Language learning

As you no doubt know, I enjoy studying languages. But I become frustrated at the different ways language courses (including apps) are designed. I want the most efficient, easiest, and clearest course possible. And I want different learning styles and situations represented. Yes, I am demanding.

When I was living in Thailand as a diplomat, the “total immersion” style of language learning was in vogue. After all, the courses would advertise, this is how children learn, and they are the most efficient learners of language of us all. This is true. But the point is that we are not children anymore. Sure, teach a child language by immersion, that’s brilliant. And sure, speak as much as possible in the language to get our ears used to it, and likewise, ask someone in a class to speak as much of the language as possible. (I had a French teacher at high school who resisted speaking French with us. It didn’t help the learning!) But there are times when an adult needs to understand something to be able to accept it and use it, in a way that a child does not. This understanding doesn’t come from immersion. Likewise, there are times when only a teacher who speaks your native language can explain something in context, in the way you need to be able to understand.

I also like to know how something is pronounced, and not just by hearing it on an app. That helps, sure, but our ears deceive us, and a “mi” can sound like “ni” or vice versa. And sometimes, even our teachers don’t hear the different ways they pronounce something. I once had a teacher who would say “ng” for “n.” But when we copied her, she would get frustrated that we were saying it wrong! So I like to see it written down. Whether that is through a phonetic alphabet like pinyin for Chinese, or through learning a syllabic alphabet, like hiragana or katakana, in Japanese. I also like to know the mechanics of pronouncing different sounds in different languages, such as where to put my tongue in my mouth. This helped me with the “r” in French, and also in Spanish, when I actually – and with a lot of practice – managed to roll my Rs. And I used to say “wabbit” when I was little, so my Rs have always been a little tricky.

Subject matter is important too. So many courses are aimed at students at school, and teach words like dictionary, class, teacher, pen, or mother, father, parents, sister etc. That’s really not helpful for my purposes, which have almost always been for business or travel. And I find it frustrating.

A lot of my language learning is self-taught. I’ve had a brilliant Teach Yourself German book, which I wrote about here. The podcasts from Synergy Spanish quickly gave me a great foundation in beginners’ conversational Spanish. I now try to apply the basics of that to any other (European) language I learn. I’ve had one brilliant language teacher, a young Spanish woman who gave me classes for six weeks before going to Spain. I had self-studied for a year before then and had developed a decent vocabulary, but she quickly clarified some grammatical issues for me and made me feel so much more comfortable in the language. Unfortunately, around the time I was in Spain, she left NZ. So on my return I could not continue working with her, and my Spanish fell silent.

I’m currently using Duolingo. What I like about it is hearing the native speakers, and adapting to that. I’m thrilled when I can hear a sentence and immediately understand it. It’s fun speaking the language again too. But I’m frustrated with certain changes in their use of what-I –call-prepositions in their language. They work on teaching through patterns, but there’s no facility for explanations to explain why they are sometimes different. I need and want that. So I’m also throwing myself into my old textbooks (yes, I kept them!) to see if I can solve the mystery.

I think though, that I am most frustrated at the fact that I studied this language for a year back in university, and yet here I am now doing a cursory crash course. I know I won’t get the facility I had at the end of that year, able to read and write and pass an oral exam, in the next couple of weeks, if I develop any facility at all in the language! That’s so disappointing. And I know too that just as I might start feeling it is a little more familiar, I’ll have left the country (about the time you read this), unlikely to ever return and use the language again. And I will delete the app from my phone, and most probably say sayonara to my textbooks forever. I find that almost unbearably sad.


… so far …

  1. Ice-cream is an accepted major food group
  2. The women all wear hats or, even better, carry umbrellas in the sun
  3. There is no shortage of restrooms
  4. Speaking of which, heated seats and privacy music
  5. Pine trees are decorative
  6. Shinkansen (bullet trains) whisking us across the country
  7. Public transport systems that work for millions
  8. Vending machines everywhere for drinks and of course, ice cream
  9. Bento boxes
  10. Japanese bathrooms in our hotel rooms – a true wet room, with separate basins/dressing areas
  11. Seven Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson’s – where you can buy just about anything, including breakfast, lunch and dinner
  12. The way a bow of the head means so much – “go ahead” or “thank you” or I’m sorry” or “never mind.”

Things I don’t like, so far:

  1. Crowds, crowds, crowds, foreigners and Japanese
  2. Plastic packaging in the extreme.
  3. Walk or ride escalators on the left or right, I don’t care – just pick a side and stick to it!

I wrote a series of four posts, discussing the Ten Reasons Why I Travel, back in 2011. I just reread them to see if the reasons still stand. They do. You can read these posts in full – the links are in the italicised headings below. But if you just want the abridged version, read on:

The Because-I-have-to reasons

Reason 1: To see what I can see
Reason 2: To experience diversity
Reason 3: Genetics and Geography

The I-am-so-grateful reasons

Reason 4: To appreciate my own country
Reason 5: To keep humble

The Self-indulgent Sybaritic Reasons

Reason 6: For my senses
Reason 7: For escape, rest and relaxation

The virtuous (some might say self-righteous) reasons

Reason 8: I travel to learn
Reason 9: I travel to grow
Reason 10: I travel to be more compassionate

Exploring the world

The last few months I have, as mentioned earlier, been researching travel options, itineraries, hotels, flights, first for destinations on one side of the Pacific, and then, with a change of heart, for destinations on the other side of the Pacific. I like to plan my travel myself, rather than blindly follow a travel package or route others design. (Hence my business, Travel Unpackaged!)

I’m not keen on tours either, though recognise that maybe, one day when we’re older, and in certain locations, we might have to succumb. Knowing our travel style, I know that we always require longer time in almost every destination than on standard routes. And we will often skip things others do because it is the “done thing” and put our efforts elsewhere. We don’t have kids, so can skip theme parks, thank goodness. But I do like to “see the sights” as there is a reason they are the “sights to see.” At the very least, they often sum up the history or the culture of the country you are visiting. But more than that, they are, generally, magnificent. I mean, would you go to London without visiting the Tower, Cambodia without seeing Angkor Wat, Norway without seeing a fjord, or Jordan without seeing Petra?

And food. We love experiencing the local food. If we can try street food, it is usually a real treat. Besides, food always tastes better al fresco, right? So we don’t want to be tied to the food of a hotel, a tour, or one resort.

So over these weeks, we’re visiting palaces and farmhouses, pagodas, temples and tombs, sites of wonderful grandeur, and of terrible tragedies. We’ll admire nature, on land and sea. We’ll be briefly isolated, and surrounded by throngs in one of the busiest places on earth. We’ll see remnants of ancient cultures, and experience ultra-modernity.

We’re visiting three countries, and of those two are new to me, but only one is new to my husband. It will be the first time we will visit somewhere he has been, but I have not. (There are only three countries in the world in that category.)

I’m not planning to blog* this trip. It’s not long enough to justify the time when I’m away, or the self-imposed pressure of blogging. I will be posting photos. Look for me on Instagram at travellingmali (note the two Ls in travelling). And when I get back, I promise to do a post or two on “What I did on my holiday.”


* I will, however, be blogging and checking in here. I’ve pre-scheduled a few posts, and will write others if I get the time.


  1. Hot Cross Buns
  2. Being able to sleep at night without being too hot
  3. The lovely, low light
  4. Not being afraid to let the sun in the house
  5. Hunting out my winter clothes
  6. Covering up
  7. Starting to think about warming, winter food
  8. Red wine replacing whites/roses
  9. The leaves on our oak tree starting to turn
  10. Not having to shave my legs or paint my toenails

Right Now

Reading: After months of reading very little in terms of books, I just finished Normal People by Sally Rooney, which I raced through in just a couple of days. Next, inspired by Lori’s review, and thanks to my library which bought an e-book copy only a week after I searched for it, I have started The Seed: Infertility is a Feminist Issue, by Alexandra Kimball. I’m looking forward to that.

Watching: Game of Thrones. Though I’m upset I will miss the last couple of episodes when we are away. I blame my husband for having an inconveniently placed birthday, though it is not really his fault! But also other favourites that have all been on again recently, like Killing Eve, Billions, Tin Star, Counterpart (the one where the worlds split in two).

Listening: To my Duolingo language app.

Following: The photos and tales from my sister-in-law and her family who have been visiting Japan.

Drinking: Tea. Lots of tea. Earl Grey when I’m cold, green tea for lunch, chamomile before bed, and every few days, other herbal and fruit teas to vary my liquid intake, when I’m sick of water.

Eating: Hot Cross Buns and Easter Eggs, and this weekend, for my father-in-law’s 90th birthday, slow roast lamb and a rich chocolate cake. So starting tomorrow, we’ll be able to get back to normal healthy eating.

Anticipating: Our trip next month, to two countries that are new to me, and one I haven’t visited since 1996. I’ll be excited once I get everything done here I need to do before I go!

Contemplating: What to do with relatively newfound freedom once we get back from our trip.

Loving: Autumn. More on that anon.

Still unashamedly copying Loribeth’s regular series every few months.

A fine Sunday morning

We went for a walk yesterday morning. After a few weeks when we had to endure, off and on, a lot of mist and rain, it was a delight to get out in the lovely autumn sunlight, enjoy the perennial contrast of the green trees against the brilliant blue of the sky, and take pleasure in the oranges and reds of the occasional deciduous trees before they lose their leaves completely.

We weren’t the only ones out getting some Vitamin D either. We walked past teams of girls playing soccer down at the all-weather sports ground, their watching parents and coaches no doubt also grateful for the fine day. We passed a man who, as I remarked to my husband, always looks like a hitman walking his wife’s lapdog. He didn’t move aside for me to pass, but looked straight at me with hostile eyes, forcing me onto the road. There were others out on the road too;  an elderly lady and her daughter, a former colleague of my husband’s who stopped his bike ride to walk the last hundred metres or so alongside his wife who was walking her little dog too, and two young girls on their scooters who stopped for an awkward conversation with two loud, confident, but much smaller boys.  And we weren’t the only couple out walking together, though we were moving at a rather faster pace than most, determined to boost our fitness for all those tourist days spent out on our feet in a few weeks.

What a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.