Not Improving? Wrong.

Posted on 30. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Benign Ignorance

My stepfather, Stan Hirsch, is a professional blues guitarist. His story is so classic it’s almost cliché: when he was ten years old he mowed lawns and raked leaves to save up money to buy his first guitar, and when he got it, he decided he wanted to be brilliant at playing it. He wanted to be able to play anything on that instrument. He’s been playing ever since—every day for 56 years. One might think he’s reached his goal; he can indeed play just about anything, and some even consider him the best blues guitarist in America. Yet still he practices at least four hours a day, every single day, and not just because he loves it. He wants to get better. He wants to be the best he possibly can.

Whenever I got frustrated with something I was trying to do, feeling like I wasn’t getting any better, he would say “that’s just how it is.” Learning any kind of skill puts a weird distance between your self-awareness and your abilities. The more you work at something, the less apparent your progress becomes—to yourself, anyway.

It’s much like when someone you know gets a puppy or kitten or has a child. You’ll probably notice this creature balloon in size every time you see it. “Amazing!” you remark. “Last time I saw you, you were only thiiiiis big!” But the owner or parent just shrugs. “Really?” they’ll say. “I didn’t even notice.” The same illusion is at work here. Our close perspective prevents us from seeing what’s changed. The progress is so minute we can no longer see it.

But every day, that kitten is getting a little bit bigger, and every day, my stepfather is getting a little bit better at guitar.

So it is with you and your language learning. At the beginning, you’re improving in leaps and bounds—today you can say “hello” and “what’s your name,” tomorrow you’ll tell time and ask directions! But the more you learn, the less obvious your progress becomes, until you become all but blind to it.

When that happens, you need an outside perspective to break the spell. Sometimes it’s a break in the pattern (“hey, the ticket seller didn’t immediately switch to English that time!”), or it could be a new situation (“I’ve never had to use that word before, but it just came out of my mouth like magic!”). Sometimes it’s just the simple pleasure of ordering a beer and absolutely flabbergasting whoever you’re with (see above comic).

Whether you practiced 100 vocab words today or just five, whether you talked to 25 people today or just two, whether you gave a rousing speech at a banquet hall or just ordered a couple brews in the local watering hole; you’re always getting better.

How about you? Are you finding progress difficult to notice, or do you still get a kick out of every little improvement?

Transparent Language Library Spotlight: Jacksonville Public Library

Posted on 25. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning, Product Recommendations, Reference/Usage Tips

In 2011, things got a little brighter for the Jacksonville Public Library system in sunny Jacksonville, Florida: they subscribed to Transparent Language Online, providing their customers free language-learning resources in more than 80 languages.

Inspired by his friends’ New Year’s Resolutions to learn a new language, Eric Soriano, a member of the library’s e-services team, began developing classes for library customers: “Learn a New Language for the New Year”. The class was offered several times throughout 2014 as a way to introduce customers to Transparent Language Online, including a demo of the features, a guide to signing up for an account, and time to explore the online learning platform independently. Turnout was decent, but trailed off throughout the year.

To better leverage the resources in Transparent Language Online, Eric collaborated with fellow e-service specialists Kat Minor and Flory Martinez to create language-specific classes. In December 2014, Jacksonville Public Library launched a 3-part French course, and a similarly structured Spanish course kicked off in January. The reaction was so exceptional that the library actually added 5 additional laptops to their classrooms, which already seat 15 students. Even with the additional support, the library had to turn away some interested customers.

Kat Minor gives an overview of the different features of Transparent Language for the French class.

Kat Minor gives an overview of the different features of Transparent Language for the French class.

According to Eric, customers are thrilled with the classes, particularly that access to Transparent Language Online is free to anyone with a library card. “Our instructors also like the language learning approach of the product in integrating culture. So we made sure to make that a big part of class. They like the discussions on French cuisine, Spanish telenovelas and for the last class, we  even did an interactive dance session using the steps of Merengue—a popular Latin American dance.”

Flory Martinez shows a video of a Latin American delicacy as part of the cultural immersion portion prior the start of the class.

Flory Martinez shows a video of a Latin American delicacy as part of the cultural immersion portion prior the start of the class.

They’re not stopping there. Believe it or not, Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the United States, so the branches of the Jacksonville Public Library have a lot of ground to cover, literally. To meet the needs and interests of such a large community, the library is expanding their language courses to new branches in new languages, including:

If you’re in the Jacksonville area—lucky you! Be sure to stop by your local library branch and sign up for your free Transparent Language Online account. Not in Jacksonville? We partner with hundreds of libraries throughout the country, so give your friendly librarian a call and let them know you’re interested in a Transparent Language Online account!

What’s the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever?

Posted on 23. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Le Typicàl Convèrsatiòn

As language learners, we hope to find ourselves in conversations on a wide variety of topics. That’s really the point of all these conjugation tables, vocab flash cards and grammar drills, isn’t it? Sure, reading a foreign newspaper is great, watching TV shows and movies in their original language is rewarding and all that, but for most of us I imagine the ultimate goal is to express one’s ideas, ask intelligent questions, and tell stories; to converse.

But when starting out your language learning odyssey, we quickly learn that not all conversation topics are created equally.

The news, for example, can seem at first like tempting, low-hanging fruit for the budding second-language conversationalist. No need to translate “Boko Haram” or “Hillary Clinton,” after all—you’ll feel you can just dive right in. But once you’ve started down the topical path, you’ll find it quickly ends in a bramble of unpleasantly specific vocabulary, such as “court case,” “election campaign manager,” “quarantine” or “state censorship.” No problem if you’re already a seasoned speaker, but not the biggest confidence-booster for a beginner.

Politics has a similar problem of specific vocabulary (“sanctions,” “military dictatorship,” “economic downturn”) required for even a cursory discussion, with the added drawback of carrying an emotional charge. Don’t get me wrong; good-natured arguments over politics, religion, and other tinderbox topics are brilliant for taking away your worries about word choice and pronunciation and focusing your attention on just speaking. But you want to have enough rhetorical ammunition to defend and attack, otherwise you’ll just be left in the corner, burning with something to say but no way to say it.

Are we then cursed to discuss the weather? Ugh, the deadest dead end there ever was. It can only begin with what the weather currently is, and end on how it might be different. Not exactly scintillating conversation, and it leaves both parties wishing they were speaking to somebody else.

So what, then, are we to talk about?

I submit for your consideration my nominee for the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever: food.

Like tasting wine, talking about food starts simple and builds steadily to more advanced complexity, all the while being thoroughly enjoyable. Everyone likes food, so it’s difficult to alienate the other person by stumbling on your grammar. Every culture and sub-culture on the planet has their own unique way of preparing, eating, and growing food, and everyone’s got their own stories about or relating to food, so there’s an infinite number of conversational roads to take.

Best of all, you can learn nearly everything a beginner needs to learn through the topic of food alone. You’ll learn simple vocabulary at first (“soft,” “yellow,” “turkey,” “soup,” “salty,” “burnt”) and smoothly work your way up to the more detailed (“bottled,” “oven-baked,” “farmland,” “preserves”). It’s hard to discuss food without discussing its origins, so geography will play a big part, and you’ll find yourself practicing all the important verb forms (“is produced,” “will yield,” “has been fermenting”).

You simply can’t go wrong talking about food. Or maybe I’m just hungry.

What do you think the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever is?