Archives For Language

This is part II of my series of language learning strategy.  Read part I here.

In my view, the single most important thing to growing foreign language comprehension is the consumption of large amounts of comprehensible input.  Memorizing vocabulary words in isolation won’t get you far; it is far better to read and listen to language in a natural context, to get acclimated to the “flow” and hear how words and phrases are actually used.  In my “clear, hold, build” strategy, I call this “clearing.”  Your goal is to clear as much comprehensible input as possible.

This material should be at the “i+1″ level, where “i” is your current knowledge base.  In other words, you want to consume material that mostly consists of words you already know, but that also pushes you to the next level.

So where do you find new material to clear?

If you’re just beginning a new language, brute force memorization of vocabulary is probably inevitable.  However, there are better and worse ways to tackle this challenge.  I plan to explain my Anki flow in a future post, but it essentially goes like this: when I started Turkish, I create a word template with four fields: English, Turkish, EnglishExample, and TurkishExample.  My flashcards contain both the word and the example, and I strive to embed audio whenever possible.  The result, if done properly, is a flashcard deck with full-audio example sentences.  This deck is extremely versatile, because in the future it’s easy to experiment with different flashcard structures…. for example, cutting out the English entirely and simply showing the Turkish word on one side and the Turkish example sentence on the other.

As you are beginning your new language you can also look for phrases to memorize.  I am a huge fan of Pimsleur language courses as a first step in learning a new language, as these programs use the “i+1″ principle to help you clear a significant amount of material.  They are expensive, but your local library might have them.  Another good source of material is phrasebooks, especially ones that include audio CDs.  For example, In Flight Turkish is a 60-minute CD that consists entirely of common phrases and words.  You will need a system to memorize and practice the material, but the phrases themselves are perfect for “clearing.”  My preferred technique is to use Audacity to strip out the audio for individual phrases, then create flashcards for them in Anki.

As your knowledge grows, your options increase and also become significantly more interesting.  You will obviously want to look for material that suits your current skill level, but you can also use more challenging material if you can somehow make it comprehensible.  For listening texts, that means having access to a written transcript.  And for difficult written texts, it means having access to an English translation.  Such materials make up the majority of my Arabic intake.

BBC is a great place to start, because news articles are written in a simple, direct style with easy vocabulary.  A variety of web browser plugins will give you real-time translation of words or phrases that you don’t know, meaning that if you have a certain baseline skill level, almost any webpage can become comprehensible input.  The vast majority of my early Arabic learning came from reading BBC Arabic with a browser plugin.  I have used several, but my current plugin is Franker for Safari.  I also use the Franker app for my iPhone and iPad.

Don’t underestimate Google.  If you are learning about a specific topic, like getting around an airport, it’s easy to Google “مطار” or “havaalanı” and find websites for major airports.  You’ll certain to see many of your new vocabulary words in context.

Parallel texts are incredibly useful.  Most holy texts like the Bible and Qur’an are available in parallel languages.  Many foreign affairs-related reports, such as those from International Crisis Group, are available in multiple languages.  You can also find books written in parallel languages.  In Jordan I was thrilled to discover a vast series of classic English-language novels (many of them simplified for children, some not) translated into Arabic, with the two languages on facing pages.  They are even rated by difficulty level.  I amassed a huge collection of these novels, and they continue to play an important part in developing my reading comprehension.  I have yet to find anything similar in Turkish, although I did discover some bilingual children’s books in the DLI library.  I also have both the English and Turkish versions of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, so when my Turkish improves I could conceivably study with the two copies side by side.

When it comes to listening, I’m always on the lookout for material that has transcripts.  If you are in the military or are affiliated with a university, you likely have access to SCOLA, which publishes weekly mini-lessons in many languages. Each lesson includes an MP3 and MP4 news clip, a native transcript, an English transcript, and a vocabulary list.  These are perfect for comprehensible input.

Every once in a while you can stumble across a goldmine.  Rob of the now-defunct Arab Media Shack introduced me to the transcript collection on Al Jazeera.  The website has a huge collection of full-length TV episodes, with complete transcripts attached.  More recently, I was delighted to discover a huge repository of dialect clips with bilingual transcripts attached.

Movies with subtitles are another source of comprehensible input.  For example, the web TV series Beirut I Love You has dozens of short episodes in Lebanese, subtitled in English.  And although I could only find one episode with subtitles, the famous Turkish melodrama Gümüş is available on YouTube.  Another great resources is Viki, which lets users crowdsource subtitles for foreign-language movies, TV shows, and music videos.

Lastly, there is no substitute for spending time with native speakers, especially in native contexts.  A good language tutor or partner can make language comprehensible by offering explanations or clarifications when necessary.

With this post, I am beginning a practical new series on my strategy for learning languages.  After years of learning what does and doesn’t work for me with Arabic, this is the strategy I am pursuing with my newest language: Turkish.  I have written some about my Turkish journey here, but will use this series to go more in depth and to offer some practical methods for turning the strategy into action.

The Challenge of Strategy

When learning languages, half the battle is learning how to learn.  If we are genuinely immersed in a foreign language–and have no choice but to hear and speak it continuously–we tend to learn more naturally, but very few Americans ever have that opportunity.  Even if we live in a foreign country, English is so prevalent around the world that we often can’t escape it.  I was never immersed in Arabic for more than a few hours at a time when living in Jordan, despite my best efforts to do so, because so many Jordanians knew English and insisted on speaking it to me.  What this means is that very few Americans learn “naturally”, and most of us have to find artificial means of exposing ourselves to the target language.  We must pick and choose the right tactics to ensure that we learn.  Unfortunately, many tactics don’t work; we can invest a tremendous amount of time and energy in these tactics, only to burn out when we realize we aren’t progressing.  Furthermore, very few of us have a strategy to link these tactics together.  For years, my strategy was to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what stuck.

Anyone who has tried to learn a language has been there.  We do lessons in a book or Rosetta Stone or Livemocha, but can’t comprehend anything when we step into the real world.  We study flashcards, but forget our new words within 24 hours.  We read difficult passages that swamp us with new vocabulary, and write them down in notebooks or on flashcards, but never commit them to memory.  When we do learn words, we aren’t confident enough with their usage to employ them in conversation.  We try listening to the radio, but the language rushes past so fast that we despair of ever making real progress.  I’ve been there.  Often.

Two Key Insights

Two insights changed the way that I approach language learning.  First, we learn language by digesting comprehensible input.  This means reading or listening to texts that we can mostly understand, but that constantly push our boundaries.  If texts don’t challenge us, our growth stagnates.  But if texts are too difficult (that is, are incomprehensible) we simply don’t learn anything.  This principle is tied to the work of Stephen Krashen, who used the term “i+1″ to refer to ideal comprehensible input.  If a student knows “i” language, he or she should seek out material at the “i+1″ level: material that grows the language bubble just a little bit farther.

The second insight is that the basic unit of language is not the word, but the “chunk”–a phrase or sentence that we can reuse or modify.  This insight came from Donavan Nagel at the Mezzofanti Guild.  By learning chunks, we learn words in context and can be confident in their usage.  Chunks also have built-in grammar, so we can use them without memorizing tedious grammar rules.  Example chunks are “I am 32 years old” or “I would like to order chicken.”  Rather than memorize vocabulary lists, Nagel advocates starting a new language by studying phrase books.

The Strategy: Clear, Hold, Build

These two building insights helped me craft my current strategy, which I call “clear, hold, build”: terms that will be familiar to any military officer who has served in Afghanistan or Iraq, because they are shorthand for population-centric counterinsurgency strategy.

If insurgents are opposing a government, COIN forces need to begin by clearing the enemy from specific locations through intelligence work and military action.  Once a piece of territory is cleared, it must be held to prevent the enemy from regaining its lost ground.  That means leaving adequate troops in place to defend the territory against insurgent attacks.  Carelessness or inattentiveness at this stage could mean backsliding or even the loss of the territory again.  Finally, the COIN force must build up the territory; they must give it sufficient infrastructure, economic output, police/military power, and popular support that the COIN troops are no longer needed.  The process starts locally, in small pieces of territory, but the idea is that these territories become “oil spots” that can spread outward, bringing law and order and governance until they eventually encompass the entire population.

For a more visual depiction of this strategy, think back to all those great games like Civilization or Warcraft/Starcraft, where you start a new game by looking at a vast black map that is waiting to be explored.  You move your explorer or settler about, gradually revealing the contents of adjacent tiles.  As the game progresses and you gain more units, you can see more of the board.  You clear territory by exploring and fighting enemies.  You hold it by defending your territory against enemy attacks; at this stage, you can lose territory quickly if you don’t defend it, and your visibility of the game map will diminish if you don’t keep your units roaming about.  Finally, you build up your territory with new facilities and more troops, until your core territories are so strong that they are impervious to any attack except a full-blown military invasion.  You no longer worry about seeing the game map in these territories, because they are so fortified that you have 24/7 visibility of what’s happening there.  Clear, hold, build–and repeat until you have dominated the entire world.

With this military strategy in mind, let’s get back to language.  When I started learning Turkish, I was looking at a black, unexplored screen.  Step 1 was to clear some territory.  My first foray into the language came with Pimsleur’s Turkish audio course; by the time I had finished lesson 1, I’d revealed a few tiles of the map… phrases like “Excuse me” and “Do you know English?”  Step 2 was to hold that territory.  If I waited too long before reviewing those phrases, the tiles would disappear back into the darkness.  I needed to keep roaming around that territory, reviewing and using the phrases whenever possible.  Fortunately, Pimsleur does an excellent job of reviewing previous material, so by keeping up with my lessons each day I was able to hold newly gained territory.  If I did let too much time go by between lessons and began to forget, I skipped back a few days and reviewed lessons.  Finally, step three was to build… by employing my newly-gained phrases in real conversation, and reading and listening to dialogs using these phrases (because I’m focusing on comprehension at this point I’m doing more of the latter than the former).

The strategy encompasses the two principles I mentioned above.  I am always on the lookout for “i+1″ material, that is mostly comprehensible but that pushes the limits of my ability.  Also, when I am clearing new material, I try to focus on “chunks” rather than mere words.

This is how I am learning Turkish and improving my Arabic; it is how you can learn too.  Do that first lesson.  Clear, hold, and build.  After that, repeat.  And repeat again.  Over and over and over, rain or shine, in sickness or in health, when you’re feeling like a language rockstar and when you want nothing more than to burn all your language books and dance around the fire.  If you stick with this process every day, you will get better.

The strategy is simple in theory, but we all know it gets complicated in practice.  How fast should we clear new territory?  How do we find territory to clear, which is neither too difficult nor too easy?  How can we hold territory, when we struggle so hard to remember new vocabulary?  How should we allocate our time between holding old material and clearing new material?

I will tackle some of these practical questions in coming posts.  For now, I’ll just say this: keep the strategy at the forefront of your mind.  I’ve found that when I get derailed, it’s usually because I’ve lost sight of the basics.

Much more in posts to come.

I have spent years searching for the holy grail of language flashcards.  I have experimented with different paper flashcard systems, tried almost every flashcard software program in existence, and even spent an inordinate amount of time trying to create my own–until I finally admitted I didn’t have the time for it.  When I wrote my April post on language learning on the iPad, I still hadn’t found a solution I really liked.

When I began studying Turkish I settled on Anki, which most hardcore language learners seemed to prefer.  I had repeatedly tried to use Anki in the past but couldn’t get past its clunky interface.  This time I stuck with it, climbed the steep learning curve, and gradually realized Anki’s tremendous power.  Although aspects of the program remained frustrating, it became a cornerstone of my Turkish education.

A few days ago I discovered that Anki 2.0 has finally been released.  All I can say is, “Wow!”  After all those years of searching, I have finally found the perfect vocabulary resource.  The software has been rebuilt from scratch, and the new version addresses almost every one of my complaints.  The interface is much cleaner, synchronization and media file storage are improved, and the program has a much better algorithm for learning new words in addition to retaining old ones.  The mobile version makes it easy to add new words, meaning I can now do almost all of my language learning on my iPad.   Anki 2.0 is still an engineer’s contraption, and it takes a lot of experimentation to master the more arcane features, but these same features are what make it so customizable and powerful.

If you’re a language learner and have never tried Anki, go check it out.  The desktop versions are free.  The iOS version is pricey for an iOS app (currently $24.99), but well worth it if you decide to embrace Anki for your vocabulary management.

Good Levantine Arabic resources are hard to find, and as anyone knows who has lived in the region, there are different grades of dialect.  Unless you spend a LOT of time with groups of native speaker friends, it’s exceptionally difficult to learn what one Jordanian friend called “the bottom of the slang.” Natives just don’t speak to you as a foreigner like they do to each other. 

That’s why I was so happy to discover a Lebanese web series called Beirut I Love You (hat tip to The Arabist).  It consists of short, high-quality, free episodes that follow a group of friends through their lives in Beirut.  This is real dialect.  And the best part?  Every episode is fully subtitled in English.  

Learning a new language is one of the world’s most difficult journeys.  It requires years of toil and patient determination.  Payoff usually comes slowly.  The way is not well-marked, so the journey requires frequent treks up false trails, demoralizing backtracking, and constant experimentation to find new routes.  Reliable guides are few and far between.  Their guidance can be confusing and contradictory, and every traveler’s path looks different.

I made so many mistakes when learning Arabic, and wasted an extraordinary amount of time on learning strategies that brought little return.  I have often reflected on what I would do differently if I could start all over again.  Now I’m getting that chance… sort of.  Two months ago I began learning Turkish.

This time around, I was determined to get my strategies right from the beginning.  They are far from perfect, and I’m always tinkering with my study regimen, but on the whole my experience learning Turkish has been far better than learning Arabic.  I have a passive vocabulary of roughly 1600 words (meaning I can recognize them), have a basic grasp of most common grammar, and can follow the main ideas of BBC articles.  I’m making constant forward progress, and my comprehension is improving each day.

Everybody learns differently, so I don’t claim any special authority on the subject.  I know others will vehemently disagree with my methods.  So much of language acquisition depends on personality and learning styles.  I’m much more comfortable with books and ideas than with socializing, and my learning style reflects that.  But for those who are interested in hearing, I’ll share a few of the principles I learned with Arabic and am now applying to Turkish.  Take them or leave them, as you will.

1. Set specific goals.  Language consists of many different skills, and students can get bogged down if they don’t know what they’re trying to achieve.  Overall proficiency in the four major skills (reading, listening, speaking, writing) is desirable, but not necessarily required.  For Turkish, I set a very limited goal at this stage: I want to learn to read, because for me personally, reading is the fastest way to build overall language comprehension and is a necessary prerequisite to being able to listen, speak, and write.  Also, during this early stage, I wanted to learn the fundamentals of grammar.  I am slowly working in some listening, and at some point, I will switch to a new phase and focus on speaking.

2. Have a strategy for managing a rapidly growing vocabulary.  This was my single biggest problem with Arabic.  I need constant repetition (i.e. flashcards) to learn new words and review old ones, but in four years I’ve never had a single system–mainly because I never found a system that worked for me.  I tried most of the software on the market.  I used flashcards.  I wrote in pocket-sized notebooks, large spiral-bound ones, and in the margins of texts.  Because I was never consistent, my vocabulary is scattered everywhere and I never learned many of the words.  I wasted a colossal amount of time and energy.

I was determined to get vocabulary right with Turkish.  Serious language learners seem to prefer a spaced repetition software (SRS) program called Anki, so despite my misgivings about the program’s clunkiness, I made myself learn it–and have now grown to really like it.  From Day 1 of Turkish, every new word I’ve learned has gone into the program.  Because my goal at this stage is reading, I only have Anki quiz me passively: the software presents words in Turkish, and I answer in English.  Each day the software quizzes me on new words and reviews old ones, with a review schedule based on how well I know each word.  For each card, I customized Anki to include the English word, the Turkish word, an example sentence in both languages, and Turkish audio.  The system is working well so far.  Reviewing vocabulary in Anki is tedious, but for me it’s essential–especially in the early stages of language acquisition.

3. The best way to learn is comprehensible authentic material. When I started Arabic, I spent most of my time drilling vocabulary, doing boring exercises in my curriculum, and looking up countless unfamiliar words in a paper dictionary.  My biggest change in strategy came around the five-month point, when I realized that I learned and retained far more if I devoured BBC articles and used a Firefox plugin to translate unfamiliar words as I went.  I could consume much more material and get comfortable with the language in real contexts.  I’ve never looked back, although my consumption has grown to include more complicated news sources, radio stations, and TV shows.  Apparently, research shows that consuming comprehensible input is the best way to develop language skills.

4. That being said, the first stage of language learning involves reaching the point that authentic material becomes accessible–as quickly as possible.  A key word in principle #3 is “comprehensible”; authentic material is only useful if you understand a decent portion of it.  So the best way to learn a language is through consuming authentic material, but you need a certain baseline in the language before authentic material becomes accessible.  How do you break out of this trap?  My personal conclusion is that the first stage of language learning is substantially different from everything that follows; it requires tedious things like a curriculum, lots of vocabulary memorization and drilling, and grammar.  My goal at this stage is to reach the critical mass where authentic material becomes accessible; at that point, I can thankfully back away from the tedious, old-school methods and focus on more enjoyable tasks like reading authentic material

I see this shift as the first big milestone in language learning; once a student can access authentic material, learning occurs more rapidly, vocabulary gets committed to deep memory, and the language becomes less perishable.  The bad news is that the opposite holds true in the early stage; knowledge gained by rote memorization perishes quickly.  The student needs to study and maintain forward motion every day; to stand still means rapid backsliding.  One reason I think some students get frustrated, burn out, and believe they are incapable of learning language is that they never leave this first stage.

By the way, everything I just wrote about “comprehensible input” applies to speaking as well.  Just like interacting with authentic texts, using the language in real conversation will bring it to life and commit it to long-term memory.

5. Have a plan to get through that early stage, and stick to it.  This means acquiring the best resources available for a given language, which will include things like a good curriculum, dictionary, and grammar reference.  A good curriculum will walk you from zero to the point that you can use authentic material; it will progressively expand your vocabulary and knowledge, and give you lots of comprehensible reading and listening practice commensurate with your skill level. Whatever you choose, the most important thing is to stick with it–you need to grow your knowledge systematically, preferably by studying each and every day and mastering one unit before moving onto the next.

6. Use multiple lines of approach.  I have found it helpful to use more than one resource, because different resources can illuminate one other.  When I see a new word or grammar principle from more than one angle, it reinforces that knowledge.  For Turkish, I chose four main resources: a Pimsleur audio course, Teach Yourself Turkish, a grammar book called Elementary Turkish that includes exercises, and Rosetta Stone.  In my opinion, Pimsleur is the single best resource for learning to speak.  Teach Yourself Turkish was inexpensive and portable; although it isn’t a full curriculum, it seemed like a good initial resource.  The grammar book elaborated on Teach Yourself.  Rosetta Stone is highly overrated and a terrible resource for learning a language if you use it in isolation, but it’s good as a supplement; it is interesting, progressively builds your vocabulary, and most importantly develops your ear for the language.  As a member of the military, I was able to get a free license from Joint Language University.  I’ve just about exhausted the two books I’m using, so ordered the full Yeni Hitit curriculum, which has a solid reputation.

7. Even during the early stage, use authentic material to cement knowledge.  It’s Day One, you have a vocabulary of five words, and you learned that make plurals by adding “lar” or “ler” to a noun.  Great.  There’s no way you can approach authentic material yet, right?  Actually, there is.  Log onto BBC Turkish, open an article at random, and look for plural nouns.  You won’t have any idea what the article says, but you’ll master the concept of the plural noun and recognize it in context.  Do this every day, looking for familiar words, phrases, and grammar points, and your comprehension will grow quickly.

I should also mention that parallel texts (a text in both your native and target language) can help, because they make even difficult texts immediately accessible.  A great resource for this is SCOLA, which provides weekly lessons consisting of a brief news clip and a transcript in both English and the target language.  Other popular sources include religious texts and translations of stories or novels.  I just ordered a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s excellent novel Snow, which I previously read in English.  I am nowhere near being able to read it in Turkish, but it will give me a high bar to aim for.

Yesterday I discovered a great resource for language learning: Viki, an award-winning start-up that crowdsources translation of video subtitles.  You specify a language or country, and are presented with a list of publicly available movies, music videos, and TV shows.  You can then watch the show with subtitles in the language of your choice.  An interactive subtitle editor lets users add or modify subtitles as they go.

I haven’t spent a lot of time here yet, but have already found some great Arabic resources.

Lt. Col. Lloyd Freeman, a Turkish Foreign Area Officer (FAO) and former Marine Attache to Turkey has written an important but unsettling critique of his service’s FAO program.  Although Freeman found being a FAO personally rewarding, he questions what value the Marines actually get out of the program–especially when alternative sources of cultural and linguistic knowledge are already available.

Much of the critique revolves around career management.  In the Army, FAOs actually retrain into a new branch and spend the rest of their careers doing FAO-related assignments.  In the Marines, after an extensive three-year training program as FAOs, they then return to the Operating Forces for several years before serving in a FAO “payback” tour.  After this single tour, a FAO “is usually at a career juncture where he will either be selected for command or start to look at retirement. Either way, it is highly unlikely that an FAO will ever serve again in an FAO billet.”  That’s not a great return. 

Freeman also notes that although FAOs are well-trained, they have neither the language capability to match native translators nor the regional expertise to match dedicated scholars or intelligence officers.  When commanders need knowledge, in all probability they will turn to resources like these–and not to the FAO force.

This article caught my eye, because the Air Force’s Regional Affairs Specialist (RAS) program functions the same way as the Marine FAO program.  We are supposed to alternate between assignments in our primary careers field and RAS assignments.  The problem is that there just isn’t enough time in a career to do both well.  I’m personally wrestling with that tension right now, as I try to map out where my career is headed.

I don’t necessarily think Freeman is right, or has the whole truth; from what I’ve seen, FAOs do serve a critical role and the best of them eventually go on to become genuine regional experts.  But this article raises important questions that deserve reflection.

I’m always on the lookout for language learning resources, and have tried just about every program I can find to make my Arabic learning more efficient.  Here are some of my favorite apps to derive maximum benefit from an iPad or smartphone.
1) TuneIn Radio Pro.  This app lets you listen to radio stations all over the world, in virtually any language.  I’ve logged countless hours on BBC Arabic, and enjoy listening to Arabic music from across the region.  If you pay for the Pro version, you can even record and playback.  This is perfect for language learning, when repetition is necessary to build comprehension.
2) Franker.   I am a big fan of translation plugins for web browsers, which let you translate individual words or sentences.  Once you have the comprehension to understand the majority of an article, these plugins let you quickly identify the words or phrases you don’t know.  Instead of trolling through a dictionary, you can spend the majority of your time actually reading in the native language.  Look-ups are instantaneous.  Unfortunately the closed nature of iPad apps means that translation plugins don’t and can’t really exist.  However, Franker is the next best thing I’ve out.  The app has a self-contained web browser, in which you can highlight text and get an instant translation.  My only gripe is that the formatting for right-to-left languages gets messed up, although it is still intelligible.
3) Tap Translate.  This isn’t really an app; it is a pricey means of installing a bookmarklet in Safari, which then lets you translate a single word instantaneously by clicking on it.  It does more or less what I described above, but only for single words.  The advantage is that works seamlessly with Safari.
4) Vocabulary management.  I have spent years looking for a vocabulary app that I actually like, and have yet to find it.  There are some very powerful tools out there, but each one has a critical weakness, which is why I’ve spent years trying to write my own.  Unfortunately I don’t have the time to finish it, so I’m stuck using the imperfect tools already in existence.  Here are a few of the best ones:
4a) Byki.  Byki is the civilian version of RapidRote, which is the vocabulary software that the DOD utilizes.  It is an atrocious piece of software, suffering from all the bloat and the lack of innovation that you would expect from a company with a lucrative government contract.  It is slow and cumbersome, does not sync between devices, has no spaced repetition system (SRS) for reviewing past vocabulary, and forces you to pay for a separate copy of the software for each language you want to learn.  However, it has the best algorithm I’ve encountered for learning new lists of words.  As much as I despise RapidRote/Byki, I’ve never found a better solution for learning vocab.  Also, military members can download vast amounts of vocabulary lists for free from the company website (which you can access from Joint Language University).  Unfortunately, it is expensive and time-consuming if you want to get this vocabulary onto your mobile device.  You must buy Byki Deluxe (the expensive civilian version of RapidRote), go through a cumbersome browser-based process to upload each list to Byki’s servers, then re-download them onto your mobile device.  I still use Byki to learn new wordlists and study new languages.
4b) Mental Case.  Mental Case is an elegant program for Mac OS/iPhone/iPad that hints at what Byki/RapidRote should be.  Syncing could be improved, but is far better than with Byki.  The interface is attractive and inputting new words is easy.  My complaint is that the scheduling and quizzing of words is confusing, and is designed to fit the programmer’s very specific vision for how his software should be used.  I don’t particularly like the quizzing interface or algorithm.
4c) Anki.  Most hard-core polyglots who use vocabulary software seem to prefer Anki.  Instead of teaching you individual lists of words like Byki, it is designed to manage enormous, constantly-growing vocabulary sets using a spaced repetition system.  It has versions for almost any hardware platform you can imagine, and the syncing works well once you set it up with Dropbox.  The software seems extremely powerful, but I’ve never felt comfortable with it for two reasons: (1) the interface was designed by an engineer and feels like a complicated machine, not an elegant piece of software and (2) although its algorithm is excellent for retaining words, it is poor for learning new words.  Most people who use Anki for retention use a different solution for learning new words.
4d) Numbers.  I’ve gotten so frustrated fiddling with SRS software that I’ve just started logging new vocabulary in Numbers, the spreadsheet app that is part of Apple’s iWork suite.  It is a simple and elegant app, syncs seamlessly with iCloud, and makes it easy to export vocabulary into SRS software later.
5) Easy YouTube Video Downloader.  This isn’t an iPad app, but a Firefox plugin for your computer.  It adds a “Download” button to every YouTube video, which allows you to save the video in an .MP4 format that you can save onto our iPad.  I have built up a large collection of Arabic clips this way.
6) GoodReader.  This is one of the best PDF readers out there, and is perfect for reading foreign texts or parallel texts.  
7) iQuran HD.  This is a great app for Arabic, because it lets you view multiple English translations of the Quran parallel to the Arabic text.  It also allows you to hear various various recitations.
One of the reasons Arabic is so difficult is that most schools teach formal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), but Arabs almost universally speak in dialects that are substantially different.  Quality resources for these dialects are hard to come by.  If you’re a visual learner who needs to see explanations laid out on paper, likes to understand grammar, and looks up new words in dictionaries, Arabic dialects pose a formidable challenge.

So I was thrilled to stumble across a blog called The Arabic Student, which offers mini-lessons in Levantine dialect by walking through audio or video clips.  Each lesson contains a transcript with a glossary of new words and, more importantly, how they are used.

The most recent post is great, and might be of interest even for the non-native speakers: a study of an anti-Bashar al-Asad chant/song that is circulating in Syria.  Bonus: learn some useful nuts and bolts of the Arabic language, like the difference between “screw you” and “F*** you”.

As I resume blogging, one big change will be more posts specifically about foreign language learning–and Arabic in particular.  Why?  Arabic is now one of my main professional competencies.  Given that my goal with Building Peace is to multiply the impact of my education, it only makes sense that I share what I’ve learned about foreign language.

In the past I’ve refrained from writing language-learning posts, because they aren’t relevant to many of my readers.  I used to maintain a separate blog specifically for discussing Arabic, but it was too difficult to maintain two websites and a fragmented online identity.  I’d rather just put everything in one place.  So if these posts aren’t of interest you, please just bear with me.

However, the more I think about it, the more I think that readers should be interested in these posts.  Why?  There are many reasons to learn a foreign language, but here is another one.  If John Robb and others are right, our political, social, and economic systems are in total upheaval.  The 2008 financial crisis was only the beginning, and the Occupy Movement is a harbinger of worse things to come.  Wealth is mostly flowing to the upper crust of society, income disparity is worsening, and jobs are disappearing.  Unfortunately, there is no going back to the carer model our parents and grandparents grew up with.  To make things worse, the super-empowerment of individuals and small groups means that they can disrupt the systems and networks that we depend on every day, adding to the volatility.  In such a sink-or-swim world, resilience is a vital characteristic of both individuals and communities.  People can thrive in such a turbulent world, but only if they have the resilience to recognize change and quickly adapt to it.

Robb has had a great series of posts recently about developing personal resilience, such as this one about building a global brand.  Critical to personal resilience is continuous education.  Resilient individuals need to acquire and develop multiple skills that will strengthen their personal brand, generate income, meet needs in their local communities, and help them stand out in a fiercely competitive job market.  The ability to speak a foreign language is just such a skill.  Not only does it have intrinsic value, it can multiply the value of your other professional skills: business, technology, military service, you name it.

I hope these posts will be useful to those who are already undertaking the long journey of learning a foreign language.  But I also hope they provide some guidance and encouragement for those who would like to learn a language, but have never taken the plunge… or who feel that a foreign language is beyond their reach.