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.

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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

What hump?

I cannot help myself – it is too tempting to use a moment from my favourite ever (comic) movie as a Post title.

With all due respect to the late great Marty Feldman, not only have I found my hump, I am embracing it.

What I mean here by the “hump” is that moment where you feel as if you belong in the new language. As I am an overly optimistic learner, this may not be at the same point where you might experience the hump. But whenever it comes, it is a great feeling.

I used to talk about three levels of competence:

  1. “Yes”, “No” and look interested in whatever the other person is saying.
  2. Order a beer or a glass of wine
  3. Survive half a day in the target language without getting a headache.

Where does the hump sit in this scale? Somewhere about 2.5. Realistically I should say about 2.3, but the feeling – that sense that the language is achievable, that you can start to truly communicate and to understand other people – this makes it feel more like a 2.9.

Suddenly, I have reached (if not yet gotten over) the hump in four of my five languages (and I have been inspired to take the extra step in the fifth.)

In Chinese, we are nearing the end of Level 3, which has largely been revision of Levels 1+2, with a little new vocabulary thrown in. But I am starting to be able to respond smoothly and appropriately. The nicest sign is the surprise of my teacher when I can answer a question (or translate a word.)

Hindi (after tweaking my program to allow for the purchase of a book+CD-Rom combo) has finally started to produce some written conversation with my colleagues in India. Real communication – that’s the name of the game.

Polish has been a steady progression – I am now at Lesson 67, and have had the occasional (imperfect) conversation at my Polish deli.

Arabic lessons are now onto the third textbook. After learning the written alphabet and working on basic introductions and grammar, the new vocabulary is starting to accelerate. With a solid foundation in place, the opportunities for expansion seem real and right in front of my nose.

Korean? Well my study-buddy has passed his English test to be able to apply for Permanent Residence status. This has been a pretty strong focus of our sessions. Admittedly, I have been lax in trying to practice any Korean language with him. But now I am seriously considering following the Hindi model, buying a book+CD-Rom and using this to kick-start some real conversations.

OK, that’s a nice little shopping list of “Where are we at?” But more importantly, how does it feel?

It feels amazing. After several months of sporadic slog, three weeks of hiatus (see previous post) and then about three more weeks of effort, I can suddenly feel it beginning to work.

What was just a collection of words, letters, grammatical concepts and cultural notes, is coming together to become a conversation, a mindset and a sense of flow. When I want to “switch on” a language, there is something there. Obviously not very comprehensive, but a starting place; introductions, queries, requests. The building blocks of communication.

This is why it feels like 2.9 on the levels of learning. I feel (delusional optimism, I know) that if I were now dropped into the relevant linguistic environment, I would have a strong enough foundation to be able to start absorbing. If I am not at Level 3, I can see the way there.

The goal now? Use this sensation to work more, get more practice and begin the accumulation phase – more vocabulary, more structures and more ways of learning and understanding the new language.

Once you are over the hump, you begin to pick up speed.

Posted in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Learning styles, Lessons learned, Polish, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Faster, higher, whatever?

What an interesting couple of weeks it has been. Some of you may have noticed a little thing called the Olympics make its way through town. In other news, I managed to come down with a chest cold and undergo a minor procedure.

How is this relevant to the Babel Project?

It all became part of the Babel Project stopping to a crawl. Juggling a full-time job and a family with this project was never going to be easy, but if you add distractions (both internal and external), it brings the momentum way down.

The effort involved in making progress in all five languages at once had been gradual, but was happening (see your own Personal Darwin for a report on the good old days). Most evenings would see me in front of a computer, a book or a notepad working on learning or revising one or several languages.

And then Lord Coe, BoJo and the rest of the London 2012 crew got to me. Evenings were no longer spent with the vagaries of Polish cases or Korean participles, but with rowers and swimmers, jumpers of all sorts and balls of every size.

As Sisyphus will tell you, momentum is not neutral – it is either for you or against you. The last few weeks have demonstrated to me how easy it can be to lose momentum and what a battle it is to regain it.

I confess to being largely a creature of habit, which had served me well as I got into a routine of one to two sessions of language learning or revision per evening. Just get the kids into bed and hit the materials. I am once again discovering what an effort it took to get me to that virtuous cycle.

At least some of the project maintained its shape; I have continued with my Chinese and Arabic classes, with just one or two missed sessions. I have also purchased a self-teaching book (+audio CD-Rom) for Hindi. I know that Hindi was supposed to be confined to free materials from the Internet, but I was struggling with my core resource, and I realised that I had “compromised myself” ages ago when I took up the recommendation of my Korean study-buddy and started using an online Korean resource.

Can I take anything positive out of this “hiatus”? I haven’t forgotten anything, which is probably the most important thing. Perhaps I can even try to convince myself that, as in weight training, it is the pause between the hard work that allows the rebuilding, the pattern-formation to take place.

Just like Sisyphus, I am trying to get that rock rolling back up the mountain. But this time I am not starting from the very bottom.

Posted in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Learning styles, Lessons learned, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hit the slopes

It’s winter-time down here, and some are thinking about skiing. Not your humble correspondent, who remains faithful to his obsession with language.

Nevertheless, the seasonal discussions have dented my bubble and that, along with a challenging couple of days with Arabic, have got me thinking about slopes and language.

The expectation at the beginning of the language journey is that it will be difficult. Indeed, that expectation is one of the barriers to more people seriously taking up a foreign language. But let’s drill down a little further; certainly learning a new language will be challenging, but in what way?

More specifically (hang in there, I will get to my point in just a moment), how consistently challenging will the new language be? On a scale of 1-10, will it be a constant 8?

Why does this matter? I think that very few (if any) language students commence with a clear idea of the amount (or profile) of challenge when they commence their language. I am an experienced language student, and I certainly didn’t think about this when I started.

I knew that I was commencing 5 new languages, but I didn’t have any kind of sense of the difficulty, absolute or relative, of any of them. Other than a few generalised received wisdoms; Chinese is tough because of the writing and the tones, Arabic will be OK because I already know some Hebrew; Korean?

Even more importantly, I didn’t think about the difficulty profile of each language. Is the language initially easy, but gets more difficult as you get further in? Does it start with a steep slope, but level out? (I’ve been watching the Tour de France)

This thinking was triggered by a conversation between a couple of work colleagues, one of whom is about to go to China to study, while the other is very keen to travel to Japan. In amongst the usual chat about whose language was harder, they came to an interesting conclusion; Chinese is initially more challenging, but reaches a kind of plateau of difficulty – the grammar and structures don’t get more complex, while Japanese is reasonably straightforward at the beginning, with simple pronunciation and the option of learning a syllabic alphabet, but the degree of difficulty increases as you progress further into the language, with more complex verb types, sentence structures and the introduction of the kanji Chinese characters.

Check out this blog post by John Pasden which delves more deeply into the challenges of Chinese, and graphically represents the different slopes of Chinese and Japanese. You can also click here to read an article by David Moser on the challenges of learning Chinese. I particularly like the game of pulling out random Chinese books and seeing who can be the first to guess what the book is about. One to try with radio news stories in a foreign language.

This got me reflecting on my previous experience learning French and German. I started on both at the same time, and found that the initial German was easier to recognise and understand than French. This was due to the nature of English, lots of Germanic “core” words (like eat, drink, go, come) but plenty of Latinate words in the more advanced “elegant” language. Even the word “elegant” is essentially the same in French.

What this meant in practical terms was that I was able to get a quicker grasp of the first thirty words of German, but once I had the basics, it was far easier to learn the more advanced French. German started smoothly, but then ramped up the difficulty; French was an initial challenge, but then got easier (in learning vocabulary – grammar is a different matter). If you are trying to learn “advanced” vocabulary, adjectives such as curious or jealous, the French equivalent is easy – essentially just the English word but in a French accent; the German equivalents are “neugierig” and “eifersüchtig.” Quite a lot more work to learn the German words.

And this is where I find myself in a number of my languages. Arabic was the most recent example of a classic language-learning dilemma. You start at the beginner stage, learning a couple of introductory phrases, some basic word-order and maybe a conjugation or two. It all feels pretty straight-forward, and you wonder why the teacher takes it so slowly and how much you can speed things up. Then all of a sudden, you hit the learning wall; you can’t remember the content you learned four weeks ago, the structures become more complex, and you feel like your brain has overflowed.

This is where the slope kicks in. If you are working hard, not just on learning new stuff, but also on revising what you learned 4-6 weeks previously, it should be manageable. If you are like me and most other students, and are just hanging on in between the rest of a full and active life, you start to struggle.

The message out of all of this? Be aware of the slope; don’t be fooled by any “false flats,” plateaux where the learning seems too easy and you just want to speed up. Take every opportunity to revise, because making your knowledge unconscious will diminish the slope by giving you more “brain space” for the new content.

Or to put it more simply; do the homework, regularly. Like I wish I did.

Posted in Arabic, Grammar, Learning styles, Lessons learned, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment