Sunday, July 23, 2006


I've spent a lot of time the last few days listening to Tony Robbins and getting inspired to do a bit of this and that. Some of the "that" has included working on Turkish.

Turkish has always been on my list of languages to learn one day, for example, tomorrow. But having found the free FSI course at, I downloaded it and resolved to do something with it. And something I did.

The past few days, I have listened to the first three units from the FSI course, which got me a free greetings and pleasantries, but, candidly, not a whole lot more.

But, having listened to the FSI bit, I dragged out my Teach Yourself Turkish and Teach Yourself Beginner's Turkish, which I had purchased (along with Dover's Essential Turkish - which wasn't) the last time I resolved to learn a little Turkish.

I've come to Turkish through the back alleys, so to speak. I've fussed with Uzbek and daydreamed of getting around to fussing with Uyghur, so why not tackle the most commonly used and standardized Turkic language? I'll confess that there is an issue of exoticism: Serious foreign language geeks learn Turkish, so I felt that a truly serious foreign language geek would need something a little more off the beaten path. But it's a neat language.

The real reason I've been studying Turkish, I must confess, is that it's not Mandarin or German. I've been studying Mandarin fairly seriously for several months now and am at the stage where I can say a lot, just not anything I would want to. I had tried to break the monotony by doing Mandarin in my classes and odd moments and seriously studying German, but German is another language that I would like to know much more than I would like to learn it. It's close enough to English that I can pick through simple German text, and yet there are all those grammatical fusses that English did away with 400 years ago that somehow seem tedious rather than charming.

So, what I've enjoyed about Turkish so far rests in part in how little I know about it. Everything I've learned has been a regular form, the rules thus far explained aren't too rough, and we're only sticking on one bit at a time in the agglutinating thing, which makes the vowel harmony a curiosity, rather than a horror.

While it's been nice to escape irregular plurals (German) and measure words (Mandarin), what I've enjoyed most about the Turkish language thus far is the ending "li/lı/lu/lü" (with), which seems quite useful. As in "coffee with sugar" - "şekerli kahve," "coffee with milk" - "sütlü kahve," and, my favorite, "sweet dreams" - "renkli rüyalar" (dreams with color).

I had always intended to use Turkish as a springboard to the Central Asian languages or vice-versa. We'll see which way it unfolds. For now, hoşça kalın.

Nota bene. has Itty Bitty Courses for Turkish and Uzbek. There is also a section on Turkic languages comparing Turkish, Uzbek and Uyghur. Finally, there is an aborted attempt at an Uzbek course at The Language Pages.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


When I was working at the bookstore, I had a few Italian books, such as Dover's Essential Italian Grammar. But my interest in Italian was first seriously peaked when I cam across Mandelbaum's translation of Inferno with the Italian and English on facing pages. Should I ever have one of those strokes that leave you able only to mutter a few useless phrases of inexplicable origin, one of mine will surely be "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita..."

I played with Dante for a while, enjoying picking through the Italian and checking back with Mandelbaum when my French was insufficient for following along. And then I let it drop for a while.

My next brush with Italian came after reading Foucault's Pendulum by Eco. I loved the book and reread it more than once. I even wrote a paper on the trial of the Templars as part of my French history studies. And then, one day, I found it: Il Pendolo di Foucault. This necessitated the purchase of a good Italian dictionary and more.

My significant other has a graduate minor in Italian - her major was also French - and is a great lover of opera. As a result, I get to toss out the Italian phrase here and there. And I read bits of it by use of my Spanish and French. I've also used the Pimsleur starter course, and the Michel Thomas course which impressed me more. In picking out languages I wanted to know, Italian was a logical choice for the relative ease of acquisition for such a beautiful language. Though my goal is more to enjoy the opera than to move to Italy and open a business.


I grew up in Northern Michigan, where the closest thing we had to a foreign language was properly spoken English. I took French in high school, but due to lack of interest in foreign language, the senior French and Spanish classes were combined, with half the period being alotted to each. As the future creator of, I listened well and soon was irritating the Spanish students with my ability to remember vocabulary they had forgotten. But most of it was close enough to either French or Latin that it came easily to someone for whom the words were parts of families, not discrete items to be learned.

When I went to college, I majored in French and took one year of Spanish. But so many people took - never mind already spoke - Spanish that it lost a lot of its exoticism.

Now I live in California. Spanish is a lot of things out here - useful, widely spoken, more widely understood - but it is not exotic. This has made it hard for me to study. In the same way that French became just another part of my life and so lost its exotic appeal, Spanish isn't something I would think of learning. It's just something I speak every day with co-workers, friends, servers at restaurants and so on.

Right now, I'm reading through the coursebook for Living Language Spanish. I've tried Pimsleur, tried the FSI course from Barrons, tried a million other things, including lessons from a teacher at the school where I work. But mostly, I learn by listening and by asking what to say when I get stuck, because I can't get worked up about serious study.

As a result, I communicate well enough, but my grammar is lousy and my vocabulary is odd. But, it's coming.


My senior year of high school a friend lent me a copy of the Dao with the Chinese calligraphied on the facing page. I liked the philosophy well enough - and still do - but the fascination was with the characters. I got Wieger's Etymology of Chinese Characters and the Rose-Innes Dictionary of Japanese and Chinese Characters (both Dover) and started a deciphering project. I also fussed with Modern Chinese (from Peking University, again through Dover).

My Chinese and Arabic studies at that time period sort of run together. And they share that aside from translating a little bit of classical text, I didn't get too far.

A few years back, I returned to Mandarin after tinkering with Japanese characters (and Heisig's guide to memorizing them). There's a website at where I started to put up the first nine books of the Dao. As so often happens, life intervened.

At one point, I ran across a Pimsleur Mandarin set that I had on my computer. I had listened to the first two or three lessons several times. Last fall, I decided to take it a little more seriously. Since I now work at a language school, dedicating serious time to it didn't seem quite so frivolous. I did the first level, joined a Mandarin group at work, then took lessons. I'll be stopping lessons fairly soon - my goal for Mandarin is barebones and I'm getting relatively close. But it's still a fascinating language.

Recommended for serious students:
Pimsleur Mandarin, Level 1
Chinese in 10 Minutes a Day (sticking with it is the hardest part)
What Chinese Character is That?
Ultimate Chinese from Living Language Chinese lessons
and, of course,

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Narrowing it down... to ten languages

A while back as I worked on, I realized that I had very seriously tinkered with an awful lot of languages, but hadn't gotten as far as I'd like on many. I decided it was time to set some quasi-realistic goals. Every time I do this - about every two years - something comes up to tempt me. But in the past, I've always had a goal of "knowing" certain languages, without any idea what that meant. Which meant that every time I played with another language, it was time taken from "knowing" the ones I was going to be serious about.

I've removed the temptation of studying other languages by allowing myself to do so, so long as I put in time on a core language first. At the same time, I set more precise expectations for that core group. I don't care, for example, about being fluent in German. If I can get through a short conversation and pick my way through bits of Wittgenstein and Heine, I'm good. The same goes for Chinese and the Dao.

My terminology for fluency with a language is as follows:

bare bones - if someone asks if I speak it, I can answer "barely" and prove it if they try to engage me in anything but very basic conversation, but I would know enough to order a meal and book a hotel room without help from an English speaker.

quasi-conversational - my grammar might not be great, nor my vocabulary, but I can talk to a native speaker about this and that and we'll each know what the other is talking about.

conversational - while I won't be taken for a native speaker, I should be able to get through just about any daily life situation, including scanning the newspaper, without too much trouble.

fluent/near fluent - were I to live in the country, I would have no trouble surviving and knowing what was going on around me, what was happening on the television, etc.

Now, here is my list of languages, after which, I will get back to the languages themselves:

1. English: goal: fluent (It's my native language after all!); status: fluent
2. French: goal: near fluent; status: near fluent
3. Spanish: goal: conversational; status: quasi-conversational
4. Italian: goal: quasi-conversational; status: bare bones to quasi-conversational
5. German: goal: quasi-conversational; status: bare bones
6. Mandarin: goal: bare bones; status: almost there
7. Portuguese: goal: quasi-conversational; status: bare bones
8. Indonesian: goal: quasi-conversational; status: less than bare bones
9. Turkish: goal: bare bones; status: a long ways to go
10. Arabic: goal: bare bones; status: a long ways to go

The next posts will look at where I am with each of these languages (French and Arabic already being done) and why I'm interested in them.


One of the formative events in my life - as 9/11 is for younger folks - was the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the taking of American hostages. Later, I even met one of the hostages.

While the events in Iran naturally link to Persian, the whole thing comes back to Arabic, language of the Koran. My junior year of high school I went to a "college experience week" where I studied Russian (to this day, all I remember is ya idu nrok - I'm going to class). But the big thing for me, while I was there, was coming across a copy of the Koran - specifically the Arberry translation.

Reading Arberry, I was extremely dubious that this is what the Koran said. I had translated from the French, at least, and knew that French poetry was impossible to bring across like that. So I returned home, went to the bookshop and got some books about Arabic, a few children's books and a zippered Koran in the original Arabic.

The books I used were Jack Smart's Teach Yourself Arabic, Ali's Teach Yourself Arabic (from Hippocrene) and the Wehr-Cowan dictionary. These I struggled through until I could no more. I learned to use a dictionary. I learned to read the verb tables.

Ultimately, the fairy tales (from Egypt) baffled me. But I was able to work through bits of the Koran and translated the opening verse plus lines here and there. My favorite is still the opening of the second book, the cow. Quoting from memory, and if Allah would please not strike me down: huwa al-kitaab laa raib fihi - This is the book in which there is no doubt. That even makes Ovid's exegui monumentum seem modest!

I have come back to Arabic a dozen times since, most notably with the Pimsleur intro for Iraqi/Eastern and Kullu Tamam, a nice presentation of Egyptian Arabic. But I haven't gotten very far. What I have gotten out of my Arabic studies, more than anything, is the ability to say that I'm most comfortable with the Pickthall translation of the Koran, plus a lot of handy words for everyday phrases in the Turkic languages.

For what it is worth, though, Arabic is on my list of languages that I will learn. I'll talk about that in my next post, before returning to my language experiences.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A first second language...

My first second language was French. I was exposed to a smattering of it growing up because both my parents had studied it at university - my mother fell just short of a minor. In high school - not till high school did I really study another language! - I took French and quickly picked up on the grammar and vocabulary. Putting them together to speak was another matter.

I was not sure at the time what I would do with languages. And even during my time at the bookstore, bitten by the language bug, I still wasn't sure how far I would go with languages. Then I read Les Misérables - in translation and abridged - and decided I would like to read it in the original.

By the time I hit college, I had fussed with Spanish, Italian, German and, of course, Arabic (and just a touch of Chinese). But French was my focus and I proceeded to minor in it. My junior (3rd) year, I went to France where I promptly discovered that the ability to get top marks on exams was not the same thing as being able to say even your name. Fortunately, after a few weeks I got the hang of it. Unfortunately...

In Foucault's Pendulum, one of the characters had studied German, and another character remarked that as far as he knew, once you'd studied German, you spent your life knowing German - nothing else left to do. That's sort of the way it is with French in the United States - not a whole lot to do with the fact you know French except spend your life knowing French. Which is how I wound up in grad school and on the verge of a PhD in French lit before life got in the way.

Today, I work for a language school. Ironically, it's my small business experience and brief time in business school that got me the job. But it's given me the chance to study lots of other languages and to start a career path related to my hobby.

I'd like to have more to say about French, but strangely, I don't. With most of my other languages, I study off and on, work at them when I can and regret that I haven't learned more. But having given 13 years of my life largely to the study of French, it's just something I now. When I want to talk, I talk. When I want to read, I read. But, like English, I no longer think of it as a language to study, but something I use for its own sake. Which is to say that I read in it, write in it and teach it. But I don't study it anymore.

As I write this, it occurs to me that the best way to tell my story, or confession as a language addict, is to run through all the languages I've fussed with, how far I've gotten, and how they have contributed either to making me a polyglot or limiting me to being an aspiring polyglot.

Next time: Arabic.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Confessions of a Language Addict

When I was in high school, I took French. I worked in a small bookstore where business was slow and leafed through the selections for German and Italian. Then, one day, I wondered what Arabic was like. This was before the web, so I wound up going through Baker and Taylor warehouse inventory updates and, gads!, the old Books In Print, and got Arabic books from Teach Yourself and Hippocrene. The owner, whenever business got slow, would order a few more language books so he'd at least have those sales. And so I got a bit of Chinese, a bit of Japanese, and an awful desire: I wanted to know them all!

Over the years, as my bio on indicates, I've fussed around with twenty or thirty languages. In some cases, they're left to the side after a day. In other cases, I stick with them a while, then move on. But mostly I study a language, leave it to the side and it comes back to haunt and taunt me. I drop what I'm doing for a day or two, push forward a (very) little further, then try to get back to what I'm seriously studying at the moment.

Having recently run across some sites like Aspiring Polyglot and Lost in Translation, I have smiled in recognition of the frustrations of language learning - both the learning and deciding what to learn. Since has at least a few resources for a lot of languages, I decided it was time to offer a little bit about my background, and about what I'm finding out there.

What I have enjoyed most with is putting some sort of structure under my free-form interest while also showing how language learning begets more language learning, making it easier and more exciting the more you do. I don't think the site has conveyed my full enthusiasm, but hopefully it at least shows why I think you might as well study some Italian if you already know Spanish and so on.

The hard part of doing is that it has a relatively logical structure and organization, whereas my language learning does not. Even in a structured program for a single language, the language learner's journey is a series of stops and starts and leaps and stumbles that only continues if the flashes of insight that make it fun are remembered during the hard work of building up the next block of knowledge till you've learned enough for it to come together. This is better and worse with multilingualism - there's more to do, but more information available to come together.

In the next few posts, and thereafter whenever I take the trouble, I'll be talking about different aspects of my own language learning adventure. The rest of the time, I'll be mentioning books, language programs and language sites that I've run across and what value I think they offer.