Getting Serious about Languages

I was reading Scott H. Young’s blog post the other day about Ultralearning (which I just call my normal obsessive behavior) and I’ve decided to get serious about learning Spanish and Hebrew. That means daily practice of 15 minutes or more of each language. So far, I’ve been hitting one or both in the mornings for about half an hour. (I would have thought that my brain wouldn’t be awake enough to handle foreign languages first thing, but, surprisingly, I find myself looking forward to doing it and it actually feels good–like stretching gets the stiffness out and makes your body feel awake. Learning a little something first thing wakes my mind up.) And then, just because I’ve become rather addicted to it, I’ve been doing some at lunch and in the evenings as well.

I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been using Duolingo for Spanish. And that’s been going just swimmingly. (Although, fair warning, conejos and cajones are not related words, even if they sound really similar. ChuckIt took me a minute to figure out why it looked like “my balls are eating carrots.” I mean, granted I don’t know much about the care and maintenance of testicles, but I was pretty sure they don’t eat carrots. Unless maybe they belong to Chuck Norris.)

Learning Hebrew has been a lot more of a struggle, though. I mean, about the only positive thing I can say about it is that it makes me feel like a Spanish genius by comparison. (Which is, admittedly, no small thing; I never cared much for Spanish in school because I felt that I wasn’t very good at it. It was right up there with math as something I could manage to do, but not without a lot of effort.)

Hebrew is traditionally (and modernly) written with almost no vowels (and the vowels that are shown could be consonants in disguise. You don’t know). And there are three basic scripts: traditional, modern, and handwriting. You can think of modern Hebrew script as printing and handwriting as cursive. Traditional script is more like calligraphy. The Torah is written in the traditional script without vowels, while prayer books and other things meant for non-native speakers are written in the traditional script with vowels. These are the letters I learned to read.

Duolingo, however, throws you right in with the modern script and no vowels. So I’m sitting there, looking at a word that consists of one silent letter and an M. How the hell are you supposed to pronounce __mm? Or is there a vowel associated with the silent letter? Maybe it’s really __mm.

Someone fluent in English is going to have little to no trouble reading a text message where most of the vowels are stripped out of it. (Dn’t blve me? Try ths sntnce out fr sze: th qck brwn fx jmpd ovr th lzy dg.) In fact, most people read some sort of bastardized English like that every day. But imagine that you’re Chinese and you are only vaguely familiar with Roman letters. Try learning English via those text messages.

My first attempt at Hebrew on Duolingo was agonizing; even when I completed a lesson, I felt like I really didn’t know anything. But somewhere along the way I heard about Memrise. Memrise also has language learning classes (among other things; they also have a lot of other classes), but whereas Duolingo is more like a language book which gives you whole sentences and makes you write what you hear, translate what you hear, and translate what’s written into and out of the language–i.e. you learn grammar and actually how to speak–Memrise is really just a fancy flashcard system that gives you words one at a time in either English or the target language and you pick the correct answer from multiple choices.

You may think that Memrise is inferior to Duolingo because words without context (i.e. grammar) or without learning to construct whole sentences (i.e. speaking) is a waste. But if you’re in a hurry to learn a language, you will probably prefer to learn as many new words as possible, rather than worrying about putting them in sentences with words you already are familiar with. (When I was in school, learning verb conjugation was of supreme importance, followed by using the gender-correct definite or indefinite article. But in reality you can generally make yourself known if you just know the words; being grammatically correct is nice, but not actually necessary to basic understanding. If a child or foreigner says, “Me wants water,” you know what they mean. Or “Yesterday I am going to movies.” Even though the tense is wrong and the definite article is missing, you still know what’s meant, especially in context–i.e. you asked the question “What did you do yesterday?”)

Memrise also allows you to make “mems” for your words to help you remember them better. (You can also uses mems created by others if you’re feeling short on creativity.) Adding a visual image to something you are trying to memorize is a classic memorization technique. (Look up memory or mind palaces.) tumblr_m4u7m5Fzpe1qjdni4o1_1280

Personally, I am still getting a lot of mileage out of Cartoon Hebrew which turns the letters into pictures that helps you remember what sound the letter makes; when you see that a particular letter looks like a tub, you don’t forget that it makes the “t” sound.


I’ve made a mem that associates the Hebrew word Chai with its meaning, alive.

Like Duolingo, Memrise uses spaced repetition to help you retain words. When you make no mistakes, words come up for review less often. The more mistakes you make, though, the more frequently you see the words in review.

The other benefit to Memrise is the one that applies to me: it’s simpler. Rather than trying to figure out several words at a time, I’m only presented with one at a time. And, even better that, Memrise has multiple courses–one of which specifically teaches Biblical Hebrew words in traditional script with vowels. That means I can actually read words without guessing what vowels they should have. And after a couple of days of working with just it, I feel that I’m walking away from it actually knowing some words–both knowing how to pronounce them and what they mean. The frustration level is down and the excitement level is back up.

And, oddly enough, after working with just Memrise for a few days, I went back to redo my Duolingo lessons and made it through them with the same rate of success that I expect from a Spanish course. Some of this may just be from practicing my letters so I’m more confident with what they sound like (even if I only get the see the consonants), but a lot of it is probably down to just practicing one word at a time and pairing the harder ones with mems so they stick in my mind better. This is easy to do because there is a Duolingo companion course at Memrise. I have found that I learn better if I start with the flashcards (and mems) on Memrise, then switch to Duolingo to tackle using them in sentences.

If you want personalized flashcards to help you learn, download Anki. Anki 1.0 was just a simple flashcard system that ran on spaced repetition. But it’s my understanding that the newest incarnation allows pictures and even sound, so you can make mems, attach pronunciation recordings, etc.



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