Monday, November 27, 2006

Learning for Necessity, Learning for Curiosity

On this site, I've written more than once about motivation. Over at AspiringPolyglot, Kelly has been coming to grips with Dutch, because she lives in the Netherlands now. If one wished to learn a language, it would be perfect: immersion in the environment, some time to settle in, resources available all over the place in the language. But what if you aren't excited by the language?

Working in a language school, I meet lots of people who are learning English because their boss sent them here or they're here with their spouses. People can sometimes demonstrate amazing resourcefulness in finding ways to survive without learning the local language. But it's not energy very well spent.

It is therefore heartening to see the AspiringPolyglot starting Dutch in earnest. You can read about how it's going and what's new for learning Dutch at, logically enough, LearningDutch.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Motivation, motivation, motivation!

The other day, Omniglot was kind enough to point out The typical language learning site, including my own, focuses on, well, how to learn a language. And advice on learning and understanding languages is helpful. But sometimes, one's question is not about the applications of the subjunctive in French or the use of postpositions in Turkic languages, but the much more general questions: Why bother? and Am I not done already?

David Bolton's site answers these questions and gives ideas for success not just in language learning, but in any endeavor that has meaning for our lives. Omniglot points to ideas for organizing vocabulary acquisition, but the most important message of language-learning-tips is that if you're going to learn a language, you've got to learn the language, and that means finding a way to keep yourself accountable and moving forward when the temptation is to take a rest.

I'm applying the vocabulary suggestions to reinforce and extend my Uzbek vocabulary and remind myself of some of the Chinese I've forgotten. I'm especially interested in seeing if his ideas about journals as tools to shame yourself into studying, dammit, will help.

Learning a language is easy when you're excited and the strange and different ways of expressing things make the enterprise all the more exotic. It's harder when some of the thrill has worn off, and those peculiarities are no longer challenges but obstacles - emotional as well as intellectual obstacles. Everyone about to start a new language should read the entirety of the essays - they're short fast reads full of good sense advice that will ensure that when you're nearing plateaus in your learning, you'll have the habits and routines in place to carry you through.

To David's articles, I would only add one thing (or maybe just expand upon it - he points in the direction): Know thyself!

In starting a foreign language program, you need the kind of goals that will keep you motivated. For some, this will mean a plan for astonishing progress toward fluency, any amount of pain or trouble being worth that goal. For others, such goals are preset excuses for giving up. When you set your plans, you should be aware - as David says - that you're going to need at least 1000 words for serious communication. But you should seriously evaluate how similar endeavors have gone for you in the past, being it picking up a new language or learning to play the banjolele. If your entire family gave up and moved out without your noticing because you were so focused on your project, aim high. If you noticed your glass was empty, went to refill it and never returned after the first week of your last undertaking, be sure to break your language learning plans into lots of little pieces that you can manage, always on the edge of meeting your next goal instead frustrated by how far off your final goal seems.

One final word: In 20 years of language learning, I've found different methods worked for different languages at different times in different contexts. While there are some great ideas and approaches out there, there's no silver bullet for success. But there is a silver bullet for failure: stopping. This was largely another Uzbek weekend for me. Nothing much new to report, but I'm very pleased that things I already knew I've begun to know better. In this regard, the language learning tips for pushing forward are invaluable: the one true key to learning a foreign language is to keep learning. And David has some great ideas for doing just that.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Translation fun

I've been working on a project connected to, my site for Victor Hugo poetry. I've been working through a poetry primer (the delightful Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry) and have enjoyed learning how English poetry works, having learned a bit about French poetry in grad school. So now the plan is to revise some old translations and undertake a few new ones after I've improved my ear for English verse.

One fun challenge: words like lugubre - do you translate them with the obvious correspondent, lugubrious, or the more common gloomy. And since English offers these two choices, and French but one, where do balance things out so that your translations are neither highfalutinly Latinate nor abrasively Anglo-Saxon?


On the Uzbek front, I've been using a nice dictionary I found on and have made my way through a few songs that weren't making much sense before.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Stuff to read in Uzbek

A while back, a commenter pointed to his own site for literature in Uzbek, and I finally got a chance to look around. It's an interesting collection, with stuff by Somerset Maugham and Stephen King, as well as offerings in a more traditional vein. There are also sites for literature in Spanish and French, among other languages, all linked at uztranslations.

So far, of course, the Uzbek stories have been beyond me and I've been working my way through the stuff I mentioned earlier from the University of Washington. But it's good to know that when I get past the folktales, more awaits. It motivates to know there's something you're working towards, and not just working on. Working toward reading, eg, a Somerset Maugham short story in Uzbek, whether you're a fan or not (I'm not) gives you a goal whose achievement will tell you you've really done something. And that can be important. So as you build up a little vocabulary in a new language, it's worth it, from time to time, to look at a real text for the satisfaction of seeing how many words you know or might know. Learning languages is not that big a deal - it just takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and dedication. Finding that time, effort and dedication, though, is impressive. Looking at stories, listening to music or finding movies - whatever it takes to develop the motivation - should be done whenever possible, so that you can be among the elite who have learned x number of languages, as opposed to the many who tried to teach themselves a language at one point or another and gave up.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Subliminal Learning?

Learning is of course sublime, but can it be subliminal? (President Bush would condense this to wondering if it's subliminable.) The short answer, in my experience, is no. I've tried "subliminal" courses for Spanish, Japanese and Turkish. The Japanese and Spanish ones, which fed the English quietly into one ear and the Spanish, more loudly, into the other were, in a word, useless. The Turkish course offered very very quiet (sub-audible) lessons after a crashing wave sequence that was supposed to induce a light hypnotic trance. The course taught me no Turkish, but if I need a good night's sleep, it's great to listen to fifteen minutes before bed.

While I'm dubious about subliminal learning, there is something to be said for learning right before bed, on the way to the calm of sleep and with no new inputs coming up to disturb what you've learned. To that end, I've been reading a lesson or two in the Peace Corps manual right before bed, formulating my own dialogue with the night's material and then listening to the drills for Colloquial Uzbek right before going to sleep. What I've found is that while I don't necessarily remember the material for production, when I look at it later I have little trouble following what it says. More importantly, I find that when I look at words I had had to pick apart to decipher before, the various agglutinative particles pop out at me and grammar explanations that had left me baffled make perfect sense.

The before bed, I think, ties in with the reading aloud bit. In both cases, you're getting your mind set on a pattern that's new but that it's perfectly capable of learning. The reading bit gets your mind and mouth used to what's going on and interested in making it work together; the before bed bit lets you wrap your head around things - again - without your conscious efforts at comprehension getting in the way of what is not logical, per se, but just the way that language works.

When I was in grad school, I did a fair amount of pedagogy stuff, but the most important thing I learned is that the most effective learning methods are called "eclectic" and aren't really methods at all, just lumpings together of things that seem to work when nothing else does. So I'll add that before bed study, like everything else mentioned on this blog, is not a silver bullet. But if you're looking for something new to try, here's something new.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

FSI Language Courses

A commenter on the Peace Corps courses post, wondered about FSI courses. Actually, there is a site,, that has bunches of courses and is adding more all the time. They're mostly for the standards - French, German, Spanish, Chinese... - but there are some like Hebrew and Vietnamese that are a little more off the beaten path. And they're adding more courses all the time. So if you're looking for a course, give them a try (but just download a few lessons at a time, please, they're paying for their own bandwidth).

And if you happen to have an FSI course (government issue, hence copyright free, not a commercially reproduced one) and would like to help increase their free offerings, drop them a note to find out if they can use it and what's involved in getting it digitized for web use.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Another Uzbek weekend so far

As I mentioned in the post below, there are at least a handful of old Peace Corps manuals at the ERIC database, including the manual for Uzbek. So far, I've done Topic 1 and half of Topic 2. There's not a whole lot I hadn't encountered before. And yet, as long as I've been studying there were still half a dozen grammar rules that I'd only guessed at but hadn't seen confirmed in print anywhere. In that regard, I've appreciated the manual. I also ran across this, the audio for Ismatulla's Modern Literary Uzbek. I also encountered, a nice English-language site for those interested in contemporary Uzbek music, where I finally found a good track of Lola's Yarim Baht. And, of course, you can always go to for more music and videos if you don't mind everything being in Uzbek.

Before this becomes all-Uzbek all-the-time, one more reminder that there are several Peace Corps courses linked at the post below, including Kazakh, Swahili and two dialects of Arabic.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Another language resource

Scrolling through the sites with Uzbek references, I kept coming across references to the Peace Corps manual, but I couldn't find it for sale. Then I found it for free. The U.S. government maintains tons of databases. One of them is ERIC, and it has Peace Corps manuals and such if you're willing to go through the searching for them. Here are a few of them:

Uzbek: Language Competencies for Peace Corps Volunteers in Uzbekistan.

Kazakh Language Course for Peace Corps Volunteers in Kazakhstan.

Kazakh: Language Competencies for Peace Corps Volunteers in Kazakhstan.

Swahili Learners' Reference Grammar. African Language Learners' Reference Grammar Series.
Kiswahili Competency Based Manual. Revised.

Tunisian Arabic
A Beginner's Course in Tunisian Arabic.

Moroccan Arabic
Moroccan Arabic: A Competency Based Curriculum, Beginning & Intermediate Students.

Russian Language Competencies for Peace Corps Volunteers in Russia.

Russian Language Competencies for Peace Corps Volunteers in Russia: Workbook.

Guarani I and Work Book (For Peace Corps Volunteers).

Language Correspondence Course (Community Entry Language Preparation): Tagalog, Modules 1-21.

There may be others. Or there may not. These are what I stumbled across checking a few categories that came up with the Uzbek course. But if you're looking for materials on one of the languages above, they're free for download and most of them are full-length textbooks.