Polyglot How I Learn Languages: How We Should Read

View of the back garden at Swannanoa Palace

Continuing from last week's argument on the importance of reading, Dr. Lomb next covers how to read a foreign language text in chapter nine of Polyglot.  She breaks reading down into two stages:
  • Stage 1: reading with a "blitheness practically bordering on superficiality"
  • Stage 2: reading with a "conscientious-ness close to distrust" (85)
In the first stage, the goal is to enjoy the story.  The reader should try to learn words based on context and only use a dictionary as a last resort.  In this stage, it is acceptable to skip vocabulary words that you don't  know.  If the word is important, it will come up again later, and you should be able to determine it from context.

Being able to determine words based on context by yourself is central to Dr. Lomb's method of learning languages:

The sense of achievement sweetens the joy of work and makes up for the boredom of effort. It incorporates the most interesting thing in the world even into an indifferent text. You wonder what it is? Our own selves. (86)
The sense of achievement that you gain from determining the meaning of the word provides both motivation and a stronger link to retaining the meaning of the vocabulary word over time.  As a reminder from the previous chapter, Dr. Lomb believed that words that you have determined should be written down in the text so during the review portion of the method, you have a reinforcement of how much progress you have achieved by reading the text.

In the second stage, after you have finished the story, the goal is to reread the text completely with an eye for trying to determine why the writer writes the sentences the way he or she does and if he or she makes any grammar mistakes.

Here Dr. Lomb shares the story of Aussi Brebis by Mikszáth Kálmán.  A father hires a girl to teach his boys French.  The boys have absolutely no interest in learning French and decide that the best way to get out of learning French is to prove that the girl can't speak French.  In the process of proving that she doesn't know French, the boys, by scouring dictionaries to try to trick her, teach themselves French.

Dr. Lomb ends by recommending abridged texts for language learners who are concerned about trying foreign language texts.

My Thoughts:

Giving up my dictionary and learning from context is one of my current struggles.  In some ways, I feel like I am being lazy by not looking up words.  However, if I can get better at determining words by context, I believe that my overall comprehension will improve.

For English learners, the Stepping Stone books such as  Oliver Twist , are adaptations of classic novels designed for young readers.  Of course, you are welcome to go through my blog archives and find my grammar mistakes.  ;)

The Little Prince was one of the first German texts that I read on my own after college.  Here is a link to a page with several free online foreign language editions of  The Little Prince.  The story is beautiful and bittersweet and I really loved to read it.

I am currently working through these classic Japanese stories which have hiragana and a few kanji.

Polyglot How I Learn Languages: Chapters 7-8

Finally, we are arriving at the specifics of Dr. Lomb's language learning technique.  Books are critical for language learning, she argues, because they are portable language partners that we can mark and annotate at will.

Dr. Lomb advocates buying books so that the book can be annotated with notes and markers so that it becomes "a mirror of yourself." (69).  As to what to annotate in the margins,  she recommends only the forms and phrases that you have managed to determine from context. In fact, she argues that consulting a dictionary should only be a last resort.   If you don't know a word and can't figure it out from context, continue on, and if the word is important, it will probably come up again.

She also mentions that her method is designed to supplement teacher-led language learning rather than replace it.  Some methods of language learning (wikimoon's 10,000 sentences for example) argue against learning grammar.  Dr. Lomb, in contrast, argues that learning grammar is an essential albeit unpleasant part of language learning.  However, the process can be made more pleasant by using books to illustrate aspects of grammar.

Moving on into chaper eight, Dr. Lomb introduces the concept of linguistic microclimates:

 As opposed to macroclimate—like the language of the country you live in—I mean the linguistic environment which immediately surrounds  you  in  your  studies  and  which  you  can,  to  an extent, create for yourself, even in your home. (77)
Dr. Lomb suggests creating a microclimate through books and internal monologues.  Here it is important to realize that Dr. Lomb originally wrote Polyglot before the internet became common. In addition to books and internal monologues, we can create a microclimate through news (videos and newspapers), movies and tv shows, podcasts, blogs, and online forums.   

Internal monologues are also helpful in the development of language.  In my own case, I actually understand and read German much more proficiently than I speak and write German.  This is one area where I need to do more work.  It's easy now for me to read German blogs.  In fact, I was actually surprised yesterday when I realized that I had read an entire paragraph in German without needing to consult a dictionary.  However, when it comes to producing German, I am getting better but I still work at making sentences sound right.

Here, Duolingo and Lang-8 have been helpful.  Duolingo because it yells at me when I produce incorrect grammar and Lang-8 because I can write diary entries on any topic that I like and I can receive corrections from native speakers. 

Dr. Lomb makes one suggestion about monologues: they should always be silent to avoid errors in pronunciation and  "to prevent passersby from thinking that your tongue has been loosened by some alcohol." (77)

From here, she talks a little about the importance of monologues in developing and maintaining language. She cites internal monologue as the reason why many expats fail at learning languages (they live in a microclimate of their native language) and why foreigners who live isolated for years in a country where they are the only speaker of their native language in that area can still produce their native language flawlessly.

Dr. Lomb also argues that books help introduce colloquialisms and native speech patterns. Here, I also agree.  Dr. Lomb points out that language text books often teach stilted text that isn't spoken by actual native speakers.  Here books (and blogs especially) can help you develop vocabulary outside of questions such as "Where is the airport?"

My Thoughts:

These two chapters were helpful in introducing concepts that are actually helpful to me in my language learning.  I have two action items that I need to work on based on Dr. Lomb's advice:

1) learn vocabulary out of context rather than looking it up in the dictionary

2) work on adding more internal monologues in German and Japanese to my daily life and continuing with Duolingo and Lang-8 to improve my German in particular

Quantified Life Revisited

After two weeks of working to improve my techniques for tracking my personal data, here is my first report.  After deciding to make Evernote my repository for all of my personal information, my copy of Evernote for Windows crashed.  :/  I searched around for the issue and after removing my database files and reinstalling my database, it is working...sort of.  I am still having issues syncing my database so I need to spend more time on the Evernote help forums.

Areas of My Life That Need Quantifying

  • Fitness
  • Language learning
  • Programming
  • Reading
  • Travel


My goal was to add my most common meals to MyFitnessPal so that I could continue logging my progress on my diet.  Honestly, I still haven't gotten around to doing this.  The majority of the issue is that my life is still pretty crazy and I haven't been able to budget the time to sit down and do the entry.  Also, making meals is somewhat of a pain in the app so I think that issue is part of my reluctance to sit down and do the work.

HOWEVER, tracking my food is even more critical than usual since I have a sprained MCL and have been banned from any exercise involving my legs for two weeks.  So I will try to block off some time this afternoon and start making meals for the app.

EDIT: And done!

Language learning

Since writing the previous post, I have decided that using Evernote and Quantified Awesome is probably the easiest way to track my language learning progress.  Through my continued reading of Polyglot, my main lesson so far is that I need to use my languages in my daily life.  For me that means podcasts, blogs, reading, and watching TV in my target languages.

I am currently interested in learning four languages:  German, Japanese, French, and Cantonese.

For German, I have been busy watching/listening to world cup coverage.  Since my written Japanese is still weak, I have decided to focus on reading and translating and still working through Pimsleur and Human Japanese.  For French, my goal is to work through Duolingo until I can read the language at a 50% rate and then start translating.  I am also working through the FSI course.  For Cantonese, my goal is to listen to a podcast when time permits and start listening to Hong Kong dramas to get a feel for the language. 


I want to get back to programming since I have a few ideas for programs that I need to write and since I don't like losing skills.  However, the weather has been too pretty recently for me to feel comfortable sitting inside.  I do want to continue coding but I think that I am going to push my sprint back to a month when it isn't pretty outside.


After looking at my Goodreads account, I realized that I am very much behind in my goal to read 50 books this year.  Since I can read outside on my porch and enjoy the weather, I decided to cure my cabin fever and get some reading done at the same time by making reading an hour a day my Agile sprint for July.  I am also trying to become better at highlighting and making notes so that I can have more thorough reviews for each of the books that I read.  My current obsession is commonplace books so my goal is to turn my Evernote into a commonplace book.  My goal is synthesis of knowledge and better retension for my reading.


I am now using Camscanner to track my receipts and tickets.  I email either the jpg or the pdf file into Evernote for longterm storage or upload the file to my Flickr account.  I use Foursquare and and IFTTT recipe which sends my Foursquare checkins to my Evernote.  I also use Mynd to better plan my day to day travel.

What's next?

My goal is to do another review on August 1st to see how well I have progressed in tracking my life and to see areas where I still need improvement.

Have you tried tracking your life?  What did you discover?

Polyglot How I Learn Languages: Modern Language Learning Methods

After a week's hiatus, I am now returning to chapter six of Polyglot: How I Learn Languages.  The last part of chapter six is an overview of modern language learning methods and Lomb's opinions on the pros and cons of each technique.

Berlitz Method

Also known as the Direct Method, Charles Berlitz marketed and popularized this method.  Lomb begins with the Berlitz Method as the first of the "modern" language learning methods.  According to Lomb's summary, the essence of the Berlitz method is "making a connection between an object (concept) and its foreign-language name without the mother tongue mediating." (p. 56)

The advantage of the method is the focus on the target language and as much of the instruction as possible is done in the target language.  Lomb unfortunately assumes the reader is familiar with the Berlitz method and its underlying philosophy. She mentions the method briefly in introduction after going through the historical grammar translation method but does not mention that the method was developed to mimic how children initially learn language.  Later on the chapter she makes a few comments about why the method is ineffective:

 There is as little likelihood of squeezing an adult into the intellectual framework of their childhood as there is into their first pair of pajamas. (p. 61)
Children’s and adults’ abilities differ from each other. A child is automatic; an adult is logical.  (p.62)

Audiovisual Method

The audiovisual method is also known as The Army Method because it was developed by the U.S. army after WWII.  The focus of the method is repetition of common phrases.  The student will hear a standard phrase spoken by a native speaker and several variations of that phrase will follow.  The goal of the student is to try to mimic the native speaker's pronunciation as close as possible.  Patterns will be subconsciously absorbed over time from the constant repeated exposure to phrases.  Material is "overlearned" and the focus is on mimicking correct utterances.  The method has proven successful in producing students with good pronunciation and basic communication ability.

We expect technology to relieve our physical and spiritual discomforts. In regards to language learning, the audiovisual method tries to reduce the burden arising from the memorization indispensable to any language learning by an increased involvement of the eyes and the ears. (p.58-59)

Lomb predictably has a scathing remark about the method although she grudgingly admits that the method has been successful over the years.

This is the principle the “immersion” method is based on. It is not by chance that it was born in America, which is so fond of comfort. (p.59)


Note:    several free FSI courses are available that were made using this method. Unlike Lomb, I am not that critical of the audiovisual method.  Like any method, the audiovisual method has its pros and cons.  Personally, I am using the FSI French for grammar and the FSI German to improve my pronunciation and listening comprehension.

My thoughts:

Lomb correctly points out that language teachers overreacted to the failure of the historical grammar-translation method by completely throwing out grammar and logic when learning a language.  As I mentioned above, I do use the FSI courses.  However, I have also found that seeking out grammar instruction on top of pronunciation help is needed.

My problem with Lomb's argument is that she neglects the positive aspects of each language learning method.  The grammar-translation method, the Berlitz method, and the audiovisual method all produced individuals fluent in their target language.

I would argue that the problem with language learning in general is the assertion that there is one "magical" method that will work for everyone.  I don't buy it.  Most of the successful polyglots that I have read about and talked to devised a system that worked for them.  If I were to suggest that there is a common element in successful language learning, it is time and determination.

What are your thoughts?


Quantifying My Life

I am trying to integrate more progress tracking into all areas of my life.  I have written about keeping a progress notebook for language learning, but I think that it would be more helpful for me to also include progress in other areas of my life. Specifically, I have decided to try to use Evernote as a repository for all of my notes including my language progress notebook.

What areas of my life do I want to quantify?

  • Fitness
  • Language learning
  • Programming
  • Finance
  • Reading
  • Food?
  • Travel


 I have been doing very well in going to the gym and keeping up with my diet.  However, I do see room for improvement.  I got bored with logging my food in MyFitnessPal, and I need to go back to logging what I eat. 

What can I do to remove friction from the process?

I need to take the time and make groups for my most common meals so that I can add them in easily.  I have  groups already for my weekday breakfast and for Saturday nights when I am at home but I can also add other meals that I like to cook.   

What are my goals for my fitness log?

As a vegetarian, one of my goals is to make sure that I am getting enough protein and fat in my diet.  Based on past analysis, I do well in getting enough protein but I need to work on adding healthy fats to my diet.  Logging my progress and experimenting will help to see if I am being successful with my progress.

Language learning

I have written about how I keep track of my language learning progress.  I am curious about actual numbers and trends.  Am I better at learning in the summer or winter?  Does exercise help my progress?  In this case, I think that physically quantifying my language learning time through Evernote and then exporting to a spreadsheet may be helpful.  I am also interested in trying out Sacha Chua's Quantified Awesome.  Noting effort in both Evernote and a spreadsheet may be redundant but I am also trying to use Evernote as a diary (in the Victorian sense of an actual account of my activities for the day).  Having the information on what I am learning in Evernote will still be helpful.

I am currently interested in learning four languages:  German, Japanese, French, and Cantonese.

To maximize my learning efficiency I have decided to integrate my German and Japanese study together.  I am working to try to use primarily German text material to study Japanese.  Also, I am integrating German more into my discretionary time.  I read several German blogs, listen to German news podcasts, and will try to keep up with international news from a German perspective.

I am currently learning French through Duolingo and Cantonese through podcast. I am focusing more on French at the moment.  Cantonese is my newest language.  Right now I am spending the least amount of time on it.  After I get my Japanese and French to a more advanced level, I can focus more on Cantonese.


I have to decided to resurrect my almost forgotten knowledge of Ruby.  Currently, I am working through the Codecademy tutorials.  I am also working on changing my GTD methodology to the Agile Results system.  One benefit of the Agile Results system is the focus on monthly sprints.  Monthly sprints are skills that you try for a month to learn something new and to evaluate the skill to see if it is useful in your life.  For July, my sprint is going to be Ruby. 

I plan to use Evernote and a spreadsheet to document my effort and any resources that I pick up along the way.  I have already found several useful tutorials to work on after I finish the Codecademy tutorials.


I use Mint for my finances.  I am satisfied with the tracking features on the website.  I do think that Evernote will be useful for documenting receipts so that I don't have to carry so much extra paper in my purse.


I use Goodreads to track my books.  I can review books on Goodreads but I don't have any way to store my notes.  Since I read most of my books on Kindle now, I can export notes and highlights.  I want to try to sync this with Evernote so that I can integrate my notes and highlights into my book reviews.


Since I am resolving to go back to logging my food using MyFitnessPal, I'm not sure if I need to add food logging to Evernote.  Right now, I log interesting recipes from Allrecipes.com and Spark People to my Pinterest page.  Two areas that may need potential integration are notes from the recipes that I have tried and notes on restaurants that I want to try.


I plan to integrate travel into Evernote in two ways: notes on when/where I am traveling and itineraries for trips.  I noticed that, although I have moved to a more walkable neighborhood, I am still driving to run errands.  Tracking my travel time running errands may help remove some inefficiencies in my planning as well as to encourage me to walk more when I have an errand that can be accomplished in my neighborhood.

I can also use Evernote to help with itineraries and notes for my larger trips.

What's next?

I am currently experimenting with IFTTT recipes to see what I can automate so that I can make this as seamless as possible.  After I have finished automating my system, I will do an assessment on August 1st to see what I have learned from this experiment.

Do you have experience in quantifying your life?  What have you learned from the experience?

Polyglot How I Learn Languages: Who The Book Is and Isn't For

I would like to apologize for the two week hiatus.  I had a family emergenc,y and the past two weeks have been absolutely crazy.  I had a business trip scheduled last week, and I had hoped to be able to continue my German progress during the trip, but I neglected to take into account just how busy I would be.

Personally I have been continuing to try to balance my German and my Japanese progress.  Balancing two languages is proving difficult since I want to maintain my German but also work on improving my Japanese.  I did find two resources that may be helpful:

Lernhilfen von Uni Duisburg-Essen
Grundkurs der modernen japanischen Sprache (somewhat misleading since it's a DDR text)

 Chapter Six of Polyglot: How I Learn Languages

My notes for the next chapter of Polyglot: How I Learn Languages:

We are now on chapter six and Lomb is finally getting into addressing her target audience.  She begins with the concept of the Average Language Learner.  For Lomb, the average language learner should have about an hour to ninety minutes of free time a day.

For me, I can typically free up this amount of free time every day.  If you are having trouble finding free time, check out my Study Anywhere and Everywhere series.

Next, she goes into a little bit about language learning for children.  In short, she's skeptical about the results.  Even for children growing up in bilingual households, the parent or grandparent speaking the language not associated with the environment becomes associated with the context of speaking to parent or grandparent.

Confusing right?  

Lomb's argument is that for a boy growing up in France with a French mother and a Japanese father, the boy will learn Japanese from his father.  However, the boy will be hindered because the only Japanese that he learns is how to address his father and he will have difficulty trying to speak to other Japanese people.

However, she stops short of saying that early exposure to language is completely useless.  The boy with the Japanese father will probably be able to pick up Japanese quickly after he begins formal study later on in life.  She also excludes children growing up in truly bilingual areas from this argument.

The next part of the chapter is a history of language learning methodologies and her opinions on various processes.

She begins in Rome, where after the conquest of the Greeks, Rome imported the Greek language and culture.   Wealthy Roman students studied under Greek tutors and the Greek and Latin languages were associated with power and prestige.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages and the knowledge of Greek and Latin were limited to wealthy and/or educated men.

Here, I have to say that Lomb is neglecting the influence of the church.

With the rise of the middle class, learning Greek and Latin became a status symbol for the middle class to differentiate itself from the lower classes.  Formalized education systems were developed (she mentions the Gymnasium as an example).

The importance of this history is that for a thousand years, the primary language education in many western countries was targeted at learning dead languages.  

Well, you can argue whether or not Latin is really dead.  We do have a Latin translation of Harry Potter after all.

We have reached the halfway point in the chapter.  I am going to end here since the next part goes into grammar versus immersion and other philosophies of language learning.

My thoughts:

Lomb raises an interesting argument.  Particularly for the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., much of our language learning philosophy is heavily influenced by the association of Latin with education.  I'm a strong supporter of learning Latin.  For English speakers in particular (and Lomb mentions this in the chapter), we do not have phonetic orthography so learning Latin will help with pronunciation and understanding word origins.  It also will give you access to the thought processes of some of the greatest philosophers.

However, taking a method for learning Latin, which isn't a spoken language, and applying it to languages that are spoken does explain why most English speaking language learners can read a text in a foreign language but are absolutely horrid at communicating.