Why don’t they learn our language? or How did they manage to do it?

How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?
How would you study after a day in the life of an immigrant?

Continuing on the theme of “Why don’t immigrants learn our language?” (see this post and this post) I wanted to present why the situation is not as simple as people think.

Most people who complain about this in the US speak English only, and so remain blissfully unaware of the complications of learning another language.

My more sophisticated brothers and sisters in Europe likely learned English, and so understand the difficulties. Nevertheless, they learned their foreign language in the comfort of their local school surrounded by family and friends taking care of them.

Immigrants have it hard because of their circumstances, both the situation they left and the life they have in their new country. Learning a new language creates even more work and difficulties in addition to getting by in this new, foreign place.

Yet they learn.

When I used to teach, I remember the reaction of my students when I would add an extra reading assignment. “We don’t have time,” they would inevitably say. I would smile and tell them that one day they would learn what “busy” meant, but at the moment, they were not busy.

We are not as busy as we think. This is what many of us have to grow into when we think about immigrants, and a valuable lesson immigrants can teach the rest of us.

Let’s look more deeply into their circumstances. It’s humbling. We’ll see that the question is not, “Why don’t they learn our language?” but “How did they manage to learn our language?” At the end, I’ll give you a few ways to use your favorable circumstances to the advantage of others.
How they learned

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

Week 25 of Loving Somali: Sharing language love

Curiosity of language is shared by many of us
Curiosity of language is shared by many of us across languages and cultures

This week a Somali friend of mine at work was willing to help me with my Somali. I know my questions are unintuitive to native speakers, so I feel uncomfortable imposing sometimes. I was so grateful when he accepted my invitation to lunch. I learned a ton about grammar and relations among words, and he made me feel very comfortable, and even said that he enjoyed forcing himself to think about this language on a deep, detailed level. We were able to spend a nice time admiring and loving the Somali language together.

Continue reading “Week 25 of Loving Somali: Sharing language love”

Week 23 of Loving Somali: Have more fun!

Don't overanalyze...have some fun!
Don’t overanalyze…have some fun!

I tend to be pretty “thinky.” Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that I can analyze a situation to the smallest detail until someone makes me stop. At the same time, I tend to overlook or even downplay the important emotional experience in the moment. I have friends who are very empathetic, who are always picking up on the emotions of the room. I’ve learned a lot from these friends about a blind spot of mine.

While this week I didn’t get a lot more done on Somali than usual, I had more fun. A less thinky week. I read aloud my dialogue and I turned to some news sites. I also found some new resources that got me excited. I want to experience fully the excitement, wonder, and discovery of this week, even though I may not speak great Somali compared to last week. I made new connections and enjoyed bursts of delight. Continue reading “Week 23 of Loving Somali: Have more fun!”

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”

Week 8 of Loving Somali: Not enough books

I'm looking to fill the bookcase with Somali.
I’m looking to fill the bookcase with Somali.

The lack of resources available for learning Somali weighs on me. I listen to polyglots talking about spending such-and-such amount of time daily working on their language. However, they’re learning Russian, Portugues, Chinese, or whatever–languages that offer many resources for learning. I have to work to produce sources that I can use before I can study them, which becomes overwhelming.

Moreover, focusing on languages struggled with work, other writing projects, and a busy home life this week. For example, I just forgot to look at my vocab deck yesterday. I’m grateful to have spent some time on Somali, even if it’s less than I would have liked.

Rather than be negative, though, I want to think about what I can do, without a big budget or tons of spare time. I do have some decent materials, and I can continue to learn from friends. I simply don’t have the resources to spend 30-60 minutes per day on Somali; I just want to use my time as best as I can. Using what I have well and producing the material I’d like to have are where to start. Continue reading “Week 8 of Loving Somali: Not enough books”

Focus and endurance: Long-term motivation for learning languages

What keeps you motivated to learn languages?
What keeps you motivated to learn languages?

Thousands of tools and tricks and methods exist to learn languages on every platform, on- and off-line.  All you have to do is use those tools a few hundred times, and you’ll be fluent.  Why, then, doesn’t everyone know another language yet?  The deciding factor is motivation.  Most people lack something that will drive them back to those tools again and again, months and years after the initial shine has worn off.

Fluency will come when you have studied for a long time, which requires sustained motivation.  Motivation requires focus, that is, the ability to decide to do this same activity when other activities also cry out for your attention. The deeper the motivation for learning the language, the longer you will stay focused.  Motivation and focus also depend on endurance.  Focusing a few times won’t suffice for learning a language, only a few thousand times.  Different factors motivate successful language-learners.  Love and curiosity trump economic reasons for learning a language because the focus runs deeper, though curiosity can sustain endurance longer.

The motivators

1. Love

When we desire in our heart to connect with someone, we can stay motivated to learn a language.  The need to understand someone else deeply, and to be understood by them, can drive us for years to learn a language.

Love drives humans to do things in way that no other motivator can, and we see this in the area of languages.  Like I said in my last post, the love can manifest itself as a desire to teach to another person’s heart an important message.  One can also develop a deep love for another culture.  A good friend of mine fell in love with Latin American culture, and so learned Spanish to a very deep degree.  One can also fall in love with someone who does not speak your language.  The strong desire to communicate with that one individual–and perhaps his or her friends and family–will motivate you for a long time.

Love drives us hard, but can end.  If we break up with the object of our desire, or leave the area of our mission, our love may taper off.  As love disappears, so may our language-love.  I became fascinated with Welsh culture when I went to Wales at 15, so I studied some Welsh.  After I was back in the US, my love of Welsh–and motivation to study Welsh–tapered off quickly.  Love, nevertheless, motivates like no other force.  If love detaches from a single object, such as a particular individual, to aim at a broader object, such as “the poor” or “humanity,” love can sustain itself longer.

2. Curiosity

Language reflects the human brain and culture.  As I said elsewhere, language allows a human to move out of his or her mind and connect with another human.  This uniquely human ability fascinates many.  As sports display the beauty and strength and agility the human body is capable of, so language shows the flexibility and creativity of the human mind.

Curiosity can drive us to all the different ways that language manifests human wisdom and ingenuity.  This curiosity can manifest itself in a love of abstract grammar processes. This drives us to study linguistics and Universal Grammar.  Also, curiosity can drive us to read poetry in various languages, just to see what the human mind can think of next.  One might collect proverbs or untranslatable words from different languages.  Like my young language lover friend, we might just end up collecting books and websites of all different sorts of languages and learning as much as we can of and about them.  Polyglots tend to fall in this category.

For humans being, curiosity rivals love as a motivator.  Curiosity can be a love of an abstract concept.  A biologist does not just really want to know about biology; she loves biology.  In the same way as love, curiosity can die when the object of our inquiry is no longer there.  Because curiosity lies mostly within us, however, curiosity can motivate us with less fickleness.

3. Economic necessity

Language love might start out with this, one of the weakest, motivators.  Many people throughout the world began learning English because of this motivation.  Parents probably offer this to their children to influence them to learn a language.  For this reason, Mandarin immersion schools are popping up all over the world.  In the history of the world, many learned languages so that they could speak to more potential customers in the local or distant markets.

Economic benefits from learning another language are clear.  In third-world countries, knowing English might give you access to some of the best-paying jobs around.  Large companies may encourage workers to learn languages so the company can gain market share in important areas.  The government or military may need linguists in order to attain a particular objective.

This motivator can be short-lived because they depend on the economic situation.  I met someone who learned Chinese in the Air Force.  He spent eight hours a day in a plane on the edge of Chinese airspace listening to and translating conversations they picked up.  He said it was a boring job.  When he got out of the Air Force, he forgot his Chinese.  During the period of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s relationship with East Germany encouraged many Russians to learn German.  With new relationships with the US and the UK and the world English-speaking community, very few people learn German in the former USSR any more, and those who knew it have largely forgotten it.

Depth and endurance

Motivation requires depth and endurance.  Scholars and psychologists have looked at the quality of “grit” recently and it relationship with successful learning, and these may be related.  Love and curiosity offer greater depth, but curiosity probably offers more endurance.  Economic motivation can offer endurance, but not necessarily depth.  These areas can overlap and morph from one to another.  Interest in a language from economic motivators can engender love for the other culture, or an overseas work assignment can lead to falling in love with someone from that culture.  Curiosity in language can turn to economic motivation for continuing with that language.  If you are stalled in learning your language, check out your depth and endurance for sticking to it.

What motivates you to learn your language?  Where does your motivation come from?  Did I leave any motivators out?  Please write your motivators in the comments.

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney / Foter / CC BY-ND

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 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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 italki.com 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 / Foter.com / 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 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC