Studying or Sudafed?

It was bound to happen:  my allergies have been driving crazy since the beginning of August, but were generally confined to this annoying itching at the back of my throat which was easily relieved by drinking something or taking a Benadryl at night.  Then yesterday…boom!  Now I’m in full-swing allergy attack mode.  I guess I shouldn’t complain much.  This used to happen like clockwork at certain times of the year (usually when I had a school concert to perform that week and I would end up hoping that I had enough of a voice to sing!)  I really can’t complain that this is the first time in about five or six years that this has happened!  Of course, right now it’s a little different as I’m trying to learn my two languages.  Let me tell you how much I “enjoy” memorizing vocabulary or reading in a foreign language when I’m reaching for the box of tissues and Sudafed…that’s right, all I want to do is curl up in a blanket and watch continuous re-runs of “The Waltons.” 

I think when Benny Lewis wrote about imperfect learning conditions, he must have known I would read it the day I started to not feel well!  If you haven’t read his post, I encourage you to read it; it’s very true!  There’s always something that interrupts studying.  Of course, in the beginner stage, I tend to feel guilty for not sticking to my routine, especially because it’s not “that” much time.  But sometimes things happen and you have to adjust your plans.  By the way, I was pretty productive despite my unexpected need for Sudafed and tissues nearby.  I made my first video in Afrikaans and listened to a lot of music in the language.  I think on my “off” days the best strategy is smaller chunks of the language at a time.  Instead of one hour straight, try to break it up into 10-15 minute segments throughout the day.  Seemed to work this time, but hopefully I won’t need to put that strategy to use much longer! 


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What’s your number?

I have to admit to getting a little number-crazy when I talk about language learning.  I’m referring to the CEFR scale of course, and very often when I use one of my languages, I wonder if something I said/didn’t/wasn’t able to say makes me at a C1, B2, A1 etc. 

Although this scale can be very useful in understanding what your degree of fluency is, especially in helping you to understand what you can do in the language, there is a very strong downside to it:  it’s very easy to get caught up in the numbers.  As it is now, I have no idea what my level of German is, or where I would likely be placed.  I could estimate it, but I don’t know how useful that would really be.  I do know though, whatever it is, there would be many reasons for me to try to improve.  I need to be less hesitant, use a wider range of vocabulary, comprehend sooner, etc.  I’m not sure how this would be measured in a CEFR test, and I don’t know if I need a test to tell me how well I can use the language. 

The other problem I’ve found with the CEFR scale is this:  what appears to be a very low/very high level can drastically change depending on the situation.  I used to think that an A2 (upper beginner) speaker knew next to nothing, because that is how I felt when my German was at that point.  Wow, was I wrong!  I would be fairly confident in saying that I’m probably around that level in Polish, and when I think of how much work it’s taken to reach that point, my past thoughts of it being “nothing” go away immediately. 

I think my mindset has changed from being focused on a scale, to now being excited to see how I’m able to use the language I do have.  It’s very fun to be able to see myself recognizing more words and being able to respond more automatically than I was in the past–and that’s much more enjoyable than worrying solely about a CEFR number!


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Day one #add1challenge

As promised, I did make a video for my first day of starting my challenge.  Here is my video of me speaking Polish:



  Where I am right now with Polish is that I’m about 3 months into studying it fairly intensively.  This particular one was challenging to make because it was about a topic other than language learning, was slightly longer, and I wasn’t really using my notes.  One thing I’m noticing from recording videos is that you really do have to practice speaking, especially in the beginning.  Right now, it’s very difficult to speak spontaneously and automatically (although that might be partially related to the somewhat unnatural format of delivering a monologue to your computer screen).  It’s hard from my perspective to gauge whether I’ve improved or whether I’ve stayed the same (actively, probably about the same, but passively, I’m in a completely different position).

I didn’t make a video of my Afrikaans ability yet, but here’s what I’ve done:  the alphabet and pronunciation.  Maybe I’m making too big of an issue out of the pronunciation, but I really do think that for me it needs to be learned correctly from the beginning.  I didn’t only learn the alphabet though; I learned some very basic vocabulary as well.  I suspect this really will be quite a challenge for me! 

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Double language learning challenge for three months +1 Polish and Afrikaans

After having just completed my first language learning challenge with, where I shockingly ended up in the top 10, I’ve just decided to participate in this new and extremely fun challenge started by Brian Kwong .  From September 23 until December 31 I will both continue trying to improve my Polish, and add Afrikaans into the mix as well.  I’m focusing on two different skills for each language:  for Polish I’ll focus on listening and speaking, and for Afrikaans I’ll focus more on reading and writing.  I don’t think I can really say I’ll only work on these skills for the whole time, but this will always be my focal point. 


Game Plan:

For right now, the plan is to study each language 1 hour per day, no days off allowed!  This should be manageable, but I’ve always taken one day off at some point in my language studies, so even with it only being a full two hours, this is definitely a challenge.  One particular challenge of this which I don’t want to underestimate is the fact that I’m trying to learn two languages at the same time, while not being particularly advanced in either.  My German and Polish learning experience doesn’t really count because I already spoke German pretty well at that point.  I think both of my languages have advantages:  I’m not a true beginner in Polish, having studied some 275 hours or so, but Afrikaans is definitely going to be much more familiar to me.  I’m going to be very interested in seeing how my skills are in the two languages by the end of the year, and whether the way I think it will work out actually is what happens. 

I’ll try to post video updates pretty regularly as well as update here, and I hope you’ll follow along as I challenge myself to reach my goals! 

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My adventures in (almost not) learning German

Most people who read this blog probably know that I’ve studied German for quite some time.  I haven’t written about my experiences learning it for a few reasons.  First, I’ve had a somewhat love/hate relationship with the language over the period of time that I’ve been learning it.  Language learning is an incredibly enjoyable and frustrating experience at the same time. I’ve also avoided writing about it because I really didn’t have a good “method” in learning, and I certainly don’t think anyone should copy what I did!  What I did to learn has essentially been trial and error.  Still, I hope that my experiences are useful in at least showing that even with the “wrong” way of learning, it’s possible to learn the language. 

My German adventure began in the fall of 2005 during my sophomore year of college.  Having never studied the language before, and only going off of how I liked the way it sounded, I really had no idea what to expect.  The only think I knew what that English and German were in the same branch, so I just assumed it would be like English.  Wow, was I wrong!  The first semester didn’t really teach me anything about the language because the teacher canceled half of the classes.  I think we learned about cases, but I had no idea what that meant.  Fast forward to the second semester:  I’m in the next German class, and on the first day, the teacher spoke to us in German and expected us to respond in German. Now, as someone who never studied the language, you can imagine my reaction (panic!) when I realized how the semester would work.  And those cases…I got my first legitimate “zero” on a homework assignment about them because I answered every question incorrectly. They never were explained very well; mostly just giving examples of the accusative and dative cases and showing us the endings.  I don’t know that I ever received an explanation of the function of cases.  I think this is where my dislike for “the communicative approach” developed.  This essentially repeated itself for the rest of the time I was in college.  Eventually I obviously became “better,” but I was basically guessing at the cases and endings.  I will say one good thing about this method though:  my listening improved pretty rapidly. 

For three years after graduating, I really didn’t do anything with the language.  I may have exposed myself to it about 1 hour per month if that.  I think my third year of law school is when I started to become more serious about it. After finishing the Bar Exam, I decided to try and learn the language.  I started by reading Deutsche Welle articles and building my vocabulary that way.  I should also say that I really don’t like reading the news, but my vocabulary improved pretty quickly.  For those who may be learning, I used Deutsche Welle’s Top Thema Mit Vokablen.  Then I finally learned what a case is (strangely enough, through doing hyper-literal translations of sentences into English). I came to a point where I started reading or listening about an hour a day.  Within three months, I had a much easier time understanding what I read.  From there it was watching tv shows (dubbed), and more reading.  I finally read my first German novels this past year, and have moved on to watching documentaries and educational programs in the language.  Eventually, when finally having the opportunity to speak, my speaking ability improved as well. 

I should say that I was not a good learner, in the sense that I used a good method in learning vocabulary.  I realized pretty quickly that spaced-repetition-systems don’t really work for me (I find it too boring), and I tend to go through spells where I really write down and try to memorize a lot of vocabulary.  This is probably why I have so many vocabulary gaps. Most of that has filled in with time. 

The whole experience in having started a language as a beginner (and maybe specifically as an adult beginner) has taught me quite a bit about language learning.  In learning my next language, I’ve realized that you really don’t need to be at a high level in order to learn a lot.  I’ve also realized that maybe the communicative method isn’t necessarily bad, and that my failure with it was partially due to my being in a different situation than most of my classmates.  I can actually see that method working for a commonly taught language, where, even in a beginner’s class, most people would have studied it in high school.  Indeed, the ones who struggled the most seemed to be the ones who didn’t learn German in high school.  I’ve come to realize that even if it feels like you didn’t learn anything, you are in a very different position than somebody who is truly starting from zero. 

Another important thing learned:  it’s a bad idea to get into the habit of comparing your own progress with that of others.  This is an incredibly easy habit to fall into, especially in the U.S.  We’re very used to hearing Europeans over here who speak “perfect English,” that we become frustrated when our levels don’t measure up to theirs.  It’s not the same thing.  If you have been learning a language for two years, you will most likely not be at the same level as someone who has learned and used a language for ten years.  That’s okay.  Speaking a language is not a contest or a race. 

Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned though is how much time and effort really goes into learning a language.  I used to think I would never be able to say I speak a language unless I could function as an attorney in that language.  That opinion has almost completely changed.  First reason:  there are some areas of law where I probably shouldn’t try and discuss even in English—because I just haven’t been practicing long enough.  Second, it’s just not a situation I should have considered.  I know what I know about law because I was taught to do so.  I couldn’t have self-studied my way to legal knowledge in English, and there’s no reason I should expect myself to do so in German.  That doesn’t mean my knowledge is useless; far from it.  But I have much more realistic expectations about how much can be learned, and how long it will take to learn.

Maybe the answer to the question “how did you learn German” would ultimately be that I just put in the time to learn.  Some methods worked and others didn’t, sometimes I would understand just about everything I heard and other times I was lucky if I could catch a full sentence.  But in the end, what really made me able to get beyond the beginner stage was to keep going.  It’s a long, drawn-out, frustrating process, but it’s definitely not impossible if you keep trying to improve. 

Good luck to everyone in their language learning!

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Learning from context- what it is and how to do it

If you stay with a language long enough, eventually you come to a point where grammar books and beginner materials are no longer enough, and you move on to reading books and watching television shows and movies in the language.  This is the point where everyone before you tells you to “learn from context” and resist the urge to look up every unknown word. 

As someone who really likes to know definitions of every word I see, this was a very hard point to accept.  After all, how am I really going to understand what I’m reading/listening to if I don’t know what each word means?  I think a lot of language learners are like this, especially in the first foreign language.  By the time we’re adults, we’ve had vocabulary tests drilled into us, that it’s almost counterintuitive to think we don’t need to know every word.  But…

We already do this

We actually learn through context in our native language all the time.  Take, for example, this passage in Wikipedia on slavery in the United States.  Now, I would consider myself to be a pretty well-read person, and pretty well educated.  However, here is an example of using language through context (paraphrased of course):  “The historian Ira Berlin noted that what he called the charter generation was sometimes made up of mixed-race men who were indentured servants…”  Now, I do understand what this sentence says, however, the word “indentured” is fairly unknown.  Of course, I know it in the context of indentured servants (one who works for an employer for a fixed period of time who in return receives food, clothing, housing, etc.)  However, I don’t know that I could use the word “indentured” in any sentence relating to something other than slavery.  Still, because this is the only word that I wouldn’t be able to define or really use in any other way, I can understand that it’s discussing people who worked in some kind of labor.  I don’t necessarily need to know the definition of that one word, because it isn’t fully necessary to understand that particular context.  Further along in the passage, it says that “the major problem with indentured servants was that they left after several years.”  Now, with this sentence, the same word comes up again, but this time it makes it fairly clear that this is talking about a type of service that has a starting and ending point, it’s not an indefinite period.  By the way, the definition for “indenture” is “a formal legal contract, binding, or document.” 

But what about in foreign languages

Now, in the context of foreign languages, the problem isn’t necessarily with unusual words, but it’s also with less common words/phrases that may not be used often, but every native speaker will know what they are.  There are so many of these words, that it’s really difficult to look up every single thing you want to be able to say.  This is where context makes it easier.  With my German, I’ve learned several words through context.  Some examples of words I’ve learned just through listening and reading include:  Milzbrand (anthrax), Kaiserschnitt (Cesaerean section), Vorhölle (Limbo), Spieluhr (Music box), Verstopfung (constipation), Enthauptung (beheading), and Korinthenkacker (nit picker).  I have absolutely no idea where any of these words fall in terms of the most common 3000 words list, but you can’t deny that all native speakers will know what these words are! 

How to actually learn from context

There are several ways to do this, depending on if you’re reading or watching tv.  In television or movies, it’s sometimes easier because you can have visuals going along with it.  For example, “Spieluhr” was in a television show, and it was said with a music box visible on the screen.  Actually it makes sense as a word too (I know that “spiel” is related to playing an instrument or a game, and that “Uhr” is a clock–it’s not too much of a leap to come to music box).  “Verstopfung” (thankfully!) didn’t have an explicit visual, but I heard it on a science show and it was said not only with vocabulary that I already knew, but also with appropriate sound effects.  Again, it was a really easy leap.  “Milzbrand” was a little more difficult; again, I saw it on a show, and would have been able to figure out that it was a disease, but if it weren’t for the fact that the show was a dubbed version of something I already watched in English, I wouldn’t have made the “anthrax” connection–and actually, I think Germans might also say “Anthrax.”  Yet another reason why I’m not against watching dubbed movies or shows. 

In reading, the idea is the same, but obviously it’s less likely that you’ll have a visual unless you’re reading children’s books.  The way I manage to do this is by trying to understand the rest of the sentence around it.  Now, the first time I saw “Enthauptung,” I really didn’t know what it was.  However, I could figure out that the text was talking about someone committing a crime in Saudi Arabia, and knew they were talking about an execution.  In going back to the word “Enthauptung,” I used my knowledge that this is something talking about the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, and that in Saudi Arabia, executions are done through beheading.  So I made the leap that “Enthauptung” means “beheading.”  It also helps that combining the prefix “ent” (equivalent to “un” in English) with “Haupt” (head), makes it pretty logical.  “Vorhölle” is less intuitive, but again, the context was very obvious.  The story was discussing a miscarriage (Fehlgeburt) and a Catholic woman wondering what would happen to her unborn child.  Knowing that during the time this book was written, Limbo was seen as the general state for miscarriages, I knew almost immediately what the word meant. 

Although I wrote a pretty long post about this process, the reality is that the more you read and listen, the more automatic it becomes.  The key is to constantly read and listen to the language–everyday.  Don’t worry so much if you can’t reproduce the word yet; eventually it will stick in your vocabulary and you will eventually recognize situations when it is used. 

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Book Review #2

As part of my ongoing German-improvement process, I’m attempting to review the books I’ve managed to read.  I finally managed to finish “Ansichten eines Clowns” today.  This one was a challenge because I stopped reading it during my Polish class and had to restart.  Here’s my review: 

Overall comprehension:  I thought this worked pretty well for my level- it seemed to be a step higher than what I would normally read.  So it wasn’t incredibly easy, but it wasn’t impossible either.  Because I’ve been focusing on Polish (maybe to the detriment of my German), I mostly read for content and not for individual words.  What made this challenging is that when I read a fictitious story, I like to be able to get a mental image of the scene taking place.  When the political/philosophical discussions happened, it was very difficult to do that.  Had it been a book only about political discussions I don’t think I would have had such a difficulty, but because I had to switch back and forth, it took a lot longer than was probably necessary.

Vocabulary:  Like I said, I mostly ignored individual words unless I continued to see them repeatedly.  I still managed to understand the story pretty well, and even picked up some more unusual vocabulary. 

Grammar:  Well at least I can say I finally learned how to form relative pronouns correctly.  This is the most annoying aspect to me, because I understood the concept, but I didn’t really master the idea.  Once I finally looked up the grammar, I understood the book much better.  Grammatically it’s not that difficult, but I wish I would have looked up that one area much sooner. 

Overall, it was a good book, it definitely deserves its good reputation, and I would recommend it for learners. 


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