Grow your language Roots

It’s now been just under 6 months since I was at the 2016 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. (As I speak the Polyglot Conference is happening in Thessaloniki.) But one of the big takeaways for me from the Gathering was how I needed to shift my focus.

People kept commenting on how many languages were on my name badge. I on the other hand was very aware of how only French and English were above a B level. Though mentioning that didn’t seem to make a big difference for the majority of people, it was an experience that stuck with me. Though I am proud of my ability to speak those non-advanced-level languages, I left the conference with the desire to spend the year until the next conference improving the languages I already speak instead of learning new ones.

So now what?

So 6 months later, I am ignoring the temptations of Hokkien, Indonesian, Japanese, Icelandic, Cantonese, and many more, while I focus on my first two foreign languages: French and Mandarin. Here I wanted to share what I’m doing to improve those languages, and why. To catch people up, I posted a video on YouTube last week on what I’ve been doing for the past month and a half while I’ve been in Taiwan:

Looking at things in the big picture, my self evaluation of my French and my Mandarin are C1 and B1 respectively. My long term goals are to keep learning these languages indefinitely– I love them, and there really is no level where I would like to just “settle” and say they are “good enough.” But that’s not a very clear or helpful goal if I’m trying to focus on them right now. So in the shorter “long term” I am trying to lift my french from C1 to C2 and advance my Mandarin from B1 to B2, and hopefully to C1 sooner than later (but B2 is a good goal for the moment).

Techniques and Timelines

I’ve been trying to move away from the idea of setting the language level goal in some predetermined point in time. I think it’s more valuable to think about the shorter term steps that you can take and enjoy while knowing that you are moving forward. We should be less concerned with the speed we learn a language than the enjoyment and persistence of our learning. I learn languages because I love learning them as much, if not more, than I love having learned them. Thank goodness every language is a life-long journey!

For this reason, I still look at my goals and what I need to achieve those goals, but I also try and look at what smaller steps I can sustainable make to enjoy getting there?

French C1 to C2

I’m rather comfortable in French. I don’t have to really think that hard to live my daily life in France, nor to enjoy what French culture has to offer me. But while I speak with friends, watch TV, read books, and even attempt (poorly) the crosswords all in French, I’m still aware that I miss subtleties and would benefit from a thesaurus here and there. In that way I’m more like a fluent, academic/nerdy teenager than a fluent academic/nerdy 30-something- which makes sense since I’ve been learning french since I was 12 (19 years ago).

And while I am very comfortable using the subjonctif imparfait, I still make tedious little mistakes, such as the odd preposition here or there, or using a near-synonym that has been “sufficient” to describe something in the past, but maybe wasn’t le mot juste.

In other words, I need to learn more vocabulary and idioms while I tidy up my grammar.

That’s why for October I’ve been devouring word lists on Memrise. There are good materials there for vocabulary, including much more advanced terminology and expressions. I have definitely benefited from the ~800+ items I learned this month.

And while a lot of vocabulary acquisition happens slowly over time through reading and exposure (which I love, and which is valuable), I do think it can be helpful to make more intentional and focused leaps. It’s the same reason kids in the United States still study for SATs and GREs. The methods work better together than apart.

Although I want to return to my 30 words/phrases-per-day studying in December, I really want to focus on cleaning up those little grammar mistakes! Back in May, when I was in Lyon after the Polyglot Gathering, I bought a book called “Grammaire Progressive du Français: Niveau perfectionnement”. It has 85 lessons on various grammatical concepts, and I intend to do 3 lessons a day. Since the lessons aren’t very long, I will be able to spend each day really thinking about how each grammar pattern / structure works in my daily use and exposure. Quality over quantity. Just keep trekking along! Besides, that’s a pace that makes sure I don’t overshadow my big and immediate need: Mandarin.

Mandarin B1 to B2

My Mandarin needs are quite simple, and quite similar to my French needs, albeit at a different level. First and foremost, I need more vocabulary. Since I’ve been speaking Mandarin for so long at a very comfortable B1 level, I don’t have a hard time dealing with the speed at which people talk, picking out which words I do or don’t know, or just saying a sentence at a reasonable pace. The number one thing holding me back is not knowing enough words to function well outside of my familiar and controlled contexts.

I know that vocabulary is always a bigger deal in Chinese languages for an English speaker than it is when learning a closely related European language, but my more immediate goal is to have greater ease of understanding and the ability to “work around problems”– that is to say, being able to get my meaning across even when you don’t know the word. That’s still a problem for me, making my Mandarin conversations constantly switching from fast-and-fluid to completely halted-and-confused, and then back again.

But much like my French, vocabulary isn’t everything. There’s an awful myth going around that Chinese has no grammar. But what people don’t understand is that word order and sentence patterns are critical for comprehension, especially past a beginner level. This is why Chinese students so frequently have the experience of seeing sentences where they will know every character / word, but still not understand what the sentence means.

In order to address this, I bought a book shortly after arriving in Taipei called “330 Common Chinese Patterns,” and I will be learning 10 patterns a day doing the exercises and writing the sample sentences in my notebook to test my comprehension.

Then in December I will likely Jump back on the HSK study and start doing HSK 5 vocabulary. Meanwhile, I expect to still end up learning vocabulary because I am speaking, reading, and listening to Mandarin every day here. This is also why I’m more comfortable doing 10 patterns a day. I don’t foresee myself burning out on them because I have enough exposure that many of those patterns will have immediate relevance to me.

The next several months

I believe that learning more slowly has it’s benefits, giving your brain time to consolidate what it has learned. This is one of the main reasons I am cutting back on vocabulary this next month. And even though I think I will get back into big vocabulary study in December, I’m not going to commit to the specifics yet. I think it’s important to have that as the goal, but check in every month to make sure I’m actually moving in the right direction. Let’s just say everything after December is “penciled in.”

Coming back to the Polyglot Gathering, where this whole discussion started. Do I think I will likely bring any of my languages up to a C level before the next Gathering? No, not really. But my real goal is just to speak my current languages better. And as fun as those name tags are (I love those stickers), we should be learning these languages for ourselves. The progress and enjoyment are more important than some arbitrary outcome.

What are your language goals? Are you enjoying what you are learning? How do you make sure you make progress? Let me know 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


Turkish Mission Video #1

For the sake of transparency and public self-humiliation, I thought it would be a good idea to post a YouTube video of myself trying to speak Turkish at the start of my Language Mission. It’s pretty rough, and I know it, but it gives you an idea of where I am with the language.

I’d like to think that I can converse a little better than I did in this video. It’s all improvised, but I wasn’t even that sure what I was going to say until I did it. I’ll try and be a little more organized on the next one.