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

Week 26 of Loving Somali: What does a half-year of progress look like?

A six-month victory to celebrate!
A six-month victory to celebrate!

I realized that this week marks six months of learning Somali for me. A couple years ago, I learned from some friends a few phrases that we used often, but I wasn’t learning any grammar or vocabulary regularly. A half-year ago, though, I started getting more serious. Focusing on Somali has been difficult, but looking back I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made. I live a busy life, so I can’t dedicate large chunks to language-study. As a result, I learned what I can accomplish in 6 months.

Are you a busy professional with a full social and domestic life? Do you have lots of demands on you from your home and community? That’s my life. I hope that this list shows what you too can accomplish, even with a busy life.

See what I accomplished!

Don’t just practice–engage!

No bout succeeds without practice, but practice needs a bout!
No bout succeeds without practice, but practice needs a bout!

Learning languages is like boxing.  I have to work out and practice–like Rocky in the meat locker or running up the stairs of Philadelphia Museum of Art.  But I also have to remember that I have to get in the ring.  I’m doing my language exercises so that I can “go the distance” and successfully engage in conversation.  Lately I’ve been struggling with my language study because I lose sight of how all the learning-exercises fit together and how it all fits in my daily schedule.  With recent concrete experiences I’m discovering practical ways to balance learning exercises: to practice my language on my own, but always with the end that I will be talking to people.

I’ve made a cycle through my Farsi resources.  For a long time, I was reading articles and listening to podcasts.  I memorized lots of vocabulary.  I finally burned out on these exercises for two reasons.  One, I was too isolated.  I couldn’t sustain language-learning without my ultimate end before my eyes, that is, the end of talking to people.  Two, my schedule changed and I didn’t have the same kind of time to dedicate to these activities.  I was bored because I was stuck with the same vocabulary words and didn’t have time to look for more.

As a result, I recently turned to the internet and Skype.  I’ve found several generous Iranian students of English through italki who patiently help me with my Farsi.  Two problems have arisen from these conversations.  One, the time difference and my work schedule conspire to block frequent meetings.  Two, my vocabulary is not good enough to say precisely what I want to say and to understand others’ responses.  I’ve recently had a couple of Skype conversations that were frustrating because I was asking people to translate what they said and help me translate what I wanted to say.  The talk was not exactly “conversation.”  Previously I ran into the same problem with our neighbors.

I can classify my learning problems into two categories: time and skills.  I have to work, spend time with my family, and have a social life (even with non-Farsi speakers!).  So I need to figure out how much time I have to work on my language and when.  This re-analysis would be a good task for the new year.  I need to be honest about my time, what I’m spending it on, and how much can I spare on my language.  Also, managing my language time so that I don’t get stuck in an unproductive rut like where I found myself this fall.

For my skills, I have to work constantly with an eye on balance.  I need the vocabulary and I need conversation.  Like a boxer, I have to do push-ups and hit the bag; I also have to get in the ring to spar.  I can’t do one without the other.  Sparring–conversation–shows where my weaknesses are so that I can go and work on the areas that I’m weak in.  Learning vocabulary is the push-ups and punching-bag workouts, but with the goal of engaging with a partner.

One exercise that I’m working on, I’ve mentioned before.  I’m working on dialogues to repeat.  I’m writing ones in English so that language-learners can use them for multiple languages.  Then I’ll translate them into Farsi, and then into Somali.  On Skype these work well because I can have lots of different partners and so repeat the same dialogues over and over.  This reinforces vocabulary as I converse.  I can also use my “unproductive” Skype time to translate something concrete that I can use again later.

I will succeed if I use the little time that I have for languages well.  I will use my time well if I am balancing exercises on my own with conversations with other people.  The goal for both is to “go the distance” in Farsi–and then any other language.

Can you tell me about times when you ran into time problems?  How about problems balancing learning on your own and practicing with others?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Moving out of Yourself through Language

The Immigrant
The Immigrant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To improve our problem-solving capabilities, we all need to see things from a new perspective.  We may be successful in our careers and relationships.  But our successes possess some parts that are not working as well as they could.  We can’t see them, though.  When we live inside our mind, the mind that has figured out how to be successful, we learn to skim over the gaps in our lives.

Learning a language forces us to struggle for success.  We can’t live under the illusion of inevitable success in our lives; our constant failures in basic communication remind us of our shortcomings.  We sit in front of someone who has great success in speaking this language; the native speaker’s every at-bat appears to result in an inevitable home run.  In stark contrast to the native speaker, we struggle just to hear the crack of the bat.

The other person has a different complement of successes and failures in their experience.  When we build a relationship with that person, we enjoy the opportunity to learn.

When we struggle with a language, we can plug into a new world of success and failure.  An immigrant, for example, has struggled with great loss, moving away from their entire support system in order to support themselves in a new way.  This movement brings loneliness through separation.  Immigrants also likely struggled with languages, leaving them trapped in their poorly-expressed thoughts.  When we move into their comfort zone, we leave ours, and we are ready to learn: about a new person, a different life, a foreign way of thinking.

Have you had such an encounter learning a language or a new way of thinking?  How did it affect you?