The Greek Alphabet

One of my favorite books is called The Last Samurai (nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie!), about a child prodigy who goes on a quest to find his father. His mother has some unconventional approaches to education, and the boy learns Latin, Arabic, Greek, Japanese, and a handful of other languages, along with astronomy, calculus, aerodynamics…all before the age of 10. This book was the source of a lot of motivation for me, and through it I learned how to read Greek. I even made a little song…

The method she used in the book worked really well for me, so here it is (because I know you’ve always wanted to be able to read Greek!).

In the book, the boy’s mother started out by writing out the alphabet, like above. Oddly enough, this didn’t result in education! So, she next showed him all the letters that looked like English letters:

βατ = bat
εατ = eat
αβουτ = about

Then, she introduced some letters which looked a little different: γ = g, δ = d, λ = l, μ = m, ν = n, π = p, ρ = r, σ = s.

γρατε = grate
δατε = date
σπελλ = spell
μεν = men

After that, some more complicated letters: ξ = x and ζ = z. Also, h, which works differently in Greek. It doesn’t have a letter, but instead a ‘ symbol gets placed over the letter. If the h is silent, a ’ gets used. So you get:

μιξ = mix
ζιπ = zip
ìτ = hit
íτ = it

Then there are letters that stand for sounds that, in English, are written with two letters. θ is th, but separated, like when you say “spit hard”. φ sounds like the ph in “slap hard”. χ sounds like kh as in “walk home”. And, ψ sounds like ps in “naps”.

παθιμ = pat him
βλαΧεαρτεδ = blackhearted
ὲλφερ = help her
ριψ = rips

Finally, there are the long vowels and diphthongs. Long e has the letter η, like the e of bed stretched out. Long o has the letter ω, like the o of hot stretched out. And the diphthongs:

παι = pie
παυ = pow
δει = day
βοι = boy
μου = moo

As it turns out, because of this and growing up Jewish (reading Hebrew from prayer books), I can read more languages than I can actually understand. It’s not as much fun as being able to actually understand the language, but I really like learning new alphabets. This is probably why I liked the Artemis Fowl series so much: the fairies in that book had their own alphabet, and there were secret messages along the bottom of the pages for me to decode! By the end of the book I could read that script fluently too…




Thinking in a New Language

The mighty thesaurus! Not actually relevant, but too cute to pass up.

The mighty thesaurus! Not actually relevant, but too cute to pass up.


One especially hard part of learning a new language is thinking in that language: that is, if I need to say say the word for the piece of furniture I put my plate on, I think “der Tisch” and I don’t first think “the table” and then translate it. Thinking in your target language (TL) can dramatically improve your skills, because you can understand what you hear or read more quickly, without having to translate to your primary language to reach understanding. The key moment for me with Spanish was when I had a conversation on the phone with someone and we talked at a normal pace, exchanged all the information we needed, and agreed on a time to meet – all in Spanish! I was a bit giddy afterward. It was such a fantastic feeling, having worked so hard to get to this point and realizing I’d actually made it.


Thinking in your TL has a lot of benefits, but the biggest one to me is the conversion of passive vocabulary to active. Passive vocabulary is the words you understand when you’re listening or reading, but you don’t actively use them in speaking and writing. For me, the word for “farmer” in German is passive vocabulary: when I see or hear it, I know what it means, but I don’t have it available when I’m speaking or writing. By thinking in your TL, you force those passive words to become active, so that your inner monologue doesn’t run out of words.

One key point to make: thinking in your TL is not the same as being fluent! Fluency involves grammatical correctness, or native speech. In this case, we are talking about being able to produce something that makes sense and allows you to communicate (to yourself and others), automatically and without translation. Think of how children can communicate before they are fluent: what they say isn’t grammatically correct, but it is still communication.


So, how do you actually go about thinking in a new language? As always, repetition is key, as well as immersion. Practice a lot in your TL, and surround yourself with the language. Switch the language in your your browser and phone (you may have to keep Google Translate handy for a while, until you learn the new vocabulary!). Browser extensions like Mind the Word! for Chrome can switch a percentage of words on a web page to your TL.

Set aside time (short sessions at first) each day to practice thinking only in your TL. Tell a story, or describe how you are feeling, what you’re doing, what’s around you, or what you did today. Daily practice is important: this way, you make a habit of it and make it normal. Try having a free writing session: get a notebook and set a timer. Until the timer runs out, keep writing, as quickly as you can think. Don’t fix mistakes, and don’t go back, just as if you were doing this exercise in English! The goal here isn’t to write or talk fluently, but to get practice in increasing the pace of your words and to make it more natural to use the language regularly.

With any of these exercises, make a list each day of words that are missing from your vocabulary. Then, learn those words! This way you focus on the words you’ll actually use (unlike, say, some of the helpful words that come up in courses designed by other people – I knew the words for king/queen/prince/princess in Spanish before I knew “pencil”). Over time, you’ll notice your list getting shorter, as you learn more and more of the words you use every day. Focus on the words that are most relevant to you, and you’ll be able to communicate smoothly much sooner.


For multilingual learners, try switching from one language to another without stopping in your primary language! I’m working on translating between Spanish and German (“mesa” gets translated directly to “Tisch” without my having to think through “table”), to encourage flexibility in all directions.


A warning: you may confuse people around you if they talk to you when you’re practicing in your TL, and you answer them in the wrong language. That’s a good sign! Embrace the confusion, and laugh at it! Your transitions will get smoother, in time, and you’ll be able to switch languages as needed.

So, what techniques do you use for thinking in your target language?

¡Hasta pronto!




Skills for Language Learning

We take for granted that public speaking is its own skill, separate from reading, debating, writing, or listening. We understand that these skills need to be practiced separately: being a good writer is no guarantee that you’ll be a good speaker. The same philosophy applies to learning a new language. To be fluent in the language, you need to practice your skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Looking at your skill level in these separate areas can give you areas to focus on: for example, I’m fluent in Spanish. However, my skill in speaking it is not as great as my skill in listening, writing, or reading. It’s something I have to practice more, so I can speak smoothly and confidently, without tripping over my tongue.


There are lots of ways to practice the various skills. The language app Duolingo makes sure to test these skills separately: translating from written phrases, transcribing spoken phrases, and speaking into the microphone. For practicing listening, try finding podcasts, tv shows, or news broadcasts in your target language. This can also help with gaining familiarity in different accents. Most of my experience with Spanish came from Latin American accents, and it took a while to get used to the accents in Spain (with their odd habit of dropping consonants all over the place!). Taking the time before the trip to find some examples of Spaniards speaking would have smoothed my transition.

Some resources for practicing the listening skill, here: SBS On Demand offers free movies in lots of languages; Librivox has audiobooks; here’s a list of Latin American movies to watch; and this is a tool to control playback speed in files, to catch parts you missed the first time through.


Practicing speaking could involve: finding someone on Skype or Italki to chat with (this also improves your listening skill!); reading aloud from a book or article in your target language; or narrating your activities and life (describe the people and things you see around you: what they’re doing, what they look like, etc.). Make it a habit: the more time you spend in your target language, the more confident you’ll be speaking it. Don’t wait until you know “enough” of the language to start doing this! You will never know enough; there will always be more words to learn. Instead, slip in whatever words you do know. If you come across a word that’s missing from your vocabulary, go look it up.


To practice reading: switch your phone/browser/computer to your target language; go to a used book store and pick up books to read (to start, try ones that you already know, comic books, or kids’ books. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to read at the same level as in your first language!); try any of these sources for reading material; try a bilingual puzzle; read comic books; or play 20 questions.


Don’t waste time trying to find the best or the perfect resource for language learning. It’s much better to find a decent source, and then just start using it. There will always be something better! If you find it, then switch, but don’t stop learning.

What are your favorite resources for learning the different language skills? For me, the real test for Spanish was when I went to Spain and discovered that I can indeed hold a phone conversation without stumbling! That was a great accomplishment. Even after that, though, I was still looking out for ways to improve my skills. This is an ongoing journey!




How Many Senses do Humans Have?

People are generally familiar with the five basic senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. However, it’s less well-known that humans have closer to 21! Aristotle is credited with the traditional “five senses” model, and science has advanced a little bit since that time. There can be some debate about what a “sense” actually is: the common definition is “any system that consists of a group of sensory cell types that respond to a specific physical phenomenon and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted.” Here are the senses humans have (or at least the ones discovered so far!)

  • Sight – color: sight is actually two senses. Color is detected with the cone receptors in the eye.
  • Sight – brightness: detected with rod receptors
  • Smell: based off a chemical reaction, and separate from taste, though the two combine to produce flavor. This is why food tastes funny when you have a cold.
  • Sound: detecting vibrations along a medium that is in contact with your ear drums, such as air or water. The density of the medium affects the vibrations reaching your ear, which is why things sound different underwater.
  • Touch: This is an interesting one, because there is a unique touch sense, separate from your senses of pressure, temperature, pain, and itch. Your skin is the largest organ on your body and it gives you lots of data!
  • Taste: This can be argued to be five senses, each based off chemical reactions with the taste receptors on your tongue. There are different receptors for sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (which detects the amino acid glutamate, often found in meats).

And here already we can see the beginning of the debate. I only listed the “five” traditional senses, and depending on how those are counted, they could be as many as 14!

  • Pressure: something is pushing on a part of you. This has to be differentiated from detecting atmospheric pressure changes, because that is still debated. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that humans can detect changes in atmospheric pressure – becoming sleepy or experiencing joint pain in low pressure periods – but there’s nothing conclusive.
  • Itch: this is actually distinct from other touch-related systems! Evolution has provided us with some strange things.
  • Thermoception: Ability to sense heat and cold. This can be counted as two senses, because the body has different types of thermoreceptors for detecting external and internal temperature.
  • Nociception: sense of pain. This was originally thought of as overloading other senses, but in fact it is a separate system. There are three different types of pain receptors: cutaneous (skin), somatic (bones and joints), and visceral (body organs).
  • Proprioception: my favorite sense, and one of my favorite words. The sense of where your body is without looking at it. This is how you know where your foot is even if you aren’t watching it move.
  • Tension: sensors in your muscles monitor how much tension they are under
  • Stretch: receptors found in the lungs, bladder, stomach, and intestinal tract, to tell when those organs are full. A type of stretch receptor that senses dilation of blood vessels is involved in headaches.
  • Equilibrioception: this is what your inner ear is for. Detects balance, acceleration, and directional changes. Without this sense you can’t tell which way is up – it’s a little important!
  • Hunger: self explanatory. Your body says to give it calories! The brain can actually sense the difference between different macronutrients, and the body has some learned appetites which explain a craving for, say, salty foods, when you are short on sodium.
  • Thirst: my rule of thumb is that if I feel thirsty, I should have been drinking already…
  • Chemoreceptors: involved in detecting blood-borne hormones and drugs. Can also detect carbon dioxide levels in the blood: the brain uses that information to control breathing rate.
  • Magnetoception: the ability to detect magnetic fields. Not as strong as in many other animals like birds, but experiments have shown humans do have some sense of direction in this way. This can be tested by placing a person next to a strong magnetic field and disorienting them. People in this scenario are much worse at re-orienting themselves in terms of the earth’s magnetic field than people who are not near a strong magnetic field.
  • Time: No singular mechanism has been found to explain how humans tell time, but there is conclusive proof that this sense is startlingly accurate. There seem to be different mechanisms for short term (minutes to hours) and long term (circadian rhythm) time keeping.
    One interesting fact about humans’ time sense is that it is dependent on age: people within the age range of 19-24 years were able to tell within 3 seconds when 3 minutes was up, whereas those in the age group 60-80 thought 3 minutes had passed when the actual time was 3 minutes and 40 seconds. So as you get older, it’s not that the world is speeding up; it’s that you are slowing down!

It’s always a source of joy for me that there are so many things we still do not know about our own bodies. It’s easy to get jaded and think that science has answered every question, but the fact that we still have so many gaps in our knowledge is tremendously gratifying. We’ll never run out of new things to learn!


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Language Learning Tools

A small selection of all the languages I’d like to learn… Source:


One of my goals (ignoring the obvious impracticality of doing so) is to learn ALL THE LANGUAGES. Right now I’m learning German and improving my Spanish. Also on my list is Thai, Russian, Portuguese, Swahili, Mandarin, Hindi, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic…the list goes on. If I want to learn all these, I’ll need to be very motivated and find the best tools that fit my learning style.

Two of those tools are Duolingo and Memrise. They’re great (free!) language learning sites that I’ve been using for the last year and a half to bring my Spanish skills from rudimentary to full fluency, and to begin learning German.


Duolingo has many languages available, and more in development: currently they have Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese, and are developing Dutch, Irish, Danish, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Russian, Polish, and Romanian. As you make your way through a course, you learn individual lessons which introduce a number of new words. You get three “hearts” to spend on wrong answers in a lesson: if you run out of hearts, you have to start the lesson over. Sometimes it can be tedious – like when you’re on the last question and you lose your last heart – but it does drive home the lesson. People learn better when they fail, and even if it’s frustrating, it helps the words stick.

The course works well on its own, but it’s when I noticed it also tracked how many days in a row I’d practiced that I really started to commit. I wanted to see how long I could keep a streak going (59 days so far!), and that made it much harder to let excuses get in the way of practicing the language. Even if I only made a little progress each day, it was still progress, and better than nothing.

Recently I’ve been getting the people around me into the site too. You earn points by completing lessons, and this has spawned a small race each week to see who can get the most points. Yes, in the end they’re meaningless numbers, but if it works to inspire you to learn, that’s a good reason to me.


Memrise is a site I discovered a little later in my language learning process, when I decided I wanted to start really expanding my Spanish vocabulary. The idea of the site is to use spaced-repetition (reintroducing a new concept frequently at first, then at longer intervals as it becomes fixed in long-term memory) to help you learn. The courses are user-created and span a huge variety of topics: tons of languages (including less common ones like Cherokee, Slovak, and Klingon), standardized tests, astronomy, psychology, history…obviously, quality isn’t as consistent so you have to do a bit more work to find a good course, but there are lots to choose from. I’ve been learning the military spelling alphabet and Morse code in my spare time…


What are your favorite language learning tools? And what languages do you want to learn when using them?


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Free Ebook Sources

I am a voracious reader, and have a definite problem when it comes to books: I acquire them more quickly than I can read them. This leads to an overstuffed bookshelf, and an e-reader full of even more options, many of which I’ll never get to. I hold out hope, however, that I will one day read all the books! The inconvenience of reality has not managed to remove this desire…along with the desire to learn all the languages and do all the things.

If you do not have this problem (or if you do and are perfectly happy to keep striving for it!), there are a number of sources for e-books that make a great alternative to overflowing bookshelves. Here are a few sites to check out:


Project Gutenberg is a huge database of books that are out of copyright, which have been digitized and uploaded for free use by anyone. They have some 46,000 books available, made possible through the work of some very dedicated volunteers. If you somehow run out of reading material here, either you’re spectacularly picky or you’re not human. I use this site frequently to get classics (and one day I shall read them!).

Open Library is an enormous project dedicated to creating a web page for every book ever published. It is open source and community-edited, and is part of the non-profit Internet Archive, which has the even more lofty goal of creating an archive space for the entire Internet, and all the knowledge contained in it. Books are available to read online or in many downloadable formats, and the site also includes links for borrowing or purchasing. My method: click random links until you get to a book! It’s the closest you can get to wandering through the stacks in a physical library.

TUEBL is another source for ebooks to download. I’ve found this site very fruitful for finding more modern books. As a warning, the site doesn’t have the best design: make sure the download link you click is the actual link, and not an ad. TUEBL has also started a new Women in Tech project to help women to learn to code. With the knowledge that their user base is 80% women, they wanted to help get more women into the technology industries. So, they have partnered with the education program OneMonth to start learning to code, and to help them get access to jobs in the industry through their business network.


There are many more sites to check out; these are merely the ones I use most often. Enjoy, and find lots of new reading material! You have no excuse to run out of books this way…


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Noor Inayat Khan: the Spy Princess

Over the last week, I’ve been learning a ton about an amazing woman named Noor Inayat Khan. She was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France by the Special Operations Executive, a covert British operation formed to “set Europe ablaze” by supporting Resistance actions in the country, gathering intelligence, and sabotaging Nazi activities. Despite being a profound pacifist who considered telling the truth to be of the highest importance, Noor survived in Paris for four months when the average radio operator there lasted a mere six weeks. She resisted torture, made several escape attempts, and left a profound effect on everyone she met.


Noor was born in Russia in 1914 to an Indian Sufi mystic father and an American mother and spent her childhood moving from place to place as her father followed his calling. She spent time in Russia, England, France, and India, but considered France to be her true home. Her family’s household was famously tolerant of all faiths, and filled with music. Noor was always considered a dreamy child, writing poetry for her mother and brother on their birthdays, and later writing children’s books, often with themes of love and heroic sacrifice. When she was 13, her father died suddenly, and her mother fell into a deep depression. It fell to Noor to handle household matters and help raise her younger siblings.

When World War II broke out, Noor and her family just managed to escape France before the country surrendered to the Nazis. They moved to England, and Noor volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and began training to be a radio operator. Despite her pacifist beliefs, she knew she couldn’t stay back and help from a safe spot: she was driven to do as much as she could to help the war effort. She believed that a pacifist could fight if she weren’t doing it from a place of hate, and that sometimes it was required to fight in order to achieve peace.

Noor made some waves during training! She threw herself into her studies and learned quickly, but when she interviewed for a WAAF commission, she surprised the interviewers with her outspoken beliefs on Indian independence. She stated (because of course she would tell the truth, even when it was inconvenient!) that while she would fight for Britain during the war, she believed very strongly in the cause of Indian independence, and if it came to a fight, she would be on India’s side. She hoped, however, that if enough Indians helped the British during the war, it would make a better case for independence.


Unsurprisingly, she didn’t get the commission. She was, however, tapped shortly after for a position with SOE, who were looking for people who could speak French like the natives. SOE desperately needed radio operators in France to  coordinate their actions, and it was essential that they could blend in with no trace of an accent and no British mannerisms. Trainees were even monitored to make sure that, if they talked in their sleep, it was in French!

During her interview for the SOE, her superiors had reservations about using Noor as an agent, when she seemed so spectacularly unsuited to be a spy. However, radio operators were in short supply, and Noor was willing and determined to succeed in this role, so she began training.

Noor progressed quickly through her training, and though she was a skilled radio operator, she could clearly use some work in the “spy” part of the job: lying to people, standing up to interrogation, and close-combat fighting. On the one hand, she was clearly not suitable for the job; on the other hand, her superiors continually supported her and trusted that when it counted, she would be able to step up.


And step up she did: within days of her arrival in Paris in June 1943, the Gestapo infiltrated SOE’s network there and arrested almost all the agents in the city and surrounding area. Noor was left as the only British agent in the field. She had the opportunity to flee to London, but refused, because she knew she was needed in Paris. Despite her poor performance as a spy during training, she remained on the run in the city for the next four months, dying her hair and changing her location constantly, and working to rebuild the SOE’s network. She did the work of six radio operators during this time, and was instrumental in the escape of 30 Allied airmen shot down in France. Throughout this, Noor remained amazingly cheerful, thanking her superiors for the opportunity to help and staying optimistic.

She was finally betrayed in October 1943, just days before her planned departure to London, and captured by the Gestapo, though she went down fighting her captor viciously: he described her as “a tigress”. On being taken to the house the Gestapo were using as a prison for captured agents, she requested a bath and escaped through the bathroom window. She was recaptured almost immediately, but soon after that she planned and executed another escape with two other prisoners, which was foiled by an Allied air raid. After that Noor was transferred to a prison in Germany and kept shackled hand and foot – though she made yet another escape attempt during the transfer!

She was kept in the prison for 10 months, during which she was kept on a starvation diet and never allowed to be unchained. She was beaten and kept in solitary confinement, but throughout this time she still managed to communicate with several other prisoners by scratching messages on the bottom of the bowls in which food was served. She never cooperated with the Gestapo, and never revealed anything to them – not even her name.

Finally in September 1944, Noor was sent to Dachau with three other female agents, where she was beaten mercilessly, and then shot. The last thing she said before she died was “Liberté”.


Noor Inayat Khan amazes me. She was completely unsuited for the job: an author of children’s books, a Muslim pacifist, and stubbornly honest, she survived longer than anyone could have thought possible and never broke during interrogation. When her entire network collapsed around her, she made the decision to stay, and did a truly spectacular job. She made a deep impression on everyone she met: during his post-war interrogation, when the head of the Gestapo in Paris was told about her death, he apparently broke down in tears. Noor’s determination, idealism, and commitment to her values at the cost of her life are astonishing and inspirational. I’m happy to have found her.



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Thanks to the Management class at Aegis Consulting for inspiration in finding this fantastic woman! My main source was the book “Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan”.

Lifelong Learning Sources

I graduated college in fall of 2011, but I haven’t stopped learning since then. Since that point, I’ve: gained fluency in one language and am well on my way to a second; learned to sword fight; continued improving my skills in Excel and VBA; learned how to sharpen a knife; learned to tie a lot of useful knots; learned how to make sauerkraut, cheesecake, Thai chicken soup, and pulled pork; and many more skills. That’s the point of this blog, after all: to highlight all the interesting things I learn and share them.

Some of these topics I learned about on my own, through self-study. Others were taught to me by peers with subject matter expertise. But one huge area of learning that I’ve only recently started exploring is MOOCs: massive open online courses. These are websites such as Coursera or EdX which offer free, university-style courses online on just about any topic imaginable: I’ve seen offerings in the field of languages, computer science, business, engineering, history, sustainability, law, and lots of others.

These courses are (usually) not offered for college credit, but instead present you with a certificate of accomplishment. I recently completed a course through Coursera on systems engineering, offered through the University of New South Wales. It consisted of a series of video lectures, accompanied by weekly quizzes and homework assignments, a midterm exam, and a final exam. Students were free to participate to the level they wanted, with discussion forums and more involved assignments available to those who were interested. For me, it was nice to feel like I was back in school again, because I miss it quite a bit (though I’ll admit, nostalgia makes it easier to forget all the late nights and stressful exams!). This way, I can continue my career and still get a chance to learn new things.

MOOCs are available through lots of different sources. So far the only one I’ve tried personally has been Coursera, but MOOC List points to lots of sites. Others I’ve heard good things about include CodeAcademy, MIT, and Stanford.

I may go back at some point for a formal degree program, but for now I’m happy getting my continuing education from alternarive sources. There’s so much to learn, I’ve no fear of running out of things to keep me busy…

So, discuss! See any courses you’re interested in? One of the great things about MOOCs is the emphasis on community participation, despite geographical limitations. So go out and learn something new!

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