Performance Review & Progress Report, 2014

2014/09/21 Leave a comment

In 2009, I started my current stage of language learning by choosing to study Japanese. Before that, I consider myself as having been just like most other people. These “Performance Review” posts try to better show I’m nothing special and you can do this too.

Previous posts: 2013. 2009-2012. 2009.

Hello, 5 year mark! 5 years since started Japanese and began learning various languages. Here’s a quick look at all the languages I touched on and their statuses compared to last year. That’s what this post will cover, and in the listed order. This is not a look back at the past 5 years.

Main efforts

  • Mandarin – Notable improvement.
  • Korean – Notable improvement.
  • Japanese – Slight loss.
  • French – Some improvement
  • Spanish – Extremely slight improvement

Lesser efforts

  • Vietnamese – Slight improvement.
  • Shanghainese – Continued, slow advancement.
  • Southern Min (Taiwanese / Hokkien) – Continued, slow advancement.
  • Thai – Little change, both positive and negative.
  • Arabic – Slight Loss.

(the following languages will not be covered in this post since there’s not much to say.)

  • Hindi – No change, maintained.
  • Cantonese – No change, maintained.

Not targeted

  • Hmong – Still ignored
  • Yoruba – Still ignored.
  • Swahili & Zulu – Still ignored.
  • Russian & Greek – Slight loss.
  • Morse Code  – Some loss.

Improved Languages

Mandarin Chinese

Primary Learning Method: Texting, Chinese interfaces, Speaking when possible.

Status: Improved: Rating myself using CEFR: Solid B1, almost B2 if it wasn’t for lacking vocabulary and still some problems in listening comprehension.

How am I doing?

Well, after 4 years, I really do feel I can “speak” Chinese and am comfortable speaking the language, and I had it proved on my recent trip to Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan.

In Korea, I actually used a lot of Chinese. At the airport, one of the first things I had already decided on doing was renting a phone. This is fairly important and there were long lines so I wasn’t going to waste people’s time by struggling with Korean, so I began in English. However, when I realized the person serving me spoke Chinese when she responded to a Chinese customer, I spoke to her in Chinese. She was easy-going and we decided to try going through the whole process in Chinese! I managed just fine; the rental agreement, charges, policies – I worked it all out in Chinese, though I probably got lucky since it was all relatively simple and did not require any advanced vocabulary.

Afterwards, I actually met many Koreans whose Mandarin was better than their English. Mandarin became a language I practiced everyday in Seoul.

LESSON OF THE DAY: Learn Mandarin for your stay in Korea?????

In Taiwan, I had no reason to speak English. Furthermore, I gave myself a challenge to speak in the Taiwanese variant and accent of Mandarin. It was easier than I thought, though in retrospect I could have done better had I remembered a few other things. I went on a tour where all the other tourists were Chinese, bringing up the fortunate situation where I requested for what was officially an English-language tour to be done in Chinese instead. Very good experience.

Then I met a good friend I made through a language exchange app called HelloTalk. We hung out all day, from 11am to 11pm. 11am to 5pm we only spoke in Chinese. Then I turned it around and we spoke all English for her benefit.

What’s next?

Not much new other than keeping up what I’m doing and try to do more in Chinese. Keep texting my friends in Chinese, keep speaking up in Chinese if I meet any Chinese people, use it in Chinese restaurants, practice Standard and Taiwanese variants of Mandarin depending on who I’m speaking to, change more interfaces to Chinese, try to watch more Chinese TV and movies, etc.


Primary Learning Method: Talk to Me in Korean (TTMiK) lessons, texting friends.

Status: Much improvement. Probably a high A1

How am I doing?

As my trip to Korea approached, I more heavily reviewed my TTMiK lessons, from early lessons and continuing as far as I could go before my trip, mainly listening for anything I had forgotten and noting down any vocabulary I wanted to review or learn. I was not getting speaking practice but I tried repeating out loud when possible (at least mentally) and making sure I wrote more Korean with my friends (texting). I knew it still wouldn’t be much and I was mainly trying to refresh and cram a little bit before getting to Korea and getting my speaking practice there.

I tried speaking English as little as possible, using it only when I was too stuck with Korean or needed to work faster – I was there to travel and meet people, and I was not putting language practice ahead of that. Then I had a tour of Seoul that ended up being a private tour since I was the only one who booked for that day! My tour guide agreed to speak Korean for all the non-tour-info conversations. She did better than that though; she would still tell me things in Korean even when she was talking about the places we were visiting. It was great practice.

In Taiwan, the hostels I stayed in were full of Koreans. I met a few of them and spoke a lot of Korean with them. I was still forced to change to English or Mandarin for some things, but I did my best to keep things in Korean as much as possible.

The great news is, I felt that my level in Korean is quite like the level of Chinese that I had when I went on my first trip to China. In both cases, I had been tackling the languages seriously for about 2 years. I can thus feel relatively confident that in another 2 years, I’ll be speaking Korean pretty confidently, just as I just wrote above regarding Mandarin! I’m hoping and excited that it will really turn out that way.

What’s Next?

I intend to continue following the lessons at Talk to Me in Korean, and texting more, especially now that I’ve made a few more Korean friends. I’ll try to speak to them in Korean as well and maybe I’ll visit my nearby Korean restaurants more often.


Primary Learning Method: Not much; listening to music, Word of the Day apps, anime, some texting.

Status: Dropped a bit, most notably in speaking. Now stagnant but stable; still a low A2 or most likely a high A1

How am I doing?

My Japanese continued to be pushed back since Korean took over the #2 priority spot in preparation for my trip to Korea. I tried to remind myself of things mentally either randomly or when facing something similar in Korean, reviewed my podcasts and dialogs sometimes, and spoke and wrote it with friends when possible, though relatively rare. However, it was happening a little more often than before since I did make a few friends through the HelloTalk app, so I have some Japanese language partners again.

At a language learners meet up by Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months, I practiced some Japanese with a Japanese woman attending. It was pretty slow and stubborn to come out, with my mind wanting to speak Mandarin or Korean instead – an understandable issue since I had just returned from my trip to Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan just a week prior. However, I did refresh as well as learn a few new words.

What’s Next?

Ok, maybe finally I can place Japanese in my #2 if not #1 spot of focus. I do enough in Chinese that I don’t need to put conscious effort into practicing it, so I could place Japanese in first place now. I want to apply for the JET program again and if I don’t get in, I still want to travel to Japan next year, so it’s finally Japanese’s turn – no excuses!

Lesser Efforts


Primary Learning Method: Word of the Day app, French conversation meet ups, some texting.

Status: Hopefully stable now, but still at risk. Likely a high A1 but may appear to be a low A2 from lack of speaking practice.

How am I doing?

French saw a nice boost this year as I’ve begun attending French conversation meet ups – they’re doing great things for my French! The story of my first meet up is here, and basically what happened is that after 4 years of not practicing French, my French was understandably slow when I was greeted and asked basic questions like where I lived and how long I’ve studied French. I was replying as slow as a 1st-semester student (no offense to 1st-semester students, that’s a normal stage of learning!), but the dinner was all in French, so after 2 hours, I was on-par with them, speaking just as fast as they were, discussing education, travel, and world cultures.

Despite that, a brief meeting with French people on a spring break trip was almost total a failure, because despite leaving that meeting speaking almost as fluidly as I did 4 years ago, I did not get to go to another one afterwards, so I hadn’t practiced again for at least 2 months. Just like what would happen in real life with real-life objects, other languages were worked on instead, and leaving French untouched meant it got pushed back in storage.

Then I went to a language learner’s meet up by Benny Lewis in DC, and the experience was in between. Again, at first I was quite slow, but I was with a group of people for maybe an hour who all had French as a common foreign language, so we spoke French for maybe 20 minutes. My French got a little faster after continuing to speak and hear it for 10 minutes or so.

What’s next?

Still not thinking about it much, and I simply plan to continue attending the French meet ups in my area. That should be enough. I still need to stabilize my Japanese efforts before doing more with French.



Primary Learning Method: Paying attention to myself and others!

Status: Slowly improving.

How am I doing?

I’m watching out for and correcting mistakes and looking up words I need to know. I’m paying more attention and watching out for words, phrases, idioms, and the like that I hear my parents say but maybe I don’t really say myself. I searched YouTube for the X-men cartoon episodes of the Days of Future Past storyline (just to see what the new movie was based on), and I found them dubbed in Spanish, so I watched those. I actually picked up a couple of words from that!


VietnameseFlag of Southern Vietnam. Click for info.

Primary Learning Method: Mental review

Status: Stable.

How am I doing?

Basically I’m still reminding myself of the words and phrases and going over them in my head. If I visit the house of Vietnamese friends, I use what I can with their families. On my trip to Vietnam, I spent *all* my time with close friends I hadn’t seen in a while, so speaking Vietnamese was not something I wanted to do with them, but if anything came up, or I had a question, I would ask and learn / practice. When I went to their places for dinner, I used what I could with their families. Finally, the taxi drivers I had spoke virtually no English so I spoke as much Vietnamese I could, checking whatever limited Vietnamese resources I had on my phone (I forgot to look for and download offline dictionaries for my phone before my trip!!). Surprisingly, I managed to have a couple very basic, limited conversations through the help of body language and context, and one taxi driver asked me to read Vietnamese so he could correct my pronunciation, and I managed to indicate I wanted to know how to read the time and so he taught me by reading different times out and having me read them back.

What’s next?

Will try to learn more, ask my friends more, write it more. However, I’m still not really putting much focus on it. I’ll try to maintain it at least.


The Newer / Recent Languages


Last year, as I said in my previous Performance Review, I started a few more languages in a limited way.


Shanghainese and Taiwanese / Hokkien

Last year I began to pick these up as a little experiment to learn 2 languages literally at the same time, advancing them equally. I’m actually keeping what little I know stable! Learning like a couple words a month, but as I’ve said before, I do run into or know Chinese who speak these languages, so I’ll exchange a few words and phrases when possible. Both in Seoul and Taipei I met Shanghainese and in Taiwan I met some (including a friend) who speak Taiwanese so I practiced and learned a couple of things.

What’s Next?
Glossika has released a Taiwanese package! And Shanghinese is upcoming! And so are custom dual-language packages! I’m still exchanging emails to see how we could make one for me, using Mandarin as a source language. I always recommend and tend to exclusively promote free learning resources, but I’ve followed Mike Campbell of Glossika for a few years and I agree with and support his ideas and methods, so I expect I would support his products – they’re relatively cheap anyway – no more than $80 for a full 3-level package? Wow. So I’ll buy one or two, will review it, and will let you guys know what I think.


I try look at any Thai script I run into to make sure I recognize the vowels I should know. I made a Thai friend and learned to say thank you. That’s about all that’s happened. :)

What’s Next?

Not focusing on it. Just retain the 3 phrases or so that I know, and don’t forget those vowels!


Haven’t really practiced it much; I’m forgetting the script.

What’s Next?

I’m just keeping it mind. One day I’ll make myself look over the script again. I’ll try to review the script and finish learning it, and review the numbers since I still remember most of the words, but forgot which is which!




Interesting ups and downs, but Mandarin continues improving, allowing me a comfortable, Mandarin-only time in Taiwan, and my Korean was usable enough in Korea for getting around and making friends. Japanese has seen loss but still maintained over all, so I’m happy for that and am ready to bring up more serious attention to it. I look forward to more French conversation meetups; there are 3 I could go to every month. I also look forward to trying out a Glossika product and advancing my Shanghainese and Taiwanese by using Mandarin. We’ll see how it goes! Look out for my next Performance Review, coming summer 2015!

Performance Review & Progress Report, 2013

2014/08/16 Leave a comment

Continuing my “Performance Review” series, checking every summer how I’ve done in the past year.

2009 – 2012: In this last post, I went over what I did in those years.
Pre-2009: In this older post, I went over what was my position in languages 3 years ago, before I started learning Japanese and got into this current stage of language learning.

It was in 2009 that I started by current stage of language learning, starting with my decision to study Japanese. Before that, I consider myself as having been just like most other people.

2013 thus marks 4 years since I started these efforts. I’m writing these posts to try to better show I’m nothing special and you can do it too. So, here’s a summary of what I’ve done in the past year.

Main Efforts


Mandarin Chinese

Primary Learning Method: Chatting with friends, Chinese interfaces, listening to Music.

Status: Improved: Rating myself using CEFR: High B1, almost B2 if it wasn’t for lacking vocabulary and heavy problems in listening comprehension.

How am I doing?

Although not clear since my description was not in chronological order, the period of time covered in my last post ended just a few weeks after my time in China – remember: I said before the trip, I felt my level was A2, but afterwards it was B1. Before, I was too slow to comfortably instant message (IM) in Chinese, limiting it to select sentences, but upon my return, I surprised both myself and one my main languages partners and friends by being able to carry out the conversation in Chinese. A little slow, but fast enough for IM’ing. A few hold ups when I wasn’t confident or didn’t know a word, but nothing a quick dictionary check couldn’t solve.

Intending to resume studying Japanese, I began pulling away from studying Chinese, slowly limiting the study to vocabulary I collect in flashcards, and stick to mainly practicing it. I made enough friends in China and back here so that I text nearly every day in Chinese, and once a week have at least a short chat online. Once in a while I’d have long, 2 or 3 hour IM conversations, including some video chats over QQ and Skype.

I keep it up and make sure I’m exposed to it as much as possible. My school / work email interface is in Chinese, so when I reply to emails, they’ll see the previous message with 发件人, 收件人, 发送时间, and 主题 (sender, recipient, time sent, and subject)! As written about before, my phone has remained in Chinese, and some apps have had updates (eg, Evernote, The Weather Channel) that brought their interfaces into Chinese as well. I use Facebook in Chinese, and still use the Chinese social networking site Renren once in a while so I can read my friends’ posts. I’m not watching much Chinese TV or film, though I still try to listen to music, and if I run into a clip on YouTube, I’ll watch if I have time and note down what I can. I also follow Glossika Chinese and a few other Facebook pages on learning Chinese or languages, so that I can see posts of vocabulary, phrases, and more. Note how much of this is relatively lazy effort. I’m not doing the full-force immersion that other people (and I myself would) recommend if you’re trying to study intensively. I may write certain notes to myself in Chinese – the compactness of Chinese makes it an ideal choice sometimes! I usually check my free WordPower Word of the Day apps and save useful words.

I also try speaking as much as I can. I’ll use Weixin (WeChat), a messaging app, to send voice messages. If I go to restaurant with Chinese waiters and staff, I’ll speak Chinese. There’s a badminton club that uses my school’s gym every week of summer, and I was once on campus on that day and saw a few Chinese of ages maybe from 20 to 70. I went in and sat near the Chinese woman taking a break, started some small talk about what was going on, asked if she was Chinese after examining her accent enough, and then continued in Mandarin. I got lucky; she’s from Shanghai and I got to practice the few phrases I know. Then a friend came over, noticing us talk, and he was Cantonese, so I got to practice that too.

Some weeks later, two Chinese guys who would be starting this fall were looking for some help, and it was me they found. After everything was settled, I met with parents. They were a bit difficult to understand (the father was especially incomprehensible; southern accent plus slurring was too much for me), but I still managed to answer a lot about the school environment, activities, housing, and professors, along with typical questions of my Chinese study.

Basically, I can finally confidently say I can speak Mandarin. I have no issues texting or IM’ing; I may need to refer to the dictionary, but there’s never a roadblock preventing understanding. As for speaking, In person or over Skype, there are more roadblocks that a good gesture, round-about explanation, or English word needs to be used, but I’ve chatted an hour or hour and a half with a friend from Beijing over Skype, and 30+ minutes with strangers in person. I tend to need slower speech and patience from the person, but I can handle a normal rate of speech as long as they have good pronunciation and speak calmly rather than fast.

Anytime I run into something I don’t understand or find myself not being able to say a certain word I need or how to express something, I’ll ask or look it up, put it in my flashcards, and review it later.

What’s next?

I plan to keep it this way for now; keep learning vocabulary, and keep practicing – more with friends, more with strangers, more voice messaging, more online video/voice chatting as possible.


Primary Learning Method: Talk to me in Korean lessons, running a study group with friends, and teaching what I know.

Status: Much improvement. Probably a high A1

How am I doing?

Despite wanting to focus on Japanese, Korean is the one seeing the focus I would have wanted for Japanese. This is because in January of 2013, I started a Korean study group at school. As stated in my previous post, I wanted to continue studying Korean. Since I try to make my study of different languages happen through at least slightly different methods, I decided I wanted to have a study partner for Korean. Soon after I began wondering who may be interested, one of my friends messaged me on Facebook and asked me about starting Korean. What a great coincidence; I found my study partner. A few other friends expressed interest as well, so we decided to make it a regular group meeting each week, and that’s how the TCBP Korean Study Group started. I and four friends met nearly every week for the whole semester (and a few others sometimes joined in) as well as the summer semester. We would skim through a podcast, discuss the main points, practice speaking with other, try to create sentences, and once in a while I’d bring a sample for listening practice such as a clip of a Korean drama, part of a TV show, or a song.

Teaching my friends Korean also helped force me to work on my study sheets as well as some companion files and notes to the podcast, which I hope to continue work and then provide on this website.

Soon, the friend who was my actual study partner reached the podcast episodes I was listening to, and we would usually keep working together after the other had left. He would ask me questions, show me something new he found, teach me something else he learned, etc. One time we walked outside around campus for a whole hour and only spoke to each in Korean after whatever came to mind, whatever we saw, and even whatever Korean questions came to our minds.

It worked very well for me. Teaching helped me to really cement my basic Korean, and I advanced pretty quickly with all the new lessons I tackled with my friend, and the practice we had with each other meant we could use what we learned. However, we did not do well in tackling enough vocabulary for the amount of grammar we knew, so that was something we were beginning to work on.

What’s Next?

I intend to continue following the lessons at Talk to Me in Korean, simultaneously working on my write-ups to show relationships with Japanese and Chinese, but more important is to keep pulling-away from the Talk to Me in Korean lessons since they are so focused on grammar, use a more varied range of resources, and learn more vocabulary rather than grammar.


Primary Learning Method: Not much; listening to music, Word of the Day apps, anime.

Status: Dropped a bit, most notably in speaking. Now stagnant but stable; still a low A2 or most likely a high A1

How am I doing?

The last post seemed to show my Japanese had gotten relatively decent and I was indeed happy with it. However, since these reviews are happening from one midsummer to the next, the last post did not cover the state of my Japanese after having focused on Mandarin, and gone to China. The news is, not good.

I made a bad choice. Actually, I knew full well it was, and chose to do it anyway as an experiment. That choice was to completely focus on Mandarin and ignore Japanese. I do not regret the choice; I needed the focus on Chinese and am glad I got to the point I did to better prepare me for my trip, and it helped me use the trip to practice a lot and quickly “level up.” However, there are consequences. Mixing up languages happens when the languages are not being kept “alive” enough. It could be that you started a new language, or you’re failing to practice one enough. That’s what happened to me. Japanese had been shunned. Cases that should make me recall Japanese (such as looking at a Chinese character) involved me only thinking of Mandarin because I was not caring to think of Japanese. Japanese may not have actually been the only one affected – my focus on Mandarin seems to have made my brain think of it as the only other foreign language to use, so any time I was switching away from English and Spanish – whether it was to French, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, etc. – Mandarin was the first thing to come to mind. However, Japanese was the only one where I previously had some decent ability to communicate; I was always going to be slow and stutter-y with French, Korean, and Cantonese, but this was not to be expected from my Japanese, so it was hit hard.

I had hoped and still hope to balance my trip to China with a trip to Japan – specifically, I’d like to go teach English there for a year or so. An interesting situation came up when I went to a JET information session at a university. I spoke to one of the Japanese professors there, since she knew a good bit about JET and supports it. I started off in Japanese, introducing myself, and then switched to English, apologizing my Japanese wasn’t very good as I’ve been focusing on Mandarin. A while after however, she switched back to Japanese, telling me she has students who’ve done JET, saying I could contact her for questions, what we could share over email, and a few other things like that. I understood almost everything – but I could not reply. Were I to open my mouth, I would have spoken Mandarin, because my brain was stuck on “oh, foreign language you say? Ok, Chinese!” And I say: “No, brain, no, I want Japanese right now! Remember? It’s the thing you’re listening to right now!! Right, ok, Japanese now  – no! Don’t say 明白了 (ming2bai2 le; I understand)!Oh I give up, English then.”

I did however, resume watching anime while eating, listening to my Japanese music playlist, as well as my Vocaloid playlist, I still pick up many words and, especially when watching anime, I can compare what I heard with the subtitles to see if I find anything worth learning and then look up words as necessary to put into my flashcards. I’m using more Japanese with friends I know, although it’s still very little. I picked up my Zune again and started going over the dialogues I have in there from JapanesePod101 (good content, but terrible scam-like marketing), but I didn’t have them all – and recent computer issues and changes has left things pretty disorganized and I can’t use such media library software (like iTunes or the Zune software) right now without making a bigger mess. I have a 2nd-hand iPhone for podcasts, but that one has bricked, and I can’t make the time yet to deal with fixing it. Technical issues are hindering my Japanese! That’s an excuse, but with some legitimacy because I have my chosen ways to practice each language, and these issues are ruining the way I can fit Japanese into my life. Not happy!

People are always a good answer. At a nearby college, I met a Japanese student and an alumni, and we got along well. We practiced a good bit and we met up a few times. However, now that they’ve left the school, contact has been more difficult. I kept reaching out but the contact is not being returned as much, so oh well. I am again without a Japanese language partner. I’ll resume trying to find some through language exchange sites.

What’s Next?

Find a partner and practice! Fix the iPhone, finishing organizing the computer, and resume reviewing! Finally, make it the primary language of study, while keeping the other languages in constant practice.

Lesser Efforts


Primary Learning Method: Not much; little more than searching the internet in French and using a Word of the Day app.

Status: Potentially still slipping, especially in speaking. May appear to be a low A2 or most likely a high A1.

How am I doing?

Not good. Not much difference from the last post. I still need to try to get back to it. However, Japan’s NHK has Japanese lessons in many languages, so I’ve been listening to some of them in French.

What’s next?

Not thinking about it much yet. Still need to stabilize my Japanese efforts before I move on to bringing back the French.


Primary Learning Method: Mental review; occasional opportunities with friends

Status: Stable plateau.

How am I doing?

Barely doing much other that recalling certain words and phrases once in a while. I’m pretty much just retaining what I know, may review a grammar point or two once in a blue moon, practice a bit by saying a few things with friends, and learn a new word or phrases. However, I’m still sketchy on some letters, potentially forgetting, but  I learned a bit more details on some conjugations and I put some sentences together for correction on Lang-8.

What’s next?

I need to keep it up. I’ve already made up some or used a couple mnemonics from an article I previously linked to, preserving those letters in my memory, but I need to finish doing that for the rest. I need to practice saying what I know so that I remember exactly how to pronounce them, which in turn helps me remember their proper spelling. In addition, I haven’t yet solidified my knowledge in conjugation for present, present progressive, and past tenses. I’m not really working to do much else other than retaining it.

Flag of Hong KongCantonese

Primary Learning Method: Mental review; podcasts

Status: Stable.

How am I doing?

Every once in a while I’ll remind myself on how to say something, and I’ll replay some of my Cantonese podcasts. I even have a few dialogs almost memorized. Anything I’ve forgotten will quickly come back to me. For thanksgiving, I went with Barely doing much other that recalling certain words and phrases once in a while. I’m pretty much just retaining what I know, may review a grammar point or two once in a blue moon, practice a bit by saying a few things with friends, and learn a new word or phrases. However, I’m still sketchy on some letters, potentially forgetting, but  I learned a bit more details on some conjugations and I put some sentences together for correction on Lang-8.

What’s next?

I need to keep it up. I’ve already done some review of podcasts and asked friends for confirmations of things or to check my pronunciation. For now, I’m just going to keep in mind what I already know, reminding myself of it, practicing it when possible, and occasionally looking over vocabulary I’ve learned.

VietnameseFlag of Southern Vietnam. Click for info.

Primary Learning Method: Mental review

Status: Barely stable.

How am I doing?

Barely doing much other that recalling certain words and phrases once in a while. I’m pretty much just retaining what I know, may review a grammar point or two once in a blue moon, practice a bit by saying a few things with friends, and learn a new word or phrases. However, I’m still sketchy on some letters, potentially forgetting, but  I learned a bit more details on some conjugations and I put some sentences together for correction on Lang-8.

What’s next?

Just going to maintain what I have, reminding myself of what I know, mentally practicing.

New Languages


I have started work on a few more languages.


Similar to Russian, Greek, and (initially) Vietnamese and Korean, I decided to learn to read Arabic, though not necessarily planning to learn the language. Using the great content at, I learned most of the Arabic script.

Nevertheless, I’ve also learned the numbers in Arabic, and just a couple basic phrases, like hello, thank you, how are you, and “do you speak Arabic.” Surely I still have issues pronouncing it perfectly, so some people don’t understand me when I shoot out this phrase, even though I can say it pretty quickly and fluidly. However, in the future (relative to the time this post is referring to), in summer of 2014, I was in Virginia and took a cab with a Middle Eastern taxi driver. I shot out this phrase quickly and he understood me just fine. Yay!

What’s Next?

Not much. Just want to maintain what I know of the script, hopefully finish learning it.

Shanghainese and Taiwanese / Hokkien

These are two different Chinese languages, and by the way I’m naming them, I specifically point out the Shanghai dialect of the Wu family of languages, and the Taiwanese and / or Amoy (Xiamen) variant of Southern Min, aka:  Hokkien.

Why do I group these together? Because it’s an experiment of mine: learn two languages, literally, at once. In other words, whenever I learn something of one of the languages, I will make it a point to learn it in the other, thus advancing both equally. I even log the learned vocabulary in a spreadsheet to make sure I keep track of what words I know in each language.

I wrote a blog post speaking of my start with these languages. Most of you would probably be interested or only get something out of the introductions and listings of resources for the languages. Beyond that, I’m mainly just rambling and voicing my first impressions of the languages, which was pretty fun to do and you could use it to learn some yourself.

I’ve learned some basic phrases in both languages, and I learned the numbers in Shanghainese.

What’s Next?
Not much. I’m actually doing this very slowly, only as opportunities come up. Plan is to just maintain and watch for opportunities.


I watched a video by Stuart Jay Ray, the main guy to check out if you want to study Thai. The video is pretty time-efficient and he teaches the vowels with mnemonics so good that after watching the video only once, I tested myself and remembered all of the vowels.

If I get the urge sometime, I may to learn more letters, but I’m not really going to try for it right now. So I’m just going to try to remember what I know by trying to look for the vowels I know anytime I see Thai writing, and just be open to learning something if the opportunity comes up.


And that’s it!

On to a new year and let’s see what 2013-2014 brings!

Project: Crosslingual Character / Syllable Relationships

2014/06/28 3 comments

The WorldAs with Romance languages and Latin, many Asian languages share vocabulary through Chinese, but it’s less obvious. I’m thus making a reference table to make them clear and discoverable for learners of more than one Asian language. Help needed! If you’d like to, please contact me! Linguistic knowledge not required.

Why Do We Need This Reference?

“Difficult” is a relative term: Spanish, French, and German are considered “easy” languages for English-speakers due to similarities in grammar, vocabulary, and writing, while Korean has practically no relation to English and so may be seen as “difficult.” Neither Japanese, Korean, Chinese, nor Vietnamese share a language family with each other (practically), but they have all seen Chinese influence, creating some common vocabulary between them all, just like how those European languages share Latin roots and words. I would thus argue that once you learn one of these languages, the other languages lose their place as “difficult” since the shared vocabulary (along with grammatical concepts) will serve as a nice springboard toward learning the other.

From my experience and what I’ve seen, this means there are connections you can take advantage of between most Chinese languages, Hokkien languages, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and maybe others to lesser extents (such as through loanwords in Indonesian). However, compared to, say, Romance Languages, these connections may be less obvious due to more drastic differences in pronunciation and writing systems, so I believe we need extra effort.

Words for Time compared

A Table for Comparing and Contrasting

Despite the pronunciation changes, since Chinese languages are made up of a very small set of syllables attributed to various characters, I believe it’s realistic to make a table of all the syllables and include what they sound like in various languages. This will probably be more efficient as a sort of database, but for now, it’s easier to build it as a spreadsheet.

So here’s a sample below. Attempting a neutral option, I placed the Chinese character in the 1st column, and the other columns hold pronunciations of applicable languages. Currently, they are Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Southern Min, and Vietnamese. What could we learn from this?

Look at the very first entry and see what you discover. It is the character 学 or 學, which relates to learning. If you can’t read them , the Japanese reading is “gaku” and the Korean one is “hak.” FYI, readings marked with a question mark are ones that I have not confirmed yet, and yes, I know the Mandarin tones are redundant – it’s on purpose. Full disclaimers at the end.


Sample of my table

Notice anything? Most of them start with an h, have “a” or “o” as a vowel, and end with a closure, which Japanese tends to bounce into a full syllable. Interestingly, we see that Mandarin is the bizarre language in this case; even amidst three other Chinese languages (Cantonese, Southern Min, and Shanghainese), its pronunciation seems to make no sense. Luckily, in almost every other case I’ve seen, Mandarin pronunciation is also related.

Now, that was only ONE example of a “hak / hok” syllable. I don’t know what happens when we compare more, but building this table will show us these answers. Hopefully, we’ll confirm that any time you see a “hak / hok” syllable, we will see the same pattern across these the languages. However, it’s also possible that “hak / hok” syllables with different meanings have different pronunciations in some languages. After all, I’m sure not all the languages have the exact same number of available syllables.

Cool! But…Am I Supposed to Study This???

NO. NO. NO. This would be for reference only. It’s a way to keep a record so that if you start noticing patterns or choose to learn a few, you can check this. All I’m doing is writing down what many multilinguals find out on their own: as they learn more and more of two related languages and pick up on these patterns, they are more likely to be able to guess how to pronounce a word in the other language. I personally know many people who do this. Basically, this would help for a much more scientific and reliable approach toward trying to change a word you know in one language to use in the other – over 9000% more reliable than tacking O’s after English words to make them Spanish!

What’s Next? Well, I Need Help!

Assistants! Volunteers! Slaves! Beasts of Burden! Camels! Come one, come all!

Other than that, I need to keep collecting this data for more common characters. For example I have “yuan” listed four times, representing four different characters / meanings. In Japanese, two of them become “in” and two become “en.” What about Korean? What about Cantonese?

I could use people to fill in more of these cells. It would be best if you know one of these languages so that you can add them from memory, but I have dictionaries we can use.

If there are some strong trends, then hopefully the table can be simplified and shortened in the future by breaking down full syllables (like “yuan”) into their parts: initials (in this case, y-) and finals (in this case, -uan). I’ve already noticed a few of these trends, which means the table as it is now may be unnecessarily long.

Most immediately important, however, is: Has anyone else partially done this kind of table already? Maybe for only two languages? I’ve been trying to find them. Let me know if you know of any!

If you want to offer any help (even if you’re not sure how you can), please reply, contact me through the Contact TCBP page, or message me through the Facebook page. I’m going to be doing this no matter what, since at the very least I want it for myself, but I’d want to this out there for anyone else who can use it, so I do ask for your help!

Cooperation makes things happen!

One of my favorite songs from way back when!

Notes about the table:

  • For now, my table shows a 1-to-1 relation between syllables / characters but I am well aware there are many cases where that’s not true. If I keep a spreadsheet format, I’ll have to have redundant entries or an extra column or something.
  • Readings marked with a question mark are ones that I have not confirmed yet – I just know they kind of sound that way or I need to confirm the tone.
  • Blanks simply mean I do not know or haven’t filled it in yet.
  • If a character happens to not exist in one of those languages for sure, I’ll write N/A or something.
  • Mandarin’s pinyin is purposely redundant, having both tone marks and numbers. This makes it easy to strip one or the other if desired.
  • The table is ordered alphabetically by Mandarin Pinyin.
  • 1st column may hold multiple variants of the same character: first simplified, then traditional, and then any others in the order of the given languages.
  • Characters listed twice or more are that way to allow the listing of other existing pronunciations.

First Real-World Korean-Speaking test

2014/05/28 Leave a comment

jalAh, that exciting and scary moment when it’s time to converse for the first time after you’ve been learning on your own for a while.

Korean had been barely been a subject of my study during my first 3 years of my recent language-learning efforts, but it had been there nonetheless; once in a while I’d pick up a couple more words from songs, listen to a Talk To Me in Korean lesson that I was curious about, maybe search online how something is said in Korean, etc. However, it wasn’t until Fall of 2012, when I started the TCBP Korean Study Group at my university, that I finally managed to get back into studying Korean more regularly and seriously.

Now it was summer, yet the study group has continued since most of the students were still around, so I had kept up the study. One of my friends graduated at the end of the first half of summer, so we went out for a farewell lunch as he was going back to China and had a job lined up for him there. He told me about a Korean restaurant we should go to, so we did. I was excited because he said it was in fact run by Koreans.

Then I Saw Her Face….

…of an older woman, near my friend’s table (he got there first), so I assumed she was the waitress. Having heard me come in, she turned around and the first thing she said to me was:

안녕하세요! (Annyeong haseyo)

I was momentarily stunned; why would you greet someone in Korean like that? We’re in America here!

I kid you not: I do not remember how I responded. That part of my memory is gone for some reason. I do not remember if I responded in Korean or English, since I was not expecting to be required to switch that quickly. If I did respond in English, I probably did immediately follow up in Korean.

Turns out my evil friend told her that I had been studying Korean “for years.” Of course, the consequences of that little detail wouldn’t affect the early conversation, but I didn’t like that she might have high expectations from me. However, it may have been a good thing. since it could have been part of the reason why later, she was willing to speak Korean, giving me the chance to practice speaking a good bit.

However, anything else right after the hello, as I sat down, was in English, and she left us to look over the menu.

When she came back, we somehow got back into Korean; I think she started it, actually. She took my order (in Korean), and then when she came back with the order, we spoke a little more. The sentences I remember from the whole experience were (and these are NOT literal translations):

  • You can speak Korean?
    I can speak a little.
  • How long have you been studying Korean?
    I’ve been studying for 1 year. I am studying with a friend. (I blanked on “year”; and although it was coming to me, she herself ended up telling me what it was before I remembered it confidently enough)
  • Have you been to Korea?
    No, but I would like to go someday. Actually, the friend I am studying with will go to Korea next year. Therefore, we are learning Korean together. (Messed up a good bit in getting the logical order of the sentences and their conjunctions, and I restarted a few times before I got it all out. To be honest, I over-thought it and shouldn’t have worried too much about making mistakes.)
  • Do you live in an apartment?
    No, I live at home with my parents.
    (Missed the word apartment; she had to tell me in English.)
  • Are you ready?
    Yes. This: one gobdol bulgogi and one Ssaek Ssaek grape [a canned drink] please.
  • Me: How old are they? [Asking about her children]
    Her, in English: They are 27 and…
    Me, in Korean: Could you please say it in Korean ?
    Her: My children are 29 and 27 years old.
    Me: Ah, 29 and 27, ok.
  • Come again, have a good day! (or something along those lines; can’t remember)
    Thank you! Goodbye!
Deep conversation on life and love was not included. (Picture: Jim Carrey in "Yes Man")

Deep conversation on life and love was not included.
(Picture: Jim Carrey in “Yes Man”)

The Abyss Analysis

Although I pointed out a couple of issues, I actually made more mistakes than that – and I don’t mean grammatical or pronunciation mistakes because those are expected and should be the least of your worries as long as you haven’t been lazy about it. This was NOT my first time speaking Korean with a native speaker. In fact, I should have posted about it when it first happened, but I did find myself a language exchange partner for Korean – actually, she found me, on She’s nice, fun, enthusiastic, helpful, and quite mean – in a funny way, of course! Even since the first time we spoke, I had no issues practicing my speaking; it felt just like when I practice speaking Mandarin. The only difference, of course, is that I’m much more limited in Korean.

Back to my problems at the restaurant, first of all, I blanked on some really stupid things – I mean, what could be of potentially more embarrassment than not responding to a simple hello? I also did not mean to say “I can only speak a little” (조금 밖에 못해요) but rather something closer to “I have a long way to go” (아직 머렀어요), but it just didn’t come to me.

Second, while I know my formal speech (존댓말) well, I found it funny how much extra effort it took just to add the 요 – I’m pretty sure I actually said 조금 밖에 못해………………….요!

Third, I mentioned already that I over-corrected myself, both mentally (slowing-down my speech), as well as orally (slowing down the other person by forcing them to hear my restatement). This especially happened as I tried to better form or pronounce verb conjugations. Don’t do this! Better to make mistakes and keep the conversation moving!

We the Jury, Find the Defendant…

Actually, it went pretty well – just not as well as usual. I did not actually forget all that I preach, and was mindful and aware enough of what was going on to mitigate it some. The only reason we didn’t get past those relatively basic phrases was because she got pretty talkative in English, and began talking (to all  of us) about how much she thinks input is important and how she strongly recommends heavily listening to radio and watching TV, even giving us details on certain TV packages that have Korean channels. She did this with her sons, who were growing up here in America, to ensure their level of Korean.

So, as you read about my little failings in this instance, the real message I’d like my readers to take away is: don’t worry about it! These things happen! As I said, I’ve spoken Korean before – in fact, probably over 10 times on Skype, and I’ve exchanged a few random phrases with friends in person. But for some reason, I tripped up more in this case than others. You will have bad days. This could even happen on the first few times you speak to someone, but you can’t be discouraged. Many factors come into play, whether it’s nervousness, subconscious concerns, or everyone’s mood. In my case, there were small, added pressures since the waitress was older (introducing the need for formal speech + the issue that older people’s speech can be harder to understand), my friend was there (he knows I’ve been learning; I expect to prove I can speak some with this waitress), and I also want to prove to myself that I can speak to an adult, native speaker. All of these can actually ruin your speech if you’re worrying about them before and during speaking.

If you start worrying when speaking more than when you are practicing, you’re turning your speaking into a performance, which it shouldn’t be. In almost anything, I think, unless you’re really good / near-perfect, confident, and/or lucky, performances tend to not go as well as practice, so over-worrying will definitely result in problems – just like when I worry too much over an upcoming piano performance of mine.

Don’t hold back! Your own inhibitions and concerns can hold you back more than any person – who tend to be happy and excited to see you try to speak their language.

Doing Things Right: When Practice Comes without Effort

2014/05/21 Leave a comment

The WorldSet up your environment so that the language comes to you automatically. Then, your continued practice is assured regardless of what may personally hold you up.

I recently had another interesting, fun, cool milestone – without trying or noticing. I thus wanted to share it and describe briefly how and why it happened, and how you could allow it to happen to you too.

The Picture that Showed it All….

So I had a long, busy day, the kind that would normally make me think I wouldn’t be able to get any decent language practice in, but as the day went by, I was noticing I was still managing some here and there. It was so busy, though, that I had not entered anything into my log by the end of the day, and I really didn’t feel like having to think over my whole day to go over this little chore. However, for my readers, for future readers, for language learners around the world, for the furthering of human progress…. I made myself spend the 10 minutes or so necessary to recall my day and write everything in. Yes, it took a while, but as I neared the end of my logging, it hit me:

Study record 10-17-13

That’s long. Probably 4 times the length of a normal day’s entry!

Did you count how many languages were represented?

  1. Japanese
  2. Mandarin
  3. Shanghainese
  4. Korean
  5. Cantonese
  6. Minnanhua (Southern Min) / Taiwanese
  7. Vietnamese
  8. Hindi
  9. French
  10. Arabic

Now, since I’m not expecting you to decipher my shorthand notation, I’ll clarify a few things. “Time” refers to minutes spent doing the action (shown here in h:m:s format, though I only use minutes and hours). “Action” is self-explanatory.  “Effort” describes an estimation of how much of that time was dedicated to the action, and the options are Full, Most, Multi(tasking), Spor(adic), & Back(ground) (initially conceived to represent listening to music in the background, but that I now use to refer to 10% effort or less). So “Most” means 80% of that time was doing the labeled action, and “Spor” would mean maybe 20%. Therefore, if there are 10 minutes with a “Spor” label, that means that if I cut out whatever else I was doing in those 10 minutes, I really only spent what would amount to 2 full minutes of the specified action. Finally, the “notes” is an extra label for as useful detail such as whether I was watching TV, listening to music, talking to a friend, texting, etc.

I am not saying I practiced 10 languages significantly in one day. I never make such judgments because any and all practice is significant. I know only a small handful of words and phrases in Arabic; any amount of thinking about it will help prevent losing what I know. Look the time spent every time. Some are 20 or 15 minutes, but most are just a few. We usually have spare minutes that we waste either just idling, or thinking or doing unnecessary things. Instead, use them wisely; they could amount to an hour or hours after a week or so.

Also note this is just a single day. While it’s a great milestone to notice, it only happened once, and I hope to see it happen more often – if I am indeed doings things “right.”

How did it happen?

Here comes the breakdown. How much sounds naturally occurring to you? In other words, a natural event just like anything I may do normally in English that did not require me to choose the foreign language. I hope you see that most of it was so, since a lot of it involved meeting friends, friends texting me, or friends leaving me voice messages. Still, I figure we can divide it into 3 categories. The first, are everyday events that normally happen in English but occurred in a different language without my control. Second would be interactions where it was my choice to act in the foreign language because someone else initiated or because the opportunity came up. Third, things that were completely my own decision and effort.

  • Natural Event: Natural, everyday event
  • Two-Way / Choice: Taking or responding to an opportunity
  • Self-Initiated: Solely initiating a stand-alone event

So here’s the breakdown, as pulled from my memory.

  • My foreign language experience that day began with 8 minutes of a video lesson – I either purposely decided I will watch one lesson today, or – more likely – I got a video recommendation or saw a new video update on YouTube or Facebook and I decided I could spare the time to watch the 4 or 5 minute video. That time stretched to 8 minutes due to rewinds and review. Then I simply repeated the dialog part or listened to a different Japanese video for 2 minutes.
  • Then 3 minutes writing some message in Chinese; most likely I left someone a text or wrote a status update on a Chinese social networking site.
  • 1 minute “sporadically” speaking Japanese to a friend on an app called WeChat, voice and text messaging app like WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, LINE, etc. So basically, I spent about 10 seconds saying something in Japanese to a friend – who is not Japanese, since she studied it a lot herself.
  • I noted 2 minutes looking something up in Japanese, with half-effort / while doing something else. Most likely I needed to check a word before speaking, or my message led me to wonder about how to say something related. I think I was confirming the word for “meal.”
  • 1 minute background (ie, <10% of the time) speaking Shanghainese with a friend. So it was probably just “hello” and “how are you” or something.
  • 2 minutes reading a Korean message; most likely a text someone left me. Then I spent 3 minutes looking up words I had trouble with.
  • 2 minutes speaking Korean with a friend. Another “sporadic” label but it covers two minutes, so we exchanged only a brief phrase or word here and t here.
  • Now there’s an interesting set. 3 minutes speaking Cantonese, 15 minutes speaking Mandarin, 1 Shanghainese, with low-effort labels but the important part is the “notes” label of “school.” When I merely mark a location, it means it was in person but NOT with someone I know personally (otherwise it would say “friend”). So these three instances describe meeting 1, 2, or 3 people at school, and exchanging a few words and phrases in that language with them.
  • 10 minutes singing Southern Min / Taiwanese. Could be a performance, recording, or singing / practicing in the car.
  • 30 minutes, and then 1 hour and 20 minutes texting in Mandarin. So while I was also doing something else, I was doing some heavy texting, having a conversation in Mandarin for almost 2 hours, leading me say I was “most”ly texting (Um, wasn’t I supposed to be “busy” on this day?? Busted….)
  • 10 minutes listening to Southern Min music, and 1 minute listening to a voice message someone sent me on WeChat.
  • 25 minutes drawing (ie, handwriting) Chinese while in class. I either didn’t need to pay much attention to the professor – or needed a way to pay more attention and stay awake – leading me to practice my writing, probably based on English words I heard and knew I should be able to translate.
  • Under a minute saying a couple things in Hindi to a friend (I remember I was practicing saying “how are you,” conjugating for the right gender since my friend was female), and then 3 minutes simply listening to friends talk in Hindi, trying to pick up what little I could.
  • 2 minutes texting in Japanese leading me to take another minute to look up a word or two.
  • 15 minutes of Japanese review from a video. I remember this; on my (1 hour) drive home, I listened to the video lesson I watched or heard in the morning, and looped it for 15 minutes.
  • Still on my drive home, I spoke 2 minutes of French to a friend over the phone – someone also learning French.
  • Then I spent the next 5 minutes doing a set of drills. Whatever I said in French got me started and I believe I ended up reciting the numbers in French as quickly as I could. Since I *should* know my numbers in 10 languages, I then moved on to practice and do speaking drills of the numbers in Cantonese, Arabic, and Vietnamese (the last listing visible). I probably also did it in most of the other languages, though they cannot be seen in the picture as I organized it to fit in the languages I hadn’t yet done that day.
  • Not visible in the picture are what I did after getting home, which was 4 minutes listening to a voice message from a friend in Mandarin, and 15 minutes of Chinese music, and….
  • an 11th language! I forgot this! I have a listing in here for Thai. I only know like 4 words in Thai, so what do we have here? 2 hours listening to Thai music (anyone following my Facebook page knows I recently updated my still-tiny Thai music YouTube playlist) and finally 2 minutes drilling myself speaking Thai. What? a 2 minute drill? Even now I wonder what that was about. Maybe I was practicing the male, formal way to say hello? (sawadnee krap). Or how to say delicious? (arroi)

Brief Categorical Language Practice Analysis 3000 – of Science!

So, how did that sound? Using my memory of the events, I’ve tallied them up into my 3 categories.

  • Natural Event: Natural, everyday event: 1 hour 34 minutes + 2 hours 25 minutes listening to music
  • Two-Way / Choice: Taking or responding to an opportunity: 48 minutes.
  • Self-Initiated: Solely initiating a stand-alone event: 40 minutes.

(I separated music in the first category since it’s skewing the result a bit; my time listening to music varies too much.)

Everyone may have a different idea on how to place my listed events in these categories – after all, a lot of what I considered as taking opportunities (blue) could be considered as being a natural thing as well, or something I purposefully made happen, but with this blue category, I wanted to emphasize slightly less-everyday occurrences that you must or could respond to, and indeed, some DO take a conscious effort if you’re not used it – e.g., being in class (especially if falling asleep) is (to me) an obvious opportunity for me to practice writing – but most people may not realize that or agree exactly.

The Take-Away: Lessen the Stand-Alone Efforts, Increase the Natural Ones

And that’s part of my point and the value of my making the blue category. At first, much of what I have in blue will be red for you – they will be things you have to put conscious effort in to find, realize, notice, and act upon. However, as you keep up the effort, they’ll become much more natural to you. As you get better in responding to your environment and opportunities, were to you label actions this same way, you would be aiming to lower the reds and increase the blues and especially the greens, which would be when the blue events become second-nature or normal, everyday occurrences.

Therefore, sending and receiving texts and voice messages, writing a status update on social media, and listening to music were marked in green – they required no special consideration in my mind and they are regular everyday occurrences. They could not have happened in English, or would have taken effort to do in English.

Saying a few things here and there when otherwise speaking in English, saying what few phrases I know when I met someone who speaks the language, practicing writing Chinese characters while in class, looking up a word for something I wanted to say, and speaking a language with a friend who is also leaning it were marked in blue, as they are a little less ordinary and took a little more conscious effort to choose to do so or take advantage of what I saw as an opportunity.

Finally, doing drills, watching a lesson, reviewing a lesson, and singing, are things I would not normally do for English, and were marked red since they are specific to language-learning and completely because I wanted to or decided I should. These easily do not happen if you are lazy or not putting in the effort – and this is where those new years resolutions fail.

Maybe I’ll write an article later specifically discussing the management of these activities.

Don’t hold back! Your own inhibitions and concerns can hold you back more than any person.

How’s my writing? Sorry, was I having too much fun with colors? Call 2MANY555CLRS. Ok, I’ll stop now.

How My First Language Meetup Showed Me I did NOT Forget my French

2014/05/14 Leave a comment

The WorldDid you really forget that foreign language? I share my first language exchange meet-up, that led to over 2 and 1/2 hours of French!

You haven’t spoken one of your foreign languages in some years. You come upon a situation where you are made to try speaking it. The words are slow to come, some seem forgotten, and you’re barely putting together cohesive sentences. You sound like an utter beginner, so you conclude what you’ve been suspecting: you’ve practically forgotten the language.

But have you really? That’s what I believed about my French, until this experience showed me otherwise. I haven’t spoken anything more than a few random sentences of French for over 6 years. I have not EVER spoken French for more than 30 minutes – and that was only once; 10 minutes was probably my usual maximum. I have, however, listened to French an hour or so, such as watching TV, but that was also rare. More details on my French level here. I thus considered myself unable to speak French anymore. The first half of this post will be a re-telling of that experience, and then I will use it to answering that question.

Language Meetups

I’m sure it’s not uncommon to hear of groups that get together once in a while for for special interests such as sewing, debates, book discussion, and so forth. It’s definitely a nice idea for anything that needs cooperation or when one is looking for people with the same interests. But have you ever looked for or gone to any for a subject of study? What about languages? Do you use

I feel like traditionally, news of these spread by word-of-mouth, but now in the age of the Internet, these can be announced and found online. This is also the case for language study. One of my language exchange partners and now good friend from Hong Kong tends to go to many meet ups for various languages, and although they may be hit or miss in quality, she’s had enough good experiences to lead her to continue going to them. Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3, and other polyglots, have praised the value of meet ups. Benny Lewis has said that most of his language practice actually comes from non-native speakers. Considering that non-native speakers can still help teach and correct each other, perfection is not important for communication, and that languages may have more non-native speakers than native ones, you may realize the idea of practicing with non-native speakers is not something to belittle.
1st words learned graphjam

Because this can also happen when you trust the wrong native speakers

Finally, I can speak of my own experience, when I went for my first French language meet up.

Decision & Arrival

I’d already heard about so I could have discovered this group there, but I hadn’t searched for French groups yet since I was still trying to stabilize my Chinese and Japanese practice. I am now finally putting the effort in to bring back my French, and I heard about this meet up by word-of-mouth – through a friend of mine at school. A friend of his had been going to this meet up and told him about it. This would be his first visit, and he decided to see if I wanted to join him. So we met up at school and carpooled to the cafe where the meeting would be held.

My friend figured we should be right on time or just a little bit early to allow us to be easily introduced into the group before they get settled in. We got there at 7 PM and ended up being the first ones there. I went to the bathroom briefly and upon my return, I saw my friend speaking to an older woman. As I approached I heard French conversation, and my friend introduced me to her all in French. It had begun.

My French was extremely stilted, leaving long pauses as I thought of the words I needed, even though she was asking me simple, introductory questions, to the point that I would switch to English when I felt too stuck, so as to get the conversation moving. After all, I was just meeting this person and I still had no sense of what this meetup would be like. Slowly, more people came in and they all greeted each other and began their small talk all in French – which I was glad to see because I was really hoping that English would be avoided, and indeed it was! As we had hoped, it was nice being there from the start, to get reintroduced to the new people, and even I would being to partake in the introduction, allowing for the repetition of names which of course helped me to remember them.

As I think is only natural, I understand that whether or not a meet up is good depends on how open the groups acts towards newcomers and of course, what everyone’s individual personality is like. Luckily, everyone was very friendly and open and despite most of them knowing each other from past meetings, they would turn the conversation to us, would include us, and would ask us questions. They never dominated conversations too much and allowed us to step in easily. Most of them were older women in their 50s or 60s or so (though later a few more came in, rounding it out for pretty even number males and females), their American accents were detectable, and they some had obvious difficulty sometimes, but when that happened, they would simply ask how to say it, would confirm a word, or would take the time to think about it and the others would wait. Overall, you could say they were definitely conversationally fluent.

The 2 and 1/2 hours

At first, I was understandably pretty quiet as I was mostly trying to listen to get a grasp of everyone’s level of French, get accustomed to their accents, and see how well I could follow the conversations. I would step into conversations as possible, at least to confirm my understanding or express a reaction, and any more serious attempts would be only if I felt I could add something worthwhile to the conversation. Both by my own initiative, as well as through their openness, invitations, and questions, my engagement in conversation slowly increased despite my continued moments of pensiveness and unsteady speech, which would tend to make me think in Chinese!  As I got used to to responding more quickly without over-thinking my responses, I even found myself accidentally saying a few Chinese words! Pretty funny, though I doubt anyone even fully realized it.

At least two of the women were actually old French teachers, who taught French at various levels of the school system. Both of them said that after so many years of no longer teaching French, they had forgotten quite a bit and thus looked for opportunities such as these meet ups to continue practicing. In speaking about my professor, I mentioned about our end-of-semester dinner at a French restaurant in my city. I’m not sure if I really should have been or not, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear that at least two of them knew the two French restaurants in my city and one of them had just been to one three weeks prior. We also discussed a little bit about the issues many people face when trying to practice languages, such as the focus on others’ perceptions and the concern of making mistakes, as well as the role of technology which can be a hindrance to personal communication but could also be a powerful tool, such as for finding these meet ups. We also discussed various travels that we had done, and with the younger man next to me, discussed a little bit about philosophies and cultures around the world.

As I continued to let myself go with the flow of the conversation, my French sped up so that by the time we were in the last 30 minutes of the meeting, I was speaking fairly smoothly without many pauses – and I was no longer thinking in Chinese! As the conversations closed and we prepared to leave, I realized that it had been 2 1/2 hours! Not only did I manage for that long, but more importantly, I also only then realized how much my speech improved and sped up in those 2 1/2 hours.

The Analysis: How much do you really know? The effect of heavy speaking practice

Here I found something interesting about language practice, particularly when you have not practiced for a while. For about 3 years now, I have been saying that I do not really speak French – I can usually read it ok (and have of that is guessing from context or from similarity to Spanish – in other words, cheating, and involving words I would not think of when speaking), I sometimes do online research in French, but I can only understand some standard speech decently well, can write if I’m given a million years to get the right spelling, and speaking makes me sound like a beginner. You may be in a worse situation, where speaking is not the only thing that’s bad. In such a situation, a few moments of study, listening, drills, etc., may not allow you to see much improvement or truly assess your level – even doing such practice for a few minutes may discourage you because you will feel that you have confirmed that you have lost too much of the language and cannot speak. While I’m experienced enough to have known that this was not the case with me, it was definitely the impression I would get any time I tried speaking to anyone in French. However…

  • This opportunity forced me to speak for a long time, showing me that much of my French was still there and I simply needed to force it out and refresh what was too hard to get out.
  • I still place high value on knowing how to use spare minutes and seconds of free time to continue learning and maintaining, but that is barely any kind of real practice; it just deals with your knowledge. You can amass all the knowledge you want, but it won’t come out at a matching level until you actually practice using it; your brain needs to learn how to efficiently pick from your library of knowledge and put sentences together.
  • Remember, real life language use isn’t an exam – you can ask, you will be helped, and maybe you can check your dictionary. In this situation where everyone was a non-native speaker / learner and everyone was here to help each other, all I needed to do was ask and I would be told so I could move on. Almost everyone at some point had to ask about how to say something, or would get corrected, or would try their best anyway by using a similar word or, in the worst case scenario, a literal translation of English.
  • I was also surprised about something else, and that is, that despite my intermediate knowledge of French, I never thought I could converse this much. My studies have been mostly academic and relatively proper in writing, speech, vocabulary, and so forth, so there are a lot of colloquial and casual words and expressions that I don’t know. I was even still forgetting stupid words like “since,” but knew a lot more advanced words to express my thoughts on school, language learning, and even philosophy. Especially being with an older group of people, neologisms, slang, and other colloquialisms were not used, but the amount of conversation was still more than I thought I would have managed even at the height of my French skills over 6 years back. Having said that, I still managed to speed up my French speaking to a point much like what I remember from that high point.

In other words, speaking from personal experience, self-analyses, as well as readings of scientific articles and seeing how other people remember things, you should remember that the brain does NOT usually forget things absolutely. I would say it’s almost like the brain forgets how to access something, or gets lazy and makes that information retrieval less efficient, but with effort, the brain can piece together the apparently corrupt files and allow you to remember something. We simply usually do not need or have the time for such efforts. I once spent 5 minutes trying to piece together a memory before I finally remembered what I wanted to know. Twice I tried to remember how to pray the Our Father in Spanish, finding I couldn’t remember a thing past the first two lines, and then months later, when the thought occurred to me again, I suddenly remembered it nearly in its entirety! The brain can surprise you.

So next time you think you’ve forgotten a language, remember this: maybe the brain simply put that language deep in a storage shed due to lack of use. Maybe you need some dedicated time to dig through and find that hidden knowledge. Maybe you need a situation that will force you to find it AND use what you find AND make you keep finding it until you find as many of the language-skill boxes you can find in that old shed. You may be surprised how much of that language survived the storage and did NOT actually rot away.

No-English week and day: Being on a Roll and Keeping the Ball Rolling

2013/12/01 5 comments

I’m extremely busy as I’ve had some hardware failures on my computers that put some of my data at risk, but I wanted to see if I could take a bit of time to knock out an unfancy post. There may be typos; I will correct in time.

I’d like to share two good, recent, level-up / improvement experiences involving Mandarin. One was self-created, while the other was more coincidental, and I put the effort in to keep it going,

Since I always consider my language learning as quite the side project that I mostly fit into literally spare minutes and seconds, I always say I have very “lazy” and relaxed approach – something I would NOT necessarily recommend to someone, but something I’ve realized is still an option. For the most part, I have no goals other than “keep learning and see how it goes.” I have no motivational urge other than “Do it when you can – just make sure you notice those times when you can.”

However, I’ve developed drives, hopes, and somethings like goals as I’ve gone deeper into languages, particulalry Mandarin and Japanese. So, for those I have a focus on, I do give myself a push once in a while. My “lazy” approach is not a chosen method I subscribe to; it’s merely a relaxed, stress-free approach out of necessity, but if I realize I can afford the time and effort, I will definitely add that effort.

The Chinese-only week (really, a non-English week)

I have a few Chinese friends and some more Chinese acquaintances. I can’t get myself to practice speaking with them. I don’t have a lot of time, it’s hard to find good friends, I don’t see them often, etc., so when I do see them, I’d rather use that time wisely to get to know each other better and just be friends, rather than “waste time” practicing Mandarin. That being said, I’m at a level that, while speaking and following conversation is still pretty problematic, I can actually manage a lot – as long as the other person slows down a teeny bit and is willing to work with me. I’ve met people and spoken to them for 30 minutes to an hour. I go to an Asian market and get around in Chinese. But I needed to do this with my friends.

So I simply announced I would be doing this for a week. If I ran to any other friends or acquaintances who didn’t see / couldn’t have seen my announcement on social networking sites and they tried speaking English to me, I’d tell them this was my “Chinese-only week” and would kindly request their help and support.

And it worked, of course. I had a little bad luck in that I had less chances to see my friends than usual, but those I saw worked with me and stayed away from English. Only when something really problematic or important came up, did I switch to English. Merely by listening to people talking to me and being able to ask a few questions as necessary, I even picked up a few new words, confirmed the usage or pronunciation of some words and phrases I had learned but never heard before, and got a few corrections.

Two weeks later I had a different situation.

Taking Advantage of things going Your Way

Day 1:

A Chinese friend invited me to an early Thanksgiving get-together; there were American, Chinese, Indian, and French students attending – among others – and a few of them were mutual friends. One of my Indian friends was there and he’s very helpful with Hindi, so when he had disappeared for a while and finally came back, I made sure to learn from him how to say “Where did you go? With whom?”

I was introduced to a young man from Beijing, all in Chinese, so I went along with it and talked to him in Mandarin. Despite his clear (but not extremely heavy) Beijing accent, I understood him pretty well, despite some surprised due to the accent (ie., 词儿), and we spoke for probably 30 minutes straight. We spoke about life here, school, language and culture, Chinese puns, games, and more. Throughout the rest of the party, I probably spoke Chinese for what amounted to at least 15 minutes more.

I also got to practice some French with the friend who invited me (he lived in Montreal for a while) as well as the two Parisians there.

Day 2:

Coincidentally, for the following day, a friend I met in Beijing had already asked to Skype with me that morning, so I got to continue the last night’s practicing by speaking to her for an hour in Mandarin, retelling what happened that night as well as updating her on some other things in my life. Then she updated me on what’s new with her, and then we had a more two-way conversation before finishing in English so that in the end she also got an hour of English in.

With last night’s practice being so fresh, as well as the events I was retelling, I actually noticed I did pretty well!

Day 3 (note that these days were all in a row):

Another Thanksgiving get-together! Two Chinese friends who had left for another campus invited me and two other mutual Chinese friends to go see them for this get-together. We were going early, and I chose to drive the two friends going with me, so I was going to be around them for most of the day. Having just had two straight days of decent Chinese practice, what do you think I did today?

I told my friends I’m “on a roll” and would like to keep it up. Let’s try Mandarin-only again!

So we did. When I picked them up, I needed a nearby a gas station to check my tire pressure (it’s a 2 hour drive!), so I asked in Mandarin and my friend guided me there in Mandarin. All of our conversations were in Mandarin and I’d only switch to English when really necessary – even then I’d try more for a Chinglish sentence. Anytime my friends asked me or commented or something, it was in Mandarin.

Halfway there, I had a little break. Things had gotten quiet and my friends had fallen asleep. I put on my earphones and had my phone play through Southern Min / Taiwanese and Shanghainese phrases and words my friends had recorded for me, and I’d repeat them out loud, drilling myself for 30 minutes. Then I turned it off and personally did some hard recollection of Cantonese phrases and words – I had time, so I managed to make myself remember a lot things I thought I had forgotten. Did that for 20 minutes, practicing speaking the phrases and words I was remembering. It’s pretty cool how much memory you can reconstruct if you put the time and effort in. My friend from Beijing actually knows a good bit of Cantonese, so by the time she woke up, I only had two questions for her.

Finally we reached our destination, and I let those friends hosting us know that I was on a no-English day, and used with one of them the mere couple phrases of Southern Min that I know I could use. While she stayed to do the cooking, the rest of us went to check out some apartments for the two friends who came with me. One of those cases simply involved visiting one of my host’s friends, so I paid close attention when they were discussing what the apartments were like.

Then I went to a post office to send off a letter. As I was finishing up, a young woman came in and it turns out she was Chinese, so I spoke a little bit to her in Mandarin as well. She was really quite nice and is studying to teach ESL – no wonder her English was so good! There’s more to the story though sadly not relevant to this post, but I’ll share she was from Wuhan, which is known as one of the “Three Furnaces” of China – one of 3 cities known for their highest summer temperatures – but there’s more to the city at least historically, though sadly I don’t know too much myself – yet!

Back at our hosts’ apartment, it was Mandarin as much as possible throughout various random conversations, and things really got crazy for me when the people started pouring in. I couldn’t follow any huge group conversations, but I did better than usual. I managed better by trying to stick to a smaller group at a time, such as with my friends, or one-on-one with any new acquaintances. Of course, when the host had everyone introduce themselves to everyone, I did that in Mandarin too – and that was my worst part because I didn’t notice when we actually started and didn’t know what was expected for me to say, so I made sure to listen to what everyone else was choosing to say. Even though you’d think it would be simple, the slight unfamiliarty caused me to stumble a good bit – for example, as I worked out a way to express something like “Them, these two, and I all know each other from [campus name here]” without translating from English.

The only sad little thing is that speaking Mandarn still takes some effort, of course, and that effort uses up my brain’s resources, so it can be more difficult to read people’s emotions, take more conscious control of the conversation, or even simply come up with something to say. All those social skills decrease, but hey, I guess it’s part of challenge, and it’s not really my fault since my decision to avoid English was the best for such a get-together anyway. Still, I wish I had been able to talk to my friends or been involved in their conversations a little more. However, what I probably felt worse about, was regarding one of the invited guests who was actually someone I knew from my school program in China last year! She was among the better friends I made on the trip, among the people I had the best impressions of and liked better, and although I’ve tried to stay in touch, it’s been hard. I was excited to see her, but in that environment, I just couldn’t say much or couldn’t keep up a decent conversation – especially not before someone else would step in and take her attention. If I did have the opening, I couldn’t think of what to say. I did what I could, even in English, but I would have needed a much more relaxed situation.

Finally, on the drive back home, I had a longer conversation with one of my friends while the other slept, but mostly English since some of the conversation was much more complex, and I felt like a more relaxed conversation this late at night after the long day was in order.

A Small Interesting Takeaway

You run into so much random vocabulary in a natural conversational environment, that it’s unrealistic to care about understanding or learning all of them. Especially when a conversation needs to keep moving, you BETTER have a very quick and efficient way to note a word down before you’re uncomfortably holding back the conversation. However, if you have a chance to note something down and it’s not the most useful word, just consider if it could be good enough, and note it down. If you successfully learn it, it’s one less word to learn later.

What random words did I learn? 气味 (qi4wei4, odor/scent),漏水 (lou4shui3, water leak),静电 (jing4dian4, static electricity),加热 (jia1re4, add heat / warm up),(加)油站 (jia1you2zhan4, gas station),邮局 (you2ju2, post office).

Oh, guess what? I actually did NOT note any of these words down. However, I remember exactly when I heard them, and I pulled out my phone AT THAT VERY MOMENT. Remembering the exact situation, who said the word, who told me the definition, the visual reinforcement of checking the dictionary, and the personal effort to remind myself that night and the day after, was good enough.

Go back at that word list and see if you can’t get the context and realize when I probably learned them, haha!

In Conclusion: Don’t Forget to Challenge Yourself!

That’s what a lot of what this was. Whether I initiated it myself (the No-English week), or chose to continue a streak (the No-English day), when I realized I could use or should give myself a challenge, I did. I normally just go with the flow everyday and don’t think a whole lot about how to force some language practice, but I constantly remind myself to make sure I DO practice when possible, and that I DO keep up the language. So if I haven’t practiced a language in a while, I’ll find a time to review (eg., my Cantonese drilling in the car). If I feel like I could use a little push for speaking practice, I’ll put an extra effort in to challenge myself (No-English week). And finally, especially if the stars and planets have lined up and the gods are looking down favorably on you so as to give you some nice opportunities, take them (30-minute talk at Thanksgiving party) and use it as a springboard to push yourself even further! (No-English day)

Language Practice Totals for My No-English day:

  • Mandarin: 6 minutes texting
  • Mandarin: 2 1/2 hours speaking with friends
  • Mandarin: Occassionally throughout 10 minutes at the post office
  • Mandarin: 2 hours listening and speaking as possible at the get-together
  • Mandarin: 10 minutes working on tongue twisters with my friend on the drive back home
  • Shanghainese and Southern Min / Taiwanese: 30 minutes driling listening and speaking
  • Southern Min: 3 minutes review with my friend and host who speaks it
  • Cantonese: 20 minutes drilling myself speaking
  • Cantonese: 10 minutes studying once my friend woke up
  • Japanese: 5 minutes group review of set, polite phrases with some others at the party
  • Korean: 2 minutes “teaching,” since someone asked how to say a couple of things

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