How I Learn Languages 2 : What Languages To Study

I didn’t anticipate the interest that my first article on my language learning strategies would generate. Your comments and emails sharing your experience with studying were fascinating and full of great tips. Above all, many of you asked me questions such as the resources I use for reading, writing, and listening, how I maintain all of my languages, how many languages one could study at the same time, and so on. I’m glad to reply to them all.

I learn languages for a variety of reasons. Some I’ve learned because I moved to the countries where they were spoken. Some I’ve studied for my degree in Political Science and to facilitate research. I’ve also learned languages as I traveled or wanted to understand better the cultures that fascinated me.  In the this article on the languages topic, I’ll discuss how to decide what languages to study. It may sound like a straightforward decision, but how you take it will determine your success and your ability to persevere with studying a new language.

Do Not Study a Language Just Because It’s Popular

Let’s bracket the real issue of needing to study a language for work or to adjust to a new country. Today I want to talk about a situation where you’re simply picking a language to learn and are not sure whether you should study French or Italian.  First, think about what language you would like to speak? Hearing what language do you feel your heart skip a beat? What language do you find beautiful? What language belongs to a culture (cultures) you find fascinating?

So don’t study a language only because it’s spoken by millions of people, popular, or rated as useful. These are external reasons for learning, and they will not provide motivation long-term. Find an internal reason that will make you want to spend time studying the language.

A Case for Rare or Less Popular Languages

Here is one practical reason, if you will: learning a less popular language makes you stand out. It makes for many discoveries that you can’t even anticipate before you start learning. It also means that every speaker of that language will be the most willing teacher. If you’re uncertain whether you should study Hindi or Bengali, I say, go for Bengali. It has the most incredible literary tradition. It sounds mellifluous. And if you indeed always wanted to learn Bengali, don’t say to yourself that you’ll learn Hindi now and Bengali later. Life is too short. Spend it on doing something that will inspire you.

As for usefulness, I guarantee that you’ll find ways to use the language that you enjoy learning. You’ll seek out opportunities to speak it. You’ll make it useful for you.

One advantage of studying a widely spoken language is that you’ll have many resources at your fingertips, from ready-made flashcards to podcasts and free online lessons.  With a rare language, you’ll have to be more creative. In the end, however, as long as you want to learn the language, you’ll find a way to do it.

It bears repeating the point that I made in the first article, How I Learn Languages, whatever language you select, fall in love with it.

Easy vs Hard Languages

It’s tempting to pick a language to study just because it’s “easy.” You routinely see lists which mention Spanish, French, German as easy languages for an English speakers to learn, while Japanese and Arabic are hard. I’ve come to realize that such lists mean little. Whether the language will be hard or easy depends more on what other languages you speak, your natural proclivities and your ability to imitate sounds. Plus, with French, as an English speaker you might have an advantage of some similar vocabulary, but you’ll be received many grammar rules and other lovely peculiarities French picked up from Latin and hasn’t given up since. Indonesian, on the other hand, will require studying the vocabulary, but it’s grammar and syntax are among the easiest there are.

So, back to my first point, pick the language you want to learn, not the language that seems easy to learn.

To Improve What You Know or To Learn Something New

Should you improve the language you already speak or learn a new one? I would probably try both. Presume that I speak some Spanish and don’t speak any Italian, but really want to learn it. I would schedule one or two hours a week of Spanish conversation with a tutor or perhaps make it my habit to read in Spanish, but I would focus most of my attention on Italian.

But imagine that this approach is not possible for whatever reason. Then, go back to the start of this article–which language delights you the most? Which language do you want to speak with others?

Rekindling Interest

Let’s continue with my example from above. It may be that you know some Spanish, but you’ve lost an interest in learning because you were terrorized by the grammar exercises and tests at school. Instead of giving up on it, try to rekindle your interest.  Listen to flamenco music, read a Spanish author (in your native language), watch Like Water for Chocolate, flip through a Mexican cookbook or Ramón y Cajal’s mesmerizing drawings of the brain. On another thought, you need to be a major geek to be inspired by the structure of neural networks to want to learn the language, but I hope you get my point. Find ways to become interested in the language and the people who speak it, and it will serve as a powerful motivation.

This method is also useful when you reach a plateau in your studies and feel that you’re not progressing.

Studying Languages For Traveling

Learning a language before a trip is one of my favorite ways of starting to study. Usually, it means that I have a natural deadline and motivation. Even if you can say a few phrases, it makes a big difference in how you’ll experience the country and interact with people.

In the past, if I wanted to learn a language ahead of a trip, I bought a self-study book and worked through it. These days, I rely only on tutors. I learn a new alphabet on my own, but I still use tutors to help me practice it. I find that it’s the best way to learn the kind of expressions people use in day-to-day situations and to practice them on someone. Having a class scheduled in advance was also a big motivation to study.

I’ve used Italki to learn Urdu and Vietnamese before my trips to Pakistan and Vietnam, and I so enjoyed the time I spent chatting with my tutors that we ended up meeting in person and staying in touch as friends.  In both cases, I also wanted to study those languages seriously once I returned home, and I still continue practicing them.

What Textbook to Use

The short answer is that it doesn’t matter. If you spend money on anything in the beginning, then hire a tutor. (And even that can be done without spending money if you find a language exchange partner.) No textbook will be sufficient on its own to learn a language, and almost all books have some type of drawback. Some focus too much on grammar, others are too conversation heavy and don’t explain grammatical concepts well enough, etc.

I usually look for a basic book covering the most important grammar aspects and offering a selection of exercises. If you’re studying a language with a non-Latin alphabet, avoid textbooks that start you off with transliterations and introduce a new script later. It will significantly delay your learning. You should get into the habit of reading the new alphabet from the first day.

Finally, I’m not a big fan of various language learning programs like Rosetta Stone because they’re expensive and slow to immerse you into the language.

How Much Time to Devote At First

If you want to progress quickly, you have to devote at least 2 hours a day to a new language in the beginning. It doesn’t mean 2 solid hours of studying but also listening to the radio, podcasts, etc. The early days of studying are thrilling–everything is a discovery and the learning curve is very steep. But of course, for whatever reason, devoting so much time may not be possible, so all it means is that you have to adjust. My main recommendation is to be consistent. It’s better to devote 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week, then 2 hours once a week only. Regular repetition will ensure that you retain whatever you’ve learned.

In the beginning, try to schedule two classes a week to practice conversation and spend the time in between classes to learn new vocabulary.

While I don’t find grammar drills useful in the beginning, I recommend focusing on pronunciation exercises. The clearer you speak, the better you’ll be understood, even if you make mistakes.

It doesn’t make sense to rush learning the basics because this is your foundation. For a language with a different alphabet, spend this early time learning it. Do it on your own, so that you’ll use the time with your tutor to practice conversation. Be consistent, be patient and be curious, and you’ll learn in no time.

As always, I’m happy to hear your tips and suggestions.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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95 Comments

  • Karen A: Victoria, these two posts are invaluable! Straightforward and full of information that is usable and helpful. Thank you! February 25, 2019 at 7:34am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very happy to hear it! There is so much information online, but it can be helpful to hear about someone’s personal experience and tips that worked for them. February 25, 2019 at 11:14am Reply

  • Claudia: Thanks so much for these two articles! It’s great to read some thoughts from a fellow language nerd! Just a question: Since you study Japanese, do you have some special method for learning kanji? I’m studying Chinese, and the script is obviously one of the more difficult aspects of this language. February 25, 2019 at 10:38am Reply

    • Victoria: I very much liked the method by Heisig, which groups characters based on their radicals and forces you to create your own associations. He has a book for Chinese too. Some people don’t like his method, but to me it made a lot of sense. Also, in comparison to the traditional drills, it takes far less time. I admit that these days I don’t write by hand as much and whenever I write, I use a Japanese keyboard on my phone, and it makes it so much easier. The characters pop up and you select the right ones. But the characters I learned based on Heisig’s method, I can still write by hand. Do try it and let know what you think. He has some sample chapters on his website. February 25, 2019 at 11:19am Reply

      • Claudia: Thanks for answering! I actually also use the Heisig-Method. I find that it’s the best way to memorize all those very similar characters. Also, since you don’t learn a character tied to a specific word, but a very basic meaning, I often get the gist of something even if I don’t know the words or pronunciation. February 25, 2019 at 6:14pm Reply

        • Victoria: The main downside of his method is that you have to invest the bulk of time to learn, and you don’t learn characters based on their frequency of use. And you don’t learn the readings (in Japanese, most characters have several very different readings). But once you learn, you learn them well.

          What do you use to practice pronunciation? February 26, 2019 at 5:10am Reply

          • Claudia: I learn the writing and reading of the characters using Heisig, then when I came across the characters as parts of words in my textbook, I learn the pronunciation. I like to use flashcards for character drills, so I just add the words to the character flashcards.
            Fortunately, in Chinese only a few characters have different readings.
            Also, thanks so much for that link! It can be surprisingly difficult to distinguish the different tones. February 26, 2019 at 9:43am Reply

            • Victoria: Also, in Mandarin the tones can change, which can be tricky. Still, that exercise was very helpful. February 26, 2019 at 11:21am Reply

        • Victoria: Here is a site I found when I started learning Vietnamese. Of course, Vietnamese has 6 tones, rather than 4, and the tones are different enough, but I could find no decent resource, so I used this one for Chinese:
          http://www.archchinese.com/mandarin_chinese_tone_drill.html February 26, 2019 at 5:11am Reply

  • FearsMice: May I ask the title of the Japanese-English textbook shown in the photo? February 25, 2019 at 12:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui. Not a textbook, but rather a run down of the most important Japanese grammar concepts. There are two volumes. February 25, 2019 at 2:43pm Reply

  • Albi: These posts on learning languages are great. Please keep them coming. I finally got over my fears and signed up for a French course. 🙂 February 25, 2019 at 12:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yay! Congratulations! February 25, 2019 at 2:43pm Reply

  • Sandra: Dear Victoria-
    Many thanks for this article and the previous one. You are such an inspiration and so so disciplined in this regard..

    I learned Spanish when I was in high school but was never in love with that language and never utilized it after I left school some many many years ago. After college I learned a bit of Italian from having close friends and traveling there often. Last year I thought I would give French a go since I live near a french school and have many french neighbors. The more I learned some new french words the more I was starting to remember the Italian ones.

    Fast forward to your last language post I did two trial classes on Italki one in French and one in Italian. For me, I loved the way Italian comes out of my mouth..so musical, a bit sexy 😉 Is French really the language of love..I beg to differ

    I just though I would share my experience just in case anyone else is on the fence. I found a loving teacher on Italki, she is so young and so energetic, I just love the energy she gives off when teaching me.

    I just wanted to thank you (Grazie) for all this information and for radiating your love to learn with all of us. February 25, 2019 at 2:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: You made the right choice by focusing on the language you really want to speak, and of course, if you ever want to French later, nothing is preventing you. Italki has been a great discovery for me, and I haven’t looked back.

      Is it exciting the moment when words just start coming together? February 25, 2019 at 2:52pm Reply

      • Sandra: Yes! My current favorite phrase is “non ti preoccupare” Don’t worry.

        If you have any other suggestions on how to immerse myself in Italian ( I see you gave some great Spanish ones above) do let me know.

        Also, I just wanted to add that I have two small kids, and the flexibility with Italki is very good and works with the schedule we are all on. February 25, 2019 at 3:49pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, it’s a great and very useful expression. 🙂

          Have you seen any films by Nanni Moretti? His Caro Diario is my favorite. Italian cinema, especially classical films, is a great inspiration. February 26, 2019 at 5:02am Reply

          • Sandra: Great! I will look it up!

            Any books you recommend? February 26, 2019 at 7:51am Reply

            • Victoria: Did I already mention Dino Buzzati to you? If not, here is one of the novels I love:
              https://boisdejasmin.com/2018/01/10-favorite-novels.html February 26, 2019 at 8:27am Reply

              • Sandra: Thank you. Did you read it in English? February 26, 2019 at 10:44am Reply

                • Victoria: For the review, yes, in English, but I read his other works in Italian and I enjoyed them. Right now, I’m reading Vitaliano Brancati’s Don Giovanni in Sicilia, which is excellent like of Brancati’s novels.

                  Reading detective or mystery novels is the best start, though. I’m not sure if I know of any in Italian off the top of my head. February 26, 2019 at 11:25am Reply

                • Victoria: Oh, how about Elena Ferrante? Her books are very engaging and her style is beautiful. Also, I also love Natalia Ginzburg’s style–crisp, clean, elegant. I recommend Lessico Famigliare (Family Lexicon in English). If you haven’t read Ginzburg, it’s a perfect intro both to her work and Italy of the mid 20th century. February 26, 2019 at 11:27am Reply

                  • Sandra: Thank you! Grazie! Adding all of those to my list! February 26, 2019 at 1:09pm Reply

                    • Victoria: Prego! Hope that you like them. I like Cesare Pavese too, by the way. February 26, 2019 at 5:19pm

            • Claudia: Just read whatever you fancy! Don’t make yourself read “the classics” just because you think that’s what you should read. Feel free to read any trash you like! The more you read the more you’ll learn. I personally enjoy reading women’s magazines… Tu Style, Grazia and Donna Moderna are my favourites. If you like crime novels, the Commissario Ricciardi series. Also, I find that some of the most beautiful texts in Italian are the songs by Pippo Pollina. Good luck! February 26, 2019 at 9:53am Reply

              • Sandra: I don’t have a lot of time, so I was looking for something more specific to start with. Thank you for your magazine recommendations. February 26, 2019 at 10:42am Reply

              • Sandra: Looking up Pippa Pollino.. February 26, 2019 at 10:46am Reply

                • Brie: Would highly recommend the Inspector Salvo Montalbano series (commissario Salvo Montalbano) based on a dective series written by Andrea Camilleri. They take place in Sicily & my family loves them. I took French in school through university (with a study abroad stint in Pau, France), but have always loved Italian too as some of my mom’s family came from Italy. Picked up a few words/phrases/gestures between watching that show & putzing around on DuoLingo (just for basics). It was easy to remember some words for a trip since it’s similar to French & could read some artwork titles at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. February 27, 2019 at 10:40pm Reply

                  • Sandra: Thank you for this recommendation! February 28, 2019 at 1:13pm Reply

                    • Brie: We just started watching the Young Montalbano series. Equally good, but definitely watch the originals first. February 28, 2019 at 1:53pm

  • Tania: I also wanted to comment about Italki. I’ve been using it for about a year to learn German and I’m loving it. Many teachers there are enthusiastic and passionate about languages. It’s also easy to use. February 25, 2019 at 2:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad to hear that you also had a positive experience. I’m currently using it to study German too. February 25, 2019 at 2:53pm Reply

  • Tara C: I totally agree about picking a language you are deeply attracted to. I grew up in California where Spanish is the dominant second language. Everyone pressured me to study Spanish because « it’s easier and more useful. » I ignored them all and went with French. 40 years later I am still fluent and live in Montréal where I can enjoy speaking it every day. It has been a lifelong love affair. February 25, 2019 at 4:58pm Reply

    • Carla: I think American schools should check their rush to Spanish at the expense of French. French really is more the language of history, the arts and humanities. Spanish might be more useful but French is for those who want a well-rounded classical education. That sounds really clumsy – hard to express without offending. But I mostly am trying to argue why schools should continue teaching French, not that they shouldn’t teach Spanish, of course. February 25, 2019 at 10:58pm Reply

      • Emilia: American schools are so poor at teaching languages that it doesn’t matter what language they choose. My school years ruined Spanish for me and if it were not for marrying a Mexican gentleman, I would never learn to appreciate its beauty. February 26, 2019 at 1:19am Reply

        • Victoria: I was going to make a similar point. To be clear, though, I’ve never studied Spanish at school, but many of my classmates mentioned disliking their classes.

          Spanish, of course, has its own rich culture and history, and as you say, finding a way to appreciate them changes your perspective on the language. Someday I will definitely study it. February 26, 2019 at 5:21am Reply

      • Victoria: I think that the schools should rethink how they teach the language, but to be honest, the issue is not the choice of language, but rather the quality of language instruction. It is based on the classical method for learning dead languages like Latin, hence the endless grammar drills and tests. If someone can’t make a link between the language they’re learning and general culture, then it will remain a theoretical exercise. February 26, 2019 at 5:18am Reply

    • Victoria: I hear often an argument to learn Spanish based on its purported ease and usefulness, but that will take you only so far. You need to feel a connection with the language you’re studying, and your decision speaks for itself. As for ease, while picking it the basics may not be hard, maintaining the language is the most difficult part. If you don’t feel an affinity with the language, you won’t have any motivation to do it. February 26, 2019 at 5:08am Reply

  • Carla: Thank you for emphasizing working with a tutor. This is also a good way to reach out, connect, find community…things that fall by the wayside when we spend so much time isolated with screens or in a car. It’s money well spent. (And we are all realizing it’s better to spend money on experiences rather than on more things, right?) February 25, 2019 at 10:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: Very true! That’s the best reason to learn a less common language too, because the community tends to be smaller but more enthusiastic. I’ve enjoyed making connections with people all over the world just through finding a tutor.

      I know some people learn well on their own, but I’m too undisciplined for that. I need a bit of structure, and knowing that I have a class during which I can practice gives me plenty of motivation. February 26, 2019 at 5:14am Reply

  • Emilia: I laughed reading your comment about Casal’s drawings and rekindling your love for Spanish. Great tips! February 26, 2019 at 1:21am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. Hope that you can share yours! February 26, 2019 at 5:22am Reply

    • Emilia: I just noticed my typo. I meant to write Ramón y Cajal’s drawings. Sorry.

      Music is very important to me, so I suggest listening to songs, especially folk songs. I also love theater plays, to watch and read. February 27, 2019 at 1:00am Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you very much for your tips. February 28, 2019 at 3:27am Reply

  • Debi Sen Gupta: do you know Bengali? February 26, 2019 at 1:52am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t, apart from food words, but it’s been a language I’ve always wanted to learn. The example was inspired by a conversation I had with someone who was trying to decide whether to learn Hindi or Bengali. February 26, 2019 at 5:23am Reply

      • Debi: If you ever go for it do let me know, its my mother tongue. There is a wealth of literature in Bengali which is best appreciated in original. February 26, 2019 at 5:36am Reply

        • Victoria: I will do! Thank you very much. 🙂
          Bengali literature would be the primary reason for me to learn the language. I read Tagore, for instance, in translation, but I always wanted to experience the sound of the original. February 26, 2019 at 5:44am Reply

          • Debi Sen Gupta: Tagore, Ray – the filmmaker, the list is never ending. February 26, 2019 at 7:25am Reply

            • Victoria: If you have any other favorite authors, I’m sure many of us would love to read them. Bengali literature is beautiful even in translation. February 26, 2019 at 8:26am Reply

          • Silvermoon: Victoria, I think Bengali is a beautiful sounding language. I always think of it as the equivalent of Italian in a South Asian setting. Sweet mellifluous sounds. And as Debi mentions, it has a wonderful literature (and also film). February 27, 2019 at 11:50am Reply

            • Victoria: I love that comparison! I should have added that learning a language the sound of which you enjoy is another important criterion. 🙂 February 28, 2019 at 3:33am Reply

  • Inma: Dear Victoria,
    Thank you so much for these two articles. I feel motivated by them and returning to my love for languages, including letting me feel what moves me nowadays which is so different to some years ago. It is being very interesting to feel those changes.
    Italki is working very well for me (and AnkiApp, also).
    Here in Seville I have smelt today the first orange blossom, as it is being very warm these days. Just in case this may be inspiring for falling in love with Spanish.
    Thank you! February 26, 2019 at 5:40am Reply

    • Victoria: Just the thought of Seville is enough to inspire me to learn Spanish. 🙂

      AnkiApp is terrific and can be used for practice whenever you’re on the go. Like times you have to wait in line or to commute. Their algorithm makes maintaining what you’ve learned much easier. February 26, 2019 at 5:46am Reply

  • Debi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Those_Days_(novel)

    this is one book which I can highly recommend. Covers a lot of history and culture of Bengal February 26, 2019 at 8:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! I haven’t yet read it, so I’m going to look for a copy. February 26, 2019 at 9:22am Reply

      • Debi Sen Gupta: Do read it and let me know what you think February 26, 2019 at 9:35am Reply

  • Fazal: Initially I wanted to learn French because I find its accent quite attractive, Italian because of fascination with Italian fashion and lifestyle, and Spanish because it is widely spoken. Now Italian is out because I don’t find Italy that fascinating anymore 😀 while French and Spanish are still in.

    I used to think learning Chinese is worthwhile because of China’s economic rise over the coming decades but now, due to relatively better personal understanding of cultural, political, and social evolutions over time , I do not expect Chinese to ever become a widely spoken language outside China. So I think it is not worthwhile to invest in it since I do not find it appealing and also due to its reputation of being the most difficult language to learn out there. February 26, 2019 at 5:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Knowing Chinese definitely helps, if you live or work in China (and frankly, increasingly so in Pakistan, especially if China forges ahead with its Belts and Roads program), but the difficulty of learning it are so great that it won’t be the universal language anytime soon. Not in its current form, at least.
      And it doesn’t always follow that the great power uses its own language. The Mughals came to India speaking Chagatai Turkish and ended up adopting Persian as their court language. Chagatai mostly disappeared until the Soviet linguists for no apparent reason decided to resurrect it and rename it Old Uzbek, even though the real Old Uzbek vanished even before Chagatai.
      Anyway, if your fascination for Spanish and French remains, then why not learn one of them? 🙂 February 28, 2019 at 3:15am Reply

      • Fazal: Interesting sub-continent language history. I did not know these fine details like you do though I should have suspected it because sub-continent did give birth to lot of Persian literature (many Urdu poets created works in both Urdu and Persian). Similarly, if I am not wrong, the name ‘Urdu’ comes from Turkish language also.

        I am not sure when I will start but I am def. determined to learn both French and Spanish sooner or later, beginning with French.

        Oh BTW, I must confess to the sin of supporting Italy against Ukraine during their FIFA World Cup 2006 encounter because I was going through Italian culture phase back then. I shall not repeat that mistake in the future 😀 February 28, 2019 at 3:42am Reply

        • Victoria: Good! 🙂

          Yes, it’s a Turkic word, that same one that gave English the word “horde.” And what’s more, any Chagatai elements that exist in Urdu today came now through Chatagai, but through Persian. Babur wrote his memoirs in Chatagai, though, which modern day Uzbekistan claims as its own, along with Babur. He was born in what’s Uzbekistan today, after all. February 28, 2019 at 5:35am Reply

          • Fazal: You have a lot of job security. If everything else fails for you, you can always become a pashmina seller in Lahore or a language instructor anywhere in the world 🙂 February 28, 2019 at 5:49pm Reply

            • Victoria: Not sure how lucrative they are, but they sound like fun. 🙂 March 5, 2019 at 5:38am Reply

          • Fazal: We are not giving Babur to Uzbekistan though ;). Subcontinent is where Babur built his legacy. Its like South Africa claiming Elon Musk as their own even though US is where Musk has built his legacy. February 28, 2019 at 5:52pm Reply

            • Victoria: I imagine that Babur himself would find it surprising that the Uzbeks might want to claim him. Surprising and ironic. Considering that his dynasty, the Timurids, fought with the Uzbeks in Central Asia and was ultimately vanished by them (and the Safavids). But there is no logic in the modern nationalist stories. March 3, 2019 at 10:09am Reply

              • Fazal: True, I do not believe in nationalism either. The current Pakistan India crisis is also depressing me. Ultimately, the soldiers and the poorest citizens suffer the casualties. I wish both India and Pakistan give up their portions of Kashmir and let it become an independent state, with strict neutral foreign policy towards both countries. No land is worth more than the people.

                I do not think any politician, fundamentalist, or a military guy in either Pakistan or India loses even a second of a sleep at night when a soldier or a citizen dies in either country or in Kashmir. March 3, 2019 at 7:41pm Reply

                • Victoria: It depresses me too. The consequences of nationalism in the subcontinent are profoundly tragic, and it became even more obvious to me during my travels last year. March 5, 2019 at 5:58am Reply

                  • Fazal: It’s all about ego and fake pride that does nothing to improve the bottom line. Sometimes I feel even the poorest citizens want the conflict to remain alive because they can always hold on to that pride, even if it is delusional, when little else is going well for them in life. I am probably being too harsh and judgmental here because when life is tough, you grab on to any feeling that gives you purpose. The ultimate culprits are eventually those with power and influence that prey on the vulnerabilities of the weak and poor, basically the majority of the population in both countries. March 5, 2019 at 6:07am Reply

      • Fazal: You have a great theory as to why Chinese may not spread, given sub-continent analogy. I think that for two reasons. First, language benefits from imperialism. English, French, and Spanish spread throughout the world during the age of European Empires even though they were spread forcefully. This does not apply to China because growing economic influence is not the same as growing influence through imperialism. Second, China does not have the soft power nor do I expect it to have in the near future that would create a global fascination with Chinese language. Right now, even in China, no matter how much they want to resist western cultural influence in their country, the proportional interest in English among Chinese far outpaces the proportional interest of foreigners in Chinese, even though foreigners need Chinese lot more to survive in China than Chinese need English to survive in their country. It is almost as if Chinese themselves have implicitly acknowledged that their language does not have the traits to become one of major global languages. February 28, 2019 at 3:51am Reply

  • Pocketvenus: I completely agree, you have to genuinely desire understanding and accessing another culture to learn another language later in life.

    I think what helped me is not feeling like I have to master every part of a language. I’m still learning new things about English as a native speaker. You’re never be done learning and discovering with a language, even in your mother tongue. That’s a wonderful thing, even if sometimes it makes you want to throw up your hands in frustration.

    I also want to note here that if you are trying to learn a rarer language, particularly one that’s predominantly oral, don’t be surprized when it is much more difficult and expensive to obtain language materials. Even with the internet, it’s not nearly as easy to find materials for the largest indigenous languages in Canada for example. With smaller languages, there may not even be any grammar materials unless you have access to a university library system. Having said that, I would encourage anyone interested to not let that deter them. Even learning a little bit can open you up to new ideas. And learning the history of why some languages in our world have become so rare is very important. February 26, 2019 at 11:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: You raise a very important point. In Persian, for instance, the world for a dictionary is the same as the world for culture. One can never grasp everything about the language, especially the language of another culture or a language of a place where you don’t live. Languages evolve and change constantly. The classical language education is based so much on achieving correctness and perfection that no wonder people get discouraged. Because you can never achieve it.

      Knowing even a little is better than knowing nothing, and the beautiful thing about learning a new language is that as long as you practice it, you keep improving and improving. It never stops being exciting. February 28, 2019 at 3:20am Reply

  • Lavanya: Oh – I love the sound of Bengali – one of my favorite Indian languages to listen to (along with Malayalam which I’d also love to learn to speak properly)..Bengali and reading/writing Urdu script are on my list to learn. I’ve always wanted to learn French as well. Love these deceptively simple tips. Sometimes there are languages one feels one ought to learn but I think, like you say, the impractical choices that are spurred on by the love of that language, end up being the better choices.. February 27, 2019 at 12:41am Reply

    • Victoria: I started learning Urdu for my Pakistan trip, although practically speaking I would have been better off learning Punjabi. Yet, the experience was so exciting and I loved the language so much that it made me want to continue. Then, of course, Urdu has traces for many other languages of the subcontinent that watching Bengali cooking videos I can pretty much follow what’s going on. So, selecting what you want to learn is the key. One can’t learn anything not being curious and persistent. February 28, 2019 at 3:23am Reply

      • Lavanya: Yes- Urdu is such a beautiful language. I can more or less follow because the Hindi we speak has a lot of Urdu words (and the grammar is the same), but I would love to learn the script – what would you recommend is the best way to learn the Urdu/Arabic script?

        Also, I am thinking of using Italki (on your recommendation) to learn French – would you recommend the professional tutors or the community tutors? March 3, 2019 at 6:59pm Reply

        • Victoria: If we cast politics and borders aside, they are really one language, just two different scripts. Of course, with the separation between two languages and some artificial cleansing of the Sanskrit elements from Urdu and the Persian elements from Hindi, they vary more these days, but as you say, still intelligible. The literary or the official languages differ more than the colloquial one. Even so if you learn the Persian script (Urdu uses the Persian letters and a handful of others to cover the peculiarities of the subcontinental pronunciation), you’ll be able to read poetry and so much more.

          As for learning, I find getting a book that gives you a chance to practice is the best way. For Urdu there is a series called Let’s Study Urdu and they offer a separate brochure for the script. March 4, 2019 at 6:06am Reply

          • Lavanya: Yes- exactly! Basically with Urdu, for me – I need to expand my vocabulary…As you say, colloquial Urdu sounds almost exactly like the Hindi (what initially was ‘Hindustani’ – which included both the Sanskrit and the Persian/Arabic influence) we speak.. I used to have trouble with some words while listening to Urdu ghazals though, so googling those words was a good way to increase my Urdu vocabulary.. 🙂

            Thank you for the recommendation – I’ll check that out for the script. March 4, 2019 at 9:51am Reply

            • Victoria: You’ll pick it up quickly. Then you can start practicing reading different types of fonts to start recognizing the shapes of words. March 5, 2019 at 5:59am Reply

        • Victoria: As for Italki, I had good experiences with both professional teachers and tutors. Many tutors are just as professional as the teachers, but they may not have credentials to get a teacher’s badge. The best thing is to find out via the messenger system what they use for their course materials, how they structure their lesson, etc. Or to let them know how you would like your lesson to happen and see what they say. Oh, I look for people who are available on regular basis. If someone only teaches once or twice a week or only on the weekends or only in the evenings, I don’t bookmark them. March 4, 2019 at 6:08am Reply

  • Lavanya: Also your mention Ramon y Cajal brought back memories of the first quarter at grad school..lol Love! February 27, 2019 at 12:43am Reply

    • Victoria: I love his drawings! February 28, 2019 at 3:26am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Language teaching in U.K. schools is falling so fast. This was in the news this morning:
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-47334374

    In the U.K., students often drop language as an option because they see it as “difficult”/requiring too much effort. Probably they get no encouragement that informs them about the pleasures of learning another language. Curriculum reform and updated teaching methods would help too – along the lines of many of your suggestions, Victoria. February 27, 2019 at 5:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve seen some newer textbooks focusing more on conversation, but in general, everything is still too much based on drilling grammar and the idea of changing that is an anathema to many. Grammar is important, but it’s only the technical tool for understanding the language, and if one wants to learn a language to speak, learning grammar has to occur alongside lots of conversation practice. February 28, 2019 at 3:32am Reply

  • FearsMice: Thank you, Victoria! The format looks so familiar… I’m pretty sure I have the Basic Grammar tucked away somewhere. I understand there is now an Intermediate and an Advanced Grammar as well by these authors (at least, Amazon thinks so!). I should go back to studying Japanese… I’ve left it idle for much too long. February 27, 2019 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, yes, you’re right, there are 3 books. It’s very good as a reference.

      Go for it! Japanese is such a wonderful language and so much pleasure to speak. February 28, 2019 at 3:34am Reply

  • Mayahuel: Hello! I found your website because I was looking for perfume and scent vocabulary, actually. This probably sounds a little strange, but being a sort of hobby linguist and always having been fascinated with languages, I have wanted to learn Jahai and Kensiu for some time (both because of their unique set of words for scents – relevant to this blog :p – and because the Austroasiatic languages in general really interest me; it seems to be a really diverse language family). Well, that, and I also enjoy the idea of constructing languages (haven’t created one yet, and don’t really have the linguistic knowledge at the moment…), especially using different ideas than most (most people seem to be interested in creating human-like languages, but I have always wanted to try something different); I once read something about troglodytes from Dungeons and Dragons, that their primary language was communicated through the sense of smell (as opposed to verbally or gesturally), and thought that was really fascinating.

    Heh, sorry…I tend to ramble. On the topic of language learning, I have found comprehension-based language learning/teaching methods really helpful to me, ones such as Terrell and Krashen’s Natural Approach, Automatic Language Growth, and TPRS (Teaching Reading and Proficiency through Storytelling, originally Total Physical Response Storytelling), though for people who aren’t accustomed to it, these methods can feel really strange at first (some people don’t trust them because they feel unfamiliar, but in the end, it depends on what you’re comfortable with and how you learn best, and naturally the best results come from personalising your learning). I also found some old books from the late 1800s and early 1900s that use methods in many ways similar to the aforementioned, variously called the “direct method” or “natural method” (the meaning varies somewhat from author to author), some of which were really helpful as well.
    Just starting with simple sentences and short stories (best if accompanied with pictures and audio, though not many languages have good comprehensible input for beginners), I begin to gain an idea of the rules of the language and meanings of words implicitly, and it’s really satisfying, even if I still have much more to learn, to be able to read/hear an unfamiliar sentence or passage (anywhere, not just in course material) and understand a fair amount of it.

    Bengali sounds like a good choice, though I haven’t explored Indo-Aryan languages very much. I definitely agree that learning a language you want to learn as opposed to what others think you should learn is ultimately more worthwhile. If you aren’t enjoying what you’re learning, it will be difficult ever to stay motivated or become proficient, but if you love what you’re learning, it won’t ever feel like an effort. ^^
    (Of course, I am one of those strange people who is fascinated with nearly every language there is and wants to learn them all.)

    Some other things that help me, but probably wouldn’t be helpful to anyone else, are organising my language resources by language family and degree of relatedness (partly so I know what would be easier to learn if I already have proficiency in another), and learning etymologies and some of the general phonological patterns of the language family (or sub-family), so I can more easily recognise cognates and learn new vocabulary more readily (though taking into account that meanings can shift quite a bit even between closely related languages).

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences here, by the way! And I apologise for the big block of text. ;-; February 27, 2019 at 11:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! I enjoyed reading your comment and I kept nodding my head as I read. I happened upon a method that worked for me intuitively. Originally, I used to study languages by working my way through a grammar book or at the university and although I learned writing well, I couldn’t speak them and I gave up practicing them as soon as the finals were over. Then my work made traveling a requirement and sometimes I would travel to places where English wasn’t widely spoken. So, lacking time for the classical method, I began learning basic phrases and short stories (scripts) that I could use in basic conversations. The thrill of speaking, understanding and being understood was so great that I continued learning, studying more technical aspects and more vocabulary.

      I like your organization system and your focus on etymology to help you make sense of words. Which language are among your favorites? February 28, 2019 at 3:42am Reply

      • Mayahuel: No problem! I was a little worried that I had written too much, but I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I have heard the same before about others studying through grammar-based methods, that they rarely learn how to adequately speak the language, even if they understood the workings of it. Your experience reminds me of something I read on a little website before about conversational fluency: https://sites.google.com/site/fluentczech/whatisfluency Basically, the idea is that in knowing some basic phrases and expressions, you can more easily carry on a conversation, even with limited vocabulary. Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone to study or converse with most of the time (and in some cases it is very difficult to find conversation partners, especially if it is long-dead, rare, or a non-standard dialect of a language), though that would definitely make things much easier. I think one of my problems is that I’m afraid to reach out to others I don’t know to help me learn, and in the last few years I think pain and depression have led me to become even more isolated, as well as making it difficult to find the energy to do very much.

        I’m glad that you like my organisation system and focus on etymology; I can be a little obsessive, so I wasn’t sure if that was something that would make sense or interest you (but I just read your previous post on learning languages, which I should have done before, and I noticed that you said that you are obsessive as well). My folders can become an enormous labyrinth, but somehow I usually can recall what goes where (though in some cases, I think a non-tree structure would be better, like in the case of creoles).

        As for favourites, hm…it’s so difficult for me to choose favourites with anything, but I can try. I think Nahuatl could be counted among my favourites, as well as German, Khmer, Persian, Turkish, Sumerian, Baleybelen/Balaibalan, and Toki Pona (Yes, some of my interests are indeed a little odd). Not all of these are languages that I know well or fluently, but there’s something I enjoy and appreciate about each of them (although I feel I could say that for nearly any language). There are also some general linguistic/cultural areas that have drawn my interest – I was going to list them, but I realised there are probably too many of them, and I’ve already made another long comment.

        What about you? What are some of your favourites, and what languages are you currently studying? March 1, 2019 at 10:44pm Reply

        • Victoria: We share many favorites then. I also like Persian very much, and it’s by my favorite language to speak. My stepmother is Azeri, so I was exposed to Azeri and Turkish in my childhood, and I’ve always found them fascinating in their ability to create complex concepts with simple endings. I’m currently learning Uzbek, which is an interesting language straddling Persian and Turkish. I don’t know if its heavy borrowing from Russian has done much for it, but it makes it a fascinating learning experience for me, since I’m coming to it with my native Russian and my non-native but fluent Persian.

          My other favorite would be Japanese.

          As for the languages I’m learning, for me it’s German. I studied German at the university and used to read political philosophy and other similar subjects in German while still a student. I never spoke it, though, so I’m trying to rectify this now. March 5, 2019 at 5:54am Reply

  • OtherWise: Oh, wow. These are fabulous insights, all of them. The advice about how to choose a language to study really resonates with me. For some years, well into grad school, I studied French and liked, but didn’t love, it. Studying Spanish years later was completely different, nearly effortless, though, of course, I studied my butt off. Love and passion made all the difference… February 28, 2019 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: It definitely does, and your example is a good one. March 5, 2019 at 5:36am Reply

  • Jodee: I know I am a late in responding to this thread, but I wanted to thank you for this discussion. I was a French teacher for 8 years and found that my students indeed struggled with grammar and assimilating conversation skills when the focus was solely drills. Enthusiasm for the language was highest when I would provide music, poetry, literature, films and real life ephemera into my lessons. I particularly remember my students loving a lesson we did involving pets. I had them look at advertisements from actual dog shelters in France. I asked them to select the dog they would most like to adopt and then had them present their dog to the class (in French). So fun! To be honest, this discussion has encouraged me tremendously. I’ve always wanted to visit Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Oman. Perhaps I’ll take the leap and begin learning Arabic. Do you speak this language Victoria? March 7, 2019 at 1:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re a talented teacher and it’s clear that you love the language you’re teaching. What a fun exercise around pets! I would have loved if we did something like during my language classes when I was at school.

      I tried learning Arabic after I returned from Oman, but studying the standard Arabic which nobody actually speaks didn’t motivate me. Learning a dialect for communicating alongside the standard Arabic would have been a good idea, but back then, in the pre-Italki days, I didn’t have a chance to meet people who spoke it. I do want to study it at some point. March 8, 2019 at 5:20am Reply

  • Jodee: Yes, I was trying to determine how to approach Arabic as I remember someone advising me many years ago that Egyptian Arabic is most widely recognized/used. What I did not understand is that standard Arabic is hardly spoken! Thanks for highlighting this fact. Thank goodness for the Italki! March 9, 2019 at 11:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s somewhat complicated. MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) is used for writing, broadcasts, etc., but in their everyday life, people usually use some form of dialect. It used to be that Egyptian Arabic was the most recognized, because of Egyptian TV programs and films, but you should learn the dialect of a place where you plan to travel or the one that you like. Some people recommend to start with MSA to develop a solid foundation and then learn a dialect. Others, like this person, recommend going straight for the dialect you want to learn:
      https://www.talkinarabic.com/learn-modern-standard-arabic-or-a-dialect/
      Some may disagree with him, of course. I find, however, that there is no one right way to approach this, as everyone’s learning strategies and goals differ. From my limited experience with Arabic, however, I noticed how learning MSA gives you a key to figuring out the dialects, especially if you want to learn more than one. March 10, 2019 at 8:18am Reply

      • Jodee: Thank you for this link and the further explanation. I think I’ll spend a bit of time exploring the MSA and then once I decide on the dialect jump into Italki. 😊. Looking forward to exploring this language and tutoring company! March 13, 2019 at 12:45pm Reply

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