Archive for the ‘Language Learning’ Category

Foreign movies with subtitles and translations

February 1, 2015

IMG_0930I have heard people debate whether it is good or bad to see subtitles and translations, when watching movies in other languages.  For some, they say never use subtitles and translations, as if it were to stunt our growth.  For others, they depend on subtitles and translations forever.  Myself, I believe that there is a level at which subtitle translations help to understand the foreign language.

Yesterday I watched a movie that was in Mandarin.  Now I have never claimed that my Chinese is very good, elementary and day to day stuff is all I can really do.  And I watched the movie with English translation subtitles.  What was interesting to me, throughout the whole movie, was how much of the Chinese I understood, because of the accompanying translation.  That is to say, if I had not had the visual translation in front of me, I might not have understood some of the phrases.  But, since I had the English phrases in front of me, it was enough to recognize the Chinese words as they flew by. At my elementary level, I was literally able to hear and understand words that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

And sometimes the translations were different enough from the original, that the hints were subtle.  For example, at one point one character was calling for another.  The English translation was “wait, wait” but the original Chinese was “jie jie” (older sister).  Clearly the context was the same, whether shouting “wait, wait” or calling “sister, sister.”  In another instance the English subtitle said “take care” and the Chinese phrase was “xiao xin”.  With my limited Chinese, I had always associated “xiao xin” with “be careful.”  Somehow the phrase “take care” has expanded the situations in which I can now use “xiao xin.”

All this is to say that at my elementary-level Chinese, the English subtitles were not just a lazy way to understand the movie, but they were a catalyst to being able to recognize more Chinese phrases.  At some point I may not need them as much, but for now it was a great help.

Learning language like babies

September 23, 2014

IMG_1233We hear it all of the time, “little babies learn language effortlessly.” In the academic world there are lively discussions and research about child versus adult language acquisition.  During the supposed “critical period” children learn language automatically, and after that period, language learning becomes mechanical and difficult, etc.

The problem is, I don’t actually believe it all.  The photograph that goes with this post is a fun shot of me with my grandbaby, Adam.  The picture was taken during a recent visit when he was 15 months old.  So, a few thoughts about child and adult language acquisition:

1.  Effortless – No way.  We have to recognize that little children learn languages while they are simultaneously developing cognitive skills.  Everything is new, everything is discover, everything is part of piecing together life.  There is a fantastic curiosity that goes with cognitive development.  When Adam was visiting, he inspected the drawers, pushed every button in the house, looking in every corner, touched everything within his reach.  Everything around him was new and exciting.  He worked hard, and I mean worked and I mean hard.  There was non-stop intensity in all of that curiosity. Little children put gigantic effort into all that is around them.  As to learning languages, I simply do not believe that adults put as much effort into discovering, looking, finding, touching, figuring out, and searching.  When cognitive skills are developed, we stop putting the same effort into discovering what is around us.

2.  Language is easy – No way.  Just think how many times a child hears words before he or she starts to use them.  “Do you see the ball?  Do you want the ball?  Do you like the ball?  Should we play with the ball?  Can you say ball?  Where’s the ball?  Thousands, there are literally thousands of times that children are exposed to words, phrases, and sentences. Notice also that a child’s world is the here and the now.  We may ask the baby if she wants to play with the ball, but we do not ask the baby what she thinks the political ramifications of future US military involvement in the Middle East will mean for conservative republicans. Adult language learners live in a complex world that goes beyond the here and the now.  As adults we simply do not limit our language learning to the hear and now.  How often do we enroll our language learners in courses, ask them read an article in a foreign language, and then ask them analytical questions about what they think of the content.  Really?  And then we wonder why adult language learners aren’t talking as much as little children do.

3.  Language learning happens automatically – No way.  Adam is 15 months old.  Truth told, he can barely say “mom”, “dad”, and when he kisses you he says, “muah.”  After 15 minutes, if you taught me some Korean, I know that I’d be able to say more than three words.  Truth told, little children work hard to even get the most basic of words, and it takes months of attempting, modifying, and trying again.

4.  Babies speak without studying – No way.   Just think of the feedback that we give little children as they learn language.  The first time a baby says “mommy” the whole family breaks out in cheers. Everyone dances around the room, cheering and celebrating.  No wonder the baby decides to say the word “mommy” again.  As children develop, there is a social side to all that they do.  When they learn the word for candy, it is not because they need to perfect their pronunciation or understand the difference between masculine and feminine nouns.  When they learn “candy” it is because everyone is celebrating life with one of our great pleasures, the sensational taste of chocolate.  Bring it on world, candy!  Little children don’t use language to communicate, they use language to socialize.  The problem for adults is that we forget that, and decide to learn language to analyze grammar, or to communicate sentences. As adults we forget that socialization is what language is all about.  Babies don’t fall into that trap.

So next time somebody tells you that little children learn languages automatically without any effort, challenge that person to put as much effort into discovering the world around them, to expose themselves to input as much as children do, to talk about the here and now, and to focus on language for socialization.  And when that person kisses you on the cheek and says “muah” shower him or her with tons of praise and cheer like crazy!

Heritage Speakers and Being Bilingual

July 20, 2014

IMG_4413As I write this post I have just returned from spending 7 weeks in Brazil, mainly in Salvador, Bahia.  I was serving as the faculty director of our UT summer study abroad program.  This year we had 17 undergraduate students from UT who participated in our program, which includes home stay, morning language classes, afternoon excursions, and service learning opportunities.  It was a super experience (and more so because we were in Brazil during the World Cup).

As related to language learning however, I wanted to share some observations about what it is like for Spanish-English bilingual heritage speakers to be able to study Portuguese in a study abroad program, in Brazil.  Among the 17 students that were in Salvador, almost all of them were heritage bilingual speakers of Spanish and English, most of them with ties to Texas and Mexico.

Heritage bilingual speakers find themselves in a very interesting position in that they often switch languages based on the situation.  That is to say, they may use English at school, at church, and at work, but they switch to Spanish when they are at home, or when they visit relatives, hang out with friends, or when watching TV or listening to music.  The interesting factor is that they compartmentalize their language use, based on the situation.  They would almost never, for example, use Spanish at school, but then they would almost never use English when visiting relatives.  Another factor is that their use of Spanish and English lacks any of the meta-awareness of language.  That is to say, they use their language skills, but are less adept at being able to talk about their language use (i.e., they cannot conjugate verbs, describe grammatical features like gender and agreement, etc).

All this is to say that while in Salvador, I starting noticing (and comparing) the way these students were learning and using Portuguese.

1.  Switch to Portuguese.  Similar to the ways that heritage bilingual speakers switch languages based on situation, the 17 students in our program did the same in Salvador.  I would observe them as they spoke English or Spanish to classmates, but then suddenly switch to Portuguese to order food from a vendor, or when speaking to their host family members, or when talking to administrative staff at the school.  The non-heritiage speakers do not switch in the same way.  The non-heritage speakers put themselves in English mode or in Portuguese mode, but they are less adept and switching back and forth. The ease in which the heritage speakers moved from one language to another was impressive, and it seemed to happen unconsciously. It was as if their brain simply followed some cue to move back and forth.

2.  “When in Brazil, try to speak only in Portuguese”  As a general strategy, we often tell students that while they are in Brazil, they should speak only in Portuguese.  We use this as a language learning strategy.  We are telling students that they need to get their brains into Portuguese-speaking mode, and this will enhance their language acquisition.  The problem is that I now question this strategy a bit when dealing with the heritage speakers.  This is not because I don’t believe that we learn more language by practicing it.  However, in the case of the heritage speakers, their whole experience in language choice is based on switching from one to another.  They never artificially stay in only one language.  As a result, I noticed that these students were less likely to stay in Portuguese language mode in Brazil.  But I also do not believe that they were disadvantaged by this.  They seemed to be able to progress in Portuguese just fine, without having to resort to only speaking in Portuguese.  It is as if their brain was saying, “Why would I speak in Portuguese to Daniela, that would be weird?”

3.  Language is real.  My observation here is that heritage speakers already know that communication in both languages is real.  In the case of my students, they already use both Spanish and English is real life situations.  They have real emotions, real feelings, and real experiences.  Mono-lingual speakers study a foreign language without the benefit of knowing that the other language is really used in actual life.  For the mono-lingual learners, there is a bigger transition phase, or discovery phase.  They simply have to resort back to their native language at times.  I believe that it is easier for learners of a third language when they already have experiential knowledge of communicating in other languages.  Knowing that it is possible, makes it just that much easier.  This was also the experience of our 17 learners in Salvador.

So, to my 17 UT students who were with me in Salvador, thank you, thank you for the wonderful experience of being able to hang out with you in Brazil.  I loved your energy, I loved your excitement to be in Brazil, I loved to observe how you maximized your experience abroad.  And for those of you who are heritage speakers of Spanish and English, thank you for showing me once again some of the nuances in language learning.

PS  The photo was taken at the Escola Aberta, where some of my students were working on a service project to add tiles to some of the classrooms at a local community school.


StarTalk Portuguese Teacher Training

June 7, 2014

Dear StarTalk Participants,

Celia Bianconi and Susan Griffin asked if I would be willing to share some of the ideas and materials that we have created for the online teaching of Portuguese.  I figured that perhaps one way to do this was to share these ideas here on my language learning blog.  So here we go!

1.  Brazilpod

Here is our homepage of sorts, where we list all of the Portuguese language projects that have been created with the support of the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning (COERLL) at the University of Texas.  If you get lost, or want a one stop view of our materials, this is the place to go.  BTW, all of the materials at this site are provided for free, with no password restriction.

2.  Portuguese Communication Exercises

Here is a collection of brief video clips where Brazilians discuss a host of topics, all transcribed and translated.  Our logic was to provide a sample of various tasks, divided by level, where native speakers would model the task.  In the end it is a great resource to see real people who talk about real things.  I love how natural the speech is, and it is extremely difficult to find teaching materials where people are speaking naturally, and it is also reate to find all of that transcribed and translated too.

3.  Tá Falado

We created this series of audio podcasts with the idea of helping learners of Portuguese who are already speakers of Spanish.  It may seem like a strange mix to combine English, Spanish, and Portuguese.  However, for those of us who teach Portuguese in the United States, a large portion of our learners are native speakers of English, who have already studied Spanish.   They may not even have the most polished Spanish, but still these learners draw from this knowledge as part of the Portuguese language learning experience. Tá Falado consists of around 25 pronunciation lessons and 25 grammar lessons, which all provide little hints for learners of Portuguese, using their knowledge of Spanish as a point of departure.  Of all of our materials, this is the one that receives the most online traffic.

4.  Conversa Brasileira

I believe that as educators we are still trying to figure out how to use video for pedagogical purposes.  After we created the Portuguese Communication Tasks, and although I really like them, it was clear that those video clips did not show interactions, turn taking, people responding to questions, or any of the other exchanges that happen in natural speech.  As a consequence of this, we created the Conversa Brasileira series, which is comprised of brief video clips that show typical slice of life scenarios.  These video clips are enhanced with optional transcriptions, translations, commentary, analysis, pdf files, and discussion blogs.  Of all the materials that we have created, in my estimation, this one is the most creative.  Conversa Brasileira also helps advance the way that we can use video in language learning situations.

5:  Língua da Gente:

Our newest project, and one that hasn’t even been officially launched yet, is a new audio podcast series called Língua da Gente.  At some point we hope to literally have hundreds of lessons, subdivided into beginning, elementary, and intermediate levels of difficulty.  The lessons all contain short dialogs, accompanied with explanations and analysis in the audio podcast.  The materials are available for free.  However, as a new twist, we also will offer a subscription for a premium service.  The premium service includes a mobile device app, available through, which offers a gigantic array of new options for practice, including: line by line audio, individualized flash cards, recording features, popup translations, etc.  Over time, I believe that this resource is going to be our largest online contribution to the learning of Portuguese.

In addition to these five materials, I should mention that my UT colleague, Vivian Flanzer, has also created a site called Clica Brazil, which is also available on our BrazilPod site

6.  ClicaBrazil:

Online materials for intermediate-level learners that includes exercises, videos, classroom activities, and a grammar bank.

And finally, although not part of the online materials, you may be interested in seeing the Portuguese course blog that I maintain as part of the my classes at UT

7.  É isso aí

Class notes, study projects, and course assignments that are used in many of my intermediate-level courses in Portuguese.

There you have it.  7 online resources that we provide for the teaching of Portuguese.  Perhaps this is a good moment to thank all those who have gone to our sites, used them, and given us feedback on things.  Indeed, it is a pleasure to do so, and we hope to provide even more materials in the near future.

Jump in and fake it!

June 5, 2014

IMG_3659As I write this I am in Salvador, Bahia, truly one of my favorite spots in Brazil.  Not only am I here with a group of students, but my wife and daughter are here with me too.  My daughter Tamara has, although she will deny it, a fairly good handle on Portuguese.  She isn’t totally comfortable, and there are many things that she gets stuck on, and of course there are lots of words that she doesn’t know.  Still, she can get by, have a conversation with people on general topics, and in the end she can talk to tons of people.  I totally consider her to be a Portuguese speaker, she isn’t sure if that is accurate.

After a few days in Salvador she hit the “my-Portuguese-is-terrible-and-why-should-I-even-try” phrase.  We all hit it sometimes.  It’s those days when we say to ourselves that all of our language study hasn’t really paid off, and we might as well admit that our foreign language ability is lousy.  There are days when I feel that way about my German, my Chinese, my Italian, and even about my Spanish and Portuguese.  We all have those L2-blues days.

Truth told, any language that we cannot speak with native-like fluency gives us a temporary reminder now and again of all the things that we cannot do and cannot say.  I have often said that speaking a foreign language is like having a continual comprehensive exam, because we have to draw on all of our knowledge about every aspect of the language, all of the time.  It can wear you down.

The day after Tamara’s momentary set-back day, she then had a day where she was talking to taxi drivers, talking to store clerks, meeting new people, getting around town, shopping for food, and leading the way in conversations.  It’s not that her language abilities improved so much overnight.  It is more that she simply jumped back in and pretended to be a Portuguese speaker again.  A large part of learning a foreign language is simply a matter of being willing to put up with the uncertainty that comes from not understanding 100% of what is being said around you.  Basically what happens is at first we understand about 25% of what is being said, and we guess at the other 75%.  The, over time, we understand 50% of what is being said, and we guess at the other 50%.  Eventually we are understanding more than what we are guessing.  But, if I had to be honest with myself, there is a part of the guessing percentage that continues even when we are more advanced speakers.

Jump in and fake it.  You will catch a good part of what you hear, and the rest we can just guess.  It will turn out OK.


Picture: Playing a little berimbau.


Used to speak some Japanese

March 10, 2014

japansumoAlas, language attrition, use it or lose it.  I lost it!

Back in 2006 I had spent about a year studying some Japanese. What a cool language! One of the most rule driven languages I have ever been exposed to: Topic marker – “wa”; object marker “ga”; put the verb at the end of the sentence; learn to pronounce all of those English-loan words; and learn all of the various endings to indicate tense and aspect. Yes, Japanese was super rule driven, with relatively few exceptions. Then I took a brief 2-week trip to Tokyo, and sure enough, my survival Japanese really was enough to survive, get around, eat incredible food, see the sights, and interact with tons of people.
But then phase II hit with brutal reality, “Oh, you are a man, speaking to a woman, you should really say that differently.” “Oh, you are a boss, talking to a subordinate, you should really say that differently.” “Oh, you are an adult, talking to children, you should really say that differently.” Formal vs informal, regional variations, etc. etc. Wow, all of a sudden Japanese got way more intense. It was about that time that I turned my focus to Chinese, left Japanese behind, and here we are a few years later and my survival Japanese is now gone.
This past week, I’m not sure really why, I pulled out the old CDs from my tried and true Yookoso textbook, and I started listening again to the Japanese tapes. There was a mixed sense of sadness about what I had lost, together with an opening of the old memory bank of things that were just under the surface. It gave me hope that if I ever wanted to restore what I had learned, it would actually come back much quicker the second time around. While listening to the tapes, I kept having the experience of thinking to myself, “Ah yes, that is how you say that. Ah yes, that is how you do that in Japanese.”
Language learning, like musical skills, high school geometry, golf swings, basketball free throws, and tennis serves, all suffer when we leave them behind for a while. Still, I believe there is a type of “language memory” that gives me hope that if I were to buckle down and study Japanese again, things would come back much faster the second time around.  In the end, not all if lost!

The photo:  Gotta take in a little sumo while you are in Japan!

Correct me please

January 7, 2014

IMG_3377I’ve been thinking about people’s attitudes when being corrected in our foreign language mistakes.

Here’s my strategy.  There are two parts:  First, I like to have a correction guru, somebody who becomes my go to person who can tell me what I’m saying wrong.  Second part, I like to ask my correction guru to simply listen to my speech, jot a few notes down, and then at a separate time we sit down together to review notes.

The logic behind my strategy is based on the fact that I totally believe that language learners need to have the freedom to make lots of mistakes.  Let’s keep on talking and talking, get our meaning across, and keep the conversation flow going.  Since I believe in allowing for lots of mistakes, nothing is more frustrating than to be constantly reminded of those mistakes–in the moment.  In other words, let me make my mistakes, but if the purpose of my communication, for example, is to buy flowers at the flower shop, then let me buy my flowers and don’t bother me about my adjective endings.

However, focused correction sessions from my correction guru seem to help things stick in my brain better.  I enjoy the interval of time between production and correction.  It almost creates a feeling of “OK, got that.  Check it off. I won’t make that mistake again.”  If I didn’t have a correction session, the lack of feedback would mean that I’d probably get stuck at the same level forever, making the same mistakes.

On the opposite end, I remember in college a professor who corrected every mistake we would make, while we were discussing other topics.  It was extremely frustrating to be trying to give an opinion about a reading, and to simultaneously be corrected with grammar hints at every turn.  It got to the point where I would have a knot in my stomach, knowing that I was going to be corrected every time I spoke.  No doubt this professor thought that she was helping us to improve.  For me it was simply an experience in frustration.

So the bottom line, give me a correction guru,  have this person jot down a few notes about my mistakes, and a some point we’ll sit down and have a little focused chat. There is a time for correction, but it is not in the middle of my conversations.   To all of my correction guru, thanks for your help.

And the picture, when did Coca Cola get so smart that they started making bottles with common family names?  That’s genius!  I recently took this picture in Lima, Peru.


Methods in Learning Multiple Languages

November 6, 2013


I recently received an email from a student named Will who asked about methods in learning multiple languages.  Will observed:

Perhaps a bit more background before I continue: through personal experience (learning French and then Spanish) I’ve come to the conclusion that third and subsequent languages are very often learned in an entirely different way than second languages, and I couldn’t help but notice the lack of high-quality educational material geared specifically towards students who are already bilingual.  This has led me to take a very serious interest in third language acquisition, in particular the development of better teaching methodologies and educational resources for third- and subsequent-language learners.


His email got me thinking about my experience in learning multiple languages and if there is an actual “method” that should be incorporated.  I know from my own experience, as a fairly proficient speaker of Spanish and Portuguese, it is impossible to not draw from that knowledge when studying Italian, Catalan, and French.  There is no way to avoid the mental comparisons among the various romance languages.  However, in my study of  Japanese and Chinese, how much do I draw from my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese?  Are their strategies in my learning of Chinese, for example, from which I draw on my experience in learning some German?  And if so, is there a “methodology” to this?

What I can say is that my experience in learning multiple languages has helped me not worry about things that are beyond my current level.  That is to say, for example, although I use the subjunctive in Spanish and Portuguese, my overall proficiency in Italian is still not at the level where I worry too much about the subjunctive in Italian.  I am confident that as my proficiency increases in Italian, at some point I’ll be incorporating more and more of these higher level concepts.  Until then, I can put those items on the shelf.  Second example, I know that agreement is important in German, but until my proficiency is higher, I know that I will continue to make mistakes in case and gender.  I do my best, but I don’t sweat it too much for now.  Third example, I know that tones are important in Chinese, but I also recognize that mistakes are going to continue for a while, so I keep on plugging away, doing my best, but not sweating it too much at this time.  This is actually a very important part of language learning.  Without the experience of multiple languages, it would be more difficult to assess what is absolutely essential now and what can be put on the “advanced-level shelf” for later.  I often see university students of Spanish who struggle with clitic placement in Spanish, and my thought is, “Don’t worry, it will come later, when the rest of your proficiency catches up to this grammar point.”

Second, a learner who already speaks multiple languages knows that foreign language communication is actually possible.  In my own case, I have had the experience of communicating with people in other languages.  I have traveled where I needed to go, interacted with people I wanted to meet, eaten foods that I wanted to try, and experienced places where I wanted to visit.  Those who are monolingual have never really experienced living, interacting, and communicating with people in another language.  In their case, the learning of a second language is undertaken without the knowledge of what it is like to really talk to others in a foreign language.  It is a different mindset to take on a task when you can envision the final outcome.  This is the case of learners who already speak multiple languages.

And finally, learners of multiple languages end up creating their own methodology, rather than passively waiting for a teacher or a program to lead the way.  In my own case, when I want to take on a new language, first, I find a textbook to serve as my foundation resource.  Second, I listen to recordings, podcasts, and tons of samples of that language.  Third, I find a tutor to practice with, giving me one-on-one time for questions and conversations.

So I thank Will for giving me this chance to think about the “methodology” of learning multiple languages.  And I wish him well on his new acquisition of Portuguese.

The photo:  I was recently with a group of Korean executives who told me that they think that I look like Harrison Ford.  So, we took this picture of my imitation of Indiana Jones.  Pretty cool, isn’t it?  Maybe I should study Korean!

Conversa Brasileira available at

August 29, 2013

brazilpod_logoHere at the University of Texas I associate a lot with everyone at COERLL, which stands for the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning. The center’s mission is to develop and share open educational resources (OERs) in language learning materials.  I really admire their vision and approach to education and foreign language learning.  For me personally, all of my online Portuguese and Spanish materials are available on their site and it’s an honor to be associated with them.

This week we released a hard copy version of our Conversa Brasileira video series.  The hard copy is available for sale at, and sells for the crazy low price of $25.  Here’s the direct URL:

I mention it here in this blog because this represents and interesting new twist in language learning.  It used to be that language textbooks were only available through publishing companies, and usually for extremely high prices.  Now, especially with Open Education Resources, there are thousands of online materials for the study of foreign languages.  Still, students and learners often like to have a hard copy that brings everything together in a book format.  Clearly the online materials are spread all over the place, and sometimes it is just comfortable to put it all together. is just one of the many providers of self-published books, but for the folks at COERLL, it has become a very convenient and cost effective way of providing users with a hard copy of the online materials.

So, check it out.  Our hard copy version of Conversa Brasileira doesn’t contain anything that is not online, but it does give you a 350-page compilation of everything in one place.  The $25 bucks is a great deal, anyone can order it from anywhere, and it ships in about 3-5 days.


Online interviews about language learning

August 26, 2013

IMG_3276I do feel weird at times with self promotion, but sometimes I participate in interviews with people who like to talk about language learning and intercultural issues.  I recently did two such interviews, so I thought it would be nice to post the URLs, so that others can listen to them too.

The first was recorded at KOOP Radio here in Austin, with Michael Froehls, who hosts the show “The Global Wanderer”.  We had a nice chat about intercultural awareness and language learning.  After listening to this interview, you may want to check out some his other interviews.  It’s a pretty interesting collection and he’s a fascinating guy.

A few weeks ago I did another interview with Jenny Zhu, who is the co-founder of OpenLanguage.   I have admired her work for years, and so it was great fun to discuss what it means to be a polyglot.  You may enjoy listening to this interview too.  Similarly, I invite you to check out OpenLanguage.  They have really innovative ways to presenting online learning of foreign languages.

Myself, I’ve been a sort of global wanderer too this summer:  Belgium, Germany, Alaska, Korea, Peru, Chile, Utah/Idaho, and that has all been in the past 13 weeks. Brazil is still around the corner, and then things will settle down.

Hope you enjoy the interviews.

PS  The photo was taken at Termo Chilca, just outside of Lima, Peru where they are building a new power plant, converting natural gas to electricity.