Transcription – Helps with the Little Words

So on Monday this week we had our first class for the year, for our course Te Aupikitanga. As is usual for these kinds of things, we all had to go round and introduce ourselves. And I noticed an interesting thing, which is that some people were missing out particles, the little grammar words like i, and ki. 

Now, the interesting thing is not so much that they were doing this – speaking on the spot in a second langauge can definitely make you miss out a few, if not many, words – but rather that I noticed it, and I think this might be due to the practice I was getting with my transcription work.

What often happens, when I’m listening to te reo Māori can be shown in this English example:

  • I (am) go(ing) (to) the shop (to) buy some chip(s)

So what I frequently hear is just the key words like “I go the shop buy some chip” and I don’t register all the grammatical points in brackets. (As you can see, in a relatively uncomplicated example, you can still get plenty of information to understand the sentence.) What happened on Monday is that I was listening and thinking, why do they keep missing out words?! Which is great – because previously I would never have known they were missing out words because I usually didn’t fully register all the words anyway!

I think that by working on transcription, where I had to write down every single word and couldn’t get away with just “I go the shop buy some chip”, where I kept rewinding to check if that was i or ki, has helped train my brain to pay attention to and listen to those “little words” (at least a bit – we still have some way to go yet).

So, I think that if you notice that in your own listening you are missing certain things, try to really focus on practising hearing those things. I think that actually writing it down is better than thinking “oh, I’ll just listen harder” because there’s not much motivation there for your brain to do the work (brains are naturally lazy, this is an actual science fact). If you write it down, it knows it actually has to make an effort and can’t fake it. For this kind of exercise, you don’t need to be able to check if you’re correct – and you don’t even need to understand what’s being said! – because you are only focusing on training your brain to hear and pay attention.

Let me know if you have had any similar experiences (in any language)!

A Theory – ko-rua, ko-toru?

So, as no doubt every learner of Māori has noticed, there’s the curious correspondance between kōrua – meaning you (2 people) – and rua – meaning two. Is this a coincidence or is it actually part of the meaning of the word? ahuamohio commented that they have a theory that the tou in koutou is actually toruthree – which has been shortened over time. In which case the idea I have come up with for koe is that it the e is the same e that you use in phrases like e hoa or e te rangatira.

So, perhaps, back in the distant past, the 3 words/phrases for “you” were:

  • ko-e
  • ko-rua
  • ko-toru

Ko would not be used quite like this now-a-days, but since it is a particle used to indicate that you are talking about something specifically, it does kind of fit.

Does anyone know of any other etymological theories for these words?

What You Hear vs What’s Really There

I am doing some transcribing work at the moment, transcribing some recordings in te reo Māori. I really wonder how much what I’m writing matches what’s really there… Some of it is fine – there are various types of phrases which are definitely what I think they are. They’re familiar enough, despite my relatively limited experience, to be easily, sub-consciously recognised by my brain for what they are – not necessarily the meaning, but the combination of sounds. There’s probably another type of stuff that my brain doesn’t know but that it is interpreting correctly by directly identifying the sounds that make up the words. And then there’s the last type.

This is best illustrated by when I was transcribing a song. I wrote down what I thought I heard, and then I tried looking it up to see if I could find the words. I found a different version of the song – fairly different in details of sentence construction, but all the major words and names were there. So I read that and listened to the song again and although some of it was fine, woah, some of it was SO different. But once I knew what the words were supposed to be, that’s what it sounded like, and it was so obvious. Even though 10 seconds before it had sounded radically different – suddenly I could correctly delineate the words, identify the previously unintelligible sounds and distinguish between similar consonants.

This to me makes two important points. One is that it is very important to be exposed to a lot of different speech – real people, recordings, TV, etc – when learning in order to load your brain up with those first type of sentences that it can easily recognise as set word combinations and phrases. Just having heard various words before, and particularly hearing them in context with other words (for example hearing “ka (verb)”, a correct verbal construction), enables you to process them when you hear them again.

Secondly, I think it would be really beneficial to practice listening to things a few times, then reading a transcript, and then listening again, in order to help develop your ear, and to train your brain by providing it with feedback (as opposed to never getting feedback, a more common occurrence). This kind of material is very difficult to find however. In Te Whanake, if you get hold of the teacher’s manuals, then you can get a few transcripts for some of the listening exercises, but that’s about it. On many language learning websites they recommend getting a book both as an audio book and text, and finding movies with captions or transcripts (which are supposedly easily available as they have to be produced by law in various countries), but I haven’t been able to find either in te reo Māori – let me know in the comments if you know of any!

Doesn’t feel like learning

So I think I forgot that I had a blog. Or actually, I wasn’t doing a lot of te reo Māori, and so I had nothing to write about. But that has all changed!… at least for this week…

One of the hard things about language learning is knowing whether you are actually learning the language.

When I study grammar and vocab, I feel that I am learning because I can point to tangible things that I have seen or heard that I didn’t know before. But then on the other hand I do not feel I have really learnt anything at all because I don’t feel like it has made any change to my ability – for instance, what is the chances I will remember all these grammatical nuances I just read about?

If I listen to and read materials in Māori, I feel like theoretically I must be improving my skill, but on the other hand it is hard to say what was actually learnt; if I understand it I feel I must have learnt nothing because I already know it, and if I don’t understand it then I feel I must have learnt nothing because how could I?

The end result is that it’s very hard to plan learning activities because its hard to tell whether you’re learning anything by doing them! What do you do that makes you feel like you’re really getting somewhere in your language learning?

Being Safe to Make Mistakes

I’ve just got back from a weekend noho with my class, as part of our TWOA course. During the weekend, I was thinking a little about how important it is to have a class where you feel “safe”. Its hard to really define what is meant by “safe” in this context, but basically its a class where you really feel comfortable. It’s also one of those things where you might feel “safe” in a class, but then later you have another class where you feel it even more and you realise your previous class wasn’t really getting there. I think that although a lot of it is obviously about the other people in the class, it’s also a bit about yourself.

There are a lot of times where I’ve had classes which were perfectly fine, but they didn’t reach the same level of comfort as this one. And I can see also that there is a way to go beyond this comfort level before I got to the ultimate level of perfect comfort (probably unobtainable, like most perfection). So there are degrees of comfort/safety.

But in this class, I feel much less reluctance to do things that I normally wouldn’t want to do. I might not want to do some particular speaking task in front of the class, or participate in a skit to illustrate a whakatauki (proverb), but I don’t feel the same fear and anxiety as I would normally.  Its like – I don’t want to do it but its not bad. It doesn’t make me feel bad or scared or upset. It doesn’t come back to haunt me when I’m trying to get to sleep. Instead, it’s generally positive.

There are multiple reasons for this. One is that everyone is always really supportive. And not in the half-assed, reserved British way we seem to have inherited. Properly. Everyone claps, cheers, thanks people – and it’s all genuine. Another is that laughter is never mean-spirited. Teasing and ribbing always seems to go to those able to receive it and respond to it. I’ve also never heard a bad word spoken about anyone.

But I think the biggest one for me is actually that people are allowed to do a bad job. If your group skit is a pretty poor effort, or your 1 minute impromptu speech is mostly umms, then no one comments or probably even cares. The point is that you did it. The point of the whole class is to try, and to speak te reo Māori. If you do that then everything else is ok (and if you don’t try, then you are your own judge and jury). So it is ok to do a bad job. It is ok to be so nervous you forget everything. It is ok to do something embarrassing. Literally no one cares. Everyone will still clap and cheer. You get socially rewarded for trying. Why be nervous or avoid something if you know that the result is everyone being positive towards you because you gave it a go?

So for me, what I noticed is that the class is “safe” to make mistakes in. I have been in other environments where people say that, but it doesn’t feel like it. I think this safety is the biggest factor in encouraging participation from the class – and in a language class, participation is probably the biggest factor in successful learning.



I have maybe noticed my listening has improved?

My listening ability in te reo is probably my worst thing – it seems I generally hear just an occasional verb or noun, and I definitely miss almost all of the actual grammar parts, and generally get distracted for whole chunks. So unless I can put together a general idea using context – which is fine in most real situations but not in assessments – then I have no idea what’s going on.

I was intending to work on listening skills properly this year… but I haven’t.

Despite this, I noticed this weekend (at the noho) that I was processing the speech of our teacher as sentences. So, what I mean is that instead of it kind of coming in to my mind as words that had to be put together, it was coming in as whole sentences. They were fairly short, simple sentences, but the point is that my brain seemed to be processing them as a whole concept.

One of the things that is tricky when learning a language is that words might be coming in in a different order than you’re used to – so you can’t just do a literal translation word-for-word in your head because it doesn’t always make sense. And particularly with long sentences or multiple clauses, you wonder how you are supposed to remember what happened at the start, so that you can match it up with what’s happening at the end. There’s too much going on if you have to remember all the different bits, and translate them, and then maybe alter the translations based on the context of what comes in later, and then put it all together at the end. Magically, when you understand a language properly (for example, your own first language), it seems that you understand each word of a sentence as it comes, despite not knowing what’s coming up. But really I think you must be processing the sentence (or rather, each phrase) as a whole at the end, while seeming to experience it in real time.

And so because of this, I think that this is a big, although perhaps subtle, breakthrough! I don’t think I just suddenly started processing whole (short) sentences on Saturday, but rather that because there were a lot of short, simply structured sentences in a row, I started to notice my ability to understand them. What’s more, I was able to notice that I could understand them, and still understand them! I sat there and I could understand what she was saying at the same time that I was thinking, “well, this is interesting, I’m translating whole sentences. Look, I’m still doing it. This seems new.” What I think this means is that listening wasn’t taking all of my brain power and attention, and was instead happening automatically in some kind of special “language processing” layer, rather than “conscious thought” layer.

This stuff is tough to write about because I don’t know if it makes sense to anyone else and I don’t know if we’re all operating from the same frame of reference – because who really knows how anyone else thinks?! But let me know in the comments if you remember any of your own language listening breakthroughs 🙂



Update to Thoughts on Te Whanake – Vocab

A couple of updates to yesterday’s post.

I have decided that “Thoughts on Te Whanake” is really about the first 3 books in the textbook series – Te Kākano, Te Pihinga, Te Māhuri – rather than the whole of the TW resources. Although some points are going to apply to the resources as a whole, I guess those 3 textbooks are really my focus here. Probably.

Further, I clarified to myself last night that these are explicitly thoughts about using TW now, in the current context, not about using it when it was first published in the 90s, for example. What these means, however, is that although some of my opinions are a criticism on TW itself, others are a critisim of the choice to use it as a textbook now. 😮

Finally, although I’d really like to review some other textbooks and tell you what I don’t like about them too, you can only learn something for the first time once, so I’m not really going to get the same experience looking at other books now – although I still intend to try and compare the handling of some of the grammar points in different books.