Week 4: The aunt has a knife

Last night I completed creating the flashcards for my first 625 words. The process is time consuming, but has gotten to be sort of meditative. When I get bored, I'll make a few flashcards. When I can't get to sleep, or wake up early, I'll make a few flashcards.

It will be at least another month until I have learned all these flashcards, or even seen them all. I've worked my way through 324 flashcards, so only about half as many as I have created. You sort of get obsessed with these statistics, like baseball fans, and the Anki flashcard system offers a lot of statistics. According to the flashcard program, I am now 30 days into studying the cards, and have spent an average of 20.8 minutes a day studying the cards for a total of 623 minutes.

I don't really know what to do with any of these facts. You sort of want to graph them in order to predict your language development, to know where you are in the process. I did discover that I was accidentally only learning 10 new words per day, so I upped it to 15. It doesn't seem like that many, but when you consider that you constantly have to revisit cards, and that each new word equals two cards (you're quizzed on both the front and the back of the card), it means that the number of cards I must review daily has jumped quite a bit. But I felt like I was learning Yiddish slowly, and now I feel it's going at a comfortable pace.

So, it's a week later and about 100 new words. I'm approaching the minimum number of words an average 3-year-old speaks (about 500), and we know how chatty 3-year-olds can be. I don't feel especially chatty, but I find myself able to construct some very basic sentences, albeit with terrible grammar, I am sure. I have reached the point where I can see things in the world and point at them and name them, like children do. It doesn't feel like much, but I've only been at this for a month, which is considerably less time than it takes children to get to this point.

At least I can always congratulate myself for doing things faster than a 3-year-old.

I will say that my additional 100 words has had a noticeable effect. When I listen to spoken Yiddish, words are starting to pop out that I recognize, and there have been a few instances where I have found myself following an entire sentence or two. It's still mostly gobbledygook to me, but it isn't the gormless gobbledygook of a few weeks ago. The shapes of sentences are starting to feel like they make sense to me, in that even if I don't know the specifics of a sentence, it feels as though I am hearing nouns verb other nouns, and adverbs adverbing away, and finding places where numbers have attached themselves to words, and that sort of thing. That's about all I can do with Hebrew, and I studied that language for most of the first half of my life -- daily for more than five years.

In about another month I will have completed all these cards, and I am already preparing for going forward from there. I am creating the next collection of flashcards from two sources. The first is the Berlitz phrase book I mentioned a week or two ago -- although it started to be useless without the accompanying PDF, and so I managed to track one of those down. You may not be able to have very sophisticated conversations from what you find in a phrase book, but it is important to be able to say hello, goodbye, where you come from, and that you would appreciate the vegetable medley rather than the steak.

Additionally, these basic phrases contain a lot of words that are otherwise hard to represent on flashcards. Wiktionary lists the top 600 Yiddish words culled from Yiddish publications, and the first 10 are these, translated:
  1. The (feminine form)
  2. And
  3. From
  4. In
  5. The (masculine form)
  6. A
  7. Says
  8. Is
  9. Itself
  10. The (accusative)
These are mostly very hard to put on flashcards where a word is represented by an image, rather than a direct translation, and, besides, just knowing zeyr means, approximately, "itself" gives no indication how it's used.

So, as I mentioned last week, I just create flashcards with the complete sentence on one side and the sentence with a word dropped out on the other. One side might read "He wants a drink," and the other side will read "He wants __ drink," and I have to learn that "a" is the word that fits into that spot.

The idea is that our brains have a strong intuitive grasp of sentence construction. If we've memorized a few examples, we can extrapolate other examples, and so even if we don't necessarily know that "from" is a preposition used to indicate time or location, we do know it's the word that gets stuck in this sentence "___ Here to Eternity."

But common phrases are often idiosyncratic and often aren't even complete sentences. So I am supplementing this by creating flashcards from my favorite Yiddish instruction book, H.E. Goldin's "The Yiddish Teacher," available as a PDF from Archive.org, thanks to the Yiddish Book Center.

This is the book I used when I started learning Yiddish, and I love it, because it is hard to escape the feeling that Goldin was preparing Yiddish speakers to participate in a German expressionist film. One of the first flashcards I created from his lessons is "The aunt has a knife," and it's just going to get weirder. But his sentences are short and well-constructed, and so, putting aside the considerable entertainment offered by Goldin's deranged sentence construction, the book should teach me some basic grammar.