Friday, May 21, 2010

Write a blog, but write it in your target language

In Benny's Language Hacking Guide, he recommends writing a blog (p. 51).

There's just one massive problem with his suggestion.

He suggests you do it in your native language.

One of the most important things you can do when learning a language is to maximize your exposure to a language. And exposure is a zero-sum game; the number of minutes in which you can use a language each day is limited, and every minute spent doing things in your native language is generally a wasted minute as far as language learning goes. And that goes for blogging in your native language as well. (Yes, many of us language bloggers are guilty of this sin, but let us take the hit instead of you.)

But that's not to say you shouldn't be blogging. In fact, blogging is great; you just need to do it in your target language. And Lang-8 is set up perfectly for that. Even on day 1 in your language learning, go on Lang-8 and try to put something up there. It might just be some stupid dialog you remixed from some basic phrases you studied. It might be "My name is Vincent. I am an American. Pleased to meet you." It might just be some random sentences you tried to cobble together. It doesn't really matter as long as you're using the language.

Benny suggests using blogs as a motivating force; with all sorts of eyeballs on you, you won't be able to slack. But if all you can write is "My name is…", how can you possibly convey to people the goals you're trying to get to with such limited language on day 1 so that they can then press you to stick to those goals? You'd be surprised. It won't be so hard to write something like "I am learning English. I will write five sentences every day." Give it a shot, and then put it up on Lang-8. They'll fix it for you (especially if it's short, which it probably will be). And it's easier to get readers on Lang-8 than it is on some external blog; Benny suggests commenting on other blogs to get more readers, but this just means more time spent using your native tongue.

By diving into the target language up front, it won't be long before you can enunciate your goals more precisely on your own in your target language, without the time suck of maintaining a blog in your native language. Doing it as Benny suggests will only take you longer to get to that point.


  1. Hi Vincent,

    Thanks for dropping by my blog! (I'm slowly making my way through the nominated blogs too, but alphabetically, so I'm not up to the Ss yet.)

    You've got a great blog, too--and you're such a prolific writer and language learner--wow!

    Would you be interested in letting me profile your trilingual family? I would so enjoy reading about your experiences. If so, please email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (d0t) com.

    Thanks for subscribing; I've added your "children's language learning" thread to my blogroll.

  2. But Benny's "method" focuses on SPEAKING the language, not as much on writing (though he does talk about that), so I can understand this. I think a transitional blog, or one written in both languages (posts intermixed) is fine, too. Or just throw in words from your new language with the native tongue, translating in parentheses for your monolingual readers. There are lots of ways you can blog about language, there's no right or wrong, unless you're not actually learning anything.

  3. I agree that you should be blogging in your target language... But I think you should be doing it somewhere like Lang-8 that is correction-friendly.

  4. If you use Lang-8 in Chinese or Japanese you will get a correction quite fast (though sometimes the correction lacks quality, IMHO).

    But if you write in English, French, etc. you may not get a correction at all! So, what can you do?

  5. My suggestions for quickly getting good feedback from native speakers on social language learning sites is here. If your native tongue is not one that's commonly studied, check out this post as well.

  6. It's true that speaking is a major focus of Benny's method, but his big thing is using the language, which covers all sorts of things that are not speaking, such as your computer's interface language. Given that breadth, I think suggesting that you write a blog in your native tongue seems out of place with the rest of his suggestions.

    I would say that there is right and wrong; it's wrong when you're learning less than you could be learning. I don't see a big problem with someone using their native language as a crutch very early on, but that's gotta disappear quickly. If you've studied a good month's worth of a language, and you're still using your native tongue, chances are that you're using it way too much.

  7. Thanks for dropping by here as well! I'm going to make my way through the blogs after they get ranked, which will hopefully mean I get to hit the best ones first.

    I'm hardly the most prolific language learner out there, but I do enjoy it!

    We'd be happy to let you profile us! I'll be sending you an email momentarily. Actually, after we finish up the book we're working on now, which focuses on adult learners, we're hoping to do a second one for parents trying to teach children languages.

    We will try to avoid a corny name like "Street-Smart Language Learning: For Kidz".

  8. As much as I love lang-8, I always feel stuck for what to write. I prefer to leave my personal life out of my blogging (I try to stick to language learning) but at the beginning there isn't much else to write about. I frequently feel stuck for what to write. I've tried journal/writing prompts, but they're either not interesting to me, too personal, or very obviously targeted towards young children and are not appropriate for an adult.

    As I want to keep my blog as a record of my language learning experiences, I also don't want to 'split' my language thoughts between multiple blogs (lang-8 / blogspot), nor end up duplicating the content (which is difficult / impossible at the beginning anyway).

    Well, enough excuses ... I should probably give it another shot..

  9. Haha, I'd definitely support you giving it another shot!

    One way to do it might be starting with something you read or listened to and then writing something about that, as suggested in this post. It may be somewhat forced, but it's probably easier than just plucking ideas out of the clear blue sky.

  10. Ok, so I just went and dashed off a smallish lang-8 post. I think the thing I'm not used to is the idea of just writing a small post that isn't too hard and probably correct, instead of spending a whole hour trying to compose something a little more complicated. (I'm speaking for Dutch here, where I'm still a beginner. My French posts naturally took a while since I was generally trying to actual say something worth while, and most of the time was figuring out the ideas and what to write, not so much fighting the language.)

    I guess this also goes back to the idea of "do a little every day". Thirty minutes every day is better than three hours once a week.

  11. I'd just like to add that people often come up against a wall, or some sort of writer's block, where they "don't know what to write about", and personally, I view this as part of the problem. The only reason for thinking so hard about what to say is a fear of being judged. But the people at a place like Lang-8 aren't there to judge your personal life, or how interesting you are. The don't care at all. There's nothing to fear... just write about anything -- what you made for breakfast, what you want to buy at the store, who were your friends when you were growing up -- anything! Just write.

  12. Vincent, you've totally missed the point of that suggestion. I'm disappointed that you think I'm telling people to use their native language over the target one. The point is to get into the learning community and you can do this in either language. Lots of people have read that as practising through their target language, but since I was ambiguous about it being either way you seem to think I'm telling people to avoid doing it in the target language.

    Anyway even if I had said "only" blog in your native language, as Abby rightly points out, my focus is on speaking. Blogging in German instead of English right now would be way too time consuming for me - the social tools I talk about in the book work despite the many mistakes I make when speaking. It's much harder to be charming when you are nothing more than a bunch of characters on a screen, so when people see all the mistakes, that's all they'll see. Writing a blog in the language would slow me down because this is nothing remotely near the context of how I actually want to use my languages.

    Writing is not social enough for me to care about it. For people with academic or professional goals for their languages then my guide isn't for them. For people who want to improve their relationships with natives then some of my tips help and I intentionally didn't discuss improving writing skills because of this. If someone like me doesn't care about their writing level then writing about your language learning journey in your native tongue isn't detrimental and will allow you to enter the community quicker.

  13. As an aside I think your Lang-8 miniblogging suggestion is sound, but sharing your struggle with others gets you more support quicker if you do it initially in your native tongue.

    As Randy just said, you'll get the corrections on Lang-8, but where is the advice for learning techniques and emotional encouragement? That's why I suggested blogging as a tool, not for the purposes of correction. Lang-8 cannot provide you with what I recommend people seek from the online community.
    By the way, now that you have added some a good commenting system to your site, maybe you could bring the RSS feed out of the stone age :) One thing that will keep your RSS subscriber numbers down is the super annoying 2 line summary of posts forcing people to come to the site. It encourages them to click through and possibly comment of course, but most people will skip the post if they can't read it in their feed reader. This blog is the only feed out of HUNDREDS that I have subscribed to with a summary rather than the entire post.

    When scrolling through RSS feeds if something is just two lines long that is probably all people will read! If my name hadn't been in the first line I would have left reading this until "later"...

  14. Nice! I'd definitely recommend short entries when you're beginning the language. That lessens the burden on you while still letting you practice your writing, and the length will gradually grow as you learn more of the language. At the same time it keeps things short and makes it likely for native speakers to correct it quickly!

  15. Agreed! The people on Lang-8 and other sites like it are great! I've corrected things on there from what clearly was a homework assignment for a class to very personal entries and everything in between. So I'd definitely say that you don't need to spend much time thinking about what to write—just write.

    Damian and I touch on this issue below as well.

  16. If your suggestion is to write a blog in either language, why not make that explicit? By using your blog as the only example, that implies that your suggestion is to use your native language. I'd make this point clearer, especially as it might not be obvious—especially to the beginners that your book targets—that they can get out there writing in their target language from such an early stage.

    But I'd still go farther and say that you shouldn't be using your native language at all. It might be OK as a very, very temporary crutch early on, as I noted in my comment below, but it's gotta disappear quickly.

    I don't think blogging has to be time consuming and slow you down in order to get language-learning benefits, or to enter the community. As Damian and I discuss below, short, sweet posts can work. So you don't need to let writing slow you down. Now if you're talking about turning your entire blog into German, I wouldn't recommend that, as you'd likely be spending too huge a chunk of time writing in German. However, if you're writing solely for your own language learning benefit (and I'd argue that, by spending so much time writing in our native tongues, most of us language bloggers are motivated by something other than our own language progress), your time is better spent writing in the target language.

    Writing a blog in the language might slow you down because it's nothing remotely near the context of how you actually want to use your languages, but writing a blog in your native language will definitely slow you down because it's not even in one of the language you want to learn. It is detrimental because the time you'd be spending learning the language is spent doing something else.

    If you wanna say the focus is completely on speaking, I'd say drop the blogging time altogether and go speak. I'd say that the time spent blogging, commenting to get readers, etc., would be better spent focusing directly on your goal, rather than in a roundabout way by getting speakers of your own language to keep an eye on you to maintain your motivation.

    And, finally, a question... you do translation work, right? How come you don't need to focus on writing in connection with that?

  17. It's much more efficient to get language-learning advice by asking people who are giving it out than by writing a blog and hoping that the people with the advice will somehow find your blog and comment on it. So if someone's looking for advice and wants it quickly, I'd recommend that they start with Google, that they get into forums like HTLAL, and that they send questions to language bloggers like us, whether directly or via the comments. I know we're all happy to help when we can, but the chance of any of us stumbling upon some random language learner's blog are pretty low.

    I get lots of encouragement on Lang-8, and when I look at others' posts, that seems to be the trend. So I'd say Lang-8 is plenty for encouragement. Combine that with the encouragement you'll get in forums and others' blogs' comments, and I think you'll find more than enough support from the community, without the deadweight language-learning time of maintaining and growing a blog in your native language.

  18. Re the RSS feed, done! A commenter suggested this a while ago, but I didn't realize how annoying it was until a blog I'd been subscribing to went the other way: from full to partial. That put switching this blog to full on my to-do list, and I've used you calling me out on it in the comments to bump it to the front of the list.

  19. Explicit or not, it's misleading of you to say that "He suggests you do it in your native language." I never said that. I'll take your thoughts into account in a future version, but you are the only one who has interpreted this as "don't blog in the target language".

    Rather than short-sweet posts, why not just chat online live with natives? Then you'd at least be in a more natural to and fro. The kind of stuff people blog about "I brushed my teeth" etc. are boring and don't invite discussion. I never list my daily activities in such a way in conversations, so why would I want to start blogging about it? When I blog I want to share my thoughts with people and I'll get the best feedback if I can initially express myself better.
    That's why I think people should focus on analysing how they are learning the language rather than the content of the language.
    The focus is on speaking but a lot of people run out of steam quickly and need encouragement (more than just "good job!" on Lang-8).

    I do translation work INTO ENGLISH. Professional translators that translate to a non-mother tongue can produce sloppy results. So I never really need to write in a foreign language, other than online conversations, and the goal of being a professional translator to another language is wasteful unless it's a very rare combination.

  20. Perhaps seeking out more experienced people is a good route, but I'd rather promote independent learning where possible.
    "will somehow find your blog" is skipping something vital I said in that chapter (and expanded on, on a blog bout about it). You need to SEEK OUT other learners, comment on their blogs, tweet them, post in forums with a signature link to your blog etc. I did say to comment on other blogs in the book.

    HTLAL is a great forum but the potential of blogging is greater when you do it right. Chances of stumbling on some random blog when he does nothing to seek out others is pretty low as you say. That's why I suggest being social about it. Anyway HTLAL has a language log section and that can totally take the place of a wordpress blog with lots of encouragement. A log on HTLAL is pretty much the same as a blog on wordpress for these purposes.

    What kind of encouragement do you get on Lang-8? For people in the initial stages of "I have a dog" the only encouragement they can get is "Good job!" whereas behind that the learner could feel inadequate and patronised etc.
    If you are blogging in depth about your language learning process, then Lang-8 is the equivalent to a blog as far as I'm concerned, but most people wouldn't do that.

  21. I don't see how relying on the community is all that different from relying on more experienced people in terms of independence. Frankly, I don't even see why independence is a goal. If, by relying on Mr. X, I could learn the language more efficiently, I'd do it without hesitation.

    The time of all that seeking out is what I'd counsel against, unless it was all in your target language.

    How would the encouragement on an in-depth blog about your language-learning process be all the different from more basic things written on Lang-8? I'd expect a lot of "Good job!", "Keep it up!", and that kind of stuff, and I'd expect the results to be the same. I get good tips in Lang-8 when I'm not even asking for them (links to pages that explain my mistakes, long detailed explanations, etc.). I think it'd be much harder to get the kind of readership that could do that on a blog.

  22. Rereading it again, I still think the implication that it's in your target language is pretty clear, even if that wasn't your intention. (1) You tell beginners to start immediately, before continuing reading. For a beginner at 0, that means the target language. (2) The only example is your blog, done in your native language. (3) There's no mention of doing it in the target language, which would presumably require some explanation for a greenhorn language learner. I don't think what I've written above is misleading based on the text, although it does vary from your actual opinion as explained in these comments.

    I'm the only one who's mentioned it to you, but I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who'll take it like that. It's like they say about tech support: for every one person who calls, nine more are experiencing the same thing.

    If the choice is between short posts and simple conversations, I'd say mix up the two. Do some short posts—which allows you more time to figure out the correct language—and then speak as well, which requires you to produce on the fly. They're complementary to getting the language in your head.