Four questions about language-learning, solved here

Get over problems by focusing on the basics
Get over problems by focusing on the basics

I wanted to get back to basics this week.  I would like to say that the following are the most common questions and complaints that I hear from people when they ask me.  I will be honest and say that these are from ME; I keep asking myself these questions.  So here is the advice that I most often give myself.  Maybe it will help you, too.  I’m lucky that I keep having a lot of great experiences that help me when motivation flags.  I’m sure that you will soon have some great anecdotes to help motivate you.  Languages are not hard if I focus on a reasonable amount of time to work each day, if I talk to people, and if I use methods that are fun and helpful.

Learning a language is hard!

Speaking in one’s native language is almost as unconscious as breathing.  Speaking in another language looks like working calculus on a unicycle–with a time limit.


Always remember that 4-year-olds can speak their native language, but it takes years of labor, interactions, encouragement, and adorable mistakes.  I’ve found that as soon as I’m ready to just try, I am constantly making incremental improvement.  I always keep in mind that it takes a child 4 years to speak like a 4-year-old: that keeps my progress in perspective.

What method should I use?

With so many methods of learning out there, I’ll have to do tons of research.  Many of them cost so much money that buying the wrong one would really set me back.


Start with Google, and search for “learn (language name).”  Helpful information will come up right away.  For example, when I google (learn Tamil), the first five sites would take me several weeks to get through, if I wanted to spend some time every day– everything from writing the alphabet to basic dialogues (written and audio) and intermediate grammar.  After you find out what you like and dislike among the free material, you can start looking for paid material.

How can I talk to somebody?

My first problem might be I don’t know anyone who speaks the language I’m learning.  My second problem might be I know someone who speaks it, but I’m embarrassed to torture this person by making them listen to my terrible speech.  I mean, I can barely say, “Hello“!

Solution to first:

There are two places to look for speakers.  One is in real space.  “Ethnic” shops and festivals cater to people who likely speak your language.  And if you go, you already demonstrate your open curiosity to another culture, so you will make a good first impression just by showing up.  Try out your language as much as you can.  Make sure you say “hello” in that language or “Do you speak (your langauge)?” at every opportunity.

Another place to look is in cyberspace.  I found the site to be invaluable in finding speakers to talk to over Skype.  But speakers of every language are all over the net, if you look for them.  Many of them want to learn English, so language trades are easy to set up so everyone wins.

Solution to second:

Most people enjoy it when others are learning their language.  I was learning Russian in school in the 80s.  The first time I met a real Russian, the Russian conversation didn’t last past, “How are you?”  The man very kindly made me recite the days of the week, and it was really helpful for me.  I wasn’t putting him out; while he was relaxing in the park, he enjoyed teaching me–just some young guy–the days of the week.  I began only knowing “hello,” and left knowing the days of the week really well.  Any interaction will surely teach me something–and will be a pleasure for the other person.

I don’t have time!

With work, friends, family, and working around the house, I can’t spend tons of time on a language.  Languages take years to learn and I’m just making it through the day.


Work 15 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week.  You will make progress.  You don’t have to memorize vocabulary and grammar all the time.  You can Skype or IM with speakers of your language on-line, or you can watch a TV show or listen to a podcast.  If you hear a word a lot, look it up, or ask your real space or cyberspace friends what the word means.  Writing is helpful, too.  For example, I write up dialogues of what I want to talk about in Somali.  Then I ask my Somali friends over lunch at work how to translate some of the lines.  Every now and then, I read through a dialogue for 5 minutes to learn the phrases better.  You can also write essays and get corrections from native-speaker friends.

Overall goals

I would set up some large-scale goals of what you want to learn just to keep your overall aims clear.  Write them down.  You can make goals for how much vocabulary you want to learn, how many essays you want to write, how many times a month you want to venture to a local center for your language.  Focus on methods that are enjoyable and fruitful.  Do your best to keep up with your goals, but remember that steady progress is the ultimate goal.  If you continue with 15 minutes per day you will make progress.

What are your greatest roadblocks to learning languages?  How do you stay motivated?  Do you have any cool stories that help keep you motivated?

Photo credit: illuminaut / / CC BY-NC-SA

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?

Problem of Intermediate Language Learning

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve finished Pimsleur 1A and 1B of Farsi.  I can talk about basic things in Farsi.  When I ask for  sentences from Farsi and Dari speakers, I can break down the grammar OK to extract the new words.  I can work through a newspaper article with a dictionary.

Now begins what in my mind is the intermediate slog.  The excitement of new discovery does not characterise this phase.  I’ve gotten past a quick, “Hello!  How are you?” and bumble around with, “What are you working on?” and not understanding the answer.  My interlocutors feel uncomfortable, wondering whether to try to continue to speak in Farsi or avoid the pain of answering “What?” after every sentence (at least).  I find motivation hard to come by.

So now I have to commit to some patient friends–who are willing to talk to me.  They would rather speak English, usually.  That’s why I’ve had more success in other countries: more monolingual speakers.  When I learned Russian in Ukraine, folks didn’t know another language, so they had to explain and re-explain, or at least move to another topic, but still in Russian.

At this point, I memorize vocabulary.  I listen to podcasts where the victories of comprehension are rare (“Oh!  He just said ‘also’!”).  I recently found a good way to use podcasts that go way beyond my comprehension.  I listen along till I hear a word I can pronounce.  I try to write it, and then I look it up.  I might do 1-2 words a day.  I listen to the same podcast a number of times.  I recognize these words out of a stream of words, and it tastes like sweet victory.  It feels like a game of cryptogram, where you take a sentence of scrambled letters, and one-by-one replace the wrong letter with the right one.

What techniques or resources do you use in the intermediate phase?  How do you stay motivated during your “slog”? or maybe you love this part of the language-learning process?

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.

Effects of Livemocha

English: suggest for 50000th Wiki Farsi page
Image via Wikipedia

I had an interesting effect of Livemocha.  It has made me care more about grammar.  To paraphrase the Irish Polyglot , grammar just tells the story of why people talk the way they do.  It helps solve problems.

Farsi has — from my present, beginner’s point of view — an incomprehensible plural system.  I thought I had it down, until I submitted it in Livemocha.  Everyone came down hard on me, eliminating my carefully-placed “ها” plural particles.  What’s up with that?  So I figured out how to say, “When do I write it?” in order to question my new friends.  One responded, saying, “I’ve never thought about it.  I don’t know.”

In another place, I finally learned numerals.  However, Farsi has a (presently, by me) incomprehensible system of quantifiers.  Between the number and noun (always singular–argh!), often (not always) comes some word.  Often it’s the Arabic word عدد meaning “amount.”  So after submitting my exercises, I got slammed again.

First of all, I’m grateful for the Livemocha system and community.  If I were speaking, people would probably prefer to ignore these mistakes of mine.  The way the system is, the community is rewarded for giving me feedback.

Now I’m on a quest!  What in Farsi determines where and when the plural marker and quantifier go?  So to succeed in Livemocha, I will have to find and consult a grammar book.  Pimsleur will not help with this, so I will turn to my “How to Read, Write, and Speak Persian” book. I hope it’s there.  This experience reinforced to me that Livemocha is a great resource, but not enough on its own.

Complementary Methods

I am happy that I am using Pimsleur, Livemocha, and a grammar book (How to Speak, Read, and Write Persian).  They complement each other well.

Pimsleur Language Programs (company)
Image via Wikipedia

1. Pimsleur
Pro: You have to learn words really well, you have to say them aloud, the words are nice and basic, can listen to anywhere
Con: Boring method, boring vocabulary

2. Livemocha

Image representing Livemocha as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

Pro: You have a great community of help and support, the writing and reading exercises are helpful, the point system makes it good for tracking progress
Con: The exercises don’t always work (typos on exercises, flashcards missing responses–at least in Farsi), I still can’t get my Gold Key from the library, exercises don’t review and reinforce well

3. Grammar book
Pro: Good grammar explanations and tables, good basic vocabulary with phonetic guide
Con: Vocabulary repeats from one list to the next making flashcards harder, one table doesn’t have phonetic guide so I had to look them up, boring

I’ve seen a few reviews on these methods, but the methods tend to be taken in isolation.  I think that every method has pros and cons, and my job as the learner is to navigate different methods to find a mix that works.  “Works,” in my opinion, means 1) teaches me the language and 2) keeps me engaged in learning.

Make 100 mistakes a day!

I adore this video, TEDx Talk by the Irish Polyglot:

Reverend Mother Mohiam (Siân Phillips) and oth...
Image via Wikipedia

The great message from this video that I got is that (to paraphrase the Bene Gesserit) is that fear is the language-killer.  Overcoming fear got him over his “failures” at German and Gaelic, and over his earlier speech impediment.  And it gets him through his current frustrating point and makes him use the language.

I’m not even good enough to make 100 mistakes in Farsi, as the Polyglot suggests, but I will work towards it.  As a matter of fact, if I made 100 mistakes a day in any subject, I would be an expert in it.  I want that attitude.

Adjusting my goals and calendar

English: Illustration from Lessons in Geography.
Image via Wikipedia

Now that I’m becoming more acquainted with my resources, a shift in my schedule is in order.  Though I was hoping I had “nailed” my initial calender, I knew I would have to make some adjustments.

1. Pimsleur is really easy.  The CDs work to drum a few likely sentences into your head.  The CDs make them almost impossible to forget after listening twice.  A third time is a little crazy-making.  (They are basic survival phrases, “Excuse me, ma’am. How are you?  I know a little Farsi, but I can’t speak very well.  I don’t understand.  Is Zafar Street here?  Thank you very much.”  Hope that the answers don’t go beyond “yes” and “no”!)

I can listen to Pimsleur walking to and from the bus, library, gym, etc.  It’s easy to do that for 20 minutes a day, and more if I work out at the gym.  So I changed from one lesson a week to two.  That means it will take me less than two months to get through all 14 lessons.  I found the next set, so I should be through both by April.

2. Livemocha is super time-intensive.  They have writing exercises where I have to look up tons of words.  I also like to spend some time giving back to the community by checking some English, so that takes some time.  I’m slowing down on this resource.

There are four exercise (101, 102, 201, 202), and each has three units, and each unit has five to six lessons.  I’m going to try to get through two lessons a week.

3. I’ve added blogging to my schedule.  I want to blog twice a week.

4. My work situation has changed.  I started back teaching this week.  My time for study and computer-time shifts dramatically.  So I have to be sensitive to that shift.  I should not expect to work the same way when my time is already committed for other responsibilities.

My schedule: January-June

Planning a calendar far into the future is really hard.  So I decided to plan for six months, and at the end of June I have scheduled to plan for the rest of the year.

I decided on learning 600 words for the six months.  I’m front-loading the words, as the first ones come fairly easily because they’re so common.  These first words include “I,” “is,” and “have.”  Often books will include different conjugations of the same word as separate vocabulary.  So I’m to learn 140 words in January, 120 in February, 100 in March and April, 80 in May, and 60 in July.

I’ve found that How to Speak, Read & Write Persian has handy word lists.

I’m  planning on going through How to Speak, Read & Write Persian once (read and listen) and Pimsleur (listen only) twice per week.  I will use Livemocha weekly, one lesson per week.

I want to put up a video of me speaking once per month for increasing amounts of time: 1-2 minutes in January and February, 3-4 min. in March and April, and 5-6 min. in June and July.

I want to read one newspaper article in May and two in June.

I think the social is essential.  Without the social aspect, I lose motivation and reason for learning.  Starting in February, I will find one Persian per month to speak to on a regular basis.  I will look into where to find them.  Also, I will celebrate my progress once per month at the end of the month, probably my going to a Persian restaurant.  In May and June I will be looking for some sort of Persian club or social group.

Check up
By June I will assess progress on goals.  Based on my progress I will put together a new schedule for July through December.