Monthly Archives: July 2015

Language coaching

Part of LCP’s strategy for supporting language learners is to have language learning coaches. At the moment I am the only coach, but within the next year we expect that two more people will be trained. A language coach is someone who comes alongside of you to help you develop, implement, and evaluate your plans for language learning. LCP is trying to do a better job of tailoring our language instruction to the individual, and language coaches are a big part of that.

What do you think of when you think of a coach? I think of this:


As a non-athletic person, a coach is for me someone who:

  • Cares way more about sports than I ever will.
  • Has an innate talent for sports that I simply don’t have.
  • Enjoyed sports in school to the point of developing it into a profession, instead of—as I chose to do—leaving sports behind as soon as it was possible.

I can only assume that “coaching” had more positive associations for the people who recently began applying it to other fields!

So I want to acknowledge that, in many ways, it feels odd for a linguist to be the coach. Still, we need to keep in mind that a coach is not a model to be imitated. My goal is not to turn you into a linguist. The goal is simply to help you put together a customized learning plan. Your plan will be different from mine, because we all have different needs, strengths, and weaknesses.

For instance, my being an introvert is a clear disadvantage in language learning, since I don’t get a lot of social input. But it also offers a certain advantage: sitting down with a cup of tea and Dari book is a pretty attractive way to spend an hour. So rather than trying to force myself to be a person I’m not, I can get good language input by playing to my strengths. Those are the kinds of trade-offs that you can figure out with the help of a coach.

We can all improve as learners, and learn to make better use of our language learning time. If you’re feeling stuck, or feeling that you could be doing better, please drop me a line.

Unsatisfied with your rate of language-learning progress?

All of us get discouraged occasionally, and especially when it seems like we’re not learning fast enough. In this post, I’m going to suggest a simple strategy to overcome this problem: learn faster! Instead of learning just a few new Dari words in a lesson, learn more Dari words in that lesson. Instead of learning a little grammar, learn a lot of grammar. And instead of getting in just a little practice time, get a lot of practice time.

Okay, that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. But I do want to highlight a danger that may not be apparent: it’s possible to learn too slowly.

We’re all familiar with the opposite problem, where the material comes too quickly for us to process it. But you’ve probably also had an experience in life when things are happening too slowly. Even a book or a film gets boring if the plot is slow. Can the same thing happen in your lessons? Certainly. And there are two specific harms.

First, it’s boring and unrewarding. You need positive reinforcement if you’re going to progress in language learning. If you’re not learning enough in your lessons, you’re not going to get that reinforcement. If you take an hour out of your day to learn language, you’d better get a some reward for it!

Second, your brain will learn better if it has to learn. You brain is like a giant trash compactor: when it gets full it compresses your experiences to form long-term memories. Have you ever spent a day hammering nails? What do you dream about that night? Hammering nails. That’s your brain compressing your day into a long-term memory. But if the trash compactor never gets full, it’s not going to require much attention from your brain. Make sure you’re getting enough language input that your brain must deal with it.

In the linguistics program I’m a part of, there is a course in which the students learn to hear, pronounce, and write all 160+ plus letters of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and a lot of diacritics as well. They do this in nine weeks. It’s an intensive schedule. Before an exam, the teachers always give the first lecture for the following exam. Cruel? Not at all. They’ve learned from experience that students will do better on the exam that way. If they have to process new material, the old material gets pushed into their long-term memory.

So I encourage you to ratchet things up a notch, and see if that doesn’t help you to learn the language better. Perhaps you’ve even got some surplus language learning hours from the last few months and want to put together an intensive language study program….

“They don’t use that word here” — A personal view

A longing look came over the face of my friend the English teacher, “If we just had a tenth of what they have for English in Dari, I’d be happy.” It’s true that as languages go, Dari doesn’t have a ton of resources. All of the grammar books, vocabulary books, and conversation guides have to be developed from scratch.

Or is that true? There certainly are a lot of Persian-language resources: those which have been developed for Iranian Persian (Farsi), rather than Dari. Why not make use of those materials alongside of our Dari ones?

I hear the objection already: Iranian Farsi is completely different to Afghan Dari! They only use higher and educated forms over there! They don’t use those words in Afghanistan!

I confess that I am a little skeptical of this objection. As a linguist, I know that even native speakers have pretty poor intuitions about what words they do and don’t use. As someone learning Dari, I know that in a lot of contexts, all I hear is a wall of noise: I wouldn’t trust myself to say what words I’ve heard and what words I haven’t. If you’re convinced that Afghan and Iranian Persian have a lot of differences, I’m curious to know where you got your information!

In fact, over the past few years I’ve had the opposite experience: many words that I learned from Farsi language-learning resources have turned up in conversations here in Afghanistan. I’ve learned a lot of my vocabulary with Anki, a free flashcard program. I’m such a believer in this program that I’ve written a brief guide for it, and I’ve also put a number of pre-made flash card decks in LCP’s online resources page.

We recently spent about a year and a half in our passport country. About six months before we left I started a deck of Farsi flashcards – around 3200 cards. Then when we were in our passport country I started another deck of about 4600 cards, and I’m about 85% of the way through that now. The result is that I’ve got a lot of Farsi words somewhere in my head. A lot of these words were already familiar from Dari, but probably more than half were new. They are presented in random order: I learned how to say “United Nations,” I learned three words for “darkness” (or rather, two more words for “darkness” in addition to the one I had known), I learned a different word for “length of time,” etc.

Now that we’ve returned to Afghanistan, hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear a word that I learned from my “Farsi” flashcards. Examples? ظرف [zarf] for “length of time.” به [bah] for “good.” ممنوع [mamnu] for “forbidden.” And on and on. These are words I didn’t learn in four years in Afghanistan! I didn’t learn them from reading, and I didn’t learn them from conversation.

You’re free to make of my experience what you will, but I have two takeaways:

  1. Iranian Persian (Farsi) language resources can be very helpful for learning Afghan Dari. The differences between the Afghan and Iranian varieties are not so great as as commonly believed.

  2. Flashcards can be a helpful language-learning tool. The language learning gurus say that we need to know about 10,000 words before we can speak fluently, without feeling at a loss for words. That’s a steep goal. I hope that most of that comes from reading, listening, and conversation. But a good chunk can also come from flashcards. I find it easiest to pick up a word in conversation if I’ve previously encountered it on a card.