Foreign Language Learning Tips

After I said that I was having trouble learning Chinese, my friend Carl Willat made several interesting suggestions:

My ideas are pretty simple, and I don’t know if they’ll work for you but I’m thinking back on what helped me the most when I was learning Italian. Maybe they will strike you as obvious, or what you’re already doing. I’ll spell them out here anyway, and please just ignore anything that seems useless. I apologize in advance.

The big one, reading out loud and having someone correct your pronunciation, probably won’t work as well when you’re dealing with those chinese Characters instead of words in a recognizable alphabet. But the underlying concept, leaning the way a child learns, might have other applications. This was Roberta Niccacci’s approach and it worked incredibly well for me. She said pronunciation comes before comprehension. I read books out loud to her and my pronunciation got to be very good, though I didn’t understand much of what I was reading. After three or four books I could read like an Italian newscaster. “Keep doing this and you will wake up speaking Italian,” she said, and that’s what it felt like.

I found that in Italian I was developing little islands of solid comprehension in different areas of the language. As I learned more and these areas grew they eventually started to connect with each other. That’s when I felt like I was starting to become fluent. Children don’t have big vocabularies when they’re learning to talk at first, but what they do know they know really solidly. When I was in Italy with Matt he saw a woman call her dog, saying “Vieni qua!” and the dog obeyed. “That little dog knows more Italian than I do,” Matt said. It was a joke but the concept was right. The dog only knew a couple of words but knew them really well.

One thing I recommend is having phrases in Chinese that you repeat over and over until you know them so well they sound like English to your brain. These would be phrases that come up in daily life all the time. Probably you’re doing this already, right? Because undoubtedly there are things you have to say in Chinese all the time just to get by. It’s almost feels like you’re learning English synonyms or slang, instead of taking on a whole gigantic language. It helps if you have someone to help you make sure you’re pronouncing these phrases perfectly, so you’re absolutely confident in them. Same with the Chinese ideograms; get the basic ones really solidly before adding new ones.

Then, talking to yourself. At one point I started talking to myself in Italian, like all the time, both out loud and in my head. I wasn’t self-conscious because nobody was listening. I just kept up a constant jabbering. Even if what I was saying to myself wasn’t very sophisticated, I was doing a pretty good job of talking like an Italian child who talks to himself. Talking to myself seemed to make me start thinking (and dreaming) in Italian.

As far as memorizing Chinese characters, if I were going to do it I would use the same kind of memory systems I use to memorize a deck of cards or a shopping list of hundreds of items: those mnemonic and associative devices like in the Harry Lorayne books on memory. Lorayne is a memory expert and magician who would do these stunts like remembering everybody’s name in a big audience. think he’s got something on memorizing Chinese characters, maybe like what this guy is doing:

When we were learning Italian Matt and I both got this children’s book called First Thousand Words in Italian, which had colorful, labeled cartoon drawings of various objects. To this day I see some of those pictures in my mind when I think of certain Italian words. The pictures helped a lot, but we also used those crazy memory tricks from Harry Lorayne. A radiator is “il termosifone” in Italian, which we remembered with the similar-sounding phrase, “they’re mostly phony”. You know, in San Francisco a lot of apartments have old steam radiators that don’t work anymore, so they’re mostly phony. I don’t know if this method strikes you as too ridiculous, but it sure worked.

Matt and I both ended up with a pretty solid 1000-word Italian vocabulary very early in the game. This was also a lot of fun because when I was talking to Italians even though my knowledge of the language was obviously rudimentary, I nevertheless knew a lot of obscure words I shouldn’t have known at that stage. They would be astounded when I came up with the right word for sawdust, spiderweb, rain gutter or puddle. I was talking to Roberta and her Mother one time and I wanted to dig a hole to plant tomatoes and I asked them if they had a shovel, using the word “vanga”. They burst out laughing because I had asked for a very particular kind of shovel, more like a flat bladed spade, instead of the more generic “pala”. It was just like the way adults laugh when I small child comes up with the right word unexpectedly.

Movies with subtitles. English movies with Chinese subtitles, Chinese movies with English subtitles, or Chinese movies with Chinese subtitles. Especially movies you’ve seen before so you know the plot and have a vague idea what’s being said. Reading and hearing at the same time seems to help your brain get some traction. This works like a refresher course for me in French or Italian, and is especially good for colloquial stuff that’s not in the books. I watched some of these movies over and over.

Songs. At one point I worked on my French with French songs from the 1930’s. Once again, singing songs meant repeating phrases, and memorizing long passages. You get in the rhythm of the language too. You’re keeping it going so you can’t really do it in a halting way. In Italian, though, I could never find many songs I liked. I spent one trip to Paris mostly tracking down sheet music to some of those old songs, to solve certain mysteries with the lyrics, and so that I could play them on piano. Having a mission or an errand like that always seems to make travel more enjoyable.

And Bridget swears by the Pimsleur method. She checks the CDs out of the library. She learned a lot of German that way before going to Germany, and was working on Vietnamese briefly so she could talk to our housekeeper a bit. When she was learning Italian the first thing she did was change her language preference to Italian on Facebook. Then every time she went on Facebook which, was quite a lot, she had to do a lot of translating in her mind. She picked it up fast, but she’s also really good with languages.

15 Replies to “Foreign Language Learning Tips”

  1. Most of my twitter feed is in french and german, forces me to read short bites of french and german, plus I occasionally click on the articles. Good practice.

  2. I second the recommendation about songs. A sappy love song usually has easy-to-understand lyrics and phrases that are useful even if you’re not in love. (e.g. “if you don’t love me, then X” is easy to replace with a different verbs). It helps that the catchiness of a pop beat is a good way to pass time on mundane tasks (e.g. commuting or exercising).

    Two that I like for Chinese are 全是爱 (or anything from 凤凰传奇)and 天下无敌。 (google for the lyrics, or ask any of your students to set you up with QQ Music so you can listen as much as you like).

  3. Many good ideas in there! Including bjk’s.

    I think that the Heisig method (either the “Remembering the Kanji” book for Japanese or “Remembering the Hanzi” book for Mandarin) does just what he discusses – it might be the ultimate way to systematically employ mnemonic tricks to memorize the meaning of 2000+ characters in a short period of time.

    Seth: The Heisig method is good, I agree. But in isolation, I have found, it is worthless. For me, at least, it has to be connected with something more social or pleasant — something motivational.

  4. …little islands of solid comprehension… [that] grew [until] they eventually started to connect.

    My experience exactly. Of course, with all these isolated areas of comprehension, I would often steer the conversation to a place where I could use them! May have made people think I was a bit OCD at the time.

    I’ve used Pimsleur to good effect with Mandarin. Got a solid pronunciation foundation.

  5. Personally, I feel like I need different levels of difficulty depending on my energy level. If I’m highly motivated, I’ll try to have a conversation with a Chinese coworker. If I’m less motivated, maybe something passive like watching Chinese TV. If I’m tired, sometimes even passive sources are frustrating because they’re too fast & my comprehension is low. At these times, something even more passive, like watching an English TV show with Chinese subtitles & my finger on the pause button works really well. This way I’m not lost as far as what is going on in the show, but I’m still exposed to Chinese & picking up new vocab words.

  6. I am about 30 months into studying Swedish. At the same time I have been doing some freelance teaching of English, so I have experienced both sides of the desk. I endorse your friend’s point about reading aloud. Some of the most productive classroom time I have spent has been students reading aloud and the teacher helping them improve their accent (consonants, vowels, stress, and tone).

    I try to read something every day in ‘study mode’, which means use an online dictionary to look up words and expressions I don’t understand, and a notebook to write down those I think may be useful. Just the act of writing them down helps them to stick in the mind. I started off using ‘easy-read’ materials prepared specially for learners, now I use ‘good’ authors – not excessively literary but writers of clear and expressive Swedish.

    I also try to write a little Swedish every day (I have a Swedish blog for this). Writing, to me, is a good way to build the active vocabulary and stock of expressions you need to exercise the highest skill, which in my view is to talk fluently, expressively, and correctly in back-and-forth conversation.

    Where a blog scores over class exercises is that it is my choice what I write and how and when I write it. Of course choosing my own subjects means I am interested and want to do them justice. To do this I have to learn new words and expressions, and by using them they become part of my active vocabulary.

    I am looking to engage someone to help me by listening to me read aloud and correcting my accent, and reading my blog and correcting my grammatical and word-selection errors.

  7. Agree with Carl and garymar. I’m near fluent at comprehending everything a German-speaking waiter would say to me in a bar or restaurant, and yet completely lost at the immigration or tax office. ‘Islands of solid comprehension’, great concept.

  8. Seth, I agree that Heisig in isolation may not be effective because it’s not inherently interesting. I use to study Heisig; it uses online flashcards (you can set up an account for free) which makes Heisig into something more like an interactive video game. (You can share and vote on the memorization tricks everyone has created. I also add the pronunciations to the electronic flash cards, creating deeper “islands of solid comprehension.”) Matching what you suggested, I read a lot of manga [only titles I enjoy] and this is my reward for learning all the Heisig kanji.

  9. In the spirit of ‘Quantified Self’, how does one measure ones own progress in learning a language ?

    Subjectively I feel I stay still for a while, then something happens that makes me aware that I now am significantly improved from x weeks previously, although in between there was no sensation of daily progress.

    With a yardstick of some kind, even very imprecise, it would be possible to test different tactics and find out what worked best. Without one, it’s a matter of guesswork and subjectivity.

    Any ideas ?

  10. Anki is one easy way to track your language progess. I have 1539 mature cards in my most recent Mandarin Chinese deck, which means I’ve probably memorized something like 500 new vocabulary words in the last 7 months.

    There are some free sites out there that will estimate your vocabulary by having you read an article in the target language & mark the words you don’t recognize.

    For listening & speaking, you’ll probably need a partner of some sort, although you might be able to record yourself & compare it to previous recordings.

  11. I’m a translator/interpreter for Slovak-English living in a non-English speaking country so I’m not speaking English very often.
    But to be a good interpreter, one has to speak English often.

    I noticed that I have a warm-up period of app. 10-20 minutes into the job. So next time, I just read an English text for 1/2 hour before a job and voila, the warm-up period was zero 🙂

    I’m also reading English texts aloud whenever possible. Did not hurt so far 🙂

  12. Great post, with good practical ideas! I especially like the suggestion of reading aloud. I read aloud in French every day. But I’m not at all a beginner, I read aloud as a preparation for speaking (just as Jan Rendek says). One of my best reading experiences was reading a long bed-time story in French to a four-year- old French girl who kept asking questions and making comments. I noticed the next day my French came more easily than usual. I’ve started a new language, and also found – like Robbo – that I seem to hit a plateau for quite a while, and then suddenly, I make a leap ahead. It must be the way our brain processes language.

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