Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Finishing Pimsleur Italian I and more cross-training

I finished up Pimsleur Italian I today. Nice course. It would have been nice to have less cursory introductions to the past tense and informal forms, but on the whole the course covers a lot of ground. I don't think I learned more than a word or two - most of it was familiar from earlier studies - but the big challenge for language is not getting it into your brain, but getting it to come out of your mouth, and Pimsleur is very good for this. I'm speaking Italian as comfortably as I ever have.

When you're done with Pimsleur Italian I, you can conjugate a handful of verbs in the present tense, ask for things politely, set appointments, discuss money and a lot of other everyday stuff. And you'll have a framework for expanding your knowledge. If you're thinking of learning Italian and have no background, this is a great, albeit expensive, course. If you read Italian, but can't speak it, the conversational course should be more than enough.


While I've been doing Pimsleur Italian, I've also been working on Pimsleur Spanish and (much less) on Michel Thomas Mandarin. In the past, when I've tried this, it's been a confusing endeavor. A few thoughts though: If you're learning two new languages, that's a problem. If you're playing with a couple languages you're solid in while learning a new one, that's great. Other than a profound desire to say "Voglio comer," I've had minimal problems with interference since about the third day of doing Spanish and Italian together. To the contrary, I'm getting used to the languages having to take turns and feel a little stronger in both.


The other day, I wrote about journaling and language learning. I see that Josh is doing this in his own way with a language log at how-to-learn-any-language.com. This is one good approach because it makes you publicly accountable. Another approach - the one I mentioned - is to keep a ledger. I've been keeping just such a ledger. Here are the rules:

30 pts. for a Pimsleur lesson (Italian or Spanish)
30 pts. for starting a Michel Thomas disc (Mandarin)
30 pts. for finishing a Michel Thomas disc (Mandarin)
10 pts. for an Assimil lesson (Italian)

Daily study is necessary, so -10 pts. for any day without studying.
Cramming is unproductive, so 45 pts. maximum for any given day.

New programs with comparable point totals can only be added after these are done.

When I reach 600 pts., I get a prize: the 8-disc Michel Thomas Arabic.

I started my ledger on October 19. Since I've been on vacation off and on, most days I've gotten 45. But one day when I worked, I only got 10 pts. - I read an Assimil lesson on the bus.

When I started the program, I had done the first 14 lessons of Pimsleur Italian, the first two of Pimsleur Spanish and the first 5 discs of Michel Thomas Mandarin. As of today, I've finished Pimsleur Italian I, as noted above. But I am also on lesson 15 of Pimsleur Spanish I and am halfway through disc 7 of MT Mandarin. And I am at 415 pts.

You'd think the vacation was the biggest help, but I've been on vacations before where I did even less than I was squeezing in on workdays. Keeping the ledger, though, has kept me accountable and given me a material goal, rather than just the satisfaction of learning, to work toward. We'll see how it goes when I return to work tomorrow, but there's something to be said for quantifying your progress on a daily basis in a way that you keep gaining as long as you keep working.

Another New Look

I thought to change the look of the blog a little bit, and did so a few weeks ago. Then I saw it on a monitor where the contrast and brightness were adjusted a little differently. Yikes!

This still isn't a work of art, but hopefully it's something new and a little easier on the eyes.

Coming tomorrow: Finishing Pimsleur Italian I and more cross-training

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Serial Bilingualism and Language Cross-Training

I've written about serial bilingualism - losing an old language when you take up a new one, instead of adding to the number of languages you speak - before (here, for example). The question then, as always, is what to do about it. The other day, Steve of The Linguist fame had a short post on cross-training. He notes:
I think everyone at LingQ should spend 10- 20% of their time on a minor language in order to get better results at their major language.I believe that it stretches the brain, refreshes it, challenges it, and make the brain better fit and more eager to engage the major target language again.
When the brain engages language, there's a lot going on. With a language you're weak in, it has to first figure out which language, then translate, then see if the translation makes any sense while decoding. Even with a stronger language, you need a second to say, "Which language was I speaking again?" I've written before about small children refusing to stay bilingual if they don't have to, and about adults facing their own strains too. I think there's another element, though, and that's getting in the habit of switching languages.

A lot of polyglots need a little refresher before going off to a country where they speak a language that the polyglot hasn't used in a while. Steve's suggestion of cross-training is a good training. It keeps the brain on its toes (there's a picture!) about which language is being used. It gets the brain used to sorting out linguistic data, as opposed to just lazily assimilating meaning according to one linguistic system. And, I suspect, it improves one's stronger languages because the brain figures out new things about language that it would have missed if it were allowed to just lazily assimilate meaning. If you've ever read a book (in your own language) that sent you scrambling to the dictionary on a regular basis, you probably noticed a similar increased attentiveness to how language is being used.

The last few weeks, I've been playing with multiple languages again. I've been studying Italian and Spanish, plodding through the end of Michel Thomas Mandarin and listening to a bit of Michel Thomas Arabic. It was a bit rough at first. What I've found, though, is that after a week of listening to both Pimsleur Spanish and Pimsleur Italian (both review at this point), my Italian and Spanish both feel a little stronger and they're running together less and less. My brain is now used to the idea these languages happen in the same day, and that I have to engage them both actively. This is a contrast with listening to music, where if your store of vocabulary is good enough you can listen to either and understand without paying a lot of attention to which one you're listening to at the moment.

If you want to be a polyglot, it's not enough to learn a lot of languages. You have to be able to call them up on short notice. In the past, I would have counseled someone learning Italian who speaks Spanish already to stay away from Spanish so they don't get confused. But now I'm thinking, if you're ambitious enough to keep both when you're learning Italian you should probably do ten or fifteen minutes review of Spanish every day at the same time. In the short run, it will make it harder, but in the long run, you'll have both languages and your brain will be used to having to know the difference.

And yes, Steve, if you want an affordable approach to working with multiple languages at the same time, LingQ is well worth checking out.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Start Speaking Arabic - Really!

I've written before about Michel Thomas Mandarin, which I think is a very good program that serves its purpose, but which can be awfully slow-going - a fault of the language's differences from English as much as anything.

I've had Michel Thomas Getting Started Arabic laying around for some time, ever since I listened to a short segment online. This weekend, I popped it in.

Michel Thomas Arabic is by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gaffar. Go to the language section of your bookstore and you'll see their names all over the place, including the Hippocrene Arabic Dictionary and Phrasebook, a text called Mastering Arabic and Your First 100 Words in Arabic (if memory serves). I've seen some of their previous efforts and they are pretty much standard fare, no worse than what one normally finds but not usually stunningly better. Michel Thomas Arabic, though, seems to be a program they've been waiting to make.

In a lot of ways, Michel Thomas Arabic strikes me as a better version of Elisabeth Smith's Teach Yourself (in) One Day series. In the One Day courses, you've got a guy sitting on an airplane fretting that he doesn't know the language where he's going. His seat mate just happens to be a language teacher and promises him that if he'll give her an hour, she'll teach him enough to get by. There is the same informal air with Michel Thomas Arabic, but extended. It's like discovering that the couple next door consists of a man from Egypt and a lady from England who learned Arabic from them and now she's going to teach you. She talks about how to say things, stopping now and again to ask him a question or get some help with pronunciation.

Michel Thomas courses always feature two learners (plus you). In this course, the female learner is a little quicker to catch on, but they're both amiable sorts and they both get the hang quickly enough that you don't spend too much time waiting on points that you got but they didn't - nor seeing points that you missed get passed over.

I've found the Michel Thomas course especially nice because I spent a lot of time with the Pimsleur going back to make sure I was hearing correctly or trying to figure out whether I'd missed a sound (from the collection of varied "h"s, glottal stops, etc that Arabic employs) - and that's in spite of (or maybe because of) having studied Arabic before.

Like most Michel Thomas courses, the focus is on building a vocabulary and learning some basic structures. On the downside, this means you don't get the thorough training in polite formalities that Pimsleur courses offer. But if you're looking for an entry point into Arabic in general and Egyptian Arabic in particular, this is a good program to start with.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Journaling and Making Yourself Do Your Homework

A long time ago, I wrote about something called the Mental Bank and applying it to language learning. But, I confess, I got busy in life and let it slip by the wayside. However, the idea has always appealed to me so I did some reworking and have been trying something new. Here's how it works:

When you get into language learning, it's a good idea to keep a journal. Not an "I was feeling very French today" kind of journal; something more like an accounts ledger. Decide what is the very least you can do every day (it should probably involve about ten minutes of study). Then pick a few more ambitious items, things that might take twenty or thirty minutes. These could include listening to a Pimsleur lesson, working through a section of a chapter in a Teach Yourself book or learning seven more words with the Vocabulary and Language Building Block exercises.

Once you've defined some things you could do to work on your language, set a point, dollar, pound or euro value for each activity. Then pick out a reward (that you can actually pay for!) for studying at least a little bit every day for a month. At the end of each day, take stock: Fill out the things you've done, note the assigned points and watch your learning add up. If you didn't do anything, put zero - ouch! Putting that zero will remind you that you need to find time. And the thought of putting that zero will encourage you to at least try to find ten minutes before bed - a good time to study, if you're skimping, since it will allow your brain to process what you have done overnight.

When you've earned your reward - gotten the set number of points - you can cash in and collect and start the process over. That way you've always got a little something extra to look forward to if you maintain good study habits.

It sounds like a silly game, of course, but if you're learning on your own you need something to keep you on task - and something to keep you from surfing the net or going back to the bookstore every time you don't feel like studying. If you find your learning sessions are productive - if only you'd do them more often! - give this a try. For the cost of a small notebook and two minutes a day you might just trick yourself into finding the value of learning a foreign language as you work toward more long term benefits.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Back to Pimsleur

I recently came into possession of Pimsleur Italian I. It's been a while since I've done Pimsleur, and it's certainly a level of Italian that I know.

But there's a difference between knowing a language and knowing a language - a distinction between having it in your head and getting it out of your mouth. And since I've been out of practice with my Italian, it's a lot easier to, say, read a short story than to discuss the weather. That's changing.

Doing the Pimsleur course, I've been reminded again how nicely it furnishes little building blocks for wrapping not just your brain, but also your mouth, around a language. One flaw, though, that I hadn't thought about before: There's no explanation, eg, of how to roll an "r". You are asked, "Did your pronunciation match that of the speaker?" but you aren't cued in on how to match it or what to be listening for to know if you're not. With Italian this is a minor thing. But in thinking about this, I think I've realized why Pimsleur Mandarin taught me good tones for a lot of the phrases that I mastered but without figuring out how to replicate them when learning and using new words outside of Pimsleur. Thanks to Michel Thomas Mandarin, I now look at the pin yin and toss in a blue finger up, black finger down, etc, and the tones stick with me about 50% of the time - considerably better than before.

This leads to two thoughts: 1) If you're learning a new language and don't know where to start, Pimsleur could well be the place. 2) If the Pimsleur phrases sound sing-songy and indistinct to you and you're not sure your responses aren't the same way, you might need a second source, like a phrasebook with a CD, to make sure you have some sense of the lexical units you're manipulating (though once you do, you should continue with Pimsleur, of course).