languages: 7 posts

A Promise of Spring in Every Autumn

Autumn. Sonbahar in Turkish. Son means last. Bahar means spring. Bahar, a Persian loanword بهار, means also blossom, blossoming. And so, sonbahar, autumn, is literally the last blossoming. Turkish, one of the most elegantly structured languages I know, has its opposite counterpart— ilkbahar, which means spring. İlk means “first.” İlkbahar and sonbahar, spring and autumn. The first blossoms and the last. 

So in every autumnal leaf lies a promise of another spring. 

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Learning Languages and Reading Techniques

Reading is one of the biggest pleasures for me, and often when I learn a new language, I relish the chance to read in it. It’s also a great way to expose yourself more to the language and to make it part of your life. People often assume that “studying a language” means sitting down with a grammar book and doing exercises or spending time in the classroom, but that’s not enough. You have to surround yourself with the language by filling every free moment with it. Listen to music, watch YouTube clips about a subject you like, read.

And so today I will focus on reading and share a few tips. These are classical approaches, but they’ve been invaluable to me. In general, I start reading as soon as possible, even when I know that the text is too difficult. The most important part is to want to read the story, not to want to read in Arabic/French/Italian, etc. If you’re learning French and you long to read 19th-century novels, go for it. I don’t like texts especially written for language learners or children’s stories, but I have a soft spot for traditional fairy tales.

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How to Learn Multiple Languages at the Same Time

It’s usually recommended to focus on one language at a time, become fluent in it and only then start learning another one. However, language acquisition is a continuum, and some of us need to study languages for work or travel. Others are impatient. And yet others are passionate about languages and the process of learning by itself excites them. In short, it’s possible and sometimes beneficial to learn more than one language at a time, and I will share how I do it. Please take a look at the other articles in my language learning series, and share your experiences with me.

A few caveats, however. First, if you’re studying your first foreign language, then taking up two at the same time will not work. It will be too overwhelming. Second, if the languages you’re learning are too similar, you might consider learning one until you reach an intermediate level and only then start the other one. Third, if you can’t devote the time, it’s best to limit your ambitions. If you need at least 10 hours of practice a week to progress, then you’d require twice as much to learn two languages.

Imagine that you would like to focus on learning Spanish and Russian. Your Spanish is at a lower intermediate level, while you’re a total beginner in Russian.

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5 Books for Language Lovers

Babel comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to confuse,” and the story of Babel is the story of human folly in aiming to reach the heavens by building a large tower. To stop their efforts, God splintered their tongue into a dizzying multitude–and created the first language barrier humanity has experienced. Yet, one can find this diversity incredible, rather than regrettable. The 6,000 or so human languages that exist today are so rich that learning them, or learning about them, is a fascinating pursuit.

I’ve shared some of my tips on learning languages in three different articles, How I Learn Languages, How I Learn Languages: Where to Start, and How to Learn A Language by Reading and Listening, but today I would like to invite you to read about languages. I’ve selected five books that either explore the way languages developed or the way people use them. None of them are standard academic books, but rather works written by people passionate about words, sounds and letters.

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How to Learn A Language by Reading and Listening

In my first two articles outlining my methods for studying languages, I mentioned that I rely on reading both to learn new languages and to maintain the ones I already speak. However, I wanted to explain what I do in more detail, because my strategy differs from the more usual ones found in language books and classrooms. Generally, we’re told that we should just start reading, look up the words we don’t know and just slough through the book despite the difficulties. In the same vein, we’re advised to watch foreign films and listen to music.

The problem with this approach is that it takes a long time to learn a language in such a passive way. Of course, we should plunge into books we want to read as soon as we feel that we have enough of the basics and we should watch films and songs. The latter is especially important to get used to the rhythm and melodies of the language you’re learning and to create your own language bubble. (Watching films with subtitles, by the way, is not particularly effective, since our brains use the path of least resistance and effectively tune out the incomprehensible by focusing on the familiar.) I often tune into German, Portuguese or Japanese radio stations and listen to them as I cook or edit photos.  However, if your goal is to learn to speak the language, then you have to follow a different strategy when reading and listening.

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