101 Language Learning Tips - Numbers 45 to 58

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Three more posts left to reach 101!

Previous posts: the original annnouncement, tips 1 to 15, tips 16 to 29, tips 30 to 44.

45. If you are able to spend some time abroad, there is nothing better than befriending people with young families. While adults may tend to want to use English with you or may prefer to talk about subjects that you have difficulty with, children talk endlessly about simple subjects and on the whole have no interest whatsoever in practicing English with you. Listening to children talk can also teach you about how the language works, especially when they make mistakes and are corrected by their parents. In English this is often found with children making mistakes with verbs ("I runned", "I fighted", "it blowed up stuff"), plurals (mouseschilds...) and other irregularities that are only learned with practice. Your friends will also certainly be glad to get a little free time to themselves as their children pepper you with question after question that they may be tired of, but are completely new to you. Indeed, offering to babysit your friends' children often may be helpful for all parties involved - free language practice for you, free babysitting for them.

46. The large French influence on English over time has caused it to diverge from the original Germanic dialect continuum. Before the Norman conquest of England, English, Icelandic and other Germanic languages were for the most part mutually intelligible; this is not the case anymore with English. However, in spite of this the large majority of words used in everyday speech in English are Germanic as these have a much higher frequency of use.

What this means to the student is this: everyday speech (discussions on chat forums for example) in Germanic languages such as German, Dutch and Norwegian will soon be easy to understand, whereas Romance languages such as French are very easy to follow along when one picks up a newspaper, but daily conversation is an entirely different matter. Some examples:

German: Der Mann, der auf dem Wasser ging. (The man who walked on water). In French this is "L'homme qui a marché sur l'eau". The French when spoken is even less comprehensible: "homme" is cognate withhuman and homo sapiens, but when spoken l'homme simply sounds something like "lome", and l'eau for water sounds like "lo", nothing close to the word water. The German "der Mann", however, looks and sounds almost exactly like the English "the man", and Wasser is nearly as immediately comprehensible. On the other hand, in a newspaper terms such as "referendum on independence" look almost exactly the same in French (référendum d'indépendence), but in German it is a nearly unrecognizable "Volksabstimmung zur Unabhängigkeit".

Thus, when learning a Romance language it is best to pay particular attention to daily conversation where English cognates lack, whereas when learning Germanic languages you will have to spend more time learning unfamiliar technical terms. Luckily most technical terms in Germanic languages will still be cognate with English, just in a less direct manner. The word independence for example (Unabhängigkeit in German, onafhanklikheid in Dutch) can be thought of as "un-off-hangey-hood", or in otherwords the state of not having to "hang on" or depend on another. Many Germanic words are quite easy to remember in this way after a bit of investigation when their common origin with English is made clear. One other good example is the Norwegian word snikskytter (sniper), which looks quite strange in the beginning but actually simply means "sneakshooter".

47. When comparing two or more languages, there is a difference between classifying a language according to its linguistic character, and what this will actually mean to the student in practice. Comparisons between languages are usually made in order to properly classify them in their respective linguistic families, but have little to do with the point of view of the student.

For example, consider the fact that German, Bulgarian and Romanian have three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) while French, Spanish and Latvian have two (masculine and feminine). It is tempting to think that vocabulary in those with two genders should be easier to remember and use properly than those with three, but in fact these languages use grammatical gender quite differently. In German the gender of a word is almost entirely arbitrary, and so represents an extra piece of information that must be learned with each new word. However, in Bulgarian and Romanian the gender of a noun almost always matches up with its ending, and so the student only needs to keep an eye out for exceptions to the rule. The same is true with the other three languages with two genders. While the gender of a French noun can be tricky to determine at times, Spanish and Latvian are almost always regular in the same way that Bulgarian is.

One other example of linguistic classification not being all that helpful for the prospective student is the phenomenon of shared vocabulary and some overall characteristics. Turkish and Persian are unrelated languages, in the sense that Turkish is Altaic and Persian is Indo-European; they also use different scripts. However, the two have had so much shared history over time that learning one is very helpful in learning the other, in spite of the fact that they do not share a common origin. Much of this comes from a common Arabic influence, but also much borrowing back and forth as well.

48. Which modern languages provide the most insight into the English language itself? As English began as a language mutually comprehensible with other Germanic languages but first began to drift apart after the Norman invasion and rule over the following centuries, the answer is easy: Icelandic and French provide the most insight into English.

Icelandic has preserved an archaic character that other Germanic languages have lost over the years (including the letters þ and ð formerly used in written English, representing the th in "think" and "though" respectively) while French (or more precisely, Norman) has changed the entire character of the language from one that strongly resembled Icelandic into the one it is today. Latin has also had an unmistakable influence on English, but considering the difficulty in learning it to fluency nowadays as a language without any native speakers, French would be a more practical choice.

49. If you are really ambitious about learning multiple languages and intend to spend some time abroad but haven't yet decided on an ideal location, be sure to look beyond national borders and major countries, as many parts of the world will offer the opportunity to learn much more than one language.

The tiny country of Andorra for example located between France and Spain has Catalan as its official language, but given the number of tourists from the two larger countries on both sides there are many languages spoken there.

While Moldova speaks Romanian as its official language, there is a small autonomous region within the country known as Gagauzia where a language known as Gagauz is spoken, a language that is nearly the same as Turkish.

Luxembourg has three official languages (Luxembourgish, French, German), and is located close to the Netherlands as well.

Estonia has but a single national language, but one hour by ferry to the north is Helsinki (the capital of Finland), St. Petersburg is close to the east (and Estonia itself still has a large number of Russian speakers), the Latvian capital of Riga is just a few hours to the south, and Stockholm just across the sea to the west.

While the island of Curacao off the coast of South America speaks Papiamentu (a Portuguese/Spanish creole with some Dutch influence), Dutch is also an official language there and is often used in education and the media. This makes it the closest place to learn Dutch for anyone from the United States, especially those in the south.

These are but a few of the many examples that abound, so if you are ambitious and intend to go abroad be sure to do a lot of looking into which location would suit you best, especially if you don't like the idea of having to move to an entirely new place (leaving behind the friends you have made) every time you embark on a new language.

50. While small languages do not have a great deal of content and the student must make do with whatever can be found, if you are learning a large language you have a much greater selection to choose from and should take advantage of this. If you haven't done so yet you should take the time to look for things you truly enjoy in the language you are learning if it is sufficiently large. As a student of German, for example, you do not have to stay within the confines of textbooks if what you really are interested in is architecture or astronomy, as both of these can be and are learned through German alone. In the same way, with a large language you can take the time to search for music you truly like (as opposed to simple top-40 or folk songs), authors that really speak to you, anything that turns the language you are learning into something real and not just another subject. If you find yourself less and less enthused by the thought of studying but are learning a language with a large number of speakers, it may be time to take a day or two, or even a week, to just search for things you truly like in the language you are learning.

51. There are various ways to study throughout the day, and you can use different techniques depending on the setting you are in and the time you have. The usual way to study is to find a free hour or two (or 30 minutes if you are busy), sit down, remove other distractions, break out the books and simply keep at it. Outside this, however, you have a lot of time during the day that you could be using that you may not be making the best use of. If you study before work on the bus or subway, be sure to jot a few notes down on a piece of paper (new vocabulary for example) that you want to focus on. You can then put this in your pocket and look at from time to time during the day, even if you are at work. It is much easier to slyly peek at a scrap of paper in your pocket from time to time when in the office than to pull out a book that says something like Learn German in Six Months in large font. A scrap of paper is even better than using an electronic device to do the same thing for the same reason, as constantly looking and poking at your phone is much more noticeable than a tiny bit of paper.

If it is late at night and you feel too tired to tackle a textbook lesson, you can still read something in the language you are studying without worrying about how much you understand - simply read what you can read, and don't worry about what you don't understand. Pretend that you do (imagine that this is your native language and this is the language you read in when you want to relax), and simply rely on the words you already know to try to follow the content. Even this amount of exposure will prove to be helpful if kept up. Consider other interesting methods to expose yourself to your language as much as possible - you could send yourself a time-delayed SMS earlier in the day that you will receive later at night, or some other time during the day when you least expect it.

52. A number of virtual flash card freeware programs have been developed over the past years, and if you enjoy learning vocabulary using this method then be sure to look around for one that most suits you. One program known as Anki (the Japanese word for remember, 暗記) uses an interesting method whereby the user does not simply mark words as known and not known; instead, words that you guess correctly will still appear over time, but less and less frequently. This method is quite effective in that often a student will "learn" a word and retain it for a while, but then over the next week it will be mysteriously forgotten due to not using it again. Every student has had this experience, where he or she has aced a test but a few months later has forgotten nearly everything due to moving on to different units and never applying the knowledge from the former test again. But by testing the student on a word that has already been learned (but very possibly almost forgotten) a few days later, one's memory is thereby jogged and the word becomes easier to remember over time. Many other programs use some clever methods like this to make memorization more effective, so be sure to compare and find one that works best for you.

Edit 2013: Readlang.com is a new site that is somewhat similar to Anki.

53. How does the language you are learning deal with foreign terminology? Some languages have a tendency to take in words from other languages without changing them, aside from altering the pronunciation a bit when necessary. Japanese is a good example of this, gleefully using English words such as Space Shuttle (supe-su shattoru, スペースシャトル), guide (gaido, ガイド), energy (enerugi-, エネルギー), and so on. While occasionally helpful, sometimes knowing whether to use a local word or a loanword in a certain situation can be confusing.

On the other hand, languages such as Icelandic will almost always adapt foreign words by adopting their meaning, but through Icelandic terminology. This means that words such as "grammar" and "anthropology" will becomemálfræði and mannfræði, which seem unrecognizable at first but given that the word mál means language, mann means man and -fræði means "study of" (same as -ology), the meaning is not very hard to guess. In fact, this often will end up teaching you about the origin of the word itself: the word þrælahald (slavery) is cognate with the English word thrall, which nowadays is used in the sense of "to enthrall" but also refers to a type of slave in Scandinavian society during the Viking Age.

German also does this to a certain extent, whereby words such as carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen are known as Kohlstoff (coal stuff), Wasserstoff (water stuff), and Stickstoff (sticky stuff). So while the vocabulary may not be exactly the same as that used in English, the interesting internal derivation nevertheless makes it very easy to remember, and indeed may teach you more about the meanings of these words that are usually used without any thought to their origin or true meaning.

54. Finding a good dictionary is now as much about finding a good dictionary online as one in paper format. While online dictionaries are often the easiest to use, a good paper dictionary is still worthwhile for its convenience (especially if it is small), and the ability to browse. Electronic dictionaries are usually based on searching for a desired word, but paper dictionaries have the advantage of having related terms often listed next to the one you are looking for, thus making it easier to jump from word to word and learn more than just the word you originally intended to find.

Because online dictionaries are almost always better when simply searching for the meaning of a word, paper dictionaries are now most useful when they provide context and examples. The best paper dictionary to buy nowadays is thus usually a lightweight student dictionary, with perhaps fewer entries than a massive dictionary of old, but very user-friendly and with example after example of how to use each word as opposed to just providing the English equivalent and little else.

55. While contributing to a Wikipedia in another language can be a difficult task, Wikisource may be worth considering as well if you like the idea of contributing to a language but don't feel comfortable writing your own content yet. Wikisource is an online collection of copyright-free texts, and for most languages this means a large number of texts ranging from the development of the printing press to around the early 20th century. A well-organized Wikisource will often have communal projects that one can take part in, which are books that have been scanned and uploaded but not yet typed out. Even if you are not fluent in a language it is not too hard to type out a scanned image, and as created pages are checked by other users before they are finally confirmed, you do not need to worry about the odd typo.

Wikisource is often a great resource for free books even if you don't contribute (as is Project Gutenberg). On Wikisource one can find translations in other languages of Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Plato, Moby Dick, and just about any copyright-free classic.

56. If you live in a large city and live on your own (or are planning to), there is a good chance that you may be able to find a roommate that speaks the language you are studying and is in your country to study English. While it is true that politeness dictates that you should speak English with people that have made the effort to come all the way to the US/Canada/etc. to study it, it is also true that many students go overseas to learn English but end up never studying it outside of school due to having too many friends that speak their own language. This is often the case with students from Japan, Korea and Taiwan in cities such as Vancouver and Sydney, where it is far too easy to simply make friends with non-English speakers and only meet them after class. Thus, people in this situation often seek out an English-speaking roommate in order to avoid using their own language too much, and your motives in looking for a roommate that speaks the language you are studying will actually be very welcome.

57. Not sure whether what you wrote is correct? Using quotation marks when doing a Google search can often tell you whether you're wrong or not. Let's pretend for example that you want to write "I want to go to the movies" in French, and aren't sure off the top of your head whether the word cinéma is masculine, or feminine. If it is masculine then the sentence would be "je veux aller au cinéma", but if feminine then it would be "je veux aller à la cinéma". So which is correct? You don't need to ask someone from France to find the answer to this, just put quotes around them and see how many results you get.

"Je veux aller au cinéma" gives 39,500 results.
"Je veux aller à la cinéma" gives... one result.

Obviously the first is correct.

This method will not work with lengthy sentences, but even when writing a long sentence you can check it bit by bit by dividing it up and using the the same method.

58. When choosing books or other content in a language you are learning, be sure to check for those made specifically for children or young adults. Japanese is a good example of this, as while an adult needs to know the 1945 joyo kanji (Chinese characters) in order to be considered literate, children can still read books with kanji in them that they haven't learned yet, as the pronunciation is indicated above in small characters known as furigana. This makes comic books for young children to young adults particularly useful for learning Japanese, as instead of having to look up individual characters (which requires counting strokes, looking up radicals, and other time-consuming methods), since the pronunciation has already been provided you can look up the word in alphabetical order instead, and you will be able to type it out instantly as well.

Note that this doesn't necessarily mean you have to find childish content, just content that has been made easy for children and youth to understand. A good example of a comic book series is the Japanese BASARA, which has furigana over each character, but is about a dystopian post-apocalyptic Japan that has been reduced to a feudal civilization with medieval technology, and is not the least bit childish or boring.

The same applies to other languages in different ways as well. Perhaps your Russian is not yet good enough to tackle Dostoevsky, but if that is your favorite author then the next best thing is to find an abridged or simplified version written for elementary students, and likely with pictures as well which will help you keep track of what is going on.


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