Conducting an Experiment… Mwa ha ha!


So as a language learner and language teacher (and of course, avid Polyglot Blogger extraordinaire 🙂 ), I like to try out new methods and tricks of language learning from time to time just to see what’s fun and/or efficient.  I share a video a few weeks back from a self-described PolyNot who discussed the role of vocabulary in language learning and how one actually needs a lot less words than one thinks in order to start reading a new language.

This got me thinking.  Yes, in theory, in most languages, the first 100 words can really take up a large percentage of text.  Some studies suggest that in English that first 100 words makes up as much as 50% of text.  (Let that sink in friends, it’s a big number.)  One might think they’d found the Holy Grail of language learning hearing that.


But (there always is one) the one thing those studies seem to neglect to mention is that most of those words are function words– that is conjunctions, linking verbs, prepositions, articles, etc…  All the words that are more difficult to define and that your brain doesn’t grab onto as easily- in fact it often just skips them when you’re reading because it doesn’t need them too often.  So the question becomes HOW do we make use of this knowledge in a legitimate way?  If we read big pieces of text, we may recognize the words but not have any sense of meaning.

The answer came to me like a lightning bolt.  Small pieces of text… in everyday language… oh my gosh did somebody say TWEETS?!?


So for the last 3 weeks I’ve started an experiment that I call “A Tweet a Day” (clever titles are my specialty as I’m sure you are all aware by now ;).  Here is how I went about it.

First I found a list of the 1000 most high-frequency words in Japanese.  (Okay I cheated a smidge in that I had a friend of mine who is much more skilled at Japanese find me said list because I trusted his judgement.  I suggest you use this cheat if you have the choice.  If not and you are concerned about finding a quality list, hit me up with your language of choice and I’ll help you find one.)

I then decided that each week I would add 10 words and ONLY 10 words to an Anki deck.  Studies show that most people really only retain 5-10 words max a week in terms of new vocabulary over the long term.  I have a very good memory so I went with 10.  If memorization is a struggle for you, I suggest you start with 5.  Remember, a lot of these beginning words are function words, and therefore aren’t going to come as naturally.  (You can also use old school flashcards or a different SRS system of course.  If you don’t remember what an SRS is, refer to this post I made earlier this year.)

Then each day I logged into Twitter and found a tweet.  I try to just choose one of the early ones on my feed for the day, but as I follow a news group, they tend to monopolize the feed so sometimes I just pick a random Twitteratti that I follow and go with an earlier one from their direct feed.  I can hear the panic already: “How do I find people to follow if I don’t know the language yet?”


I suggest finding music artists and sports stars first, as well as maybe 1 major news outlet.  Usually if you do a quick Google search of the country of your language (or one of them) and the word “musician”, “athlete”, or “news”, a Wikipedia article or two will lead you in a solid direction.  After that, Twitter will often send you lists of suggestions to follow.  I tend to click on ones with interesting pictures- I can always UNFOLLOW them if they turn out to be stupid.  (Yes, you CAN unfollow- social media need not consume your soul with overwhelming amounts of information to read!)

(I’d stick to only one news outlet solely because those suckers post A LOT.  BBC Mundo and NHK flood my newsfeed to the point that I can’t find anyone else by skimming it.  They are, however, solid sentences with actual correct grammar, so they have their pros as well as their cons.)

Lastly I copy and paste the Tweet into a OneNote Journal I set up for this purpose.  You could physically copy it down, which would actually be good for your memory, but I’m lazy hehe.  I then break my reading into 3 steps.

FIRST, I do a cold “read” on the tweet.  I label this pass 1 and I attempt to mark/translate any words I know off the top.

SECOND, I run through my Anki flashcards (if I have any due that day).  I then take a second crack at translating what I can of the tweet.  This usually includes writing a quick guess at what the gist of the Tweet probably is.

LASTLY, I get a Google translation of the tweet. I know I know, Google translate is not always accurate and if you have a better option, use it.  Sometimes I ask the aforementioned friend for a translation but he’s got a life and isn’t always available. Usually for 140 characters or less, Google can manage something that I can draw a solid translation from.  I then make a few notes to myself about what I understood, what I misunderstood, and whether I’m making progress.

Today, after having only entered 30 words thus far into the deck, I managed to translate half of a news tweet correctly.  I may have looked something like this:


The best parts of this?  At 140 characters, I’m not overwhelmed by trying to read something with such little vocabulary knowledge.  It also takes me less than 10 minutes generally to do all the above steps, with about 20 minutes on the day I put in new vocabulary.  It’s simple, it’s daily, and it’s practical.  Yes, you will run into slang and bad grammar but to be honest, that’s part of learning how to speak and interact like a native speaker.   I’m finding it a fun addition to my language learning routines.

So that’s my current language learning experiment in progress.  I’d love to hear if any of you have any such experiments underway and what the results have been.  Feel free to inbox me with that or any other feedback and suggestions.  Until then, Polyglot out!


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 06/17/14.

Language Binging- The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly


Hello, my name is Colleen and I’m a language addict.

     Yes, you read that right.  I confess- I’m hopelessly addicted to linguistic play in multiple tongues.  I crave grammar charts and vocabulary lists.  I lose my mind over multi-lingual adaptations of my favorite Disney tunes.  I can’t help but organize the language learning materials every time I visit Barnes & Noble.

Normally, I manage to keep my addiction under control.  I stick to one language at a time and take small sips occasionally throughout the week.  But now and again, I find myself on a language binge.


What is a language binge, you ask?

I define it as the period of time when one goes a bit “language” happy.  For myself, I consume loads of material in a variety of languages in a very short time.  This week for example, I’ve cycled between my Japanese study materials, ASL videos, Spanish telenovelas, and of course, standard English input.  Beyond that, I find myself perusing Italian learning blogs and contemplating French words, and wondering if Swahili is really my best choice for an African language.  In short, I’ve been going overboard in my language studies.

The question I put forth today then is:  Is this a bad thing?


  My loyal followers can probably guess my answer by now… it depends.

     A friend of mine and I were discussing this recently.  He’s been finding himself poking here and there at a variety of new languages, while still focused on learning Mandarin.  Korean and Spanish both have his eye but he hasn’t decided to commit yet.  He wondered whether by spending time looking at new languages if he was hurting his Mandarin study.  After all time spent looking up the Korean writing system or discussing Spanish verb conjugations is time he’s not spending studying his current language, so it’s wasted, right?

Not necessarily.   We talked about it, as I’m in a similar space right now.  And we both came to a conclusion- looking around at other languages was actually helping re-invigorate our interest and appreciation for the languages we were currently working on.  In turn, this meant we not only put in our daily study time on our current languages, but also approached the time with more enthusiasm and drive.  Personally, I get more out of my learning if I’m excited about it.

 image(I mean, look at how excited these two are!  Don’t you just want to join their thirst for knowledge?!?)

    You see, when you’re a linguaphile (someone who adores languages and their structures in and of themselves), you sometimes get bored looking at the same language day after day.  You love your language, you do.  But the verb conjugations just won’t seem to stick or you swear you’ll never draw those ideograms quite correctly.  Taking a break to look at another language can help remind you why you became interested in the first place.

Sometimes it can even lead to random breakthroughs.  Personally I finally learned to roll my “rr”s in Spanish after learning to sing in Italian for a Solo & Ensemble piece.   Comparing the honorifics and social niceties of Korean may help you better grasp the system in Japanese.  Or maybe you’ll just learn a cool new word- libélula is a particular favorite of mine. 😉


So what’s the downside to a language binge?  It can turn into language burnout if you aren’t careful.  You can actually get sick of all that new as quickly as you got excited.  Moreover, you can become overwhelmed.   You can convince yourself that you are going to actively learn all the languages right now!  And then become very frustrated when you realize you probably can’t juggle that many tongues at once.


The key is to use your language binge wisely.  Let it be a source of excitement and wonder but don’t let a few days of exploring turn into obligatory daily web searches.  When the binge stops being fun, it stops being useful.  The same is NOT true of steady language learning.  There will be days when you don’t feel like doing flashcards on your target language, but should recognize that it’s good for you to do them anyway.  But a binge is different- it’s an opportunity to try on a bunch of different linguistic systems but not necessarily buy any of them right then.  And that’s why when the fun is gone, it’s time to go home while you still have your wallet and your dignity.  Your target language will be waiting there, a cup of tea and an understanding smile ready to greet your return.

Hope you all are reaching your Polyglot Potential this summer.  Thanks for reading and never forget- POLYGLOT POWER!


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 06/09/14.

What I’ve Learned Coming Back to Language Teaching

So this year I came back to language teaching- Spanish specifically.  It has been four years since I taught language.  In the space in between I had focused on Special Education and getting my Master’s in TESOL.  Those experiences have greatly changed the way I approach my language classroom.  In my opinion, both have made me better at what I do.
So as I wrap up grading the final papers of the year, I am going to selfishly use this blog post as a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned this year as I dove back into this lovely, crazy field.

  1. Kids are never too old for puppets.  I’ve used puppets in every language class I taught and those included students from preschool age to high school.  Here’s the thing- somehow by using a puppet, the kid is less nervous about speaking.  It seems to provide some level of cognitive distance that allows them to feel safer taking risks and making mistakes.  Other teachers are doing similar things with avatars- if you are interested in this idea, check out this blog post.
  2. No matter how much I try, I can’t  understand why some kids will never understand basic formulas for sentence structures.  And no matter how much I can’t understand it, some kids are never going to get those formulas.  I’ve got to use work arounds.
  3. Joining Twitter was the single best decision I’ve made as a language teacher and learner.  That scares me.
  4. Food continues to be a powerful motivator.
  5. Letting go of some control makes my classroom a better place.  It is hard to do and I still require a high level of discipline- but interaction is essential for kids to learn and I’ve seen more students learn from each other this year than ever before.
  6. The best compliments you’ll get while teaching often come from those you least expect.  A student who never seemed to try all that hard said to me “You know for the first time I find myself thinking in Spanish outside of class.  I start taking notes in Spanish in the class after this.”  That is pretty cool.
  7. Some concepts are going to take the time they are going to take. The past couple of years this school’s Spanish program has been majorly disrupted.  Therefore the students are “behind” where I want them to be for their level and I tend to rush through a lot of concepts.  Surprise Surprise- they don’t retain the stuff I rush through.  I’ve got to realize that sometimes a little really well is better than a lot half-arsed.
  8. That said- there is a time to move on and realize exposure is sufficient  We went over commands in Spanish 3 this year.  In my opinion, due to the conglomeration of rules surrounding commands, this can be one of the toughest topics for students to pick up.  It was for this class for sure.  They struggled, they moaned, there was gnashing of teeth.  Finally we moved on to something else.  You know what?  It was fine.  They got the next concept without issue, they could still recognize the pieces of commands they needed, and the world went back to a relative normal acquisition of Spanish.  Sometimes exposure is enough.
  9. Students put a lot of stock in vocabulary and worry about not knowing enough.  I plan to show the video I posted last week in class next year to help combat this.  There are hundreds of thousands of words in most languages- you simply can’t know them all.  But the right 6000 will go a long way.
  10. Times have changed SO much in just four years and it fills my heart with joy.  When I started teaching Spanish right out of college, the #1 obstacle I faced was students saying “Why the heck do we have to learn this?  Everyone speaks English anyway!”  I can proudly say not ONE of my students ever stated that this year.  My students seem to understand that learning languages is valuable to them in both professional and personal development.We’ve come a long way from a principal who suggested it was insane that I made my students speak the language to a principal who reprimanded a student who continuously complained about me speaking Spanish with our foreign exchange student.  (**Important note- I always translated what we were saying so that students did not feel left out or talked about.  Not that I should have to.**)

I can honestly say I fell back in love with language teaching this year.  I love my job in general because it let’s me pursue both my passions- language teaching and special education.  Despite being very ready for a much needed break (yay summer!) I am actually excited about preparing new curriculums and materials for next year.

For now my Polyglot peeps, I must bid you Auf Wiedersehen so that I may grade the 9000 papers waiting for me.  (Only slight exaggeration.)  If any of you teach, I’d love to hear your reflections as well.  Students, feel free to share the best or worst strategies your teachers have used.  Meanwhile, keep that language groove going!

(Who doesn’t love hitting the sample music buttons for these things at Wal-mart and Target? 😉 )
Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/26/14.


Language Dream List

Welcome new followers once again!  I hope you continue to find this blog useful and entertaining!

So tonight’s post is going to be a bit self-indulgent, but hopefully my fellow polyglots can relate.

On most people’s bucket list is a series of trips to take and activities to try.  Mine has its fair share of those, but probably the lengthiest section is “languages I want to learn.” I swear this list never shrinks and can be a bit daunting.  At the same time, looking at it in print makes me happy because reminds me just how many different ways there are to connect in the world and how much I want to be a part of those.  So, for your reading pleasure, here is my list- with a few notes on why I picked each language.

Native Language: English

I was born in the States and grew up learning English.  There is no way around the fact that this is a blessing given English’s dominance in print materials.  Don’t get me wrong- all languages are equally valid and valuable, but I imagine it’s much more difficult to find language learning materials that offer Czech or Swahili translations than it is to find English.  Note: This is one of the many reasons I love the Internet, though.  It connects people of multiple languages and anyone can publish material.  People of languages with very few materials in traditional print now have access to hundreds of web pages of material.  Awesomeness.

Languages I’m Fluent In: Spanish  (AKA- Languages I’m married to, going with the metaphor I used earlier.)

I learned Spanish for the same reasons a lot of people in my area do- it was available.  There were classes in high school, there was a high level of Latin American immigrants to practice with, and there was a Spanish language TV channel in our cable line up.  I didn’t plan on making it part of my career initially, but I fell in love with the culture and the verb conjugations, plus it has greatly enhanced my teaching profession.  Guess I’ve always been a bit of a Latina at heart.

Languages I’m currently Studying:  ASL & Japanese  (These would be long-term relationships but not quite ready to put a ring on it yet.)

TECHNICALLY, American Sign Language was the first language I actively studied.  While I played around with a lot of other languages, I was determined to learn ASL after having read biographies on Helen Keller.  I studied many signs, but never got the hang of the grammar from books alone.  In high school, my focus shifted to Spanish due to its availability, but I didn’t forget about ASL completely.  I took a couple courses in college and have found a quality program online now in order to cement my learning.   (For those interested, I’m following Bill Vicars program and highly recommend it.  Here is the link.)

Japanese is the language I loved from afar for many years until I finally decided to introduce myself.  I love the culture, the architecture, the legends of Samurais and spirits- it connected with me on a deep level.  That said, it has been a tumultuous relationship.  We get really close for a while but then one of us gets busy (okay I get busy) and neglectful and we drift apart.  Fortunately, Japanese always takes me back when I show up with index cards and anime in tow.

Languages I Definitely Want to Learn:  German, French, Italian, Mandarin, Arabic, and Swahili. (I feel like I’m dating these languages now but we’re more occasional hookups than coupling at this point.)

German and French made the list because they are heritage languages for me.  The bulk of my Dad’s family is German and the rest is French.  My grandfather’s brother actually spoke no English until he first went to school.  I have played around with German (particularly on an old Rosetta Stone CD, back when those puppies came free with the computers- ah those were the days).  I call my dog a “hund” and check out language resources for these two when I’m in the store, but for now that’s where it ends.  Someday though, my friends, someday we’ll be together and it will be lovely.

Italian made the list purely by sound.  When I took singing lessons, my favorite pieces were Italian Arias.   I LOVE the sound of Italian- the way it flows off the tongue, the rolling “r’s”, the trills, the rhythm- it may be the most beautiful language to my ears.  (Don’t be offended, my other loves- you each have your own internal beauty.)

Mandarin and Arabic made the list for practical reasons.  Both languages are very widely spoken and are becoming powerhouses in the worlds of business and networking.  I have been doubly blessed by making many friends from China, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia, which means I’ll have lots of mentors and speaking partners when I decide to get serious with them.

Swahili has probably the most unique reason for being on my list.  After looking at the rest of my list, I realized that if I learned the rest of my list, I would speak a primary language on each continent, except Africa.  Therefore, I added Swahili to round out the list.

Languages I’m Creating: JAGIS  (Don’t judge me- synthetic languages are just as loveable! J )

A friend of mine is writing a science fiction book.  After years of listening to me complain about how so few science fiction programs address the obvious language issues, she decided to make it a cornerstone of a series she’s working on.  A girl transported across time and space is forced to learn the new language of her surroundings- of course, to do this, she needed a brand new language.  THUS, yours truly is working on creating one.  It is one of the most fascinating challenges I’ve ever undertaken and also one of the most difficult.

Languages I’m Seriously Considering: Tagalog  (It bought me a drink, gave me its number, I just haven’t made the call.)

Tagalog is a primary language of the Philippines.  Immigration has brought a wave of people speaking this language to my area and a few administrators at different schools have noted how valuable it would be to have someone on staff who spoke it.  I hate when family members of my students feel uncomfortable attending school events due to language difficulties, and so this language is on my definite “to check out” list.  At my current place of employment, it is not a pressing need so it ranks fairly low right now, but populations shift regularly so it may move back up the list at some point.

Languages I’ve Got my Eye On: Quichiwa and Arapaho  (I keep checking them out but neither of us have made a move.)

These are Native American languages.  Quichiwa is from Ecuador and Arapaho is from the Southwest.  Both appeal to me on many levels.  I love Native American culture and feel it has been minimized far too often.  Both are endangered languages with only  hundreds of speakers left and therefore are in need of more users to keep them alive.  I’d like to be part of that.

So there is my list and my reasons.  Lord knows it’s long and I know it’ll probably only get longer.  But that’s okay.  Even if I don’t become fluent in every one of these, just dabbling in them makes me happy.  Feel free to share what languages are on YOUR list- I’m curious why you picked the languages you did.  Plus, perhaps our little Tumblr community can help each other find resources and practice partners, particularly for those tongues with less resources.



Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 04/22/14.

Loving Languages or A Wordy Romance

If I had to blame someone, I guess it would be Muzzy.

Those simple commercials with the green, furry, and friendly monster where the girl just a wee bit older than myself spoke perfect French?   They managed to ignite a fire. 

It started off innocently enough.  I’d go to the library every week in the summer and check out dozens of books and among them would be something language related.  Which language didn’t matter really- some weeks it was American Sign Language, others it was Spanish, on more than one occasion it was Japanese.  We lived in a small town and therefore the language learning options weren’t exactly plentiful, but I made my way diligently through what WAS available, poor pronunciation be damned. 

Then came an ACTUAL language class- high school Spanish I.  I found out languages weren’t a simple “take Spanish word A and replace English word A” process.  They were living, breathing organisms complete with unique grammatical structures and nuances of inflection and pragmatics and different body language and more!  I’d always loved grammar (I was that weird kid who LIKED diagramming sentences) and the complexity of my passion just endeared it all the more to me.

My language list was growing out of control, seemingly headed for a heartbreaking crash.  In my late teenage years, I knew I wanted to speak over half a dozen languages and that that number would likely only increase with age.  But I lived in a small town with a small library with only one shelf dedicated to foreign languages (ASL among them) and almost none of those came with grammar explanations or pronunciation tapes.  Surely it was all a pipe dream…

Enter “The Internet.”

Thousands…. Millions of free resources at the click of a button.  Entire websites and databases dedicated to learning languages.  Soundclips and video and native speakers to practice with- I had entered linguistic nerdvana.  Languages I had never heard of suddenly became “must haves” on my list to learn and I gave myself over to the notion that speaking 15 languages before I died was no longer impossible, though possibly improbable.

So here I am at age 29 with a list of 2 mastered languages, 2 in-progress languages, another 8 must-learn languages, and a few more on the “well if I get time…” list.  I have a Bachelor’s in Spanish Education and a Master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) which really should be called a pedagogic linguistics degree.  I’m a polyglot, a linguist, a lover of foreign tongues, and an admirer or accents.  And I want to offer whatever help I can to others like me.  Because while the vast number of resources now available to us linguaphiles is incredible, it also can be intimidating and overwhelming.

The goal of this blog is to help equip our kind with knowledge to wade through the resources and find the ones best suited to our task.  It is also to hold discussions and even rants about language learning and cultural competence and all the myriad of concepts that play into it.

I’m not a believer in “experts.”  I’m a believer in a shared community of learning and resources.  And I’m a believer that learning each others’ languages is the best way to start learning each others’ hearts.

Muzzy stole my heart with a few words in French a long time ago.  Which language has stolen yours?


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/03/14.