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Language Learning with Duo Lingo January 30, 2014

Learning a new language takes dedication. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I never have. I don’t like conjugating verbs or rolling my r’s. The result is that I can speak a little Spanish (enough to get myself into trouble), a bit of Greek, and some Hebrew (my signature phrase is “Yesh bananot?” or “Do you have bananas?”). I can say “Yes” and “No” in Russian, French, German, Tagalog, and Klingon. But to be entirely honest, that’s the extent of my prowess.

This state of single language fluency is fairly common here in America, but far less so throughout most of the rest of the world. With nearly 7,000 spoken languages, it really isn’t surprising that, for many people, being dual-lingual or even multi-lingual is the norm. And this leaves me, sadly, at the back of the pack. When I travel, I do so in the hope that everyone I meet will be able to converse in English. Just in case they don’t, I carry a little phrase book that will allow me to point to the pre-translated version of whatever it is I think I want to say.

About twice a year, my frustration with my linguistic shortcomings reaches a peak and I rededicate myself to learning a foreign language. I’ve tried everything from traditional textbooks to immersion (which usually takes the form of cheap software which claims to be “as good as Rosetta Stone at a fraction of the cost”). I’ve used flashcards and foreign language podcasts. I’ve even tried reading familiar texts in an unfamiliar tongue. While each of these has its strengths, it usually isn’t long before I reach a roadblock and give up.

Several months ago, I heard about a new program for language learning: Duo Lingo. According to the webpage, instruction was offered in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. The program was entirely free and could be downloaded as an iPod app. Having received high praise from PC Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, I thought I’d give it a try.

The lessons involve a combination of image-association, speaking, writing, and translation (both from English into the language of choice and from the language of choice into English). Clicking on troublesome words brings up additional information regarding alternate translations, conjugations, and word usage, so I haven’t gotten lost, even when the learning isn’t as intuitive as I’d have liked. The program tracks when I’m struggling with specific words or syntax and reminds me to review lessons before continuing and, since the lessons are adaptive, I can’t simply memorize the material and move on. I have to internalize the lesson. This means that I’m not hitting the brick wall I’ve encountered when using other learning methods.

Each lesson takes approximately five minutes, so it can be neatly tucked into those “empty” spots in my schedule while I’m waiting in line, eating lunch, or between projects at work. The program provides “incentive” towards continued learning through a game-like interface and a link to Facebook which ensures that all of my multi-lingual friends can see my progress and cheer me on. (If you’re looking for even greater incentive, the program creators are actually using learners to help translate the World Wide Web into other languages. Click here to watch a great YouTube video which explains the process.)

With 52 levels, I’m sure it will take me some time to make it through the entire program for each of the five languages being offered, but so far, I’m impressed. I’m learning. I’m having fun. And I’m not hitting the brick wall.


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything January 23, 2014

I first heard about Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein through an NPR podcast. A U.S. Memory Champion, Josh’s adventure in “remembering everything” was very much an accident. He had been assigned to write about the USA Memory Championship and, in the process, had made a life-changing mistake; he asked one of the competitors (Ed Cooke) exactly when he had realized that he was a savant.

Ed was quick to explain that there was nothing at all unique about his ability to memorize the order of full decks of playing cards or recite seemingly unending lists of binomial digits. It was technique, not natural ability, which made one a memory champion. Everyone in the human race has been given the same equipment. The question is whether we will make full use of it.

Over the next year, Josh set out to explore the claim. He interviewed people with extraordinary memories and people who seemed to have forgotten nearly everything. He read through ancient texts on the art of memory and spoke with modern psychologists and neuroscientists. He explored the world of popular memory improvement gurus and, most importantly, spent hours every day improving his own ability to memorize. In the end, he became the reigning U. S. Memory Champion.

His real triumph, however, was the book which documented his research and his journey. Far from being a textbook on how to memorize (though more than a few useful techniques are contained within its pages), Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is an in-depth look at how much (or how little) science really knows about how the human mind works.

Beginning with the ancient Greeks, Josh explores how the art of memory has evolved. He introduces readers to the influence of books as an aid to memory and to the Internet as a remedy for having to memorize anything. And he explains why it may not be easy to revive the art of memory once it has begun to fade from public consciousness.

From theory to case stories, oral societies to modern classrooms, Josh takes his readers on a fantastic journey through the fascinating world of memory and the history of memorization. It’s a journey that you won’t want to miss!


A Writer’s Tale: In Which I Demonstrate the Follies of Pompousness and Learn My Lesson January 16, 2014

Filed under: Editing,Writing — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: , ,

Truth be told, there are nearly as many people eager to help professional writers as to learn from them. Sometimes, this excited volunteerism is spurred by a desire to “see what’s coming next”. Other times, it comes from those who feel that they genuinely have something to contribute. Of the latter, there are two subtypes: those who do and those who don’t. Over the course of my writing career, I’ve met plenty of both.

The most difficult encounters are with those who have overestimated their literary skill. These are people who fancy that they have a broad enough knowledge of a field to render useful advice concerning the writer’s intended audience or a possess deep understanding of grammar… but don’t. They volunteer their help freely and, if a writer (professional or otherwise) should accidentally fall into their hands, they are likely to rewrite their work in its entirety. Having dealt with such “editors” in the past, I tend to be very cautious about allowing others to see my work before it enters the hands of one of the professional editors with whom I work.

It is for this reason that, when one of my professors required that each student visit the tutoring center for assistance with their research papers, a knot began to form in my stomach. This was, after all, a community college. I couldn’t be quite certain that the people “tutoring” others in writing weren’t going to waste my time by turning my “masterpiece” into a worthless reflection of their own literary tastes. (I confess that pompousness has never been far beyond my grasp and requiring me to receive tutoring on something I did professionally was merely adding insult to injury.) Since my grade depended on it, however, I begrudgingly made the appointment.

The day arrived and I marched across campus, my teeth gritted as I anticipated the worst. I had already determined that the best approach would be to “grin and bear it”. I would allow the tutor to make whatever “corrections” she desired. Then I would carefully weigh each one and keep those which I liked. (No sense in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.)

I entered the center with my fifty pounds of school books on my back and introduced myself to the woman at the desk. She would, it turned out, be the one helping me on this dreary afternoon.

Sitting down at a table, we took a moment to discuss the paper. Then, she set to work. To my surprise, she was not at all interested in rewriting my paper. Unlike me, she hadn’t approached the situation with any preconceptions about who I was or what my skill level might be. Instead, she let my writing speak for itself.

It wasn’t long before I was actually having fun. This “tutor” was far more like the professional editors I’d worked with than I’d anticipated. Her corrections made sense and, instead of destroying my work, actually improved it! By the time our session ended, we were even completing each other’s thoughts. (Something that we both agreed was a bit creepy.) I left with a certainty that required or not, I would be using her expert eye again on future papers.

The real lesson learned, of course, has nothing to do with writing or grammar at all. Instead, it’s about our preconceptions and their failure to reflect reality. It’s about approaching others with an attitude of humility and a willingness to learn – even when we don’t know what they have to teach us. I think I’ll be putting my “pompous” hat away for a while (at least for a few days) and trying to focus more on what I have to learn about what I already “know”. A little humility never hurt anyone.


On Time Management Part II January 9, 2014

It wasn’t long before my newfound method of “mapping” my schedule began to evidence oddities in my routine.  For example, even in my small town, I was wasting a good 45 minutes each day trying to commute from one side of town to the other first for work, then again for school.  With an hour or two in between meetings, it seemed rational to find a more centralized location between activities and apply the extra time to study rather than travel.

Other time-saving opportunities also presented themselves and I found myself cutting “fluff” from all sorts of places.  I reduced the time spent reading my magazines by eliminating the less “useful” material, slashed the time spent watching television repeats (and a few less interesting shows), and even dropped a few “relaxing” activities that weren’t really as relaxing as I’d hoped they’d be.

Next on the chopping block was “business” – things I considered important, but which merited a second look.  From checking stats on my blogs, I was able to determine that four posts a week was too many (a time-savings of several hours).  A good look at my housework schedule yielded similar results: why was I doing laundry every week when I only had enough for full loads every other week?  My schedule was getting tighter… and my free time was actually growing!

It was at this point that I was able to consider those two overlooked categories: “relaxation” and “relationship” and begin to give them some serious consideration.  The latter could be mixed with other activities throughout the week – three or four walks with my sister were far more satisfying (both physically and intellectually) than a frenetic run on the treadmill in a secluded corner of the laundry room.  A coffee with a friend, far more thought-provoking than an hour on the couch with “Dancing with the Stars”.  The blank spaces began to fill up, but this time with activities that had the potential to provide relaxation, encouragement, and support for all who were involved.  And this time, without the sense of frenzied rush which had accompanied the knowledge that there was too much to do and too little time in which to do it!

Keeping a schedule is, of course, only a start when it comes to efficiently managing our time.  Taking the time to sit down and assess our priorities, reorganize our lives, and ensure that we are being the best possible stewards of all that God has given is a vital part of living a productive life.  So I encourage you to give it a try!


On Time Management Part I January 2, 2014

I admit that I’m not a big fan of spring cleaning. I appreciate the results (in my case, marginally organized chaos), but I don’t particularly enjoy all of the sorting and decision-making that’s involved.  The result is that I often leave questions like:  “When was the last time I wore this?”, “Does the sentimental value I’ve assigned to this random block of wood outweigh my need for more closet space?”, and “What exactly is this sticky thing, anyway?” to a two-day whirlwind blitz designed to numb my brain and cause me to forget that the “cleaning” ever took place.  (The exhaustion which accompanies this numbness proves quite helpful when I begin to question whether that block of wood really did have sentimental value and begin to contemplate making a dumpster dive in order to retrieve it.  Without enough energy to get up off the couch, I can almost always guarantee that the “trash” will stay where it belongs!)

Recently, I found myself forced to undergo a similar “cleaning” procedure with my time.  The situation was not entirely unanticipated: a new job, a 16 credit school schedule, and a pressing need to spend more time with my fiancé had backed me into a corner.  I was running from well before dawn until long after dusk and the physical effects of my marathon life were taking their toll.  Something needed to go.

The question, of course, was, “What?”  Being a relatively resourceful human being, I had managed to pack my every waking minute with things which I considered more or less “useful” – tasks which could be justified (at least marginally) as “educational” or “developmental”.  These activities ranged from semi-regular exercise and the manufacture of my own beauty products to the “historical research” I did every time I re-watched an episode of “Downton Abbey”.  (The latter could clearly go, since its designation as “research” was just a bit contrived.)

A quick assessment of my schedule yielded a few good candidates for the chopping block, but not every decision was as easy as I had hoped.  To begin with, I found myself incapable of answering even simple questions about my routine.  How long was each task taking?  Did I really need just thirty minutes to clean my aquariums?  How many hours was I actually awake each day?  Truthfully, I didn’t know.  And without knowledge, there was no way to make educated decisions.

It was at this point that my mother gifted me with a beautiful red book which organized each day into easy-to-manage fifteen minute increments.  Photocopying several pages (the volume is for 2014), I began filling in each blank, color-coding the task “category” with highlighters as I charted my day.  The pages quickly filled up with bright orange (for study) and neon pink (for business-related tasks).  Bits of yellow (for health-centered activities) and fluorescent green (for housework) dotted the columns.  Every now and then a subdued purple would appear, indicating that I’d taken some time for “recreation” and nearly as infrequently, bright blue for “relationship building”.  That something was out of balance was evident.  And fixing it would start with cutting the time I wasted on unproductive activities.  (To Be Continued…)


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