TIL that I’ve been living like a coward

I think too much. But I don’t know how it can be helped. I want to stop thinking sometimes. Just shut off my brain and just be in the moment. Really.

After all these years, I think I’ve just been living like a coward. I’ve always loved languages. That was always my thing. But I never envisioned that I could live a life doing languages. I would often think that my ideal kind of life would be if someone would pay me to just learn languages. But I don’t think I ever even tried to live out my dream life.

When you’re young, you can try different things and fail, but so what? You just get back up again. I remember Luca Lampariello saying that he was split between choosing a career in engineering and one in languages. After some deliberation, he ended up choosing languages. And look at what he does. I mean I don’t know how he feels about his life or if he wishes things were different, but I guess in my eyes, he’s living doing what he loves doing.

Right now, I’m working on learning NLP and data science, but in my free time, I just keep thinking about languages. Shouldn’t that mean something? Why don’t I just strike out on my own and try earning a living just from languages? All I do is dream about it, follow Instagram channels, blogs, YouTubers. Until when? Am I just going to let it ride til I’m old with more responsibilities than now??

Truth be told, I’m scared. I’m a coward. I’m scared to take on so much responsibility on my own to do something so….uncertain. How would I pay my bills? How would I save money? Won’t I make a fool of myself?

On top of that, I think there’s something in me that thinks that that kind of life or career is not a real career. I think I keep wanting to find something of a proper career, whatever that is supposed to be.

Or there’s other excuses like…I’m too old or it’s time to move onto other more important things. But seeing as how I am still into languages even after all these years, isn’t that something? At any rate, I should be realistic. Dreams don’t pay the bills. At least undeveloped ones don’t.


Add1Challenge #A1C17: Learning German in 90 Days

Add1Challenge. Have you heard of that?

Snooping around YouTube, I came across some Add1Challenge videos and wondered what that was all about.

I watched videos of people from all over the world giving their shot at how much of a language they had learned over the course of 30, 60, and finally, 90 days.

This year, I made plans to (finally) attend the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki. Since the conference is only two days, and I’m going to be flying in all the way from Seoul, I figured I’d do some traveling in Europe after the conference.

I have some friends in Germany, so I decided to visit Germany after the conference. It will be my first time visiting Germany, so I figured that I should try to improve my German at least to a decent conversational level before going.

I learned bits and pieces of German when I was in high school from hanging out with a few German exchange students. I was intrigued by the fact that well, English is technically a Germanic language – albeit with many of the Germanic features gone. And I was also interested in the German-speaking cultural and intellectual heritage. I asked my German friends how to say this and that, and just picked up the bare rudiments of the language.

It was only when I was in university that I took a more focused stab at this language. At the time, I was just getting into LingQ, discovering Steve Kaufmann’s videos on YouTube and being amazed at his story and how he went about learning languages. His support of Krashen’s ideas about language learning also served as a mental bridge linking my own thoughts about language learning and the stuff I was learning in my linguistics classes.

At any rate, I began listening to a lot of German content on LingQ, creating LingQs, making flashcards and the like. German was my first case language, and as one can imagine, I had quite a bit of difficulty trying to learn all the forms.

I did that for several months, but I guess I lost interest or it was too hard. I remember I checked out the first Harry Potter book in German from the local library and tried reading it, to great difficulty. Given that I knew very few words, going through a single page of the book was a time-consuming, laborious task. Thereafter, I got interested in Chinese Mandarin, and took some classes as well. German was always still there in my language world, but other things got in the way, and I just didn’t give enough attention to it.

But now that I had plans to visit Germany, I figured I would take the plunge and try out this challenge. Learn everyday (or almost every day) for 90 days and speak for 15 minutes with a native speaker? And put it up on YouTube? For all the world to see? I can do that. Or so I thought when I signed up 🙂

Well, it is now Day 38 of the challenge as we speak, and let’s see what’s happened. I started out by getting into my usual language learning resources: LingQ. I upgraded my account to a paying one, so I could create more LingQs, and also used Slow German – which is an amazing resource – to listen to interesting podcasts about diverse topics. I highly recommend Slow German for all German learners out there. I really appreciate the person who runs that site..speaking of which, I should drop her a line.

I also got back into Duolingo. I think I tinkered with it a few years ago when I heard about it. I just wanted to check it out and see if it was worth all the chatter. My use of Duolingo dropped off after some time though – you gotta admit, it does get a little repetitive. But doing this challenge in German, I was looking for resources to learn German, so I got back into it. I was dutifully doing it everyday but as of late, I’ve been missing those push alarms telling me to get back into it. I think the first little while it was fun, but it’s becoming more and more of a chore to do Duolingo as well.

Oh and there’s also Deutsche Welle, another awesome resource! They have an Android app called “DeutschLernen” which is available for free download on the Google Play Store (I’m not so sure if it’s also available – free or otherwise – on the App Store). Another great resource for learning German!

Now in terms of progress, I recently began looking for some speaking partners on iTalki. As may be obvious, you can’t expect to learn a language and speak it for 15 minutes with a native speaker in 90 days if all you do is listen and read 😉

I sent out a bunch of messages to a bunch of German speakers, but so far I’ve only gotten a few responses. I haven’t yet spoken to any of them yet, but I know I’m going to do it very soon. It’s Day 38 and I still haven’t found myself a partner to practice with!

Time is really flying by these days, and soon enough, it’ll be October and time to go to Greece to attend the Polyglot Conference! I do need to get back into the routine and work at my German more so I’ll be ready to speak to the locals once I go to Germany.

As we get closer to that 90 day mark, I hope to put up some more updates on my progress. First, I need to find an actual partner to practice speaking with. Viel spaß! 😀

10 Takeaways from Vladmir Skultety on learning Mandarin

The Slovak PolyglotFor those of you who don’t know yet, Vladimir Skultety is an accomplished polyglot who speaks more than 19 languages!!

Check out his video below.

That was absolutely mind-blowing.

To learn more about him and his language learning journey, I came across David Mansaray’s interview with him for the Polyglot Project.

The interview focuses largely on how he learned his Mandarin Chinese (it seems he is a Slovak – Chinese interpreter as well), and given that I’ve been focusing on Mandarin as of late, I wanted to share 10 key takeaways from this interview.

So here they are! My comments are in green.

1) Language learning is mimicry.
–> Language learning as mimicry…hmm. I don’t think I’ve consciously tried to mimic or imitate speakers of the target language, but Vlad recommends imitating native speakers as one strategy to sound more native-like. One thing I liked was that he recommended finding someone who is similar to you as a person. In other words, find somebody who is as close to yourself as possible, but who is a native speaker of the target language. That way, you would just need to emulate the way that person speaks, that person’s mannerisms, down to what the person says and how that person says it, and voilà! You have your alter ego in the target language.

2) What remains at last is what lasts
–> Don’t write things down. Instead, at the end of the day, write down what you remember from memory. This was Vlad’s advice. I’m willing to try this one because I feel that the words and expressions that get repeated enough, are the ones that will remain in our heads. Case in point: in spite of writing out as much of the words and expressions I hear while practicing conversation and entering them into Anki, they just wouldn’t stick. Rather than focusing on writing things out, which, for a language like Mandarin, is often needlessly time-consuming and exacting, perhaps it’s better to let the language enter your brain FIRST (more on this from Vlad below).

3) There’s no better place to learn Mandarin than China or Taiwan
–> This is a no-brainer. While it may be true that some are able to achieve very high levels of proficiency while living outside the country in which it is mainly spoken, for the most of us, it’s a pretty lofty goal while we’re sitting in our home countries. If you count the number of times you’ll simply be exposed to the language from all directions, there’s no better way to learn the target language than living in a Mandarin-immersive environment.

4) Using the right word in right contexts
–> Vlad recounted a time when he said something with the right pronunciation and with the right grammatical structure, and yet people gave him a blank stare. He later learned that people normally wouldn’t use the particular word that he used in the same context that he used it in. In other words, despite what the thesaurus and dictionaries might tell you, some words may appear to mean similar things, but not in the same context! As a personal example, I used the word 满意 in my Chinese conversation practice to mean “satisfied”. But my instructor pointed out that that word is used more in written contexts. 

5) Less is more
Mandarin words (or rather, syllables) are very short, which enables Mandarin speakers to say a lot more within a given duration than English. That’s why –  so the argument goes – you need to hone in on those sounds and listen hard because a mouthful in English isn’t quite the same as a mouthful in Mandarin. Mandarin is a syllable-timed language, as opposed to English, which is stress-timed. All this means that while English syllables can have varying durations, for Mandarin, syllable duration is the same. For more info, check this and this

6) Speak first, read and write later
–> I wish somebody would’ve given me this tip earlier on in my Mandarin learning process. Not that I dislike characters. Far from it. I love unraveling the hidden, underlying meanings in the characters. It feels like you’re venturing into an old mystic world of meaning, and it’s a decidedly different interpretation of the world; that is, different from the Western view of things. I also like to cross-reference Chinese characters with Korean, looking up simplified characters, then looking them up in the traditional version to see what they look like. At any rate, Vlad recommends that learners learn to speak first, then read and write later because learning to read and write Chinese characters is a painstaking process and, in his words, an “unnecessary burden” in the initial stages. I agree with this approach. If your goal is to learn to speak as fast as you can, leave the characters til later on. In fact, I even think this learning approach could be applied to other languages that do not have a Latin-based alphabet. I think I might try consciously not learning to read and write in the initial stages the next time I learn a language with a non-Latin alphabet.

7) Doing dictation drills for listening practice
–> Vlad suggested a useful (albeit probably boring IMO) listening exercise whereby you would listen to a piece of audio (e.g. news segment) and write down words you don’t know on a Word file. Look up the words, then listen again. Keep repeating this process until you know most or all of the words. I think this exercise is beneficial because it helps you to systematically learn the finite number of words that you need to know to understand contextually. Steve Kaufmann’s LingQ helps to make this process less torturous. 

8) Getting away with bad pronunciation
–> The argument goes that one can “get away with bad pronunciation” in European languages. But, this is not so in Mandarin. Vlad gave the two sentences below as an example.

我要睡觉 (wo3 yao4 shui4 jiao4) – I want to sleep.
我要水饺 (wo3 yao4 shui3 jiao3) – I want water dumplings.

The only difference in the above two sentences is in the two tones at the end of the sentence!

While European languages probably have their fair share of embarrassing pronunciation mistakes words similar enough to cause confusion, nowhere nearly as close as Mandarin, I’m afraid.

9) Importance of reading
–> David Mansaray raised a question. For European languages, you can rely on the text to deduce the way the words are pronounced. Is it not the case for Mandarin? Well, Vlad says yes, the characters do have sound “elements”, which don’t serve as a perfect representation, but a hint. The simplest pictographics in Chinese are almost clear enough to make out their original, intended meaning, but life is far more complex than those elements that can be drawn or figuratively represented in the form of pictorials. For those more complex elements, ideographs brought together simpler constituents to represent novel, more complex concepts. More info can be found here.

Interestingly enough, Vlad mentions that over time, you become so comfortable with the target language that you end up not reading every single word. Think about it. When you read a text in English (or your native language), do you really read every single word? No, the context provides cues and clues so that you can fly across some words without having to read every single one to understand. In the same way, eventually you become so familiar with Chinese that you can effectively predict what word should follow after a certain character. As for me personally, I definitely am not at this level yet, but I look forward to the day when this becomes a reality.

10) Hang out at a local Chinatown
–> This was a new idea I don’t know why I haven’t been putting into practice. There are plenty of Chinese people all over the world, and Chinatowns can be found virtually anywhere. This is one plan I can act upon right away. If you can’t up and move to somewhere like China or Taiwan to live in a Chinese-immersion environment, the second best choice is to hang out at your local Chinatown and befriend Chinese people. Point taken.

That’s it folks. Those are the 10 takeaways. Hope they’re helpful for those of you who are learning Mandarin 🙂