A Mind for Language

Jun 12, 2019

Learning Syriac - project index

Syriac is a Semitic language in the same family as Aramaic. It also has one of the earliest transitions the New Testament and is a Christian literary language as well.

It's related to the Aramaic that Jesus and the Apostles would have grown up speaking...

... and it's not widely known ...

... and doesn't have near the resources available as do Greek, Hebrew, or Latin.

My hope is that this series of posts will help throw some light on how to learn it by describing my experience as I'm doing just that.

Consider this an experiment and a test to see if some of the techniques that I have found effective with Koine Greek work for another ancient language.


These are some of the principles that guide how I'm going to go about it.

  1. Input over grammar
  2. Cloze grammar cards
  3. Spaced, repeated reading

Input over grammar

In other words, time spent reading Syriac will be more effective than time spent reading about Syriac.

As long as what I'm reading is qualifies as comprehensible input (i.e. at least 95% understandable).

The problem with classical languages is finding material that qualifies as comprehensible.

Since I'm a beginner, my plan is to start by adding the sentences from my text book to an Anki flashcard deck. I'll make sure that I understand the translation of these sentences before I add them.

Because the Syriac writing system is quite different from what I'm used to and has a lot of silent letters. I'm going to include a rough phonetic transcription on the back of each card along with the translation.

Another trick I learned is to bold new vocabulary that you want to learn. This will be more useful after I'm more comfortable reading and don't need a full translation on each card. At that point, I'll stop adding full translations and just note the meaning of the bolded words.

Cloze grammar cards

For more details see this post.

The basic idea is to use cloze deletions to become more familiar with the paradigms.

These seem to work really well for me to become comfortable with how a paradigm works.

This is in tension with the input over grammar principle above, but I find such familarity to be helpful.

Again, not memorizing to memorize, but familiarity.

Spaced, repeated reading

See this post for more details.

In short the idea is to use spaced repetition to schedule rereading material that qualifies as comprehensible input.

This is accomplished by using a spaced repetition software.

For me this is Anki.

At the beginning, the cards will simple be the sentences from my textbooks. Once I'm more comfortable, then the cards will probably be links, book + page numbers, or references to the material that I want to read.

What's next

As I write other posts about learning Syriac, I'll add links to them here.


Jun 10, 2019

Spaced, repeated reading

Spaced repetition software is perhaps the most effective way to study using flashcards. The idea is that we review new material right before we forget it, then we wait longer before reviewing it again.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Each review, strengthens the memory.

Comprehensible input

Language, though, is learned through interaction with material that is at least ~95% comprehensible, rather than like a collection of facts to memorize. This can happen via reading, listening, conversations etc.

We need a lot of input for the brain to acquire language.

It's simply how the brain works.

For Greek, this means lots of reading (it is a classical language after all), but reading at or near one's current level.

Repeated exposure to comprehensible input, allows out brain to acquire the words and grammar in that input naturally.

But we need repeated exposure.

Could we perhaps combine spaced repetition with reading of comprehensible input to get the needed repetition?


How to combine them

Here's how I've done this.

I have two decks. One for shorter sentences that have words that I specifically want to learn. A second deck that just has the "address" of what I want to read.

In the first deck, I make a card with the sentence I want to review and bold the words I want to learn. Then I put the meanings of the new words on the back of the card.

For the second deck, I make a card that tells me what to read. I don't put anything else on these cards. For example, I have some cards that say I Clem 17 (1st Clement, chapter 17) or Rom 6 or I Clem 20:1-3.

The second deck takes much more time to review and I need access to the books I'm reading. The first deck I can study on the go or whenever I have a few minutes.

For the second deck, I'd recommend creating cards with smaller chunks of text to read. So instead of a card that says I John 1, you might consider I John 1:1-4 and then making other cards for the rest of the chapter.

This means that you don't need as much time to reread the material and are more likely to keep at it.

Of course, you don't need a spaced repetition app to do this. The idea is simply to read and reread the same texts. This let's you learn grammar and vocab in a natural way.

The trouble is finding texts to read that are level appropriate, but that is a can of worms for another post ... or Ph.D. dissertation ;-).

May 16, 2019

Anki cloze cards for learning paradigms

Comprehensible input is the way to go. The research in second language acquisition indicates that consciously memorized knowledge can't morph into facility with a language in the brain. The brain builds its own black-box model of a language through our interaction with it. This process relies on understanding the meaning of what we read or hear, not on understanding the grammar.

In my experience, having familiarity with the paradigms and tables helps figure out what an unfamiliar form in the text it. At least it helps me think through whether this is a new form or a completely new word. This in turns helps make unfamiliar things more understandable. This increasing my ability to understand is the pay off, not the conscious knowledge of the grammar.

Memorizing tables is a pain and is probably not worth too much effort. Familiarity, however, has been helpful to me. The following is a method to use Anki (free, SRS flashcard software) and cloze deletion flashcards to help with this process of building familiarity.

What is a cloze card?

A cloze card is a flashcard where the piece of information to be learned it blanked out or deleted. This blanked out info is called a "cloze deletion". When studying our task is to recall the missing piece.

Our brain remembers things better if we can form associations between the new information and other things that we know. The more connections, the stronger the memory and the easier the recall.

So instead of trying to memorize and recall a whole paradigm, I propose that we use cloze deletions and blank out only a few pieces of the paradigm.

The advantage is that we are only asking ourselves to recall a few forms at a time. This lowers our stress and makes our minds more open to receiving the information. Also we are seeing the other forms on the table and thus seeing the connections between the current form and the rest of the paradigm.

For example if we wanted to learn or become familiar with the following paradigm:

NOM SGεῖςμίαέν
GEN SGενόςμιᾶςενός
DAT SGενίμιᾷενί
ACC SGέναμίανέν

We could create cloze cards as follows in order to learn the Masc and Neut, NOM SG forms:

NOM SG[...]μία[...]
GEN SGενόςμιᾶςενός
DAT SGενίμιᾷενί
ACC SGέναμίανέν

Then the following could be used for the Masc and Neut Gen SG forms:

NOM SGεῖςμίαέν
GEN SG[...]μιᾶς[...]
DAT SGενίμιᾷενί
ACC SGέναμίανέν

And the following to learn the Fem, Gen SG form:

NOM SGεῖς[...]έν
GEN SGενόςμιᾶςενός
DAT SGενίμιᾷενί
ACC SGέναμίανέν

We could proceed by adding cloze deletions for the other pieces of the paradigm that we want to recall. Note that it may not be necessary to create a cloze deletion for every piece of the table. Remember that the goal is familiarity.

Creating tables in Anki

Anki includes a cloze deletion card type. The trick is the table. You can either use spaces or tabs to format the table manually or you can use HTML.

Spaces and tabs

Spaces and tables would be the simplest, but the result may not look as nice. You have to manually line up the columns. I the result would be as follows.

       Masc Fem  Neut
NOM SG εῖς  μία     έν
GEN SG ενός μιᾶς ενός
DAT SG ενί  μιᾷ    ενί
ACC SG ένα  μίαν έν

HTML tables

The following instruction assume you are using the Desktop version of Anki to create the cards. Once you sync your collection to your phone, you can view the html tables there too.

Either you have to write the HTML manually, or you can use an HTML table generator such as tablesgenerator.com.

Once you have your html code, click Add to add a card. Select the cloze card type. Then click on the field under the label Text. After that, click on the three horizontal bars on the right size of the formatting bar. After that select Edit HTML or hit CTRL + SHIFT + X then paste the html code into the pop-up and click close.

Creating the cloze deletions

The following assume the desktop app, but the process is very similar for creating cloze deletions on the mobile apps.

To create a cloze deletion, you first select the text you want to turn into recall and click on the button [...] button on the format bar or hit CTRL + SHIFT + C. This will wrap the info in a cloze code that looks like {{c1::info to be learned}}.

You can create multiple cloze deletions per card. c1 will be the first, then c2 will be the second, and so forth.

If you want to have multiple pieces of the table blanked out at the same time, edit the number following the c so they that they are the same. For example, if I wanted 'εν' and 'λογος' to be cloze deletions at the same time, I need to manually edit the number following the c so that it looks like {{c1::εν}} αρχη ην {{c1::ο λογος}}.

Final thoughts

Should creating and studying flashcard in Anki replace other learning activities that focus on comprehensible input? No. But they might be a useful parallel activity.