First steps at language love

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

Last week I told you to do the minimum for language love; don’t try so hard.

Today, I want to give you some resources for how to start. Basic. Nothing complicated.

First, though, you have to do your research. You have to go on your ecolinguistic exploratory expedition to find out what people are speaking around you. What do you hear spoken? What do you see on signs, not the formal ones, but the hand-written signs taped to light posts and pinned to bulletin boards?

Now you have your language(s). Let’s begin.
Why loving language


Lose your accent! Dental consonants (t & d)

Make sure you use your teeth right!
Make sure you use your teeth right!

Many people get overwhelmed with the idea of sounding like a native in studying a foreign language. Speaking with an accent seems like a normal state. However, with a few tips on being aware of how our mouth makes sounds, a little concentration can produce great results. I made this video series to show you how to increase your awareness of all the parts of your speaking apparatus. Speaking a language feels wonderful as you work to move your mouth like a native.

This video focuses on consonants, specifically, the sounds “t” and “d”. English (and German) speakers tend to pronounce these sounds in a peculiar way, which is distinct from how Russian and Spanish speakes do. Watch so you can make this subtle change for a great improvement in sound.

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.

Photo credit: Rupert Taylor-Price / / CC BY

Lose your accent! Clean up your vowels

How can you make yourself clearer?
How can you make yourself clearer?

Many people get overwhelmed with the idea of sounding like a native in studying a foreign language. Speaking with an accent seems like a normal state. However, with a few tips on being aware of how our mouth makes sounds, a little concentration can produce great results. I made this video series to show you how to increase your awareness of all the parts of your speaking apparatus. Speaking a language feels wonderful as you work to move your mouth like a native.

This video focuses on vowels. English speakers tend to pronounce vowels in a peculiar way, differently from speakers of many European languages, such as German and Spanish. Watch so you can hear and imitate the vowels of these languages.

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.


Photo credit: Beverly & Pack / / CC BY

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!

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

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

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

Intermediate language-learning: Beyond the basics

This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch -- one of several languages
This is the Linguistadores logo for Dutch — one of several languages offered

At this point, the language-learning market is saturated with on-line tools. They tend to fit in two categories: 1) very basic vocabulary and exercises (eg, Transparent Language) and 2) social networks for language exchanges (eg, iTalki).  Very little exists, unfortunately, for more intermediate learning. What do you do if you have the basics of the language down fairly well (eg, verb tenses, noun declensions, 200+ vocabulary words), but want to move on? You don’t know enough for, say, movies without subtitles or podcasts. Conversations with native speakers can’t last very long yet. Linguistadores has imagined the next step by helping your learning through native-language content, geared to your level.

Your choice of media
Your choice of media

This platform offers access to real pop culture items, but broken down for language learners. I tried out Dutch as the language I was learning and English as my native language. First, you have to input your language ability level. Then, the application will serve up material for your level. Materials come from three categories: written, videos, or music. The written are articles from popular periodicals.

From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.
From a music video, you can look up a word from the lyrics and add it to your list.

Videos are popular TV shows or movies hosted on another site (eg, YouTube), and music are videos of pop songs. The pop songs play the video with the words of the song next to the video, but I couldn’t find subtitles for the non-music videos. You can easily look up words from the articles and songs.

You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.
You can save and collect words into a list to create flashcards.

Linguistadores also offers you a way to keep track of new words. As you run into unfamiliar words, you can click on them and save them. You can use these lists as flash cards for memorizing the words.

The site is in its beginnings, so I hope that it will grow in a few areas. First, I hope they come up with a mobile platform very soon. I do all my language study on the go. If I’m on a computer, I’m at work. (And I better be working!) I could only watch videos and scroll through the songs’ texts on my iOS and Android devices.

A representative of Linguistadores let me know already (they were very responsive to me on Twitter) that they are working on a mobile platform. I will be giving them my ideas and suggestions — and I’m looking forward to the results. I’m hoping that the word lookup function and the videos will be available in the mobile version.

Second, I hope the language offerings are expanded. Right now, the choices are English, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish. I know these languages fairly well, and I would prefer to spend my time getting my lower languages up to a higher level. I think it will take some time to expand offerings, however, as the quality and quantity of the language materials are very high. It takes a lot of effort to keep things at this level. (How long till they get to Farsi and Somali? LOL)

Third, I wonder about the future of the material they have. How do they plan to keep the offerings fresh? There are only so many music videos, for example. I’m afraid I could possibly get bored if I have to watch the same ones too many times. Also, several of the videos I tried to watch were taken down by the original owner, which is bound to happen down the line.

Nevertheless, I believe that on-line language learning has to go the direction that Linguistadores laid out. As a kid, I stepped up my native language by looking up new words in the dictionary. I also spent a lot of time reading the lyrics to songs I liked, which gave me an ear for how people enunciate in music. I want to get to a point where I can learn on my own from native content, and Linguistadores offers a wonderful stepping-stone.

What are the on-line tools you’re using for language-learning? What do you love about them?

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

Why Somali is harder than your language

English: A young Somali man.
A young Somali man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Recently I was discussing with @JaredRomey about an article he posted, “9 hard languages for English speakers.”  I replied that I don’t know why Somali never makes it onto those lists; they tend to be the same list: Chinese, Arabic, etc.  Jared suggested I blog about why Somali deserves to be on the list.  He suggested 5 reasons why it’s hard–I came up with 7, but I’m only a beginner.


In difficulty, Somali can stand its ground against the hardest languages.  Yet the Foreign Service Institute puts Somali in category 2, where 3 is the hardest.  Category 2 includes Farsi and 3 includes Arabic.  I’ve studied both, and I don’t see how this is so; Somali seems to be way harder than Farsi and of at least the same level of difficulty as Arabic.  If you drew a Venn  diagram of languages and their hardest aspects, Somali would overlap with a lot of them.  While Mandarin and Somali have tones, Mandarin has no case.  While German and Somali have case, German has fairly simple sounds.  While Arabic and Somali have difficult sounds, Arabic has a consistent writing system.  Plus Somali does some odd things with prepositions you’ll have to read about, below.  Somali is a doosy–but the challenge is made lighter by the joy of Somalis hearing their language spoken by a foreigner.


For a bit of background: Somali belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family, in the Cushitic branch.  More famous branches of this family are Semitic, to which Arabic and Hebrew belong, and Egyptian, which includes the language of the ancient Pharaohs.  Some overlap with Arabic, then, is natural.


  1. Three (four?) writing systems.  When Somali was originally written down in the Arabic script in the 13th century (Wadaad script).  In 1920, another script was invented that somewhat resembled the Ethiopian writing system (Osmanya script).  A more minor script was invented in 1930, called the Borama script.  The official script since 1972 has been a Latin-based alphabet (Somali alphabet).
  2. All the hard sounds of Arabic.  The guttural sounds that foreigners have trouble with in Arabic–they’re all in Somali.  The emphatic ha, the ayin, the qaf, the raspy kha–they’re all there.  (They’re spelled x, c, q, and kh, respectively.)  Additionally, Somali distinguishes between short and long vowels, like in Arabic, and other languages like Japanese and Finnish.  So my friends correct me if I say “si” rather than “sii.”  Finally, they have a retroflex “d” (spelled dh) like in Indian languages.
  3. Some of the tones of Mandarin.  Most have heard of the four different tones of Mandarin: high, low, falling, and rising.  Somali only has two, high and low, but they can sound different depending on the environment they are found in.  They change the meaning of the word, too!  “Boy” is ínan, and “girl” is inán; “dog” is éy and “dogs” is eý.
  4. Irregular plurals like German or Arabic.  A Somali noun forms its plural according to a pattern that is not predictable from its singular, and Somali has 7 or so patterns.  This concept may sound familiar to German- or Arabic-speakers.  Unlike English, which almost always forms its plural with “-(e)s,” Somali has no “regular” plural suffix.  So the plural of áf  “language,” flattens the tone and repeats the last syllable: afaf.  For some nouns, a suffix is used, so hoóyo “mother” goes to hoyoóyin, and áabbe goes to aabayaal (also note the tone shift).  Finally, words may shift gender as they go from singular to plural.
  5. Prepositions–unlike anything.  Somali prepositions don’t resemble any language I know.  They’re a challenge, so I’ll explain as well as I can based largely on this academic source and this textbook.  They are divided into prepositions and “deictic particles.”  They have four prepositions, roughly “to”, “in”, “from”, and “with”.  “Deictic particles” indicate activity relative to the speaker; the four Somali deictic particles indicate toward the speaker, away from the speaker, toward each other, or away from each other.  One may need to use both a preposition and a deictic particle.  Somali tends to place these items in front of the verb, not the noun.
    For example, “I pulled the man out of the well with a rope” is nínkíi bàan cèelka xádhig kagá sóo saaray.  The last five words literally mean, “well-the rope with-from towards_me I-raised.”  Similarly, “they used to give us news about it” is way inoogá warrámi jireen, literally, “They us-to-about news gave.”  They could have thrown a soo in there, too, right after inoogá.  It seems to me they cluster all the prepositions together.  In the first example, “from” goes with “well” and “with” goes with “rope,” but both stick by the verb.  In the second, “to” goes with “us” and “about” goes with the unspoken “it.”  Unscrambling in real time what preposition goes with what is beyond my level right now.
  6. Cases–like Greek or German.  Somali has four cases, but not the ones you may know from, say German or Greek.  They are absolutive, subject, genitive, and vocative.  Absolutive is used when it is by itself, and subject if there is another noun in the sentence.  Genitive, like in other languages, indicates possession, and vocative is used in directly addressing someone or something.  Like the plural, they are marked with a suffix or tone change, depending on the class of the noun.  In addition, like in German and Greek, the absolutive and subject are marked on the article, as well.  However, Somali also has different articles depending on whether the noun was mentioned before or not (similar to English “a” and “the”).
  7. Poetry.  Somalis are known for their love of poetry.  Richard Burton noted in the 19th century the widespread recitation and performance of poetry among Somalis.  When Somali is spoken it is peppered with poetic allusion, proverbs, and alliteration.  The uninitiated cannot understand the depth of the language without a deep knowledge and appreciation of the poetry.


Before you feel discouraged, let me tell you that Somalis love to hear their language spoken by foreigners.  Some non-Somalis have become YouTube sensations by simply interviewing in Somali.  When you try to learn the language, you will receive tons of help.  Somalis love their language, and their love is infectious.  Enjoy taking on this challenge of learning Somali and all the new, friendly people you will recruit to help your efforts and entertain with your enthusiasm.



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.