Author: Rachael

Finding your way through language learning

There are a lot of methods to choose from, and a lot of prominent proponents of different methods – many of whom have impressive track records in learning languages and so seem thoroughly believable. The advice is there to be listened to, and you should listen to it, but when it comes down to your own study your regime (regimented or not) is going to be a lot more haphazard.

Different people, different languages, different experiences, and different content all demand different approaches – I have never learnt any two languages in the same way, beyond a basic reliance on a lot of input. For example:

  • Maybe you’re a person who used post it notes for objects in French, but now you’re learning Spanish and you’d rather just get on with speaking
  • Maybe your course says you should be learning to use the dative case but you are actually more interested in this weird instrumental case right now
  • Maybe you keep coming across a word ending you don’t understand so you look it up
  • Maybe you read a lot in one language but mostly talk with a friend in another
  • Maybe you are learning Persian, for which there is no Google Translate audio, so you have to find another way to match what you are reading with what is spoken
  • Maybe you’ve found some Russian radio stations that are the perfect balance of good Russian music and interesting Russian chat, but now you are trying out a new language and all of the stations just play English songs
  • Maybe you used Memrise a bunch for one language but are bored of it and need a change
  • Maybe you love the cinematic offerings of one country but are mostly bored by another

This is a quick post just to let you know that you will find your way through, and that that sort of a haphazard approach is a lot of what learning is. You don’t have to learn in a straight line and you can really pick and choose methods. That includes the methods I don’t mention much on this site – I don’t ever use things like the Gold List method, for example (though I do find some kinds of lists useful when I have the right sort of motivation), but if you enjoy that sort of an approach then go for it!

My posts are generally aimed at people who don’t find a sort of course and test model very rewarding, either because they don’t stick with it or just because they don’t find it satisfying, but there are lots of people who love the motivation they get from clear goals and you are welcome to be one – and to be haphazard too!

Beginner language materials are boring, you don’t need to rely on them

I will preface all of this with the caveat that this is the advice I have found useful for myself and my own learning style – you may find the beginner materials much more rewarding than I do, especially at the very beginning, and I don’t want to discourage you if that is the case! For me, though, especially in my more recent languages, I have relied on them less and less. OK, on with the show…

As an absolute beginner in a language it can be very frustrating to discover that the majority of learning materials directed at you are either boring, or are games (which, in general, I find pretty boring). The moments of excitement that come with understanding somebody speaking naturally, even when you are only catching a few words, are difficult to find when you are relying on one lesson format or another. If you are learning your first second language, it is not necessarily obvious to you that Duolingo, textbooks, and videos/podcasts for absolute beginners (often children) aren’t THE ways of doing things.

They aren’t, though. I have given some suggestions for language learning methods and resources here, but the key is to know that, especially with new technologies, you don’t have to be using material that feels boring and/or childish. You’re learning a language! You want to understand what people are saying! You don’t necessarily want to be learning rules or passing tests.

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When I started learning Hindi and when I started learning Russian I didn’t have textbooks in those languages, and I certainly didn’t have Duolingo. Mostly I watched movies and looked up things on the school computers when I was stuck or curious. I bought some textbooks later, and as reference materials they were extremely helpful, and saved me printer money, but they have never formed the basis of my learning. To be clear, I am definitely not saying that these resources are bad or aren’t useful, but if you want to enjoy language learning and feel like you are really understanding native speakers, even as an absolute beginner it is good to base your learning around immersion. That means listening to and reading interesting materials in your target language – with subtitles or translations first, and perhaps later without (more on how to do this later). Textbooks and google searches are valuable support for that – I’m sure it would have taken me a while to work out the differences between gender and case endings without them and that is obviously an important piece of information – but hearing them used by native speakers in a context not aimed at me was what really helped me to learn.

My Hindi textbook was useful for me in part because I actually really enjoyed the content on offer. It had a story that had an arc across the whole book, and because of that I was motivated to learn the grammatical points that supported the context. Without the fun of interesting content I wouldn’t learn. I would go so far as to describe the textbook as a valuable support to my learning. That is all a textbook can be, and probably all it is trying to be, but as a beginner it can seem like it is the language itself, the test to be passed before you’re allowed to do the fun bits. Interspersing your exposure to a language with grammar study can be great, but just studying grammar rarely is.

It is through the fun of so many movies, TV shows, websites and podcasts that I have learnt most of my vocabulary. They are also how I learnt how to actually care about and use the grammatical points, which I occasionally look up when the content has made me curious. Recognising and imitating a flow of words is, for me, a far more effective way of deepening my use of grammatical constructs than actively trying to learn and remember them. And interesting videos and texts are available to you as a beginner, you don’t need to wait until you have passed a certain number of tests. If you are lost in a piece of audio, just recognising the patterns of sounds and slowly starting to match them with subtitles, then great! You are doing it, and besides, the show is good!

Finding interesting (and useful) content

It seems as though there is rarely an opportunity, as a beginner, to feel as though you are engaging with the interests and materials of native speakers, which is very likely what motivated you to start learning in the first place. But there are ways, and those ways are getting better! I have written about beginner methods in more detail here, but the relevant points are below

  • Videos – if you are an absolute beginner (or if you aren’t) videos with subtitles are a great way to go. Listen, pay attention, see what you can learn. Then, if you enjoyed something, watch it again – and again, and again. The key is to enjoy yourself, so if you don’t like this repetition – which I’m not suggesting you have to do all in a row -you can skip it. However, I have found it very useful for really starting to hear through the blur of fast dialogue and thick plot. If you are inclined to, repeat the things you really enjoy – perhaps, when you are ready and know the video well, repeat without subtitles.
  • Reading – with LingQ or the opensource but slightly clunkier equivalent Learning With Texts. If reading material is more up your street, LingQ and LWT provide audio for each word through Google Translate. LingQ also has separate recordings for a lot of its user-provided materials, many of which are transcribed podcasts and news broadcasts. If you find your own material for LingQ (and I think that is where the fun comes) you can upload associated audio. There are also, significantly, translations for each word to help you through a piece even as an absolute beginner. When you have learnt each word you can mark it as known, until then you can select a word to see translations. I learnt the Russian alphabet using LingQ by playing each word of a book aloud until I knew all the letters. If you use my referral link to LingQ you get some free LingQs (words you mark as recognised) as a referral benefit, and I get a small commission if you upgrade. I have found this site, especially with texts displayed in classic mode, so much easier to operate than LWT that I have been very happy recommending it above LWT on this site even before I discovered the referral benefits. It really has been the bedrock of my Russian study, more than any other resource – though shout out to masterrussian.com for having the answers to the questions I came up with while reading. The major advantage that LWT has is the greater range of languages available – usually if you can find them on Google Translate, you can find them on LWT.
  • Podcasts – I will throw in a quick note in favour of a type of podcast that I find too difficult to find, but is perfect for me as a beginner who doesn’t want to explicitly learn grammar or repeat every syllable slowly. That is, I love podcasts that take sentences on a theme and say them once in English (or your best language) and twice in your target language, as they are neither patronising nor needlessly slow. They provide a good opportunity to hear how related words work in context. Certainly check out the other podcast offerings for your language, though – you might not be as impatient as me and sometimes you have to commute!

Especially when you have subtitles and/or translation software, you don’t need to restrict yourself to reading/watching/listening to material that is at or only a little above your level – you absolutely can if you feel you are getting something out of it, but I habitually work with (enjoy) content that is significantly above my own level because it is what is interesting to me. As I have said, I didn’t know the alphabet when I started reading a book in Russian. I tend to avoid particularly descriptive texts with vocabulary that I will rarely use, but that is a personal preference – again, do what feels best for you! If you have subtitles, LingQ, or LWT to support you you should be able to make your way through difficult material anyway, and have a good time along the way. When you find the material that is really interesting, it is valuable even if it is hard.

What do you want to do with your language? Speaking and/or listening.

For some of you learning a language, communication is your primary goal. For others, it is the ability to understand the world around you a little better. Both are good and valid, and if you are comfortable that your strategies for language learning give you what you want, then they are valid too! No matter what anyone says.

There is a lot of pressure from within the language learning community to attain fluency measured by the ability to speak fluently – including a lot of YouTube videos of polyglots that alternately inspire would-be language learners, and reinforce their lack of self-belief. The Speak from Day One method is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but it does drive home the idea that language-learning is ultimately about speech – especially your own.

But when people give advice it is often just advice for people whose goals and habits resemble their own. People take their own experiences and make them general – because it feels validating! I’m a chronic advice-giver, trust me. (For more detail, see this song.) But your priorities in the language learning process should be organised according to your own goals and with sympathy for your own ways of learning – for what you actually find valuable.

So what do you want out of learning a language?!

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If you don’t want to speak yet (or at all!)

I have been learning Hindi for years but almost never speak it, partly through lack of opportunity but mostly because I’ve been pretty happy just listening. It has been more important to me to pay attention to others than it has been to be heard by them. Combining listening with other activities may make you progress quicker, in the sense of being able to understand better, but whether or not you do anything else, listening and paying attention to material you really value is the good of language learning. It is not just learning, it is using the language. I have found it hugely valuable!

In fact, for most (but not all) of the languages I learn being able to listen and understand has been my primary goal. As a result, however, my Hindi speech is a stilted and infrequent. I take a a while to find vocabulary, so haven’t felt confident doing it in conversation with a native speaker.

But here’s the great thing: now I have Hindi-speaking flatmates and I have been trying to talk to them, and the rate at which I am turning words I understand into words I can use in speech is really exciting, and faster than it could have been without the underpinning I have acquired through so much listening. (As I have started to be more creative, I have found this method useful to get me forming more sentences and to remind me of words I have never used – if you are beginning to speak maybe try it, but do what works for you!)

If you are just starting to learn a language and you are too nervous to speak, or just not motivated to, that is absolutely OK! If you want to speak later, you will have given yourself an excellent grounding for it. If you never want to speak, you never have to! As I have said over and over, it is way more fun to be bad at a language than not to speak (read: know) it at all!

If you really want to speak…

If, however, you really want to speak, find ways to do it! If fear is too demotivating in a public setting and you can afford to find a tutor, or just find a language buddy, then that is a great alternative.

If being on the spot is scary, I suggest allowing yourself to use translation technology. For Russian I found it very useful to be able to use Google Translate whilst talking to my tutor – some teachers will complain when you do this but I was way more motivated and way less nervous when I had that option. If I tried not to rely on it too heavily and always considered the words to double check that they are appropriate, the result was to speed up conversation while also exposing me to new vocabulary and grammar points, and I don’t think that’s any bad thing!

Oh! Also talking to yourself is great, in whatever language. I mean, I guess I should add the “advice is for the advice-giver” caveat, but who doesn’t love chatting to themself a bit? It’s a great clarifier.

But not quite yet…

If speaking is too scary for now but you still want to prepare to communicate in the language, try combining a lot of listening with a lot of writing. It is especially good if you can have your writing corrected by native speakers on a site like italki (or anywhere else you can find them! I find italki is a really great resource when you don’t know where else to look for correction or are worried that people are being too polite to correct you).

I reckon you could talk to yourself too. Also, while I know I would find asking for comments on a recording of me more scary than actually talking face to face, I know that there are many people who don’t feel the same. Maybe see what YouTube can do for you!

What it all comes down to is this: there are lots of ways to get what you want from a language. Maybe for you that will involve speaking, maybe it won’t. Listen to yourself before you listen to anyone else, and find strategies that work for you!

A Hindi starter kit

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My route into Hindi was a roundabout one. Everybody finds their own path into language, and for some that path is a textbook. But for most people (an in my opinion anybody who wants to have fun) that is not the beginning and end of it. I absorbed as much Hindi content as I could, long before I understood much of what was being said. For the most part that meant movies. Often the same ones over and over again (if you are inclined to repeat watch it really helps, as you stop focusing on understanding the whole meaning and get a chance to pick up on smaller parts of speech). I owe most of my vocabulary to movies.

I did use a textbook, though, and it would have taken a lot longer to absorb the grammar without it. I still think Rupert Snell’s older Teach Yourself Hindi course is one of the best textbooks I’ve used, and I have a lot of fondness for it. Grammatical points are laid out clearly and structured around genuinely enjoyable dialogues that actually kept me reading the book. It is certainly better than the other Teach Yourself offerings, which take you more slowly to a lower level, but I can’t compare with too many other Hindi textbooks.

To be clear, this post and most of the content on my site is primarily for people who want to build a solid grounding in a language, however patchy it may be depending on your own interests. For people just looking to learn a few phrases so their travels run a bit more smoothly, this phrase book looks promising (but not released until 2019 – others in the series are well-reviewed but I haven’t used any of them). Other than that, though, I think the best resources are online. Why not do some of the other stuff in this post anyway? Nothing to lose in a bit of fun!

Also, this list is absolutely non-exhaustive! The basic point is to find content you like at a level you feel comfortable in – which may or may not be ahead of your actual level. If you have an idea of what that might mean for you then you needn’t read on. If you don’t, then go ahead.

Hindi movies

A lot of people are put off watching Hindi movies because of their reputation for all-singing all-dancing drama. For most of the films I watch that’s no exaggeration, but it is not all that India produces! I’ve collected below a few examples of my favourite movies of various styles. As I mentioned above, I’m not suggesting that watching films is a quick way of getting the grammar of a language, but if you are paying attention and willing to rewatch the same films a few times you will definitely pick up a lot – especially in more quotable movies with less varied vocabulary. For that, the cheesier the better! A lot went into my Hindi education but I think most of it was Kal Ho Naa Ho.

Piku – a much more naturalist movie than is typical (with no dance numbers), and a genuinely lovely story about a woman, her father, and his constipation. The difficult but loving family is experienced by the owner of a taxi stand, who has to drive them from Delhi to Kolkata when all of his employees refuse to get in a car with Piku.

Fanaa – a movie that has it all. I have heard Aamir Khan describe it as a masala movie, and it is definitely that, but I found it much calmer than most. It is set largely in Kashmir, and there is a deliberate shift in style between the more colourful scenes set in the capital and much bleaker tones in Kashmir. There is cheeky love story, but that doesn’t form the bulk of the film. I won’t say too much, and I recommend you don’t find anything out. I may be rare in having known nothing about it before I went in but oh boy was that fun.

Kal Ho Naa Ho – for the full on Bollywood drama experience (“Bollywood” is a contentious term and I avoid using it, but I think if it applies anywhere it is here). Again, I would recommend not knowing much going in, but it boils down to a love triangle and a strained family. Shah Rukh Khan’s character is surrounded by a lot of not-so-subtle angel imagery, but very little in the film is trying to be subtle.

Don – there is no hiding the cheese in this one. You could go either for the Shah Rukh Khan remake or the Amitabh Bachchan original, but I’ll admit I have only skim watched the original (so far), so I’m talking about the remake. It is a film about Vijay, the perfect doppelganger of a crime boss who is roped in by the police to infiltrate his gang. Events unfold and 70’s pastiche blends seamfully in with bad Matrix stylings. My guess is that the remake is more entertaining if you have already watched the original, for the comparison (avoiding spoilers is hard!), but it is kind of fun watching it with fresh eyes and having no idea why Kareena Kapoor is dancing like that.

Podcasts

For a beginner there are things like HindiPod 101. I find it difficult to find the right episodes things for my level, but if you enjoy them they can be a good way of getting some input guided. I have little patience for guidance, but there are plenty of people who are much better with authority than I am!

If you’re at an intermediate level then I highly encourage you to search for the Hindi-Urdu flagship.

When you have some basics down you can also go for podcasts made for native speakers. For this you’ve gotta go with what interests you (searching something you’ve google translated is probably more effective than putting “Hindi” in the search bar), and trial and error is key. Since there won’t be subtitles, you will want something with a heavy English component to start you off – they aren’t hard to find, as a lot of the Indian audience is English-speaking.

Reality TV

If you are happy to watch reality TV in your regular day, switching that out to Hindi is a great option for you! I have spent many an hour watching an Indian dance competition with Hrithik Roshan but I’ve forgotten the name! I will come back to this post later with better examples when I find good content with subtitles.

Soap operas

I haven’t spent much time watching Indian soaps outside of hotel rooms in India – probably four full evenings’ worth of viewing. From what I remember, there was a lot of dead air as characters glared at each other, but I definitely encourage you to look into it. If it turns out to be something you’re into then great!

 

This post needs work, and I’d welcome your help! I have included what has been valuable to me personally – though I have left out the shopping network for shame – but if you have suggestions that I’ve missed that would be accessible for someone at a beginner level (i.e. with subtitles or whatever other help is available) let me know!

Learning in phrases

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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 excuse 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 or its opensource counterpart 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. It is a site I really love – though my tip would be to switch to classic mode when you are actually reading.

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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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