How To: Learn a Language

I have been thinking recently about some of you. I am fully aware that those of you who have been on my mind have indicated an interest in learning Chinese. As a lover of languages, I feel the absolute need to commend you on that. I also have this strange feeling that makes me wish I could pat you on the back. You’ve started something big, and, whether you continue on this path or not, it isn’t really ever going to end.

However, I also am of the opinion that I might be able to offer some insights. With over fifty languages on my To Learn list, and without much outside tuition, I think I am in a position in which I can offer insight. As you well know, I have not been in attendance at school. I learned a lot about learning languages when on my own.

Before we go on, however, I wish to make this statement:

A language is not just a tool to communicate. What comes first? When thinking, do you first conjure the image or the word? To think, to feel, to know, to love, to hate, when hurt or when happy, you express yourself with thoughts, and thus, through strung together words; that, in its simplest definition, is language. When learning a foreign language, you will, completely without knowing, learn the first word a baby utters and the last word that a person ever speaks. You will learn words that have killed and words of utter and complete salvation. You will do this without knowing, without even thinking about it, but no matter what, it is something that should be respected.

This article isn’t going to offer you a study guide. This article won’t promise you an easy way to learn. I can’t do that for you. You – and only you – can do that. There are tips, yes, most of which will tell you to focus on key (basic) grammar points, the present tense, verbs and vocabulary. Those points have their merits, but you’re going to have to figure out what is easiest for you on your own. No one can teach you that.

This article is focusing on some basic points that should make your experience a tad easier.

Note

One thing to remember if you’re taking a course at college or university level is that (in my opinion, for what that’s worth) the educational system isn’t particularly successful. Unless you want to have conversations surrounding sports like surfing or horse riding, your favourite classes (subjects), what you think of those subjects and whether or not you like them, it isn’t exactly… fitting.

Also, any classes that you might join might just have to pick up the slack for that. University and college courses certainly do over here.

Bonus note – I’m not isolating Scotland. It’s a United Kingdom problem. So, so long soon!

i

You need a goal.

You know, actually, I, myself, prefer to call it a premise. For the sake of helping you understand it, I am going to keep calling a goal. This is just a heads up in case I slip into my preferred title.

It won’t do you much good to hop, skip and pirouette into class only to learn about mundane furniture. Verbs such as ’embellir’ – regardless of language – is hardly going to placate the masses. Wǔxiá fans, don’t expect your Chinese classes to cover demons, spirits or even half of the creatures that are demons or spirits!

A goal can cut your leaning time in half! While, unfortunately, I’m one the few whose learning time is quadrupled by this particular stage, I think the best example I can give is to tell you about my goal.

I’m an author, certified and published. I’m also extremely paranoid and possessive over my copyright. I’m not at the stage where it’s needed (thank goodness), but I have the feeling that translating a work comes with distribution rights. If I see any of my work as digital scraps I’ll gladly rip the translator’s head off.

Thus, I need to know grammar through and through, rhyme and verse, etymology and historical, supernatural, vehicles, animals, sports, housing types, career types, a heap of mythos and just about as much of any given language that I can shove into my cranium at any time. Yes, that includes the various translations of bassoon. Don’t ask, please.

Someone in a company might have to deal with manufacturing. Someone on holiday is going to want to ask for directions, order food, ask for assistance… but not necessarily me.

This stage is kind of a big goal, but at the same time, it’s an aspiration and even a sort of bargaining with yourself. It’s prioritising, but it’s also a bit of a compromise.

You say you love wǔxiá? I say, get to your elements, your demons, your history ‘buff’ friends. You don’t want to mix up your eras, nor do you want to miss out on the customs or the fantastic names of techniques. ‘Jade Maiden Heart Sutra’, well, if that’s not telling you to get your fingers flicking (or clicking) through Buddhist related words then I don’t know what is!

ii

Lists are your ‘forever’ friends.

The first thing that I like to learn about a language is it’s vocabulary. You can do this through watching series or listening to the radio, bopping your head to music or flicking through a comic. If you start working on your vocabulary a week or two before any of the grammar or syntax related studies then you’ve got a bit of a head start. Firstly, like the above point states, it lets you hone in what you want or need and you are the most important part of you learning a language.

Secondly, having a list of words of verbs is always a handy thing to have. Why do you think Schaum’s published an entire textbook full of just vocabulary? Words alone can sometimes get you someplace even if they’re not put together quite as they should be.

What I would do is buy a big notebook for this and write a list with the title of the language that you are learning. Then I would go down, in the style of a family tree, with the headings of what you want to learn. I’ll give you an example.

French

Shopping

Money Clothes Asking for Assistance Jewellery Watches Numbers Prices

After that, I would go textbook style. The first page full of content that you will be referring to will be titled French – Shopping – Money. Write as many words as you need and take up as many pages as you need. Just remember to leave a bit of space in case you think of anything in the future that you might want to add in. Go on in this way and you’ll have a very personalised and useful dictionary.

iii

Names

People always undervalue names. You don’t believe me? Let’s have a look at some well established  names.

I mean, look at Sacré Cœur. It means sacred heart. You might not need such words in your vocabulary, but I do in mine. Also, Notre Dame de Paris means ‘our lady of Paris’.Of course, it isn’t just about places and monuments. People’s names are equally as valuable. Another example would be from my study of West Old Norse. The Sigrún is victory rune. Now, with my current knowledge of Old Norse, I wouldn’t know ‘victory’ if it slapped me in the face; rún (rune), however, is a different matter entirely.

To take this to China, I would look at Běijīng and Nánjīng. Běi means North. Nán means South. (Dōng is East). Jīng means capital. Let’s look at people’s names. What about Dài Yù? Dài means black (colours are always handy to know). Yù is, of course, Jade. That ‘precious’ green stone, I can assuredly say, is quite important in Chinese culture. People seem to like it quite a bit. Of course, another look at names will provide you with Yǔ. That means rain. It’s another handy word to know.

I have to say though, China, your way with naming things really isn’t all that impressive. A quick flick through any tourist sight-seeing book really says that your people really weren’t very good at naming things…

iv

You’re going to need syntax.

Syntax is rather important. I’m not saying that you should race to your nearest bookstore for a textbook kind of affair. That’s not it at all. Syntax is paramount in any language. It’s the order in which words are used (ex: subject – verb – object). Basic sentences don’t require much but the more you know about syntax the easier it should be to transition into the language. It took a long time for me to learn that. In fact, I didn’t even know the word syntax until about mid-February.

Aye, that’s a good academic policy for the next generations!

A notebook with a few examples scribbled down, much in the same way as I exemplified above, will suffice.

v

A) Combination

Combination learning is probably one of the things I would encourage most. The learning of both reading and speaking / listening is one of the few things that, personally, I have to say I would really push for. It’s harder, yes, but I feel that it’s more rewarding and that the results are better; especially in Chinese.

– Okay, stop a moment. For all my comments, can I ask just one thing of you? Am I using semi-colons correctly? Thank you –

Combination learning is focusing on both the written and the spoken parts. A lot of people (tourists especially) go for the spoken. That doesn’t sit well with me. Again, this goes double for Asian languages. However, for Chinese, can I ever stress enough for important it is to look at Traditional? No. No, I can’t. I cannot.

The characters are super important to learning (in my not so humble opinion). The very fact that so many people put forth radicals is proof enough of that. What are radicals? They are the ‘root’, which, again, goes back to my earlier mention of etymology. Let’s have a quick look at why I hate Simplified so much. These both are the characters for ‘love’ –

and 爱.

You probably can’t tell from here. Please open up Microsoft Word and enlarge the images. Don’t worry if you can’t. I’m going to explain the difference.

B) Verbs / Radicals should be sought | Connotations help

The biggest difference between these two written ‘love’ characters is the omission of this 心. This is xīn. It’s the word for heart. Xīn is a radical; and as such, it can be found in a vast variety of characters. It’s omission in the character for love creates some difficulty for learners of Chinese. It also creates a connotation problem (and you’ll need that to distinguish 少 and 小). Why does it create a connotation problem? That’s simple. Love without heart is, of course, a very shallow affair. Some would argue that it isn’t love at all (conspiracy theory?). This problem can also (supposedly) be found in the word progress where the character for ‘forward’ is allegedly omitted.

I find that radicals aid in learning of Chinese because if you look up all the words with the radical 心, the odds are that you’re going to come across more than a few words that you’ll want or need in your vocabulary. The radical being there also helps you in that it groups together certain words – and, if, goodness forbid, you forget the exact definition of one your words, you can always look to the radical for help.

C) Check for dialects and look up pronunciation guides.

Besides, Běijīng as an example, will see the sign SITEC and pronounce it as sigh-tur. That ending is also how they pronounce Sānlǐtún, apparently. Dialects can be tricky. A little knowledge of signs will take you a long way. Bīngjílíng (ice cream) is pronounced as Bīng-jee-líng.

Běijīng, in that sense is a bad place to go to when learning Chinese. Paris is also bad for those learning French. Both are the foreign equivalent of an English learning student going to Glasgow. Be careful. Also, Chinese people (as far as my family are aware) are notoriously bad at trying to understand you if you get something wrong.

vi

Turn your eyes to the television.

Growing up, I heard my parents talk about English being horizontal and Chinese being vertical. I can’t disagree. When learning a language it’s always best to find out about the culture of its native land and its people. Take French, for example, I watched Les Revenants (thank you so much Channel 4) and I got a pretty good idea of key things in the lives of the French. The first was pretty obvious, it’s a Catholic country and it’s quite religious. The second thing I learned… Well, the French aren’t so ‘beat around the bush’ with themes that English speakers are. I’d say that a further example of that would be the music of Cœur de Pirate, which, for the record, I do actually quite like.

Other than the obvious (and not so obvious) cultural nuances, you also get to immerse yourself in the language for a while. In particular, I would say that Chinese isn’t easy to listen to. I think people with a musical ear have better luck, but that’s only speculation. No matter what language it is, however, training your ear to the sounds of various people’s speech is always a good thing.

I was told that Chinese is a fast language. No one said the same for French. Having just scored 4 out of a twenty something listening mark after working on it for six and a bit years (mostly on my own), I can say that I think it is. Isn’t that the case though? Don’t all languages sound like a racing car passing at first? Tune your ears in.

vii

Buy comics

I spent my birthday in Paris and I bought a lot of books – a whole case full of brand new books. Some I bought for the pretty art and some I bought because they were covering things that I wanted to learn and could improve my language skills. The favourite thing that I bought was Les Contes Du Boudoir Hantés. It’s a French mànhuá by a Chinese manga-ka and published by Delcourt. I’ve got a review coming up so if you’re interested, it should be out before the end of the month. It’s tome II, but each of the three tomes take on a different story from Liáozhāi Zhìyì. I’d wanted it since the manga-ka did a portrait of me at my first convention. It hasn’t disappointed and I’d it recommend it to you – even if you’re not learning French.

There was one scene that I don’t understand. I get the gist of it, but the words are incomprehensible – and that’s why you should invest at some point in comics. In books you can read and read and read, but if you don’t understand it, then you don’t understand it. With comics, however, if you don’t understand what they’re saying, you can always look at the background. The story is there for your eyes just as much as it’s there to be read.

What about the part that I don’t understand? Oh, it was in some illusionary building with some demons; one of which was in disguise. Like I said, because of the gorgeous art, I could get the gist of it. As for the words, well, I’ll just have to hunt down my English – French dictionary and I’ll find out. What you don’t understand in a comic will probably come down to verbs. That’s why dictionaries exist.

For those languages with a character basis… Well, like I said, I support combination learning. I believe that looking at the characters will you do some good.

viii

Write, write and write some more.

Learners of character based languages, don’t even think of skipping this one. They do not work as alphabet based languages do but you are no more exempt from this suggestion than any other potential learner of languages!

Ashamedly, I admit that I have posted stories on FictionPress in bad French years ago that I have yet to edit. Admittedly, my French articles here are terrible. However, writing in your chosen language(s) is actually very beneficial. As I didn’t have any tutors then, I posted it to the internet and have since gotten feedback. I’ve yet to act on that feedback, but I will and it has helped.

Ignoring tutors and not posting it to a public place can work just as well. If you have written down some rules of syntax and you have a dictionary to hand, you can correct yourself. Correcting yourself works really well. It can stick in your mind better if you correct yourself. So, go on then, get your words going.

Now, you… Yes! Yes, you, the scholars of character based languages, perhaps thinking yourselves exempt from this, when you are in fact not. I’m not suggesting that you squint and squiggle your way through the five thousand characters. It is not within my capabilities to be cruel pertaining to languages to someone who is trying to learn a language.

This would, admittedly, work better with two people. However, don’t fret. Doing it yourself does no harm. You still benefit from it quite a bit. Now, with your attention, I have an example down below.

Zǎo ān! Nǐ hǎo ma?(good morning! how are you?)

Wǒ hěn hǎo, xiè xie nǐ. Nǐ ne? (I’m very good, thank you very much. And you?)

Wǒ bùshì hěn hǎoWǒ hěn máng. Wǒ lèile. (I’m not very good. I’m busy. I’m tired.)

That… That is about the limit of my sentence making. It’s a bit more advanced than I intended to make it. You’ll soon be beyond this, I’m sure. So, get your pencils out and your dictionaries and some basic syntax sheets. You’re ready to write!

There are lots of things below that I have included because I think that they’ll help. Unfortunately, they almost all pertain to Chinese. I’ll probably do more articles in the future full of things that I think might do you language learners some good. My list of languages to learn is doing nothing but lengthening so it’ll only be a matter of time before there’s no language left untouched.

My parents and I are going to China in about three months. We haven’t booked anything, but we’re all set, really. It’s pretty much set in stone. My mother and I are going to go ‘crash course’. It’s been eleven years since we lived there. At seventeen, I don’t have much skill at all, but she still has. In the time that we have before we leave I am hoping to deploy most of the techniques here. Thus, there will probably be periodic reports on that for those of you interested.

I hope that you have gotten some use out of this.

Bonus Aid

ix

I very much doubt that this will matter to you. However, I cannot be the only one of this mind. Thus, it is here. It shall forever be here. I have mentioned etymology as something very useful more than once in this article. I find it useful, but I am studying Chinese in a way very different to most. I am studying it alongside Classical Chinese and Archaic Chinese.

I am also studying West Old Norse and hope to one day work on Norwegian and Icelandic. I even have a French (of which I am far from fluent) textbook on Ancient Greek.

This particular point isn’t much of an aid. It’s simply an acknowledgement of one method of studying.

Miscellanea

There are notes below. I advise that you read them even if the language is not one that you intend to learn.

I have no shame in this. I am a whatever the female version of a brony is called.

I offer this video (that really isn’t mine to offer) for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s a children’s series. The language isn’t complicated, nor is there likely to be any form of slang. Secondly, there isn’t going to be too much jargon. Yes, there are unicorns, pegasus’, uni-pegs and ponies – oh(!) and dragons! You do need dragon in your vocabulary, wǔxiá fans. Other than that, it’s not too complex or far from your needs. Thirdly, it’s original language is English. Chinese dubbing of Disney songs has been known to be a little… weird (I’ll get to it). The actual script is something that I can’t account for. You can look up Ghibli movies and such, but without an accurate and wholesome understanding of the original I don’t think you should run head first into a series or movie. Watching an English series in another language is good because it’s always going to be easy to find things in English if you get really stuck on something that I) you think you should know, or II) you hear something that you’re sure you know but can’t remember what or, III) you’ve lost track of the situation.

The themes of friendship and magic are universal. They’re going to pop up in a lot of other places. You might want to try something easy like a series aimed at children to get a grasp of it first. Besides, it’s good to listen to a variety of voices.

To anyone who has seen me listening to Russian, I would just like to say that, no, I’m on on drugs. I just really love the language. Slumping in my seat, eyes going glassy with my mouth hanging open is a perfectly normal reaction!

As I said for the above video, it’s really good to watch things, and it’s especially good when you can listen to and understand the original. I chose this video and this scene in particular because almost every word has to remain as close to the same as possible. It’s one of those pivotal scenes. If you can find these pivotal scenes of a movie where the dialogue can’t really be changed, then watch them. This one is kind of iffy because it’s got singing in it. Singing, of course, differs from usual pronunciation, but it’s good because with a slight understanding of syntax and a good ear you can translate it very well.

If you’re still in the early stages of learning a language, don’t fret. You can always go over it just to listen. Later, you might recognise a word from having heard it in such a video. With the script having to stay so similar, if you’re really into languages, then look into it yourself.

I’m not entirely sure what series this trailer is for. There are four in total, as far as I’m aware.

This is a really good series to watch. It’s in present day China and it’s an everyday life kind of comedy so the language is really good to listen to. However, it is what a lot of people would expect of China – it’s a copy cat. Even the dialogue is taken from series such as Friends (on which this was created), Big Bang Theory and, I think, another two or so series.

Personally, I would have suggested How Can I Save You, My Lover?Jade Buddha and Běijīng Youth. I chose the last because it’s popular. The first series is one that I fell in love with, but with court scenes, I can guess that there are a lot of jargon words. Jade Buddha also surrounds a love triangle including police woman and her ex, who just happens to be a criminal. That would have jargon too. All I can say of these three is that, while they’re awesome, you might need some luck to find the episodes. Finding the Chinese title is really quite difficult.

http://www.jpopasia.com/celebrity/xianzi/videos/xin-li-you-shu::17420.html

I haven’t forgotten to add a caption. These two come as one.

I don’t advocate listening to music when trying to learn a language. In English music there’s an awful lot of phrases like ‘them lights’. It really makes me feel for those listening to music to try and improve their language skills! Maître Gims, too, uses language that I’d fail on my examinations with. There’s a Chinese singer too… Gah, she even admits to making up her own language when she can’t find the right words in any other! If I remember her name, I’ll add it in.

If, however, you want to listen to music I would advise choosing a slow song. In Asian languages, I like to use Google Translate to get the transliteration. I’m not entirely happy with Google Translate, but it gives me a rough idea of the intonations and that’s all it’s meant to do. Whether the language is ‘slang’ or not just is something that I’m going to have to form my opinions on.

Please be careful when choosing music.

Right, well, I think that’s me. I’m not entirely sure, but I think that is it.

I hope that this has come in handy for you. I realise that I’m on a gap year with a only three tutors and so have a lot more time than you probably do, but it’s just one of those things. I can’t keep this to myself when it could prove useful.

Thank you for reading my blog. Maybe my other blogs would interest you as well? They are ChinaSorrows and ForTheRightsoftheYoungs. Both shall be updated shortly.

Again, I thank you for reading this article.

Bonjour, bonne soir et bonne nuit!

¡buenos días! ¡buenas tardes! ¡buenas noches!

Good day, good evening and good night; whichever is applicable!

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2 thoughts on “How To: Learn a Language

  1. drunkensword says:

    What an amazing article, It has given me some new ideas to improve my learning. Thanks a lot!

  2. […] As I have said on another blog of mine, AncientSwordLegends, language is hugely important and should be respected as such. Coincidentally, I did type up an article on the learning of languages. For those who are also learning a language, it is here. […]

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