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.)

Learn Thai Podcast – A review, and how I would use the course

I was recently contacted and offered an account at in exchange for writing a review of the course, as well as talking a bit about how I would personally approach using it. While it would be ideal if I completed the entire course before reviewing it, that would take a very long time , so I’m going to review it now, based on the impressions I have after perusing and listening to a variety of different lessons.

Course Contents

The Learn-Thai-Podcast site has a format very similar to lots of other language learning podcast sites. Each lesson is available as:

  • a video, with text to go along with the audio;
  • an MP3 file;
  • and a PDF transcript.

There is one exception to this, however: the reading and writing lessons, due to their obvious visual nature, are not available as an MP3.

When you log in to your account, you’re presented with this menu:

Learn Thai Podcast screenshot
Learn Thai Podcast course screenshot (click to enlarge)

The full list of each course “segment”:

Module 1

  1. Phrase Lessons
  2. Beginner Lesson Cycles
  3. 300 Most Common Thai Words

Module 2

  1. Grammar & Review Lessons
  2. Beginner Vocabulary Lessons

Module 3

  1. Intermediate Lesson Cycles

Module 4

  1. Advanced Lesson Cycles
  2. Advanced News Lesson Cycles

Module 5

  1. Reading & Writing Lessons
  2. Alphabet Mnemonics

There are currently 300 vocabulary lessons, each consisting of around 10 words each. Each lesson is based on a theme: health, verbs, birds, and so on. There is also a Vocabulary Trainer, which is basically their implementation of flashcards. Every lesson in the lesson list has a “Open in Vocabulary Trainer”; this will open up the corresponding words from the lesson in the trainer, which I found to be pretty handy. The trainer includes the phrase / word in Thai script; transliteration; English translation; and the phrase / word spoken.

Thoughts on the course

The course has a lot going for it. The biggest thing to note is that there is a lot of good material here. The lessons remind me a great deal of Michel Thomas and Pimsleur, just that there’s a whole lot more here. Explanations are given in English, and sentences are broken down, bit by bit.

One thing in the transcripts that really popped out at me, and which I love, is that literal translations are provided for everything. While they’re certainly not what you want when you’re reading a foreign language book, they’re extremely handy for unraveling a language you’re learning. In a lot of newer courses, literal translations are nowhere to be seen. Here’s an example:

An example page from a Learn Thai Podcast transcript
An example page from a Learn Thai Podcast transcript

Obviously, if you only had the literal translation, it wouldn’t be of great help, but seeing the “normalized” translation along with the literal? Golden. It lets you see how thoughts are pushed together in Thai, as opposed to how it would be rendered “prettily” in English.

A minor point, but worth mentioning: having listened to a number of lessons, I can honestly say both of the speakers’ voices are pleasant and not a chore to listen to. On occasion, a course will be good, but the speakers are, for whatever reason, rather annoying (MIchel Thomas’ weird mouth sounds drove me crazy). I didn’t have that problem here. Something to consider, if you’re going to listen to hours and hours of people talking. 😉

One minor point…

There is one major thing I wish were different about the course: the organization / labeling of the lessons. There are a lot of lessons, around 800 at the time of my writing this review, and they’re not named in any way to really help you find what you’re looking for. Most follow a pattern, such as: “Beginner Grammar Lesson 1; Beginner Review Lesson 1; Beginner Grammar Lesson 2; Beginner Review Lesson 2”; and so on. No textual explanation is given for each lesson. Once you actually start the video (or MP3), a title is given, such as “Grammar and Word Usage Lesson 5: Question Words,” which is a lot more helpful. I’d really like to see these lesson titles incorporated into the lesson pages, so it would be easier to track down what you’re looking for. Perhaps in a later update? 🙂

Would I recommend it?

I would. While I’ve often been hesitant in regards to “paid podcast language courses,” there is a lot of quality material here – text, audio, video. The current price is $197. If my stacks upon stacks of books, CDs, and other language learning materials testify to anything, it’s that you could easily rack up $200 in other courses with less material (especially audio).

Perhaps most importantly for anyone interested, they offer a sizable chunk of their course for free. You can check out 118 of the lessons for free; just open up the course in iTunes. Here’s a link. If you like what you see in those, then you’ll certainly like the full course, as it’s all structured the same way. Of course, with the podcast lessons, you won’t have access to the transcripts or Vocabulary Trainer section, but there’s more than enough in the free stuff to form an opinion.

How I’d use the course

They actually provide a proposed 1 year plan, which can be found here. I would sort of follow that, with a quite a few tweaks of my own. In talking about the lessons, they use what they call “cycles” to group lessons together. For example, in the Beginner Lessons Cycle area, you’ll see this:

1. Basic Conversation Lesson 1
2. Basic Vocabulary Lesson 1
3. Basic Grammar Lesson 1
4. Basic Review Lesson 1

Then Basic Conversation Lesson 2, Basic Vocabulary Lesson 2, and so on. Essentially, then, each of these sets of 4 go together. The conversation part gives you the overall picture of the lesson; the vocabulary lesson goes into the individual words; grammar covers, obviously, the grammar; and the review, unsurprisingly, reviews the whole thing. Later modules have a different number of parts to a “cycle,” but the idea is the same.

When tackling a cycle, then, I’d recommend mastering it as well as you think you can in a reasonable amount of time, before moving on to the next. Obviously, if you reach a point where you’re truly banging your head against a wall with a lesson and feeling like you’re making no progress, forge ahead and return to it later (the course lets you mark lessons as not finished, “okay,” and completed, to help you keep track of such things). But considering how very different Thai is from English, I’d want to make sure your foundations are solid before you sprint ahead to stuff that’s simply too tough for you.

With that in mind, getting started, I would work through: Phrase Lessons, Beginner Lesson Cycles, and then the 300 Most Common Thai Words. I would be tempted to then move on to Module 2, but I think I would instead skip ahead to Module 5, and work through the Reading & Writing Lessons, along with the Alphabet Mnemonics. No small task, to be sure, but certainly worthwhile. It is noted in their study guide that you can go through the course sequentially, but I would much rather learn the writing system sooner rather than (much) later. I generally hate transliteration, and find it to be a major crutch. People would find it peculiar for a Greek person to learn English using Greek alphabet transliterations, and I find it similarly peculiar to strafe around one of the most central parts of a foreign language. Furthermore, as soon as you have a grasp of the writing system, the world is your oyster (at least the Thai part of it, anyway). Any native language materials can be used for further study. If you rely on transliteration, that just isn’t the case.

Once I felt I had a firm grasp on the alphabet and writing system, I would probably loop back and review those beginner lessons again, just to be able to see the various spellings of words I’ve (hopefully!) learned at this point. Then I’d feel a little more comfortable moving on to the more advanced lessons.

As I worked through the course, the standard “rules” (mine, anyway) would all apply:

  • Review each lesson many times. Nothing will destroy progress in a language quicker than a weak foundation. If you can’t crawl, you definitely can’t run.
  • Listen a lot. One of my most oft repeated language learning mistakes is relying too much on the written word. Listen to the lessons until you’re sick of them, then… go listen to something else in Thai.
  • Speak, from the start. When you’re listening to the lessons, pause after the Thai is spoken, and say it yourself. Yeah, you’re going to get it wrong at first (really wrong, most likely), but practice makes perfect.
  • Once you’ve learned the alphabet, copy out Thai words and, later, whole sentences, from the lessons. I would recommend the sciptorium method. It will get you to slow down and truly focus on the writing (and language itself), as opposed to writing it out as fast as you’re able.
  • Consider the word list method as a supplement to the vocabulary trainer for rapidly learning vocabulary. The vocabulary lesson transcripts will give you the raw material you need for this exercise. Print your transcripts and get to it. In this particular age of language learning, it may seem overly “traditional,” but it works.
  • If you’re not actually in Thailand, make some Thai friends / penpals / chat buddies online. can help you do that (for Thai and just about any other language you might be learning). You’ll most likely feel stupid at first, stumbling along as you try to say or write anything, but don’t worry about it. See above regarding practice makes perfect. The easiest way to force yourself to use Thai is to have friends who speak Thai, and know you are learning. A real world need is a wonderful motivator.
  • Expect it to be tough. It’s often stated that “no language is any harder than any other language.” I think this is nonsense. As an English speaker, if you compare Spanish and Thai, I imagine you’ll find yourself thinking that, wow, Spanish looks a lot easier than Thai. Why? Because Spanish shares a lot more in common with English than Thai does. Subjectively, at least, Spanish is a lot easier. So, cut yourself some slack and expect the road to be a long one. Progress is progress, even if it is slower than you’d like. Stick with it.

I hope this proves useful, and I wish you the best of luck in your Thai learning adventure! Cheers. 🙂


Full disclosure: This is a paid, sponsored review. Furthermore, I received a free account at for 1 year so as to be able to evaluate the course materials.