New blog, new classes, new languages, time management

Last fall I started a new project, along with my fellow language-learning enthusiast friend Deliah, called Say What! Language Studio (語言健身房).

The idea is to take all the stuff we’ve been learning about learning, and try to design the ideal class based on all these ideas. Hmm.

As I’ve complained about before, one of the hardest things about learning a new language is finding stuff that is both interesting enough and actually intuitively comprehensible to a beginner, at least to a certain degree.

Unfortunately, the interesting stuff is usually incomprehensible (podcasts, movies, TV shows, and other media designed for native speakers), and the comprehensible stuff (material designed specifically for language learners) is usually not very interesting (with a few exceptions).

The same has been true, in my experience, in real-life language classes. Classes intended to teach language are typically pretty boring (again, with notable exceptions!), while most other types of classes and activities (art, cooking, games, acting, sports, making things — everything, in other words) taught in the same language are too difficult for language beginners to follow.

This doesn’t have to be the case. So that’s our goal with Say What!: to make language classes that are so fun you forget you’re learning a language.

We also have a new blog, er… Facebook page, for sharing some of our material, thoughts about language learning, and videos from our classes. Posts are happening much more regularly there than they are here.

Personal language learning stuff

I’m still learning languages on my own of course, though it’s been six months since I’ve written anything about it.

Bullet Journal

With time management an even bigger problem than before, my most vital language learning tool has become my Bullet Journal. Seriously, I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t found the perfect way of keeping track of things yet. I’ve tried lots of apps, but inevitably gave them up when they couldn’t do everything I wanted them to do. I’ve been using the Bullet Journal for almost a year now. The genius of the Bullet Journal is that it’s just a loose system based on blank paper. You can change it however you want. You don’t have to download anything or buy anything special — if you have a blank notebook lying around, you have everything you need to start a Bullet Journal.

The most important part for me in terms of language learning is the “month tracker.” Every month I define a list of daily tasks, and every day I check off each thing as I do it. I usually don’t get anywhere close to finishing all the tasks in a day, but seeing at a glance which ones I’m consistently doing and which ones I’m not helps me decide which tasks are useful and which ones need some rethinking.

The fact that the month tracker lasts only a month gives me a natural point at which to reevaluate my language learning and try to set better goals for the next month, while also giving me permission to not endlessly second-guess the tasks I’ve set for the current month when it’s in progress.

It’s ugly, but it gets the job done.

Here’s my month tracker for this past month, February 2018. I’ve been pretty consistent with Glossika for German and Hokkien (台語), and Anki for German and Japanese (日本語). Since I started learning Vietnamese in the middle of the month, I’ve also been doing a good job with Anki for Vietnamese. Whether these things are actually helping is of course another question, but I think they are in this case. I’ll talk more about my recent thoughts about Glossika, and where the material for Anki comes from, another time.

I started the month using Mango Languages for Vietnamese, but for some reason gave it up half way through the month, around the same time I started using Anki for Vietnamese instead. I’ve also been listening more frequently to the amazing podcast Der Explikator. I have more to say about that some other time too.

I haven’t read a single page of Chinese or watched a single show in Hokkien, which tells me I probably don’t have anything interesting to read and don’t know what to watch. I should make it a goal in March to find interesting reading and watching material.

It’s too bad that I haven’t been speaking much this month. Last month I was more consistent in finding language exchanges for German and Hokkien, which is where I’ve been putting my focus.

It’s an interesting problem, because it seems like it should be easy. Earlier this month I downloaded a new conversation exchange app called Tandem, and I’ve started texting with tons of potential language exchange partners. So far none of them has resulted in an actual, live voice- or video-chat language exchange.

I think I have a tendency to send messages to too many potential conversation partners at once. When a good portion of them actually reply in the ensuing five or ten minutes, I then get overwhelmed, close the app, and avoid opening it for the next few days. Hmm…that might have something to do with it.

It’s also a challenge sometimes finding the time and space to chat during the day. It requires being somewhere with WiFi, and where it’s not too noisy, but where you can talk without disturbing other people. I find I also have to be in the right mindset. If I just finished teaching a class or ended a long meeting, then it can be hard to get psyched up about having an hour-long language exchange. Also, amazing recent technological advances notwithstanding, it’s still a bit more difficult and tiring to communicate via video chat over the internet than it is to communicate in person.

Thinking about what to change in March, I want to try building language exchange into a routine. I think maybe having a designated time and place might reduce the decision fatigue and make it become a more regular thing. If I just set aside an hour a day, then even if I don’t have anyone to chat with on a given day, I can spend that time scheduling chats at that same time on future days, and it won’t be the juggling act it usually is trying to fit language exchanges in between all my other activities throughout the day.

Vision Quest, II

This humble language journal started exactly a year ago out of an experiment: I dropped everything I was doing, any projects that had any sense of obligation attached, anything I was used to doing to pass the time, and spent two weeks trying to answer a question: Without all these things, what would I spend my time on?

The silly idea of trying to learn a different language every month was the result of those two weeks. It was also during those two weeks that I found out about Polyglot Cafe, which has over the past year become an increasingly significant part of my life. I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made and everything I’ve learned through the Cafe, and through the twelve languages project.

How did the project actually go? What did I do?

  • I learned basic German,
  • I learned about language acquisition theory,
  • I got a little better at French,
  • I learned basic (abysmal) Korean,
  • I tried to learn Persian (and failed),
  • I tried learning Indonesian in a day (and failed of course),
  • I tried out lots of language learning resources like Anki, DuoLingo, Mango Languages, Assimil, LanguagePod101, Glossika, Pimsleur, and Italki,
  • I learned basic Taiwanese Hokkien,
  • I started learning Thai with a “speak from day one” approach,
  • I got a little better at Japanese, and
  • I spent an unfathomable number of hours speculating almost aimlessly — here and elsewhere — about language learning.

No, I didn’t actually try learning twelve whole languages. But my language learning “career” is miles beyond where it was a year ago, when I could only make vague guesses about why my Chinese had gotten pretty good, and had no clue about why my Japanese was stalling out.

Language learning is one of those things where the phrase “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” is really apt. I’m not out of the woods yet. Still, I’ve narrowed down the search space, I’ve canceled a lot of things out, and I think I know what it feels like to be making progress.

These last two weeks of July, I’m taking some time off (reading this journal, I’m afraid it’s all too easy to get the impression that taking time off is all I ever do) to symbolically wrap up this year of language learning, and think about what I want to do in the year to come. I’ll keep playing with languages as much as that’s become a natural part of my life, but I’ll stop anything that’s become a regular habit, especially flashcards. I’ll also stop making journal entries or blog posts. This is the only one.

Thai in July

No new language

I’ve been fretting about this non-problem for many days now, and I’ve finally decided not to start a new language in July.

Having started Thai lessons on Skype only a week or so ago, I’m just beginning to get into the Thai language. I have a four-day trip to Thailand coming up in a week. At this point, the last thing I want to do is divert to starting a new project the time I could be spending preparing for the trip.

I would like to spend more time getting trying new things and finding more material for my German and Taiwanese Hokkien, and to a lesser extent Japanese. I feel like these languages could start to take off soon if I actually devote enough time to them.

As I mentioned last time, I didn’t really give Glossika a good try last month with Portuguese (or I didn’t give Portuguese a good try with Glossika?). It may be fun to continue, and maybe try the more intensive version of Glossika, combined with some conversation practice at a Portuguese group in Taipei. Speaking of which, according to a polyglot I talked to at the language cafe yesterday who speaks Portuguese, Glossika was never meant to be a standalone method. It’s supposed to supplement other language learning methods. It all makes a little more sense to me now.

For all these reasons I’ve managed to convince myself that not starting a new language this month is still in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of the challenge I set for myself when I started writing this blog. Sure, it’s not as cool as 12 languages in 12 months. But those other languages will still be there, at least until 2100.

Spring break

A couple of my friends here in Taipei are highly talented polyglots, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to pick their brains (gently, without them noticing) over the weeks and months. I think this has given me lots of inspiration and helped me improve my language practice quite a bit.

It would be great if everybody with such an interest had access to people like my polyglot friends. With this in mind, my friends and I are putting on an event at the end of the month where they’ll talk about their language learning methods, philosophies, and also share some cool improv games and other ways of getting more fluent. (This whole thing actually started as our mutual friend D’s idea). Hopefully other attendees will be as inspired as I’ve been by my friends’ passion and accumulated wisdom.

When we started preparing for this event back in January, I held on to the naive hope that I could keep up my own language practice — and keep adding a new language every month — even while doing all the planning, promotion, and practicing required for this event. Now, less than a month before the planned date of the event, I’m ready to concede that this hope was unrealistic.

This has been hard for me to admit to myself. A big part of me wants to drop everything so I can dive back into another language and actually do it justice. But I realize now that there’s really no need to agonize over this conflict — and anyway, with the date getting closer I can’t afford to agonize. The event is a one-time thing (unless I want it to be a recurring thing), after all, and skipping a month of my own language project is, on the whole, inconsequential. When the event is over I can pick it up where I left off.

And if by some chance you’re in Taipei, you can find more info about the event on the 多國語言課程王 Facebook page (once we post it).


I admit it. I didn’t learn much Persian this month.

I could make all sorts of excuses or *ahem* reasons. I only started a full week into February, already a short month. I got sick *twice* this month, and traveled twice, which made my effective learning days very few indeed.

But I reject the premise of these rationalizations. They’re based on the assumption that I didn’t reach some sort of goal, ostensibly learning a certain amount of Persian or spending a certain amount of time learning Persian.

True, several months ago I did say my revised goal for the year would be to spend each month setting up a new language practice (and later expressed doubts about this goal). But it has become more and more clear to me that this goal might still be too ambitious. At least, if I want to preserve my sanity through the end of the year.

I could just throw up my hands at the whole “one language a month” idea and focus on one, two, or three languages for a while. But I’m not ready to give up yet.

Who says a month with a new language has to be stressful, or has to result in some kind of “practice” being set up? What if a month were just a chance to explore a new language, learn enough to get a feel for it, find some cool resources, and remember to come back later if I ever feel inspired? Is that a waste of time?

Of course not. Again, as with most things, the difference between doing nothing and doing a tiny bit is vastly greater than the difference between doing a tiny bit and doing a lot.

I realize I’ve become a broken record on this topic.

In the last post I talked about the idea of reducing decision fatigue by putting all my language learning links in an easily accessible place. Today I downloaded a Chrome extension imaginatively titled Home – New Tab Page. I deleted all the other stuff on there by default and just added links to my top seven German, Korean, and Persian learning resources (mostly podcasts, and a couple fake links — reminders to myself about audio that’s in my iTunes library).

I suspect this app isn’t the best fit for what I’m doing, but it seems good enough to start with. I’ll report back about how well it’s working in a future post.

Decision fatigue & another crazy language learner

Decision fatigue

Yesterday when I was finding more resources for Persian, I also spent some time reviewing and cleaning up my list of resources for other languages. I proceeded to do more German and Korean shadowing than I’ve done in a while, try out Mango Languages (on my todo list for a long time), and even watched an Iranian movie. I haven’t done this much in one evening since last summer when I was first getting into German and restarting my French.

Could it be that one obstacle to my keeping up with a regular practice is just having to remember what to do, and all I need to stay more productive is an occasional reminder about what to do? It’s true that when I most often waste time is when I feel too tired to think about starting a new project, and doing anything that’s not right in front of my feels like hard work. Too often I look at my phone, see I’ve already done all my Anki reps, note that I’ve forgotten to transfer any new podcasts to my phone, and then give up on language learning. It’s a sad, sad scene.

Aside from the obvious of remembering to transfer more podcasts, is there anything I can do to make it easier to keep going, even when I’m tired? I’ve been meaning to spend more time watching YouTube videos in the languages I’m learning, but usually this involves trawling through stale note files on my computer where I’ve pasted links and sifting through bookmarks tabs. What if I had one place where I always went for links to videos, convenient enough that opening it became almost a reflex, the way typing “f-a-[return]” in Chrome has become? For that matter, it could be a repository for all my videos, lessons, and podcasts — anything that’s on the web and doesn’t require a lot of effort to interact with.

Where should I put it, though? The best place I can think of is just the bookmarks tab in Chrome. I’ll keep thinking.

One year? Why not EIGHT years?

Yesterday I found an amazing blog by a New Yorker named Ellen Jovin, who has been doing this language thing for the past eight years and studied 21 different languages. She started out spending two months on each language, but seems to be staying with each one a little longer more recently. She studied Persian from May to November 2014.

One thing I like about Jovin’s blog is the personal diary-like format. Each short entry honestly conveys the joys and struggles she encounters along the way. Jovin makes it clear how closely connected her language journey is to her life and identity as a New Yorker, which makes it all the more meaningful.

Reading the first month of the first language — Russian — was like encountering myself back in August having just started German. Well, as much as it could be like that, given that Jovin is another individual with a different personality, probably different motivations, and her own approach to learning. Anyway, I can’t wait to read on and see how things progress for Jovin over the next eight (8!) years.