This post won’t teach you anything, but I hope it makes you laugh a bit!
You don’t have to go far in the language learning community for people to make fun of some of the phrases the popular site Duolingo uses in its exercises. But today a friend tipped me off to a Tubmlr site dedicated specifically to this phenomenon: Weird Duolingo Phrases.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything here.
I was essentially between jobs when I started this blog, so I had a lot of free time to write. But I’ve been busy since September when I moved to the Netherlands and started a new job. Cheese, butter, and clogs. That’s about all I knew about Holland before I got here. I’m still a relative newbie when it comes to all things Dutch, but I’ve learned a bit. Did you know that Holland isn’t even a country? Watch the video below to understand how Holland and the Netherlands fit together…
Today I just want to let my loyal readers (all 3 of you?) know that I’m still alive, and intend to get this ball rolling again soon.
Since moving to Amsterdam, I’ve met a group of other language learners, called the International Language Café Amsterdam. I’ve also agreed to take on a co-leadership role for this group starting next year. This means I’ll get to try out some of my crazy language learning ideas on some live guinea pigs before I write about them here! Don’t you feel relieved?
Living in the Netherlands also makes for a good opportunity to learn the local language: Dutch! And I’ve already begun learning some Dutch vocabulary, with the help of Anki and AnkiDroid, which are some great tools I intend to write about in greater detail soon.
Language exchanges are a popular peer teaching method, where you practice your target language with a native speaker, and in return you help them in your native language. One great thing about Stack Exchange is that it serves to take peer teaching to another level, allowing students to teach each other on all aspects of language–not only conversation practice.
Because Stack Exchange attracts experts, it is also an excellent resource for hard-to-answer questions. When your dictionary has a discrepancy or your teacher is stumped, let the experts at Stack Exchange help your question. And in turn, you can help answer others’ questions, and at the same time sharpen your own language skills!
Currently Stack Exchange has the following language sites:
There is also Linguistics about the academic study of languages, not about any specific language. There are several other language sites in the works, including Portuguese, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew (more on this below).
I am a volunteer moderator on the Spanish Stack Exchange, however I receive nothing from Stack Exchange for the position, nor for promoting their site.
For the sake of consistency, I will provide images and links from the Spanish site. Please substitute the site for your preferred language. Just open one of the links above in a separate browser tab, then follow along.
Getting Acquainted with Stack Exchange
When you’re new to an online community, it’s always good to familiarize yourself with the community a bit before jumping in.
The entire network of Stack Exchange sites share a common community culture, but each individual site has its own sub-culture as well, with its own specific rules. For this reason, before you dive in and start posting questions, I encourage you to spend a least half an hour browsing the site of your choice before posting. And if you’re going to post a question, part of that time ought to be spent searching to see if the question has already been asked.
Spend some time reading recent questions and answers, paying special attention to which types of questions and answers are well received by the community, with positive vote scores, and those which are not well received, with low vote scores (more on voting in a moment).
You should also take the site tour, which you can find in the upper right corner of the page under help. It’s short, and well worth your time, and explains how to post questions and answers, how to vote, and generally how to use the Stack Exchange web sites.
You Are the Community
When you participate on a Stack Exchange site, you are part of the community. You will have the ability to vote on posts, leave comments, help moderate the content, much like a wiki, and even participate in community policy making. To prevent malicious actions on the part of spammers and trolls, Stack Exchange uses a system of “reputation” which can be earned as you participate, and as you earn reputation, you’ll earn new privileges (like the ability to correct other people’s typographical errors). Be sure to read up on reputation to understand the full implications.
The entire Help Center will also be a good resource, especially as you’re starting out.
The first step in community participation is to register on the site of your choice. This is an easy process, and your registration can be tied to an existing account such as Facebook or Gmail, or you can register separately if you prefer.
Ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of the site.
Focus on questions with a single, correct answer
Opinion-based questions are off-topic. “What is your favorite Spanish accent?” and “What Spanish/English dictionary do you use?” are not a good questions. Everyone’s answer will be different, so these questions will be closed.
Avoid “general reference” questions.
If your question can be easily answered by a dictionary (What’s the Spanish word for “uncomfortable?”), it’s not a good fit for Stack Exchange. You will be asked to consult a dictionary.
Questions can generally be asked in English or in the target language.
Most sites accept questions in both languages (Русский язык (Russian Language) is the only exception I’m aware of). But many prefer one language over the other. Just check the site guidelines, and judge your own competence in your target language. Whenever possible, you should ask in your target language, just to practice. And if you make mistakes, the community will generally help correct you gently.
You’ve read a few posts on your language’s site, done the site tour, signed up with an account, and read the site guidelines, it’s time jump in. What’s the most pressing question you have about your new language?
In Spanish, why do we say el agua (masculine) but las aguas (feminine)?
That’s an excellent question! I’m glad you asked! So lets hop on over to the Spanish Stack Exchange, click the Ask Question link, and type away. But wait!
We forgot to do a search for the question before asking. But Stack Exchange is smart enough to do a mini-search for us, and points us to the previously asked question. If we were to ignore this, and ask the question anyway, it would no doubt be promptly closed as a “duplicate” of the original question, much like this one:
So it’s always best to do a search for your question before posting.
If your question hasn’t already been asked, read over it a time or two to make sure it’s clear and easy to understand. Confusing questions aren’t usually well received. The community generally will try to help you clarify your question if it’s unclear, but it’s always best to be as clear as possible from the beginning.
What if your language isn’t on the list above? Stack Exchange is constantly in the process of launching new sites, based on community participation. If the language you’re studying doesn’t yet have a site, you can help launch one! The special site called Area 51 Stack Exchange is where new site concepts are vetted, and when a site has enough community support, it goes live. As of this writing, there are 22 new language sites at various phases of development. By participating in the development process, you can help your target language site become a reality sooner. Be sure to read the Area 51 FAQ to learn how specifically to get involved with the site definition process.
Once you are following or have committed to your favorite language site (or proposed your own), the next best thing you can do to help your site get off the ground is participate in other Stack Exchange sites. Find one or more that interests you (it doesn’t need to be about languages). By earning reputation on other Stack Exchange sites, you add weight to your commitment to Area 51 sites in development.
I also encourage you to follow one of my site proposals, Language Learning. It’s not a site about any particular language, but rather a site about the art and science of learning languages. It’s intended for people exactly like you.
If you haven’t heard that trans fats are bad for you, you probably live under a rock, and don’t have Internet access. But then I guess you wouldn’t be reading this blog…
But last week a new study about trans fats was published (first reported back in 2014) which suggests that consuming trans fats may directly harm your ability to learn a language!
How the study was done
Participants were presented 104 word flash cards. 22 of the words were duplicates, the other 82 were unique in the deck. Participants were asked to judge whether the word on each card was new, or had been previously seen. The number of correct answers is their score.
Hopefully, you can see how this simple memory test might be relevant to recognizing new vocabulary terms–or countless other daily activities!
When they tested people who ate different amounts of trans fats, ranging from absolutely no trans fat, up to 28 grams (1 ounce!) of trans fat per day, they found that for every 1 gram of trans fat consumed per day, participants scored an average of 0.76 points worse on the memory test.
The researchers did what they could to eliminate other possible explanations of the reduced memory performance, such as age and mood. As a result, they concluded that trans fats were the apparent culprit. The study shows this effect exists for men ages 20-45. The study authors believe the same to hold true for women, but there wasn’t enough information available on women to prove it. The study also doesn’t explain why older men weren’t affected, but one possibility is that dietary effects may show more clearly in younger adults.
Let me try to put that into perspective.
Half a letter grade
Imagine you show up to Spanish class and the teacher gives you a sheet of brand new vocabulary words, asks you to read the list, then immediately gives you a pop quiz over the new vocabulary.
If you’re an average student, according to the study, you’ll walk away with a solid B grade–a score of 85%.
If, on the other hand, you’re the type of person who eats one large order of fries every day, and an icing-covered cupcake at the convenience store for a snack (for a combined 7 grams of daily trans fat), you’re likely to lose more than half a letter grade, and walk away with only a C+–a score just below 80%!
And this is just a recognition test! You aren’t even asked to define the vocabulary terms! If junk food can cause you not to recognize new words at this level, what can it do to your ability to remember definitions and your long-term recall? I guess we don’t know, but I don’t imagine it’s going to have a beneficial effect!
Now to be fair, not all fried foods, including French fries, are fried in trans fat. In fact, fewer and fewer are all the time, as the health problems associated with trans fats become more known. But many cakes you’ll buy at the store, especially those with icing, come packed with trans fats, as do many salad dressings and other processed foods.
Remember to check your nutrition labels!
Aside from the obvious “Trans fat” item on the nutrition label, you should also look for, and avoid, anything with partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils, as this is where most trans fats come from. It’s common to see food items labeled as “0g Trans Fat” but tout partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils (this is possible if the designated serving size is small enough that the trans fat per serving rounds down to 0 grams).
Today I will give you a list of essential tools for language learning. Its easy to list things that language learners do: Memorize vocabulary, practice pronunciation, listen to music in the target language, read articles, maybe even visit foreign countries. And all of these are good things. But today I want to talk about a different list: a core, essential list.
Today’s list is about doing all of these other things more intentionally, and with greater purpose.
So without further ado, I present…
The Top 1 List
That’s not a typo. There really is only one thing on this list. It’s that fundamental. It’s also that easy. And it’s also that… “listy”.
1. Keep a list
If you are learning a language, you keep a mental list of things you want to learn. When someone tells you “The French word for apple is pomme,” you either pay attention and learn the information, or you don’t, based on whether “learn the French word for apple” is on your mental list.
But starting today, I want you to move this mental list to paper. Or your computer or phone. And here’s why:
How your list will benefit you
Keeping a language list will give you two primary benefits:
Memory.Naturally, we write down lists so we don’t forget things. And by using your language list properly, you will prevent yourself from forgetting important things you need or want to learn.
When is the last time you had a question (about your language, or about anything), then when you had the opportunity to ask an expert, you couldn’t remember the question? Keep your list with you, and you’ll never have this problem again.
Awareness. By forming a list-taking habit, you’ll be constantly more aware when you have questions. Your target language will begin to live more in your conscious mind, and this will lead to improved learning.
Where to keep your list
There is no right or wrong way to keep a list. The important thing is that you actually do it! But there are two methods which I think make the most sense:
1. A notebook
This is an easy, low-tech solution that simply works! It’s easy to pop out a notebook during a conversation and jot down a word or phrase that you want to look up later. There’s not much more to say about this simple method!
2. A web or mobile app
If you’re a bit more tech-savvy, you may want to keep your list electronically. My favorite app for this is [Google Keep](http://www.google.com/keep/), which automatically synchronizes between my Android smart phone and the web version. But there are many other options, such as [Wunderlist](https://www.wunderlist.com/) and [Evernote](https://evernote.com/). The key is that it should work wherever you are, and it should sync. So if you use a PC and a smart phone, make sure you use a tool that will synchronize between both systems!
3. Other Options
I actually use both a notebook and a mobile app. Google Keep houses my “master” list. But occasionally I don’t have my mobile phone with me, or it would be inappropriate to pull it out, but jotting a quick note in a pocket notebook would be acceptable.
There are other tools I use for managing my list as well, but eventually everything ends up in my Google Keep list:
Digital Camera This comes in very handy while traveling. If I see a sign, or a menu item which needs explanation, I can just snap a photo, then later copy the relevant words to my master list.
Browser Bookmarks I often find an article I want to read in my target language, but I may not have the time to digest it all at once, so I’ll bookmark the article, and go back later and move the troublesome words to my master list.
Kindle Paperwhite The Kindle Paperwhite (and perhaps some other models) have a built in vocabulary practice list. Any time I look up a word, it automatically ads it to this vocabulary list. I later move the words to my master list. I’ll blog more about using a Kindle for language learning in the future.
Highlighter If I’m reading a dead tree book in my target language, I’ll often sit with a highlighter pen, and mark every word or phrase that is new to me. This is less disruptive than typing words into my mobile phone while reading. Then after a reading session, I can quickly go back through the book and add the highlighted words to my master list.
What to put on your list
This is pretty simple, really. Any time you have a question about your target language, put it on your list.
You heard the word “battement” for the first time in French, and you don’t know what it means? Add it to your list.
You were having a conversation in Portuguese and a friend asked what you do for a living, and you don’t know the word for “industrial engineer”? Add “industrial engineer” to the list–yes, write it there in English.
You read a sign with the phrase “prêt à manger”, and you don’t know how to pronounce it? Add it to your list.
You’re walking down the street, naming everything you see in your target language, and you realize you don’t know the Hindi word for “trash can”? Add it to your list.
So you have a list — Now what?
Now that you have a list of a dozen new words or concepts, it’s time to put it to use!
Attacking the items on this list can be as varied as the ways you added to the list. But we’ll go over some of the options here, and I’ll go into greater detail on many of these in future posts.
Use a dictionary
Many of your questions can be answered by consulting a dictionary in your target language, or a translation dictionary between your target and native languages. This will likely be the resource that answers the majority of your questions, especially early on, when you’re simply trying to learn the word for “trash can” and what “battement” means.
Use an online reference resource
There are many online resources to learn about your target language, and one clear advantage they offer over a print dictionary is audio files. If you’re trying to learn pronunciation, [Forvo](http://www.forvo.com/) is a great resource. [Wiktionary](http://www.wiktionary.org/) also offers audio clips for some words in some languages.
Ask your language mentor
If you’re in a language class, you have an obvious place to ask your question. If you’re not taking a formal class, ask a friend who speaks your target language.
And finally, while it’s usually my last resort, it’s also one of my favorites. There are many online communities where you can ask questions about your target language. Use Google to find a place where you can ask your question.
Every item that ends up on your list ought to end up on at least one practice flashcard. This is the best way to ensure that you don’t forget the information you just learned! I’ll write more about effectively using flashcards in the future.
It’s a pretty straight-forward concept. And few people, in my experience, use it. But everyone should. Will you?
Leave a comment below with your experience using a Language List.
This was the menu for our “fancy” dinner on our honeymoon in Havana, Cuba in April. I rarely point out translation errors to restaurant staff, but this one was serious enough I decided to point it out. But they didn’t seem to care. Perhaps they didn’t grasp the meaning their bad translation was conveying.
A person who speaks two languages is bilingual.
A person who speaks more than two languages is a polyglot.
So what do you call a person who speaks just one language?
Answer: An American.
The joke is funny because it contains an element of embarrassing truth. And one big reason it’s true is that learning a second language can be very challenging. It was for me. I failed at it. Twice.
I did not want to learn Spanish. Or any other language. But my freshman guidance counselor encouraged me to take a foreign language course. In the state of Kansas, students who completed two years of foreign language study were eligible for a scholarship of $1,000 to a state university.
I was a freshman. I didn’t care about university scholarships. Plus, $1,000 wasn’t very much money. Especially when you consider the number of boring hours I’d spend in class and doing homework. I actually did the math, and I estimated my hourly earnings to be less than one dollar per hour. I was not sold.
Three days into my freshman year, I dropped the Spanish class and switched to an independent study in computer programming. I’m sure I made the right decision.
Two summers later, my church youth group took a one-week trip to Brownsville, Texas along the U.S./Mexican border, and we crossed over into Matamoros, Mexico a few times. This was my first “real” exposure to the Spanish language. And it was there that I decided I wanted to learn Spanish. I remember the specific moment.
I had ordered an ice cream cone and was fumbling with my wallet to pay for it when the ice cream fell off the cone and landed on my foot. The girl who had just sold it to me giggled. I felt foolish, but I also knew I wanted to be able to talk to her–if only to say something to try to save face.
I finally had motivation to learn Spanish.
My first attempt to learn Spanish
When the summer ended, I eagerly enrolled in an introductory Spanish course at the local community college for dual credit. I eagerly did my homework and passed the semester with a high B grade. Eager to continue my education, I enrolled the following spring in Spanish 102. This time my grade was a low C, and I felt it was unacceptable.
I decided to take my second semester of Spanish again, this time at a larger university, with the hope that I could master the material. Again, another C.
Now, of course, I could have continued on to the next level of Spanish, and the school would have been okay with this. But remember, I was taking Spanish classes because I wanted to learn Spanish. I wanted to communicate, not just get a passing grade. And I was failing on that count.
I was discouraged, and I gave up.
My second attempt to learn Spanish
Several years later I was waiting tables when I noticed one of my regular customers was conducting individual Spanish classes right there in the restaurant. Could this be my chance to try again? I inquired, and she agreed to teach me the language as well.
For several months, I met with her, usually two hours every weekend, and I made great strides in my Spanish acquisition. We went over vocabulary and grammar, and I translated children’s books to and from Spanish. To this day she says I was one of her most determined students.
But then I got a job in another city and was no longer able to attend classes with her. Quickly I forgot practically everything I had learned.
Language immersion in Mexico
In 2010, my work changed again and gave me the flexibility to work remotely, so I took the opportunity to move to Mexico, where I would be able to focus even more on learning Spanish. I enrolled in a local Spanish school and settled in for the 9-month course.
I had to start at square one. Practically everything I had learned before was forgotten. Although the first month or so of the course was relatively easy for me, as old knowledge started to come back to me, it was discouraging how little I had retained from before.
When the course ended, I passed with good marks. But I was not fluent.
I spent another year in Mexico after the language course ended, and it was during this time that I would say I truly learned Spanish. Going out with friends, conversing one-on-one, and chatting with online penpals are the things that most helped me learn Spanish.
So when I decided I wanted to learn Portuguese to visit a friend in Brazil, I started teaching myself, using the same techniques I had used to learn Spanish. When I then went to Brazil in 2014, after studying Portuguese on my own for about a year, I found that my spoken Portuguese was absolutely abysmal. I had only been teaching myself to read and write Portuguese. The month I had there helped immensely to remedy that situation, but mainly it taught me many of the flaws in my self-teaching techniques.
Later in 2014 I spent three months in Portugal, as well. This gave me more opportunity to hone in my Portuguese skills, and more importantly, my language-learning techniques.
Now I’m teaching myself French.
What I’ve learned
During this entire process, I have succeeded in learning to speak Spanish. It was definitely a challenge, but I succeeded. But what is more exciting to me is that I have learned how to learn a language. And while there will always be new techniques to language learning, I believe I have picked up enough of this essential knowledge that I can begin to share it with you.
That is why I have created this blog. And I hope you’ll follow along.
Last week my brother was telling me a story that took place at his work. Somebody had, jokingly, insulted a coworker using a long string of profanity.
“What did you say?” the recipient had retorted, pretending to be offended.
“Oh nothing. That’s just the Portuguese word for ‘sauerkraut’.”
We’ve all made jokes like this. The phrase “Pardon my French” has even entered the English vernacular, as a way to ostensibly disguise profanity.
There is no translation
“There probably isn’t even a word for sauerkraut in Portuguese,” was my response when my brother told me the story. It turns out I was wrong (sort of–more on that in a moment). The Portuguese word for sauerkraut is “chucrute“. But would you believe me that there isn’t an English word for sauerkraut?
“Wait a minute!” you may be thinking. “You just said (wrote) the English word for sauerkraut. it’s sauerkraut!”
And you’d be right. Sort of.
“Sauerkraut” is actually what we call a loanword. Loanwords are incredibly common in many languages. In English they are especially common for names of foreign food items–such as “taco,” “spaghetti,” “sushi,” and, of course, “sauerkraut.”
If you’re thinking “Okay, so sauerkraut is a loanword from German. So what? Now it’s an English word, too!” you’d also be right. Sort of.
Remember how a moment ago I said I was “sort of wrong” about Portuguese having a word for sauerkraut? Well, Portuguese has the word “chucrute” which means the same thing as sauerkraut in German (and English). But it’s not really a Portuguese word, either. It’s also a loanword. This time from French. “choucroute” is the French word for “A dish made by fermenting finely chopped cabbage”.
But wait! It’s not really a French word, either! The French borrowed the word from the Alsatian dialect of German, which in turn got the word from German ‘sauerkraut’.
A cabbage by any other name
You might think that of the languages thus far discussed, English, Portuguese, French, Alsatain and German, only English directly borrowed the word from another language. The others each made slight changes to the word along the way. In reality, English made some changes, too, which is clear if you compare the English pronunciation with the German pronunciation. And in fact, almost every loan word changes at least a little when it moves from one language to another. Ask a native Mexican to say “taco” and it will sound slightly different than when a native English speaker does it.
American English “sauerkraut”
“Loanword” is not a black-and-white concept. There is an entire spectrum of loanword classifications. The “strictest” form of a loan word is a classified as a “foreign word”–where we use a foreign word directly, without integrating it into the language–like “sauerkraut”.
When Alsatian turned “Sauerkraut” into “Sürkrüt” “French turned “Sürkrüt” into “choucroute”, and Portuguese turned “choucroute” into “chucrute,” these were all examples of a slightly more liberal “loan word” processes.
So what’s the point of all of this?
A typical view of languages, at least from a mono-lingual American viewpoint, is somewhat analogous to a map.
We tend to compartmentalize languages. “Dog” is English. “Gato” is Spanish. “Je t’aime” is French. “空” is Japanese.
I prefer to take a different view. And I encourage you to change your thinking and join me.
The Fluidity of Language
As we have seen above, with a brief study of everyone’s favorite fermented cabbage dish (no offense, kimchi lovers!), languages are intertwined. Almost all of English vocabulary comes from other languages–roughly 45% from French. That is to say, there are very few truly “English” words–words of actual English origin. What we call the “English language” is constantly changing. It’s always being influenced by other languages–and in turn it is influencing other languages.
I think rather than compartmentalizing language, as we do national boundaries on a map, it’s much more accurate and useful, to think of languages as flowing together.
Thinking of languages with defined boundaries is harmful to learning about new languages. It creates a “here” and “there” mentality. “I’m here. I speak English. Spanish is over there. It’s far away. It’s difficult.”
Once you make that mental shift to seeing all languages as related, it makes your world both larger and smaller simultaneously. It makes the world larger in the sense that you realize you can never learn all of our “own” language. English is a huge language. And it changes every day (and that’s not just rhetoric! It is constantly changing in real, observable ways!).
It also makes the world smaller by realizing that other languages are not so distant. Spanish isn’t “another language”. It’s more like “another shade” of language. You already know a lot of Spanish without realizing it (burrito, café, insubordinación). You also know a lot of French (café, fiancée, proposition), German (sauerkraut, gesundheit, fest), Italian (a cappella, finale, riviera), and Japanese (豆腐 (tofu), 醤油 (soy), 禅 (zen)). Don’t be afraid to learn more.
Passionate about Language
It is this mindset that lead me to subtitle this blog “Passionate about Language” rather than “Passionate about Languages.” While it’s convenient to talk about languages as distinct entities, as a student of language, I believe it’s much more appropriate to think about language as a single art form.