Don’t try so hard: Do the minimum for language love

Don't get worried. Just open up and start speaking.
Don’t get worried. Just open up and start speaking.

I recently met the inventor of Fetch-a-Phrase, a method of keeping all the key phrases you need for a language in your back pocket. You take basic phrases for you language, correlate the words from one language to the other, and then use the correlations to build new sentences.

You don’t have to be great at languages. You just have to care. You don’t have to be fluent in a language. You just have to try. You don’t need to understand everything. You just have to say something. You don’t have to impress anyone. You just have to do something for someone else.

Lower the bar. Perfection is not the friend of language-love.
Why loving language

Why are you learning languages? Is it love?

Why learn languages?
Why learn languages?

In Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk, “How great leaders inspire action”, he posits that great ideas begin not with the “What,” but with the “Why” and then the “How.” That is, every company produces a “what,” but not all delve into the more profound areas of why and how they produce what they do. I’ve learned a lot from this presentation in how to examine what I love doing and what motivates me to keep on going.

Language means everything to me, but so does service to others. In this blog I’ve been trying for many years to express why love and deep connection with others motivates my language-learning.

Now I’m going to lay out why love lies at the center of my learning languages.

I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.
Why loving language

Week 29 of Loving Somali: More fruit, thanks to the labor of me and others

Speaking your language in a cafe can really pay off!
Speaking your language in a cafe can really pay off!

Persistence paid off. Please forgive the cliche, but I’ve been trying to manifest in the past several posts—at least to myself—the progress I’ve been able to make over many months. This week I:

  • found a local teacher;
  • carried on a decent conversation;
  • dedicated some time every day to study; and
  • won a Somali grammar contest.

An additional truth came to me this week: I can’t do this alone. If it weren’t for my on-line tutor and my new conversation partner—not to mention my friends at work—my progress would be even slower than it is. I’m very grateful for these supporters I have.
Read how I did it

Loving a language that plays hard to get: Studying rare languages

How do you connect when he's playing hard to get? Dialogues!
How do you connect when he’s playing hard to get? Dialogues!

As I’ve mentioned before, I love rare languages. From Swiss German to Oromo, their exoticness and unique characteristics draw me in. They’re like the strong, silent types of language: cute, mysterious, captivating. They do their own thing, and you need effort to work your way into their heart.

Continue reading “Loving a language that plays hard to get: Studying rare languages”

What is language-love worth?

How does language-love enrich you?
How does language-love enrich you?

Recently I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast, and they had an episode entitled, “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It.” I listen regularly to this podcast because they, as economists, ask creative questions to understand human behavior quantitatively. In this episode, they wanted to examine quantitatively whether learning a foreign language is “worth it.” In order to quantify this worth, they measured the return on investment (ROI) of learning a foreign language. They found that the ROI is quite low; however, ROI of this skill does not accurately quantify the value of a foreign language because the ROI of a language depends on the wealth of the people using it, not the skill itself. They actually showed that the ROI of a language is high if its speakers are rich.

The findings on Freakonomics

To summarize the findings of the Freakonomics folks, languages help but they usually offer minimal ROI. Languages improve one’s cognitive abilities, such as decision making, namely, one tends to make more rational decisions while thinking in another language. One scientist hypothesized that the emotional detachment one enjoys keeps decisions from becoming irrational.

People earn more money depending on the language they know, but the money is minimal with one exception. One of the researchers concluded, “We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. ” These figures indicate that language offers minimal ROI benefits. We find one exception to this trend, however: English. “In [similar studies conducted in Turkey, Russia, and Israel], actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent.” Hence English can offer a substantial ROI over speaking only a non-English language. If you speak English, you will not enjoy a high ROI in learning another language, but if you do not speak English, learning it benefits you substantially.

The problem of ROI as value of language

This calculation of ROI bothers me because it looks at average ROI without the context of the jobs in consideration. People do not necessarily make a lot of money because of skills, but because of the material substance of the person they are working for. For example, I will make more money serving food at a high-end caterer than at a soup-kitchen. The work is substantially the same, but my salary assumes how “demanding” (read, “rich”) my client is. Elton John did not become a knight because he plays piano well; he is a knight because he played it well for aristocrats. A Harvard English professor will make five times what a community college English professor in Idaho makes, even if they have the same PhD and publishing record. The ROI on learning a language depends on wealth: 1) the average wealth of speakers of that language and 2) the average wealth of the actual clients you work with.

The language one learns determines in part the client one would use it for. People in the US who need someone to speak Spanish to them are most likely poor, uneducated immigrants. There are few jobs where you make a lot of money serving poor, uneducated immigrants. Jobs that would require German, however, would imply that you are working with people in Germany engaged in international business of some sort. Hence, jobs that require German offer more money. Americans tend to be rich and monolingual, so learning English for them is important for making money. Moreover, rich, well-educated people throughout the world speak English, so if you’re Turkish and work with Saudis, you can learn Arabic but your ROI will be less than if you learn English. The language you speak selects for the socio-economic class of your client, so the language selects for the salary.

Speaking a language with rich people will make you more money than speaking it with poor people. Most educated people in the world tend to be the richest and they tend to learn English. If I, as an English-speaking American, want to earn a lot of money, then I should work with rich, well-educated people. This is why most American business people are happy to know only English: everyone they work with is wealthy, educated, and knowledgeable in English.

Learn Arabic, for example. You will make much more money if you work with oil companies in Dubai than if you work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Learn Russian. You will make much more money if you develop natural gas fields than if you help victims of human trafficking. If you want to work in oil or natural gas, though, English will probably suffice.

Other values of learning a language

You have to decide if your motivation is making money or not. How you answer that will determine the ROI on learning a language. Learning a language for working with people who do not speak English will not make you more money. If you are looking to make more money, foreign languages will often not help. But there are two significant benefits to learning a language that this podcast neglects because they are much more difficult to quantify.


First, “uneducated” people do not lack knowledge. Maya Angelou said, “Some people, unable to go to school, are more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” By speaking a language besides English, you will learn more about how people live in ways very different from the relatively materially wealthy lifestyle of the English-speaking world. If you learn Spanish, you can learn about different ways of understanding oneself to be American or about life right alongside Americans. If you learn Somali, you can learn about the importance and dangers of clan relationships and the importance of oral poetry. How does the US look from the margins? How does ancient literature learned through memorization sound to people?

One of the great achievements of humans is understanding how others perceive them, and learning a language allows for this heightened perception. The Freakonomics episode following the language ROI one regards how humans perceive how others perceive them. The human brain naturally focuses on this perception, but it tends to get it wrong. It’s essential to get it right, however. The main professor featured in the podcast stated, “If you can’t understand what other people think [and] how you’re being seen by other people, it’s very hard to lead or manage them effectively.” Thus, in order to be effective in leadership positions, we must develop our accuracy of how we are perceived by others.

Significantly, getting to know others in a foreign language gives you insight into how people perceive you and your culture and your presuppositions. Not just foreign language study, but using it to speak about people’s lives and their interactions and perceptions of others will improve how we lead in our job.


Second, humanity needs people to work with poor people. We cannot value service for its own sake highly. Jobs that require true sacrifice bring a lot of good out of people. As a people, too close of need for material wealth will ruin us. We need to see the value of serving human beings and we can become more kind, more giving people.

We can improve ourselves as human beings as we learn about how we are perceived and as we serve others without constant material gain. Learning a foreign language offers the best means for gain in these areas. You will become a better person, but it may not be measured by your salary.

ROI on language-love

We will earn more money if we find a job that puts us in front of people who have a lot to give. A foreign language may or may not offer that. Some careers are populated by people with more money, but usually they do not require a language besides English.

Languages will make us better human beings and better leaders. We can achieve greater wisdom and more accurate self-perception. Meaningful opportunities to serve others can open up with another language that would not be available without English. To be human and to know humans require us to learn a language.

Why do you love languages? Why do you want to learn a new one? Is money part of the calculus?

Photo credit: / Foter / CC BY

No shame in loving language!

Free yourself from perfectionism!
Free yourself from perfectionism!

Perfectionism leads to shame because perfectionists can never live up to their own standards.  Not trying and rationalising lack of action cause less pain than trying and failing.  When people start learning languages they often think of their current level of their native language as the level they should be at.  The task seems so daunting to many that they don’t start.  Yet some still start.  Naturally, after many months and years, they still do not reach the level of their native language.

Often they feel bad about not knowing a language fluently.  They might feel lazy, they might feel stupid–in other words, they feel shame.  In spite of earning a reputation for monolingualism, most Americans I know have learned another language in some capacity, whether Hebrew at synagogue or Spanish on “Sesame Street.”  But they feel shame, they hate themselves because they’re bad at the language.  Excuses begin.

I can help you.  I think you probably know a little of a language, and that’s great.  People often rationalise the reason why they don’t know more.  I’ve included in this post three of the most common rationalisations I’ve heard–and cures for them.  Enjoying what you know and taking yourself a little less seriously will help cure your language perfectionism.

I only know a little–not very much

“All I can say is ‘uno, dos, tres.'”  “I can pronounce the words, but I don’t know what I’m saying.”  “I learned a little in school, but that was a long time ago.”  Phrases like these belie underlying shame for not being good enough at a language.  The one who says it feels like they should know a language better, but just never got around to learning it better.

People seem to think that their “limited” exposure does not measure up to what it should be.  Fluency or nothing seems to lie at the core.  Since they can’t communicate everything they want in the language, they won’t bother.  The language is to have conversations; without that ability, their language knowledge may as well not exist.

Language serves a lot of purposes besides full conversations, namely, to connect people.  If I only know “¿Cómo estás?” then I can use it when I run into a Spanish-speaking person at work.  (If the person answers in Spanish, refer to the next point, below.)  If you say you can only read Hebrew or Arabic and not understand, look again–you probably understand a smattering of words that you can use.  Two words are better than nothing.  A friend of mine went to China with a coworker, and they only learned “hello” and “handsome man.”  They broke the ice in a lot of situations by bringing smiles to people’s faces.  A handful of words won’t carry a whole conversation, but can bring people together.

I can’t understand when people respond

I’ve heard the story many times: I really hunkered down and studied my language.  I took classes, I bought Rosetta Stone, I listened to my language on-line.  Finally, I got the chance to go to the country.  When I took my Coke to the cashier, the lady spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand a single word.  I asked her to repeat, so she said it louder, and I still didn’t get it.  I smiled, showed her my money, and she picked out the right amount.  Humiliated, I realized I am no good at languages and I will no longer try.

Language-learners resemble children in adult bodies.  They look like adults, but you have to talk to them like they’re little kids.  They can’t understand the simplest things!  The tension is unavoidable.  You know what you want to say, and you want to be respected like an adult.  Now it sounds like the adult you’re talking to in your language is yelling at you, scolding you.

I think we can revel in this disconnect.  Rather than feel the shame of a naughty child, we can laugh at the funny man-child (or woman-child) we have suddenly become.  My friend told me about his friend–I’ll call him Jack–in France.  Jack came to France to look for work, but his French was barely existent.  He kept his chin up in this difficult reality.  When he saw quizzical responses on people’s faces, when he couldn’t make out the answer to his request, he laughed.  Because of Jack’s great attitude, he could have a whole boulangerie in stitches when he went to order a croissant; everyone had a good time.  Rather than feel shame for his French, Jack drew attention to his inability to speak “well” and everyone loved him because of it.

I really want to get good at this language before I start another one

A long time ago I was on a message board with folks who love languages.  One person was lamenting that she wanted to learn Russian and Greek, but she didn’t want to start yet because she wanted to get good at Spanish first.

The person held some unrealistic expectations that were holding her back.  First, the point at which one is “good” at a language eludes us–if it actually exists.  As a result, we are tempted to put off the starting point for Russian, Greek, etc, forever, since we can always convince ourselves that we are not yet “good” at Spanish.  Second, the need to wait exposes our tendencies towards perfectionism.  We need to be good first because people might think we’re no good at Spanish or we can’t finish what we’ve started.  Maybe we’ll lose the little Spanish we gained once we start Russian, and then we’ll sound more dumb than we were!

My response was: embrace your inner debutante!  Learn a little bit of Russian while you learn your Spanish.  Find a Spanish textbook on how to learn Greek.  Memorize “hello” and “good-bye” and “I love your language!” in Russian, and then go back to Spanish.  Listen to Greek radio on-line while you memorize your Spanish words.  No chef perfects beef before moving on to chicken–he does both.  He doesn’t have to be the best at both, but he can still learn how to adapt.  Learning is always good.

Perfection is not attainable

Perfectionism lies at the root of our language shame.  We don’t speak enough, we don’t understand others, we shouldn’t start being imperfect at another language–all come from perfectionism.  When we don’t attain that perfection, we feel guilty.

Laughter is the best medicine, and it can cure perfectionism.  Trot out your three words of Spanish, smile when you don’t understand, and love learning a few phrases of a language you’re not focusing on right now.  Any language you can learn will help you–and will help the one you are speaking to.  When our attitude shifts away from our shame towards love and connection, speaking languages will continually bring us–and everyone around–delight.

Photo credit: danorbit. / / CC BY-NC-ND

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

Setting goals and moving towards the center

Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements
Slight, accurate motion causes great, effective movements

This week I was looking at the website of a guy I know; he gives advice about how to reach goals by using small communities of ambitious friends to support each other.  The first piece of advice that struck me, though, was, in his words, “stop the bleeding.”  He recommended naming bad habits and using time spent on them for the goals we want to accomplish.  One of my bad habits is compulsively checking email and Facebook, so I took some time away from those activities this week, and I accomplished a few things that I would not have done otherwise.  I haven’t done the second important piece of advice–examine “why” I want to do these things.  I’ll discuss that in a minute.

Before I list the things that I accomplished, I’ll briefly mention a simple tool that I used.  I set up a spreadsheet on Google Docs.  I put multiple tabs, one for each large goal: start a side business, expand language offerings in the public schools, learn Farsi, learn Somali, develop methods for learning languages at work, and blog.  On the spreadsheet I write individual tasks that I think well keep me moving.  I date when I put tasks down and when I finish them.  I also want to put down a deadline for myself, but I’m afraid of that much commitment at this point.  This way I can actually see what I’m getting accomplished and plan a little more deliberately.

Here are some of the things I actually accomplished.

  • Business.  I have a website that is nearly complete.  It still needs some photos, so I talked to my friend’s wife, who is a photographer, and some international friends at work who will pose with me.  Once the photos are up, I should be done with the site, ending that phase.
  • Languages in Schools.  I contacted a person who has already been working on Somali language in the Minneapolis Schools.  I’m planning on another meeting maybe next Saturday–I ran the idea past my friend/partner.  I’ve put together a list of names to invite to the meeting, and I created an agenda that is manageable for a 1-1.5 hour meeting.
  • Farsi.  I’ve been watching some Iranian sit-coms every evening or every-other evening.  I IM friends in Iran 2-3 times per week at work.  I spoke over Skype with an Iranian friend for about 15-20 minutes.
  • Somali.  I use my limited Somali every day, but I didn’t really move ahead.  Not much happened here.
  • Languages at Work.  I’ve been inputting dialogues for my languages at work packet.  I solicited more translations and ideas from my Somali friends, and we’re discussing ways to re-introduce our Somali table to our company.
  • Blog.  (This is it!)

I’m amazed that I did all this in moments at home and slow moments at work when I would normally kill time.  I’m grateful for this piece of advice to “stop the bleeding.”

I want to look at why I want to accomplish these goals with the hope of encouraging my deeper motivations.  Figuring out the “why” behind these goals appeals to me, because I know that I can motivate myself at my core.  Back in college, when I studied kung fu, my non-English-speaking sifu used to demonstrate effective technique by taking a rope and swinging it in a circle.  He’d point at the small motions of his hand and the large motion of the rope they caused.  When you push from the center, less effort is necessary for an action.  (See photo.)

The technique of finding out the “why” is to ask why I want to do something, and then ask “why” to that answer, five times.  This way I move towards my own center.  So I want to accomplish this technique this week on at least two of my big goals I mentioned above.

I’d love to learn from my readers how you accomplish your goals–or what stands in your way.  I may or may not have suggestions for you; I’d love to learn something from you.

Do any of my readers use accountability groups for setting and keeping short- and long-term goals?  If so, please describe your process.

How do you stay focused on goals?  What techniques do you use?  Do you have examples?

Photo credit: Steve Corey / / CC BY-NC

What I learned about language-learning: 2012

Learning from 2012
Learning from 2012

I think that today is the perfect day to review my blog posts from the past year and summarize what I’ve learned about language-learning.  I hope that you have been learning along with me.  Overall, I found that learning languages improves my character, my professional life, and my community.  The process of learning languages teaches me how to set and achieve difficult goals.  Learning languages is not enough, though; I’m learning how to take language love out to my broader community.

Learning languages improves character.

When we learn languages, we train ourselves to think in new ways.  We become more creative and we move outside of our everyday thinking patterns.  As we advance, we talk to new people and take risks in looking silly–facing down immobilizing fears.  Understanding new people comes more easily, and we become more open-minded.  Confronting our fears and opening ourselves up to those who think differently from us forces us to grow and mature.

(See Moving out of Yourself through Language; Living Abroad–Learning Languages?–Enhances Creativity; Vulnerability and Weakness, Growth and Connection; Language Learning for Veterans; Languages: Failure is Gain; A Money-Mouth Situation; Language, fear, and childishness; Seek to understand rather than to be understood; You can learn a new skill!)

Learning languages improves professional success.

For those who work regularly with speakers of other languages, we can engage with them in more positive and constructive ways if we learn their language.  Though they may speak English, we show that we recognize the effort they constantly put forth to speak to us in a language that is foreign to them; we sympathize with them.  Moreover, we understand more deeply the needs and desires of our clients and customers because we have made the effort.  All of us will spend increasing amounts of time in the future with more non-native speakers of English, and the more we speak another language, the more quickly we will succeed in our dealings with those for whom English is not their native language.

(See Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?; Communication Problems Slow Business Growth; Learning Languages for Global Development; Languages, Marketing, and Customer Experience; Languages Benefit US Employees.)

Learning languages improves the lives of expat spouses.

As a corollary to the above lesson, I’ve found that the spouses of expats will experience a more positive, constructive transition if they learn the language of the country they go to.  They can benefit from this exciting adventure, teach their children, advance their career, and grow personally.  Ultimately, the company profits from spouses who have a good expat experience.

(See Relocation Succeeds with Training for Spouses of Expats; Learning the Language Aids the Expat Spouse; Language Training Helps the Careers of Expat Spouses.)

Learning languages offers social benefits.

As Americans we find ourselves in the contradictory position of being surrounded by multiple languages every day, yet understanding none of them.  Our communities are full of language resources that we do not seek to learn from.

At the same time, we Americans hear our news largely from American sources in English.  We lack access to differing points of view because we cannot understand the languages in which those views are formed.  If we sought to benefit from the languages of our fellow-Americans, we would understand the world in a more sensitive, nuanced way.

(See “We have a listening problem”; Learning Community Languages; Language Deficiency; فارسی برای همه Farsi for everyone!; To be American is to be multilingual; Learn Languages for a Different Take on the News.)

Setting goals is important, but one must continually evaluate what is most effective.

This year I decided to learn Farsi.  I wanted to see how much I could learn with the resources I could find, without going to the country.  I set out in the beginning with certain goals for listening, vocabulary, and interactions.

Examining what works always helps, but what works in one phase of learning or of life may or may not work in another phase.  I found some of my learning tasks easy and some of them impossible.  I kept up in some areas but not in others.  Sometimes I lost my “balance.”  I made some fast progress in vocabulary, then lost momentum.  I more recently learned the beauty and necessity of speaking to natives.  Moving and changing jobs radically altered my ability to study my language, but I am still striving to learn however I can.  I learned that setting goals is not the same as setting expectations–goals I aim for, but expectations hurt when I don’t get to them.  Ultimately, the notion “progress, not perfection” will ensure that I learn the language–though not necessarily as quickly as I may like.

(See Setting Goals: Why take on this task?; Stuff happens; Problem of Intermediate Language Learning; Farsi at Six Months; Progress and perseverance in learning languages; Just make progress!; Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe; Overcoming fear to end a slump; Don’t just practice–engage!)

Importance of teaching languages

Finding myself in a community filled with Somali immigrants, I want to develop a local team to figure out ways for us non-Somali Minnesotans to learn from our neighbors.  We need to figure out how to develop more language teachers here.  I want my kids to grow up knowing more than one language, preferably one they can speak every day.  Education will improve overall through greater language education.  I also want the Somalis at my work to teach me and my co-workers their language.  Knowing that learning and teaching languages takes a lot of time, I’m learning how to use lunch time for learning time.

(See Languages at Work; Community Languages in Schools; Team Language-Lover; Certifying immigrant language teachers.)

I hope that you have a happy new year!  I hope next year to enjoy all kinds of improvement in Farsi and Somali.  I want to teach more people how to improve their lives by learning languages in the situation where they find themselves, whether in the US or abroad.  I also hope to develop Somali education in local schools here.  I hope we all love languages even more in 2013!


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?