Language Challenge

Week #5: Numbers

WEEK #5: Learning a language is not an overnight project. It is not even a project where there is a clear telos, or end point. You just keep chipping away at your own pace, and the graph naturally swings up and down: you make a lot of progress, a little progress, plateau, and then make more progress. At some point, you are able to communicate the bare minimum to survive in another land. Later on down the road, your thoughts drift into the target language. Your confidence improves, and you start to feel good, really good, about your proficiency level. Fluency is somewhere out there, but it is not easily defined (see this post).

Now on this journey, life can get in the way. You must deal with more pressing matters and day-to-day tasks, and before you know it, language-learning has slipped between the cracks. Duolingo? Oh yeah, that… whoops. Taking a break and allowing your new language to settle into the long-term memory portion of your cerebral region is actually crucial to success. (Isn’t there a weird satisfaction in knowing that not doing anything is justified?!) Why you took a break is irrelevant. Maybe you broke a toe last week (true fact). Maybe you are just being lazy (partially true). Maybe cleaning the house took precedence (most definitely). Whatever the reason, give yourself permission to pause and then, get back on the horse. Picking yourself up and continuing where you left off is key to success; this is where and when you will make the most progress.

It can be helpful to visualize your daily highs and lows to keep things in perspective. Initially, the language-learning process probably sounds like this–Yesss, progress! Nooooo, I forgot that word. Yes, now I remember! Up-down-up-down ad infinitum–and looks like the graph below, or f(x)=(cosx^2+3).

Fastforward a few weeks later. Despite your studying, you feel like you’re going in circles, so many circles. You know it’s all leading somewhere–where [0,0] is your target language–but it feels like nothing is happening. X means apple, Y means eats, Z means girl, A keeps popping up but the exact translation remains unclear. Rules are scattered in your mind, and none of the pieces seem to fit together. I just want to speak! You attack the language from all sides, but there seems to be no progress, just a pretty design and neat mathematical function [r > (sin (a/b)(θ)), where 0 < θ < 12π and a=5 and b=6].

And then, finally, your two-dimensional rose becomes a spiraling logarithmic beauty! Something clicks inside, and you begin to connect the dots; information that seemed irrevelant suddenly has a place; you create your first sentence in the target language! It is magical! You are no longer spinning in circles but rather, living in 3D, spiraling out into the universe, empowered by your language-learning prowess, ready to take on the world, maybe even ask a native speaker a question. Wunderbar/wonderful! [r = a^θ, where 0 < θ < 12π and a=1.25].

Yes, the Internet helped me write these equations! https://learn.desmos.com/graphing

This is, undoubtedly, a Math Tangent on this weeks’ Language Blog, but… sometimes you need a new perspective. You need to step back, recognize your progress, and then consciously decide to keep moving forward toward your goal. Your task this week, then, is about moving past fear, moving past failures, moving past guilt, just keep moving. Forgive yourself for the breaks and silly excuses, and get back on the horse. There is a whole world (read: language) out there to explore!

Week #4: Climb the Mountain

DUOLINGO: You have courageously jumped into a new language. You have begun to set a pace. Now is the time to make some serious progress and climb the mountain. If you are a numbers person, note that staying in the top 10 of your division (by number of EXP points) in Duolingo allows you to advance each week to a new division. Moreover, earning a gold, silver, or bronze shield this way earns you A TON of gems. Climb to the top!

WEEK #4: This week, visit your local library and take some time to see what language-learning resources are available. I would highly recommend checking out the children’s foreign language section, along with the 400’s (Language) in the adult section, and also DVD’s, CD’s, and audiobooks for your target language. Be a Word Detective and scan the children’s books for words you know, not words you don’t. They will jump out at you! I checked out some audiobooks for German (Pimsleur) recently as well, and they are so much fun to listen to and repeat aloud, both intentionally and randomly.

Repeating words aloud allows you to get a sense for the feel, character, and personality of a language. For example, when I repeat a word, it helps me to get into the character of that language. Not only does your language have its own personality, but you also have a slightly different personality with each language you speak: that said, do not shy away from a ‘you’ that is more bold, or less so, in your target language. I tend to be more introverted in English and more extroverted in Spanish, while German feels strong and robust: I may not know what I am saying, but I will be confident, that is for sure–ja, voll! What personality traits does your new language bring out in you? What does it feel like?

Shouting random words and phrases aloud may seem silly at first, but it builds confidence and is also a technique used by some hyperpolyglots (people who speak and have studied an extreme number of languages). Accomplished linguist Alexander Arguelles employs this technique: “In [shadowing], students listen to language recordings on a portable player while briskly walking in a public place, gesticulating energetically as they shout out the foreign words and phrases they are listening to” (Babel No More, Michael Erard).

If you do not feel comfortable shouting in a public place, a more private venue is equally effective. Just make sure to repeat the words out loud. Queens, NYC has the most concentrated number of languages spoken in the world–simply imagine that you are there. You won’t understand everyone around you, ergo they won’t understand you, either. For more ear training, feel free to check out these videos by Amy Walker, an American actress and accent specialist: 21 Accents and Fun Tour of American Accents. She is amazing!

This week’s focus, then? Remember that yes, you are climbing a mountain, and yes, it will be tough to keep to a schedule some days. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun along the way. Enjoy the climb!

Week #3: Setting a Pace

DUOLINGO: I have just discovered that you can follow people on Duolingo in order to compete by number of EXP points. If you are the competitive type, search your friends’ emails and add them. I didn’t think I was that competitive… until I saw the division I was in [shield icon] and wanted to get to number one! Try it on for size, if you like.

WEEK #3: Hopefully, you have started to establish a language-learning routine. Now, the race has truly begun. After a few dozen times around the track (metaphorically speaking), you will begin to notice oddities, or so-called quirks in your target language. Many of these will fall in the category of syntax–the arrangement of words and phrases in language; or, how language is organized–that differs from your native tongue. “Juice of orange/jugo de naranja” instead of orange juice (Spanish); “I doctor/Я доктор”, instead of “I am a doctor” (Russian); “Electric brain/电脑“, instead of “computer” (Mandarin Chinese). You may not be here yet, but when you arrive, try to be flexible in your thinking. “We” are not any more right than “they” are. This is where the beautiful flower of language begins to blossom.

In addition, there can also be more nebulous types of translations, or even completely untranslatable phrases. Regarding the former, Spanish does not have as many words as English, so one word can encompass numerous meanings and nuances; in English, we might have a more specific term. In fact, I have heard before that Swahili is incredibly metaphorical because it only has 5,000 words. Spanish has many more than 5,000 words–rough estimates might say 150,000 words in Spanish. Below, see a few more thoughts on the subject:

With respect to untranslatable words, komorebi/木漏れ日 (in Japanese) means ‘sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees’; there is no English equivalent. Pisanzapra (in Malay) is the time needed to eat a banana. In case you are interested, Ella Frances Sanders has two books devoted entirely to this fascinating topic. Here is one of my favorite untranslatable words:

Week #2: Jump!

DUOLINGO: The Language Challenge is picking up speed. I have already talked with many parents, faculty, and staff interested in joining this friendly competition. Thinking about everyone beginning a language-learning journey and working towards a common goal is motivating in itself, but I thought I might share a few tips or pieces of advice each week, to help keep you–and me!–on track.

WEEK #2: This week, commit to a set time during the day when you will either 1) work on the Duolingo app; or 2) listen to your target language for five minutes (e.g. Pocoyo cartoons, radio, internet, podcast, YT channels, etc.). This exercise could easily be built into a family routine–before or after dinner, during your commute–or, alternatively, a more private practice (before anyone gets up in the morning). Remember, five minutes 3-4 times per week is more than enough. Commit to establishing a routine. Just do it–jump!

When you listen to the target language, the idea is to become accustomed to hearing a bullet train of unintelligible sounds pass you by at the speed of light (squared), and simply enjoy the cadence and rhythm. Relax. As the days pass, your brain will begin to pick up on details and cognates (words that sound similar in English), and do a lot of subconscious work. If you studied your target language in school at some point, you might begin to recall vocabulary from a lifetime ago, or distinguish between accents from different countries. Duolingo will build your vocabulary phrase by phrase; listening to the target language will train your ear.

Anyway, thank you for reading. Until next time, create and stick to your language-learning schedule. YOU CAN DO IT! And last but not least, remember that, “We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly” (-Kató Lomb, hyperpolyglot).

Week #1

This year, students in grades 3-5 have been using the language-learning app Duolingo to supplement their Spanish study. I want to lead by example, and therefore have chosen German to study alongside my students. While I have already invited faculty and staff to join me in a friendly in-house Language Challenge, I thought that it might be fun to include our parent community as well.

Here, participants (aka Language Ninja Warriors) are challenged to work on the Duolingo app for three days a week, for only five minutes each time. The goal here is frequency. Two hours a day is not sustainable long-term, anyway, unless you are a hyperpolyglot. (More about Timothy Doner HERE.) Point being, this could be a lot of fun for everyone if a lot of us participated, and it would start a lot of conversations with students as well. We could have pockets of language teams–people who are studying the same language–throughout the community.

That said, if you are interested: 1) choose a language to study; 2) download the Duolingo app; and 3) send me a quick email so that I know you are participating.

While this is only a 15-minute commitment per week, I completely understand and respect the fact that sometimes you have to say, “No”. This is merely a chance to grab onto that lifelong dream of wanting to learn another language… and encouraging you to get started. I will send quotes and messages from time to time to keep you motivated and on track. PLEASE keep in mind that this process should be primarily enjoyable. If you have had negative language-learning experiences in the past, or have ever said, “I took four years of XXX and can’t say anything”, let this be an opportunity to clear the slate and begin anew. Here is a quote from Kató Lomb (an amazing Hungarian hyperpolyglot) to consider:

“We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly. If someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.

Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.”
(POLYGLOT: HOW I LEARN LANGUAGES– book in PDF, by Kató Lomb)

Please let me know if you would like to participate. Happy language learning!

-Your Resident Linguist