Sunday, August 31, 2008

Audio... Visual

I love Pimsleur and Michel Thomas, but it would be nice to have a little written info to go with them. With Learn In Your Car and a few other programs, you get a transcript, or can download one. But as a rule, if you find a program with both a visual and an audio component, one of them is just a pale reflection of the other.

I recently stumbled across Oxford Take off in Latin American Spanish. While I wouldn't say it's the perfect solution to my complaints, it's a move in the right direction. The CD narration guides you through the book, which pages to look at, when to do the exercises. The book, however, includes all the content and allows the possibility of doing the exercises by listening, filling in the blanks, or both.

The program is far from perfect, and I wouldn't recommend it for an absolute beginner because Pimsleur and Michel Thomas are better, in their own particular ways, of taking the learner by the hand and introducing the language. But for someone who's finished Pimsleur Basic or Michel Thomas Getting Started and who has decided it's time to broaden out and start on the written language, this is worth picking up.

Also available for Italian, French and Japanese.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Entities and Increments

I've been reading the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. Waitzkin was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Now that he's grown up, he's into chess, martial arts and the process of learning, hence the book title.

One of Waitzkin's early points is the difference between entity and incremental approaches to learning (a concept taken from Dr. Carol Dweck). How many times have we heard, "I'm no good at foreign languages" or "I've always had a knack for math"? We often have a tendency to assume that if we've had good experiences with something then we're good at it and if we've had bad experiences then we're not. It's true that different people will have different strengths and weaknesses, but the odds are that if you're lousy at math, you had the help of a lousy math teacher or two to get that way... and if you're a genius at math, contrariwise, you had the help of some good and competent teachers along the way. When you identify with your skill level in a pursuit as a personal attribute, not just a marker of your progress, it's called an entity approach to learning. If, on the other hand, you see your learning as a progression and setbacks as calling for more work, you're in the incremental groove.

Tony Robbins talks about CANI - constant and never-ending improvement - which is his version of the Japanese kai-zen. I think that may be overdoing it. We'll make mistakes and have setbacks. If you fail to study your German for a week, you're going to have to make up for lost time and lost momentum. As long as you have an incremental approach to thinking about learning, however, you can pick up and move forward. If you invest too much energy into where you are now, on the other hand, you may be tempted to simply say, "I'm no good at German" and go watch television. The trick here is becoming an incremental learner in any given situation where you're not. Be sure to set small, achievable goals in your problem areas, and keep at it: incrementally, you'll improve and looking back six months later you'll be able to see how far you've come. For the short term, though, don't think about how much you know; think about knowing a little bit more every day and getting back to it if you fall off the wagon for a day or two.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vary your learning resources

One of the problems with finding the perfect system for learning is that if you want to learn new languages, it can start to run together. I'm a big fan of Pimsleur, and have listened to enough of their programs to hit the "And that's true, now you do speak a little [name of language]" with perfect timing and intonation. Then again, I'll be listening to a lesson and saying, "ani lo medabar..." or "ich versteche kein..." even though it's not a Hebrew or German lesson. They're just among the first languages I listened to on Pimsleur and I know the drill well enough that I sometimes zone out.

I think it would be especially difficult, eg, to do the Pimsleur Spanish and Italian lessons at the same time. This week, I studied a bit of Italian - with ItalianPod, a bit of Breton - using Iverson to learn new vocabulary then working through the readings in Brezhoneg buan hag aes and Mandarin - using Michel Thomas Mandarin. I'm at different places with all three languages, and doing different things. And they're pretty different languages. As a result, I've run into little interference and have found a way to push toward polyglottism by working on a different language if I'm worn out on the one I was previously studying.

Thinking about working on more than one language at once? Some say it can't be done. Others say it's a breeze. But if you've given it a try and they're all running together, try varying the way you learn to keep your different languages straight.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another way to engage your language...

Matezh al loar - The Moon Maiden

Song of Solomon, start of chapter 3

(Breton in both cases)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Blue finger up and other fun

Another trip to the mailbox, and the full set of Michel Thomas Mandarin still hasn't arrived. But this weekend I wandered over to a local Chinese bookshop and picked up a bunch of Mandarin-English children's stories with the pin-yin included. And when I read them aloud, syllable by syllable, I am now merely terrible. (Once I was worse.) There are those who take to the Mandarin right away, and there are those who don't. I am sadly in the latter camp, as much as I would love to sufficiently master the language to declare myself done with it.

The Get-Started Mandarin kit, with its goofy memory aids, especially for tones, makes things seem a little more doable. In the past, I'd look at a list of vocabulary and however much I recalled the spellings, the tones were a near total loss. In the last week or so, using the Iverson system Josh mentioned and the tone tricks from Michel Thomas Mandarin, I've learned a good 30 or 40 words and phrases with the correct tones. Those who are experts with Mandarin - and I salute you - are doubtless shaking your heads. But if you're one of those people who just can't quite get the sound of Mandarin, do give this a try.

(Blue finger up, by the way, is one of the regular cues for remembering the tone of a syllable, hence the post's title.)

On another front, I tried out an ItalianPod podcast or two and was immediately charmed. While I'm listening to the FrenchPod podcasts to put a little French back in my life and recover what I've lost, I've been listening to the Italian to move from simple, functional Italian to something a little more natural. Also, I dragged out an old set of Italian in Your Car I had laying around, which I've been listening to as I sleep at night. I'm not sure I'm learning anything, but I've had some strange dreams where I insisted I wanted una camera senza doccia (Maybe it was cheaper?) so something must be sinking in.

Lastly, I've been staggering through the exercises in Brezhoneg... buan hag aes and using the Iverson method to learn vocabulary items I don't recognize so that I can do the readings straight through.

One funny thing about the flurry of language activity: while my level of effort has been varied depending on the language and the materials used, I've really felt engaged with language in the last few weeks again, and when I speak, be it French and Spanish at work, Italian at home or the odd word of Breton or Mandarin just for the helluvit all, the words are coming easier. So, to round off the ramble with something sensible: If you want to learn one language, or several, your key is exposure, exposure, exposure. I've talked enough about attitude and keeping going, etc, but this is the bottom line: The more you're around what you're learning, the more you'll learn. So if you find something that holds your attention for ten more minutes before you decide to see what's on tv, or whatever, grab it and enjoy.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Learning Ideas for the New Week

This week was a bit scattered, language-wise. But I've run across some interesting ideas in the process. In no particular order...

FrenchPod: I'd looked at this when it got started up out of curiosity, but hadn't got back to see the more advanced lessons. This weekend I listened to an intermediate and an upper-immediate lesson. They were both well-executed and covered the sort of things a good French-speaker trying to start speaking more naturally would benefit from. If you're just learning French, start at the beginning. But if you're in second-year French and want to start sounding like a real French speaker, give the intermediate lessons a look.

The Iverson Method: The other day, Josh mentioned this and I wandered over to find out more. I've made some minor adaptations and am finding the system good for reinforcing vocabulary with textbooks. It's also good to pre-read a passage and learn the vocabulary so that it can be read at one clip.

Michel Thomas Mandarin: I've finished the two-disc set and have found two things: It covers less than I'd like to have learned, but what it's covered it covered well. I'm particularly pleased with the system for learning tones, which I'm also using with outside learning. The set seems to take too long on tones, but if they're learned, they're learned, which is better than what I've found with most systems. If your tones aren't coming together and you've got a few hours to spare, give it a try.

Update: Heard from some of the folks in the ChinesePod family regarding their affiliates program. If you're a fan and run a language blog, be sure to check into it for your site too.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Back to School...

... and starting Spanish, French or Mandarin

Regular visitors to this page tend to have a lot of experience with language learning, and are likely working on a third, fourth or fifth language. But we all have to start somewhere. In the United States the starting point, alas, is often high school, with Freshman Spanish or French. At the language school where I work, nervous students-to-be are taking short introductory courses so that the idea of learning a foreign language will be one thing they're used to this fall, not another new challenge. So if there are any budding linguists reading, here are a few suggestions for getting started.

Michel Thomas was rather older when he put together his courses, and he can get a bit cranky. But he also gives a lot of background for dealing with a new language quickly. His 2-CD starter sets won't make you fluent, but they'll give you a good head start and help you know what you're getting into.

Earworms Audio Programs feature words and phrases in English and the target language. The music can be a bit cheesy - the sort of fake rock that 45 year-old educators will think is "hip" - but if you bear with it you get used to it and can pick up a not-bad starter vocabulary.

Talk Now programs introduce basic vocabulary and test your learning with a sort of computerized game show format. Again, good for picking up a couple hundred words of basic vocabulary.

Before You Know It is free flashcard software to help you learn words and phrases. More comprehensive software is available for sale. You can get the free versions at

Last, but definitely not least, be sure to check out the free podcasts at ChinesePod, FrenchPod and SpanishPod.