Reflections of a Year with Words: 12 Months of Blogging, 12 Insights about Language

I got a notice from GoDaddy that my webhosting package has been auto-renewed, which clued me in that I’ve been blogging for a year.

That year went by quickly. I did a lot of stuff, like:

  • Move me, my family, our pets, and our entire lives from Germany to the United States
  • Start a new job–one that involves long hours and travel
  • Watch my son start kindergarten

My wife and son in front of our old neighborhood – Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland!

So with all that going on in my life, both my language learning and my blogging have been sporadic. But I’ve been consistent enough with both endeavors to have made some decent progress. My Spanish is coming along, and I have about 30,000 words of content on this site.

Whenever you write about something, you learn it a little better. The writing process forces you to challenge your assumptions. You research topics to see what else has been written, and you really pay close attention to your own experiences. So even though I started the site with the intent to help others, I learned plenty about language learning myself.

Here are a few insights I’ve gained in the last year.

1. You have to learn languages that you really want to learn.

When I started the blog, I was studying German. I was also going to begin studying for a certification in Arabic translation.

But I was leaving Germany, so my motivation to study German dissipated. Also, while I think Arabic is a great language, I didn’t really have any internal drive to live in or travel to Arab countries.

Studying began feeling like work, and it was difficult to maintain that enthusiasm.

So I switched to Spanish. I was coming back to Florida, my home state, and I knew that there would be many Latinos here. I wanted to be able to understand the mother tongue of my neighbors.

And out of all the countries I visited in Europe, Spain was my absolute favorite. I could see myself living in Spain someday, and knowing the language would be one less obstacle to that fantasy.

A vacation picture from Barcelona. This is my son chasing bubbles in a park near the Sagrada Familia church.

Guess what? No problems with motivation. Now that I’ve picked the right language, learning feels like a game and not like a chore.

2. Switching among languages is tricky.

Recently I put up a video of myself on YouTube speaking four languages:

When I was making that video, I discovered that going from one language to the next is really tricky.

I only said a few sentences in each language, but when I mentioned at the end that my head was hurting, I wasn’t really kidding. I had to concentrate really hard to keep those languages in order.

So now when I watch videos of people speaking completely off the cuff in multiple languages, to multiple people, I have a newfound respect for their abilities.

3. Pimsleur products are great, but not perfect.

I love Pimsleur products. If I had to recommend one self-study language course to anyone, it’d be Pimsleur. It’s the course that will get you actually speaking the language sooner than later.

It’s not a flawless program, though:

  • It won’t get you to fluency. It just doesn’t cover enough material to get you to that point. I think if you complete Pimsleur levels 1, 2, and 3, you’ll be at a solid IIR 1/A1 level.
  • Programs vary in quality from language to language. Pimsleur German and Pimsleur Spanish are both top-notch programs. I wasn’t too wild about Pimsleur Eastern Arabic, and I think it would be a very difficult course to follow if I didn’t have my Arabic background.
  • It can get a little boring. Feels a little repetitive at times, and can be a little dry with all the drilling.

But the good definitely outweighs the bad. The fact is, that unlike some programs, Pimsleur programs actually work.

If you want more on this topic, check out my full Pimsleur Spanish review.

4. Krashen’s most important hypothesis is the Affective-Filter hypothesis.

Stephen Krashen is a linguist from southern California whose theories on language learning are extremely influential. He has proposed five hypotheses of second language acquisition:

  • Acquisition-Learning hypothesis
  • Monitor hypothesis
  • Natural Order hypothesis
  • Input hypothesis
  • Affective Filter hypothesis

Krashen’s ideas are extremely influential and are the reason why you hear the term “language acquisition” used so commonly.

The hypothesis that gets the least love, while deserving the most, is the Affective Filter hypothesis. This one basically says that motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety affect language acquisition.

Your environment–both internal and external–is crucial to your success. You have to be motivated to get going with your language studying, and you have to stay motivated to stick with things as time goes on. You have to be confident that you can learn a language, and you should be, since language learning isn’t as hard as you probably think. And you have to be calm enough so that your nerves don’t get in the way of your progress.

5. Making mistakes is part of the process.

It took me several months before I figured out what I wanted the tagline of this site to be: The Art of Imperfect Language.

I’m not just saying that it’s okay to make mistakes. I’m saying that you have to make mistakes. Making mistakes means that you’re trying, that you’re pushing yourself, that you’re actually using the language.

No, I’m absolutely not saying that you make the same mistakes over and over again for the rest of your life. Of course you want to correct  yourself (gently) and get better.

It’s more like, make some mistakes today and fix those. Then make some new mistakes tomorrow and fix those.

Or more accurately, make some mistakes today and fix half of those. Then make some new mistakes and fix half of those. Then weeks and months down the line, identify some of the mistakes you keep making and fix those.

When I was working with one of my tutors on iTalki (which is a great site by the way), he would correct every single mistake I made. And honestly, I got a little frustrated. I had spent the previous weeks having very successful language exchanges with people and a successful session with another tutor, but one night with this tutor discouraged me and actually set me back.

Mistakes are a part of life. I went to a barber (save the jokes–it was to shave my head with a straight razor) and he asked me if I wanted my beard trimmed. “Trimmed” is apparently code for razor acrobatics and fancy “New York-style” shaping. My friends on Facebook had a good laugh, but at least my wife liked it.

With that particular tutor, I think he was trying to make me realize how much Spanish I didn’t know so that I would pony up for buying sessions. He threw a lot of curveballs at me, spoke unnecessarily fast, and used high-level language. I could’ve saved him time and told him that I already knew I wasn’t fluent in Spanish.

That tutor failed because instead of bringing out the best in me, he focused on the worst. Don’t make the same mistake when dealing with yourself. Actually get out there and communicate with people and let yourself make mistakes.

6. DVDs are a great way to learn Spanish or French.

If you buy a DVD or Blu-ray in the US, you’ll often have the option to change the language to Spanish or French. This means that with the click of a couple buttons on your remote, you can watch The Karate Kid in Spanish.

And not just The Karate Kid, but any movie. And TV shows too.

You just have to look on the DVD case or box and see if the “Audio” section lists Spanish or French as one of the languages.

Additionally, most libraries offer DVDs you can borrow. So if you’re learning Spanish or French, your library has hours and hours of movies and TV shows that you can use to learn.

7. Passive listening is a great way to maintain language skill.

Like I said in the beginning, I get a little busy with life and I’m not always able to sit down and study. My current project is learning Spanish, so every day I at least listen to or watch something like:

  • A Spanish radio station
  • Telenovelas
  • Spanish songs
  • Spanish broadcasts of UFC fights on Fox Deportes

A half hour a day is enough to keep me sharp. I’m not always moving forward, but I never backtrack.

8. You can read books and magazines sooner than you think.

Once you accept that you don’t have to be perfect, you free yourself up to read books and magazines much, much earlier than you probably think you can.

I can read Muscle & Fitness comfortably in German, even though I’m only an intermediate German learner. And after only two months of studying, I was able to read People in Spanish. Magazines have so many contextual clues, such as pictures and charts, that you can get the gist of what’s going on without knowing very much of the text at all. As you read, you’ll begin building vocabulary without any specific vocab-building effort.

Novels are a little more difficult since they don’t have pictures, but not so bad if you pick novels for young adults. Harry Potter in German wasn’t so bad. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief in Spanish is a little tricky, but not impossible.

9. Flashcards are a tried-and-true method.

For a while, I thought that flashcards were passe.

They’re not. They work.

If you’re keeping a language journal, you can convert your collection of words and phrases easily into flash cards.

I’ve been using flash cards with great success. But if you don’t believe me, then believe the much-revered Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who learned 70 languages in the 1800s. According to this article in the Guardian, Mezzofanti used flash cards. If they were good enough for him, they’re good enough for us.

Mezzofanti was from Italy, which is enough of an excuse for me to put in one of my favorite vacation pictures. My son and I are at a train station in Livorno, on our way to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

10. Never think in absolutes.

I suppose that insight is self-contradictory. But I see language nerds on forums getting so hung up on one thing or another and arguing:

  • You must always study grammar.
  • You must never study grammar.
  • [XYZ] technique is the only way to learn a language.
  • [XYZ] technique is no way to learn a language.
  • Only listen to what so-and-so has to say because they’re language experts.
  • Never listen to what so-and-so has to say because they’re awful.

It’ll drive you crazy if you get too hung up on it. So if we’re going to speak in absolutes, let’s say something like:

  • Most techniques and language programs will help improve your language.
  • No single technique or language program by itself will be enough to get you where you want to go.

The best thing to do is try a lot of different things out and go from there. If it works for you, awesome. If not, move on.

11. Social media is a great source of conversational language.

Lately I’ve been going on Twitter, finding interesting Tweets in Spanish, and recording them in my language journal.

I’ve discovered that this helps a lot with my being able to understand radio DJ chatter and telenovelas. On social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, people use language that mimics the way they actually talk. Twitter reads like a transcript of day-to-day talk.

Yeah, I know the risk is that I’ll speak Spanish like a 16-year-old girl. But if I know how to say breezy, chatty sentences like teenagers do, that’s cool too. I saw one the other day that said:

Me levanté queriendo escuchar R&B

I woke up wanting to listen to R&B

If I can get to the point where I’m rattling off sentences like that without thinking, I’ll be thrilled about my Spanish skills.

12. Success = Time + Effort

There’s no magic bullet.

There’s no pill.

There’s no chip that you can implant into your brain that teaches you languages.

You have to put in time. Lots of time. Quality studying and natural talent can speed that up, but you still have to devote significant time to your language to get anywhere with it.

You also have to try. You have to engage. Even if you’re having fun, watching movies or chatting with friends, you have to put some effort into it by paying attention and not letting language go into one ear and out the other.

If you keep moving forward, eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.