Back in the US of A

After 4 months of traveling, I am back in Seattle for a few days before driving across the United States. A lot has happened since my last post, much of which will deserve its own post. In the meantime, here is a quick summary:

Now, as I get my affairs in order to continue my journey by exploring more of my own country, I’m also getting back on the horse for blog posts. I also plan to start doing more video uploads.

So where does that leave us for the second half of 2016? New projects, old languages, more surprises.

Stay tuned.

Motivation and a Change of Pace

It’s the end of January, and that means several things:

  • I have come to the end of my Gaelic Mission
  • It’s a new year, and with it I am changing the way I’m handling language learning
  • I’m about to embark on a new adventure

That’s a lot to cover, but I’ll try and do it quickly.

Mi agus a’ Ghàidhlig

After three months of Gaelic study, I have a lot to share. First and foremost, I must admit that I didn’t make my B2 goal. This isn’t surprising. But I didn’t even come close. I’d say I’m somewhere in the A2 range, though more so written than spoken. With all that time, you’d think I’d get farther, and I had hoped to, but I didn’t push as hard as I could have. I’m completely fine with this.

When I set out to learn Gaelic, I wanted to get to a B2 level so that I would have two things: (1) the ability to converse with people with relative ease and (2) a high enough level that I didn’t have to worry about losing the language too much if I were to get distracted by another language or just be unable to use my Gaelic for a while. This was an even greater concern given that I don’t live near much of a Gaelic speaking community.

I learned a lot of Gaelic, and my passive abilities went up enormously. But I learned more about how to learn languages, the value of communities, and how I personally approach my language studies.

As I mentioned before, connecting with the online community is invaluable if you want to learn Gaelic. Not only is there a wealth of people who want to learn and help you learn, but with so few speakers outside of the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic speaking regions of Scotland and Nova Scotia), it is really rare that you might find a lot of people to speak with. A large percentage of the community are heritage speakers, and they are all passionate about keeping the language alive. Connecting with them is a great way to connect with the culture.

But learning Gaelic has forced me to work harder to interpret the grammars, phonetics, and vocabularies of the language I’m learning. I’ve had to improvise new ways to approach problems I’m having as I study. It’s also been a great language to use to prove to myself the value in memorizing sentences versus words (though I actually advocate BOTH). Most importantly, Gaelic has made me consider the way I have been approaching language learning over the past year.

The Great Language Experiment

For the past year or so, I have been trying to learn languages in burst – small, controlled missions. Some of them are documented here, such as my Turkish and Gaelic Missions. Some of them I haven’t blogged, such as my attempt last winter at learning Japanese. But much like the projects by Benny the Irish Polyglot, they were attempts at singular, focused, massive language immersions.

Though in every case I have learned a lot, they have all been partial failures for me. They weren’t failures however because of what I could or couldn’t accomplish in that time. They were failures because they weren’t what I wanted.

In each case, after the project, I moved on to another project and ended up forgetting a lot of what I learned (My Turkish is deplorable for what it was in October). What’s more, I always felt bad practicing other languages when I had one language that I was focusing on. It’s true that if you want to learn a language quickly, the fastest way is to focus on that one language with intensity. But I know myself and I burn out, get bored, or both. This even happens with languages I love. In some regards it happened with Gaelic, and I slowed down how much I wanted to work on it in the last month.

The main reason for this is because so much of the discussion about language learning right now is focused on getting to the goal: “I want to speak at this level”, “I want to have the ability to converse”, “I want to be able to read a book” etc. This is important, and there are times that this is the best way to approach a language. But not everyone is motivated by the end results. For people who don’t actually enjoy the process of learning a language (Benny is a self-admitted example of this), the GOAL-focused approach is probably very beneficial. If you are more excited at being ABLE to speak a language and what you will be able to DO with it, then by all means focus on a goal and work your butt off to get through the tough parts and make it to the end.

I on the other hand, like several other people I know, am more interested in the journey than the destination. I am more motivated by my experience doing something than by where I will end up. And when it comes to language learning, I love learning the language itself more than getting to some eventual “level” in that language.

For the past year, I have been experimenting with the goal oriented and focused approach, and I can definitively say it isn’t for me. I can also say that, though I have had some fun, I also don’t think my languages have progressed as much this last year as they have when I have taken a enjoy-the-journey approach to my languages.

Most of my languages I learned by simply enjoying them while I learned other languages on the side. It hasn’t been the fastest method, but it has been the most fun. And that’s why I learn languages, because I love learning languages. So it’s time for me to go back to that.

Adventure Time

This takes me to the present moment. My wife and I are currently packing up our apartment and moving all of our things into storage. In 5 days, we will be on a plane to Vietnam, where we plan to spend the next 3 months.

Do I intend to learn Vietnamese while we’re there? Absolutely! I will probably even dive in and obsessively learn it for a large part of the trip. And I will definitely blog about it. But am I setting a goal for it? Not in the least. I know that I’ll enjoy learning the language, as well as geeking out about the language, so I’ll be content with whatever level I end up at.

I also have several other languages that I care about (including Gaelic), that I intend to continue using, reading, studying, listening to, singing. Why? Because I like them. I’m also fine with taking my time to learn them if it means I go at a pace that is right for me. The point is, I’m going to go with the flow.

Do what you Love

It’s important that we do what we love. And doing what we love depends on taking the time and making the effort to be more self aware — we have to learn what we love.

What do you love? What motivates you to learn a language? Are you more goal oriented or experience oriented? Do you prefer to learn one language at a time or many? Does it matter to you if you have a community to speak with or not? Share with me in the comments.

Write Your Own Grammar: A Gaelic Case Study

Today I wanted to talk about something I think is pretty important for how to learn grammar, but that I never hear anyone talking about. And since today puts me I’m in the middle of a Scottish Gaelic Mission, I’ve decided to use my experience with Scottish Gaelic as an example.

That being said, the concepts apply to all languages, and I’m sure they will help everyone who’s trying to learn a language, especially when they encounter difficulties in the grammar.

Take Your Lessons with a Grain of Salt

Where would we be without our lovely language books, podcasts, and video courses? They are great! The distill a lot of information, making it easier for us to learn our languages. Although it is certainly possible to learn languages without materials, it is significantly harder. I vote that we keep the using the materials that work for us.

But all language materials have an inherent problem: they have to try and be “one size fits all.” Any language book, for example, is written to be purchased and used by as many people as possible. This means that it can’t address everyone’s particular needs or their particular learning styles. This is why a teacher is so helpful. A good teacher will learn what you need and present the material in a way that is best for you.

But the onus isn’t all on the teacher. As a learner, it’s your job to figure out what works best for you. It’s also your job to engage with what you are learning. And sometimes that means being critical of the very materials you are using to learn.

Now, I don’t mean criticizing them and tossing them aside. I mean looking to see if there is a better way that the lessons are presenting the information to you. And that means digging deeper.

There is no time this is more apparent than when you are learning grammar.

Languages are complicated. It’s a fact. That’s part of what makes it fun to learn them. But it’s also part of what makes it difficult. And a lot of that complexity is in the grammar.

A lot of the time, lessons will make you learn things in ways that seem overly complicated or dismissive because they don’t want to overload you with too much information at once. This usually comes in the form of “You will learn about this in a few units, but for now just do X.” Sometimes you aren’t told a rule will come, but grammar is taught like it’s a series of exceptions. While this is helpful at moving you along, sometimes it adds complexity where it isn’t really there.

At these times, I tend to ignore the grammar. In my experience learning languages and studying linguistics, if it’s being presented as something complicated, it rarely is complicated. So, I make a note that something seems fishy, and I keep my eye out for more clues as to what is going on.

Gaelic Definite Articles

There is a great example of this over complication of grammar in the vast majority of Scottish Gaelic materials. The Definite Article (or essentially “the”).

Early on in your Gaelic studies, you learn that the definite article is an. But you start learning that an changes to things like a’, am, an t-, and a few other forms, all in different situations based on the first letter of the next word, the gender of the next word, or if there is a preposition before an. Very quickly, it starts to look complicated and full of exceptions. What’s interesting is that it seems like all of the Gaelic material out there handles the definite article that way.

That’s when I start to smell something fishy going on!

Well, it usually takes several chapters before you come across an explanation: Noun cases. The 3 main cases in Gaelic are the Nominative, the Dative, and the Genitive. (There’s a Vocative as well, but it’s really irrelevant here, so we can ignore it). And if you understand that most prepositions take the Dative case, and some take the Genitive case, most of those frustrating exceptions turn out to be rules.

Great! After all the hard work, the truth has been revealed. Thank goodness for the grammar. Now you can learn what was really going on. They all lived happily ever after. Right?

Make Your Own Grammar

The problem is that not only do a lot of students finally learn about things like these noun cases already confused and believing there are awful exceptions. But in the case of Gaelic, these cases are presented as a list of rules. In other words you aren’t asked to engage with the material, merely memorize it. This is when your job as a learner is to look at what you now know and see if there is a better way to present it.

After a little effort of looking in different books, I was able to compile this chart of Scottish Gaelic Definite Articles:

Gàidhlig Definite Articles
Gàidhlig definite articles organized by case, number, and gender

It’s a little disconcerting that I would have to compile that chart, or even have to put effort into finding a chart like that. (Not that I’m biased or anything). Merely constructing a chart for myself makes it easier to look up what form is used when / if I get confused.

But why stop there? The chart doesn’t necessarily help me if I don’t understand how to learn from it. Sure, before the chart it was hard to keep track of how many sets of articles there were to remember. And mathematically speaking, there would appear to be 9. A lot different from the seemingly endless exceptions.

However, my job isn’t over. Humans are pattern oriented. It’s in large part because we see patterns so easily that we can learn languages at all. Therefore, I need to scrutinize this chart to look for patterns that might make things easier. Some of you may have already seen it, but here’s a color coded chart to clear things up (pardon the awful colors – I wanted to make sure it was easier for people with color blindness):

Gàidhlig Definite Articles - Color Coded
Gàidhlig Definite Articles – Color Coded

Wow! There are only 4 different sets of definite articles for me to learn?!? This grammar pattern went from extremely complicated to a LOT easier. Now I can go to work coming up with good mnemonics and sample sentences to help me learn these rules better.

How come this isn’t explained in the textbooks? Well, it really doesn’t matter. The truth is that this chart may work really well for me and not for you. But that’s the key! I needed to be willing to ignore what the lessons was telling me about the grammar until I could figure out a way to make it make sense to me. I didn’t just let the the books tell me what to learn.

How do you make your own grammars?

What are some ways you have reworked grammar from your various language learning materials until it made sense? And if you are a Gaelic learner/speaker, do you find this chart as helpful as I do?

How are your language goals coming along?

Let me know in the comments!

5 Secrets to Learning More Vocabulary

Do you sometimes feel like you aren’t learning enough words? Vocabulary is the biggest sticking point for communication. Sometimes if you are learning a language that’s very similar to another language you already speak, such as Portuguese and Spanish, you might not feel as hindered by a lack of vocabulary. A lot of times those similarities will allow you a large amount of passive comprehension and the ability to “fake it” to be understood. We all know that’s not ideal, but it makes the language less emotionally challenging.

But sometimes you don’t have this luxury. Learning vocabulary for my Turkish Mission, for example, there were a few loan words from English and French, but not many, and it’s still a barrier when I’m trying to read a newspaper. Likewise the English cognates with Gaelic are not always very apparent, and I actively have to commit a lot of new words to memory.

Memorizing words (or better yet, memorizing sentences) can feel like a chore, and it’s easy to think that means you just need to take lists and start crunching them out. But this doesn’t always work. Sometimes you get stuck on material. Sometimes you abandon a list (or language) entirely. Overall, it can seem like you aren’t making progress or like your progress isn’t what it could be.

Maybe this means you should look at what you are doing and make a change.

Here I’ve assembled a list of 5 of my own secrets when I’m memorizing words and phrases. These have all increased my retention and allowed me to learn more words at a time:

Enjoy Yourself!

I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again: You learn it when you love it. Nothing stops you from learning material faster than disinterest. That can be at the macro level of not being interested in a language, or not being interested in the subject matter. But if you aren’t interested, it is a good idea to ask yourself why and figure out if it’s worth it to keep going.

A great example to me is the ever-present “Going to the Doctor” chapter in language learning books. The bore me. I never use that material, and if I need to go to a doctor I will look up the material then. Maybe it would be different if I were really interested in medicine or if I wanted to be a doctor in the country. But as it is, it’s not interesting to me and I’m not going to spend my time slogging through it. So what do I do? I read the chapter for the grammar points and memorize a few key words/phrases (i.e. “I need to go to the doctor”, “My head hurts”, “hospital”). Then I move on to the next chapter. The rest of it I can learn later.

On the other hand, if you are like me, you really enjoy the chapters on food and interactions at street markets. They give me material I want to put in to practice immediately. They entice me to learn more about the culture. The same goes for music and poetry — I want to sing songs and read poetry, so I use them as tools to learn vocabulary and grammar.

So prioritize what interests you, what makes you excited.

Lose it or Use it

There are of course subjects and vocabulary items I learn that don’t make me giddy. I’m not super excited about transportation systems. Nor about birthday parties (I try to avoid my own, in fact). But these subjects come up in lessons and are full of dull yet relevant information.

They are also full of dull and irrelevant information. Your job as a language learner is discern which information is relevant to you and which isn’t.

I walk, take the bus, own a car, use ferries to travel around my state, and love to take trains. Do I need to know these words if I want to talk about my life. Absolutely. These are words I will use, despite how interesting they may or may not be. I will also tell people I work as a programmer and talk to them about my passions for language and education. So it stands to reason that I need to know vocabulary from these subjects because I will use them as well.

As for the aforementioned doctor’s office vocabulary, this is material I may use and even then only rarely. Other topics I personally put in the “may use” category are (1) renting an apartment and (2) making an appointment with someone at an office. Sure, I may need them, but I can put that off for later.

Focus on the vocabulary you will use over the vocabulary you may use. And if you don’t think you will use it at all (or almost never), just lose it.

Diversity is Good!

We tend to learn vocabulary and phrases in batches, usually by subject matter. It’s helpful when you have a dialogue where the people can talk about a subject, and it lets you focus on an interest or a relevant topic. At first this might seem like a good thing. There is, however a pretty significant problem here. If things are too similar, it is easy to get them confused.

For example, if you are learning the word for a chair, armchair, stool, and bench might slow you down. It’s not impossible, to learn them all at once, and sometimes you just need to do them together so you can be more discerning. But this is the kind of thing that works better with real life context and a lot of repetition. This is what we might call a semantic similarity, and it’s really the basis around a lot of vocabulary lists out there.

It’s also a way that psychologists purposely interfere with memory during experiments (see this study presented recently at the Polyglot Conference in NYC). You’ll note they also use words that sound similar to hinder memorization. So how do you work around this? Add a little variety, and space out learning similar concepts. For example, if you are learning the words for objects around the house, maybe you learn the words for chair, desk, mug, and coffee today, and a week or two later come back to stool, table, glass, and wine. Or you might want to split up words like troop and truce or flee and free, since they sound so similar.

I also find that learning a little bit of several subjects at a time can help keep confusion down. A few sentences about food might go well with a few about art and a few about family.

Slow but Steady Wins the Race

“But, Alexander,” you might be thinking, “I thought the point was to learn faster!” That’s right. I’m not suggesting you slow down and stop learning your language. I’m suggesting you take a little more time with the materials, especially with new material. There’s a lot of great information out there about how to memorize material, but a common thread with all of it is that you remember things better the more attention you give to them.

I don’t just mean looking at the word and saying it over and over again. I mean really looking at the word, writing it down or feeling it as you sign it. Paying attention to the subtle letters or gestures and really thinking about the whole word. Otherwise you are just going through the motions, and wasting the time you are putting in to it.

Think about it this way

Put one hand behind your back, and don’t look at it. Can you describe it? Do you know what the skin looks like? Which knuckles have hair on them? Where any freckles or moles may be? Why not? Don’t you see your hands hundreds of times a day?! As Sherlock Holmes said, “you see, but you do not observe.” Well start observing your words and phrases.

This is why I prefer to do my flash cards by hand over downloaded or typed lists in my phone (though I might still use my phone from time to time). The same holds for my preference for a physical notebook. I’m taking the time to observe right from the beginning.

Languages for Dessert

I like to make my flash cards slowly over a few days, adding new batches here and there as the time or thought arises. But then, I find that the best time for me to study my flash cards, especially the new ones, is as I’m winding down for bed.

Sleep still isn’t understood all that well. But some recent studies have found that while you sleep your brain will review what you were studying right before bed. People who are making new mental connections (like memorizing vocabulary) see a greater retention rate if they study right before bed than if they study earlier in the day.

That same benefit didn’t happen when people were asked to remember relations between objects they already associated together (like pen and paper) suggesting that this doesn’t work as well for reviewing material you’ve already learned.

What are your secrets?

These tricks have all helped me greatly increase how much material I can learn, and how quickly I learn a language. Have you tried any of them, and do they work for you? What else have you discovered helps you remember your languages better?

Let me know in the comments.