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