What is the best way to document an intellectual experiment online?
May 23, 2015 1:12 PM   Subscribe

While recently playing around with some online language translators, I wondered if it would be possible to learn a language (Latin, in this case) by only using such resources. I reasoned that, by translating from English to Latin, and vise versa, beginning with the rudiments of language, one could by trial and error, gradually learn the language.

To just do this experiment for my own intellectual edification seems to be selfish. I am sure that there are some linguists who might find such an experiment interesting to contemplate.

The question is, then, where could such an experiment be chronicled online, perhaps as a web log?

I don't have a degree (yet). It would have to cater to dilettantes (I don't like the term: Edward Gibbons Is sometimes described as "a dilettante.").
posted by rankfreudlite to Education (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Periodic language samples, both verbal and written could serve as a measure of language skill. For example, every 2 weeks, spend 30 minutes, in the same place, in the same way writing about your day/week (or retelling a movie you had recently saw - it needs to be the same kind of task week to week though) using the best "Latin" that you can muster. After a year or so, you would come back and measure your progress by various linguistic measures (spelling, vocabulary diversity, words per clause [T-Units), sentence complexity, etc.). You would do this and put them away and NOT look at them/revaluate them after you completed the data measure.

If you were working with a language that was primarily spoken, you could do voice recordings and use the same data gathering techniques.

Good luck, sounds fun.
posted by the giant pill at 1:34 PM on May 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sure, of course, you can blog about anything. You'll learn... something... from doing this--vocabulary at least--but I'm not really sure you'll learn the language, particularly if you try for one that uses cases, like Latin does, or complicated tense systems. Sorry. Online translators are just not good enough. It's hard to imagine what a linguist could really get out of your self-reporting of this "experiment" but hey, I could be wrong.
posted by karbonokapi at 2:05 PM on May 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Define "learn"; knowing a language isn't just knowing the 1:1 mapping of one word to another, it's understanding grammar and the way things are said. Currently, even the best online translators are OK at the dictionary part and absolutely awful at the grammar part.

Will you have source material in the target language? If you're just translating your own language into the target language, then you won't learn the language. You need some native "source" to understand how the language is actually spoken, because no online translator can produce natural sounding language. You can try it yourself, just write a sentence in English, translate it to the target language, then translate it back. It comes back as utter gibberish.

Without someone who actually knows the language, how will you grade your own progress?
posted by pravit at 3:57 PM on May 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wow. I think it would be really hard, even if you were sure that the translations both ways were excellent. The hard part would be trying to figure it out without any grammatical indications at all.

On the other hand, people have taught themselves to read some ancient languages, for which no grammars existed, using only clues gleaned from bilingual texts. For instance: Sumerian.

So I say go for it. Keep at it, use your ingenuity, and document it, and it will be an interesting experiment.

I'd wager your chances of success increase if you use a lot of brief texts with minor variations in them. Would it be within the concept of the experiment if you were to take your Latin and English phrases from translation exercises in Latin textbooks without looking at any of their explanations? This one, for instance, is full of translation exercises both ways. You may feel it's cheating, of course, because the sentences are designed to illustrate key grammatical concepts. But it still would be pretty cool if you could achieve writing good Latin with only such sentences, google translate, and your own wits.
posted by bertran at 8:20 PM on May 23, 2015

Google translation of Latin is really, really, bad.
posted by xris at 9:21 PM on May 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Following up on xris's point, the main issue here is the reliability of the translation program. In the case of Latin, it's not great. I'm not sure why that is. But, having attempted to use it to double check my own Latin to English translations every once in a while, I can tell you that it mostly outputs gibberish.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:33 PM on May 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You know how, in theory, in English the word "fish" could be spelled "ghoti"?

Well, online translation risks the same effect just with vocabulary, let alone grammar and syntax.

Do you want to be the guy who spells "fish" like "ghoti" and is frustrated at everybody's blank stares? No you don't. There's no way this ends well.

Use, in that order:

1. The Pimsleur method
2. The Assimil method - mostly French but they have some texts where the medium of learning is English
3. A conventional grammar like "Colloquial Mzrgrxian" or "Mzrgrxian in Three Months". Memorize all the vocabulary, do all the exercises, no slacking.
posted by tel3path at 3:22 AM on May 24, 2015

OMG I left out the most important part of my answer, which is:


You will not have been right, but you will have been funny.

I think that if you start a Tumblr for the purpose and post your translations every day for a month, you might get people interested enough to give you their feedback.

I'd also suggest maybe trying each method with a different language and then rotating back around to the first language with the next method.
posted by tel3path at 3:26 AM on May 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

So should you try this linguistic experiment and document it online? Sure, sounds like fun. Just don't expect to become the next Cicero or anything like that. It's not like you're going to offend anyone by pronouncing things incorrectly or jumbling conjugations. Well, maybe a serious Latin scholar, but there's not too many of them around to offend. (Actually, could be hilarious if serious Latin scholar guests popped up with snide comments and pithy epigrams;)

If you've gotten to this point then you know that computer translators are pretty wonky. So you know you'll need a sense of humour. I had hours of fun goofing around with Altavista Babelfish in the olden days. P.K. Dick actually predicted this game in his novel 'Galactic Pot-Healer'.
posted by ovvl at 10:54 AM on May 24, 2015

The How-to-learn-any-language.com forums would probably be interested in this experiment. Occasionally people there will do experiments/challenges like "learn from reading Wikipedia articles" or "learn only through watching movies". They have a specific section for language learning logs where people/groups discuss their progress and learning strategies.
posted by Gordafarin at 12:28 PM on June 17, 2015

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