Around the World in 17 Books

In 2022, I studied 629 hours of foreign languages, mainly Croatian and Modern Greek, plus a 90 day Russian challenge. Now that 2023 has started, I am not particularly tempted by any new language yet, but I do want to continue mastering Croatian, Greek and other languages I’ve previously studied. This makes it hard to set an inspiring new goal. One goal I have committed to, because I’ll do it with a friend, is to read a Chinese novel this year. Which means dusting off my Chinese again. So I had the idea to set a reading-based goal rather than pure numbers of hours spent on X languages.

My goal: Around the World in 17 Books

I looked at my (huge) pile of unread books and decided that the following are a must-read this year, arranged by country:

  • Various Africa and Carribean countries: Conteurs francophones noirs (collection of short stories in French) – contemporary short stories from Congo, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique
  • Australia: Flugi kun kakatuoj (novel in Esperanto) – on Aborigines’ fight against the invader
  • Austria: Anomalija (novel in Bosnian) – the end of the world as a happy end
  • Bosnia: Na drini ćuprija (novel in Serbo-Croatian) – Višegrad from the 16th century till after WWI
  • Chile: La Casa de los espiritus (novel in Spanish) – four generations growing up in Chile
  • China: 姑娘,我们一起合租吧 (novel in Chinese) – one male and three female students living together in Shanghai
  • France: Boumkoeur (novel in French) – on life in the forbidden suburbs
  • Germany: Die verdammte Pflicht: Erinnerungen 1932 bis 1945 (autobiography in German) – Alexander Stahlberg witnessed the transfer of power from Papen to Hitler, attempts to convince Manstein to join the Stauffenberg assassination, and other interesting moments
  • Greece: ΙΣΤΟΡΙΑ (ΚΩΜΙΚΟΤΡΑΓΙΚΗ) ΤΟΥ ΝΕΟΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΟΥ ΚΡΑΤΟΥΣ 1830-1974 (nonfiction in Greek) – tongue-in-cheek history of the Greek state
  • Haiti: L’Énigme du retour (novel in French) – a Canadian exilee returning to his native Haiti
  • Indonesia: Ik kom terug (novel in Dutch) – a 100yo mother finally opens up to her son about all that she has seen, during her life centered on the Dutch East Indies
  • Italy: Due di due (novel in Italian) – on Italy through the 1968 student movement and beyond
  • Lebanon: Insciallah (novel in Italian) – a 20th century epic on the civil war in Lebanon
  • Netherlands: Een nieuw sociaal contract (political manifest in Dutch) – reforming the Dutch political system
  • Russia: La strato de Tanja (nonfiction in Esperanto) – Russia 1917-2017 through the people living on one street in St Petersburg
  • Serbia: Deseti život (novel in Serbian) – life in the artist scene in Belgrade in the 2010s
  • USA: The only game in town (nonfiction in English) – on Wall Street and the global economy

These are incidentally in all kinds of languages I want to practice, 10 languages in total, so if I manage to read them all, the problem of language-learning hours will solve itself. (In 2022 I read 50 books, but almost all of them either English or Croatian…)

If you have any books that absolutely should be on this list, feel free to comment or write to me.

Take-Aways & Results of my 90-Day Hebrew Challenge

I just completed the Hebrew Add1Challenge – I have now studied Hebrew for 90 days (plus a few days non-intensively outside the challenge) and 85 hours total. I think my results are quite good, for having started from scratch. Be sure to turn on the subtitles. I added English subtitles to all my Hebrew Challenge videos:

I actually recorded one video at least every 30 days, because that’s part of the Add1Challenge idea. If you want to watch my progress through these videos, I included them at the bottom of this post. But first I’ll write about my biggest take-aways of this challenge. By the way, if you’re now motivated to do an Add1Challenge yourself, there’s a new one starting in a few days I believe: the Add1ChallengeFull disclosure: the links to Add1Challenge are affiliate links, but as you can see in the videos, I’m a fan of this challenge and would recommend it anyway. If you prefer a non-affiliate link, go straight to

What I learned

I like challenges because they are concentrated language learning. Being concentrated, they make it more obvious where the problems lie. In my case, one problem that I already knew about was my lack of a language-learning routine. This was one of the reasons I signed up for the Add1Challenge in the first place, to have social pressure help me form a language learning routine. I’m not 100% there yet, but I’ve been learning Hebrew much more regularly than I otherwise would.

Another problem that I encountered: learning vocabulary that sounds different than any other word I know. One of the advantages of being a polyglot is that you can draw on so many different languages for mnemonics. I did take advantage of that, but due to the different phonology and the root consonant system, there were still Hebrew words for which I couldn’t find a good mnemonic. My solution, which I implemented quite late: rather than cramming too many strange new words, also look at word families within the target language and learn those. For example: ‘inyan (interest), la’inyan (to the point), yesh li inyan be… (I am interested in…), me’anyen (interesting), me’unyan (interested). Unfortunately I haven’t yet found a root-based dictionary of Hebrew, that would have been really helpful. If you know one, please let me know!

At the beginning of the challenge, I focused a lot on Anki, simply learning lots of words and also quite a bit of grammar. Later, I found that all these words weren’t really doing much for me, because I had trouble recognizing words in regular-speed speech and I needed too much time to come up with words myself when building phrases. I then remembered Anthony Lauder’s excellent talk from the Polyglot Conference in Budapest, where he told us that the human brain actually cannot process language at the speed as it is used, if it were to rely on a vocabulary list. The only way we can speak as fast as we do is because our brain chunks phrases. To say “I’m hungry, let’s go have falafel”, your brain does not look for the words for “I”, “am”, “hungry” and the like, it probably has a stored memory of “I’m hungry”, and also “let’s go”, and then maybe looks up “have” and “falafel”. So it only does 4 dictionary look-ups rather than 8. And language learners do 8 look-ups for this kind of phrase, that’s why they can’t speak or understand faster.

There is no way around it, you have to allow your brain the time to see & store chunks. You can speed up the process though. Here are some ways:

  • Put chunks of words on your flashcards (rather than each card being one word)
  • Challenge yourself to write X sentences using the same chunk
  • Have tons of conversations or self-talk exercises, so that the most common phrases become chunks that you can recall without effort
  • Select a few chunks beforehand and try to use each of them several times in your next conversation.
  • (Possibly) if you’re a fast reader or have a lot of time on your hands, blast through a target-language book in a few days. You’ll pick up a lot of the author’s favourite chunks. It won’t work if you need more days though, because you’ll forget chunks before you see them again.

I will definitely use these insights in my next challenge! At this point, I haven’t yet reached my ultimate goal with Hebrew though, so I feel that I should continue studying it for a while longer, even though the motivation isn’t as high. I’m also drawn to improve my other languishing languages. On the other hand, there’s another Add1Challenge soon and Swedish or Vietnamese are looking shiny…

Day 0: Start of the Challenge

Day 20

Day 30

Day 60

Day 90