5 Myths of Learning a Foreign Language and How to Get Past Them

There are a lot of misconceptions that people have about learning foreign languages and this can often discourage young aspiring polyglots (such as myself) newly coming to the fray. So, I’m going to show you here what is and isn’t true about learning another language.

1. It requires years and years of practice with native speakers to become fluent.

This one really depends on the language, as every language has its own bells and whistles to sort through. The embedded infographic is really interesting, as it shows what languages are hard or easy for a native English speaker. Some of these I might debate, but that’s not what I’m here to do. It does require effort and hard work on a learner’s part to gain even operational proficiency, but it certainly does not require retreating to the country (or countries) where the language is spoken to acquire the language. There are many methods of doing this, whether it be through grammatical foundations or immersive methods, such as Pimsleur and Glossika.

<a href=”https://voxy.com/blog/index.php/2011/03/hardest-languages-infographic/”><img src=”http://voxy.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/110329-VOXY-HARDLANGUAGES-FINAL-565×1993.png”></a><br/>Via: <a href=”https://voxy.com/blog”>Voxy Blog</a>

I taught myself to speak Hindi at a more or less conversational level and even though I speak Kannada, using its vocabulary to build my Hindi up would have resulted in a very pure and unnatural form of spoken Hindi. To learn a language, studying is imperative. A little bit every day will get you on the right track. Write notes on grammar, practice useful “canned” sentences you can use all the time, or use the dictionary to learn new words (yes, I’m actually suggesting that you read a dictionary), whatever works for you. Whether you’re learning Arabic or Romanian, the key to gaining operational proficiency is to divide up the work into manageable stages. It is not imperative that you learn how to have political discourse in Russian before your first trip to Russia. Ordering in a restaurant is likely to be the more important situation.

2. Fluency means complete mastery over the language, to the point of having native-level proficiency.

This varies with what desired level of proficiency is. I think most people would agree that only the set phrases in a travel phrasebook is not enough to be considered “fluent” by any standard. However, if your only objective is to be able to get around in a foreign country and have a semi-extended conversation with people every now and then, those phrases are important to know and you’re not exactly far off from that level of fluency. There is absolutely no rule that says that you need to be native-level in anything (except maybe pronunciation), so don’t be afraid to set many small goals instead of a few large ones.

3. You can’t learn a language through a book. My high school Spanish/French/Mandarin/etc. class is a perfect example.

I’ll be perfectly frank in saying that this is somewhat true. Your entire learning cannot consist only of “theory”, as eventually you need to put into practice. However, this does not mean that the converse is true: you can only learn a language through immersion. It is unreasonable to think that you will learn as quickly via immersion with no knowledge as you would have in a formal class. My post on the method of immersion explains why this is a bad idea. As for high school and even college level classes, you have to take everything with a grain of salt. Until you reach the upper levels of coursework, the classes are designed so that you have a very basic knowledge of the language in practice and can read/write much more. Speaking takes a priority toward the end, as by then you have learned all the grammar. It is equally unreasonable to expect that a single high school/college course will teach you to a functional level of use. Again, it’s a question of whether you will put in the effort to build up to operational proficiency. Language learning is a self driven process!

4. I’m too old to learn a language/I’m not good at learning languages.

As I said, learning a language is self-driven, and if you’re not putting in the work, you’re getting anywhere. There is no such thing as being “good” at learning a language, but there is such thing as finding the right method. Not everybody can learn through grammar and vocabulary drills, and not everybody finds it productive to learn with spaced repetition of sentences. You need to find what works best for you. And while there certainly is a ripe age for learning, there is no such thing as it being too late for you to learn a language. It may take you more time, but that doesn’t mean you’re not learning.

5. I didn’t understand a word of Person A speaking in Language B! What do I do? I didn’t learn anything!

Not being able to understand someone is perfectly normal. I still struggle with perfectionism and trying to understand as quickly as possible. But it is a gradual process. Native speakers are likely to speak much faster than a learner is comfortable with. And for all you know, the person in question speaks a dialect that is much more prone to speaking quickly and slurring words! The point is, don’t be disappointed when you don’t understand. Ask them to repeat themselves or tell them you don’t understand. It’s OK to make mistakes and it’s a part of learning.

I hope you found this article helpful and don’t forget to share it on Facebook and Tumblr!

Check Out the Sankethi Language Page on Omniglot!

I recently contributed some of my material on Sankethi to Simon Ager, who runs a blog about foreign languages and their scripts, called Omniglot. Thanks to that, there is now a page on how to read and write in the Sankethi language! You can check it out here: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/sankethi.htm.

Omniglot has been an invaluable resource to me as learner of foreign languages, as I learned to read and write in Hindi, Kannada, Hebrew, and Korean because of it. I highly recommend the blog, as even the pages on languages with Latin scripts are immensely helpful, as it details all the possible combinations of letters and what the pronunciation of those combinations will be! French learners, do not pass up the opportunity to use the French page! It just seems to me that it clears up a lot of ambiguities and such. As a rule of thumb, I always visit the Omniglot page of a language before I start learning it or even consider starting to learn it. So, bookmark his blog and make use of the incredible resource!

3 Things to Do When Getting Started with Mandarin Chinese

So recently, I began learning Mandarin Chinese, knowing full well that it would be a challenging language to learn. I was less worried about my ability to speak (as arrogant as that sounds), and more about my ability to read and write. To be perfectly honest, the hard part of Mandarin, and I suppose Cantonese and Japanese as well, is reading and writing the language, as there’s a point where you can remember words in speech more easily than in text. With thousands of characters with unique meanings and overlapping pronunciations, Mandarin is truly a beast of its own caliber. However, there are a few things I’ve found helpful to making headway into the language. As you read this article, I’m assuming you know a few basic things about Mandarin.

1. Learn tones in pairs as they are spoken in speech.

I can’t stress this enough as it threw off my pronunciation for an entire month until I realized what I was doing wrong. Knowing the tones in isolation is somewhat helpful, but it is much better to learn them in pairs, as this is the most basic level at which tones change. The reason I say in speech is because of the third tone specifically. The third tone is NOT a falling-rising (“bouncing”) tone as many textbooks and online sources will tell you. Most of the time, anyway. The third tone is actually more along the lines of a low flat tone, almost the opposite of the first tone, which is a high flat tone. The only time that the third tone is pronounced as falling-rising is in isolation and when stressed. Hacking Chinese’ explanation of the third tone is also quite helpful. There are probably regional variations in how people pronounce the tones, but standard Mandarin pronunciation is usually your best bet, unless you have your own reasons for learning a regional variety.

Yangyang Cheng’s video on tone pairs is extremely helpful (linked here). She has a lot of other videos on pronunciation and phrases as well, so be sure to take advantage of those, as well her website: https://www.yoyochinese.com/. Here’s a useful link on tone changes as well: http://www.trinity.edu/sfield/chin1501/ToneChange.html.

2. Do not learn characters by rote!

I swear, if you study the characters only one way, do not let it be rote memorization! This is an extremely bad idea as you will not only overload your brain with hundreds of characters but also you won’t be able to remember as many. Hacking Chinese has a very apt metaphor for this:

There are an untold number of combinations of character components, and studying only the multitude of end-results is horrendously inefficient. This would be a little bit like learning maths by studying thousands of examples, but never actually looking at the underlying equations.

Hacking Chinese has a very good guide for getting started in learning the language in its written form. Radicals are very important, as they help you understand the components of the written language, and it helps you develop an intuition for what a new character might mean. Here’s the link to the first part of the Hacking Chinese method.

3. Get a textbook and use it.

Despite what Hacking Chinese points out about Chinese textbooks on the third tone, that is not to say that Chinese textbooks are bad at teaching the language. In fact, they provide a good source of exercises for you to work with and a place to practice your reading (this goes for most if not all languages, really). I’m currently using Modern Chinese: Learn Chinese in a Simple and Successful Way by Vivienne Zhang. My only issue with this book is that it does not actually tell you how to pronounce the tones at all. Therefore, I highly suggest going through tones somewhere before purchasing the book, as otherwise it is pretty good for supplementary exercises and some grammar reference. I prefer most online Chinese grammar sources personally, and two of the most useful ones I’ve found are Chinese Grammar Wiki and Chinese Grammar Boost.

Song Breakdown – 童話(どうわ)- Fairy Tale (Post by Ineptidude)

This is the breakdown of the Japanese reprise of “Tong Hua,” (meaning Fairy Tale) a popular Chinese song originally by Michael Wong. Click the link below to view the PDF, which has the lyrics in Kanji along with English translations and a list of all the important vocabulary. (Note: This breakdown assumes that you know how Japanese verb conjugations and particles work.)


The Conflict of Language Purity and Language Evolution

Many people across the world feel that their mother tongues or national language is threatened by the presence of English as a universal lingua franca. Over the years, the growth of the US as a superpower, and the preponderance of Great Britain in the Imperial Age as a major power has driven English into the communities of many countries. Languages import words from English to accommodate technological advances, and in a rapidly advancing age, some languages may find it difficult to keep up.

In an effort to keep languages alive and in use, communities across the world advocate a sort of linguistic purification, in which all imported words of English origin (or other ones for that matter) are not accepted as a part of the standard language. Due to the nature of language evolution, which (as I see it) is to tend toward simplicity, efficiency, and conciseness, this view of language presents a bit of a problem.

A policy to purify language is inherently difficult to legislate anything regarding language, as it is hard to change the way one communicates every day. In places like India, where there are multiple, distinct regional languages, it would be an extremely difficult task to change even the use of Hindi, as has been proven in the past. Movements to stop using words of Arabic and Persian origin held some ground for a time in India, but ultimately fell apart, due to the difficulty of using Sanskrit-ized Hindi. Sanskrit, as a classical language that fell out of use long ago, has not had any time to develop in the modern era, which accounts for a lack of technological vocabulary. Also, it hasn’t been exposed to much colloquial or public use over an extended period of time, and therefore, the structures in the language have not simplified to suit modern use. It made little sense to import a slew of difficult-to-pronounce words into the language of everyday life and thereby slow down communication. Sure, given time, it might have worked, but Sanskrit was well past its time, and it was largely reserved to the higher classes of Indian society and liturgical use, even in its heyday. Therefore, most academic discussion in STEM fields in India is often conducted in English rather than Hindi, making it more a language of the masses than one of science and technology. This has occurred in a similar manner for the regional languages.

Despite complaints that a language is no longer, “pure”, it is important to recognize that the import of words into a language does not necessarily mean the language itself will die. Borrowing words does not imply the replacement of the language, as demonstrated by languages such as Hindi and Tagalog. Hindi developed a flourishing and beautiful literary tradition under Mughal rule and borrowed many words from Arabic and Farsi, and the language is still in rather lively use today. Tagalog’s use of many Spanish words allowed it to develop a significant urban use, as these words allowed communication about modern technology and life. As a result, Tagalog is alive and well in the Philippines.

Therefore, I believe that it is counterintuitive and counterproductive to promote or impose “purity” of a language. As much as I’d hate to admit it, it cannot be helped that English is used instead of other languages in academic fields.The only reason that English has it all, is because much of modern technology was developed, documented, and researched in English-speaking, or at least Western, countries. However, I think that this allows languages to develop in other ways. The English language and the proliferation of technology across the world has brought many societies up to speed, and open up a number of opportunities for those societies to innovate themselves. When those innovations were brought to nations without those things, such as Britain brought things to India, they were a sort of anachronism, and the languages experienced a jump in time, so to speak. It is important to recognize the nature of language evolution and that it cannot be stopped or rewound.

I hope you found this piece interesting and please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

Documenting a Language

About two months ago, my grandparents arrived from India to celebrate my graduation from high school, and with them, they brought me an opportunity to practice Kannada. However, more interesting than that, was that I found that my grandparents spoke yet another language, called Sankethi. Sankethi descends from Madurai Tamil, and the migration of many Tamilians from Sengottai and Madurai facilitated the formation of this language. Sankethi is spoken by two communities in Karnataka. The two varieties are Kaushika and Bettadpura, where Kaushika Sankethi has grown away from Tamil the most.

Due to the dearth of information on Sankethi on the internet, such as the rather sparse information given in the Wikipedia article, I decided to document Sankethi for linguistic purposes. From what I’ve seen, it is merely acknowledged that Sankethi exists. As it happens, my grandparents speak Kaushika Sankethi, and I have extended family members who speak Bettadpura Sankethi. Currently, I’m getting Kaushika Sankethi done. I’ve been recording lists of nouns, verbs, and particles, as well as verb forms. Granted, it might be incomplete, as I’m assuming that grammar is almost identical to that of Kannada and Tamil. In the future, I’d like to submit the document to a linguistics professional and see if it’s a valid set of information. I’m not going to post the full document at the moment, seeing as it’s incomplete and I’d like to proofread it a few times, once it’s nearing completion.

In my search for info on Sankethi, I also discovered that there exists a Dravidian language in Pakistan, called Brahui. It borrows heavily from Arabic and Persian vocabulary, to the point that I can’t even pick out what’s supposed to be Dravidian. The Brahui language seems like it would be interesting to research, so I’d like to study it in the future, if someone doesn’t beat me to it first! If you’re interested in hearing what it sounds like, there’s a video published by the Brahui Language Board, at the University of Balochistan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_Oj1poUWXA. Oddly enough, it used to be written in the Arabic script, but now it is written in a modified Latin script, much like Vietnamese’s current form.

If you, a relative, or a friend speaks a language with little documentation, you should try to write down as much information as you can. Minority languages with little to standardization and smaller communities are much more susceptible to language death. Even if the language will die in the future, there is no wrong in trying to keep it alive. Giving up is what really kills a language. I am thankful that there is enough literature and information on Kannada that if I was so unable to teach my children, I could send them to a school where they could learn. However, some other languages, like Sankethi or Brahui, are not so fortunate.

I’ll be posting more updates on my research and I hope you found this interesting! Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The English Language Identity (ELI)

In this article, I use and define terms of my own making and will use abbreviations where I deem it appropriate. This is a purely exploratory article, and does not serve to posit any definite position on the subject of this article

Due to the preponderance of English as the de facto global lingua franca, many communities around the world have become much more in touch with their own identities as speakers of certain languages, especially those of minorities that have been driven to the brink of extinction due to sociopolitics, geopolitics, etc. There is often a great deal of individual, social, and political lore surrounding such languages, and most languages besides English, really. Or at least, so one thinks.

English’s privileged position in the world gives it an connotation of neutrality, which often leads people to devalue, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, the language’s history. In fact, this phenomenon is similar to the reason that many people in the world (including within English speaking countries such as the US and the UK) regard the US as having no unique cultural identity, as it is almost identical to England in foundational traditions, due to much of the US’ creations now being widespread in the world. Take fashion and ethnic wear. The US (as well as Europe, to a degree) doesn’t have a specific ethnic wear or article of clothing that is truly its own, because the default mode of dress in many parts of the world is American/European in style. In the same manner, English does not have a uniqueness (as perceived by much of the world) the way some other languages do.

Like any other language, English has a unique history. It stems from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought by Anglo-Saxon settlers, grouped together as Old English, and shifted into Middle English due to the Norman Conquest, bringing a great deal of Norman French influences. The Great Vowel Shift and the introduction of the printing press began to standardize spelling and pronunciation, and the beginnings of British imperial conquest and the separation of the US from Great Britain effected important changes in the English language as it transitioned into Modern English.

Now comes the real question: Do English speakers have a unique cultural and linguistic identity? Do they feel a strong attachment to the ELI, and feel that it forms a critical part of their personal and communal identity?  It is hard to say, due to the sheer number of English speakers in the world, but to narrow it down, it is important to identify the type of English speakers we’re talking about. People who grow up speaking and hearing only English, regardless of whether they learn another language along the way. Exceptions include the children of immigrants who do not grow up speaking their mother tongue, and instead speak only English, as they may only speak English out of convenience and then learn their native tongue later on, which may cultivate a separate identity. This is not to say that the existence of one identity precludes the existence of another, but it is safe to say a non-English language identity is likely to overshadow the ELI.

This brings us to what one might call the converse of the ELI: the Single or Sole Language Identity (SLI). The SLI is similar to the ELI, except that it applies to the speaker of a language who speaks only one language other than English, such as an SLI individual of French. An important assumption that must be made, or rather, a possibility to be acknowledged, is that the individual or individuals in question do not have a frame of reference to compare languages, by virtue of speaking only one language. The question here is: Do SLI individuals feel strongly about speaking their language exclusively, and object to learning or speaking another language on a regular basis, in place of their native language?

I’m thinking about conducting a survey on this topic one day, and write a proper article that has some concrete conclusions. If any of you have something to say on this or think it’s worth sharing, do so on Facebook and Tumblr! I hope you enjoyed reading this!