Venturing into Languages Highly Dissimilar to Your Own: Helpful Tips

Many of you will have the feeling of beginning to learn a new language in which you recognize almost nothing. Vocabulary you know is scant, the grammatical patterns are different and you feel that the path of least resistance is to give up.

I highly recommend you don’t give up…because learning a language highly dissimilar to your own (whether it be your own native language[s] or ones you’ve already learned as an adult) IS possible. You will need to adjust your ways of thinking ever-so-slightly.

The good news is that you can harness various skills you have used to acquire your native language (or other languages you know) to learning your new language that seems as though it belongs on another planet.

Given that my native language is English, let’s look some of my languages in terms of “how different they are” from English on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 is very similar to English, 5 is very different. Keep in mind that this is NOT the same thing as difficulty per se.


1: English Creole Languages, Languages of Mainland Scandinavia, Spanish, German, Yiddish

2: Icelandic, Fiji Hindi

3: Hungarian, Finnish, Fijian, Hebrew, Irish

4: Kiribati / Gilbertese, Palauan, Tuvaluan, Burmese

5: Greenlandic, Lao, Khmer, Guarani


The further you get away from the West, the more likely you are to encounter languages that go up the scale. The languages in (1) are very tied to the west on multiple fronts (e.g. Atlantic Creoles, German, Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish all influencing American culture to profound degrees) the languages in (3) have all been profoundly impacted by Germanic-speaking cultures but still maintain a lot of distinctness. With that said, the English influence (add German in the case of Hungarian and Swedish in the case of Finnish) is undeniable in a language like Fijian or Hebrew (given that both were under British rule).

A friend of mine was diving into Korean and he found himself struggling to remember words. And that’s NORMAL. I had that experience with all the languages 2 and higher with the higher numbers requiring more of it.

That said, there ARE ways to remember words in languages highly different from your native tongue EVEN if it seems impossible now.


  • Make Connections Between Words in the Language


Instead of looking OUTSIDE the language for connections to words you already know (as would be the standard practice in Romance or Germanic Languages if you’re a native English speaker, or even Indo-European Languages further afield), look INSIDE the language.


In Hebrew I encourage my students to look out for “shorashim” (or root words). These are sets of letters that will encapsulate similar meanings when seen in a sequence. Like in Arabic, the letters will dance around various prefixes, suffixes and vowel combinations that will change the meaning ever-so-slightly.


A more concrete example is with Fijian. The prefix “vaka-“ indicates “possessing the characteristics of, possessing …”. As such, you can collect additional words by looking at words with this prefix and then learning the form of the word without “vaka-“ in the front. Let’s have a look:



Wati – husband, wife, spouse


Vakawati – married (vaka + wati -> possessing a spouse)



To find words that are similar in this respect, one method you could use is to have an Anki Deck of an extensive vocabulary (what is “extensive” would depend on your short- and long-term goals with the language). Look up a root in the deck and you’ll see all words that have it:


palopuhuja lol


The folks at Transparent Language have said that, minus memory techniques, you would need to see a word anywhere between five to sixteen times in order to remember it permanently. A huge advantage is that you can get exposed to one root and its derivatives very quickly in this regard.


Even with a language like English, you can do the same with a verb like “to take” which is idiomatically rich when combined with prefixes (to overtake), suffixes (to take over) or direct objects (to take a break).


Out of all of the languages I have learned, the same principle holds and can be taken advantage of.


  • Do the Words and Expressions You Want to Learn Tell Any Stories?


Let’s take the Lao phrase  ຂໍ ໂທດ (khɔ̌ɔ thòot). It would mean “I’m sorry” but it literally means “request punishment”.


Various languages don’t have a very “to have”, instead they would say something like “there is upon me” (Finnish) “there is by me” (Russian), “there is to me” (Hebrew, although Hungarian also does something similar sometimes) or “there is my X” (where X is a noun – Fijian, Kiribati / Gilbertese and Hungarian do this)


Arcane sentence structure can actually be an ADVANTAGE in some respects. Greenlandic’s mega-long words can be a great conversation starter AND something for you to remember.


Words, phrases and idioms tell stories in your native language too, but chances are you probably won’t be aware of them and if you do eventually, it may be after a decade or two of speaking it, if not more.


  • Associate Various Words with Entertainment or Things that Have Happened in Your Life

Scene: a synagogue event.

I got “Colloquial Hungarian” earlier that day. I met a Hungarian girl and the only thing I know is a basic greeting. I ask how to say “pleased to meet you” and she says “örülök hogy megismertelek”. You can imagine how much I struggled with this simple sentence on day one, much to her laughter and those looking on.

The fact is, I never forgot the phrase since. Because I associated it with that incident.

You can also do the same with individual words and phrases that you may have heard through songs, song titles, particularly emphatic scenes in movies, books or anything else you consume for entertainment in your target language.

The over-dramatic style of anime actually helped me learn a significant amount of Finnish phrases as a result of “attaching” them to various mental pictures. Lao cinema also did something similar. Pay attention ever-so-slightly to the texture of the voice and any other details—these will serve as “memory anchors”. It’s a bit like saving a GIF to your brain, almost.

  • Hidden Loan Words from Colonial Languages.

The Fijian word for a sketch / painting is “droini”. Do you see the English cognate?

It’s the word “drawing” –Fijianized.

Do be aware, though: some English loan words can mutate beyond their English equivalents in terms of meaning. Japanese is probably infamous for this (in which a lot of English loan words developed lives and meanings of their own, much like Hebrew loan words in Yiddish sometimes found themselves detached from their original meanings in Hebrew).

Another example: Sanskrit and Pali words in languages of Southeast Asia in which Theravada Buddhism is practiced. Back to Lao. The word ປະເທດ (pa-thèet) may be foreign to you as the word “country”, but you’ve probably heard the word “Pradesh” before in various areas of India, even if you know nothing about India too deeply (yes, it is the same word modified for Lao pronunciation). The second syllable in particular may be familiar to you as the “-desh” from “Bangladesh”.

Which brings me into another point…

  • Do You Recognize any Words through Proper Nouns?


Tuvalu is a country in the South Pacific. It means “there are eight”. The Fijian word for to stand permanently or to be built is “tu” and the word for eight is “walu”. Fijian and Tuvaluan are not the same language but they are family members. You can recognize various other words by determining what place names mean or even names of people you know (whether well-known historical characters or your personal friends).


Another example: Vanuatu. Vanua in Fijian is a country or a place. Tu is the SAME root that we have in “Tuvalu” (yes, the “tu” in “Tuvalu” and “Vanuatu” mean THE EXACT SAME THING!) Vanuatu roughly means “here is our country” (or “country here”)


Again, this is something you can do for many languages. I remember doing in in Germany as well.




  • Embrace the Differences in the Grammar

I was amused by the fact that the Tuvaluan word for “to understand” is “malamalama”. I posted it in a small polyglot group. A friend of mine who studies mostly languages from Western Europe and the Middle East asked me to conjugate it.

Tuvaluan doesn’t have verb conjugation. It instead puts particles before a verb to indicate tense. “Au e malamalama” -> I understand -> I present-marker understand.

Surprisingly this system (not entirely foreign to me because of having studied other languages in that family) was not foreign to me. But I learned to like it. A lot.

Feel free to tell interested friends about what makes your different language very different in terms of grammar. Some may even be intrigued about the fact that many languages don’t have an equivalent of “to have”.

There are some things that are a bit difficult to embrace, such as Greenland’s verb conjugation that has transitive forms for each pair (in normal English, this would me an I X you form, an I X him / her / it form, an I X all of you form, an I X them form, a you X me form, a you X him / her / it form … FOR EVERY PAIR).

That said, your love of your new language will find a way.

I’m sure of it!


Fijian Mission After 1 Month: Progress Report

30 minutes every day devoted to Fijian every day of February (although I skipped one day due to illness). One phrasebook. One free dictionary. Many songs. Lots of struggles. How are things?

Well, for one I’ve mastered all of the basics although there are two areas that I’m still rusty on and don’t get consistently correct:

(1) Numbers.

dailyfijian blogspot snippet

If you know I know Finnish, you can probably guess which one I had the easiest time remembering. (For those unaware: one of them dangerously resembles a well-known profanity in Finnish)

(2) Plural pronouns (note: in Fijian all personal pronouns serve as relative pronouns as well. Instead of saying “The person who came here” you would literally say “the person he came here”)

But plural pronouns get mighty interesting in Fijian because they work like this. Prepare yourself:

wiktionary fijian personal pronouns

Singular – one thing
dual – two of something
paucal – a group of something
plural – a big group of, all of the, speaking about a group in general (e.g. in the phrase “woodchucks would really like the food you give them” = this phrase applies to all woodchucks in the species, hence the plural is used).

Aside from these, which need some brushing up on, I have succesfully assembled the puzzle frame of the Fijian language!

I want, I have (oh yeah, another confusing thing involving different types posession! Things to be eaten or things to be drunk, dranken, drunken, whatever or things you have in a more permanent capacity — well, they have their own posession categories in Fijian) I must, negation (like French or Breton, you use two words to indicate negation), the Omniglot phrase list (although there may be some things I’m missing on that) and tenses. And many more! I’ve done a lot in this month and I think I should be proud of myself.

Obviously concerning the issues of pronouns and numbers I’m going to need to harden my memory of them. I have some plans involving memory devices and the nuclear option: an abandonware edutainment game called “Super Solvers Spellbound!” that you can also use as a language learning tool with devestating efficiency.

To conclude, three good things about how my Fijian has gone so far and three bad things.

Bad first:

(1) I feel for some odd reason that my accent doesn’t sound as good. I’ve listened to various radio broadcasts to imitate the accent (a lot of Fijian singers tend to rely on autotune so music doesn’t always help then. Also listening to Fijians speaking English doesn’t really help in part because of the deep Australian English influence not also to mention that many may speak Fiji Hindi as a first language instead. With many European languages I perfected the accent by listening to native speakers speaking English [e.g. with Polish, Swedish, German, etc.]. In places that are language salad bowls and / or have English as an official language, that can’t always be relied upon.). One thing I’ve tried to do is pronounce Fijian closer to the back of my throat and intone it similar to the way I do Tok Pisin (a language that gave me HUGE advantages in studying Fijian, given the grammatical similarities and yes, cognates between the two languages.)

(2) I haven’t had as much speaking practice as I would like. This will change because I’m doing the Huggins International 30-Day Speaking Challenge with Fijian next month (March 2018). I barely feel motivated to complete the February Greenlandic one for some odd reason, and this is coming from someone who deeply loves the Greenlandic language. Can’t say why. Maybe I need a break from active study.

(3) In listening to radio broadcasts I can almost always pick out the general meaning but sometimes I’m reduced to “word hunting” (e.g. listening to it and see how many words I can understand). With songs I’m even more out of luck. But again, autotune. But Fijian Lyrics are readily available online (the only smaller languages with lyrics equally as available were Icelandic and Faroese, unsurprisingly.)



(1) I’m really picking up what variety of words in Fijian are English loan words AND also how to English code-switch (which is something Fijian speakers do readily).

(2) The morphology is a puzzle that I’m getting better at by the day. Suffixes are becoming more intuitive. I keep in mind a piece of advice (I think from a guest post on Fluent in 3 Months) that with languages that are not closely related to English you have to draw connections INTERNALLY between the vocabulary. moce -> sleep. imocemoce -> bed. katakata -> warm. vakakatakatataka -> to make something warm (because of climate change this is a word commonly heard. If you’re having trouble pronouncing it, pronounce it as “vakakatkatataka”. Fijian has been the easiest language for me that is very dissimilar to English (yeah yeah, I know that there’s a mountain of English loan words in Fijian, but still). Back when I started it my first impression was that it was moderate difficulty among the languages that I’ve learned but now it seems that it is on the easier end.

(3) I met someone who lived in Fiji at one point and she was extremely impressed. (Her Fijian was limited to a few words but she said I sounded great!) 🙂


Now for March, my focus will be

Fijian (Month 2) and a return to Lao!

For April, it seems likely although not certain that I will begin Fiji Hindi in earnest!

Have YOU ever learned Fijian or any language from Oceania? Let me know about your experiences with it in the comments!

vosa vakaviti