Trawling for Language Tips

So far, I haven’t gotten much free advice about fast-fluency language learning. One guy suggested prayer. But I’m not banking on that alone. Another reminded me that a mutual friend used to teach in Kiev and recommended I hit him up for a crash course. As it happens, our mutual friend is the one who arranged for me to lecture in Kiev in the first place. So why didn’t I think of that?

Something tells me that my reader-pool is too small for my blog request to bring lots of experienced fish to the surface. After all, this blog is, like, ten days old. (OK, eleven.) Readers may not share my ambition to learn other languages in preparation for short-term travel. And those who dream about it may think it’s totally irrational to make the effort.

But trawling for language tips on the web brings hope. I found my way back to a site that I’ve enjoyed reading before—Tim Ferris’s blog on The Four-Hour Workweek. Check it out at He has a page on “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in One Hour.” I figured if it didn’t take me an hour to see what he has to say, it could be productive. It was.

We seem to think alike, on this point, at least. His strategy is to size up a language for fluency potential by testing it in specific ways. This takes about an hour. When you’re done, you’ll know enough of the language to know what you’re up against. And that’s a huge first step.

At the top of his article are two screenshots, one titled “Deconstructing Arabic in 45 Minutes,” the other, “Conversational Russian in 60 minutes?” Bingo. Russian. But what’s that question mark about? Ferris has something to say about that later. You know how German is laden with noun cases and variations on the definite article, depending on the role a noun plays in a sentence? Well, he says, “Russian is even worse.” That’s what I needed to hear.

But wait. I like German and I enjoyed studying German in school. So I read on. There isn’t anything more specific about Russian in the article. But his advice is concise and sound (no pun intended). His chief admonition is to treat learning a new language like learning a new sport.

One of the scary things about Russian—encountered right away—is the alphabet. It even has its own name—”Cyrillic.” It’s called that because a 10th century Christian missionary to the Slavic peoples, a fellow named Cyril, had something to do with its invention. The Russian alphabet has a few totally unfamiliar characters. It also has some familiar looking characters, like ‘B’, that don’t sound at all like they do in English (even though there may well be a Russian equivalent for the English pronunciation of a particular character . . . if you follow my drift). The Russian alphabet is a tad longer than the English alphabet, and it includes two or three characters that apparently have no sound at all. On the whole, though, learning the Cyrillic alphabet is really no big deal. In fact, mastering it with surprising ease could lead to premature fancies of fast fluency.

Something especially mysterious to me is the dramatic contrast between some printed Cyrillic characters and their handwritten equivalents. For instance, here’s how “Christianity” looks in printed Cyrillic:

x р и с т и а н с т в о

In handwritten form and italics, the third and sixth characters (pronounced like “ee”) look like the English u, the fifth and tenth characters (pronounced like the English “t”) look like m, and the eleventh character looks like a scrunched down 6, but with the top tip of the character curved back into the center of the character. (I can recreate the word as it should be in italics when I write it in the blog editing window, but the word reverts to the above printed form when it’s saved to the blog page. Another mystery. If anyone can explain that to me, I’d be happy to hear.)

More trawling brings up two sites designed to help language learners connect with native (or otherwise fluent) speakers and writers:

Language learning locations include:

For French:

For Russian:;

For German and Spanish phonetics:

For a translation site, go to:

If you bookmark this site and travel with a laptop, you may be able to leave your foreign language phrasebook and translation dictionary at home.

I press on.


Footnote: Cyril and his brother Methodius labored together among the Slavs. Countries strongly influenced by the Eastern Orthodox church are dotted with well-preserved statues and stained glass portrayals of the pair. They are regarded as the Patron Saints of Europe, and without a doubt their influence in the Christianization of Europe a thousand years ago was considerable. Coincidentally, my last day in Ukraine is May 24, which is Saints Cyril and Methodius day in Eastern Orthodox tradition. On that day, they are often commemorated with a national holiday and remembered for their influence on literary culture and the development of the alphabet—in Russia and the Czech Republic, for instance.

What Does It Take to Hear a Who, and What’s It to Do with Me and You?

horton-hears-a-who_1“A humorous exaggerated imitation of an author, literary work, style, etc.,” is how The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word “parody.” If you spend an afternoon reading a book like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, then set off to the theater with your family to see the new film Horton Hears a Who, you may be surprised to find yourself drawing parallels between the movie and the book.

Horton is the naïve, indiscriminate, credulous elephant. He gets it in his head that a speck that has come to rest on a clover is home to a civilization of “humans” who are invisible because they are too small to be seen. Kangaroo, on the other hand, is sensible and stern. She recognizes early on the danger posed to the community by Horton’s fantastic notions. She confronts Horton about his silliness and warns him to cease and desist. But Horton, being an elephant, is too “faithful” to abandon his convictions. And in due course, what began as a harmless idiosyncrasy evolves into a mission that imbues Horton’s life with fresh meaning and purpose.

Kangaroo is beside herself with concern, especially for the children, who—horrors—have begun to use their imaginations. Her motto is, “If you can’t see it, taste it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist.” Horton’s claim—that “the speck” is inhabited by humans who call themselves “Whos”—fails this test.

Or should I say, it almost fails this test? Horton, after all, hears intelligent noises coming from the speck. Eventually he even engages in meaningful conversation with the diminutive mayor of Whoville. So Horton, at least, has empirical evidence for his belief. And that seems to be all that Kangaroo requires.

But that isn’t all that Kangaroo requires. She also stipulates that it’s impossible for there to be anything so small and human. So she is a radical empiricist with an a priori prejudice against the existence of things she can’t see. And her a priori commitment diminishes her ability to hear what Horton can hear. Of course, Horton is equipped with ears that are especially sensitive to very slight auditory data. Since he is unique in this respect, no one really believes him. This despite the fact that he has no special motive to mislead a community of individuals he obviously cares about.

Horton isn’t a complete doofus. He can’t get Kangaroo to listen for what she isn’t willing to hear. So he challenges her prejudice with a thought experiment. “What if our own world is just a speck from the point of view of some greater being?” he asks. Kangaroo is unable to entertain this possibility. She is as absurdly sure of herself as she believes Horton to be.

A major difference between Horton and Kangaroo is that Kangaroo is a demagogue, and most members of her community are lemmings. They may not follow her logic, but they do follow her lead. She adopts the posture of an infallible authority figure and whips up alarm among those who are no more able to think for themselves than Horton is supposed to be.

The mayor of Whoville suffers a similar fate. He’s called a “boob” by a leading member of the town council. This is a painful slap in the face. The mayor’s influence is fanciful. And his explanation for what is happening in Whoville is believed to be delusional. Like Horton, he risks ridicule for what he believes to be true. But that’s not all there is to it.

The mayor fears for his community, which does not recognize the danger that threatens Whoville. Initially, he does not seek to convince the citizens of Whoville. He knows they will not believe that an invisible elephant in the sky is their protector. Still, he takes responsible action on the basis of what he knows, even though he risks humiliation.

Horton Hears a Who is a smart and entertaining film. I doubt that it’s a deliberate parody of the emotionalism exhibited by the “new atheists.” But I can’t help thinking Richard Dawkins will not be happy with it. At least he can’t complain that he was tricked into doing the voice-over for Kangaroo.


8 Weeks to Learn Russian: Send Me Your Tips

In eight weeks I’ll be in Kiev, the Ukraine, for a full week. My mission: to teach a course in philosophy for five straight days. I’ll have an interpreter. So I don’t have to know a single word of Russian to get by. But I don’t want to get by. I want to have as much useful Russian under my belt by the time I get there.

I’ve found that a trip to a new destination, where they speak an unfamiliar language, provides me with the greatest initial inspiration to learn that language. I want to exploit that initial burst of energy and learn as much as I can. I won’t be fluent when I reach my destination, but people will know that I’ve made the effort and will realize that I want to learn their language. So I’ll get more help when I’m there, and I’ll have something to build on. My question for you: What’s the best way to build that foundation when I have eight weeks to go?

Quotes to Live By

“No matter what side of an argument you’re on, you always find some people on your side that you wish were on the other side.” —Jascha Heifetz

“Genius is only a superior power of seeing.” —John Ruskin

“I not only use all the brains I have, but all that I can borrow.” —Woodrow Wilson

“Every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie.” —Steven Spielberg, “Of Guts and Glory”

“Happy is the man who learns from his own failures. He certainly won’t learn from anyone else’s.” —Austin Farrer, “St. Mark”

“. . . there is a tremendous social responsibility that comes with any public act we do, and that includes creative acts, as well.” —Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

—Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

Why Study a Foreign Language on Short Notice?

So here I am with eight weeks to go before I’m in Kiev, Ukraine, to spend a week teaching a philosophy course. Ukraine is divided linguistically. In the western half, Ukrainian is the language of choice. But in the east, including Kiev, it’s Russian. Some of the students will be proficient in English. For all of my presentations I’ll have an interpreter. My host has sent me a single page of “key words and phrases” he thinks I should know. So it’s obvious no one expects me to be able to speak Russian like a Cossack when I get there.

On the other hand, I genuinely enjoy studying foreign languages. It’s hard but rewarding work—especially if you have sufficient time and you have the opportunity to visit a country where the language is spoken “officially.” I could recount the many advantages to learning a foreign language. But here’s my question and I welcome your advice: Why study a foreign language on such short notice?

I’m looking for advice from people who believe it’s a good idea. In a separate post, I’ll beseech my readers for practical tips on learning a language in a hurry. But the first tip I would give myself is this: Have a good reason, and know what that reason is; the more reasons the better. That’s where you can help me. Load me up with the best reasons to go for it!

I have some ideas of my own, of course. And once I’ve had the chance to sort out the advice you send me, I’ll post it for all those in the same boat (there must be at least three or four out there).

Survival of the Fittest? Richard Dawkins Duped

On Thursday, March 20, I plan to see a screening of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The documentary features Ben Stein, author, cultural commentator, finance guru, and occasional film actor. Last September, Ewen MacAskill reported that the film’s premise is “that scientists sympathetic to intelligent design are penalised by being denied academic posts.” His brief article, published in The Guardian, reports that Richard Dawkins is among those who were interviewed for the film. And now Dawkins is showing a spot of upsetness. His complaint appears to be that he was duped by the producers of the film. “At no time was I given the slightest clue that these people were a creationist front,” said Dawkins. (See Ewen MacAskill, “Dawkins rails at ‘creationist front’ for duping him,” The Guardian [September 28, 2007].)

Ben Stein’s reply is interesting: “I don’t remember a single person asking me what the movie was about.”

A couple years ago I was asked by Penn and Teller to be interviewed for a religious feature they were taping. I knew their reputation, and asked for a sample video of a similar program they had produced. I watched the sample carefully, more than once, and telephoned a few of my friends to get their advice about whether to go ahead with the interview. About half of them said to go for it, while the other half advised against it. I phoned Penn and Teller and thanked them for the invite, but told them that I was not interested in doing the interview. That was that.

I haven’t seen Ben Stein’s film yet. But I can’t work up much sympathy for Dawkins’s consternation, regardless of its quality. Surely he could have inquired a little more fully about the specific nature and aims of this film, before agreeing to be interviewed. There’s a Darwinian explanation for what happened to Richard Dawkins. It’s called “survival of the fittest.”

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