Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ant in French

     Sometimes a silly joke can help you remember a term.  Check out this clip on how to remember the word for “ant” in French.  The word is “fourmis.”


     If you would like to learn more about "Excuse My What” and the books they have to offer check out www.excusemywhat.com.  Here is a video introduction of the company:

     Thanks for checking out my blog.  Let me know if you would like to see any other topic addressed on here.  Anything language related is fair game.   www.excusemywhat.com

Friday, August 24, 2012



With a degree in Linguistics, years as a professor of foreign languages, countless time as a translator, and a thirst to always learn a different language, I can attest (in any language you chose) that the most important thing you can do to learn a language is to build your vocabulary!  Studying grammar for years won’t do it.  Trying to perfect your accent won’t do it.  It really is all about vocabulary.  Everything else will come with time.  When my son was two he learned to speak English the same way every child in the world before him learned their first language . . .one word at a time!  Unfortunately for me his first word was not “daddy.”  It was “car.”  Yes my son has always had a fascination with cars.  One day he was watching television, pointed to the screen and triumphantly exclaimed, “kaaar!”  A few months later her was able to say “moma,” “dada,” and his sisters’ names.  More interesting though was when he said, “wawa” to mean any drink, or “cookie” to mean any type of sweet.  He had also figured out that “shuz on” means we were going somewhere, and that by saying “die pah chaynge” we would rush him to the potty.  Many of his phrases would make little sense to my colleagues at work if I were to use them, but to us they made complete sense.  Believe it or not, the same holds true for you! 
When you are just starting out to speak a new language and you say to a native speaker the equivalent of “wawa” chances are he or she is going to figure out that you are thirsty.  Even if you do not know the word for something, if you can just describe it as, “that round thing over there” chances are the person to whom you are speaking will know that you mean the plate, the tire or whatever it is you are referring to.  Context is huge in language. 
Taking the “toddler” approach is critical to learning a foreign language.  You may not be able to say, “I must find an ophthalmologist because I lost my contact lens.” But you should be able to say, “help eyes, where glasses doctor?”  Knowing a few simple vocabulary words can take you to that level.  The problem most people face is that they are worried that if they do not speak with proper grammar no one will pay attention to them.  Or rather, they feel that they will be made fun of.  Rarely do I find this, and usually I find that I am only ever corrected when speaking a foreign language by non-native speakers and it is usually in such a way as it seems they are only doing it to make themselves feel better about their own ability.  Native speakers are usually just tickled that you are even trying to communicate with them.  As such, whether or not you are using the proper gerund is not as important to them as understanding the underlying message you are trying to convey.  It is perfectly legitimate to speak like a toddler when setting out to learn a new language.
So what vocabulary terms should you begin with?  Start with what interests you.  Why?  You’re more likely to remember those terms.  Being a lawyer, I’m quick to remember that in French the word for lawyer is “avocat.”  In Arabic, it is “mohamee.”  Knowing a few basic food terms will help from keeping you hungry, but studying what is most of interest to you is by far the best way to remember the words that you study.
Another helpful suggestion, and this is a must when you are in a foreign country or in any immersion setting, have a pen and a small pad of paper in your pocket at all times.  Anytime you are chatting with someone in the foreign language and you discover a word that is new to you.  Write it down.  When I was in Tunisia, I oftentimes would hold my pad of paper out to my friends that were helping me to speak Arabic and I would ask them to write the word down.  I did this because sometimes I had a hard time knowing the exact Arabic letter that was used in the word.  I also wanted to get the proper spelling.  My pad became so common place that towards the end of my trip I had a few friends that would just stick out their hand anytime I came across a new word, because they knew that I would soon be asking them to write it down for me.  They didn’t mind doing it, because they didn’t mind helping me, and I wanted to learn.

When you return home at night, you should then write down in a separate pad of paper (a much larger pad) all the words that you learned that day.  Keeping track of the words will help you to remember them.  It will also give you your own personal dictionary of terms that you have run across throughout the day.  Yes you will find that many words you just learned the previous day will have to be written down again, but that is just part of the process of learning a foreign language.  Remember my son?  To him all vehicles were “kaars” until he learned to differentiate and see that some of them were actually trucks or buses.  He didn’t always remember the proper word for something the first time he was introduced to it, rather he repeated it on what seemed like a thousand different occasions, until he got it right.  We all do that.  It is unquestionably true that repetition is the father of all learning.  It was true for my son the toddler and it is true for you.  Why do you hear people say so often, “well I can’t learn a language, I’m too old.” Because they have too much of an ego to realize that in learning a language you really have to make mistakes.  You really have to have the toddler drive and ambition to learn.  So if that means asking how to say “car” ten thousands times until you get it right, ask it ten thousand times.  Eventually you’ll catch on!
Having a note pad at the ready is one way to help your vocabulary, but there are many nuts and bolts to learning vocabulary that can help.  Among the various resources previously mentioned, many companies produce vocabulary tapes.  Americans waste so much time driving every day while listening to garbage radio.  Why not fill in the wasted time with a lesson in vocabulary.  If you don’t like boring vocabulary lists, try one of the many companies that offer vocabulary “a la Mozart.”  You can easily find vocabulary cassette tapes with not just words but Mozart accompanying the background.  Whether it is true or not that music stimulates the brain into better recollection is one thing, but even if it does not, you will still be doing something more productive then by listening to music you didn’t want to hear anyway.
Flashcards are another way to help improve your vocabulary.  It has been estimated that an average human spends approximately three years of their life waiting in line.  If you have to wait anyway, why not have a packet of flash cards in your pocket.  Or use your Iphone and connect it to a nice site like www.quizlet.com.  I had a good friend that went through the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California.  They had a huge list of words that they had to learn every day.  To keep up with the list, he would put every word on a vocabulary flash card.  As he went through the cards, he would put them in three piles.  One pile was for words he didn’t know at all.  Another was for words he recognized, and the last was for words he recalled quite well.  After going through all the cards he would put the cards back together starting with the words he had the most difficult time with.  Once he felt totally comfortable with a word, he would put it in a separate pile that was to be discarded.  As he went through the stack of flashcards a number of times, the “I don’t know” pile became smaller, and the discard pile grew and grew and grew.  No matter how you stack the cards, the one thing that is true is that the more you do it, the more you will learn.
When it comes to vocabulary, the more you learn the more likely you will find it easier to learn more.  It is a product of human nature.  I remember a preacher once being asked how he had such an incredible memory.  He seemed to have memorized the entire Bible and he could recall just about anything that had to do with anyone he met.  His response?  He said that he memorized a verse a day from the Bible.  He said that he started slow but the more he learned, the easier it was to memorize.  He swore that if you memorized a verse a day, in a year you would have a photographic memory.  I believe he is right.  I also believe that it doesn’t have to be the Bible or anything special to make it happen.  The more you exercise your brain, the more it will be able to retain.  This is especially true with regard to learning a foreign language.  If you set out to learn even one new vocabulary word a day, by the end of a year, you’ll find that you have learned much more than you thought was even imaginable.  From that point on, once you have a base vocabulary, learning even more terms is even that much simpler. 
If you ever have a difficult time trying to recall certain terms, be creative.  I recommend using mnemonics.  A mnemonic is something that you use to associate a concept with something else that you can more easily remember.  For example, when I learned the word for ‘elephant’ in Arabic, ‘feel’ I thought about the one time I felt an elephant and how rough the hairs on an elephant can be.  The thought of how an elephant feels, helped me remember the term for elephant.  In French, I had a difficult time remember the word for bailiff, ‘greffier’ so I thought about a really gruff looking bailiff that I met in court once.  For some reason just thinking about him helped me to remember, ‘greffier.’  Yes it is a stretch, but it worked for me.  The point is, if it works for you and it helps you to remember the word you are learning use it! 
If you check out www.excusemywhat.com, you can find several excellent books for learning French and Arabic that are filled with creative mnemonic terms.  The books are inexpensive and will help you learn hundreds of new words in a day.  Check them out – what have you got to lose?
Whatever you do to remember your terminology, the more you learn, the more facility you will have with learning more.  Whenever you speak with a linguist who speaks multiple languages you will find a common trend.  People either are bilingual and speak two languages or they are polyglottal (multi-lingual) and speak more than three.  Rarely do you meet someone who only speaks three languages.  This really isn’t a phenomena.  The reason is simple.  After learning to speak your second language, learning a third is much easier.  Once you reach three languages, the fourth is almost a given.  Your mind just simply adapts to learning a language, you almost develop what one could call a linguistic photographic memory.  Your brain is used to picking up new vocabulary.  For some strange reason, learning Arabic was easy for me because of the fact that I speak French.  Part of it was because many Arabic words were borrowed from the Spanish and the French during the time of the Crusades and the Napoleanic conquest of Egypt, but the other reason is that my brain has just been fined tuned to receiving foreign language data. 
The most wonderful thing about all this, is that our brains are wired for language acquisition.  We naturally acquired our first language.  Developing our second, third, or fourth, really is not a new concept for our brain.  It just takes practice, exercise, and perseverance.  Learning vocabulary is just one tool you can use to give your mind a mental jump-start.  Continual acquisition of new terminology, will keep your mental engine nicely tuned so that when you need to learn the finer points of the language (grammar, precise spelling etc.) you will be ready to tackle that too.

Learn 300 Arabic Vocabulary Terms in an Afternoon

Arabic is considered one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to master because the majority of vocabulary terms are very different from most Western European languages.  I've tackled this problem with an innovative method that will help any language learner master over 300 key Arabic vocabulary terms.  By associating Arabic terms with funny mnemonics, learning Arabic vocabulary is now easy.

As an example, think of the word “lightning" in Arabic.  The word is pronounced “barq.”  If you think about the phrase, “the dog ‘barq’ed at the lightning” the term now becomes easy to remember.

In my Arabic Vocabulary Made Easy, I provide over 200 mnemonics using similar word associations.  I also present clever pictures to help visual learners key in on the new terms.  Many students have found that in a short period of only a few hours, they were able to retain most, if not all, terms presented in the book.

In addition to the 200 mnemonics, you'll get over 100 words that are the same or close to the same as words in English.

If you'd like to check out this book see:

Immersion Key to Learning a Language

Sink or swim!  There is absolutely no better way to learn a language than to be totally immersed in it.  To those who think they are too old to learn a language, just listen to your local Chinese restaurant waiter who is in his 30s and just recently moved to the United States without first learning word one of English.  He did it and so can you.  Why?  He had to.  Nothing worth anything in life is obtained without a struggle.  I learned to speak French with the most facility when I was in Northern Quebec and had to.  I learned to speak Arabic with ease when I was in the middle of the Sahara desert of Tunisia and had to.  Being immersed in a language is by far the best way to learn.  The problem that most people face, however, is not realizing that they are immersed in the language because once immersed they choose to speak English with those others who speak English.  Or, they think that they are not going to spend enough time in the immersed environment for it to make any difference.  In both cases, they are wrong.
I did spend over two years of total immersion in French, and there is no question that it is why I speak French well enough to translate.  I only had less than a month, however, of total immersion with Arabic.  Still, I am highly proficient.  Why, immersion is more about concentration of language, than it is about length of time in the language.  I know of hundred if not thousands of people who live in an environment where they are surrounded by a different language, but they still don’t speak word one of the foreign tongue.  Why?  They choose not to learn.  Sometimes it can be for political reasons.  Ask an English speaking Canadian living in Quebec City why they don’t speak French.  Melt down everything they say and the answer is simple: politics.  Or, it can be because of personal choice not to learn.  Ask an English-only speaking American living in San Antonio why they don’t speak Spanish.  The answer is may boil down to a simple excuse of, “this is America.”  In either case, people may be immersed in a language for years, yet never learn to speak the language of their surroundings.  If, however, by choice, they had decided to try and make a concerted effort at learning something new, they too may be bilingual.
So what do you do if you are not able to travel to France, spend time in Germany, cruise the islands, or ride a camel in the Middle East?  The answer is quite simple.  Find pockets of immersion in your own town.  When my family lived in Washington D.C. we attended a unique church.  It was a nice Arabic Christian church.  Most of the parishioners were from Lebanon and as such it was very much of a Lebanese dialect, but for that 2-3 hour church experience, my family was totally immersed.  Talk about learning a language!  My wife was convinced that I was a better man because I walked away from church having truly listened to the sermon.  I had to!  Without really focusing on what was said, I would not have understood.  Going to church also helped me to meet new friends.  Now I have even more people that I can communicate with to practice my chosen language.  It has also helped my children appreciate other children from different backgrounds.  Helping your children to break down the barriers of stereotypes and discrimination early is a win win for your children and our society.
You want an even easier immersion than a church focused on your language?  Go out to eat!  It may surprise you, but most Chinese restaurants have fluent Chinese speakers working there.  Next time you go, and the waiter asks you how the food is, respond, “Hen How!”  – “very good!”  I’m sure he or she will appreciate it.  As they come around again and ask you if you need more water, ask them how to say water in Chinese.  Why not?  Learning a language is a process. You may forget the word once you learn it, but if you don’t try, you’ll never learn.  Besides, how many times does your toddler ask you about something that is new to them?  If you have ever dealt with toddlers, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  They will talk about something without end.  Don’t be afraid to ask how you say ‘water' again and again if you keep forgetting.  Sooner or later you will remember. 
There are many pockets of immersion in every city in the United States.  One way to find such a pocket is to look in your local town for those interested in learning English as a second language or ESL.  Many local churches and civic groups offer ESL as a volunteer service.  Immigrants wanting to learn to speak English flock to such groups and are very anxious to learn.  Regardless of where you are, if you volunteer to help teach English as a second language you will undoubtedly find individuals who will help you to learn words and phrases of their own tongue.  The best part is that rarely do ESL teaching groups have enough volunteers.  So there is always room for one more.  Second, is that you don’t need to speak any foreign language to volunteer as an ESL instructor.  True you never know what country the people will be from that are there to learn, but that is half the fun.  Regardless, while volunteering your time, it is almost impossible to walk away without learning even a few words and phrases of the languages of the people you are helping.
Check with your local church and or civic group and you are bound to find an ESL group that needs your help.  If, however, you are more adventurous about learning a language, and have some time to travel, the sky is literally the limit.  While teaching as a professor of foreign languages, my college decided to put together a team of students to compete in an International Humanitarian Law competition.  The competition took place in Europe and was attended by over 30 different schools from various countries around the world.  The best part was that the competition was done all in French.  I immediately volunteered my time to help the team out.  We put in our application and I applied as the coach.  When we did finally travel overseas, the team spent roughly 10 days debating Humanitarian Law in French!  What a tremendous opportunity!  It really was the chance of a lifetime.  We didn’t make it into the finals, but we did quite well.  The most incredible part of the experience though was the interaction between us and the other teams.  It was truly an immersion experience.  We learned about the many different countries represented there, and they learned that Americans really aren’t the bullies the world makes us out to be.  Of the three participants on our team that I had the pleasure of coaching, one of them did not speak French any better than a horse speaks Spanish, but by the end of the trip, she was making out quite well.  There is nothing like being put on the spot to learn something.
The competition we were in is known as the Concours Jean-Pictet.  It is geared towards law students from around the world and it has an English competition as well.  If you have a friend in law school, or if you are attending yourself, you really ought to think about putting a team together.  It is not the only competition out there.  There are many like it around the world.  Whether it is Model United Nations, or just a simple conference overseas.  Opportunities like this abound.  Take advantage of them.  If you are not a student, think about coaching a team.  Look around, if you are into cooking, there are many institutes around the world that would love to have you as a student.  Why study in a local university if you can study French cuisine in Paris? 
Aside from small competitions, conferences, or weeklong classes, which anyone should be able to find the time for.  Consider going away for a semester.  If you are a student, this is a no brainer.  While in college, I was truly as poor as a church mouse and the only way I was really able to fund my education was because I qualified for the pell grant.  I really didn’t have a dime to my name, but thanks to good old Uncle Sam, I was able to take out student loans with very reasonable interest rates.  In addition most of the money that I was able to borrow I was able to defer any payment on until after I finished college.  With this newly acquired cash, I was able to travel to France to study international law.  I did this over the summer.  And for most students summer travel is really the best way to go.  Many programs, however, are available that allow you to do an entire semester abroad.  Taking advantage of these programs as a student is so easy that they should almost be required before any is allowed to graduate. 
If you haven’t started college yet, why not do the ultimate?  Think about going to a university outside of the US?  If you are too afraid to travel too far from home, you could consider a college in Montreal.  Yes there are 100% French speaking colleges in Canada.  What better way to get an education and finish school bilingual?  And even if you don’t take the total plunge, attending school in French Quebec alone should put you in an environment where you can truly pick up another language.  There are critics out there that will say, “oh but the Quebecois accent is so strange, only other Quebecois speakers will understand my French.”  This line is reasoning is non-sense.  I found quite the opposite.  I cannot only understand Canadian French, but Parisian French is crystal clear for me.  I believe I have an advantage over those who learned to speak French in Paris.  I have been immersed in a more profound environment and now can more easily understand French-speaking Africans, Haitians, and just about anyone else in the world.  For one thing Montreal is truly a melting pot of the world, and so being there, you’ll be immersed with just about ever dialect.  There really is no better place for an American to study French. 
Immersion is no question the best approach to learning a language, but since learning is a lifetime process, don’t be disheartened if you can’t always be immersed.  There are still many other things you can do to improve your linguistic talents.  Keep tuned to this blog for other ideas that should help!

Watch TV to Learn a Foreign Language

I remember once meeting a young man with a very foul mouth and an unusual American accent when he spoke English.  I asked him how he learned to speak English, and to my surprise he said that he did nothing but watching American TV for the past several years.  He was tuned into everything.  I suppose the strong use of profanity was due in part to his subscription to the movie channels and the unedited television that was a part of his repertoire.  Whether he truly learned to speak English by doing nothing more than watching TV could be debated, but the fact he spoke it could not.  Living in our modern age, there is no question that television is a remarkable tool when trying to learn to speak another language.
When I first started learning Arabic, it used to drive my wife nuts that I had the television constantly tuned to the Arabic channel.  My favorite thing to watch was the news.  I would first watch one of the standard American channels and get my first glimpse of the news.  I would then try and watch the same news on the selected Arabic channel.  Like it or not, most of the news around the world is pretty much the same.  The difference is in the particular slant another country may take towards the news.  Knowing the underlying story made it easier to understand what I was watching and I was thereby able to understand with more facility the new vocabulary words that would undoubtedly come my way.  Another nice thing that often happened was that the President or another high ranking American would address a particular topic and his/her words would be translated by the Arabic channel that I was watching.  Having an English statement immediately translated into the language you are studying is a great way to identify new terminology. 
Watching TV is also fun.   Even though I’m into my 40s, I still enjoy a certain amount of children’s programming.  Cartoons can be fun.  With three kids of my own, our family is filled with various cartoons at any one time during the day.  I figure if we have to watch cartoons anyway, why not watch them in French?  There is certainly no reason why my children can’t profit from a dose of another language just as much as I can.  The benefit of most entertainment television around the world is that most of it comes from the United States or Canada.  So chances are what you will be watching is a simple translation of a North American production.  Being more familiar with the characters and plot line makes it much more easy understanding the language.  A frequent benefit of watching television in a foreign language is that you will take a walk down memory lane.  Many programs enjoyed by Americans are only now due to syndication etc., being enjoyed overseas.  Watch programming in your favorite language and rediscover Baywatch, Dallas, or even Charlie’s Angels.
Gaining access to another countries television is easy.  Check with your cable company.  Chances are for a few extra dollars you can watch programming in just about any language you choose.  If your cable company doesn’t offer any, consider getting a satellite dish.  Nowadays such a choice is much more economical than it was in the past.  In addition with modern technology, you can easily record your favorite programming for leisurely review and practice on your own terms and on your own time.
Yes it is possible to live where obtaining such television programming is next to impossible.  So what do you do?  The answer is simple.  Buy a DVD!  Most of the DVDs now on the market have many additional features.  The most common feature is that they usually have either a subtitled or voiced-over version of your favorite movie in French or Spanish.  Most people skip right past the choices of language and simply watch their favorite film in English?  Why?  An excellent opportunity exists.  Spice up your life and watch the movie in French!  Or if you have a family filled with not so adventurous relatives, watch the movie in English with French subtitles.  I may not always enjoy watching a “chick flick” with my wife, but if I know that I can watch it with French subtitles, at least I know that I’m exercising my brain, while I’m enjoying time with my wife.  Using the language feature on most DVDs is a resource many people simply miss.  When studying a foreign language, it is a feature that is a must.
If you are brave, trying watching DVDs from other countries.  Some of the best movies made in America came from ideas inspired from overseas.  Remember “3 men and a baby?” – this was a remake from a French film.  What about the horror film “The Ring?” – a remake of a Japanese film.  Indeed many of our top films are simply remakes of an overseas version.  Even if you haven’t heard of the film before, there are many resources that will help you to find a good foreign film.  Don’t be afraid to try out a film that appears good to you.  I admit I have purchased a number of loser films that were really not that great.  But for every lemon of a film, I found countless good films that were well worth the time viewing them. 
Television and DVD movies are a great resource, but they are by all means not the only resource available.  Most any bookstore is going to sell “learn to speak” type CD ROMs, cassette tapes, and other language learning materials.  It is hard to recommend any one type in particular because they all have their strong and weak points.  Best suggestion: experiment.  Most of the items available on the market are not that expensive and you’ll know very soon how inspiring they are to your linguistic development.  Some offer great lessons on vocabulary, others are strong in grammar.  Trying different products will certainly help you to develop your abilities in different areas.  The most difficult obstacle you may cross is that unfortunate problem though that most of these products are geared toward the beginner.  When you reach the intermediate to advance stage of your language development, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to find a product that will help you advance.  Why are most products geared toward the beginner?  Quite frankly it is because most people trying to learn a language rarely make it past the beginning stage.  He or she will get excited about learning a language only to give up after a few weeks of study.  Don’t let this happen to you.  Learning a language is a lifetime experience.  It won’t be without its ups and downs, but it can be very rewarding if you keep trucking along.
So what do you do if you reach the intermediate stage and can’t find resources that lift you to the next level?  Try different products or dialects of the same language.  It never hurts to broaden your perspective.  Such a feat is easy to undertake with a language like Arabic because in addition to the Modern Standard Arabic, you will find among others the Saudi dialect, the Egyptian dialect, the Iraqi dialect and a dialect from just about every different Middle Eastern country.  It can become undaunting.  You really need to keep a positive attitude about it and realize that every time you study a different dialect you are making it more likely that you will understand the person that you may one day need to translate for.  For a language like Spanish, it too can be very different from region to region.  Studying dialectal differences can be fascinating.  Just see how different Argentinean Spanish and Mexican Spanish can be and you’ll soon discover that learning a language is only the beginning.
With all this said, do not let this discourage you.  Keep trying, try new products.  There are a number of computer products that offer interactive software that will actually track your voice and let you know if your pronunciation is correct.  There are software products where you can watch film clips and answer questions about the content.  You name the intervention it is likely to exist.  You can even take classes on-line with professors thousands of miles away who are available to give you one-on-one tutoring.  The resources are almost infinite.  The key is not finding the best tool to use to study a language, but finding the time to experiment with the tools that exist.  Once you find the product that you enjoy, then it can really take you to that next level.  Whatever you do, don’t give up.  If at first you don’t succeed in finding the television station, DVD movie, CD ROM, workbook or other resource you enjoy, try, try and try again. The most beautiful thing about learning a language is that the more you fail at it, the better you become. So don’t give up!