Sunday, March 22, 2020

Perky Pandemic Project (PPP): Learn a Language!

Issac Newton developed calculus during Black Plague lock down. And it's said that seventy years earlier Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in quarantine (which is somewhat true, and here's a fascinating though ultimately frustrating dive into the question that suggests we can definitely credit the plague with a lot of Will's poetry, as theaters were shuttered and a bloke's got to make a living).

So what can we do? Hey, I have an idea! Let's learn a foreign language!

It's a timely suggestion, because it so happens I've spent the past five weeks studying Portuguese. And I've been meaning to write about my process of coaxing my 57-year-old neurons into absorbing torrents of fresh information - a process I promised myself I'd never again undertake after a lifetime of laboriously building knowledge in several fields, eventually discovering that insight beats knowledge. The juicy stuff comes - as is so often true in this life - from lithely using what you've got (reframing!) rather than accumulating more and more.

So I didn't want to launch another big learning endeavor, ever. Besides, I figured I was thick as concrete, unable to retain anything for more than 30 seconds (unless it tickles my interest, in which case I'm like Rain Man). Yet, astonishingly, it's working. I guess I'm going about it the right way.

And it dawns on me that we're all home with time on our hands, and might want to emerge in a couple months with the cool superpower of speaking another language. So I'll offer a quick overview of my approach, describing the tools I've been using (all free or cheap), and I'll tackle the epistemology angle separately someday (here's a follow-up).
It really is a superpower. Beyond unlocking a world of culture and communication, a new language coaxes deep reframing. You add rooms to your inner home; fresh viewpoints becoming deliciously available. You've essentially birthed a new person.
Note, first, that I'm a sloppy learner. I don't sit primly at my desk mastering each lesson before moving on to the next. I don't lay solid foundations. I plunge ahead heedlessly the second I get a basic gist, and clean up the slop later - or, if I can get away with it, simply don't. For example, I've been speaking Spanish for 45 years, yet I still call drapes "the-things-you-put-over-the-windows-so-the-light-doesn't-come-in".

Here are tools for sloppy ad-hoc learners; for those of us who dive in and dabble, cleaning up gaps and problems later, if ever.


Anki is a software platform that's like flash cards on steroids, and geeks worldwide practically worship it. Anki drills you on a few cards per day (and intentionally makes it hard to do more), tracking and ranking problematic ones so that, moving forward, they get re-tested until you've finally internalized them. Sloppy learning nirvana!

There are Mac and PC Anki apps, which you can use to configure your Anki deck. For the actual drilling, just use their web app via your browser (it works great on mobile, as it's an ultra simple interface). You report - via honor system! - whether you find a given card "Easy" (re-test very sporadically), "Good" (re-test moderately after waiting a while), "Again" (you're not there yet), or "Hard" (furious re-testing). It takes work to build and tweak your deck, but it's worth it.

Don't use the canned language decks you can find online. Brew your own deck. Here's what I put in mine:

1. The 100 most frequent Portuguese words (in both Portuguese -> English format, but also separate cards for English -> Portuguese). A zillion web sites offer this sort of thing.
2. Present tense conjugations for the three regular verb types (e.g. "I eat" -> "Eu como", but also the reverse).
3. Present tense conjugations for the most common irregular verbs
4. Past tense conjugations for regular and irregular verbs
5. Numbers, months, days of the week, body parts, etc. All in forward and in reverse.

The Printout

The material that goes into Anki needs to be at least somewhat familiarized before you drill with Anki (it's a bit painful to learn absolutely new stuff via flash card quizzes). So I formatted the material I just listed, above, into a nice multi-page document which I print out and read through at traffic lights and over coffee. I also saved them as one big PDF, which I emailed into my Kindle app for browsing on mobile. It's like knitting or a fidget toy; the thing I pull out at odd moments. Then, once per day, I let Anki quiz me.

I memorize poorly. I remember stuff very well for a short while and then lose it forever. Yet, miraculously, 350 new words are fairly lodged in my brain thanks to five weeks of Anki + printouts. I'm amazed, really. Its true that some are accessed only very slowly, like wading through a vat of syrup, but that's cool, I can ratchet up the speed later. Same with spelling and pronunciation. Again: sloppy learning works for me.


Preply lists native language teachers worldwide who instruct you via Skype, for as little as $15/hour.

I don't, frankly, need some Portuguese kid masterminding my language education. But to brush up on pronunciation, and offer easy engagement, practice, and feedback, you just can't beat the price. My teacher - a random Portuguese lady living in Mexico - thinks she's my language guru, but while I dutifully follow her lead, I'm mostly in it for the spoken practice.

Google Translate

Google Translate is an invaluable resource, obviously. Not just for quicky/easy lookups, but because it will speak any word, which makes the ghost of every language student who's ever lived insane with envy. The problem is that it's a computer voice - good but not great - and, unbelievably, Google only offers Brazilian-style Portuguese pronunciation - a whole different thing from European Portuguese - so for pronunciation guidance I actually prefer...


At some point tons of earnest people in tons of countries had the patience to sit down and speak words into a microphone so Forvo could offer an ambitious library of pronunciations. Sort of like Wikipedia, I guess. So you can drill down to pronunciations not just for major regions, but minor ones, as well, in many cases (the town of every Forvo participant is noted).

Forvo was an enormous help when we needed to provide dish pronunciations for every cuisine (except Chinese, where it's impossible to convey pitch) in my smart phone app Eat Everywhere. Nobody's ever done that before (shockingly) and Forvo was a huge help.

Reverso Conjugator

Reverso Conjugator offers conjugations for all verbs in all tenses for many languages. So useful! And they even offer a browser extension. To quote my late mother, this Internet thing is really something.

Foreign Service Institute

I don't totally grok what this actually is. The Foreign Service Institute web site says "These courses were developed by the United States government and are in the public domain", but they appear to have been written by some kid named Darren. And these sorts of heavy-learning courses are the sort of thing I tend to bookmark or download and never touch. I'm just too lumpy/sloppy. But it's there.


Duolingo is the Wonder Bread of language instruction. The Candy Crush of language instruction. This is the sparkly marketeered happy-talk lowest-common-denominator way to do it, and they make it SUPER FUN....if you're a child or an idiot.

The free mobile apps are nothing but cute tests with lots of breaks for ads and maddening perky awards celebrating your progress. Plus you "compete" via leaderboards, which, yay, is exactly what I'm not looking for.

But you know what? There's a gap when you spend lots of time familiarizing yourself with vocabulary lists and conjugations and drilling via flash cards and chatting with on-the-clock natives via Skype. And I'll be damned if Duolingo isn't the ideal spackling for those gaps.

It's very easy to lose an hour answering quizzes, endless quizzes. Fill in the blanks, multiple choices, and even speak-the-answer-into-your-microphones. You'd have to be awfully ditzy to imagine it's actually teaching you the language. Not even close. But for spackle? A-plus. Again, expect to roll your eyes at the shiny contrivances and ditzery. But it counterbalances time spent staring at dry vocab lists.

Homespun Labors-of-Love

A jillion aspergians and monomaniacs have built up impressive web sites and YouTube channels - a parallel series of vast empires of learning tools custom jiggered for their respective native languages (people, fortunately, do the same for individual cuisines, too; one of the unsung features of Eat Everything is that we've vetted and recommended the best ethnic food sites for each region which you can surf via an in-app browser). Find a site you like, and you'll start depending on it, because you need the native flair of someone who's answered 10,000 questions from students like you.

For example, I floundered with Portuguese's crazy-assed way of handling days of the week:
Monday = Segunda-feira
Tuesday = Terça-feira
Wednesday = Quarta-feira
Thursday = Quinta-feira
Friday = Sexta-feira
Saturday = Sábado
Sunday = Domingo
Why the hell is Monday "segunda" (second)?

Dry vocabulary lists don't explain this, but Susana of Portuguese Lab did: Sunday, the lord's day, comes first, above everything. Knowing this, I'll never forget (though I still count silently on my fingers to get to Thursday).

Feeling too blurry to take up something like this right now? That's not because the world is weighing on you. Blame, instead, the exhausting false impression that you personally own the prevalent pain. You're not Atlas; you don't have a world to hold up. A positive, ambitious challenge is the best way to reframe from an unhelpful and smothering sense of apprehension.

Come back to your senses! How are you, right now and right here? Thus reset, you're free to embark on something cool and transformative!

Followup posting


PZ said...

Monday is "Second Day" in both Arabic and Hebrew, Sunday being "First Day."

Jim Leff said...

Interesting. The "feira" in Portuguese means "fair". Here's the derivation:

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