Sunday, December 9, 2007

NHK Videos

The interweb has delivered to me a number of video learning courses in French and Japanese: The French are the Annenberg "French in Action" series of 52 30 minute shows... and the Japanese are 30 various episodes of NHK (Japanese national TV network) Japanese learning videos from the 1980s... The fashion alone is great viewing, as are the "futuristic" bluescreen sets.

But these things do require TIME to do, and unlike audio learning courses, you can't really watch one of these while driving to work or walking through the skyways. Believe me, I've tried. (ok, not really). But as an adult learner, there IS some advantage to hearing it, seeing lips speaking it, and seeing the word at the same time - the Japanese word for pencil (enpitsu) stuck after just 3 repeats in this method, as did eyeglasses (megane) and cigarette (tabako).

I'm at lesson 76 of Pimsleur Japanese now, so close to the end... But I'm still learning great stuff. We just had the illness section. I was watching the Japanese movie "Paprika" - a GREAT Anime about a detective who dives into people's dreams, and a villain who is taking control of dreams - and I was happy to discover that a lot of the dialogue was somewhat understandable to me: Not enough to really "get" the movie without subtitles... but phrases here and there! It was very cool to realize that.

With the stress of the holidays, Japanese is pretty much my one focus for now... But I'll need to get Mandarin going (and maybe some Cantonese) because in my new Job, I'm angling for a conference in Hong Kong in May. I really want to go!!!!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Good old number nine

As noted in an earlier post, the Pimsleur series has a "tradition" of presenting a comic interlude around lesson number 9. In Sept, I enjoyed the Swedish one. Today, I was treated to one in Korean.

These Pimsleur short courses (10 lessons) are under $20, and really do help train your ear to hear languages... But this Korean series has been pretty hard to listen to: The two speakers have very different voices and I wonder if I'm hearing things right: The male has a breathless style, as though he just ran around the block just before recording the phrase.

On the plus side, with two very different sounding voices, it's easy to place yourself somewhere between the two and be confident you'd be understood.

As a language, Korean is really sounding very much like Japanese - between the politeness levels, the verb a the end, frontloading the sentence, and some of the vocal sounds. A lot closer to Japanese than Chinese for sure. But that said, it has a sound all its own - no mistaking it for anything else!

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Lesson 59 of Pimsleur Mandarin was knocked back today, and it hit on lots of earlier vocab as well. I barely need to hit the pause button to knock out the dialogue now. It's very nice.

I'm going to make a blanket statement: If you're going to learn ANY language, it is very worth your while to do the 10-lesson Pimsleur starter set for that language. I had been doing KoreanClass101 for 5 weeks, and sort of was into it... but now I'm 5 lessons into the Pimsleur Korean starter class, and I have a much more natural grasp of the SOUND of the language and how the rhythms work... and I can come BACK to KoreanClass and use it for vocabulary and grammar, while now my "korean ear" is stronger.

I don't know that I recommend doing all 90 lessons of a Pimsleur for everyone... but the first 10 really will create a confidence in the language that can't be beat.

As I was having Pho yesterday, I listened around me and was able to start to recognize the distinctive sounds of Vietnamese - there are a couple of sounds that are unique to that language as far as I can tell - a "gyoom" that is way up in the nose, and a very open mouthed "Bah". I still have my "" membership for Vietnamese, and before my next Pho run, I'll be sure to remember "xin" for please, "gam ung" for thanks, and "jao" for hello.

I'm starting to work on my 'big trip' for 2008 - sometime in my 40th year. I'm thinking 2 weeks - one in Japan, and one in China. It would be amazing. The only issue is that Pamela really has very little desire for travel east as far as I can tell... and part of it is a fear of the cuisine. Perhaps it's my fault, being as fixated as I am on raw fish and whatnot. So I'm going to work on those plans (and obviously hit that Japanese again sometime soon to freshen up!).

A last bit - for all Mac users, I'm amazed by a little application called "iFlash" - it's flash card software, and you can load it up with anything you like. But there's a public library of flash cards made by other users too... and I've found German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and other language sets... and it's great fun. It doesn't do audio (no spoken drills, I guess), but it does all manner of foreign fonts (as the Mac is so good at doing).

Och nü, jag skulle vilja studerar mig svenska.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Must be strong

So while I have had not so much time to work on language, I have had 5 min here and there to look on the web at things... and it is a hard thing not to get addicted to buying and finding language TOOLS: This falls into two categories

1) Extra tools for languages I'm working on. Chinese character workbooks. Flash card decks. Colloquial language books. Podcasts.

In all of these, I need to step back and take stock: With Swedish, I just have the one "Teach Yourself" series and a dictionary. I don't NEED MORE... at least not until I've finished Teach Yourself and want to target more learning areas. With Chinese and Japanese, I have several books and flash card sets: Until these are mastered and complete, there is NO REASON to get more.

But still, these tools are tempting. I wander through a bookstore at lunch and the books just look interesting... perhaps this one will have some cool new way of teaching?

The one temptation that is too strong is to upgrade my ChinesePod membership to the one where they call you every day for 10 minutes to practice your Mandarin. That would SERIOUSLY turbocharge my learning. BUT, with the holidays coming, AND given that I have a good 37 more Pimsleur lessons on tap, why not just wait until next year and come at it even stronger?

2) The eternal temptation of OTHER LANGUAGES: Ok, seriously, why am I hovering around Dutch books? Why? There was no good reason to start with Korean, other than the fact it was a new site and I was curious about it and wanted to help them grow.

I need to stop looking at language products as commodities and do a cost-benefit on each: It's the same as getting programming language books or upgrading computers - it's easy to be impulsive, and it's a lot easier to shop for 10 min and click buy on a book than it is to memorize another 10 Kanji.

So help me be strong, people. By writing this, I'm putting my confession into the electrons, and I have named my addiction. This will help me refocus my efforts and make use of the tools I already have...

After all, I'm a language addict, not a language products addict. Right?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I'm a horrible disappointment

To both people who read this: I'm sorry about not posting. Really in the past two weeks, all I've done is continue with my Pimsleur Mandarin II: I just finished Lesson 52 of 90 (Level II, lesson 22), and can confidently say that:

The express train is faster than the bus:
kuai4che1 bi3 gong1gong4qi4che1 kuai4 (FastCar compared to PublicGoingCar fast)

I can also say that Mister Chen's son never writes letters.
Chen xian1sheng1 de er2zi cong2lai2bu4 xie3 qin4

This is good stuff.

Come the evening, I have very little brainspace remaining for my language ambitions - I'd like to spend an hour a night focusing on grammar for one of my other active languages, or drilling myself on reading Hanzi, Kanji, or Hanguk... but the fact of the matter is I'm working on a maximum of four hours of sleep these days, thanks to the little squawking son, and have taken to vegging out and reading recreationally in my spare time. I know, that's crazy talk.

So as things progress, I'll keep updating. Rest assured, there IS progress happening, but I'm not seeking new challenges just yet. I feel like I'm successful because I AM doing at least 30 minutes a day of learning, in with everything else.

In Podcasts I Listen To News: Sounds like is getting some re-doing. That's a good thing: I have enjoyed them, but somehow it never fully clicked for me as an essential service. Instead I listen a fair amount to BBC Mundo Hoy - a latin newscast which I actually can track pretty well...

And poor KoreanClass101: I love them to pieces, but I have fallen behind. Perhaps when I hit Mandarin Lesson 60, I'll take a break (as I have with Russian) and spend a few weeks in Hanguk.

That's the geeky update for the night. I think I might now go play a round of Katamari Damacy... since it's too late to start a movie... and a little too early for me to cash it in.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Oh the fun of Typos

As Ant notified me, I had written something QUITE different from "You have taken bad medicine" in that previous blog post (now corrected).

Somehow, what I had written actually roughly translates to

"You angrily made love to chinese cream".

or perhaps...

"You baked red sex".

So my apologies to any chinese readers who were confused by the previous blog post. I will be sure to doublecheck my pinyin doublethrice in the future!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Mo Mandarin

Back on the horse: Finished lesson 39 - finally back to where I stopped back in August, and it is burned in much better this time. After a funny lunch, Uncle Ant accused me of "ni3 chi1 cuo4 yao4 le" - "you have taken bad medicine", a colloquialism that means you've gone soft in the head. (Thanks to Ant for the re-correction - obviously I have been chi'ing cuo yao)

Turns out the Swedes are NOT coming over, which would have threatened to evaporate my desire to know that language, but Annika has re-iterated that even though they're not visiting, she wants to help me with Swedish. So I'm still plodding along there.

All these languages, they're like puppies wanting attention. I focus on Chinese, and suddenly there's a man in an elevator speaking Russian. I focus on Korean, and suddenly I'm arguing about the difference between Chikai and chiisai in Japanese with Ant.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Like riding a bike

I got one lesson of Mandarin off this week... but now my Palmpilot is dying which is my player for the Audiofy bookchips. So I need to somehow get that content onto an iPod (there's a way with a little janky bit of software... but I need to figure it out). But that one lesson was 4 lessons BACK from where I stopped months back, and it was good to review, because I had forgotten quite a lot... But by the end of the lesson I was feeling confident again.

Tonight I had Chinese food delivered, and kicked out a "xiexie", and got a bow with a "bu ke qi", so I felt successful. I'm also realizing that I really need more Hanzi practice, so I'm working through the Integrated Chinese set: This was recommended by ChinesePod actually. And I think one of my 40th birthday presents to myself will be a few months of the Chinesepod Practice Plan - with daily 10 minute calls from Shanghai.

Allright, that's the update. I'm a bit tired, so nothing too clever.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Back to Mandarin

Ok - I'm pausing on the Russian and hitting the Mandarin for a while. And sticking with the Korean, and taking a stronger focus back to the Swedish, since Thanksgiving IS coming and I want to be able to chat up the Swedes.

But as I was walking with Uncle Ant (allright, his name is Rich really) I realized that boy, if I just spent more time on Mandarin, I'd have a willing and geeky language partner right at hand. Rich is ALMOST as much of a language geek as I am, though truth be told, his language love is usually based around practicality: He learned Greek to prepare for a trip. He learned Mandarin because he was managing a project team of Chinese nationals. He learned Spanish because that's what people did in high school.

So, watch for less Russian and more Mandarin in the weeks to come.

Japanese... will hold for a while: I discovered that my Pimsleur Japanese III chip is corrupt and a replacement will take a few weeks....


Monday, October 1, 2007

Oh Pronouns!

I'm just done with Pimsleur Russian 59, which is quite exciting. As I approach the end of level II, I wonder if I should barrel through into Level III, or take a spacer and work on Mandarin for a while...

Two interesting bits today:
In Russian it's considered bad form to use the same personal pronoun twice in a sentence: You'd never say "I'd like to invite you to my house" - 'I' and 'my" are variants of the same pronoun. So you say "I'd like to invite you to one's house". Other variants, "She was staying with one's friend" or "You are driving one's car".

You can mix pronouns no problem: "She was driving my car" is just fine. So it's not entirely inscrutable.

In Korean, the pronoun for "You" is rarely used - it's considered a bit too direct. So to start taking about "you", you say the person's name. But fear not, it's not as though they're saying names all day and night - there's a second rule that works with this: The "Topic Marker" (neun) is said after the name, and it's assumed that all conversation relates to that person until a new market is set.

While this sounds complex, it's pretty easy.

"As for you, Jim, how are you doing?"
"not bad."
"still going to school?"
"yes - and it's a pretty tough semester"
"Think grades will be a little lower?"
"Maybe. As for you, Keith, how is your school going?"

Where it gets complex is if, in the same conversation they would add "me too", which would reset the topic marker, requiring the person to say the name again to ask the next question. So I think that Koreans must be good at letting one side tell the tale, then letting the other go.

The English tendency to agree with a statement and offer a personal perspective to each question must be suppressed, or you need to say that person's name a lot.

That's it for today!

Monday, September 24, 2007


1) To follow up on the "lack of question particles in Russian" being fundamentally different from English, I offer up that so far in Korean, I have not found a negative particle (like "not")... instead in the 2 main verbs "To Be" and "to Have", they have matching negative verbs "To Not Be" and "To Not Have". So if someone asks "do you not-have any money?", you would say "Yes, I not-have.", or "No, I Do-Have". So that's pretty different.

I'm glad that KoreanClass101 is just starting up: I feel good to be "keeping up" on the lessons, and working on my Hangul reading skillz. The glyphs are getting a lot more familiar to me.

2) On the Pimsleur Tip: I am flat out amazed at how well the Russian Lessons are structured. I'm at lesson 53 right now, and I'm positive we're doing constructions that I do not know how to do in Spanish or German after 90 lessons... and Russian is so complex! The dialog from Lesson 53:

"I invited you to my house last night, but you didn't come... why?"
"I couldn't find your address, and it was late, so I went home"
"Yes, and I couldn't find a working telephone, so I couldn't call!"
"I was talking to Marina, and she said you were at a restaurant with her last night."
"Well... Yes. But after that, it was too late to come over."

I can only think that they're trying to prepare you for the sorts of guilt-laden conversations you may have with those stormy Soviets. It's remarkable.

In addition, given that there are around 6 different cases of personal pronouns, when you learn a new thing to say, they do coach you with another phrase that uses the correct pronoun case, so for as much as they try not to weigh you down with "grammar", they are doing a good job of teaching the "rules" of the language.

Yes, this is a very good set of lessons.

3) That's it for now.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A possible source of misunderstanding

In Russian, there are few interrogative constructions - where, who, how, why... sure, the language covers that. But almost all yes/no questions are exactly the same as statements, only with different stress.

вы сиберайетес вместе с нами
(and again, sorry about the phonetic spelling - this is all audio work right now)
Vooy see-ber-aye-e-tye vmye-stee suh na-may.

If spoken in a level, steadily declining tone, it means "You are coming with us."
But if you stress the first word, it means "Are YOU coming with us?
If you stress the second word, it means "Are you coming with us?"
If you stress the last word, it asks "Are you coming with US?"

In all cases, even when asking a question, you never raise your tone at the end, like an English question. The tone always falls at the end.

So you see that the exact same sentence can be one statement and three questions, with no indicator words that it's a question, and no English friendly rising intonation at the end. You can see why perhaps there have been some misunderstandings with the Russian people: How many times do you suppose people may have thought they were demanding something when in fact they were asking a question...?

Очень интересно... Very interesting.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Where have I been?

Alas, if there is anyone who actually reads this that is not a regular reader of my "rest of the life blog" JimVentions, I must sadly report that a good friend of mine was murdered 6 days ago, and today we laid him to rest.

As a result, blogging about language has been far from my mind... but I will likely be updating again in a few days, because I have been doing work - I need to do things to keep my mind busy in these sad days.

So that's the update - sorry!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Una historia

Otro día, cuando estaba en el trabajo (en un hospital), vi a una vieja mujer. Ella tenía un papel en su mano, y se parecía ser perdida. Le acerqué et pedí: "can I help you?". Ella contestó "no habla ingles...", y me parecía que ella necesitó ayuda. Entonces, le dijé "Señora, puedo ayudarle."

Ella me dio el papel, y vi que tuvimos que ir cuatro sueles abajo y dos pasillos a través. Era demaciado difícil, com mi Español si limitado, para dirigirla allí. Recorrí con ella a su cita... y la introduje a su enfermera.

En verdad, no hablé mucho español en todos... pero creo que entender la idoma era provechoso.

Bueno. Ésta es mi primera historia en español en este blog. Si Ud tiene comentario para mi, lo quero. Gracias!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Vibe

안녕핫서요! 젼는 지미 임니다!

Folks, that's Hangul (Korean) for Hello! I'm Jimmy! Yes, I'm keeping to the program, learning this fine language... I'm pretty good with basic intros - who I am, I'm American, I'm an office worker... Fortunately, at my level, KoreanClass101 has just 2 lessons a week for me, so I can keep up along with all of my other language fascinations.

Russian continues - I'm at lesson 45 of 90, and I swear there is stuff in there I never ever learned in college. "if you want, you can have more coffee" езли ты хочешь, ты можешь быпить ешо кофе. Also, can you tell I'm loving learning how to type in other languages? The Mac... so brilliant. I'm also using the Penguin Guide to Russian to help with the "rules" and the spelling (My apologies for the above... there's probably a typo in the Russian).

My neighbor, a Fed, was lamenting that I'm 2 years too old to be useful to the FBI - they only hire up to age 37, so that people have a chance to get 20 years in the service prior to mandatory retirement. He said Russian skills are VERY in demand these days, what with the Russian mafia so prevalent. Perhaps I could consult for them... ;)

My sister issued a challenge: If I'm going to be such a language nut, why not learn Hmong and Somali, which are very in-use in the Twin Cities? Well, one reason is that there are few resources for learning these languages available to me... but as an alternative, I've started a little Vietnamese (and there are TONS of Vietnamese here):

The JapanesePod/KoreanClass people have truly been busy, and created a site called - where you can sign up for 50+ 4-7 minute classes in one of 6 (soon 7) languages, with Vietnamese being one of them. So I'm learning the very basics... Not any rush here, but I'd like to show up my sister at a Phô joint in town by greeting, ordering, thanking, and paying in Vietnamese.

Well, that's the basic update: I do want to say that I feel like I'm in a crazy groove with language right now, where every new thing I add in one language cascades across to my other ones, and I'm feeling truly polyglottish... I'll be ready to start paying attention to Japanese and Mandarin again... though maybe I'll wait until the end of September when I'll have this Russian thing behind me (meaning just that I'll have it "refreshed" and ready to use... not that I'll be fluent or anything!)

Friday, August 31, 2007

Pimsleur 9

Now that I've done parts of 6 different Pimsleur series (Spanish all 90, German all 90, Mandarin stuck at 37, Japanese at 65, Russian at 38, and Swedish - done with the short course), there is an amusing little pattern to be aware of. In all of the courses, around lesson 8-10, there is a "what time" lesson, where you learn how to ask "at what time", and you learn a few different numbers (1, 2, 8, and 9 typically). At the end of this lesson, you play a hapless romantic asking a lady out. Of course, you speak both roles.

"Would you like to have a drink with me at 1 o'clock?"
"No, thanks"
"How about at 2 o'clock?"
"No, I would not like to have a drink with you at 1 or at 2."
"Ah, later then. Let's have a drink at 8"
"No, I don't want to have a drink with you"
"Not at 8? How about 9?"
"No, not at 8, nor at 9. Not at 1 nor at 2! I don't want to have a drink with you!"
"Ah, I see. You don't want to have a drink with me. Perhaps you will have dinner with me then?"
"You don't understand."
"What don't I understand?"
"You don't understand "

I can do this dialog both parts in six languages now, which is sort of hilarious to consider.

So I hit the end of the Pimsleur Swedish - they only do 10 lessons - but I wanted to do it for sentence cadence, which did help. What Pimsleur teaches in 10 lessons is introductions, polite chitchat, asking for food and drink, basic directions, and just a few numbers. It's more based around conversation than learning all of one thing or another: you actually need to make it well into lesson 40-50 before you learn all of the days of the week in the full courses. They must assume that by the end of the course, you can read a book and get the numbers and month names you need. Anyway, now I can return to my "teach yourself" book and read with a bit more confidence. I'll be calling Annika and Ricard next week. REALLY.

Russian does continue, even though my "moment in the sun" was 2 weeks ago with the Russians at the lodge. There is just something about that language that intrigues me. I love the way my mouth feels as I speak it. I feel... nefarious.

It occurs to me that of all my languages, German and Japanese are probably the least "critical", even though I love to chat with sushi chefs. But I still have yet to find an actual German speaker in the wild around here. No, the Russian, Chinese, and Spanish are "new world order" languages - being strong in these will help in the uncertain future I believe. Especially with Russia sliding back into "evil empire mode".

Add to this, the people at JapanesePod have gone and created a "KoreanClass101" site, and will be teaching Korean. I may not be able to resist this one. There are a few indicators I need to heed:
1) One my my doctors at my current client is Korean - I could talk to him.
2) The same day I learned about KClass, I was sitting at a restaurant and a group at the next table was animatedly conversing in Korean.

That's not exactly cosmic convergence. But it is supporting.

Also, the Hangul writing system is just too cool - Vowels and consonants are combined into a single "glyph", so that each syllable is a single character, but once you know the 28 "components", you can pronounce any character. Plus it's curvy with strange "o" shapes in it.

The creator of Hangul in the 15th century proclaimed "A smart man will learn this by the end of the morning. A stupid man will know it within a week". So that's my challenge - to learn this alphabet in a week... I wouldn't want to dissapoint that 15th century genius.

Allright, that's just too much language geekiness for one night.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A moment in the life...

As a dedicated language addict, I know the best way to learn is to speak - so I make the most of my bus rides and my strolls through downtown by listening to language drills on the iPod - mostly Pimsleur of course! On the bus, I keep it "subvocal", moving my lips and whispering the responses. On the street, I'm fully out loud.

Today I caught my reflection as I was walking through the skyway and realized I must look completely insane: headphones in, eyes focused strangely (in concentration), muttering random foreign phrases... if a person didn't know about audio language learning, they'd think I was raving mad.

I find I have a lot of room to walk on the sidewalk, and room to stretch out, even on a crowded bus.

So yes, I'm being mistaken for a crazy person on a regular basis. That's ok - it's the life I've chosen for myself. It's what a language addict DOES.

(to say nothing of explaining why I'm carrying a book that says "teach yourself Swedish" while muttering in Russian).

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Swedish "i"

So going into Swedish, I'd heard the elision (running words together) and rules for softening SK/STJ would be my toughies. Now, as a pretty decent french speaker, you can't scare me with elision - any language that says "qu'est-ce que c'est" as "KESkaSAY" toughens one to the vagaries of slamming words together.

Then I got worried about that å character... but turns out that's just an O that finishes with a little "ah". Easy. Then the possible issues with the Swedish lilting cadence: The key there is to catch yourself before you start just alternating high and low singsongs and sounding like the muppet Swedish Chef.

No, I'm finding the truly tough thing is the letter "i". Like in "hur står det till" (how's it going). You can say it "teel", but it doesn't sound Swedish. No, you need to somehow move that sound back further in the throat and make a very silly sound. There's no equivalent sound in English - the closest feeling I can get is the French "u" in "cuilliere".

But the only TRUE way to do this is to imitate a Swedish accent. Fortunately, that's one of my favorite parts about language - putting on the accents. It makes me just mad to think about all of the high school and college classes I had where people kept thinking it wasn't "cool" to have the accent, that the key was to say the words but to sound like yourself. But if you don't do the accent, you don't sound right.

I think I'll be ready to call up our Swedish friends in a week with my first "conversation". As I lay awake last night, I was imagining what I could say with what I know already... and I think that in 7 days, I can know a very good amount.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Just bizarre

Here at the resort, there are two waiters from Russia and one from Belarus, and I've been chatting them up using my freshly recovered Russian.

Very strange indeed that I had decided to focus on that for the past few weeks!

Friday, August 17, 2007


Just finished lesson 28 of 90 in the Pimsleur Russian series... finally re-introducing the familiar "Tbi" for "you". I'm actually getting into words and areas that I really had not ever had in College (in your basic courses, you tend to talk about family, colors, and parts of the body a lot, while Pimsleur wants you to know how to ask someone out to dinner and get directions to the restaurant - a bit more practical). I still haven't decided how far I'll go with this: Russian is still a cruel language, and I still don't ever want to GO there.

Swedish: I'm doing a good bit of reading on this, but my evenings have been a bit crazy, so not as much time on this. I did find a cool site with interactive Swedish lessons not unlike the Deutsche Welle site: Learn Swedish The only problem is that you NEED to use a dictionary with the site: All of the instructions are in Swedish, and there are no pop-up translations... but it's very good for slang and colloquial, and has tough quizzes.

On the GENERAL e-learning front: I've figured out that my method NEEDS to be writing and speaking: Multiple Choice is my downfall, because I'm pretty logical and instead of really thinking about the word, I almost always do a process of elimination... so I do great on the quiz, but the word remains unlearned.

I'm off with the family for a weeklong vacation, and will be doing some more Svenska there. I'm hoping that by the end of the week, I'll be comfortable enough with the basics to make my first call to the Swedes for a chat!

But don't expect much posting in the next 10 days... I'm not sure if the interweb is at the resort! (And even if it is, I won't be on it much!)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Swede Update

Ok - going back two posts, I was curious as to whether BYKI could teach a whole language. The answer on this is simple: NO. While it does teach a few phrases, on the whole it's a word-based flashcard system, and you get no Grammar. So I needed something more. I got on super-sale the Teach-Yourself Swedish book and CDs. These are from England, and have dozens of languages, and other subjects as well.

See, even though Swedish is relatively easy, you still need to know the rules, and you still need to hear sentences spoken. And THIS is an area where Swedish is tricky: SK and ST can sound like predicted before an A, O, Å, or U, but sound like "SH" in front of E, I, ü, ö, ä, or y. Final "G"s and "T"s are usually dropped. Thus, you read "Det är" for "it is" (or "there is" in a non-locative sense), but you say "dayr"

This is why people say written and spoken Swedish are so different. And they ARE, but once you internalize the rules, it's not so bad... I think.

Another thing I'm realizing as I make my way through more languages: It's VERY important to be able to parse sentences and understand the concepts of direct (accusative) and indirect (dative) objects, possessives (genitive), verb tenses (the perfects and imperfects), conditionals, and subjunctives. Russian is particularly punishing to those who want to think that cases are something that happen to other people, but knowing how it works also helps with German, and the formation of pronouns and adjective endings in many other languages. So as I've been speaking and writing these days, I've been doing more sentence parsing... in English...

It's strange that even while taking Russian, I had never internalized these concepts and tried to see how my everyday language was parsed. I think this is a skill I can perhaps work on for myself, and try to give to my kids....

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

I'm in love again.

Swedish: Sounds great, and easy as 3.14159... well maybe not SO easy, but here's what there is to love:

- No verb conjugations to speak of: Verbs are the same for you, me, he, she, they...
- Few verb tenses - most are formed with helper verbs (have, will).
- No noun cases other than genetive (possessive)
- Two noun genders
- Only 3 "different" letters: å (ohah) ä (eh) and ö (er)

With this in mind, you can pretty much take a guess on how to structure a sentence based on basic vocabulary and not get caught by verb conjugation or noun case pitfalls like in most other languages.

The keys are that it's slightly tonal (you need to work on the up-down inflections), and there are a lot of swallowed consonants (god morgon for good morning sounds like Goh mo-RONE. Where's the D? where's the G?)

There's very little out on the web to help with Swedish - even Rosetta Stone only has one level of Swedish. Pimsleur only offers a 10-lesson short course. Right now I'm using Before you Know It flash cards (and as above, since the grammar rules are pretty simple, it's working ok for me!), and for a grammar overview, I found a fabulous site: She's a linguist and has scads of overview info on a dozen languages...

And that's my mini update. Vi ses snart. Hej då!

Sunday, August 5, 2007


My buddy Rich sent me a link for "Before you Know It" flash card software by Transparent Language a few months back, but somehow I only recently visited. Their base software and a few hundred words in any language is FREE, so it costs nothing to try it out. I started with a little Russian, added in Japanese, Chinese, and German, just to see how the flash card thing could help reinforce my existing languages... And I'm finding that just reading and typing (yes typing) the words really does help glue them into the brain...

But it's one thing to reinforce existing language: The true test will be Swedish. I got the full blown version (with over 1000 words and 200 phrases) for just a few dollars more, and will be using it as my only gateway to Swedish, hopefully bringing Bella and Pamela along: One of Bella's classmates is Swedish, and we sometimes hang out with older sister and mom too, so having some language could be really fun!

One challenge is that to truly "own" a word, you need to type it from memory. In German, not so tough (nicht zu schwer). In Russian, that means typing in Cyrillic, which is harder. I haven't tried the quizzes in Japanese or Chinese to see how they do it, but I do note that Japanese uses full Kanji in their flash cards, not Kana simplified, so that should be a good challenge.

Anyway, for free I can't see any reason NOT to download the software at It works pretty slickly, and for reinforcement of existing language it's a no-brainer. I'm just curious to see how it works as a primary language tool!!! Watch this space as I try it out.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Still comfy

Since my posting, I've done 12 lessons of Russian - 2 a day which is not recommended for a new language, but do-able for a "remembering" language. Here's what I'm noticing:

1) While I am remembering some things, I cannot say there's been a cascade of unlocked memories of the language: When a word is introduced, I can say "oh yes I remember that", but integrated into the lesson, it's just as hard to remember as the words that are NEW to me (and yes, there are quite a few: College Russian and Conversational Russian are two different beasts I think). So I'm unlocking one word at a time... we'll see how this goes.

2) But one thing that has STUCK: I totally remember how to read Cyrillic: Looking at flashcards, I can read them almost as fast as English. I'm pretty amazed at how that sticks... but then I had to write all of my homework for two years in cursive cyrillic - that's not easy.

On a different note: I'm noticing who around me I can try to talk to: One of the doctors in my department is Japanese... and there's a restaurant nearby with good cheap sushi run by a whole Japanese family who bicker in their native tongue... I am working on refreshing some language to try with them. There are a lot of Russians wandering around the hospital I work at, so I'm thinking about dropping in there... Also, I really should be trying my Spanish with the many latinos I see every day in the hospital... it would be so easy...

But in a way I get terrible performance anxiety with languages: I get tongue tied and shy when confronted with an actual opportunity to use it. Which is RIDICULOUS. I get ready with my intro, and then imagine them coming back at me with something I can't respond to.... It's irrational and I need to work on that. One way I can hopefully help is to work on translations of actual conversational bits I might use: So that I have some key words that describe me and my life fresh in the mind.

I did that prior to my big Spanish dinner months back - I wrote out 3 pages of conversational ideas, and when the time came, I didn't so much try to remember the exact words, but rather I had got used to thinking in different languages.

Finally, I read a good idea for reminding your fluency: Go to La Prensa, Le Monde, Die Zeit, Pravda, etc websites, load an article, print it. Then read the first paragraph with a highlighter, lighting the words you don't know. Stop, look them up, add them to flash cards. Then read the second paragraph, do the same. Keep going through the article, and notice that the highlighting gets less and less - that's learning!!!

Anyway, back to work for me! I have my nightly half hour with Deutche Welle online learning!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Like a comfy pair of shoes

Jimmy's big brain bonanza is officially restarted: After a few weeks of flailing around and crazy house stuff, I'm finally back on the language addict bandwagon. Part of the kick in the pants was reading The Four Hour Workweek, where the author almost casually mentions he is a language addict and has 6 languages in his rotation.

I was trying the podcast-only thing for two weeks - Jpod and Cpod only, but you know, without sitting down and working the worksheets too, I find that the 10 minute lessons just go in one ear and out the other: I need two forms. The only Audio-Only that has truly persisted for me is Pimsleur. But both my Chinese and my Japanese are 4 weeks stale on Pimsleur and I'm going to need to do some "on the couch with nothing else around me" work to get back into that groove. So what can I do with my current commute? Refresh a dead language.

As I mentioned before, I have 2 years of college Russian under my belt. But that was almost 20 years ago now, and all I truly have left are about 10 words. So I've started Pimsleur Russian to bring it all back: It's fun because so far 6 lessons in, I'm remembering a LOT, and even better, it's forcing me to work on an accent, which I never did back in College (where for some reason, speaking with an exaggerated accent seemed frowned upon - like "faking" or something?)

I'm also hoping that the rules of Russian filter back into my head and I can relate them to German, which also has many many rules... sort of turbocharge my language rules engine.

But now I'm getting to the point where phonemes are confusing: "Ya" means "I" in Russian, "Yes" in German, "already" in Spanish, and "there are" in French (concatenating "y a" in "il y a").... while "Ni (knee), means "Not" in Russian, "Never" in German, "Nor" in French, "You" in Chinese.... It gets crazy.

So bottom line, look for more updates on a more regular basis now that my work has cleared up and I've stopped flailing around. Thenkyouveddymuch. PS - obviously things are lighter - this is a mid-morning post!!!!

Saturday, July 7, 2007

In case you're wondering

Just as I had teased Coffee Break Spanish for taking off for a few weeks while a "day job" deadline loomed, I must plead exactly the same for why this blog has gone "dark". This weekend we're finally doing the big upgrade I've been working for the past 7 months to deliver, and while I can't say I've been pulling 60 hour weeks or anything, I have been very short on free "brain cycles" to devote to language.

I expect that this will clear up in the coming weeks as I get back to just one client, and the golive dies down.

By the way - Coffee Break Spanish came back from their break with a huge surprise: A crazy theme song. It's just a riot. Add that to ChinesePod's revelatory theme song to their "news and features" podcast, and I think that the silly has been loosed upon the international language fanclub.

That's it for now. More when my head clears a bit!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I'm in love.

First: Mark from RadioLingua wanted me to know "they weren't dead, they're just resting" (not his words, Monty Python's). I'm looking forward to their return, of course. I raise a glass of Lagavulin 16 to their good health.

Now... I'm in love. As I noted in yesterday's update, I've had some trouble finding German resources to continue my learning. Until I found Deutsche Welle is a German news service which takes very seriously the concept of teaching the world German. Their site is available in a dozen languages, and their German resources are at multiple levels - news broadcasts spoken in slow german, medium, and fast. Differing levels of complexity for reading.

And best of all, they have a free online "learn German" course. It's tuned around reading, writing, and listening, with some speaking exercises. I spent an hour yesterday, and am impressed!

Oops - Isaacs stirring... Later!
Anyway, the lessons are very well produced, with great voice talent, and a variety of accents so far. I'm admittedly not too far in, but I am realizing that I REALLY needed some more written and read lessons - the verbal approach of Pimsleur is great, and I can converse, but the fact I can barely type a cohesive sentence in German tells me I need this remedial training.

So I'll keep on with the Deutsche Welle program and see where it takes me! Also in the coming week, I'll start doing Language Addict mini-posts in different languages - I'd welcome any corrections and comments as they appear! Probably just French, German, and Spanish for the moment... we'll see... ;->

Thursday, June 21, 2007

June 21

Pimsleur Japanese III Lesson 7, Mandarin II Lesson 2 are in the can. Learn Frenchbypodcast mysteriously updated again after my last beratement, and I was about to gripe again, and aha, a new lesson apears. Hugh and Amelie, don't play with my heart this way. And I'm still waiting for my German lessons from them... I just KNOW they'd be fantastic.

I was listening to some JapanesePod101 podcasts today, and it sounded like Natsuko and Peter are perhaps not getting along right now? Natsuko was a bit formal with him... Ah the DRAMA of the podcast world. I might have been reading too much into it, however, since I'm a bit wiped from this week of work.

In other news, RadioLingua seems to have gone a bit dark in the past week: MyDailyPhraseGerman is at 13 days without an update... the last Coffee Break was over 3 weeks ago! Mark said something about a busy work deadline in the message boards... but nothing since. Hope he's doing ok.

Ken Carroll over at ChinesePod and SpanishSense has hit his stride, however. Both sites are firing along with multiple lessons per day: SpanishSense in particular is throwing out a LOT of great lessons... finally I can recommend them wholeheartedly. They're looking for what their next language should be... I thought German, but I'd be curious to know how they'd approach Arabic... I think that the audio-only courses are tough with heavily rule-based languages like German and Russian.... but if anyone could do it Praxis could. (I also think that Hugh Nagle could do it too, but part of the value proposition of LearnFrenchByPodcast is the practical textbook that accompanies every lesson - the praxis method is more about standalone audio modules...)

Finally, I should share that in my adventures I've found some very strange lessons out there too: I won't name names because people are doing this out of love, I know. But there was one German podcast about learning German where the guy spent 10 minutes talking in English, and then gave a couple of simple words as his "lesson".. it was more of an audioblog about his life... which would have been fine IF he had spoken German... but instead, it was his crazily accented English. Not a bad one... but an odd one I can't stop listening to is a German Grammar podcase, which practically sounds like someone reading a textbook - it's quite dry and I think the system described made sense to the speaker, but there's no additional illumination. And there are many attempts that go for 10-15 lessons and then just STOP. A few Korean ones, a Russian one... people just gave up.

It's unfortunate, because I really don't know if there's a living in any of this for people: Coffee Break Spanish is a HUGE hit by podcast standards - millions of downloads. but it's brought offline because the guy's day job has a crunch: It's not making him a living! I read that ChinesePod has over a quarter million regular listeners, but that paying subscribers number only in the thousands...

Let me put out there that I do try to support these sites whenever possible - I love to see their efforts, and I think that quality product DESERVES remuneration. So even if I'm not doing a lesson a day from CPod AND Jpod AND SpanishSense, I'm supporting their existence.

So that's the update... more as it happens!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Surreal Spanish Moment

A week back, I was at an all day meeting, and met up with a guy in charge of enterprise disk architecture for the "New Client" called "E.J.". We bonded on choice of eyewear intially, but also connected because amongst my many conversational gambits, I am quite capable of speaking in the languages of Storage Area Network Architecture - though it's not my area of consulting, I can hum a few bars, and as a project manager it is ALWAYS helpful to have the geeks on your side. The best way to do that is to be able to speak their argot, though never superfluously - they can tell if you just picked up a few words and will try to humble you: No, you need to learn about what they do... and they will work with you.

I found the same about the French in my travels: If you start in English, they will stay in French, but if you start in French, they will help you out, speak in English if you need, and generally be a lot more helpful. But it can't be one or two words, you need to show you've invested time in learning their language and culture. A simple "EXXXKUUSAY MWAH" will not help... but a haltingly delivered "Puis-je vous donner un question?" will get a person to walk you clear across town to show you the way.

Anyway, the point was that this EJ and I were enjoying our discussion, and were about to part ways and were shaking hands when he fixed me with a look and said "y si yo puedo ajudarte en alguna maniera, estoy aqui." and without dropping a beat, mid shake I said "gracias senor, creo que podemos trabajar juntos, verdad?"

The room went silent and people turned to stare, and we burst out laughing. It was just a strange sight, a large African American and a tall white geek suddenly bursting into Spanish with no cause, but it just seemed right.

One more reason I'm a language addict - it opens up opportunities.

(Postscript - EJ and I did do some serious disk architecture work later, but kept it in English, mostly because "Dual Channel Gigabit HBA" and "Extendable LUNs" doesn't translate too well.)

Took a break!

Had a little family vacation... had no time for language whatsoever. I might not have even spoken much ENGLISH - it was all a blur.

Some updates:
My "friends" at Learn French By Podcast are suspiciously silent again. Lesson 64 was back on 5/30... Perhaps this is some holiday interval I'm not aware of... But I miss their teachin' ways.

I'm back in the saddle with Pimsleur: Just finished Level 1 Lesson 29 in Mandarin, and Level 3 lesson 4 in Japanese: I'm doing them simultaneously - my few weeks of alternating asian languages by week was sort of a bust - I need to keep all of them in active rotation or there's just too much "where was I?" catching up.

It is very interesting to see where we get to in each language by this "Level 1" point in Pimsleur: In the Spanish and German, there was lots of talk about directions, family members, and dining/social events. The same basic template is used for different languages - the same core subjects - but there are different FOCUSES. I think we were half-way through Level II before any other language addressed a tense other than present, but in Mandarin, we're deep into past, present, and future tenses: Perhaps it's because the verbs require no conjugation, and tenses are constructed like lego blocks with particles... it's easier, so they give it right up front.

In Japanese, as we go we get more formal: While we may be using "kimasu" for "to come" in level 1, by level 2, it was always "irashaimasu", the superpolite form. I love going to JapanesePod because they give you the polite and superpolite forms, but also the informal ones (which I will probably never be able to use without offending someone).

And that's the story of the day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Birth of a language addict....

Ok - when I started the blog I gave a little history of my life of language. But there was no good indication of really how I became OR why I consider myself now to be a "language addict". Here's that story.

In Spring 2005, on a complete whim, I was invited to spend a week in Tokyo. My good friend's father is a conductor, and had a concert with a symphony orchestra there. So we'd go, see some rehearsals, enjoy the city, see the concert, and go home. It was all planned with under 6 weeks to go, and it was CRAZY.

A friend of mine slipped me a set of MP3s of the intro lessons to Pimsleur Japanese. 7 lessons, covering basic hello goodbye can you speak I would like... and something about this struck a chord with me. Maybe it was the Pimsleur method - the graduated repetition... or maybe I was in the mood for a challenge. But I attacked those 7 30 minute lessons with gusto, listening to each 3-4 times to truly master them.

Of course when I got to Tokyo, the knowledge flew straight out of my head, and I barely squeaked out an "arigato" given the opportunity. But in the safety of my own thoughts, I had a bunch of Japanese phrases that I truly KNEW, and it felt like a wonderful secret, a superpower I could use at some point.

But Japanese was perhaps overwhelming to think about: All the kanji and kana and not being able to READ it... So I decided to redirect my newfound love of language codebreaking to another language that I had secretly loved: German.

Oh, watching Wings of Desire or Run Lola Run, or listening to Propaganda or Nena, that teutonic tongue called to me. I knew I needed to unlock its secrets. So I sprung for the full 90 lesson Pimsleur, and barreled through them. And I looked for people to speak German with... and came up short. My German was fresher than anyone's who had taken it in High School or College, so my conversations were pretty one-sided. Plus, the verbal method isn't the BEST for learning all of the crazy cases and word orders... there's some real study you need to do with that dang language.

But being done with Pimsleur German, I missed my half hours of learning new codes, of decoding new secrets. So I did Pimsleur Spanish - 90 lessons. And now I'm doing Pimsleur Japanese (lesson 60 just finished) and Mandarin (lesson 26 down), and using podcasts to keep learning in ALL languages... I have flash cards, and workbooks...

And the crazy thing is that I'm finding that the more I work on multiple languages simultaneously, the more I'm able to absorb in ALL of them: It's like when the brain is open to new language pathways, why not just keep building them? So far I haven't had many situations where I'm trying to grab a phrase in Chinese and a Japanese one comes to mind - they stay in their compartments.

This fits in with the brain training work I do - is the site - where we preach that the more you exercise your brain, the more limber it is and the more readily you can assimilate new information. Learning languages is FANTASTIC brain exercise, and doing 30-60 minutes of language keeps me sharp to be able to manage multiple roles at multiple clients in my regular jobs, as well as easily turn on the creative juices when our podcasts need some music...

So that's sort of where my "addiction" came from: I readily admit that in terms of language gurus, I'm a novice, only coming at this seriously for over a year... my grasp of these languages is elementary, but improving. But I think I have a true passion for this... and look forward to continuing to share my expedition with anyone who cares to read about it.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

What happened?

Sorry people - slow week: My wife put her back out and I've been the primary guy on the overnights (and Isaac still wakes up 2-3 times a night) AND working the two contracts... so language hasn't been a priority when I'm living on 4 hours of sleep.

Even so, there were two LFBP lessons and 4 Pimsleur Mandarins consumed. Gotta keep it moving! I'm hoping that next week I'm able to be more productive!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Keeping the tongue sharp...

Tonight I read a book to my 4 year old daughter in French... and I realized that while I've certainly kept my reading skills up to speed, my tongue has lost some of its agility with my favorite language. By the end of the book, I was getting back up to snuff, but I was tongue tied more than once. Memo to self: Read more French out loud.

Today at work, I heard a distinctive accent and discovered that a Russian works in my midst... and it was all I could do not to sidle up with a kak dela? Suddenly with an opportunity to speak it, a lot of my old Russian came flooding back, and I'm possessed with a desire to pay a little more attention to it. Not MUCH more, but enough. I mean, the brain already has so much of it, it's really just a re-awakening isn't it? Wonder if there is a RussianPod out there?

In my Chinese Pimsleur study, I finally hit a number of words that are the SAME as words I knew before with different "tones", the first of the true "watch out for the tone" words. Also, I've hit the lesson where almost all of the instructions start coming in Mandarin too... which is always a scary part of Pimsleur. I do love that at my stage, a lot of the vocab I'm hitting has come from ChinesePod first, and it's illustrating that the CPod learning is "sticky" just like Pimsleur is. Whenever I say "Tai4 Gue4 le" (the 4 means you sort of shout it with a downward intonation, and the phrase means "TOO EXPENSIVE", I actually hear Ken Carroll of ChinesePod yelling it about a PEN ("bi") in lesson 11 or so.

One of my favorite bits of Chinese is that their verbs encapsulate so much: You don't need to use "is" for a lot of states: "E" (pronounced Euh) means "To be hungry". So "Wo Bu E" means i don't have hunger. In german that's Ich habe kein hunger. 6 syllables versus 3. Chinese is ECONOMICAL.

I'm on a vacation from Spanish and German right now. French, Chinese, and Japanese are my focus (and I might do a little dustup on Russian, just because of the opportunity.) I think that I might be a little disillusioned with German at the moment. I think that if I decided to invest in a few one-on-one lessons with my German teacher friend, I could get re-activated. Before that happens, I have a pretty strong vote from our friend Annika that I should pick up Swedish, however. And we'd be welcome to visit their home in Sweden when they go back there in a year... so that might be a compelling reason.

A natural question: WHEN do I have time to do these lessons? Well, on one-client days, I'm in the car 40 minutes. On 2 client days I'm driving over an hour. Pimsleur lessons are 30 minutes, Chinesepod, Japanesepod, and FrenchByPodcast lessons are 13-15 minutes. So there's car time. At work, there's at least an hour where I'm wrangling spreadsheets - not creative time by any means, This is excellent time for listening, not talking lessons. So that's my DeutcheWelle news or NotesInSpanish conversation time. Reading - there's always before bed, there's always early morning. So just by using "brain downtime" in my day, I have almost an hour of study time every day, if not more. The trade off is that I don't listen to talk radio so much, nor music as much... though there are days when I take a total break from language and just rock out to whatever the iPod shuffle has delivered.

Time for bed now.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


I finished Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese Level 1 Lesson 20 this week... so I'm almost a quarter of the way through the program. I'm amazed at how my hearing recognition really is changing - there are so many sounds that are SO similar in Mandarin, but just this many lessons in, I can tell the difference between words based on context. It's all about training the ear to hear the differences between the sounds...

It's not unlike training your palate for wines or scotches (and my friends know, I'm learning my scotches and can tell a Lagavulin from a Highland Park from a Scapa from a Glenlivet).

Last week I was talking about languages with a pair of 15 year olds. They were learning Spanish and couldn't imagine trying to tackle Japanese or Mandarin. I broke it down like this: These two languages have complex alphabets and a very hard to learn pictograph system. But the tradeoff is that there is no verb conjugation AND no arbitrary genders on nouns. They thought that over, and decided it was a fair tradeoff.

At a housewarming party today, I met with a Japanese native speaker and her husband, and was so excited... but she wasn't much in the mood to chat in Japanese. We did talk about sushi in town. She's been here for 15 years, so it may take a little mental shift of talk Japanese. I did get their info and we may get together in the future, when everyone is mentally prepared.

And that's the quick update!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


My Kana drilling is starting to pay off: I have been reading pages of hirigana and katakana... slowly at first, but it's speeding up. It feels sort of amazing to finally be looking at those characters and reading them like regular words. Now I just need to get comfortable with some Kanji... As Henry commented, the JPOD101 Kanji Closeups are probably my best bet on that. I'll go back and reprint them for the first 40 beginner lessons, and work my way through. That should get me at least 100 to start with!!!

I'm worried about my friends at Learn French by Podcast - they're off from their twice weekly updates and we're at 8 days since the last one... I am wondering if their whole "game" was to make 60 podcasts in the hopes they'd lure ME to the site and get my $25, and now they're off to Rio. It's totally possible. ;)

UPDATE: Obviously Hugh and Amelie got my hint, and Episode 61 is downloading right now. They must have been mighty scared that I was on to their "scheme". HA!

Short update for you today!

Sunday, May 13, 2007


On Friday, I finished Pimsleur Japanese II lesson 30. So I'm 60 lessons in, 30 to go in the series. I'm at Beginner lesson 40 at, which is great for more cultural, casual, and contemporary vocabulary. The other night, while enjoying a somewhat cheap but pleasant scotch (White Horse - a blend from Lagavulin), I turned to my friend and said: これは わるくない ですね (kore-wa warukunai desu ne!) It means "this isn't bad is it?" which would probably be an unimaginable insult should I say it to a host in Japan... but here it was just fun.

I've also continued my intensive drilling on reading and writing in Japanese - Good old Caesar was in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago (he has meetings there 2-3 times a year, as well as in Finland, North Carolina, California... dude is CONNECTED). Anyway he got me a couple of Japanese schoolkid writing/reading recognition games for my Nintendo DS, which should REALLY push me. I also got a plugin for my browser called "Rikichan", which is like the rosetta stone: You go to any website with japanese writing, and your cursor translates anything you point to... it gets the Kanji too, and offers just about every POSSIBLE meaning too, so you can get the context correctly.

I'm back to my casual rotations on Spanish, French, and German... and am determined to get more comfortable with the PAST tenses in Spanish and German: I mean, how can I talk about my weekend if I can't really remember the past tenses? It can't all be "I want" and "I'm going". On Spanish, I'm still working out if I like what's going on over at or not: I'll blog more on my internal war on that in the next few days. For now, I'm working through a Schaum's Outlines review of Spanish Grammar. If I write it a dozen times, I'll own it... right? ;->

Not to worry, I did do a fair amount on Chinese as well: 3 Pimsleur lessons (up to lesson 16 in Level I, so quite a ways go go), and a few Chinesepods... not very intensive, but I was getting back into the swing of it.

I was reflecting on why French is so natural for me, and why Russian, which I abandoned after just 2 years pops into my head, and I finally figured it out: I WORKED HARD on those languages. I had to do at least a half hour of homework every night and had a full hour class every day. I would bet that if I dedicated that kind of time for 3 months to ANY of my existing languages, I would attain a powerful level of stickiness. Not that I'm exactly being LAZY about my learning... but I could be a bit more directed. I'll think on this.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Podcast Review: Coffee Break Spanish and My Daily Phrase German

This is a sort of a double review - both are products of Radio Lingua International and are from Scotland. And therein lies their charm for me... but more on that in a minute. Here's what they are:

Coffee Break Spanish ( is a weekly 20 minute podcast with Mark the teacher, and Kara the student. So far there have been around 25 lessons, starting from the very basic and getting more complex. At first, I felt it was too basic for me but now that they're in the 20's, it's getting to be more useful for me. The structure is to set up situations and offer phrases and grammar: It's not a conversational class, and there are no native speakers. Really, it's quite traditional in form. It's very much targeted at the leisure traveler who wants basic tourist vocabulary, and how to understand the responses.

The fun bit is that with Kara as the learner, you get some banter, which always livens up a podcast, and some built in targets for you: Can you get it better/faster than Kara? Sometimes I wonder if she's playing it down a bit to help us all feel better.

There are accompanying PDFs, which are 3-4 pages in length and include all grammar covered as well as full verb conjugations. These cost money, however, while the podcast is free free free. I'd imagine that they're quite worth it, however.

A sister podcast is "My Daily Phrase German" (, of which there are now 50 lessons, and 50 more to come. Each lesson is a mere 5 minutes long and covers 2-3 basic travel phrases in German.

Grammar isn't covered, it's really "learning phrases", not full language learning, but that's all they're advertising. The instructor, Catriona, is Scottish, and does German with an Austrian accent (from what I can hear). The podcasts are free, but for just $25 you can get a PDF for each lesson with phrases and vocabulary (and extra vocab), and an extra weekly podcast with additional phrases.


Now, to review them together, you need to accept some things: This is not "language on your terms", both of these are phrasebook learning guides, geared toward getting you some survival skills for holiday. Both emphasize relaxation and enjoyment as a key to absorbing the lessons. Neither podcast is particularly focused around attaining native speaker fluency, nor slang, nor overly familiar forms of address. In summary, they're the equivalent of a Berlitz Course.

The production quality really is very high, and you get good materials for free. The add-on materials are quite good. IF you were in the market for phrase-book style learning, these are ones to beat... I recommend them for beginners for sure!

But it's time for my confession: Despite the fact that they're both a bit below my current language levels, and aren't tuned toward my particular style of learning, I listen to both regularly and religiously. Why?

Because Mark, Kara, and Catriona have the most listenable voices with that wonderful Scottish lilt. The production is unhurried and relaxing, and they really make things sound pleasant at all times. I listen to these and it feels like a really pleasant conversation is happening at the table next to me and they don't mind if I listen in. It may just been my Scotchophilia, but I have played these for other people and the consensus is this: The only way these could be any cuter is if they were done by puppies and kittens.

I don't mean to demean the very good work they do - because they do make very clear lessons. But I'm listening for all the wrong reasons and it feels SO GOOD.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


I survived the dinner. Actually I did VERY WELL, if I may say so. I was able to stay in Spanish the whole night, only needing to occasionally get a word or two translated. But what was more important was the confidence to barrel forward in a sentence and let it out of my mouth.

It was a pretty small group, and the native speaker was very kind and accommodating. The other "guest" was a bit of a talker, and liked talking so much that he frequently just spoke in English, which seemed to be contrary to the spirit of the evening. I tried to keep us in the realm, but for a good 15 minutes in there the host and the other guest just went off on a long conversation in Ingles, while the native speaker and I sat patiently and enjoyed a little Mezcal.

I left the party quite pleased with the work I had done, and with renewed confidence that I really can communicate in this language.

Now that my Spanish Crisis is complete, I'm going to allow myself to put Spanish back into the rotation, and get back on to Chinese and Japanese again. So watch for more variation again!

Friday, May 4, 2007

D Day is Coming!

Tomorrow night - the Cinco de Mayo - is when I'll be on the spot: A dinner party with just 5 people, an authentic Central American menu, at least one native speaker, and the rule is: Hablamos solamente Español toda la noche. So I have been preparing. And I confess flat out that there were some things I could have done that I didn't.

I didn't offer to take either of my co-workers who speak Spanish very well out for coffee to rehearse. I didn't write more than two pages of notes to practice. I didn't read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, nor did I watch Volver without the subtitles.

But I HAVE done some things: I've actively thought of how to say key things, translating my thoughts throughout the day, and at least one evening, I did dream in mostly Spanish. I have listened to WAY too much of Ben and Marina from, and even laughed at Ben's jokes - which means my comprehension is getting better. I have learned key words that are relevant to my work and life.

And I have decided to RELAX from here on out. It'll simply happen. And that's maybe the best path for me: I need to remember that quand j'habitais en la maison Francaise during college je parlais franglais tres bien - I had the basic structures, and just threw in English words with a French accent as needed. Creo que puedo hacerlo en Español tambien. Tengo que descansar.

It was good to cram, and to study, and to worry a little. But the point of this dinner is to have FUN. So fun I will have.

I'll post a report after tomorrow. (Voy a escrivar un informe antes de manaña)

In the meantime, time for a different language: I wrote a great song last night, and have another one bombarding my skull tonight, so it's time to switch the computer from Blog Mode to Music Mode.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

More on LearnFrenchByPodcast

Ok - these guys are totally making me happy. Their conversational topics are just great, and they do drill into some difficult grammar points...

Three recent podcast subjects: In one, the two people discuss why they're following the US elections, and why they think Barack Obama is or isn't a good candidate. In the second, the conversation is around the merits of Hillary Clinton. In the third, it's about the Iraq war, with phrases like "En tout cas, la situation en Irak est un cauchemar, tu ne trouves pas ?" - "Anyway, the situation in Iraq is a nightmare, don't you think?"

Part of me thinks this is US liberal, and hence mildly risky for a language program, but then I remember, these podcasts are European, and this is common sentiment over there. It's that sort of thing that really makes me love these podcasts. Man, I need to remember my US exit strategy - Provence!

OK - as you may recall, I'm supposed to be cramming for a dinner party this weekend where nothing but Spanish will be spoken. After a week of cramming, i have sort of hit this point where I just want to learn a few more key words and let the evening happen: I don't know that I'll be able to leap a skill level just yet. But there are a few more days... we'll see.

Off to work with me. There are words to learn.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Japanese Today

Ok, full disclosure: I'm SUPPOSED to be cramming for a Spanish only dinner in a week. By rights I should be only focusing on Spanish, writing myself drills and quizzes... But I'm weak. I'm distractable. I have flights of fancy.

In short, this week I really got into drilling myself on Kana - the Japanese syllabic writing system. I decided that until I can read the basic Kana, I'm just fooling myself that Japanese is in my grasp. Now, let me explain: There are three forms of writing. KANJI is the pictographic language, borrowed from Chinese. Hirigana is a syllabic alphabet, and Katakana is a mirror of Hirigana, only it's used exclusively for "borrowed words", like "America", or "Center" (any further evidence that Japan is a closed monoculture: They won't let foreign words or names be written in their alphabet - they made a special one for it!) (FYI: Kana refers to Hirigana and Katakana collectively)

In both Katakana and Hirigana, there are over 60 syllables to memorize. In Kanji, we're talking a good 500 you NEED to survive, and 2000 is a reasonable level of fluency. Kanji is a lifelong pursuit. I will be happy to be comfortable with Hirigana and Katakana.

But that's still 120 pictures that don't mean anything to me yet. WHAT TO DO? I have tried staring at the tables, translating words slllloooowwwwly. I slept with a Kana book under my pillow. That was useless.

Two things are breaking through: Both use the power of "computers" in innovative ways. One is a software tool called "iKana" (find it here). It's basically a flash card deck, but it's very clear and easy to use. I keep it up in the background and when I have a free minute, I do some drills.

The second thing is called "Slime Forest" (available HERE) This is a silly little adventure game, where you're on a quest to save the princess... and every so often these cute little monsters try to get you. The only way to stop them is to type the syllable that the Kana floating over their heads represent. You need to react very fast or you die and have to start over. So by last night, I had 3/4 of the core Katakanas flowing from my fingers, and they stuck with me today. Apparently as you advance, you move to Hiriganas, and even into Kanji.

The final thing that's been encouraging me in Japanese this week is that I've finally reached a level in my studies where they're starting to add in the INFORMAL forms of address. It's not that I want to be disrespectful when speaking to others, but if I ever want to understand what a group of kids are talking about, or understand a TV show, I need to know more about the casual speech.

So simply by reaching a level where a new curtain is lifted, it got me all re-invigorated.

I'll be doing a review of my favorite Japanese site soon enough... But for tonight, I simply say Ja Ma-te! (later then!)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Podcast Review: LearnFrenchByPodcast

One of the beauties of the high-bandwidth web world is the variety of audio and video offerings that are out there... and because nobody knows really what will work yet, there's a lot of amazing material that is free or practically free. Language Learning podcasts (with support websites) are one such goldmine. And they fall into a number of categories:
- Phrase Books
- Basic Instruction
- Conversational

The way I got started was actually by looking for German and French radio interviews on the web - to listen to two people talking. From there, I started finding lots of interviews, but more importantly I found a lot of very well developed instructional series out there.

In this series, I'll let you know about what I've found out there - what's working and what needs help. Today I start with a good one: Learn French by Podcast.

LFBP is a biweekly program. Each episode is between 9-14 minutes long. It has an english speaking "host" and one or two native French speakers. The podcast is focused around a dialogue that is 1-5 paragraphs long, and lessons are currently either "Beginner" or "Intermediate". Topics are varied from current events to restaurant etiquette to how to talk to a veterinarian...

The structure is unique: They introduce what they'll talk about, they start the dialogue, and pause it to make grammatical points as needed. All english is by the narrator, the French speakers never break into english, and there is no banter or chitchat - it's all business. There are no direct translations - you're encouraged to discern the meaning based on context. Key words and concepts are spelled out, but it's not word-by-word. It's as much about culture as language: In one I learned about the French minimum wage and work week minimums and maximums.

There are PDFs that accompany each which are frankly essential: They are direct transcripts of the podcasts, with breakout boxes for new verbs with their conjucations, and all of the vocabulary words given at the end... some cultural points and a light quiz are also included. This is textbook quality and runs 4-7 pages in length.

Done poorly this would be a dry, pedantic exercise. But fortunately Amelie the main native speaker has a very enthusiastic delivery and frighteningly precise pronunciation (which is not to say she doesn't swallow entire syllables as is the habit in French, but she's VERY clear).

This one is not without cost: For $25 you get all of the PDF lessons to date and for the next 3 months. The audio podcasts ARE free through ITunes, however... so you can see if you like it. At the time of this writing, there are 57 lessons out there, so I think $25 is a GREAT deal.

Given my history with French, I may be ill-equipped to really judge, but it does seem to me that even from the first lesson, there's an assumption of SOME French knowledge - I find myself listening closely to every lesson... And even at the beginner level, there is enough new stuff in there to engage me that I feel challenged, and this is with many years of study (which is admittedly quite stale at this point) So my recommendation is that if you took French in high school (or ARE taking it now), this would be a great resource to bring you along.

Finally, I'd note that they're teasing me with the domain of "" - I'm eagerly awaiting this... If it can help sharpen my German the way it's re-awakening my French, it'll be great.

Update: Here's the direct link to their site:

Who am I - part one.

My first foreign language was French: I started in Junior High, but it started much earlier: It really began with imitating Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies. Then my superhero alter ego "Captain Quebec". In neither case was French actually spoken... but it was intended.

In Junior High, I suspect that of a class of 25, there may have only been 3-4 of us with any true interest in the language, and we had to play it down because apparently it was a "totally gay" language that you only took because Spanish was full (disclosure - this was JUNIOR HIGH in the early 1980s - sensitivity was not particularly en vogue). It probably didn't help that the teacher was a dashiki-wearing white guy with a combover, a lazy eye, and an effeminate manner.

It stuck with me through high school and into college. I took a class trip in high school - 6 students and a professor driving through France in a van and staying in youth hostels for a month in June. Perhaps the most idyllic way to possibly see the country, and images still stick with me - spotting the Michelin man on signs, running through fields of lavender, taking the tram up Mont Blanc in Chamonix, the train by the lake in Lausanne...

It all made me a francophile, and I continued in college. I even lived in a French-only residence, where it became painfully obvious that my grasp on the language was at amateur level, that I would slip too easily into Franglais, and that I simply couldn't hold my own in a philosophical conversation en francais.

I could have hit the books harder, really dug into the subjunctive tenses and the more esoteric details of the language... but this was college, I was young, and honestly, working that hard is nerd's work. I was trying to be semi-cool.

So I expanded - I took Russian. French remained a love, but I resigned my self that I would not master it. Russian was mysterious - it sounded even more strange than French, and nobody knew it well... unlike German which sounded supercool BUT there were dozens of people who could speak it excellently - I would be looking at a French-like situation, where I would be proficient, but not able to truly hold an academic conversation. Russian was a new program and we would all be equal.

So I did two years of language, and a variety of literature courses. And I stopped for a couple of reasons:
1) My major was Music and that took a lot of time
2) I realized that I was never going to Russia and wasn't sure I wanted to speak it all that well.
3) I watched my best friend have a doomed romance with a russian emigre, so I decided that the whole subject might be better left at the door.

To this day, Russian phrases still pop into my head - it was well drilled. I can still decipher Cyrillic... and it makes for a good party trick.

So this far, you're probably saying 'this guy is not exactly my idea of a language addict". I don't blame you. No, it was a series of events in early 2005 that flipped a magic switch in my brain and turned me into the addict I am today. In a few days, I'll relate those events.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 23, 2007


Welcome to Language Addict. I'm Jimmy, and I am completely addicted to languages right now. My main blog, JimVentions
, chronicles my normal geeky life, and I do occasionally post language things... but I'm afraid that I have just so much to say about language that I need to start a new place.

I'm starting this new blog just to chronicle my addiction to language. I'm going to talk about things I'm discovering, try out some translations, and review some of the products and sites that are out there. I should warn you that I'm approaching this with humor and love, and I have no interest in long pedantic diatribes about, well anything.

So if you stumble across this, by all means leave me a post. Perhaps there are other aspiring polyglots out there who have things to say. So let's see what I come up with.