Monthly Archives: January 2014

On Travel (and Languages)

When I was eighteen, I thought that I’d be a perpetual traveller.

I boarded a plane for the first time and went to Brazil on a month-long cultural exchange. I was young and idealistic, and the rainforest felt like home. I swore that I would return one day, to live in that lush green place.

christmasinmalawi

ice cream on Christmas day in Malawi

A few years later, I went on a long trip through Eastern and Southern Africa with a girlfriend. We decided that we would fly into Nairobi and slowly make our way down to Johannesburg, using local transportation. The travel agent, looking worried, told us that there was no local transportation in Africa.

“Don’t people live there?” I asked, confused.

She laughed as though I’d said something witty, and piled a dozen 20-page full-colour tour brochures into my arms.

Over six months in Eastern and Southern Africa, we rode in a luxury air-conditioned coach and on a rickety brakeless wonder where I shared a seat with a toothless old Mozambican woman and three chickens. We rode in cars, trucks, and vans, and perched in the back of a pick-up truck in Malawi. I hopped on a motorcycle in Tanzania, sarong tucked carefully around my knees. We cycled through palm forests and grass hut villages. We rode on motor boats, rowboats, fishing boats and ferry boats. We paddled a canoe past crocodiles and hippos in Zimbabwe. We walked. A lot.

victoriafalls

Victoria Falls, as seen from Zimbabwe

From Nairobi to Johannesburg is 2911 km as the crow flies. We got there using no less than 15 forms of public transportation. Take that, travel agent!

I picked up as many bits and pieces of kiSwahili and Chichewa and Zulu as I could, painstakingly copying each word into a notebook. Most of those words have slipped away, but even now, a decade and a half later, I find myself randomly throwing “pole pole” or “yebo!” into conversations.

When I came home from Africa, I met my now-husband. Within a year we moved 4000 km away, to BC’s beautiful Vancouver Island. We were full of plans to see the world. For the first few months, we lived in a near-empty apartment, with nothing but a futon to sleep on, lawn chairs to sit on and a giant world map on the wall.

We were only in Victoria for a few years when something unexpected happen.

No, not a baby.

puppy

A puppy.

Between saving our money for visits home, and not wanting to board our boy for more than 10 days at a time, I put my long-term travel dreams on hold for a decade.  The world would have to wait.

But yesterday, while sorting through photos on my old laptop, I realized that the world and I hadn’t really parted ways at all. Over ten years, three home-base cities and 100+ pounds of dog, we’ve managed to explore something pretty big:

our backyard.

We spent four beautiful years walking pristine beaches and hugging trees on British Columbia’s wild west coast.

tree hugger

Cathedral Grove, BC

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My sister contemplating life on Long Beach, BC

After living in Victoria for four years, we stopped in Toronto for a brief five-year layover before packing up again and moving even farther East, this time to rural Nova Scotia.

A short drive on a sunny day can bring us from rocky windswept shoreline to charming villages to lighthouses to endless deserted beaches to the lively city of Halifax.

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Mahone Bay, NS

peggy's cove

Peggy’s Cove, NS

Last summer, we packed ourselves and our tent onto a 14-hour ferry to Newfoundland. For ten days, we watched whales and puffins from the shore, camped next to moose, walked viking ruins, ate cod and salt beef, made friends with fishermen and drank beer on George Street.

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Icebergs near St Anthony, NL

newfoundland fishing village

Quiet Newfoundland fishing village

I’ve travelled this beautiful country of mine from coast to coast, including a multi-day train trip that took us from Toronto to Vancouver.

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Alberta as seen from the back of a train

I’ve had the opportunity to hike, cycle and paddle in some of the most beautiful parts of the world – all within easy distance from my front door. I’ve walked and wandered in nine of Canada’s ten provinces. Next summer we plan on exploring Prince Edward Island, which will make it ten for ten.

Who says you have to leave the country to travel?

But there’s one thing that’s been missing in all of my Canadian travels: immersion into another language and culture. In Toronto, we lived in a cultural melting pot. I taught French to children who spoke a dozen different languages at home. Walking around in our neighbourhood, we were much more likely to hear Russian, Korean or German than English.

But I never had to learn a language to communicate. I’m fluent in both of Canada’s official languages. English was the lingua franca in every city we’ve lived in, and French gave me my pick of jobs. Why bother learning another language, right?

I’ve spent the past 11 years teaching languages, but until eight months ago, I never bothered to seriously learn one myself.

There’s something wrong with that.

So what’s next?

For the first time in nearly 15 years, I have an overseas adventure to look forward to.

I will leave my menfolk (both human and canine) on March 15th to walk the Camino de Santiago with my father. We’ll leave from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France and – hopefully, hopefully – walk into Santiago, Spain 40 days later.

While mid-March might be the official start date of my Camino, the truth is that I took my first step on the day when I stopped weighing my socks for a minute and thought to myself:

Hey. I should learn Spanish first.

I think that decision will change my life forever.

Language, culture, people, communication, travel, stories – these are the things that I’m passionate about.

When I was eighteen, I thought that I’d be a perpetual traveller.

It turns out that I was right.

A Dios Le Pido by Juanes – Lyrics in Spanish and English

March 2016 edit: please see the comments for some corrections and insights into the meaning of this song. I’ve decided not to edit any of my translations, since they’re a record of my journey learning Spanish. Many thanks to readers who suggested corrections or alternative translations!

a dios le pido

Once you start listening to this song by  Colombian musician Juanes, I’m afraid that it will run itself through your head all day. And all night.

Luckily, it’s a beautiful song.

I think it might actually be my favourite song so far! The melody, the lyrics, the percussion, the subjunctive (ha!) – it’s perfect. It’s obviously a song about love and family, but there’s also a political message there. Another interesting note: you’ll notice the use of “vos” as the second person singular in this song (“si me enamoro sea de vos”).

A Dios Le Pido – Juanes

Que mis ojos se despierten
Con la luz de tu mirada yo
A Dios le pido
Que mi madre no se muera
Y que mi padre me recuerde
A Dios le pido
That my eyes awaken
to the light of your gaze
I pray to God
That my mother not die
That I remember my father
I pray to God
Que te quedes a mi lado
Y que más nunca te me vayas mi vida
A Dios le pido
Que mi alma no descanse cuando
De amarte se trate mi cielo
A Dios le pido
That you stay by my side
That never you leave me, my life
I pray to God
That my soul not rest when
Loving you is like heaven
I pray to God
Por los días que me quedan
Y las noches que aún no llegan yo
A Dios le pido
Por los hijos de mis hijos
Y los hijos de tus hijos
A Dios le pido
For the days that I have left
And the nights that haven’t yet come
I pray to God
For the children of my children
And the children of your children
I pray to God
Que mi pueblo no derrame tanta sangre
Y se levante mi gente
A Dios le pido
Que mi alma no descanse cuando
De amarte se trate mi cielo
A Dios le pido
That my people not spill so much blood
and that they rise up
I pray to God
That my soul not rest when
Loving you is like heaven
I pray to God
Un segundo más de vida para darte
Y mi corazón entero entregarte
Un segundo más de vida para darte
Y a tu lado para siempre yo quedarme
Un segundo más de vida yo
A Dios le pido
One more second of life to give you
And my whole heart to deliver to you
One more second of life to give you
And to always stay by your side
One more second of life
I pray to God
Que si me muero sea de amor
Y si me enamoro sea de vos
Y que de tu voz sea este corazón
Todos los días a Dios le pido
If I die, may it be of love
And if I fall in love, may it be with you
And may your voice be this heart
Every day I pray to God
Que si me muero sea de amor
Y si me enamoro sea de vos
Y que de tu voz sea este corazón
Todos los días a Dios le pido
If I die, may it be of love
And if I fall in love, may it be with you
And may your voice be this heart
Every day I pray to God
Que mis ojos se despierten
Con la luz de tu mirada yo
A Dios le pido
Que mi madre no se muera
Y que mi padre me recuerde
A Dios le pido
That my eyes awaken
to the light of your gaze
I pray to God
That my mother not die
That I remember my father
I pray to God
Que te quedes a mi lado
Y que más nunca te me vayas mi vida
A Dios le pido
Que mi alma no descanse cuando
De amarte se trate mi cielo
A Dios le pido
That you stay by my side
That never you leave me, my life
I pray to God
That my soul not rest when
Loving you is like heaven
I pray to God
Un segundo más de vida para darte
Y mi corazón entero entregarte
Un segundo más de vida para darte
Y a tu lado para siempre yo quedarme
Un segundo más de vida yo
A Dios le pido
One more second of life to give you
And my whole heart to deliver to you
One more second of life to give you
And to always stay by your side
One more second of life
I pray to God
Que si me muero sea de amor
Y si me enamoro sea de vos
Y que de tu voz sea este corazón
Todos los días a Dios le pido
If I die, may it be of love
And if I fall in love, may it be with you
And may your voice be this heart
Every day I pray to God
Que si me muero sea de amor
Y si me enamoro sea de vos
Y que de tu voz sea este corazón
Todos los días a Dios le pido
If I die, may it be of love
And if I fall in love, may it be with you
And may your voice be this heart
Every day I pray to God

As always, if you notice any mistakes or misinterpretations, please let me know. (And also, any html or wordpress gurus – any idea how I can increase the font size in a table?)

Want more Spanish music? You can follow a playlist with all of the songs that I’ve posted on the blog on YouTube.

Other songs I’ve posted:

Ojalá by Silvio Rodriguez
Eres Para Mí by Julieta Venegas
La Bamba by Ritchie Valens
Qué Hiciste by Jennifer Lopez
Son Mis Amigos by Amaral
Labios Compartidos by Mana
La Tortura by Shakira

What Does It Mean To Be Fluent?

cathedralgrove

The path to fluency is long, but there are lots of things to see along the way! Photo taken at Cathedral Grove in British Columbia.

Fluency.

It sometimes seems as though every language learner has a different idea of what, exactly, that term means. Since my blog is about becoming fluent, it only makes sense that I should explain what the word means to me!

Some people claim fluency as soon as they can carry on a very simple conversation in a language, while others sternly state that fluency only “counts” if you speak at a native level. I fall somewhere between the two.

For me, being fluent means that I would be able to live my life in that language, without breaking down in tears too often. I will consider myself fluent in Spanish when I feel that I’d be able to participate fully in professional, social and cultural life in a Spanish-speaking country. This means being able to…

  • watch movies and TV shows in Spanish without any effort
  • watch and read the news in Spanish – and intelligently discuss what’s going on in the world
  • have an argument and state my side of things – even when I’m feeling upset or emotional
  • take part in rowdy group conversations without feeling lost or overwhelmed
  • understand jokes

For me, fluency does not mean perfection. If it did, then I don’t think that I’d even be able to claim fluency in my native language.

For me, fluency does not mean native-level language skills. I will never speak Spanish at a native level. I’m honestly not even convinced that it’s possible as an adult to learn to speak a language at a native level.

I do not expect to reach fluency in every language that I might someday study. There’s an awful lot that a person can do with very basic language skills. But my goal in Spanish is to be fluent.

Fluency is an attainable goal. It requires time and effort, but it’s attainable for anyone. And I feel that I’m well on my way!

What does fluency mean to you?

Duolingo Review – Learn Spanish Online for Free

duolingoreviewWhat is Duolingo?

Duolingo is an innovative site that provides free instruction in several different languages. Interested in learning Spanish, German, Italian, French, Portuguese or English? Well, Duolingo can help – for free. And there will be more languages available in the coming year.

Have I mentioned that it’s free?

Yes, I realize that I’m repeating myself here. But I’m still impressed that this resource is available to anyone interested in learning – no credit card required.

Duolingo uses “gamification” brilliantly, appealing to both language geeks and gamers with opportunities to “level-up” as you work your way through lessons. It uses a very intuitive – and attractive – interface based on a language skill tree. As you work your way through the tree, level by level, you’re awarded with unlocked levels, scores, skills points and other kudos.

The result? A surprisingly addictive and motivating game that will make you eager to work your way through language lessons.

How does Duolingo work?

At its heart, Duolingo uses a very old-school approach to language learning: lots of translations, drills and repetitive exercises. While opinions on this sort of approach are divided, I think that translations and drills have their place in language learning – so long as they’re not the only thing that you’re doing.

Duolingo lessons start with very basic vocabulary and extremely simple sentence structures, adding on more and more as you advance. Everything that you learn is repeatedly reviewed, since each lesson builds on the last one. Lessons get progressively more complicated, moving quickly enough to keep you interested but not so quickly that you get lost.

Leveling-up, skills points and trophies – yes, trophies! – let you measure your progress as you work your way through the lessons.

You have three “lives” – or hearts – in each lesson. Each mistake costs you a life. Mistakes are pointed out and explained in easy-to-understand language. If you need clarification, then you can easily access user forums to discuss the exercise and ask questions.

duolingocorrections

duolingosadowl

If you run out of hearts, then you have to repeat the lesson. (Duolingo recently introduced the option to buy extra hearts with virtual currency, but I think that kind of defeats the purpose.)

It’s disappointing to make the owl cry, but a second run-through will help consolidate your learning. The exercises repeat the same words and sentences, but in a different order and using different activities (listening, speaking, writing, reading) so that you’re not repeating exactly the same thing over and over.

Think you already know a lesson without working your way through it? You have multiple opportunities to test out of lessons or to jump ahead – provided that you can prove your knowledge by passing the test.

duolingosrsIn addition to constantly reviewing old material in new lessons, Duolingo also provides you with vocabulary practice using spaced repetition. A quick revision activity before your daily lesson will allow you to practice older words and structures so that you don’t forget what you’ve already learned.

And as an added bonus, vocabulary practice will help you earn even more skill points!

How can Duolingo be free?

Duolingo relies on the power of crowdsourcing to keep its extensive resources free to all users. As you advance through your lessons, you’ll be invited to translate excerpts of text. These translations pay to keep the site running. Translations are optional – you don’t need to do them to keep using the site.

What are the cons?

  • Some of the sentences are really strange. Think: “The duck drinks milk.” and “These potatoes belong to others.”
  • Some of the translations are a bit awkward. If you come across an awkward sentence, flag it – the site’s managers do keep track and make changes based on user suggestions.
  • The computer-generated voice can be grating at times.
  • There is no direct instruction in Duolingo. To learn more about grammar points, you’ll have to check out the discussions linked to each exercise. Some people might find this frustrating – although I found that the approach worked well for me.
  • The app is only available for Android and iPhone. Those of us with Windows phones are out of luck. (grumble, mutter)
  • It relies on translation to the exclusion of other approaches. While this isn’t a problem if you use a variety of resources, it will be a problem if Duolingo is your only learning tool.
  • The more advanced lessons are far too brief. In three lessons and 14 minutes, I earned a trophy for subjunctive and imperative! Go, me! (Cue wild laughter at the absurdity of mastering the whole subjunctive mood in 14 minutes.) I think that as it stands, Duolingo is far better for beginners than for intermediate or advanced learners. I used it several times a week when I first started. Now that I’m close to the end of the skill tree, I only log on once or twice a week.

Will Duolingo make me fluent?

No, it will not.

As both a language learner and a language teacher, I can’t stress this point enough:

The only way to become fluent in a language is to speak it, speak it and speak it some more.

While Duolingo can provide you with the building blocks of language – nouns, verbs, prepositions – a computer program can’t teach you to speak. Communicating is messy, creative work, and it can only be done with another person.

Duolingo is best used in conjunction with oral language practice. Hire a tutor, join a conversation club, find a face-to-face conversation partner, join a class, find a Skype language partner – but you have to talk to a real, live person if you ever want to become fluent in a language.

Is Duolingo worth doing?

I say yes!

Duolingo is a beautifully designed and highly motivating language learning program, especially for beginners. On its own, it’s definitely not enough to learn a language, but it complements other resources perfectly.

As I worked my way through the lessons, particularly at the beginning, I found myself really grasping sentence structure. It was very motivating to see my progress and to see how what I was learning fit together. And – in the end – that’s what will really help you move forward in language learning: the intrinsic motivation of actually getting it, not the external motivation of coins or trophies or leveling-up*.

* although I really do like coins and trophies and leveling-up.

duolingotrophy

I’m a sucker for computer programs that tell me that I’m awesome.

How to Find Time for Language Learning

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Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m no busier than most of you, and far less busy than some.

But with a full-time teaching job, part-time self-employment, a house, a husband, a 120-pound dog, a novel in progress, and a bad procrastination problem – well, let’s just say that it’s not always easy to find the time that I need to work on improving my Spanish.

That said, there are a few simple ways to find more time to focus on learning a language.

moretime1. multi-task

I don’t have a long commute compared to many people, especially city-dwellers. Still, I’ve found that my round-trip of 30-40 minutes is more than long enough to get in some serious Spanish listening practice every day, thanks to the free podcasts on Notes in Spanish. I’ve finished all of the advanced podcasts, and am now working my way through the Gold series, listening to each podcast twice. My listening comprehension has grown by leaps and bounds.

See my review of Notes in Spanish here.

Other ways to use a commute for language learning: audiobooks, target-language music or talk radio, audio courses (like Pimsleur, Michel Thomas or FSI).

I also try to multi-task in other ways: watching dubbed Buffy the Vampire Slayer while using the treadmill, singing along to Spanish music while cooking, narrating my actions in my head, picking up a book when I find myself waiting for a few minutes.

2. take a walk

While this could easily be included in the multi-tasking section, I think that walking deserves its own section. Regardless of how busy a person might be, every single one of us should walk at least 30 minutes every day. Why, you ask? Check out this cool animated lecture:

 

I’ve walked twice daily – rain, shine, wind, snow, air so cold that it hurts to breathe – for the past nine years.

chase

Dogs: the world’s best exercise machines. Language learners, meet Chase. He doesn’t speak Spanish. Or French. Or English. He does, however, speak Cookie.

For the past few months, I’ve been listening and responding to FSI Basic while walking. FSI Basic Spanish is a public domain (ie. free) course from the early 60s, aimed at Foreign Service workers. It includes a variety of dialogues and drills aimed at building automaticity in Spanish. Granted, the course is dated and sexist at times. But I definitely feel that my automaticity is improving, particularly with regards to verb tenses. And since I was already walking, this has turned into “free” Spanish.

Other ways to practice a language while walking: audiobooks, target-language music or talk radio, audio courses, podcasts

3. commit to something social

It’s much easier to break promises to myself than it is to break promises to other people. Knowing that I have a session scheduled with a tutor or a language exchange partner guarantees that I’ll practice speaking every single week – even if my other plans for Spanish fall off the rails.

There are lots of ways to make language learning a social activity:

  • sign up for a class or hire a face-to-face tutor
  • go to a meet-up in your area
  • find a Skype tutor on a site like italki
  • connect with language partners online or face-to-face
  • keep a log on a forum like How to Learn Any Language:

My Spanish log on HTLAL
My Tagalog log on HTLAL (more information about my next language project coming soon!)

The important thing is to set a goal, make it public, and find a way to engage with others while working towards attaining it!

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People: the world’s best language-learning resource.
See how happy they are? It’s because they’re practicing their Spanish. And also because they’re drinking beer. And it probably also has something to do with how ridiculously good-looking they all are.
stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4. track your progress

spanish

My current tracking system, described here.

However you decide to track your learning – counting minutes, working your way through a course, keeping a running list of language activities – I think that keeping track naturally leads to doing more.

I like to track my learning using four categories: speaking, listening, reading, writing. If at the end of a week, I notice that I’ve done lots of one thing and not enough of something else, I’m much more likely to aim for balance. Since I started learning Spanish in May, I’ve used a variety of different tracking methods. The weeks during which I did very little were also the weeks where I stopped tracking.

5. use down time

I don’t have a ton of down time at work.  But I do sometimes find myself waiting at the doctor’s office or sitting in the car while someone runs into the grocery store. Rather than doing nothing, I use this time for very brief Spanish work. I might review some words in the notebook that I carry around with me, read a few pages from the book that’s always in my bag, or – most likely – do some spaced repetition flashcards on anki, using my phone.

The many language-learning apps available on Android or iPhones are perfect for any down time throughout the day. In addition to SRS tools like ankiDuolingo and Memrise offer fun gamified learning tools.

6. do stuff that’s fun

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you’re like me, then you probably won’t do it if it isn’t fun. Reading books, watching TV shows and talking to people on Skype are all fun for me. You might prefer cooking shows, movies, video games, grammar study or music.

Just do fun stuff, do more of it, and keep on learning!

How do you fit more language learning into your busy days?

Ojalá by Silvio Rodriguez – Lyrics in Spanish and in English

March 2016 edit: please see the comment section for some corrections and insights into the meaning of this song. I’ve decided not to edit any of my translations, even though they may have mistakes, since they’re a record of my Spanish journey.  Many thanks to readers who suggested corrections or alternative translations!

ojalaThe melody and words of this song are absolutely beautiful. At first I thought that it was a sad song about lost love.

Then I learned that Silvio Rodriguez was the father of a political folk music movement in Cuba, and all of a sudden this song takes on a thousand layers of meaning. I can almost guarantee that any translation of mine won’t do it justice.

The word “ojalá” doesn’t exist in English. It originally comes from the Arabic “inshallah” – or if Allah wills it. It can be translated as “I hope”, “hopefully”, “let’s hope”, “God willing”, but none of those are exactly right. I went with “may” for my translation.

Interesting grammatical point: “ojalá” is followed by the subjunctive, making this a great song for anyone working on mastering the Spanish subjunctive. (ahem . . . me.)

Ojalá – Silvio Rodriguez

Ojalá que las hojas no te toquen el cuerpo cuando caigan
Para que no las puedas convertir en cristal.
Ojalá que la lluvia deje de ser milagro que baja por tu cuerpo.
Ojalá que la luna pueda salir sin ti.
Ojalá que la tierra no te bese los pasos.
May the leaves not touch your body when they fall
So that you don’t turn them to glass
May the rain cease to be a miracle flowing over your body
May the moon be able to rise without you
May the earth not kiss your steps
Ojalá se te acabe la mirada constante,
La palabra precisa, la sonrisa perfecta.
Ojalá pase algo que te borre de pronto:
Una luz cegadora, un disparo de nieve.
Ojalá por lo menos que me lleve la muerte,
Para no verte tanto, para no verte siempre
En todos los segundos, en todas las visiones:
Ojalá que no pueda tocarte ni en canciones
May your constant gaze fade away
The precise word, the perfect smile
May something happen soon to erase you
A blinding light, a shot of snow.
May at least death take me
So that I won’t see you so often, so that I won’t see you always
In every second, in every vision
May I not be able to touch you, even in song
Ojalá que la aurora no de gritos que caigan en mi espalda.
Ojalá que tu nombre se le olvide a esa voz.
Ojalá las paredes no retengan tu ruido de camino cansado.
Ojalá que el deseo se vaya tras de ti,
A tu viejo gobierno de difuntos y flores.
May the dawn not bring the shouts that fall down my back
May your name be forgotten by that voice
May the walls not hold the sound of your exhausted journey
May the desire follow you
To your decrepit government of death and flowers
Ojalá se te acabe la mirada constante,
La palabra precisa, la sonrisa perfecta.
Ojalá pase algo que te borre de pronto:
Una luz cegadora, un disparo de nieve.
Ojalá por lo menos que me lleve la muerte,
Para no verte tanto, para no verte siempre
En todos los segundos, en todas las visiones:
Ojalá que no pueda tocarte ni en canciones
May your constant gaze fade away
The precise word, the perfect smile
May something happen soon to erase you
A blinding light, a shot of snow.
May at least death take me
So that I won’t see you so often, so that I won’t see you always
In every second, in every vision
May I not be able to touch you, even in song
Ojalá pase algo que te borre de pronto:
Una luz cegadora, un disparo de nieve.
Ojalá por lo menos que me lleve la muerte,
Para no verte tanto, para no verte siempre
En todos los segundos, en todas las visiones:
Ojalá que no pueda tocarte ni en canciones
May something happen soon to erase you
A blinding light, a shot of snow.
May at least death take me
So that I won’t see you so often, so that I won’t see you always
In every second, in every vision
May I not be able to touch you, even in song

As always, if you notice any mistakes or misinterpretations, please let me know. This is as much poetry as song, and I felt very clumsy translating it.

Want more Spanish music? You can follow a playlist with all of the songs that I’ve posted on the blog on YouTube.