Immersion/Fluency Mythology 1


There’s a common myth floating around, that simply moving to another country will allow you to learn the language. I’m going to do my best in this post to debunk that myth.


OK, first of all, before going forward with any discussions of fluency, you need to define fluent. Because frankly, I’m guessing you probably don’t know what you actually mean by fluent. Think about it. Do you mean, you can have rapid conversations with native speakers? Do you mean you can read a newspaper with 100% comprehension? Do you mean you can laugh heartily at witty dialogue in movies? Do you mean [gasp] you are indistinguishable from a native speaker? This sounds nit-picky, but I really mean this. You can’t achieve goals in life if you aren’t specific enough.


In University, during my final year, I had to a large research paper to write. My (favorite) professor told me, “Be specific. Send me your ideas. I’ll help you narrow it down.” So, for my topic I picked “Literacy habits among women in the 1800’s.” And she told me to try again. By the end of things, the topic of my paper was “How the women of Lowell, Massachusetts empowered themselves intellectually by cultivating a magazine while working at a mill between the years of 1860-1890.” I think I got an A in that course.

The point is, if you’re not specific, you don’t know how to accomplish your goals because you don’t know what target you’re attacking.

So, in your language pursuits, I suggest you start by defining fluency for yourself. Here are some possible definitions:

  1. You can communicate comfortably with native speakers about everyday errands like shopping or eating out or directions.
  2. You can read a newspaper and get the general meaning of every story.
  3. You can grasp the general plot or idea of movies and music.
  4. You can talk with the native-speaker staff of your school about teaching methods and student progress.

Even if you just picked one of these areas, and focused really hard on it, you will be able to accomplish it, without belaboring emotionally over how you haven’t reached some mythical land called fluency.

Chinatown, an example of an insulated community.
Chinatown, an example of an insulated community.


Now that we’ve defined fluency, I want you to actually go out and meet some people who have accomplished this mythical task. Seriously. If it’s so easy, go and find them. You’ll probably learn that they took some language classes, they married a national, or they went to school in your country. Or, they already took language classes before coming over. Chances are, you’re not going to meet someone who has been there for three months and can speak fluently.

It’s because it’s not that easy. And one of the biggest challenges is that many of those people instantly find an insulated language community, where they can talk and joke and function in their own language, and go shopping together etc.

So I’m going to give you a careful piece of advice: beware insulated native language communities. I don’t say avoid them completely, because they’re important for sanity reasons. You need to have people to relate with, people to vent with, and people to understand your struggles—which, unless you’re an emotionally double-jointed superexpat, will start to break you in the first couple months.

But. Beware insulated communities. Right now, one of my struggles is that the cram school I work at is all English-only. The staff are all very Westernized. And there are almost no events where teachers can hang out and be immersed in Mandarin.

Not that that actually matters for me, right now. Because—and this is the introduction for the next post—You can’t attain your fluency goals just by practicing all the time.

Dictionary Woes

After receiving a bag of oranges from his new neighbor, the laowai thinks to himself, “I need to look up how to say ‘kind,’ so I can comment on his generosity.” And so he types in the word “Kind” into his smartphone dictionary, and turning to his neighbor says “你很種.” Slightly insulted, his neighbor goes back inside and weighs herself on the scale. (Probably thinking to herself, “那我真是那麼重了嗎?”)

Let’s talk about context, and dictionaries! (Bibliophiles may now light fireworks.)


When it comes to Chinese dictionaries, I am in love with Pleco (pictured above) and But you can run into a wall when it comes to using dictionaries to learn a language. How do you know that you’re using the right word?

I remember in the early days of Chinese I translated “smart phone” as something like 聰明手機 (聪明手机). My Chinese professor, in her typical “saving face” manner, put her hand over her mouth to hide her amusement. She explained that I really couldn’t use “聰明” to describe a computer, because it is used in reference to human intelligence.

But if you just look up “smart” in a dictionary, you won’t get this nuance right off. You’ll just get a bunch of synonyms, and if you’re unfortunate enough you’ll just pick the top definition and go with that.

When it comes to holding meaning, words aren’t like little tupperware containers that you sort chicken, squirrel fish, green beans and marbles into. This thinking assumes (wrongly) that for every one word there is one meaning. But reality is that every word has several meanings behind it.

For instance, “smart” could actually mean:

  1. Intelligent
  2. High-tech
  3. Healthy (as in food)
  4. To hurt
  5. Disrespectful (“You smart aleck.”)

There’s no “one” meaning.

This is why it’s important to know your own language; to become aware of the multiple meanings words have in English. Don’t stop at “funny means humorous,” because it could also mean weird (“What a funny-looking bench.”), rotten (“This fry tastes funny.”), or suspicious (“That dog is looking at me funny.”). A table is something you eat on, but also something you use to track finances or read statistics. Wicked could mean evil, or it could mean really good. (I’m from New England, what can I say?)

Once you discern the various meanings of words, you’ll be able to strip what you want to say down to its actual meaning. “You’re funny” will become “You make me laugh.” Or, “Are you kidding me right now?” will become “Seriously?”

And that’s why it’s so important to get examples for the words you look up. Some dictionaries will have example sentences with each word—this is why I love the Pleco app. Using the examples, you’ll be able to find which word you want to use. Whereas originally you just wanted to look up “play,” you now realize after reading the examples that you can only use “打” in reference to sports or cards, not musical instruments. What you want to say is “play the piano,” but “打鋼琴” means “kick the piano.” After reading the examples, you realize that what you should actually say is “彈鋼琴.”

Dictionary mistakes are easy to make. Simplicity is the best policy. Throw away figures of speech, idioms, and phrasal verbs, boil down what you actually mean, and most importantly, pick functional over flashy any day.

French, Absence


It’s been quite a while since I posted; I believe I haven’t put anything up since I left for France.

Well, after two months in La Belle France, I’m back in the States for the summer. I’m working on my next travel plans (to be announced) but for now I’m working at my temp jobs, answering phones and planning corporate lunches and wearing button-up shirts and suede shoes insincerely. But it’s my in-between mode, and it’s not a bad mode.

French. I liked French. Without going into a lot of detail about my adventures in France, I will say that I do miss the language, the opportunity to speak it whenever, wherever. I found the language itself fairly easy, comparatively. Half the battle is in the pronunciation, and after I got past that it all came down to les conjugaisons, which I still struggle with internally.

Cognates saved my neck more than once.

Perhaps the most useful phrases I learned were the following (please point out if I have made a mistake):

  • Oueh Nobody actually says “Oui” in France. Maybe they do in other parts. But in the South where I was, it was always “oueh.” (Pronounced “way.”)
  • Bonjour/Bonne journée This was important, one of the things I learned right off. When entering a store, you and the cashier both say bonjour. Don’t skip the bonjour. (I heard of one French national who didn’t return to a store because the cashier didn’t say bonjour.) Anyway, when you leave the store, you say “Au revoir,” and the cashier says “bonne journée,” which is “good day,” but the “goodbye” version. From what I understood, it’s only said by the stationary person. Same pattern with “bonsoir/bonsoirée.” Also, on the final ée, try not to pronounce it “eyyyy,” with an /i:/ sound. This is a laughing point for French people. The authentic pronunciation is softer, purer.
  • Je vais prendre… I’m going to have… (Very useful when ordering food.)
  • Super! Super!
  • Un moment A moment. This is an awesome way of buying time, whether you’re looking over the goods at a boulangerie or scanning a menu for words you recognize. You could also say deux moments.
  • Get used to using le/la a lot. Do you ever wonder why Francophones, when speaking English, say stuff like “having the education helps a lot in the life?” It’s because they use “the” for, if not everything, a heck of a lot. So when you’re talking about life, don’t just say “vie,” say “la vie.” Do you need education to succeed? Wrong—you need the education. Get used to this overactive “the-ing.” It’s also good filler. (“Uhh…je vais prendre le…le riz cantonais.” See, you got a whole two extra seconds to think.)
  • Learn the numbers. French numbers play games near 100. Sixty is “soixante,” but seventy is “soixante-dix,” literally “sixty-ten.” So, yep. Memorize the numbers. Do it soon. Before you get there.


I have this one linguist friend whom I met on a trip to China. He throws rocks at me whenever I get perscriptivist, and I throw rocks at him whenever he says something like “‘brilliant English professor’ is an oxymoron.” We were having lunch for the first time after I got back from France, and I had a couple polyglot confessions to make.

Over the last two months, while I was in France, the language experience I had was almost the opposite of my experience with Mandarin. For instance, in Chinese I can hold conversations, but given a block of intermediate text I kind of blank out. It was totally opposite while I was in France; standing at bus stops and looking at menus, reading French was almost “stupid easy,” given the at least 1,700 cognates with English. Words ending in -ive (addictive) just transform into -if words (addictif); words ending in “-ible” are spelled the same even though the endings are pronounced differently. (“-eeblah” instead of the English “-ibbl,”)

Of course, the “tion” trick comes in handy with other Latin-based languages as well. In Portuguese, “-tion” and the less common “-tions” become “-ção/-ções.” (informação/informações In Russian, the final suffix becomes “-tsiya.” (as in революция/revolyutsiya/revolution.)

Then there’s the whole silent-letter bit. In French nearly ever final consonant is silent. Once you get this down, pronouncing words is less difficult than it seems. Then there are les liaisons, where basically if you have a silent final consonant but the next word begins with a vowel, you actually do pronounce that hidden sound, running it into the next word. Deux, usually pronounced “doo,” when put in front of heures, becomes “doozoreh.”

All of these little tricks, of course, are in theory. Because in reality, French has some difficult sounds. Particular difficulties I had lay in the gutteral rhotic blended with other letters. I could say trop all day long, but ask me facetiously what I had that morning at the boulangerie, and I’ll mumble croissant with toil and embarrassment.

When I tried to actually converse in French, the inside of my head sounded something like this.

Me: I want to say that I plan on traveling. What’s the word for travel?
Brain: You should say 旅行 (lüxing).
Me: No, that’s Chinese. I’m actually not remembering any French at all right now and the person is waiting for me to finish this sentence.
Brain: Ok, how about this; я хочу…

Me: Brain stop that’s Russian, do you want me to fail?
Brain: Yes, I do, because I’m confused right now. What country are we in, again?
Me: 我們在法國…  DANG IT BRAIN

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed French, I enjoyed speaking it when I could, reading it, eating it…But on my way home I kept thinking about just how much I love Chinese. How much I was looking forward to getting back into it. Doing characters again. Trying to put sentences into an even number of syllables. Using those strong Beijing Hua sounds. French may someday become language number six, but right now I should really invest my energies into what I’m really good at.

Honestly, after two months in France, I should have been at least beginner fluent. But I wasn’t. I could’ve enrolled in a month-long French course as soon as my TEFL course ended. But I didn’t. I could’ve made arrangements with my host family to speak nothing but French for a half-hour every day. But I didn’t. I could have done so many things that I didn’t end up doing. And it’s not because I was too busy. It’s because I was lazy. The lesson: If you want to do something, you won’t be talking about how you will do it, because you’ll already be doing it.

So, as I lunched with my linguist friend, pouring real maple syrup on my pancakes, I made a hard confession months in the making. “I’ll probably never learn Russian.”

And this is what I love about our conversations; instead of giving me a pep talk or talking about how I should just keep on trying or I should just enroll in a college course or maybe I should buy the Rosetta Stone, or some other encouragement like that that someone would give who’s never learned another language, he forked through his eggs Florentine, frowned, and said, “yeah. It’s not really a fun language for learning.”

You have to cut your guilt expenses. Spending nine years feeling guilty, kicking myself that I wasn’t learning a language that wasn’t really fun to learn, didn’t help me at all. It just gave me something to be ashamed about. At a certain point, continually telling people that I was going to do something that I never truly wanted to do just made me look dumb. And I didn’t even realize until recently that, deep down, I didn’t actually want to learn it. You know how I can tell? Because if I actually wanted to learn it, nothing would get in my way and I would be native-proficient by now.

We must be sincere; we must be honest; we must squint into our souls and find out what we really want. And sometimes it’s better to say nothing about your ambitions, keep them to yourself, then someday surprise people by, say, yodeling perfectly. And they’ll say, “I didn’t know you were learning how to yodel.” But the point is, there’s no point in telling people what you’re going to do because, theoretically, the notional future doesn’t exist, and if you’re not learning it, you’re not learning it.

A Taste of Trilingual

A Mcdonalds in the Paris Chinatown.

Last night, as I lay in bed pondering my copy of “Conversational French in 20 Lessons,” (compliments of the 1960’s), I found myself growing weary with effort, and I put the book aside and switched off the light. I then proceeded to have a conversation with myself in Chinese.

Technically, I don’t consider myself tri—or even bilingual. Like the subtitle of the blog says…Adventures in Polyglotism, or why I’m not one yet. Call me a jack of all trades. It’s just how my learning journey has been so far—a little of this and a little of that. It’s just odd that, when I find myself growing exhausted with French, my first instinct is not to switch over to English, it’s to switch over to Chinese.


I find myself fantasizing about a situation in France where, if français gets too exhausting, I’ll be able to find some people with whom to speak Chinese. I figure, heck, my ideal situation would be to extract myself from English completely. That would be, in my opinion, the way to truly begin my quest to polyglotism.

There have been moments when Russian has slipped in, too. Somehow I can’t get away from Russian pronouns.

Bilingualism is not something you can try out. It takes years to get there, and when you finally do arrive (and by arrive, I mean putting your foot on the threshold—you never really arrive with languages.) you find that the feeling is a weird one, like being able to take your face off and put another one on. You tell stories differently. You find yourself using different thought patterns. And sometimes you start a sentence in one language only to finish with another. And it’s OK. I think this multidimensionality that polyglotism opens up is possibly the best thing about speaking multiple languages. If you’re talking to a person who speaks the same languages that you do, you can just switch back and forth comfortably. And it’s like you’re not limited anymore with how you express ideas. Feel like an idea would be communicated better in a pictographic form? Switch to Chinese. Feel like you need to stress nuances and rhythm in a way you’re more familiar with? Switch to English. Feel like you need to discuss literary theory? Switch to French.

I once set up my French language course so the interface language was Chinese. So, instead of saying the phrase in English and following up with the phrase in French, it began with Chinese and then said the French translation. It was like third-party acquisition. It was like doing math using multicolored pens. And my head felt like it was going to explode. And that’s a good feeling.

Showing Your Work

-Every Linguist Ever.

My listening skills have been challenged with French, if not because I am still an alien to the language, then because there is a certain ambiguity when it comes to French numbers. I quickly learned that a rule I used to joke about in French is actually a real thing: The last letter of more or less every word is silent.

This is where the written and spoken forms of French part ways. Right now, my relatively untrained ear listens to “Fille” and “Filles,” and says, “Nope, that’s the same word.” The only way you can figure out what is being spoken about is through context.

When using English, which operates in a low-context model, we’re so obsessed about seeing the structure of each sentence. Even in a very simple sentence like “Yesterday my aunt came over to my house,” there is a wealth of exposed structure. You have the date indicating when the event happened in addition to a tense change of “to come,” you have a possessive pronoun indicating to whom the aunt belongs, and finally there are several little prepositions. We English speakers need this scaffolding in order for the sentence to “sound right.” When in actuality, you don’t need this much visible data to convey meaning.

In Chinese, the sentence would be “阿姨昨天来我家.”

阿姨 – Āyí, Aunt
昨天 – Zuótiān, Yesterday
来 – Lái, To Come
我 – Wǒ, I/Me/My
家 – Jiā, House/Home

Aunt yesterday come my house. It is so much more succinct, easy, and strangely enough you don’t lose any meaning, listening to it. But we can’t really say it so briefly in English, because we have a sort of addiction to “showing our work.”

The point is, in other languages context lets you get away with a lot, and French, so far, seems to be like one of those languages. Whether it’s fille/filles, or millard/millards, you listen to the words around it and you make a judgment. The trick is to keep your ears alert and your mind open, just like with anything else in life.

La Belle France 2016 – Expatriation

Hemingway was an expat.

Some exciting travel news.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post called February Fears, about how I was nervous about going to The Big City and getting my TEFL certification. Plans have changed, and here they are—

When I make plans, especially travel plans, I do a LOT of math; I’m constantly doing calculations and trying to save money and trying to lay out expectations so I’ll know how much money I’m going to inevitably spend…It’s an idée fixe, of sorts, doing all this math, but it’s also sort of a way to hide in study.

So once I started coming up with sums and products, I realized something that sort of blew my mind. I mean, once you start thinking outside the box and realizing that you can do so much in life if you’re a little creative and a lot open-minded, so it wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was still a bit of a shock. For as much money as it would cost to go to Boston for my month-long certification, I could fly to France, do my TEFL training in a little town with orange tile rooftops, and stay for a while extra, taking French classes and being immersed in the language and culture.

So I talked to some people, and wrote some emails, and put down a deposit, and now it’s on my calendar: France in March. The trip will be anywhere between one and three months long. And beyond that, I just may stay in Europe teaching at English summer camps. Not sure yet.

EXPATRIATION has never held so much meaning for me. I mean, it’s become a flippant, passing cliché in today’s world of hostels and hipsters. “I’m an expat…” “I’m going to be an expat…” “I wish I was an expat…” But you don’t realize what that means, exactly, until you start telling people that it’s going to happen.

You start thinking about who you’re leaving, and how long it’ll be, and what will change while you’re gone. Even for a period of time as short as one year, so much can change. Especially attitudes.

On the positive side of things, I’m hoping to be fluent in French by the time I’m done in France! I’ve never done anything this immersive before, and I’ll be sure to have some great “Schliemann” moments to write about while I’m over Across the Pond. [I realize this is usually meant to talk about USA/UK, but it is the same pond, after all, that separates The France from The States.]

Français: #6

I never really stopped to sit down and think about how many languages I’ve studied in earnest. I did just now and realized that I’ve spent time learning about five, intently. This is not counting side-quests such as Telugu, Hindi, Korean, and Portuguese—Although I did some immersion time in Portuguêse, and can now understand a basic conversation—and eavesdrop!

Of all of the languages, I have the deepest understanding of Chinese. I really enjoy it as a language; it has a good mouth-feel. I can’t wait to become even more fluent and comfortable in it.

I started learning French on January 31st—my sixth language study. It’s a little odd that I’ve never studied it before. I mean, I’ve dipped in and out of it before—You can’t really be a 20th Century American Literature junkie and not idealize French, just a little bit—but I’ve never studied in earnest. It’s been 13 days since I began, and I can already form some small sentences. I’m getting used to their gutteral rhotic consonant, and trying to remember when to drop final consonants and when to blend them into the next syllable. It’s very complex in some regards, but in others it’s startlingly easy.

I now know why many European/American polyglots fold all the romance languages into their repertoire: It’s an easy way to up your language number. So, when you see that someone speaks nine languages, it’s a good chance that a chunk will look like: French/English/Spanish/Portuguese, or Mandarin/Cantonese/Wu, or Tamil/Telugu/Gurmukhi/Hindi/Marathi, or Russian/Serbian/Romanian/Polish.

My problem has been the following: My repertoire was the following: English, Russian, Chinese, A.S.L., and I was looking to add on Korean. Now I know what I have to do.

Readjusted polyglot projection: Next two languages should be French and German or Portuguese.

This blog started out as my polyglot quest. It collapsed very quickly into just a blog about my learning Chinese. I can say now that I’m getting back on track.

French phrases today:

Aucune chance. – Not a chance.
Il fait vieux jeu! –
He looks so old fashioned!
Tu veaux dire… –
What you mean is…
C’est bon! Mais je n’en peux plus!!! –
Fine! But I can’t take any more!

Russian Cursive

On a forum I read recently a struggling learner was trying to figure out how to write the Cyrillic “D,” or Д. I found this conversation because I myself was desperately begging the internet to give me some sort of answer to the riddle. I’ve been writing print Cyrillic since I started learning Russian about nine years ago (nine wasted years…I should technically be fluent by now) and nobody stopped me.

To my consternation, I discovered, according to this one helpful poster, you don’t write the print Д because with Cyrillic you just don’t write print. You write cursive. Apparently, for everything.

I hated cursive growing up, citing it as a blight on human civilization, and resisted attempts to get me used to it. So I wrote print as a child, then in my teenage years I switched to cursive, then print, then back to cursive. Nowadays, I wrote both, but I primarily write checklists/headers/emphasized text in print, and body text in cursive.

In English, sometimes cursive gets a little sloppy. I was reading a letter handwritten by F. Scott Fitzgerald yesterday (The letter is here, if you want to try your hand (or eye) at deciphering it), and I was sort of amazed that I was able to read it. But that ability comes from a lifetime of living and operating in the English Language discourse, a lifetime of fieldwork.

Handwriting in Cyrillic is notorious because of the level of context required to distinguish letters. Many of the letters are simply loops, leading to an orthographic identity crisis when reading words like “Lemon” (лимон). Easier than English handwriting, or harder? I don’t know.

Like when dealing with Chinese homophones, if you don’t have an operable, neurological auto-fill system, cultivated by years of field experience, it’s going to be near impossible to distinguish м т и ц ш and щ when reading Cyrillic cursive.

If you want to know more about those Chinese homophones, check this out.

Nobody Can Read What I Write

It is said that only a select few individuals can read Heinrich Schliemann’s journals. This is because he knew* so many languages and wrote in all of them, a person would have to know about sixteen languages to read through all of his writings.

This will be the deal with my journals, once they discover them after I die (hopefully in some theatrical, euphoric catastrophe).

I used to journal in English and limited Tamil. Sometimes you can see snatches of Hindi in my old diaries, as well as a script I invented a few years ago. I tried to build the script so it’s just about as confusing as possible. It needs some adjustment, but it works for the most part. Nowadays, though, I mainly use English and sometimes go into Chinese if there’s a sentiment I really can’t express in English.

Chinese words I keep wanting to use in English conversations: 緣分, yuánfèn (fated relationships), 認真, rènzhen (sincerity, earnestness, diligence, etc.). Native Chinese speakers reading this: Am I on-point with these meanings?

Anyway, I plan on bettering my Russian in the near future, as well as dipping into French and Greek, so the journals will get more convoluted if things stay on track. Maybe if I’m lucky, jumping in and out of languages and my own disguised hand, someday nobody will be able to read what I write.

*I say “knew” loosely here. Nobody’s really sure how many languages Heinrich knew, nor to what extent. It’s very important because orthography and spoken language are not the same. I’m going to save this topic for another day.