Four questions about language-learning, solved here

Get over problems by focusing on the basics
Get over problems by focusing on the basics

I wanted to get back to basics this week.  I would like to say that the following are the most common questions and complaints that I hear from people when they ask me.  I will be honest and say that these are from ME; I keep asking myself these questions.  So here is the advice that I most often give myself.  Maybe it will help you, too.  I’m lucky that I keep having a lot of great experiences that help me when motivation flags.  I’m sure that you will soon have some great anecdotes to help motivate you.  Languages are not hard if I focus on a reasonable amount of time to work each day, if I talk to people, and if I use methods that are fun and helpful.

Learning a language is hard!

Speaking in one’s native language is almost as unconscious as breathing.  Speaking in another language looks like working calculus on a unicycle–with a time limit.


Always remember that 4-year-olds can speak their native language, but it takes years of labor, interactions, encouragement, and adorable mistakes.  I’ve found that as soon as I’m ready to just try, I am constantly making incremental improvement.  I always keep in mind that it takes a child 4 years to speak like a 4-year-old: that keeps my progress in perspective.

What method should I use?

With so many methods of learning out there, I’ll have to do tons of research.  Many of them cost so much money that buying the wrong one would really set me back.


Start with Google, and search for “learn (language name).”  Helpful information will come up right away.  For example, when I google (learn Tamil), the first five sites would take me several weeks to get through, if I wanted to spend some time every day– everything from writing the alphabet to basic dialogues (written and audio) and intermediate grammar.  After you find out what you like and dislike among the free material, you can start looking for paid material.

How can I talk to somebody?

My first problem might be I don’t know anyone who speaks the language I’m learning.  My second problem might be I know someone who speaks it, but I’m embarrassed to torture this person by making them listen to my terrible speech.  I mean, I can barely say, “Hello“!

Solution to first:

There are two places to look for speakers.  One is in real space.  “Ethnic” shops and festivals cater to people who likely speak your language.  And if you go, you already demonstrate your open curiosity to another culture, so you will make a good first impression just by showing up.  Try out your language as much as you can.  Make sure you say “hello” in that language or “Do you speak (your langauge)?” at every opportunity.

Another place to look is in cyberspace.  I found the site to be invaluable in finding speakers to talk to over Skype.  But speakers of every language are all over the net, if you look for them.  Many of them want to learn English, so language trades are easy to set up so everyone wins.

Solution to second:

Most people enjoy it when others are learning their language.  I was learning Russian in school in the 80s.  The first time I met a real Russian, the Russian conversation didn’t last past, “How are you?”  The man very kindly made me recite the days of the week, and it was really helpful for me.  I wasn’t putting him out; while he was relaxing in the park, he enjoyed teaching me–just some young guy–the days of the week.  I began only knowing “hello,” and left knowing the days of the week really well.  Any interaction will surely teach me something–and will be a pleasure for the other person.

I don’t have time!

With work, friends, family, and working around the house, I can’t spend tons of time on a language.  Languages take years to learn and I’m just making it through the day.


Work 15 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week.  You will make progress.  You don’t have to memorize vocabulary and grammar all the time.  You can Skype or IM with speakers of your language on-line, or you can watch a TV show or listen to a podcast.  If you hear a word a lot, look it up, or ask your real space or cyberspace friends what the word means.  Writing is helpful, too.  For example, I write up dialogues of what I want to talk about in Somali.  Then I ask my Somali friends over lunch at work how to translate some of the lines.  Every now and then, I read through a dialogue for 5 minutes to learn the phrases better.  You can also write essays and get corrections from native-speaker friends.

Overall goals

I would set up some large-scale goals of what you want to learn just to keep your overall aims clear.  Write them down.  You can make goals for how much vocabulary you want to learn, how many essays you want to write, how many times a month you want to venture to a local center for your language.  Focus on methods that are enjoyable and fruitful.  Do your best to keep up with your goals, but remember that steady progress is the ultimate goal.  If you continue with 15 minutes per day you will make progress.

What are your greatest roadblocks to learning languages?  How do you stay motivated?  Do you have any cool stories that help keep you motivated?

Photo credit: illuminaut / / CC BY-NC-SA

Re-motivation: Sharpening the axe

Axe (Photo credit: coconinoco)

I read an interesting post at the Mezzo Guild that talked about figuring out the methods that work in language-learning and the methods that don’t.  The post insightfully illustrates lack of progress using a biblical metaphor of a dull axe (Eccl 10:10).  I like this metaphor because it brings out a couple important questions about the tools one uses.  First, are you using the best tool?  For learning languages, one can find a lot of tools out there.  The intelligent language-learner must choose which works the best.  The metaphor presents a second facet, as well, as one asks: Is the tool sharp and ready to work, or is it dull and not doing the work it could?

This week, I’ve been trying to examine my language-learning tools and the condition they’re in.  I want to sharpen my axe, but how?  (To spoil the ending of my post: I enjoyed trying out and talking to native speakers, thanks to readers’ suggestions and the model of Benny, the Irish Polyglot.)

Farsi has been dragging, but I want to figure out how to move forward.  I expressed my frustrations and the fears that are blocking me in a previous post.  I’m grateful for several readers of my blog who offered good suggestions, ranging from giving myself a break to trying out new tools.  Here are the tools I’ve used over the past year.

  • Collecting words and memorizing them off of cards.  I enjoy this a lot because they are portable and convenient.
  • Listening to Pimsleur exercises.  I finished those off a while ago.
  • Listening to podcasts and collect words.  I have not done that for a while.
  • Going through Livemocha exercises.  I have not been on that site since last spring.
  • Reading news articles and collecting words.  Not so common these days.
  • Working through a grammar book.  Not for a long time.

From this list I see multiple tools that engage me in several ways: listening, repeating, reading, writing, memorizing.  They are all tools that help learn a language, and at one time or another, I have benefited from each.  Based on my recent track-record, though, I see that I’m still hacking away without moving forward.  With all of these methods at my disposal, what is the problem?

I see a hole: engaging native speakers in conversation.  I have gone over to my Iranian neighbors’ house a few times, but it’s difficult.  It takes an unknown amount of time, since I don’t know how long I’ll stay, plus the time is taken away from everything else I could do (family, work, writing, etc.).  I don’t understand very much of what they say, though I can explain much of what I want to say.  While I get frustrated, they seem frustrated, too, though I am likely projecting my own frustration onto them.

So I went onto italki and found exactly what I was looking for, that is, some encouragement and some native-speaker engagement.  Within 15 minutes–I didn’t even have time to put up a photo on my profile–I found 3 Iranians who were interested in working with me.  We exchanged Skype info.  One of them didn’t have a headset ready, so I went onto Skype with another.  He was a college student in Esfahan studying to become an English teacher.  We spent 30 min or so chatting, about 50/50 English and Farsi time.  I’m very grateful for this site and my new friend!

Getting the native speaker time was awesome, and helped my attitude.  Just talking to a human encouraged me.  On a more technical level, I realized that I have been learning more and more vocabulary, but because I’m not speaking, nothing is “cementing” the vocabulary in place.  I need the repetition of vocabulary and grammar, as well as serendipity, that come from talking to a native.  While theoretically I know how to conjugate verbs, actual conversation forces me to do so.  I felt like I got better at speaking after one time.  Learning vocabulary on its own does not help if speaking does not engage the vocabulary.

(On a side note, I also went to  a Somali restaurant in Minneapolis this weekend.  I got some native Somali conversation there, in addition to my Farsi conversation on-line.)

This engagement clarified how I use different tools.  The tools I use are not bad or inappropriate; they’ve been overused.  I’ve been hacking at vocabulary with a dull axe.  My language-learning lacks native-speaker engagement–this became clear.  Speaking to natives sharpens my axe.  While my axe still needs some work, I still have opportunities to use italki and Skype.  Eventually, my comprehension will get better and I’ll be eager to start learning words again, but this time with a sharpened axe.

I need some help from my readers, though.  How would you recommend using italki and Skype best for learning languages?  What do you talk about?  How do you deal with uneven language levels, for example, people who have studied English a long time compared to your lower level in their language?