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.

Gaelic Mission: Week 3 Update

Ceud mìle fàilte! (100,000 welcomes)

It’s early in my third week studying Scottish Gaelic, and this has already been a very different experience than I’ve had with other languages. I’m learning a lot about Gaelic, but I’m learning more about language learning.

There’s something extremely worthwhile about learning a less-commonly taught language. I think this is especially true for those interested in language pedagogy, language revitalization, or just improving their own learning processes. So even though I could write about details of my current stage in the language, I think it would be better to talk a little about what learning Scottish Gaelic is teaching me.

Community is Everything

The Celtic languages have very few speakers compared to the more commonly studied languages like English, French, and Spanish. According to Wikipedia, they total around 1 million speakers — French by comparison comes in at 80 million. And of those Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic is the 4th most spoken with just under 100,000 people in the world. It’s behind Welsh (~740,000), Breton (210,000), and Irish (140,000). And only about 60,000 of them are native speakers.

That’s not a lot of people. And 90% of them live in Scotland.

So finding a community who will support you in learning the language becomes that much more vital. I never had to make an effort to find French speakers. But I do spend more time and energy engaging with the local and global Gàidhlig speaking communities. Right now my main avenues for community with the language are a Seattle-based group that meets (most) Fridays to practice reading (which I found via a Google search, and have since managed to get to post their meetings on Meetup), and twitter, where I am a heavy user of #gaelic and #gàidhlig. And the process I’m developing for finding people and engaging communities will benefit me with any language, but I wouldn’t have tried with a language where it wasn’t so vital.

You’re Helping the Community

Many a polyglot has spoken about how speaking a person’s language can make them feel more welcome. But learning and speaking a minority language goes well beyond that, especially when it’s a language that’s even a minority language in its own country. A lot of Gaelic Speakers (about 1/3) aren’t natives. And they get encouraged by seeing other people trying to learn the language as well. You also help lend a feeling of legitimacy for people. All languages are worth speaking, but a lot of minority languages get bashed for not being “useful.” Often times community elders have memories of being chastised or even beaten for speaking those languages. But the more people that show an interest and really support the community, the more support community members have to be themselves and express a part of themselves that they may have been hiding.

A the same time, a wonderful thing about engaging the community of speakers of a minority language is that people are that much more excited that you are trying to learn the language and help keep it alive. People have been quick to help me find resources, correct me when I need it, and connect me with other enthusiasts. It’s significantly different from trying to speak Portuguese with a Brazilian who keeps switching to English with you.

This goes beyond just Gaelic, of course. I have learned a lot about the value of supporting other language learners (and speakers) — that’s part of why I started this blog and my polyglot group in the first place — but I’m coming to understand now that I can extend this same attitude to learners/speakers of all languages. Language learning isn’t just about speaking languages, it’s about community building.

You Have to Improve Your Processes

At first blush, this might seem like a drawback.

What? You mean I have to work harder?

Actually, no. You need to work smarter.

When we are taking on a language project for something that has been learned for decades by millions of non-natives we are flooded with material. A lot of that material is the result of many years of trial and error, of experimentation, and of market forces demanding better quality for better prices. Though no one course or system is perfect, we tend to believe that there’s a good reason why we are learning the things we are and in the order we are. And we tend to take this for granted.

My experience with Gaelic hasn’t been the same. I’ve been studying using the Teach Yourself: Gaelic and the Colloquial: Scottish Gaelic books. They are fine books, don’t get me wrong. And I would recommend either of them to a beginner of the Scottish Gaelic language. But they aren’t great.

I don’t think this is entirely their fault. It’s the fault of the market being smaller, them having to adapt a lot of the material to heritage speakers who are looking to learn different things than people from outside of the community, and from them having great immersion schools that a lot of learners use to study. This just means two things:

  1. It’s good to take each lesson with a grain of salt
  2. It’s really important to think critically about the languages and experiment with different ways to learn the material

But this isn’t really any different that with any other language. We merely get lulled into a false trust with the more commonly studied languages. Truly, we should be experimenting and challenging all of the materials we find. And when we discover something helpful, we should be sharing it with the community.

For this reason, I will start writing posts with language specific tips, materials, and general experiences from here on out (in addition to my updates and general language learning posts). I hope to use these posts to help other learners with new ways to learn their languages.

What about you?

We’re all in this together, and I want to know what you’re experiencing with your language projects. Is there anything you’re having a hard time with? How are you engaging with your language learning communities? Do you experiment with your processes? 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


Turkish Mission: Results

I’m a few weeks behind on an update, and suddenly the mission is over. I intended to do some blog posts  last Sunday and the Sunday before that, with some video, to demonstrate how everything was going, but frankly, life got in the way. I was low on time – a lot of work – and I had a choice: I could study my Turkish, or take the time to write in my blog about how my Turkish was going.

I chose studying Turkish.

And now my mission has come to an end. I just got back from the TurkFest, and had the opportunity to speak Turkish with some people there. How did it go? Did I reach my intended goal of a B1 level in Turkish? What worked for me, and what didn’t?

Just out of reach

When I started this mission, I self evaluated my Turkish as A1 speaking and A2 reading, and I admit that going for B1 in a month was a pretty intense goal. I wanted to push myself, and it worked. I learned about 1000 new words over the course of the month, I completed the Teach Yourself: Turkish book, and I had some good Turkish conversations, and I wrote a lot of Turkish journal entries that I then posted on iTalki. However, when all is said and done, I think I merely rounded out my Turkish at an A2 level.

I am, however, quite proud of this accomplishment. I learned a lot of grammar, and judging on how I read now compared to how often I needed a dictionary before, I wonder if I was only an A1 or high A1 in reading when I started.

I may not have made it to a B1 level, but I made all around improvement, and that’s great.

“No man is an island”

It’s always easier to judge through hindsight, but for this mission I think I knew all along what I was lacking: People. I’ve gotten pretty good at creating immersion for myself in a language. I narrate my daily life as I walk around. I write in my journal. I Listen to the radio. Yet the one thing I can’t reproduce as easily is real conversation with native speakers.

Over the course of the past month, I had a few conversations on Speaky, and they were great. It was clear that they were the most beneficial thing for me because they gave me the opportunity to try new things and correct in real time. However, scheduling was a big issue for me. I live in Seattle (UTC-8) and Turkey is (UTC+2). That means that the best time to talk to someone in Turkey is likely in the morning or rather late at night (for me).

Since I work for myself, I do have some flexibility with finding time to talk with people. I have been, however, extremely busy at work (less flexibility), and the best time for me to work is earlier in the day. So, I mostly found myself working or sleeping when I would have had the best chance to speak with someone in Turkey.

Engage the community!

What about Turks in the community? That’s the right attitude! In fact, I always prefer talking with people in my local community if I can. Seattle, however, does have a smaller Turkish community than some other places in the US (or the world). I’m not saying this is impossible, but I am saying this would be a very different story if I lived in Berlin. Likewise, despite all the effort I have put into growing the local Seattle Polyglot group in the area, there have not yet been a lot of members with whom I can practice Turkish.

I admit that this is still an excuse, but it’s a pretty legitimate one for many people. Language is a way to connect with people, across culture, thought, space, and even time. Having a hard time connecting with people can put a serious damper on a language project. Is it a challenge that can be overcome? Yes. Is it one that I feel I have the energy and resources to do right now? Not really.

Then, what next?

It may sound like I’m saying I’m done with Turkish. That isn’t quite accurate. I am really happy with the progress I have made: I have met some great people online that I want to keep up with, I have unlocked more beautiful poetry that I am excited to read, I am more confident in writing Turkish poetry myself, and I am more confident that Turkish will stick in my brain if I take a break.

Though I feel like I want to take a break from a more active Turkish to a more passive Turkish. I will keep reading and listening to Turkish, like I do with all my languages that I maintain, and I’m sure I’ll talk to myself in the language, but I’m going to turn the next month towards other language pursuits.

What kind of pursuits, you may ask?

I have a bigger project I would like to do starting right after Thanksgiving, but that means that I have about 5 weeks to do another project. I have some ideas. My experience trying to speak with people in Turkish really made me think it would be valuable to choose a language I can use more in the next month, whether that’s from normal Seattle interactions, my friends (wherever they may be), or my Polyglot Meetup. But I think I need to give it a day to think about it. (READ: Follow-up post coming soon!)

The issue, as always, is not a lack of things that sound exciting, but too many things. How do you decide when you have a lot of exciting possibilities drawing you? What makes one language pull ahead of the pack?

Let me know in the comments! And while you are at it, tell me what language projects you are working on right now. How are they doing?