Tips to use when learning a language

Friday, January 16, 2009

There's more than one way to learn a language.

This page will be used for a list of specific tips you can use when learning a language, in no particular order, and for students at all levels. I assume that other people have a few great tips of their own so feel free to write anything else of yours in the comments below.

Here are the ones I have:

Contributing to a Wikipedia in the language you happen to be studying. Wikipedians generally don't appreciate their Wikipedia being used as a place to practice a language, but if you write it in this way:

then the text stays invisible until someone removes the tag. If you know something about a subject that doesn't exist in the Wikipedia for the language you're currently studying then they will appreciate the gesture as long as it's not annoying to correct. You can also take other pages that have already been made and rewrite them in the exact same fashion for practice, such as taking a sentence like this in French:
Montréal constitue un centre majeur du commerce, de l’industrie, de la culture, de la finance et des affaires internationales.
then replacing the name Montreal and making small adjustments to the sentence depending on where you're writing about. In this way you're much less likely to make a mistake.

Checking out the recent edits in Wikipedia. Again using French as an example, you can see that there's always a list of the 50 most recent edits in a Wikipedia in any language, and this is often a good way to check out some of the subtle workings of a language that you might not notice by yourself. Correcting minor spelling errors, adding on a bit more information, how to write things like "not neutral" (non neutre) when making an edit. You can see here for example that an anonymous IP has changed

'''Yan England''' est un acteur et animateur [[Québec|québécois]].

'''Yan England''' est un acteur et animateur gai [[Québec|québécois]].

Gai = gay, so it's most likely vandalism. Now you know a bit more about word order (adjective here is coming after the noun) through a real example.

Deutsche Welle's German courses, but not necessarily to learn German. Deutsche Welle has two large German courses called Deutsch - warum nicht? and Radio D, and these courses are available in a ton of languages. The former course is much more interesting but lacks a pdf that goes along with what the announcer says, and the latter is much more inane but has a pdf of exactly what it being said, so Radio D is good for when you first start learning a language and just want to listen and follow along, and Deutsch - warum nicht? is good for when you have reached a point where you don't necessarily always need a text to follow along. Even if you're not interested in German the German in the first few dozen lessons is pretty basic and doesn't distract with the language you're learning. It's basically just things like "In German neuter nouns take the article das" and then you hear "das Wasser" and other basics like that. I wrote another post here on using Deutsche Welle to learn languages:
So what's good about Radio D then? The big difference between Deutsch - Warum Nicht and Radio D is that Radio D has a complete pdf with all the dialogue in both German and the other language. Deutsch - Warum Nicht has a 15-minute mp3, the dialogue in German on the pdf and a certain amount of explanation in the other language, but there's no help for you in knowing what the announcer is saying unless you already know the language pretty well. Since Radio D has absolutely everything written out, it's perfect if you're learning a relatively obscure language like Bulgarian or Romanian and want to both hear the language, and read along at the same time.

Here's an example of some of the dialogue from Radio D in Persian:

That makes Radio D a good place to learn a language for those that either can't find any material in the language they're learning at all, want to learn German at the same time, or are German/already know quite a bit of the language.

Ecclesiastes. If you don't mind reading religious content (but even the Skeptic's Annotated Bible thinks Ecclesiastes is by far the best book in the Bible) then this is what I would recommend. It's only 12 chapters, doesn't have any weird place names, and is basically just about how the authour viewed life and death and how a lot of the things we do on Earth are basically just chasing after wind. This passage from Ecclesiastes is particularly well-known:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Depending on the language you are studying you may be able to find an online version of this book complete with mp3. In French for example you have it written here:
with mp3s here:
if you're learning Bulgarian then just go to and you're set for both. It might not be possible to find in some languages though. You'll also want to check with somebody you know that speaks the language to make sure that the translation isn't archaic, because you won't know that by yourself at the outset.

Google Translate. One good aspect of Google Translate that few use is its ability to be used as a dictionary to quickly look up a large number of words at the same time. I wrote about this here when giving it as an example to learn Finnish:
Take a look at the first line of the movie for example:
Keisari, pahoittelen häiriötä, mutta
suosittelisin teitä harkitsemaan vielä kerran.
The English translation for this is:
I would like to suggest, Emperor,
that you reconsider your plan.
Okay, so now we know what it means. But what would a more literal translation be? Google gives us this for the line in Finnish:
Emperor, I apologise for the inconvenience, but
recommend you to consider once again.
Not bad at all. Now here's another trick for when using the automatic translator. Take an entire sentence and put a period in between each word. Now the Finnish we'll be putting into it looks like this:
Keisari. Pahoittelen. Häiriötä. Mutta.
Suosittelisin. Teitä. Harkitsemaan. Vielä. Kerran.
And putting that into the translator gives us the following:
Emperor. I am sorry. Disturbances. But.
Would recommend. You. Harkitsemaan. Yet. Once.
Far better than looking up words in the dictionary one by one.
So the trick is to take a piece of text, separate each word with a period, and see what Google gives you.

International broadcasters like Deutsche Welle, BBC, TRT, RAI, etc. Find a program you like in the language, download it as an mp3, put it on your player and listen to it all the time. They're generally available every day so you can get your news in another language this way. This is a more passive method, something to do when you're walking or driving from one area to another, or when you're too busy to take out a book and study but can still put in the headphones and listen while you do something else.

Find something in the language you're learning that you can't find in English and pursue that. If it's Japanese then you might want to go with video games or manga, if it's Icelandic you'll probably be interested in the Eddas. Often having an interest in a language means having an interest in the country(ies) behind it, so it's generally not too hard to find something that you can't find in English. Even small languages generally have fairly detailed Wikipedia articles on subjects related to the language, like this page in Occitan on a linguistic academy that has been proposed for the language. Languages are always easier to study when they contain something that you want to know that just isn't available in your mother tongue.

When first learning a language, spend as much time as you can learning *about* the language as opposed to starting with things like greetings and numbers. If you're studying a European language there's a good chance that it will contain a lot of hidden similarities to English that can be uncovered if you know how the language works. Knowing for example that ss in German often corresponds to t in English will let you know that Wasser means water and dass means that, or if you know that ff in German often corresponds to English p, then you might recognize Affe as ape and Schiff as ship. Since you already know thousands and thousands of words in English, if you're studying a fairly related language then simply learning this in the beginning will be much more effective than just starting out by memorizing words.

Also learn about word formation as well, how Spanish -dad corresponds to English -ity and so on.

How to learn from a vocabulary list: vocabulary lists are a good way to study when they're not the main activity you use. If possible you're going to want to get a list of most frequent vocabulary such as those available here, and that's because you can be sure right at the outset that the words you are learning are words you're going to see and hear quite often.

Okay, so now you have a list of 1000 words or so. Now what? Well, this list is going to accompany you for the next few months as you whittle it down to nothing. The best thing to do is print it or write it out, and take it with you to a coffee shop or some other place you study, and then you write out words one by one until you get bored. As you write them out though, think about how well you know the word. You might have seen it before and remember it when you see it, but can you use it in a sentence right away? If not, then leave it on the list. If you're sure that you know a word inside and out, then cross it out. As you go over the list every day you'll find some words that you're sure you know, some that you feel like you know but don't want to cross out yet, some that you kind of know but need more practice, and some that you probably don't remember seeing at all. Continue reprinting the list over the next few weeks as it gets smaller and smaller.

Now what will happen is you will probably end up with a few hundred words that you feel like you know but just can't cross out by yourself because they're just too esoteric or not too useful, verbs like "correspond" or "attract" or "twist" or perhaps a few words like "cotton" and "wool" and "cloth" that kind of blend together because they're too similar. To test whether you know these words you're going to want to find samples of writing in the language to skim over. The subject can be about anything. Just read over the piece of writing, don't stress too much about what everything means, and just wait until you recognize a word you know that you haven't crossed out yet. If you find that you see a word you haven't crossed out yet and know exactly what it means in the sentence then it's probably safe to assume you know it well enough to cross it out.

If you take a look at this page here you can see that the first 1000 words alone will cover over 75% of a language, another 1000 words brings you up to 84%, and 1000 more brings you to 88%, so the most important thing you can do in the beginning is make sure that you are learning the most frequent words. But learning straight vocabulary should never be the main activity in learning a language, just something you do at the beginning of a study period when your mind is just warming up and you want to chill for a bit, or when you're at the end and feeling a bit mentally exhausted.

Image searching to learn vocabulary: this is related to the point above. Sometimes if you just can't seem to establish a connection with a word you might want to try a few image searches to see what turns up. Similar vocabulary is often the hardest to remember, but an image search can easily show you the difference between a book and a tome. If you're in a crowded area you might want to have the filter turned on however, because you never know what other meanings a word might have in a language. A seemingly innocent word like peaches turns up a fair amount of pornographic imagery for example, whereas peach doesn't. There's no way to tell what's going to turn up in a language you're learning.

Find a good transliteration site if the language uses non-Latin characters. Even if you have it installed on your computer you probably won't be able to type in the language when using another computer, or maybe you're not used to the other language's keyboard yet. In that case using a site like this one can make a big difference.

Finding English textbooks in the language you're studying. Once you've mastered the basics of a language and are able to understand a large amount of what you read, it's always interesting to read an English textbook in the language you are working on to see how they explain the grammar of the language to their own people. Here's an example of this: a page on the French Wikibooks explaining how adjectives in English work:

Last, next et first précèdent les nombres.
Exemple : the last ten months : les dix derniers mois. the first two weeks : les deux premières semaines.
So now that you've seen an explanation in French reminding them that last, next and first precede numbers in English, you now know that the opposite is the case in French.

Read *about* the language too. If you are learning French then you might want to pick up a book on the effect of the Norman invasion on the English language. If you're learning German or Dutch you might want to read Beowulf next to see if you can spot any similarities in the Old English text as you go along. This helps to provide you with an extra bit of depth on the language you're learning even while just reading books in English (i.e. non-study, relaxation time).


Adam said...

good tips. also not the usual ones that you see repeated so often across the web, thanks.

Adam said...

good tips. also not the usual ones that you see repeated so often across the web, thanks.

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