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 Lulu.com

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 lulu.com, 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. Lulu.com 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.

But I don’t speak Korean!

July 19, 2013

ImageAs I write this post, I am returning from a brief trip to South Korea.  This was my first time to be in Korea.  What a cool country, with delightful people, awesome food, and beautiful scenery.

Language wise, this trip was a new opportunity because I don’t speak Korean at all.  Usually when I travel, I go to places where I at least speak a little of the local language, even if I do so poorly.  This time however, I was pretty limited to the “hello”, “thank you”, “nice to meet you” type of social niceties.

It seems that wanting to speak a local language is just part of who I am.  Although I was only in Korea for 5 days, I spent 5 days trying to learn new phrases and maximizing the limited phrases and words that I was catching on to.  I don’t really plan on learning Korean in the foreseeable future, but I certainly crunched a lot during my 5 days in country. What I observed along the way is how much people react to a person’s efforts to learn the local language.  Once people found out that I liked learning words and phrases in Korea, I suddenly had millions of language tutors, cheerleaders, and a supporting cast.  It was kind of fun to see how supportive everyone was at my efforts.  People just bond together better when someone is making an effort to use a local language.  (Although I must admit that people also react similarly when you make an effort to try local cuisine.)  Everyone was so gracious in helping me learn a little more Korean.  They got excited at my efforts, and their support and positive feedback were motivating for me too.

So, the lesson learned: Don’t sit on the sideline.  When you are in a new country and surrounded by a new language, jump right in. I felt no negative vibe associated with my limited language, only tons of support, bonding, tutoring, insights, interactions, and fun with a whole new group of friends and friendly people.

Picture:  We took in a Korean baseball game.  Wow, the cheerleaders, the noise makers, the chanting, and the singing of the fans, it all created a whole new atmosphere for the sport.  It was hard to even watch the game, because the entertainment in the stands was super fun.

Hang in there language learner, don’t get discouraged

June 8, 2013

manfriedAs I write this post, I have spent the last two weeks in Europe.  First I attended a Business Communication conference in Antwerp, Belgium, and then I spent a week in Berlin with my brother Warren.  This has been Warren’s first trip to Germany, and it was great fun hanging out with him, showing him the sites around town, and especially the locations where our father used to live.

As to language learning, this trip was different for me in that I had to work through the feelings of discouragement that we often get as language learners.  If you have been a language learner, you know what I’m referring to.  It starts with the feeling that all of our efforts to learn a foreign language have not really paid off. First, there is the problem that after all our study and effort, we still don’t understand most of what people are saying around us.  When we read billboards and advertisements in the subway station we barely understand what they are saying.  Second, there is the realization that there are thousands of words that we still don’t understand.  There seems to be too many of them that just don’t stick on our brain.  And third, for us native speakers of English, there is a sense that everyone seems to speak English anyway, so why even bother with the foreign language.  And finally, in this instance, my brother doesn’t speak any German and he was having the same positive experience in Germany that I was.  It all left me with a sense of “my German sucks, and what does it matter?”

So how did I pull myself out of this mode of thinking?  I’d like to thank a man named Manfred who lives in Köln, and like us, was a tourist in Berlin. Warren and I were resting on a park bench on Peacock Island (SW of Berlin near Potsdam) when this elderly man walked by.  I said hello to him, and so he stopped to talk with us for a while.  It ended up being a delightful long chat, all in German. We talked about the island, the birds, nature, his family, our travels, our backgrounds, etc.  And since Peacock Island is pretty small, we then ran across him a few more times as we walked around the island.  The chat with Manfred was exactly what I needed, linguistically, to be reminded that I really can carry on a German conversation with non-English speakers.  It also reminded me, in terms of language learning, of the value of dialog, exchanging ideas, the give and take of conversations. And it also reminded me that we can work around vocabulary words that we don’t know.  (BTW, thanks to Manfred I now know that der specht is the German word for woodpecker.) And this conversation also reminded me of the type of experiences that we can have when we speak another language, even when proficiency is limited.

I’ll probably never see Manfred again, but I thank him for a great pick-me-up.  And while I’m at it, I thank the lady in the bakery in Lichtenberg, the family on the U-bahn, the church members in the Dahlem ward, and waiter at the sports bar during the Bayern Munich win over Stuttgart.  Thanks to all for keeping me motivated in my attempts to learn a new language.

The picture:  Warren and Manfred on Peacock Island.

Miscommunications in a foreign language

April 15, 2013

IMG_0096I just returned from a trip to Teresina, the beautiful capital city of the Northeastern state of Piauí. It is my first chance to be here in this part of Brazil.  I have been here visiting some dear old friends, Alvacir and Aurea Siedschlag, who is serving as the mission president for the LDS church in this part of the world.  Alvacir and Area actually live in southern Brazil, so they are just as much “foreigners” here in the NE as I am.  And that is the linguistics feature that I wanted to write about in today’s post.  The whole time I have been here, it has been fun to compare the linguistic experience that Alvacir and Aurea (as native speakers of Portuguese) have had in Teresina with that of my (non-native speaker) experience.

I believe it is normal for us non-native speakers of a language to always blame our non-native proficiency on all of our miscommunication problems.  The truth, however, is that we all go through thousands of miscommunications every day.

For example, Aurea mentioned to me that when she first arrived in Teresina, she went to the checkout line at Bom Preço, and they asked her if she would be using her Bom Preço discount card.  Since she had never heard of such a card, she basically didn’t understand and didn’t know what the girl was talking about.  I have had a similar experience of entering a supermarket in another country and being asked a similar question.  Unprepared for that question, when I didn’t understand, I blamed it on my non-native proficiency.

A second example, Alvacir and I had “sapoti” juice for lunch.  Sapoti is not a common fruit in the southern part of Brazil, and even Alvacir had never tasted it before.  After lunch we were talking about things, and neither of us could remember the name of the fruit juice we had just ordered at lunch.  My natural tendency was to assume that I didn’t remember the word because I am a non-native speaker of Portuguese.  Turns out, even native speakers have a hard time remembering new words.

At one point I was looking for a music store in downtown Teresina, which had actually moved to a new location.  I was near where the store used to be located, and I asked someone on the street where the “casa de regentes” was located.  The response was something like, “Oh, they’ve moved.  They are now past the “calçadão” near “Babylândia”.  Since I had never been in downtown Teresina before, I had no idea where the “calçadão” was and I have no idea where “Babylândia” was located.  Consequently most of his instructions ended up sounding like garbled noise.  What I basically understand was that it was somewhere that a way. So I walked in the general direction and then asked somebody where “Babylândia” was located. Once again I got garbled descriptions, which most assuredly contained local reference points that I was unaware of, which meant that I didn’t really understand.  It was also interesting to realize that the people that I had been talking to on the street had no way of knowing that I was unacquainted with that area of town.  For them there was no reason to provide me with anything other than local reference points.

All of this has confirmed to me again that a gigantic part of what we understand is based on the context, what we already know, and what we assume that we are probably going to hear.  It was almost refreshing to hear of the miscommunications that my native Brazilian friends had experienced when they first came to this new area.

I dare you to say “restaurant” in French!

January 25, 2013

IMG_2294As I write this post, my wife and I recently returned from a brief trip to Montreal, Canada.  I know, it sounds crazy to go to Montreal in January, but we found out years ago that we enjoy going to cold places when there are almost no other tourists, things are cheaper, more available, and less crowded.  We had a great time, what a marvelous city!

Anyway, as to language learning, I really don’t speak French, but of course it was fun to pretend like I do in Montreal.  During this trip I felt something that was totally new in my language learning experience.  That is, you have to have guts, an outgoing personality, and fearless social comfort levels to actually say French words out loud and in public.  In French there are hundreds of cognate words, words that are even spelled exactly the same in both English and French, but their pronunciation is totally different.  Look at the phrase, “J’ai une réservation.”  You know, it takes courage to actually try to imitate a french accent and  say “réservation.”  Let’s try another one: “J’aime ce restaurant.”  It takes guts to actually say out loud and in public, “restaurant” with a French flare.  How about another, “Où est le plus proche station de métro?”  One has to muster courage to say in a clear loud voice, “station de métro.”

I am not a shy person.  In fact, I actually love talking to strangers in a foreign language.  Usually I have no problem blurting out my limited and incorrect Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Catalan, Japanese, and Chinese, as lowly as my proficiency may be.  French, however, was different.  This was because it just felt strange to say these cognate words with a French accent.  Somehow I felt goofy, silly, or maybe like I was mocking French speakers (when I really was not), or teasing them about their pronunciation (when I really was not).  Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time trying out my limited French, but I simply have never spoken a foreign language that made me feel so self-conscious about what I was saying.

It has all left me wondering about what linguistics call “affect.”  Affect involves those personality issues that help or hinder language learning: being shy, reserved, anxious, nervous, outgoing, motivated by love, etc.  Previous to my experience in Montreal, I would have suspected that affect is based on the individual, but now I also believe that affect is influenced by the language that one is studying.

If you relate to what I’m talking about, I’d love to hear from you.