The Joy of

The other day, I wrote about Imagin8 and comprehensible input. Specifically, I was looking at how having the vocabularies available on meant you could start learning the words as you read the story, so that you had a way of simultaneously growing your vocabulary and having comprehensible input. Today, I’d like to say just a few words about the flashcard app where you can pick up the vocabulary for Imagin8 books.

One of the fusses of learning a new word list is it’s often littered with words you already know. And if you’re looking at wordlists to work your way through a set of related stories – even if all that binds them is they were written with HSK2 or HSK3 vocabulary, you’re going to keep getting the same words over and over for each story. In this, is genius. While you can add lists to learn, they’re added to the databank of words you already know. If you’ve done all the characters in HSK1 and HSK2, when you add a new lists that includes some of those words, they won’t be added to your new learning. Sure, they’ll cycle in for periodic review, just like all the words in your databank. But that’s just it: with, everything you add grows the vocabulary you’re maintaining, but nothing makes you duplicate your efforts unnecessarily. And this leads to the second wonderful point. When you go to the queue of lists you’re learning, it shows you how many words you know and how many are left for each list. But it’s constantly updated. This means that as you learn the vocabulary for one story, you can see the unknown vocabulary for later stories shrinking each time you learn a word that appears in multiple stories. As a result, the closer you get to knowing the 300 words you need for one intermediate story, the less work you have for later stories that assume at least an HSK4 vocabulary. And you can see the size of your task shrinking every time you work a little further into your current list.

I’m sure there must be other apps out there that work like this… it’s too ingenious an idea for everyone to have missed. But for the moment, is what I’ve found, and if you’re learning Mandarin it’s marvelous to see the learning of lists turn into seriously growing your overall reading vocabulary. If keeping tracks of all those Chinese characters is a challenge, especially with those you know you’ve seen someplace else recently, give this a look. (P.S. They also have the wordlists, chapter by chapter, for Heisig’s Remembering the HanZi.)

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Comprehensible Input and Imagin8

Long time readers are aware of my ups and downs with Chinese Mandarin. At the moment, I’m working on a bit of an up again. Some time ago, I worked my way through Jeff Pepper’s 23 Cats and Mulan. They are readers with a restricted vocabulary, but are not so tedious as the typical beginner reader where dad is always a doctor, mom is always a teacher and life never ventures from the HSK1 or HSK2. Then, as usual, I let things lapse again for a while. But I still keep looking at the Journey to the West readers. And so I clicked on a link at Imagin8 to find out what this HackChinese thing they were recommending was all about. HackChinese is essentially yet another flashcard app for Chinese that uses SRS. The nice thing is they have vocabulary lists for all the Imagin8 books. The better thing is the app builds a cumulative vocabulary for you. This means that when you start a new book, it doesn’t drill you on the vocabulary you’ve already learned from other books, only the vocabulary from that book that is new to you. If you are looking for a way to target comprehensible input for Chinese through reading, this isn’t a bad way to go: 1) Add the vocabulary for a book to your list, 2) Work the list till you know 70% or so of the vocabulary, 3) Start reading and continue working through the list and 4) Reread the whole thing when you’re through both the book and the vocabulary list.

Note that HackChinese also does have a bunch of word lists including textbook vocabularies, the HSK lists and other things. And the great thing is whatever lists you add, you never start over with a word you’ve already learned from one of the other lists. That said, because it mainly tests knowing the pinyin and meaning for given Chinese characters, I’d recommend it for reading more than conversation.

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Updated Romagnolo Dictionary

Just in time for the holidays! (I kid, I kid). For just about one year during the pandemic, I found myself unemployed. When I wasn’t looking for work and doing tutoring or coaching sessions, I set myself to starting a grammar of Romagnolo for English speakers and revising my Romagnolo Starter Dictionary. The more I worked on the grammar, the clearer it became that my dictionary needed to be less in line with Italian pronunciation and more in line with representing the phonemic distinctions Romagnolo makes and Italian doesn’t. I settled on the spellings used in Masotti’s Vocabulario Romagnolo and added close to 1700 entries, with a view to capturing common vocabulary that I had left out of the previous dictionary because it would be easy for a French or Italian speaker to find in one of the conventional vocabularies. The new dictionary is far from comprehensive – 2700 words – but it will allow you to do short writings and come up with the types of sentences language learners tend to write for practice without necessarily needing another reference at hand. You can find the dictionary at Amazon:

Romagnolo Starter Dictionary (revised and expanded)

And, as before, I have placed a free copy of the PDF at

Romagnolo Starter Dictionary (revised and expanded) (PDF)

Have a look!

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Maintaining and re-awakening languages

There is a species of language learner who, on the chat boards, has come to be known as the YouTube polyglot. You’ve seen these people. They make videos of themselves saying a handful on phrases in 20 languages and encourage everyone to sign up for their course. But the truth of the matter is, language is hard. Really using a language requires that you know enough to fill up a life, or at least an afternoon, of talk time. Realistically, if you aren’t speaking a language every day, in a way that makes you think, every day, your fluency is going to shrink.

While it’s not realistic for most people to maintain fluency in eight or ten languages, there are two bits of good news: 1) You don’t need to! If life doesn’t force you to use a language often enough to maintain it, why would you spend a lot of brain power doing so? 2) When you’ve built neural connections learning a language, they don’t just go away overnight. For a long time, what you’ve learned of a language will lurk in the shadows of your memory, waiting to be brought back to light.

My core languages have always been French, Spanish and Italian with a side of German. Lately, I’ve been reading through Margarita Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish, Magic Key to German, and Invitation to Italian, reading three or four pages a night. There’s nothing to learn, but it keeps the languages floating around in my mind and my German articles really need work. But recently, I got a request to tutor Ecclesiastical Latin. I did a year of Latin way back in high school and used it intermittently in grad school. But it had been quite some time since I’d worked through Scanlon and Scanlon’s Latin Grammar: Grammar Vocabularies, and Exercises in Preparation for the Reading of the Missal and Breviary. No matter, I dusted in off, read through the first two chapters and scanned a copy of the Ordinary of the Mass. It comes back quickly. But… you have to find a familiar path. Working with the same text book, I immediately recognized the exercises. And reading through the Mass goes nicely with listening to a setting of the Mass like Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli – audio with visual.

The point here is that if you’ve lost a language, that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Relearning will come far more quickly than the first learning, and if there are passages that are familiar to you, either from literature or from the exercise books, your brain will latch onto them, even if you no longer have full understanding. So rather than being a YouTube polyglot who knows 20 phrases in 20 languages, why not learn languages when you need them or when, for whatever reason, they will bring you joy? Not only will your experience of them live with you forever, but when life brings them back to you after a time away, you will find they are not so lost as you might have thought.

Side note: I tutor English speakers for beginning French, Spanish, Italian and Latin, and I provide coaching for non-native speakers of English who need to polish their communication style as they move up the corporate ladder. You can set up a free consultation at

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Are apps for language learning a bad idea?

Agnieska Murdoch has the hot take for language learning this week: Don’t learn with an app. She makes a lot of valid points, but concludes by noting that apps are good for some things after all. Which is the very unfortunate thing about apps: They’re good for getting started, but should not be confused with full-fledged language learning programs.

For quite some time, I used DuoLingo for Mandarin. And I learned to recognize a lot of characters when I’ve never been very good at that. The problem, though, is the gamification element. While the gamification element may get you started and keep you going for a little while, after a while your motivation for signing in is the game, not the learning. I eventually quit DuoLingo because I found myself doing an extra five or ten minutes on Saturdays to stay in whatever group I was in at the time. And what I discovered is that because I’d been using it long enough, following the queues from the way the game worked allowed me to get through lessons without actually paying much attention to the actual content. If you don’t know anything about a language, DuoLingo is a great place to start, but once you’ve finished the first level, you should probably move on to something else. Because after level one, being good at DuoLingo’s gamification elements is probably as important as language learning for “advancement.”

I’m going to be really controversial here, and take a shot at another app. Lots of people roll their eyes at DuoLingo, but what about Anki? I’ve used Anki, and I’ve found the same thing as with DuoLingo: If you use it to bang some basics into your head, that’s fine. But if you’re doing 100 cards a day in Anki, that’s a lot of time that could be spent listening to or reading content and forcing yourself to deal with comprehensible input. Really, learning a language has a lot to do with dealing with things you weren’t expecting or don’t actually know yet. Learning and using a language is not about knowing the answers. It’s about having enough exposure that you can navigate situations where your knowledge is imperfect and use the feedback you get on the fly to build your knowledge without getting yourself into (too much) trouble.

One app that I do think is particularly useful for beginners is Memrise. I’ve fussed with their Mandarin program off and on, and here’s it’s one advantage: While they drill the same phrases a lot, they have lots of different people with lots of different accents saying them. So in that regard, at least, you have to deal with a lot of ambiguity and work out things that can be a challenge. Still, I would never suggest learning Mandarin with Memrise alone.

So, rule of thumb: If you’re learning a new language, by all means, use an app to get started. But once you’ve learned one or two hundred words and can make it through Hello, Goodbye and Sorry, I didn’t understand, it’s time to start using new resources.

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Intercomprehension and Receptive Bilingualism

Meina at TogetherWeLearnMore has an interesting article about her experiences with “receptive bilingualism,” that place where you can understand a lot but you can’t speak. In her case, she shares her journey with Arabic, as well as a lot of outside information on the difference between understanding and forming original thoughts in terms of the workings of our brains. Is it possible to know a language without speaking it?

A little while ago, I wrote about intercomprehension and the EuRom5 program. Reading Meina’s piece, it feels like intercomprehension is effectively receptive bilingualism using languages that are close enough together that you have a headstart on vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, grammar. This goes with my own experience with Spanish. I majored in French (and later got a Masters in it), but my senior year of college I took one year of Spanish. A few years later when I needed to show I could read other languages for my graduate studies, I took a test that said I was halfway through university level third year Spanish. Obviously for speaking I was nowhere near there. But between French vocabulary and a basic knowledge of core Spanish structures I could follow a lot.

These days, the language learning fads are DuoLingo and Anki. But I still really like Assimil. And it occurs to me that what Assimil does in the first wave is to develop a sort of receptive bilingualism so that on the second wave you’ll have the background to pick up the language. Food for thought for those who argue as to whether it’s better to speak from day one or get a little language into your brain before you start speaking.

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A new year…

Like many people, I’ve found myself laid off for quite some time due to COVID. It’s especially bad in California, and especially bad in Silicon Valley, where business closures and lockdowns have been pervasive. I’ve used the time to retool a little bit. In particular, I am now a Certified Life Coach and looking for clients who need to improved their writing for business (blog for that business here). I can, of course, also coach for language learning if anyone needs assistance figuring out what to learn, why to learn and what to do next. I’ll answer a few questions here to start:

What language should I learn?

What language are you interested in? And why? Language learning is brain intensive and your brain is going to want a reason to rebuild the world in another language when the one you have seems to do.

I’ve decided what language I want to learn. Now what?

Why do you want to learn? Knowing will not only help with motivation. It will help you decide what materials. You’ll want to spend some time someplace like Amazon or Book Depository in any case. But you’re searching for titles with the word “conversation” if you just think it would be neat to know some phrases. You also might want to visit Audible or Scribd to look for audio resources. Audible has tons of stuff for sale, including pretty much every Pimsleur and Michel Thomas program. Scribd has books, audiobooks and lots of “document” uploads of older language learning books, in addition to audiobooks, and the monthly fee is fairly cheap.

I’ve picked some resources. Now what?

Language is a habit or practice, more than a body of knowledge. Using it is key to maintaining it. So a few minutes a day is better than one big study session a week. I’m going to make one other surprising declaration: Memorization is over-rated. You’re better off learning little bits and then reading and listening to things, maybe multiple times, so that your brain gets used to language patterns, than you are making your poor brain try to put together language in new ways on its own.

These are my thoughts for those just starting on a new language. But if you’ve been studying and are stalled or just want some insight into what is and isn’t working for you, you can visit and set up a free half-hour session to see what it’s like to work with a language coach.

– End commercial –

So, with the new year, what am I up to? Too much! That’s what language addicts do. My current projects for the coming year:

Note for Sanskrit learners: There are some books out there for Sanskrit that are fairly decent except that the first chapter or two show you the alphabet and tell you to come back when you’ve figured it out, as opposed to actually teaching it. I’m thinking of Perry’s Sanskrit Primer and Assimil’s Le Sanskrit, for example. If you have one of these books, I recommend Hindi Script Hacking. In seven fairly short lessons, it introduces the Hindi script while making you read enough place names and English words that have drifted into Hindi usage that you get comfortable drawing the letters and sounding things out. While it’s for Hindi, not Sanskrit, the transliteration to English is the same, making this a fantastic way to start reading nagari.

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Mezzofanti and Vocabooster

A few weeks ago, I followed an Agnieska Murdoch Youtube and wound up hearing about Vocabooster. As I am on layoff for the Coronavirus, when I saw the opportunity to get the full Vocabooster package for too much money, I jumped with dreams of all the languages I would learn in my newly found free time. Then comes the question: Does it work? So that meant trying a language I hadn’t before. I settled on Estonian. I’ve now worked my way through 200 words while plodding through the Anki deck. And what I sense I have here is a framework not unlike what you’d get from a Michel Thomas course – one of the ones that was actually taught by Michel Thomas, mind you. There are lots of pieces you can put together. After the third time that you get the Anki card about not understanding Estonian (Ma ei saa aru eesti keelest) and almost thought “eesti keelt” instead of “eesti keelest” you can hear a voice chiding you that with “saama aru,” the noun needs to end in “-est” even if you’re not quite sure why.

I have been copying the contents of the course onto notecards, 10 entries to a card, Estonian only, to get some kinesthetic learning in and have something to skim from time to time. Anki is nice for the individual phrases, but it doesn’t allow you to quickly look for similar sentences to bring up to date the point you just got wrong but think you now understand. And here’s the funny thing: Skimming this set of cards, it would be completely useless for someone learning Estonian. But it’s very useful for jogging the memory about all sorts of things. And this made me think of Mezzofanti.

Mezzofanti, of course, was a sort of prototype for the internet polyglot. A cardinal and diplomat by trade, he was reputed to know oodles of languages, though for many of them he probably knew just enough to fake it with people who were both generous and extremely excited that someone so august had even heard of the language they spoke. But there is no question that in some languages his knowledge was solid. After Mezzofanti’s death, they found stacks and stacks of cards with snippets of language information that he used to prompt himself. These cards, call them proto-flashcards, are not so novel today. But they point to both a solution and a problem. The solution, of course, is to summarize things you want to remember on little note cards. The problem is knowing what would be useful to write on them so that they truly jog the memory of things not there written.

The Vocabooster lists do not carry the typical lists of numbers, declensions, conjugations, etc. What they have, instead, are a lot of words used in context in ways that show the different grammar patterns needed for everyday expression. If you try to out and out learn from them, you are sunk. But if you content yourself with picking up lots of phrases and letting your brain sort it out later as familiar patterns emerge, you’ll absorb a spot of grammar of the sort descriptivists like in lieu of prescriptivist rules that you may learn more precisely, but only to forget them. And when you’re done, you’ll have a stack of fifty cards of the sort that would have served a Mezzofanti well.

One other minor point: Vocabooster starts you on learning a language with sentences, which is nice because Glossika will take you along this path but is not a very good place to start. After I finish the Vocabooster program, I will be going to Glossika along with a more traditional manual. I’ll be curious to see what this heavily sentence based audio/text approach will do as opposed to more traditional methods.

Here is the link for Vocabooster.

Here is the link for Glossika.

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The Linguistics Research Center at UT-Austin

Over the years, I’ve referred to the Early Indo-European On-Line resources at the University of Austin many times. They are hosted by UT-Austin’s Linguistic Resources Center. The LRC, like many other university resources these days, is facing budget cuts, possibly even closure. They are trying to make the case to keep it going. If you have used any of the LRC’s resources online, you can fill out a survey at the link below expressing your support:

LRC Survey

Predictably, it will also ask for a donation at the end. If you’ve got a few nickels to rub together, a donation would not only help finance wise but probably also show that people are committed to the importance of such resources.

The page for the language lessons also has a donation button:

Early Indo-European Online

If you haven’t been, take a look while it’s still there, because it’s the best collection of scholarly but readable introductions to ancient Indo-European languages I’ve found.


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For the truly ambitious polyglot

A little while ago, I wrote about just how many languages there are to learn and John McWhorter’s Language Families of the World. Today, though, I stumbled upon something truly incredible: Handbook of Descriptive Language Knowledge. The author, Harald Hammarström, was good enough to upload this fantastic guide to In it, he provides categorizations, by region and language family, of pretty much every language for which documentation exists, along with references to the newest or most comprehensive studies of that language. Here’s Mongolian, for example:

3.19 Mongolian (14)
Core area: Mongolia
Canonical source: [510]

[510] Janhunen, J. (2003b). Proto-mongolic. In Janhunen, J., editor,
The Mongolic Languages, Routledge Family Series, pages 1-27.
Routledge, London & New York
Janhunen has written an excellent handbook with many sketches [511]. A
recent grammar is [512].

[511] Janhunen, J., editor (2003a). The Mongolic Languages. Routledge
Family Series. Routledge, London & New York
[512] Slater, K. W. (2003). A grammar of Mangghuer: a Mongolic language
of China’s Quinghai-Gansu Sprachbund. Routledge, London & New York

If you’re studying a language like French or German, of course, there are lots of non-academic resources. But if you’re interested in a language that’s way off the beaten path, this is a great place to start.

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