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Here's the reason I haven't been updating my website or sending out my newsletter for a long time — I've been working on a dictionary. The Indo-European Cognate Dictionary, to be precise. It's out now, and I'm really excited about it. Excited that it's done, excited than I now have a physical copy that I can use myself, excited because — hey, I've written a dictionary! It weighs in at 545 pages, and it's available in the usual digital formats, except Kindle.

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Proto-Indo-European language

  • Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the ultimate ancestor of many European and Indian languages.
  • Recognizing the relatedness of words in different languages can give you a boost in memorizing them.
  • My Indo-European Cognate Dictionary gathers words from 32 languages into cognate clusters that show related words.

The Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is the ultimate ancestor of many European and Indian languages. The word "proto" indicates it was spoken thousands of years in the past and we have no direct record of it. What we do have is the clear evidence in its descendant languages, from the consistent patterns in the way their words vary,  that there was such an ancestor. Following these patterns, scholars have deduced a quite extensive vocabulary — but they are still reconstructed, not ‘real’ words. We can never know exactly how these words were pronounced, or precisely how they were used. Conventionally, therefore, such words are written with a preceding asterisk.

Here is a list of the living branches of the Indo-European language tree (the languages covered in my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary are given in bold print):

Celtic: Breton, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic (in order of number of speakers)

Germanic:

West Germanic: English, Old English, Frisian, Dutch, German

North Germanic: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Norse (in order of number of speakers)

Italic: Latin and its descendants: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian

Greek (Ancient, Modern)

Albanian

Baltic: Lithuanian, Latvian

Slavic:

Western: Polish, Czech, Slovak, Sorbian / Lusatian

Southern: Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Slovene, Bulgarian

Eastern: Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian

Armenian

Indo-Iranian:

Iranian: Persian, Tajik, Pashto, Baluchi, Kurdish, Ossete

Indic / Indo-Aryan: Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Nepali, Sinhala, Urdu, Romani

Linguistic laws

Here are some of the patterns that scholars have observed. These have become complicated over the years as linguists explain variations, but the initial discovery was very simple and easy to describe. So, bearing in mind that these ‘rules’ don’t apply all the time, and there are a number of principles that describe variations to these rules, and other patterns, here are the main linguistic patterns relating to Germanic languages. These were first realized by Jacob Grimm (yes, one of the Grimm brothers, of fairy tale fame) in 1822. Grimm spotted that a p at the beginning of a word in Sanskrit, Latin, or Greek, consistently becomes f in Germanic languages. He went on to observe nine such patterns, which collectively are known as Grimm’s law:

p → fbook cover

d → t

k → h

t → th

b → p

g → k

bh → b

dh → d

gh → g

Here are examples of these in action:

Latin pater is English father  (p → f; t → th)

French pied is English foot (p → f; d → t)

Latin caput is Old English hafud (k → h; p → f), meaning head

Latin tres is English three (t → th)

Lithuanian dubus (from PIE *dʰewb-) is English deep (b → p)

Latin genus (race) and English kin are cognate (g → k), as is Latin ager (field) and English acre

PIE *bʰeh2go- becomes beech in English, but that same bh sound becomes f in Latin and Greek, hence fāgus and  φηγός ‎(phēgós)

similarly, PIE *bʰréh2tēr is brother in English, but frater in Latin and φράτηρ ‎(phrátēr) in Greek

PIE *dʰugh2tḗr becomes daughter; PIE *dʰwer- becomes door

PIE *ǵʰer- becomes garden and garth in English, but hortus and χόρτος ‎(khórtos) in Latin and Greek

It’s also worth noting that there’s a fundamental distinction between the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ branches of the Indo-European tree, that’s expressed as the kentum-satem divide. This reflects the fact that most of the Western languages have a word for hundred that begins with a hard k sound, like Latin centum (in the Germanic languages, as Grimm’s law describes, this k becomes h, hence our hundred). In the Eastern languages, the word for hundred begins with a soft s sound, as in the Sanskrit word satem. This distinction between a hard k and a soft s sound is thought to reflect a very early split in the Proto-Indo-European tribes, as some headed west and others east. Note how that Western-Eastern divide plays out in the branches:

Western (kentum): Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Greek, Anatolian

Eastern (satem): Balto-Slavic, Armenian, Albanian, Indo-Iranian

Having talked about changes, I should note that, notwithstanding the thousands of years that have passed, the occasional PIE word has been retained almost unchanged to the present day (and personally, I find that quite exciting to see!). Daughter (*dʰugh2tḗr) and *new (new) are excellent examples of this.

Relevance to language learning

It's said that you need around 2000 words to be usefully fluent in a language (this is a ballpark figure, and obviously depends on the language and what you need it for). Learning this number of words is the reason why most people fail at learning another language. But here's the thing — people often think it's all about memorization, and it isn't. Even though vocab learning would seem to be a prime example of information that just needs to be hammered into your brain using brute force, rather than building understanding, there is in fact a role for understanding, for natural connections with information you already know well.

How easy a language is to learn is partly down to the number of shared cognates — Spanish, for example, is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, because there's a huge number of words that are very very similar. But not all cognates are obvious to the untutored eye. Some need a bit more knowledge before they become clear. If you can learn to see those natural connections, you won't need to apply more difficult strategies.

In my cognate dictionary, I have collected 40,000 words from 32 Indo-European languages into 430 cognate clusters, in order to help you increase the number of words you can learn through natural connections.

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Building Cognitive Reserve

  • Both age-related cognitive decline and brain damage like Alzheimer's can be countered by high levels of cognitive reserve.
  • Cognitive reserve is built throughout your life, but it's never too late to make a difference.
  • You can build cognitive reserve through active learning, intellectual work, being actively bi- or multi-lingual, or regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities.
  • To maintain (or grow) cognitive abilities, it's important both to resist the brain's tendency to shrink (brain atrophy) , and to keep it flexible (neuroplasticity).
  • Brains shrink with disuse, and grow with use.
  • Brains stay plastic through change — in activities, in strategies, in perspective.

Brain autopsies have revealed that a significant number of people die with Alzheimer’s disease evident in their brain, although in life their cognition wasn’t obviously impaired. From this, the idea of a “cognitive reserve” has arisen — the idea that brains with a higher level of neuroplasticity can continue to work apparently normally in the presence of (sometimes quite extensive) brain damage.

A comprehensive review of the research into cognitive reserve, involving 29,000 individuals across 22 studies, concluded that complex mental activity across people’s lives almost halves the risk of dementia. Encouragingly, all the studies also agreed that it was never too late to build cognitive reserve.

As you might expect, the more years of education, the greater the cognitive reserve. But education isn’t the only means of building cognitive reserve. Basically, anything that’s mentally challenging is likely to build reserve. Research supports the following as builders of cognitive reserve:

  • Education
  • Occupational complexity
  • Bilingualism
  • Social engagement
  • Regular cognitive activities, such as reading, writing, attending lectures, doing word games or puzzles, playing games such as bridge or chess.

Will cognitive reserve stop me getting Alzheimer's?

This is not to say that the highly educated will never get Alzheimer’s! Obviously they do. In fact, once those with a high level of cognitive reserve begin to show signs of the disease, they are likely to decline faster. This isn’t surprising when you consider it, because the physical damage is so much greater by the time it becomes observable in behavior.

The point of having cognitive reserve is not to prevent Alzheimer’s, in the sense of “it’ll never happen”. When we talk about “preventing” Alzheimer’s, we're really talking about delaying it. The trick is to delay it so much that you're dead before it happens!

So, cognitive reserve is desirable because it protects you against the damage that may be occurring in your brain. If you’re lucky, it’ll protect you long enough to see you through your life.

Brains are plastic, all through life

Cognitive reserve is weighted toward the past — how much you’ve built up over your lifetime — but you shouldn’t ever forget that it’s an ongoing issue. If you stop all activities that reinforce neuroplasticity, your brain is likely to enter a downward spiral, with physical deterioration resulting from and feeding into a deterioration in your motor,sensory, and cognitive systems.

As the popular mantra has it: Use it or lose it.

It’s the opposite face of expertise. You know how top musicians continue to practice everyday. Although they have tens of thousands of hours of practice under their belt, although they have reached the highest level of performance, they cannot afford to stop. This isn’t simply about improving; this is about maintaining their level of expertise. As soon as you stop, your performance starts to deteriorate.

Of course, if an expert stops working in her area of expertise, she will still maintain abilities that are far and above ‘normal’. But the point is that you can’t maintain the same level of performance without working at it.

This is true at every level. If you haven’t ridden a bike for twenty years, you’re not going to leap on it and be as good as you were thirty years ago. If you haven’t spoken your native language in twenty years, you’re not going to suddenly get into a conversation in it with all the fluency you once had.

If you stop paying attention to taste, your appreciation of taste will dull (you’re not interested, why should your brain bother putting energy into it?). If you stop trying to distinguish what people are saying, you’ll become less able to distinguish words. If you stop walking outside the house, you’ll become less capable of movement. If you stop thinking, you’ll become less able to think.

If you just do the same things over and over again, giving your brain no reason to make or reinforce or prune connections, then it won’t bother doing any of that. Why should it? Brains are energy-hounds. If you don’t want to expend the energy making it work, it’s going to sit back and let itself shrink.

Maintaining cognitive abilities as you age begins with attitude

Recent evidence suggests that being cognitively active in middle and old age may help you develop new networks when existing networks start to fail. This is consistent with evidence that older adults who maintain their cognitive abilities do so by developing new strategies that involve different regions.

In other words, if you start to have difficulties with anything, your best strategy is not to give up, but to actively explore new ways of doing it.

So, we should be aiming for two things in preventing cognitive decline. The first is in ‘growing’ brain tissue: making new neurons, and new connections. This is to counteract the shrinkage (brain atrophy) that tends to occur with age.

The second concerns flexibility. Retaining the brain’s plasticity is a vital part of fighting cognitive decline, even more vital, perhaps, than retaining brain tissue. To keep this plasticity, we need to keep the brain changing.

Here’s a question we don’t yet know the answer to: how much age-related cognitive decline is down to people steadily experiencing fewer and fewer novel events, learning less, thinking fewer new thoughts?

But we do know it matters.

What activities help build cognitive reserve?

Research hasn't systematically compared different activities to find out which are better, but the general message is that any activity that engages your mind is good. But the degree of challenge does make a difference.

One small study involving older adults found that those who randomly put in a "high-challenge" group showed significantly more cognitive improvement and more efficient brain activity, compared to those assigned to the "low-challenge" group. Moreover, even among the high-challenge group, those who spent more time on the activities showed the greatest improvements.

The high-challenge spent at least 15 hours a week for 14 weeks learning progressively more difficult skills in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of both. The low-challenge group met to socialize and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking. A control group engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies.

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Are children really so much better at learning a second language?

Most people believe that an adult learner can't hope to replicate the fluency of someone who learned another language in childhood. And certainly there is research to support this. However, people tend to confuse these findings - that the age of acquisition affects your representation of grammar - with the idea that children can learn words vastly quicker than adults. This is not true. Adults have a number of advantages over children:

  • they usually have more and practiced strategies available to them,
  • they have a wider vocabulary in their native language (which makes it easier to find similarities between languages),
  • they have (for a while) a greater working memory capacity,
  • they are more likely to have experience of other languages, and of language learning.

For all these reasons, adults can usually learn more words faster than children.

Part of the reason for the belief is that children seem to learn their native language "by magic". While there is certainly something magical about the way they pick up grammar, their learning of new words doesn't come under the same category. In fact, children are quite slow at learning new words, learning on average:

12 - 16 months: 0.3 words/day

16 - 23 months: 0.8 words/day

23 - 30 months: 1.6 words/day

30 mths - 6 yrs: 3.6 words/day

6 yrs - 8 yrs: 6.6 words/day

8 yrs - 10 yrs: 12.1 words/day

(from Paul Bloom's (2000) "How Children Learn the Meanings of Words")

Original language can be completely forgotten

The following research is also interesting, since it exposes another cherished myth. A study1 of adults who were born in Korea but adopted by French families in childhood, found not only that they had no conscious memory of Korean, but that imaging showed no difference in brain activation when they heard Korean compared to any other unknown foreign language (activation patterns were different when they heard French).

I don't, however, know the age of the children when they were adopted. It would also be interesting to know whether such children would learn their original language with greater facility - this would imply that present imaging techniques are insufficiently subtle to pick up some differences.

References: 

Pallier, C., Dehaene, S., Poline, J.-B., LeBihan, D., Argenti, A.-M., Dupoux, E. & Mehler, J. 2003. Brain Imaging of Language Plasticity in Adopted Adults: Can a Second Language Replace the First? Cerebral Cortex, 13 (2), 155-161.

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Basic principles of learning

When considering what will be the most effective strategies for you, don't forget the basic principles of memory:

(1) Repetition repetition repetition

The trick is to find a way of repeating that is interesting to you. This is partly governed by level of difficulty (too easy is boring; too difficult is discouraging). The point is to find an activity (more than one, in fact), which enable you to hold on to your motivation through sufficient repetitions to drive them into your head. Bear in mind, too, the importance of:

(2) Changing context

Simple repetition (cat - el gato; cat - el gato; cat - el gato ...) is not only boring, but also the least effective way of experiencing the needed repetition. Not only do you want to see/hear words presented in a variety of different sentences; you also want to experience them in different ways - listening, reading, speaking, writing.

(3) Space your practice

(4) Seek the link

The basis for the keyword mnemonic, and the reason some words are "easy" and others not. Looking for the similarities between words, and being inventive when necessary, is crucial to easing the learning burden, and reducing the number of repetitions you need to fix the word in your memory. It can be as simple as observing that "gato" is very like "cat", or that "el borrego" means "sheep" because sheep are boring.

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Mnemonics for learning languages

Keyword mnemonic

The one mnemonic strategy that has been investigated quite extensively by researchers is the keyword mnemonic. This has been used successfully in a variety of learning areas, but its chief use has been in the area of learning vocabulary.

The keyword mnemonic is certainly an effective technique, particularly for learning to read in another language, as opposed to writing or talking (where you have to actively remember the words you want, rather than simply recognize them when you see them). But I wouldn't advocate using the keyword mnemonic on 1000 words, or even most of them. I would keep it for the hard words. (Read more on the usefulness of the keyword mnemonic for learning vocabulary. Find out what the keyword method is here)

Linkword

This is essentially the keyword technique, but simplified by fact that someone else has done all the hard work. Dr Michael Gruneberg, a British academic who has done a lot of work in the area of practical mnemonics (a rare concern among academic researchers) formalized the Linkword technique for learning foreign languages, and has produced Linkword books for learning French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

The books aim to quickly teach you a few hundred words of your chosen language (my own count of words taught in the German book was 355), by giving you a linking image to use. Thus, for Raupe (German for caterpillar), you are told to imagine a caterpillar with a rope attached to its middle.

As you would expect (Dr Gruneberg does know his stuff), the books are designed with an eye to fundamental memory principles. Words are grouped according to category; only ten words are given at a time; words are reviewed, etc. Simple grammar points are also included. It's well organized, and I do think it's an excellent way for a beginner to get a quick introduction to the language.

Apart from my general criticisms and warnings about the keyword technique (for which, see my article), my principle caveat is the difficulty in forming the visual images. For example, for Hummer (German for lobster), we are told to imagine a lobster with a sense of humor. Similarly, for Motte (German for moth), we are told to imagine that our personal motto is "I like moths". Personally, I don't find it particularly easy to visualize these "images". Now, I mean no criticism of Dr Gruneberg, the difficulty is experienced by anyone trying to find images to express verbal connections; some words just don't lend themselves to being images. But of course, verbal mnemonics are just as memorable as visual mnemonics, and infinitely more flexible. I assume, although he doesn't say it, that Dr Gruneberg means by "image" something more movie-like, with a sound track.

There are also Linkword courses available, in a wider variety of languages, and for some languages, at more advanced levels (this link is for a British site; here's a U.S. site).

Linkword books available from Amazon

List-learning mnemonics

The various list-learning mnemonics - the method of loci, the pegword method, the link method, the story method - can all be adapted to help you learn lists of words. In general, learning lists is not a particularly useful technique for learning a language, however, there are some circumstances in which it can be helpful.

If you do need to remember a list, my own recommendation is the story mnemonic, unless you are already expert at one of the other techniques. The advantage of the story mnemonic is that it is very simple to master.

Here's an example of its use. I'm brushing up my Latin, and like to run through the various conjugations and declensions in my head before going to sleep (it's wonderfully soothing!). To ensure I cover them all, I've devised the following mnemonics:

I love to advise those who rule that sums are fooey. [1st conjugation: amo, I love; 2nd conjugation: moneo, I advise; 3rd conjugation: rego, I rule; irregular verb to be: sum, I am; fui, I have been]

At the table the daughter awaits the master; the son awaits the god in the field where the boys go to war. The king tells the legion his name is a burden. The citizen lies on his couch in the city. [1st to 3rd declensions, with variants]

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Effect of working memory capacity on new language learning

  • Vocabulary acquisition in children is significantly affected by the child's ability to repeat back words.
  • This limitation becomes less as the individual gains a large vocabulary, and thus develops a greater ability to make semantic (meaningful) associations.
  • When learning a new language, your ability to repeat back unfamiliar words is only a factor where you are unable to form a meaningful association to a familiar word.
  • In such cases, the keyword mnemonic can be especially useful to those with limited ability to repeat back words.

Research with children has demonstrated that the ability to learn new words is greatly affected by working memory span - specifically, by how much information they can hold in that part of working memory called "phonological short-term memory". The constraining effect of working memory capacity on the ability to learn new words appears to continue into adolescence.

But, as you grow in experience, building a vocabulary, this constraint becomes less important. Because working memory capacity is measured in "chunks" - and the amount of information contained in a chunk is extremely malleable. To a large extent, developing chunking strategies is what memory improvement is all about.

In terms of learning another language, there are essentially four possible classes of word:

  • words that are already familiar because they are the same in your native language (or another known language)
  • words that are already familiar because they involve words that you already know in that language (e.g., learning a related verb form, or learning a word made up of two words you already know, such as sweat-shirt)
  • words that resemble a known word with similar or related meaning (e.g., Russian garlo means throat, and the word garlo resembles the word gargle)
  • words that have no ready association to known words

It appears that in these first three cases, the size of your phonological short-term memory is of no significant relevance. It is only in the last case - where the word cannot utilize any meaningful associations - that your phonological short-term memory capacity becomes important.

Fairly obviously, as your knowledge of language (your own and others) grows, the more meaningful associations you will be able to make, and the fewer new words will fall into this last, difficult, category.

This suggests, of course, the usefulness of a mnemonic strategy (specifically, the keyword strategy) in the last, difficult case.

The importance of phonological short-term memory is also greater for productive learning (learning to produce a language, i.e., speak or write it) than in receptive learning (learning to read or understand a language). For productive learning, the pronounceability of the new words is very important. The more easily pronounced, the more easily learnt.

References: 

  • Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ellis, N.C. & Beaton, A. 1993. Factors affecting foreign language vocabulary: imagery keyword mediators and phonological short-term memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 46A, 533-58.
  • Papagno, C., Valentine, T. & Baddeley, A. 1991. Phonological short-term memory and foreign-language vocabulary learning. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 331-47.

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Flashcards

Flashcards are cards with a word (or phrase) on one side and its translation on the other. You can buy ready-made flashcards, and these can certainly be helpful, particularly if you're inexperienced at learning another language. However, it is more effective if you make them yourself. Not only will the cards be customized to your own use, but the activity of selecting words and writing them down help you learn them.

A standard way of using flashcards is simply to go through a set number each day, separating out those you have trouble with, so you can review them more often. Keep these ones handy so that you can go through them at odd moments during the day when you're waiting for something.

Use the flashcards as a handy way to group words in different ways. Deal out the cards and move them around, looking for connections.

If you have word-family flashcards (recommended) - e.g., cards with various related forms of a word - you can make different sentences with your cards. You could also play cards with them, if you have others to play with. You could play a version of rummy, for example, where the sets are infinitive, present tense, future tense, past perfect. Use your imagination!

A bingo game with flashcards is another fun way to practice. Construct bingo cards (large cards divided into a certain number of spaces the same size as your flashcards) with the native language words on it. While this is better played with others, you can at a pinch play with yourself, simply picking out a flashcard from the pile and seeing how quickly you can match it with its counterpart.

Learning words in isolation will not help you much in dealing with words in context. You do need to practice reading/writing/speaking/listening sentences. But flashcards are a useful means of memorizing vocabulary.

Flashcard software

VTrain (Vocabulary Trainer): is flashcard software apparently used in the language labs of 40 Universities and hundreds of high schools; it's free for educational establishments. It's shareware.

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Bilingual-Dichotic Method

This is a somewhat specialized technique. Dichotic listening refers to a technique used in the psychology laboratory, whereby a person wearing headphones hears different messages in the left and right ear. The technique has been used with some success in teaching foreign language words - the foreign word is heard in the right ear while simultaneously the native translation is heard in the left ear (most people process speech better in the right ear). The student is instructed to attend to the foreign language word. The student also has a list of the words to read while listening.

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