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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Romagnolo Starter Dictionary now available

I have been studying the regional languages of Europe off and on for quite some time. One of the languages which includes a nice catalog of poetry and plays yet is probably on its last legs is Romagnolo. At a certain point, tiring of forever searching PDFs with Italian keywords in hopes of finding the proper Romagnolo word, I started putting words into a LexiquePro dictionary so that I could generate an English-Romagnolo dictionary for my use. Unfortunately, the spelling conventions among sources are not exactly standardized, so I did my best to put each word into a more or less Italian spelling. The accent marks over vowels are lesson certain to be useful. That said, I have put the whole thing into a little dictionary and published it on Amazon. The Romagnolo page has been on this site for quite some time with links to PDFs of the latest updates. You can now find a PDF of the whole book at the Romagnolo page. You can also purchase the paperback book at Amazon for $9.95.

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So many languages!

If you go into the typical bookstore these days, you’ll get the impression there are about 10 languages, starting with Mandarin, Spanish and French, German and Italian. Oh yes, and there’s Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. These are the only languages represented by more than pocket phrasebooks in the little bookstore I just left. But what are the actual top 10 languages?

Top 10 languages by native speaker

  1. Mandarin
  2. Spanish
  3. English
  4. Hindi
  5. Bengali
  6. Portuguese
  7. Russian
  8. Japanese
  9. Marathi
  10. Western Punjabi

Interestingly, 8 of the 10 are Indo-European. But half of those, 4, are languages spoken in South Asia, and they aren’t represented in most bookstores. I mention this because, as a Language Addict, my thought about languages has always been that I want to know them all. Based on the bookstore I just left, it might just seem doable. But…

Recently, I’ve been listening to John McWhorter’s Language Families of the World from the Great Courses. And it turns out there are a lot of languages, most of which even language geeks haven’t heard. You talk about leveraging families to learn more languages and you think of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese; or English, German, Dutch, Danish. But what about Tagalog, Indonesian, Hawaiian, Tahitian and Malagasy? Or Amharic and Tigrinya? Soon, you realize you’re in unfamiliar territory once you leave Europe and East Asia.

For those who love languages, I highly recommend McWhorter’s course. It’s a great introduction to how much language variety there actually is, and how rapidly it’s disappearing. For example, among the Romance languages, most people can come up with Romanian and Catalan if you ask them to go beyond the big 4. But there’s also Franco-Provençal, Piedmontese, Galician, Venetian and more. Many, like Emilian0-Romagnolo and Gallo, are on their last legs. And in Australia, soon they’ll be down to about 12 of the 250 languages that were spoken when European colonists arrived. So how can you be truly international? First of all, you should listen to the course and try to find out more about anything that sounds interesting. But second, you will probably want to check DuoLingo or Memrise to find cheap, easy introductions, if only so you can say, yeah, I learned a few words in that once. A suggested list for DuoLingo:

  • Indo-European: Germanic: English
  • Indo-European: Romance: Spanish
  • Indo-European: Celtic: Welsh
  • Indo-European: Hellenic: Greek
  • Indo-European: Slavic: Russian
  • Indo-European: Indo-Aryan: Hindi
  • Finno-Ugric: Hungarian
  • Turkic: Turkish
  • Afro-Asiatic: Arabic
  • Niger-Congo: Swahili
  • Sino-Tibetan: Chinese
  • Austro-Asiatic: Vietnamese
  • Austronesian: Indonesian
  • Na-Dené: Navajo

Listen to McWhorter, so you know about the language families these all come from, and then you can set yourself to becoming a truly international polyglot next year.

(Usual disclaimer: The Amazon link implies no actual relationship with Amazon beyond the Affiliate program.)

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New Approaches to Polyglottery for the Language Addict

Recently, I ran across a reference to EuRom5, a book for studying French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, using one as your base and developing your intercomprehension skills to gain a reading knowledge of the other four. I’d read about it before, and I suspect I’ve even bought it before. But I ordered it and started reading the introduction. This lead me to Wikipedia’s discussion of Plurilingualism. Plurilingualism stands in contrast to multilingualism in that the idea is not to learn multiple languages individually, but to relate different languages sufficiently that you can get by in certain tasks. In multilingualism, substituting the Italian word into your Spanish conversation and hoping it’s the same is a failing; your mastery is incomplete. With plurilingualism, the same move is a success: your knowledge may be imperfect, but it doesn’t prevent you from completing the linguistic task at hand.

I find the distinction between plurilingualism and multilingualism to be an important one, because I think it captures where a lot of borderline polyglots are. We are probably multilingual for two or three languages: they really are separate entitities with separate contexts and separate feelings when speaking them. But as we add other languages, they represent extensions of our knowledge of our strongest language in the family less than a complete and separate mental construct. And for most of us, that’s okay. It’s largely a matter of how seamless your linguistic and cultural aptitudes need to fit where you’re speaking a different language. A court interpreter or the guy translating contracts needs to be solidly multilingual, with full comprehension of the linguistic and cultural nuances present in each language’s version of the discourse. An international traveler or someone reading for pleasure, not so much.

This brings us to a bit of a detour. I recently read this bit, “How I came to read Latin extensively” and it feels like it’s the kind of thing a plurilingual would enjoy. Latin specialists may write articles about the importance of an author using one word instead of another or using the subjunctive in an unexpected place. For most of us, though, experiencing Latin as something you read and enjoy, instead of something you copy out and translate line by line, is plenty. You can find out how he did it at the link and simultaneously get a better sense of how to develop intercomprehension for reading in languages you lack the time or inclination to master.

With a refined sense of what you can do with intercomprehension and plurilingualism, it feels like it may be possible to learn all the languages, at least a little bit. Good news for language addicts everywhere.

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