Another Year, no new resolutions

I’ve written in the past about the problem with New Year’s Resolutions and won’t do so again. What I will suggest, though, is that this is the year to learn Old Norse, the Viking Language. Two years ago, Jesse Byock released the first book in the delightful Viking Language series. The first book uses a grammar-translation approach, but with an aim to reading, not situating the language in the context of the Germanic family. This requires some memorization but it is a far cry from Gordon where you’re asked to read grammar excerpts and figure out what to do with the readings when you’re done.

This December, the second book in the Viking Language series came out. It provides a series of passages for translation and helps you get a better sense for poetry. The two books together are definitely old-school. But they provide a self-contained course where you learn to read Old Norse by reading Old Norse so when you’re done, you know you can do it. And the readings for book 1 are available in MP3. So whether you’re into Asatru, a fan of the sagas or interested in Norse mythology, there’s now a manageable path into reading Old Norse and pronouncing it in a way that makes the language come alive.

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The Importance of Doing

In the run-up to the holiday season, I’ve managed to get a week off. I’ve been devoting my time to two languages: Old English and Elixir. For Old English, I’ve been working through Learn Old English with Leofwin, which includes audio on the website. Rather than simply memorizing forms, you read sentences and form your own sentences from the beginning, including exercises like talking about yourself and your family. It makes the language meaningful, and learnable. I can now announce that “Ic hate Geoff and ic haebbe ane sweostor” as naturally as I speak German, at least. Language is not something you know. It’s something that you use. The words – the vocabulary – make nice tools for specifying meaning, but the construction of grammatically correct sentences is done on the fly and can be done even with nonsense words by native speakers.

For Elixir, I’ve been using Programming Elixir: Functional |> Concurrent |> Pragmatic |> Fun, by Dave Thomas. Thomas’ so-called Pickaxe book is the bible of Ruby for many, documenting the ins and outs of the language in detail. Programming Elixir, on the other hand, is more of a tour of the language and with lots of exercises that mimic the examples and get you used to writing Elixir as well as reading it. Since Elixir is just a language for giving instructions to a computer, this nicely introduces how to communicate with Elixir.

The key in both cases is that using a language will do more for you than learning it. So if you’re learning a human language, keep earbuds and your mouth handy. And keep your laptop open to learn a computer language. But either way, keep talking and see what captures your message.

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Serial Enthusiasm and other musings

For the last year or so, I’ve spent a lot more time on one computer language – R – than I’ve spent on human languages. It’s not a question of foregoing human languages. It’s just that I’ve been able to use R in my work and so I’ve been taking the Coursera Data Science Specialization to formalize my learning and fill in gaps. One thing I’ve learned about R is while the language isn’t the best ever created, the wealth of libraries and the solid design of R Studio make it a great language for data analysis, and for extending my ability to “talk about” and “talk with” data objects. This makes me think of the natural language I’ve grown up with, English. The grammar is a mess, the spelling system is atrocious and yet the language comes in for widespread use, even and especially as a second language. But part of what makes English work is the ability of people to modify it for their own use. Every day, millions of e-mails are written in English that test the limits of what English is. If the language were French, the Académie would be horrified. But English is an open-source language. Everyone is free to make a contribution and if people find it useful, eventually their additions will be accepted. If not, as long as communication was effected in the moment, it’s okay.


I have not abandoned human languages altogether. Far from it. I’ve been through the full Pimsleur Dari course (both levels) twice this year and can string together basic sentences for getting food and shelter, and displaying a minimal level of politeness. And this enabled me to stumble through a fair number of the quatrains of Khayyam while getting familiar with the profusion of words that refer to wine. And of late, I’ve been working through Pimsleur Norwegian, Norwegian in 10 Minutes a Day and The Mystery of Nils, a Norwegian language learning adventure. Of the most delightful and distressing elements is how easily a Germanic language comes. While I’ve put a lot of time into Farsi/Dari, I’m sure that for far less effort I’d do far better is Oslo than Kabul, and not just because the first isn’t a war zone.


The real inspiration for coming back to say a few words, however, is a term I may have seen before, but just stumbled upon: Serial enthusiasm. There is an excellent blog post, Confessions of a Serial Enthusiast, in which Les Orchard describes his tendency to flit from project to project in the open source world as a hobbyist, even though he certainly sticks to projects he’s being paid for. His thoughts should resonate with those language addicts who retain the languages they use and need, even as they pick up and let drop other language learning projects. There might be some useful food for thought here if you’re bored with one language and eager to start another: What you devote your time to is your decision, and it should be based on getting something out of that finite amount of time allocated to us all. So you should draw a clear distinction between the languages you’re using with a specific aim in mind and those you are learning for the pleasure of learning. In this way you can be more rational about whether studying a language and letting it drop was a waste of time, or a way of finding pleasure and mental stimulation at a particular time. If your job or life requires you to use a language, you need to stick with it. But if it’s just for fun, then insisting you stick with one language till you’ve learned it to completion is like insisting you can’t have chocolate ice cream for dessert because you haven’t eaten enough vanilla yet.

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Ha ha ha plans

I see at the end of December, I wrote about this being the year I’d hit French. We all know how that goes…

I have now finished 39 lessons of Pimsleur Dari – the whole first phase and the first 9 of the second phase. I expect I’ll finish phase 2, but I know better than to make predictions by now.

I did run across one exceptionally useful idea though: The emotions of motivation don’t last, so if you want to do something, you need a plan beyond staying motivated. Doing the Dari course, there have been some moments when things clicked, especially around lesson 20 of the first phase and lesson 4 of the second phase. But what has mostly kept me going is routine: I do a lesson after eating dinner and then I can consider myself done for the day. There are days I look forward to the lesson, and days I groan, but the good thing is I’m not counting on motivation, just going through the motions. There’s an inspirational thought!

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A New Year, An Old Language

After years and years of knowing French, this year I’m relearning it to get my speaking back up to a halfway decent level again. I’ll be working with the beginning Assimil book, just for content to read, and Using French. I’m also working through Teach Yourself’s Perfecting French and making an effort to speak more.

On a slightly different note, if you are wanting to learn Sanskrit, I would check out Sanskrit by the Fireside, a beginners’ book for self-study. It’s a bit pedantic, but provides really simple content to get started. Here’s your link at

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The Indo-Iranians

Recently, my language learning efforts have been divided between Python and Elixir on the computer side, and the Indo-Iranian languages on the human language side. The Indo-Iranians provide the basis for getting pretty close to the Indo-Europeans – the Rg Veda is the oldest lengthy religious text in an Indo-European language and it seems to feature some of the same gods as the older portions of the Avesta. Likewise, there’s a lot in common between the two languages. In a way, then, reading the Avesta and the Rg Veda and imagining the language and thoughts that would have been shared in common before the two split apart takes you way back into the past, into a time where the gods were everywhere and involved in everything, though not quite in the way of pantheism or animism.

While I’ve been looking back to Avestan and Sanskrit, I’ve also started taking a look at Dari, the variant of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. I’ve done a bit of Farsi, and there’s a lot in common, though some forms are slightly different. That said, Dari As A Second Langauge: Your First Dari Words, Conversation, Reading and Writing, Grammar, and Vocabulary makes for a thorough introduction, taking you through reading and writing as well as speaking. There’s no audio, so for self-study you’d need to supplement with something like Pimsleur Dari Persian, Basic. If you’re interested in this variant of Persian, this is a great way to start.

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The First 20 Hours

I recently ran across The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!
. In the last few years, with books like Outliers: The Story of Success
, we’ve gotten fixated on things like 10,000 hours to perfection. But what if you just want to be good enough? If you have a job and have a life, the odds of scratching up 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso is problematic, especially if your area to perfect and your career aren’t in perfect alignment. Kauffman points to research that’s a little more hopeful: If you want to get started speaking a language, playing an instrument, programming computers or whatever, 20 hours is enough of an investment to start to know your way around and decide how much more deeply you want to go and whether you want to keep at the whole field of endeavor or just work on areas of particular import to you. If you’re learning guitar, you might want to learn (the inevitable) Stairway to Heaven, or maybe Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But nobody would plan to play both after six months, at least not outside the basement rec room. That said, you might learn enough to make a fool of yourself at a party in fairly short order. Likewise, 20 hours of sketching won’t make you Picasso, but you may well learn enough to do a respectable portrait.

With respect to language learning, the 20 hour time line strikes me as interesting. It is said that they did about 20 hours of recording over two days to create the 8 hour Michel Thomas courses (closer to 15 if you actually use the pause button per the instructions). A level of Pimsleur is also 15 hours. Assuming half an hour a day, you’re up to lesson 40 (one week from the end of the passive phase in many courses) with Assimil. In other words, if you want to learn your language with Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, you’re going to need to invest another 5 hours in something else to put together and activate what you’ve learned. With Assimil, you need to stick with it to the end of the passive phase. After that, you can decide, but before then, if you’re not convinced this new learning project is going to work out for you, don’t worry about wasting your time because you’ll never find 10,000 hours to learn anyway. Find yourself another five to ten hours and that language might start to make sense after all.

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