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.  Read more…

Starting Out: Shanghainese and Taiwanese 1

2013/07/12 8 comments

Oriental Pearl + Taipei 101Documenting my first forays into a new language!

I just started looking into Shanghainese and Taiwanese. Here’s how I’ve been starting out. I still can barely use Cantonese, but I want to try picking up at least a little of these other languages. Now, why am I doing this? Well, I’m trying push myself (I’m really pushing common beliefs / misconceptions, rather than myself, I think) in a different way now. Is there really a limit to how many languages you can tackle at once, or is it really all methodology and attitude, as I suspect? I should point out, though, this is will not be a project of primary focus. Rather, I want to see if it’s possible to learn them on the side, with little effort, and still retain them – especially if they’re similar in some way.

So, why these languages? Here’s a little about them to explain why I chose them.


Montage of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, from Wikipedia

A lot Chinese dramas and pop songs known internationally come from Taiwan, and it’s been pretty common for me to meet Taiwanese and people from southern Fujian. Yes, that’s right, with it, I will also be able to communicate with people from southern Fujian province in China, including people from the city of Xiamen. In this sense, it is called Minnanyu or Minnanhua in Mandarin, with the “Minnan” meaning Southern Min. A small issue: Fuzhou, another big, famous city whose emigrants I seem to keep running into in America, is just a bit too far north. They speak Mindong, or Central Min. Hopefully it’s close enough for SOME level of comprehension, but some people seem to say it’s closer to Minbei (Northern Min, if you didn’t see that coming) than Minnan. Oh well. It would still serve me well for talking with Taiwanese people. Variants are also spoken in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, and I’m sure other places as well.  Read more…

My 3-Year Performance Review & Progress Report, 2009-2012

2013/07/05 Leave a comment

In this last post, I went over what was my position in languages 3 years ago, in 2009, before I started learning Japanese and got into this current stage of language learning. After reading that post, I hope I sounded like a pretty typical person. I haven’t done anything impressive, so I hope many people who may think it is can see that I don’t have any special history, skill, or natural talent that has allowed me to get to where I am now. I simply do it without consideration of excuses and misconceptions.

This is a review of what I’ve accomplished in the past 3 years, up to summer of 2012, with a brief overview on how I did it, so that you can do it too. For that reason, links will be provided to any mentioned resources, but check out my Language Resources Page for a full list.

So now it’s time to go over what’s actually happened, and where I am now.

In case you’re looking for something specific, I’ll let you know this article mentions:

  • Japanese
  • Mandarin
  • Hindi
  • Korean
  • Morse Code
  • International Phonetic Alphabet
  • Russian & Greek
  • Vietnamese
  • Cantonese
  • Hmong
  • Yoruba
  • French
  • Spanish

The Decision

Which Language?

Starting Japanese is the big landmark marking where everything started. I wanted to start a new language, with not much of a goal in mind other than to see how it goes, how far I get, and how quickly I learn. I wasn’t going to put much effort since I foresaw myself getting busier in the upcoming years, and wasn’t going to care much for motivation. The only motivation needed is to do it: keep it in mind, do it when possible, but make sure I find that time and make time as possible. I considered Italian since I’ve had the interest and it would be easy, but it’s pretty close to Spanish, so I saw little need. German seemed like a good choice, but you know what? I decided I wanted something considered totally different, so let’s check out East Asia, I thought. Chinese characters, yes! So Mandarin or Japanese? I felt Mandarin would be more useful, and I have a little more interest in China culturally, BUT I had already started watching some anime, listening to some Japanese music as introduced to me from anime, and I was beginning to pick up a tiny selection of words. Thus, Japanese had the better and most promising opportunities for “practice.” Japanese it was!

Common First Step to all Languages

Something else I do to gauge interest and get a feel for a language, is to check out its grammar, so whenever I’m curious about a language, I go look over its article on Wikipedia, looking for the grammar section or grammar article.

The scary G-word is definitely something too many people over-concern themselves with (eg., in school courses), but I do believe it’s nice to start with it. What distinguishes a language and gives it its personality, its attractive qualities? I would say grammar! If languages didn’t have differences in word order, structure, parts of speech, conjugation, etc., learning language would be nothing more than learning vocabulary to swap out, and translations could be made virtually word-for-word. So I read up on grammar.

In the case of Japanese, then, I learned that it doesn’t necessarily use a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) structure, but it is instead primarily a topic-comment structured language. Topics can be dropped if obvious, and it’s much more common (informally) to make extremely short or single-word statements than in English. Questions are structured the same way as statements, only with question words and/or just a “ka” at the end. Different tenses/moods/aspects exist, but all persons (I, you, they, etc.) use the same conjugation. Seeing example sentences helped me see what this all means and how it really comes together.

After reading up on the basics of a language’s grammar, no matter how I continue learning, I’ll better understand why words are coming together the way they are, and the boost to my interest in the language helps make sure I keep goingRead more…

You Can Probably Speak More than You Think – Record a Video to Prove it!

2013/05/08 Leave a comment

Catching those little moments of success. We’ve had these moments many times.
They feel good. right? Then you don’t want to miss them!

I finally recorded some videos of myself speaking various languages. This post is not necessarily about the videos themselves, but rather about the concept and what I discovered.

As you will see in a later post (once the videos are uploaded), I decided to begin recording videos so as to have a more concrete record of my progress. So far, I have recorded 8 videos:

  • 2 videos 10 months apart for both Mandarin and French
  • 1 video for Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Hindi each.
  • 1 video saying the numbers from 1-10 in 10 languages.

Sure, through the Mandarin and French videos, I noticed progress. However, this post is about a surprise – something else I ended up discovering.

I can speak more than I thought.

Maybe you will discover this yourself if you make your own videos!

Video Results

I knew my Chinese was capable enough, so my 24-minute video was not unexpected.

However, I’ve barely practiced my French after about 5 years, and my Japanese speaking is terrible after leaving it for Mandarin for 6 months. Although I’ve studied a lot of basics in Korean, I run a study group, and I’m even teaching some total beginners, I don’t consider my Korean to be at a conversation level. The results?

  • French: 36-minute video.
  • Japanese: 37-minute video.
  • Korean: 27-minute video.

If that’s not “being able to speak a language” in some way or other, than what is?  Read more…

Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 2: Learning the Vowels)

2013/02/07 Leave a comment

jalNote: There are lots of lessons out there for learning the Korean alphabet, but they all seem to miss something or other, so here’s my attempt! Use it to learn from scratch, or as a guide if you’re stuck on some letters. By the way, a PDF version of this is upcoming, which will look nicer and less cramped than this.

Part 0: Introduction | Part 1: Consonants | All parts in one article

Learning the Vowels

Kinds of Vowels

Group 1, basic vowels: Can be seen as hinting lip shape and tongue position / space in mouth:

ㅏ  ㅓ  ㅗ  ㅜ  ㅐ  ㅔ  ㅡ  ㅣ

Group 2: adding  the /j/ [y] sound: Contain an extra small line:

ㅑ  ㅕ  ㅛ  ㅠ  ㅒ  ㅖ

Group 3: adding W – like sound: Compound vowels that start with , , or .

ㅘ ㅝ  ㅙ  ㅞ  ㅢ  ㅟ  ㅚ

Vowels: Letter by Letter

Basic Vowels

Small horizontal line, meaning the tongue is low and the vertical space is quite open. In fact, your lips stay neutral and relaxed.

  • ㅏ- A: Shape is pushed toward the front of the mouth, so a vowel sounded in the front, with tongue low? /a/
  • ㅓ- EO: Tongue is still low, but opposite placement in the mouth; this is in the back: /ʌ/.

If you’re not too certain of this idea of front and back vowels, try it yourself! Sah “Aaah” and then say “Uhhh,” and then go back and forth “Ah Uh Ah Uh”  etc. Feel the difference? Feel how the Ah is in front while Uh is in the back?
Moving on, we can double the small line to do what? What does an extra line mean? The concept of more force. With a vowel, we do that by adding a Y before it.

  • ㅑ – YA
  • ㅕ – YEO

Small vertical line, indicating the vertical space isn’t so much, so the tongue is higher, just above the middle, actually. Despite length differences, the lines are a little more balanced than with&ㅓ, so use this to remember ㅗ and ㅜ require your lips to be rounded, NOT relaxed. To help me remember, I like to imagine and surrounded by a circle, so that it looks like a steering wheel!
Read more…

Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 1: Learning the Consonants)

2013/02/07 Leave a comment

jalNote: There are lots of lessons out there for learning the Korean alphabet, but they all seem to miss something or other, so here’s my attempt! Use it to learn from scratch, or as a guide if you’re stuck on some letters. By the way, a PDF version of this is upcoming, which will look nicer and less cramped than this.

Part 0: Introduction | Part 2: Vowels | All parts in one article

Learning the Consonants

Kinds of Consonants

For study purposes, I felt it was best to put the letters into groups.

The most important grouping is on how they are pronounced. There are 4 such groups, which I am numbering arbitrarily (don’t bother learning my made-up group numbers; learn their characteristics):

  • Group 1: Steady, sustainable, unchanging:

ㄴ ㅅ ㅁ ㅇ / n s m ng

(Letters are purely visual representations, as shown before. You can HOLD or hum these sounds.)

  • Group 2: Begin stopped, and then release:

ㄱ ㄷ ㄹ ㅂ ㅈ / g d r b j

(Since all but ㅂare sounded with the tongue first pressed to the roof of the mouth, the roof of the mouth is signified or represented by a top line (or roof). Therefore, some of these are Group 1 letters + a top line)

  • Group 3: Begin stopped, tense up,** then suddenly release:

ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ  ㅆ  ㅉ / gg dd bb ss jj

(Held and tensed**, so it makes sense to double the letter, right?)

  • Group 4: Begin stopped, then release forcefully and noisily:

ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㅊ / k t p h ch

(An additional line represents the extra air coming out ( is the exception). Note that all of these letters are previous ones with an additional line in the top or middle.)

There’s another way to group the letters: by where they are pronounced. There are 5 groups, based on two views of the mouth:

Read more…

Learning the Korean Alphabet, Hangul (Part 0: An Introduction)

2013/02/07 Leave a comment

jalNote: There are lots of lessons out there for learning the Korean alphabet, but they all seem to miss something or other, so here’s my attempt! Use it to learn from scratch, or as a guide if you’re stuck on some letters. By the way, a PDF version of this is upcoming, which will look nicer and less cramped than this.

Part 1: Consonants | Part 2: Vowels | All parts in one article

First, I’ll give you some of the best news you’ll ever hear when learning to read a language that doesn’t use a script you’re familiar with: Hangul, the writing system of Korean, is very easy to learn and if you worked hard, you could probably do it in a few of hours – seriously.

I don’t mean that after a few hours you’ll read any Korean perfectly, much less pronounce it perfectly (which will take much more time and practice). However, you can learn all the letters very quickly, and the extra irregularities and quirks you may have to learn are actually very natural things that happen in many languages.

I learned it in one week of relaxed effort on my free time, and it took one more week to learn all the correct pronunciation. I sincerely believe if you set apart a few hours to learn, you can get this over with in one day.

A Quick Look at Hangul


  • 9 Basic Consonants: ㄱ  ㄴ  ㄷ  ㄹ  ㅁ  ㅂ  ㅅ  ㅇ  ㅈ
  • 5 Aspirated Consonants:  ㅋ  ㅌ  ㅍ  ㅎ  ㅊ
  • 5 of them can be doubled, but are considered / treated as single letters: ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ  ㅆ  ㅉ
  • In addition, some can be combined to create 11 compound consonants. They are also treated as single letters: ㄳ ㄵ ㄶ ㄺ ㄻ ㄼ ㄽ ㄾ ㄿ ㅀ ㅄ


  • 8 Basic Vowels: ㅏ  ㅓ  ㅗ  ㅜ  ㅐ  ㅔ  ㅡ  ㅣ
  • 6 of them can be given an extra line: ㅑ  ㅕ  ㅛ  ㅠ  ㅒ  ㅖ
  • In addition, they can be combined to create 7 compound vowels. They are also treated as single letters:  ㅘ ㅝ  ㅙ  ㅞ  ㅢ  ㅟ  ㅚ

Complete set of letters (This list is analogous to showing the 26 letters of the Latin Alphabet plus ch, ph, gh, ou, ao, etc.)

ㄱ  ㄴ  ㄷ  ㄹ  ㅁ  ㅂ  ㅅ  ㅇ  ㅈ  ㅋ  ㅌ  ㅍ  ㅎ  ㅊ  ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ  ㅆ  ㅉ
ㄳ ㄵ ㄶ ㄺ ㄻ ㄼ ㄽ ㄾ ㄿ ㅀ ㅄ
ㅏ  ㅓ  ㅗ  ㅜ  ㅐ  ㅔ  ㅡ  ㅣ  ㅑ  ㅕ  ㅛ  ㅠ  ㅒ  ㅖ
ㅘ ㅝ  ㅙ  ㅞ  ㅢ  ㅟ  ㅚ

So why is Hangul easy?

  • It’s an alphabet. People will count the letters differently, but I would say it is essentially 22 letters: 14 consonants and 8 vowels. From those letters, 6 of the vowels also have a version that signify their starting with a Y sound, some come together into 7 compound vowels / diphthongs which start with W or W-ish sound, and 5 consonants can be doubled.
  • It’s visual.* Mnemonics are always a good tool to remember things, and Korean has it built in, and the only thing up to you is to make the visual aspect as vivid and effective as possible for yourself. The consonants are pictures of your tongue, teeth, lips, or throat, while the vowels represents space and positions in the mouth. The latter is harder to visualize unless you understand linguistics, so you may have to tweak your memory aid as best serves you.

If you don’t feel very sure of the benefit of visual mnemonics, here’s this article: Any Phonetic Script can be Learned in Just a Few Hours.

  • It’s laid-out efficiently. Korean is written in blocks of 2 to 4 letters. Not only is this space-efficient, but it also separates parts of words such as syllables based on Chinese characters, and reflects certain aspects of Korean pronunciation. I will not be covering this aspect in this article.
  • It’s simple to draw. Not counting the compound and double letters, only one letter takes 4 strokes to write. All others require 1 to 3 strokes. Possible strokes are simply straight lines, two simple curves, and a circle.

Read more…