Category Archives: Language Learning

Speaking Polish!

One of the best things about working with international people is all the things you can learn from them!

Watch me stumble through my first few phrases of Polish after a couple weeks of 15-minute lunchtime Polish lessons 🙂

The featured image for this post was taken inside the Wieliczka salt mine in Poland when I visited in 2011. I didn’t get to stay long in the country, but I recall that the food was incredible!


HablandoTV: Shortcomings and Potential for France

After nearly 2 years of work on this project, I was excited to finally see the first published videos for HablandoTV about two months ago. My ideas were finally becoming a tangible reality– the prospective of increasing English proficiency among Hispanics in the US felt so close!

See some HablandoTV episodes here!

Yet, the problem suffers from several shortcomings, most notably:

1. A lack of professional filming.
I thought that working with Nowadays Orange, a Dallas-based production company headed by a fellow UT Dallas graduate, would be a great option for this start-up project. However, conflicting angles during filming, illogical film cuts, and poorly controlled lighting suggest otherwise. This production company obviously lacks experience in the fundamentals of filming.

2. A lack of professional video-editing.
Research conducted by myself and the project’s other co-producer show the importance of creating hooks and capturing audience attention within the first 10 seconds of a clip. Nevertheless, despite my constant demands to decrease the introduction and conclusion sections of clips (which are geared towards self promotion and provide no actual content for the viewer), these sections continue to take up as much as half of the entire clip time.

3. A lack of talented actors. 
Neither professional actors nor talented actors-in-training appear to have been hired. While this may be in part the result of a lack of funding, the company could likely have found willing, talented individuals to act for free by targeting students and new graduates. Instead, the project’s other co-producer took on the main acting role, despite admitting that he feels nervous in front of the camera. Since the program budgets $500 to the production of each episode, I do not consider a lack of funding to be a major shortcoming. $500 should be more than sufficient to create a decent video clip under two minutes, though no details on actual project spending have yet been made available.

4. A lack of consistent pedagogy.
The Spanish-English grammar and phrase explanations are not consistent in terms of assumed audience English competency. Though some of my scripts are being used, others seem to have been invented on the fly. When asked about the use of subtitles as a pedagogical strategy, the Dallas-based co-producer denied that subtitles hold any value other than  comedic purposes. The project needs a solid pedagogical vision and a show host who values and understands that vision.

5. An inability to provide efficient feedback from a distance.
Despite having expressed all of the above concerns on multiple occasions, I feel that my points are not getting through to the production company. Physical distance creates a barrier in being able to participate actively in filming, editing, and other activities. For this reason, I am discussing the implementation of a new project, using the same basic premises, in France.

I still believe this project has much potential, and perhaps by getting a ‘new start’ in France, greater success can be achieved. While this may require re-writing scripts and re-orienting the project to a French-speaking public, later expansion to the Spanish-speaking public would be attainable if initial success was established in France. Initial goals for the establishment of the project in France include:

  • Engage individuals with proven academic training in filming and video editing. I have several connections in France that I can approach with professional backgrounds in the audiovisual field. The HablandoTV project has shown that the importance of this aspect of the project cannot be understated.
  • Engage actors with an interest or desire to act. They do not need to be professionals, but they should at least enjoy being on camera. Paris offers a prime location for finding dedicated individuals willing to engage in projects without pay with the prospect of getting seen.
  • Establish pedagogical goals and insist on their consistency. All those involved in the project should be aware of the pedagogical goals, and clip content should center around those goals. This must be enforced both by following established scripts and by project direction.
  • Film and publish at least one episode before I leave the country. My career interests will eventually cause me to leave France at some point, if only for a couple of months. Ensuring the production of at least the first episode, if not more, while I am in-country will be crucial to keeping original visions of the project alive. Finding a dedicated and reliable co-producer could also be a good way to deal with this.

See some HablandoTV episodes here!

Why It’s Not So Bad to Fail at Language Learning

Here is a great New York Times article on the benefits of language learning – even when the language is not successfully learned. It talks about some of the cognitive benefits of trying to learn a new language and thus why it’s no so bad to fail at language learning:

“The Benefits of Failing at French”

My 56-year-old mother has spent the last 2 years living in Istanbul, Turkey, studying Turkish while teaching art in English. Although her Turkish remains far from fluent (and this is her first attempt to learn a language!), she has mastered the ability to communicate with a variety of people in Turkish to accomplish such tasks as directing a taxi, ordering food, navigating Turkish computer programs at her school, and making polite conversation.

Her comments?
“I think that studying a language has improved my memory in many ways. I remain hopeful that I will get the opportunity to try to learn another language. I also think I’ve become more tolerant of my own mistakes and forgive myself for not being able to perform up to my own expectations. So what if I don’t ever become fluent? What does it matter?”

Her contract in Turkey has ended. So, she’s preparing to leave for a new 2-year contract at a school in Ethiopia where she hopes to learn some Amharic. This is surely a daunting task for anyone but, as I always say, the most difficult language to learn is the language you don’t want to learn. Conversely, the easiest language to learn is the one you are excited about.

Language Learning Tip: Read a Novel

Let’s see: you’ve taken a course or two, learned the basics, searched for speaking partners… now what? Here is a language learning tip for you:

When I was learning my first language, Spanish, I quickly became frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was making much progress. Especially when there are no natives around to practice with, it can be hard to feel the fruits of your efforts. It wasn’t until my teacher assigned us to read a novel in Spanish that I really realized how much I could understand!

But isn’t it hard to read a novel?

I initially thought reading a book would be WAAAY beyond me.
But I soon realized that by only looking up words when I really needed to, I could actually understand most of the book- and even enjoy it- even though I couldn’t yet have a decent conversation in Spanish.

Reading a novel is easier than you think

This is partly because many words in Latin languages (Spanish, French, etc.) look similar to English words. So even though you have never seen them before and couldn’t think to say them or recognize them when you hear them, they are easy enough to pick out in writing.

In fact, sometimes reading is a better way to pick up a language at first than by oral communication. That’s because there isn’t any pressure from others to perform and you can take all the time you want to stare at words and look them up. In the process, you can learn valuable vocabulary and sentence structures which can later be used orally.

Sure, watching television or reading the news in your target language is “better practice” for you… but if your level isn’t quite up to the task it may be too difficult or uninteresting.

The key is to choose a book that is interesting to you and that you’ve already read before or already know what it’s about. My go-to book? Harry Potter. It’s available in tons of different languages and it’s a story you likely already know. [Plus, after making your way through the book you may be able to watch a dubbed version of the movie and understand it better than you would otherwise since you’ll already have learned most of the relevant vocabulary.]

Avoid small children’s books

Despite what many people may think, these stories are actually not easier for non-native learners. Children’s books or picture books use short sentences without much detail, so there is little room for you to guess what is going on if you don’t know all the vocabulary. Novels, on the other hand, usually repeat things, describe things, and have lots of small details for you to catch – or leave behind – without jeopardizing your general understanding of the book.

  • Books whose stories you already know are easier and more interesting to try and read in a foreign language since, through context, you may be able to guess a lot of words without having to look them up (even if they don’t look similar to their English translations).
  • Reading gives you a great feeling of accomplishment because you can physically see  how many pages you can make it through.
  • You can learn plenty of vocabulary by reading a book.

The one important thing to note is that you shouldn’t use the dictionary for every new word. Just  the ones that are repeated a lot or seem integral to your understanding of the story. You can’t be a perfectionist on this or you’ll risk losing interest due to slow progress.

Tried this already? How’d it work? Leave a comment.

Thinking in a foreign language

The moment you will be able to really feel comfort in a foreign language is when you start to think in it. By that, I mean you start to use the language in automatic responses… you’re not translating in your head or searching a long time for words.

Once you can start thinking in the language, words will flow and you will start to feel like you understand the concept of ‘fluency’, even though you are not yet there. But there are a lot of misconceptions about this kind of ‘thought fluency.’

First of all, most people think you need a high level to be able to think in a language. This is wrong.

You do not need a high level to be able to think in a langauge.

In fact, think about what happens when you learn a new word in your native language. If I tell you that water is now called ‘su,’ you will have no problems integrating that word into your normal vocabularly. Immediately, you will be able to use the word — ‘Can I have some su?’ or ‘Are you thirsty? Do you want soda or su?’

The other big misconception is probably that you gain this fluency just by grammar and vocabulary study.

Grammar and vocabulary alone will never allow you to think in a foreign language.

You have to practice thinking in your target language if you ever want to be able to do it. I have met so many people who know tons of words and understand extremely well the grammar of a language, but unless you can think in the language, conversation is going to be difficult.


How to Start Thinking in a Foreign Language

1. Look around you

Whether you are in a room or walking outside or wherever you are, look around you.

2. Clear your head  of words

Actually, this is easy. When we look around we aren’t usually thinking ‘Hey, there’s a clock and there’s a chair…’ In fact, normally we aren’t saying anything to ourselves at all regarding our surroundings. If we are thinking something, we are either thinking about things that are not directly related to our surroundings or we are thinking in pictures or abstract concepts– but we are not saying words to ourselves. So try to look around without any words coming to your head at all.

3. Allow the target language to come out

Now, try to think (or better yet, say out loud!) whatever words you can in your target language about your surroundings.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not grammatically correct or if it’s not interesting. If all you can do is colors– that’s fine. Actually, I would suggest starting with colors. Just look around and let the color name come to you in the target language without thinking about the word in your native language.

If what comes to your mind isn’t related to your surroundings, say it anyways. Basically, you are verbalizing stream of concsiousness in a foreign language.
(‘Now I’m thinking in French, and I’m only going to think in French, and I see a thing but I’m not sure what it is in French but it’s blue, I like blue, but that thing isn’t blue, it’s black, I like black….’)

4. Don’t know it? Move on!

Face it– you don’t know what everything is in your native language either. Right now I’m sitting in a room with one of those things with beads on it used to count… an abacus? That’s not a word that comes easily to me!

The important thing is not to know any words but rather to use what you do know and to totally ignore and skip over what you don’t. Increasingly your vocabularly or grammar should be done in an actually study session. This activity is just about preparing your brain for fluid foreign thinking.



If you give this a try, let me know how it goes. If you have another trick that you use, please share that too!

[Cover photo: Paris, France.]

CEFR Language Levels – What do they mean?

I first came into contact with the CEFR language levels during a semester in Orléans, France. I was presented with a French placement exam to figure out my level.

The CEFR (Common European Framework for Languages) tests are produced in multiple countries. They are often referred to with different acronyms according to the language in question.

The levels are: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2, with A1 being the most elementary level and C2 corresponding to a “native” speaker’s level.

What do these levels mean?

People who take language learning seriously use these levels are used to judge a person’s language skills. I can’t say how many times I’ve met someone who tells me they are “fluent” in Spanish, but the second I ask them a simple question (“¡Muy bien! ¿Como estas?), they either refuse to respond or use grammar that is heavily flawed.

The fact is, it’s not as though you are either fluent or not fluent.

There are many levels in between. In fact, many people believe that nobody is ever really “fluent” in any language, as you can never know 100% of grammar rules and vocabulary– languages are just too complex.

Nevertheless, CEFR provides a way for people to identify themselves with levels that attempt to define language competence.

What can be done at each level?

CEFR has it’s own definitions on what each level means which are very thorough and very diplomatic. In my experience, and in the fewest words possible, here’s what they mean:

A1 Level – This is when you only know a few words and phrases. You can deal with some necessities, but you can’t really have a conversation.
A2 Level – You can have a rather simple conversation, but without a dictionary it will be uninteresting.
B1 Level – You can have real (though perhaps slow) conversation. It may take time, but you can express most things.
B2 Level – You can talk about almost anything. This is the level where you could start to legitimately claim “fluency.”

At the B2 level, you might still speak a bit slowly and need a dictionary on occasion. Usually, though, you can start to take college classes and work a job in the language with this level.

C1 LevelNot only can you talk about everything, but you also have  a good grasp of grammar. You might still sound a bit foreign, but hey… nobody’s perfect! Or are they?
C2 Level – As far as I know, nobody takes this test unless they plan to do translation (or something similar) in the language. This is above and beyond what most people ever need. It shows that not only can you speak the language, but you’ve really studied it.



[Cover photo: Paris and the Eiffel Tower as seen from the Arc de Triomphe.]