Mission Aborted

It’s only been a few days since my 5-week-Romanian update, but my plans have changed. I’m quitting the mission. Yes, that means I only had 2 and a half weeks left on my mission — I was half way there!! — but I’ve decided that it’s not worth it. Romanian is an interesting language, but my heart’s not in it, and that’s vital.

Why we learn languages

You’ll often hear polyglots saying that you shouldn’t give up. If you want to meet your language goals, you need to find ways to motivate yourself, reasons to keep going, and you need to push through it for the long haul. A language takes time and effort.

I agree with that completely.

However, we learn languages for a host of reasons. The most successful language learning missions are out of intrinsic motivation. What that can mean is different for each person. And that goal we are striving towards has to bring joy, betterment, or general value to our lives.

Sometimes just knowing that we did it is enough. Sometimes what we want is to strengthen our connection with our community, open up a world of arts and literature, or feel confident during a vacation.

Quitting for the right reasons

Unfortunately, learning Romanian satisfied none of these for me. Though I hoped to use it as a way to broaden the languages of my meetup group, it would probably have been more useful to collaborate with the group to find a language we could all do together (an idea for the future?). Likewise, if my goal had been to communicate with more people, there are plenty of other languages I don’t speak, but that I hear around me, that I could have chosen (namely Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean).

I love delving into a language for a week or two. It’s a great way to explore, learn new things about language and cultures, and generally have fun. But as I mentioned in my update, after that point the motivation drops. And if you can look towards the future and see that your goal isn’t all that appealing, or more importantly it’s getting in the way of other goals, then yes you should quit.

Failing Fast

In the startup world it’s not uncommon to hear people say you should fail fast and fail often. This may seem counter intuitive at first, but what it really means is that if you are wasting your time, you need to find out and quit as quickly as you can so that you can move on to the next thing. And then, you need to keep failing and quitting until you find the thing that isn’t a waste of time.

Does it mean you should just quit on your languages all the time? No. It means that you should let go of languages that don’t inspire you so that you have time and energy for the ones that do! As cool as Romanian is, it just wasn’t doing it for me.

What Next?

I mentioned in some previous posts and videos that I had a project planned for just after Thanksgiving. I’ve decided to move it forward, and start it today.

You can checkout details on my next mission here.

In the Meantime

What have your experiences been with quitting language projects. Are there projects you’re glad you quit? Are the ones you wished you hadn’t quit? What kinds of motivators keep you from quitting? Share with me in the comments!

Romanian: 2 weeks in

Bună ziua! Here I am, two weeks in to my 5-Week Romanian Mission. And things are going pretty well. I’ve learned about 400-500 words actively, read 8 chapters of Teach Yourself: Romanian, been reading / skimming the news, and singing Romanian music. I’d say that I’m approaching an A1 level. Check out this video of me speaking in Romanian:

What’s been working for me?

Romanian is an interesting language to learn when you already speak one or more other Romance language. At times it’s clear that you’re learning a Latin language. Yet at times it seems so Balkan, and it’s hard to understand how it came from Latin at all. (I wonder if that’s how German + Dutch speakers feel about English)

The good news is, that Romanian shares about 75% of its vocabulary with Italian. This means that my passive comprehension is very high (when reading), and I can already start pulling the gist out of news and Wikipedia articles, something I still have a hard time doing in Turkish or even Mandarin (which was my major in school). This also means that it’s easier to learn vocabulary. I usually remember the basic form of the word, and it’s the inflections (singular/plural, case endings, verb conjugations) that give me a hard time.

What’s been difficult?

In one word, grammar.

Now I’m not going to be one of the many people who say that Romanian is a difficult language, or that it has a really complicated grammar. In fact, the Foreign Service Institute still only labels it a Category I Language! The grammar is actually rather straight forward. It’s just different from the other romance languages. So I have to spend a little more effort memorizing grammar patterns than I did going from French to Spanish, Italian or Portuguese.

But language difficulties aren’t problems, just interesting challenges to be overcome. And there are two tactics I have been using to tackle this:

  1. Putting whole sentences into Anki (my flashcard system), collected from my TY: Romanian book, wiktionary, wordreference, and even my Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe guide
  2. Memorizing songs, a technique I’ve mentioned before

And anytime I find myself struggling with a particular pattern, I look for a sample sentence to use. Not only does this give me practice using the grammar pattern correctly, but it also gives me a better idea of how natural clauses and sentences get strung together.

The wall

This is when it gets harder for me.

I’m in a familiar place. I, like probably many of you, have had many short term language indulgences that haven’t lasted longer than 2 weeks. I usually find that I can study any language intensely for about 1-2 weeks, regardless of how compelled I am to actually reach a high level in the language. That’s when I hit a wall. It usually corresponds with how long it takes me to reach an A1 level in a language, or thereabouts. Then what? Well, that depends on how I feel about the language, and how I am approaching the project.

Over the course of these past two weeks I’ve discovered that I think Romanian is a very cool language, and I’m enjoying it. I don’t know very much about the culture yet, or the people, but I’d like to learn. This is good. It means I have the intrinsic curiosity I’ll need to get past the wall.

On the other hand, I’ve spent the last 2 weeks really cramming material, and that’s just not sustainable – at least not in the vocabulary driven way I have been doing it up until now. As much as we polyglots might try to forget it, slow and steady wins the race, and there are no shortcuts to language learning. I still think it’s possible that I may even achieve a solid A2 level in Romanian before this mission is out, but I’m not going to do it by learning massive lists of vocabulary

Address your week points

At this point, it would be best for me to slow down on my vocabulary and my TY: Romanian. I have crammed vocabulary for the past 2 weeks, and I’ve learned that I can do it pretty easily. I’ve also learned from reading that there is a whole host of vocabulary that is familiar to me, even though I don’t know it actively. I’ll get the most benefit from turning that passive vocab into active vocab. How is that different from what I’ve been doing? Mainly it means I will only add words / phrases to Anki when they are clearly important words or grammar patterns but are unfamiliar to me. This will amount to certain key conversational connectors, and probably commonly used Balkan vocabulary.

This also means it’s time to change my inputs and outputs. Instead of reading my TY: Romanian book (I’ll come back to that later), I need to spend more of my time conversing. And when I can’t converse with people, I should be actively listening to radio (preferably with reading transcripts) and then trying to summarize, paraphrase, or generally describe what it is I just heard. This will change my focus towards production as well as force me to try and use those latinate cognates that I see everywhere. And if I’m unsure of myself and how I’m using the language when I do reiterate, I can always make a submission in iTalki.

What about formal grammar and lessons?

I’m not throwing my TY: Romanian book away. I’ll come back to it in a week or two. But it will be more for the purpose of tidying up the things I have learned. For now, it’s more important to try and get my active Romanian closer to my passive Romanian. The goal is to speak, is it not?

What’s more, language learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. What’s more, the same techniques won’t work for the same person throughout their learning process! It’s beneficial to change things up, to alter your methods.

What about you?

How’s your language learning mission going? Are there any techniques you found are helping you less than they used to? How have you solved this problem? Let me know in the comments!

5-Week Romanian Mission

Fall is in the air, and it’s time for a new language mission!

Since I already have a bigger mission planned starting right after Thanksgiving (any guesses?), I only have 5 weeks for this one. I decided to learn Romanian!

Watch my youtube video to find out why:

As I mention in the video, part of why I chose Romanian over other languages is because I already speak several romance languages, and I wanted to do something a little easier due to the heavy workload I have at the moment. I also wanted to round out the languages spoken in my Polyglot Meetup, where we have a Romance Language chat every other week and no Romanian speakers! You’ll note that I don’t have a specific goal in mind (such as A2 level, or understanding a film without subtitles). The truth is, I’m more curious just how much Romanian I can learn. And while I will have mini-goals for each week, I’m so busy right now that I’m not going to be sure I can set those goals for a couple of days. But that doesn’t mean I should wait before I act! You don’t get anywhere unless you start moving!

How will I do it?

First and foremost, I need to dive right in and learn some basic phrases. I hope to find some speakers on iTalki and Speaky as well, but I recognize that it may take a few days to try and set something up. I learned with Turkish that the time zone difference for that part of the world isn’t very helpful for me right now. I intend to search the local area for Romanians and Romanian speakers to see what I can find.

I’ve also learned that due to my past experiences with romance languages my comprehension will accelerate even when my ability to speak stalls. I intend to use that to my advantage and start trying to read and listen to more advanced materials a little earlier. I’m pretty interested in grammar by itself, so I will have fun trying to understand the grammar of these semi-familiar texts and broadcasts even before I learn the vocabulary to truly understand them.

What about materials?

You might notice from the photo and the video that I have a copy of Teach Yourself: Romanian. I also have the sound files for it, and I will be using it extensively. I will, however, take a different approach than a lot of people I know might do. I like to read the materials in larger chunks, maybe 5 chapters at a time. I find that I can usually remember enough in one session to understand what I’m reading for about that many chapters. This gives me the opportunity to try and make sense of the material itself and figure out what vocabulary and grammar is most helpful for me.

After I’ve distilled the chapters down this way, I will commit vocabulary to memory — though probably in the form of phrases. I will also go back through and make sure I understand the dialogues and can say them at full speed.

Special Sauce

This being another romance language, there are other special things I can do to speed up my learning. I will look at the sound changes that happened for Romanian making it different from the other romance languages, as well as explore lists of cognates and false cognates. The sooner my brain understands what is similar and what is different, the more vocabulary I can remember.

But while this is helpful, it also creates a problem. It means that I often spend time translating to the target language from one of the other languages in the same family. Since Romanian is closest to Italian, I suspect I will try and say very Italianate things, and I will need to start really observing and listening to the specifics of how Romanians really communicate. But I think I might not be able to skip this obstacle, and I will just have to plow through it when I get there.

Join the Fun!

As I’ve said before, language is about community, and it’s always fun to share a goal with someone else. Do the 5-week Romanian mission with me! We don’t need the same materials, the same process, or any of the the same things except grit and enthusiasm! We can share cool resources we find, as well as cool cultural things that inspire us.

I’ll be updating the blog often to keep things transparent and to share with you all the cool things that I discover / experience. Want to do the 5-week Romanian Mission with me? Or maybe you have another language mission you are doing? Let me know in the comments! And be sure to send me a message on twitter: @echonotation