Category Archives: Languages

Back in the Saddle

I had a half-finished draft of a post listing resolutions for the new year, but it seems a bit late to put it up now, so instead I’ll just catch you up with things. (Happy New Year!) I got an iPad and wireless keyboard for my birthday, and it is an excellent on-the-go writing studio. This afternoon, in fact, I biked to town and sat in the coffeeshop, sipping a latte and writing a short story. It felt good to write some fiction again, especially something short and bite-sized. I’ve been trying to get back into the writing groove so I can get motivated to edit one of the two novels I wrote by the end of March. Seeing as how that’s coming up a lot sooner than I had hoped, I really need to just go ahead and start editing.

I’ve been pretty excellent in other ways. One of the apps on my iPad is iTunes U, a cool site that offers free courses from various universities. I took an excellent course on moons, and am currently working my way through a Harvard course on the ethics of justice, a writing workshop, and a rather hard-to-follow introductory medical school course on the pulmonary system. It’s all been pretty fascinating so far. Another app that I’ve enjoyed is Duolingo, a language-learning app. It’s not great for actually learning a language, as it doesn’t really do any explanation, but it is excellent for giving you exercises to build up your vocabulary and practice the correct genders and such. I’m using it to learn French and review German. Finally, I am learning poetry. I found an app where you progressively memorize poems, leading up to a recorded recitation of them from memory. I’m really enjoying it! I used to enjoy memorizing poems as a child (I knew large chunks of Where the Sidewalk Ends and all of And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street), and they say that as an adult you will probably still enjoy the things you enjoyed as a child. I’ve already learned Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day, The Jabberwocky, El Dorado, Death Be Not Proud, and just a tiny smidge of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I may not be doing great on any of the other focus areas for excellence, but it’s not as bad as it could be. So far, this has been an excellent year, and I’m just really excited to get back into writing again! I may try to get into the editing mood by editing the short story I wrote this morning, and we’ll see how that pans out. Not having done much editing before, it’s hard to know what to expect or how to plan for it. I’ll keep you updated.

Il Mio Cervello è in Fiamme

Recently, my brain has been on fire for learning languages. I’ve always been attracted to foreign languages; as a child, they seemed mysterious and almost magical, like secret ciphers than only a select few [millions] know how to comprehend, but at the same time, they held the key to entire societies and far-off lands of wonder. I think all of the foreign travel we’ve been doing lately (for the first time!) has completely opened up that secret yearning to learn languages, and I have been greedily guzzling up every foreign syllable I can get.

My method of introduction to a new language is always the Pimsleur Method — I find that it works really, really well for me, at least for the initial bits of a language. It isn’t cheap, but it is worth the price. So far, I’ve studied the first 20-30 lessons of Swedish, Hebrew, Romanian, French, and Italian, and they certainly served me as well as my two years of high school German in the typical café-waiter-interactions we’ve had in various countries. Because there are more lessons available in French and Italian, I plan to try to study more than the first 30 lessons in those; I am looking forward to seeing how the series progresses past the most basic interactions. My goal is to take the first 90 lessons of both French and Italian in the next year. But I don’t want to stop there; I also have some newspapers and books that I want to work my way through translating, for practice in reading various languages and learning vocabulary and grammar in action. I would also love to tackle the rudiments of a few other languages that have no similarity to Germanic and Romance languages, languages whose sounds are still magical and mysterious to me, like Arabic or Chinese. My greed for understanding languages is growing unbounded! Senza limite!

I heard a report recently that learning a foreign language can actually grow parts of your brain. Those students who pick up languages more easily tend to grow parts of their cerebral cortex, while those who struggle to learn grow their motor areas. (The growth was larger for intensive language learners than for, say, medical students who also learn a lot quickly but not connected to language.) I used to be afraid that every word I learn in one language would “push out” a word I already knew in another. While it does sometimes take a moment for me to switch contexts from one language to another, I found that when someone spoke to me in French in Paris, I was responding (mostly) in French, even though I had just been studying Italian! I guess I have room for multiple languages in my brain after all!