Archive for learning

My Turkish Fixation

Throughout my life I’ve had a tendency to grab on to a new interest or hobby, beat the hell out of it with my unflagging passion, and then move on to something new. I’ve done that with authors, reading every book written by that person, good or bad; film stars or directors, watching every movie ever made by that person; even cheesecake recipes.

I’m sure there are a few people who regret that I gave up my quest to try every cheesecake recipe I ever found, just to see how it compared with the first one I ever made, also known as World’s Best Cheesecake. By the way, World’s Best Cheesecake, which was a classic New York style, reigned supreme.



My Hawaiian fixation endured for years, as I learned first hula, then ukulele, then the Hawaiian language and all the while blogged about the process. These days my obsession with all things Hawaiian has waned a bit, but only because I’ve replaced it with another cultural fixation, Turkish.

Istanbul 2007

Me on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2007

And like my Hawaiian fixation, the Turkish fixation had waned years ago, only to surprise me by roaring back in the form of a fierce desire to achieve fluency in the Turkish language.

I studied Turkish in college and graduate school and could communicate reasonably well when I lived in Istanbul for 14 months in the mid-70s. But I was never fluent.

So for the past several years I’ve been a senior auditor at Portland State University, trying to make that language my own. Now my goal is to win a Fulbright Arts Fellowship in order to participate in Turkish society and write about it.

For the time being I’m participating in Turkish society in Portland, Oregon. This evening I’m attending a Turkish ladies’ coffee night and tomorrow I’m joining Turks and Turcophiles to see “Winter Sleep,” the new film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. At least by now I’ve figured out how to learn Turkish: Study harder!

Learning foreign languages in a new way

Traveling to Turkey

Studying foreign languages is my hobby. Notice I didn’t say learning foreign languages. In the years that I’ve been merrily racking up classes in Japanese, French, Turkish, Italian, Latin, Arabic, Persian, German – even ‘olelo Hawai’i (the Hawaiian language) – I’ve unfortunately never risen to the level of real fluency.

Yet, it’s my passionately desired goal to achieve fluency in at least one of ‘em before I kick the bucket. To that end, I recently attended a language learning academy, or workshop, at last month’s World Domination Summit. It was presented by Benny Lewis, a self-described Irish polyglot, who claims that by using his methods, anybody can be fluent in a foreign language in three months.  Hence, his website:

Lewis says he’s living proof that it can be done. Ten years of studying the Irish language in school was 10 years wasted; ditto for the five years of school he spent studying German. Have you detected a pattern? School is the key word here, and as Lewis began describing how he seized upon scores of free Internet resources that would help him finally learn foreign languages, I realized that my attendance of formal classes once or twice a week had put my learning in a sporadic pattern that actually created hurdles instead of

Benny Lewis

Benny Lewis

smoothing the way.

The most important message I took from Lewis is that language learning is an active verb. And it requires daily action. The myriad Internet resources available for language learning are not magic pills. But if a willing student takes advantage of several of these free resources each day, fluency can be just around the corner.

“An intensive two or three hours a day is required,” Lewis told the workshop attendees, “not an hour every week or two.” He cited studies of memory and retention to illustrate that without daily study and practice, foreign language skills can dry up and blow away.  And I’m the living proof of that fact.

Time to get down to business. First of all, it’s important to hear the spoken language. Lewis recommends starting with the website and downloading streaming radio programs from virtually anywhere in the world. There are more than 100,000 stations to choose from, as well as scads of podcasts in foreign languages. Then look for instructional videos for your language or videos with native speakers on You may even find feature films in your chosen language on that site.

Then jump right in. Lewis recommends compiling a set of phrases that you could use to begin a spoken conversation with anyone, for example, words of greeting and a brief intro about who you are and why you’re learning a foreign language. One of the quickest ways to find a useful phrase is to type it in English into and then select a language for the translation. It’s also useful to find a good online dictionary for your chosen language and look up words and expressions there, too.

As for grammar, Lewis says, “Forget it!” Nothing will get in the way of your progress faster than worrying about grammar rules or believing that you need to sound like you’ve graduated with honors from that country’s most esteemed institution of learning. Just chillax and enjoy the learning process. Most people are delighted that you want to learn their language and will communicate with you, no matter how badly you mangle their native tongue. Lewis’s advice is: “Set a goal of making more than 200 mistakes per day.” That is to say, perfection is not the objective. Practice is.

If you don’t know any native speakers who will practice with you, find someone in that country who will speak to you on Skype.  For free conversation practice, sign up at The Mixxer, a website maintained by Dickinson College that connects people around the world for language practice exchange. On you can find tutors who, for a low fee (typically $6 to $20 per hour), will deliver language lessons via Skype.

Finally, here are some of the online language learning resources recommended by Lewis. (for learning European languages); Anki (flash cards); (pronunciation guide); (correcting written language). And on his own site there are starter phrases ( and recommended dictionaries (

Bonne chance!