Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Links Roundup - January 24, 2017

On Learning Foreign Languages (Or Anything Else)

A book in German

I’ve never been much good at learning languages. Complete failure is a pretty accurate description of my efforts — I’m 0 for 3 when it comes to trying to pick up foreign langugages.

While I’ve never reached the point where I could use a language professionally, or reached the point of having some useful degree of fluency, I know that having even a rudimentary or basic knowledge of a language can come in handy.

Whenever I travel to a country or region where English isn’t spoken, I try to learn at least a bit of the local language. It makes it easier to get around and deal with everyday tasks like shopping and banking. When I was Japan in the early 1990s, for example, I was trying to find my way around the city of Kumamoto. So was a man from Spain I ran into. Between my poor Japanese and his poor English, we were able to get a friendly local to point us in the right directions.

Sometimes, though, knowing the wrong language can cause problems. At the very least, it can cause a few hiccups. At a Belgian train station, I asked an employee (in French) for two tickets to Dusseldorf. He rolled his eyes and gave me something of a nasty look. While he could speak French, it turns out that his first language was Walloon. I won’t go into the cultural and political aspects of language in Belgium, but suffice it to say I’d said the right thing in the wrong language. I explained, in French, that I wasn’t from around there and didn’t speak Walloon. That mollified him a bit, and I was able to get my train tickets. He still looked put out, though.

All of that, more or less, was and is the extent of my abilities with the languages I’ve tried to learn or learned for a particular journey.

The point behind these examples? Just as with coding, I don’t think everyone needs to learn to speak another tongue. You definitely shouldn’t do it because of the breathless articles that show up in newspapers or because some pundit says you need to learn the current hot language. Remember when people said Japanese was the language of the future? That didn’t last long, did it?

You should learn a language because you want to learn it. You should learn a language because you’re interested in it, and in the culture of the country or countries where it’s spoken.

Not everyone needs to reach fluency or have professional-level or near-native skills with a language. For many of us, the rudiments and basics — like what you need to get by while travelling — are more than enough.

Like learning anything else, learning a language is a choice. Your choice, not a choice thrust upon you by someone else. You choose to learn a language, to the degree you need to learn it. Or not learn it at all.

Staying on Track with TinyCal

A calendar, a pen, and a task list

For the most part, I prefer to use small, simple, minimal tools. Tools that do one or two things and do them well. That way, I’m confident that the tool won’t have to many bugs, be too big and unwieldy, or just trying too hard to be something that it’s not.

There seems to be at least one web developer who shares that sentiment. His name is Anthony Feint and over the last while he’s been crafting a set of what he calls TinyApps. I’ve been playing with one or two of Feint’s creations over the last year or so, and was pleasantly surprised to learn he’d come up with a new one.

It’s called TinyCal and it’s a quick and simple way to get and stay on track. Let’s take a look at it.

Travelling Light, Redux

People in an airport

Each year for the last four, I’ve been taking week-long trips to the United States from New Zealand. What’s ironic is that during that time I’ve yet to return to Canada, the country of my birth …

Those four trips have been for a couple of events — an unconference and documentation sprint in 2013, and to attend a conference called All Things Open in 2014, 2015, and 2016. With the latter three trips (and the few I’ve taken within New Zealand during that time), I’ve been trying to see how lightly I can travel.

While I’m not obsessed with carrying as little as possible, I do want to find how much I actually need to take with me when I travel. Those experiments have had mixed success over the last three years. I’d like to share my latest adventures in travelling light with you.

Links Roundup - January 10, 2017