Sunday, November 30, 2008

And that's true, now you do speak a little...

The Cunning Linguist disappeared for a little while there, but now she's back with notes for lessons 1-14 of Pimsleur Japanese.

She's also working on Mandarin notes.

Now that I'm halfway through Pimsleur Spanish II, I've picked up my Pimsleur Mandarin I again. I've already been through it once, but it was long ago and while my tones are better since I did the Michel Thomas course, my speech is not nearly as fluid. Hopefully I'll be able to zip through the course and keep my tones intact.

While studying, I've been using a transcript that seems to have disappeared from the net - perhaps one that fell afoul of the DMCA. I'll be curious to see Victoria's notes, however, as her notes for Japanese offer original information on how the language goes together and what you should be getting from the lessons in terms of structures.

Be sure to drop by and get her a green tea (or more) to thank her for her efforts.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Speak in a Week, Chinese Write Away & a Journaling update

Speak in a Week Spanish. The other day in the bookstore, I flipped through Week 4 of Speak in a Week Spanish. The focus was preterit, imperfect and object pronouns. Pretty standard fare, and things that I know. But not things that always pop out of my mouth. I picked up the full 4-week set, and have just about finished flipping through week 1.

Thoughts: This doesn't necessarily strike me as the best tool for learning Spanish. But then again, nothing is. As I work through my Pimsleur course (about which more later), I've been impressed with their gradual integration of grammar through actual examples with the explicit grammar only (and barely) coming later. Still, no one program is going to teach you a language. If you're serious about learning, you'll use one program to build your foundations, another to rebuild them, another to get things coming naturally, etc. Starting to learn a language is easy. Maintaining and building on it is a lifetime task.

If you're looking for a concise review of some basic Spanish and grammar in an easy to carry around format, go for it. If you're learning for the first time, check out this article, linked by the Foreign Language Blogger, and think about setting a good program for doing and reviewing the lessons - by spacing out your studies, instead of cramming, you can lay the foundations for longer term retention instead of spinning your wheels.

Chinese Write Away. Tired of the old character manuals where you copy the same character 20 times from the diagram? With Chinese Write Away, you get a dry-erase marker and 100 laminated pages of Chinese characters. You can trace directly over the character, then make your own copies in the remaining squares. Then you erase and start over.

What's great about Chinese Write Away, however, is not just its ingenious way of letting you carry your character study with you wherever you go. Better, it's well organized. For example, in the opening greeting section, you first learn ni (you), then hao (good) so you're ready to write your first sentence, ni hao (hello) before you're done with page one. It's a welcome change from the many books which start with the one stroke characters, move to the two stroke characters and wind up seeming more than anything like short character dictionaries.

If you want to learn some everyday characters for everyday items either just for fun or as a way of easing into more serious study down the road, Chinese Write Away is a great option.

Journaling update. Since I started my second ledger for language learning, this one for doing Pimsleur Spanish II, I've missed one day, completing 11 lessons in ten days. Granted, it's not the most impressive record in the history of language learning, but with things crazy at work it's actually better than I would have expected. If you want to learn, but don't always stay focused on learning, keeping a diary or ledger that you write in every day is a great way to keep yourself on task.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Journaling to Keep Learning

In just a few minutes, I'll be going to listen to Pimsleur Spanish, Level 2, Lesson 4. Looking at my language journal, I've done at least one Pimsleur Spanish lesson every day since October 24. And I've done something with language every day going back further than that. As a result, Spanish is coming fairly naturally these days. I'm not saying I'm fluent, but what I do know is fully activated. Part of that is from the regular Spanish study. And part of that is from doing the regular Spanish study so that I don't have to leave a day in my journal blank.

I talked earlier about needing a reward to keep you going when you weren't feeling the benefits. When I finished up my planned sequence, I looked at the Michel Thomas Arabic program I had on my wish list, and realized that I really wanted to go further with my Spanish or Italian, not go in a new direction just now. I got Stephenie Meyers' Crepúsculo - Twilight in Spanish. It's not the sort of thing I normally go for, but it was on an end cap at Barnes and Noble and the cover was striking. I didn't realize until this weekend that it's just about to pop up on the big screen (in English, of course).

Earlier this weekend, I found Eco's Estructura Ausente - Introducción a la semiótica online (in Spanish). Given my background, it's no harder to read in Spanish than it is in English. Not so with Spanish contemporary fiction, where the vocabulary doesn't line up with my earlier studies. So I've enjoyed Crepúsculo not least because I can understand it with relative ease. A few weeks ago, the Foreign Language Blogger mentioned "The cartoon and trash-novel method of language learning." I've always heard about reading a favorite book in other languages, but from Le Petit Prince to Alice in Wonderland to The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I've always gotten hung up on the translations of old phrases I've come to know and love, and instead of making me better know my new language, it's just made me cross with it. A trashy teen novel that I don't know but can follow seems a better fit. I can't give advice on what you should read to gain another entry point into your new language, but if the Great Books haven't been doing it for you, go for something simple with lots of dialog. It might be just what you're looking for.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Impulse Factor and More Productive Learning

I just finished Nick Tasler's The Impulse Factor, which describes the different ways we approach risk. Tasler says there are two basic approaches to risk: risk management and potential seeking. Risk managers minimize downside risk and accept lower upside potential in return for security. Potential seekers focus on maximizing upside potential, even if it means giving up smaller but surer gains or risking greater failures and losses. Now, we all act impulsively from time to time, and we all have moments when the potential downside risks of a situation dominate our decision making. But generally speaking, people will fit one of the two models and even if they don't see it, their friends will be able to say pretty easily whether you're looking at an impulsive person - a potential seeker - or a risk manager.

Tasler says that it's not better or worse to be a potential seeker or a risk manager, but that you need to know your style and adjust your decision making models to enhance that model's advantages while minimizing its disadvantages. One thing that struck me about The Impulse Factor was the applicability of the advice for potential seekers when applied to people learning languages on their own:

When you start to learn a language on your own, you're probably in the potential seeking mode: You're thinking about the day when you can strike up conversations with complete strangers, make new friends and maybe even live in a place that is completely alien to you. You're not thinking so much about how much that CD set cost and whether or not you're likely to finish it (of course you will!).

So, what do potential seekers need to watch out for?

1) You need "directionally correct impulses." This means that what you're doing has to make sense - it has to cohere to your development as a person and for the better. If your girlfriend is Chinese, it makes more sense to learn Mandarin than Swahili. Are you learning a language for the hell of it, or because the time and effort invested will flesh out other aspects of your life (besides being able to discourse authoritatively upon Swahili verb formation at cocktail parties)?

2) You need to be wary of "low hanging fruit." It's such a buzz to start a new language. Every three days, your vocabulary doubles. Yesterday, you couldn't say "Hello," and now you can already tell people what color their car is and that you think it's very beautiful. Language junkies and potential seekers alike need to look at opportunity costs - how much are you missing out on by using your time for the easy-breezy fun stuff of a new language when you could be cementing the foundations in a language you've already studied? This is not to say you shouldn't study new languages, either for fun or with the long term goal of fluency. But if you're at the bookstore and you just put back Intermediate Russian because it was so exciting skimming the first chapter of Samoan for Beginners, it's not a bad idea to stop and examine your motives.

3) It's a good idea to explore what Tasler calls binary thinking. When you are a risk manager, you analyze, then act. If you are impulsive, you're likely to act before you analyze. In this case, you should analyze after, not skip analysis altogether. In other words, if you're feeling motivated now, by all means throw yourself into your studies and get as far as you can. But when the thrill lessens, take time to reflect on what worked and what didn't so you don't feel like you have to keep going at the same pace or give up.

There are also lessons for the risk manager:

1) Beware of subconscious fears: Few people are incapable of learning a new language. But a lot of people have trouble sticking with it through the frustrating parts. They're afraid they can't learn, and the fear dominates. Or they're afraid they won't be fluent enough and they'll be embarrassed. Most of all, they're afraid that they won't stick with it long enough so any time invested will turn out to have been a waste of time. It's the same logic we use to justify not looking for a new job, not asking someone out and all the other things where we look at an exciting new direction our lives might take and say, naah.

2) Set targets. I've been writing about the language journal off and on. I encountered a slightly different version of this with the story of a golfer who came out ahead of Tiger Woods in a tough tournament. The key: He went to the course in advance, practiced a variety of scenarios and prepped himself to stay focused on the shots instead of the score. As a result, his mind was mainly on what to do next, not what Tiger had just done. That's not enough, of course, to beat Tiger every time. But it reduces the chance of choking by getting caught up in winning the tournament instead of making the next shot. With language learners, the plateaus can feel like an invitation to give up. By setting targets that keep you focused on small, achievable goals, you can steadily improve and ultimately prove competent if not fluent instead of getting hung up on how much you have to learn.

I've simplified and adapted, of course, and if you're interested in maximizing your decision making skills for language learning and life in general, Tasler's book - not my summary - is the way to go. But I hope these points will provide a little food for thought in figuring out what makes you tick - and what makes you quit - when it comes to learning languages, so that if you've struggled in the past you can make better choices and stick to them in the future.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Continuing Italian and Spanish and Revisiting Journaling

In my post on journaling, I talked about an idea for keeping your learning on track. And in my post on finishing Pimsleur Italian, I indicated the journaling technique was working well, but that I had been on vacation and would have to see if progress continued when I went back to work.

I'm pleased to report that looking at my journal, I've finished a Pimsleur Spanish lesson every day since returning to work (and over the weekend), and am now 2/3 of the way through the course. While I haven't been expressly tracking it, I've been popping in Berlitz Italian Guaranteed for one lesson a night. And I'm now starting to work my way through Michel Thomas Italian: I'll do the 8 CD course, then the advanced course, just to keep my Italian fresh.

If you study every day on your own through a combination of personal discipline and innate excitement about what you're going to learn next, my hat's off to you and keep doing what you're doing. But if you find yourself being less than constant in your study habits, don't beat yourself up. Try something like my journaling system, or keeping a language log like Josh. What you need is something to make your studies part of your routine, not something you squeeze in. Because self-discipline is nice if you want to prove how focused you are. But otherwise, isn't it better to find a way to put your studies on autopilot so you can apply your energies elsewhere?