a blog for language learners


Holy molar, that was a long hiatus from the language blogosphere. Life has taken a few unexpected turns. Grad school (I’m working toward a degree in music education) and the accompanying workload is—surprise, surprise–a major time-gobbler (though generally a positive life-change for yours truly). I’m pretty sure that even my close friends who’d glimpsed my first two posts have long since forgotten about my diatribes on the subject of language learning. But instead of wasting any more time, procrastinating as I have so often, I’d prefer to put my head down and start churning these puppies (blogs) out again. 2017 is here, an orange buffoon is in the oval office and I’ve redoubled my goals after slacking a bit the past calendar year. I’m now learning ALL of the languages Duolingo has on offer (okay, maybe I’m not as quick with the Vietnamese or the Hebrew yet), without pretense of taking a quick road to fluency. I’ve learned to love the language learning game as any curious adult loves the hobby they are most passionate about and invested in. So no, I can’t have a conversation with you in Turkish yet. My process is more akin to a composer slowly learning different instruments. More on the comparison with music in a future entry.

In the first Olyglot blog post, I teased how important it is to pump the brain with interesting Native Language Content (once core vocab and grammar are introduced via Duolingo or a similar comprehensive program). No doubt there are many different approaches featuring many combinations of tools and resources, unique immersion techniques and scheduling variants. I believe more is better and that a little of a lot goes a long way. So here’s an in-depth, step-by-step guide to help you keep the language content rolling.

— Step 1: Find your language materials in advance! You don’t want to waste too much time surfing around the net, looking for fresh, updated material. You’re going to have like ten tabs open, maybe even twenty. You might want to relegate all of the time you need to open up these tabs into one session per week (lay out several sources of content for the next day to save time). I am putting out a piece of software for free on this site, that should help with this task immensely. Stay tuned for updates on the specs/launch date (tentatively June 2017). In the meantime, here’s what I’m currently using, usually spread in tabs across a browser window—Duolingo–Memrise–Babadum (an addictive vocab builder)—Learn.lingvist.io, w/ French, German, Russian and Spanish options. LanguagePod101—iTunes podcasts—Easy Languages Youtube feed—and various free streaming TV stations, usually via their official sites. This subreddit page is an amazing portal for even more specific language resources in almost any language you’d ever want to study : https://www.reddit.com/r/languagelearning/wiki/index

Step 2: As noted in the first blog, learning to be able to keep the content running is tantamount. Keep the words flowing. (If you need to stop the words in order to, you know, keep your sanity, I understand and ease up on your immersion). If you’re one of those people who listen to English language news or comedy podcasts or the radio all day, this is your time to shine. You can replace some of your daily music intake with live TV or podcasts in your target language(s). You won’t be able to focus on every word, but you want to keep refocusing back in on the speakers and trying to pick out each word. Remember, just pick them out for now—hear the sounds, the way words connect, the tone and then, a little later when and in what context the same words are occurring. If you know a word’s meaning, that’s great— in an intermediate stage you will most likely have seen/heard many of the words before but perhaps haven’t yet internalized their meanings. There might be 6-8 hours when you can feasibly keep foreign language content on without ruining your life (and those of others around you). 2-4 is great. Shoot for that, I’d say.

You will want to take breaks. You’ll find times when the stream dies, when you don’t have something cued up. Keep your podcasts on your phone updating and play them on the inevitable 20-30 minute commutes. (more on these later). When ANYTHING else is better than another Spanish podcast, learn to push through that wall like a runner training for a marathon. Find sources you like—I used European football (soccer) as I’m obsessed with the beautiful game. There’s always another matching coming on a live stream (you can find a bevy of good sites for this, just search). Find your cultural or informational niche and dive right in. You’re becoming a langathelete. Hit play. Hit play again. Find another movie, another stream. Why not try this all out-immersion technique? Is silence really that cool? (Sometimes, yes it is, and please take that time should you happen to need it.)

Step 3: Learn to be able to tune in–I mean pay super-close attention. Hear every word coming at you (to clarify, you are hearing the words, not necessarily understanding them). Did they just say partido or perdido? Phonetic distinctions become key as you strive to get closer to understanding a large percent of words heard. Make a vague mental list of words that keep coming up and stumping your comprehension (at the beginning these will be numerous, but one can really become attuned to the most often used—these are the one’s you can’t ignore). At first, you won’t be able to execute this task for very long or with much accuracy, nor do you need to. You just keep pushing every day. The running metaphor is apt. Two mile runs are cool at first, but then you push toward a half-marathon. Push, push, push. When free time pops-up, make it your beeswax to tune back in to some language content.

Step 4: Understanding comes later. For now, be happy just to listen. Because language in action is music, and because hearing that music is more than half the battle and you, langathlete, are in it for the long war. Then, viola!–you’re starting to notice words used over and over again, little colloquial exclamations and utterances. Make sure to stay tuned in. Stay curious–always listening. Don’t do that half listen thing that is really just a soft tuning out (think of when you read a book and your train of thought interrupts your mind even as your eyes continue to scan). This is a pitfall that confronts many when they try to maintain their listening focus. Try to stay interested. You’ll have time for those racing thoughts of modern discontent later.

You’ll also want to take heed of the following random snippets of advice on your quest to keep the content flowing. TURN IT UP. If you’re listening at home—No sweat. Crank it! You need to be able to hear every word. It’s the hearing of these words, as words not just sounds, that’s the first platform you need to raise yourself up on. And it’s always a matter of “culturing the ear” (a pretentious phrase for exercising the mind’s ear), but for now just enjoy the first step which is building your level of focus and getting your healthy doses of spoken language. If it’s an audio book on your i-pod, raise the volume so there is no question what you’re hearing.

Live TV and radio (podcasts) are often the way to go:
1) Podcast langpod101 offers many free podcasts in general-though beware the continuous promos for their company (same goes with Coffee Break languages, available one itunes, w/ similar promotional tendencies). NotesinSpanish is an old favorite. News in Slow series of major European languages. And SlowGerman! For the German language. If you have the money or the means to acquire them, I’d recommend Michel Thomas—the charming deceased German polyglot eases you into speaking a language and builds up skills through a unique, quasi-participatory method, much aped by others.

2) Radio/Music: try the Tune-In phone app or search on the internet (most stations live streams are available). Music can be fun and of course there are great talk/news options. Search venerable youtube (hint—try searching the word for “music” or “song” in your target language). There’s a great game that combines music and language skills where you fill in missing lyrics in real time with the foreign language video—www.lyricstraining.com

3) Live TV: This is a daily staple of mine. Look for channels that offer a “LiveStream” function. French news on France24 is great, as is Rai News from Italy. SVT for great on-demand Swedish programming. TVPublica from Argentina is a favorite for my Spanish. There are too many to list. And if you’re into a sport called soccer (international football), bonus!–you can watch in your new languages all day and night in the form of live and recorded games available on various sites.

4) On demand/movies: Solarmovie–a massive free link site that I used for years is now dead as of this blog being published, but there are others. And of course titans like Netflix and Hulu… do a specific language search if possible. Look for subtitles. Youtube has uploads that let you tweak the subtitles. It may be useful to subtitle with the language of the movie (that you’re leaning), in order to reinforce the words.

5) Educational: Youtube lesson feeds–extra hint: Find one you think is attractive, funny or relevant in voice, demeanor, content choice, look. There are many examples with hosts of both genders. Easy Languages is the best thing going as it has both the native and English translations (and is available in a whole slew of languages). Special mention goes to podcasts you can put on your phone, I have an iPhone so I load up the podcast section with news programs I have one daily longish (7-30 min) updated news or cultural focus podcast as well as a smatter of others (a couple about futbol and some music, for example). Have at least two titles in your language so you can switch. Euronews has live and canned video in many popular languages as well as updating podcasts for devices. Listening twice is great for comprehension if you can stomach the endeavor–this way you pick up the nuances you might have missed on the first listen.

EQ it! –that’s a music tech term for changing the levels of the bass (low sounds) or treble (high sounds) and sometimes the middle range as well if the phonetics are getting garbled as a result. You want to get the bass stuff out to increase the clarity, especially when using laptop speakers or competing for airspace. Old speakers control this one knob usually called “tone.” If you don’t have a program available that you know can tweak these sonic parameters, there is a master EQ in the system preferences of every computer.

Repeat after the speakers, especially when they pause. Try to pick out the words you hear and repeat those (as a sort of affirmation)–this will start with a scant few and then increase (you’ll be surprised how fast if you stay at it). Muttering and swearing along (even if these are forced reactions) can also help with feeling participatory (which is good!)

A coda on my frustrations of late. Anyone who has progressed to an advanced beginner status (whatever the f that means) of understanding in their target language has probably hit some kind of wall. Confidence bruising commonly occurs when one chances to open their mouth, even when they’ve “rehearsed” some spiel. What is the use of learning a language if it’s quite inconceivable you’d be able to a) put in the time required to learning enough words, hammer home the basics b) speak well enough to speak with someone c) be in a location where you “need” to speak. D) prioritize the language maintenance enough to keep up with some studying…???

On my recent trip to Costa Rica I found myself falling back on my English again. But instead of taking this pitiful devolution for granted, I instead tried to analyze it. I find it fascinating to look at the exact point a conversation breaks down and this switch to a more conversation friendly idiom happens. Usually after an awkward pause following several moments where my interlocutor makes clear they could tell I wasn’t picking up the gist of their more digressive points in our back and forth. How to avoid that moment and “convince” my conversation partner to give me a chance? This is a pressing question for any language learner hoping to speak at a less advanced stage. My next challenge is a trip to Sweden, for a week where I’ll try my hand at speaking a language I only started studying a little over two years ago. Next entry: A thorough review of and reflection on the eminent language learning website, Duolingo.

a ‘glot to do (about language hoarding)

Thanks for stopping by to check out another edition of the Olyglot language learning blog!
I appreciate the kind words on Facebook and the Duolingo board. The tardiness of this subsequent post (finalized weeks later than I’d hoped) should be a rarity, as I’m motivated to reach like-minded learners and spread the word about free, effective language learning. The delay was caused in part by a trip to Costa Rica. Whilst in the land of the Ticos much practicing of my rusty Spanish ensued, a process that helped immensely but cut me right down to size and profoundly re-motivated me for the coming months (topics to be unfurled in the upcoming blog numero 3).

It’s easy to see that my website name is a play on the word polyglot. Once a fairly obscure word, embracing polyglotdom has recently become a common trend for anyone plying his or her trade at multiple foreign tongues. It has even taken on a mainstream role–a recent NY Times article headline mentioned “a polyglot of styles” at a music festival. I won’t bother with etymology or debate the term’s relevance in the language sphere. Dictionary entries for polyglot cite a person who speaks several languages–so really a synonym for multilingual–but usually implying the ability to speak three or more fluently. In my eyes, a formidable knowledge of two unique languages is enough to merit bandying the term about. I’d also say the word is a complete crock of mierda, but do with it what you wish (heck, I did). What polyglot has really come to embody is someone with an interest in languages, perhaps with the desire to understand or speak them, maybe just driven by simple curiosity–a hobby with a real-world application. And because Fluency is so hard to define, our planet is littered with these in-betweeners (a weak term in lieu of that popular British TV show). If I speak two languages well and ten terribly, am I less of a polyglot than someone who speaks three “pretty well”? What about a person who speaks only one but knows key terms in 30? Whatever your criteria, I’d argue that by paying attention to a blog such as this, and heeding a modicum of my advice–you, dear reader, are indeed a bonefide Polyglot.

IMG_2032 The “big” European languages make sense to hoard. The material is here, out there, everywhere really. Native/fluent speakers abound in the form of tourists, ex-pats, bilinguals, and in the case of Spanish, they’re literally around every corner; so nearby are these Latinos, that you are being a bit rude by not at least learning the basics of their mother tongue. The eternal question–which to choose for long-term study? French? Italian? Those might be the easiest, especially if you’ve already bagged Spanish. Portuguese as well, but the accent and similarities will actually confuse your Spanish. Grammatical complications are plentiful in the German language, with long words, shifting cases, variable articles and general erudition. But don’t be fooled, it’s the accent that’ll get you, as well as foreign (not implicitly from Latin) vocab. I’d argue Scandinavian languages are a decent choice for a novice, through Norwegian or Swedish (though the accents are oh-so-tricky) then Danish in 3rd place (due to its challenging, syllable-ghosting accent). Dutch wouldn’t be so strange to English-speakers, but contains its own accent issues (like their famous flemmy grunts), and just isn’t very applicable in the real world (Dutch meet up groups? Hooray! :-/). Their words are similar to German (as well as French, ENGLISH, etc.) so you could try to learn them in a pair.

That isn’t to say that the best course is to learn European languages when Mandarin Chinese is so influential. And Arabic. These languages seem all but impenetrable from afar. But spend a few weeks in the polyglot game and the esoteric differences inherent in a completely different writing system helps to set these tongues apart, define them uniquely and therefore lead to the possibility if not the probability of quick internalization. Your boss might make you learn Chinese in a year or two, so why not jump the gun? Learn a little of a lot–not a novel concept, one with pitfalls, but also one that seems well-aligned to our attention-lacking modern minds.

IMGP1390 Perhaps the best European-based polyglot course going right now on the free-net (but please correct me if you know a better option, please!) is the Memrise course called Easy Polyglot (!!) available in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and German (henceforth referred to as The Big 5). It’s one of the deepest courses on the site (which is excellent–Memrise, sign up now) and features audio translations in the four other big European languages, including mirror translations for the “closest” language (so Spanish yields parallel translations for Portuguese, for example). The user is able to work through one of the courses in order to feature a specific language, or work through several at once (same words, different focus points spread throughout the Big 5). Worth the effort for anyone already toiling away with multiple resources spread around the interweb.

Then there are translator toolbars. My go-to is Lingua.ly. The site/app isn’t perfect, but the software functions well for my needs. Similar sites including LingQ and ReadLang have toolbars and lots of content to translate. However, the former charges a fee to collect the flashcards, and the latter is a bit broader and chunkier in execution, though ambitious and promising. Lingua.ly lacks any audio on its pages, but the flashcard system (providing audio with each successive entry) is cleaner and more functional. (I want to point out that in my last post I wasn’t explicit about obtaining the Lingua.ly toolbar–it has to be downloaded a Google plus application download page) More players seem primed to enter this “collective toolbar” game, using native content on a site and then making the same collection device available on a browser. ReadLang is my second choice. I’ll be sure to keep my eye out and review the latest sites, as I believe this software to be one of the most efficient learning tools, facilitating a ramping up into mass native content immersion with the aid of a translation device.

IMG_2021 The best long-term option for a Polyglot is, and I’m repeating myself here–DUOLINGO. My friend Dan recently offered a good point. After a certain period of time one doesn’t seem to be “progressing” with Duolingo (and with lang-learning in general). I agree. Therefore I think the site works better to maintain one’s languages. What better for someone attempting to speak 2-?? of them than to have quick lessons on-demand. If you don’t have enough time, you can focus on the first 4-6 modules of a given language and continue reviewing them to death. It’s better to hammer home the basics then to add words you won’t use or remember. To maintain my Big 5 European languages, I simply review my weak skills with a Duo lesson (glancing over the notes document I’ve been filling with new translations that catch my eye). In this way none of my languages get too rusty. The scope of the impressive Duo site allows one to taste many other languages–three from Scandinavia, or the recently added Turkish, Irish (!), Ukrainian (!) even the useful (in the polyglot sense) conlag (artificial language) Esperanto, which sort of updates Latin (and hints at the big 5 in a big way).

I must admit I’ve taken language learning to the extreme, both in the amount of different languages I’ve been considering–with varying degrees of intensity in study– and in variety of tools I use on a daily basis. Continuing my language progress has swiftly become one of most inspiring parts of my life. But I recently had an anxiety attack that, while not solely based on language learning, was certainly related to the Olympian memory games and learning sessions I’ve engaged in. I keep football (soccer, with native-lang commentary) on during the day and then crank podcasts on iTunes. Lots of Duolingo and Memrise. I love watching movies in different languages at night. When I’m reading, it’s probably literature from another culture or a newspaper penned in another language. So beware. Take a few days off, ramp down. Don’t get too hooked on new letters and sounds or the words might seem to suddenly suffocate you.

I’m going to close with a brief anecdote. The language learning culture is alive and well in NYC. I recently learned of an upcoming “Polyglot Conference,” to be held in the fall. Considering attendance–which would certainly yield a blog or four. The other day, as if by serendipity, I strolled by a bookstore I never knew existed (or perhaps I had walked by or even stopped into the shop before, but wasn’t as taken with languages way back when). IDLEWILD BOOKS. Even though I was late to meet a friend, I had to head up to the second floor store and see what was in stock. Turns out, it isn’t just a book shop, Idlewild is also a language learning school, offering affordable classes–just under 300 bucks for 8 sessions, or about 30 dollars per class. They have a better Spanish and French fiction section then Barnes and Noble and the Strand, a huge travel book selection with crisp copies of the latest editions, and the atmosphere in the book shop is warm, great for browsing. A new haven. Great, like I needed more inspiration… $$$ Ah well, another book won’t hurt.

Ollie beach jump

Until next time… ODE

Welcome to my Blog- the Notes of a Language Learning Addict

A warm welcome to the Olyglot language learning website. You’re reading the inaugural post of my brand new language learning blog. I have much to say on the subject, as I’m an active, you might even say obsessive, language learner. The general plan is to post once a week on a different language topic, expounding my personal views and offering experience-based insights, reviews of software/tools, unique methodology, immersion ideas, and more. I have an epic post planned to kick things off. So, my friends… VAMOS (or however you say it in your native tongue, second, third…)

First, a quick note on my language journey. My name is Oliver and I live in Brooklyn, New York. I make experimental rock music, teach piano, write novels (so far without any commercial success) and I was, up to about 8 months ago, a language-learning dunce. A moron, dimwit, a bozo… I plugged and plugged and plugged away at Spanish. I read old textbooks, dictionaries. Made flash cards. Watched movies. I went to Costa Rica a dozen times, made lifelong Costa Rican friends and still never cracked the code (though I probably should have tried to learn a little more and drink a little less on the beach).

Oliver picDuolingo changed my life. I downloaded the phone app in January of 2014, but really started hammering away at their miracle software when I discovered the fully functioning website and promptly added French, Portuguese, Italian and German (languages I thought were too hard to really dig into) I owe a lot of my L.L. passion to how useful Duolingo was (and still is). Needless to say–I am a huge proponent of their enterprise and would recommend any language student make it their “home base,” then continue to utilize the thorough lessons as a way of reaffirming core words and connecting to the Duo community for motivation and insights/grammar tips from native speakers. My addiction to the site got me in the swing of things, and then I started seeking out native content and wading through the most up-to-date learning devices free on the Internet. All this work boiled into a stew of motivation and…(gasp) actual progress. Now I can understand almost everything I hear in Spanish. No magic trick involved, just the diligent use of a wide range of (free) tools.

Disclaimer: I will be focusing on Spanish as the main language for examples of content/methodology as it is my second language, as well as the most widely available second language available to learn via the English language across the spectrum of the internet. Other languages under consideration will be French, Portuguese, Italian, German and Swedish (with small mention to Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Turkish — basically the langs that Duolingo currently offers.) Sorry if yours didn’t make the list. I intend to learn them all; the problem is free time :-/ I also need to note this right off the bat– I AM NOT AFFILIATED WITH ANY OF THE WEBSITES OR COMPANIES I MENTION OR “PROMOTE” ON THIS BLOG.

IMG_1902Okay, phew–now that that’s out of the way…

A few random tips! (Future posts will concentrate on a single topic, but this post is a grab bag of sorts, with practical advice for all language learners.)

* Keep the Native Language Content on (NCO)! Keep it playing. Podcast done? Put on another. Movie over? Find another and keep the audio up loud enough to hear while you do chores. The only secret lies in motivation–you need to become a foreign language starving body. The sound of the language in play is your food and you need to eat–a lot. Find TV, radio, sports and other media to keep your ear soaked in the native music. The incessant use of NCOs is the most important thing I can stress, because it’s so easy. The only way you’re doing it wrong is if you’re not keeping the content on. You can bet you’ll be hearing much more on this in the weeks to come.

* Install a word storing toolbar (such as the very good Lingua.ly)!! With Lingua.ly you can simply double click on a word and a little box pops up with a definition and someone speaking the audio. Even better it will save these words and you can use it Memrise style (have I mentioned Memrise yet? It’s a hugely effective site, second only to Duo. Reactive, repetitive, fun flashcards.) The toolbar method is so much quicker than google translate or dare I mention a dusty old bound dictionary. My hope is someone makes a very advanced and comprehensive version of this toolbar idea as soon as possible. For now, get in on what Lingua is doing. (edit- here’s the link to get the toolbar lingua.ly toolbar

* Install a dictionary app on your phone!!! I use the Vida Lingua apps for my iPhone because there is good free version for each of the big Euro languages I’m studying. They work, look the same and–the best part–come with a quiz function that helps you learn vocab. I love Duolingo, but I won’t use it on the subway. I need a quick vocab builder that has a simple interface, and I was pleasantly be surprised how effective Vida’s 1 out of 4 style definition game will help you’re vocab grow if you use it every day on your commute. Having this simple phone dictionary as your primary reference is great for reading real (bound) books, because, let’s be honest, everyone always has their phone next to them. You can even speak the English word into the device with good results for quick translations. Get a Vida Lingua dictionary free ASAP.

* Load up on podcasts: Educational podcasts (both the pseudo-classroom and easy conversation styles) are great because they’re geared toward helping you learn bit by bit, without overwhelming. Perhaps these programs aren’t as useful as live TV, which features visual cues, gestures, and mouth movements. But they’re much more portable! The only downside is listening to the filler, but when you find a good podcast (and there are several in almost any language you can think of) you’ll want to make them an essential part of your routine. (langpod101, perhaps the most consistent podcast company around offers about 50 lessons on their sites and iTunes at varying levels) iTunes is great, still probably the best resource for the medium (though going to company sites can offer benefits including vocab lists, flashcards and more). Soon these educational podcasts will lose their luster and content straight from the source is a better choice. When searching iTunes (a good podcast home base), search for the language in its native name. i.e. don’t just search for Swedish, but Svenska. Search for ‘francais’ instead of French. etc. Perhaps finding beginner specific content will be a struggle. But those with a foothold in the language will enjoy quality native programming that cultures the ear from the moment you press play. A great first option: the free ten or so minute “News in Slow” Spanish (European and Latin American version), French, and Italian–easy to find on iTunes.

IMG_1359Language learning as an art-form is really easy to master (the tools are just so plentiful and refined. Not to mention game-like and fun!). But on the other hand, it’s really effing hard too (for reasons you might not expect!). I hope to cover topics that might not be getting in the conversation, such as connecting via tinder and other sites with social stigma (dating, harassment) as well as being addicted to becoming a polyglot and how the motivations for such “addictions” can be detrimental in the long run. If you have ideas for relevant blog topics, or have anything else you’d like to say, I encourage you to post a comment in the box below.

I’ll end this inaugural episode with one last crumb of insight. A hallmark of truly speaking a language is being able and willing to chime in: Not firing off rich, organic statements. Not holding your own for minutes on end, reacting with precision. But rather listening, often in a group–waiting, then reacting. Waiting another moment or two, then trying something out. Going with and idea, then retreating to the safety of the group. As you wait, you’ll be able to mutter along with the others, throw out space-filling slang and of course, with open ears, learn more than with a hundred hours on the apps. In my opinion this is one of the most under-taught and digested concepts. PangbukWe should be preparing people for these breakthrough moments. So here’s one idea how: Learn tons of small talk–memorize the most basic words. Thing. You. It. Question words. “to go” “to have” “to be able to” — Drill these with fury. Use Memrise–make your own course. Google slang from some place you love. Add some of these terms to your list. You’re on your way.

Thanks for joining me on this language learning freefall.