Passive vs Active

I think it is odd how when learning a foreign language, one can learn vocabulary passively or actively. This phenomena is very much evident when I read stuff written in Portuguese or Italian. I can recognize tons of words because they are words that share a Latin root with Spanish but as I try to memorize them to use them in my speech, they don’t stick the way I feel they should.

Interesting for sure.


I have learned a couple of things on my quest to speak  six to eight languages. The first is handles. Handles in foreign language learning, as I understand the term, are phrases very commonly used universally. For example, the phrase “if I had…” is used a lot in the English language and it is as commonly used in other languages. Another one is “if you like…”. So you learn these phrases in your target language and you can start conversing in that language in no time. Unfortunately, NONE of the books I have seen so far in ANY language, deals with these.

I first became aware of the concept of handles by watching a YouTube video by KiraPepelu.

The other thing I learned recently that may really accelerate my language learning is that by writing the target language, your brain learns the language actively and thus you can more readily use the language. Interesting idea and one that I believe to be true because one you write, you are in essence talking to your reader thus you are conversing in the target language.


I think once I feel comfortable with the languages I have set out to learn to fluency, I will pick a dying language and learn it as a way to try to delay that language’s demise. I recently read an article while waiting at the dentist’s office, about all the languages in the world that have but a handful of active speakers left. That would be cool.

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Why do we polarize?

I just watched a video by this guy who seems to specialize on criticizing everyone else on YouTube who is into learning languages. He seems to be hung up on academic credentials and has a very pretentious attitude. I’ve yet to see a video of him trying to do anything with languages.

While watching his video, I was reminded of a similar situation that exists withing the world of my beloved hobby, metal detecting.

In metal detecting there are people who primarily search for personal relics and thus they claim that their motives for doing metal detecting are higher and more noble because they are ‘searching for history’ as opposed to those knuckle-dragging cave men who search for coins in the park. I’ve complained enough about them so I won’t do it for long here. The funny thing is that the arch-enemies of metal detecting, the professional Archaeologists  think ALL metal detecting fans are destructive cave men!

So in the polyglot world, there are people like this guy who have a HUGE issue with polyglots who haven’t lived in a foreign country, who don’t have academic credentials, and who dare, GASP! to attempt to learn a foreign language from books and videos and who have the nerve, DOUBLE GASP!, to talk to other people using the foreign language regardless of their mastery level.

I have been in the U.S. long enough to have met many, many newcomers who HAVE TO speak English regardless of how well they speak it in order to function in our society. I applaud them and I encourage them even if they NEVER acquire a good American accent so long as they achieve some degree of fluency and can get their point across and COMMUNICATE! So, I may never learn Proto-Arabic and be able to tell you the roots of any Arabic word. But I’ll consider myself satisfied when I can hold a conversation with a native Arabic-speaking person and can read an Arabic language newspaper or book. Linguistics be damned!

Now, I am not saying that those people who master a language to a high degree should be damned. No, no. All I am saying is that there is a place for those of us who learn the 3000 or so words needed to communicate in any given language and maybe learn enough syntax not to sound like Tarzan (As Benny the Irish Polyglot puts it) without necessarily achieving high Prosody or any such thing. Yes, Moses (laoshu) may not speak the 50 or so languages he practices like a native but man!, he sure is having fun and making tons of friends.

So, please, stop the hating! Can’t we all just get along?

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I began learning the Arabic script this week. It’s not too bad. I think that learning Arabic will be easier for me than learning Japanese. I am really struggling with getting my mind to think Subject-Object-Verb! I’ll get there, I am not worried about that; I just don’t think that it will happen as soon as I had hoped.

So Arabic uses an alphabet, much like the Romance languages I am used to, and the script is not that bad. There are groups of characters that repeat with the addition of small marks such as dots to differentiate among them. The script is cursive only. The pronunciation of Arabic is fairly straightforward with the exception of the glottal stops which are foreign to my English/Spanish speaking brain. I am very excited about learning this language!

My Italian is coming along as well. I think of all the languages I intend to learn, Italian will be the easiest for me to get. I was going through The Big Green Book of Italian Verbs by Katrien Maes-Christie and Daniel Franklin, and many of the verbs therein practically translated themselves into Spanish!
Also, I have been watching Italian videos on YouTube and if the person(s) in the video speaks at medium speed, I can almost understand 50% of what they are saying already.

My first Japanese video keeps getting postponed mostly due to a number of other projects that demand my time and attention at home. I am pumped about making it!

And as long as I am talking about making a first video in Japanese, I had been thinking lately that I should not have waited this long to make a video. Even if my language skills are so basic that I come across sounding like one of those Native Americans in American Westerns from the 50’s, the important thing is to break down that initial resistance. Improvements will come as I continue my studies. So my advice to any aspiring polyglots out there is: START SPEAKING! even if it is stuff like “Me David. Me want to learn speak.”

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Learning via brute force

Today I want to talk about learning Japanese (or any other language) by using brute force. This is going to be a long post so be warned.

I will start with a personal story from the time when I first came to the United States and didn’t speak a word of English. You see, I was an impressionable 16 year old child with a displaced sense of pride. In particular, I hated for people to question my intelligence. Thus, on my first day of High School, I went to see the school’s principal who gave me a note with all the classes I was to attend. The note had a list of teacher names and the instruction to ‘admit to your class’.

All went well. I came to each teacher on the list, showed them the note, and they pointed to a seat. No problem. No problem that is, until I came to Mr. Schmit’s class. Mr. Schmit was a bodybuilder type who taught American Civics. Mr. Schmit didn’t want to bother with some 16 year old who didn’t speak a word of English. By the way, now that I have been here for more than 30 years, I totally understand Mr. Schmit’s attitude! So, Mr. Schmit took my note, wrote something on it, gave it back to me and instead of pointing to a desk, pointed to the door of his classroom. I understood perfectly the situation so I returned to the principal’s office. Mrs. Mimms read the note, shook her head and she wrote something on the note and told me to go back to Mr. Schmit’s class. By now I need to tell you that the school’s counselor, Mrs. Velez, spoke Spanish fluently and that’s how the principal communicated with me. What Mrs. Mimms wrote was: ‘Mr. Schmit, you WILL admit’.

When I gave Mr. Schmit the note with Mrs. Mimms’ addendum, he shook his head and pointed to a desk. Then, he called one of the boys in his class to translate for me. Mr. Schmit, through my interpreter, said that there was a test next week on the first three chapters of the book that had been covered so far (I came to school mid November). The day was Friday and so that gave me the weekend to learn three chapters of American Civics, in English. Even at 16, I could see this was a setup. Mr. Schmit wanted me to fail to prove a point. Remember my displaced pride? After class, I went to see Mrs. Velez. I told her about the test. She looked at me and she said: ‘Are you up for this challenge or should I move you to another class?’ Before I could think about it, my displaced pride answered for me and I said “I will take the challenge”.

So I went home that day and somehow procured an English-Spanish dictionary. I spent the entire weekend — yes, and I don’t mean that figuratively; I mean I literally spent every waking moment that weekend translating, word for word, the entire three chapters of the Civics textbook.  By Monday, not only could I read 80% percent of any English text, but I also had practically memorized the three chapters of the book. I don’t need to tell you that I got an A on the test. Mr. Schmit proved to be an excellent teacher and I proved that I was no dummy. I earned the A on that class at the end of the semester. To this day, I thank God for Mr. Schmit, who didn’t give me a free pass; for Mrs. Mimms, who didn’t assign me to one of the bilingual Civics teachers, and for Mrs. Velez, who didn’t immediately ease my concerns by simply moving me to another class.

There’s the story. I had a challenge, I had the motivation, and I had the methodology. Success!

So now, I will tell you how I applied a little bit of the same methodology to learn some Japanese, including some kanji.  While watching YouTube videos one time, I came across a Japanese mini-serial called “I give my first love to you”. It’s an emotional story about young love with some tragedy mixed in. At any rate, I really liked one of the songs from the movie called 僕は 君に 意をする - boku wa kimi ni koi wo suru – I will fall in love with you. I actually don’t know the real name of the song. It may be called something else.

The point is, I really liked the song and I wanted to know what the words meant. That was my motivation. The challenge was to learn the words, including the kanji. The methodology was brute force. I won’t put the song here since it may not be your cup of tea, musically speaking. But I do want to show you the kanji I had to learn to make sense of the song. Keep in mind that this is only one song.  How many more kanji could I learn if I did this to say, three songs?!

願 – wish       未 – not yet                            止 – stop

叶- grant    来 – come                              溢 – overflow, spill

君 – you(fem.) 来 – future                           何 – what                                    

悲 – sad    描 – picture, describe          度 – occurrences, times

僕 – I, me   地 – earth, ground                 恋 – love

胸 – chest   図 – map, plan, sketch         全 – completely

中 – inside          好 – like                                        捧 – lift up

注 – pour   無 -nothingness, be not       消 – extinguish

込 – include  笑 –  laugh, smile                    色 – color

下 – go down 泣 – cry, weep                           心 – heart

痛 – pain         伝 – transmit                              瞳 – pupil

耐 – endure  言 – say, word                         苦 – suffering

輝 – radiance      忘 – forget                                怒 – angry

会 – meet              葉 – leaves, foliage              愛 – affection


That is 41 kanji that I learned in context. I also learned how the kanji are used to make other words, such as the word future, which I included in the list, and how the kanji are used to make verbs by adding verb endings. In addition, these are kanji that I will not soon forget since I like the song and I will be singing it often, much to my children’s chagrin!

Most of the kanji above have multiple meanings but I only included one or two as I felt they applied to the sentiment of the song. And last, any errors in the translation of the kanji are purely my own.

I used two very good resources to learn the kanji above: the book Essential Kanji by P.G. O’Neill and the website (Kiki’s Kanji Dictionary).

So there you have it. It took me a whole afternoon to find all the kanji and learn their meaning. That it took me that long was due mostly to my inexperience using the kanji book and dictionary. Now, it would only take me an hour or so to find the meaning of that many kanji characters.
Another tricky thing was to find the lyrics to the song written in Japanese characters and not Romaji (western alphabet). I had to set up my computer to write Hiragana and then I did a search on Google using Hiragana and the title of the song.

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