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

4 Reasons You Should Learn a Provincial Language from India

“I Speak English, Hindi and *pause* … a couple of Indian Languages”

If you have met someone from India and the topic of languages comes up, you may hear a sentence like this.

As the proud owner of an India Phrasebook, I am happy to say that I usually follow up the question with “which ones?”

So Many Languages, So Small a Book. And My Time Budget is even smaller.

And then I remember the one time I met someone from West Bengal at a video game design mixer. I asked him if Bengali was similar to Assamese (one of India’s languages that actually sounds like it is from Southeast Asia despite the fact that it is Indo-European). Stunned, he asked me three times how on earth a Jewish boy from Connecticut would have any knowledge of Indian local cultures at all

“You’re like one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!”

It is very far from the first time. And then there was the one time I correctly identified someone as a Malayalam speaker (I just guessed), and after a minute of a dropped jaw, I was told, stunned. “Oh. My. God. ARE YOU PSYCHIC?!!?”

Just knowing the names of the local Indian Languages set you apart. I’m probably the only member of my extended family that can name more than five Indian Languages.

As for Indian Languages I’ve studied…well…some Tamil…not very much at all…some Gujarati…not too much…and some Oriya…even less than both of the two of those put together.

Of the one that I am focusing my effort on (as far as Memrise.com is concerned), it is Gujarati (for the time being) still haven’t had a conversation in it (I’ve used a few sentences with native speakers!), but given as today is Gujarat Day and Maharashtra Day (which is actually the same day, when the “Bombay” state was divided into two pieces, and is celebrated in both provinces as their provincial day), I’m going to write this piece.

 

  1. India is a Fusion of Many, MANY Peoples and Recognizing that Will Earn Favor and Smiles. The Best Way to Recognize it is to Learn an Indian Regional Language.

 

Hindi and English do function as languages that tie most of the country together, but each area of India comes with a regional flavor (and many other sub-regional flavors) that many outside of that area of the world overlook.

I still remember the times when I needed someone to explain me what “Tamil” or “Marathi” was. In high school, I thought that Hindi functioned in India the way that English did in the United States. I had no clue how deeply important and used the regional languages were (and continue to be).

As of the time of writing, I don’t even list Gujarati or Tamil as languages that I know. At all. Given that my list is a bit large at the time (both in the languages learned and the languages to-be-learned department) I feel the pressure to abandon them.

Luckily I’ve stopped caring so much about pressure of any sort, although I’m not actively learning either. (I’m just picking up pieces on apps)

Anyhow, building connections with Indian Languages!

The various little things that I have said have been construed as demonstrations of the fact that I recognize that India is a collection of many, MANY cultures, and that I am very amused by some of them and I want to learn more about them!

In the case of talking to Native Speakers of these languages, it gets them to open up about what life in their province is like, what there is to see, what sort of fun words there are in the language, as well as endless praising of your skills, even if they are the most basic.

 

They tend to be used to people not even knowing that these local cultures exist! And then you come along!

I am very grateful to my Indian friends and acquaintances for their help!

 

  1. The Indo-Aryan Languages, as well as the Dravidian Languages, are similar to each other, sometimes even mutually intelligible!

 

In some areas of Europe (Scandinavia and the Balkans come to mind), languages became discrete entities based on national borders. Denmark and Sweden decided to alter their linguistic orthographies to become very much not like the other one.

 

The entire thing with the Balkan Languages is not something I feel too qualified to talk about at the moment, but feel free to treat yourself to a Google Search about Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Or Bulgarian and Macedonian.

Have Fun.

Tee Hee.

 

In India, a lot of languages, despite being discrete, actually blended with similar characteristics, as a result of Sanskrit influence. In nearly the whole North of India, similar words for “Thank You” are used, all based on the Sanskrit “Dhanyavaadaha”. Greetings are function similarly, as well as the usage of words from liturgical languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) playing their role.

Often it is common for Indians to learn another regional language when they head to another province of the country. (One person told me “I bet you could learn Kannada in a week with my help”). In the case of Kannada, its closest relatives are the other main Dravidian Languages of Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil (These four are the primary languages of the South of India, distinct from their Indo-European compatriots). Learning any one will get you very close to learning any of the other three to fluency.

The Indo-Aryan Languages in the North, some of which are very similar to each other (like Hindi and Urdu being, as one of my Pakistani students put it, like Swedish and Norwegian) and others less so (Oriya and Gujarati are from opposite ends of the country but still have some similarities) can also be “collected” with similar ease, much like the Romance Languages.

There is the writing issue, which is more of an issue with some languages than others, but interestingly some character sets are close to each other or even identical. (Kannada’s script is also used for Konkani in Goa).

No wonder there is such an internal polyglot culture in India! And it is one that you can contribute to!

 

  1. Regional Media and Culture is more Accessible than ever, and will continue to endow privileges to L2 Learners!

 

India is a tech giant. Just look for apps to learn Indian Languages on the Google Play Store (or IOS). A lot of these apps have fantastic audio, very good phrase selections, and audiences for adult learners as well as for kids!

And that’s just the beginning.

Go into ANY YouTube search or any library in a major city. Look for the film section. Look for films in Indian Languages. I often find films not only Hindi but also every single Indian language I’ve mentioned in this article (although I don’t think I’ve seen Konkani so far).

India is home to the world’s largest film industry! Yes, Hindi and English dominate a lot of it, but that’s not the whole story!

All throughout India, film culture plays an extraordinary role, and coming to know its various regional aspects and flavors will make you think about what role regionalism and regional cultures could play in our increasingly global world, if only more of us were more adventurous!

Your Indian friends will be more than happy to give you recommendations!

Speaking of which…

  1. Native Speakers will be Super Helpful!

I haven’t received a single word of discouragement the way I have with some other languages, least of all from native speakers!

Sometimes I cringe whenever I think of the time that I was in a library in Sweden and was told “why bother learning Swedish if we all speak English anyhow?” (Answers: too many to list, but at the time it was “the letters written by my deceased family members were not going to translate themselves, one, and two…I’m surrounded by books I can’t read yet!”)

India is the world’s largest English-speaking nation, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) the Indians to whom I have spoken speak fondly about their regional cultures, and actively are thrilled with the possibility of you engaging with it!

Coming from a place with many, MANY regional languages, a lot of Indians are keenly aware of the struggle of learning another language! What we need in the struggle is more encouragement! And with a choice like an Indian languages, you’ll encountered plenty of it!

Hawaii Pidgin isn’t an Indian Language. Just letting you know that.

A Happy Gujarat Day / Maharashtra Day to all! I hope that one day I will be able to write more articles on Indian Languages! But first I actually have to … ummm … learn them better!