February 17, 2011 | Japanese

A Race Against February

I am desperately trying to finish Japanese Pimsleur.

This week much of the snow around New York City has melted. I don’t remember ever seeing such persistent piles.

The Snow Is Conceding Defeat

The Snow Is Conceding Defeat

Today was 63 degrees. I went running in shorts! In February! I know this, uh, heat spell will be short-lived, but it really is a lot more fun to roam around New York when it is 60 degrees than when it is 20.

I am desperately trying to get through the last level of Pimsleur lessons: level III. As I have mentioned, these are half-hour lessons focusing on oral skills that I listen to on my iPod. With Italian, I could do a bunch of them in a row in, say, a single afternoon, with great pleasure and few mistakes.

With Japanese, it is much slower going, and I sometimes get frustrated. Today I had to redo lesson 11 (there are 30 lessons per level) a second and third time before I thought I did well enough to pronounce it “done.” And even then, I did not cover myself with glory.

Still, I love the feeling of a race. Competition, even if it is just with myself, is fun! I have 11 days after today to learn as much Japanese as I can, practice with my new conversation partner, and visit some more Japanese sites and try out my skills there.

The reason I am so bent on finishing Pimsleur is that I have found it pretty key to my ability to carry on basic conversations. For languages where only one or two Pimsleur levels were available, I had a lot more trouble, and I think I can say pretty conclusively that I did not retain as much. This was true for Hindi (which had only one level, meaning 30 lessons), Greek (60 lessons), and Korean (60 lessons). 

I don’t mean to say Pimsleur is sufficient; I always supplement significantly with other sources. But the interactivity of Pimsleur—which requires you to respond quickly to prompts and questions in the target language—is intense and pushes your brain. I haven’t yet found anything else of a self-help nature that works as well. (Though I am open to recommendations!) I desperately need more resources, because there are only 30 Pimsleur lessons each for Dutch and Polish.


Anyway, back to the competition idea. Every time I start a new language, it is like another little race against time. I love it. If I didn’t have a structure like this, with time limits and clear deadlines, I think I would have gotten way less studying done. In fact, I probably would have stopped studying.

Another area of my life where competition is important is in running. If I can’t race—which I have barely been able to do because of this persistent injury from last spring—I have a hard time continuing to train. I like to compete against myself: see if I can better my old times, or better my times from this year, or better my time from my last race. Or, in the case of this project, better what I did with the previous language.

In general, it is hard to stick with language-learning efforts, but establishing a clear and appealing goal helps. If I wanted to learn a single language such as Spanish, I would probably focus my efforts on, for example, a planned trip to South America where I would use my language skills. Not just a vague intention of a trip, but a specific, tickets-are-purchased kind of trip, that would motivate me to learn as much as I could by a particular date.

But there are other, less expensive options, too. Here in New York, unless you never leave your apartment, it is hard to avoid Spanish. Maybe you are friendly with a neighbor who speaks Spanish, or maybe you like the Spanish-speaking woman you buy your coffee from in the morning. You could study with the specific goal of being able to have a conversation with that person. 

By the way, in the course of this project, I have heard more than a couple of complaints from people whose native language is not English, but who are married to native English speakers. They have expressed annoyance, or disappointment, or regret, that their significant others have not made a greater effort to learn something of their respective native tongues.

It is not an easy thing to do when you live in a country where English dominates. I know that. But I will point out—slyly, the week of Valentine’s Day—that if you want to woo someone whose native language is not your own, making an effort to learn something of theirs is probably one of the biggest and most impressive romantic gestures you can make.

Think big!

With each language, I go in with great renewed and usually unrealistic optimism, which tends to be challenged by the time constraints placed on each language. And of course there are things like work, colds, social obligations, my desire to watch American Idol instead of studying one more minute, general exhaustion, indolence, etc., that at times slow my progress. But thinking big, even if it isn’t always realistic, is part of what makes me try harder and what makes the effort fun.

Fortunately, the snow is melting, my injury is healing, and Japanese is being learned, with pleasure, even if not at the pace I would like.

Comments (4)

mimi • Posted on Fri, February 18, 2011 - 10:53 am EST

I am curious to know how your other languages are faring as you learn this one. Do you plan to go back and reinforce the learning of some of them? As a bilingual I am enjoying reading about your adventures.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, February 19, 2011 - 2:06 am EST

Thank you, Mimi!

I don’t really know the answer to your question. I throw myself wholeheartedly into whatever the current language is, which often causes previous languages - most of which were brand new to me - to go dormant. Kind of like a car battery that requires a jump start, I would say. Anyway, I am considering an experiment to find out how much I can remember and how quickly. It would entail spending the next two months reviewing six of the languages I have studied to date (Russian, Arabic, Korean, Italian, Greek, and Hindi), 10 days each. I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to do this - or whether I will just proceed with French as planned.

In general, I learn way more, and retain way more, of the European languages. I definitely plan to go back and reinforce some of those. At the moment, though, I am finding it hard to imagine ever stopping this project, so perhaps Round 2 will focus on more advanced skills and reinforcement in a smaller selection of languages, both Western and non-Western?

May I ask what your other language is?

Jordan • Posted on Sat, February 19, 2011 - 5:57 pm EST

Hi Ellen,
Here is an interesting idea for a “language fieldtrip”. The Tokyo marathon is coming up at the end of the month, Feb.27.  You could finish off your “race against February” by running the Tokyo marathon as your final exam. It’s perfect, thousands of Japanese speaking runners! Sayonara….


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, February 19, 2011 - 7:37 pm EST

Ha ha, Jordan. It’s funny that you mention this now, since I was just wondering yesterday whether I could manage to combine some of my conversation-exchange sessions with my runs. Then I pictured how hard it can be to run, all by itself, and how hard it is to speak Japanese, all by itself, and I thought, FORGET IT! But one good thing about a marathon is that after 26.2 miles, I’m pretty sure I would no longer be aware of deficiencies in my language skills!

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