101 Language Learning Tips - Numbers 30 to 44

Monday, April 08, 2013

With this post we're just about at the halfway point.

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

30. If you have a website or a blog, or discuss on forums a lot, you may want to try to find a way to work the language you are studying into that. Perhaps you study Japanese and are interested in technology. If so then you are in luck, as using it you will be able to find stories on new technological developments in Japan (high-speed rail, robotics, etc.) that haven't been published in English yet. Translating this into English will not only be a good way to practice Japanese, but it will also provide a service for those that are also interested in such developments but don't know Japanese. In this way you can make your language skills useful from an early stage, and further motivate yourself to continue studying.

Learning Persian would also help you find information not found in English on the latest developments in Afghanistan and its neighbors (Iran and Tajikistan), and so on, so this would be a good language to choose and a method to study it with if you are interested in geopolitical subjects. In short, try to find information in the language you are studying that isn't available in English. If such information is only available in the language you are studying then you will have no choice but to use it to learn whatever it is you want to know.

31. Good pronunciation when learning a language is a must, but the pronunciation found in textbooks is not always the only way to speak a language. Most languages have a variety of pronunciations in different regions that are considered correct, and while some of them are not recommended to imitate (certain regions are often looked down upon and one will come across as uneducated when imitating their speech patterns, unfair and unsubstantiated as this may be) many others may be easier for you to pronounce and may feel more natural. Think for example of the non-rhotic r used in Boston ("that was a wicked hahd test") or how British English is pronounced versus standard American English - all of these are correct English, and speakers from one linguistic background may find one more comfortable than the other. The same is true with other languages too.

Consider the French r as an example. In textbook French this is pronounced as what is known as a voiced uvular fricative, which is a sound made near the back of the throat. However, certain varieties of French pronounce it instead as a flap or a tap, which is the same as the t in the way Americans and Canadians say water or butter. If the textbook French r just doesn't seem to agree with you, you can pronounce the r in this way and there will be no problem. On the other hand, simply pronouncing it as an English r (as in war, or roar) will never sound good, so there is a limit to how much one can deviate from a language's standard pronunciation and still sound acceptable.

Keep in mind that while extremely thick accents are painful to hear, a certain amount of accent can actually be a good thing. Arnold Schwarzenegger wouldn't be the same without his accent, and apparently he even takes pains to maintain it even after all this time. A good teacher will be able to tell you which parts of your pronunciation are perfect, which are accented but sound fine, and which parts definitely need to change. Parts of your pronunciation that need to change (anything that just sounds awkward and not the least bit cool) you will need to work especially hard on, while parts that simply give you a nice accent in your target language you can leave alone, and indeed speaking in this way may become part of your charm.

32. Languages such as Chinese and Vietnamese where a change in tone can result in a word meaning something completely different require a good amount of attention to master. The easiest way to learn tones is to find examples of words with differering tones not on their own, but inside a sentence. English speakers in particular have a tendency to raise their voice at the end of a sentence when asking a question, but in a tonal language this may result in a completely different meaning so this habit needs to be broken. The best way to do this then is to find many examples of: 1) declarative sentences (not questions) that end with a raised tone, and 2) interrogative sentences (questions) that do not end with a raised tone. In other words, examples of sentences with tones that differ from your speech habits in English. Find as many of these as possible and repeat them over and over again, until your mind begins to subconsciously understand the large difference in how tone works in a tonal language compared to English.

Also, do not overly stress out about tones either. While the wrong tone can result in a completely different meaning and learning to properly to use tones is crucial, context is still very important and nobody in Chinese will think that you 'bigged' a telephone call (我大电话了 wǒ dà diànhuà le) when you said that you 'made' one (我打电话了, wǒ dǎ diànhuà le) even if you mistakenly used a falling tone for the second word.

33. Have you decorated your room or your entire house with vocabulary yet? A common technique suggested when learning a language is to put post-it notes everywhere or use some other method to surround yourself with the language you are learning. You would put a note on the door with the word for door, a note on the window with the word for window, and so on.You should also give some thought to how much more information you can squeeze into one item though. For example, instead of just learning the name of an object you should also try to add a verb or two, so that you can properly use the word as well and won't just learn it in isolation. Doors for example can be openedshutslammedknocked on, a tv can be turned on and turned off, with a chair you sit down and stand up, and so on.

If you are learning a language like German where there are three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) but generally no way to tell which word is which, you could use three colors to write the name of an object. Blue crayon for masculine, pink for feminine, grey for neuter, for example. In languages with irregular plurals (once again German), indicating that as well would be a good idea. Tasse (cup) then would be written with pink crayon, and with (Tassen) in parenthesis to show the plural.

34. One type of language not often studied but worth looking at are creoles. Creoles are languages created by the mixing of a number of other languages over time (usually at least three) in a setting where peoples of different linguistic backgrounds begin living together and find a way to create a common language. The development of a creole begins as a jargon (a set of words used to communicate between peoples), then later on becomes a pidgin (a fuller language with its own rules that develops from the jargon), and finally becomes 'creolized' after it acquires its first native speakers. In other words, a creole is a language that has been broken down and then built up again. Creoles usually have a vocabulary that strongly resembles its source languages, but the grammar will be quite different.

One example of a creole is the language known as Papiamentu, spoken in Aruba and Curacao just off the coast of South America. Papiamentu is mainly Portuguese and Spanish, but with a large Dutch influence as well as words from other local languages, and it ends up giving the first impression of a kind of easy Spanish or Portuguese. For example:

"Kon ta bai?" is "How are you?" In Portuguese this is "Como vai?" and in Spanish it is "¿Cómo te va?"
"Ainda no" is "Not yet", which in Portuguese is "Ainda não".

The English creoles of Tok Pisin and Bislama are spoken in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu (near New Zealand) and serve as a unifying language in these countries where there are more than 700 (!) and 200 local languages, respectively. Looking at part of the national anthem of Vanuatu it is easy to pick out the English vocabulary in spite of the different spelling and usage:
  • God i givim ples ia long yumi, -- God has given this place to us (you me)
  • Yumi glat tumas long hem, -- We are very glad (glad too much) in it
  • Yumi strong mo yumi fri long hem, -- We are strong and we are free in it
  • Yumi brata evriwan! -- We are brothers, everyone
The most spoken creoles, however, are French creoles. Haitian is the creole with the largest number of speakers (approximately 12 million), and nations such as Mauritius use a French creole in daily life but hardly at all in writing. French creoles also look like a type of French without complicated grammar, as these examples from Haitian creole show:

Li sé frè mwen - He is my brother (French Il est mon frère)
Nou sé zanmi - We are friends (fr: Nous sommes amis)
Mwen sé on doktè - I am a doctor (fr: Je suis un docteur)

Papua New Guinea even has a German creole known as Unserdeutsch. Unfortunately, it is hardly spoken at all anymore.

35. Two of the best places online to obtain long samples of recordings in languages are Librivox, and Spoken Wikipedia. As both of these are created by volunteers the amount available in each language will depend entirely on the motivation of those recording the files, but for most major languages you will be able to find hours and hours of content on each. The Dutch and German Wikipedias have a particularly large amount of recorded content, and Librivox has recordings in not only most languages but also some extremely rare or extinct ones, such as Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, and Old English. If you can't find any content in your language on Librivox you may be able to ask around on the forum to see if anyone knows of somewhere that you can.

The only thing to be careful of when using Librivox is the age of the document used to make a recording, as having all content in the public domain means that there is a large amount of material that is fairly old, or at least quite formal. Different languages change over time at different rates so a 100-year-old book in one language may look almost the same as a language's modern form, while in another language a document of the same age may not look the same at all. Consider for example the readability of Sherlock Holmes; in comparison, Turkish at the time was written with an entirely different alphabet (the Perso-Arabic alphabet, compared to the Latin alphabet now) and the vocabulary was quite different as well.

Edit 2013: See Lingq.com as well.

36. The economic value of a language (if this is your primary goal) does not necessarily depend on simply the number of speakers, or even the total GDP of all the speakers put together. Certain languages are also sought after for their strategic value. For example, the CIA offers hiring bonuses of up to $35,000 for those fluent in so-called 'mission critical' languages, namely Arabic, Chinese, Dari (Persian as spoken in Afghanistan), Korean, Pashtu, Persian, Russian, Urdu, Indonesian, and Turkish. The reason for this is simple: not only are speakers of these languages needed, but it is extremely difficult to carry out the needed background checks for most speakers of these languages before hiring - one needs to provide proof of residence for the past five years plus a great number of references before being hired for classified positions, and long periods of time overseas without sufficient proof of activity will almost always disqualify a candidate. The value in these languages does not extend merely to intelligence gathering though. Other examples abound of agencies that require speakers of rare languages, such as overseas aid agencies or media outlets.

37. While it is difficult to find content for smaller languages online, in person when studying abroad they can actually end up being easier to learn, due to the zeal by which they are often promoted. Languages such as Welsh, Irish, and Basque in particular that faced extinction but are beginning to thrive again are easy to find support from, as local governments are very eager to promote them and will do their utmost to help out someone who truly intends to learn them to fluency. So if you are studying a language with a few hundred thousand to a few million speakers (Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Albanian, Luxembourgish...) be certain to announce it on a blog of yours or somewhere else online in order to receive as much feedback as possible, and if you are learning a language such as Welsh or Basque you should contact the local government to see what sort of aid they can provide, including low-cost homestays where you can be completely immersed and won't have to worry about being spoken to in English. Learning one of these languages to fluency is also often a quick route to local celebrity as you will certainly be interviewed time and time again after having invested the years it takes to learn it, in order to discuss why you chose to go with a language like Welsh or Basque instead of German, Chinese or another language more often studied.

38. How helpful are movies for learning a language? While better than nothing, they are unfortunately not nearly as helpful as other methods such as listening to the radio or watching more general shows such as soap operas or comedies. Repetition is extremely important when learning a language, and the predictability one finds with radio news or a 30-minute program is much more helpful than a single movie, where plot twists, noisy special effects and other such intricacies are much more common. Movies are also far more likely to have long periods of time with little or dialogue than a TV or radio program. A movie can be somewhat helpful, however, if you are able to find the original subtitles (not a translation). Otherwise, watching four 30-minute episodes in a row is a much more effective use of two hours of your free time.

39. Though only containing single words and short phrases, forvo.com is now the best place online to find audio samples in a large number of languages. As contributors can help out by uploading just one word at a time participation is easy, and thanks to this the site now contains samples in hundreds of languages. This makes it one of the most valuable resources on the internet for rare languages, sich as Micmac, Nauru, Ossetian, Abkhazian, and many more.

Edit 2013: rhinospike.com is another good site.

40. Languages such as Japanese and Korean that use intricate levels of speech to indicate politeness or lack of it may seem intimidating at first, but there is an easy way to overcome this. Most pro-drop languages (languages where speakers don't have to use pronouns to indicate who is doing an action) show who is doing an action by the ending of a verb, whereas Japanese and Korean are often pro-drop without this. Instead of a verb ending though to show the doer of an action, one often simply knows who is doing what by context. For example the Japanese onaka suita? (お腹すいた?) or Korean baegopa? (배 고파?) mean "are you hungry?" but there is no pronoun there - both of them literally just mean "stomach empty?". However, depending on the level of politeness you can tell who is being talked about and who is talking to whom, so if you think about these levels of politeness as providers of extra information rather than simply cultural straitjackets that must be followed, you should have an easier time figuring out how they work. The two examples given here of "are you hungry?" show that the question is being posed between people that are friends or similar in age.

One good example of extra information provided is in the sentence 뭐 하시는 분인데? This means "what does that person do?" but this mode of speech is used by two speakers of about the same age or who are close to each other (friends or family members), talking about a person they respect. It is the form of speech you would use for example when asking a friend about what his grandfather does for a living. On the other hand, "뭐 하는 사람인데요?" which also means the same thing ("what does that person do?") is being used by two people who may not be so close (co-workers, people who have just met) about a person that doesn't necessarily require an extra amount of respect. It is what you would use to a person you have just met when asking about their friend that just left.

Also note that languages like these will usually have a standard form of politeness that, while not always perfectly correct, is polite enough that you will be able to rely on it as a failsafe in most situations. Students of a language are given a fair amount of leeway when it comes to politeness, as long as they do not always use the most casual and intimate forms of speech all the time.

41. Some languages are well-represented on the internet, while others have a much smaller representation in comparison with their real population. The site internetworldstats.com provides a great deal of information on this, and may help you in ascertaining the future potential of a language you are considering.

Languages such as Finnish and Norwegian for example have a relatively large presence on the internet compared to their population, but have almost reached full saturation - as of 2010 a full 95% of the population of Norway has access to the internet and 85% in Finland. Iceland is the highest at almost 98%. Languages such as these have reached almost their full online population, aside from growth in the language itself.

On the other end of the scale are found languages with large populations but almost no online representation. The most extreme example of this is certainly Bengali, spoken in eastern India and Bangladesh. Surprisingly one of the most spoken languages in the world (usually ranked at around sixth to eighth), under 1% of the population in Bangladesh has access to the internet and India is still at 7% nationwide.

French is another interesting case. While study of French has gone down in Europe over recent years, the language itself is actually growing very rapidly. Due to the large population increase in sub-Saharan Africa the French-speaking population has grown by 20 million over the past three years (200 million in 2007 to 220 million in 2010), and thanks to this growth there are expected to be another 500 million French speakers in the world by 2050. Rumors of the demise of French are certainly exaggerated.

42. International broadcasters are often the best place to learn languages, and this includes not only the target language but other languages at the same time. For example, the German international broadcaster Deutsche Wellehas an amazing selection of German courses, as well as daily news selections with text, recorded both at regular and slow speed. However, these language courses are also available for speakers of other languages besides English, and using them it is possible to practice other languages at the same time. If you are fairly good at French but would like more practice, for example, then you can use the French edition of its online courses to learn German. The same is the case with the French broadcaster Radio France International, where French courses are available for English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Persian, and many other speakers.

43. Many languages that go under the same name can actually be quite different, while other languages called by different names may be quite similar, or nearly identical. "Chinese" is an example of the former. Cantonese, Wu and others are said to be types of Chinese but (especially when spoken) hardly resemble Mandarin Chinese at all. Different types of spoken Arabic will also differ from each other just as much as different Romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese...) differ from each other, but are all said to be Arabic due to the large cultural and religious cohesion between Arabic-speaking countries. On the other hand, Serbian and Croatian are nearly the same, as are Hindi and Urdu (though these two use different scripts), and Bulgarian and Macedonian. For political reasons they are given different names but by learning one, one is able to understand the other as well. 

So when choosing a language be sure that you are receiving unfiltered information about what learning one will mean for you as an individual, in order to avoid either choosing a language that is said to be universally spoken somewhere but is not in practice, or overlooking a language that may seem small but is actually spoken in nearly the same way in a lot of other countries as well.

44. If you are partially proficient in a language but are having a hard time finding enough information on its grammar and syntax, consider doing a reverse lookup by searching for information in that language for students studying English. Korean is an example of a language that is notorious for not promoting itself as well as it could (even now, many in Korea are surprised that anyone would want to learn Korean in spite of its large population, economy and cultural influence), but content in Korean for English students is everywhere and a quick search will turn up a nearly endless amount of content in Korean explaining how English grammar works. Using content of this nature you should be able to learn nearly as much about Korean grammar as Korean students learn about English grammar from it. And in the same way, reading an explanation in French of how English word order works when using adjectives, you can learn how they work in French as well.

For example, on the French Wikibooks one finds the following: "A small blue German car" is "une petite voiture bleue allemande" (lit. a small car blue German), and "a young French player" is "un jeune joueur français"(lit. a young player French). Reading about how a French textbook explains word order in English adjectives will help you just as much in learning how word order for adjectives works in French.


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