How to Write in Your Target Language Very Well, Even if You Are an Absolute Beginner

Like so many of my posts, this was requested by a friend.

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This is probably the closest thing that I’ve come to having a “secret method”, something I kept close to my chest and revealed only to a handful of my students.

Today I’m going to show you how to write in your target language very well, even if you think that your experience with said language is quite meager.

First off, let’s discuss what a lot of people use: Google Translate by itself.

You should be using Google Translate under one circumstance:

Simple phrases that have the check-mark, indicating that they have been verified as legitimate by a community of native speakers.

Come to think of it there isn’t a single language in Google Translate that doesn’t have at least a HANDFUL of verified phrases. These are going to be simple things, such as “how are you?” or “to you” or “for me” or “happy birthday!” Keep in mind that there may be MULTIPLE ways of expressing these concepts so…click through the possible translations by clicking on the results. Some other possibilities may ALSO be verified.

Even then, there are other issues even with verified phrases as well (e.g. formality or gender) that require SOME knowledge of the language to determine how and when you should be using these phrases.

And now we finally get to the fun stuff. Keep in mind that I have been inspired by Universe of Memory, probably one of the best language learning blogs on the web, if not THE best.

You need two things:

  • Google Search (or anything that allows you to search with “ “ -> to determine exact word choice)
  • Glosbe (Only the web version as of the time of writing allows use to use the “ “ method)

 

Steps:

  • Write the text in a language native language or a language you know well.
  • Check phrases that you may not be too sure about by looking at a combination of Glosbe’s translation memories OR Google Search Results. For Google Search Results, you want to find pages that mention a language code in the URL or otherwise look legitimate. (e.g. if you’re doing this for Bulgarian, look for “BG” somewhere in the web address. If you CANNOT find the phrase in quotes the way you have written it into the search engine, the phrase is probably flawed in some respect.)
  • Adjust the sentences to be consistent in formality (this is going to be necessary with almost any language of Europe.

You can also find complicated English idioms easily translated into your target language with the help of Glosbe. The reason for this is that it has a HUGE collection of sentences from languages from the developed world from OpenSubtitles. As a result, almost ANYTHING you’ve heard on TV will be present in this database in the form of cross-translated subtitles.

This way you can get “verifiable” sentences that Google Translate usually can’t do. (It’s a dog-eat-dog word, I hope you’re happy, no hard feelings, etc.)

If you use this method, even as an absolute beginner, you’re going to surprise EVERY native speaker present in your life. There will be some occasional mistakes (e.g. maybe a word for “friend” or “beautiful” maybe be stronger than you realize at first and a native speaker may point it out), but aside from that, this method will net you VERY good results, guaranteed.

Have fun!

 

The Mindsets of a Young Hyperpolyglot

A lot of people ask me how I managed to acquire working knowledge of 10+ languages despite my young age.

Even seasoned professors managed to wonder how I could present on many topics before college classes with such clarity…or, as I often get, “how does all of that information fit in your head?”

Well, I don’t believe in keeping secrets and so today I let forth everything that I did right and, more importantly, that I did DIFFERENTLY.

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  • I make efficient use of “dead time.”

This is probably the MOST important thing that will net you results with your time. Do this within a week, and you’ll notice significant results in any goals you have your heard on attaining.

If I’m on the subway and standing? I’m listening to audio in one of my target languages.

Am I working out? I’m doing very much the same.

Waiting for an appointment? Flashcards or books. Easy.

This is the difference between someone who struggles with their second language and someone who becomes a hyperpolyglot. This is, to some degree, the only difference. But there are other ones worth mentioning.

 

  • I focus on what I REALLY WANT.

How do I manage to learn many things succinctly? Easy. I find things that I like and I focus on them.

This results in a situation where I focus more on the languages I care about than those that most in society would deem “useful”. But so what? Better to have knowledge of something you care about DEEPLY than to have forced knowledge that someone else thinks or says is a good idea.

Obviously, if your “language love” is a global language, choose that. If it’s a small national language or minority language, choose that too. But remember this: the very thought of studying it should be like getting a treat to you. If that isn’t the language you’re learning right now (or ones you’re maintaining), pick ones that DO fit that bill.

 

  • I have an ego (and I’m not afraid to admit it. On here, at least).

 

I have a drive to be the best and be a legend. Admittedly not everyone has that drive. And that’s okay.

What really drives me to accomplish things is a sense that…I’m not ashamed to admit it, I like attention. And it’s not a bad thing, as long as you use it for HELPING others in your community and building yourself in a positive way. (Make yourself into a hero, not a villain who tramples on others for the sake of puffing themselves up.)

In line with that: while I am not a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I am a descendant of pogrom survivors and, to some degree, I see that I have to life a good life as much as I can for the sake of my distant family members (including other Ashkenazi Jews as a whole) who didn’t get that opportunity.

 

  • I’m fluid in my identity.

I post about Pacific Islands regularly, as I do with Greenland, Jewish culture, Scandinavia, video games, stupid puns and countless other topics besides. I see a gift of living in the contemporary world with infinite masks.

Making someone curious about the world is one of the SUREST ways to make the fluent in several languages. And the fact that I’ve found myself confused about who I am for most of my life (including as I write this) helped with that, even though it harmed me in many other respects.

And another important thing is…

 

  • I don’t ask myself “what do I use to learn a language?” Instead, I ask myself, “what DON’T I use to learn a language?”

 

I think of my life as in need to “mobilization strategies”, as what the United States did during the Second World War and also what I hope it (and all of human civilization) will do for the sake of saving the climate and the human future.

If I have a goal, I have to warp my life as much as possible to point towards the directed outcome. Make sacrifices. Build habits. Make the right friends. Join the right groups. Surround myself with material conducive towards fulfilling that goal.

There’s a difference between using one method to learn something (what many people do, especially with apps [and those apps are usually more invested in their profit than getting you to learn and this is no secret at all]) and those who use almost ANY method they can get their hands on to learn something.

And it doesn’t all have to be book-learning either!

If you want your life to change, you will have to change your life.

And the good news is that anyone can do that. At any time!

Onward!

How to Use Lonely Planet Phrasebooks to Learn a Language

Thanks to Jimmy Mello of “Polyglots (the Community)” for suggesting this idea. Check out his material here: http://www.mellomethod.com/

As of the time of writing you can’t enter a single bookstore in the US (and a good deal of many other places) without encountering a Lonely Planet phrasebook somewhere on the shelves. This is doubly true for their travel books as well (which we’ll also get to because they have language sections in them, including what was my first exposure to the Greenlandic language!)

But should you choose to GET one of the books, what do you do with it?

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The first thing to realize is that the Lonely Planet Phrasebooks fall into a number of categories:

  • The ones that are devoted to an individual language each. (On my left-hand side right now I have my Bulgarian and Lao Lonely Planet Phrasebooks.)
  • The ones that are devoted to a number of languages present in a specific region (so on my shelf I have “China”, “Central Asia”, “Hill Tribes”, “India”, “Middle East”, “Pidgin” “South Pacific” and “Southeast Asia”.)
  • Lastly there are the “language” sections in the core travel books (And they MAY also vary depending on what language the book is in! The Irish-language section appears in travel guides to Ireland in English, but in the German-language edition they have the English phrase section instead!). Some of these may range in degrees of depth (e.g. for the guides to Spain, you’ll find Castilian Spanish the primary focus with a number of smaller phrases devoted to Catalan, Basque and Galician. I remember one guide even said the equivalent of “getting someone to respond to you in a Spanish regional language is almost impossible.” Color me doubtful.)

 

Let’s go through the strategies you’ll need for each.

 

The books devoted to a single language apiece

 

Once you see language learning as a set of “big missions”, you can be better equipped towards using your tools to accomplishing them.

 

Two primary big missions I see when I learn (or even maintain) a language are:

 

  • To catch up on the childhood in that language I never had.
  • To train yourself to think in that language.

 

For the second point, these books are ESPECIALLY well built for that.

 

Your primary goal using the books is to train yourself how to think in the language (again, this is specific to the books that are devoted to a singular language apiece! The other ones usually aren’t well enough equipped for those ends.)

 

Usually the books have:

 

  • A grammar section (includes pronunciation). This will equip you with everything you need to make your own sentences.
  • Phrases for a number of situations
  • A dictionary at the back with a fairly thorough vocabulary mostly equipped for travel.

 

When you first get the book, you NEED to have all the aspects in (1) memorized as quickly as possible. Luckily you can do this by making sample sentences in your head or even writing them down. (“I have food”. “Do you have food?”)

Namely, you need the verbs “to be”, “to want”, “to have” (or the equivalents of any of these given as some languages literally don’t have them) AND how to form questions (any question words in addition to how to make a statement into a question. For some languages, like Finnish and Bulgarian, there are suffixes or particles [ = small words] added that turn statements into questions, as well as, in the case of most Germanic languages, word order differences).

To cement these in your memory, I would recommend saying them out loud, making funny sentences involving them or writing them (and writing them on social media is even better!)

The next step is to start “filling in” the vocabulary gaps. The way you do this is:

  • Keep in mind your thoughts in other languages you know well.
  • START to translate those thoughts into your target language. When there is a word you don’t know, look it up in the dictionary.
  • If your thoughts transfer to anything relevant in the sections of the book (e.g. hobbies or anything medical), use the sections as necessary.

Also another thing before we go on to the next section: if your language is tonal, I would HIGHLY recommend you find YouTube materials or the like to better your understanding of the tones. Also while the descriptions of the sounds are mostly good, native-speaker audio will help provide you context and emotion to everything you’re learning. So supplement it with that accordingly.

The books devoted to multiple languages in a bundle

As far as Lonely Planet is concerned, these are all over the place. Here are some things I should note about some of them (although I am glad that I purchased all of them. I don’t “regret” buying any of them).

  • The South Pacific phrasebook doesn’t really teach you how to put sentences together and the vocabulary is not thorough but the cultural information IS. This is also true with the Hill Tribes book.
  • The Southeast Asia phrasebook DOES teach you how to put sentences together (well, that could be because you could describe the basics of grammar in all of the languages in the book on two pages apiece!)
  • The India phrasebook doesn’t really provide anything in the way of grammar (and believe me, that sort of stuff is NECESSARY, especially for the Dravidian languages!) This is also true of the China phrasebook.
  • The Pidgin phrasebook is EXTREMELY good and gets you speaking very quickly with a lot of relevant vocabulary AND cultural information, but it has one glaring weakness: no dictionary section for any of the languages.

 

Maybe future editions of the books will change that.

 

For many of these I don’t blame them, given limited spaces and all of that.

 

I’m sorry to say this but depending on the phrasebook you may need to BEGIN your journey elsewhere. (Want to try to learn Kannada from scratch using the section in the India phrasebook? Good luck! No grammatical information provided, nothing really on how to form basic simple sentences, it’s primarily intended for travelers in specific situations).

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Here are some tips to keep in mind:

 

  • If there is a “how to form sentences” section, take that all in FIRST.
  • If there is NOT, then you’re better off starting with some other materials.
  • But once you can form simple sentences and pronunciation, whatever material is in the books is usually good because now you have context with which to form sentences.

The language sections at the back of the travel guides

These are usually very minimalistic but they are ESSENTIAL by design. You will need EVERY single one of the phrases in those sections, usually. Photograph them, copy them, turn them into flashcards, do what you have to. The smaller the section, the more “badly” you’ll need them.

Again, this is also best supplemented with other material on how to learn how to form sentences. And between the very basic phrases and this—well, let’s just say that they suit each other perfectly.

 

Bonus: Learning a new script

The tutorials given in the phrasebooks of all sorts are usually fantastic for learning a script. Unlike some other phrasebooks, Lonely Planet almost always includes the native script (the only one in which I remember this not being the case is an edition of the Central Asia phrasebook).

Photograph, imitate by hand. If possible, get help from friends or more detailed tutorials. But yes, the pronunciation and letter guides are thorough and, while not 100% comprehensive, they can be just what you need to make your new syllable set / alphabet / characters a LOT less scary.

Have fun learning!

vosa vakaviti

“Laddering” in a Classroom Setting (Or, Learning in a Beginner Language Class when the Language Used is One You Might Not Know Too Well)

This is a problem that many people face. It can come in many flavors:

  • The 100% use-only-the-local-language immersive courses (Israel’s Ulpanim did this, and then they were picked up by other places as well, most notably in Scotland and in Wales [and in the latter they call them “wlpanim”. No joke!)
  • Learning a language in a setting where the teacher and many of the students have a language you know but may use a lot of expressions that “go over your head”.
  • Group settings which begin OUT as using a language you know, but then transfer towards using the local language and then you get left behind somehow (this is particularly relevant in college or university settings).

 

There are a number of ways to surmount these obstacles. I’ll go through each of the three scenarios described above in more detail:

 

For the FIRST situation, in which you feel as though you are struggling in the immersion setting, the key is to be vulnerable and honest. Feel free to express to the teacher that sometimes you may have issues picking up words (use the target language, of course!) Once thing I’ve done in Ulpanim is request pictures (these really help).

 

Otherwise one thing you need to do is make learning the language a source of GOOD feelings. And you can do this outside of the classroom. Ask your teacher or other native / fluent speakers you know for jokes or memes. You’ll even come to remember entire grammatical functions in this respect! (Because sometimes a phrase will be so funny that you’ll remember the entire thing FLAWLESSLY, even if you’re just a beginner….case in point, the only thing I know how to say in Afrikaans is a long and detailed curse. I don’t even know how to say “hello” [I can say thank you and please, however]).

 

Television can also be helpful towards this end, but it has to be things you REALLY like. (The same is true with YouTube or other video streaming services).

 

Now for the SECOND situation, I’ve been here before. I’ve been in German- and Irish-Language classes in which I’ve fumbled so badly I almost got the teachers very angry (and obviously with my reputation right now I can laugh about it. Literally every single hyperpolyglot, WITHOUT EXCEPTIONS, have been in situations like these).

 

The key is to latch onto the most essential information. Keep in mind the Pareto Principle (something hugely important for language learning), the idea that out of 20% of your effort will come 80% of your results. Your goal (even if you were a native speaker of the language used) is NOT to remember everything, it is to make enough gains in the class in order to “move forward”. Any progress is good. I know it can seem sometimes (as someone who struggled with language classes myself) that “everyone seems to be doing better than you are”, but trust me, this is genuinely not the case.

 

Write things down as often as you can, even if you think you misheard things.

 

Get SOMETHING. Feel free to ask your peers or instructors if necessary. And, again, don’t forget to cement your studies of the language with fun topics (see my “recipe” above).

 

Then there is the third one—turbospeed. And this is merely a combination of the two situations I’ve just outlined.

 

And one final word: the classrooms are not a substitute for the primary goal of language learning, which is making up for the childhood you didn’t have. For that, you’d largely need to do a lot of activities on your own. But it can be done. The classroom is good for building a fantastic basis in the grammar and structures of the language as well as using opportunities to use it. But it is not equivalent to installing a language package in your brain. For that, you need active usage and entertainment.

 

And nowadays, with the internet, both are readily available at no additional costs.

 

yerushalayim

 

 

 

Learning Languages from Oceania: A Guide on How to Start

I would like to thank my friend Teddy Nee over at http://www.neeslanguageblog.com/ for having suggested this topic! Check out his webpage!

 

So maybe you saw that Fijian book at a store and you’re curious to learn more about the language. Maybe you found a guide to French Polynesia at your local library. Perhaps you ran into a Samoan at your friend’s party. Or you encountered Tongan women at the airport with unforgettable, colorful outfits.

Oceania is sadly a bit of a blind spot in terms of not only world politics but also the language-learning sphere in general. A lot of people don’t even give it a first glance. Perhaps it is because they think that native speakers will be hard to come by or that time would be better spent with other languages.

The fact is, any of these obstacles can be overcome and learning languages from the South Pacific (I’ll be focusing on Oceania and Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia in particular) is VERY rewarding indeed.

 

Why Learn Languages from Oceania?

 

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In Fiji there was a stark contrast to a lot of patterns I saw throughout Europe and Asia. Namely, the fact that my use of Fijian was HEAVILY encouraged on an hourly basis by native speakers. I even joked that “the janitors in Fiji were more useful and encouraging language tutors than academics in Iceland.”

(Maybe it isn’t the whole picture, but the fact is that given how quickly the world seems to be craving even MORE English, cultures throughout the world should be proud of their languages and cultures in a healthy way and be willing to encourage other people to study them as much as possible, rather than trying to force English on others as non-natives).

Palauans, Samoans and I-Kiribati were just as equally helpful for me. (Full disclosure: my Samoan is very, very weak).

In a sense, your ability to cast magic spells on people from these island nations will give you worlds upon worlds of bridges. And legendary hospitality and kindness is a cultural mainstay of many (if not all) of these countries.

On top of that, Oceania has a stronger influence on “mainstream pop culture” than meets the eye. The release of Moana / Vaiana and of Pokémon Sun and Moon (set in the Hawaii-inspired Alola region complete with Hawaiian place names and cultural references EVERYWHERE) further served to market cultures of the Pacific well outside their borders.

Even then, images of Kiribati, Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, the Marshall Islands and dozens of others would be recognizable to many Americans who may have not even thought too much of these places beyond “wow I’ve heard they’re beautiful islands”.

And I didn’t even touch on Maori culture still being a force of great influence well beyond Oceania.

 

Where to Start

If you want a good glimpse at a number of languages throughout Polynesia, the Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook is a good introduction. Sadly it may not help you learn how to form your own sentences in every one of the languages, but it is a nice introduction to many of the locales of the South Pacific. What’s more, the sections are interspersed with local legends and cultural tips that help bring the places to life.

The book covers Fijian, Hawaiian, Kanak Languages (of New Caledonia) with a focus on Drehu,  New Zealand Maori, Niuean, Rapa Nui (the language of Easter Island and the island’s non-colonial name), Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan), Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan and tidbits of Fiji Hindi, French, Spanish and Norfuk / Pitkern.

Books for further reading are also located at the back of the book.

Now let’s go throughout the continent and see what we can find:

Fijian: Lonely Planet and Reise Know How both have phrasebooks of good quality, uTalk also has a course as well (very good for honing pronunciation). Not only that, but Cornell University hosts a free version of Ronald Gatty’s Fijian dictionary that covers any idiom, phrase and word that he could get his hands on. There are also good Fijian Memrise courses as well. And the Live Lingua Project has PDF’s for learners. You’re in good shape with this one.

Tongan: A fantastic Anki Deck I found from 2017 was taken off the server but I still have it and I can send it to you if you’d like it. A lot of Tongan materials are geared towards missionaries (as is the case for many languages of Oceania). Check out this PDF as well. Audio is also available on YouTube (alongside many other useful learning channels for Tongan made by enthusiastic native speakers): https://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/audio/languagelessons/tonga/TN_Tonga_Language_Lessons.pdf

Samoan: Two sources I can recommend. uTalk’s course and the Live Lingua Project. Both come with native speaker audio.

Maori: Reise Know How has a German-Language phrasebook for Maori. uTalk also has Maori as well (I think we’ve gone through all the uTalk courses for Oceania that I can think of right now, they only have Fijian, Samoan and Maori as of the time of writing). Quality materials in my experience are not scarce, thankfully.

Hawaiian: Fantastic Memrise Courses as well as Mango Languages’ Course should be a good introduction.

Cook Islands Maori: This is a hard one. So far not a lot of comprehensive user-friendly books exist, but a TON of sample sentences and words can be found at: http://cookislandsdictionary.com/ And don’t forget an introductory course at: http://cookislandslanguage.com/

Tahitian: Material from French is easy to come by, for English speakers D.T. Tryon’s book on “Conversational Tahitian” is FANTASTIC.

Marquesan Languages: You can buy a very thorough phrasebook for Marquesan from http://www.emilydonaldson.org/  (Look for the contact information and e-mail her asking about the phrasebook).

Rapa Nui: Good dictionaries can be found on the web. Concerning learning materials, omniglot.com has a good lineup (as it does for almost any language).

Niuean: http://www.learnniue.co.nz/ is a good bet, once you have the basics, see if you can find Tregear and Smith’s 1907 book with a very thorough dictionary and grammar points.

Drehu: I haven’t even studied this language on a surface level, but if you have anything to say about it…

Tok Pisin, Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin: The Lonely Planet Guide for Pidgin is EXCELLENT in getting you to start. For added supplements, consider the Live Lingua Project’s PDF’s for these languages. Memrise also has good courses for Tok Pisin and Bislama in particular. Sadly concerning Torres Strait Creole and Kriol (of the Australian Aborigines), it seems as though the landscape isn’t as favorable. Right now. But maybe new materials will come up.

Hiri Motu: Try this one: https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/146613/1/PL-D24.pdf Or this one: https://exkiap.net/other/tok_pisin/Say_It_In_Motu.pdf

Palauan:  You need one website: http://tekinged.com/. This is the language website all others should aspire to be.

Marshallese: The Live Lingua Peace Corp Manual is a bit basic, but for more thorough studies look for Rudiak-Gould’s “Practical Marshallese”, which will probably make you a master when you’re done with it. Provided you use audio well (and you’ll probably have to find them independently of those materials).

Nauruan: Oh my. I’m probably going to have to write about this next week. The landscape doesn’t look too clear at this point, I’ll say that. I did find a German-Language grammar book from 1913, I have a printed copy of it right here. You can get the PDF version from some universities from this link or just look at it online if you don’t have that: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

Next week is Nauru’s Independence Day and I’ll write a whole post on this topic.

Kiribati: http://trussel.com/ This website is VERY, VERY GOOD.

Tuvaluan: Geoffrey Jackson’s books are of very good quality. Sadly they exist in Google books only in pieces due to copyright restrictions. His Tuvaluan-English / English-Tuvaluan Dictionary is FANTASTIC and can be acquired from the University of the South Pacific in Suva. (Do they do mail-order stuff? I don’t even know. I got it when I went there in person). For those who like dense grammar, there is: http://www.tuvaluislands.com/lang-tv.htm

Languages of the Federated States of Micronesia: A toughie. Basic Chuukese guides exist online, but for any of the others I’d recommend searching in https://www.twirpx.com/

Fiji Hindi: Live Lingua Project (look under “Fijian”).

Rotuman: http://www.hawaii.edu/oceanic/rotuma/os/LanguageLessons/lessons.htm And another site that seems to be dysfunctional at the moment. Also look for the “Rotuman Word List” in Google.

 

IF YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO CONTRIBUTE TO THIS LIST, write it in the comments belong.

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Other general tools to use include Glosbe (which has a HUGE translation memory in many of these languages) as well as SwiftKey Keyboard (which includes predictive text for SmartPhones in many of these languages as well).

 

Okay, Now I have the Materials, What Do I Do with Them?

I recommend a number of methods:

  • Writing sentences, then reading them out loud, and then recording them.
  • The 30-Day Speaking Challenge (see “Other Foreign Language Blogs” above and click on “Jonathan Huggins”) can be a good place to start.
  • Clozemaster Pro’s customization features. For this, pick a language that has the “Cloze-Collections” feature enabled. Then create a new collection, name it, and select the second option that indicates that, instead of using random words from the language, use random words from other answers (this will ensure that you don’t get one Yapese answer and three Hungarian words as the multiple-choice test selections). Insert the sentences from your book at your own volition. Now you have a custom course! If you use only sentences from the public domain, you can also SHARE it with others!
  • Social media posts. Need I say more?

And now what you’ve all be waiting for…

How to Find Native Speakers of Oceanic Languages

Paul Barbato of Geography Now said that the hardest nationalities for him to come into contact with were the Nauruans and the Tuvaluans. I don’t blame him.

There IS one way to do it and it surprisingly works but you’d have to get fairly … decent … at your target language first.

And that’s to make videos of yourself learning / using the language. With the name of the language and the title. And wait. (As of the time of writing, two Rotumans met each other in the comments section! Rotuma has a 2,000 inhabitants but significantly more outside of Rotuma, mostly in Fiji and Australia.).

You could also post it to various sub-reddits as well, but be careful. Don’t promote yourself too often otherwise you  may get locked out (this never happened to me). And contribute meaningfully to said sub-reddits as well.

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This is very much something like the post I wish I had read to “have all of my resources in one place” before choosing to study Oceanic Languages. Feel free to provide any variety of feedback or contribute any relevant projects you’re working on.

Onward!

When Do You Know You’re Good Enough in a Language to List in On Your (CV / Profile / Etc.?)

Perhaps one of the more straightforward ways is “testing procedures”. But what if your target language doesn’t have that? What then?

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Let’s say you’re learning a language from the developing world for which there is no test. When do you know that you can list (Fijian / Dzongkha / Tuvaluan / Tok Pisin) on the list of languages you speak?

There are a number of milestones you must pass on the way to conversational fluency (being able to have bar conversations in your target language) and then, should you so desire, to professional fluency (being able to perform your job[s] in your target language).

  • Learning the most essential verbs (to want, to have, to be)
  • Learning how verbs work (this is going to be harder to learn in some languages than others. Spanish verbs may take you a month, Lao verbs will take you five minutes at most.)
  • Learning how gender works, if any.
  • Learning how politeness tiers work, if any.
  • Learning how adjectives work (do they go before or after the noun they modify?)
  • Learning the “pronoun zoo” (This can be very straightforward in some languages. In some languages like Tok Pisin and Fijian, you’ll have to deal with ungodly large amounts of pronouns [the two of us but not you, me and you, the large group of us but not you, etc. In other languages, especially in East Asia, this is noted via pronouns you’d use with your partner but not with your boss. Sometimes as a foreigner in Asian countries you will be expected to use only a narrow set of pronouns. Still, recognizing many of them can be useful).
  • How prepositions / postpositions work.
  • The case system, if any (in Finno-Ugric languages, for example, this overlaps with the previous point).
  • Any miscellaneous grammatical features that enhance understanding significantly (such as Finnish or English having “multiple infinitives”. To give an example in English “I want to eat dinner” vs. “I don’t feel like eating dinner”.)

 

Once you pass all of these “checkpoints”, your primary goal, then, is to fill in the vocabulary that is missing. It will mostly be nouns, adjectives and verbs, but sometimes more complicated prepositions can also be involved.

 

There is no singular way to acquire vocabulary but there are some very FUN ways I can recommend:

 

  • Television and videos (subtitles can be used if you’re disciplined enough, otherwise many YouTube videos can explain words through “context”, not also to mention in the comments and description).
  • Joke pages (remember that our friends at uTalk said that the best way to learn is to make things funny!)
  • Writing exercises
  • Apps (e.g. Memrise, Clozemaster, uTalk, Mango Languages, ‘n friends.)

 

Okay, now back to the question at hand, WHEN do you know you are good enough?

The same way that I described milestones above, you’ll have to pass a number of milestones that genuinely “prove” your worth. Think of these as “boss fights”, in a sense.

Some boss fights would include things like:

 

  • Understanding a 15-minute video or audio in your target language and understanding anywhere from 90%-100%.
  • Having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker in which you get genuinely complimented or EVEN if you get mistaken for a native speaker.
  • Conducting your job entirely in your language for a substantial period of time (15+ minutes, again, is a good benchmark).

 

So when do I put a language on my list? If I can do tasks like these CONSISTENTLY. Usually if I have done any of these tasks ten or more times than I can put the language on my “fluent” list.

And the reverse is true: if I fail to accomplish doing that in a row several times, it is no longer on my fluent list.

You can also modify this list to include writing and reading as well.

 

  • Having a chat conversation for 5+ minutes in the language. (You tend to do more quickly with writing so I modified the time from 15 minutes to 5.)
  • Reading several articles in a row in which you don’t need to reference a dictionary (or barely need to).

 

A final note: there are those who will glorify testing procedures above all and say that fluency is binary (either that it exists or that it doesn’t exist). It is very possible to pass a fluency test and then forget absolutely EVERYTHING (I’ve met several people who have done so, actually). They are worth something and they are an accomplishment, but if you definitely show signs of fluency and belonging the likes of which I’ve shown above, and ESPECIALLY if you’ve been getting extremely positive signs from native speakers of your target language, don’t worry about having a test result or not having a test result.

Strictly speaking in terms of paper qualifications, I speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Danish and Swedish (to the exclusion of my other fluent languages). Sure, I know these well (although my contemporary Hebrew showed signs of decay at the tail end of 2018 but I’ll get it back in order soon), but that doesn’t show the whole picture of how I live my life. And neither should you be discouraged by narrow slips of paper. The world has been poisoned enough because of that.

Feel free to let me know what you think!

 

My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

ajunngila

Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.