakers but often struggles to get around gaps in vocabulary. Often corrects own errors. Reads newspapers with ease. Still depends heavily on dictionary to read novels. Can understand most of a movie in standard dialect.
Fluent, fully conversational, but very obviously not native. Grammar errors don't impede conversation, but minor ones still turn up with some frequency. Reads anything short of literature with minimal dictionary use. Can watch movies without too much difficulty.
Fluent to the point where the residual errors in accent and grammar don't matter. The person does not fool native speakers, due to the nature of the occasional errors, but they are no worse than the errors some native speakers make. Reads/watches anything.
L1HeritageExposed to the language as a child, but acquired a different L1. Has strong listening ability, but speaking ability ranges from zero to limited (See more below.)
Learned as a child and uses it regularly now. 

A0 isn't an official level in the CEFR, but it is very commonly used by people to indicate that they have either begun to study a language (so they're not really at zero) or that they have forgotten so much of it that they don't believe they could even pass the A1 exam anymore.

A-Levels: Basic User

The A-levels are about beginning to learn the language but not knowing all the grammar. An A-level speaker typically doesn't know all the verb tenses, or the declensions of adjectives, or other key bits of grammar.

You can think of the A-levels as being useful to tourists. With A2 ability, you can impress the heck out of your zero-level companions.

B Levels: Independent User

The B-levels are about knowing the whole of the grammar but having limited ability to use it. The B1 speaker has to think to apply the rules, and as a result, speaks in a halting fashion. The B2 speaker can apply the rules without thinking, but is limited by vocabulary.

As far as conversation goes, a few weeks of immersion is probably the only way to move from B1 to B2. It's as though the pressure of having to apply all those rules forces the brain to learn them so deeply that you don't have to think about them anymore. Immersion has some benefits for any student, but the biggest bang for the buck, by far, is for the B1 student who comes back a B2.

There's a rule of thumb that says you should not try to live or work abroad on your own if you are less than B1.

C-Levels: Proficient User

The C-levels are about mastery. Speakers at those levels differ from B2 speakers primarily in vocabulary. A B2 speaker can hold a great conversation and abruptly run into a wall when he/she simply doesn't have the words to describe something. That should never happen to a C-level speaker. B-level speakers know essentially the entire grammar, but C-level speakers have mastered the fine points too.

European universities generally won't admit you if you can't pass the C1 test for their language. (Otherwise you won't be able to follow lectures.) Companies don't want to hire anyone under B2, or at least B1.

Study moves you from A0 to B1. Immersion moves you from B1 to B2. Only time moves you from B2 to C2. It takes many years of daily use of the language to reach C2, and there are no short cuts.

Heritage Speakers

When a child grows up in an environment where his/her parents speak an L1 that is different from the L1 of the community, the child usually grows up speaking both languages. However, the child normally speaks the local language natively but speaks the L1 of the parents in a more limited way. These are called heritage speakers.

To illustrate the idea of a heritage language speaker, consider the example of a person whose parents spoke Japanese but who grew up in California. This person will almost always grow up to be a standard L1 speaker of English, but he/she will usually acquire some level of Japanese. We would say the person speaks "heritage" Japanese. This usually covers three rather different levels of ability:
  1. The child understands Japanese, but never attempts to speak it. This is typical when the child was born in the US and the parents never spoke Japanese to him/her. (The child learned it simply from listening to the parents talk to each other.)
  2. The child uses Japanese words but English syntax to make sentences. This seems to happen when the child was born in the US, and the parents didn't arrange any sort of training in Japanese, although they did use Japanese with the child.
  3. The child speaks Japanese with simplified syntax. That is, they speak but don't use the entire grammar. This is more likely when the child was born in Japan and grew up speaking Japanese before moving to the US at a young age and then continued to use Japanese at home, while acquiring L1 English at school.
Of course, if the person was already too old to learn L1 English, then he/she will be an L2 English speaker and an L1 Japanese speaker. This may end up being a strange dialect of Japanese if no effort is made to study it formally.

It is very, very rare for anyone to be a perfect L1 speaker of two different languages. One loophole is that for two closely-related languages (e.g. Spanish and Portuguese) it may be possible for even an adult learner to acquire essentially L1 proficiency. Unfortunately, there is no significant language that close to English.

It is presently unknown whether a heritage speaker can, in general, improve his/her language ability to meet the expectations of a standard L1 speaker.

To learn more about heritage speakers, read Heritage languages: In the 'wild' and in the classroom by Polinsky, Maria, and Olga Kagan. 2007. Language and Linguistics Compass 1(5): 368-395.

What is Fluency?

A lot of people seem to think that fluency means you are an L1 speaker of the language. Since that's (essentially) impossible to achieve if you didn't grow up speaking that language, that's way too strict to be useful.

In general, fluent means that the language flows. That is, the speaker doesn't constantly have to stop to think about how to construct each sentence. A fluent speaker may make lots of grammar errors, may have to use a lot of hand gestures, and may have an awful accent, but when he/she speaks, the words flow, and the listeners understand. The person is able to start a sentence without having to think out how the sentence is going to end; for the fluent speaker, speech is something that just happens--like walking.

By that definition, B2 is the threshold of fluency. One might argue that B2 speakers have "intervals of fluency" whereas C-level speakers are fluent all the time. Regardless, if you reach level B2 and call yourself fluent, not too many will argue with you about it.

Rating Yourself

You ought to be able to look at the chart above and get a fair idea of where you are. If in doubt, pick the lower estimate. If you want to be more precise, look through the Council of Europe's self-assessment test.

If you actually have a real need to get a formal language rating, you should look online for any of the commercial sites that do formal testing in your target language. Those can be expensive, though, so before you do that, make sure that the certificate you're paying for is actually accepted by whatever organization you plan to submit it to!

Finally, people are notorious for overestimating their language ability. When someone says that he/she is a C1 speaker, odds are good that B2 would be more accurate. If you have a real need to hire someone with specific language ability, insist that they provide a test result from a respectable organization.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

La Sombra del Viento: A fun read for advanced readers.

I really enjoyed La Sombra del Viento (El cementerio de los libros olvidados nº 1, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, 2009), but it's not a book for an intermediate reader. A B2 reader aspiring to become a C1 reader could attempt it (and probably should consider it seriously), but a weaker reader will be overwhelmed.

What the book is not

Right off the bat, let me say that nothing magical or supernatural happens in this book. Some of the reviews (even the professional ones) leave that impression, but there are no ghosts here except the ones in people's minds, and there are no angels or demons except the human kind. Those, however, are plentiful.

This is not a Young Adult novel. Yes, the protagonist is only 10 years old when we first meet him, and he's only 19 for the rest of it, but this is literature, and it's targeted at an adult reader. It's a thrilling story, but the book is not a thriller.

What it's about: A spoiler-free outline

In post-WWII Spain, during the time of Franco, Daniel Sempre, the young son of a bookstore owner, comes across a captivating novel titled "The Shadow of the Wind" (La sombra del viento) by a Julian Carax. He loves it so much, he wants to find more books by the same author, but despite the book being relatively-recently published, he has trouble finding out anything about it or its author. Both he and his works appear to have vanished with hardly a trace.

Initially just from curiosity, Daniel tries to investigate the mystery. He finds some clues, and he meets some resistance. He makes unexpected friends and enemies, he falls in love, he travels all over Barcelona, he crosses paths with the local police and even tangles with Franco's dreaded secret police. The more he learns, the more he realizes that something truly monstrous happened back before the war, and the more he wants to know exactly what that was. But, whatever it was, it hasn't finished happening, and he finds himself in the heart of it.

The book never gets dull, and the tension builds right up to the climax. 

Why it's difficult

The degree of difficulty is almost entirely due to the vocabulary, which is extremely large. There are a few words I couldn't find at all, and I suspect those were borrowed from Catalan, but the enormous vocabulary of ordinary Spanish words is the real challenge. With a Kindle and a dictionary, it's not impossible, but, as I said above, if you're not already a fairly strong reader, you're likely to be doing so much of it that it'll spoil the fun. 

If you do attempt it, I strongly recommend following a policy of trying to use the built-in monolingual dictionary and only resorting to a bilingual dictionary if that fails. If you're strong enough to read this book, you should be strong enough to use the monolingual, but, more important, a lot of this vocabulary just isn't going to be listed in any of the bilinguals currently available on Kindle. In a pinch, you can open the monolingual dictionary as a book and use the bilingual dictionary to help you read the definitions.

How I read the book

I tried something a little different this time. Beyond just reading it on the Kindle, I highlighted all the words I had to look up and, for the first 10% of the book, I created flash cards for each such word. I used Anki's basic template, not the fancy two-way template I usually use, because I wanted to minimize the effort. That is, I only studied how to translate Spanish words into English--not the other way around. I persisted with this for the first 10% of the book.

It was way too much work. Yes, it did help speed up my reading, since, like most authors, Zafon tends to have some favorite words and expressions that are otherwise uncommon. But the effort was so great that it detracted from the fun of reading, so I gave it up at about the 10% point.

Part of the problem was that the list of words grew too fast. Anki generally only wants you to learn 20 new words per day at most, but I needed over 100. That turned out to be agonizing. Another problem was that the chore of simply creating the words was unpleasant, owing to the fact that the Kindle app on Windows wouldn't let me copy/paste text, so I had to retype everything.

I still think this would be a great approach, but Amazon would have to help. First, for each word, it would be nice if Amazon could tell me how many more times I can expect to see it in the book. Words that don't occur again, I could skip. Second, it should help me generate the cards in the first place.

Kindle users are probably aware that Amazon does in fact have a "Vocabulary Builder" feature that purports to do just that, but, unfortunately, it doesn't really work. First, it doesn't create cards for root words--only for word forms. So instead of one card for colgar you'll end up with separate cards for colga, colgó, etc. Second, instead of a simple definition, it shows you the original sentence you read it in, which makes the review too easy. Third, it cannot handle phrases at all. There's no way to make dar con a single card. Fourth, there is some sort of memory leak in the software, and the more cards you create, the slower your Kindle becomes, until it reboots itself. Unfortunately, if you turn the feature on, it creates a card for every word you look up--including ones where you say "Oh yes, I knew that" as well as ones you only looked up to verify that you really understood them.

(I'll write a post sometime with a list of things I think Amazon could do to assist students of foreign languages in general.)


Despite the challenge of reading it, I really loved this book. I'm powerfully tempted to read the other books in the series.

Feel free to review the list of foreign novels I recommend reading as well as reference books I use for learning how to read foreign languages.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Summary of Devices for Reading Foreign Novels

If you're an intermediate student of a foreign language and you want to try to read a novel in that language, you need an e-reader that lets you press on a word and instantly get a definition without having to leave the page you're reading. It also needs to let you easily switch back and forth between two dictionaries:

  • a bilingual dictionary that lets see the definition in English. (To my knowledge, there are no good free bilingual dictionaries. This will be an extra cost--usually under $10.) 
  • a monolingual dictionary that gives you the definition in the same language as the book you're reading. (These typically come for free.)
The reason you need both is that the monolingual dictionary by itself is too difficult for an intermediate student to use, but the bilingual dictionary is limited in size and won't have the most difficult words in it. Over time, you'll move to using the monolingual dictionary more and more--especially if the device lets you use the bilingual to look up unknown words that appear in the monolingual's definitions. When you don't need the bilingual anymore, you won't be an intermediate anymore either.

At this point, I know of only four devices that are able to support multiple dictionaries in this way. I'll discuss their pros and cons and then mention some other devices that are known not to work.

Kindle E-Readers and Apps

I have already written at length about how to read a foreign novel on a Kindle e-reader. All three of the current models seem to be running the exact same software as far as foreign-language support is concerned. Whenever you download a foreign-language book, Amazon automatically downloads the appropriate monolingual dictionary for free.

Basic Kindle

This is the cheapest Kindle that will do the job. It doesn't have the built-in light the other Kindles have, it's heavier than the Voyage, and it has lower screen resolution, but it's half the price of a Paperwhite and only a third the price of a Voyage. Otherwise, they all have about the same features. If price matters, this is the Kindle to get. Caveat: this is a model I haven't ever used personally.

I see that Amazon is offering Kindles on sale for National Reading Month. I don't get a kickback, but I know that many people have wanted to try reading a foreign novel with a Kindle but been unable to do so. At $59 ($20 off the regular price), this is probably the cheapest anyone can get into the game.

Kindle Paperwhite

The light is nice, and the improved resolution is helpful for reading languages with lots of accent marks. (E.g. French.) It's actually very slightly heavier than the Basic Kindle for some reason. It's $119, and I've usually thought of this one as the best value (I used one for a long time and loved it), but, during the sale this month at least, the Basic Kindle seems like the better deal. Caveat: some people like the light so much that they consider it a must-have. (I wonder how they ever managed with paper books.)

Kindle Voyage

If $200 doesn't seem like a lot, and you want the best, this is the one to get. I was pleased with the weight reduction when I switched from a Paperwhite, and I appreciated the resolution improvement too--especially for reading the accent marks on French letters. Even the little page-turn strips on the side are nice, once you get used to them.

Here are Amazon's specifications for all three devices:

Kindle App on iOS

Apple's iPad and iPhone host a Kindle app that appears to have all of the foreign-dictionary support that the Amazon e-readers have. If you already have an iPhone or iPad, that would obviously be the cheapest alternative--hands down.
From How To Add a German-English Dictionary To Kindle on Your iPad or iPhone (iOS) by André Klein

The screen shot from André Klein's web site clearly shows that you can press on a word, read the definition, decide that you want to see that in a different dictionary, and select one without closing the dialog.

Older Kindles

The Paperwhite I and the Kindle Touch also support multiple dictionaries, although not as conveniently. My original post on how to read a foreign novel on a Kindle describes the extra hoops you had to jump through to make those work.

Prior to the Kindle Touch, Amazon's devices didn't have touch-sensitive screens. However, a determined reader could move the cursor next to a target word and get a definition anyway. Readers have told me that the same instructions for installing a bilingual dictionary which worked for the Touch will also work for the older Kindles.

Other Devices

At present, I know of no other devices that have multidictionary support. I would be very happy to get information from more people who use a variety of devices. In particular, I can't figure out whether it does or does not work on a Kobo e-reader. The documentation suggests that you can install and remove dictionaries, but it doesn't say how you change the default dictionary for a given book.

Here are a few that are known to not work.

Kindle Fire and Fire Phone

I have no clue why Amazon doesn't make the e-reader on the Kindle Fire work the same as the ones on the dedicated e-Readers, but, as of this writing, you can only chose one of Amazon's free monolingual dictionaries. You can download a bilingual dictionary, but only to read as a book

Kindle App on Windows 8.1 (Metro version) and on the Windows Phone

It doesn't let you change the dictionary at all. If you open a Spanish book it still tries to use an English dictionary. One wonders why it isn't easier for Amazon to just have a single code base for all their apps and devices.


You can't change the dictionary on a Nook without rooting the device, which I don't recommend. If you want to read Spanish books, you'd have to buy a Spanish Nook. Supposedly the Nook apps all work the same way.


If you want to read a novel in a foreign language, you either need to run the Kindle app on an iPad/iPhone or else buy one of the three Kindle e-readers. If anyone can send me screen shots showing that some other device or app also works, I'll be very happy to include that info.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Italian Verb Patterns

It's a chore memorizing how to conjugate all 45 forms of  Italian verbs--even the regular ones, and when you factor in the irregular ones, it looks hopeless. However, there are patterns, and following those patterns makes the whole thing easier to deal with.

The most important tip is don't try to learn everything at once!

In the tables below, I will offer rules capable of generating all the forms of all Italian verbs, but you really don't want to try to memorize all of this. Not at once, anyway. Instead, look over it and pick the bits that matter to you at the moment. When you find a new verb, look at how it fits into the pattern. Use that to help you memorize it.

Just as you don't try to learn 5,000 new words all at once, try to absorb these rules a little bit at a time. Otherwise it really will be too overwhelming.

Regular Verbs

Non-Finite Verbs

There are three Italian verb forms that don't have a tense: the infinitive, the past participle, and the gerund. A traditional way to represent this would be to use example verbs, one for each of the three conjugation families:

Speak Fear Sleep
Past Participleparlatotemutodormito

But this obscures much of what is common between them. In the table, I have made the "theme vowels" bold to illustrate that the endings (the part to the right of the theme vowel) are the same for all three conjugations, even though the stems (the part to the left of the theme vowel) are different.

A much better (and far more compact) way to represent the same information is to omit the stems, collect the theme vowels together, and thus make the endings stand out.

IT Verb Endings Non-Finite
Past Part.[aui]to

The three letters in brackets show the theme vowel needed by each of the three conjugations. Make sure you see how this little table represents the information in the larger one above it before we move on to apply the same idea to finite verbs. (Verbs that do have a tense.)

Finite Verbs

Italian has seven "simple" (as opposed to compound) verb tenses: the present indicative, the present subjunctive, the imperfect indicative, the imperfect subjunctive, the future, the conditional, and the passato remoto. Verb tables in books go on for many pages. Using the notation we used for the non-finite verbs, we can make the most compact table of Italian verb conjugations you will ever see:

Present Imperfect Fut/Cond P. Remoto
Sg1-o[iaa][aei]vo[aei]ssi[eei-]rò[eei-]rei [aei]i-i
2-i[iaa][aei]vi[aei]ssi[eei-]rai[eei-]resti [aei]sti
3[aee][iaa][aei]va[aei]sse[eei-]rà[eei-]rebbe [òéì]-e
2[aei]te-iate[aei]vate[aei]ste[eei-]rete[eei-]reste [aei]ste
3[aoo]no[iaa]no[aei]vano[aei]ssero[eei-]ranno[eei-]rebbero [aei]rono-ero

A dash in place of square brackets means that there is no theme vowel. A dash in the fourth position reflects the fact that irregular verbs in the future and conditional tenses omit the vowel entirely. More about that below when we discuss irregular verbs.

The three odd forms marked "Irr" under the Passato Remoto are an artifact of the fact that Vulgar Latin had four conjugation families, not just three, but two of them were folded together into today's -ere verbs. As a result, a large number of -ere verbs have different endings in the first person-singular, the third-person singular, and the third-person plural of the passato remoto. Again, we'll discuss this more when we talk about irregular verbs.

Play with this table for a bit and make sure you know how to generate verb forms with it. Compare it with the verb conjugators in WordReference or Cactus 2000 if you need to. In this very compact form, all sorts of patterns are now clearly visible. Patterns make memorization easier, of course. I'll point out a few, but you should study it yourself and find the ones that help you learn.
  • All first-person plural forms end with -mo
  • All second-person plural forms end with -te
  • All third-person plural forms end with -no or -ro
  • Theme vowels are the same for all imperfect forms
  • Theme vowels are the same across all future and conditional forms
  • Despite the  name, the Imperfect tenses are the most perfect ones.

Omitted Forms

You might think that's enough verb forms already, but the astute observer will note that I've omitted a few categories:
  • The so-called "present participle" Verbs that are turned into adjectives e.g. parlante. You form it by changing the gerund ending from -do to -te. Trouble is, it doesn't function as a verb, not all verbs have them, and the meanings are often wildly different. (E.g. dirigente means "manager"). These are probably best learned as separate vocabulary items as you come to them.
  • The imperative forms. The command forms in Italian are just existing present-tense or infinitive forms used for a slightly different purpose. 
  • All of the compound forms. E.g. Lui ha parlato. I have already written about the Italian Perfect Tenses. They're important to get right, of course, but as with the imperatives, the issue isn't with learning how to construct the forms--it's with learning what to do with them after that.


You can think of these tables as little machines that take a verb stem and create all the forms of that verb. These same tables with work for all but the most irregular verbs, as I'll explain in the next section.

Irregular Verbs

Verbs with multiple stems

With the regular verbs, we spoke of the verb stem. The tables above let you generate endings for verb stems. With irregular verbs, we're going to speak of multiple stems. For a regular verb, you only have to learn one stem, but for an irregular verb, you need to know more than that. The more stems you need to learn, the more irregular the verb is. For irregular verbs, then, we need a table to generate stems. Since these still use the same endings as regular verbs, between the two sets of tables we can conjugate everything except the super-irregular verbs.

To see how this works, take a verb like rimanere (to remain). I have made the irregular stems bold.

Past Part.rimasto
Pres. Part.rimanendo

PresentImperfectFut/CondP. Remoto

Notice how the present tenses all share the same irregular stem? And the future and conditional tenses share a single (albeit different) irregular stem? And the passato remoto seems to be derived from the past participle?

To conjugate rimanere, then, you need to know the infinitive, the past participle, the first-person present indicative, and the future/conditional tense. That's just four forms to generate 45--not a bad deal.

In the worst case, you'll need to know eight stems (again, not counting super-irregular verbs), but in many cases two or three will do.

Distribution of stems

These charts show how irregular stems tend to be distributed:

IT Verb StemsNon-Finite
Past Part.PP
Pres. Part.IMP

Verb Stems
Present Imperfect Fut/Cond P. Remoto

Here's what the abbreviations mean:
Infinitive stem
Past Participle stem
First-person singular stem
Third-person singular stem
First-person plural stem
Imperfect stem
Future/Conditional stem
Passato Remoto stem
Now look back at rimanere. See how the 1SG stem rimang- gets used six times in the present tense and the FUT stem rimar- gets used twelve times in the future/conditional? This is a pattern you'll see over and over.

These eight stems are all heavily used forms. Half of the stems come from the present indicative. A single stem covers both imperfect tenses. A single stem covers the future and the conditional.

Even the passato remoto forms are heavily used by narrators in novels. A third-person narrator uses the two third-person forms, while a first-person narrator uses those as well as the first-person singular. (I suppose a first-person narrator could also use the first-person plural, but that's actually rather rare in most books.)

And you don't usually need to learn all eight anyway.

Relations between stems

For a perfectly regular verb, the other seven stems are the same as the infinitive stem, of course. Even for an irregular verb there are often connections between the stems that let you avoid learning all eight of them in most cases.

The imperfect stem is extremely important because when it differs from the infinitive stem, it drags several others along with it. All of the present-tense stems usually follow the imperfect over the infinitive.

The three irregular forms of the passato remoto tend to follow the past participle, although it would be more accurate to say they're "inspired" by it. A common transformation is for the letter 't' to become 's'. For example, the past participle of leggere (to read)  is letto and the passato remoto for "I read" is lessi.

Here's a summary of how the different stems influence each other:

IMP: 1SG, 3SG, 1PL

Irregular infinitives

It seems very strange to think that an infinitive could ever be irregular, but that's the best way to think of verbs like trarre, which seems to be missing an e from the stem, and bere, which has a different stem from all of it's inflected forms.

For the verbs with missing vowels, we'll select the stems as if the vowels were there all along. So we'll treat trarre as if it were trarere. It has an infinitive stem of trar- and an imperfect stem of tra-. It generates the future tenses with a null theme vowel and all the rest with a theme of e.

In the case of bere, the infinitive stem isn't used for anything but the infinitive itself. The imperfect stem, bev-, is used everywhere else except the future/conditional (berr-) and the passato remoto (bevv-).

What is not a stem

Sometimes a stem changes spelling in order to preserve the sound. So mangiare drops the i whenever it doesn't need it to get a soft 'g' sound. e.g. "I will eat" is io mangerò not *io mangiero. This sort of orthographic change I don't count as creating a different stem, since the pronunciation is regular.

Super-Irregular Verbs

There are only ten super-irregular verbs: andare, avere, dare, dovere, essere, fare, potere, sapere, stare, and volere. What makes them super-irregular is that they break the rule that the 1SG form gets used for the third-person plural. E.g. andare has io vado but loro vanno (not *loro vadano). These same verbs often break the rule that the second and third-person singular have the same stem. So lui va but tu vai (not *tu vi).

They follow some patterns of their own, and they're probably best learned all at once. Most of them are not irregular outside the present tense and the past participle. But there are exceptions.

Present Tense, Subjunctive

Four verbs generate the entire present subjunctive from the first-person plural, largely because they have super-short first-person singular forms. These are avere, dare, sapere, and stare. 


For almost all verbs, the imperfect indicative and the imperfect subjunctive share the same stem. The only exceptions are dare, essere, and stare.  Essere even uses a different set of endings in the imperfect indicative. Except for essere, the regular half of the passato remoto follows the imperfect subjunctive while the present tenses follow the imperfect indicative.


This always uses the imperfect indicative stem, with the sole exception of essere, which is essendo. Essere is the ultimate super-irregular verb.

Families of Verbs

According to A Reference Grammar of Modern Italian, Second Edition (Maiden and Robustelli, 2007, pp. 240-242 Table 14A), if you learn how to conjugate every verb in a particular list of forty, that's enough to conjugate every verb in Italian. The reason for that is that sets of verbs that end the same way are conjugated the same way. For example, if you can conjugate correre then you can conjugate occorrere, concorrere, and soccorrere.

I've asked the publisher for permission to reproduce that table--if only to show how finite the problem really is. Even so, rather than try to memorize such a table, it's probably better just to try to get a feel for it over time. Verbs that "sound the same" get conjugated the same way too. After all, despite all the rules you might learn, you eventually need to get to the point where you do this by instinct.

So, yes, there is a lot to learn, but if you do it gradually, there are all sort of patterns that will help you out. Like much of the rest of the language, over time it will become second nature.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How to Memorize German Cases

German presents a bewildering combination of attributes: masculine, feminine, neuter, plural, nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, which combine in complicated ways across nouns, pronouns, determiners, and adjectives. Remembering how they all go together seems almost impossible. To make this easier, I've taken a shot at identifying the underlying patterns to make it easier to memorize all of this.

To speak well, you must reach the point where you generate the correct forms without thinking about it, but it helps a lot to have some rules to follow in the meantime. A useful tip is don't try to learn all the rules at once. Instead, as you find things that confuse you, refer back to the tables and memorize a bit more of them. For example, if you already know about masculine, feminine, and neuter, and you have just discovered that there is an accusative case in addition to the nominative one, then look at the tables below but ignore the dative and genitive rows for now.

What Do All These Things Even Mean?

Obviously if you don't even know what "nominative" or "accusative" mean in the first place, these explanations will do you very little good. I'll give a quick explanation in terms of English. I'm only going to explain the main uses of case, so don't be surprised when you learn there are others.

I'm going to assume that you already know the difference between singular and plural, and that you have already figured out that German has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

In English, only personal pronouns (I, me, you, he, him, etc.) have case. Case is what makes "he" different from "him" and "she" different from "her." You would never say "*Him called she," and that's because the subject of the sentence has to be in the nominative case and the direct object has to be in the accusative case.  The subject is whatever performed the action of the verb. If the verb is "called" then "he" did the calling, so he is in the nominative case. The direct object is the thing directly affected by the verb. "She" is nominative case, so we need the accusative form, her. "He called her" is the grammar English requires, so if you speak English, you already know a little bit about case--you just didn't realize it.

Indirect objects in English also get the accusative case. You say "He gave her the letter" not "*He gave she the letter." The letter is the thing that got given, so it's the direct object. The woman is only indirectly affected, so "her" is the indirect object.

The other place you can get case is from a preposition. If you're talking about a horse, you could say "the saddle is on him" but not "*the saddle is on he". English prepositions always take the accusative case--just like direct and indirect objects do.

From this, it's kind of obvious that English only has two cases: Nominative and accusative. It's also obvious that they only apply to pronouns. In German, not only do the personal pronouns have case, so do the adjectives and (to a limited extent) the nouns as well. Also, in addition to the nominative and accusative cases, German also has a dative case for indirect objects and a genitive case to indicate possession. Finally, different prepositions require different cases.

That's all stuff you learn as part of learning German. There's a nice, lengthy description of what German case is all about on the site, if you want more details.

Beyond this point, I'm going to assume you know all about what this stuff is for and that your main goal is how to memorize all of it.

The Basic Pattern

The Der Words

People talk a lot about the "der words," which are the words like der, dieser, jeder, welcher etc. They are what linguists call determiners, which you can think of as a special kind of adjective that comes at the start of a noun phrase. (The determiner comes first, then all the adjectives, and the noun comes last--just like in English.) You usually hit them right off the bat because "the" is such an important word.

They all follow this pattern:

Der WordsSingularPlural

Almost everything else in the world of German case will follow some variation on this pattern. In a very real sense, this table is 90% of what you need to memorize, so learn it and learn it well. My strategy was to try to write this chart from memory every morning before starting my German lessons. It only takes a few seconds, and it's well worth it.

Ironically, der itself  is slightly irregular. Neuter Nominative/Accusative is das not des, and Feminine/Plural is die not de. Since these are some of the most common words in the language, memorizing them isn't a big deal. Most of the other der words follow the table above perfectly, but you'll need to learn exceptions as you come to them.

Here are some simple observations on the table above that may make it easier to memorize:
  • There are no genders in the plural--only in the singular.
  • The accusative only exists as a separate case for the masculine singular.
  • There are effectively only two cases for the feminine.
  • In the dative and genitive, there are effectively only two genders.
The nominative and accusative of the feminine are the same as for the plural, but I don't suggest making a big deal out of that because it fails when we get to weak forms of adjectives.

The Ein words

These are also determiners. Ein, kein, mein, dein, etc. are all ein words. They follow almost exactly the same pattern as the der words except that two of the masculine and neuter forms lose their endings entirely.

Ein WordsSingularPlural

Pay attention to those two empty slots: we're going to say that those are places where the determiner is "weak." That is, we'll say that einen, einem, eines, eine, and einer are "strong" but ein is "weak." This will matter when we talk about adjectives later.

Personal Pronouns

These are the words like he, she, it, me, etc. I'm going to do two very unorthodox things here: first, I'm going to treat the third-person personal pronouns separately from the rest. Second, I'm going to replace the genitive with the possessive. I'm a linguist, and I know that's wrong in linguistic terms, but for the purpose of memorization, I think it helps a lot. You'll see why.

Third-person personal pronouns

I think one place a lot of textbooks go wrong is that they try to treat all the personal pronouns at once. This is a big mistake because it crams the different kinds of third-person pronouns into two cells and completely obscures the fact that they follow almost the same pattern as the der words.

3rd Person

I have replaced the genitive case with the possessive here because the real genitive personal pronouns are almost obsolete.  This is another chart worth producing from memory every morning for a while.

The words on the possessives row mean "his," "her," and "their." Unlike the other words in the table, they get further modified based on the gender, number, and case of the thing being possessed, and they follow the pattern of the ein words above. So "his cat" (in the nominative) is seine Katze; the possessor (masculine) determines which pronoun and the object (feminine) determines the ending.

If you really do need the genitive pronouns for some reason, just add -er to the words on the bottom row. That gives you seiner and ihrer.

First and Second-Person Personal Pronouns

The first and second-person pronouns follow a completely different pattern. They have to. 

1st Person2nd Person1st Person2nd Person

They don't fit the pattern, of course, because they have no gender. You learn them quite early when you study German, and the fact that they follow such a different pattern from everything else doubtless causes lots of confusion. It helps to know they're their own thing.

As with the third-person pronouns, each of the words on the possessive row generates a whole set of ein words. This is another chart worth trying to write from memory every morning.

Again, if you really need the genitive personal pronouns for some reason, add -er to the words that don't already end in -er. That gives you meiner, deiner, unser, and euer


Strong  forms of adjectives

An adjective is "strong" when it has a weak ein word in front of it or when it doesn't have any determiner at all. For example, "I like red apples." (Remember that a weak ein word is one that doesn't have any ending on it.)

Strong Form

Notice that these are exactly like the der words except for the Masculine/Neuter Genitive (in bold). I'm told that even native Germans sometimes make the mistake of using -es instead of -en for these.

The way to think of this is that the information in the der-word table has to be conveyed somehow, and if the determiner is weak or absent, then the adjective has to do it. (As long as the leader is strong, everyone else can be weak.)

Weak forms of adjectives

When an adjective has a der word or a strong ein word in front of it, it takes a much simpler set of endings.

Weak Form

If it weren't for the masculine accusative, this would be really simple. This is the last chart worth trying to write from memory every morning.

Some books talk about a "mixed" form, and they have a separate table to show what happens to adjectives when they follow one of the ein words. That saves remembering that some ein words are weak (but you have to learn that anyway) at the expense of having to memorize yet another table. (I took this idea from Hammer's German Grammar and Usage, Chapter 6.2 "The Use of the Strong and Weak Declensions.") There are other weak determiners, with their own patterns. (For example etwas takes no endings at all.) Hammer's rule of "use the strong adjective ending when the determiner has no ending and use the weak ending when the determiner has a der-word ending" works very well for those too.

So what happens if you have two or more adjectives in a row? They all take their form from the determiner, not from each other.


Everything keys off the der words. Learn those well. They aren't a perfect guide, but they're awfully good. Learn the exceptions as you come to them.

Good luck!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Seta (Silk): A Short, Easy Italian Novel

Seta (2008, 108 pages) is a quick, easy read: ideal for someone's first attempt to read an Italian novel.

Hervé Joncour, a young man in 19th century France, tries to save his town's silk industry by smuggling silkworm eggs out of Japan. Although he's happily married to Hélèn, he becomes obsessed with a girl he meets in Japan. But Japan, newly opened to the world, is sliding into civil war.

The Worm Turns

The silkworm spins a cocoon from a single, kilometer-long thread. From such threads hangs the prosperity of the little town of Lavilledieu, which specializes in silk making. When a silkworm blight starts killing European silk worms, the citizens have to send someone to find replacements. Every year, Hervé Joncour has to travel across the world to buy millions of eggs and get them back to France before they hatch. Each trip takes months, while the world around him keeps changing.

And even when he's back in France, he can't stop thinking about a mysterious girl he met in Japan. One who makes him eager for each return visit, even as they grow more and more dangerous.

You can too!

This is an excellent first novel for someone ready to make the leap to reading Italian. Other than a limited amount of silkworm terminology, Seta doesn't demand a lot from the reader in terms of vocabulary. Like any Italian novel, the narration makes heavy use of the passato remoto, but the only forms you have to learn are the 3rd-person singular and plural. The 108 pages are divided into about 65 little chapters, many of which fit on a single Kindle screen. This gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment when you're reading it because you can knock the chapters off in rapid succession.

One chapter is very sexually explicit. Very. That may be a problem for some readers. Others, having read this warning, may be disappointed that that chapter is quite out of character with the rest of the novel and very near the end as well.

The ending may present a different problem; I noticed that some reviewers complained that it left loose ends. Seta is literature, not action-adventure (although there's a fair amount of action and adventure in it), so it's really about Hervé Joncour's own issues and contradictions, and it's over when those are resolved. In that sense, there are no loose ends. It really is one long thread.

Feel free to review my list of foreign novels I recommend reading as well as reference books I use for learning how to read foreign languages.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

La forma dell'acqua: Why I Abandoned it

I decided to abandon the popular Italian novel La forma dell'acqua (first novel in the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri) because it is too far from standard Italian to read comfortably, and because there is no value to a non-native speaker in learning the non-standard words.

How I Chose it

About a month ago, following my usual process for choosing a foreign novel to read, I made a list of Italian novels to consider. About a week ago, I asked my Italian teacher for some suggestions for novels suitable for a strong intermediate reader. He sent links to a few web sites that listed books that are popular in Italy at the moment. Camilleri was the only name to turn up on both lists.

I really like crime stories, and the Inspector Montalbano series sounded interesting. If any of the reviews complained about the unusual language in the books, I missed that entirely.

What happened when I tried to read it

From the very first page, I found myself looking up way too many words that didn't exist in the dictionary. This slowed me down a lot because I'd try switching dictionaries, then checking Wikipedia, and finally highlighting the word for later. Sometimes there would be two or three unknown words in a single sentence. Given the setting, I had expected to encounter a few Sicilian terms in the dialogue, but not in the narration. Regardless, I forged on to the end of the first chapter.

Even with all that trouble, I did get the gist of the story. A couple of garbage men doing their morning rounds and complaining about their bosses find the dead body of someone they know. They report it to the local police, commanded by Salvo Montalbano. In retrospect, I'm amazed I got that much out of it.

It's not just that it took a couple of hours to do this--it was painful. Still, figuring that perhaps there were only a few words I'd need to know for the rest of the book, I went back to the start and looked up the mystery words online. Or at least I tried to.

The first unknown term, cummigliava probably meant "accumulated," but Wordreference didn't have it, Linguee didn't have it. I consulted an online Sicilian-Italian dictionary, and that didn't have it either. Finally I did a Google search for it, and I found this article:

‘I am Montalbano/Montalbano sono’: Fluency and Cultural Difference in Translating Andrea Camilleri’s Fiction, by Saverio Tomaiuolo

There I learned that I'm not the only one who has trouble reading this author's work.

Why I abandoned it

The author has loaded it with words that he himself invented by merging words from the Sicilian dialect with standard Italian words. Apparently Italians find this entertaining--my Italian teacher told me that he's hugely popular over in Italy, and that you can figure out most of the words by doing Google searches on them because there are all sorts of web sites where people argue over what they're supposed to mean.

I actually considered that. After all, even time spent reading someone's Italian web page is time spent reading Italian, but what put me off the idea is the fact that I don't want to be memorizing a bunch of non-words. Not when there are so many real words I need to add to my Italian vocabulary.

So even though Italians love Camilleri's work, I think students of Italian need to stay away from it.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


Despite being 250 years old, Voltaire's book Candide ou l'optimisme was a delight to read, even at my level of French. It's a wild and crazy tale of a very young man's misadventures across half the world--adventures that retain their power to shock, horrify, and make you laugh. Sometimes all at the same time.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Candide's teacher, Pangloss, teaches that logic proves that this is the best of all possible worlds and that all things work out for the best. Starting with chapter one, things don't seem to go that way for Candide though. He's kicked out of the castle, drafted into the army, almost flogged to death for trying to desert, almost killed in a battle, almost drowned at sea, almost killed in an earthquake, almost burned by the inquisition--and this is all in just the first six chapters (out of thirty). 

Much of the message of the novel is that the "this is the best of all possible worlds" philosophy is ridiculous, but to some degree the text contradicts this. Bad things have a way of happening to Candide, but worse things happen to the people who tangle with him. If he's driven out of a castle, you can expect a few chapters later to learn that he just escaped the castle's destruction. If he misses a boat with all his belongings on it, expect to learn later that the boat sank. It may not be the best possible world for Candide, but things work out a lot better for him than they seem to have any right to. This makes his misfortunes a lot easier to bear. He's a comic figure, not a tragic one.

Of course the message isn't the fun part of the book, and it's quite easy to just ignore it and enjoy the trip. And what a trip it is! The story takes you to Europe, Africa, South America, and just over the border into Asia.  Sometimes he's fleeing, sometimes he's pursuing, and sometimes he just goes with the flow.

Part of what makes it funny is that no matter what happens, no matter how strange, he always takes it in stride and cooks up some sort of explanation. And some really strange things happen.

When I was in high school, students in second-year French read Candide. Now I understand both how teenage students would be able to read such a book and why it would entertain them.

Issues Reading Candide on a Kindle

This was the second novel I ever read in French. Most of the notes I wrote about how I read Cinq semaines en ballon apply to Candide as well. In hindsight, Candide would have been the easier one for me to start with despite it being over 100 years older.

Because the book was so old, I went ahead and bought an English translation as well--if "bought" is the right word for free books. (Candide is free on in both French and English editions.) What I discovered, though, was that I really didn't need the English version at all. I consulted it at the end of each chapter, but I rarely found any translation mistakes worthy of note.

As with any novel in French, the reader has to be prepared to cope with the passé simple verb tenses in the narration. Unlike modern novels, you also have to deal with it in dialogue, which means you'll occasionally see forms beyond the third person ones. This turns out not to be a big problem because the Kindle's free monolingual French dictionary knows all the passé simple forms and always gets you to the infinitive. If you see a mysterious expression like  nous parlâmes, it's enough to know that the verb is parler and you can figure out that this means "we spoke".

One other thing that took some getting used to is that Voltaire often says point instead of pas to make negative statements. The free monolingual French dictionary does explain this, but, of course, it explains it in French. I think that's the only grammatical point that took me by surprise though.

The hardest vocabulary for me were the words involving Pangloss's philosophy. As it turns out, nothing Pangloss says is of the least importance, and even translated his comments are generally arrant nonsense. (I'd probably get those jokes better if I'd ever had to study philosophy in Latin.)

Supposedly Voltaire wrote the whole thing in just three or four days. I find that hard to believe, but almost as incredible is that I read the whole thing in three days. Of all the foreign-language books I've read so far, I think this one was the most fun. Highly recommended.