How An Encounter With Tibetan Monks Inspired Christine To Learn Three New Languages

What is it that makes me so happy about language learning?

It's not just about showing that the human brain is capable of miraculous feats. It's also about using language as a lmetaphor for understanding other people.

When Fluent reader Christine McKenna contacted me by email with her story, I was drawn to it immediately. She speaks of language changing her perspective, and tells a story of how incredible it is to dive in and let your studies lead you to a new life. Christine is a yoga teacher living in the US, and has been studying languages for more than a decade.

Her language choices are Tibetan, Sanskrit and French. Intrigued? Then read on to find out how she connected to those languages.

If you're curious about diving into the languages mentioned in this post, you can download a little bonus page full of great resources from Christine and me. Click the button to get our recommendations.

It Started With Tibetan Monks

Before my current life as a yoga teacher, I was a software developer for 23 years.

In middle age, I developed an interest in broadening my horizons to something beyond full-time engagement with technology. I encountered Tibetan monks who had come to perform rituals at the Sackler Museum of Asian Art in Washington, DC. They explained that they lived in India as refugees.

This was late 2001 and they were doing a healing ritual for Americans after the 9/11 attacks. Impressed by their generosity. These people lived as refugees, yet were concerned for us! 

Exploring further, I met a translator and teacher of Tibetan philosophy who said there were linguistic and cultural nuances that were difficult or impossible to communicate in English. Drawn to find out more about this phenomenon, I began to study Tibetan language.

After a few starting pains (there are many dialects and variants), I found my solid grounding in literary Tibetan. Later I went to India and lived in a Tibetan refugee community. I took courses, helped out with various tasks (teaching technical skills, editing English translations), and developed my spoken Tibetan. After about eight months, I traveled to Nepal, to live in Tibetan communities and study.

My most engaging learning occurred while listening to conversations in public places. In Tibetan communities in India and Nepal, Tibetan conversations would flow freely as I visited teahouses and other public places. I was listening for cultural assumptions and how the language was being used. Listening was easier for me than constructing sentences of my own, so this helped move my skills along.

After I had learned a certain amount, I decided to take my next steps in conversation and scholarship. I returned to the US and a move to the East Coast gave me the opportunity to study Tibetan and Sanskrit at the University of Virginia.

Next Steps: Sanskrit and French

As part of my History of Asian Religions degree, I found myself adding more languages, too. I took up Sanskrit to better understand literary Tibetan.

While exploring history and availability of Tibetan-language manuscripts, I realized considerable research had been published in French! The French have a long history of Oriental studies - you need only visit the Website of Bibliothèque nationale de France and enter tibetain in the search to find out more. So after a while, I became persuaded I should study French to be the best and most responsible researcher for the history of Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhism.

In the university environment, I was typically more than twice the age of the next-oldest student in my classes. This was not a problem; I never felt out-of-place. I seemed to have fewer social distractions, knew exactly what I wanted from each class and remained very focused. Contrary to stereotype, I was often more comfortable with technology than some of my classmates. I seemed to be the only one in my French class to prefer an electronic dictionary to the traditional printed versions.

Language and Culture

In the Tibetan community, I encountered a philosophy and culture in which compassion is emphasized.

This shows itself in the language in wonderful ways: Verb tense and aspect differ significantly from English, in ways I hadn't imagined. Initially, I would ask a bilingual Tibetan, "How would I say [something or other] in Tibetan?" and they would respond "You wouldn't."

Puzzling, but I finally understood that the world-view is significantly different and the language corresponds to that. Also some distinctions have historically not arisen; Tibetans have black hair, and there are traditionally only two words for hair color, black and what they were calling “blonde”. I was informed that my dark-brown locks are blonde for their purposes.

Tibetan Poems and Proverbs

Tibetan Poems and Proverbs

To immerse oneself in traditional Tibetan writings is to immerse oneself in a culture that values kindness and compassion over material concerns that pervade English language. This is not to say all Tibetans are saints or that I have not encounter Tibetans behaving badly. However, I find the mainstream culture inspiring. The centers of learning have long been monasteries; the head of government until very recently was also a spiritual leader--the Dalai Lama, said to embody compassion. Meditative practices are part of the culture.

To immerse oneself in traditional Tibetan literature, and much of their modern media is, typically, an effective way to pause and creatively re-direct thoughts based on Western cultural biases.

Everyday Language Immersion

There is much more I’d like to learn about these languages and the cultures they express! Right now I type most of my notes in Tibetan and Sanskrit; I would like to spend more time on hand-writing and calligraphy.

I often choose to immerse in language, sometimes simply crossing the border and spending time with French Canadians, or with Tibetan refugees in the U.S. or abroad. I may spend a day at home watching videos and reading books in a particular language, and I find that fluency develops - or resurfaces - and I lose some cultural baggage. Languages make me better at taking a new perspective.

Currently, I need to stay close to home, with little opportunity to travel. However, spending a day totally immersed in French or Tibetan - videos, reading, writing, even thinking in a chosen language - feels like a vacation because I make a mental shift. I also have occasional access to a Tibetan language conversation partner, or can video chat with one of my French Canadian friends.

Start Learning Tibetan and Sanskrit

Have you studied any of these ancient Asian languages? What is your experience with the compassionate world view of Tibetan culture?

If this story has made you curious to try out the languages for yourself, don't forget that you can get Christine's recommendations as a bonus to this post right here.

Taming the Dragon: My 3-Month Welsh Language Learning Update

Welcome to my first progress report on my own language study. It's pretty comprehensive and longer than my usual blog articles, so I figured we'll just jump in!

welsh language

First of all, let me give you a quick impression of how the past 3 months have gone:

  • I've been spending 1-3 hours per week on my Welsh studies, sometimes a little more and sometimes a little less
  • I've been combining a good bunch of resources and several people who talked to me in Welsh
  • I'm feeling really positive about my progress and where I'm headed

3 Month Progress

One of the best ways of tracking my language learning progress is blogging about it, which is probably the only way that I know how long I've been at this.

So here's where I'm at: I didn't seriously start learning Welsh until I returned from honeymoon in September. So that makes it about 3 months of study, the often-cited time it takes to build a habit. And I'm shocked at how much progress I have made.

Here is an in-depth update of exactly what has been going on, and how I'm feeling about my 4 core skills.

Understanding Welsh

Understanding groups listening and reading, and I feel significant progress particularly in understanding spoken Welsh. Don't get me wrong. I've still got absolutely no clue what is going on when people talk at normal speed, or when I'm watching TV in Welsh.

But I've been repeating my input and training myself to pick out the words that I do know, and it's made a big difference.

For example:

  • I am beginning to anticipate Welsh words based on the English subtitles in TV shows or on Youtube (if you want to know which shows I like, listen to podcast episode 31)
  • Understanding and spotting patterns that occur regularly in Welsh is becoming easier as well, which means I'm now able to know where sentences start and end, and if they're in future, past, or present tense

In the coming months, I would love to be able to understand more social media posts in Welsh. Lucky for me, most Welsh speakers are bilingual (Welsh/English) and post in both languages.

The progress goal here will be to recognise and know more nouns and patterns, which I can study just by tracking what I look up in the dictionary.

Speaking Welsh

I've called this section "speaking", but I actually mean producing language in both speaking and writing. Here again, I feel like my progress has been awesome.

I'm absolutely ready to speak Welsh at any time. Sure, it will be terrible Welsh. It will be full of mistakes, and I'll last about 20 seconds without an English word.

But none of that matters. It isn't about the quality of my speaking. It's about doing it over and over again, little and often.

2 weeks ago, we went out for drinks with some new people. One of them turns out to be Welsh and we started talking. I wasn't Shakespeare, but I managed to ask her if she wants a drink, talk about my studies and a little bit about where I'm from. Respectable progress for 3 months of slow burn study!

In the coming months, my next goal is that I'd like to speak Welsh on the phone. Calling up a B&B or a language school with an enquiry is a simple enough task, but it has instant feedback in case I can't get my words out.

Here's How I've Been Studying My Language

  • Community Class

I went to a class called Clwb Siârad in Preston, where I met a great mix of native speakers and language learners. The most amazing thing about Welsh Club is the fact that they're "offline polyglots" - a large group of language lovers in my county that I never knew about. The Welsh learners were speaking and learning more than just Welsh, so that our lesson ended up featuring 6 languages altogether.

  • 1-to-1 Tuition

Working with a 1-to-1 tutor is a huge benefit to my speaking skills! I've not been able to commit to weekly lessons, but decided not to let that stop me. Instead, I book a session with Mererid around once a month to top up and consolidate what I've been working on.

I learn something new in every tutoring session, and always come away feeling inspired and positive.

This podcast is currently my main speaking resource, and prompts the listener to speak continuously and right from the start. I worked with this concept before when I tried Michel Thomas, but this system of focusing entirely on patterns is easier to follow and more effective in my mind.

Main downside: I've got to find vocabulary resources for words somewhere else, meaning it trains patterns and structure way before it adds many words.

  • Instagram

Believe it or not, Instagram is a regular place for me to get just a little bit of Welsh language and practice what I'm doing. I've started giving every post a level of "added" Welsh by talking about the photo in both English and Welsh. The kind community of Instagram users out there (especially #iglc folks) has been great at helping me with corrections.

In the coming months, I also want to add the Cwrs Mynediad book, which I downloaded as a £5 app for my iphone. And of course, there's that Duolingo thing which has now got the Welsh language. I am not a big Duolingo fan, but happy to give it a try.

A Problem I Need to Solve: No Study Corner

When I'm at my laptop, my mind switches into work mode and language learning is more difficult (priming affects how we learn languages). I can tell I'm more engaged and make better progress when I am studying differently, on the couch or the stairs.

This explains why building my Memrise course and watching the BBC videos has fallen behind - both of those only work on a desktop AFAIK.

In the next month, I want to find a study corner in my house. It won't be easy, because my house is pretty tiny, but with some creativity I think the Welsh corner is going to be a great resource.

All in All: A Feeling of Ease

Welsh is the first language that I am truly teaching myself, without attending any regular group classes. It's also the most modern self-taught process I've ever used, because most of my first languages were studied in school in the 90s when mobile phones looked like this:

90s mobile phone

I'm wondering what exactly is different between this language and Russian, my previous experiment. Russian had the added difficulty of Cyrillic, so it was slightly less accessible. I also didn't feel the same level of curiosity in the end - Wales and Welsh are more exciting to me right now, and that is an entirely personal thing.

And ultimately, the materials and speakers I've worked with are just so supportive and welcoming. They are what's made my studies feel easy, and I think a feeling of ease is the key to keeping going.

Overall, I feel like things are going well. I have regular success moments, even tiny things like completing an episode of my study podcast. Those are the key to keeping going, because I never feel like I'm stuck.

Saying I'm feeling ease does not mean I'm actually "good at Welsh" yet. It just means that I'm feeling progress without frustration. But ultimately, my goals and results belong to me and this is exactly the result I am happy with.

Book to Try: Fluency Made Achievable

If you're learning a language and you haven't read my book Fluency Made Achievable yet, check it out today. Fluency Made Achievable is my guide to what it takes to learn a language and do what's necessary for achieving that feeling of ease and fluency.

It goes into depth about those 4 core skills and helps you understand why they matter and how you can create easy routines for yourself in language learning.

And now that I'm learning a new language again, I can tell even more just how useful it is to get your practice right and I want you to benefit from the same insights.

If you do own the book already, let me know how you used it in your own learning routine in the comments below!

And of course, please share your thoughts and updates on YOUR language learning routines. In other words, I invite you to comment on this post and tell me more about your own studies. I love hearing what you're up to!

Building a Language Foundation with Apps: Babbel and Duolingo

If you're a Fluent regular, you'll be familiar with my regular guest author Angel Armstead, who is ambitious and varies her studies by learning German, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. Angel has been focusing on German recently and is on hand today with her own experience report of two leading apps, Duolingo and Babbel.

In this article, she shares the frustrations and benefits of using apps to get a first language foundation.

babbel duolingo

My Language App Choices

I decided late last year to look up German language apps and courses. I came across both Babbel, Duolingo and many others. A lot of apps were just teaching vocabulary which I also need but some didn’t have any sentences so they didn’t keep my attention for long. I eventually decided to go for a Duolingo/Babbel combo and see how that would work.

I heard of Duolingo back when it was still new, and started off with some doubts. I just didn’t believe that it was really 100% free. I assumed that I would do a few lessons and like everything else it would eventually ask for my credit card number. The small amount of languages turned me off. They’re getting Russian soon and hopefully Japanese & Mandarin. Its game-like features also had me wondering if I would learn anything.

In December last year I decided to try it out after getting Pimsleur German from the library. I could understand what was being said in Pimsleur but I was sure that I couldn’t spell any of the words. That’s when I decided to try out Duolingo because I knew they had German. On closer examination, another objection was answered too: I did find out from other users that there were no hidden fees. Duolingo being free was my main reason for trying it out.

First Impressions of Duolingo

When I first signed up, I had decided that I would only be around for a few days then I would move on to something else. Duolingo has an RPG feel, which I liked a lot since those are my favorite games. You get to earn points, level up and buy things with the currency (lingots) that you earn. But I still didn’t expect to do more than just a week because I didn’t expect to learn anything. Within the first few days I learnt a few new words and sentences here and there. I confirmed that I totally couldn’t spell those words. I do like being able to take timed tests to see how fast I can answer a question.  And now, I’m still going with Duolingo. It has become extremely addictive to have RPG aspects plus learning on the same site. It’s the same aspect that keeps me addicted to sites such as HabitRPG.

Duolingo has Skills that you learn and some skills have up to 10 or more lessons. Skills are things such as “Basics” “Food” “Phrases” and a lot more. Duolingo German currently has over 70 skills. I have a long ways to go due to my study for a few days then review for a few days habit. I won’t be finishing my “Skill” tree for quite some time. The lessons seems so short and they are but it’s amazing how many mistakes I can make in such a short lesson. Duolingo has optional skills such as Flirting, Idioms & Christmas that you can buy with the lingots that you earn. I’ve decided to do all the optional skills last.

First Impressions of Babbel

I didn’t have the same negative assumptions toward Babbel as I did with Duolingo. The few people I talked to that used it said they learned a lot of vocabulary and were more confident in the language they were learning. But I wanted more than just the vocab part, so I ordered the three month course last month while they were offering 6 months for the price of 3. I found Babbel just by putting in German language in my Kindle Fire app store. I got Babbel after I started Duolingo and originally was getting it to have something to reinforce what I was learning from Duolingo. I also wanted to learn through different teaching methods.

One thing I noticed straight away is that Babbel is not as game oriented as Duolingo. There are many courses once you pay the fee. I’ve started with the Beginners course and there are 6 beginners courses in all with various lessons in each course. I’ve gone over how to greet someone, ask simple questions and practice dialogues. I’ve even printed out all my dialogues so far.

I love that you have a review lesson to go over those things. When you complete a course, Babbel lets you know what you should know and where it falls in CEFR. Duolingo is fun but I needed more explanation. I needed to know why some things were wrong. I couldn’t understand the German case system at first and wondered why der forms sometimes would change to den. With Babbel, I had to practice going over when to use der or den. I had the same problem with the different ways I saw sie being used. I got it wrong so much in the beginning but now I rarely do. One thing I like about Babbel are the certificates for each course you complete. Maybe I’m a bit of a showoff? This is something I would print out and frame so I can feel a little accomplished even if it’s simply the beginner’s course.

What I like Best about Duolingo & Babbel

I love the RPG aspect of Duolingo such as the leveling up, gaining lingots and “buying” timed tests. I retain a lot more than I expected that I would.  I like Babbel because I feel like it explains things more in depth and is a bit more serious. There are parts of Babbel where I had a whole page of practicing forms.

Once you’ve been put through such a long exercise of practicing all the forms for You, Me and I, you’ll find that they are way harder to forget.

Frustrations with Both

No site is perfect. The thing that bothers me the most is sometimes I feel that other translations could be used. An impersonal teacher such as a program cannot have every viable answer in it. It has the best ones but sometimes the “best” translation is not the one I write down.

Babbel is very strict on spelling. I’ve gotten a lot wrong due to that. I happen to spell too many words based on English spelling and not German. When it first happened it was disappointing because it seemed like I misspelled every word. In Duolingo you would get kicked out the lesson if you did really badly. Duolingo gives you three hearts per session, and if you lose them all you’re kicked out and have to start over. Babbel is not as quite frustrating but I’m kind of a perfectionist and I just kept getting the same words wrong every time. I ended up making flash cards of those words since they seemed to be ones I was having the biggest problems with. Funnily enough, I must be getting things right. Now my problem is the reverse! When I’m supposed to translate, I end up spelling the words in German. I’ve been spelling good as gut and man as Mann. But that doesn’t frustrate me as much when I make that mistake because it shows that at least I do remember the German word now.  

Where do I see my Language Skills 3 Months from now?

I don’t expect to be finished either Duolingo or Babbel because of how I study. I study for 5 days straight and then take a few days to review. I’m fine with taking my time to work on these programs. I wouldn’t mind in three months understanding more of some of my favorite German songs or even understanding more in a video game. I have future plans of a class, a private tutor or both, and I like the idea of having a foundation in the language before doing either.

Duolingo and Babbel are just two of the apps that I have decided to test out to see how well they really do. Busuu will be next and whatever else I can find. Apps are easily accessible to everyone and when I find some that I think can help I can easily recommend to other language learners. There are a lot of people that I talk to that would love to learn another language but either lack of time or money feel they can’t. Apps make it a bit more affordable in the case of Duolingo or are just simply convenient (Babble). And maybe the excuses for learning a language will grow a little smaller due to apps like these (and future apps).

Have you tried out Duolingo and Babbel? How long did you stick with it? How much did it help? As always, we'd love to hear more from you in the comments

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