Language Learning

1 Corinthians 14:10: There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning.

With every language I learn the world becomes more colourful. (Andreas G. Wolff)

Why should I learn a new language if everyone speaks English?

Learning languages is cool. Remember James Bond in: “You only live twice?” When Miss Moneypenny hands him a course in Advanced Instant Japanese he looks at her pitifully and says: “Don’t you know I studied modern languages at Oxford?” So cool. But did you know there are around 7000 living languages. Surely, he didn’t study them all.

And no, not everyone speaks English. But even if they do I always learn a few words when visiting a country because it brings a smile on people’s faces. It says: “I’m not taking it for granted that you speak English and I appreciate your culture”.

Quatro-lingual Singapore
Quatro-lingual Singapore: English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil

My top 10 language learning tips:

Everybody learns differently, but all of the things below were very useful to me:

1) Say what you can say! This is my top tip. Don’t look for the exact translation of a sentence in your mother tongue. You will get frustrated by so many words you don’t know. Unless you’re doing a translation of scientific text, all you need to do is to say something appropriate: Say what you can say!

2) Imagine what a sentence means when learning it, rather than memorising the translation by heart. This is the other top secret behind learning languages successfully. If the sentence is: “The boy is eating his sandwich”, imagine a boy eating a sandwich, rather than repeating the equivalent sentence in your native tongue. This is the only way you are going to be able to mix and match words quickly to build the sentences you need in the future. It requires you to rely on your instincts and it’s the way kids learn their mother tongue. If you take the scientist’s approach it is going to be much harder.

3) I have recently become a total fan of language learning apps. They seem to be a great starting point. Some of them are quite playful and addictive which is what you need. The exact method of instruction isn’t so important, but language learning needs to be fun in order for people to stick to it. I have heard people who used a language learning app having basic conversations!

4) The apps probably won’t get you to full proficiency. So listen to language learning podcasts. I often listen to one when I go for a walk or a cycle. If nobody can hear you: Repeat out loud what you learn.

5) Find somebody who wants to learn your language and converse with them online regularly. You can find like-minded people e.g. on the “Mixxer.” Don’t be put off if some folk don’t respond. Keep going until you find someone who does.

Venetian language sign on a Prosecco farm
Left: Venetian language sign on a Prosecco farm: “Who invented the wine is either in heaven or near it”!

6) Netflix and Amazon Prime offer films and series in many languages. After watching a foreign language film, I often find phrases going around in my head and then trying to memorise them. Or I try to imagine what I would have said in the protagonist’s place.

7) If you’re really determined prepare little sheets of paper with a list of vocabulary when you come across it. You can have one in your bathroom, one in your pocket, etc. When you revise your vocabulary in public do it silently. At home speak out loud. This trains your vocal cords which aren’t used to pronouncing the foreign sounds. It also helps to develop your “ear” for languages, i.e. to remember the sounds. It might also help to record yourself and to then listen to your recording.

8) Converse with yourself. Build sentences with the words on your vocabulary list. Reciting a list will never make you a fluent speaker. Practicing to build sentences will. Don’t worry about them not being correct. When you don’t know a word put it on your list and look it up. Only learn things that are relevant to you. If you are not in school anymore there is probably not much point in learning the words for ‘black bord’ and ‘ruler’ at first.

9) Immerse yourself in the language by listening to the radio. You can download the Tunein or Simple Radio app to your smartphone and listen to a radio station in almost any language. Find music you like in your target language.

Language Learning Graph
Don‘t be discouraged when you‘re on a plateau!

10) And last not least: Making mistakes is ok! Don’t be embarrassed or discouraged by them. I made many stupid mistakes. So what?

Amongst my favourite sayings and phrases are:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

“Vor Gott sind eigentlich alle Menschen Berliner” – Theodor Fontane. Before God all people really are Berliners (I am obviously not impartial on this one).

“Cho sona ri bròg” (Scottish Gaelic saying). As happy as a shoe. Why? Maybe because old shoes look like they’re smiling when the sole detaches at the front?

“Full chola” (Venezuelan Spanish). At high speed or power. ‘Full’ is on loan from English and in Venezuela it is used as the superlative of ‘lleno’, meaning ‘full’. ‘Chola’ is the Venezuelan term for a flip-flop. I am thus imagining a guy driving to the beach at “full chola” every time I hear it. 

As a language junkie myself I only mastered a small number of the 7000 living languages: German, English, Spanish and Gaelic with (near) native proficiency, French and Italian with working proficiency, colloquial knowledge in Portuguese, Russian and Irish and basic ability in Mandarin, Fering (part of the Northern Frisian language family), Scots (Lallans, the language of Lowland Scotland), Swedish and Latin.

Certified by the International Association of Hyperpolyglots: HYPIA. Hyperpolyglots are nerds like me who are fluent in more than six languages.

I am also a qualified language tutor having taught a Gaelic language class at the University of the Highlands and Islands according to the Ùlpan method as well as a total immersion community education class.

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