What Brides Can Teach You About Self-Directed Learning

(the following article is a crosspost between Kantan datta! and 1 Habit At a Time)

How many of you are married? Raise your hands! Good for you! But can you remember the rhyme passed on from mothers to daughters essentially pinpointing what items should the bride carry to become a happy wife? Yes, yes…


Something old
something new
something borrowed
something blue
and a sixpence in her shoe

Let’s break it down and see how this leads to a flawless victory in skill acquisition, taking learning new languages as an example.



Originally it was a symbol of continuity, passing traditions on. In a good self-directed learning system the base is setting up a revision system within it. Each new material you begin to internalize should stem from already internalized knowledge and concepts. This is especially true for learning a foreign language – it’s useless to memorize names of geological layers and then jump to future tenses. The connection between those two is too weak and far-fetched. It’s better to couple words for groceries and the imperative form of verbs – you will be able to follow recipes! A simple and not time-consuming trick is to put a post-it note at the end of each lesson you finish, so that you can write down 5 concepts you have remembered at the beginning of the next lesson – be it 5 words, 5 dates, 5 key concepts, 5 formulas or 5 definitions. It helps you to anchor new things in your memory. If you cannot come up with five items, maybe it’s better to review the previous lesson instead of starting a new one.


Something new was to symbolise hope and optimism in the original rhyme. That always helps, but I want to stress something very important here. Building a lesson around solely new material is of no use. In language learning this was voiced in the 80s by Stephen Krashen and his set of hypotheses, especially the Input Hypothesis (if you are unfamiliar with the work of Stephen Krashen – here is a nice summary) which says we need so-called comprehensible input (n+1 where n is what we already know) to acquire language properly. It might be especially tricky if you learn something seemingly for scratch. Please be sure to center beginner lessons on your existing knowledge – like comparing sounds across languages you know or looking up a list of internationalisms (similar words in different languages – e.g. metro, computer, democracy, stop) and false friends. In disciplines like biology or geography it’s even easier to do as you can always compare across different organisms and countries.


Borrowing something means the bride can depend on others and their luck is carried over to her. It’s the same in learning new things. There were others on this road before you (even if you are a Thai person learning Wolof) and in the Internet era, finding them is easier than ever. Connect with people, find mentors, ask questions, consider setting up a study group (yes, online as well!), motivate each other, and above all – don’t forget to reach out to those who are following you! Other people will want to “borrow” something from you too!
What’s more, “something borrowed” connects to the preceding lines of the rhyme – you should rely on what you already know, like other foreign languages, but not too heavily. After all, it’s just one line among five of them.


The meaning of the blue item is widely disputed, but it’s believed to be a symbol of modesty, fidelity as well as love. It’s good to be modest and love what you do, but let’s actually change the meaning here. You need other senses to learn the best. Even if you are not predominantly a visual learner, add color, diagrams, movies to what you learn. Engage other senses if possible. If you learn Japanese, take your textbook for a date to a sushi restaurant (or a cozy tea house if sushi is a luxury good where you live). Munch on some nuts on long study sessions, they allegedly improve you memory. Organise one study session of history in a room filled with faint incense stick aroma. Utilize your touch not only by fiddling with your pen and highlighters, but by handling the core of your study. Have you ever touched paper made in China, or made an origami crane out of it? Did you actually go outside to touch and smell the flowers when you were learning about pollination? Use your imagination to discover “something blue” in your area of study!


Although sixpence is not much, that was a minimal representation of future wealth and financial security for the newlyweds. For me it’s a small sum of money that allows you not to let a chance pass. Sometimes, out of the, er, blue, a chance to boost your learning appears:

  • bumping into a particularly open foreigner that speaks your L2 that you might invite for a drink
  • an indie movie being shown in 15 minutes in the cinema you’re passing on your way home
  • huge price cut in your local bookshop or in your favorite online store
  • a silly lottery with something useful to have (like a pretty notebook, a pocket dictionary or a fun cup covered with chemical formulas to look at while you drink tea)

Of course you want to save up for a new microscope, this very expensive Java textbook with over 1000 pages and a trip to Greece after you finish your modern Greek course, but jumping at a chance when it happens isn’t anything bad, especially when you are provided with so many free resources on the Internet. It’s worthy to have a few bucks at your disposal, anytime, anywhere.

OK, so now you became true to your learning goals in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health… what will you do right now?


How To Make a Polyglot’s Brain Explode

I had my weirdest multilingual experience today and I absolutely have to share. But first: background story.

The person who made my brain explode was Danny Gong. Danny is an Asian CODA from New York City. For those of you who know me a bit already, CODA is like the holy grail of sign linguistics. For those of you who don’t know what I do – CODA is derived from the phrase “Child Of a Deaf Parent”. CODA are bilingual but in different modalities – signed and spoken.
A couple of years ago Danny moved to Japan and set up Deaf Japan company, a school teaching people ASL (American Sign Language), JSL / NS (Japanese Sign Language / Nihon Shuwa) and English. His mastery of Japanese was next to none, so he started from learning JSL first – that really helped him before he could talk, read and understand anything.
From his online presence emerges a wonderful, bright man. He’s just… awesome.

How I cam across him? By this movie. And I was flabbergasted for a while.

My brain couldn’t cope. I know all of those language and I don’t know if you have noticed – they are three of them.

(2) SPOKEN – Japanese
(3) WRITTEN – English
(protip: spoken and signed Japanese have different grammars!)

This is by far the most bizarre feeling I ever had. Each of the modalities was bombarded with different input and my brain wanted to keep them all in place analyzing the quality of each translation pair between (1) and (2), (2) and (3) as well as (3) and (1). Totally eerie…

…has someone ever made experiments like that? Showing polyglots 3 different languages through three different modalities at the same time? Gosh, it feels funny…


If you are worried by the amount of posts at this blog you can also keep up with what I do through Google+, twitter or my other blogging projects like: 1 Habit At A Time (1HAT; on lifehacking in English), Bo W Ryj! (personal blog, in Polish) or Mizuumi’s Soup (tumblr-like digital scrapbook for quotes, pics and videos). I promise I’m getting back to blogging here as well.

Thinking In Another Language = Jobless, Boring Future

A lot of you are probably planning your New Year’s Resolutions. You know from many guides and life hacking sites that your goals should be actionable, doable and measurable etc. And some of you probably don’t strive for a high grade on your language certificate, but rather choose to wait for the day you dream and think in your target language. BUT WHYYY?!


Let me tell you this:

Let me tell you one more thing:

OK, OK, some of you will argue that you don’t want a job in the language industry whatsoever. But one day you just might want it. And it will be too late! You cannot reverse the process of acquiring the language to think in it. And this is detrimentory to your skills.

They tell it’s the best way for you – make flashcards with pitures on one side instead of translations, because that lets you pass round the brain circuits responsible for your mother tongue; or watch movies without subtitles and totally immerse yourself within the language… that leaves you crippled mentally. What you should practice instead is dynamic switching between your languages. And let me tell you what you miss out when you aren’t a “language switcher”:

1. Language Tandems

Most of them are melting pots of languages. Language exhanges seldomly work like two halves of a soccer match where you score to a different goal each half. If you cannot recall how to say a word in the language your partner asks you about, you fail. You’re not helping anybody. It has to be a seamless communication act (even, or maybe especially, online) and looking stuff up in a dictionary every other second is not the way to achieve that. Some lnguage tandems use even 3 or more language (one of them being common for both speakers and the others are their targer langagues), in what language do you want to think then, huh?

2. Being a Teacher

In language exchanges you had to be a notorious switcher. Even more so if you stand in front of a class that bombards you with a cannonade on vocabulary questions. You are, after all, their main source of language, even more important and interesting than a dictionary. As this is a very common way to travel – to become a foreign language teacher or a teacher’s assistant – think about how quickly you are able to switch, not how well you think in their language.

3. Translation and Interpreting

This should be obvious. If your conciousness has no connection between “dog” and “Hund”, “lake” and “湖” or “to study” and “uczyć się” – you are no material for a translator nor interpreter. And that’s a good deal of money oftentimes. Why not use it for more classes, language materials or a trip? The sole act of translation is the firstmost classic and popular way of learning another language. Yes, it can be dull and boring, but that’s not the only option you have, right? But to be given cash for a part of your study – isn’t that alluring?

4. Linguistic Jokes

Polyglots (and less skilled non-monoglots) are among the most interesting and funny people you can get to know. But they have a peculiar sense of humour. Only if you can switch your monolingual (or rather: one-language-at-a-time) thinking off for a while, you can get a joke like that:

イヌはいくつまで数えられますか。 (Up to what number can a dog count?)
ワン! (Woof!)

The pun here is bilingual. “ワン” (Wan!) is the sound a dog makes in Japanese, but it’s also prounanced similarly to English “one”.

Another such a case:

Dlaczego w Watykanie nie grają w bilard? (Why they don’t play pool in Vatican?)
Bo papamobile. (‘Cause papamobile.)

“Papamobile” is the Italian name for “Popemobile”, the vehicle used by the Pope, but in sloppy Polish prounanciation is sounds like “papa mo bile” which roughly translates into “Pope has the (billiard) balls” – hence no one else can play.

To sum up, you’ve already missing out on cash, friendship and having a good laugh. And probably more! Do you still want to think in your target language 100% times you are speaking it?

Rotating – a quick and awesome life hack for language learners

Please, bear with me, there’s only 2 days left till the defence of my thesis! In the meantime, I’d like to share a quick language hack with you which I call “rotating“.

I bet most of you, especially those knowing multiple languages, have huge piles of language materials like magazines, textbooks, foreign literature, phrasebooks, grammar guides, various workbooks etc. Most of you already know, that working with just one of those is impossible and ineffective. Therefore each day you pick a book or two to gain some knowledge. You already know you must vary the books to make the process of learning more entertaining for your brain to stay awake. If you have more than one language you want to master, you also need to pay more or less equal attention to all of them.

But how do you know you use your language learning materials in a balanced manner? There’s this quick and easy life hack I came across lately. I call it rotating. Originally it’s used to keep eye on your wardrobe. At the beginning of a period (be it a season, a month or a year) you put all your hangers with hooks facing in one direction and if you wear something and put it back into your wardrobe, you hang it with the hook facing the opposite direction (visual explanation to that can be found, for example, in this short movie). In the end of given timeframe you know which clothes went untouched and therefore can be donated, sold, swapped or burnt ;D.

You can a similar thing with your materials (doesn’t work for digital resources, though). Put all your books and materials in a certain way – for example, face up with spines on the left. Then set a timeframe – a week or a month sounds sensible. Each time you use a book be sure to rotate it 90 degrees from the way it has been put before. If you make use of a certain publication very often, you can then turn it face down and make one more loop (let’s call this a long loop). On the other hand – if the timeframe is short you can just flip each book that was acted upon downwards or rotate it 180 degrees (let’s call it a short loop).

Being consistant with such a system will tell you at a glance which book have you touched and which you seem to be reluctant to study from. Reflect upon the reason – is it there just in case and it’s too hard for your level now? Put it elseware to get rid of guilt of not reading / doing it. Is it boring? Give it to someone who thinks he need it. Maybe you just overlooked it? Well, now you know!

Visual crib of how I see it.

Well, try it out! Any other brilliant life hacks for language learning? Let me know in the comments or via twitter!

Curiosity – How to Make it Work for Your Benefit?

Let me begin with an anegdote. I am, again, working hard on my languages since I’ve finished my thesis. A couple of days ago I was working on Japanese vocabulary connected with Japanese drums, mostly taiko. Having an article from some niche press on Japan, I made notes and checked Google for pictures on different types of those drums. I really got into it. You probably know the feeling when you start at at “Pablo Picasso” at Wikipedia and land on some scientific article on stem cells research a couple of hours later. Yeah, exactly my case. Then I came across a word “陣太鼓” (jindaiko) and I wasn’t sure what it means – was it the drum used for rousing warriors to battle or the sole act of rousing by the sound of the drums?
Upon checking Google Images, I saw this:

It turned out that the word gained a new meaning – now it’s also a popular confectionery item produced in Kyuushuu island of Japan. Cylinder-shaped, same as a taiko drum, it’s surrounded by a mass made of azuki beans (sweet, red beans often used to produce sweets in Japan) with turkish delight inside. While I knew azuki beans very well, I wondered how turkish delight sounds in different languages, especially Polish (my other mother tongue) – it’s RACHATŁUKUM (absolutely bewildering, cool Polish word of Arabic origin!)…

…I think you get the picture.

Curiosity leads us to many great discoveries, but what it basically does is two things : (1) if satisfied it leads to rise in dopamine and serotonine, both strenghtening our motivation for learning and (2) it helps our brain to create more interconnected nodes in our memory therefore strenghtening individual engrams.

Of course it’s easy to say: “be curious”, “follow your curiosity”, “pursue your interest in learning foreign languages” but what does it mean? For me, it means surrounding yourself with what is not only interesting (so simply choosing the textbook that “feels right” or is “likeable”) but also… wait for it… extracurricular. I means doing MORE than you’re required to. It means following your innate child posing billions of questions like “What does it mean?”, “How does it work?”, “Can I eat it?”, “Who’s that?” and “When will mum be back?”.

Here’s my 3 ideas on how to do this independently:

1. Buy Press

Buy magazines in different languages if you can. Buy magazines from outside of your field. Stray once in a while from your favourite newspaper or journal. That way you’ll be able to come across news and topics that may not exist in your information bubble on the net. You are forced to notice certain data in a closed format of some paper pages bound together. It’s impossible to subscribe to every news feed there is, so who knows what new questions may a single periodal spur? You don’t have to buy tens of them, and it’s so much cheaper than buying a book or a set of pre-made paper flashcards. You are also encouraged to skim strange magazines in a local press store once in a while. I am what Poles call “belligerent atheist” (pl. wojująca ateistka) even though I was Buddhist for a couple of years in my life and raised by a Catholic mum and Agnostic dad – but I like to take a peek in Muslim or Protestant press. I’m not into sports, but I try to buy newspapers with big sports column now and then. Although I teach foreign languages, it’s fun to scan some texts in magazines aimed at science teachers.

2. Google Away & Switch Wikis

Learn Google tips and tricks (also try this source). Use more than the first page of Google – check maps, images, datas, scientific papers, videos, everything! Use web search services every time something sounds fun or new in an article you read in the press / a story in a book or a thing you heard in the radio or some TV channel. Search for the same topic in different languages.
If you land on a Wikipedia page, switch the language of particularly interesting articles. Do that while doing research in non-linguistic subjects. An assignment on American presidents? Switch wiki to Chinese (if you’re not learning Chinese it would be useful to see how much information is sufficient on cultural phenomena in different countries – like said American presidents in China)! A report on protozoa? Switch wiki! Researching a holiday location? Switch wiki to that country’s native language! Do that often and be surprised often!

3. Back It Up

Take notes, gather links, print out articles, doodle. Especially note down any questions and ideas you might have along the day as well as your findings. Don’t cram those notes but get back to them when you are bored or before sleep once a week. Seeing how much quirky and fun stuff you accomplished will make feel better about your language learning (also – questions lead to more questions! ;D). For examples, I once had a talk with my (then) boyfriend I want to raise a bilingual child if I ever had one. I could imagine spending time with said hypothetical child in the park describing trees and animals, doing groceries, watching telly, spending time together in the kitchen using spoons and… yeah, and what? I could recall only the name of parts of simple cutlery set. What about “whisker” and “grater” and “liquidizer”? Kitchen utensils was something I only knew in Polish and partly in Japanese. As soon as I realized that, I went on a kitchen rampage and got my picture dictionaries from the shelves. Constantly discover things you CANNOT express in your target language(s) and try to fill those blank spots on your knowledge map.

Are you curious in your language learning journey or are you goal-focused and do not tend to stray away from your learning plan and your immediate goals? How do you incorporate curiosity in your learning process?

Back from a Long, Unscheduled Hiatus

Hi there. I’m back and alive… after 6 months of silence, devoted mostly to writing my thesis. My own, monochrome, softback copy below, as evidence.


As I’m back on track, you can expect new article this weekend, this is only a harbinger. It will have something to do with the issue of curiosity, for those of you who are… erm, curious. 🙂

“52” – Subversive e-book for subversive teachers

First, I saw this:

Then, I thought ‘wow, I really need this e-book’. And run to a friend of mine to buy it (thanks, Olek!). Now, I can say ‘WOW, YOU really need it too!’.

The full title of this little pearl is “52 – A year of subversive activity for the ELT classroom” and so it was meant for English teachers. But I think there’s a great message the authors, Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings, have sent out with this collection of activities. We, the language teachers, cannot confine our students to a sterile classroom enviroment. It’s not where the learners will be using the language for the rest of their lives (hopefully!).

This is actually what bugs me lately, my sheer unability to overcome the textbooks and classes. The fear of pushing myself forward, to the real world, at least in terms of receptive skills for now. Two of my Japanese students lately asked me about passages of text they were translating after classes. For themselves! One was listening to a song, the other was reading a novel in Japanese. Then I’m not that bad in the pursuit of making the foreign language a part of their lives. What about myself?

But back to the book; it has 52 short chapters, one for each week of the year, introducing an activity or a set of activities dealing with a rather difficult topic. You’ll see why “every potato is the same”, what the way you dress conveys to your students, how to phone a CEO you recently broke up with to beg for a second chance and when should you reconsider believing an advert.

I think he authors did a great job with finding inspiring, authentic material and creating engaging activities. This makes me wonder – should I teach about call girls or homeless in Japan? Maybe I should talk about the history of how Ido was born out of Esperanto in my Esperanto classes? Polish classes with alcohol abuse and domestic violence? I already remember big lectures I gave on Japanese curse words and the language of Japanese hentai and porn industry. Those felt great, but I was younger then. Do I still have what it takes to teach topics like that?

A small booklet like this can be, as you see, really, really inspiring. I recommend it for every teacher out there, regardless of what language do you teach! You can [buy it here] for only 6 bucks :)! There’s also [a blog] dedicated to the ongoing evolution of this project and you should read it too! You’ll get a better idea about what you are investing your money in.