What do an Apple, Flowers, and a Can of Soda Have in Common?

Li You is calling Wang Peng and all she is saying, apparently, is "flowers apple soda."

Li You is calling Wang Peng and all she is saying, apparently, is "flowers apple soda."

Here’s a riddle for you: what do flowers, an apple, a can of soda, and a chapter titled “Birthday Party” have in common?

Answer: I’m not exactly sure, but my Chinese textbook seems to have the answer.  Apparently, Wang Peng and Li You are going to Gao Xiaoyin’s birthday party and they are giving her fruit, flowers, and soda.  That’s the gist of the dialogue, anyway.

Why do language textbooks always have the weirdest dialogues?  I’ve been wondering this for years.  I mean, It’s really fun and easy for students with high maturity levels like me to make fun of the textbook characters and dialogue.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t really help students to learn the vocabulary, and even if they do learn the vocabulary, it doesn’t always matter–how likely are you to go to China and tell someone “Oh hey, happy birthday, here are some flowers and apples and soda”?  As Jennie en France says,

The lack of authentic language in language learning materials was most striking to me upon arriving in France and realizing that what I had learned in my classes was not how people actually spoke. I still recall the dialog in my textbook for buying train tickets, which consisted of a mere 4 lines and completely lacked any cultural clues as to what country it was referring to. Most textbooks default to France and teach a little about the rail system, the SNCF, but they neglect to include the specific names of trains. It is very important to know the difference between the TGV and TER, or what types of trains Lunéa, Téoz and Intercités are, or what the Carte 12-25 or Carte Escapades are used for. And as soon as you cross the border into Switzerland or Belgium, there is a new list of names and acronyms for the rail systems and trains to deal with: CFF, SNCB, ICT, ICN, etc.

I understand that a lot of times, they put together the dialogues based around the vocabulary unit, but maybe it would be nice if just once there existed a popular language textbook that featured discussions that didn’t sound so set-up.  I’m going to China for a month next January–how am I to make sure that my Chinese books prepare me for actual Chinese conversation?  I can greet people, introduce myself and others, and talk about a bizarre variety of subjects (birthdays, directions, and food are the last three units we’ve done in class, for example), but I know I’ll be at a loss when someone asks me what my parents do for a living or what my friends back home are like or what my school is like.

The solution?  I’m not sure.  Ask my teachers for supplementary vocabulary lists?  Research Mandarin slang on the internet?  Look up common phrase book phrases on Wikibooks?  Sure, I could probably do some of these, but why can’t I just learn this stuff in class?  I should be learning how to hold real conversations in class.

I like the Chinese textbooks we use a lot–they provide good explanations of the grammar structures covered in lessons and have a storyline to the dialogues that’s actually pretty amusing–but I wish they taught me more conversational Mandarin and less…well, less textbook dialog.

How do you deal with this, if you’re taking a foreign language class?  Do you just ignore it and move on, or do you actively seek out knowledge about “real-life” language as opposed to just the “textbook language”?

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Five New Ways to Learn to Count

I don’t know what it is–numbers in foreign languages always stump me.  I’ve been studying Spanish for eight years now and I still slip up on numbers.  In Mandarin especially, I have to ask the speaker (usually a teacher) to repeat the number multiple times before I can piece it all together.  Maybe that’s because I’m not naturally good with numbers.  Maybe I just have a resistance to learning to count.  (Although I don’t recall ever having any sort of number disability in elementary school…)  In any case, in (trying to) overcome this obstacle, I learned long ago that repeating the numbers endlessly is possibly the worst way I could learn them, so in the spirit of sharing, I’m giving you some alternate ways to do so.

1. Count sheep
Do you have trouble falling asleep at night?  Have you ever considered counting sheep?  If so, try doing it in a foreign language.  This works especially well if you’ve got the basics down (for example, Mandarin numbers between eleven and 99 are formed by saying “ten one” (eleven), “two tens” (twenty), all the way up to “nine ten nine” for 99), because then all you have to do is start at one and count as high as you can.  Bonus: this can help cure insomnia, because counting is boring as hell, no matter in what language you do it.

2. Be nosy
Ask people their ages.  In Mandarin.  (In case you’re wondering, that’s “你今年多大?” (nǐ jīnnián duō dà?) and the answer is “我十九岁” (wǒ shíjiǔ suì.)  Or 二十一,or 三十九,or 八十or however old you are.)  Or, if you don’t feel like being that rude, just read off telephone numbers in other languages.  Uno-ochocientos-cinco-cinco-cinco…

3. Sudoku
Sudoku is a lifesaver on public transportation.  You can usually find small books for cheap at drugstores.  It’s also been called a “number crossword,” probably because a sudoku puzzle (for those of you who don’t know) consists of nine squares made up of nine squares.  Each box, row, and column can only have the numbers 1-9 in them once.  It’s a pretty addictive logic puzzle, and by doing just a couple, you can quickly memorize 1-9 in any given language.

4. Develop OCD.
(Or CDO; that puts the letters back in order.)  Start counting your steps.  This may not be any more exciting than counting sheep, but it’s another way to learn how to count.  I find that visualizing the number (the digits, not the spelling) helps because then I can more easily match it up to the foreign language equivalent.

5. Countdowns
This is fun during holiday seasons or when a birthday is coming up.  Keep track once a day by saying “ten days left until my birthday” (or whatever you’re counting down to).  I find that writing this on a calendar makes it easier.  (Currently, my calendar has things such as “nove giorni fino al esami di calculo.”  Not so fun, but hey, it helps me learn the language!)

Bonus: try practising by telling time in your target language.  Not only does that help with numbers, but it helps with time vocabulary too.

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How Classical Nahuatl Became Light Reading for Me

I’m probably not the most normal college student you’ll find.  I’m majoring in computer science as well as foreign languages, for example.  I’m also of the opinion that I’d much rather spend a Thirsty Thursday inside watching Disney movies with my friends than out getting smashed at a frat.  (I don’t know about other schools, but that seems to be pretty popular here.  Of course, I currently live in a dorm that is right next to a bar, so that probably influences how much sloppy drunkenness I see on a regular basis.)   Thanks to my nerdy tendencies, I ended up wandering around the scarily humongous empty university library last Saturday evening.  There wasn’t anything exciting going on–the place was deserted, it being Saturday evening and all.  The people working looked like closing time couldn’t come soon enough.  Can’t say I blame them–who wants to be stuck in a library on a Saturday evening, anyway?  (Oh wait, that’s right, me.)  I wandered around for a while, getting lost in the shelves.  (Yeah, I get lost every time I go into the library.  I don’t know what to blame, the library for being so huge, or myself for having such a bad sense of direction.)

And that’s when I found it–wandering somewhere on the second floor in the overwhelmingly long aisles of bookshelves, there it was: Introduction to Classical Nahuatl.  Now, I’ve studied Spanish for about eight years, so I’ve had some exposure to Nahuatl words and names through Spanish classes.  I’ve only ever seen the Nahuatl place names as “big, scary, impossible-to-pronounce words with lots of Xs and the “tl” combination…” up until now, that is.

To be clear, I didn’t pull this book off the shelf to learn the language–I’ve got enough of that going on right now, trying to study Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin concurrently–but I did pull it off to learn about the language and to uncover the mysteries of the xs and tls and other odd-looking words.

The verdict?

Nahuatl is fascinating.  I haven’t studied much outside of the Indo-European family–formally, I’ve only studied Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin, and Arabic (not all at once!)–so maybe the difference is what makes it so interesting.  In Romance languages, verbs are conjugated in tons of tenses and moods, but only the ending is changed.  English verbs become a little more complicated–some change the ending, some use helping words, many don’t follow any apparent pattern for their conjugation.  Mandarin verbs have been the best so far: none require conjugation, although trying to figure out which helping word to use can get tricky sometimes.

Nahuatl verbs have not one, not two, not three, but up to nine parts in addition to the stem.  Not all parts are required in every single conjugation–thankfully; everything in Nahuatl would take forever to say otherwise–but while in Spanish one can get away with taking the root of the verb and one ending, in Nahuatl, one must use particles to determine the order, the person, the specific object, the direction, the reflexive object, the nonspecific human object (I honestly still don’t know what this is), the nonspecific human object, then (finally) the stem, the tense, and the number.  Yikes.  This results in really long verbs that say a lot–they have to, what with all the pieces involved–such as “nitlahuelmati” (I enjoy something), “nimitztlamaca” (I give something to you), and “tontocuepazqueh” (we shall return thither).

(Come on.  Those are pretty awesome looking combination of letters. Admit it.)

Although I don’t intend on fully learning the language, my interest in Nahuatl (and other languages like it) is piqued and I would like to learn more about it in the future.  (That being said, if you know of any online Nahuatl resources, I wouldn’t mind hearing about them!).  In the meantime, however, I’m just going to have to content myself to keep on reading this book…:)

(About the book: “Introduction to Classical Nahuatl,” by J. Richard Andrews.  Copyright 1975.  IBSN 0292738048.)

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你好, io estoy ici!


I’ve decided to try to make my way in the linguaphile blogosphere.  (Ha, my FireFox dictionary add-on is telling me that “linguaphile” and “blogosphere” are not words.  Keep up with the times, FireFox!)  I lurk on a lot of foreign language blogs and am pretty obsessed with languages and language-learning.  The problem that I have is language wanderlust.  Unless I’m studying a language for school, I have a difficult time keeping with it and not getting distracted by something else.  (As a result, I’ve dabbled in at least twenty different languages and can speak bits and pieces of them.)  So I’m hoping that by starting a blog and keeping up with the other more prominent blogging linguaphiles, I’ll be inspired to stick with a language myself.

Currently, I study Mandarin and Italian in university.  I studied Spanish and French in high school and loved them.  I’m trying to focus on Irish now outside of school, but (even though it’s summer) I’m having trouble finding time to study it every day.  I’m not losing the motivation to learn it–I find Irish to be a fascinating language and as an Irish-American I see it as a way to connect to my roots, as cheesy as that sounds–but I am lacking on time.  We’ll see how much time I have once school starts up again and I’m juggling three languages (Spanish, Mandarin, and Italian) and calc.

Another reason why I want to blog is because one of the best ways to learn a language is to teach it.  I’m not planning on trying to teach Mandarin or Irish or anything in this blog–there are plenty of other websites and blogs available for that–but I do want to be able to share my ideas and theories on language learning (specifically, learning those languages) and post resources, since link lists are awesome for language learning.  (Well, they’re awesome in general when looking for specific resources.)  I lack real-life friends who share the same obsession over language learning that I have, so I want to branch out into the online community a bit.

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