Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Approach Language Learning - 4/4

Last of four posts on language learning for free. This one on writing. Plus, a list of apps and Web sites.

Afraid people will read your diary? Write your entries in another language. Daily practice, like daily exercise, makes you stronger. I like to write a weekly language learning log on I just go for it. No aids. People will correct me. And they're nice about it when they do. Not like on YouTube when you make a mistake.

You can also write a travel blog in your target language. Going to Spain? Document your time there  (the language difficulties your currently experiencing, your current level, the culture, the people) in a series of posts in Spanish with the translation in English (if you want to make it public and, you know, have people read it).

Typing in languages that don't use the Roman alphabet isn't as hard as it may seem. Languages like Chinese and Japanese, for example, can be typed out using the Roman alphabet (pinyin for Chinese and romaji for Japanese) and they automatically turn into Chinese or Japanese characters when you press a number or the space bar. So, if you can speak it, you can type it. On a Mac go to System Preferences, then Language and Text, and then Input Sources to set up the extra keyboard. If you're using Windows, good luck. Kidding. I believe you go to Control Panel, then your language options and then somehow you get to Input Language. When using the Cyrillic alphabet, the more you use the keyboard, the more you will memorize the positions and won't have to think about it so much. (A helpful tip to to associate the Cyrillic letter with the Roman letter for that key. So when you think of "я," for instance, think "q.")

Asking Questions
Alternatively, you can ask a question on a forum on a regular basis. I've already mentioned italki. Well, they have a dedicated section on their site for this. Just click on the "Ask a question" tab under the thingie that looks like a pad and pen. Or again you can use Benny's forum at or the many forums of LingQ. You don't learn if you don't ask questions. Benjamin Franklin once quipped: "He who teaches himself has a fool for a master."

Online you can use social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and to more easily find native speakers to message. Because their social networking sites, it's less weird to be openly friendly with strangers and communicate with them. Write to them in their language to catch their interest. Show them you're interested in their culture. Or email people you do know who speak your target language but can't meet up with for whatever reason. It's a good way to stay connected.

I haven't actually done this yet but have thought about a bit. That is, to write something (a story, poem) in another language. You may think this is easy. If you do, you're probably not a very good writer because you don't understand what goes into good writing. If I try to write a story or poem in Spanish, which actually I began speaking before English, I will have less tools, so to speak, in my toolbox. (I'm actually paraphrasing Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez, author of El ruido de las cosas as caer [The Sound of Things Falling].) Translation works much the same way. It is perhaps easier because you have a work of art there in front of you. You just have to replicate that in your language. I've taken a translation workshop during my MFA, and it was a lot harder than expected. Much respect to the diligent translators out there. Whether you're creating your own work of art or translating, it's hard. But if you take small steps, maybe start out with a small poem and have some native speaker of your target language look at it, then you will learn a lot over time, which I think is how it should be. I don't think we can really teach anyone anything. We can only help others to learn for themselves through doing.

Apps and Web sites
The following is a list of applications and Web sites that provide lessons, instruction, or just an environment in language learning.
  • BBC Languages - A few dedicated courses (French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Chinese), essential phrases in over 40 languages, and links to other courses.
  • Human Japanese Lite - App for iOS and Android. Text-based, like a very long article, but with audio and games. Really good for beginners. Highly informative. I haven't bought the paid version. This thing is pretty long, so I haven't finished.
  • Innovative Language - Has a series of apps (many for free) for iOS in a series of languages. WordPower provides you with courses. Pod101 provides podcasts with phrases and vocab.
    • - Language learning community, plus paid lessons from qualified teachers.
    • Japanese Phrases - App for iOS. There's a free version and a paid version. I paid $10 for the paid app, a lot, but I use it every day. The free app, like the paid one, has flash cards, quizzes, and lessons. Good quality. There's also an advanced version. Yes, I bought that, too. Not as rich in content as the original.
      • Livemocha - Was very much like, a language learning community, then got corporate and now mostly provides a few mundane online courses.
      • Ma France - A great interactive video-based French language learning course with quizzes and games, also found on the BBC Web site.
        • NHK World Japanese Lessons - Lots of free podcasts for Japanese language learning.
        • Speak in a Week - Crash course in language learning by Benny the Irish Polyglot.
        Or just check out this other more complete list of language learning for free Web sites on Open Culture.

        I hope these posts have given you lots of ideas of your own. We must live with the language to learn the language - make it a part of our lives. If you think about how we came to learn our mother tongue, it's because we were immersed in the language. Everyone, at least those important to us, spoke it. It takes a long time for babies. Think about all the schooling and life experience you've had learning it. Well, you need to put in some time for the new language as well. Hopefully, not as much.

        Thursday, August 14, 2014

        How to Approach Language Learning - 3/4

        Number three of four posts on language learning for free. This one is on the area of reading.

        Books, Stories, and Poems
        I've been reading more and more fiction and poetry in the languages I speak (Besides English: Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese) as of late. This is a great strategy because it's challenging and yet something, with time, you can overcome and get better at. I'm currently reading Cien anos de soledad by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I recommend reading foreign language books digitally because you can get the definitions to words in the target language (if you're using a Kindle, for instance). Or if you read online, you can get instant translations by downloading the Google Dictionary extension for Google Chrome, which is an instant dictionary but also does instant translations. This is a lot faster than turning the pages of a print dictionary every other word. Yes, books cost money, though ebooks are often not very expensive at all. But you can access free books in other languages via Project Gutenberg or Google Play and even on Amazon (check out my public wish list: Free Foreign Language Kindle eBooks). One strategy I like is to reread books I've already read in English in the original language (e.g., reading Madame Bovary in French after reading it in English), preferably a few years apart. Because you already know the story, you will understand more, have to look up less. For stories and poems just search for them online. They're very often free, especially if they're old. If you don't know any titles off the top of your head, try Poetry International Rotterdam. On the site, you can read quality poems from around the world, choose from a wide variety of languages, and have the translation on the right and the original text on the left as you read.

        There are lots free newsletters you can subscribe to. I like this option because the newsletters arrive in my inbox so there's no need to remember to go to any Web site. Often times you can just Google your language plus "newsletter" and find something. I'm a big fan in particular of word of the day newsletters because I don't want to spend too much time each day going over lessons. I have apps and books and videos I already use, read, and watch. Some good word of the day newsletters I use can be found at: (just search for your language or type "Spanish," "French," "Italian," "German," "Mandarin," or "Japanese" and ""), Innovative Language, and Transparent Language. Each has its pros and cons. Try them for yourself. also has weekly lessons. Innovative Language has podcasts and multiple phrases. Transparent Language has one phrase per day, sometimes doesn't have the transliteration, but probably has a larger number of words than Innovative. All have the audio.

        Likewise you can read articles, online or in print, in your target language. You probably know that. But the trick is, how do you incorporate it into your life so you don't have to think about it? Well, on the Web you can read that article you just read in English on Wikipedia in your target language. Look on the left under "Languages." I know you've seen that before, right? This time, use it. There are also Google Chrome extensions that immerse you in the language without much effort from you, such as Flewent, which replaces text on the Web as you browse with words from your target language, and Duolinguo, which asks for you to translate sentences, according to your level, giving you hints if you don't know. The Google Translate extension is good, too, since after it translates the Web page, you can still see the original text and compare. Take it one sentence at a time. Warning: the translations by Google Translate, if you didn't know this already, aren't exactly 100% accurate. Like the BBC? Choose a language at BBC News in Languages and read the news in your target language. You get news and language learning! Two birds, one stone! (As far as print goes, if that's your thing, you will likely have to spend some money, unless you have access to foreign language magazines, say, at the dentist's office while you're waiting or at the discount store. You can always read for free at the library or book store, as well. Otherwise, check out International Newspaper Subscriptions, which allows you to search by language, country, or title, as well as from weekly, monthly, or yearly subscriptions. You get them shipped to you. It's like the country comes to you!)

        Wednesday, August 13, 2014

        How to Approach Language Learning - 2/4

        I believe you can learn another language for free. In this second post of four, I discuss how to improve your speaking skills. (I think it's important to work on all areas, even if speaking is more important at first: listening, speaking, reading, and writing).

        Video Chat
        One approach Benny the Irish polyglot uses is to Skype video chat with native speakers. I think this is brilliant because there aren't always native speakers of your target language around or easily accessible (you might not know them or be shy, for instance) in your city. Benny suggests in his Speak in a Week crash course that you search for people on, which is a language learning social networking site, and ask someone to Skype video chat with you. (Or you can pay for video lessons from professional teachers of your target language for something like $5/hr.) You can also find people on the forum on his site,, or try to find someone on LingQ's forums (a lot of forums here, depending on language and topic). There are also sites dedicated to people meeting up, such as and Couchsurfing (great for finding people all over the world depending on where you're traveling, and if you're traveling anyway, then this is also a good way to save money on hotels).

        Video chatting is great because another helpful and patient person is there to help you in real time. Now, why would someone do this for you? Well, if you teach him/her some English, which is in high demand around the world, he/she will gladly teach you his/her language. Give and you shall receive.

        Friends and More
        The ideal thing would be to be in the country - because you'd be forced to speak the language. But that's an expensive strategy if you just want to learn the language (unless, say, you're from Quebec and want to learn French). Also, you'd have to wait to get there. And then how long are you going to be there for? And what about studying right now? Wouldn't it be better to already be speaking the language by the time you get there? Wouldn't that make for a much better visit?

        So the next best thing is to have a friend or girlfriend/boyfriend who is a native speaker of your target language. (I like to say, jokingly, that the best way to learn a language is to date someone who only speaks his/her native language well. Talk about motivation!) You might say that these options cost money - the latter, especially if you're a straight guy, much more so. But you're going to make friends and date anyway, right? Seriously, right? I hope. So try searching for people who speak your target language in obvious places, such as in Chinatown for a Chinese person or an ethnic restaurant. Strike up a conversation while waiting in line (you're waiting anyway) or with the person taking your order (you're speaking anyway). Universities are also good places to look for international or first generation people. If you're shy, just start talking to them in their native tongue, which often times is rather impressive and shows you care about the person's culture. Just don't assume s/he is Japanese or Indian or whatever. If you hear an accent or a foreign sounding name, you can ask where s/he is from and then start speaking in his/her language. Teach the person English, if s/he needs/wants it, and s/he will teach you your target language. Or choose at least one day of the week to hang out or go on a date and only communicate in your target language. Use gestures if you have to but try not to use English.

        Just You
        This approach is obviously not as good as the other approaches but sometimes it's your only option. It's also a good supplement to everything else you're hopefully doing. Now, there are two things you can do by yourself to improve your non-English speaking skills.

        First, you can have a self dialogue where you play both roles of a two-way conversation. The conversation will depend on your level and goals. If you're starting out, memorize and practice the common phrases (Hello, How are you? Nice to meet you, My name is so-and-so, What's your name?). If your goal is to pick up girls, for instance, just a random example, you would practice your ideal pickup scenario (Hey, You're cute, Want to go on a date?). Record it. Listen to it. Keep practicing.

        Second, you can think out loud in your target language. I do this all the time and people don't think I'm crazy at all. It's pretty useful. You work on your pronunciation, but, more importantly, you're making your brain work in creating sentences and expressing itself in that language. You can have a specific day of the week where you only think in that language. Maybe start out with a few minutes, then half an hour, then an hour, and so on. Or maybe you think in that language as you watch anime or videos or listen to music in that language, which act like reminders. Another good idea is to make a video of yourself speaking in the language - prepare a short intro or something you want to say, maybe a vlog of your recent progress and/or challenges. If you share it with other people, say on YouTube, you'll likely get some encouragement from others and/or be motivated by your public declaration of studying the language. If you fail, others will know!

        How to Approach Language Learning - 1/4

        I love languages, and I think everyone in the world should and can learn at least one other language - yes, even if you speak English. I've been reading a lot recently about how to approach language learning. There are a lot of theories out there. I'm not a fan of Rosetta Stone because it's overpriced. The Pimsleur method, I think, relies too heavily on audio and the basics. The person whose approach I agree with most is that of Benny the Irish Polyglot. I'm currently reading his book Fluent in the 3 Months, which is a fun read and very useful, though, unless you know nothing about language learning, you will likely skip some passages. I'm not going to rehash what he says, which, to summarize in one sentence, is: speak from day one. (That is, focus on speaking above all - isn't that why you're learning the language, to communicate with another human being?) Instead, what I want to do is break down the areas of language learning and tell you what you can do to work on those areas and how to integrate them into your life.

        My own philosophy is that you don't need to spend a dime (well, assuming you have Internet access) to learn another language. So the following advice will hold true to that. Because of length, I've decided to divide my advice into four posts. This one will discuss listening, the next will be on speaking, the next on reading, and then the last on writing. (At the end I will give a list, with comments, of Web sites and apps that do, more or less, a little of everything.)

        Music Videos
        Besides buying foreign language music, you can listen to music videos in your target language for free on YouTube. Create a playlist. Check out the lyrics for free online with a simple Google search. (To have the lyrics with you if you use iTunes, copy the lyrics and then right click on the song in iTunes, click on "Get info," and paste under the "Lyrics" tab. It'll be on your device once you sync. Embarrassingly, I did not know about this for quite a while. But you have to buy the song. If it's your fav song, then it's no big deal. Only a buck, maybe two.) Also, often times there are foreign language music videos with the English subtitles. Just do a YouTube search and look around. Some of my favorite Japanese artists (often I hear of them through anime) are: Yui, Younha (who's actually Korean, but sometimes sings in Japanese), and Rie fu. Actually, this will sound corny but, one of my favorite anime songs is the closing theme to the original Dragon Ball (not Dragon Ball Z!), called "Romantikku Ageru Yo." You can watch/listen while you exercise, clean, write, or are doing something physical, or just whenever you're in the mood. Playing the music videos always during a certain activity will help you remember.

        There are plenty of free podcasts out there. Search iTunes. (I'm deep into the Apple world because I've bought many apps and don't want to lose them by switching.) Search online, too. has a large selection of languages and free podcasts, which you can listen to on your iOS or Andriod device(s). You can pay to upgrade, of course. Alternatively, try the Coffee Break series by Radio Lingua Network, which has tons of content, if a small selection of languages (Spanish, French, and German). Podcasts are extremely mobile. I like to listen to them while I walk or take public transportation. It does divide your attention, though, so watch out for cars - and for potentially smiling inappropriately while walking past people due to the occasional jokes.

        Video Lessons, Newscasts, Movies, and Shows
        YouTube is free and has a lot of language learning channels, so if you're not signed up already, sign up! Here are some I subscribe to: Learn Italian with Lucrezia (Italian), Anil Mahato (Hindi), Enchantrees * (Bengali), YangYang Cheng (Chinese). LearnArabicwithMaha (Arabic), Gimmeabreakman (Japanese). You can also search LanguagePod101 on YouTube and get video lessons in your target language that way. And here are some that are in the target language only: TV5Monde (French), Univision Noticias (Spanish), ANNnewsCH (Japanese), Bangla Natok (Bengali), and SET India (Hindi). There are many free movies on YouTube in Hindi and Japanese, for example, as well as in other languages. Just search "(target language) + movies or films - many have subtitles. Moreover, Hulu has a lot of free content in other languages. If you like anime, as I do, you can watch Dragon Ball Z, Bleach, Naruto, One Piece and so on in the original Japanese with English subtitles. This in particular has been very useful to me because I've gotten used to the cadences and gestures and rhythms and expressions used in formal and informal speech. And I've been able to tell the difference from the first episode when I understood, like, a word, to the last, when I understood, like, a lot. (You can, of course, buy DVDs of such series or pay to subscribe to HuluPlus for additional content.) Watch while you eat. If you already have a smart phone, watch while you're waiting for that appointment or taking public transportation. Not while walking!

        To be continued . . .

        Sunday, August 3, 2014

        My Top 5 Favorite Novels

        It's hard to say what the best five novels I've ever read are. In fact, I generally think that it's dumb to talk about the best novel or best song - just like its dumb to talk about a best color. Yes, novels and songs are art. Colors, in and of themselves, are not - except when "created" by companies. However, who's to say, out of all the great novels that have been written, which one is superior to the rest? It's like asking, Who's the most beautiful woman in the world? Once you reach a certain level of beauty, it doesn't really matter. It's about personal taste or mood. Along these lines, I'd like to use the term "favorite" instead of "best."

        Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

        This is the first Murakami novel I read. I don't know if that had anything to do with the massive effect this book had on me. I also thought that it was autobiographical, which, as it turns out, it wasn't, except for some minor details about the school and so on. This book seriously made me depressed and toward the end, when Watanabe is helpless to assist an ever-worsening Naoko, I cried a little. Really, I was just thinking about it, not while reading, and maybe it connected with something in my life, how we are completely helpless in aiding others, not just from death but from pain. I read the English translation by Jay Rubin (2000). (I prefer Birnbaum as Murakami translator.) I've heard Murakami isn't as good in Japanese. Anyway, I'm still somewhat afraid of the book, knowing I'll read it again someday. If you don't mind unbearable sadness, if you're a bit of a loner, if you contemplate death more than the average Joe or Jane, then this novel is perfect for you. Although this is Murakami's only non-speculative novel, it's  not too dissimilar to his other novels, sharing themes. It isn't as funny, though. (I did a more detailed review of the novel, which you can read by clicking here.)

        So good I bought the film (2010), which is in Japanese. Not as good as the book. Some good, affecting parts. Good actors. But, and I won't do a review here but, it just, to me, doesn't capture certain elements from the book, such as the long, helpless nature of watching Naoko die. And it depicts this overally dramatic shot of Watanabe crying his eyes out, which is so antithetical to the book, which omits any direct expressions of his sadness. And then there's the ending, totally not the right mood of the book, which celebrates Naoko's life, if done so by having Watanabe have sex with Reiko, several times, who was the closest person to her. I hope someone makes another version.

        The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

        Embarrassingly, I first read this in grad school. I didn't have a great high school education growing up in the Bronx to poor parents. Didn't really learn to appreciate literature for a while. But at least I read it when I could. The character of Gatsby, his climax, his end is all powerfully affecting, and the way the story is so compact, concise, and coherent. It's easy to identify with Gatsby. He wants something he can't have, so he endeavors to attain it. He pretends to be someone else. He's forced to realize that he's not, and that he can't control time, no one can. Really spoke to me because of my unrequited desires, but that's as much as I'll get into with that.

        Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

        I first read this as an undergrad at Fordham U, for a course on Thomas Hardy. I signed up because I had heard a few cool things about him, that his heart and body were buried in two different locations, which was true, and that he committed suicide, which wasn't - perhaps I was thinking of Plath? I didn't appreciate it much then because of all the work, being a full-time student, and Hardy novels are long! But reading his works on my own allowed me to better appreciate Hardy. Yes, he can be verbose and sensational, but, man, can the guy be sad - and this is a sad, sad book. It's about a stonemason who has big dreams of being one of those smart academicians in the big city. He falls for his beautiful cousin, but fate, working via a religious society that condemns human nature, keeps them miserable and married to other people. I'm really not doing justice to this novel - it's better than it sounds. (To read more about the novel, click here for my review.)

        Silence by Shusako Endo

        Another translation (1969). I read this book as an undergrad at Fordham U, and I'll never forget it. I'm not a religious guy, and even though the central story has to do with Catholic Portuguese missionaries in seventeenth century Japan, it had a powerful effect on me, informing my future understanding of good literature. I remember mostly the rain, the cicadas, the violence against the Christians, the Christians' resilience and faith, and the interactions between the Japanese and the Westerners, two peoples who had never seen each other before trying to relate to each other as human beings despite their vastly different cultures. We're all human. I also related very much to the theme of God's silence amid so much suffering. Perhaps that's the number one reason people leave their faith.

        Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

        This book is just honest and unpretentious. When Holden talks to you, you feel there's a real person. It's the protagonist's youth and inexperience that makes him so fit to be narrator. If he knew any better, he wouldn't make the mistakes he does and he wouldn't care so much about telling his parents about his leaving the school or where the ducks go in the winter. He would make better decisions and not try to run away from  home. It's in these mistakes that we, those of us older than Holden, revisit our own mistakes. These mistakes are unavoidable and vital in how we grow to be the men and women we are today. A very fun read. The prostitute scene is hilarious! All the sudden she's like, "Oh, you're kinda cute."

        I actually still have a lot to read, as I still consider myself somewhat under-read because of my lackluster early education. So this list is certainly not definitive. I might do one every five to ten years. What are some of your favorite novels?