March 09, 2007

Back in print: Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames

Way back in September 1986, the beginning of my second year in college, the small town library had a book sale. I don't know where they got their book donations, but they had the best book sales I've ever seen. They had tons of foreign language books, lots of hardcovers of all sorts. I got a 1980 Encyclopedia Britannica for $100 and became the envy of many of my friends.

Along with a bag of German and other language books, I picked up a thin little paperback called Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames. It was a strange book. It consisted of 40 poems in French. Or did it?

I know almost nothing of French. I did one or two lessons in a Berlitz Self-Teacher back in '85 or so. But that was enough. You don't need to be able to understand French to enjoy Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames, you just need to be able to pronounce it.

Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu'importe un petit d'un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.

What does it all mean? Each poem comes with footnotes to explain unfamiliar words and troublesome phrases...but once you figure out what's going on, you realize that "Luis d'Antin van Rooten", if he really exist(s|ed), was just having a bit of fun.

I have the 1980 Penguin edition of Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames. In 1986 I started a writing a list of poem titles, adding as I figured out each one. It's been 20 years and I'm still missing 9 titles. How's that for entertainment value?

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 03:58 PM | Comments (5)

March 05, 2007


So today I got a stock spam email from "Mystekque Mich" with the subject "Joe--message from Mystekque". How do you pronounce that? To me it looks like "mistake". How polite of the spammers to warn us against the mistake of following their stock "advice".

Oh, and it's my birthday today: 29 for the 12th time. Some people try to tell me it's 40, but I don't know what they're talking about.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 08:59 PM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2007


Spotted this on a webpage today. It's pretty unfortunate considering that it's an ad for a language school:

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 10:56 AM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2007

Language usefulness

Edwin at The Tower of Confusion raises the interesting question of choosing a language based on its usefulness. Often when people try to choose a language based on general "usefulness", they run the risk of missing the correct answer. I don't think that the question is always "What language is most useful?" I think that a much better question would be, "What language is most useful TO ME?"

Here in the US, people will generally tell you that Spanish is the most useful and important language to learn, because "if you learn another language you can get a better job and make more money." So I started Spanish in high school and ended up taking it for all 4 years. I was top of my class and won the school foreign language award.

But in 25 years I've never used Spanish, never have spoken it with a native and probably never could. Here in western Michigan, what is Spanish useful for? It's useful if you want to get a job in bilingual customer service or become a social worker for migrants. Instead, my first career path took me down the path of learning German, Latin, ancient Greek and Hebrew. In practical and monetary terms, Spanish was useless to me (although it did show me how much fun learning a language could be, and made me actually learn English grammar).

Anyone who wants to learn a language based on its usefulness really needs to consider the "TO ME" aspect of usefulness. Do you need to learn a specific language for your current job? Would a particular language help you in a career you want to pursue? Will a certain language assist you in a hobby or line of research that interests you? Do you want to learn one language over another simply for the fun of it or out of personal interest? I think that it's usually better to choose a language based on your specific needs and interests rather than simply choose a language everyone says is most useful and then hope you'll find a use for it.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 10:24 AM | Comments (1)

September 21, 2006

Finding native speakers of your target language

Wrote this comment elsewhere and thought it might be worth posting here. The question: how to you find native speakers of your target language when you live in an area where English speakers are the vast majority?


All in all, Skype makes it very easy to find conversation partners. I’ve been practicing with native Japanese for more than a year now, mostly through The Mixxer ( I was advised by a Japanese friend to put “language exchange” in my Skype profile, and have since had several people contact me because of that.

Apart from Skype, I face a similar situation: I live in a small city in the midwestern US where there aren’t many foreigners. I met my first Japanese person ever in 2004 when I stumbled upon a local Japanese “conversation group” by chance. Later I found that you can track down similar groups via

If you’re lucky, you might wind up working at a job with native speakers of your target language as coworkers. In my previous job I worked with native speakers of Mandarin, Russian, Hindi and Gujarati. At my current job I’ve met a Chinese guy who speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese, along with a Vietnamese speaker or two.

It’d be great if a website existed like The Mixxer but for real-life contacts, but I don’t think one exists. Stay tuned, though.

Otherwise, I think you’ll have to track down native speakers in your local area by figuring out where they are. Seek out a foreign market or bakery or restaurant. If your town has a church that caters to a particular language or ethnic group, you can meet people there. Find some local ESL teachers and volunteer to spend time with a speaker of your language of interest. Contact a local college and ask about meeting people who speak your target language. Predominantly English-speaking (and, let’s face it, white) areas may very well contain groups of people who speak your target language (my city of 500K is supposed to contain native speakers of 62 languages), but they often stay low-key. Seek them out and they will love to meet you.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 03:30 PM | Comments (0)

April 03, 2006

Barry Farber Interview

Almost a year ago a guy named Keith Law did a short but interesting interview with Barry Farber, author of How to Learn Any Language. If you have any interest in learning languages, track down the book ($7 on the sale rack at Barnes & Noble): it's both informational AND inspirational: unless you already know everything (I know a few people like that), you'll pick up at least a few new language learning tips and the motivation to use them.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 09:38 AM | Comments (0)

March 03, 2006

Drive-by Chinese

Right after the beginning of the year a bunch of new contractors started at the place where I work, including one in the next cube down from mine. I didn't see the guy, but the manager introduced him to a few other people as "Sean".

The next day I did see him, and he was no "Sean": he is "Xiang", one of the growing number of Chinese at work.

I've done the first 15 or so lessons of Pimsleur Mandarin, at least 3 or 4 times over the last year. By lesson 15 I lose interest, or some other bozo has the set requested at the library. I've never inflicted my version of Mandarin on anyone. You're welcome, world.

This afternoon I got ready to leave at 5:30 and thought I heard a noise from Xiang's cube. Sure enough, he was still there. Several times when leaving the office at 5:30 or 6 I've found him still working and every time I whisper loudly, "Go home!" He smiles and nods and I leave. It's our standard ritual.

This time I whispered loudly, "Go home!" He smiled and nodded. I whispered loudly, "It's the weekend." He smiled and nodded. I whispered loudly, "Zai jian" (good-bye in Mandarin). He smiled and nodded--then his eyes flew open, it was my turn to smile and wave, and I left.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 10:00 PM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2006

Useless superpowers

What separates superheroes from the rest of us isn't necessarily that they have superpowers and we don't. Maybe the rest of us have our own powers, but our superpowers are useless. For example, I have the power of undesirable slogans. I can think up a motto or slogan for just about anything, but I'd never make a penny for most of them: "K-mart: now with fewer rat droppings." "Labatt's Blue. When you don't want to wait for the hangover."

I have the power of automatically getting into the checkout line where the person ahead of me wants the cigarettes which the cashier can only get from the very back corner of the store, and the person ahead of that wants to buy a cartload of groceries and pay with pennies, and the person ahead of that spends 10 minutes insisting that she found the item on the clearance rack, even though it's marked and rings up at full price.

I have one power which is useless but might have some potential, though. I have the ability to remember useless details: to picture where I was when I heard something. The other day I listened to a CD on the way to work. On the way home it played again, and as each song began I could remember the exact point on the highway where I had heard it in the morning.

That's nothing. It works for languages too. Last year I listened to the second half of Pimsleur Japanese while walking the dog, and I can still remember the exact conditions when I first heard many of the words and phrases. One winter day I learned atsui while walking up to Walgreen's on the corner. I was approaching the corner of our street. The sky was cloudy and the wind was very cold and from the northwest. A few minutes later I first heard nan to iimasuka? while walking through the parking lot and trying to avoid the icy patches. I first heard nanika otetsudai shimashouka? while walking the dog on a sunny spring morning, cool weather, approaching the bottom of the hill and about to turn the corner, and Amerika ni itta koto ga arimasuka? was a warmer day, approaching the far south end of our route, on a day when we were walking the route opposite the usual direction.

Books too: one day I looked at the frame for hito in "Essential Kanji." I can clearly remember the sun shining on the page, but naturally can't remember most of the readings for that kanji.

There must be a way to exploit this superpower to produce super learning. On the other hand, then it wouldn't be useless.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 04:36 PM | Comments (0)

September 10, 2005

Skype: a must-have tool for language learners

Skype is voice over internet software: you use the software to speak with others who are running the same software.

So what. That stuff's been around for years. Last time I tried voice over internet, the quality was pretty low and laggy (but what do you expect from 14.4 dialup?). It was much easier and less frustrating just to pick up the phone and call.

As a result, I've overlooked Skype for a long time. What's the point? Phone rates are cheap enough (especially on my AT&T VOIP line) that I can just call my friends and relatives. No hassle, no need to convince them to install the software (then troubleshoot it for them), no need to wait by the monitor for them to sign in.

A few months ago, though, I read an article which made the magic connection: Skype + native speakers = language learning happiness. That convinced me: practicing a target language with a native speaker is an important part of learning. I downloaded Skype that day...but how do you find those native speakers? I tried contacting a few posters at the Skype forums, but never got a reply. For several weeks I had Skype and a new headset ready to go, but no one to talk to.

Fortunately someone at Dickinson College (somewhere in Pennsylvania) got the bright idea of putting together a searchable database of language learners. You fill out a brief profile about yourself, including the languages you want to speak, then you can search for others who speak those languages and want to practice yours. It's very simple and very slick. I indicated that I wanted to practice Japanese and that my native language is English. Within a day or two I started receiving emails from Japanese who wanted to practice their English.

Speaking with a stranger for the first time can make you a bit nervous. I exchanged several emails with a fellow IT worker in Tokyo over the course of a week or two, then we decided to try Skype. His English was far better than my Japanese (he'd been studying for 5 years, while I'd been studying for a few months), but we had a good time: I helped him with his pronunciation and practiced my meager Japanese on him. Overall it was very motivational and encouraging.

Since then we've spoken every week or three. His English has improved, and I think that my Japanese has improved too. I've made a few other Japanese friends too, and last week I spoke with a man from the city of Dalian in China in my first-ever attempt at speaking Chinese to another human. He even understood what I said.

Six months ago I barely knew what Skype was. Now I'm a convert. If you're a language learner with very few opportunities to practice the language(s) you're learning, you must have Skype. Not only will it help you learn languages, it will also help you make new friends.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 10:47 PM | Comments (2)