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.