Tag: learn languages

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.

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!