Brain Games

Send help. I’ve decided to study more languages to keep my brain fit and healthy. Right now, I’m working on:

  • French (I took a few years in high school, so I’m brushing up and cementing conjugations and grammar and stupid, stupid gendered nouns)
  • Japanese (again, I’ve studied it before and I lived there for a year, so this is just trying to stop the hemorrhaging of knowledge that comes from lack of practice)
  • American Sign Language (I studied it for a few months about a year ago and need to start over from the beginning to get fingerspelling and common phrases down)
  • Russian (this is the doozy – I’m having a really hard time with both pronunciation and learning Cyrillic)


For French and Russian, I’m using the free crowd-sourced language-learning app DuoLingo on my phone. It lets you set goals of as little as five minutes of study a day and rewards you for meeting your goals as well as for logging in every day. It’s a gentle way to learn languages that use the Roman alphabet with some game-like opportunities to learn and practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

It’s much harder with Russian as it often gives you a long and complex word one to two times and then expects you to be able to type it out from memory. This doesn’t work for me; I’m not a good memorizer and never have been. It also doesn’t provide any flashcards or practice ways of familiarizing yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet outside of the exercises (and you get penalized up to five times for wrong answers before it won’t let you practice anymore that day), meaning that learning a new reading/writing system can be overwhelming.


For Japanese, I downloaded the app MesmeriseĀ (just today) and started back at beginner to make sure that my base skills are strong. I probably could have started at a harder level, but I’d rather cement what skills I have and work up from there. It’s also very gentle and, in the case of learning kana (the phonetic Japanese “alphabet”), provides flashcard-like practice with the new characters. I notice that they also offer Russian and I may try using this to learn Cyrillic instead/allow me to tag-team my learning.


For ASL, I had some success last year watching a series of YouTube videos called Learn ASL in 31 Days by Rochelle Barlow. I believe I made it to Day 20 and, with a few repeats of the videos each day (and sometimes going back and re-watching the ones form the previous few days), I felt like I was making steady progress. To get the basics down, I’ll probably return to this teaching tool.


I choose to study languages, not because I’m good at them (I’m seriously not), but because they’re a challenge that I also enjoy. I know that math and logic puzzles are supposed to be great brain training and exercise, but they make me so completely miserable that I’m not sure the trade-off is worth it. I’m also one of those people with math anxiety from childhood that never went away and – true story – I can barely subtract in my head and cannot divide numbers mentally pretty much at all. It’s bad.

So, every night, right before bed, I do a few language lessons. And when new, long words pop up in Cyrillic, I’ll swear and ask my phone, “Are you kidding me?” but I keep going back for more.


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