Emergencies and First Aid

Theoretically, there could be an international language for help.  There may even be one beyond body language that clearly conveys urgency.  It is not necessarily English or even English based.  A knowledge of this will assist you in any urgent situation, whether it be requiring help on the street of a foreign land or just passing the first hurdle of your fluency test in the classroom.

Sometimes it is a numbers game, and sometimes it has to do strictly with the part of the world in which you happen to be.  There is no doubting the pervasive influence of the French language.  Some of the most prolific colonialists, the French spread their language wherever they went.  Some common phrases for help in French would be:

  • Medical help/SAMU: 15. (dialing fifteen if you happen to be in France)

“J’ai besoin d’aide médicale.” – I need medical help

  • Fire and accidents/Pompiers: 18. (dialing 18 if you happen to be in France)

“Aidez-moi! Il y a un feu.” – Help me!  There is a fire.

  • “Je m’appelle…” — My name is ….
  • “J’ai eu un accident” — I had an accident.
  • “Je besoin d’un médecin” — I need a doctor.
  • “Je besoin d’une ambulance” — I need an ambulance.
  • “Je ne peux pas respirer” — I can’t breathe.

Beyond the obvious that you may be in Paris or Brussels is the fact that many places in Africa have French as a primary or secondary language.  Therefore, at least knowing these phrases when traveling to either continent could prove to be quite useful.

Happily, or unhappily, as you may perceive it, there is one word that translates very well from English to French to Spanish.  This is “accident (English)”  French is merely a crepe’s distance away (“Il y a un accident,” — There is an accident) and Spanish not more than a tortilla’s distance (“Hay un accidente,” –There is an accident).  While “help” is probably pretty vague and could, in theory, communicate a small emergency (lost contact lens) to a big one (lost child) at least saying that something unexpectedly bad has happened can get the other person to call the fire department, police or rescue team.

Another important fact about emergencies and asking for help is that it is immensely helpful to be prepared.  You can react in a calm, determined manner because you know exactly how you would respond.  Unless you have been sidetracked on a trip to an unexpected destination where you have no knowledge of the language or culture, you can make some common sense preparation steps a habit just as predictable as packing your suitcase.

First, understand the culture you are presumably immersing yourself into.  You will want to understand if the locals make eye contact or are genuinely xenophobic in some way.  You will want to understand if it is proper to approach women walking alone or what particular gender rules apply.  Older men, especially shop keepers or service personnel, tend to be a pretty safe bet.  Groups of younger men, probably no matter where you travel, tend not to be.  However, during times of emergency beggars can’t be choosers and you will just have to enter the situation thinking of what to do if this encounter goes terribly wrong or they start to take advantage of your confusion.  Don’t be too proud to run and hide if the situation demands it.  A quick decision in an emergency is often better than none at all.  Above all, put yourself in their shoes and imagine if a foreigner approached you in your neighborhood asking for help.  The person that can most help will indeed likely be a local, although a fellow tourist may not add to the chaos if they have a reasonable amount of fluency in the local language.

Second, keep key phrases on your person wherever you go.  It doesn’t have to be that fashionable fanny pack.  During this age of smartphones, it is tempting to think that you have all the phrases you need at your fingertips.  I was staying in Paris for several days and my travel companion decided that Google translate or another application was all she needed.  She was correct, to a degree.  The problem was that she expected to just tap in the phrase and hold the phone up for the waiter or other people to hear.  This was generally met with confusion and hesitation, even though it was perfectly clear to the other person what she was attempting to do.  There will never be a substitute, beyond humanlike androids with remarkable facial expression technology, to personal interactions with people.  Connections promote comfort which most definitely promotes efficient and effective communication.

Third, keep a small piece of paper with information about your hotel, embassy, medications, and allergies on your person at all times.  Again, smartphone batteries die and if you are incapacitated, smartphones could easily get stolen.  If all else fails at least you can hand over to a willing local some information that can help them get you emergency assistance.  Be sure that your writing is clear if you happen to need to use a pen and paper instead of typing it out.  If you are lucky enough to have a concierge or tour guide it is likely that they will be more than happy to help you.  If they brush off your concern saying, “you’ll be with us the whole time,” it betrays a distinct lack of experience or a fair amount of overconfidence.  The more foreign the culture or remote the region the more you should insist on doing this.

Fourth, be direct yet courteous.  Time is of the essence, and if that person is reluctant to help you for whatever reason at least you will know immediately and can move on to the next person.  The most obvious phrase to know and practice from your aforementioned piece of old-fashioned paper is, “Do you speak English?” in the local language.  It doesn’t get any more direct than that.  I am an experienced language learner and I have used that phrase far more than I care to mention.  The nice thing about people is if you convey genuine distress, the fact is that the vast majority will move heaven and earth to help you.

Travel safe and travel as fluent as you can.  Preparation, in this case, is your friend and you may immeasurably benefit from just five to seven minutes of forethought (or French).



Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Night: What Time of Day is Best for Learning?

We are all bound to the rhythms of time.  Therefore we often label ourselves as a “morning person” or maybe a “night owl.”  We find out after a few years of experience know that we have a unique chemistry and disposition for certain times of the day.  These times of day we are more alert, receptive to new ideas and generally more content.  Other times of the day, in contrast, we may feel sluggish and less on top of our game.  Therefore you can subjectively label a time when it feels “best” to learn.  However, while subjectively someone may feel better at one time of the day rather than others, there is never a “bad” time to learn.  It is a dichotomy in that the time you feel the worst may, in fact, be the “best” time to learn.  You may make fewer hard-earned gains because of fatigue, but this, in turn, can inspire a feeling.  Feelings are good in language learning.  They help you remember better.  There is a charged urgency to what you have learned.  You may remember how much you suffered just to learn that one conjugation at 5 a.m. or whatever you view as your worst time of day.  However, it is much more likely that moving through your learning cycle is going to at least make you proud of what you accomplished.  Pride and self-esteem (taking pride in one’s actions and accomplishments) are vital to language learning and fluency.

Elizabeth hated mornings.  When she woke up, it often felt like she was attempting to resurrect herself from the dead.  Groggy, out of sorts, and often stubbing her toes as she shuffled across her bedroom floor, she struggled to do what she had to do.  If she went back to bed it was often without guilt or a second thought, even though she knew she could get more done if she just bloody well could stay awake.  How in blue blazes anyone ever got up early and felt energized and ready to go was beyond her peception even during her “best” times of the day.  It seemed impractical to expect, given everything she had experienced through young adulthood, that she could learn anything of value during the early morning.  There was a tranquil quality of the early morning that was difficult to replicate any other time of day.  However, her job and family commitments made this impractical because she felt too fatigued even just waking up.  There was supposed to be a refreshed feeling like all the actors in all the ads when waking up on their picture-perfect beds, in light airy sheets, with the sun streaming through an open window and a gentle breeze blowing.  This did not seem to depict her cold February morning.  “Oh well,” She thought, “I can do it tomorrow.  Tomorrow will be different.” 

     Except that she never could and it never was.  When you practice your target language you are working out your brain.  You are acquiring valuable knowledge and skills and that if it is worthwhile it is not going to be easy.  If you have to push through fatigue it may be so much the better.  Memrise (premium) is interesting in that it will track what time of day you study the most.  This is of marginal interest and perhaps not very useful.  Even if it is a good idea to study even if, and maybe especially if, you are tired, then knowing when you most often practice can clue you into your habits.  Your habits end up defining who you are as a person.

While any time of day is a good time of day to study your language, you may want to consistently study at the same time of day.  This usually ends up being early in the morning just purely for the fact that most people are still asleep and you are less likely to be disturbed.  Arguably, it could also be late at night for the same reasons.  However, sleep is essential to distilling what you have learned and there are few health issues as pernicious or detrimental as a lack of sleep.  This leads us back to Elizabeth’s dilemma.  it can seem pretty hopeless as you struggle to just function in the early morning, much less learn how to recite a poem in Thai.  There are some commonsense steps you can take that don’t cost a cent.

  1.  Don’t consume caffeine late in the day.  There is no evidence that this could possibly have a positive impact on your sleep and a lot that it will have a negative one.
  2. Go to bed as early as possible. This is what parents do with their kids because it only takes a few mornings of pain to realize that if they don’t sleep well then it will take a prodigiously long time to get them ready in the morning.  Be your own parent in this case.
  3. Ditch digital screens as early as possible.  This includes your laptop, tablet, and smartphone.  Everything.  8:30pm is generally a good rule of thumb.  There are many good language books in print that you may find relaxing before bed.
  4. Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet.  Some folks enjoy white noise during slumber and this does not seem to be particularly harmful.  Adjust the volume on your humidifier or device and see what works well.
  5. Most importantly, keep your expectations realistic.  It would be wonderful to wake up every morning completely refreshed and ready to learn.  However, your body varies in chemistry and general efficiency from day to day.  The best case scenario is that you will have a normal or better distribution of amazing sleep nights.  The frequency of those wonderful nights will increase.

Finally, it is key to get into a routine once you wake up.  Pick the simple language tasks you may want to accomplish that day to do first.  Do the same ones every day at the same time.  This will give you an early “win” that will reinforce the belief that you can learn another language.

Project Management Techniques and Language Learning

Your strategic vision is nothing more than a clear description of how you see yourself living in the future.  Projects are one-time activities that support your strategic vision.  They differ from your everyday activities, such as washing your dishes or cleaning your house, because if accomplished they have an irrevocable change in your life.  The result, if the project is well chosen, is very positive.  The project moves you closer to the type of life you seek.  Projects are a great paradigm for language learning and an amazing amount of useful study of how to manage projects is available for you to use for free.

Business people have used project management techniques for over a century.  For example, Henry Gantt first developed what became known as the Gantt chart between the years of 1910 and 1915.  This illustrates the relationship between the schedule and current activities.


The Gantt chart is nicely organized and clearly communicates what should be completed on which day.  An activity name could easily be “Ordering in a Restaurant,” with sub-activities of “read a menu” and “speaking with a waiter.”  If you can estimate how long it will take you to learn that skill you can place it on a calendar and keep yourself accountable.  The way to figure out how long (and possibly how much) it will be to learn a skill is through a WBS.

This is a work breakdown structure (WBS).  It is a rough outline that has a clear category of work or skill acquisition.  The biggest problem I see with people wanting to be “fluent” is that they can rarely define what that means.  A WBS solves this problem by breaking an objective down into its most elemental activities.  This is the principle of “keeping it simple” at its finest.  It can be as simple as you see here, whether using high-speed office products like a monster-sized post-it note and smaller post-it notes, whiteboard or a smart board.  You must choose a single clear objective of what you what to achieve and then break down into subtasks that can’t be made into anything more basic, commonly called “work packages.”  The SIELE is a recognized test for Spanish language fluency.  Here is a WBS that I made for achieving a C2 (proficiency level) score on the SIELE.


The main objective is the SIELE test with a suspense (deadline) for completion of December 2019.  Notice how I broke the test down into its subcomponents.  My goal is not some vague notion of Spanish fluency.  It is a score of C2 on the SIELE.  The fact is that Spanish fluency may be an “effect” of achieving that goal (which I talk about in other posts) but Spanish fluency itself is probably too notional to be practical using project management techniques.  Each large yellow lined post-in directly below the hand-written objective is one of those sections with a note for how long it is.  Languages in general and language tests, in particular, are very amenable to being broken down into manageable chunks.  I may be overwhelmed attempting to learn all the SIELE subjects, but I don’t really have to attack the problem that way.  I look at one section of the test and break that down into what the activities of that section are.  Then I learn how to do those activities to the best of my ability, ensuring that I am tested by a coach.

Ideally, each of your work packages contains the following elements:

  1.  Defines the work. (clear task)
  2. Identifies the time to completion.  (minutes, hours, days: whatever is useful)
  3. Identifies the cost. (usually in dollars, if it is self-learning I use my hourly consulting rate.  If I am using a paid service I do the math and figure out how much that is per hour)
  4. Identifies the resources required.  (books, websites)
  5. Identifies the person responsible. (usually you, but I use this to identify my teammates)
  6. Identifies how you will measure progress.  (visual reinforcement in this regard is helpful.  Everyone hates quizzes and tests but they will always be an effective tool for this.

Many of the other notes on the WBS require some explanation.  The large yellow notes underneath the rainbow of small post-it notes are actually tasks not directly part of the SIELE but ones that I find extremely useful in learning any language.  One of the most important would be the 1000 most common words that occur in that language.  That is vital to any beginner and it is a high payoff task.  One of the most effective ways to knock that out is to build a flashcard deck of those words in Quizlet or another application.  Most of these applications recognize the proven value of spaced repetition and there are modes to see and review the 1000 words in the most efficient and effective ways possible.  Another key task noted on the large yellow handwritten memos at the bottom of the page is the elemental sounds of Spanish.  At least one paid service, the Mimic Method, believes in the value of learning these well first, and this could prove to be effective for some people.  There is a great review of this service on Spanish Hackers.  Fortunately for Spanish, in particular, there are really only five vowel sounds to learn and perfect.

What comes next is entering the WBS on some sort of spreadsheet or software so that you have a time-based list of what needs to be accomplished.  When you set dates to the activities you are going to know whether you are ahead of schedule or behind schedule.  You won’t feel a little bit bad because you kind of think you are behind in achieving your language goals.  You will definitely feel A LOT bad because you know exactly how far behind you are.  However, that is a good tool for you and your coach and will put you on the quickest and most effective path towards your strategic vision of language fluency.  Either you suffer some now for the sake of learning or a lot later for regret of not taking action today.




Different Ways to Express Cold in English

Today is freaking, fudging, fracking cold in the United States.  It is colder than a witch’s heart.  It is absolutely freezing.  The wind is bracing and biting.  The streets are frozen and uninviting.  The brumal weather is brutal and frightening.  It was so cold that that moose were seen walking around the neighborhood, and we live in Miami.

It is stinging and sharp without being sleety.  It also definitely raw and wintry.  However, it is not so rimy  [rahy-mee] as freezing to me.  Rimy is actually frozen water droplets such as on trees and grass.  “Frost covered” is another way to describe the day.

I owe many thanks to the Outdoor Swimming Society for the outstanding adjectives.  A great way to deal with foul weather, such as unbearable cold, is with good humor.  The more words you know, the more jokes you can make.

An International Conspiracy

It may be a good idea to find international partners in your quest to learn a foreign language.  Not necessarily native speakers, although those persons are vital.  Find people from other countries and cultures who are attempting to learn the same language.  This is much easier in the Internet age, as several forums, groups and web pages exist that have an international membership.

There are a few reasons why this is a good idea.  First, you will gain insights from people who clearly have a different basis for learning other languages.  Perhaps the person already reads right to left and necessarily has to learn to read left to right.  They may be unfamiliar with latin letters.  This is a golden opportunity for you, assuming that you are more familiar with the same, to teach them.  When you teach something, you understand it better.  Second, the person comes from a different culture.  They may have wildly different perceptions about things as mundane as umbrellas or armadillos.  I actually know a person that, upon sighting his first armadillo, mistook it for a dinosaur.  Regardless, always be kind and rest ensured a clash of cultures means that hilarity will ensue. Learning becomes fun.  Third, you are going to expand your horizons beyond your own culture and gains some pretty interesting stories to tell your friends and your English teacher.  If you can talk about the yurts of Central Asia to your English speaking chums in English, I guarantee that they will be impressed.

Start your search today.  Facebook is present almost anywhere and offers a great selection of groups to choose from.  A group with a large membership that learns English include the Learn English page based out of Australia and the BBC page Learning English page.  A more convivial and fun approach could be the site called English is Fun, or the more quirky Polyglot First World Problems.