A Head Full of Steam

It has been a long time between drinks; or trips to the well; or – OK that’s enough rubbish.

Momentum has not been my friend this year. When I began the Babel Project, I wanted this to be something pleasant to do at the end of the work-day. Or during lunch. Unfortunately, work has expanded to the point where it began to suffocate all else.

Five months ago, I stopped Arabic and Mandarin classes. My Polish software, with its time- and date-stamps mocks me for the massive gap since the most recently completed Unit. Hindu and Korean are ghosts of their former selves.

But five weeks ago, I decided to try and get back. I am taking a slightly different approach, as befits resurrection, rather than introduction. To allow for the realities of my busy life, I am attempting to dedicate my train commute to one language per week, taking a book along with me and reading one target language at a time.

To keep things manageable, I decided to alphabetise, starting with Arabic and ending up with my Polish grammar book. Luckily, I’m enough of a math/grammar nerd, that a grammar book is OK. It has even filled in one or two points of confusion from the Polish software: why do some verbs not have a Present tense? (because they’re Perfective).

I’m being realistic now – I don’t expect to make giant strides forward. I’m just seeing if I can retain the little but that I had learned, a few phrases in Mandarin, reading skills in Arabic, Korean and Hindi.

One thing I have (re-)discovered is the power of momentum. My jagged timing – a week of this followed by a week of that is not ideal. Nevertheless, the simple act of reaching into the work bag to pull out a language book (rather than the mental snacking on Twitter) has value. It means that the atrophy of neglect is slowed, it means that if I ever find myself an opportunity to speak, that I may have something to say.

And in the immortal words – “it’s better than nothing.”

And it’s an excuse for me to link in one of my favourite bands.

Happy learning everyone – I’m glad to be back with you.

Posted in Arabic, Chinese, Grammar, Hindi, Korean, Learning styles, Lessons learned, Polish, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Barbra Streisand (no, really!)

Looking back at the Babel Project so far, there are 31 posts. That’s published posts; there are a couple of clunkers that I can’t get out of the garage.

Reflecting on these posts, I have realised that there are a lot about language, a few about personal development. None about people. Hence Barbra.

When I started TBP, I wanted to experiment with different approaches. Some (Polish and Hindi) were designed to be as self-sufficient as possible. Others (Mandarin, Korean and Arabic) would rely on people to teach and practice.

Frankly, any language learning relies on people to practice. If you think that you can bury yourself away in a cocoon and learn a language, before emerging with perfectly-formed skills like a butterfly, forget it.

And this is exactly what I have found. The language lives and dies in its interaction (my interaction) with other people. So here is an acknowledgment of that fact and those people.

I have already dealt with four-to-five teachers (depending on classification) and about a dozen participants. Alongside that are a handful of “others” such as shopkeepers, hairdressers and work colleagues who I have co-opted into my Project.

The above separates people into categories. But if I want to find a single description to unite everyone, it would be “generosity.” Teachers, colleagues, all display patience, help and positivity. I would be surprised if anyone currently learning a language would have anything different to say.

With the possible exception of translation examinations for the United Nations, the language community tends to be very generous. Knowledge is to be shared, success to be celebrated. As I have previously said, most language teachers are also learners. We understand what you are going through, because we ARE you.

I have been fortunate enough to share the past fifteen months with many generous, bright and open people. It isn’t my right to “out” them here, but anyone who is thinking about joining the language community, I hope that you do.

You will enjoy the language, the learning and the people who make it all possible.

Posted in Learning styles, Lessons learned, Teaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Korean Pasta?

I understand, it sounds weird. Korean pasta? What’s that about?

As with pretty much everything on this blog, it’s about language. Specifically, it’s a continuation from my most recent post and the question of what to learn first.

At the time I was dedicated to the idea of learning as many verbs as possible, because doing (and the ability to describe actions) is fundamental.

I still subscribe to that theory, but it’s only part of the story. More than one year into the Project, I am still struggling to put my learning into practice. Part of this is because I seldom find situations where I need to (or can) speak Polish, Arabic, Korean, Chinese or Hindi.

In addition to this, I am not learning as effectively as I might. I am my own worst enemy in this, foolishly splitting my available time and energy between five different languages. But it took a cup of English Breakfast Tea and a conversation to remind me of the missing  component.

This week, catching up again with my Korean Study Buddy, I asked about descriptive phrases, how would I talk about myself and my family, and how would I interrogate (politely) others about themselves. The year of conversation with my KSB has been enjoyable, but not as productive as it should have been. It’s too easy to speak English (his is very good) and he was working towards the English-language qualification for his permanent residency (which has now been passed).

He is also a qualified chef, and (with the inimitable logic of the business world) working in an Italian restaurant. This is an occasional topic of conversation (I love food), but this week it was also a Eureka moment.

When looking at the Korean phrases relevant to self-description, particularly involving frequent activities I realised how many could be tweaked and repurposed. Just change a couple of words and the same phrase can me used many times – just like Italian pasta. If you can cook 4 types of pasta and 3 sauces, you know how to present 12 different dishes.

Will I stop learning verbs? Definitely not. But what I will attempt to do more is to “cluster” my learning. Stick with a series of phrases and the associated vocabulary. Practice the variants – this allows for more (and more interesting) practice of the core phrases and makes them far more useful.

Much of this will be obvious to you. It’s obvious to me too – now. I just need about ten more hours a week to put it into practice.

Posted in Grammar, Korean, Lessons learned, Uncategorized, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Problem with success

Once upon a time, I decided to do something challenging and fun.

The Babel Project was a response to a work situation that was becoming increasingly challenging, without much of a silver lining. If you have ever worked in an environment with people who are downbeat, critical and just plain miserable, you will understand how unhappy I felt becoming one of those people.

At the time, I described TBP as my “low-impact mid-life crisis.” I could chase my lost youth of travel and cultural immersion without running out on my family, endangering my health, or blowing the bank.

The first year of TBP was truly enjoyable and fulfilled the brief perfectly. It created a stimulating distraction after a difficult day at work. I could even fill a couple of lunch hours a week with foreign culture and new people. My Korean study-buddy was able to gain his language proficiency certificate and start the bureaucratic road to his Permanent Residency thanks in part (I flatter myself) to our English/Korean conversational sessions.

But then, late last year something odd happened. I changed jobs and found myself in a new situation where my company was growing with all of the attendant positive vibe and energy that goes with that. My own work changed from a local to a national focus. From 2012 to 2013, that focus went global, to the point where I suddenly work in a 24 hour environment.

It isn’t drudgery either – the emails that land overnight are more often than not full of good news, reports of success, or just plain opportunity.

But here’s the thing: now that I have so much more happening, all of which I want to do and chase, where does that leave 5 languages at once?

More often than not it means – on the outside. I can’t remember the last time I picked up my Hindi book and I haven’t IM’ed my Indian colleague (Hello Adhyaapak-ji!) in ages. If I look at the log of my Polish software I can see the enormous gaps (sometimes of a couple of weeks) between lessons.

On the other side, I am still attending my Arabic classes, my Mandarin lessons (even if I had to postpone last week because I was travelling) and my Korean buddy is starting to throw more at me.

If I take a dispassionate look at this year’s performance, it’s lagging. As much as I know that I am spending less time on TBP, I understand that the underlying yardstick is energy.

One of the handful of Internet writers I track is Tony Schwartz in the USA. Tony’s schtick is simple – you need to manage your energy, building in rituals and routines and regular sessions of exercise, rest and appropriate nutrition to perform at your best.

Last year, this was a lot easier. I had a reasonably regular work-week and could plan slots of my day to exercise and to study my languages. This year? It’s all gone to heck in a handbasket. From one week to the next I could be in a different state or a different country. (I spent a week in Spain recently which was preposterous given that I can speak three languages reasonably well, am studying five others, but Castilian/Catalan doesn’t fall anywhere into that mix.)

So now I am attempting to build a solid study and practice routine around this brave new work world. How am I going to do it?

  1. Come up with a plan. If there is anything that I have learned (mostly from Mrs TBP) it is that you need a plan of attack if you are going to reach any kind of challenging goal.
  2. Acknowledge my new world. I can’t go back to simplicity, so the new plan needs to be capable of agility to take advantage of pockets of opportunity. Practice when I can, not just when I want to.
  3. Start somewhere. I am fond of thinking of challenges as a bowl of spaghetti. You may be familiar with the experience of eating a bowl of pasta where you feel as if you have eaten enormous amounts, but when you look at the bowl, there is still a mound of noodles sitting there, laughing at you. (The Italians have a lovely expression for this feeling; “Fare un buco nel’acqua.”) But if you just keep at it, suddenly you reach the bottom of the bowl.

It’s very easy (continuing the spaghetti analogy) to stare at the bowl and ask yourself – where should I start? Which strand of spaghetti will get me most quickly to the end? Which is longest? Cleanest and least likely to splatter me with sauce? (Forget it, you’re wearing that sauce, it’s a given.)

It doesn’t help. The only thing that kind of strategising leaves you with is cold pasta. Stick your fork in and get moving.

I was reading another language blogger (Hi Olle) who suggested that vocabulary acquisition was the most important step to success. I am going to take that motto and run with it with one small distinction. I will narrow my focus on learning more verbs.

The hope is that in my early-intermediate phase where I have started building the basics of each language, verbs will give me more variation (and hopefully more communication) without needing to struggle with advanced grammar and syntax.

Most importantly – it’s a plan! (See no. 1 above).

Now all I need to do is work the plan. 😉

Posted in Learning styles, Lessons learned, Rules of the Game, Uncategorized, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment


It’s January, after 9pm and time to consider the first year of the Babel Project.

In theory, there was only supposed to be one year of TBP. The roadmap said five languages, five methods, one year and then we’ll assess the results.

Robbie Burns said that “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay.” At this point in my linguistic efforts, I most resemble a “sleekit cowering tim’rous beestie” for I am a fair way from delivering my original plan.

Chinese, Polish and Arabic have stuck to the formula. Four terms of individual instruction (Mandarin), group instruction (Arabic) and 90-some lessons via software (Polish) have delivered varying degrees of fluency. But Korean and Hindi have morphed into a similar methodology.

For both languages, I was supposed to keep my wallet in my pocket – using only conversation exchange for Korean and free Internet stuff for Hindi. This lovely idea ran pretty quickly face-first into the real world. Firstly, free stuff on the Internet is inevitably published by enthusiastic amateurs. There are lots of fun sites like this, this and this; but all left something to be desired (for me).

So I sucked it up and bought “book + audio CD” packs for both Korean and Hindi. The Korean has supplemented my conversations (although the chatting has been about 95% English to 5% Korean) and replaced any online Hindi efforts.

At least I have been fortunate enough to run into situations where I can practice my feeble Hindi and Korean – my new hairdressing studio is Korean (and my hair grows quickly, so I practice about every three weeks). I also work for one of the many multi-nationals with extensive out-sourced operations in India, so some of my colleagues there are humouring me with Hindi conversations via instant messenger.

Where are my languages at after 12 months? Sad to say, it is all rather formless. There are pockets of capability – I can greet and introduce myself in all languages. I can be a little polite, saying thank you and asking appropriately.

In the past month I have run into illness (nothing major, but still), extra work travel and the onset of the holidays and all the preparation (and visitors) that go with that. All five languages have been on the backburner.

And yet……..

The best part of this Project has been that it has reminded me of the wonderful telescopic effect of being a beginning language learner. Even if I feel like I can only do a little, native speakers are wildly impressed. Being able to say “You’re welcome” to a Mandarin Chinese speaker who has thanked me – or “Happy New Year” to my Korean hairdresser. The positive feedback is disproportionate, and inspirational. It really does push me to try and do more and better.

I was hoping to be able to travel to five different countries where these languages are spoken, to see how well (or more probably how badly) I can get by. I am still hoping to do so, but in the meantime, I will keep at it. I am booking another term of Arabic and Chinese. I will keep beavering away at the software, the books, the classes and the people.

Roll on 2013!

Posted in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Learning styles, Lessons learned, Polish, Rules of the Game | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a better fool

The Babel Project was conceived as a folly. For those of you who are not of an 18th century turn of mind, the original “follies” were crumbling fake Roman or Greek temples constructed in the grounds of British noblemen. (Never noblewomen – therein lies another tale.)

The follies were memorials to a classics education, a Grand Tour around France, Rome and other centres of European learning. Then, once our British Lord returned to his manor and his hundreds of green acres, he would commission an architect to erect something that resembled what he had seen on the 7 hills of Rome, or on the Parthenon.

The Earl of Duke could wake from his bed, look out of his window and see a (manufactured) piece of history. He could connect with something bigger than himself, even if it had been built on conquest and slavery (post-Modernism wasn’t very big in Berkshire in the 1700’s.)

The Babel Project has been my attempt at a low-impact mid-life crisis. Low impact, because frankly, I shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the word “crisis.” I have it pretty good on almost every level. But, like the English nobleman, I want that sense of connection, with both the wider sense of history, but also my own personal history.

Like him, I went on a modern equivalent of a Grand Tour, spent multiple years travelling (also mostly in Europe) and have many fond memories. The greatest personal sense of accomplishment that I still have many years on, is being able to wake, walk and work in a land whose daily language was not my own.

And so, at the beginning of 2012, I attempted to turn the clock back, ever so slightly. To immerse myself as much as practicable (which isn’t very much) into other languages and cultures; to attempt multiple new languages, each with its own approach to see what would happen. Perhaps I might even get to visit those lands and see whether I could still develop the skills necessary to survive without English.

Ten months in, my folly is rising up just beyond my bedroom window. I still haven’t decided if the crumbling is pretend or real. The one thing that I have learned is how supportive other viewers of my folly can be. The support exists at two levels: those who just see the effort of the construction have been very kind about my (really quite) limited progress in the chosen languages. This gives me the impetus to keep going, to try to live up to those compliments.

But also the handful of people who take a step back and recognise my construction for what it is – an intentional, intricate folly; they have called me a fool, but at least they are willing to admit that I am trying to be the best darn fool that I can be.

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Is there anybody in there?

Hello everyone,

I must apologise for the complete absence of any posts in recent weeks. TBP is still a going concern, it is just going along at a slightly different pace.

Since I last published almost two months ago, I have changed my day job. With this kind of change comes a change in routine. Specifically, I no longer commute in my own car, but now go the public transportation. This has meant that my commute learning process has changed from listening to audio CD’s, to reading books.

I confess that I have tweaked my methodology in the cases of both Hindi and Korean and have purchased self-guided learning books (beginners level) for each language. Each book also has audio CD’s so I am getting a little of that as well, despite spending significantly less time in my car each week.

However, I am still attending my classes in Arabic and Mandarin, working the Polish software (where I am approaching the end of Level 1) and as mentioned above, beavering away at Hindi and Korean.

I have also made tentative first attempts at conversation in Hindi – which will have been known to followers on Twitter. Korean is also coming in slowly. The trick these days is to identify opportunities to converse and to take every single one that presents itself. No hanging back!

With the new job, it is looking increasingly unlikely that I will be able to visit the 5 countries after 12 months of learning. 20 months may be an option, but in the meantime I will continue to learn as much as possible, and will try to build back time into my regular routine for blog posts.

If anyone has any questions about the Project, or requests for future commentary, please let me know in the comments.

Cheers all,

Posted in Lessons learned, Rules of the Game | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment