A language learner is a hunter.

In reply to my youtube video about the importance of context in language learning, I received this comment. Only someone who hunts for context, for examples of the language, for books, podcasts, CD’s, opportunities to interact with people etc. will learn the language. The person who waits for someone to teach him or her the language, will not learn very well at all.

“This is a great point for anyone learning a language. From my own experience of having learnt Hungarian and of a fairly extensive personal history of teaching Hungarians English, I can say with confidence that the most successful people were very much self directing and on a perpetual hunt for their own material to learn from. If this is not the case, then the entire process of learning is simply too passive, and dare I say it, too much like school!

Five days to fluency in Czech, progress report #3 – happening!

Today was an eventful day, in a way.

I played hockey this morning and we lost. Then I stopped for a dim sum brunch on my way back home. Once home I was able to leave my hockey equipment out in the sun to dry, since we play again tomorrow and the next day.

This was followed by an hour and a half of Czech discussion via skype with Ondrej and Jarda. Then I dowloaded my dose of Czech podcasts on to my mp3 player and drove to the office.

I drive along a windy road to the office. The whole ride is about 15 minutes. There are bus stops but not too many buses along the route. There were two girls waiting for a bus, and as I approached the bus stop they started hitch-hiking, almost pleadingly. So I stopped and picked them up.They told me that they had been waiting for an hour.

My Czech podcast was still going on my audio system. “Is that the radio?” they asked. ” No”, I answered “I am learnng Czech”. 

“We are Czech!” they announced. 

There followed a lively discussion in Czech. I must say that I held up my end, although the case endings are totally hit and miss, or random at best. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My first spontaneous conversation in Czech!

I drove them another ten minutes past my office to the main bus stop.

I should have taken a picture.

Remember that my “5 days to fluency” plan is a strategy of developing a strong passive knowledge base in the language, and then converting it into comfortable active fluency in the language during 5 days in Prague. The key to success is in the preparation. I am focused on this goal, and this helps keep me motivated in my listening, reading and LingQing. When I reach Prague I want to be able to understand comfortably. I have also been stepping up my online Czech discussions, as I am now a little more than a month away from the day I arrive in Prague.

Who is a guai lo?

The term “guai lo” is commonly used by Cantonese speakers to refer to Westerners. It literally means “ghost man” or “devil man”. It is considered, by Chinese speakers, as an inoffensive, but convenient term to use to describe people of European origin. Personally I am not fond of the term, since the basic implication is that the Chinese  are real people, and the Westerners are something different.

I am participating in the British Columbia Senior Games in ice hockey. Our team of average age 68 will be competing in the 60+ division and will probably lose, but that is another matter. I went to the registration today and there was a group of three Chinese seniors leaving the arena speaking Cantonese. I chimed in and said words to the effect of “What event are you guys in, in this old geezers tournament?” There was laughter and they told me they were in ping poing. Then they asked me if I knew what a “guai lao” was. I told them that they were “guai los”, and we all chuckled and parted.

I speak Cantonese quite fluently, at least in so far as informal banter is concerned. I can’t imagine that they would think that I do not know what a “guai lo” is. I wonder why that is the first thing that came to their minds. But  somehow I am not surprised.


The appetite grows with eating.

“l”appetit vient en mangeant.” The more we eat, the more we enjoy eating according to this saying. I certainly have that feeling now with Czech. The more I can understand, the more I can say in the language, the more fun I am having. The keener I am to spend time on my Czech.  I am even afread that this will mess up my Russian. However, I have to persevere with my Czech until my Prague visit, and then I can go back and clean up my Russian. I know from experience, that desptie initial confusion between the two Slavic languages, learning Czech will, in the long run help my Russian.

But for many learners, learning a new language does not become more appetizing the more they are exposed to the study of the language. On the contrary, many people become more and more frustrated with their lack of success. Why?

Of course a lot depends on the initial motivation of the learner. But a lot depends on their expectations and their approach to learning. If we focus on understanding, and have limited expectations of our ability to speak, at least in the initial period, things may go better. If we accept that we will forget as much as we learn, and that much in the language will remain confused and very different, and for quite a while, we put less pressure on ourselves. If we can move to interesting activities, we can maintain our initival motivation, and with the first examples of success, this motivation will grow.

So, the can appetite can grow with eating, if we take charge of our learning.


Technical problems

Sorry for the previous posts. The attached sound file from Call Recorder only seems to provide Jarda’s voice track and not mine. Posterous seems to be a very buggy blogging system and I cannot edit nor delete these posts right now. As soon as I can, I will delete these posts and add them again when I have a sound file which works. Sorry.

Five days to fluency in Czech, progress report #2.

As I announced earlier, I am going to spend 5 days in Prague in October. During this period I am going to try to speak as much Czech as possible in order to achieve a breakthrough to fluency. I have been doing a lot  of listening and reading, using LingQ, for the last year, starting at 1 hour a day, and probably closer to 2 hours a day over the last month or so. In the last few weeks,  I have stepped up my online speaking to about 4-5 hours a week.

I am hopeful that five intensive days, immersed in the language in Prague, will enable me to convert my largely passive knowledge of Czech into active fluency, or at least enable me to make a major step forward in that direction.

I attach a sound file of my most recent conversation with Jarda. I feel I have improved from my earlier conversations, but still have a very long way to go.

Remember that the five days to fluency strategy consists of the following.

1) Select a target language, a target date and a target place for the Five Days to Fluency. For me it was Czech, one year, and Prague.

2) Spend a year, or however long a period you feel is necessar, on daily listening, reading, and accumuling vocabulary. Towards the end of the period,  start speaking as part of your preparation.

3) Visit your destination and immerse yourself and watch your passive knowledge become active. Five days is a minimum, in fact all the time that I have. A week or a month would be better.  (The alternative to going to the country where the language is spoken, would be to dramatically step up your involvement with the language at home for a period of 5 days or so, spending most of these days reading, listening, speaking and writing in the target language).


Russian or Spanish. Difficulties in understanding the language.

A learner at LingQ was having difficulty understanding Russian even when he was able to understand individual words. He just found the overall meaning often difficult to grasp. He decided to “park” his Russian and move on to Spanish instead, which he found easier. He wondered if it was his lack of grammar knowledge in Russian that held him back.

My comments were as follows.

My answer will be similar but a little different to Ernie’s. But then different people choose different approaches to language learning.

The simple answer is that in my experience, it is only with enough exposure that the patterns of any new language, the way words come together to create meaning, start to become familiar. This means that you go through a considerable period when the language is unclear. This is true at first with beginner material, and then once again when you move into authentic material. 

Fortunately most languages have a lot of redundant code, so that even with an imprecise knowledge of such grammar niceties as cases or prepositions, you get a sense of the meaning, understanding some contexts better than others. 

You just need to persevere and not worry about what you don’t understand. I find that even if I don’t understand, or even misunderstand a text, it does not really matter. I just need to press on, reading and listening, with the confidence that what is unclear today will eventually become clearer if I stay with it.

I enjoyed reading Tolstoy, or a biography of Stalin, in Russian even when my understanding was not very precise. It was my interpretation of what I read. That is why I do not like doing comprehension tests. I consider my relationship to the text to be personal. The second time I read the same material, some months later, I will have a new interpretation, no problem.

Of course you need to be aware of the grammar. It is useful, at least for me, to review the grammar explanations at various stages of your learning. A summary view at the beginning and then the occasional review of specific areas that interest you. This might mean looking up cases in a grammar book, or via google on the Interent from time to time, or aspects of verbs, or tenses or whatever. However, in my experience it takes a long time for these rules to sink in, so that you will be still be a little in the fog in your reading and listening for quite a while. But just keep going. 

The big advantage of authentic material is their interest. If you are interested in the subject, and stay with a limited range of interesting material, you will be motivated to continue and you will be better able to decipher the meaning. This will help you get used to the patterns of the language faster.

As to Spanish versus Russian, I think you should focus on the language that interests you the most. Russian is more difficult, in that the grammar is more complex, although verb tenses in Spanish are no piece of cake. It is also true that having to read in a less familiar alphabet also makes the language more difficult, and more tiring to read. They are both wonderful languages that open a window to an interesting world of culture, literature, food, music, and most of all people. I have found the study of Russian and access to that world to be a marvellous personal acquisition.