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!





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”.

Idea Generation Techniques

I’m working for an innovation consulting group now, so the question of where ideas come from has been on my mind lately. I’ve had some opportunities to see these methods formalized before, both in a conference I attended during college, and in a Design for Six Sigma course I took last year. In both these areas, it was emphasized that brainstorming is a really inefficient method for idea generation, once the process is actually quantified (usually in terms of ideas per minute). The human mind works best when it can generate connections between different concepts, and use those connections to make new ideas. So, these formalized methods try to help people generate new ideas by giving them a framework they can use to make those connections. Here are the methods:


Brutethink: forces you to see relationships between dissimilar things. This technique will encourage you to see ideas where none existed before.

1) Select a random word (nouns are best). Random words from unrelated contexts are a rich source of connection-making material. The best words are simple and familiar so you can easily visualize the objects they represent.

2) Identify things that are associated with your chosen word. What are its characteristics? What does it do? What does it contain? What words or actions come to mind?

3) Draw connections between your chosen word and its characteristics, and your challenge. Generate ideas from these connections. Develop concepts from your ideas.

For example: select a random word, like “tree”. Things associated with the word (and this is a partial list, of course): trunk, branches, roots, leaves, shade, rake leaves, grow, grain, vertical, needles, swing, prevents erosion, forest, fertilize, water, color, shape, height, colorful, pine cones, seeds, harvest, mill, etc. Then,  you can grab a word from that list and see how it inspires you in the problem you’re trying to solve.


Check Listing: starts with an existing situation and asks, through the use of action words, how you might modify the situation to make it different and better. Or, it can be used as a follow-up to brainstorming, to improve new ideas. Action words to try:

Adapt: What else is this like? What can be copied from something else? What other uses could it be adapted to?
Magnify: Add to it. More time, strength, height, width, duplicate, and exaggerate.
Modify: Change the color, shape, size, weight, texture, or energy source, etc.
Minimize: Subtract, split, condense, reduce, remove, lower, lighten, shrink.
Substitute: What or who else? A different part, ingredient, approach, or process
Rearrange: Interchange components, other patterns, layouts, sequences, direction, speed.
Reverse: Use opposites, transpose, reverse roles and actions.
Combine: Units, purposes, elements, components, ingredients.
Remove: Parts, processes, functions, elements, components.
Other Uses: Are there other functions or purposes to which this can be applied?


Double Reverse / Pain Storming: This creativity technique has us initially reverse our typical thinking, and identify ways to make the situation / challenge worse. Then, it asks us to reverse these ideas, to make things better. Hence, the name Double Reverse. So, if your process is running too slowly, think of ways it could be made to run even more slowly, then reverse those changes to speed it up again. Can any of those changes be applied to the current situation?


TRIZ: Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. A man named Genrich Altshuller, while studying Russian patents, noticed the same principles were used over and over again to solve similar problems. TRIZ is a compilation of the most effective solutions to technical problems, independent of industry.

This is a huge topic and I’ve only seen a small part of it. The tools available are Contradiction Table, Inventive Principles, Separation Principles, Problem Formulation, Ideality / Resources, Function Analysis, and Technology Evolution. Information on all these is available online.

Technical and Physical Contradictions: at the heart of many problems is a contradiction between two requirements. These contradictions can be either: technical, where alternative solutions improve one aspect of the design at the expense of another, or; physical, where the physical state of the object must be in two states at once. An example of a technical contradiction would be power vs. fuel consumption: when one goes up, the other must go down. An example of a physical contradiction would be car suspension: it should be hard, for good handling and control, but also soft, for a comfortable ride. Within each technical contradiction, there is at least one physical contradiction. The idea of using the TRIZ techniques is to avoid having to make these trade-offs by breaking the contradictions. Here is a website to use the technique: you select the type of technical contradiction you’re running into, and it returns principles or techniques to solve the issue.

In addition, to help solve physical contradictions, you can try using the Separation Principles, which are as follows:

1) Separation in Time: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent at different times.
2) Separation in Space: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent in different “spaces” or spatial orientation.
3) Separation in Scale: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent depending on the scale you view it at. Also, between parts of a system and the whole.

Again, TRIZ is a huge topic and could merit a post on its own. From what I’ve seen, it’s a tremendously powerful tool for idea generation and problem solving.


The key thing about idea generation is that creativity is a skill that can be developed with practice. Brainstorming is not the best technique to use, especially if you haven’t had much practice at it (want to get better? Pick a common object and spend five minutes thinking of as many common or off-the-wall uses for it as you can), so these techniques are a great way to jump-start the process and get you and your group thinking in new directions.

In addition, using these techniques forces you to spend a solid amount of time thinking about the problem, instead of spending two minutes on it and declaring it impossible. It does a lot to encourage you to really stretch your brain: have you really thought this through? Is that really the only way to solve the problem?

Have you used any of these techniques? Want to give them a try? Talk about a problem you’re trying to solve!


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The Pomodoro Technique

Time management is an ongoing struggle. When I was homeschooled for a couple years in middle school, I had a really hard time sitting down and getting work done without getting distracted, and as a result I finished my year several weeks after my brother finished his in public school. Since then I’ve gotten a little better at self-starting, especially once I got to college and realized that I’d actually have to start studying to keep my grades up…

I’ve tried a number of methods to help keep myself motivated and working productively. Undoubtedly the best route would be to disable the Internet until I’ve worked through my to-do list, but in many cases I need Internet access to get my work done. So instead, I need to manage my distractions in a different way. One tool that’s been really useful has been the Pomodoro Technique.

The idea with Pomodoro is to set aside smaller chunks of time during which you need to be working and not allow yourself to get distracted. Then, split up the work sessions with regular breaks so you don’t get burned out, and can work steadily through the day. The technique also has an element of time tracking and data-gathering that’s very appealing to me.


Step 1: Pick a task you’d like to get done, and resolve to give it your full, undivided attention for a while.

Step 2: Set a timer for 25 minutes (what the inventor of the method called a “Pomodoro”, after the little tomato-shaped timer he used)

Step 3: Work on that task, with no interruptions or distractions, until the timer rings. If you think of something else you also need to do, write it down for later, but don’t switch tasks in the middle of your 25 minutes.

Step 4: When the timer rings, make a checkmark on a paper. This tracks how many Pomodoros you have completed.

Step 5: Take a 5 minute break. Don’t do any work during this time! You need the break to process information and let yourself relax for a bit.

Step 6: Every 4 Pomodoros, take a 20-30 minute break. Again, don’t cheat and do more work! You’re getting enough done during the Pomodoro sessions. Make your rest time count.


So, that’s it. Work for 25-minute intervals, take breaks in between work sessions, don’t let distractions or interruptions stop you from finishing your Pomodoro. It’s not often that something comes up that is so urgent it can’t wait 25 minutes. Just write it down (or if the interruption is a person, tell them you’ll get back to them momentarily) and get back to your work. Let people around you know what you’re doing so they will understand you’re not blowing them off if they interrupt you.

Over time, you can keep track of how many Pomodoros you complete during a day or week, and what you work on. This  can make you better at estimating the time it will take to complete a task, because it’s broken up into short chunks that you’ve been tracking.

If you’re working on a longer task that will take several Pomodoros to complete, it might be a good idea to use the first few minutes to review the work you did during the previous Pomodoro.


For me, there are two main benefits about the method that really help. First, I can manage my interruptions so I don’t get distracted by every new link I want to click on, or every person who wants to talk to me. If I’m in a Pomodoro, I’m working on one thing only, and everything else can wait. Secondly, it gets rid of the guilt during breaks. There’s always more work to be done, so it can feel like any time you’re spending not working is being wasted. Here, that break time is essential to processing information and avoiding burnout, so you’re not wasting time, you’re using it more efficiently. And overall, having a clock tick is a great motivator. I told myself I’m doing work, so I’d better be doing it!

In fact, I used the Pomodoro method to write this blog post. I’m at the 20 minute mark right now, so I’ll use the rest of the time to go back and polish what I’ve written.

What methods do you use for time management? Have you ever tried Pomodoro?


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Helpful links: News and Interesting Facts

I tend to be very strict with my inbox. I minimize my subscriptions so the only emails that get sent to me are ones I actually want to read. Two such subscriptions that made the cut are TheSkimm and Today I Found Out.

TheSkimm is a weekday news digest that covers all the big news of that day – in their words, “across subject lines and party lines” – and sends out a summary with some clever commentary. They try to keep things humorous (a recent discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine included the phrase “liar liar vodka on fire”), while still being thorough and fair. They admit when they don’t have all the facts and don’t make up information to fill the gaps. TheSkimm is my favorite way to get the news without having to get angry about it.

Today I Found Out is a blog that’s very much in line with my own: every day, they will post about something new and interesting they learned. Topics are wide ranging, from “How the Maximum Occupancy of a Building is Calculated” to “The Town That’s Been Burning for Over Half a Century”. The write ups are straightforward and engaging, and there is a very dangerous looking “Random Knowledge” button if you’re interested in wandering down the internet rabbit hole…

Enjoy the new links and go out and learn!


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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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