July 2009

Learning several languages at once

I was always terrible at languages in school. I joking tell people I failed every language offered by every school I ever attended, including Latin… twice! The punchline is that it’s actually the truth. On the other hand when I’m around people speaking another language I pick it up pretty quickly, at least from a comprehension standpoint – speaking is a whole other matter. This has bothered me for years and I’ve dabbled in learning many languages on my own. For any one of a million reasons I haven’t followed through with any so I have a partial knowledge of quite a few. I decided 2009 was going to be the year to change that and set out to decide which of the fragments I knew would be easiest to complete.

As I was looking around I started seeing something interesting. A lot of people talking about how learning a tertiary language usually wreaks havoc on your secondary language. Something about how the brain classifies this information, and once it creates a storage area for a non-primary language it doesn’t like to increase the size of it and will just overwrite the data there. Speaking in more layman terms, if English is your first language and you learn Spanish as a secondary, then try to learn French, when you go back to trying to speak Spanish you’ll find yourself accidentally using many French words in place of the Spanish ones you previously knew by mistake. As you can imagine this is disheartening.

I started looking around for information about learning more than once language at once and surprisingly found very little. What I did find was very interesting. For some people, or at least some people who have thought it interesting on their own enough to document, learning several languages at once eliminates that problem. Essentially this practice tricks your brain into thinking you are just learning a very massive secondary language. Even more interesting is that those who have tried this seem to suggest it’s not any more difficult than just learning the languages on their own, it’s simply more time consuming.

This is incredibly fascinating to me, enough so that I’m going to give it a shot. I haven’t been disciplined enough to learn a single language in part because I get board with the constant memorization so maybe doing several languages with varying methods will work out differently. It’s worth a shot anyway. The three languages that I know the most hacked up pieces of and that I’ve tried to learn on their own are Japanese, Spanish and French. I’ve skimmed a few others as well but I think tackling 3 at once is going to be enough for me so I’m going to stick with those. I’ve got a variety of teaching techniques for these including the Michel Thomas’ lessons for Spanish and French, Pimsler tapes for Japanese, Rosetta Stone software for Spanish and Japanese and finally a collection of iPhone apps for Japanese. I studied French the most in School so I feel like that is the one with potentially the most latent skills buried somewhere in my head.

The trick for me, and probably for anyone attempting this kind of thing, will be to make sure to fit in all three languages each week and not start focusing on just one. This is especially tricky since I’ll be in Japan next week so the tendency to cram on that alone is very strong right now – though when I’m there I think I can default to just French and Spanish as I’ll be surrounded by enough Japanese conversation to act as a class in it’s own way. Or maybe not, maybe this is totally insane. We’ll see.

Travel and Just Doing It

At the suggestion of a few friends I just read Vagabonding: an uncommon guide to the art of long-term world travel by Rolf Potts. I’m actually kind of shocked I wasn’t familiar it before because it’s echoing quite a bit of my own philosophy, or at least the philosophy I like to think I have, as well as giving me a bit to strive for. I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 2 years traveling around the world and it’s safe to say this has lead to some of the best times in my entire life. If nothing else the overall experience of regularly traveling for longer periods of time has been enlightening, entertaining, adventuresome, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. In fact I actively want to trade things I have to allow me to do more of it. There’s something about being out in the world that helps you understand yourself in ways you didn’t know you could.

I’ve been a “collector” for much of my life and have spent a lot of time & money trying to convince myself that things would make me happy. If I had one more band t-shirt, or that extra limited color vinyl of that bands 7″, or one more tiki mug, or a complete set of these rare Japanese toys, or the store exclusive of that artist figure, or whatever then I would finally be content. In each case when I got those items and they didn’t turn out to be the solution to all my problems I decided I must have been chasing the wrong thing and just moved on to something else. Towards the end of my Jumbo Machinder obsession I realized that the thrill of the hunt was much more rewarding than crossing the finish line, so to speak. This is a topic I’ve talked about before and for the last few years I’ve been trying to shift my life more towards the experiences, and trying to get away from the stuff. More often than not travel is a crucial part of those experiences that I feel are actually rewarding.

Travel iPhone Apps

travelappsI travel a lot. I have an iPhone. I have an international data plan. The combo of these things gives me the opportunity to try out lots of travel apps and find ones that are useful or more likely ones that are steamy piles of poop. I’m guessing you don’t need advice on apps not to check out, so I decided to give a little bit of a rundown of apps I think are worth while and I use myself on a regular basis. When I’m traveling anyway, I don’t use the app that gives me a map of the Tokyo metro very often when I’m hanging out in LA. You get the idea.

Data plan aside, I only have so much bandwidth to play with so my preference is for apps that are self contained and don’t need a connection, or that can leach of nearby wifi for whatever data they do need. Of course GPS is a huge benefit in travel so that isn’t always possible but know ahead of time that when faced with options that require heavy data usage and ones that don’t I opt for the later. If any of this sounds interesting to you, keep on reading!