YouTube Polyglot Decline?

There’s an interesting forum post over at HTLAL, asking, “Were YouTube polyglots a fad?” The poster goes on to say:

I wonder now if the YouTube polyglot was a bit of a fad. That in truth there’s only so many different and totally distinct approaches to self-study and once you’ve understood the general process, there’s no urgent need for you to watch masses of videos of people speaking many languages! What do you think?

I would agree that it was a sort of fad, and the explanation given above is why. People only need to be told the basic steps of learning a language so many times, whether it’s in video format or otherwise. Granted, though, that’s not to say I don’t still occasionally watch a polyglot on YouTube, but when I do, it’s mostly because I like the person speaking, not because I think I’m going to hear anything groundbreaking. Steve Kaufmann comes to mind here; I enjoy his enthusiasm, even if I don’t agree entirely with his methodologies.

It’s neat to be able to see fellow language learners rattle off things in a bunch of languages, but ultimately, it’s not very helpful for learners – listening to a native material would be a better use of your time.

Advice for the Assimil Active Wave

I’ve been working through Assimil’s Russian course, and am now in the midst of both finishing the passive wave and digging into the active wave. Shortly after I started the active wave, I recalled a great post from the HTLAL forums about the active wave, and how to approach it. The post is by user lingoleng, and all credit goes to him; also bear in mind that lingoleng’s native language is German. Ah, if only my German were as good as his English! Here’s his post (original is right here):

I can only give some hints, but what you do should really depend on your own needs, not on anything else.

Second wave wants two things, both are very easy to understand:
– repetition
After two or three months, however long it took you to get to lesson 50, you have forgotten many words and phrases of the previous lessons. So you have to refresh them by going through the old lessons again. Very simple, no problem here.
– activation
After the reading and listening of the first wave you start producing sentences, speaking and probably writing. Again, very simple concept.

How to do it?

Everything is allowed and possible, it depends entirely on you and your needs.
Look at the English text of the first lesson. Try to translate it without looking at the German text. A piece of cake? Not as easy as you expected? Oh man, I don’t remember anything at all? Well, whatever, no problem at all.

Of course you use the written text in the book as a tool for correcting your translation, what else? You can use the audio just as well, but this is not as easy, and not necessary. (Just listen to the audio on another day, never a bad idea.) But you have to check if your sentences are right. That’s the most important thing, of course.

What if you’ve made a mistake, or two, or it is all nonsense? No problem again, that’s why you do the repetition, look what is wrong, say the correct version several times, and go on. Next sentence a complete failure? Well, who cares, you are learning the language, that’s why you do it.

If you write your first try and make a mistake, or several, no problem, but in this case you write the correct version twice, or three times, now you’ll know it. For a while 🙂

Assimil says you can listen to the audio before starting your active work, so you can do this. Or you try to get it right without a previous short time reactivation, but as repetition is one of your primary goals it is not so important whether you get it right without listening before, these are all minor details.

What is important to remember, what not? hard to say, it is a course for beginners, so you want to know the very most of it, of course. But there may be rare words, occasionally, something like “Kronleuchter” or “Chrysantheme”, words which were needed for the dialog only and won’t be too important for your further life. I tend to ignore such words if they are difficult to remember, others want it all, probably not really a matter of importance.
A tiny example: “Are you hungry?” and the German translation is “Haben Sie Hunger?”.
If your first try is “Bist du hungrig”, you’ve found an acceptable answer by accident, (or know this as an alternative from somewhere else,) but if you made a word by word translation, you missed several points. You say “to be”, we say “haben”. hungry is an adjective, Hunger is a noun. You should notice that there is quite a difference, German does it in a different way, it is an important phrase, often used, so you want to know it. The formal or informal problem is not really a problem, it becomes easy, and it depends, so if you thought that the persons in question “duzen einander” you have not made a mistake, no problem. But you want to know both forms anyway: “Hast du Hunger?” and “Haben Sie Hunger?”. Did you get the question right? Haben Sie? Inversion of the word order, you may want to think about it for a second while looking at this little example. Do you know haben, ich habe, du hast, er hat, wir …, if you do, it is great, if you’ve got it wrong, you may want to think about it, for a minute.

You see, what I propose is a little bit different than only remembering the phrase by heart. Learning by heart is not a bad thing, really not, but only if you understand what you remember. So if you have the automatic reaction: Oh, I remember very well what was written on this page, it was the strange and very queer expression “Haben Sie Hunger”, no idea why and how, but this is it,- you get a point in a multiple choice test but not as many language points, I guess.

To make a long post short: You want repetition, and you’ get it. You want active skills, and you have to work for them. And the exact procedure is not a law, do what you want to do, or have to do. A third wave, or even a forth one, may be what makes the difference between a successful language learner and a less successful one, but I would never confess that I ever needed a fifth wave, not me.

I really love the advice. As a learner who typically beats himself up over every mistake (seriously, I’ve got scars), it’s a nice reminder that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. Mess up? No big deal. Do it again. Mess up again? Well, keep doing it. Eventually you’ll get better at not messing up.

It’s also easy to miss the forest for the trees. If you get too obsessed with reproducing the target language sentences, you miss the whole point – activating the language for yourself. The overall goal of the course is to let you create your own sentences in the language, not parrot back their sentences with 100% accuracy.

It’s really quite simple, but I, at least, still need reminders.

Back on the horse

Over these past few weeks, I’ve busied myself with Assimil Russian and a fair bit of German reading and writing. With Russian, I’ve been doing a mix of the standard Assimil plan with some of Luca’s ideas mixed in (specifically, writing out translations, going from Russian to English and then back the other way). It’s going well; after many false starts (and stops) with the book over the past few years, I’m now about halfway through it. Provided I keep up the pace, I should be “finished” with it in a little over three months.

There were a few interesting German articles that I read, but one in particular amused me: Studentent brauchen mehr Geld zum Leben. It caught my interest because it seems fairly different from how things work in the states. We receive financial aid, but for me, at least, it was expected that the bulk of that financial aid was going towards your actual schooling costs, not living expenses; if your parents couldn’t cover your living expenses, you were going to be working. The article discusses the potential raising of monthly financial aid up to 570 – 1100 Euros per month. At the higher end of that rate, I’d consider quitting my full time job and go back to school. 😉

Also recently, I watched Anthony Lauder’s talk from the Polyglot Conference from last year. It’s an hour, but it’s worth your time. He makes some excellent points, and is hilarious, to boot. Here you go:

Lastly, I’m pretty excited about something for next year: I’ll be getting married this June, and my fiancée has agreed for our honeymoon to be in… Germany! We’ve got a lot of planning to do, but provided that all goes well, it should be a blast. I’ve been chipping away at die deutsche Sprache for years, and this will be my first time setting foot in the country. “Excited” doesn’t even come close to describing how I feel about this. 🙂

Babel No More

I recently finished reading Michael Erard’s Babel No More, and found it to be an enjoyable read. Erard ended up not having any definitive answer to his question (what makes the best language learners?), but it still covered all sorts of things that should tickle most language learners. It was also cool to be reading about people that I’ve interacted with on the web, like Ardaschir or Iversen from the HTLAL forums.

One thing he talks about at length is fluency, how it’s defined, and, frankly, whether it’s important or not (hint: in most real life scenarios, it’s not, at least not in the way we often think of fluency). Something he discusses that really struck me was how different groups of people think about knowing a language, and what that means. Specifically, in America, many people seem to equate “I speak Spanish” with “I speak Spanish fluently, just like a native speaker.” Obviously this is quite wrong, but it’s still a pretty common idea. It’s led many people to have a very all-or-nothing idea about languages; you either know German – the whole damn thing, all of it – or you don’t know anything.

Other places around the world have a much more practical idea of language, seeing it as a tool that you use for whatever you need it for, when you need it. Nothing more, nothing less. Erard called this the “something-and-something” model, the basic idea being that even having tiny bits of language can help you in the right circumstances. In some places, you may need to know a bit of Hindi for doing business, and that’s all you need – you don’t need to also be reading Hindu literature. Similarly, you might need to know a bit of another language where you work, and not need it anywhere else. That’s okay, too. It’s not really about collecting a bunch of languages where you can fake being a native, it’s just about being functional.

Granted, I’ve long known that language learning isn’t an all-or-nothing affair; there’s not a finish line, one which, after you cross it, you put away your books and your media and all of your other goodies and say, “Well then, I’m glad I’ve now learned all of that!” Of course it doesn’t work that way (if it did, I wouldn’t write posts like my last one!). But the bits in Erard’s book that discuss functioning in a language do give me pause and make me look at what I can do with the languages I’ve puttered about with, instead of always obsessing about the things I can’t do. Even if I said I was done with learning German, I could still do a hell of a lot with it, and that in and of itself is beneficial to me.

For a long time, I sort of approached my language interests with the goal of becoming as competent as a native speaker, to be able to pass as a native if I suddenly found myself in a country that spoke whatever language I was studying. As of late, the more I look at that idea, I ask myself – why? What’s the point, besides it being an interesting parlor trick? If I can do what I want to do with the languages I’m learning, that will work for me.


The Internimable Intermediate Stage

I shall admit, right away, that this isn’t a post full of tips. Rather, it’s just a lamentation from one language learner to all other language learners. Not really a plea for help, but simply a statement to let others know that they’re not alone: I’ve been stuck at an intermediate level in German for ever now, and wow, is it frustrating and depressing.

My track record with German looks fairly abyssmal. I dislike saying “I’ve been learning German for 10 years,” because first, it sounds like I’m more or less an idiot (“wow, ten years and you still aren’t 100% fluent?”) and second, it’s not entirely true. I started learning German about 10 years ago, but there’s been vast amounts of “off” time during those years. Still, it’s a long time.

Have I made progress? Sure, lots of it. Do I feel utterly stuck, though? Utterly. I long ago reached the point where regardless of what I do with the language – reading, writing, learning new words, listening, etc. – I feel like I’m making no progress whatsoever. I feel like I’m trying to build a sand castle, and every time I finish one tower, I discover that there’s a giant hole where the keep is supposed to be, and bits of sand are sliding off everywhere. It sucks, it’s frustrating, and it’s demoralizing.

I’m not giving up by any means, but I do wish I could see some sign of progress. I recognize that as you learn more, the signposts of progress are spread apart more, since you’re not rapidly learning new, basic building blocks of the language. But damn. I feel like I’m wandering in the wild and I’ve not seen a signpost in ages.

Anyway – no real advice to be had here, I’m afraid. I clearly forgot the language blogger rule of “always be positive and act like learning a language is a piece of cake.” Back to spinning my wheels.

Perfectionism and perspective in language learning

As I’ve mentioned before, I suffer greatly from being my worst critic. I have a perfectionist streak (or maybe even more than a streak…), which is of questionable use with many endeavors, but it’s downright horrible when it comes to learning foreign languages. Why? Because I’m always going to make mistakes. Always. It doesn’t matter how much I study or practice, I’m not going to be perfect. Hell, I’ve been practicing my native language for almost 29 years in some fashion or another, and I still make idiotic mistakes with it.

And that’s fine. Making mistakes is okay, unless you’re a perfectionist like me, who then proceeds to beat himself up over said mistake. It’s a nasty little spiral. I’ll study and read and listen and so on, for hours, days, weeks, and that’s great; something that’s commendable, I think. But if I blunder on a German adjective declension (I really hate those things…), well, then I’m just a complete failure and no native German will ever want to speak to me. Ever. I ignore the progresses I’ve made, the things I can do or say, and then I just feel like crap about the whole endeavor.

Except that’s just, erm, dumb. If I mess up a German adjective ending, or a Russian declension, the people I’m communicating with don’t suddenly think I’m a complete fool with whom they should never speak with again. How do I know this? Because that’s not at all how I feel when I hear a foreign English speaker make mistakes here and there. They can conjugate verbs wrong (or even not at all), mess up plurals, stumble over the right prepositions, mangle the pronunciation of tricky words… and you know what? I’m still impressed that they’ve gotten as far as they have, that they’re communicating in a language that was, at one point, completely foreign to them, and that they’re still sticking with it.

So, if you’re like me and continually lament over the things you don’t know yet, or the things you mess up on… knock it off and give yourself a pat on the back, because if you’ve stuck with a foreign language for any amount of time, you’re awesome. Keep working on your weak points, but appreciate your strong points, too.

Bonus: I had actually started on this entry before seeing this blog post, A Lovely Thought About Language Learning, but it meshes well with my message here. Go read the whole post (seriously, off with you – go on!), but boiled down, it’s this: language is the only thing worth knowing poorly. There are a lot of things that you really have to know very well before it’s worth your time. Language isn’t one of them.

(Are you still here? Link! Above! CLICK! Jetzt!)

TypeIt app for Windows

A few days ago, I was working on some Assimil Russian translations, using a computer that didn’t have a Cyrillic keyboard installed (the horror, am I right?) So, I was using the site, which lets you type in Russian, as well as a bunch of other languages / alphabets. I noticed a new (to me) link at the top, advertising the TypeIt app for Windows. I took a look, and immediately bought it. For the standard edition, it’s $12.50. It’s basically a little app that sits in your tasktray; click on it, and it lets you select from a bunch of different languages to type in. Specifically: Danish, Esperanto, French, German, IPA for English, IPA for all languages, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.

Here’s what it looks like:

While you can install individual keyboards for foreign languages in Windows (like this), this little app is a whole lot easier to set up.

One note: the $12.50 price tag is for the standard edition, which doesn’t include all of the IPA stuff. I’ve never so much as touched IPA, so I had no need of it. If you’re interested in the IPA stuff as well, the price tag hops up to $17.50; still not a bad deal.

Viel Spaß!

Language Log #1 – active Russian translating, French word lists

The refreshing of neglected languages continues. Russian, French, I’m looking at you two, and you’re lovely; and I’m sorry for ignoring you so.


When I first started with Russian years ago, I used a few different books. My first book on the language was The New Penguin Russian Course: A Complete Course for Beginners. I made decent headway with it, but eventually quit using it; nothing wrong with it at all, I just have language wanderlust to a horrible degree. This was my first primary course, though.

Later on, when my Assimil obsession set in, I picked up a copy of Russisch ohne Mühe (the older version, not Russisch ohne Mühe Heute, which, by all accounts, is pretty horrendous). I worked through all of the passive wave phase, and started on the active wave, but then… dropped that course, too. I have a serious issue with sticking to one method, eh?

Since then, my Russian has kind of been at a very wobbly beginner’s level, at least in the passive regard. Active ability, however, was and is largely nonexistent, something I’ve desperately wanted to fix. Wanting to focus on active learning, I’ve started worked through Assimil’s new Russian course (with an English base), but not with their usual methodology (do first 50 lessons passively, start active phase with lesson 1, continue with rest of book passively). Instead, I’ve been using Luca’s method (Luca’s personal language blog is here). Definitely check out the pair of articles about the method, but distilled, it’s basically: read / listen to a few lessons; in a few days, translate the lesson(s) to your native language; a bit later, translate from your native language back to your target language.

The translating from native to target language is what intrigued me, as it’s not something I’ve ever really done very much. My methods have always been more passively focused, like with Assimil – “just read and listen a lot, and you’ll get it eventually.” Which is true, I think, but forcing oneself to actively start producing the language really kickstarts things. (I also think the whole notion of early errors “fossilizing,” at which point you’ll never be able to fix them, is more or less nonsense, so I’m not worried about mistakes.)

This active translating has helped quite a bit, especially in one area that I’ve long had trouble with when it comes to Russian: vocabulary. I’d learn words, and promptly forget them. Actively translating from English to Russian has helped cement the words a bit better in my mind. It’s also helped my Russian spelling. It’s one thing to recognize Здравствуйте; it’s quite another to spell it correctly, especially when how it’s pronounced doesn’t entirely match how it’s written.

One other note about this. Some people may wonder, why did you get the new Assimil Russian couse, if you already had the excellent Russisch ohne Mühe? Good question. I did it largely because 1) I’m addicted to buying books and 😉 and 2) while working through the passive wave of Russisch ohne Mühe was doable, the active wave was a great deal more difficult. While my German is decent, I think trying to learn Russian through German was just slowing me down. Particularly in the later parts of the book, I’d sometimes hit areas where I’d have to look up a German word / grammar construction before I could even attempt to understand the Russian. Not ideal.


My French reached a more respectable level, as I actually worked through most of the active wave of New French with Ease. My refreshing of this has focused on basically one thing so far: words, words, words. I’ve been working through lots of word lists (Iversen style), to nail down lots of basic vocabulary. I’ve been using Mastering French Vocabulary, which I’d heartily recommend to any French learners.

While that’s largely been my focus, I’ve also been bringing in a few texts into Learning with Texts. It’s a bit of work to get it set up, but worth the effort. It’s basically LingQ without the subscription fee. 🙂 I’ve mostly been grabbing transcripts from One thing in a French day.

Language Link Roundup (May 14th, 2013)

Just some things I’ve came across / read recently that I found interesting. Enjoy.

  • The Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning – This site is a little treasure trove of language learning goodies. It’s home to the Grimm Grammar (German), as well as Tex’s French Grammar, both of which are pretty well known, but there are lots of other resources as well. The main COERLL page has links for Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Hindi, and others languages.
  • 8 Ways to Create Better Flashcards – A nice guide to making the most of your flashcards, and avoiding some common pitfalls. Combine with Anki for best results. 😉
  • One Thing in a French Day – A “daily life” podcast, from a woman living in France. Transcripts are available for each episode (at least the newer ones; the archive feature doesn’t seem to be working, at least for me). New episodes come out every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
  • Interlinear texts – a forgotten route to language learning – A brief look at some of the history of language learning. I’ve always found it kind of funny that translating / reading of interlinear texts is “bad” these days (according to many people), despite it being the standard method of language learning for centuries.
  • The Foreign Language Library Online – Going along nicely with the above link, the FLLO offers a variety of short articles on different topics, translated into various languages (specifically, English, French, Spanish, German, and Russian). And, there’s a section specifically for history articles, so I already quite like this site. (A tiny little piece on Sputnik right here.)