Year in Languages 2019

languages remind me…

The name 19 languages reflects my desire to learn 19 languages, to various degrees of mastery.

These languages (4 of which I have not even begun to learn) fall into three groups, plus three special cases. Of the languages I have studied, group alpha includes English, French, German, Italian, Latvian, Spanish, and Russian; group beta includes Czech and Modern Greek; group gamma includes Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, and Japanese; the special cases are Ancient Greek, Latin, and the programming language python.

I did not do any formal planning for 2019. I had one clear priority — improving my Spanish, and followed three established traditions — listening to podcasts on commute, reading German during summer vacation, and reading Ancient Greek on weekends.

The biggest change that occurred this year was discovering excellent blogs about language learning, and reading extensively on language learning methodology — something that I had not done for years. I will write about my favourite resources this year.

So, how did I do in 2019?


Group alpha.

English. English is my de facto work and communication language. I read and write in English daily, and write out useful expressions periodically. I reached a plateau many years ago and know my weak spots (intonation, colloquial expressions, and verbal phrases). I thought extensively about my weaknesses, but did not find a suitable way to  address them, yet.

French. I live in France and work in a predominantly French environment, thus have plenty of contact with the language. I read (rather skimmed) only 1 book, and started the second, but found it boring and pretentious.

Spanish. Improving my active Spanish was my priority number one this year. I read 11 books and multiple articles, listened to podcasts on commute and while travelling, albeit not regularly, listened to TED talks, watched parts of a TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo, have been following Real Academia Española and several Spanish writers on social media, wrote out vocabulary lists, and did grammar exercises. I also went to Spain five times in 2019.

My biggest issue is still not resolved, though. I do speak Spanish; when in Spain, I always speak Spanish in shops, hotels, restaurants, museums, and public transport. I have friends with whom I have always spoken exclusively in Spanish. Yet,  I find it hard to start speaking in Spanish in professional settings with people who speak excellent English.

German: I read 5 books, including one with 1275 pages. This book is called Das achte Leben (Für Brilka) (The Eighth Life, for Brilka) and is written by Nino Haratischwili, who lives in Germany and writes in German, but is originally from Georgia. It was this Georgian connection that attracted me to this epic tale in the first instance, and it took me 10 months to read it.

Russian: I read 2 books, and numerous magazines.

Italian: I spoke in Italian on numerous occasions with colleagues and acquaintances, and realised it was getting rusty, and was beginning to suffer from Spanish interference — an issue to address.

Latvian. I read many magazines and only one book, but what a book! It is a Latvian translation of a book by Kató Lomb, a 20th century Hungarian polyglot and my youth hero. The original Hungarian title is Nyelvekről jut eszembe, meaning “Languages remind me ..”; the Latvian translation is titled Par valodām man nāk prātā. The book is about language learning, what else.


Group beta.

The only two things I did with my Czech and Modern Greek (both of which I could read, speak, and understand in the past), is to look up several idiomatic expressions that I knew in all my group alpha languages, such as prince charming. Plenty of room for improvement for 2020.


Group gamma.

I did not do anything with my Japanese and Hungarian (both at beginners level, with lots of things entirely forgotten), but I started two new languages.

Estonian. I started learning Estonian in anticipation to my travel to Tallinn and Tartu, where I have not been since the 1990s, and really enjoyed the process. I did 7 lessons of an old manual from the 1980s, which I happen to have at home and which turned out to have excellent methodology, and followed several online lessons, to get the pronunciation right. I also found plenty of online resources.

Georgian. Partly motivated by 1275 my page-long German book, which recounts a story of a Georgian family, partly by my visit to Estonia, where I ate amazing Georgian food, I decided to learn Georgian.  I learned 1/3 of an alphabet and did 5 online lessons. I can now read and write some words, including lobio, Georgian black beans stew, which I also learned to cook.


Special cases.

Ancient Greek. I am pleased with my progress. This year, I read the first three books of Plato‘s Republic, thanks to three factors: Plato is easy to read; the content is topical; and I mostly stick to my reading schedule, as it is in my calendar.

Latin. Encouraged by my Ancient Greek readings, I decided to brush up my Latin. I chose Seneca, largely because his thinking had suddenly become influential, yet, I could not recall him as inspirational from the university. I managed to read some 17 letters before summer vacation, then stopped. Just like at university, I still find Seneca boring, repetitive, and moralistic. Since my Latin is rustier than my Ancient Greek, and I was putting a lot of efforts to this reading, the motivation to stay with Seneca was none. I have to find a text that I would enjoy, but which is easier to read than my beloved Tacitus.

Python. I tend to joke that compared to python, Plato is easy. I started an online course, stopped, resumed, finished it, took a break, started another course and am halfway through.

The main challenge with learning python is the same as with learning a new language versus maintaining a language you already know. Once you have reached a certain level, you can take breaks, do low key maintenance, and have zero contact with the language for long periods of time (my experience with Italian). But while you are learning a new language, regularity is key. You need to do something every day, lest you forget.

That’s it, my language year 2019 in review.

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