My books on languages

My books on languages

There's something magical about languages. I see it this way: every language that you know is a key to a new world. And somewhere along the way it became the case that I'd just collect these keys, even if I had no immediate opportunity to use them.

I grew up speaking English and Cantonese at home. At school, we were taught Mandarin Chinese and Malay. I never used to appreciate the awesomeness of growing up multilingual - it was something taken for granted because everyone around me was multilingual anyway. However, once I started travelling, it became apparent that this was an asset. I could get around independently in several countries without any problems communicating (that was, until I got to Europe for the first time and realized how much it sucks when you're illiterate).

Even nowadays, many of my friends are polyglots, speaking between 3 to 10 languages. Many share my passion for languages, perhaps that's why we get along so well.

Under the various language tabs, I ramble about my connection with the language, for every language came into my life at a different time and for a different purpose. I'm not good in any of them, and many of them have fallen into disrepair due to disuse. However it remains to be one of my life goals to achieve fluency in at least one additional language in adulthood (because all the languages that I'm fluent in were acquired from young).

Here's a quick overview. The main language that I'm learning these days is Spanish. My first foreign language is Japanese, I studied it for two years. German is one other language that I was tutored in (besides Japanese) but because the teacher was quite bad, the classes were shortlived (3 months). I learnt French because I was dating a Mauritian guy. American Sign Language (ASL) was a collaborative language learning effort (with a couple of friends) and practising was a whole lot of fun. Learning Turkish was largely accidental and unplanned. Other languages that I briefly dabbled in include Italian, Estonian, and Hindi.

Spanish is my language of the moment. It's kind of funny, because I used to lament that I did not have any excuses to learn Spanish - I never had any Spanish friends (apart from Vanessa from Barcelona), I had never had the opportunity to visit Spain (Vanessa lived in Paris), and somehow there was no compelling reason to actually learn one of the most-spoken languages in the world.

Things have changed a little now that I am dating an Argentinian guy. I started learning Spanish in 2012, mostly self-taught with some tutoring from The Boyfriend. I find that it's a matter of persistence as I do not find the language difficult - the challenge is mainly in maintaining constant practice. 

Here are some of the resources that I found to be useful:

On the web:

On the iPhone:

  • Bueno, entonces - a series of audio and visual lessons, depicting a British guy learning Spanish from an Argentinian teacher in Buenos Aires. Props for immersion in the Argentinian accent and culture. It's a five-week course with videos that are about 45 minutes each. It's quite entertaining and light-hearted and involves a lot of flirting as the British guy hits on his teacher.
  • Salsa - Spanish Language Learning Game
  • Duolingo also has a smartphone app.

The main textbook that I am using is Learning Spanish Step By Step, by Barbara Bregstein. I find it to be quite useful for my purposes to learn grammar and vocabulary. At the same time I'm reading some Spanish storybooks for children that The Boyfriend's Mum brought from Buenos Aires. Very entertaining material, with a moral to every story.


Yutaka Takenouchi, from With Love (1998) - the first Japanese Drama I ever watched

My first foreign language was Japanese, simply because I was watching a lot of Japanese dramas and wanted to know what the good-looking people on the screen were saying, without looking at subtitles. (Ah, to be young and teenage again.)

The infatuation with on-screen actors continued for a while as I went for Japanese class with a friend at ICLS (The fees seem to have increased a whole lot since I was there, admittedly more than 10 years ago), and later on I took private lessons with my Japanese tutor from the centre. I obtained the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) Level 3 (There are four levels, easiest one being Level 4, moving up in difficulty to Level 1). I had to stop my classes after my Japanese tutor fell sick and had to move back to Japan. Although I intended to find another tutor, I never did, and it's been several years since I used my Japanese.

My shelf of language books has mostly learning material on Japanese, accumulated over the years, reflecting my lofty aspirations of mastering the language - which to date has still remained to be aspirations rather than the reality. I still have hope that if I ever immerse myself in Japan, I would be conversant relatively quickly because of the background knowledge that I already have. We will see.


The language of thinkers and poets. Why say "pen" when you can say "kugelschreiber"?

Regretfully I have not spent too much time on my German as I should. I went to Goethe Institut when I was still studying in Singapore, to try to pick up some of the language since I would be attached to University of Leipzig for some time that summer. Unfortunately, I came across one of the worst teachers ever - one who forbade the students to take notes, or to look up the dictionary, or to ask questions, when she was speaking. This wore down my patience very quickly and I gave up learning within 3 months.

Most of my German learning have therefore been rather informal, through Val, my good friend who's German. He also had the knack of teaching me words and phrases that have no practical usage. Over the years I have been able to say things like "Marijuana is not good, do carrots instead" or "Deutschland must die, or we cannot live", or "I would rather be shot!" as party tricks in Germany. Always a riot, me in those German parties.

After I ditched Goethe Institut, I used Pimsleur for a while to self-study German (one really needs more than party tricks in one's repertoire), which then broadened my conversation topics to things like "Where are you from?" "Do you have kids?" "I have been in Germany for a month", which were all very useful when hitchhiking in Germany and Austria.

I hope that I would have the excuse someday to return to studying German. Because it's the language of thinkers and poets.

I started learning French because of my ex-boyfriend, who's from Mauritius, where they speak French, Mauritian Creole and English. Admittedly I had already been rather smitten with the language even before the romance, which could have been a significant factor on why it had started.

I remember repeating the word "République" many times under my breath while I was taking the Metro in Paris, to get a hang of the way they pronounce "r" from the back of the throat. I remember hitchhiking out of Switzerland and getting picked up by a Frenchman, who kindly spent the entire ride correcting my pronunciation as I read from the phrasebook. I remember learning French vocabulary on my phone, at the backseat in a road trip with my parents in Malaysia.

All good memories. Nowadays I have forgotten pretty much all that I've learnt, though I have a few books lying around just waiting for me to pick them up again. A good thing is that learning French gave me a good start in Spanish grammar and vocabulary.


Picking up Turkish was entirely accidental. I had visited Turkey in 2012 for a month-long trip, never really intending to learn the language because I would probably never use it again outside of this trip. I was half right - I never used it again outside of the trip, but I did learn some of the language, because of one simple reason: The Turks are awesome.

Kids teaching me Turkish in Bursa, Turkey

Kids who taught me Turkish in Bursa, Turkey

Really, Turkish people make it easy for you to learn the language. They are such warm people that you end up smiling and talking to anyone and everyone, from the man who sells you orange juice to the random person who walks up to you and offers you çay, or a free pencil. It's a nation where barriers to speaking are low, and everyone's relaxed and has time for you to practise what you've learnt, and to teach you new phrases.

Eva gave me my first Turkish lesson as she was learning, and I remember her being very excited about the vowel harmony. Further on I learnt from my CouchSurfing host, and then from a bunch of schoolgirls near a tourist attraction, and some kids who were also Sufi dancers, junior whirling dervishes (pictured above).

Turkey's a beautiful place. I hope to go back again someday.

The best way to learn American Sign Language (ASL) is with a bunch of friends. It's fun, it's motivating, and it's also very convenient when you want to send secret signals across the room. In my case, I picked up some ASL together with my friends Eva and Michael. We used multiple resources, mostly available online or on smartphone apps, and learnt how to spell, and say simple things.

What we said depended on what sources we used - random words like "octopus", "balloon", "milk" and so on were learnt when we used an ASL app for children (My Smart Hands). Later on we moved on to an ASL dictionary and phrasebook app which taught us how to say things like  "I heard she's easy", "Where do you buy drugs and hookers?", and "My mother-in-law is a bitch".

There was once when Eva and I were travelling on the MRT in Singapore and we were communicating only with ASL. Our vocabulary was limited therefore our conversation revolved around colours, animals, and drugs and hookers. The bystanders didn't know that though, and we were a picture-perfect couple of interracial harmony within the deaf community. One lady gave us a heartwarming smile. Good times.

I think I will pick up ASL again someday, perhaps when I have a child, as I learnt that infants can learn sign language from as young as 6 months. The ability to communicate thus starts much earlier than when the usual first words are uttered!


I call this section "cosmetics science" because it's where I learn about the science behind cosmetics and skincare products, and make my experiments. Here I will document my explorations in the theory and practice of making (mostly) natural products with simple ingredients.

There are many types of products that I aspire to make and experiment with, including:

First bottle of lotion I ever made

First bottle of lotion I ever made

  • Lotions
  • Balms
  • Soaps
  • Makeup
  • Masks
  • Whatever else that looks interesting

As I wormed my way through recipes and ingredient descriptions, I found that it is indeed science in action, because every ingredient has different properties, and by combining them I would end up with different textures and functions and smells, and so on. That in turn spiked my interest in the chemistry behind it.

While giving the middle finger to the beauty industry which profits out of telling women that they're not good enough, I'm also empowering myself with the knowledge of what's good for me and what's not. Also, the spirit of experimentation is alive in this one - while I'm a researcher, the type of research that I do is usually not the type that requires a lab, so this is very exciting for me!

The other thing is that, I'm really not very good at using the skincare products that I buy from the pharmacist. I get a tub of something, use it for a week, and promptly forget about it until years later when I come across it again and then it nags at my conscience along with the other tubs and bottles that I've accumulated. I've since stopped buying any skincare products apart from cleansers which you need to use to shower and wash your face.

And so, I think that it's good to make my own when I need them, and use them up as quickly as I can because of the limited shelf-life if you don't put much preservatives. I'm still trying to learn more about preservatives and how to use them effectively and minimally(because if you don't entirely, they tend to grow mould and spawn bacteria, especially in our Malaysian weather).

Click on the other tabs to check out resources that I have accumulated over time, and I'll try to post recipes and experiments on my blog when I can.

Before going on a buying spree I did some research on what I would possibly need for my home lab, and where to get them. I found an online shop ( for such supplies in Malaysia. While it doesn't stock as widely as I would like it to, at least I could buy certain things that I had never seen in pharmacies or other brick and mortar shops.

After browsing through many recipes and guides I narrowed down the list of items that I thought I would need, and then narrowed it down some more, since the price tag of my cart was starting to look pretty hefty - and placed my order with trepidation, since it was quite an amount of money to pay for an online retailer that I had not bought from before. Fortunately the goods arrived intact on the next day (or the day after the next, I forget) and I proceeded quite smoothly to my experiment phase.

To know what to get required me to understand some basic procedures of how to go about making your own products. First I determined what I would do - I would start with making moisturisers and masks, which seemed to be easy enough, and later on I might move on to soaps, which required other equipments that I would not get yet. Here are some of the raw materials that I have:


  • To measure things: beakers (150ml, 400ml), alcohol thermometer
  • To heat things up: heat-resistant glass container for double boiling (350ml)
  • To stir/scoop things up: egg beater, silicon spatula
  • Containers/bottles: 100ml spray bottles, 100ml pump bottles, 100ml flip cap bottles, recycled glass containers.

Where to get raw materials

  • - I've bought from them a few times. Quick service and delivery. The supplies list is quite extensive for a beginner, though I intend to find more suppliers for ingredients that they do not carry.
  • - Wider range of chemicals at cheap prices, compared to the chemicals that also stocks. Case in point: Polysorbate 20 (a solubilizer) is sold in Beauty360degrees for RM23/100g, while YKL sells the same amount for RM7. See here for more info. I've bought from them, delivery was prompt but the packaging of the goods were quite poorly done, so you really do get what you pay for.
  • - I haven't bought from them yet but they seem to stock quite some stuff as well.
  • Organic shops - You can find many organic oils and foodstuff (honey, oats, etc.) which can also be used in both the kitchen and in the home lab.
  • Chinese traditional medicine/herbal shops - herbs have been used for millennia in the Chinese tradition, and continues to be popular nowadays. I like looking at the shelves of herbs and their functionalities and mapping out the Chinese names to the English names. Who knows, I might take a closer look at Chinese herbal remedies later on.
  • Plant your own - I'm still working on my edible/functional garden, and that in itself is challenging, since I didn't quite grow up planting things and everything's still quite new to me. Nevertheless, I think it's the most rewarding way of getting your ingredients.

DIY guides and information online are a dime a dozen, but often aren't very well-researched. Here is a list of some websites and posts that I like, that seem to know what they are doing, instead of just putting together Pinterest-worthy pictures and echoing whatever they read from the Internet. I'll be updating this section whenever I have anything new.


  • Humble Bee and Me - Hundreds of recipes, updates very regularly, has a very engaging way of writing - her blog is just a treasure trove of information.
  • Point of Interest - Also very regularly updated, the blogger inspired me to take a closer look at the chemistry behind the products, as she's a bit of a chemist herself and her sidebar is equally, if not more, impressive than the Humble Bee and Me blog. The sidebar is particularly worth checking out, and I am working through the ingredients one by one to understand their properties and usage.
  • Soap Queen - Also lots of recipes and tutorials. It's owned by a popular ingredients supplier but you could source out the ingredients yourself and just implement the recipes.
  • The Beauty Brains - where "Real scientists answer real questions". They have podcasts as well. Splendid stuff!


  • Grow your own drugs series from the BBC, hosted by James Wong - This series is what got me interested in the whole business of growing and DIY-ing your own natural remedies. While James talks about a lot of different remedies, not only bath and body products, I decided to focus on that because it's fun to make and useful for everyday usage, not only when you're sick.
  • Khan Academy - Register an account and start learning organic chemistry. It's a brilliant resource to slowly learn the building blocks.

Although "chemicals" are vilified by a lot of bloggers who try to keep "natural" - I think that there's a difference in knowing why something is bad for you, and being afraid because you don't understand what's behind the long chain of letters that chemical names typically have. Also, what constitute as chemicals and what as natural? Some people argue that some so-called chemicals are derived from natural products anyway. Others say that the industry often paints things as "natural" as a form of greenwashing and that there's no real definition to the term. At the end of the day, it boils down to two words: "it depends".  

All I'm saying is that it's important to keep an open mind, because it's not true that what's natural is always good for you (note, for instance, that some essential oils are actually considered hazardous). While I'm trying to use more natural products than not, this stems from my consideration that I'd like to use things that are minimally processed, and that should not harm the environment. If they yield results and you know what's exactly in your concoction, why not?

Hence, it's very important to educate oneself, about the proper proportions to use, the pH level of your skin and hair, the properties of natural/chemical ingredients, and so on. Why certain things react a certain way, and what are myths and what are not. That implies a lot of time investment, and sifting through a lot of noise before you come to some actual good stuff. But that's part of the fun, and part of the learning - remember that you can't believe everything that you read! Claims should be substantiated, and even so, exercise good reason and common sense. When in doubt, read more!

Experimentations and learnings Others