Spanish, Russian, and the light of language-learning

Learning languages enlighten and bring light
Learning languages enlightens and brings light

As you know, Somali is my main pursuit these days. But I realized that I don’t think about pursuing my other languages at this point as any actual progress. Yet I have spoken Spanish every day, since we have a monolingual Spanish speaker staying at our house.

While I believe everyone should learn languages, monolinguals teach me so much. When I have to speak to them, I gain vocabulary and grammar so quickly. Our exchange student’s mom is staying with us, and she only speaks Spanish. I speak Spanish every day now. Without spending any time memorizing vocabulary, certain words are just sticking just so that conversation can continue.

Spanish and others

Polyglot questions: How do we use languages for good?

Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!
Nothing beats deep conversations with polyglots!

During my short two days at the Polyglot Conference in NYC (in the midst of my public speaking tour), I spent much of the time chatting with people. Since my talk concerned how to use this talent/hobby/obsession of ours for bettering our community, my fellow polyglots offered their own ideas on this topic. We can use languages to help international aid and speakers of rare—or just less well-known—languages, as well as ourselves.

Here are ten people, in alphabetical order, who offered me some ideas and questions that enriched my thinking.

I recommend you stop by their web page and/or Twitter feed. Please stop by! When you visit them, please say hello from me! Let’s keep the conversation going.
Some important food for thought

Schwytzertüütsch, ech ha di gärn! Will the Swiss allow me to love their language?

How much can I learn the language of this isolated land?
How much can I learn the isolated language of this land?

Grüetzi! Lately I’m experimenting with Swiss German because I’m going to Switzerland to stay in the German-speaking area. About two-thirds of Switzerland speaks German as their first language. However, they speak a unique dialect, or, more accurately, a diverse family of dialects. I’ve been having a hard time because the internet does not offer a lot of resources, and I could not find any native speaker resources where I live and work.
Continue reading “Schwytzertüütsch, ech ha di gärn! Will the Swiss allow me to love their language?”

How to re-start learning a language

Get ready to get back on the horse!
Get ready to get back on the horse!

It’s easy to get off track in one’s language learning (unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets paid to do so).  Work projects become demanding, kids’ schedules take up time, and the spring cleaning needs to get done somehow.  I found myself in this situation over the past couple months; I got off track.  But languages always pull me back.  Fortunately, I’ve thought for a long time about methods for learning languages, and a few of my favorite on-line language-lovers offer good advice that got me going again.  The two pieces of advice that helped a lot: 1) work a little every day and 2) passive learning is important.

No shame in falling off the horse

I admit that I got out of the daily habit of setting aside time for my languages.  This happens to everyone.  I am not independently wealthy, so I spend a lot of time working.  I do not work professionally with languages, so I have to find the time amidst my spare time.  As we all know, spare time ebbs and flows; we have little control over how much we have.  Many voices call out for our spare time, as well.  Family, community, and relaxation all require some of our time–and that’s after coming home from work.

Nevertheless, I want back up on the language horse I fell off of.  I needed to find a way to work on my languages amidst all these demands.  So I recalled some great things I’ve learned from the web.

Everyday language-learning

Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner site constantly reminded me via his Twitter feed (@aarongmyers) to do something every day.  I love the name of his blog because the double-meaning fits me perfectly.  I need to learn languages “every day,” plus I’m a simple, garden-variety “everyday” language learner with cares, demands, and responsibilities like everyone else.

Finding 30 minutes to figure out what exercise I should do, though, was more than I could do.  Learning every day was too much.  So I was hardly learning anything.  This was demoralizing and out-of-character for me.  I had to learn how to do something every day, even if it was 5 minutes.

Passive learning jump-started my active learning

Passive learning allowed me to start up right away with little concentration and commitment, and then it led me easily–and unexpectedly–to more active study.  Steve Kaufmann, who blogs and vlogs about language-learning, advocates passive language input, which will aid language-learning when one turns to more active methods.  While I’m not beginning my language, I thought taking a passive-learning approach for now would help.

The BBC offers a one-hour daily news digest in Farsi, and I challenged myself this week to listen to the whole thing every day.  It’s certainly over my head, but it’s well-produced and discussing topics I already know a little about.  I listened a little in the morning while brushing my teeth, during my commute, and during some of my workouts.  Though I didn’t make it all the way through every episode, and on a couple days I listened to the last few minutes while I was falling asleep at night, I still benefited.  I was remembering words I thought I had forgotten and I looked up words occasionally.  My mind turned again towards Farsi–exactly what I’d hoped for!

On Saturday, then, I started using the great learning app, Anki.  This app soups up my old flash cards.  It offers universal accessibility–platforms for PC (Windows and Linux), Android, and on-line–and keeps track of what words I know best.  It also reminds me when it’s time to study.  Creating new cards I find the hardest, but the application makes it easy to cut and paste from emails, articles, or Google Translate.  I can also tag the source of my word.  Thanks to Anki, I spent 10 minutes in bed this morning reviewing some words, in addition to the 25 minutes (so far today) of listening to the BBC.  I’m back!

Quantity, not quality

Of course, the quality of your language-learning materials are important, but quantity got me back up into language-learning.  Doing something–anything–every day not only helped my language knowledge but also my motivation.  It’s easy to lose focus when life is busy, but 10 minutes that’s over your head is better than nothing.

Another thing I learned was that searching for quality input is important, but can’t stand in the way of practice.  When I’m looking for material more than I’m praticing, I’ve lost my balance.  I can tend to be a perfectionist, so I have to beware of this balance.  “Just do it!” has to be my motto.

This coming week, I’m going to try more of the same.  I’ll listen to the Persian BBC podcast as well as work my Anki cards as much as possible.  We’ll see where I end up.

Are you languishing in your language-study?  Did you fall off the horse?  What’s one thing you can do–even for one day–in the next day or two to work on your language?  Tweet this article and help spread the encouragement!

Photo credit: Eduardo Amorim / / CC BY-NC-SA

Overcoming fear to end a slump

Overcome fear by action (Image by Stuart Miles,
Overcome fear by action (Image by Stuart Miles,

I’m living a language slump—since the summer, my Farsi has not advanced much. Learning a language, I explain to people, is like filling a bucket with holes. At this point, more is coming out of my Farsi “bucket” than is going in. I know less on December 1 than I did on August 1. This lack of progress makes me feel defeated—and ultimately fear blocks me and keeps me from moving forward.

The surface sources of my slow progress are clear. First, my schedule changed drastically as I moved to a new state and to a new job with a radically different daily schedule and set of expectations. So I spend little time going through my words during the day or looking for new ones. Second, the foreign language I run into most often is Somali, not Farsi, so that language draws more of my attention. Moreover, beginning a new language (like Somali) keeps my attention much more than the intermediate doldrums of Farsi. Third, I’m working on building a Somali/immigrant language movement in my city, and that takes time for communication and organization, which takes time away from potential Farsi study.

Sometimes I long for a teacher. One reason is I want the accountability of a regular language meeting. Another reason is that I need controlled, intermediate input. The input from podcasts and newspapers can be overwhelming; it takes a lot of chewing to digest it. When I spend focused time on them, though, I get something valuable out of it. I want someone else to help me overcome my slump.

In fact, teachers are waiting for me. Through Livemocha—where I haven’t checked in for months—I have tens of friend requests, many from Iran. Iran is ten hours later than me, which means that at 8 or 9 pm my time, I could have an early morning session with someone in Iran, or at 6-7 am my time, I could meet with someone in Iran at the end of the work day. These folks want to learn English, too, so we could do a language exchange.

To be honest, I’m afraid to make the time commitment. My old job used to have a flexible schedule, and I spent 80% of my time by myself. Now I have to be places at particular times and work with people the entire time. Flexible, alone time—especially if it can be at home—has become a terribly valuable commodity.

I have a fear of shortage; this is the real obstacle to my Farsi progress. I’m afraid that I don’t have enough time.  Fear has stopped me, and fear has become my normal state. I need to confront fear and overcome my static inertia, thus moving my self forward again.The next step is to assume the opposite: I have enough time.  By making that initial investment, I will overcome the inertia and get moving.  Investing in a teacher would work; a 30- to 60-minute per week commitment would improve my Farsi by a lot.  These lessons would lead to visible progress—and enjoyment and connection—on a regular basis, so I would feel encouraged to work here and there (e.g., vocabulary cards and podcasts) and to visit my elderly neighbors more often.

What does fear keep you from doing? How do you confront it to overcome the inertia it causes?