Confessions in May 2010

Updated May 29, 2010

May 29, 2010 - Temptation Averted! (plus an update)

This weekend, I read The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest, the last of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy. I knew it was coming out in late spring, early summer, but not exactly when. But while it was too long, it was soon enough. Had it been two years before it came out, I might have had to learn Swedish to get it without waiting.

In all seriousness, one of the struggles for a language learner is exactly this sort of temptation: It feels so easy to start a language that the silliest things might set you off on a new language learning quest. And while there's nothing wrong with learning a new language, or just fiddling with one, you do want to have a realistic idea of what you're getting into.

Sometimes, when I am studying, I find myself desiring to learn something strange and exotic. Then I realize I'm studying Uzbek, and that what I really want is that rush that comes with learning your first 50 words in a new language. With a little thought, I realize that I'm already studying one strange and exotic language, and mainly with the hope of understanding YouTube music videos better. And then I get my focus back. But if you find your attention wandering, and start thinking about learning a new language, you need to do a quick mental check. Maybe, it's time to work on something new. But maybe, it's just time to take a little break so you can miss the language you've been working on but for which you've reached a momentary plateau.

When it comes to learning new languages, I hesitate to join those who say, "No! You must stick with your current language till you're fluent!" It's your life, and you can do what you want. Just make sure you know what you want, and that what you're doing will take you in the right direction.

UpdateAs you can see, this page is a little more primitive, but ever so slightly better laid out than it has been. For the moment, I've decided the easy thing to do is to have an index with the month's entries and archives for each month. It's not the prettiest thing in the world, but at least it avoids things like comment links that don't actually work and the like. Hopefully, in the next month or so, things will slow down in that part of my life that takes place beyond these pages and I'll get something proper set up. In the mean time, the text is here, and this new approach will let me get back to posting at least once a week. So keep checking back.

May 20, 2010 - Solving Language Problems

I was recently skimming Polya's How to Solve Problems. It gave a few basic steps to solving problems, including gathering the data, identifying the unknown, making a plan for your solution, working the solution and checking the solution. Polya was talking about mathematics, of course, but his ideas apply to problem solving in general, and to some basic problems language learners encounter in particular.

Language learners are good at finding data - they're forever seeking the perfect book, the best method, the wordlist to end all wordlists and the like. But  identifying the unknown is a problem. A lot of people want to be fluent. A lot of others want to be conversational. And some just want to know enough to "get by." But few have a true sense of what that means.  And it's hard to know if you've got the data you need - the right book, method, wordlist or whatever, if you do not know what you're "solving" for.

Planning is another matter. In mathematics, the hard part is planning - figuring out how you're going to solve the problem. In language learning, it's execution. Still, the planning phase is problematic. It's the tired language learner's favorite place to languish, more focused on finding and following the perfect plan than doing the day's lesson. (Or maybe that's just me :) )

The toughest part for the language learner is often checking your work - reading a book or getting out there and talking.

 Have your language learning efforts stalled? Ask yourself: Do I know what I want? If I do, do the books and CDs around me comprise the kind of data I need to get there? And if so, do I know what I need to do with them? Am I willing to?

A lot of people spend a lot of time looking for the ultimate solution to the language learning problem. But every language learning challenge has its own characteristics. So if you're feeling a bit stymied, why not step beyond advice for language learning in particular and see if you don't need a broader perspective on what you're trying to do and how to go about doing it?

May 12, 2010 - Practice Makes Perfect

Visitors to the site will notice it is still not neatly updated. I will get around to getting a new blogging program in place, but in the meantime, here is your latest hand-coded update, without apostrophes thanks to the idiots who set up the "quick search" hot-keys for Firefox who know that no one ever uses apostrophes.
 But never mind apostrophes. Today, we are looking at Practice Makes Perfect. It is a nice idea. It is also a line of workbooks from McGraw-Hill. One of the hardest parts of being an upper intermediate to advanced speaker of a language is that there is not much out there for you. Real-life materials still pose their problems, but most teach yourself books are for people well below your level. Recently, I picked up Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Grammar and Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Past Tense Verbs. There is a wealth of material in them, some of which long-time learners will know but have forgotten about and some of which may be new. The only drawback - the exercises are not really enough for Practice to Make Perfect. Still, if you are a Spanish learner who has a pretty good handle on the language except for certain points that trip you up and you just are not getting, it is worth looking to see if there is a book for your topic. Be sure, when you are done, of course, to go to something like Assimil Using Spanish or to real Spanish sources so that you will get enough exposure to make what you have learned consciously sink in unconsciously.
May 1st, 2010 - Update on Confessions and the importance of exposure
Once upon a time, it was noted that this blog had, er, a less than hyper smooth and sharp design. Tonight we're breaking new ground. It's been all over the web news, of course, that Google is discontinuing its support for Blogger ftp. This site will be published fairly soon by way of a different blogging tool, most likely Word Press, but for the moment, you get a by-hand update.

 It seems like a good time for such an update, because this post is about getting the job done by getting out there and getting your message out as best you can.

While I often write about different books, and strategies and tools, there is one thing both fortunate and unfortunate about language learning: language using is better. The more you do it (once you have enough of a foundation to do so) the better you do. Below, I posted about TY Complete Italian. It's a great program and I've been impressed by what I've seen. At the same time, Spanish is far and away my strongest third language, even though I'd much prefer that it be Uzbek or Italian. The thing is, I know lots of Spanish-speakers and I speak to them in Spanish a lot. Even making no effort whatsoever, I can't help but pick up on what I'm hearing around me. And so I hear a word or a phrase I didn't know, but in context, and ten minutes later I'm using it.

It's often suggested that motivation in the form of an upcoming trip or a new girlfriend, is the best driver for language learning. But I'm inclined to think the real driver is familiarity. Study is nice, but life is real. So if you have a chance to use your target language in your daily life, start by opening your ears and once you know what's going on, open your mouth. I'm not saying you should toss your textbooks or quit doing your exercises - you need someplace to find out about things that you can't just pick up, especially when you're new to a language. But once you can get, say, 50% of what's going on, it's time to spend less time in books and more time in life if you have the opportunity.