Perspective Collective | Ellen Jovin (Words & Worlds Of New York)

Ellen Jovin photo

Perspective Collective is a series of articles that aims to widen the lens of language learning by highlighting the approaches and ideas of successful language learners across the globe.

I’ve invited several language bloggers who I admire to answer the following six questions. It is my pleasure to feature the following contribution from Ellen Jovin of Words & Worlds of New York.

Over the past several years Ellen Jovin has serially studied 17 languages, relying on teach-yourself resources and the people and neighborhoods of New York—one of the world’s most multilingual cities!—to help her learn. On her website, Words & Worlds of New York, she writes about unusual grammatical features of different languages, her battles with language confusion, the products she likes and dislikes, and her linguistic adventures around town.
Ellen’s focus is increasingly turning to how other busy adults without time or inclination for classes can learn on their own. Her website now includes her reviews of hundreds of language-learning resources and is searchable by language and media type. She is especially interested in ferreting out high-quality offerings that people may not come across in bookstores or online searches.
A former freelance writer and current full-time grammar freak, Ellen is also a founder and principal of Syntaxis, a communication skills training firm based in New York City. She teaches seminars in e-mail etiquette, business writing, and grammar (in English!) at companies, government organizations, and nonprofits around the U.S., and occasionally beyond.

What language(s) do you know?

First, thank you for this series, Amy; it has been a lot of fun to read. “Know” is a word that makes me squirmy. I suppose I know English, my native tongue, pretty well by now, though I am constantly discovering new things about it! I am highly functional in German, Spanish, and French. I have gotten my Italian to a fairly high level at least a couple of times now, but it doesn’t stick as well as the others, so I keep having to revive it for conversational use.

What language(s) are you learning?

I don’t have a whole lot of language fidelity at present. I am currently studying the four above-mentioned European languages, as well as Portuguese and Arabic. With Arabic, I am attempting to get a better sense of some key differences between Modern Standard and Levantine, and will soon take a brief look at Egyptian Arabic.
In the coming months and years, I intend to continue reviewing new products as they come out. My language choices are likely to be affected to some extent by whatever interesting products are being released into the language-learning market. I will be revisiting some of the 17 languages I’ve tried out, as well as others that will be totally new to me. At the top of my list of untried ones are Farsi, Swedish, Swahili, and Latin. I get a great deal of pleasure from learning something about a language, even when my skill level remains fairly primitive. Of course I would prefer to be fluent ineverything, but my brain stubbornly refuses to accommodate me in that desire! Still, with each new exposure, my understanding of how the world’s languages fit together improves, and the details of individual languages become more meaningful.

What is your language learning style?
I am less likely than normal to learn well by listening to language explanations, so no classes for me—only self-study methods.
I am far more likely than normal to learn by reading grammar books, and I have found I can often take things I learn from a book straight into my active speech. I desperately need to see what words look like in order to move them into longer-term storage in my head, so I am uncomfortable trying to learn only by listening and speaking.
While I care about reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, I believe I tend to do better on the first three than the last one.
Starting in June 2009, I began studying daily, with few exceptions. The daily work keeps up my momentum. Also, obsession suits me.
What approaches / methods do you use?

I love grammar books, Pimsleur’s audio lessons, grammar books, flashcards, vocabulary books, vocabulary audio lessons, and did I mention grammar books? I don’t like video instruction—too slow.
I also make an effort to apply my language skills in my daily life. I don’t even have to leave my building to do that! I live in a huge apartment building in New York with hundreds of units, and within just 40 meters of my apartment door are two different families with native Hungarian speakers! (Not that I’ve studied Hungarian yet, but if/when I do, how great is that?) There are at least two native Italian speakers just a little further from my front door. I also regularly hear Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and other languages in my building’s elevators.
When I am working on a language, I spend some time hanging out in New York communities where that language is spoken. I have found opportunities to practice in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and of course Manhattan. (I have so far neglected Staten Island—my sincere apologies to that borough!—but I will address my omission one of these days soon.) I sometimes volunteer at places/events where I can flip around from one language to the next during a single shift, such as at the New York City marathon and also at an information center for tourists. The flipping-around part is one of the most enjoyable language things I do! I just love that!
Thus, even though I am totally grammar-obsessed, I also want to make these languages real in my daily life, and speaking skills are a high priority.

How do you stay motivated?

I love grammar and language so much that I feel pretty motivated almost all of the time. When I get frustrated or my brain is tired, switching learning methods or languages helps. For example, if I am getting sick of vocabulary, I switch to a book. If I’m sick of a book, I switch to Pimsleur. If I’m sick of Portuguese, I switch to Arabic. Most days I use multiple methods for learning.

I also have Pimsleur and VocabuLearn lessons with me on runs, in the laundry room, on trips to the grocery store, on the subway, while washing dishes, etc., so studying doesn’t have to get in the way of other basic life obligations.

What is your advice to language learners just getting started? 

It is so important to pick high-quality, well-paced study materials that suit your learning style. That is in part why I am bent on reviewing what is out there, because there is, quite frankly, a lot of overhyped junk making false promises that just ends up frustrating people.

Second, I love the idea of linking learning goals to environment. Practicing on a shopkeeper (if the person is amendable) or neighbor or colleague, and seeing the steady improvement with each encounter, is exhilarating. One of the most exciting moments in my language-learning undertakings of recent years came when I was finally able to communicate with the Italian in-laws of my husband’s sister. I Had met them at her wedding, and seen them numerous times over the years since then—but until 2010 we couldn’t communicate at all. Gesticulating and smiling: rather exhausting and completely unilluminating. But then I studied my head off for three months straight, sometimes more than eight hours a day, and the next time I was in Italy, I found myself talking and laughing with them in Italian! The in-laws were happy, it seemed, and I was beside myself with joy.

Would you like to be a part of the Perspective Collective on Language Boat? Email your answers to the six questions above to Thanks for being a contributing member in the Language Boat community! Show your love by subscribing to the blog. Thanks for reading!


2224290746_60d7f0d777_mRead this post in English.





此外,我不喜歡人們總是跟我說英文。在外面,所有的台灣人都只跟我說“Excuse me”或“Sorry”,從不跟我說中文。在難過的日子裡,這提醒了我,就算我能說流利的中文,我還是只會被當成不諳中文的外人。






在一日將盡之際,我回到家中並專注經營Language Boat這個社群。在此,我感謝所有網友給我的支持,無論我們是否已經交換過意見。透過你們的幫助,我能專注於語言學習的目標。對於你們帶給我的歸屬感,謝謝大家!


歡迎訂閱這個部落格,並成為Language Boat 社群的一份子。誠摯感謝你的閱讀!

Download Your Free Tagalog Language Course From Pimsleur

Have MP3 player, will travel

(Photo credit: Newton Free Library)

I’m island hopping from Taiwan to the Philippines in a couple of weeks for a brief weekend jaunt. I started poking around the internet looking for information on the Filipino language, Tagalog.

I learned that Tagalog is an Austronesian language. It’s one of two official languages in the Philippines, the other is English.

I thought it would be a good idea to learn some basic phrases, things like “thank you” and “excuse me.” I was looking for some Tagalog learning resources, when…

Out of nowhere this amazing opportunity popped up on my Facebook news feed from Language Surfer. Pimsleur, in light of the recent typhoon devastation in the Philippines, is giving away its Phase 1 Tagalog courses (15 units!) to relief workers for free. But anyone can download free Pimsleur Tagalog courses here. I imagine at some point they will discontinue this giveaway, but the website does not make mention of it.

If you are not familiar with Pimsleur, it is an audio-based language-learning program that teaches foreign languages the same way you learned your first language as a child, acquiring the vocabulary of the new language, along with the melody, rhythm, and intonation as used in everyday conversation. Pimsleur offers audio-based language learning programs in 50 languages, ranging from Albanian to Vietnamese.

My advice: Get it while the gettin’s good, and learn a little Tagalog!

Pimsleur says of Tagalog:

“Approximately one-hundred and seventy languages are spoken in the Philippines, eight of which are considered major. Tagalog is the most widely-spoken with approximately 24 million native speakers.  Tagalog is also spoken as a second or third language by almost the entire population of the Philippines.  Several dialects of Tagalog are spoken in different regions, but the dialect spoken in Manila dominates the Philippine media and is the dialect taught in the Pimsleur course.”

Now it’s just a question of finding the time to work on those lessons before I go!

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When To Use Or Omit Definite Articles In Spanish

Mexico City - Diana Fountain near El Ángel de ...

Mexico City – Diana Fountain near El Ángel de la Independencia (Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

Recently blogger and language learner diligentmonster requested I write about when to omit articles in Spanish.

Interestingly, I was never aware of any rules or guidelines around this when I was learning Spanish, and I seemed to have just absorbed it through repeated exposure and patterns. Living in Mexico for five ye

ars gave me plenty of time and opportunities to nail it. So, I did some research and discovered that, in fact, there are some loose rules that govern when we use or omit definite articles in Spanish.

Again, I feel has done a great job of explaining this. The following is their explanation:

¿Hablas español? El español es la lengua de la Argentina. (Do you speak Spanish? Spanish is the language of Argentina.)

If you’re paying attention or are particularly analytical about words, you may have noticed something about the words el and la — words usually translated as “the” — in the above sentences. In the first sentence, español is used to translate “Spanish,” but in the second sentence it’s el español. And Argentina, a country name that stands alone in English, is preceded by la in the Spanish sentence.

These differences typify just a couple of the differences in how the definite article (“the” in English and usually ellalos or las in Spanish) is used in the two languages. Using the definite article when you shouldn’t or the other way around won’t make you misunderstood very often, but using it correctly will make you sound like less of a foreigner.

The easy rule: Fortunately, although the rules of using the definite article can be complex, you have a head start if you speak English. That’s because nearly any time you use “the” in English you can use the definite article in Spanish. Of course, there are exceptions.

Here are the cases where Spanish doesn’t use the definite article while English does:

  • Before ordinal numbers for names of rulers and similar people. Luis octavo (Luis the Eighth), Carlos quinto (Carlos the Fifth).
  • Some proverbs (or statements made in a proverbial fashion) omit the article. Camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente. (The shrimp that falls asleep gets carried away by the current.) Perro que ladra no muerde. (The dog that barks doesn’t bite.)
  • When used in nonrestrictive apposition, the article is often omitted. This usage can best be explained by example. Vivo en Las Vegas, ciudad que no duerme. (I live in Las Vegas, the city that doesn’t sleep.) In this case, ciudad que no duerme is in apposition to Las Vegas. The clause is said to be nonrestrictive because it doesn’t define which Las Vegas; it only provides additional information. The article isn’t used. But Vivo en Washington, el estado.Here, el estado is in apposition to Washington, and it defines which Washington (it “restricts”Washington), so the article is used. Conozco a Julio Iglesias, cantante famoso. (I know Julio Iglesias, the famous singer.) In this sentence, presumably both the person speaking and any listeners know who Iglesias is, so the phrase in apposition (cantante famoso) doesn’t tell who he is (it doesn’t “restrict”), it merely provides additional information. The definite article isn’t needed. But Escogí a Bob Smith, el médico. (I chose Bob Smith, the doctor.) The listener doesn’t know who Bob Smith is, and el médico serves to define him (“restrict” him). The definite article would be used.
  • In certain set phrases that don’t follow any particular pattern. Examples: A largo plazo (in the long run), en alta mar (on the high seas).

Far more common are cases where you don’t use the article in English but you need it in Spanish. Following are the most common such uses. Keep in mind that there are some regional variations and exceptions. But this list should include most of the instances you will come across.

  • Days of the week: Days of the week typically are preceded by either el or los, depending on whether the day is singular or plural (the names of the weekdays don’t change in the plural form). Voy a la tienda el jueves. (I’m going to the store on Thursday.) Voy a la tienda los jueves. (I go to the store on Thursdays.) The article isn’t used following a form of the verb ser to indicate which day of the week it is. Hoy es lunes. (Today is Monday.)
  • Seasons of the year: Seasons normally need the definite article, although it is optional after deen or a form of serPrefiero los inviernos. (I prefer winters.)No quiero asistir a la escuela de verano. (I don’t want to go to the summer school.)
  • With more than one noun: In English, we can often omit the “the” when using two or more nouns joined by “and” or “or,” as the article is understood to apply to both. That’s not so in Spanish. El hermano y la hermana están tristes. (The brother and sister are sad.) Vendemos la casa y la silla. (We’re selling the house and chair.)
  • With generic nouns: These are nouns that refer to a concept or to a substance in general or a member of a class in general, rather than a specific one (where the article would be required in both languages). No preferiría el despotismo. (I wouldn’t prefer despotism.) Esto es la realidad de la vida. (This is the reality of life.) El trigo es nutritivo. (Wheat is nutritious.) Los americanos son ricos. (Americans are rich.) Los derechistas no deben votar. (Right-wingers ought not to vote.)Escogí la cristianidad. (I chose Christianity.) Exception: The article is often omitted after the preposition de, especially when the noun following de serves to describe the first noun and doesn’t refer to a specific person or thing. Los zapatos de hombres (men’s shoes), but los zapatos de los hombres (the shoes of the men). Dolor de muela (toothache in general), but dolor de la muela (a toothache in a particular tooth).
  • With names of languages: Names of languages require the article except when they immediately follow en or a verb that is often used of languages (particularly saberaprender, and hablar, and sometimes entenderescribir or estudiar). The article also is required after an adverb or a preposition other than enHablo español. (I speak Spanish.) Hablo bien el español.(I speak Spanish well.) Prefiero el inglés. (I prefer English.) Aprendemos inglés. (We are learning English.)
  • With clothing, body parts and other personal items: It is very common to use the definite article in Spanish in cases where a possessive adjective (such as “your”) would be used in English. Examples: ¡Abre los ojos! (Open your eyes!)Perdió los zapatos. (He lost his shoes.)
  • With infinitives used as subjects: El entender es difícil. (Understanding is difficult.) El fumar está prohibido. (Smoking is prohibited.)
  • Before the names of some countries: The names of some countries, and a few cities, are preceded by the definite article. In some cases it’s mandatory or nearly so (el Reino Unidola India), while in other cases it’s optional but common (el Canadála China). Even if a country isn’t on the list, the article is used if the country is modified by an adjective. Voy a México. (I’m going to Mexico.) But, voy al México bello. (I’m going to beautiful Mexico.) The article is also commonly used before the names of mountains: el Everestel Fuji.
  • Before names of streets: Streets, avenues, plazas and similar places are usually preceded by the article. La Casa Blanca está en la avenida Pennsylvania. (The White House is on Pennsylvania Avenue.)
  • With personal titles: The article is used before most personal titles when talking about people, but not when talking to them. El señor Smith está en casa. (Mr. Smith is at home.) But,hola, señor Smith (hello, Mr. Smith). La doctora Jones asistió a la escuela. (Dr. Jones attended the school.) But, doctora Jones, ¿como está? (Dr. Jones, how are you?) La is also often used when speaking about a famous woman using her last name only. La Spacek durmió aquí.(Spacek slept here.)
  • In certain set phrases: Many of these involve places. En el espacio (in space), en la televisión(on television).

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Reading In Chinese: My Latest Discovery

children's books in chineseLast Saturday I had a bit of time to kill while I was waiting for a train back to Taipei. I wandered into a children’s bookstore located inside the train station and wondered, why hadn’t I bought children’s books in Chinese before?

I browsed the extensive selection and settled on a book based on the illustrations. It showed people (rather than cartoony animal protagonists) and looked like it was a story about townspeople, a king and a big bell.

The book was inexpensive, only $99 NT, (about $3 USD) with fairly large font and bopomofo. I still haven’t learned bopomofo although I’m starting to think more and more that I should. But that is the topic of another post.

I thought because the book was inexpensive I would write on it like I do magazines and newspapers, circling and highlighting characters, and jotting down their meanings and pinyin. But I just can’t bring myself to deface this pristine book. It’s a story book, not a text book, is what I say to justify this quirk.

So I began to attempt to read my new book. The pages are big and glossy, with more illustrations than words. The illustrations are telling, giving tons of clues about context and plot line. The visuals cue me and help me to remember the characters I’m reading.

The first time through I read through it I only knew a handful of characters. I couldn’t really piece together the full meaning and I was missing key parts. But still, I could identify quite a few characters.

Since then I’ve read it several more times with the help of friends and language exchange partners. Each time I come to a new word, I work on pronouncing it and also writing it. I find that if I write a word several times it helps me to remember it.

It’s taken me a few days but I’ve finally made it through the first page.

I’m enjoying the way the words tend to repeat frequently, giving me lots of exposure and reinforcement with new words. But it’s far more interesting than flashcards or route memorization.

I’m always looking for new ways to engage with Chinese. At least for now this is challenging, fun, and holds my attention.

Have you tried reading children’s books in your target language? Believe it or not, I never did when I was learning Spanish!

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