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!