How to Learn Multiple Languages At Once

I’ve written on this topic before, but I feel I need to touch on it again, especially right now. I’ve been re-organizing my language learning schedule and strategies, since my work schedule has calmed down a little bit. Currently, I’m learning Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Korean, and Kannada. To be perfectly, it’s not entirely accurate to say “learning” for Hindi and Kannada. I already know how to speak both languages, and I’m just improving my vocabulary, since I really don’t like having to throw in English loanwords.

A lot of people, even in the polyglot community, think that learning multiple languages at once is impractical, a bad idea, impossible, or all three. This depends on who you are, your learning propensities, and your schedule. If you have a lot of work all the time, it’s not a good idea to be trying this. I was working on papers, presentations, and extracurricular activities, so I concentrated on Mandarin, because I was preparing for a placement test. This is because it was difficult for me to balance four languages and all my schoolwork, and so I prioritized. This is the key to learning multiple languages. When you’re thinking about how to organize your multiple-language learning, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. How important are these languages to me (in descending order)?
  2. How much time (per week) can I commit to studying?
  3. Do I have decent access to resources for these languages?

The first two are fairly self-explanatory, but the last one may confuse some people. This question is important, because you don’t want to be spending a lot of time looking for resources. You should make sure you have organized your materials before hand. Know what you’re using to study, and you’ll streamline your learning!

For example, I use Anki and Memrise for my vocabulary learning for all my languages, since I can usually find a decent set of vocabulary cards. For grammar, I locate a reliable and accessible grammar site or book to read from. Always keep your sources consistent, because even if you might learn something wrong, you can easily find where you wrong. The thing is: you should also cross-reference! Make sure that multiple sites or books on grammar say the same thing about certain principles, especially the ones that confuse you. I have some three or four different textbooks for Mandarin, and I always cross-reference if something stumps me. For some languages, I know there aren’t that many resources. For Indian languages and many minority languages, it can somewhat to very difficult to find decent resources. For Hindi, I recommend Hindi: An Essential Grammar by Rama Kant Agnihotri, from Routledge. I’m going to be very frank, but many websites out there for lesser-known Indian languages like Kannada or Tamil are absolutely terrible. Poor romanization methods, insufficient explanations, and other problems predominate.

Wikipedia is always an OK start to reading about grammar, but I warn you that Wikipedia is not only subject to change, but also can be very academic and not suited to the purposes of the language learner. I, myself, am an aspiring academic, so it’s a little easier for me, but I highly recommend finding sites written by and for language learners, like this one! I try to write explanations in the most down-to-earth way possible, even though I still believe in using the technical grammatical terms, like “conjugation” and “case declension”, because they’re convenient and acceptable ways to describe the way a language works.

Another key part of learning more than one language at once is what I call the “degrees of separation”. What this means are the ways you separate each language. A really basic one might be already be present: the languages are different structurally and historically. Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, and Kannada are all from different language families, and have very little intersections of vocabulary. Sure, Sanskrit is a common contributor to Hindi and Kannada, but Sanskrit is simply a generator of academic and specialized vocabulary for Kannada. In contrast, Hindi derives its internal structure and much of its vocabulary from Sanskrit. Similarly, Korean has borrowed quite a few words from Classical Chinese, but shares very little in common with Mandarin otherwise. There’s also temporal separation, where you study different languages at different times or on different days. You can also use methodical separation, using different methods or programs to study (ex. using Memrise for Hindi and Kannada; Mandarin and Korean on Anki). The only other one I could think of is spatial separation, where you physically study in different places for each language.

I hope this article was helpful and informative! Don’t forget to share, like, and follow my blog on Facebook and Tumblr!

Starter Kit for Romance Languages

A lot of you may wonder about what language to learn, and while I have written in the past on the utility of languages, I’m thinking that it might be better to write a series of posts about what separates different languages, through their grammar, history, or their unique difficulties. Many languages belong to what is known as a “language family”, which is a grouping of languages that have common roots and features. This means that the languages in a particular family are usually structurally similar, and given what level they’re being examined, may even have similar vocabulary. Families themselves may be part of a larger family, where the commonalities are fewer.

The language family I’m going to be discussing in this post is the Romance language family, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. Romance languages are related by the fact they all are evolved forms of Latin in different parts of the Western Roman Empire, where Latin was the lingua franca. Some examples of Romance languages include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. There are other, smaller Romance languages spoken throughout Western Europe, as well as creoles and pidgins that developed in colonial territories of Western European countries. Nowadays, the Romance languages are spoken in many different regions of the world, including Africa, North/Central/South America, and even parts of Asia.

The value of learning a Romance language varies from language to language, since each language has its own charms. Spanish is the most widely spoken Romance language and is the language of many famous works of magical realism. Italian is the language of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, though in a medieval form, as well as of Italo Calvino, a renowned modernist writer. Many lyrics of classical opera and vocal pieces are written in Italian, as well as in French. French is often said to be the “language of love”, and some writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, and the author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, were speakers of French. Romanian and Portuguese are unfortunately the unnoticed children of the Romance family, since very few major works of literature were ever written in these languages and did not spread extensively to many territories (except perhaps Portuguese in Brazil). However, every one of these languages is worth learning in its own way!

Basic features

The basic rundown of how all Romance languages work is that they are moderately inflective, since verbs drop affixes and add others that reflect multiple meanings, such as tense, person, etc.

The general sentence order of Romance languages is SVO (Subject-Verb-Object), which is to say the default form of a sentence is to order it in that way. This is the way English orders sentences. However, it’s not as strict in Romance languages, since verbs conjugate according to person and tense. For questions, Romance languages typically flip the sentence order, but the simply making the original statement a question by inflecting has a slightly different meaning. For example, take the sentence “They eat apples” in Spanish: Ellos comen manzanas. The usual question form is ¿Comen manzanas ellos? (Do they eat apples?). However, saying ¿Ellos comen manzanas? is slightly different, as it’s asking about what they’re eating, rather than who’s doing the eating.

Verbs

Romance language verbs are fairly straightforward. There six groups of conjugations, each corresponding to person and plurality. They are: “I”, “you (non-polite)”, “he/she/it/you (polite)”, “we”, “you all (non-polite)”, and “they (male)/they (female)/you all (polite)”. The word for “it” usually doesn’t have its own word, and speakers simply use the pronoun according to the grammatical gender of the noun in question (we’ll get to this in just a bit). This varies from language to language, as some do not use certain forms anymore. Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t use the “you (non-polite)” form anymore and Latin American Spanish doesn’t use the “you all (non-polite)” form anymore, for example.

Verbs belong to one of three categories, each with their own slightly different conjugational endings. These endings reflect tense and person. While the verb “to love” in English only changes for “he/she/it”, in Romance languages, there is a unique form for each category mentioned before. So, “I love” in Italian, for example, is io amo, but “we love” is noi amiamo. Because of these distinctions, Romance languages are almost all pro-drop languages, which is to say that you can drop the pronoun subject if it is obvious from context who you’re talking about.

French might be the only exception, because even though spellings are distinct, some verb conjugations are said the same way. Even many nouns can sound identical and other contextual clues as well as a pronunciation rule known as liaison are required to understand spoken French properly. For this reason, French is not as much a pro-drop language (if at all).

Every Romance language also has unpredictably irregular verbs (which you have to commit to memory) and certain types of verbs with (sometimes) predictable irregularities.

The tenses that you absolutely need to know are present, preterite, imperfect, future, as well as conditional. You also need to know their perfect forms (“have done, had done, will have done, etc.). Most Romance languages distinguish preterite and present perfect, whereas in French and Italian, they are the same, since the actual preterite in those languages has passed out of common use.

You will also need to learn a mood known as the subjunctive, an essential part of Romance languages. The subjunctive mood is a verbal mood that indicates hypotheticals or uncertain actions, to put it very simply. There’s a little more to it than that, but you can learn more about it if you decide to learn a Romance language. That’s more or less all the basics to verbs.

Noun Properties

Nouns in Romance languages have singular and plural forms, the latter of which, depending on the language, are extremely straightforward to construct. Even the languages with different ways to pluralize different nouns have easily understood patterns (except for possibly French). All nouns have definite and indefinite articles, the words for the and a/an.

Nouns also generally do not have declensional cases, except for Romanian, which has retained many features from Latin, including the neuter gender. This brings us to grammatical gender, something that confuses many novice language learners. All Romance languages have grammatical gender for nouns, and it almost never has anything to do with biology or any kind of logic whatsoever. That is, unless the noun in question is a person, in which case, grammatical gender corresponds to biological gender.

Now, adjectives and adjectival phrases behave much like nouns, having to agree in gender and number. Take the word o urso (bear), in Portuguese. If I want to say “black bear”, the word “black” has to be of the same gender and number as “bear”. So that means, “black bear” is o urso preto, where both urso and preto are singular and masculine. If I wanted to make it plural, it would become os ursos pretos.

Nouns can also be replaced by object pronouns, so as not to be repetitive. Take the following exchange in Italian as an example:

—Where is the key that I gave you?
—I put it in the box.

—Dov’è la chiave che ti ho dato?
L‘ho posta nella scatola.

The word for “key” (la chiave) is replaced by the direct object pronoun (DOP) la (contracted to l’ due to Italian conventions), which as with adjectives, corresponds to the feminine gender of la chiave. The word for “you (non-polite” (tu) is implicitly referred to by the indirect object (IOP) ti. There are a variety of double object pronoun combinations in most Romance languages, which are all fairly easy to learn. That’s about it on nouns.

Learning strategies

You may already know this, but vocabulary in Romance languages is simply a matter of memorization when it comes to irregular forms and grammatical gender. Just use flashcards and spaced repetition programs like Quizlet, Memrise, and Anki.

For verbs and other grammatical features, all you can do is just do lots of exercises and write a lot. Also, read! Reading in the language (and this goes for any other language as well) helps immensely in gaining vocabulary as well as contact with native-level uses of the language.

If you are a reasonably well-read speaker of English, you will probably notice that many words in Romance languages sound familiar. Like la biología in Spanish, or il sistema in Italian. This is because these words are of Greek and Latin origin. A handy thing to note is that in all Romance languages, words of Greek origin are all masculine! For Latin origin words, the original gender of the word transfers to their Romance language form; feminine stays feminine, masculine stays masculine, and neuter becomes masculine (except in Romanian, where the neuter gender is still around). In the end, it’s just a lot of diligent practice and a willingness to learn.

I also recommend using the WordReference dictionary, as their Romance language dictionaries are great. For language lessons, about.com’s lessons are OK, though not to my liking. There are many language learning textbooks out there and I cross-reference materials a lot. Of course, you could just use my books on Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, if you plan to learn those languages!

For Spanish books, I don’t recommend Realidades past Realidades 2 or if you can avoid it, mostly because you’ll end up with very, very politically correct Spanish that doesn’t sound native in any particular way. Temas is a great book for advanced learners, since it’s written for the  AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam. For advanced Italian textbooks, you can definitely use Con Fantasia: Reviewing and Expanding Functional Italian Skills (also an AP textboko). Learning Portuguese with Rafa is a great start to learning Portuguese grammar. There’s always Duolingo as well, since it gives you a good start, and keeps you practicing. Fair warning, Duolingo doesn’t help advanced learners very much.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and please don’t forget to share and comment on Facebook, Tumblr, or here. I’m planning to write more of these Starter’s Kits in the future, so keep an eye out!

My Chinese Learning Progress!

So, as you may or may not know, I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for the last six months. I’m making slow but steady progress, thanks to my Mandarin-speaking friends at NYU! They all speak Taiwanese Mandarin, so I’m getting used to that more than Mainland or Standard Mandarin. I also practice traditional Chinese instead of simplified, since kanji in Japanese are largely in their traditional forms, which will make learning Japanese later on easier for me. For those who don’t know, simplified is exactly what you think it is: simpler versions of certain characters to expedite writing. Traditional is still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as in calligraphy and writing that is meant to look aesthetically more appealing.

In this post, I’m going to list the characters that I know so far, so that you can use this list if you so desire. I’ve been learning them in sets of 5-8 characters per set, which may or may not consist of related words. My general rule is that I practice a word (not just characters!) enough times to fill out three lines until I feel that I’ve memorized the word. To test myself, before I start a new set on a blank page, I write out the sets of my characters, labeling them by number. Once I finish writing them all out, I then write the pīnyīn as well as the meaning. Another thing I do is write out mini-conversations to help practice using the words in context, and I ask my friends to look over them.

So here are my first eight sets: (First is traditional and then simplified)

Set 1:

時間/时间 – shíjān – time
點(鍾)/点(钟) – … o’clock (ex. 八點(鐘)/点(钟) = 8 o’clock); you don’t have to say 鍾/钟
半 – bàn – half, partly, halfway; there is a similar character 伴 that means “to accompany”
刻 – kè – quarter
分鐘/分钟 – fēnzhōng – minute (again, you don’t have to say 鍾/钟)

Set 2:

剛才/刚才 – gāngcái – (just) now
小時/小间 – xiăoshí – hour (“little time”)
應該/应该 – yīnggāi – should/must/ought
秒 – miăo – second
現在/现在 – xiànzài – now

Set 3:

呢 – ne – additive particle (“What about you?”; That’s the kind of situation where this would be attached to the pronoun)
老師/老师 – lăoshī – teacher
謝謝/谢谢 – xièxie – thank you
沒/没 – mĕi – negative particle (for 有 and 過/过)
有 – yŏu – to have/exist
(要/想) – (yào/xiăng) – to want/intend to (direct/polite); these are different words for the same idea, but not traditional versus simplified

Set 4:

幾/几 – jĭ – how many (can be substituted with 多少 (duōshào); needs to be used with a measure word, like 個/个)
前天 – qiántiān – day before yesterday
作天 – zuótiān – yesterday
上學/上学 – to attend (a school)
走 – zŏu – to walk/general verb of motion (very easy to confuse with 去 (), which means “to go”)
再見/再见 – zàijiàn – goodbye

Set 5:

早上 – zăoshàng –  early morning
上午 – shàngwŭ – late morning
中午 – zhōngwŭ – noon
下午 – xiàwŭ – afternoon
晚上 – wănshàng – evening

Set 6:

去年 – qùnián – last year (“gone year”)
今年 – jīnniān – this year
明年 – míngnián – next year
上個/上个 – shàngge – last…
上次 – shàngcì – last time
這個/这个 – zhège – this
下個/下个 – xiàge – next…

Set 7:

喝 – hē – to drink
吃 – chī – to eat
飯/饭 – fàn – meal/food (attach at front 早, 午, or 晚 to make “breakfast”, “lunch”, or “dinner”)
咖啡 – kāfēi – coffee
茶 – chá – tea

Set 8:

(號/号)/日 – hào/rì – date
星期 – xīngqī – week (add to end number 1-6 for Monday through Saturday; add 天 for Sunday)
月 – yuè – month (add number 1-12 before for January through December)
零 – líng – zero
都 – dōu – all/even
生日 – shēngrì – birthday

I hope you find this post useful for your own Chinese studies, and please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

I Just Graduated from High School… What Do I Do Now?

Since I recently graduated high school, and a friend of mine requested that I write this, I thought I’d write about keeping up your language skills after you leave high school. I’ve heard of a lot of adults who, after high school or college just completely stopped speaking whatever language they took. “It was too hard,” or “I wasn’t that good at it, anyway”. Those are things you hear the most. But that shouldn’t be the end.

If you just look, there are places to practice your language all around you. Talk to people who you know speak Spanish in Spanish. If you can, go on vacation to Quebec to practice your French. Whatever it is, you can find a way. There are sites like italki and WeSpeke, which help people exchange languages with others, to practice or simply as a form of cultural exchange. I used italki to practice my Italian, Catalan, and Portuguese. I didn’t even take classes on these languages in high school, so I had to be vigilant about keeping my skills up.

But since not everybody is as language-inclined (read: obsessed) as I am, there are a couple of ways that I recommend to keep up your language skills:

1. Watch movies or TV shows in a language made for native speakers. Or you can watch videos from the YouTube channels of those who speak the language. Just type in “X language YouTubers”, and there’ll be some article about it. Some YouTubers are more about learning the language, but there are also some that are more about entertainment, or even a little bit of both. Example: (Quite hilarious, I think!)

(YouTube Channel: 데이브: The World of Dave)

2. Read a book in your target language! I realize this can seem kind of daunting, but if you were more grammatically inclined when you studied your target language in high school, reading a book in the language can be really entertaining. You don’t have to read Don Quijote for Spanish (from what I’ve heard it’s rather boring when you’re trying to read the whole thing), but you can read Harry Potter in Spanish, if you liked that series. Note: If you’re doing this to learn more Spanish in general or improve your understanding of the culture, refer to my post on media.

3. Talk to yourself. I’m not joking. You may think it sounds crazy, but forcing yourself to think, talk, and conduct yourself using your target language will make it much harder to forget. After having gone through an entire year of speaking only Spanish in the morning every other day, I can vouch for this. Do whatever it takes: label all the things in your house with the words in the target language. Obviously, this changes if you live with other people. But you should try anyway.

4. As I mentioned before, there are many language exchange websites out there, where you can find people to speak with at leisure, all for free! The one site I recommend is italki, which I’ll link here. The site is incredibly useful, as you can specify different parameters for what kind of people you want to meet, and if you want actual lessons, you can find teachers for relatively cheap, as there are teachers without formal education in teaching who still teach very well, and there are professionals who are dedicated to the craft. Granted, you’ll have to put in a little money, but it’s well worth it if you want to maintain your skills.

I hope this post helps a lot of people, whether they graduated recently or will do so soon. Just because you had a hard time with it in high school doesn’t mean you have to give up. Just put your mind to it, and you can find all kinds of ways to practice speaking a foreign language.

5 Activities for Foreign Language Teachers

Having been a language student for six years and a language teacher for two years, I have seen both sides of the language learning experience. Even though I haven’t been teaching that long and I don’t exactly have credentials, I think I have an idea or two of what helps language students. Sometimes it just isn’t enough to give grammar drills and give lessons on new concepts every day. You need to change it up a little and give them a way to exercise the concepts they’ve learned. So, in this post, I’m going to elaborate on five classroom activities that I’ve come across and personally created, all of which are included in my book, Scoprendo l’italiano!: An Accessible Guide to Learning Italian. Please note that these assignments can be edited as needed to suit different needs.

1. Personal Discussion Project – For Intermediate Classes and Beyond

The students will work together in groups of three or four. Every group will create their own PowerPoint or Keynote Presentation. The instructor will choose one topic, and each group will base their presentation on that topic. This project can also be made smaller and assigned to individual students.

Classes, School, and Academic Goals

Each student will discuss the reasons they take certain classes and what university they plan to go to and why. Then, they should discuss their plans for study at a university, and what job they plan to take from there.

Foods and Cooking

The students will pick a semi-difficult recipe, talk about it with the class, about its significance, what certain terms mean if new vocabulary from outside the text is learned.

Literature and Reading

Each student picks a novel, and they will discuss them with the class. Summarize the plot, and pick two symbols and explain their meanings (This topic should be expected to take some time).

Culture and Family Traditions

The students will talk about their cultural values, where they come from, and important family traditions. They should explain why those traditions are important.

Talents and Skills

Each student will pick a talent or skill they consider significant to them. They will then discuss how they came to do those things, and why they like doing it so much.

This project should be graded upon accent authenticity, focus on the given topic, how well the project is presented, and if vocabulary and grammar are used properly. For advanced classes, this should be presented in the target language. The instructor may choose to require additional criteria.

2. Novel Report – For Advanced/AP Students

Students will read novels in the target language, and must be at least two-hundred pages in length. A four paragraph essay will be submitted by each student in the target language, discussing theme, plot, and symbolism. A well-constructed thesis should be included. Grade based on use of vocabulary, understanding of grammar and syntax, and comprehension of the book. If assigned to intermediate classes, the use of a dual-language dictionary is highly suggested. If the instructor so desires, shorter books, books originally written in English, or other familiar stories can be assigned, and a shorter essay can be written instead.

3. Writing Poetry – For Upper Beginners and Beyond

Students will write poems in Italian, in order to foster an understanding of Italian poetic language. The students will turn in three one-page poems. Classes of all levels are advised to consult a dual-language dictionary and also poetry in the target language.

Students will then select one of their poems, read it aloud, and then discuss it with the class. For languages in which there are more than simply present, past, and future tenses, in which tense is distinguished differently, with forms such as the aorist, conditional, non-past, or non-future, the students should discuss the relevance and effect of using certain tenses in the poetry. The discussion should be lead by the author of the poem, who will ask questions, and other students should participate.

4. Learning History – All Levels

Consult an article about cities, monuments, traditions, or other things in the nation(s) where the language is spoken. The article should be in the target language. Discuss it with the class in English or in the target language for classes with sufficient knowledge to understand. Afterward, have the students discuss it with each other in the target language. It is recommended that instructor repeat this exercise several times, each time about different topics.

This exercise allows students to use authentic materials to exercise their knowledge and obtain new knowledge from such a source. This gives them an idea of how natives read, understand, and use the written language.

5. Timeline Project

This project will have the students present a timeline made from cardstock, or cardboard, with pictures or photos to represent events they did in the past, and/or those they will do in the future. They will present a script, which is to be followed by an instructor or listener, in order to check that the student has memorized it. Grade based on pronunciation, accent authenticity, fluency, and poise when speaking in front of a group. For advanced classes, permit the audience (including the instructor) to ask questions, which the presenter should answer in the target language.

I hope this helps some of you, and don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr! Feel free to leave comments and suggestions!

Practicing a Foreign Language By Yourself

Even if you’re enrolled in a class for a foreign language at school, chances are it’s mostly grammar drills and writing exercises, in my experience. I’ve started to read Fluent in 3 Months (the book), by Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot who runs a blog with same name as his book (here’s a link: http://www.fluentin3months.com). In his book, he describes how conventional methods that schools use to teach foreign language might work for some people, but it’s hard to practice outside the classroom. I highly recommend that language learners read his book, by the way. It’s fascinating and really helpful. Thinking about this conundrum, I’ve thought of a couple of my own methods (which may look similar to other methods you’ve seen on the Internet):

1. Talk to yourself. This may sound really strange, but trying to speak the language you’re learning to yourself lets you practice and iron out awkwardness when you talk. If you don’t know a word, say it in English (or whatever your first language may be), and write it down to get the word later from a dictionary.

2. Go electronic with your learning. Take your electronic device (a good example is a smart phone), and go to settings, and change the language of your device. Recently, I changed my phone and computer to be in Italian, to practice my ability to read it. This helps because you begin to correlate words that you’d normally see in English with words in the target language, because they physically replace those words, and your usual instinct is to go to the location, without really looking at the word. Changing Siri on iPhones also helps, because then you can practice speaking a little bit.

3. Write more in the target language. Whether it’s posting on Facebook and/or Twitter, or going old-school with a notebook, write as much as you can in the language you’re learning, because it helps you become more literate in the language, and for kinesthetic (learn by doing) learners like me, it solidifies the foundation in your brain for learning the language. Although when you post on the Internet in your language, you should probably include a translation, so that friends who are fluent speakers can correct your mistakes by seeing what you want to say, and non-learner friends can read your posts without feeling excluded. Italki is a great way to do this with its notebook feature.

4. Get books in the target language. Whether they be children’s books or full-on Michael Crichton novels, reading is a surefire way to build vocabulary, due to the variety of contexts, and the fact the good writers usually use a wide range of vocabulary, allowing for a potentially greater number of words for you to learn to appear. Highlight words or phrases you don’t understand, or write them down. For popular book series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians or the Harry Potter series, compare your native version and the target language version to see what it might be trying to say. You should also read out loud to practice your speaking.

5. Talk with other learners! You generally have more confidence when speaking with other learners of your language, because you know that you’re both still learning, and can’t be expected to be perfect right off the bat. Besides, it can be more social experience, and they’re more accessible, if you’re good friends with them (as you’ll probably become while learning together). Language is inherently social, so not talking with others is no excuse!

Anyway, thanks for reading! Please leave any thoughts you might have on this!