Learning in phrases

This is an expanded and revised version of a recent tumblr post I made.

I see a lot of vocabulary lists and rarely find them useful, except as a reminder of words I’d forgotten. Without any other context a word will slip quickly from my memory. What is much more useful is to learn words as part of phrases – ideally as part of phrases you have heard or read, or possibly created yourself. I use the word “phrase” vaguely here to mean a memorable string of words. When I speak in my own language I often notice that my speech is just collections of learnt/altered phrases – pretty unoriginal but super useful!

Collecting phrases may seem like an extra step in your way to learning vocabulary quickly, but it is really helpful in a few different ways. If I use the phrase “я ненавижу свою работу” (I hate my job) to remember the word “работа” it does three things: firstly, it helps me remember the word with a context, meaning that I am much more likely to remember the word in future – if I need the word on its own it may take me a half moment longer to extract it from the sentence, but I have a much smaller chance of completely forgetting it.

Secondly, it helps me to remember a number of grammatical points with a natural rhythm – I remember to say свою (one’s) instead of моя (my), and I get a feel for the appropriate word endings when saying that I hate something. In Russian more than any other language I have studied, I have not terribly had terrific success with conjugation tables, so listening for rhythm combined with this more active noticing has been really useful for me.

And thirdly, building off the second point, it helps to build up a repertoire of phrases from which I can swap out the verb, the noun, or both on demand. This means that I can quickly form new sentences without having to actively recall different grammatical points. Even for people whose comprehension and grammatical understanding is advanced this can speed up speaking.

I hope that by now the merits of learning phrases are clear! I’ll lay out a quick methodology below. I have found it very enjoyable to be active in my collection of phrases because it means a lot of rewatching movies and TV shows I love, and also because progress is exciting! The third step is great for actually being able to recall and use these words in conversation rather than unnecessarily sticking with simpler vocabulary. As ever, best practice is the practice you are motivated to do.

  1. Watch/read something interesting, ideally something you already know and enjoy (because it makes it more memorable).
  2. When you come across a phrase that has one or two new words in it, write it down. I have only done this with one or two new words at a time more because of practicality rather than efficacy  feel free to experiment.
  3. You can pause watching or reading now, or collect a number of these and wait until the end. Either way, it is good to activate your knowledge of the new words by creating your own sentences with them. This may require some googling for usage, that’s fine! I would advise that you avoid complicating it with every usage and just stick to things close to the phrase you took.

OK, I hope that’s useful! For a brief example of how I do this in practice, check out this tumblr post in which I show you using my millionth rewatch of Kal Ho Naa Ho.


This blog uses affiliate links – if you click on one and go on to buy something I will get a small commision, at no extra cost to you. You may have noticed that there actually weren’t any links to products in this post! Well, that gives me the perfect opportunity to recommend a book that is not really to do with languages at all! Allow me to introduce (if you aren’t already acquainted) Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. It’s real interesting.

How to start a new language: everything works if you are enjoying it

Language learning methods

There are many ways to start learning a language – everybody is different. I like to jump in at the deep end – and anybody who has read this blog will understand that for me that doesn’t mean sitting down with a textbook and getting to grammatical work. It means reading complex texts immediately, before I know a word. I won’t deny that sometimes I go too far with this.

Nonetheless, my approach varies hugely from language to language, and approaches vary hugely from person to person. I have collected below a number of in-routes to language learning, so that if you don’t find Duolingo a satisfying way of beginning you can have a look at the options. Pick what suits you! I am suggesting all of these for an absolute beginner, but not everybody works in the same way, so it may be that it would be more useful for you to start with a learning style you know and then incorporate others later on. The most important thing is that you pick methods you enjoy, so that you don’t get bored of your new language before you’ve given it a fair shot.

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More regimented

Get a book

If you are learning your first language and want some proper guidance, a book is a good investment. I would highly recommend reading reviews first, as some are better than others. If you are considering the Teach Yourself books, go for the older complete courses over the newer beginner-intermediate options, as they provide much more support as a reference material and, in my experience, take you further faster. For me, the best courses have some sort of narrative – my Hindi course is delightful in that it has a narrative arc that goes throughout the book that actually kept me reading – but you may be different. These days I use books as reference materials, so I find detailed grammars good to have but not necessarily the place to start.

Language apps

I am not a great proponent of apps like Duolingo. In my experience – and bear in mind that I haven’t tried them all – apps will focus your attention on a small set of vocabulary that don’t really prepare you to start experimenting with a language. When used in moderation and in addition to other methods they can be useful, but I would beware of relying on them for your progress. It is much harder to remember what you learn in a frustrating and generally boring context (even when it is structured like a game). I have heard of people enjoying them, however, and since that is my number one rule I can’t rule them out just because they don’t suit me!

Get a teacher

If you really love speaking then there is nothing wrong with doing it immediately. You will need a fair bit of hand-holding before you reach fluency, but for people who love conversation and have the resources to have it then this is perfect. When you are past the earliest stages a mix of grammar lessons and discussion is good, if that’s what you want. There are lots of teachers with different teaching styles, so if you can afford one then try some out until you find a good fit. If you don’t want to pay, try to find a conversation partner learning your language, or someone you know in real life – if your target language can become a secret code between you then all the better.

More intuitive

I find the below methods generally most entertaining, because of the content and because I love the experience of picking up bits and pieces by myself, but the real key with any of the methods on this post is that you can and should adjust them to suit you. If dealing with complex (by which I probably mean B2-A1 for me) material immediately is neither fun nor an effective way to learn for you, then adjust!

Watch a movie (dubbed into or made) in your target language

Ideally this would be a film that you have seen enough times in your first language/with subtitles to already have an idea of what is going on. Depending on how much you rely on subtitles, you may find them a useful way to pinpoint exact meanings, or a distraction. If you find that you are just absorbed in the action and aren’t really listening for the words then try slowing down a little and taking a more active approach – maybe replay a scene a couple of times to see what you can pick up.

I had some success with this approach in Hindi. I didn’t have much understanding of fundamental grammatical structures until I started studying them, but I loved already knowing a set of words and phrases I had learnt intuitively and could plug into sentences as soon as I picked up some grammar. The process went something like this: “I’m sure they make this ‘pyaar‘ sound a lot… ‘pyaar’ must mean love!… so what’s ‘pahela pyaar?’… it’s first love… ‘pahela‘ must mean first!” So exciting.

If you want something with less complex language then kids’ cartoons are translated into loads of languages.

Read a text in your target language

How complex the text is is up to you – I wouldn’t suggest a text that would be difficult in your own language, and again it can be useful to try something you know well in another language already (though do what you like!) Lots of people go with Harry Potter, I plump for Pride and Prejudice (rather embarrassingly, I know it well).

Since you will basically need to translate every word, and it is best to have some audio so you know how words should sound, I would suggest you use LingQ (they don’t pay me I just love it) or its opensource equivalent Learning With Texts. These both provide instant translation and can play audio for each word, so you are just left to intuit grammatical structures and the odd strange idiom (the software does its best to help but doesn’t always succeed on that front). I would caution you not to try reading a complex text without one of these resources, as it will quickly become draining manually looking up each word.

I used LingQ with Russian before I even learnt the alphabet, and I can’t express my joy at not having had to learn the alphabet the boring way. Every word played for me and over time it became obvious which symbols were for which sounds.

Listen to example sentences (with translations) around a particular topic

This could be Pimsleur if you want detailed help following the pronunciation. For me, Pimsleur is too slow and I would rather be exposed to new words than endlessly repeating until I have perfectly memorised, but it’s all down to what makes you comfortable and happy. If you are likely to just listen and repeat without breaking down for meaning, Pimsleur or something with more English explanation would probably be better for you. If you enjoy picking up on patterns – “sounds like ‘mikhoram‘ is some form of the verb to eat, ‘am‘ is a common verb ending, ‘do‘ must mean two”, etc. – then you will do better with a faster pace and direct translations. I find knowing a language or two already really speeds up this process, because you know cognates and are looking for patterns, but anyone can do it. This is probably my favourite way of learning Persian, I just can’t find enough resources!

You may want a basic grammar including pronouns and a couple of verbs before you start with this method – or you may not!

Use YouTube

Depending on your needs, this can be targeted lessons for beginners, or more complex videos for native speakers that happen to have subtitles. It may help you to find the latter if you use YouTube’s regional sites or put in search terms translated into your target language. Love books and want to learn Russian? Search “мои любимые книги” (you can just put English phrases through Google Translate if you want to) and see what happens! Depending on the language and the size of a niche there will be varying amounts with subtitles – give it a go and see what you find. Again, you may want a grasp of the basics first, especially with videos aimed at fast-speaking native speakers, but it’s up to you. Finding the right resources can be tough but is very rewarding.

OK! I think I have exhausted my list – I will update with anything I remember later. If you think I have missed anything important then let me know!


Languages: Getting off “the Continent”

Getting off the continent

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It is easy to look at languages that aren’t European and think that they are too much – at least French has a lot of guessable words, Hindi doesn’t even have a guessable alphabet! Besides which, it is easy to feel as though European languages are superior in some way – cultured as opposed to cultural. I don’t blame anyone for that, we are taught very Westernised versions of world history and cultural history, but it isn’t true. I could say a lot about the richness of literatures and oral histories belonging to various languages, but it shouldn’t be the case that non-Europeans need to justify their languages as valuable. Learning languages is a nice, if incomplete, corrective for the feeling that they do. As soon as we engage with other languages seriously their value, to their native speakers and to ourselves, becomes self-evident. We can learn a lot more about the world if we listen to it – and if we provincialise Europe in the process.

My firm belief is that the apparent difficulty of non-European languages is irrelevant if you have engaging resources that make you want to decipher them. I admit that I plumped for Persian before Arabic because it was closer to what I knew. My plan used to be Hindi -> Persian -> Arabic -> Hebrew (I have since discovered Amharic!), straying out slowly into languages at a greater distance from my own, with some consideration for the number of speakers along the way. So I have some sympathy with trepidation in the face of the other, but I suggest you try to ignore it!

The first language I tried to learn independently was Hindi, which I believed to be pretty far away from English – as it turns out it is an Indo-European language with a decent number of English loanwords, but that is something I didn’t know when I started learning. A lot was new to me though, but as I was engaged with the language and I cared about it I knew I could have dealt with it being harder. I let myself progress slowly and filled my life with enjoyable Hindi content. I would have done the same with Tamil or Hausa. The alphabet and often unrecognisable vocabulary are enough to put most people off, if they were considering it in the first place. But I assure you that, if you are having fun and not berating yourself when you don’t understand, it is good even when you meet something hard. Side note: Hindi is the 4th most spoken language in the world, so it is surprising how few people do consider it, since numbers generally enter into the consideration at least for people early on in their language journey.

It is pretty exciting and delightfully useful that, once you have even a basic knowledge of one language outside of your own language family your transferable vocabulary, which you can use when picking up a third language, is usually widened dramatically. But you don’t need to do what I wanted to and follow the link languages! You are welcome to if it makes you comfortable, but you don’t need to. You will be surprised by cognates and loanwords almost anywhere you wander, and they don’t need to saturate a language for you to be perfectly capable of learning it – and you are capable! If you find a way of learning that you enjoy and is well-resourced, you are good to go and enjoy it. As I have said before, learning a language is hard work only insofar as you treat it as a stick to hit yourself with. You can become good at your target language, but remember that it is way more fun to be bad at a language than not to speak it at all, and way more useful. You don’t need to let the difficulty of a language put you off.

As a final point I will add that none of the above is intended to say that European languages don’t have important lives in non-Western countries – colonialism has left its mark, so speaking Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Italian, German or Dutch (have I missed any?) can get you some distance away from “the Continent”. But it is good to look beyond them – the more voices you hear the better.

I don’t usually ask for comments, but I would be interested to know which languages you think are worth learning, and why. I am starting a master’s degree next week and, as a result, have begun a new round of dabbling in unfamiliar languages as a form of semi-productive procrastination. I could do with recommendations.

The idea of efficiency in language learning stops me from actually doing anything

There is an ideology of efficiency in language learning that reflects impatience among learners to “have” the languages they engage with. That ideology is produced in different ways and plays out differently in different people. For efficient learners it must be reassuring, they are on the right track. I know some people who enjoy the sense of process, even when it is difficult. For me, and I imagine for many people, the obligation to be efficient feels at best like pressure and at worst like failure. These aren’t the feelings that keep me going. This blog is named language snacks not because that implies the efficiency of squeezing work in round the edges, but because it implies the indulgence of a treat. (The valorisation of efficiency isn’t unique to the study of languages, and I have far greater issues with it than simply the off-putting pressure it places on learners, but languages are what we’re here for!)

A drive for efficiency is closely tied to the idea that learning languages is work, but without the pressure to succeed in numerical terms (words learnt, time taken, tests passed), learning doesn’t inherently resemble work.  I won’t pretend that learning doesn’t require effort of one form or another; but the notion of work is tied to metrics of success created in whole or in part by a conflation of efficiency with goodness. (I acknowledge that for many learning is a necessity, adding different dimensions to the notion of work. I am not addressing them directly with this discussion.) There are positive-seeming sides to this – I love a sense of achievement as much as the next person. But I don’t think that a culture in which you need to achieve (by whoever’s standards) to be valuable is something to really aim for. That is a competition many lose and, as a result, too many simply don’t enter.

I would like to slightly change the discourse surrounding efficiency in language learning. You could be forgiven for reading posts on this blog and believing that I think that efficiency has no value. That isn’t quite true, but I see its value as subsidiary to the overall importance of motivation. Efficiency as problem-solving, making engaging with another language a more enjoyable and smooth experience, can be positive. Steve Kauffman talks about the inefficiency of using a dictionary to look up every word that you need while reading. He promotes instead the efficiency of LingQ’s instant translation and text-to-speech functionality. I am inclined to agree, not because this increases the speed of language learning, but because that kind of efficiency allows a person to remain motivated and really love what they are doing. With this sense of the word, competition and shame fall away.

For some people active study with a regimented approach is what they need – they know that tasks are achievable if they break them down and they trust that they can do it. There is nothing wrong with this until it becomes an ideology that feels like a necessity for other learners. I have said before on this blog that I need to continuously trick myself into learning. I love it, but when it starts to feel like work I don’t do it. That means that sitting down for two hours with the intention of efficient learning – whatever image that may conjure to you, to me it looks like a plan of any variety – is not the way to keep me motivated. I will happily spend longer than that learning, but on different terms. Language advice, whoever gives it and however many languages they speak, needs to be taken in accordance with your own needs. The idea of efficiency, espoused by those for whom it is the preferred mode, adds nothing but stress for those for whom it isn’t.

No learner should feel less adequate because they slow down and enjoy the scenery. In my own learning life, allowing myself to go slow and have fun is the key to moving at all. I wouldn’t start learning new languages if I thought I had to commit, because I would expect to let myself down. That sort of feeling is no good! If that is true for you as well, I hope that this blog is a source of reassurance that you are doing nothing wrong by dabbling, or learning at a pace you enjoy, or learning with stops and starts. And if it isn’t, that is fantastic! I hope you understand that your priorities aren’t applicable to everyone, even to those of us with similar looking goals.

Hey! I use affiliate links on this blog. If you click them and buy something I will get a small commission, at no extra cost to you. I had nothing to recommend in this post, so I am going to recommend Rupert Snell’s original Teach Yourself Hindi and a spot of Hannah Arendt.

Oh no there are so many languages where should I start???

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There really are a lot of languages, and if you don’t have an obvious reason to be learning one it can be difficult to know where to start. Sometimes I want to start everything at once. Sometimes I spend a week putting off actual work learning the basics of everything at once (Swahili, Persian, Malay, Tamil, etc.). So what follows are some more or less arbitrary reasons to learn a language:

  1. Because you heard someone speak it and needed to know more. I am constantly trying to decode the patterns around me and sometimes it requires a follow up.
  2. Because a lot of people speak it – the first language I started learning (when language learning was no longer obligatory) was Hindi. I chose it for two reasons. It was one of the most common languages in the world, and…
  3. Because it has a different alphabet. The fun of suddenly being able to turn weird shapes into weird sounds is a real treat.
  4. Because you spotted a course for it and figured yeah, why not? (I bought this and this entirely on a whim.)
  5. Because nobody you know is learning it and it’s easier to show off that way. It’s not great for practice but sometimes you need your people to be vaguely supportive but ultimately ignorant just to get started – you can find actual speakers later!
  6. Because someone you know speaks or is learning it and you want to hang out. (Side note: go in with low expectations of your conversation partner. Don’t learn for them, learn for you with their conversation as a bonus!)

Do these sound like silly reasons to learn a language? I’m not sure there is a silly reason to learn. If you are drawn to a particular language for a reason – you love Hindi movies or are interested in Russian politics – then great! If not, picking anything will quickly give you reasons to have an interest. I started learning Russian and then discovered a community of people to speak it with. I started learning Persian and then discovered Iranian films and music. If you need to get kick started there is no shame in watching or reading something you know well in English in your target language – once you have the basics you will quickly find new people or media to love. The more context you gain the more you will find to keep you going, as long as you are letting yourself have fun. (But don’t beat yourself up if you withdraw! It’s all good, don’t worry about it. On to the next one.)

Some people start learning a language because they really love the idea of a particular culture. I’m not going to blindly support cultural fetishism, but for people with a real willingness to listen learning any language will help to nurture in you an idea of its speakers as complex people and communities, rather than collections of cultural tropes.

There is a real sense of discipline and utilitarianism in the conversations around language learning that runs against the grain for a lot of us who are learning because we love learning, and because we get the feeling it helps us understand our worlds and other people’s worlds with a little more nuance. I don’t think it matters all that much where your openness and enthusiasm come from. Just let yourself move in the directions that feel good or important to you and you are more likely to keep it up.


It’s way more fun to be bad at a language than not to speak it at all

Hey! If you are interested in learning Russian and want a book as a guide, here is an affiliate link to the book I use! If you click it and go on to buy something I will get a small commission, at no extra cost to yourself.

The title of this post means two things. It means that if you you don’t think you have time for learning a language, you are imagining that you have to have finished a language for it to be rewarding, and underestimating all of the enjoyment that come from understanding even small bits and pieces. And it means that if treating language learning too much like study is stopping you from learning it at all, then you can and should let yourself reduce efficiency and increase the frequency of those rewarding experiences. It is a post for people like me, who sometimes need to trick themselves into learning and who suspect that it doesn’t need to be work.

People often wonder if they have time to learn a language. Then they read that it takes thousands of hours and decide it’s too much work. But there is so much fun in languages even at the earliest stages – just the transition from hearing nonsense to hearing separable words is exciting. Starting to understand feels like a massive change in the way you experience the world around you, often full of small instances of your target language. I am perfectly happy to put a lot of time into learning – but into a single language? I’m not so sure. Why speak one well when I can speak five poorly? Each new language opens up new ways of being and I’d rather get a glimpse than not. As long as you are enjoying yourself and engaging with ideas that excite you, fluency doesn’t need to be the goal – especially with translation software to help you along the way.

Once you stop learning to prove something you can start to have fun. That doesn’t mean gamifying your language learning with sites like duolingo. I find that quickly feels hollow and is only really a good alternative to other games. For my own enjoyment, and I accept that you may not work like me, high input is the name of the game. I want to be reading, watching TV (try this Russian Sherlock Holmes series), listening, enjoying, even before I really understand. I find the best tool for that is lingq or its opensource equivalent Learning With Texts, which allows even a beginner to absorb complex content – it isn’t what they recommend, but as someone who learnt the Russian alphabet by reading Гордость и предубеждение (Pride and Prejudice) on lingq it is certainly my recommendation. My scores on the site betray some inefficiency in my method, but also far more persistence and enjoyment than I would have achieved sitting down with a course or repeating a small set of vocabulary and grammatical points until I had learnt them. Not only is that frustrating at times, but it also doesn’t really give me a feeling of understanding a language. I love to dive in at the deep end, and even with the huge blind spots my unsystematic approach leaves me I understand much more as a result. Then if I need to know something basic – or, better, if I am excited about something (what are all these verbs ending in “сь” or “ся”???) – I just look it up! Because I want to! Because it is fun! Because I am invested in understanding what I am reading or hearing.

The question of whether or not you have time to learn a language only makes sense if you think you can’t use and enjoy a language until you have finished it. That is unless you are so truly overwhelmed by other obligations that you have no spare time to have fun in another language, in which case why are you wasting your precious free moments with me! But you don’t need to be a completionist! Just do what’s fun, for most people it really doesn’t need to be work.

As a final note, I will add that my own personal version of this approach to learning languages has proved far more immediately successful for languages with good text-to-speech resources available. There are so many Persian films and writings available freely on the internet, but without Google translate helpfully reading aloud to me I have struggled to get off the ground with reading. I will have to do some more studious groundwork to get to the point at which I can really dig in and enjoy myself, but I trust that it is worth it because every language I have studied before has been. I am confident that, with the right approach for you, forgiving yourself any inefficiencies necessary to your enjoyment, your next language will be worth it for you as well.

Bumping into languages

I have never been the world’s most methodical learner, and the drive to finish a language as soon as possible has tended to me to seem not only suspicious but also a little too much like hard work. If, like me, you like to hang out with languages for fun, rather than diligently mark off goal posts, then you are welcome to hang out with me too for a while!