Intermediate language-learning: Beyond the basics

This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch -- one of several languages
This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch — one of several languages offered

At this point, the language-learning market is saturated with on-line tools. They tend to fit in two categories: 1) very basic vocabulary and exercises (eg, Transparent Language) and 2) social networks for language exchanges (eg, iTalki).  Very little exists, unfortunately, for more intermediate learning. What do you do if you have the basics of the language down fairly well (eg, verb tenses, noun declensions, 200+ vocabulary words), but want to move on? You don’t know enough for, say, movies without subtitles or podcasts. Conversations with native speakers can’t last very long yet. Linguistadores has imagined the next step by helping your learning through native-language content, geared to your level.

Your choice of media
Your choice of media

This platform offers access to real pop culture items, but broken down for language learners. I tried out Dutch as the language I was learning and English as my native language. First, you have to input your language ability level. Then, the application will serve up material for your level. Materials come from three categories: written, videos, or music. The written are articles from popular periodicals.

From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.
From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.

Videos are popular TV shows or movies hosted on another site (eg, YouTube), and music are videos of pop songs. The pop songs play the video with the words of the song next to the video, but I couldn’t find subtitles for the non-music videos. You can easily look up words from the articles and songs.

You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.
You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.

Linguistadores also offers you a way to keep track of new words. As you run into unfamiliar words, you can click on them and save them. You can use these lists as flash cards for memorizing the words.

The site is in its beginnings, so I hope that it will grow in a few areas. First, I hope they come up with a mobile platform very soon. I do all my language study on the go. If I’m on a computer, I’m at work. (And I better be working!) I could only watch videos and scroll through the songs’ texts on my iOS and Android devices.

A representative of Linguistadores let me know already (they were very responsive to me on Twitter) that they are working on a mobile platform. I will be giving them my ideas and suggestions — and I’m looking forward to the results. I’m hoping that the word lookup function and the videos will be available in the mobile version.

Second, I hope the language offerings are expanded. Right now, the choices are English, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish. I know these languages fairly well, and I would prefer to spend my time getting my lower languages up to a higher level. I think it will take some time to expand offerings, however, as the quality and quantity of the language materials are very high. It takes a lot of effort to keep things at this level. (How long till they get to Farsi and Somali? LOL)

Third, I wonder about the future of the material they have. How do they plan to keep the offerings fresh? There are only so many music videos, for example. I’m afraid I could possibly get bored if I have to watch the same ones too many times. Also, several of the videos I tried to watch were taken down by the original owner, which is bound to happen down the line.

Nevertheless, I believe that on-line language learning has to go the direction that Linguistadores laid out. As a kid, I stepped up my native language by looking up new words in the dictionary. I also spent a lot of time reading the lyrics to songs I liked, which gave me an ear for how people enunciate in music. I want to get to a point where I can learn on my own from native content, and Linguistadores offers a wonderful stepping-stone.

What are the on-line tools you’re using for language-learning? What do you love about them?

Types of exercises: Interactive and Solo

Drills and playing time make the superstar
Drills and playing time make the superstar

To succeed at learning languages on your own, you must balance interactive and solo exercises.  I define “interactive” exercises as those that include another person, especially conversing with a native speaker, and “solo” exercises that do not include another person.  If we keep a balance between these two, we will progress quickly as each method builds up the other.

Compare learning a language to training for a sport, where you practice and you scrimmage.  In practice, you work on the fundamentals to ensure that they come naturally.  You train your reflexes to react in a particular way in a given situation.  Practice includes drills.  They can be boring sometimes, but the greats become so because of drills, like Michael Jordan‘s hundreds of free-throws after practice.  When you’re practicing drills, you don’t know how well you’ve mastered skills until you put them to the test, however.

Scrimmages test your skills.  By entering a real-life game situation, you see how your body remembers and applies the skills learned in drilling.  Scrimmages bring constant unexpected elements.  For example, you may have drilled jump-shots, but what about when a guy taller than you keeps getting in your way?  Only by bringing in unknown variables will you see how good your skills actually are.  Moreover, scrimmages bring up situations that reveal weaknesses you may have neglected.  If scrimmage reveals that you never got to take a jump shot because your dribbling was lousy, you know what to practice next time.

Greatness at language-learning requires solo preparation through drills, as well as constant interactions with others.  You have to learn the fundamentals through drills.  The most important aspect is learning vocabulary, but spending time on grammar helps, too.  But you need to enter into conversations; those are our scrimmages.  Just like in basketball, it puts your knowledge to the test in “real time” and reveals weaknesses so you can practice during your solo time.

Here are examples of solo language exercises:

  • Anki (online) or other (paper) flashcards;
  • Reading a grammar book and dong exercises;
  • Computer applications (eg, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Livemocha);
  • Listening to a podcast or watching a movie;
  • Reading an article.

Here are examples of interactive exercises:

  • Instant message with a native speaker (eg, Skype or italki);
  • Video chat with a native speaker (eg, Skype);
  • Meet up locally with speakers of your language;
  • Daily interactions in the country of the language.

Interactive exercises determine success.  Language-learning usually trains you to speak with native speakers (unless you’re learning a language just to read it), and interactive exercises are the closest to the real thing–if not actually the real thing.  While you need interactive exercises, you can learn languages without solo exercises.  Bilingual people have been learning languages exclusively through person-to-person interaction for millennia.  North Africans learned Arabic without solo exercise when the Arabs arrived; Phoenicians learned Greek without grammar exercises.  We should note, though, that scholars in ancient Babylonia (ca. 2000 BCE) were writing and referring to bilingual dictionaries so they could read Sumerian texts.  Acquiring a high level in a language will likely include solo work, but progress requires interactive work.

Recently, some standard language-learning software includes interactive exercises, but I count interactivity as useful only when it brings in the randomness that scrimmages do.  For example, Rosetta Stone has included classes with an on-line teacher in its language package.  However, the curriculum follows the software fairly closely, so the learner does not encounter the randomness of actual conversation.  In contrast, italki offers the choice to learn from either untrained native speakers or trained teachers.  With the italki service, you can enjoy the controlled environment of a teacher who helps you practice your skills and the random environment of an average native speaker.  Teachers use as much as possible constructions that you know in order not to overwhelm you; native speakers employ the structures that come to mind first and most naturally to him or her.  Both are helpful, but the untrained speaker provides the true test.

I’ve found that I learn the most when my solo work undergirds my interactive study, and my interactive study feeds my solo work.  I study grammar and vocabulary on my own.  Then I have an easier time in conversation.  As I talk, I write down new words and phrases in context.  Then I study those during my solo time.  Soon I master my favorite and most common topics of conversation.  If I do solo work without interaction, I don’t know if I’m progressing.  If I interact without solo work, I progress, but slowly.  With both, I make constant, quick progress.

What are good interactive exercises have you used, my dear readers?  How do you balance solo and interactive exercises?

(Photo credit: photo by Vedia on Flickr.)

What makes a language useful?

What motivates your language study?
What motivates your language study?

Recently a friend of mine asked what the most useful language to learn is.  I think he was assuming useful for business, so I addressed this assumption.  I responded that the language you learn depends what you’re learning it for.  If you’re planning on working in China, Mandarin is very useful; Mandarin would not be useful at all if you work extensively in India, though.  But Hindi is not useful outside of India.  If you’re planning on working in Minnesota, Spanish and Somali would be very useful.  You can only judge “useful” with respect to some concrete goal.

The goal of language-learning determines what language one studies and how one studies it.  One friend studied Russian to do business there.  Another wants to learn Tamil in order to enjoy his extended stay in Southwest India.  A third wants to learn Arabic because of family ties and love of the culture.  One blogger I read is learning Pitjantjatjara in order to see the world through a different set of eyes.  For all of these language students, their language is the most useful.

The reasons for learning a language determine not just the language, but also what you focus on in learning.  For business in Russia, much of the business will probably be in English, so small talk will be the most important.  Moreover, much of your studying will be done at home, in between trips to Russia.  For Tamil, you would learn what you could now at home–basic pleasantries–before taking it up in earnest in India.  Once you got there, you would be surrounded by media in Tamil and native speakers, and you would try to speak to the people around you.  For Arabic, listening to music and watching films would help, and then making attempts to find Arabs to speak to would bring the passive knowledge into an active register.  For Pitjantjatjara, probably the only source of the language would be native speakers, so study would be intense conversations, and then studying on your own the words and phrases from those conversations.

For one person, Russian is most useful, and probably Rosetta Stone or an on-line resource like would be most helpful.  For another, Pitjantjatjara is most useful, and conversing with people may be the only language resource.

Often, when I’m asked about the most “useful” language, the asker assumes that this is an economic question; in other words: What language will make me the most money?  But we see above that the question of what language to learn and how emerges from various motives, many of which are emotional and not economic.  Unfortunately, I think many institutions assume that economics is the most important question.  For this reason, some universities closed their Classics departments.  In addition, the economic question does not always lead to a single language.  As I said, above, economics may lead you to learn Chinese, Hindi, or Russian.  Recently I read that some Chinese people are learning Shona in order to do business in Zimbabwe.  This choice came because of increased economic ties between Sub-Saharan Africa and China.

So experience shows that the assumption that economics often does not motivate someone to learn a language.  Even if economics does motivate someone, economics does not always lead to the same language.

Why are you studying or want to study your language?  What means are you using to study them?  How did you choose those means?  Please add your answers to the comments section.

Photo credit: opensourceway / / CC BY-SA

Just make progress!

Even with dips--make progress!
Even with dips–make progress!

I’ve been uninspired–but I’m not ready to give up.  Work has been demanding, and my friends and family have kept me busy.  I’m trying to approach my languages differently, hoping the change of pace will inspire me.  I had the flu this last week, which halted some progress, too.  I want to hold fast in my mind that progress of any kind is important progress, even if the results don’t always look how I want.

Last week I Skyped with some new italki pals.  Because Iran is 10 hours later than me, I have to think creatively about how to connect.  Before I leave for work has presented itself as the most convenient time, as it can be free time on my side and it comes right after work in Iran.  Unfortunately, it means I have to get up earlier and plan ahead.  I still have to get used to that.  The advantage is real live Farsi talking!  All the vocabulary I’ve been working on for months is cementing itself finally.

I wrote a little in Farsi this week.  One small feature I like about italki over Livemocha is the “Notebook” feature, where you can write whatever you want.  Native speakers are encouraged to comment and/or correct it.  I wrote about being sick!  I had to learn “headache” and “fever,” which are helpful to know anyway.  The fact I was living through the precise situation, wrote about it, and received feedback on it very quickly helped me learn.

I watched the movie, “Day Break” (“دم صبح”), while I was sick.  I couldn’t do much but lay in bed, but I thought I might as well watch something in Farsi.  I’m glad I did.  The movie was well-acted and produced, and portrayed how one’s regrets and fear of death can trap someone in life.  I learned some Farsi and a lot about life.  I learned about the website, a treasure-trove of high-quality foreign TV shows and movies.  They also have an iPad app.

This combination of active and passive memory work helped me a lot.  I discovered I’ve been doing too little passive memory work.  All my word-memorization during the past several months focused on active memory.  Then, when I talked to the neighbors, I couldn’t understand a response.  Hearing and understanding require work and are necessary.

On a side note, Somali went less well this week.  One of my Somali work friends said on Friday, “You didn’t speak very much Somali this week!”  He noticed before I did.  Thank goodness I have people who can call me on my language use and habits.  I’m just breaking even there.

For encouragement, I watched the great Polyglot Discussion: a roundtable discussion over Google+ of seven well-known polyglots.  They traded views and advice about learning languages.  The advice was not particularly new, but I find a discussion among enthusiastic participants invigorating.  Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I crashed in bed with an Iranian movie rather than a TV show in English.

I have a couple of projects I would like to work on.  I would like to produce some kind of language-learning materials for informal settings.  More specifically, when I speak over Skype or when I meet at the language table with people.  I would like to find a way to take advantage of native speakers, without putting pressure on them to teach when they are not comfortable doing so formally.  So I would like to put together some dialogues with simple vocabulary–like in many textbooks–that apply to the work setting or lunch.  I want to be able to talk about finding means to study languages, eating lunch in the cafeteria, and dealing with the stress of work.  I need to go back to look at some resources that I have for inspiration.  These sorts of resources would help all of us participants learn more and feel more productive.

In the end I learned that I should be easy on myself and work on my language as I can.  When I can, I should do active memory work.  When I’m tired, I can do passive memory work.  I’ll try to get up early when I can so that I can chat on Skype.  In my spare time, I’d like to work on some curriculum.  In the end, making any progress is progress all the same.  It doesn’t always have to be pretty.

Have you been making progress recently?  Any kind of progress?  Be honest!

Anyone want to help make some curricula like I described?

Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe

Axe (Photo credit: coconinoco)

I read an interesting post at the Mezzo Guild that talked about figuring out the methods that work in language-learning and the methods that don’t.  The post insightfully illustrates lack of progress using a biblical metaphor of a dull axe (Eccl 10:10).  I like this metaphor because it brings out a couple important questions about the tools one uses.  First, are you using the best tool?  For learning languages, one can find a lot of tools out there.  The intelligent language-learner must choose which works the best.  The metaphor presents a second facet, as well, as one asks: Is the tool sharp and ready to work, or is it dull and not doing the work it could?

This week, I’ve been trying to examine my language-learning tools and the condition they’re in.  I want to sharpen my axe, but how?  (To spoil the ending of my post: I enjoyed trying out and talking to native speakers, thanks to readers’ suggestions and the model of Benny, the Irish Polyglot.)

Farsi has been dragging, but I want to figure out how to move forward.  I expressed my frustrations and the fears that are blocking me in a previous post.  I’m grateful for several readers of my blog who offered good suggestions, ranging from giving myself a break to trying out new tools.  Here are the tools I’ve used over the past year.

  • Collecting words and memorizing them off of cards.  I enjoy this a lot because they are portable and convenient.
  • Listening to Pimsleur exercises.  I finished those off a while ago.
  • Listening to podcasts and collect words.  I have not done that for a while.
  • Going through Livemocha exercises.  I have not been on that site since last spring.
  • Reading news articles and collecting words.  Not so common these days.
  • Working through a grammar book.  Not for a long time.

From this list I see multiple tools that engage me in several ways: listening, repeating, reading, writing, memorizing.  They are all tools that help learn a language, and at one time or another, I have benefited from each.  Based on my recent track-record, though, I see that I’m still hacking away without moving forward.  With all of these methods at my disposal, what is the problem?

I see a hole: engaging native speakers in conversation.  I have gone over to my Iranian neighbors’ house a few times, but it’s difficult.  It takes an unknown amount of time, since I don’t know how long I’ll stay, plus the time is taken away from everything else I could do (family, work, writing, etc.).  I don’t understand very much of what they say, though I can explain much of what I want to say.  While I get frustrated, they seem frustrated, too, though I am likely projecting my own frustration onto them.

So I went onto italki and found exactly what I was looking for, that is, some encouragement and some native-speaker engagement.  Within 15 minutes–I didn’t even have time to put up a photo on my profile–I found 3 Iranians who were interested in working with me.  We exchanged Skype info.  One of them didn’t have a headset ready, so I went onto Skype with another.  He was a college student in Esfahan studying to become an English teacher.  We spent 30 min or so chatting, about 50/50 English and Farsi time.  I’m very grateful for this site and my new friend!

Getting the native speaker time was awesome, and helped my attitude.  Just talking to a human encouraged me.  On a more technical level, I realized that I have been learning more and more vocabulary, but because I’m not speaking, nothing is “cementing” the vocabulary in place.  I need the repetition of vocabulary and grammar, as well as serendipity, that come from talking to a native.  While theoretically I know how to conjugate verbs, actual conversation forces me to do so.  I felt like I got better at speaking after one time.  Learning vocabulary on its own does not help if speaking does not engage the vocabulary.

(On a side note, I also went to  a Somali restaurant in Minneapolis this weekend.  I got some native Somali conversation there, in addition to my Farsi conversation on-line.)

This engagement clarified how I use different tools.  The tools I use are not bad or inappropriate; they’ve been overused.  I’ve been hacking at vocabulary with a dull axe.  My language-learning lacks native-speaker engagement–this became clear.  Speaking to natives sharpens my axe.  While my axe still needs some work, I still have opportunities to use italki and Skype.  Eventually, my comprehension will get better and I’ll be eager to start learning words again, but this time with a sharpened axe.

I need some help from my readers, though.  How would you recommend using italki and Skype best for learning languages?  What do you talk about?  How do you deal with uneven language levels, for example, people who have studied English a long time compared to your lower level in their language?

Farsi at Six Months

goal (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Around July 1 I passed the six-month mark for my study of Farsi. I wanted to write about my experiences so far in this task. Some methods didn’t help, others I outgrew, but talking to native speakers and learning vocabulary keep me learning.

I began with a strict schedule that I was not able to keep up. The plan included

  1. on-line work with Livemocha,
  2. listening to Pimsleur,
  3. learning vocabulary,
  4. working through a grammar book,
  5. blogging,
  6. and meeting native speakers.

The most helpful tasks—and the ones that lasted to the present—were Pimsleur (I finished them), vocabulary, and blogging. The next most helpful were Livemocha and the grammar book. I stopped them a while ago. I never found more than a few native speakers, and I only bumped into them for a moment; I didn’t form any helpful, lasting relationships. I tried Rosetta Stone for a little while, but couldn’t take more introductory material. The software wasn’t offering me anything I didn’t already get from Pimsleur and my grammar book.

Currently, my study includes listening to Farsi, a little reading, and vocabulary. I have probably 80% of the grammar; Farsi is mercifully Indo-European in its grammar. Now I listen to podcasts, mostly of news. (If anyone knows of non-news podcasts in Farsi, please let me know. Age zahmat nist, man mikham bishtar-e farsi-ye podcast gush konam ke khabar nist.) I also read a little of the news. When I learn new words, I write them down on 3×5 cards and memorize them. I’m making good progress on the long slog of vocabulary, always my downfall in learning languages.

GMZ Sentence Vocabulary (first version)
GMZ Sentence Vocabulary (first version) (Photo credit: newdavich)

My lack of connections with native speakers severely limits my ability to learn. Conversing cements in my vocabulary and corrects my wonky grammar. If I had used Livemocha more—and I may do so in the near future—I could meet scads of on-line people who want to help me; I met a few without even trying. Skype and Google Chat will certainly lie in my future. Every time I spoke with a native speaker—at the pool, at my kids’ concert, etc.—I always left with new vocabulary. I’m hoping to find soon a face-to-face language exchange partner who wants to work on his English.

Learning a language on my own has been surprisingly simple: a little grammar and a lot of vocabulary. Once I learned the basics (3-4 months), I worked on vocabulary and comprehension. I will need to work on vocabulary and production. The common element between these two tasks stands out: vocabulary. Memorizing vocabulary stands at the crux between success and failure: am I working on vocabulary constantly? If I’m progressing on vocabulary, I’m progressing in my language. So I’ll keep working on vocabulary—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I’ve been looking for materials to help intermediate language-learning. Maybe I made it too complicated.

My experience with kids learning language reflects this lesson, too. Kids constantly learn words. They use the wrong word, they ask what words mean, they aggravate us with new slang. The grammar is worked out early on, and glitches are corrected along the way (e.g., irregular verbs made regular like “swimmed”). For example, I was at a family reunion with many nieces and nephews. I observed the following: At age two, they repeat words back; at age three, they form simple phrases; at age four, they form full sentences; from five on, they talk like little adults. From age four, the main task seems to be vocabulary building. (I adore seeing my niece and—previously—my own kids work on figuring out family-relation terms. My 11-year-old loves to talk about meeting her first cousin, three times removed [my grandfather’s cousin], as much as I loved learning about old Russian terms for different uncles and various in-laws.)

What ways have you found to learn vocabulary? What do you focus on in your intermediate language-learning?

Most Important Skill

I recently have been exchanging thoughts with Layinka at DIY Language about the challenges of learning languages.

I asked what the most important skill for language-learning is. One might guess “speaking,” “listening,” or “vocabulary.” Layinka looks deeper than this. She says “record keeping” is the most valuable skill a language-learner can have. I agree, though the importance of this goal can easily be lost.

Any progress that one makes in any of the other skills will depend on this one skill. Without it, one peters out quickly, as one has no way to measure or ensure success.

The way one parses out time, though, should reflect the post important skills within language-learning.  Some listening, vocabulary, and conversation should all factor in.  One should figure out what skills one excels at, and which one struggles with.  I’m thinking about what categories are indispensable.  At the moment, my time is split among listening (Pimsleur), grammar and exercises (How to Read, Write, and Speak Persian), vocabulary (my Vised cards), writing and speaking (Livemocha).  I’m slowly incorporating Iranian films and I’m on the lookout for conversation partners.

What is your plan?

Stuff happens

Work In Progress
Image via Wikipedia

So with the end of January and the beginning of February, I need to reflect on my progress so far, and my projected progress for the future.  This is necessary to do as one moves from one month to another.  As one can see from the date of this post, though, “stuff happens.”

The end of January and the beginning of February were wonderful, but not kind to language-learning.  My wife’s birthday took place (a big one), and we had out-of-town guests.  My wife left town the next weekend for an important business meeting.  That meant that I had family business to attend to, and much of the time for those activities came out of language-learning time.

I didn’t make my benchmarks so far in February.  The most important thing to do now is assess what marks I didn’t make and how to adjust.  Assessing is a learning experience, because I don’t like changing benchmarks I’ve set.  In the past, this would have been a good time to give up, or at least weep over my inadequacies.  Now, though, I’m going back to my schedule and revising it, so that the schedule reflects reality better.  It’s a painful process, but one that every language-learner must learn to do.

First I will comment on January.  I was successful in accomplishing my goals in my textbook, in learning words, in Livemocha, and in blogging.   I did not accomplish my goal of 8 Pimsleur lessons (I did 7), or in a video.  At this point, I have a script for my video, but I’m looking for feedback from Livemocha friends.  I hope to do it soon, but February may see my first and only video for these two months.

Now I will turn to February and its rocky start.  I felt like a failure, to be honest, but now I’m seeing things are not so bad.  This is the advantage of writing out goals: data to examine.  I did not write out any new language cards for a while, so I will reduce my number of words by 15 (about half a week).  I kept my old cards on me, and I’m sick of them.  I’ve gone through some of my textbook, but slowly, so I’ve reduced my expected number of chapters this week by one.  Similarly, I’ve reduced Livemocha by 2 lessons.  I think I’ll blog less, too, this month.  I have been listening to Pimsleur, so I did not fall behind there.

I feel like I fell off the horse, but it’s time to get back on.

Exotic Connection

Life of everyday Kurds in Kurdistan
Life of Everyday Kurds (Image via Wikipedia)

The community structure of Livemocha offers so many hidden surprises.  This afternoon I discovered a few new words I wanted to know.  Farsi, as I’ve mentioned before, does not allow one to guess the pronunciation of a word from its spelling.  I decided to turn to the community for answers.

Livemocha allows you to find speakers of your language on line, and gives you the option to chat with them.  I pinged a few and got one.  He was an ESL teacher in Iran.  He told me he’s a night owl–to my luck, as it was 3 am Iran time.  Interestingly, he is a Kurd who had traveled to Turkey.  We had a nice conversation about the current situation of the Kurds in the region, including Syria.  Oh! and he told me how to pronounce the words.

I was touched to make a nice friendship on this site.  I’m only beginning to take advantage of the community aspect of the site.  I look forward to more such discoveries.


Combining Learning Methods

I recently read this post, by edu-preneur Kirsten Winkler, about using Livemocha as a teacher.  In it she suggests that free services like Livemocha offer a great entry into learning languages, and they are the economically obvious choice to being with.

One of the questions that keeps coming to mind as I develop this blog is this: What is the role of language sites and of teachers in 21st century language learning?