How I Learn Languages

The KGB blacklisted my stepfather, making it impossible for him to travel outside the Soviet Union. He satisfied his wanderlust by reading and learning languages. I remember our bookshelves filled with self-study books and dictionaries: English, French, Italian, German, Bulgarian, Serbian/Croatian, Czech. I opened them at random and the more unfamiliar they looked, the more I wanted to learn and enter the universe of new languages. It felt exciting and liberating.

That exhilarating feeling of discovery has remained with me, and it drives me to learn new languages. I speak, read and write 11 languages and am currently learning my 12th. Besides English, these languages include French, Italian, Persian, Indonesian, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Vietnamese, Urdu–and German. Most of these I’ve learned in the past few years when I figured out a method that worked for me. I’m often asked by many of my friends and readers to put together my strategy for studying languages, and so I’ve jotted down certain rules and important elements that make my learning efficient. Once I started writing, I realized that I could come up with a whole book on the topic, but since my goal today is to summarize my approach in an article, I’ll leave the comment field for any additional questions and clarifications. Please feel free to ask your specific recommendations and share your experience with learning languages.

Such a discussion is helpful because the conventional language instruction is designed to destroy any desire to become conversant in another tongue. The endless grammar drills in the beginner classes, the canned dialogues, the useless vocabulary. Understanding grammar is important, but in the early stages it’s as helpful as sophisticated pastry molds for someone who doesn’t know how to sift flour.

Fall in Love

I don’t mean getting married to a speaker of the language you want to learn. (I’m constantly asked if my husband is Iranian, French, Vietnamese, etc, as if women can’t learn languages for reasons other than marriage.) I mean falling in love with the language itself. Unless you feel passionate about its quirks, its sounds, its nuances and its culture, you won’t be able to immerse yourself into it enough to learn it well. Anything comes easier when one has an enthusiasm for it.

Of course, often we have to study a language not because of our fascination with it, but because it’s required for school, work or life in a new country. Nevertheless, you still have to find ways to make yourself fall in love. Read about the history of the language or the countries where this language is spoken. Ask native speakers to recommend books, music or films. Discover the culture that underpins the language and make the aspects of it that appeal to you your own.

Find a Speaking Partner

It doesn’t have to be a professional teacher, but rather someone patient enough to listen to you, correct you and to write down new words and phrases.

When I meet with my speaking partners, I ask them not to use English except for explaining the meaning of individual words as needed. In the beginning, it’s useful to start with basic phrases, asking each other’s names, where we live, what we do, etc. Be sure to use all of the words you know in that language, even if you’re not sure about the correct way of putting them together. Most reasonable people will understand what you mean when you say, “Morning I go school.”

Where do you find speaking partners, especially the ones willing to tutor you? My answer–online. I’ve used mylanguageexchange.com, which is free but requires you to pitch in and tutor someone else.

My current favorite is Italki.com. Italki offers several options for learning. It includes professional teachers with years of experience and community tutors, whose services are generally less expensive. You meet with your teacher on Skype and plan your lessons around your own goals. My experience so far has been positive, and I’ve learned Vietnamese, Indonesian and Urdu solely with the Italki resources.  I’ve also made wonderful friends.

Italki fees vary depending on the language you want to learn and the teacher, but it will invariably be less expensive than a regular language course. If you refer others, you and the person you refer will get a discount, which is quite generous. (So, if you become my friend on Italki, we will both receive a $10 bonus.)

Alphabet

If you’re learning a language with a new alphabet, learn it right away. Don’t delay this part. The core of my system is learning to read, because reading is the best and most time efficient way to maintain the language. Nothing replaces conversation, but if you read, your memory retains words and sentence patterns. I don’t find that this is emphasized enough. So, learn a new alphabet as soon as possible, preferably before you even book your first lesson.

Create Your Own World(s)

Youtube videos, songs, films, shops. Do whatever you enjoy doing, but in the target language. For instance, I love cooking, so I watch cooking videos on Youtube and culinary shows. I listen to podcasts about music, literature and history.

Learn to use time spent commuting, cooking or doing other tasks that don’t require your concentration. When I edit photographs, I listen to videos and podcasts. When I run, I end up practicing hard to pronounce words or building sentences in my head. It now seems natural. You have to make language a part of your life and the way you do it depends on your interests.

Learning Words

I learn new words from the conversations with my teachers or speaking partners, reading and listening to podcasts. I type them out in vocabulary lists, the original on the left, the English translation on the right. When learning, I simply read them out loud, repeating the words until they feel natural. Then I close the original and test myself by picking from the English translations at random. This order is important, because just recognizing the meaning of the word is not enough. You have to train yourself to remember concepts.

I usually study first thing in the morning and then I test myself again either later in the day or the next day. The advantage of vocabulary lists is that you can keep them on your desk or in your bag and glance at them from time to time to refresh your memory.

I recommend learning short phrases, rather than individual words. If you make up phrases yourself, be sure to check them with your teacher to avoid learning mistakes.

Usually, my vocabulary lists are on paper, but sometimes I use flashcards. The Anki app has been my favorite. It has a great interface and you can not only make flashcards and group them in any way you like, you can use the app to test yourself and check your progress. The Anki algorithm spaces out the repetition of the words, depending on how quickly and easily you recognize them.

Read

The core of my approach is reading. I learn reading at the same time as speaking. So, the question is what to read?

Native speakers will often recommend you to read children’s books when you’re in the beginner stage. I recommend ignoring that advice. Children’s books may have child-appropriate content, but the vocabulary is rarely simple. “As he drew near to the wood where he had left his wife, he heard a parrot on a tree calling out his name: “Mr. Vinegar, you foolish man, you blockhead, you simpleton; you went to the fair, and laid out all your money in buying a cow.” I imagine that most beginner English speakers will have a difficult time with the “Mr. Vinegar” fairy tale. It bears mentioning that a language beginner differs from a child in more ways than one.

My advice is to read whatever you’re interested in. If you’re interested in fairy tales, read fairy tales. If you’re learning Russian and Anna Karenina is your favorite novel, get the Russian version. Flip through it, spot any familiar words, read as much as possible, using the English translation as a crutch and when your Russian is strong enough, read the novel from the beginning with a dictionary.

When you read, write down the words you don’t understand and look them up in a dictionary. And I do mean sitting with a notebook and writing down the word and its definition. (Merely looking up the word doesn’t help me retain it as much.) At first, it might slow down your reading, but it will help you build a rich vocabulary. Of course, judge based on your preferences. Some people prefer to read for the general sense of the plot, while others like to work more meticulously. As your language skills improve, try to guess the meaning of the words based on the context. I’m an obsessive person, and if I see a word I don’t know, I write it down and look it up later. This includes words in my native languages too.

Even in languages like Japanese, which has both an alphabet and character-based writing system, you can try reading literature and short stories. There are numerous materials online and in print. For instance, if you’re learning Japanese to read Natsume Soseki and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, the “Breaking into Japanese Literature” book series will help you do just that. I find it easier to learn new words (and to memorize characters), when I see them in context.

Listen

Don’t worry about finding sources that are instantly understandable. Try to get a feel for the language, its music and rhythm. Songs in this respect are very helpful–and enjoyable.  Radio is another favorite resource, especially since most presenters have beautiful diction and clean pronunciation. Listening will help you polish your own pronunciation, and it can be done anytime, even if you’re busy with something else, like cooking or cleaning.

Time Management

“I don’t have time to learn a language” is a common complaint. If you enjoy something, you’ll carve out time for it. (See Point 1.) I work independently, which means that I have some flexibility with organizing my schedule, but it means that I work around 10 hours a day and sometimes longer. Finding time is a matter of priorities, and in some situations it’s easier done than in others. Learning a language doesn’t have to mean sitting for hours each day with an exercise book. Listening to music, watching Youtube clips on topics you enjoy, reading, corresponding with your friends or your speaking partners, writing an email–it all counts towards your study.

When you start learning a new language, however, carving out time each day is important. If you stop practicing a language in the beginner stage, you’ll lose the bulk of what you’ve learned. Yet, as I mentioned above, the time you spend studying need not be a solid hour of grammar exercises. The more organically you can weave the new language into your life, the easier it will become to learn it.

It bears repeating here–do whatever you enjoy doing, but in a new language. For instance, if you keep a diary, consider writing a few sentences here and there in the language you’re studying. If you like cooking, watch a cooking video. And so on.

Embrace Ambiguity

In another language, there will always be situations in which you don’t understand everything said to you. Learn to accept it and to infer meaning from the context. Consider learning filler phrases like “I see,” “perhaps,” “right,” “is that so?” “that’s interesting,” etc.

Don’t be Shy

Left to my own devices, I would have been an introvert and a perfectionist, two personality traits that don’t serve a language student well. You have to speak up and you have to make mistakes. If I can promise you anything else in regards to learning a language, it is that you’re guaranteed to make a fool of yourself. In the end, it’s an important life lesson and you get over it.

I find that the experience of learning languages made me more extroverted in general and being free to speak my mind more freely in whatever language. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is another important life lesson.

Language is one of the human activities that is better done badly than not at all.

Speaking someone else’s language is the best way to break the ice. I can’t count the number of times when my mediocre language skills gained me access to closed monasteries, booked me onto flights, and made me new friends. Above all, learning a new language is like getting a key to the vast world of ideas and thoughts. In a time when borders become harder to cross, learning a language is a chance to soar above them.

Which language do you dream of learning?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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132 Comments

  • Marianne: Thank you very much for writing about your method. I was curious about it before when you mention d how you studied languages. So, do you only talk with your speaking partner/teacher or do they coach you in reading and writing too? February 4, 2019 at 8:46am Reply

    • Victoria: It depends, I suppose. I can do reading on my own, although with writing it’s always helpful when a native speaker can correct your texts. Plus, writing is a good exercise in itself. February 4, 2019 at 10:02am Reply

  • Marianne: What languages I’d like to learn… Spanish, French, German. I’d like to improve my English too. I can write, but my speaking is too slow and I think over words too much. February 4, 2019 at 8:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Good luck! Your English writing certainly seem good to me! February 4, 2019 at 10:00am Reply

  • Iryna: I am learning Spanish at the moment, 2nd fastest language in the world if I’m not mistaken. How come among 11 languages it isn’t one of them (being one of the most widely spoken)? 🙂 Thank you for your language learning tips. It does help to Love studying languages. Then it almost becomes a hobbby rather than a daily chore. I haven’t tried Italki and LanguageExchange yet because I’m a little shy for that, meaning live video chats. Is there an option there to write to each other insead of video chat? February 4, 2019 at 9:48am Reply

    • Victoria: You can ask your Italki partner not to use the video, only the audio. I can imagine that most would be flexible. It does make it harder to understand the other person, though, since you can’t see their lips moving, but if you like an extra challenge, why not? February 4, 2019 at 10:00am Reply

    • Victoria: How are you learning Spanish, Iryna? With a self-study book or at school? February 4, 2019 at 10:03am Reply

      • Iryna: Self study. I have a book that I don’t exactly remember the title of but it’s something like ‘Fast track Spanish in x days’ so it can’t be very good can it? But I use it nevertherless. Other than that I just try and learn whatever Spanish I come across on the internet — subscribed to Spanish Instagram celebrity accounts, watch various YouTube language videos (there are So many teachers on You Tube!), watch tv series (but unlike other languages Spanish is dificcult to understand because they speak SO fast, the words in a sentence are kind of..joined together). I wonder what’s Japanese like because that is the fastest language but I watched a lot of anime and almost all Miyazaki and it doesnt seem to be fast, actually slow compared to Spanish 🙂 I’m a little weird because so far my Spanish level of grammar is probably intermediate but I still don’t know the typical words/phrases that a beginner would know. Yeah..does not compute, I know )) But that’s because I love languages. I simply study whatever looks interesting to me. First thing I did was learn the most used verbs (regular and irregular) and their conjugation. Once I knew them I went on to learn grammatical tenses (not all of them yet) so when I see a sentence I get the structure and timing, remaning are the words to learn – vocabulary. You constantly see the words repeating if you read (I like to read forums where Spanish grammar is explained in Spanish), these are the words you want to learn then. It’s basically intuitive to me. To each their own style of learning. For me, for example to memorise a word it is enough to write it down. I group words in categoies (verbs, nouns, adjectives, phrases, pronouns etc). Once written down, I frequently just go over them, covering left hand side and..well, it’s similar to what you do I think 🙂 I plan to start learning French next year, from what I’ve read it should be easier after Spanish. February 4, 2019 at 10:51am Reply

        • Victoria: It doesn’t matter what source you’re using, as long as you want to study with it. And it sounds like you’re on a good track and you have a good method for learning.
          I know what you mean. Listening comprehension is hard to improve just by listening passively. But with your grammar foundation, you’ll be fluent in no time just with a bit of speaking practice. So, don’t be shy and find a speaking partner. 🙂 February 4, 2019 at 11:36am Reply

  • Satsuki: I’m a Japanese native speaker who was ‘forced’ to learn a foreign language as a child and then, a second one…and I wholeheartedly agree with you that you have to love something about the language (find a connection point) if you really wish to learn it. This was exactly what I had always been feeling for myself, wondering if this was the reason why I could not be enthusiastic about a certain language. It is good to have confirmation that it was not my individual sentiment. Thank you so much for your valuable advice, I’d like to get on with my rudimentary Russian and French. Best regards. February 4, 2019 at 10:08am Reply

    • Victoria: Definitely! For instance, people ask why I haven’t study this or that language, either that it might be the easy language for me to learn or because it’s widely spoken, and I always say that I don’t pick languages a priori based on such practical considerations. It just doesn’t work for me. I have to feel passionate about the language itself. This way even the language’s most difficult aspects became exciting challenges, rather than dreary obstacles to overcome. February 4, 2019 at 10:24am Reply

      • Satsuki: Thank you for your reply, Victoria. You are absolutely right about the motivation – I for myself have always admired people who were able to do and finish language courses for e.g. business purposes because I could not do it. I strongly believe that certain emotions can be tied to specific languages as well. This would explain why I’m still bad at my first and longest foreign language and feel more comfortable in my second (English), even if I haven’t advanced much in it either.
        I also greatly appreciate your suggestion of the websites and have already looked at MyLanguageExchange, considering a registration 🙂 Reading and memorising phrases will be definitely on my list for the next step. Thank you. February 4, 2019 at 10:45am Reply

        • Victoria: Japanese is a popular language among the Russians to learn, so you’ll have no trouble finding a speaking partner via MyLanguageExchange. 🙂

          Learning phrases definitely helps over just learning lists of words, although for me it depends on the subject matter and the type of word. For instance, I loved learning Japanese words for colors and for foods, including kanji for different types of fish. But verbs, for instance, aren’t as helpful outside of the context, especially since in most languages verbs are accompanied with very specific prepositions, etc. February 4, 2019 at 11:30am Reply

        • Victoria: But then, how many of the people who’ve finished a language course for business are able to speak it? I do admire the discipline, but I myself wouldn’t be able to go that route. February 4, 2019 at 11:51am Reply

    • Cherie: I can sympathize with your experience. I found learning Japanese so much easier than learning French, even though Japanese is more distant from English. This was because I had so many interesting Japanese friends who were patient and forgiving of my mistakes, and I was deeply interested in certain aspects of Japanese culture. I find the most important thing is the human connection because ultimately speaking a language is a social thing. I hope you are able to find people you can connect with who speak the language you are learning. Being forced as a child to learn a new language must have been difficult, but having done so, it is believed you have the advantage of learning other language more easily. Good luck! February 4, 2019 at 10:58am Reply

  • Cyndi: Thank you for your wonderful post, Victoria. So timely for me also. My maternal grandmother was Hungarian and it was a language that interested me. For the past month or so I’ve been learning some words and phrases for free online. If I want a more comprehensive program there are fees attached. I find learning languages fun. I studied French in high school and college and some German in high school. Thank you for info about LanguageExchange and Italki. Other options are always good. February 4, 2019 at 10:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I found Italki when I wanted to learn a bit of Indonesian before a big trip, but was completely put off by the expense of the programs offered in Brussels. I also found studying alone too dull, so I googled and came upon that site. I can’t give it enough praises. Plus, it gives you a chance to try out a teacher, because you commit to a full hour class. The best part is that you meet so many interesting people.

      Hungarian is a fascinating language. I know only a few words related to food, like my beloved túrós pite, cheesecake. February 4, 2019 at 10:28am Reply

      • Carla: I saw a dance performance to Carmina Burana in Budapest with the Hungarian translation on the digital screen like at the opéra and watching that was as good as watching the dancing! February 4, 2019 at 11:08pm Reply

  • Cherie: I have cut my blog subscriptions down to one, and this post is another reason why yours is rich enough to satisfy. Your method and tips for learning languages are very helpful! I speak five, in descending order of competence, each the result of life experience that is so hard to maintain in the US outside a major city. Each is also a lifetime project, especially Japanese which requires deep knowledge of cultural and social context to speak properly. How do you manage maintaining and improving multiple languages? I try to improve my Norwegian and expand by getting an ear for Danish, although online resources often stop at the beginner level. I work on improving my Japanese with friends, books and TV. But I sometimes mix up words and structure in unrelated languages and could not imagine adding German or Italian, two languages I wish I could speak. Advice appreciated! And thank you for enriching our days. February 4, 2019 at 10:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your kinds word, and for sharing your experience with learning languages!
      >>>How do you manage maintaining and improving multiple languages?
      It’s a very good question, and I realized once I finished writing that I should have addressed it, but this post is way too long as it is. Mostly, I rely on my speaking partners and my vocabulary list methods. Once I get advanced enough in a language, I try to pick a speaking partner whose interests match mine, so that we can talk about a variety of topics. I’m insistent on my partner writing down new (to me) words and complex phrases. After each conversation, I make a list of those new phrases and I study them. You can really boost your vocabulary dramatically this way, especially if you learn whole phrases, or words in context. Just lists of words are not as useful to me.
      Then, reading. Reading is the best way to maintain the language.
      But speaking to me is key. What I like about Italki is that I can schedule an hour of speaking in whatever language I need anytime I want, as long as I have internet connection. Even when I travel or even during very busy periods at work. I can always find an hour somehow. February 4, 2019 at 11:18am Reply

  • bellaciao: Thank you so much for that inspiring post and for revealing your resources. I totally agree on point 1 – Loving the language and the culture (or some parts of it, be they music, film, literature, poetry, food…). Otherwise there is ZERO motivation for the long run. I abandoned a few language projects that way. Falling in love with someone from that language has however also been helpful for my Italian:)- So a double ratio of love:)- February 4, 2019 at 10:52am Reply

    • Victoria: Ha ha! So true! Falling in love has many benefits, doesn’t it? 🙂 February 4, 2019 at 11:43am Reply

  • Christine Kalleeny: Thank you Victoria for this wonderful insight and resource. As a language teacher of French and Arabic (for over 15 years), I really appreciated the impassioned and also pragmatic lesson on how to learn a language. The emphasis on community is here key. Language is all about connecting with others and finding as many opportunities as possible to use the target language. I shared this with the students in my Arabic program! We’re always looking for resources to motivate and excited them about their language journey, which comes with many hills and bumps. My students are learning Egyptian dialect and Formal Arabic (MSA) so it can be quite a challenge, though infinitely rewarding. February 4, 2019 at 11:05am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for putting it so succinctly. Yes, it’s all about the community. I didn’t realize it at first, but this is really the crux of my method. It doesn’t matter what the language is. As long as you want to communicate, as long as you’re curious–and the language makes you curious, you’ll learn it. February 4, 2019 at 11:49am Reply

  • Muriel: Hello Victoria,
    As a true Belgian, I’m fluent in French, Dutch, English und ein bisschen German. Right now, I want to learn Perfumes, which is another language you didn’t mention in your list! but it sure is another language to me! at first I didn’t understand it at all, but now, after almost a year, it sound a bit more familiar 😀 I would also like to learn Spanish and then something totally different… we’ll see! February 4, 2019 at 11:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Bravo! 🙂 You’re getting on well with Perfume, I’d say, and we’re here to help you practice it. 🙂 February 4, 2019 at 11:50am Reply

  • Matty: A fascinatring post. Well done to you X February 4, 2019 at 11:18am Reply

  • Sandra: I have been trying to learn French for a long time..its so hard. The verbs! I feel like the words can be so long but you only pronounce the first 3 letters and the rest are silent! I am exaggerating, but you know what I mean. Help!

    I am so happy to read this post. I would love love to learn Italian and Spanish.
    Thank you for the recommendations on the Italkie and the flash cards! Brilliant. February 4, 2019 at 11:51am Reply

    • Victoria: You can add pronunciation onto your Anki cards. It’s so helpful. And no, you aren’t exaggerating. 🙂 February 4, 2019 at 11:58am Reply

      • Sandra: Thank you.
        Out of the 3 languages I want to learn, is any of the 3 more or less hard? Or a good one to try with my beginners mind? February 4, 2019 at 12:09pm Reply

        • Victoria: You should go for the one you want to learn the most. That’s the one that will be the easiest. I promise! February 4, 2019 at 2:45pm Reply

      • Sandra: Do you have the paid app or the free one for the Anki cards? February 4, 2019 at 12:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’ve ended up getting the paid version, but for the first few months the free one was enough. February 4, 2019 at 2:45pm Reply

  • Lila: Thank you so much for this information. I have wanted to learn French but have never been able to find a teaching source that seemed practical. I just got on the italki website and I think I already found the teacher/tutor that I want. I love that you can actually converse with a live person and that they’ll customize the language to something you’re interested in such as fragrance, cooking… I am so excited! Thank you again and wish me bonne chance. February 4, 2019 at 12:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: Bonne chance! 🙂
      Feel free to tell your partner exactly how you want the lesson to be, since it’s always easier for them to know how to structure the hour with you. February 4, 2019 at 2:33pm Reply

    • Brie: If you like French + cooking, Google ‘Mercotte’. She hosts the French version of the Great British Bake Off & posts a lot with cooking term definitions & explanations (in French). Even if you don’t understamd much the pictures are fun to look at and you’d be surprised what you do recognize. They say that modern English is about 30% French due to the Norman invasion. February 27, 2019 at 11:42pm Reply

      • Victoria: Second this! I like Mercotte’s blog very much as I do Le Meilleur Pâtissier. Can’t wait for the new season. February 28, 2019 at 3:45am Reply

  • Christine Kalleeny: Victoria,

    I am learning Farsi through Pimsleur, at least spoken Farsi; I regret that I never took advantage of my grad school days at Emory and U Penn, where I was surrounded by amazing scholars and teachers of Persian….I want to read Hafez one day. in any case, I didn’t find Farsi on Italkie..any other online resources you recommend whether for speaking/reading? I have a terrible affinity for the language and culture of Iran, especially that I am pretty skillful at cooking Persian dishes and other delights from Turkey and the Middle East….. February 4, 2019 at 12:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Italki does have Farsi, but you have to search by Persian. I have a favorite teacher there too, Leila. She’s brilliant and she’s a scholar focusing on Saadi and Persian poetry and literature. I think that the two of you would have much to talk about. Take a look and let me know if you can’t find her. February 4, 2019 at 1:45pm Reply

  • fay: Hi Victoria. I’ve been bitten by the french language bug for a while now. Let’s say about a year. When i signed up at my local Alliance francaise here in Newport beach california they asked me what was my reason for wanting to learn french. I said, mistakenly out loud, that i wanted to read Prust specifically a la recherche du temps perdu, in french. Well i’ve been trying to load up on all the sources most of which you mentioned in your piece. Victoria i am going to take your recommendation and buy the book already. Which format do you recommend to start with. Should i get it on a kindle where they have a cursor dictionary that i can point on the words or should i get a paper one. Which publisher should i look up. Thank you so much for writing this piece. February 4, 2019 at 12:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: The Kindle format is great, because you can look up unknown words instantly, but make it more productive–copy and paste each word you’ve looked up in a separate file. Then, look over your list later. This way, you’ll learn a lot. I have Proust in the Gallimard Edition, but my Kindle version is in whatever was available on Amazon.fr for free. February 4, 2019 at 2:44pm Reply

      • fay: Got it, will do. Thank you. By the way Victoria sometimes i see something or want to send something out of love for what you have given us all here on bois de Jasmine. whether its a piece of fabric or something small. Where can i mail it to. Thank you February 4, 2019 at 5:17pm Reply

        • Victoria: Gosh, thank you so much for being so kind and thoughtful. Honestly, it’s enough for me that you visit and share your thoughts with me. I’m very grateful. February 5, 2019 at 6:22am Reply

          • fay: Just love what you bring to us. Thank you. February 5, 2019 at 11:08pm Reply

            • Victoria: My pleasure, Fay! Please let me know how it goes. And don’t be discouraged if you find difficult. I have many French friends who do as well. February 6, 2019 at 4:33am Reply

      • Carla: Maybe this will unlock Proust in French for me! February 4, 2019 at 11:05pm Reply

  • cm daudier: Thank you for these insights and, overall, for your writings. I am curious about one thing, though. In your initial paragraph you mention the Serbian and the Croat language as if they were separate languages. Dialects may be different, but Serb and Croat are basically the same. Books on each? Strange. My heritage lies there and we called the language “Serb/Croat” if only to appease the two “ethnic” groups. Altogether, the Balkans remain an area of simmering tension – another subject altogether. February 4, 2019 at 12:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I know, they’re the same language, but I’m talking about Soviet era, and we had one book for each at home. The Serbian dictionary was in Cyrillic. The Croatian was in Latin. I realize that the language is a sensitive issue, but I was only listing the books I recalled from my stepfather’s collection, and those two were among my favorites as a child. I learned reading Latin script from one of those books, since the words sounded so familiar. February 4, 2019 at 1:42pm Reply

  • Trudy: Love this. Thank you for the great info. I am currently learning Spanish. I’ve taken it in school and living in Southern California I have had many opportunities to speak/learn the language. All of your suggestions have re-inspired me. Especially, for me, re-visiting the alphabet, reading the language and finding a speaking partner. I believe the speaking partner is so critical. Thanks again for this post. February 4, 2019 at 12:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think so too. Even an hour of speaking a week (with someone who can correct you) makes a big difference. Good luck with your studies! February 4, 2019 at 2:48pm Reply

  • Anu: Hello Victoria,
    Thank you so much for sharing invaluable insights, tips and resources on language learning. I grew up in Delhi, India and have a good grasp on spoken Urdu, however never learnt to read and write it. My grandfather was a poet in Farsi and Urdu, and one of my ambition is to be able to read his original poems in Urdu. I was wondering if you would be willing to share some tips, resources, books that you found personally helpful when learning Urdu. Thanks. February 4, 2019 at 12:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: With pleasure, Anu! Learning Urdu was challenging, because there are so few resources, but I’ve used a combination of Let’s Speak Urdu textbooks and Italki’s tutors. Mostly, I’ve relied on the tutors to get me speaking, but in your case, since you already speak some of it, the textbook I’ve mentioned should be a good start. It has a separate brochure to practice the script and two textbooks, Beginner and Intermediate. I find its exercises very helpful. February 4, 2019 at 2:57pm Reply

      • Anu: Thank you! February 4, 2019 at 3:48pm Reply

  • Lillian: Thank you Victoria for a great article and wonderful tips. I agree you have to love a language or feel a special connection to it to learn it. I have always loved Italian ever since I fell in love with Italy in my early twenties. I spoke very basic Italian for decades until I decided to get serious and signed up for classes last year. I’m now at an intermediate/advanced level and the more I learn, the more I realise Italian is not the easy-going language I thought it was! There are lots of rules to memorise and they are essential for speaking the language elegantly. I am currently reading a short novel in Italian, look up all words I don’t know and write the definitions in pencil above the Italian word. I plan to re-read the whole book again at a swifter pace when I’m done. I also watch cooking videos in Italian as it combines my two loves – food and Italian!
    I would love to start learning Turkish, which I understood as a child because it’s my mother’s mother tongue. Its sounds are so beautiful and familiar to me but I am afraid to delve into it because I feel it might interfere with my Italian. Then there is Arabic. I can hold an easy conversation in the Lebanese dialect but I just love the Egyptian dialect. I tried a class in Egyptian conversation a few years ago but a lot of Lebanese would just automatically come out of my mouth, so I know I can easily mix up languages which is why I’ve decided to just concentrate on Italian for the time being. Do you get mixed up between the different languages you speak? February 4, 2019 at 2:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, I’d love any recommendations for the Italian cooking videos you’ve enjoyed.

      I don’t mix up my languages, and it’s probably because I always switch from one language to another, and they kind of stay separate. It’s only a matter of practice. I find that the more multilingual your environment is, the less likely you’re to mix up languages. But at first, it may take some effort to keep them separate. On another hand, I don’t think that at your level of Italian you should be worried about Turkish displacing it. As long as you continue practicing your Italian, of course. Turkish is the next language I want to learn. I find that there are so many traces of it in other languages I speak that I’d find it thrilling to learn at the source, as it were. February 4, 2019 at 3:05pm Reply

      • Lillian: You’re probably right. I think I will start Turkish but at an easygoing pace to begin with.
        For Italian cooking I love the site giallozafferano.it and they have tons of videos on YouTube. February 4, 2019 at 5:07pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you, I came across their site before, so I’ll take a look at the Youtube channel. February 5, 2019 at 5:50am Reply

    • Ariadne: Ahhh! Me too! I had huge problems learning 2 languages simultaneously, Greek as a social necessity, and Italian for a scholastic requirement. I ended up learning to navigate each quite well but only able to speak one and read & write the other.
      To me language is like breaking code the results of which reveal not only meaning but tons of cultural history.
      I also incorporated music into my language study and I have to say that I adore Greek because you can place the words in any manner that suits you! Greek ballads are the best!!!
      I am so loving this BdJ post. Please more like it!!! February 4, 2019 at 5:12pm Reply

      • Victoria: What a great idea to use music this way for learning. This thread is full of great suggestions. February 5, 2019 at 5:51am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: I am absolutely speechless! Eleven languages, the twelfth coming up.That is quite astonishing and wildly singular.
    Next to my mother tongue German, I speak English, Dutch and Afrikaans, and I learnt French, and Catalan in which, however, I don’t really feel particularly fluent. I can get along with texts in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. The enormous difference is: all of these languages are either of Germanic or Romanic origin. None are of Asian or African.
    I deeply respect your proficiency in all those languages and admire your learning technique. I do however think that there are two or three elements which come into the game as well. You don’t mention it explicitly, but without an absolute will to get on, one won’t really succeed, not if your over 30 or 40 years at least. You have to sit down and do it, not dabble around. I started learning Turkish some years ago as I just loved the concept of vocal harmony. But it was a struggle to get through, I didn’t have the discipline, and let it go in the end.
    Secondly, I strongly believe that you have to have a gift for languages. Some people have it, some don’t. I know I sound like a wet blanket, yet that’s what I believe. Still better to start, to try at least, than learning nothing!
    Victoria: thanks for letting us gain insight into this amazing talent of yours! February 4, 2019 at 3:49pm Reply

    • Carla: Yes I think you have to have a gift. I noticed when traveling Europe with college friends that some would freeze up when spoken to in a foreign tongue and therefore wouldn’t be able to understand anything. I had the ability to stay relaxed, as if my ears were more open, and could pick up words that sounded familiar or guess from the context. February 4, 2019 at 11:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, I keep meaning to ask you for some tips. Do you have a favorite German Youtube channel, podcast or site related to food (or culture, music, art, etc.) I’ve been listening to RadioKultur a lot, and I enjoy their selection.

      Yes, it takes a lot of work, and I’d stay in the beginning it’s best to start by devoting at least an hour a day. (In practice, I’d end up spending more, since starting to learn the language is the most exciting part–the honeymoon part when even the dative case seems charming). The mistake people make is not focusing enough in those early stages and this way it never feels like one gets far enough. My strategy is to crash learn the basic conversation and then use that as a springboard to add more. I have to write more about it. As I said, I could write a tome on the topic, and one post is not enough space to explore it all. 🙂 February 5, 2019 at 5:56am Reply

      • Carla: I used to watch German cookery shows. That was my favorite spot at bookstores too, the German cookbooks. (I just love the Kaffee und Kuchen tradition!) I can’t remember the name of the shows, it was back in 2009-2010, before I was using YouTube or podcasts. And at Christmas I liked watching the kitschy German holiday folk singing shows. I’m afraid I’m not much of a help! February 5, 2019 at 1:22pm Reply

        • Victoria: I sometimes read Essen und Trinken in their internet edition, and it’s full of tempting recipes. February 6, 2019 at 4:24am Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: I don’t really listen to podcasts but believe these to be good!
        https://www.br.de/mediathek/podcast/
        https://www.arteradio.com/theme/deutsch
        https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/podcasts.2516.de.html?drppAid=displayAllBroadcasts
        https://www.deutschlandradio.de/podcasts.226.de.html

        Then as a German language food blog: „Plötzblog: Selbst gutes Brot backen“. That is high-end baking with to date 884 different bread recipes. Now that‘s „deutsche Gründlichkeit“ for you…!
        But fear not: this is no Chinese restaurant with a 1000 dishes. This is a fantastic no-nonsense blog focussing on bread and not frills!
        https://www.ploetzblog.de/ February 7, 2019 at 11:07am Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: I don’t listen to podcasts at all, but I guess the following are good. Especially the Bavarian Broadcasting Service (Classical and Art Section) is excellent!

        https://www.br.de/mediathek/podcast/
        https://www.arteradio.com/theme/deutsch
        https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/podcasts.2516.de.html?drppAid=displayAllBroadcasts
        https://www.deutschlandradio.de/podcasts.226.de.html

        As I read, write, correct, edit texts in German all day long, I more or less read exclusively in English in my pastime.

        Still, here is a cooking blog I can really recommend wholeheartedly—„Plötzblog: selber gutes Brot backen“: https://www.ploetzblog.de

        It’s a high-end bread baking blog. He has listed 884 different bread recipes. Now that’s “deutsche Gründlichkeit” for you!

        Viel Glück! February 7, 2019 at 12:59pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you so much! That blog is something else. I have a couple of German baking books, but they have nothing on his recipes. I’m not even sure what to try first.

          And thank you also for the other links. I’ve started listening to podcasts only once I started learning German, and I find them useful. So, I’ll take a look at the ones you’ve shared. Vielen Dank! February 8, 2019 at 5:39am Reply

        • OnWingsofSaffron: So sorry for posting twice! My first comment never appeared, so I wrote it again. Strangely, the second comment didn’t showed either. Now we have both! February 8, 2019 at 8:08am Reply

          • Victoria: WordPress filter holds comments with more than one link until I check them, so that’s why you didn’t see your comment at first. Once I released the first one, the second one got ok-ed too. So, no apologies needed! Thank you again. I already listened to a couple of podcasts on this channel: https://www.br.de/mediathek/podcast/

            Have you tried baking any breads from Plötzblog? February 8, 2019 at 8:44am Reply

            • OnWingsofSaffron: One of the baguettes, yes. Which exact one I cannot remember. In truth, I prefer cookery books to recipes on blogs when actually standing in the kitchen. No greasy hands on my smart phone! So my go-to baking book is “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread” by Peter Reinhart.
              But blogs are the places to get inspired, to get an appetite for something. February 9, 2019 at 7:08pm Reply

              • Victoria: Mine is by Michel Suas.

                I also use blogs mostly for inspiration, since it’s inconvenient to scroll while one cooks. Or else I print out a recipe and keep it in my recipe folder. But yes, mostly I turn to cookbooks for guidance. February 11, 2019 at 5:22am Reply

  • Elena Wood: Victoria, your post is wonderful! I love languages, and learned a decent amount of basic Russian last year., just for fun. I am a native English speaker, and I was VERY surprised to find that for me, Russian is significantly harder than Japanese, which I studied in high school and college. Written Japanese is incredibly difficult to achieve fluency whereas the Cyrillic alphabet can be learned in about a day, but the grammar is much easier. I am trying to learn a little Greek at the moment in preparation for a vacation this summer. There really is no better way to immerse yourself in a culture, and really get a lot out of travel than by learning even a little bit of the language, especially something like Greek, Swedish, Russian, or Japanese which most Americans don’t speak. I am poor to mediocre at all of them, but the positive reactions I get when I do get to use them is so worth it!

    I also like the free apps Duolingo, Tinycards, and Memrise to build vocabulary and practice. They’re great to use when I have just a few minutes here or there, even waiting in line at a grocery store, or if I arrive for an appointment 10 minutes early. Thanks for the motivation to study a bit extra today! February 4, 2019 at 4:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for sharing your experiences. You make a great point–it’s very rewarding to speak languages that aren’t as “popular” to learn. My most useful language so far has been Japanese, since I’m often in situations where there are Japanese speakers and no translators.

      I take my hat off to anyone who studies Slavic languages. The cases, the prefixes and suffixes are enough to drive the native speakers mad. And the correct stress! But they’re rewarding, because they teach you how flexible and fluid a language can be. February 5, 2019 at 6:01am Reply

      • maja: Oh gosh, yes, I taught Serbocroatian a couple of years and when I’d start with genitive case (plural), students would be absolutely desperate. February 9, 2019 at 4:23pm Reply

        • Victoria: Does it have as many cases as Russian? February 11, 2019 at 5:20am Reply

          • maja: We actually have seven cases.
            *insert horrified emoji* February 11, 2019 at 7:28am Reply

            • Victoria: Just like Ukrainian. Russian has *only* six. 🙂 February 11, 2019 at 7:31am Reply

            • Victoria: And Hungarian has eighteen! Makes German with its 4 cases seem rather straightforward. February 11, 2019 at 7:33am Reply

  • Alicia: Great! Your collection of languages is as fascinating as it is admirable.I only know ten; can’t say I speak them since some are “dead”, such as Latin and Medieval Galician. How I would like to know Hebrew to read in the original the Song of Songs, Jehuda Halevi, Ben Gabirol. Same feelings for Classic Arabic with the treasure of its lyrics.Thank you, Victoria. February 4, 2019 at 4:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s even more impressive, since you have to be very disciplined to learn them and to continue improving your skill. February 5, 2019 at 6:02am Reply

  • Elena Wood: I totally agree that some people have a knack for picking up the sounds and patterns of languages more than others. (Of course, we can tell Victoria has this gift with her beautiful writing!) I think it’s also true that the more languages you learn, the quicker and easier you learn each subsequent one. It’s sort of like being really good at one sport… you find that what you’re good at translates (pardon the pun) well to other sports. I think learning languages lays down the brain framework to learn more much more easily, and then the more languages you know, the more vocabulary has some element of familiarity as well. February 4, 2019 at 4:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Very true, any activities changes the framework/the brain networks. It’s hard in the beginning, but it does get easier. The problem is that most people get discouraged and give up at the early stages. February 5, 2019 at 6:04am Reply

  • Becky: Thank you for this fascinating article! I am going to print it, so I can follow it when studying Russian. I am still a beginner, but I would suggest visiting a grocery store catering to food from the target language area. When I entered an Eastern European grocery store, I was thrilled to say, “здравствуйте!” The owners are Ukrainian, but I had a hunch they spoke Russian, too, based on the store’s website. I was not able to say much, but they let me stumble through a few sentences, and they were very kind and encouraging. Good luck to everyone learning a new language! February 4, 2019 at 4:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: A great advice! So happy that you’ve given your Russian a test drive this way. February 5, 2019 at 6:07am Reply

  • Eva: You amazing woman! I had no idea! Having learnt a new language as an adult, starting from scratch (my 4th) is one of my biggest prides ! My advice : when starting a new book, decide a certain number of pages where you look up every single word and then let yourself a bit off the hook… usually each author has a bit of his own vocabulary so if you make that initial effort, chances are you will get a good grasp of the rest – without giving up in the beginning!

    No better way of creating bridges than learning a language … February 4, 2019 at 5:37pm Reply

    • Carla: I like this advice for reading a book. When I started reading novels in French on odd number days I would look up words I didn’t know and on even days I would just flow with the reading February 4, 2019 at 10:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Eva! It’s a very good reminder, since sometimes opening a new book one can be overwhelmed with the amount of new vocabulary. But after a while, you see the same words repeating. February 5, 2019 at 6:08am Reply

  • Tara C: Great piece! I learned French as a child in school and fell in love with it, which is why 40 years later I am fully fluent. I read lots of books and watch tv programs in French every day. Even without a lot of speaking opportunities, it really helps to maintain my skills. I also studied Italian, Spanish and Japanese for fun, but didn’t pursue them long term. Maybe someday! February 4, 2019 at 7:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it so helps. People often say that you have to go to the country where the language is spoken in order to learn, but it’s not necessarily the key (witness the number of expats the world over who can’t speak the local languages). You have to create your own environment. February 5, 2019 at 6:10am Reply

  • TARA: Victoria, I took many years of French in school but it was always a chore. Now I would like to learn more and become conversationally fluent. When you recommend reading, would you recommend a book you’ve already read in English? I can’t decide whether it will be a help or hinderance. February 4, 2019 at 9:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’d say, select a book you’ve already read. I still encourage you to write down and look up new words and look over them later, otherwise your reading is too passive to translate into usable skill.

      But if there is a book you’re dying to read in the original, go for it. February 5, 2019 at 6:12am Reply

  • Carla: Victoria, I am so impressed by your discipline and the breadth of your multilingualism! Thank you for sharing all these tips. I loved your recommendation to just pick up Anna Karenina in Russian and poke around. Your thirst for learning is inspiring.
    I grew up in a very American family with no exposure to other cultures or languages even though we are a highly intellectual family. When I was in high school I became friends with a girl who had come from Kiev a few years earlier and I sometimes hung out with her and her friends at the coffee shop where they would speak Russian. I picked up some Russian and decided I wanted to learn a language. I chose French because I knew some from ballet terms. Living in France in college changed my life and opened the world to me. While I only speak one other language well (French – my husband is French), I have lived overseas and traveled the world over, 55 countries. I do have some ability in German and Spanish and can manage basic greetings and thanks in many languages. I have loved learning as much as I can of a language while in the country even if I later forget it – I learned so much Portuguese while in Brazil just two weeks, ditto Polish. But I regret not becoming proficient in German while living there 1.5 years. I felt it was a dream come true when I finally got a spot in kita childcare for my baby so I could take full time German classes paid for by my husband’s company, and was ready to really learn German since we planned to live there a while, but then we suddenly had to take a job back in the US.
    My other regret is that we mostly speak English at home. As soon as we get on that Air France flight to visit France we switch to French, but in the US it’s English. My husband does not speak to the children much in French. I believe this is because his primary language at home was Alsatian, not French. But this bothers me less than I would have thought. Our children understand French well enough, though my daughter doesn’t like to speak it for fear of making a mistake, a problem I fear I don’t have.
    I think because I am a people person (extrovert) I love connecting with language. But unlike you I don’t have the desire or the ambition to learn for the language’s sake. I miss my traveling years when I could sometimes successfully guess what language people at a distance were talking by watching their mouths and when I would play a game of guessing local cab drivers’ nationalities. One cabbie promised me a free ride for a successful guess and I got it right. Thank you for the chance to share here February 4, 2019 at 10:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: Great points and much inspiration in your story!
      Yes, you and Christine mentioned the very important aspect–the communication with others. I don’t really learn a language for its own sake, though I may be fascinated by the intricacies of the language to want to learn it. What motivates me the most is the ability to use the language to speak to others. So, I’ve started learning many of my languages before specific trips and then I kept them up.

      Persian was the only language I’ve learned purely for the love of its sound, writing and culture. And you know, it’s one of my most fluent languages, along with French. And I use French daily at work and in my day-to-day life, while in Persian I have to create my own environment to keep on using it. February 5, 2019 at 6:16am Reply

  • Filomena: Wonderful post Victoria and great tips. I grew up in Italian family but never knew the language. They wanted us to be Americanized. I learned Spanish in high school and was fluent in it but then when there was no one around to speak it to, I more or less lost it. The same with Italian. I took it for years when I went to Italy often, but then I could not afford to travel and even though I took lessons for a while, I didn’t get to really use it. I took a trip to Sicily and mainland Italy in the Fall of 2018 and even though I did not take a brush up course, I did okay when I was there. No more lessons for me now. Instead I keep a daily Italian phrase calendar in my kitchen and every morning I read the phrase of the day until it is in my head. I also watch movies in Italian and read books based on the Italian language. I seem to be able to always understand the language when I read it more than when someone speaks it. February 4, 2019 at 11:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: So happy to hear this! I’m sure your trip was made even more memorable, because the language barrier wasn’t there. Your tips for practicing are also very helpful. February 5, 2019 at 6:18am Reply

  • Notturno: I love, love, love this post!!! Thank you!
    I speak 5, Croatian, English, French, Italian and German but I’m forgetting so much as I don’t practice. I was very fluent in German and now I feel I can just get by.
    I also feel that by speaking in different languages, it brings out different parts of my personality, different aspects. Does this make any sense? They feel so different.
    I can’t wait to read all the comments here and will also save your post for inspiration and studying tips.
    One of my Dad’s uncles spoke 16 languages and translated many books. His pronunciation wasn’t good but he memorized dictionaries like some of us could memorize restaurant menus 😉. He was an inspiration for many family members and used to give great and measured advice that would become something of a proverb and was remembered and repeated through the years.
    Thank you, Victoria!
    We’re also learning ‘Parfumisch’ 😂😂with your help. Some on this blog are VERY fluent. February 5, 2019 at 3:56am Reply

    • Victoria: 16 languages is very impressive, especially given your father’s uncle’s translation work.

      Yes, it makes sense that your personality changes when you speak another language. The new theories of linguistics claim that it’s not the case, but many people mention that they do feel themselves adapting different personalities when speaking different languages. February 5, 2019 at 6:21am Reply

  • OtherWise: I love this. It expresses, better than I have ever been able to, how learning another language (for me just one additional) has involved/included a total transformation of me and how I see the world. And I also wish I’d had your strategies way back when….. February 5, 2019 at 9:22am Reply

    • Victoria: I also wish I discovered this method sooner! February 6, 2019 at 4:09am Reply

  • Inma: Soo exhilarating this post to me! I love languages so much, and that is quite uncommom here in the south of Spain.

    Finding so many people with similar passions is awesome.

    I find the falling in love and creating your own world tips specially appealing and so true. And I am taking the Learning words tip for improving my learning.

    These days expanding my english (I assume it is my deepest love), looking at my rusty french in a caring way so we can start again, and beginning to be very interested in swedish. So we´ll see how it all develops.

    Thank you, as always, Victoria! February 5, 2019 at 9:44am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a pleasure to meet others interested in learning languages, and of course, if my tips help, I’m more than happy.

      Just find a person to speak and start learning. 🙂 Spanish is a very popular language to learn, and if you want a language partner, I’m sure you’ll have no issues finding one. February 6, 2019 at 4:11am Reply

  • Fazal: Please pardon me if I am wrong but it seems to me your interest in learning new languages is strongly related to your deep desire to read literature from all over the world. If it were not for your interest in world literature, you would be without a very strong incentive to learn new languages though, of course, some of it is also to meet new people and learn about other cultures. Sure, you can read translated literature but poetic and narrative styles are lost in translation. Moreover, there are so many terms and ideas unique to a certain culture that no substitute word exists in another language and translation attempts fail miserably because all context is lost.

    I have been aware of your blog since about 2010 or so but I would usually come when looking for a review about a certain perfume. I did not really notice your other interests until your recent visit to Pak and now it seems to me that even though you are a perfume journalist with significant training in this field, perfumes are but a very small part of who you are as a person, given your diverse range of interests. I actually struggle in seeing you as mostly a perfume journalist because other aspects of your life and personality seem more dominant and interesting now. February 5, 2019 at 3:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: I do enjoy reading, and yes, my love for literature probably overrides all else, although the immediate motivation to study the language (the deadline, as it were) is travel. Then it forces me to concentrate and devote a bulk to time to a specific language. Of course, if I learn the language for a specific trip, then it’s because I’m interested in the culture of that place, its history, etc.

      Urdu is a good example. I’ve always wanted to learn it to read the incredible literature produced in it, but the trip to Pakistan made me set a specific goal, devote time to classes and studies. I wanted to go to Pakistan, because the country interested me for the same reasons as Urdu did.

      All in all, the motivation to learn a language is complex, and I hope that what I said above made sense. One thing I don’t do is learn languages based on their popularity or their perceived ease. Such considerations have nothing to do with how I use my languages. February 6, 2019 at 4:30am Reply

      • Fazal: Thanks for detailed explanation, makes perfect sense. I did err in underestimating the motivating factors; it’s just as you remind that the reasons behind a certain action can be quite complex and the motivating factors vary from time to time. February 6, 2019 at 2:41pm Reply

        • Victoria: It was overall correct, since it’s a combination of interest and a desire to communicate. Also, it becomes such a fascinating pursuit, because so many languages contain elements of others that the more you learn, the world no longer appears parceled into separate countries, but rather a complex tapestry. February 8, 2019 at 5:52am Reply

          • Fazal: Your last observation reminds me of an amazing recent ad by Mexican Airlines that tried to prank supporters of Trump Wall. The ad notes our heritage is not exactly black and white but often has roots in unexpected places. It ends on the note something like, “There are no borders within us”.

            Even in this age of the internet, nothing rivals traveling when it comes to learning about the world. I can only imagine how wise Marco Polo must have been. February 8, 2019 at 6:10am Reply

            • Victoria: Penguin has a condensed version of Marco Polo’s travels, and it’s a great read. Sometimes he’s indeed wise, and it’s striking how modern some of his observations seem.

              The talk of walls and borders depresses me. I grew up in a place that was surrounded by impregnable borders, and it was not a good thing. February 8, 2019 at 9:12am Reply

              • Fazal: I will look into this book. Those like you, who have lived within the confinement of walls (actual or imaginary) understand better than most in America what the walls symbolize and what they do to the psyche of people, particularly, marginalized groups. I have a very good friend from Bulgaria, extremely polite and non-confrontational, and he expressed a similar sentiment about the walls.

                One of these days, do make a post about your grandfather, giving us a brief introduction to his life. February 8, 2019 at 6:16pm Reply

  • Karen A: What a wonderful and inspiring post! The comments have also been full of great ideas. Thank you! February 6, 2019 at 6:08am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Karen! The comments are so interesting and helpful, aren’t they? Everyone is different in terms of their studying preferences, but it’s clear that all of us use a variety of methods. In the end, varying one’s studying routine is more fun and it gives the best results. February 6, 2019 at 6:30am Reply

      • Karen A: Definitely! I realized your method is similar to how I learned to weave. My teacher had me pick out a pattern I liked (nothing complicated), she set up the loom and I just wove. Her theory was that if you don’t like the process of actually weaving, starting off by having to set up the loom – kind of the equivalent of repetitive grammar lessons – then why learn how to weave. Setting up the loom then is just a means to enjoy what you love doing.

        Your first point of falling in love makes complete sense when learning any new skill or language! February 6, 2019 at 8:54am Reply

        • Victoria: What a great analogy! It makes perfect sense too, and it applies to a language well. Investing time into learning how conjugate verbs in the beginning doesn’t make sense, when one doesn’t understand how to use those verbs and into what context. I personally can’t memorize list of grammatical concepts until I can apply them in a specific context, and yet most textbooks are structured this way. Obviously, one needs to learn grammar at some point, but maybe not at the very start. I actually end up enjoying various grammatical challenges later and happily spend time doing grammar exercises. February 6, 2019 at 9:13am Reply

  • maja: This is a fantastic post – we are irreversibly spoiled by your wonderful writing and continuous inspiration, dear Victoria. 🙂
    I speak fluently three, and read / understand other three languages so I understand and confirm that it takes time and effort but it’s probably the most beautiful thing in the world to be able to exchange two words with a stranger in a foreign country. It brings people together so much. My awful spoken French was so useful even in a snobbish Paris last year. 🙂
    Language learning is an exercise in humility, as somebody said, and I love making funny mistakes, and I encourage my students to do the same. Reading, listening or watching things in a target language is crucial indeed. Even setting browsers, phone apps or other visible sources in a target language is a good idea (maybe not when you’re a beginner unless you want to get stuck with your phone settings in Tagalog)
    Thanks for the Anki recommendation, I’ve already downloaded wonderful Persian decks.
    ps. I’ve also had a great experience with Italki. February 8, 2019 at 6:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad that you like the article. And thank you for your advice. It’s true that weaving the language into your daily life makes it easier to learn, even if you live in a place where that language is not spoken.

      And it’s a good reminder that one has to make mistakes. Especially in front of someone who can correct them. In a way, with languages, the more mistakes one makes, the more one learns. February 11, 2019 at 5:15am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you so much for this guide Victoria, you are an expert. It will be an inspiration to perhaps start learning German. Picking up a book you know and reading it in another language is such a great tip, and coincidently Anna Karenina is a favorite novel of mine. I never read it in English because of Nabokov’s scathing lecture on translation (highly recommended) the examples he described were hilarious; also whole chunks of Tolstoi are in French, and I’m glad that he too could write another language. February 9, 2019 at 4:05am Reply

    • Victoria: Nabokov can be scathing on great many topics, sometimes unfairly. Actually, I’ll admit this. I’ve never read Anna Karenina in its entirety in Russian, only in French. In Russian, I read it only enough to write a school essay, but after that I never felt like picking up Anna Karenina again. The way schools teach classical literature can sometimes ruin great books. So, one day I found a copy of Anna Karenina in French and out of curiosity started leafing through it. Before I knew, I was drawn into the book. So, I’ll confirm that Gallimard’s translation is very good. February 11, 2019 at 5:19am Reply

  • Lydia: Dear Victoria,
    This is so helpful!

    It reminds me a little of how I like to learn history. I look for the aspects of a period that fascinate me most, then seek out supplementary materials (movies, novels, poetry, music, art, fashion, etc.) that make the period come alive for me. I think of it as building a framework to hang information and concepts on. If I can find a few people from the period who interest me, or even fictional characters, then I begin to have an emotional response to that time and place, so when I learn dates or political facts, they have more texture and meaning and connect to each other more easily.

    I’ve never been a natural at learning languages – in fact, I have something of a block against it. I might blame it on a very mean beginning French teacher in high school, but I also think it’s just not a talent of mine. However, your suggestions make it seem not only do-able, but fun. Thank you for this!

    When I’m done with school, I’d like to learn Japanese for fun. One of my favorite authors is Banana Yoshimoto, but only a few of her many books have been translated into English – good motivation for learning Japanese! February 10, 2019 at 2:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a great way to make a historical period come alive! And the best way to learn and remember the flow of events.

      If you have an interest in learning, then just go for it. My approach with languages is just to dive it and figure it out later, time, study schedule, etc. It all somehow falls into place. February 11, 2019 at 5:25am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Thanks Victoria for an extremely interesting post and thanks to everyone for sharing your stories, tips, etc. Loved reading it all.

    I speak some six languages- three very well and three well enough. In addition, there are some languages I read or understand, but don’t consider myself as a speaker. Like many of you, I agree that the best way to learn is to get stuck in and not be shy about making mistakes. I simply speak with the aim of communicating. Sophisticated use of the language comes later, more gradually.

    The tip to start reading books in the language or watching television shows work really well. I especially find reading plays can be a useful way to make progress at the start. This is because they focus on dialogue and cut out descriptions. Short stories are also a satisfying way of achieving a sense of accomplishment. Telenovelas or soap operas or mini series can also be great, because they help you follow a story over time, building your vocabulary along the way with familiar characters (so one can concentrate on the words more). February 12, 2019 at 3:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much for sharing these great tips! You have an impressive experience with all of your languages, so your comments are very helpful. The point about soap operas is spot on. They’re so much easier to follow, because the plots are generally straightforward and the characters return again and again with the same issues. 🙂 February 15, 2019 at 5:51am Reply

  • Amanda Basmajian: This post has completely inspired me. Thank you for addressing the issue of making a fool of one’s self while pursuing a new language. It can be difficult to be a beginner in anything when you’re of an age that implies you “should” be knowledgeable and in control, yet it is the innocence and humility of the beginner that allows the beauty and the thrill of learning something new to penetrate. Thank you for this post. February 13, 2019 at 10:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so happy to hear it, Amanda! I used to think that being a beginner was very uncomfortable, but I’ve discovered that starting anything new is thrilling and humbling. It rejuvenates you in so many ways. February 15, 2019 at 5:46am Reply

  • Sonia González: ¡Hola Victoria!
    Gracias por tus artículos, por el mundo que compartes con nosotros.
    Me gustaría que te enamoraras también del español, mi lengua. Estoy segura que descubrirías un mundo amplio, complejo y fascinante. Nada es comparable a leer nuestra literatura en versión original.
    Por cierto, soy profesora de idiomas y estoy de acuerdo contigo, parece que me has leído el pensamiento.
    Muchas gracias. February 14, 2019 at 4:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: ¡Hola Sonia! Muchas gracias por comentar. Definitivamente aprenderé español. Me gusta mucho! (Puedo entender y leer en español, pero no puedo hablarlo.) February 15, 2019 at 5:44am Reply

  • Brie: I had a French professor at college/university who briefly explained the origins of the French language & said that before they started recording French as a written language, they ran into issues of people dropping sounds, so they added letters when standardizing the written form to force certain pronounciations & prevent other letters from *escaping*.

    So while you don’t pronounce the final letter of a word like the ‘e’ in the feminine word ‘blanche’ (which sounds like blahn-ssh) it’s purpose is to emphasize the ‘ch’ (ssh sound). This helps to differentiate it from the masculine version ‘blanc’ (blahnk). Always remembered that for some reason & it helped me figure out subtle pronunciation differences.

    Applies to many adjectives – grand (don’t pronounce the ‘d’) vs. grande (pronunce the ‘d’ but not the ‘e’). Petit vs. petite. Etc. There are exceptions (of course), but that was the general rule I learned.

    And of course, street French & verlan has it’s own set of rules! It’s like how we go from what’s up? to s’up? February 27, 2019 at 11:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, very true. It seems so natural now that I don’t think much about it, but I remember learning this too. February 28, 2019 at 3:43am Reply

  • Ann: This is such an inspiring post! May I ask which Anki app you used? There seem to be a lot of versions for the phone. Or did you use the desktop one? I am having trouble finding the “real” Anki. Thank you! March 4, 2019 at 11:42am Reply

    • Victoria: I use the app called AnkiApp Flashcards. There is a free version, but I ended up paying 20 euros for an upgrade and I’m very happy with it. March 4, 2019 at 3:57pm Reply

  • Jeff: Victoria, Thanks so much for this article as it so on point for me. I’m trying to learn Spanish because my wife is Hispanic. In addition to self study with computer programs, I read newspapers and magazines. I want to read a book but am a bit intimidated by the challenge. As far as listening, I watch Spanish language shows with Spanish sub-titles on Netflix. So far I don’t understand word for word, but I get the general idea… May 10, 2019 at 3:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: If you read newspapers and magazines, then you can definitely try a book. Anyway, it sounds like you’ve developed a good program for learning. 🙂 May 13, 2019 at 3:25am Reply

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