Flashcards- Make Your Life Easier

There are a lot of differing opinions out there in regards to flashcards and language learning.  Many linguists and polyglots will say that they are not an authentic way of learning the language, and therefore should be avoided.  Others will point out that at some point memorization plays a role in all learning and flashcards can be a great tool to promote that process.

I tend to subscribe to the latter philosophy, but like many people find making and doing flashcards a bit tedious.  I also know that making and storing paper flashcards can be a pain (literal and metaphorical- damn you hand cramp!).  Not to mention at some point you are likely to have so many flashcards that the sheer number makes the idea of trying to review them overwhelming.

Technology to the Rescue!

There are Internet applications called SRS- spaced repetition systems.   These are digital flashcard systems that keep track of which cards you need to study MOST.  You create the cards, set your preferences for max number of cards per day, and review them.  The computer program randomizes the order of the cards, of course, but it also provides you with an opportunity to rate how well you remember the card.  This could be from not at all to kind of to I got this!  Based on how you rate the card, the computer then determines how long it will be until it shows you that card again.  This way the I got this! cards don’t show back up for several days, while the “Is that even a word?  Did I really type that in?” cards may return in just a few hours or even minutes for review.

The beauty of this is that after the first few days of inputting and reviewing cards, you return to a very manageable number of cards to review.  You don’t have to go through all 1001; instead, you can focus on the 50 that are really tough for you.

I personally use the Anki system.  I have it downloaded onto my computer but you can actually do everything from the web.  (In fact, if I was just starting now, this is what I would do.  Makes your cards much more portable.)  I believe they do have working interfaces for most tablets and phones so you can make your flashcards as mobile as you are.

Here are 3-4 SRS programs and their sites to check out if you think this is something you might want to try.  (By the way, they are all FREE.)

Anki: http://ankisrs.net/

Surusu: http://www.surusu.com/  The writer of the blog AJATT (All Japanese All the Time) recommends this one.  My fellow polyglot amigo who I often reference in this blog is also a user.



Mnemosyne: http://mnemosyne-proj.org/    I do not know anyone who has personally used this, but that does NOT mean it’s not a great program- check it out and see if it fits your needs.



Super Memo: http://www.supermemo.com/english/smintro.htm I am not sure if this program *technically* falls into the SRS category.  Again, I have not personally used it.  However, it does claim to be learning method to improve memorization, so it’s worth checking out.

UPDATE: Memrise is now my tool of choice and beats the rest to me in terms of versatility.  I’ll probably do a post just on how awesome they are at some point.

Flashcards AREN’T for everyone.  But if you think they’d be a valuable tool for you, I suggest making them as efficient as possible and get the most out of the time you spend reviewing.  If anyone else knows of a great SRS program that I’ve not included, please feel free to inbox me so I can let our fellow Polyglots know.

May the language force be with you… and you… and you…


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 04/07/14.

Where on Earth Do I START?


First of all- welcome all you lovely new followers!  While not British, the only word that comes to mind to describe how I feel about all the attention my last post received is chuffed.  It’s a fine word for it- Martin Freeman would approve.  I hope you continue to find my posts useful or at least entertaining.


You have decided to learn a new language.  You are committed- you are willing to shell out some financial resources (within reason), you have carved some time into your hectic schedule, you have set a goal and by golly, you achieve your goals.  You are good to go!

That is, until you walk into a bookstore and stare blankly at the rows and rows of language learning materials.  Or you do a Google Search and find a dozen sites and that’s not including the advertised ones.  If this is your first rodeo, you don’t have the first clue what gear and get-up you need.


Please allow me to be of service.Here are my suggestions.

1.Start simple.

When I first started being interested in languages (and had disposable income), I bought every resource imaginable.  I stored dozens of websites in a folder in my bookmarks list.  I even checked out every library book I could find.  The result?

I was so overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information that I didn’t really absorb any of it.


If this IS your first rodeo, I suggest you start with ONE good source, maybe 3 at the most.  That doesn’t mean don’t dabble with others- just don’t commit beyond your means and in this case your means are your study time and your brain’s maximum intake.  As you find a rhythm, you’ll learn how to navigate more smoothly between various sources and use resources appropriately.  But in my experience, too many resources at the beginning is similar to too many cooks in the kitchen.  You get frustrated and distracted and before you know it, you’ve burned the sauce.

2. Get the RIGHT resources

I am a public school teacher.  I am someone who learns best in a classroom environment.  Therefore I DO advocate getting a quality textbook.  Why?  GOOD textbooks do the following:

  • Structure learning in a format similar to how the brain takes in linguistic information (i.e. it puts the morphemes and syntax structures in an order that linguists have come to call the “natural order” or the order your brain would learn them in under immersion circumstances.)  This means you are more likely to actually retain the new structures because you’ve learned the ones your brain sees as prerequisites first.
  • Blend vocabulary and grammar together.  New language learners tend to get completely focused on one or the other.  In my opinion, your adult brain needs both.  You don’t need to spend 5 years deducing the grammar from a series of authentic sentences- you can speed it up.  Likewise, learning all the grammar in the world may make you able to explain how a language works, but it won’t get you speaking it.  You need both to optimize your language learning.
  • Offer a variety of practice strategies and activities.  These can be especially useful if you have a language learning partner but aren’t sure where to start with conversational practice.  Trying some of the book exercises and discussing your answers together can help improve your recall and the depth of your comprehension of new content.
  • Make you aware of cultural information.  While not a substitute for authentic material and situations, textbooks often include snippets of real literature, information about famous persons, and notes on cultural quirks and customs that are unique to the area that speaks your new language.  These can be both useful and interesting and may give you ideas on where to look for more information, both on your language and its culture.

What do I mean by a GOOD textbook?  Well, that could be a post all on its own.  Without going off on too much of a tangent, I suggest looking at what textbooks local colleges and high schools are using.  Take note of the copyright- make sure it is within the last decade as linguistic research has radically changed how textbooks are organized now.  Current textbooks, such as Avancemos for Spanish, are much more skill-based and culture rich than their predecessors.  You can often find used copies of books online.  They may be a bit pricey, so do your research first.  However, a great textbook is well worth a few extra dollars.



(I highly recommend Japanese in Mangaland and  corresponding workbook.  It is fun and well-structured.) (For any language, I am not a big fan of the For Dummies or Everything About series.  Both tend to put too much grammar into one chapter and do not provide enough opportunities to reinforce the material.  But to each their own.)



You will also eventually need a good dictionary.  This could be in the form of an app with today’s technology, though I admit to still being a fan of my old hardback copy.  (I’ll explain why in another post.)  There is a lot of controversy over whether one should use a target language to native language dictionary or a dictionary IN the target language (i.e. Webster’s but with Spanish definitions).  Personally I think both have their uses and especially if you are going the digital route and can find such resources for free or cheap, I suggest getting both.

3.Use social media wisely


Social media can be a great way for you to get a daily dose of your language, even when life throws you a curveball and you can’t study.  I set my Facebook into either Spanish or Japanese at all times.  (Word to the wise- take a mental note of how many lines down the “Account Settings” button is before you do this.  It will help if there is a vital reason you need to change it back.)  My cellphone is also in Spanish.  This means every SINGLE day (heck let’s face it, almost every hour), I am confronted by some foreign text.  The great thing?  My brain quickly STOPS thinking about it as foreign text.  It starts seeing a puzzle to solve and eventually recognizes words without me even realizing I learned them.

Twitter and Tumblr are two other great sources.  Follow 1 or 2 people that are either native speakers of your L2 or who offer something in it.  There is a great tumblr blog called Spanish-quotes that takes popular English quotes and translates them.  That can be a great positive start to your day and your learning.  On Twitter I follow musicians, sports stars, news sites, and so forth to get a daily dose of language.  The news sites can be especially useful in your growth in language, as they often link to actual articles so that as your vocabulary improves you can start increasing your reading exposure.  Don’t sell those celeb tweets short however; many of those can teach you about modern slang and “texting” type writing skills you WON’T find in any textbook.

4.Balance your materials


I said it earlier in my pro-textbook rant but I’ll repeat.  You NEED to balance grammar and vocabulary.  Having both WILL increase your efficiency in language learning.  It is important to note however that YOUR balance and MY balance may look different.  I am a very grammar driven person and so my balance is probably 60-40, with grammar leading the way.  I have friends who hate language rules and their balance looks more like a 30-70 split with vocabulary clearly winning.  I stress that you tweak your program until you find the balance that feels right for YOU.

You also need to balance your skills.  Try to get yourself using all 4- listening, speaking, reading, and writing- as soon as possible.  A good book will likely promote this, but if you find yourself struggling, check out italki or a similar site for ideas to work each skill.  Youtube is filled with listening opportunities, PalTalk and Skype are filled with native speakers to connect with, and there are e-pal matching websites all over the web.  Reading material is a news or Wikipedia search away. (Or check out LingQ which has tons of reading and listening material.)  Use your tools- but don’t let them use you.   Find one or two you like, make your habits, and keep it simple until you are ready to add more.

Don’t become paralyzed by the sheer abundance- recognize that banquets are great, but you don’t have to stuff yourself to the brim.  Take what you want now- the rest will still be there later for you to partake.


5.Follow your OWN gut

This is easily the most important on the list.

You may be reading this thinking “But I freaking HATE textbooks.  I like mess, I like jumping from one thing to the next.  I have lots of native input available to me and that is where I want to start.”  You want to know how I respond to that?

More power to you.

The MOST important thing you must do as a language learner is to take charge of your own learning.  You have to be intrinsically motivated for this- it’s a lifelong process and while external factors may help light the fire, only you can stoke the coals.


This means you have to know yourself well.  Know how you learn and how you need to organize your time and materials.  Do you need to schedule study sessions or assign yourself tasks?  Do you need lots of grammar and slow and steady increase of vocabulary?  Or do you prefer to flood yourself with words and reference grammar as you go to help parse it all out?  Do you need to keep a binder of your notes, with tabs for vocabulary sections and grammar concepts and skills input practice?  Do you even NEED to take notes?

For me personally, I need about 60% grammar at the beginning and 40% vocabulary in terms of my direct instruction.  I need simple skills practice spread out over a reasonable length of time.  I challenge myself to do ONE thing with my languages daily but I don’t assign a time or specifics to which thing I do what day.   I keep a notebook and my materials together and do often use highlighters and tabs to color code my work.  If I can, I attend a class.  At minimum, I find a language partner.  THIS is what works for me.  BUT it’s not what works for everyone.  My friend who I’ve often mentioned before is a much more solitary learner.  He is not one for taking notes or book instruction.  He is one for diving into authentic material head-on.  He is, paradoxically to some people, also a HUGE grammar nut.  He is a big fan of processes like shadowing and constant audio input.  He had successfully taught himself Japanese BECAUSE he KNOWS what works for him.

I give you my advice from my own experiences both as a learner and a teacher of languages.  But I would be amiss to not request that you use them only as you yourself see fit.  I hope this gives a bit of clarity to anyone lost in the overwhelming sea of “where do I begin?”  Here, my friend, have a life preserver.

And then?  Just keep swimming. 😉



Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/31/14.

Laws for Linguists

So by now some of you lovely faithful readers have got to be thinking:

“Okay, the inspirational, touchy feely stuff is great BUT how about something practical?  Something I can actually apply!”

Well, I do aim to give the people what they want. 

There are a lot of websites out there that will give a list of guidelines and practices to learn a language.  Every polyglot has their mantras and I’m no exception.  So today,  I’m sharing my list of language learning rules to help you get started.  Next week, as a follow up, I’ll share how I organize my language learning, especially when I first start.

EVERYONE is different.  Some of you may disagree with these rules or my organization methods and to you I say Kudos.  Way to figure out what works best for you.  That is not only awesome, but also I’d love to hear about it so I can share more helpful information with our fellow polyglots.  All I ask is that you share your opinions and tips in a tactful manner.  Thanks!



1.  10 minutes a day is better than an hour a week

If you take away nothing else, please take away this.  I know SO many people who buy a dozen language learning resources, sign up on countless websites, join 50 social media groups, and go on a language BINGE because by golly, they have DECIDED to learn this language NOW!  While an initial binge is understandable (and frankly unavoidable if my own past endeavors are any indication), it is not, and I repeat, NOT sustainable.  A four hour binge on Saturday becomes 2 on Sunday, then half an hour on Monday, and before you know it, it’s been a month and you have to blow the dust off your lovely books and re-set all your passwords.

Set a REASONABLE amount of time per day to work on your language.  I recommend no more than 30 minutes when you are starting, and be satisfied with yourself if you manage at least half of that with consistency.  Because my friends, THAT is the key- consistency.  Language is a daily practice, not a test to cram for, so make it part of yours.  I promise reading 1 tweet a day will gain you more in the long run than a once a month binge session with those Rosetta Stone CDs.

(A lot of people find they benefit from time-boxing or task-boxing various aspects of language learning.  For more information, check out this blog.)


2. Balance your input

If you REALLY want to be solid in your target language, you need to balance all four skills.  That means you need both listening and reading input, and you need practice in both speaking and writing (typing is acceptable in this modern era, though for unfamiliar scripts I do recommend some handwriting practice).  Fortunately, access to all of these is relatively easy to find nowadays.

 “Oh yeah, right.  I want to learn Gleepglop the language of Cave People of Biddledoo.  Where on earth am I going to find this stuff?”

Even for obscure languages, it is AMAZING what the internet has managed to put together.  To find resources, here is a short list of ideas:

  • a) Check out livemocha.com .  You can love or hate their language classroom setups, but bottom line, they CAN connect you with native speakers of a wide variety of languages.  Many are more than willing to help and some may want your assistance in learning your native tongue.  You get to gain a skill and build karma helping someone- talk about a win-win.  UPDATE: Livemocha closed last year, but a new website is in its place: www.hellolingo.com.  I have not checked it out much, but it does appear to be a good language exchange site.  I also recommend italki because you can hire professional teachers, community tutors, or find free advice from fellow language learners.
  • b)  Check out Wikipedia.  That front log in page?  It lists a TON of language options.  Do all of them have a bunch of articles?  No.  Is it a start?  You bet.
  •  c) Go to Google Translate and learn a few words.  It’s not perfect, I realize this.  But if you can learn the word for “news”, you’ll be on your way to both audio and reading input in short order.


3.  Find SOMEONE to practice/learn with

This goes along with the last one, but merits its own mention.  Languages are about interaction with one another.  It is VERY difficult, though not impossible, to do it all on your own.  If you can, make friends with a native speaker.  Again the above resources (as well as more I’ll share over time) can help you do that even over a great distance.

If not, see if you can find a friend who also wants to learn your language.  While native input is great, even someone at your own level can be a great help.  Generally, no two people have the same strengths and sometimes talking about points of a language that you find confusing with someone else can bring great clarity.

If no one in your immediate circle is interested, turn to social media.  Tumblr and Facebook are both great starting points for finding people interested in your language.  Share ideas, resources, frustrations, etc…  E-mail, instant message, Skype if you feel comfortable.  Part of this whole adventure is communicating with new people, and while it may be a bit scary at first, I promise you’ll be glad you did.


4. Make it fun

If all your language learning becomes is reviewing flashcards and staring at grammar charts, you will likely burn out quick.  (Unless you are an uber grammar nerd, in case carry on my brother/sister!)  While both of these may be necessary from time to time, try to inject pieces of fun into your language learning.  You enjoy Facebook and Twitter anyhow?  Put Facebook in your target language or follow some celebrities on Twitter in your new tongue.  Love Manga or fanfiction?  Search for Manga raws (those in the original language) and try to puzzle out a word or two.  Search on AO3 by your target language- you MIGHT even find a translated copy so that you can compare the version in your L1 to that in your L2.  Listen to silly vlogs, watch god-awful but heart-touching telenovelas, find a comedian or two.

Find the fun in language study and you’ll seldom have to search for motivation.


5. Don’t Buy it to Shelve it

I mentioned this in my first blog but I will probably continue to beat this particular horse.  PLEASE do NOT spend your hard earned cash just to fill your bookshelf with a bunch of resources you don’t use.  I’ve done it and my wallet likes to remind me often.  If you find a resource you think can help you, by all means GET IT.  But recognize quality  over quantity.  It is often better to spend $50 on a really good resource than $10 on a slapped together phrasebook.

 AND there are LOTS of really great free resources which can keep your costs low.  Hello Internet and Thank You!  🙂

If you need help picking out a good resource, try checking out reviews online or look for the fellow polyglot in the language section.  You can always recognize us- we are the ones RE-ORGANIZING the section because some moron put the Hebrew book in the Chinese section and the Arabic book in ASL section and … well, you see where I’m going with this.  Even if we haven’t studied your language, we probably can judge a book by its table of contents, illustrations/diagrams, and other features.  We love to help newbies, so feel free to ask!


6. Keep it Real, Yo

Let me state that as a Spanish Language teacher, I am actually a big fan of textbooks.  I think they can be invaluable in helping someone who is overwhelmed with the concept of learning a new language organize their studies and give them a general pathway.  That said…

Authentic material is an ABSOLUTE MUST if you want to learn your language right.  You need to be exposing yourself to native speech and text as soon as possible.  Fortunately, Mr. Internet is happy to serve.  I strongly recommend YouTube videos and Tweets to the new language learner- they’re short and manageable, easily fitting in the 10 minute every day time slots I mentioned earlier.  News articles and videos are also great sources, as well as television websites in your L2.  (These often feature short commercial trailer type clips of shows as well as synopses and reviews.)  Find something that intrigues you and check in regularly.  Authentic input helps you get beyond the formal language of the textbook into the everyday colloquial speech you will more likely encounter.


7. Check in with Your “Why”

A friend of mine was recently discussing his Japanese study with me.  He told me how he had started learning Japanese so he could better understand the various Anime shows he loved so much.  Yet as his study progressed, he found himself watching less and less Anime.  He also found himself often starved for motivation to continue with his study.

“I spent all this time learning this language FOR THIS PURPOSE.  Then I didn’t use it.  How dumb was that?”

Why did you pick this language in the first place?  For work, for fun, for a significant other?  Did you like an aspect of the culture or want to travel to this place?  Whatever your why is, make sure it is intricately tied into your language practice.  Post a travel brochure in your study area, whisper a sweet nothing to your partner once a week in their native tongue, read about that unique cultural attribute in your new tongue (or a mixture thereof).  Keeping your why an integral part of what you are doing will help you keep your eye on the prize and sustain motivation.  I’m glad to report my friend is watching more Anime again and finding study easy once more.


8. Remember, the Tortoise Won

We live in a world of instant gratification.  We want something, we go after it, we get it (or we don’t), we move on.

Language learning doesn’t work that way.

You are going to have days where it seems like every single vocabulary word you’ve bothered to learn just flew out of your head.  You are going to have times when the grammar doesn’t make sense, or you’re tired and stressed from your job and don’t want to put in the time, and you WILL have days (or even weeks) where you say “To hell with this” and ignore your lovely language in favor of socializing, TV, or other distracting pursuits.

 This is OKAY.

It’s important to remember that learning a language is a lifelong endeavor.  You’ll never be perfect, never know every single word, not even in your own native tongue.  And if you think about it, that really takes the pressure off.  You have the rest of your life to learn this and so, if today is bad, you CAN come back tomorrow and get it right.

This is NOT an excuse to skip a week of practice.  Rather, it’s a recognition that there is no finish line to race toward; only slow and steady progress toward a series of goals you set for yourself.  That’s how you learn a language.


A cool pic of fellow (and far more famous) Polyglot Benny Lewis.

I don’t claim to be an expert, just a fellow polyglot reporting from the trenches.  These worked for me; I hope they can give you some guidance.  I’d love to hear from any of you about your own “language learning” rules.  Please feel free to drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

Live Long and Polyglot On, Ya’ll.  🙂


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/25/14.