Microsoft is killing languages with Skype Translator (and so is Google Conversation Mode)

How can tech companies aid the survival of minority languages?
How can tech companies aid the survival of minority languages?

Microsoft is killing language diversity—but they’re not the only high-tech culprit. Google is doing the same thing. Both of them are developing real-time translating apps, where people can speak and hear their own language as they converse with someone speaking a different language. These tech giants are the new world empires, following neatly in the footsteps of empires, from the Babylonians to the British, who initiated language-loss millennia ago.

Sounds contradictory, no? How could an app that allows people to speak and be understood in their own language be detrimental to language variety?
How can tech companies help?


Week 10 of Loving Somali: No more advice, please. I just want to love languages.

As soon as I quit chasing happiness, I can be happy.
I can be happy today, if I see how good my life is.

Here’s what I intended to do with Somali this week: work on exercises for chapters 1-4 of my book and study vocabulary every day. Maybe I would have a Skype call with a teacher or even take a trip downtown to a Somali coffee shop.

Here’s what I did this week. I studied vocabulary every day and I got half-way through chapter 1 of my book. (I plan to work on more of the book today.)

What happened? Life happened. Continue reading “Week 10 of Loving Somali: No more advice, please. I just want to love languages.”

Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue

A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!
A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!

Without my languages I feel anxious and unfulfilled. While I don’t have a lot of time for Somali, I feel the need every day to work on my language, even if it’s five minutes of Anki flash cards or four minutes scanning BBC Somali headlines of which I may only grasp a few words.

Fortunately, I found a Somali teacher who will work with me over Skype. He is very knowledgable about the Somali language, and he has experience teaching foreigners. I am very grateful that he is willing to work with me. Part of me still asks: Will this sustain my language love? Will Skype provide the connection I need?

This week, language love came to my rescue and brought me joy in a moment of stress and anxiety. Work was difficult, and took up a lot of time, causing me stress. I missed my language tables as a result, so I didn’t get to experience much language. I had to go work at offices in different areas, where I luckily got to mix with new people. On the way to a meeting I heard a guy working at a food stand speaking Arabic to another man as I was walking by. On the way back to my car after the meeting, I said to him, Ahlan! Masa ilkheir!” (“Hi! Good afternoon!”) Business was slow for him in the mid-afternoon, so he gave me a can of Coke and told me to sit down.
Continue reading “Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue”

The hard work of loving language

Time to get started again!
Time to get started again!

What do you do when language-learning stalls?

I’m trying to get back to work–language work. Other than my brief Portuguese stint, I haven’t done much language-learning this summer. My heart calls out for more languages!

I’m not getting enough from just the feeling of loving languages. A feeling won’t help me get connected with others, won’t give me the rush of new words and sounds and ideas coming through my mouth. Love is an action, isn’t it?

Continue reading “The hard work of loving language”

A family Somali language teacher: Community and teamwork

Learning language and culture as a family
Learning language and culture as a family

I’m ready to hire a Somali teacher now.  I need to find a way to keep me talking and progressing in my language, and I need some help.  Also, as my kids reach middle school, where the language offerings are slim, I want to help them develop their language abilities.  As we live in Minnesota, Somali is one of the most practical languages to learn.  A family Somali teacher will teach my kids foreign-language skills and motivate me in my language-learning.

A connection to the community

I’m looking for someone who can teach my kids a foreign language and connect them to a broader community in our area.  My idea is to find 1-2 teachers in the local Somali community who can come to my house 1-2 times per week to teach language, and who could help get us acquainted with the Somali community here.  I would love to expand these sessions to meeting at the malls and community centers in the city.  These experiences will help broaden the horizons of my children as they learn a language.

So I’m looking for a particular type of language teacher: one who focuses on teaching the basics and getting us out there to talk.  We need engagement above all.  Games, songs, action, and fun need to play an important role.  Field trips need to play a part, too.  (Somali restaurants anyone?)  I don’t think too much grammar will keep my family engaged, although some grammar explanations help crystallize understanding.

In my experience, playing with kids in a foreign language works best.  When the kids were younger, we had a great young Russian woman (Olya) teaching them.  She was in her early 20s, and she liked to play games inside and outside with them.  My kids’ favorite memory of Olya was when her family came to town from Russia, and they got to play with Olya’s younger sister who was about their age and spoke almost no English.

Since my kids go to school with plenty of Somali kids, and the Somali community leads lots of activities in our area, I hope that a sense of play and a love of another community will help motivate my kids’ language-learning.

Motivating myself

These days I’m not progressing in my languages well on my own.  I feel like I should be able to do it on my own, though; I feel like hiring a teacher indicates I’ve given up.  At the same time, I feel like a teacher may breathe new life into my studies.  The funny thing is, I’m so used to being the teacher that needing a teacher is uncomfortable.  I don’t want a teacher to take over my learning for me, but to help motivate me.

Work takes up so much of my energy these days, but it teaches me the importance of a team.  The project I’m working on is intense, but it will move into a less intense phase this coming week. So I will get more energy back.  I’m grateful for this project–so different from anything I’ve done in academia–because it taught me how working in a team motivates me so much more than working entirely on my own.  As a team, we regularly articulate goals, check up on one another’s progress, and encourage one another.  A language teacher will get me working on a team again in my language study to improve how I articulate goals, am accountable to others, and get encouragement.

I see many ways that teamwork helps language study.  The famous Youtube polyglots (eg, Benny Lewis, Moses McCormick, Richard Simcott) create videos, and the responses from their audience help motivate them.  Skype friends help create times when I can speak in my languages.  A friend of mine who’s learning Spanish, conscripted his brother to talk to him twice a week on the phone entirely in Spanish.  No language exists in a vacuum; we need a team.  I’m just looking to adjust my configuration of teammates.

Family tutor: Involving my kids, expanding my team

By bringing in a Somali tutor, I’m expanding my kids’ community and my own language-learning community.  Languages are social, so speaking requires lots of people.  New languages requires new communities, so we’re venturing into new areas of our city and our world.  I hope we make new connections and learn new skills.

Have you ever hired a language teacher for your kids and/or family?  How did you find him or her?  What criteria did you use for selection?  What have you found a language tutor does for you that you can’t do for yourself?

Photo credit: Jim Boud / / CC BY-NC-ND

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.)

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

Teaching young language-lovers

How can we teach young language-lovers?
How can we teach young language-lovers?

Last weekend I had a great conversation over Skype with my friend’s language-loving son.  Nico is 7, lives in Boston, and loves languages.  We talked so I could encourage his learning as a fellow language-lover.

He spends hours surfing the website Omniglot, when his parents let him, so he knows quite a bit.  When I told him I’m learning Farsi and Somali, he knew exactly what I was talking about.  He even started talking about the Hamitic language family to which Somali belongs.

He has some specific, well-researched interests of his own.  Dying languages fascinate him, and he’s especially interested in Austronesian and Mayan languages.  He also really likes “looping” writing systems, especially Burmese.  When I suggested the writing systems of Sinhalese and Georgian, he mentioned that he likes Armenian writing.  You can see how much this boy knows; my kids have grown up around me (they’re 10 and 12) and they were amazed.  I’ve always been a language nut, but I didn’t know this much till I was 13 at least.

Nico’s parents are not much into languages, but they are looking for ways to engage his interests more broadly, so I was brainstorming together with them.  Here are some things we came up with:

  • Volunteering to work with a refugee family;
  • Attending local ethnic festivals;
  • Taking language classes for children;
  • Visiting language sites, similar to Omniglot.  We found, a Christian missionary site that tells stories in various, very obscure languages (like Tzotzil, a Central American language that Nico happens to be interested in).  Nico knows these basic Bible stories, so he enjoys the familiarity.

I ran out of ideas, though.  What means are there for teaching languages to a kid who is just learning how to read and write his native language, and who is living in a monolingual English home?  Our culture does not have easily-accessible means.  If a child wants to learn English, the US and state governments offer many programs; if a child wants to learn a language besides English, the child is on his or her own with very few resources.  For example, in my area the Minneapolis Public Schools only teach languages in two out of all of the elementary schools in the district, and one of them is a French immersion school.

At the end of the conversation with Nico, I wanted to challenge him to think more broadly about why we learn languages; I told him about the responsibility the love of languages brings.  If someone has a talent of any kind, in my opinion, it is so that he or she can serve those who need help.  People who know languages have a duty to help people in our communities who do not know English well.  We can relieve a bit of their burden of always having to communicate in English and we can help make them feel a little more at home.  Learning languages, while fun in and of itself for us language-lovers, comes with the imperative of using languages to serve others.

What would you suggest for a kid who wants to learn languages, but needs to go outside of his family to do so?  What are ways that a kid can help and serve others with languages?  I would love to hear your input–I will pass it on to Nico.  I look forward to talking to him again.  Please “Like” this post if you think we should offer more language opportunities to our young people!

(Photo credit: DVIDSHUB / / CC BY)

Creating “comprehensible input”–my new goal

learning, study, comprehend, understanding, comprehension
Keep learning moving!
Photo credit: rubyblossom. / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Reevaluating how I studied Farsi last year, I decided I would like to do some things differently.  I want to be sure I’m making progress, and I felt my progress in Farsi waned in the last third of 2012 (at least partially because of a move and job change).  I got a lot of help reading Aaron Myers’s planning tips at the Everyday Language Learner, and watching his videos on his YouTube channel.  His tips for language-learning are some of the best, because he deals with the weaknesses that we all run into–lack of focus, waning motivation, making the most of the little time that we have.  He convinced me that I have to re-plan for 2013 to be sure that I learn as much as I can this year.  Creating my own comprehensible Farsi study materials stands at the crux.

Motivation to re-tool comes because last year I made plans on how to work on Farsi, but I didn’t stick to them.  The plan I set last January did not last more than a month, and I did not come back to resetting my goals.  The plan was good in that it had regular goals and used multiple methods.  However, the ones that interacted more with others, such as making videos in the language or making Persian friends, never happened once.  Yet, I learned a lot of words and read a fair amount–and I met my Farsi-speaking neighbors, at least.  The end of the year didn’t feel right, though, so I wanted to think more deeply about how to make the most progress possible in 2013.

The first step proved to be the hardest: setting a goal and putting it into words.  I struggled all weekend till I could finally say, “My goal is to be able to converse with native Farsi-speakers comfortably in multiple subjects.”  While this is vague, it’s progress.  I found I could work with it.

I broke this further into two parts, as “converse” consists of “speaking” and “understanding.”  For speaking, I would need to be able to say what I need to say, and for understanding, I would need to comprehend the responses.  Speaking requires active vocabulary and decent grammar.  I would need an even bigger passive vocabulary for understanding.

The third part of my goal is “multiple subjects,” and I realized I could be more concrete in this area.  So I took my notebook and I wrote in a subject: “My neighborhood.”  I considered what I wanted to be able to say, and I wrote a short essay in English.  Then I started writing the passage in Farsi, looking up the words I need.  Once I finish, I will make a list of the words I had to look up, which will give me good and useful vocabulary for the “speaking” side.  Then I will type up the passage for, where I can get some feedback.  I may record a video on YouTube. After that, I will ask my Italki/Skype friends if they want to talk about this topic. Then I could gain some more vocabulary for the “understanding” part of the equation.  After I’m sick of talking about my neighborhood, I’ll figure out another subject and repeat the process.

I like this method because it keeps me focused on one topic that I can manage with more competence.  Previously, I was spending time gathering vocabulary from difficult sources, such as newspaper articles and podcasts.  Aaron Myers emphasizes “comprehensible input” and describes how to create your own.  “Comprehensible input” is data at my level in the foreign language that is comprehensible, that is, challenging and not overwhelming.  So I’m working towards creating input that I can understand and gain from–just a little bit over my head.

As I create this comprehensible input I can incorporate my native-speaker friends, which is a new goal of mine.  I have several Skype friends I want to talk to and who want to work with me on Persian and on English.  The great thing is talking to them is not only my means but also my goal!  The more I talk to them, the better I get and the more I succeed.  I will also incorporate consuming more videos and podcasts in Farsi to challenge my passive comprehension continuously.  The focuses topics, though, will occupy most of my focus.

Finally, I hope that this method will work for Somali, as well as Farsi.  The comprehensible input for Somali will be different than the input for Farsi in two ways.  One, the Somali input will be all dialogues for now because I have tons of exposure to native speakers.  Two, good books on Somali are rarer, as well as on-line language-learning resources, so I count on my native speakers for finding vocabulary, conjugating verbs, etc.  Writing all by myself is nearly impossible.

Are you re-tooling your language-learning processes or goals?  Please let me know what you’re planning.  If you are re-tooling your learning goals or methods, be sure to check out Aaron Myers’s “Everyday Language Learning” site.