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Learning Languages

"In no other endeavor is there as much difference between knowing nothing and knowing a little as there is in learning foreign languages. Brain surgery: I promise you that there's very little difference between knowing nothing and knowing a little. [...] In foreign languages: one word! one sentence!" --Barry Farber

This page is about what I've learned since early 2004 about the process of language learning. I'm a native English speaker with no notable ability for languages. When I finished school, English was the only language I could have a detailed conversation in. I now live in Brussels, which is mostly a French-speaking city and most of my friends are Filipino, so the main languages I've learned are French and Tagalog (aka Filipino). I've taken an interest in about 15 languages, but since mid-2009, my priorities are French and Dutch.

Minor thought: Speaking two languages is unnatural. All evolution that gave us language ability was for the purpose of speaking a language, never multiple languages.

Sections on this page:

  1. Top tips: Summary
  2. My experience
  3. Online reading material in other languages
  4. Online audio material in other languages
  5. Choosing a language to learn
  6. Learning more than one language
  7. The difficulty of learning a language
  8. Learning obscure languages
  9. Specific tips about languages I'm learning

Top tips: Summary

The first big thing I learned is that learning a language takes years. Here are some more specific tips:

Take classes

The main thing I've learned is that you have to take classes. I spent three years trying to learn French with various self-study methods, but when I started taking classes, my learning accelerated massively. I thought that self-teaching and learning-by-doing would be good approaches because that is how I learned computer programming and political lobbying, but it hasn't worked for language learning. Classes for widely spoken languages can usually be found quite cheaply.

Learn the pronunciation early

The first step in learning a language is to learn how to pronounce it. Reading a language before you know the sounds will teach you incorrect pronunciation which will be hard to fix later. The best way to start is by listening to something like the CDs that come with phrase books. These usually say each thing in English (or whatever the primary language is) and then in the other language. This way, you can learn some basics, and you will learn correct pronunciation. After you have learned some of the language, watching videos, and try to copy the noises.

Audio only doesn't work

Do not think you will not learn a language with an audio only course. When I started learning French, I thought "Oh great, I just buy this Linguaphone thing and listen". No. Learning a language is much harder than that. (And the Linguaphone course was terrible, despite being expensive.)

Expect some difficulty

Language is a tool for expressing your thoughts. Learning a new language means learning the mechanics of that language, the grammar. Know that you'll have to learn about subject pronouns, antecedents, objects of prepostitions, demonstative adjectives, verb moods, and a load of tenses, some of which don't exist in English. Anyone that tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.

Read Amazon, but carefully

When choosing what books to buy, there is a lot of very good information in the comments on the Amazon book-selling website. There is also the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" section which is useful for discovering books that you haven't seen in the shops. BUT, the book publishers have posted a lot of dud information on Amazon's sites. I've seen this myself, such as user HmJ who gives a 5-star rating to almost all of the 160 products she's reviewed. This includes books for learning Japanese, Indonesian, Spanish, and Russian - all from the same publisher. And I know that that publisher's books aren't that good.

For more information on fake reviews on Amazon.com's websites, I've collected articles here:

Read, even if you don't understand

When you can read basic things in the language you are learning, try reading a newspaper article or book and mark the words you don't understand with a marker. Reading texts helps teach you the flow and normal usage of the language, and checking all the new words together at the end of the page/chapter/article is faster and less disruptive than doing it during your reading.

User search engines as checkers

When writing in another language, if you think your sentence looks unnatural, try copy and pasting it into a search engine. If you're writing "I wanted to go to the shop but it was raining", you could put that sentence into a search engine (with the quotation marks). I tried this a few times and got either none, one, or two hits. That isn't enough to confirm that you've written that sentence correctly, so break up the sentence and put in:

That would make me fairly confident that the sentence is correct. Keep language popularity in mind when evaluating the numbers. When doing the same test for fragments of a French sentence, expect fewer hits. For a Dutch sentence, expect even fewer hits. And for a Tagalog sentence, the parts of your sentence could be perfect and you might still get no hits.

A note about obscure languages

When learning a slightly obscure language, you may find it hard to find a decent dictionary. If possible, find a person who's visiting a home country of that language and ask them to buy you the biggest dictionary possible.

Learning more than one language

It's not as tricky as it sounds. In fact, I recommend it. It can be confusing at first, but you get used to it, and then you get some efficiency bonuses. For example, I'm learning French, Dutch, and Japanese. My French is quite good now, so I bought French books for learning Dutch and Japanese. This way I don't have to give as many hours to my French studies since I'm practicing my French whenever I'm learning Dutch or Japanese. Win.

Another example is that when I'm writing French I often have to check if a word is male or female. Instead of using a pure French dictionary for this, I use a French-Dutch dictionary so that when I'm checking the gender of a word I also see the Dutch translation.

To use a bilingual dictionary, you need to have a very good knowledge of one of the languages, so you'll have to get one of your other languages up to a high standard before you can rely on bilingual dictionaries that don't include your native language.

Also, the more languages you speak, the more books are available to you for learning other languages. For example, there's no good English<->Dutch dictionary for English speakers, but there is a good French<->Dutch dictionary for French speakers. French and Dutch are the two main languages of Belgium, so there's a large market for that language combination. Also, the best book I've found for learning Japanese is a French book. Knowing French is probably also useful for learning some African languages such as Lingála.

Trust me, just because

Oh, and never trust a monolingual webpage that gives language learning advice. (Update October 2008: I'm finally starting to translate my homepage)


My experience

I took an interest in languages because I wanted to live in Brussels. This mainly meant learning French, so in March 2004, while living in Ireland, I started buying French newspapers and reading them with the help of a dictionary. Big mistake. In mid-2007, my pronunciation still hadn't recovered. French words are pronounced very differently to how an English speaker would read them.

So now I'm living in Brussels, but for a long time I put my French learning on hold because until I learned to pronounce French correctly, I didn't want to learn more of the language because I'd be reinforcing my pronunciation mistakes.

I figured that by living in Brussels, I would pick up French by necessity and by being immersed in it, but no. Most people in Brussels speak good English, and they are happy to speak in English. For years, when I spoke in French, people replied in English.

French is probably worse than most languages for needing correct pronunciation since learners cannot get by by speaking slowly and clearly - if you do that, you're not speaking French. Words have to be slurred together and you have to not pronounce a lot of letters.

I never planned to learn Tagalog (also called Filipino), but since I've made many Filipino friends here in Brussels, I decided to grab the opportunity. The pronunciation is very simple, and I hear it spoken almost daily, so that's not a problem. What is a problem is the low quality and quantity of the books and dictionaries available in The West.

English is the second national language of the Philippines (or the third, depending on the area), so there's not much necessity for tourists, businesses, or migrants going to the Philippines to learn Tagalog. Further, the few books that do exist are hard to get in The West because bookshops in The West (including online bookshops) don't stock books from Asia. The only solutions are to mail order, which is expensive, or to ask a holidaying filipino to bring back a big dictionary, which is cheap but it's a lot to ask someone to carry something so large, all that distance, in their limited bag space - and when someone else is doing the purchasing, there's some luck involved in whether you get the dictionary you're looking for.

About dictionaries: it's very frustrating when a dictionary doesn't contain a translation for what you want to express, or doesn't explain how a word is actually used in sentences. The only solution is to buy the largest dictionary available. Before I managed to get truly large dictionary for Tagalog, I had to fall back on buying many small to medium sized ones. Sometimes by checking multiple dictionaries, I can take an educated guess at what the most appropriate word is, but sometimes there simply isn't enough information.

The problem with Dutch is that, although it's spoken as a first language in various developed countries and has 20 million native speakers, not many foreigners want to learn it, plus, Dutch-speakers generally speak excellent English (and often French and German too). So there's no good bilingual dictionary for English learners of Dutch. The big English<->Dutch dictionaries are aimed at Dutch learners of English.

With Dutch, the pronunciation is easier. Being a Germanic language (like English), speaking slowly and clearly is acceptable. Also, I studied the pronunciation before reading.

Learning three languages, I reckoned that learning a fourth shouldn't cause problems. So on a home trip to Ireland, I picked up Buntús Cainte 1, and later 2 and 3 to try to re-learn Irish.

My reason for starting Mandarin Chinese was that that simplicity of Tagalog made me realise how over-complicated European languages are. Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, and I reckoned it couldn't be as difficult as English or French. After I got really interested in languages, I started learning new ones whenever I had the slightest reason.


Publishers and books

You'll need a phrasebook with a CD. This is a great way to get used to the sounds of the language. These usually cost about 20 euro. Overpriced, but that's life. An alternative is to listen to audio recordings of Wikipedia articles while reading the article. Unfortunately there's no good link I can give right now with the info on how to find these recordings and articles, start here: Wikipedia:Spoken Articles.

The Oxford Verbpacks for French and German are excellent. They have all the irregular verb patterns, and the regular ones, and most importantly they have example sentences for each way the verb can be used. Cheap too. There is also one for Spanish, but it's in a different format and isn't so good - it doesn't have example sentences showing how the verbs are used with prepositions etc.

The Hugo In 3 Months series, by Dorling Kindersley (DK), are pretty good because they don't avoid grammar. (Of course, learning a language in 3 months is completely impossible.) The box set with 3 CDs is about 36 euro. There's also an follow on Advanced course, which may be good.

A small dictionary for carrying around, all brands are about equal, cost 6.50 euro. I generally avoid buying the Collins dictionaries since Collins is now owned by Rupert Murdoch - a guy with too much power already. An important quality to look for is flickability. If the spine or cover is too stiff, it'll be too annoying to look up words quickly.

A big dictionary for home use, the bigger the better. This is necessary because they give example usages of each entry, and detailed descriptions of commonly used grammar words which can have many meanings and form the base of a lot of sentences, (eg. in english: a, be, to, for, with, etc.).

English Grammar for Students of French, also available for German, Spanish, Latin, and Russian. This series explains the various parts of English grammar and show the corresponding grammar rules in the target language. Not as comprehensive as I'd hoped, but good still. 19 euro.


Online material in other languages


Internet Radio

Try here: http://www.multilingualbooks.com/online-radio.html and record these stations to your computer, using MPlayer, use a command like: mplayer -playlist http://globe-ss.dagupan.com:8080/dzbb.asx -ao pcm:file=dzbb-radio.wav — then use speexenc or oggence to convert the huge WAV files into a format 20 times smaller.

For French radio, the best site I found was: http://www.radiofrance.fr/services/aide/difflive.php (it has Ogg Vorbis audio).


Choosing a language to learn

People

Being practical, you should look at who can teach you the language. In Brussels, there are lots of classes and private tutors for French and Dutch, a few for languages like Japanese, but unfortunately zero for Irish.

Materials

If you choose a language that has 100 million speakers in wealthy countries such as French, German, or Spanish, you'll find loads of books and CDs to help you, but if you choose Tagalog, you're choices will be limited, and the quality might be poor, and if you choose Ilonggo, you may find nothing (unless you go to the Philippines).

Utility

Here's a list of languages by number of native speakers.

Here's a table of wikipedia sizes by language. That gives some indication of language popularity among the people of the world that use the Internet.


The difficulty of learning a language

Here's a quick bit of grammar, just to give an example of the problems you'll face. It's still completely worth it, but you have to expect to put effort in.

Transitive and intransitive verbs

A preposition is a short word which explains the relationship between a verb and an object. Example prepositions are: to, from, in, after. A verb is "intransitive" if it can't take an object without a preposition. The opposite, a transitive verb, is one which can take an object without needing a preposition. For example:

The verb "to sleep" is intransitive, so you can say
I sleep at night.
And: I sleep in bed.
But not: I sleep night.
As the example shows, the object of the verb must be joined by a preposition.
You can say: I sleep deeply. because "deeply" is an adverb, not an object.

The verbs "to shoot" and "to write" are transitive, so they don't require a preposition, although using prepositions is allowed:
I shoot you.
I write books.
I write in pubs.
The last one has the preposition "in".

Ok, so that's intransitive verbs. They're a pain in the arse because a verb that is transative in one language is not necessarily transitive in another. The solution is to check whether a verb is transitive or intransitive when you're learning that verb. Your bilingual dictionary will have either 'v.i.' or 'v.t.' beside each verb.

A harder problem

Now, here's a pain in the arse of my own discovery:

I feed you.
I drink you.

How is a learner to know that the second sentence doesn't mean the liquid equivalent of the first? Both verbs are transitive, so that's no help.

The answer seems to be that the learner has to learn how to use each verb, and how to express each meaning for each verb. For example, in English we use the verb "to look" + a preposition to express separate actions, eg: "to look at", "to look for", "to look into", etc. In other languages, there might be three different verbs, so you have to learn the translation for each meaning. This is where low quality dictionaries can be frustrating. For the English word "look" the dictionary might offer one translations, or it might offer ten translations, without saying which English meaning each translation corresponds to.

The equivalent in the other language may or may not need a preposition. This is why the Oxford Verbpacks are so useful, and other verb books without example sentences are so useless. There's a series of books with names like "501 verbs in Dutch" which annoy me because they give the conjugations of each verb, but they don't tell you how to use the verb. No language has 501 verb forms. French has hundreds of irregular verbs, but each can be slotted into one of ~70 categories.


Learning obscure languages

I once thought that Tagalog was an obscure language. The first time I considered learning it, I went to a book shop to look up "yes" and "no". They had one dictionary and it did not have the word "no". I realised then that I was interacting with a new world of quality. But Tagalog is not obscure. I eventually found plenty of materials of reasonable quality.

Ilonggo is an obscure language. On bad days, I have wondered if this language really exists. Those are the days when I turn to religion.

Not just one religion, I turn to them all! As someone pointed out by mail, the Mormons have translated their core book into 104 languages - including a dialect of Ilonggo, and, as I found, the best Tagalog dictionary was written by an Australian priest who went to live in the Philippines.

Advocates of various religions have translated their teachings into many many languages. There is the risk that these texts will be written in strange, archaic style, like the way religious texts in English are usually in quasi-Olde English, but that's a risk I guess you just take when learning an obscure language. (To be precise, Mormons and Catholics have translated their core books into Hiligaynon, but Ilonggo and Hiligaynon are almost the same.)

I really want to learn Ilonggo. It's the first language of my closest Filipino friends and I plan to visit their home town some day.


Specific tips about languages I'm learning


Learning Ilonggo / Hiligaynon

Ilonggo and Hiligaynon are almost the same language.

There is a great online dictionary: Kaufmann's 1934 Visayan-English Dictionary. Yes, the name is slightly misleading, but it is a dictionary of Hiligaynon (aka Ilonggo). This dictionary is online because the copyright term of an old dictionary expired and the dictionary entered the public domain. A group of nice people then collaborated to put the info online.

Finding other learning materials is nearly impossible. If you know of any, please email me.

There is a website for learning Ilonggo (Hiligaynon). It's a bit disorganised, and it's written by a German, not a Filipino, but it's better than nothing.

A Filipino friend bought me a dictionary in the Philippines which translates English into Tagalog and Ilonggo. It's thin, and each entry just contains a corresponding word (no context, no example usages), but it's better than nothing. The cover is ping with a blueish picture of a boat in water. I'll put the exact name and ISBN number here next time I remember.

There is also a big-ish dictionary. One. I think it exists, but maybe it doesn't. I found it on a few online bookstores, and there were details about it, but no photos. The name is Diksiyonaryong Hiligaynon-Filipino. I don't know if it is a one way (Ilonggo to Filipino only), or a two way dictionary. The online stores say the author is Ruby Gamboa Alcantara, it was published in 1997, it has 538 pages, the ISBN is 9718781676, and it was published by Office of Research Coordination, Unibersidad ng Pilipinas.

Another book that exists in online bookstores, but which I can't confirm really exists, is Hiligaynon Reader. The details I found online (but which I can't confirm) are that its authors are Delicia Sunio and R. David Zorc, its ISBN is 0931745705, it was published with a hard cover in July 1992, and the publisher is Dunwoody Pr.

And here a two links a friendly vistor sent me. I haven't checked them yet, but when I do I'll add a summary:

Also, see my notes above about learning obscure languages.


Learning Irish

The Buntús Cainte series is good, and books 2 and 3 are available with CDs. They give almost zero grammar, but they're good for jogging your memory if you previously learned Irish, and they're good for teaching pronunciation too if you have the CDs.

There are some mailing lists for Irish learners.

I'm not sure where I stand about the importance of Irish, and my position on the language changes from year to year, but the survival of the language is hanging on a knife's edge, and if any generation lets it die, then it's gone forever. So I support the teaching of Irish in schools in Ireland, and I hope to improve my own command of the language.

You can find some recordings of stories in Irish at http://gaeltalk.ie/scealta/


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