101 Language Learning Tips - Numbers 16 to 29

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Here are numbers 16 to 29 (1 to 15 here). Still 72 left after this!

16. When learning vocabulary, finding a frequency list showing the most common words used in the language you are studying can be very helpful. Generally one only needs to know a few hundred words in order to be able to understand 50% of the text in a language, and knowing a few thousand is enough to understand almost anything you see.

Word frequency lists can be found here on Wiktionary for a number of languages, but if you can't find one for your language you can create a quick one of your own using a site like wordle.net, where you can copy and paste a large amount of text which is then turned into a word cloud with the most frequent words in the largest font.

Depending the language you are studying, creating your own frequency list in this way can actually be better than using one from Wiktionary. Why? Because word frequency lists will usually have the words reduced to their uninflected (dictionary) forms. Children registers as childfought registers as fight, and so on. When analyzing a language this is fine, but when learning a language you want to make sure you understand inflected forms as well, as that is what you will be encountering when using it. That is, knowing the word fight doesn't do you much good if you don't know that it is fought in the past tense, and knowing the word mouse isn't enough to say you understand the word if you think that the plural must be mouses instead of mice. This is particularly important for heavily inflected languages like Lithuanian, and agglutinative languages like Turkish.

17. When learning vocabulary make sure you keep in mind how well you know words you have learned. There are certain levels of 'knowing' a word, and to truly know a word one must be able to use it almost without thinking.

Before this stage though there are a number of levels, such as:
  • not knowing a word at all,
  • knowing it enough that you would probably understand it in a sentence,
  • knowing it well enough that you could recall it after a few seconds' thought,
  • knowing it quite well due to frequent use but still unsure of how to correctly use it,
and so on. If a new word doesn't seem to 'stick' in your mind, you may want to spend some time checking to see if there are related words that may help foster a stronger connection in your mind. For example, the Persian word dânestan (دانستن), to know, may not be easy to remember at first, but if you look up the related words dânesh (دانش), knowledge, and dâneshgâh (دانشگاه), university (lit. place of knowledge), then all these words together may help make a stronger impression than just trying to memorize a lone verb.

18. How much money do you have? Keep your goals realistic when choosing a language to learn as most languages will eventually require a number of months or years abroad to become fluent (unless you live in a very ethnically diverse city), and if you don't have a great deal of money you will want to make this time abroad last as long as possible. In addition, if money is limited you also want to make sure that you have reached a certain level in a language before going abroad. The reason why is simple: the basics of a language can be learned anywhere, and you do not necessarily need to be in another country to do this. After a while though you will reach a level where outright exposure to the language and the culture in which it is spoken becomes a necessity, and this is when spending time abroad is most valuable. So if your funds are limited, try to do as much as you can back home, and only go abroad when you have reached a point where you are now fairly proficient but simply need more practice.

19. If you are studying something else unrelated to languages (law, math, history, etc.) try to see how much of this can be done in your target language instead. If you happen to be studying Spanish and astronomy for example, then why not simply merge them together? Find a few astronomy textbooks in Spanish and simply use them, and now you won't have to divide your time between the two subjects anymore. The larger the language you are studying the easier this will be to do, but even when studying a small language see what you can find, and if you can combine another subject with the language at least some of the time then so much the better. YouTube is an especially good place to find documentaries in other languages. French and German for example are particularly good when studying Ancient Egypt (archaeology) and content on this subject is nearly endless online.

20. Learning two languages at the same time: whether learning two or more languages at the same time is a good idea or not is a subject of much debate. If you intend to learn more than one language, you may eventually reach a point in the first language you are studying where you have become somewhat proficient, after which you may begin to wonder whether it wouldn't be a good idea to begin studying the second, while spending some time every day 'maintaining' the first. Whether this is possible, of course, will mostly depend on the amount of free time you have. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when considering studying more than one language at a time:

- How similar is the second language to the first one you are studying? If the two happen to be closely related (German and Dutch, Italian and Spanish, Turkish and Uzbek) then it is probably not worth it to embark on a second, as a deeper understanding of the first will do just about as much for your understanding of the second as beginning to study the second outright.

- How many dialects are there in the language you are studying? Some languages have regional variants that resemble other languages, and if they are well known by the population as a whole then to be considered fluent you will have to have a familiarity with them as well. For example, if you have been studying Norwegian bokmål (the main standard for the Norwegian language) and are tempted to learn Icelandic, you might want to think of familiarizing yourself with Nynorsk, the other official standard of the language which, being used more on the west coast of the country, resembles Icelandic a bit more. Some examples:

"I come from Norway” in bokmål is "Jeg kommer fra Norge”, in Nynorsk it's "Eg kjem frå Noreg”, and in Icelandic "Ég kem frá Noregi”.

"What's his name?” in bokmål is "Hva heter han?”, in Nynorsk it's "Kva heiter han?”, and in Icelandic "Hvað heitir hann?” (Note: hv- in Icelandic is pronounced kv-, whereas the h in hva in bokmål is silent).

"Rainbows have many colours” in bokmål is "Regnbuen har mange farger”, in Nynorsk it's "Regnbogen har mange leter/fargar”, and in Icelandic "Regnboginn hefur marga liti”.

- Can you satiate your urge to learn a second language before you have finished the first by reading about the second language and/or its culture in the first? If you want to study Persian after German but don't feel that your German is up to snuff yet, maybe you could find a German translation of the Persian national epic shâhname (شاهنامه) or the poet Rumi for example.

In the end though, whether to study another language at the same time will be your decision and will depend more on personal factors such as drive and free time than anything else. It is certainly not impossible though. Learning and using two or more languages at the same time is very common in some parts of the world so it certainly can be done – in Luxembourg for example, people speak Luxembourgish (similar to German) on the street, use French and German in more official venues, and usually learn English as a foreign language on top of that, all from a young age.

21. Are you an avid gamer? There is a good chance that many of the games you have have already been translated into other languages, and if so then you can play them for hours at a time without any guilt whatsoever that you are neglecting your studies. Some free strategy games like Freecol have been translated into dozens and dozens of languages, and online one can even find classic paper and dice gaming books like Lone Wolf translated into Spanish and Italian.

22. Since 2010, YouTube videos have become much more useful for language students with the addition of Google Translate and the ability to create off-the-cuff captions using an automatic service that creates them instantaneously from the video's audio stream. The accuracy of these captions will depend on audio quality and clarity of the speaker, so if the video you are watching is relatively clear and easy to follow you can then instantly create these captions, and then translate them into the language you are studying. The result should not be taken too seriously as it will contain more than its share of errors, but as a means to jog your memory and help you remember vocabulary it can be quite useful. Even better is if the creater of the video has uploaded English captions, in which case the automatic translation will be that much more accurate. Videos on accounts such as the White House will usually have English (and sometimes Spanish) captions added soon after a video is uploaded - here is one example.

23. Don't put too much faith into claims that one language is harder to learn than another, and that as a result one should choose the 'easier' language instead. The reason for this is simple: although difficulty certainly does vary, just about every language has its easy and difficult points, and simple interest and desire to learn a language can overcome any difficulty. Icelandic for example is said to be the most difficult Scandinavian language to learn due to its archaic and rather complex grammar, but on the other hand keep it mind that it has the least regional variation (almost none) of all the Scandinavian languages. In other words, while Norwegian is fairly easy to learn, going to another city you may find people speaking it in quite a different way from the Norwegian you have seen in books and on TV, while Icelandic hardly varies at all over the whole country. 

Turkish is also said to be difficult to learn due to having a grammar nearly entirely different from English, but then again it is pronounced nearly as written, has but a single irregular verb, and no grammatical gender to worry about. Estonian is said to be difficult to learn due to its 14 cases, but what is often overlooked is that these 14 cases are for the most part just one case (the genitive) plus a simple unchanging suffix, and Estonian as well has no grammatical gender so the only two forms one has to consider when forming cases are the singular and plural.

24. The type of language you should learn will depend a lot on your personality and the way you want to use it. Think about whether you want to know a language primarily for conversation, reading, studying another subject, and so on. Some languages like French, Dutch and German are fairly easy to passively understand, but using them properly can be tricky at times. These languages are thus worth learning even if you only want to use them to read news and don't have any plans to travel abroad. Other languages like Persian and Armenian are very simple and regular and thus easy to use after one has studied the grammar, but initial passive comprehension is close to nil. 

This means that if you are able to be patient during the first stage while you are getting used to a new alphabet and somewhat unfamiliar grammar, you will be rewarded later on with a language that turns out to be surprisingly easy to use properly. Knowing what kind of student you are will help you to pick a language that most suits your study habits, as well as the use you want to get out of it.

25. Constructed auxiliary languages are an interesting subject, and are brought up from time to time. Is it worth it to learn one of them? In terms of number of speakers the answer is of course no, but considering the short time it takes to learn them due to their nearly complete lack of irregularities it may be worth it.

The largest auxiliary language in the world by far is Esperanto, with speakers ranging from the tens of thousands to perhaps two million. The other two auxiliary languages of notable size are Ido and Interlingua; the former is a reformed version of Esperanto that was created in 1907, while Interlingua was created in 1951 and attempts to look as natural as possible, ending up resembling something like a cross between French, Spanish and Italian. The Esperanto community worldwide is an interesting diaspora-like subculture that is large enough that users can be found in any large city, and Ido and Interlingua while much smaller still have annual meetings that bring a few dozen people together over the space of a few days. Other notable auxiliary languages with a few dozen speakers include Occidental, Novial, and the new Lingua Franca Nova.

So why learn them? Simple: their simplicity combined with their propaedeutic benefits. Propaedeutic here means the benefit they give in studying further languages. In other words, their form resembles other European languages but without any of the irregularity. Imagine for example one has decided to learn the language Occidental, which like Interlingua resembles French and Italian at first sight. Here are some of the basics of the language.

To love: amar. "I love” - "yo ama”, "you love” - "tu ama”, and so on.
Past tense: add -t, no exceptions. "I loved” - "yo amat, "you loved” - "tu amat.
Future tense: va plus infinitive. "I will love” - "yo va amar, "you will love” - "tu va amar.
Definite article (the) is li. The indefinite article (a) is un.

To learn the same concepts in French, you would have to learn to conjugate the verb aimer (aimeaimesaimeaimons...) in different ways for the past, present and future tense, and in order to love something you would have to know whether it is masculine (un/le) or feminine (une/la). And this is only for the verb aimer: while in a language like Occidental verbs conjugate in the same way, in French you will have to know whether a verb is irregular, and memorize these conjugations along with the rest in order to properly use it. Interestingly though, in the end the two languages end up resembling each other:

French: Tu aimes l'école. (You love the school)
Occidental: Tu ama li scola. (You love the school)

But switch a few words around:

French: Nous aimons le chocolat. (We love chocolate)
Occidental: Noi ama chocolate. (We love chocolate)

and in French you are now dealing with a different conjugation (aimons, not aimes) and gender (now masculine, not feminine). The two languages continue to resemble each other but the knowledge required to correctly use the auxiliary language is but a fraction of the other.

The best way to think of auxiliary languages is as something akin to Linux distributions or keyboard layouts, or even the metric system (before it became popular). A certain Linux distribution may be fantastic and easy to use, but the smaller user base is its downside. In the same way the Dvorak keyboard may be faster than the Qwerty layout that most people use, but you will have to take extra pains to use it such as setting up your system to allow switching to Dvorak, carrying around a USB with a program that does the same when using another computer, etc. In the same way it is easy to pick up an auxiliary language and you will find a great deal of peripheral benefit in understanding other languages, but there will be few people to use it with.

26. Listening to the radio: having a 24-hour news channel in the language you are studying playing in the background is a good thing. However, be sure to spend some time actively listening as well as simply letting it carry on while doing other things.

The state of mind required to actively listen to a radio broadcast is actually quite simple to attain: imagine for a moment that you have suddenly been transported to the front of a group of people and are now responsible for interpreting the news that is being played into English. How well can you explain what is being said? Now instead of simply letting the language flow by you are in a focused state of mind where understanding as much as possible is of crucial importance; after all, your imaginary audience is depending on you.

Luckily you are not actually standing in front of a crowd of people and expected to do this, but imagining this to be the case is the best way to get into an active state of mind. Listen closely for keywords that will clue you in on the general subject, as once you latch on to this it will be that much easier. Is there a war going on? Is somebody on strike? Was a cat saved from a tree? Do your utmost to figure out the general subject first of all, concentrating on getting this first before worrying about this or that word that you may not have understood. If you can keep this state of mind up for a good ten to thirty minutes you will notice how intensive it is, as even after a short time of 'interpreting' (to your imaginary audience) you may begin to feel tired, and this is a good sign that you have been flexing your linguistic muscles.

27. How old are you? Take a moment to think about what things you saw and heard while growing up. If you are 30 years old now, that means that you were a child in the 1980s, a teenager in the 1990s, and an adult after that. What did people your age in your target language watch as cartoons in the 1980s then, what music did they listen to, what shows did they watch in the 1990s when they were teenagers? People your age in other countries, with whom you are probably most likely to become friends, will share a collective knowledge about these periods of time.

Because everybody your age will have also lived through these periods of time you will also have to familiarize yourself with it to some extent. Imagine for example learning English but never knowing about Star Wars, Star Trek, Seinfeld, the Beatles, Nintendo, Sega, Madonna, all the things that (whether you liked them or not) you learned about growing up either directly or indirectly. Learning English from textbooks alone will not give access to this shared 'pop culture database' (for lack of a better term), and other languages have this as well. So when learning another language be sure to find out not only what people your age are interested in, but what they know about from their shared experience growing up.

28. Proficiency tests are a great way to focus the mind on a goal if you are studying a language on your own. Many large languages have standardized tests administered a number of times per year and given by the organizations that promote the language (Alliance Française for French, Goethe-Institut for German, and so on), and if you find your studies to be somewhat vague and lacking in focus then you may want to think about simply up and registering for one of these tests and then trying your best to pass it. Passing one of these tests also makes it easy to describe your proficiency in a language to others, especially potential employers. Of course, only do this if you think it will help. If you simply do not enjoy taking such tests then you should not feel the need to do so as this may end up turning the language you love into just another academic subject.

29. Mnemonic cues can sometimes help when learning new vocabulary. Some words more or less have their own mnemonic cues built in, such as the Lithuanian word for boa constrictor, smauglys (think of the dragon Smaug from the book The Hobbit). Others you may have to be creative with in order to come up with a cue that you can remember – perhaps you could remember the Lithuanian word mokyklos (school) if you grew up watching Fraggle Rock and thought that Mokey was the smartest Fraggle (Mokey must have gone to the mokyklos a lot...). The simple act of coming up with a mnemonic cue is in itself a good thing, as it means you are giving a word the attention it deserves and are creating a nice kind of familiarity in your mind, making it a part of the neural net you already have set up.

However, before a word can be said to be perfectly learned you must be able to recall it almost instantaneously, and so the mnemonic cue should eventually become unnecessary. A mnemonic cue is mostly useful for a word that you know you will end up forgetting soon after seeing it, and need some sort of trick to retain.


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