101 Language Learning Tips - Numbers 59 to 72

Friday, April 12, 2013

Two more posts after this and we will reach the full 101. The last post, which I'll put up on Saturday or Sunday, will be all 101 tips in a single massive post for quick reference and linking instead of just the last 14 or 15.

Previous posts: the original annnouncementtips 1 to 15tips 16 to 29tips 30 to 44, tips 45 to 58.

59. Most people when they begin studying a language intend to learn it to fluency, but what exactly does fluency mean? Different people have different definitions for what fluency is, and the fluency you intend to achieve may not necessarily be the same as what others consider it to be. You should not let yourself be too concerned with definitions of fluency as given by others, as your goals are your own. For example, if you began learning German with the intention of being able to understand most everything you read and hear, as well as being able to express yourself with few problems (functional fluency), then do not concern yourself with those that only define fluency as being exactly the same as a native German speaker (perfect Hochdeutsch accent, no flaws in speaking or understanding whatsoever). You may also want to learn a language simply to read it and are not concerned with conversation, or on the other hand you may just want to understand your wife or husband's family when they come to visit and aren't concerned with being able to perfectly read and write newspapers or literature in their language.

60. Reading books that you have already read before in English, or know about indirectly, is often advisable over lesser-known literature or poetry in the language you are learning if you are not yet fluent. Because you are already working at understanding the language you are studying, it does not help to add an extra layer of cultural vagueness on top of it. Works with a lot of conversation and repetition are especially advisable, and a great example of this is Plato. Unlike most other works of philosophy the works of Plato are essentially just Socrates debating with his friends and acquaintances in a very informal manner, and the logical structure (the Socratic Method) present in the dialogues makes it very easy to follow. Some sentences in the dialogues are even but a single word in length. Here is one example from a translation in French that shows how easy Plato can be to understand:
  • Socrates: "Qu’en dis-tu ? Cela ne te semble-t-il pas vrai?" (What do you say? Doesn't this seem true to you?)
  • Criton: "Fort vrai." (Very true.)
  • Socrates: "A ce compte ne faut‑il pas estimer les bonnes opinions, et mépriser les mauvaises?" (To this account should we not highly esteem good opinions, and despise the bad ones?)
  • Criton: "Certainement." (Certainly.)
  • Socrates: "Les bonnes opinions ne sont‑ce pas celles des sages, et les mauvaises celles des fous?" (Aren't good opinions those of wise people, and bad opinions those of fools?)
  • Criton: "Qui en doute?" (Who would doubt?)

61. One good rule of thumb when getting used to the way another language is pronounced (especially when you've never learned another language before) is this: if you don't sound awkward to yourself at first, you're going to sound awkward to speakers of the language. The proper French pronunciation of the word croissant may sound pompous when talking in English, but in French this is the only way to properly say it.

On the other hand, be sure that you are not overly exerting yourself. People tend to slur their speech or soften words here and there in their own language too, and you don't want to be the only one constantly striving for a perfect textbook pronunciation. Remember that every language is the most comfortable language in the world to speak for those that grew up speaking it as a mother tongue, so if you find yourself constantly exerting yourself to pronounce everyday words you may be trying too hard.

62. When choosing to spend time abroad, longer is almost always better. This may seem obvious, but far too many people cut their overseas experiences short due to one personal reason or another (assuming they will be able to reach fluency through keeping up their studies back home), but as long as these personal reasons aren't absolutely critical it is better to stay abroad for as long as it takes to become fluent. The internet (and real life) is full of accounts of people that had gone abroad, stayed for a while but then returned early for some reason or another, but then found upon returning home that they wished they had spent more time abroad instead of cutting things short and coming back so early. Reverse culture shock is also quite common, where upon returning home things aren't quite as fun as you remembered them to be, and you begin to actually find yourself missing the other country you were living in and may regret leaving it.

63. Vocabulary in languages that have grammatical gender (words that are masculine or feminine, as well as neuter) can be difficult to remember if the gender is mostly arbitrarily assigned (as in Danish or German) as opposed to mostly easily identifiable by the ending (as in Spanish or Latvian). There are some methods you can use to deal with this.

With Scandinavian languages where the definite article (the word "the") is written after the word, consider writing down words you learn with the definite article attached. For example, the word for house in Danish is hus, and as a neuter gender noun "a house" is "et hus", while "the house" is "huset". When writing down this word, then, write it down not as "hus" but as "huset"; remember it that way. The word "areal" (area) is the same gender as hus so you would write it down as arealet, while with common gender nouns (en-nouns) you would write such words as ambassade (embassy) and konvention (convention) as ambassaden (the embassy) andkonventionen (the convention) on any vocabulary lists, flash cards etc. you make.

Other methods for remembering grammatical gender include marking up a document with color (even crayon if you wish), or simply finding example after example of the word in use. The world for world in German (die Welt) is feminine, so you could go to a page such as its Wiktionary entry and then find examples online of the word being used in as many declensions as possible.

Simply thinking about the word and why it happens to have the gender it has can also be helpful. Consider for example that in German the moon is masculine (der Mond) while the sun is feminine (die Sonne), and since this is completely the opposite of the case in English it is easy to remember these words in tandem. Water (das Wasser) is neutral because water is good for everybody and holds no bias...even if there is no seeming logic behind the assignment of grammatical gender, you can pretend that there is, make it up for yourself and use this to remember a word.

64. When learning languages with fairly complex grammar (German, Russian, Lithuanian, etc.), printing out samples of writing and marking them up with pencil can be a good technique. There is no uniform technique for doing this as each language is different, but you could for example mark the dative case ending with an arrow underneath, the accusative with an arrow pointing down, the genitive with a connecting sign or underscore, and so on. The Lithuanian "my name" is mano vardas, and -o is the ending that indicates the genitive. It would then look like this:


The locative could be shown with parenthesis, so Lietuva (Lithuania) which becomes Lietuvoje (in Lithuania) would become:


Other possible signs are a Mars sign for masculine nouns and Venus for feminine, a tiny spear to mark the past tense but a planet for the future tense, and anything you can come up with. Since each language differs it is impossible to come up with a single system to do this, but since this is meant to help you learn a language as an individual you should come up with your own system. Don't worry about marking up parts of the language that you have already learned well and have no problem using (this would be a waste of time), just use this to concentrate on parts of the language that you are having difficulty solidifying inside your mind, or are particularly irregular.

65. When learning a language with a different alphabet, getting used to reading this new alphabet as quickly as possible will be your first and most important task. Luckily this will not be a difficult job, simply a repetitive one: the best way to familiarize yourself with another alphabet will be to simply read pages and pages and pages (and pages and pages) of text in the language, without worrying much at all about the meaning. Also be sure to alternate this with following along with recordings of texts by native speakers as much as possible.

Your ultimate goal will be the ability to recognize words at a moment's notice in the way you do in English. This ability is what gives one the ability to read sentences such as this in spite of it being jumbled up:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Now, it is not entirely true that a word can be jumbled up in any which way and still be readable if only the first and last letters are in the right place (turning "aoccdrnig to rscheearch" to "anodriccg to rcrseeah" actually does make it unreadable), but the point still stands that native speakers by and large do not read words one letter at a time but rather their overall appearance, and this is the ability that you will want to foster as soon as possible early on.

Even while not studying, you could familiarize yourself with the alphabet you are working on by plugging anything you read in English into a transliteration applet, and continue until you have become almost 'fluent' in reading this other form of English - English in Cyrillic, Armenian, Greek, Georgian, or any other letters.

66. If learning Japanese or Chinese, do not hesitate to plunge straight into the writing (kanji / hanzi) as soon as possible, as there is no way around this - they are an essential part of the language. There is a great deal of disinformation about Chinese characters, however: they are not letters in the same way that other languages use them and it is not quite accurate to say that Japanese people must learn over 2000 'letters' to be fluent while other languages get by with just a few dozen. Each Chinese character is actually a word, or a part of a word, and is more like learning a word root than a letter. Take for example the English word internationalize. This is composed of the following:

inter- (between)
nation (country)
-al (turns it into an adjective)
-ize (to make, turns it into a verb)

In Chinese, the word internationalize is composed in a similar way, 国际化 - country -- between -- make / to make something become. The first character is then used in similar constructions such as 国内 (local/national, from country + inside), 国外 (foreign/abroad, from country + outside), and an almost unlimited number of other examples. A good character dictionary will show a sufficiently large number of compound words that you can make with it, which will make it that much easier to remember.

One other point to keep in mind when learning Chinese characters is that an extremely large number of them are simply composed of two radicals, where (in the most common type of character formation) the one on the left indicates the meaning and the one on the right the pronunciation. The Japanese characters 紹 招 沼 照 紹 (and many more) all have the onyomi (imitated Chinese pronunciation) shou, while all the characters 海 浴 沐 沢 all have something to do with water due to the water radical on the left. While there are many exceptions, or meanings that aren't always obvious at first (the character for rest, , is a man next to a tree which may be easy to remember when pointed out but not quite obvious at first), it is often possible to guess at the meaning or pronunciation of characters that you haven't even learned yet.

Learning characters by frequency is also a better idea than learning them according to the levels set for students in the country. Chinese characters at the lowest levels are often chosen for their simple form in order for children to be able to write them, but may not be commonly used and will not serve you well in the beginning. An example of this is the character  in Japanese which means shell - a simple character, it is learned early on...but is not very frequently seen. On the other hand, the character  (consult, discuss, meeting) while more complex is one of the most frequently used characters in Japanese. While it looks intimidating at first, it is not difficult to remember if you magnify and break it down into parts, which it resembles exactly except for the vertical stroke in the second character which does not pass all the way through in the compound character:

議 --> 言 + 羊 + 我

Indeed, in the beginning one or two complex characters may be enough for a full day's study as you will actually be learning five or more separate characters if you look up the meaning of the component parts as well.

67. In languages that have irregular stress, like those with tones, proper stress is important but not nearly as important as context and simple common sense. Lithuanian is one example of a language with variable stress, and one example often given in the beginning is that the word yra when stressed on the second syllable means "is" or "are" (as in "they are"), while when stressed on the first syllable means "it decays" or "they decay". True, but will saying "Mano vardas yra Johnas" (my name is John) cause people to think that you are saying "My name decays, John" if you stress the wrong syllable? Not likely.

In the same way, saying "I am a photo-grapher" in English instead of "ph'tawgrapher" will not confuse people into thinking that you have a strange job that somehow involves "graphing photos", whatever that means. So while stress is important and learning proper stress is essential to become fluent, do not be afraid to pronounce words just because you aren't absolutely sure where the correct stress falls. At worst you will be corrected.

68. Don't be discouraged by people that claim that their language is somehow harder to learn than others. This seems to be a common occurrence on online forums, where claims are made by people that their language is difficult or impossible to learn due to a variety of reasons, such as:

- the presence of a large number of dialects
- weird orthography
- strict grammar
- loose grammar
- some flimsy cultural reason ("our culture is difficult for foreigners to understand")
- alphabet

and just about any other reason one could think of. First of all, keep in mind that many of these reasons can be found in English as well - English has British/American/Australian/South African/Nigerian/Indian and dozens of other types of English plus dialects within each of these countries, and any language that pronounces through and queuethough and mowtough and huff in the same way can be said to have a pretty weird orthography as well...and yet hundreds of millions have learned English.

In fact, instead of being discouraged you should be eager to prove statements such as these wrong. If Chinese is difficult then why do over a billion people speak it? If Russian is difficult then why does it maintain a strong presence in Central Asia and other countries where it is learned as a second language? No, the only true barrier to learning a language is motivation.

69. If you have studied one language for a while and are tempted to begin learning another closely-related language, keep in mind that there is little benefit in doing so and is not advisable unless you have a concrete reason to switch (plans to move to that country, you truly like Language B more than Language A, etc.). Many languages are mutually intelligible, either entirely or partially, and if you have not yet taken advantage of all there is to learn in a first language it will still be easiest to learn about the second language you now want to study by remaining with the first and learning it in greater depth. If, for example, you have been learning Norwegian for a while but have become attracted to the idea of learning Swedish due to its larger population and opportunities to use it, unless you are planning a trip to Sweden anytime soon it would still be easiest to stay with Norwegian and become good at it, as once you have become fluent in Norwegian learning Swedish will be little more than a tweaking of the Norwegian you already know, as opposed to a foreign language.

Use common sense here though, of course. If you began with Faroese (population approximately 70,000) and love it but simply aren't having any luck finding content in the language, then by all means switch to something larger yet related (Icelandic, or Norwegian Nynorsk).

70. When studying abroad or meeting speakers of a language you are studying for the first time, be sure that you are not lulled into a false sense of confidence about your abilities due to the compliments you will almost certainly receive for your effort. Given the low number of English speakers per capita that study other languages, people from some countries will tend to compliment English speakers for just about anything - basic greetings, being able to read a different alphabet, simple verb conjugation, just about anything. Asian countries (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc.) tend to do this in particular, along with countries with small populations. While nice, it is best to think of these compliments as compliments on your effort and not necessarily a serious evaluation of your abilities. You will know yourself when you are approaching fluency as you find yourself becoming more and more comfortable in the language you are using. If you can read the newspaper without a dictionary, laugh at comedy shows on TV, get your news from that language alone, and often trick people on the phone into thinking you are a native speaker, then you will know that you are nearly there.

71. If you don't have the money at the moment for a few months abroad, then a plan involving as much immersion as you can create for yourself in your hometown may be necessary. For fairly large languages (French, Spanish) it is often not too hard to find immersion trips where participants go to a location somewhere for a week or so, agreeing ahead of time to use only the language they are studying and nothing else, and these programs are just as good as spending the same length of time abroad. In fact, they sometimes prove to be more effective given that each participant will be interested in using the language they are studying as much as possible, whereas spending an actual week abroad you may encounter a large number of people that will want to use English with you, either because they want to practice or because they simply feel it to be an easier way to communicate. A great number of people plan trips abroad with hopes of "picking up the language", but end up using English everywhere they go for practical reasons and never get the opportunity to immerse themselves in the language.

Even if the language you are studying is not large enough to offer such programs, you may be able to create one of your own. Find a few native speakers of the language you are studying and a few others that are learning it, and arrange a long weekend somewhere where you are only allowed to use that language. The native speakers should be paid for this of course (a long weekend activity is much more than a simple favor), but if arranged properly and with the costs split between you and the other students it should not be too hard on the pocketbook.

72. Teaching English abroad can be an extremely easy way to spend a year or two in the country you want to live in. Each country has different standards by which visas are given out to prospective teachers though, so be sure that you are going to be able to get a visa in the country you want to live in if this is how you intend to begin living abroad.

South Korea for example requires but a 3- or 4-year degree in anything and citizenship in one of seven English-speaking countries (United States, Canada, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom) for a visa, other countries do not require a degree at all, while EU countries will generally prefer UK or Irish citizens as they then do not have to worry about arranging for a visa for their employee. Also, very few English teachers are in a country in order to learn the language. Reasons for going abroad can include paying off student loans or a simple desire to travel, and the company environment you are in is likely to be almost entirely English. On top of this, after a full workday you may be too tired to get much study done. Having a full-time job is certainly not an insurmountable obstacle to learning a language, but remember that even if you are living abroad you will have to put a lot of effort in, and many people spend years and even decades abroad without ever learning the language.


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