Books by my bedside 2017/07/22

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books 2017.07.22 - 1

Non-Fiction

History

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts by Hammer, Joshua

Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s : three men, five great wines, and the evening that changed America by Cerami, Charles

White Trash : the 400-year untold history of class in America by Isenberg, Nancy

Language

The Little Schemer by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Memoir

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Kamkwanba, William

True Crime

In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences by Capote, Truman

Fiction

 

The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places by Begler, Peter

 

Reading Notes:

Do you have a logical mind? Do you enjoy mental puzzles and games? Maybe you do, but you’ve never tried any computer programming? Or you know something about programming, but haven’t read this book?

books 2017.07.22 - 2Consider picking up a copy of The Little Schemer.

Your library might have The Little LISPer instead. It’s the same thing, just an older edition. Consider them equally good reads unless you have a specific need to learn the Scheme dialect of the language, LISP.

Though the first edition of The Little LISPer is as old as I am, I didn’t read it in college, where I majored in Computer Science. I picked it up a year ago for fun.

The Little Schemer is one of the most mind-stretching things I’ve ever read.

You don’t need a special application or even a computer to learn from this book. A pencil and paper or text editor will do. For an intellect that revels in a certain kind of logical thought, it is well worth the effort to give it a whirl.

This isn’t about learning a piece of technological equipment. It’s strength training for your mind.

 

Books by my bedside 2017/07/06

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Fiction

Airman (audiobook, read by John Keating) by Colfer, Eoin.

Echoes in Death (In Death Series, Book 44) by Robb, J. D.

Lost in Arcadia: A Novel* by Gandert, Sean

The Murder of Mary Russell by King, Laurie R.

A Small Revolution* by Han, Jimin

The Things We Wish Were True* by Whalen, Marybeth Mayhew

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague Brooks, Geraldine

Reading Notes:

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you may notice a radical reduction in non-fiction titles this week. I’ll attribute that to a few factors:

  1. I avoid traveling with library books because I’m afraid I’ll lose them or return them late. I borrow most of my non-fiction books.
  2. One week of my three week trip was spent in a full immersion language learning environment which required lots of mental energy and all of my waking hours to be dedicated to a language other than English. I can’t read very interesting books in my target language; I’m not fluent enough!
  3. During week two, I caught a cold and my physical energy plummeted, too, leaving me mentally lazy and searching for pleasant distractions (i.e., novels!)
  4. I drove about 3450 miles/54 hours over the past three weeks, about 2/3 of it as the only adult in the car. I didn’t have as much time to read as I usually do, and we didn’t listen to as many audiobooks as I thought we would.

RoadTrip round trip map

Speaking of audiobooks…

Airman made a good family listen-aloud story. Eoin Colfer is better known for his Artemis Fowl series, but this book stands alone. It’s historical fiction (appeals to me), vaguely steampunk with several in its cast of characters dreaming of inventing airplanes (appeals to DS1), and has a plot that clips along fast enough to keep DS2 fully engaged.

There is one stretch about 25-30% into the story where the protagonist’s idyllic childhood is destroyed in an instant that I feared this novel would become too dark for my enjoyment. There are murders of beloved characters, sadistic prison guards, and evildoers wielding power in Airman. I’d suggest it for older elementary kids and up, not little or sensitive listeners.

In general, however, audiobooks, usually the primary form of entertainment on our family road trips, weren’t as popular on this one. In addition to Airman, which we finished, I’d loaded our hard drive with:

  • Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
  • Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy,
  • Der kleine Prinz (German) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Science Fair by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
audiobooks Skullduggery Airman - 1

I buy used audiobooks for road trips; usually former library copies like these

Blame it on the good company of the other kids we brought to camp, or the availability of electronic devices for more personalized diversions, but there didn’t seem to be enough time to hear more audiobooks.

We did also listen to two or three recorded language learning lessons daily for the first 26 hours of travel, which spent 1 – 1½ hours per day. Plus, warning four kids about upcoming rest stops, getting four kids in and out of the van at the dozen or so daily rest stops, and suggesting snacks other than chips and candy filled most of the rest of the day. Or, at least, it seemed to.

Having the time and energy to curl up and read every evening—in my big, comfy bed, no less!—has been one of the greatest pleasures of returning home from this particular trip.

The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King

Mysteries are my brain candy. I purchased Laurie R. King’s latest entry into the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series back in March, and have been saving it to savor during my summer travels. King is a fabulous novelist, and this series in particular hits exactly in my escapism sweet spot.

Historical fiction? Strong female lead? True love (non-smarmy) between a pair of great intellects? Check, check, and check!

Book cover Murder of Mary Russell King

I’ve never been disappointed by a piece of fiction written by Laurie R. King. The Murder of Mary Russell is meeting that standard thus far, though I am reading it slowly to make it last.

*A book given to me for free because of my Amazon Prime membership

Learning language as a gift to people we may meet

“I want to go everywhere and understand everyone. I never will, but it does motivate me.

It’s amazing how people respond when you [as a visitor] use even a little of their language, though. Like you’re offering a gift. And, I suppose, we [language learners] are: that of our time and attention.”

This post started as a reply to a comment left by Torazakana, a Japanese language learner whose efforts and accomplishments leave mine in the dust.

I include “living 3+ months in a foreign country with a different language” on my bucket list, but the longest I’ve stayed abroad yet was three weeks in Europe after finishing college. That was fun, but emphatically a tourist experience, not one of cultural or linguistic immersion.Beach sunset - 1

I don’t expect to be admired or congratulated for the work I do on foreign languages. I enjoy the challenge, the mental stimulation, and the sense of accomplishment from doing something more useful than binge watching Netflix. I like setting an example for my kids of lifelong learning and self improvement.

But I really love the light that comes into the eye of a friendly native speaker when I make an effort to communicate in their tongue, according to their terms. I love to give this gift. I revel in the return offering of goodwill and appreciation.

Even more than my (sometimes laughable) attempts at, say, Icelandic and its multitude of challenging sounds, or Catalan that tricks me repeatedly with its brushes against both Spanish and French concealing a reality of total independence, more than any speech itself, the international interpersonal connection is in the attempt. It is the reaching out that bridges the divide.

Language itself is just walking across the bridge that sincere effort built.

Books by my bedside 2017/06/09

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Pimsleur

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur German II (audio CD)

Fiction

Echoes in Death (In Death Series, Book 44) by Robb, J. D.

The Great Passage written by Miura, Shion, translated by Carpenter, Juliet Winters (note: this was a freebie from Amazon for being a Prime member)

Thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher

Reading Notes:

Great Passage coverI finished The Great Passage last night. It was a novel I read at a slower pace; not urgently, but in a concerted and thoughtful way. That fits neatly with the book’s narrative about the team of employees at a publishing house working—for years!—on the publication of a new dictionary of the Japanese language.

It wasn’t what I’d consider a quotable book until the very end. I highlighted these two passages that I liked very much, which might help you decide whether this is a novel you’d enjoy reading.

“A dictionary is a repository of human wisdom not because it contains an accumulation of words but because it embodies true hope, wrought over time by indomitable spirits.”

(page 193)

and

Human beings had created words to communicate with the dead, and with those yet unborn.

(page 200)

The book does a beautiful job of shining a light on a subject that could easily be overlooked: the creation of a dictionary.

What kind of person commits to such an endeavor? What is the work like? Why does it matter, to them and to you?

For me, it also presents a lovely view into a very different culture. I could see evidence of differences I’d read about. I also learned many new things about the Japanese language and office culture in Japan.

The Great Passage is a well-translated foreign book that made for peaceful, but contemplative, bedtime reading. I would gladly delve into works by this author—and this translator—again.

Spit it out! Memorizing phrases & the parroting process for improving foreign language fluency

Rote memorization won’t make you a fluent speaker of a new language, but it can be a powerful tool for increasing your foreign language fluency.Pimsleur

You often resort to routine phrases in your native language

Imagine this common scenario.

You’re hurrying into a familiar place, surrounded by people you know. Someone asks casually, “Hi! How are you today?

Most likely, you answer without a thought:

Fine, thanks.”

You answered with a learned response. You weren’t engaging the higher functions of your complex brain and its multiple intelligences. You went by instinct. That’s rote.

This kind of verbalization isn’t going to make you a master public speaker. It isn’t the rich, nuanced stuff of great oratory or literature. But words and phrases like these make up a huge proportion of the words spoken every day.

If you cultivate your knowledge of simple, canned responses to common questions and scenarios in a target language, you can really accelerate your comfort with speaking and your eventual progress toward fluency.

Fluency only comes if you actively use the language

I’ve always been a good student. The strength of my short term memory and my classroom skills made it fairly easy for me to get good grades in high school and university classes in Spanish and German. In spite of this, even after years of study, I was nowhere near fluent in Spanish, though I could read written materials fairly well.

By contrast, in only one semester of purely spoken Japanese taught by an immersion method, I learned a handful of phrases that stick with me in their entirety (and at full speed) to this day.

After that course, I never studied a language the same way again.

Do you intend to read, write, or converse in your target language?

Before Japanese, I improved primarily in the area of language my classes tested: reading and writing.

Sure, the students in my classes engaged in dialogues, but these were a small fraction of the time spent, and conversational skills were almost never on the test. With 15 pairs of high schools students talking to each other simultaneously, ostensibly in Spanish, there was no way for the lone teacher to notice—let alone correct—errors, omissions, or even a total failure to complete the assigned dialogue.

If your interest in acquiring a new language is to read, say, Descartes in his native French, or Don Quixote in the original Spanish, the American classroom experience may serve you well. For everyone else, read on! Continue reading

6 more German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular und Grammatik

Because my children haven’t been embarrassed enough by my enthusiastic sing-alongs, here are six more pop songs that I’m using to improve my German language skills.

Added to my playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) Leider Geil

By Deichkind; I had to pay $12 from Amazon USA for the CD as it wasn’t on iTunes, but you can easily find and view the video online to check it out for free.

Possibly explicit. Anyone fluent in German care to enlighten me about this song’s degree of rudeness? Please share in the comments if you know.

If you’ve ever seen America’s Funniest Home Videos, you’re well on your way to imagining the music video for Leider Geil. Familiarity with the “watching people do moronic stuff” genre will also help you understand why my young teen son found this song so appealing. This is the only foreign language track he asks to hear.

This song definitely has some mature content (coarse language and references to a one night stand), but, if my translation is accurate, I would allow my teen to listen to an equivalent track in English after some commentary from me about content.

Leider geil translates as “unfortunately awesome,” but geil also means “horny.” My German isn’t good enough to know just how risqué the language is, but it’s awfully catchy. It has a modern, slacker-esque, rhythmic edge that reminds me of the relationship between the Beastie Boys and pop music back when I was a teen. As far as I can tell, the wordplay seems clever in translation.

Are these guys cool? Are they male chauvinists? I have no idea, but I’m enjoying the tune.

I won’t ever forget how to say “unfortunately awesome” now that this song is in my head. I might accidentally deploy the phrase in polite company and embarrass myself. Oops! Leider geil!

2) Männer

From iTunes, I bought a cover version by “Partysingers” of this Herbert Grönemeyer hit.

Here’s an anthem for the men’s movement. Musically, this song is so retro 1980’s, which makes sense since it came out in 1984. It isn’t my favorite track in the playlist, but it’s a good resource for opposite adjectives with lyrics like:

Men have it hard, take it easy,
Outwardly hard, but inside all soft…

3) Tage wie diese

Available on iTunes, by Die Toten Hosen (yup, that means The Dead Pants.)

4) Wir trafen uns in einem Garten

Available on iTunes, by 2raunwohnung.

I’m listing these two songs together because both fall under the umbrella of “songs that sound like the kind of music I might listen to casually in my own language.” Neither has an unforgettable hook of the sort I can’t get out of my mind. Both fit reasonably well into my music library of alternative music, most of it from the late 1990’s and early aughts.

With lyrics in hand, a language learner can easily follow along with the words. The trick, for me at least, is to keep concentrating on them for the purpose of studying; I tend to get distracted by other things because these songs are a little too easy for my mind to transform into background music.

Comfort and familiarity may not be such a good thing when trying to pay close attention and learn.

5) Die Gedanken Sind Frei

Available on iTunes, by the Brazilian Girls.

The Brazilian Girls are apparently not Brazilian, and there’s only one female member in the band. She’s the one singing this pop interpretation of a classic German folk song that translates as Thoughts are Free.

And I am locked in a dark dungeon
I scorn the pain and human works
For my thoughts break the bounds and the walls,
Thoughts are free!

I learned of these lyrics from the lovely children’s book, From Anna, which I’ve previously reviewed. Searching for the full text—which brought me to tears reading the excerpt in the novel—led me to this quirky modern interpretation. I quite like its combination of funky rhythm, lightly overlaid electronics, a pretty, feminine vocal sound, and the traditional protest/progressive lyrics.

6) Da Da Da

As with 99 Luftballons in my first post about catchy German pop songs, this one was already in my music library. Unlike Nena’s really obvious hit, I had forgotten completely that there were German lyrics in Da Da Da. After all, da is the Russian word for yes.

You might remember this song from an old Volkswagen commercial (circa 1997.) If you do recall it, you might hate it. It’s a fairly goofy, very repetitive song with minimal lyrics, but some of them are in German. If you like this kind of electronic sound, you can learn to say “I do not love you, you do not love me” auf Deutsch. I hope that doesn’t come in handy!

If you enjoy Da Da Da, you’ll definitely want to check out Eisbär from my earlier German song post.

Happy listening!

Play your way to foreign language learning with puzzles and games

Even the most dedicated autodidact has an off day when she doesn’t feel like cracking a book or applying herself to her chosen course of study. These are days for a more creative approach. Consider it stealth education; it’s the scholarly equivalent of hiding puréed vegetables in the kids’ pasta sauce.

Equate it those school days when your teacher played a film instead of giving a lecture. You probably enjoyed the change of pace as much as he did.

To this day, when I hear the word superlative, my mind snaps right to The Superlative Horse. My class watched this movie in elementary school. I think it was based upon this book. I can’t recall the storyline, or whether we even read the book, but my memory clings fast to this particular title. I’ve relished the artful deployment of the vocabulary word ever since!

On a grumpy day—maybe due to too little sleep, aching joints, or a general case of the blahs—I could skip my scheduled 30 minutes of language practice. Sometimes, to be honest, I do. But, like most good habits, the trick is commitment, and the solution to malaise can be a lightening of the load without a free pass.

I’ve already posted about adding foreign language pop songs to my study routine. Typically, I read along with the lyrics while I listen to the songs. I sing along, too.

Is it a hardcore intellectual workout? No!

Is this a task I can fit into the busiest day, or prod myself into undertaking at my laziest? Yes!

Along similar lines, consider adding puzzles and games to your own self-guided study routine. It matters less what kind of material you introduce and more that you are tempted by the format.

I’m a fan of jigsaw puzzles. The trick is to find one that has legible text in your target language. A world map puzzle was a good choice to meet this condition, and also provided an introduction to vocabulary (country names) I might otherwise not see in German.

German world puzzle deutsch

I found this Schmidt Spiele jigsaw puzzle for $10 on Amazon

It helps that, culturally speaking, Germany is a country known for high quality games and puzzles. They are exported worldwide, and brands like Ravensburger are readily available in many countries and languages, including English for the US market.

The trickiest part, when choosing games, is finding one that uses enough of the target language to be a challenge, but not so much that there’s no fun in the playing. The difficulty of picking a suitable game increases exponentially when you introduce more players with differing levels of language acquisition.

For example, German Scrabble requires significantly more language skill than German Monopoly. In the former, you’re forced to dredge up and correctly spell words from memory. Allowing free access to a target language dictionary can bring the level of difficulty back to manageable for beginners.

As a parent educating my child at home, I go out of my way to provide varied learning resources for my son. Enjoyable activities that complement or duplicate subject matter increase the odds that knowledge will be retained. It seems obvious that, by reinforcing a subject through different media, the learning will also be deeper as we experience it through more of our senses and engage different parts of the brain.

Why not provide myself with the same advantages?

It’s easy for geographically isolated Americans to forget that there’s more to learning a foreign language than books and instructional CDs, videos and lessons. The reality of language acquisition is that it must reflect multiplicities of experience to be meaningful.

What else is our language ability for, if not for use as a tool in living a full life?

Have you used any less-conventional tools for learning a language? Please share in the comments.

5 picture books to read aloud with melodramatic zeal, especially if you love world languages

I’ve hinted at this in my posts about learning foreign languages, but I like to get a little silly when my mind is the most engaged. It makes tasks that might be onerous into a bit of fun, and it keeps my sometimes whiffly energy levels from flagging in mid-effort.

My own two kids are big enough to read on their own now, but ours is a household of almost constant excited interruptions to share some great, new sentence, paragraph, or page of written work. In fact, I wooed my husband by reading an entire (admittedly short) novel* to him one afternoon at the beach.

I’ve read and re-read a few top favorites aloud to my boys even at advanced ages well past the “tell me a story” years; I think I’ve read these books to most of the younger friends we know, too. I’m that adult who always has time to read to a child. Some stories are too delicious not to share.

Two of my favorites are very popular and well-known American picture books I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere:

Bear Snores On (Karma Wilson)

Click Clack Moo (Doreen Cronin)

You can’t go wrong with either of these. If you’re like me, and you read them a few times, you may memorize most or all of the text! It’s hard not to when the rhyme and rhythm of the stories flow like song lyrics with every reading. This was a great help when the middle of our stapled paper Cheerios box freebie edition of Click Clack Moo lost a page. We closed our eyes and imagined those illustrations as I recited from memory.

Two other wonderful read-alouds were gifts to our family from the PJ Library program, a non-profit that strives to provide Jewish books to all interested Jewish or interfaith families with kids aged six months to eight years.

Something from Nothing (Phoebe Gilman)

The least obviously rhyming text on the list shows up in Something from Nothing, but the writing still has a poetic quality. There is a regular rhythm, both visual and verbal, to the way each new page spread builds upon the last as the story moves ahead. This one also happens to have a beautiful message about favorite things “wearing out” and being lost, whether you see it as primarily ecological (using something up completely without waste) or self-reliant (making the best of what you have) or some combination thereof.

Something from Nothing depicts a lovely inter-generational relationship between grandfather and grandson. It has the most detailed artwork of any book on this list. The wonderful, whimsical pictures, drawn by the author herself, include an entire silent second storyline hidden beneath the illustrated floorboards. Pre-readers might particularly enjoy poring over this aspect on their own.

Beautiful Yetta (Daniel Pinkwater)

My absolute favorite book to read to children, I’ve given Beautiful Yetta as a gift several times. This book is amusing—telling the tale of a valiant hen who “will not be sold. She will not be soup… She is free”—and includes the great fun of combining English, Yiddish, and Spanish in the text. Don’t worry, there are phonetic transliterations so you don’t need to read Hebrew letters or know either Yiddish or Spanish to share this book. You can also try on your Brooklyn accent when the rat tells Yetta to “Get lost!” This one is less obviously moralistic than some children’s books, but certainly carries on lightly with themes of self-reliance, serving others, and loving yourself and your friends as you are and in spite of your differences.

Except cats who try to eat you. Those, you scare away with confident words and wide-spread wings.Book Beautiful Yetta excerpt

ΡΕΠΚΑ (translation: Turnip; pronounced “Ryep-kuh”)

Not every reader will be able to share this story with their kids, but if you are even a beginning student of Russian, the frequent repetition makes this a great confidence builder for deciphering Cyrillic characters and the cadence of the story makes it so much fun to read aloud. In our family, where the kids heard Russian from native speaking grandparents from birth, this served all of us well.

Book Repka cover

When I said these stories were delicious read-alouds, I meant literally, and not in the modern sense where literally now officially means figuratively. DS2 chewed off that missing corner.

Hopefully the text is pretty classic, because my edition isn’t available on Amazon in the US, but here’s a link to a bilingual Russian-English version. We own two versions of this story, and this little red book (©2002, ISBN: 5-7865-0003-9) definitely tells it better as far as enjoyable read-aloud cadence goes. Not being fluent in Russian, I can’t say if the language itself is any more refined.

If you know of other wonderfully rhythmic read alouds that shouldn’t be missed—especially if they include foreign content in German, Spanish, or Russian while being accessible to a language learner—please share the titles in the comments!

*The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, haunting, and lyrical even in translation; it’s one of my all time favorite books

5 German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular. Bonus: Embarrasses the kids!

Hopefully this won’t get me reported to the authorities for my abusive behavior, but I’ve been casting about for something new to enliven my study of German. I decided on pop songs. I’m specifically aiming to reduce my inhibitions when speaking this summer in a German language immersion environment. I think my best bet is conducting my learning in the most playful manner I can devise.

There has been a lot of acting out dialogs from German Readers and the Pimsleur CDs*. DS2 is not clear on why I keep involving him in my shenanigans, but melodramatic German dialogues conducted with yourself are just crazy. When done with your child, they’re home schooling!

Just when your teen thinks you can’t get any more embarrassing, you add singing out loud in German to your repertoire. I even do it in the car in the school parking lot when I’m waiting to pick up DS2.

Yeah, I’m that kind of mom.

My new playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)

I chose a version performed by Zillertaler Dirndljäger found on iTunes.

We have to begin with Fliegerlied. More properly titled, “So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)“, the name translates to Such a Nice Day (Aviator’s Song.) I played the song previews on iTunes to choose the one I liked best of the many covers of this song. Be sure you search for both “So ein schöner Tag” and “Fliegerlied” to see every version of this track.

I first heard this song at Waldsee family week where my son and I went to learn German in 2015. They played this song. They played it a lot. There are coordinating hand motions, too. And I liked it all! Any time a party atmosphere could be conjured in the Waldsee “Village,” it was, and the disco music flowed.

Personally, I find Fliegerlied charming and catchy. I couldn’t figure out all the words properly by ear, not even with a teaching session by the music leader early in the week. I got the gist of the lesson that we were singing about something that flies and having a good day.

Fliegerlied turns out to mean “aviator” or “airman.” Obviously not the easiest word to guess via mime. This bouncy ditty is great for picking up quickly as it repeats… and repeats… and repeats a few lyrics. Just try not to get this one stuck in your head.

I have a very high tolerance for song repetition, so proceed cautiously if you don’t. Fliegerlied is an Ohrwurm (ear worm; a song that gets stuck in your head) for sure. Waldsee gets full credit for this song being on my list. It’s the first one I’d recommend for a cheerful student of German.

2) 99 Luftballons

Performed by Nena; more than 99 versions found on iTunes!

You thought this one would be first, right?

99 Luftballons was an international hit in 1984, and it doesn’t need any more introduction or description from me. They play this one regularly at Waldsee, too. Unless you’re Captain Kirk or ein Kriegsminister, what’s not to like? You’ll be able to discuss war, balloons, and UFOs with the new vocabulary.

3) Eisbär

Original version by Grauzone is on iTunes; search both Eisbär and Eisbaer to find every cover.

I believe this will be the first song I memorize completely in German. I’ve had it two days and I can almost recite it by heart. I just looked at the lyrics I downloaded and did a quick count, and I think there are only 20 unique words in Eisbär, most of which are obvious (Eisbär=”ice bear”=polar bear) or easy beginner words (mussen=have to, but sounds conveniently like “must”; kalt=cold.) Learn two verbs: schreien (screaming) and weinen (crying) and you’ll understand the whole song.

Admittedly, this song is my least favorite on the playlist from a musical perspective. The music is repetitive, too electronic for my taste, and the song feels longer than it should be.

4) Wir Sind Wir

By Paul van Dyk featuring vocals by Peter Heppner; ordered CD single from Amazon.CD Wir Sind Wir Musik

I saw the video of this song online as I searched for my German pop songs. This one has slower tempo and more complex lyrics. We Are Who We Are is the title in English. The lyrics poetically describe lingering societal issues from the reunification of east and west Germany and how the people are responding. I’d describe its temper as somber but hopeful. Since I’m an optimist, I like it on principle for noble subject matter. The singer also enunciates very clearly—super helpful for the language learner. It’s really easy to follow along with his vocalized lyrics, which isn’t true of all these songs.

5) Ich Will

Available on iTunes; performed by Rammstein.

I’m not even checking to see if anyone has covered this song. I think you must listen to the original or give it a pass. This is heavy metal music, quite different than everything else on the playlist. The video I viewed online was downright creepy and not my cup of tea, but the song translates as cruel but not vulgar. I study around my kids, so really salty language would eliminate a song for my situation.

If  you enjoy metal—or can get past the growling intensity here to memorize the lyrics—you’ll be rewarded with several useful additions to your vocabulary. This guy WANTS (wollen, to want, to intend; Ich Will translates to I Want) a lot of stuff from the audience. He states that emphatically in the present tense (plural du– form.)

I might be growling it rudely at people, but I will never forget how to say “I want” auf Deutsch after hearing this song a few times.

Useful vocabulary includes “I want to disturb the peace;” ich will die Ruhe stören. And, in case I am robbing a small group of you, “I want to see your hands!”

“Ich will eure Hände sehen!”

Actually, I’ve just realized, this will come in handy with the kids, too. Now how do I say, “I want to see your beds made!”…

* Can’t imagine the Pimsleur lesson dialogues acted out dramatically? Try pretending you’re interrogating a suspected spy while repeatedly asking each other:

  • “Do you speak German?”
  • “Do you speak English?”
  • “Are you an American?”

Yeah, the kids LOVE it. Ha!

Why I study 6 foreign languages recreationally

I must begin by admitting that I’m not really a polyglot. I’ve only mastered English. I’m not even brave about using my foreign language skills with friends or strangers. My brain is piping up with answers, but my cowardly lips remain zipped.

I have been a passionate fan of the very idea of language study since childhood, however, and I dabble in a few world languages. I wish, in a theoretical way, that I could speak with every person in the world. I know. I can be a little sentimental.

In high school, I studied Spanish (four years.)

In college, I took classes in Spanish (one more year), German (one year), and Japanese (one semester.)

Outside of academia, I’ve studied Russian (6 weeks at the Boston Language Institute) and Biblical Hebrew (synagogue based adult class), plus I’ve self-studied most of the above and also French. I’ve worked to learn at least a few common and helpful phrases in both Icelandic and Catalan before specific trips. I like to be a polite visitor.

I also avoid traveling without the ability to speak sentences I’d be too embarrassed to mime. I usually begin by memorizing, “Where is the toilet?” I’ve never visited any country without at least learning please, thank you, and hello. I also try to keep at least one exclamation of delight on the tip of my tongue: ¡Qué maravilloso!

Buy why else have I spent so many hours over so many years on this exercise when I have nothing concrete to show for it since good grades on a transcript decades ago?

I can feel my brain stretching

I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so there’s no monetary gain. Then again, I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so the intellectual workout ranks right up there as its own reward. Especially when my children were very young, and their care was so mind-numbingly boring, even listening to nursery rhymes in another language offered mental relief from feed, burp, change, repeat (and, occasionally, sleep…)

When I’m really working at integrating  new language into my working vocabulary, I can feel my brain stretching. I’m probably not the only nerd who thrills from the act of intense learning. Like the high that comes after aerobic exercise, there’s an emotional payoff to brain fitness. It’s also nice to imagine your brain looking better in a swimsuit getting healthier after each session.

Languages are inherently interesting, complex structures

Studying a romance language, for me, at least, was fun and interesting, but nothing like the kind of mind-blowing revelation that Japanese presented. I’m no linguist, either, so I can’t explain this deeply, but everything from sentence structure to word classes was, frankly, foreign. Learning even a little Japanese was like re-learning how to think.

Never in my life have I taken a more difficult, more stimulating, more thrilling class than my one semester of Japanese immersion at Cornell University. At the end of every session, I felt like the hero(ine) walking into the sunset behind the credits of an action movie. Victorious, and exhausted.

I’m forced to reconsider things I thought were obvious

Even when studying languages much more familiar—the short words in German, and the long words in the Latin-based romance languages—I find it delightful to make connections across cultures. Some modern words are obvious candidates for cognates. The world is so small and interconnected now, it’s hard to imagine new words like “computer” not carrying over into languages other than English.

But I loved discovering the word for “furniture” was so similar between Spanish (mueble), German (Möbel), and Russian (мебель)—they all use consonant sounds M-B-L with vowels appropriate to the target language. Most Russian vocabulary up to that point had been so strange. It made me reflect that the very notion of owning enough household stuff to require a collective name for it could be modern. Or perhaps the idea to name that stuff came from western Europe, or the people with better stuff adopted a name from the west so the word caught on with social climbers… I’m not sure. I don’t even know if the word is older in Russian as opposed to western Europe. I sure enjoy pondering the possibilities.

And, in Japanese, the color ao means all color shades of blue to green.* That stopped me in my tracks. Color is a spectrum, isn’t it, and at some point, we decide where the stopping point is between one shade and another. But I hadn’t thought of that before. Japanese taught me that.

I could go on and on about compound nouns and meanings within my own language that only became obvious to me after I recognized some interesting facet of a word in a foreign tongue, but the point is made and my zeal for this topic probably exceeds the bounds of decency.

Making an effort is the only way to combat entropy

There’s a running joke in our family that my husband’s most hated nemesis is entropy.

I think it is accepted knowledge that mental acuity is a use it or lose it thing. That’s the exercise analogy I used earlier. I believe the battle against entropy goes even deeper than that.

Making an effort, struggling to do better, learning something new, improving communication in the smallest way… every one of these things is a creative act. Creation is the opposite of entropy. Creation is an inherently positive act.

I learn in order to make the world a better place

I learn to make the world a better place, though my small efforts may have only infinitesimal effects.

I can live with that.

*There is a modern Japanese color word for green, which I believe was introduced only after World War II when Western influence became significant during the Occupation. There are also extra color words for various shades, including some of blue and green, like we have navy and royal (blues) or spring vs. hunter (greens.) You’ll want to follow up with someone much more knowledgeable than I to get the full story on Japanese color words.