Monthly Archives: July 2012

Today I learned from an Indian couch surfer that Christian masses in some parts of India are held in Portuguese, because Christian missionaries came from Portugal in the late 15th century. That reminded me of the etymology of the German word “Glocke”, which directly comes from Irish. This is quite unusual, as few people today know about a seminal connection between Ireland and Germany during the Early Middle Ages. I have been intrigued for a while by the tendency of Celtic languages to always get the short straw when they meet another language, with almost no remnants of the original Celtic left in the languages that are today spoken in many areas that once were inhabited by Celts (there are other exceptions). So I’m happy to report of the success story of a Celtic word that has not only spread to the continent, but even managed to hop back across the English channel, positioning itself in everyday English :)

The Early Middle Ages were different times indeed, when places named Monkton produced ecclesiastical giants like Bede instead of lending their name to climate denialist buffoonsIrish missionaries, themselves the result of a conversion of Ireland to Christianity during the 5th century, were the first to bring Christianity to Francia (roughly the area of today’s France and Germany) starting in 590, with more tangible success in the 8th century. In Cologne alone four monasteries have their roots in Irish missionary activity. These missionaries were wearing hand bells according to Kluge, which also surmises that the Old Irish cloc may stem from a Late Latin *cuticulare (shake, strike, concuss). The Anglo-Saxons Wynfreth and Bede are the first to have mentioned church bells in the early 8th century. While Bede uses the Latin campana, Wynfreth uses clocca.

Francia split into two areas with a Roman and a Germanic language, respectively; the French word for bell (cloche, Old North French cloque) still shows the common origin.

The connection to English clock is obvious, but it seems it did not come directly from Irish, but was brought into the English language in the late 14th century from Middle Dutch (1150-1500), which got it from Old North French (800-1300). In today’s Dutch the word is klok, which can mean clock as well as bell.

(Thanks to Heinrich Tischner)


Some days ago I did a session with two couch surfers from Argentina. One of them (S) had participated in the Spanish session the night before, as the Fluent Fool, the other (L) is a English‣Spanish translator and has some (little) German experience.

As one could speak German better than the other, he would often correct or guide the other, lifting responsibility from me. This gave me a bit of insight into how more people can actually make the game easier for the game leader, and I’m now anxious to experience this in the Spanish group that will hopefully take form soon.

L is thinking of teaching this method himself, and there were some interesting insights coming out of the conversation with him. For example, at one point he noticed that the conversation he was having in German was pre-designed, and called it “canned conversation”. I responded that it’s more like cherry seed, that will always blossom into a cherry tree, but it will not always be the same cherry tree, and what’s more important, it will always be Alive, not dead and canned.

I again ran into trouble trying to introduce “wenn/dann” (this was before i got the hint to only do “wenn”), and am still not sure how to introduce some words without translating, for example “aber”, “oder” and sometimes “will” (some get it, others don’t); i’m also not always sure that people get “habe” in the beginning.

I also did not distinguish between the signs for “nicht” and “kein”, but will do that from now on; when I taught Willem German, we used the sign for “nicht” but with the “K” hand for “kein”, but this only came back into my mind afterwards. I use the same sign for words like “mein, meine”, but am unsure if it’s good to use the same for “mir”, as in »gibst du mir deinen Stift?«. I think next time I’ll use the “R” hand for this, so “dir” becomes the “R” pointed at the person who gets the pen.

Other things I learned: in Argentina the sign for “no” is like the sign for “yes” that was used in a popular children program, and “not” is similar to a common “i don’t care” sign.

I’m planning to do a Spanish group in Cologne later this year, and strangely enough I did my first Spanish session some days ago. We were three, and it was quite late at night: Me, an Austrian (B) and an Argentinian (S) couch surfer. I forgot to record the session, and my memory of it is quite sketchy; but we got to want/have. B knows Italian, which seems to have helped her; she got everything quite fast, and in the end it was S that was very confused, mostly by not being able to sign together with his Spanish.

It’s nice to note that Spanish is easier than Portuguese when doing “mine/your”; in Portuguese it’s »isso é a minha caneta« (“female”), but »isso é o meu cão« (“male”), while in Spanish it’s »esto es mi marcador« (“male”) vs. »esto es mi piedra« (“female”). So it should not be necessary to only use items of one gender in Spanish, like I do in German (and maybe also in Portuguese, I’ll have to check this later).

As S spoke in his Argentinian dialect (where eg llama is pronounced “shama”), we afterwards taught him a sentence or two in B’s heavy Austrian accent (“I wüh schlohfn”) :)

The wonderful Ukrainian couch surfer that stayed with us for three days was into learning some German, so we did three sessions, one each day. This time I made audio recordings of one of these sessions, so I could listen to them afterwards. I highly recommend this, it helps a lot revisiting a session and see what went well and what could be changed. Also, it’s pretty amazing to hear her speaking in German all the time, because my guiding her with signs of course does not appear in the sound file :) At some point I would model each word, later only signing central words. Maybe I should practice more letting others do the signing, as with me signing all the time it sometimes felt that her role was too passive, which likely has a negative impact on Alive!.

We went pretty quickly from What? and Who? to Where?. Because Russian and Ukrainian both have a pretty complicated system of word endings depending on case, she was not taken aback by this like some speakers of “easier” languages are. It became hard when after Where?, I introduced “If/Then”, and shortly before that “now”. This drove us deep into the morass of German word positions. For example, you can add “Jetzt” to “Ich habe deinen Stein” in three ways: “Ich habe deinen Stein jetzt” or “Ich habe jetzt deinen Stein”; but if you use it at the beginning, it becomes “Jetzt habe ich deinen Stein” (even more fun with “wenn ich deinen Stein habe“). I know some Russians that speak German, and many of them say “Jetzt ich habe deinen Stein” even after many years of speaking German, and it was really great to see her getting used to speaking German without the typical Russian mistakes very quickly. While mumbling is in some cases useful, in these cases I really concentrate on letting not a single wrong position or wrong word ending through, because I’ve tried to get rid of this in German speakers that have the wrong way deeply ingrained that it would become a huge undertaking to re-train them. I tended to stop her in mid sentence when she did a wrong ending or position, so she would then say the correct sentence (guided by my signs, I did not speak a lot for quite some stretches of time) immediately. I’m not sure if that is the best way, but as I did it not in a negative way, there was no frustration, just a feeling of letting go of the faulty sentence, and concentrating on the new, correct sentence.

So, introducing “Jetzt” was still fairly manageable. It became a morass when I tried “Wenn/dann”, as in “Wenn du mir deinen schwarzen Stift gibst, dann gebe ich dir meinen roten Stift”. This was just too much, with the changing word endings, and the changing word order all together, but I couldn’t quickly figure out a way to break this down, because either half sentence is not really meaningful. I have no better idea than to sit down and try to find rules of word ordering, and then use a shorter sentence first in which the word order is switched in this way.

I abandoned implicit “I/You” in the ASL “give” sign, adding explicit signs for these, to be able to indicate the positions of these words depending on sentence structure. This way I could guide her to “wenn du mir deinen xxx gibst” as opposed to “du gibst mir deinen xxx”. As German has different endings of verbs depending on (among other things) acting person, I still used the directed “give” signs to differentiate between “(ich) gebe (dir)”, “(du) gibst (mir)” and “(er) gibt (mir)”. That I didn’t do that at first led to some confusion.

We did the positions “hinter, vor, auf, unter, neben, zwischen”, which worked pretty well.

When moving on to plurals, I got some more black pens, and a blue pen (which was probably needlessly confusing). I told her (with mime) that the blue one was much more valuable than the blue ones, so we traded for example two black pens for a blue one. But we weren’t established enough in “wenn/dann” (because of the changing positions of words) to confidently move on trading with multiple objects, because the endings of words get even more strange in German (“Wenn du mir deinen blauen Stift gibst, dann gebe ich dir meine zwei schwarzen Stifte“). I tend to be quite aware of the other player’s Full level, but at this point I was pretty confused myself, and could not imagine her to be able to grapple all of this stuff at the same time. The confusing introduction of  implicit “ich gebe dir”/”du gibst mir” (instead of just doing the directed “give”-sign for “gebe”/”gibst”, and consequently adding “ich/dir” + “du/mir” signs added to the confusion. I am also not sure if I should use different signs for “ich” and “mir”, and “du” and “dir”.

What I did do was use different signs for “ein/einen/…” and “der/den/…”. The latter was indicated by the “D” sign (with the hand tilted towards the viewer so that it is clearly distinguishable from the “a” sign). This helped a lot.

This weekend I stayed with a French friend in Brussels, Belgium. Saturday was the French National Holiday, so I had two weeks before decided to only speak French on that day. I didn’t have anybody speaking French around, so I did a lot of Duolingo, watched some movies that I already knew, dubbed in French (one reason being that dubbing is more easy to understand than raw French in originally French movies), and planned to listen to French audio books (didn’t happen). Who knew that Ratatouille is even better in French?

Ok, so it turns out that I’m now at a level where I understand maybe two or three words in a normally spoken sentence, which is often enough to figure out the general topic, and sometimes some details about what is being said. My brain is not processing the language fast enough yet to be able to keep up with the steady stream of words. Meaning, if I had a recording, I could probably figure out most words (and, due to Duolingo practice, the meaning) of the speech of a clear French speaker. But of course when listening to live speech, the moment you’re trying to figure out the meaning of a sentence, the next one is already ongoing. Not translating in my head (I seem to have gotten rid of this in the last months) helps, but I’m still quite far away from understanding say 80% of a normal French conversation. Maybe I’ll try more movies + audio books, but it would probably be much more useful to actually find a French person that I can talk to on a regular basis.

Speaking French was also not easy yet, but I’ve come a far way from the paralyzing fear from speaking that had obstructed my learning of languages for decades. But I did notice that I did too often recur to simple phrases that I already knew, instead of playing with new variations, endorsing mistakes as a way to learn.

Oh, and I learned (from a very nice 5-year old) that I have fallen from the moon :) (her explanation why my French was not very good). I like that image.


After doing three great German sessions, my Ukrainian couch surfer and me did an Ukrainian session. We used a čorna ručka and a červona ručka, and made it up to want/have/give.

I’m now pretty good at doing German up to positions and numbers without major hindrances. So I tried to follow the same path in Ukrainian. Easy at first; Ukrainian, like Russian (and German) has different endings of words depending on case, so that was not a problem for me. The trouble started when I tried to rephrase “This is my red pen” into a question. In English and German, this is pretty easy (“Is this my red pen?”; “Ist das mein roter Stift?”), so I tried the simplest thing, just repeating the statement with the tone of a question, which also works in English/German (“This is my red pen?”; “Das ist mein roter Stift”), hoping for her to correct the positions of the words. This is when I found out that in Ukrainian, doing a question seems to be very complex, with totally different words being used for “have” for example. I quickly saw that this would throw me off the game train, so we continued without questions, which limited the possible game play. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time (we had done an extensive German session before, and it was pretty late), so I couldn’t investigate further.

I was confused that “(I) have” and “my” sound very similar, but with a different emphasis on syllables, and while listening to the recording I notice that I kept mixing them up constantly.

I also learned another lesson in interesting and unexpected connotations :) When I was playing Turkish a while ago, I learned that “I do not want your stick” is equivalent to “I don’t want you to beat me up”. In Ukrainian,  ті даєш мені зараз not only indicates that the other person should transfer an object to you at this moment in time, but also seems to be a pickup phrase for rapists :P

The couchsurfer from Portland left today, but we did two more German sessions in the last days. It was pretty impressive to see him grow in German really fast, and with a very good accent. Sadly, I don’t remember much about the sessions, so I thought it would probably be a good idea to get into the habit of at least audio recording hunting sessions.

He kept asking for how a word is spelled a lot, which I was not sure was a good idea, if nothing else because it stole precious seconds from talking and thinking IN German instead of about it. He’s using Duolingo German->English for some days now, so I told him this could actually be a nice thing, to learn German in our sessions just by sound, and then discover these words when doing the Duolingo translations.