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.