GermanPolyglot's recent posts

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

A lot of popular language courses, especially those that come in the shape of an app, do not include many (or any) dialogues. As a result, I am increasingly meeting people who have an insanely long streak in Duolingo and have a passive vocabulary of 2000 words, but who are completely unable to use any of these words in conversation. Let's face it, "The duck is eating the strawberry" is not terribly useful, and useful phrases like "How are you?" come up far too rarely. Even worse, there are many apps that only teach you individual words, not even sentences. (It's cheapest to produce those.)

If you are using apps as a supplement to regular classes, that is not a big problem. I personally tend to take a lot of 1:1 classes on Skype and I make sure that these are 95% focused on building conversational ability. However, I also recognize that a lot of people can't afford a lot of classes. And we do want tutors to earn a decent hourly wage. So what's the alternative?

First, ensure that you use materials with a lot of dialogs. And not just any dialogs:

  • The dialogs should be applicable to your situation, with phrases that you might actually say.
  • They should also be modern, because the spoken language evolves much faster than the written language. If you're using a textbook from the 60s, the dialogs will generally be useless or worse.
  • They should have audio. Since not getting as much exposure to the sound of the language via tutors, you need to compensate by listening to a lot of recordings. Try to shadow what you hear, or stop the dialog and imagine a reply before you hear it.

Communicative Method textbooks like Teach Yourself or Language Hacking will give you a good basis. Once you know essential vocabulary and grammar, I highly recommend you switch to the LanguageCrush Language Tools Conversations That's 100 natural conversations about all kinds of topics, with native speaker audio, and available for many languages.

You still have to practice conversation though. No matter how shy you are, nobody ever mastered foreign-language conversation completely without having conversations, just as nobody ever mastered swimming without getting in the water.

I really enjoy speaking the language with tourists who are passing through my city, or with people abroad when I'm traveling myself. In order to find and contact these people, I use the Amikumu app, which is essentially a language speaker detector, telling you which languages are spoken by people near you.

Depending on the language, there may also be groups of learners that have regular practice sessions that you could join. Practicing with other learners is not as good as practicing with native speakers, but it is better than nothing. Facebook groups and Telegram groups are my first go-to point to find these. They are generally language-specific, so it doesn't make sense to list them here, but if you can't find any, just reply to this post and I'll help.

Finally, there are the classic language exchanges, where, instead of paying for a native speaker's time, you offer to teach them your language instead. If there aren't many people who want to learn your language, you can also offer something else, such as cooking, cleaning, computer help, support navigating the bureaucracy - whatever you are good at.

100 years ago, people could only practice languages locally, and opportunities were much more limited than today because there were much fewer travelers or expats. Nowadays, even a small town may have native speakers of 50 different languages. Wherever that is not the case, there are plenty of opportunities to talk with native speakers online. You have no excuse. Go practice conversations!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Immersion in a country where your target language is spoken is one of the most effective ways to master a foreign language, assuming you can avoid the expat bubble and you are at least lower intermediate in the language already.

Unfortunately, an immersion program at an in-country language school can be quite expensive - they know they are catering to rich foreigners - and sometimes the "immersion" is really just four hours a day of mind-numbing classroom instruction by teachers unfamiliar with the latest didactics.

There is also the case that you simply cannot find any appropriate immersion program, for example because you are learning a smaller language, you are traveling out of season, or your destination doesn't have a language school for foreigners. Such was the case when I booked trips to Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Kotor, Montenegro, in order to improve my BCMS, the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian.

How can you still create an intensive language-learning experience for yourself?

It's surprisingly simple, and creating this experience yourself may be both cheaper and more rewarding than just booking a program.

First, flights and accommodation. This is something you usually have to book yourself anyway, even when participating in a language school program. For the purpose of a DIY immersion, I recommend not staying at a hotel but renting a private room with a local family or even couchsurfing. A hostel might also work, if it's mainly frequented by people from your target country and not foreign tourists with whom you'd be tempted to mingle. (Hint: if it doesn't have an English website, there probably won't be many foreign tourists.)

Next, check out what experiences you can book - tours of the city, food tastings, boat rides, excursions, yoga on the beach at sunrise, whatever floats your boat. Contact the organizer and discuss whether these experiences could be in your target language. If so, they will be worth twice as much as an equivalent time spent in the classroom, because the human brain is wired to remember words and expressions associated with positive emotions and unusual events.

You probably still want some more formal classes where you can ask questions, do exercises, and practice speaking with someone patiently helping you along. I personally like 1:1 classes, because they are more intense (no time spent waiting on other students) and 100% focused on the things I need to learn. 2 hours / day of private classes are probably the equivalent of 4 hours / day of group classes at a language school. Tip: if you cannot find a private teacher that you jive with, try hiring a student of history or a tourist guide. They have a lot of fascinating stories to tell, and if you're at an intermediate level or higher, conversation practice is more important than grammar study.

If you have the chance to take the classes in a beautiful environment rather than a typical drab classroom, go for it! When I was in Dubrovnik, my private teacher and I would usually have classes on the terrace, with a view like this:

This made the classes a lot more memorable. Sometimes we also practiced while walking around the oldtown.

Finally, with excursions and classes forming the main part of your stay, you'll still want to practice the language in unstructured ways, with people you meet locally, so research where people tend to congregate, maybe join some Facebook or Meetup groups in order to hear what's going on or even pre-arrange to meet people for coffee and language exchanges.

Once you're in the country, there are three ways to spend even more hours immersed in the language:

1) turn on the TV instead of watching Youtube

2) wander into a local bookstore and buy a book that looks interesting to you

3) use taxis whenever reasonable - taxi drivers are usually very willing to chat with you in their language

Above all, have fun! The most important part of this language-learning vacation is not the grammar you learned, but the memories you made: they will carry you through the dark hours, when you're back in your home country on a cold, rainy day and need to find the motivation to study the language.

Good luck with your studies!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

In hectic times like ours, a lot of people struggle to find time for activities that make them happy, such as language-learning. I offer professional consulting for language learners and basically everyone who comes to me for advice knows that they could have made a lot more progress if they just had more free time.

It is a fallacy that we "have" free time. Ever since social networks discovered the "endless scroll" technology (where you no longer have to click through to another page of results but it keeps loading more results as soon as you approach the bottom, and the same happens when reading a blog article or watching a video), there are no natural stopping points anymore to our consumption habit. It is very easy to start browsing social media when we suffer momentary discomfort, even if it's just boredom, but stopping after we've started requires immense willpower. This means that most people don't have any noticeable "free time" anymore, because they get on social media before they notice that there is free time.

Hence my first point of advice for those who want to recover time for language-learning: make deals or appointments for your learning.

For example, in my case, I set the following daily goals:

- at least 30 minutes on language study before noon, usually in the form of Anki while enjoying my daily dose of caffeine

- at least 30 minutes between noon and 6pm, usually in the form of some textbook study, or listening to foreign language podcasts / radio while doing household chores

- at least one hour in the evening, usually in the form of reading a book or watching a movie or TV series

This means that when I am unsure what to do, I don't immediately go on social media but spend time on these goals first. Of course sometimes ingrained habits or discomfort is too strong and I do find myself on social media without having made a conscious choice to go there, and then a second trick kicks in: I follow a lot of target-language accounts, so it is very likely that my feed will contain a link to an article or a video in my target language, which can then be the kick-off point to happily going down ever more rabbit holes while practicing my language.

For people whose time is not their own, for example parents of young kids or those whose daily life leaves little besides working and commuting to work, there are other tricks to clawing back some time for ourselves and our passion for languages.

Tip: re-define what "language-learning time" may look like. It doesn't have to be sitting down with a textbook or with a list of vocabulary.

Language-learning time could be answering an email from a colleague who happens to speak the language you're studying. At my old job, I even organised "language lunches" - French on Mondays, Spanish on Tuesdays, Italian on Wednesdays, and so on - where expats could relax chatting in their native language over lunch, while learners could join for exposure to the language.

Language-learning time could be meeting a friend for coffee. If you want to go for a coffee but don't have a convenient target-language friend yet, try the Amikumu app to detect nearby native speakers of your target language. This also works to while away waiting time at airports and similar.

Language-learning time could be listening to a Michel Thomas course or a podcast in your target language while commuting or while doing housework. Whenever I do this, it makes me feel like superwoman, because I can accomplish two hours' work in one hour.

Language-learning time could be watching that telenovela you're addicted to.

Language-learning time could be curling up with a good book.

Language-learning time should feel good!

Language-learning time could be joining a target-language sports club, cooking club or book club. Find the immigrants and expats in your city and there are sure to be some who have the same interests as you.

Language-learning time doesn't have to involve anything that you aren't already doing - just start doing it in your target language.

Final tip: Challenges can help you find the time that currently goes unnoticed in your schedule. Some of us - and I'm definitely among them - are motivated by seeing highscores and trying to get a little bit further up in the ranking, even if there are no prizes. So when the person above me has logged just 5 minutes more than me, you can bet that I will find another 5 minutes' downtime somewhere today.

When I first participated in such challenges, it allowed me to see just how many opportunities there are to fit a bit of language practice into my average day. So I heartily recommend free language challenges as a way to find new study habits, some of which may stick with you after the challenge is over. Another edition of the 6 Week Challenge and the Tadoku Challenge just started - it's not too late to join. For an overview of language challenges, see this earlier article of mine.

Good luck with your studies!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

There are two basic approaches to reading in your target language:

- Intensive reading is to read in detail, for the purpose of acquiring vocabulary, and thus reading slowly and looking up a lot of words.

- Extensive reading is to read for your own enjoyment and not worrying too much about vocabulary for as long as you can follow the plot.

Obviously when it comes to textbook dialogs and similar, the default is to read them intensively, looking closely at any new words and new ways of expressing oneself. When graduating to easy readers and eventually books for native speakers, many first-time language learners make the mistake of reading them the same way without asking themselves whether that is what they want to do, or without realising that there is a choice.

When reading books in your native language, you read extensively, that is you don't (usually) read in order to learn new vocabulary, you just want to escape to another world and experience epic adventures. You can do the same in your target language, and finding yourself absorbed like this while reading your target language feels like the best thing ever.

By contrast, reading a book intensively (like a textbook dialog) takes a lot of energy and is generally not a lot of fun, because the constant look-up of vocabulary prevents you from becoming immersed in the world of the book and you may even lose the plot completely, but it can teach you a lot.

When to Read Extensively

- If you have only just stopped using textbooks, or if you are low on motivation. At that point it is important to discover activities that are genuinely fun in your target language, so that long-term maintenance of the language does not require superhuman levels of discipline.

- If you are reading a thriller or a cheap novel. For this type of book, the enjoyment lies 100% in the plot, so you should move through it relatively quickly.

- If you want to develop a reading habit. Building a reading habit around intensive reading is about as likely to succeed as building a habit around studying textbooks - it can happen, but it's much less likely than building an ice-cream habit. Assuming you read books (or fanfiction) that you picked yourself and that you enjoy, extensive reading is almost the same as an ice-cream habit.

- If you want to have deep knowledge of a culture, its books, or the world in general. We all just have 24 hours in a day, so everyone who reads a lot must go through books at a reasonable speed, not spend many weeks on each one.

- At night, before falling asleep.

When to Read Intensively

- If you have already read a lot and your biggest worry is your lack of vocabulary.

- If you're studying a text that will come up in an exam, or if you're reading a non-fiction book of which you want to retain particularly much.

- If you are reading poetry. Poetry is hard to savour when you don't know some of the words.

- If you are reading work of literature by an author known for their deftness with language, IF your goal is to fully appreciate their style and not just be able to talk about the book's contents.

- If you are rereading a book that you love and you want to draw it out and savour it. I often find that the first time I read a book, I want to lose myself in the world and I'm impatient to know how the plot continues, but the second or third time I want to read more slowly and notice all the details, the foreshadowing, the particular words used, and so on.

Best Practices

The border between extensive and intensive reading is somewhat fluid because you cannot completely avoid looking up words. Also, some books are harder than others and you may rarely look up words in one novel but regularly consult a dictionary in another novel, despite intending to read extensively. Here are some tips:

1. Even in intensive reading you shouldn't instinctively look up every unknown word as soon as you see it. Often words will quickly become clear from context and the temporary confusion may help your brain to remember the word better later.

2. Several polyglots recommend looking up (and possibly memorising) words as soon as you see them for the third time without understanding.

3. For extensive reading, I would say to only look up words when you don't understand even the gist of a paragraph. For other words, wait until you're at a good breakpoint, so that you don't keep interrupting the story playing out in your head.

When embarking on this road, definitely check out tools which provide instantaneous translation of words while reading and which later produce a list of words you had to look up, so that you can decide whether to memorise them. The most well-known such tool is LingQ, but my personal favourite is the LanguageCrush Reading Tool, which unlike LingQ is free even for extensive use and supports a whopping 104 languages.

When used in intensive reading, the tools remove most of the pain associated with this method. If you'd normally spend two minutes to look up a word that you read in a paper dictionary, or one minute with an online dictionary, and you have to look up 15 words per page, that means that you're spending 15-30 minutes per page just operating tools to find the translation, not engaging with the text. In the case of conjugated forms, you could spend a lot longer, as you're also guessing what the dictionary form might be. With instantaneous lookup including of conjugated forms, you save so much time that it's a game-changer for anyone trying intensive reading.

When used in extensive reading, it doesn't save as much time, but the time it saves is more precious: when you don't understand what just happened and you're forced to look up words, instantaneous translation means that you won't be catapulted out of the story: you can click/tap on the word, glance at the meaning, and keep reading.


"Keep reading" is really the key. If you imagine a page's worth of text, you can read and absorb its content much faster than if somebody read it aloud to you. This means that when reading, your brain will encounter more words and more sentences per minute than when listening - and in the end, your vocabulary and your "feel" for a foreign language simply reflects how many words you've encountered and in how many contexts. If you have limited time and want to improve your vocabulary, reading thus provides a greater bang for your buck than listening.

In basically every study of native or non-native speakers, the vocabulary of those who regularly read for pleasure (extensively, not even trying to learn vocabulary) is larger than the vocabulary of those who don't read or rarely read.

Keep reading!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Depending on which language you're studying, grammar may be the bane of your existence. Sometimes it feels like someone invented grammar just in order to torture learners like you. This is not in fact true.

Human languages are by natural irregular, with many phrases that are simply "not said this way" and grammar is people's attempt to explain and bring structure into this vast sea of irregularities. This means that you CAN skip learning grammar completely and just keep getting corrected that "we don't say it that way", or you CAN internalise a 500 page tome on your target language's grammar and be aware of obscure rules that you'll only need once a year, but most people prefer something in between: learn those 20 pages that will eliminate over 80% of mistakes and leave the rest to be corrected naturally.

Examples from ESL: most English learners have learned that the 3rd person singular present tense shall end in -s: "he wants" and not "he want". This rule is easy to memorize and comes up all the time, so it is a great investment. By contrast, most English learners have not learned the grammar rule that the expected order of adjectives is opinion - size - quality - shape - age - colour - origin - material - type - purpose: "my amazing new red silk dress" rather than "my new silk amazing red dress". This grammar rule is hard to memorize and it's not very common to use several adjectives in a row, so many textbooks don't find it worthwhile to cover this rule and learners tend to learn it by unconsciously imitating examples they've seen, or getting corrected on the odd occasions they get it wrong.

Personal note: I have found grammar books and Wikipedia articles on a language's grammar to be consistently unhelpful. They overwhelm me with the amount of grammar that I could (should?) be learning. They also pretend that a language has dozens of possible declensions, when a reasonable person could decrease that to 3-4 patterns with some exceptions, usually to obey spelling rules. For me, the perfect amount of grammar - at least until B2 level - is what is taught in self-study textbooks like Teach Yourself, Colloquial or Assimil. If you collate all the grammar sections from one such book together, it comes out to about 20 pages or less, and it's definitely enough to have wide-ranging conversations without irritating your conversation partner.

Assuming that you have identified the parts of your target language's grammar that are most useful to know, how should you actually study them?

Learning one rule

Assuming that you are trying to memorize a single rule rather than a table, the best approach is to look around you to find phrases that you already know that use this rule. For example, my boyfriend was trying to learn the endings of the German Genitive. As a board game geek, he knew that the board game industry's most prestigious award is called Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) - and "des Jahres" is an example of the Genitive (for masculine or neuter singular). After realising that, he always remembered how the Genitive is formed.

There are plenty of examples you can use, for example phrases from your favourite TV series and movies ("I'll be back") or set expressions like target-language greetings and well-wishes that you learned before being aware of grammar. Just look around and you'll find some.

Learning many rules at once

If the above approach doesn't work out because you want to learn a table's worth of rules at once (e.g. a conjugation or declension), the tried-and-true method, handed down by centuries of Latin students, is to recite the table, top to bottom, with an example word that should ideally have two syllables. Rosa, rosae, rosae, rosam, rosa.

Always recite them in the same order and with the same example word. When you later need to apply the same rule to another word, you will mentally recite the example word, stop at the form you need, and then apply the same change to the word you need. This is slow and tedious at first and it will get faster, until you don't need this crutch anymore and just apply the right ending without having to recite. Grammar rules are always just a crutch on the way to intuitive use - the crutch is nevertheless very useful, it enables you to start walking sooner than if you didn't have a crutch, and to help build up those muscles that you'll need when you don't have the crutch anymore.

As you recite the table, you will probably develop a rhythm or even turn it into a little song of sorts. This is great! Don't fight it! Rhythm and melody will help you memorize. Careful though: some Latin teachers report that their students have been mistaken as casting a curse when they were reciting their conjugations.


After learning the rule(s) this way, you still have to practice it in order to ensure that the rule is stored in your long-term memory. I recommend to do some intensive practice at first: during the first week after memorizing the rule, do many grammar exercises that require you to apply the rule. You are not limited to your textbook in this - just google e.g. "Spanish present tense conjugation exercises" or "ejercicios para practicar el presente" and you will find more exercises than you can possibly complete. The same is true even for smaller languages like Croatian. How do you know when to stop using these exercises? When you get 100% correct without much effort. (Try again in a couple days though, to see if this knowledge has stuck with you.)

Afterwards, make it a point to notice this particular grammar point when reading, writing or speaking the language. It's overwhelming to try to pay attention to everything, so give yourself permission this week to ignore everything except this point that you just studied. This will greatly increase your familiarity.

Divide-and-conquer is also the best strategy for languages that have a lot of cases, like Slavic languages. Don't try to get all cases correct immediately, instead tackle them bit by bit. For example, for Serbo-Croatian one rule is "the Genitive singular ends in -a, except words that already end in -a get -e instead". Assuming you know what the Genitive is, that rule doesn't sound like too much to handle, does it? Pay attention to that for a week or two and then tackle the next.

Good luck with your language learning!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Hey Kirsti,

I'm glad you found this helpful and that you'll be a fellow Dalarna student! I did their placement test for Kinesiska IV and I don't think it involved any typing, only conversation and reading. It's very informal, just you and the teacher. If you don't have the right level, the teacher will simply recommend a different class for you, so it's nothing to worry about.

Best wishes,



I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

A bit of a controversial topic today: let's talk about privilege. As that is a vast topic, I shall limit myself to privilege specifically when it comes to language-learning and specifically as it relates to native English speakers and Westerners.


The biggest privilege that native English speakers have is that they are not expected to know other languages, no matter where they go. If an American travels to China, nobody there expects them to be able to speak Chinese. If an American travels to Germany, nobody there expects them to be able to speak German. The same cannot be said about a Chinese person for example: Chinese people are expected to be able to speak at least English when they travel to Germany or America; it would be preposterous for a Chinese person to walk up to a hotel reception and expect to be able to speak Chinese, even though Chinese has twice as many native speakers as English.

There appears to be a bit of a racist hierarchy in how we perceive the obligation to learn languages and it's always one-way: one side is expected to learn the other's language while the other one isn't. Part of it might look like this:






That is: a Vietnamese person working in Croatia is expected to learn Croatian, while a Croatian expat in Vietnam is not expected to learn Vietnamese. A Croat traveling to Russia is expected to know Russian, while a Russian traveling to Croatia is not expected to know Croatian. If any of the above come to Germany, they are expected to know German or English, while Germans are not expected to know Vietnamese, Croatian or Russian. However, Germans are expected to know English if traveling to an English-speaking country. English speakers top this hierarchy: no matter where they travel, they are never truly expected to have learned the local language.

This means that every Westerner has the privilege of being able to travel or even live as expats in vast parts of the world without being expected to learn the language, while non-Westerners are generally expected to learn the language of Western countries they live in. This expectation is reflected in the words "expat" and "immigrant". If an "immigrant" fails to learn the local language, public opinion is quite harsh on them. If an "expat" fails to learn the local language, that is sad but common, expected even, and generally accepted. Often comparative wealth is key to the equation: people from poor countries are expected to learn the languages of wealthier countries if they come to work there, while people from wealthier countries are not expected to invest the time to learn poorer countries' languages.

Since learning languages takes time, people from wealthier countries thus have a privilege worth several hundred hours of job training, while people from poorer countries have to invest this many hours just to have more-or-less equal opportunities (often still worse because of prejudice). And it gets worse: when people from poorer countries learn the language of the country they immigrated to really well, they get barely any credit for it, even when learning to speak fluent German as e.g. a Vietnamese person is no simple feat. By contrast, those few language learners from wealthier countries who learn poorer countries' languages tend to get a lot of credit for knowing even the basics, especially if the difference in status is very big. An American speaking decent Thai may be interviewed on Thai TV, while a Thai person speaking fluent English is looked down upon for their accent.

Learning itself

When it comes to the process of learning, the question of privilege is not quite as clear-cut.

On the one hand, having English as your native language gives you access to a ton of language courses and apps. If you hire teachers, they will also be comparatively cheap. A person from e.g. Greece has very few language courses to choose from that are in Greek, i.e. they need to learn English first before they can learn most other languages, and English teachers are expensive.

On the other hand, since English speakers are not expected to successfully learn foreign languages, the language education at high schools is not well-funded and often does not yield even a fraction of the results that high school students in countries that "have to learn languages" will achieve. Also, once you both get to the intermediate/advanced stage, the non-English person may have the advantage, because there is a lot more material for English than there is material for Greek or whichever language caught your fancy. Intermediate/advanced materials for learning English are not just more abundant but also more accessible, via global companies like Netflix and Amazon, while such materials for Greek, Croatian or whatever can only be found off the beaten path. (They exist though! Let's exchange tips in the comments below!)

When you're in-country and hoping to speak to the locals in their native language, expectation privilege does a U-turn: people will often want to speak to you in English rather than helping you develop fluency in their language. (This depends on the country though.) Even if they want to help, they won't have much experience helping foreigners, which may mean that they keep speaking too fast, don't know which words are difficult or not, aren't used to people with foreign accents, and so on.

Somebody mentioned that Europeans have the privilege of being able to immerse themselves in a foreign language quite cheaply. If the target language is e.g. French, German, Italian, Greek or the like, that is true. Travel from North America will obviously take much longer and be much more costly. Though if the target language is Chinese, the travel time and cost is probably equal, and one may even argue that North Americans have the advantage, because there are a lot of Chinatowns in North America which don't exist in continental Europe. (The American melting-pot makes a lot of languages more accessible than they are in Europe.) For the average Vietnamese person, language immersion in Europe or in North America is probably equally out of reach.

Ease of learning

There is one advantage Westerners have that doesn't get mentioned a lot: all major European languages (and many smaller ones) are fairly close, part of the same larger language family. This means that all of us who speak a European language as a native language (including those living in South America or Africa) are privileged when it comes to learning another European language. Asian language speakers do not have the same advantage: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Hindi, Tamil, Thai and Vietnamese are not related*, not even on the level that Russian and English can be said to be related. Of course Mandarin Chinese speakers are privileged when it comes to learning Cantonese, and Thai speakers are privileged when it comes to learning Laotian, but for Asian language speakers the economic benefit of learning a similar language is much smaller, and there are a lot of very useful languages that will require an immense amount of effort.

* apart from Japanese having adopted a lot of Chinese characters, and the other languages showing signs of interaction with neighbouring languages as usual.


Privilege in language-learning is a complex beast. There is privilege related to your native language, privilege related to coming from a wealthy country, and privilege related to living in Europe in particular. These are often found in combination and people who have none of these privileges should get a lot more praise for their success in language-learning. At the same time, I hope I showed that no privilege is without downsides even for the people so privileged.

I really believe that we should value everyone's efforts to learn languages. We should get rid of the idea that some people are supposed to learn our language but we don't need to learn theirs. And ideally we should create a world where it's not necessary for people to make a huge effort to learn certain languages in order to contribute their knowledge and their skills to the world, because statistically a lot of people will never succeed, or they will lose several years doing so, when instead they could have been curing cancer. That is why I support Esperanto as an easy lingua franca, a linguistic handshake between equals. Esperanto is also an excellent choice to train your language-learning muscle. Read more here.


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Just when you've nicely settled into your target language and you are more or less comfortable with its quirks and challenges, the next monster arises: the dreaded Intermediate Plateau.

The Intermediate Plateau is a phase mainly characterised by disorientation: things are no longer as clear as when you had a beginner-level course that you could simply follow in order to be sure to make progress. Even if you found an intermediate-level course for your target language, it is uncertain whether this course will catapult you forward in the way that you are used to. You may be trying different things and none of them seem to have an impact.

There are two reasons for this:

1. Diminishing returns. As a beginner, each 100 words that you learn mean a big step forward. Going from knowing 50 words to knowing 150 words? A game-changer. Going from knowing 500 words to knowing 600 words? That's still a 20% improvement and you'll encounter at least a few of the new words every time you practice the language. At the intermediate level, each 100 words may just be a 5% improvement, and you may never encounter most of these words again if you collected them from an intermediate-level course or a frequency list rather than from a topic that you're regularly engaging with, so you miss out on the "Yay! I couldn't say that last week but this week I can!" moments.

2. The "hammock". It is very easy to find the language-learning equivalent of a hammock and stay there. Have a call with a tutor, talk about the weather and what you did yesterday, listen to a few target-language songs you like, call it a week. If you keep doing this, you will very quickly have learned almost all the words you'll ever need for these types of conversations and these songs, and your ability won't grow.

How to overcome the plateau

You have to challenge yourself. Maybe even literally, through one of these challenges. But the key point is to consume materials and have conversations (including written, on forums) where you regularly notice that you're missing vocabulary... and to stay on that topic until you notice that you aren't regularly missing vocabulary anymore.

Fluency is never more than topic fluency: first you become fluent in talking about yourself, then about everyday topics, then maybe an area of interest, but you'll never be fluent in all possible topics. I'm fully fluent in English and I still cannot talk even high school level chemistry in English. By contrast, I find it challenging to talk about economics in my native German, because economics is a topic I've only studied in English. This is the secret to overcoming the plateau: pick one topic, become fluent in it, pick another topic, become fluent in it, pick a third topic, become fluent in it... until there are no more topics that are useful/interesting to you at this time. (You're allowed to come back to it later.) With each topic, you are stretching yourself, you are learning a ton of new vocabulary and expressions, and you are upgrading your knowledge from intermediate to advanced.

Note that in order to pass the advanced levels of official exams, you are required to have politics / social issues among your fluent topics, i.e. being able to understand and to comment on texts covering e.g. climate change, pollution, poverty, aging populations, the prospects and perils of technology, cultural differences between your country and the target country, and so on.

Case Studies

I have reached an advanced level in many languages already. Here are a few examples of how I did so:

English: I joined a "Global Affairs" forum where English native speakers were commenting on current events. Not shitposting; most of them were university graduates writing multi-paragraph commentary that could have been published as a newspaper editorial. It did wonders for my vocabulary and essay skills, especially once I started writing there myself.

Chinese, first time: The first time I got stuck in Chinese, I solved it by getting sucked down a rabbit hole. Rabbit holes are language learners' friends, as long as they are in the target language. In this case, the rabbit hole was Romance of the Three Kingdoms (ROTK), one of the four greatest classics of Chinese literature. I started by watching 1995 TV series on Youtube with English subtitles (80+ episodes). Then I wanted to watch the just-released 2010 remake (another 80+ episodes), and this series was only available with Chinese subtitles, so I got better at reading characters. Then something weird happened in one of the episodes and I wanted to understand it, so I googled discussions of that episode, which were, as you guessed it, in Chinese. That day I learned how to quickly skim Chinese text in order to find the part that I'm interested in, and I spent several hours reading Chinese just that one day, going from link to link, deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. It wasn't the only time that happened.

Chinese, second time: After that, when I got stuck again (at a level suitable to watching ROTK but not truly advanced), Richard Simcott helped me out. He convinced me to join university classes that forced me to regularly do Powerpoint presentations in Chinese, debate social issues, even talk about linguistics in Chinese and write a linguistics essay in Chinese! All of these forced me to develop a vocabulary beyond what's necessary to talk about everyday life and my Chinese improved by leaps and bounds. (For those interested: the classes are offered by Dalarna University online and they are free for EU citizens.)

Serbo-Croatian: After completing my beginner-level textbook and feeling stuck, I bought the first level of a series of easy readers by Ana Bilić. When I finished reading that, I bought the second level, then the third, the fourth... laddering up that way, at the end I was able to start reading books for native speakers. The vocabulary I learned this way has also helped my listening comprehension of TV series.

Modern Greek: I was never a typical beginner in Greek because I more or less started learning it by reading news articles (when you're really passionately curious about a topic, and you use the Reading Tool or an equivalent browser plugin, anything is possible). However, when I decided to develop my speaking ability, I quickly hit a plateau where I could talk about my everyday life but I wasn't developing further. This is because I am very good at rephrasing what I want to say in simpler words, which is essential for my "quick and dirty conversational ability" plan, but it can be a problem at the intermediate level, where I might say "What did the Prime Minister say last night?" rather than "What did the Prime Minister announce last night?" and so on. The solution has been to force myself not to chatter away but to deliberately pause and try to come up with the most suitable word, which I probably know very well passively but not actively.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you! Good luck with your studies!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

If you want to learn a musical instrument and you have never learned one before, chances are that people will recommend you learn e.g. the recorder (flute) before learning the saxophone or the trumpet. The recorder is simple, but not so simple that you cannot learn something about rhythm, notes, tonality and the mechanics of playing a woodwind instrument, along with enjoying the feeling of success that comes with being able to play a familiar melody on an instrument.

The same argument can be made for languages. There are languages that are easier and languages that are harder, so if you are currently trying to learn a language deemed 'hard' and it's doing your brain in, you may want to try an easier language - not to abandon your chosen target language, but to learn some concepts in an easier form before tackling them in a harder form. Even a few hours spent on an easier language can help you make faster progress in your chosen target language. In the case of Esperanto, which is perhaps the easiest human language, various studies have shown that the effect of learning Esperanto is so pronounced that it makes up for the extra time spent, e.g. students who spent one year on Esperanto and then three years on French ended up with a better command of French than those who had studied four years of French. Why? I will give some reasons below.


Different students have different pain points, but grammar is pretty consistently named as a source of difficulty. Some languages have very extensive grammar while others have simple grammar. For example, imagine that you want to say "he laughed". In Greek, you'd be squinting at this:

In Spanish, you'd find this:


While in Esperanto, there is only one possible form.

If you're learning French, there are less (currently-used) forms to learn than in Spanish, but there are more exceptions than rules. Even French native speakers often have to refer to a grammar book for those. In Esperanto there are no irregularities.

In Esperanto, when you're talking about the present, you always use the ending -as:

mi ridas (I laugh / I am laughing)

li ridas (he laughs / he is laughing)

When you're talking about something in the past, you always use the ending -is:

mi ridis (I laughed / I have laughed / I was laughing)

li ridis (he laughed / he has laughed / he was laughing)

As you can see, the -as stays -as and the -is stays -is. As you can also see, there is only one way of talking about the present and only way of talking about the past, unlike in English, which introduces artificial differences like "I laughed" vs. "I have laughed" vs. "I was laughing". Esperanto can help you become comfortable with the idea of tenses and of verb endings... without dumping a whole table of them on you, plus a long list of exceptions. This doesn't just mean it's faster - it also allows you to focus on the essentials. If you imagine a story about something that happened in the past, and you keep seeing -is, -is, -is, -is, that's more striking than when it's -ia one time, -ado the next time, -iste the third time...

If your target language has cases (e.g. German or most Slavic languages), you'll be particularly happy for this, because the idea of cases is quite hard to grasp for English speakers. Esperanto only has the Accusative and it always ends in -n, even in plural and even for personal pronouns, so after studying two weeks of Esperanto, you'll have a better grasp on the function of the Accusative (and on cases in general) than after two MONTHS of Russian.


Apart from learning grammar, you also have to get used to foreign vocabulary. Most importantly, you have to get used to the idea that foreign languages use words differently and that there is no 1-to-1 mapping of words. You also have to figure out how to memorize vocabulary and how to retrieve it during conversation. These are basic abilities that you don't necessarily have if you're not yet fluent in a single foreign language. Esperanto can be a good way to acquire these abilities without being weighed down by the amount of stuff you have to learn. In Esperanto, you can have basic conversations much sooner than in other languages because there is so much less grammar and because there is also less vocabulary. A lot of Esperanto vocabulary is simply the same word with a different ending or with something attached to it. All in all, in order to reach the same level of fluency in Spanish and Esperanto, you'd need 5000 Spanish word roots but only 500 Esperanto ones.

These things that attach to words (prefixes and suffixes, collectively called affixes) are a major discovery when it comes to learning languages, so much so that I've written an entire blog post just about them. If your target language is Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese or German, you will benefit from Esperanto's stock of Romance and German word roots that will be a nice foundation for acquiring these languages later. However, if your target language is Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Swahili or any non-European language, you will benefit from understanding the universal system that determines how humans create vocabulary, and there is no language better suited to teaching you this system than Esperanto. It is the only language that has this system in pure form - applying it 100% all the time to everything, without exceptions or "we don't say it that way".


It is said that the second foreign language is easier to learn than the first, the third is easier to learn than the second, the fourth is easier than the third... each language makes it easier to learn another, because you're getting better at learning languages itself. All those minor skills like being able to understand grammar features, to memorize vocabulary, to master a foreign prosody, to apply a foreign language filter to your thoughts before speaking, and so on, all skills start from near-zero, they are significantly better after learning one foreign language than after zero, and then they continue to improve at a slower pace with each foreign language you add.

This means that there are many transferable skills and it is possible to get better at language acquisition in the abstract and then use this in order to better learn any other language you want to learn. If your goal is to learn a language that is widely regarded as difficult, e.g. Japanese or Korean, then having higher language acquisition skills will help you make progress faster and be less frustrated than someone whose language acquisition muscles are completely untrained.

Another analogy: if you're planning to climb a mountain, it helps if you're not a couch potato suddenly trying to climb a mountain but if you've done other sports. That is not to say that couch potatoes absolutely need to take up cycling or weight-lifting before training to climb, but the difficulty of some sports is such that newbies may need so much time and effort to get anywhere worthwhile that most will get discouraged beforehand.

Same for languages: the difficulty of some languages is such that newbies may need so much time and effort to get anywhere worthwhile that most will get discouraged beforehand. There are people who have mastered difficult languages without having studied any other language, but the amount of time and effort involved is insane. I recommend studying at least the basics of Esperanto in order to learn essential concepts and build up those language acquisition skills, after that it will require a lot less time and effort to achieve a good level in a harder language.

Next steps

If you're convinced, my top 3 ways to learn Esperanto are:

1. Teach Yourself Complete Esperanto (book with free audio), which will bring you up to B2 (upper intermediate) level, with a particular emphasis on conversational ability.

2. If you only want get a taste, I recommend the free course at .

3. My least favourite is the Duolingo Esperanto course. It's a good course, more gamified and possibly more fun, but Duolingo did not allow course creators to display explanations of the grammar and word creation system, so you're missing out on a lot of the things that make Esperanto such a help in learning other foreign languages.

Esperanto is not just a tool to learn other languages though. You can actually use it to talk to people with whom you have no other common language (I did so in Japan), read original works of literature, listen to music, go to festivals, travel more cheaply, and so on. Here's a list of useful links for those who have just completed a basic Esperanto course. 

Good luck in your studies!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

As someone who has learned more than a dozen human languages and seven programming languages, I am often asked how the two compare and whether someone who is good at learning one will also be good at learning the other. The answer is complicated, so I will take it aspect by aspect.


The vocabulary of programming languages is almost always based on English and it has been chosen to be relatively easy to understand for people who speak English. Consider this:

if it_rains then do |window|




... all of these are, on the surface, English words. The effect is that (assuming I live in a smart home where the computer controls the windows) if it rains, this Ruby code will loop over the windows in my home and shut each one. Hint: in well-written code, the indentation helps you see what belongs together, i.e. lines 2-4 are only run if it rains, and line 3 is executed for each window.

There are programming languages where the names of commands are not based on English, for example the table functions in Excel are usually translated: on a German computer, "SUM()" will be "SUMME()", "IF()" will be "WENN()" and so on. There is also a programming language equivalent of Klingon, i.e. a language intended to be alien to the human mind and hard to learn. This programming language is appropriately called Brainfuck.

I coded my first program two years before I started to learn English. Not knowing English wasn't a big issue (the only lasting damage being that I am always tempted to pronounce "height" as "hey-t") because most programming languages have a vocabulary of less than 100 words. That being said, these days almost all programming involves additional classes/plug-ins rather than the pure programming languages, and these classes will add their own jargon. It is comparable to how, even after graduating high school, you still need to learn a lot of technical/medical/other terms depending on the field you'll work in.

Unlike in human languages, you will also be defining a lot of words yourself, i.e. variable names, class names and function names that you'll use at various points in a project and that you'll need to remember and spell consistently if you don't want to see weird malfunctions.


Programming languages do not conjugate verbs and most do not care about noun plurals either. However, there are very strict syntax rules. For example, in line 1 of my example program, the thing that follows "if" needs to be an expression that is true or false. It could be a true/false variable like it_rains or a comparison like (x > 1). After "then" there shall be one or more lines of instructions. After "" you necessarily need either "do" or an opening bracket. After "do" you can have |window| or |x| but not e.g. a question mark or other punctuation, a single | character, or even window.shut!

Programming languages, like human languages, do not allow you to reference something before having defined it. If you have a line if x > 1 and you did not previously define x, your code won't execute. Similarly, if you leave out the |window| part in line 2, window.shut! won't work in line 3 because the computer won't know which window where. Similarly, in human languages, saying you met "him" when you haven't mention a guy before, or saying "Liz shouldn't have done this" when your interlocutor doesn't know anything Liz did, will leave people puzzled.


Usage is where human languages and programming languages really differ. Programming languages are never spoken, so you can forget about working on your listening comprehension or speaking abilities. You only need to be able to write. And probably read. In some programming languages, writing is a lot easier than understanding something that has been written, while in others it's the other way round. It also depends on the programmer. Good programmers write in a way that is easy to understand. But in the end, human comprehension of the code is not essential. What matters is that computers understand it correctly. And for that, the key factor is that every assumption must be made explicit and every contingency must be covered.

For example, my little code snippet assumes something called my_home. It has to have been defined previously in the code, otherwise the computer won't try to guess. Computers are much, much worse at inference than humans. They have to be told every little thing. For example, what if they are instructed to shut a window but the window is already shut? Or what if they are in a house under construction and the window is just a hole in the wall for now - how are they supposed to shut that? Humans have common sense, computers don't.


Since the vocabulary consists of less than a hundred words and these are identical to English (if used somewhat differently), learning vocabulary does not take a lot of time in your education as a programmer. The syntax also isn't terribly difficult, though you may find it hard to eradicate fossilised mistakes, e.g. forgetting to end each statement with a semi-colon if you come from a language that doesn't do that.

What's so difficult about learning to code then?

It's the mentality. It's learning to communicate in a overly clear and structured way that you never need when talking to humans, no matter which culture. Imagine telling someone to open the door. In every human language, you will translate something like "Open the door", "Could you please open the door?" or "It would be great if someone opened the door". Whereas when translating this request into a programming language for a robot to follow, you need to be ready to say something like "Walk forward until the distance between you and the door is less than two meters. Extend your arm forward at a height of one meter until you feel a handle. Close your hand around the handle. Push down. Move your arm backwards and to the right. If you feel the door touching you while moving your arm backwards and to the right, take a step backwards to get out of the way of the opening door. ..." ... this is the SHORT version and it's not even complete.


While programming languages also have vocabulary and syntax, being good at memorizing vocabulary or applying syntax is not the most important skill for programmers. Programmers primarily need to be able to think in very structured, very detailed ways. If you are good at that, then yes, being good at spelling and memorizing are valuable skills also in programmers - but no amount of memory power can make up for an inability to structure things.

Accordingly, I have not found many programmers who are also very good at human languages. More commonly, they are good at process planning, i.e. what needs to happen when and in which order, at understanding large systems, or at math (though I personally am not). When learning languages, programmers often despair about inconsistencies (why is it "I ring - I rang" and "I sing - I sang" but not "I bring - I brang"??) and things that native speakers say "feel right" or "feel wrong" without any clear rules. They are often drawn to the more structured, more logical languages, such as Latin or Esperanto.

I'd still say that if you have learned at least one foreign language to a high level, that can help you when learning programming languages, because you will know that English is not the measure of all things and that you have to think in-culture in order to come up with the most appropriate way to phrase something. This ability to switch between your culture's mindset and a completely different culture's mindset, and then communicating in their preferred style and including the kind of details they care about (which may be less relevant in your culture), is a good ability to have and to train, whether for human languages or programming languages.

If you are a polyglot looking to learn a first programming language, I recommend Ruby, because it's both easy and useful. If you're coming the other direction, try Esperanto! A friend compared it to learning the recorder before learning the saxophone - the underlying basics of music and playing an instrument are the same, but the recorder is much simpler, thereby allowing you to concentrate on mastering the essentials. For me, Esperanto (which I learned as my 5th language) has also helped me better understand languages as different as Arabic, Swahili and Indonesian.

Good luck in your studies!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Thanks! I don't usually manage 1h / day of tutoring every day, because I'm an introvert and if I spend one hour in conversation in addition to what is necessary for my work, I need too much time to recharge. Also I need time to add all the new vocabulary to Anki and study it all before the next session, otherwise tutoring isn't as effective for me. So I usually go for 3h / week of tutoring when studying a new language intensely, and then on and off after that. 

I try to have the conversations with tutors as early as possible because they flip a switch in my brain and make it so much easier to remember even textbook content. It's like my brain doesn't really know what to do with this information I insist on flinging at it until it sees that it needs this material in conversation. But most importantly, any word that I need during a tutoring session is worth its weight in gold - unlike vocabulary lists from textbooks, I'll keep re-using every single word I have to ask for. My ideal word list would be the 600 most common words/expressions I have to ask tutors. With those I could probably talk about anything all day long. 


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Today I would like to evaluate the idea of implementing a Silent Period, which has been suggested by several polyglot bloggers. I will cover various aspects of it, including the idea, effectiveness and comfort.


The Silent Period is defined as a period of several weeks up to a year during which language learners understand a lot passively but don't try to speak (much). The phenomenon was initially observed by Stephen Krashen and subsequently in various experiments. What is important though is that these experiments observed that language learners generally have this kind of period, NOT that it is good for them, i.e. there is no proof that learners who spend a longer period being silent at the beginning of their studies will later be more fluent speakers than learners who make an effort to speak earlier.

In my view, the existence of a Silent Period could very well be an artefact of the way languages are taught: when you're in a classroom with 17 other students for a 90 minute class, and this time is divided equally between all students, you will by necessity spend at least 85 minutes listening and at most 5 minutes speaking, probably much less or even not speaking at all, depending on how long the teacher speaks. Significant amounts of speaking can therefore only happen once you're advanced enough to venture outside the classroom. Similarly, if you're using a self-study method like Teach Yourself, Colloquial or Duolingo, speaking is one of the most neglected parts of your learning, because it is hard to simulate this without a teacher who talks with you. That is why my Roadmap to Quick & Dirty Conversational Ability includes a healthy dose of 1:1 speaking practice.


Of course it depends on your goals. If your goal is to e.g. be able to read books in your target language, then it may make sense to not pursue speaking ability at all in order to make faster progress on your reading comprehension. There are even self-study textbooks like Spanish for Reading which are dedicated to teaching you to read Spanish and which completely leave out any mention of how to ask someone their name, ask them how they are and so on. If it's a conscious choice to skip conversation and focus 100% on comprehension, if your primary motivation to learn the language is to be able to read books or understand TV series, then absolutely have a Silent Period for years and years if you want.

If however you are motivated by the idea of being able to talk with your family/neighbours/friends or people abroad in their native language, then you need to plan how you will build up your speaking ability. Speaking ability does not miraculously arise after X months of only reading. Compare this to someone who wants to learn how to swim and watches a ton of how-to-swim videos, swimming championships and so on. This person will not suddenly be able to swim one day. In fact, there are diminishing returns to time spent watching people swim without having the experience of swimming yourself:

1. You don't know what to watch out for.

2. You cannot judge how this technique would truly feel until you've tried it in the water yourself.

3. The videos could probably help you eliminate some mistakes you're making, but for that you first have to know which mistakes you're making, so that you can zoom in on how the professionals are doing it differently.

4. Even if you are gifted with incredible powers of observation of the smallest details, and incredible powers of imitation, you cannot hope to imitate the professionals until you've built up the muscles and internalised the motion sequences.

All of this also applies to language-learning. Yes, even the part about building up muscles, because your mouth and tongue need to practice producing the foreign sounds and practice transitions between sounds that are not normally combined in your native language (e.g. Greek F-TH) before they can produce the foreign language in a somewhat fluid fashion. Some language learners report actual fatigue or soreness in the mouth after speaking for a while.

The same applies to the brain: your brain likes to work in chunks. It would be way too much effort to cook each sentence from scratch (from words and grammar), instead your brain just heats up pre-cooked bits and maybe adds one or two extra ingredients. In order for that to happen, it has to have a lot of pre-cooked bits lying around. And these bits are cooked while having a ton of awkward and then less-awkward conversations. You cannot avoid having awkward and slow conversations, you can just delay them. But if you delay them, you also delay the time when you'll stop sounding awkward. That only makes sense if your goal is not "having conversations ASAP" but something else.

Does it make any sense then to have a Silent Period?

Well, I rarely "speak from day 1", as Benny Lewis would advocate. I don't enjoy using Google Translate to translate their question and then use it again to translate what I want to reply and so on. I generally study

a) greetings

b) how are you and

c) introducing myself

before I have a first session with a tutor, so that there is something I can practice.

This also means that in the case of languages that express things very differently from English (e.g. Japanese), I spend slightly more time in this "Silent Period" because I need more time to understand the sentence patterns I see in my textbook. Meanwhile in languages like Spanish, French, Swedish and so on, I take one glance at a sentence and note X=A, Y=B, Z=C, alright, got it, can do.

I don't have unlimited money, so I don't want to use precious tutor time on having them teach me something that I could have learned perfectly well by myself. Rather, for me all tutoring time should be used practicing conversation, practicing what I've tried to teach myself and, if necessary, correcting anything I misunderstood. On average I spend about a week using self-study materials before I'm ready to start practicing conversations with a tutor, sometimes two weeks if I'm slow. Definitely not more than that, because I know that "no plan survives contact with the enemy" and I need this contact in order to orient myself, to know what to focus on and to get more out of the self-study materials I'm using (just like the person learning to swim who needs to actually try it in order to get more out of observing others).


Of course first contact always feels daunting. I just remind myself that it's supposed to be that way and that it's a necessary first step if I want to eventually have those fascinating, fun, natural conversations with native speakers.

To make conversations a bit less daunting, you could try self-talk at first: act out the dialogues from your textbook and then start improvising your own dialogues. When you cannot get yourself to book a 45min 1:1 class with a tutor, set a timer and spend those 45 minutes having a target-language conversation (out loud and without writing out sentences!) with yourself, introducing yourself, asking how you are, talking about the weather, about hobbies and so on. This will get boring fast, so then book a class with a tutor - we humans are wired to like getting to know other people and learning things we didn't know from them, so even if you don't know any more words than you did in your self-talk, the conversation with a tutor will feel more interesting. Also, tutors can correct you and help you express more and more, while on your own you're likely to fossilise mistakes. Don't feel bad if you cannot speak very well during this class - if you could, you wouldn't have booked a class, and the tutor would be out of a job. That's the whole point of booking classes rather than talking with friends and random native speakers in your life.

Once you've had a few conversations yourself, the way that you observe other people's conversations will probably be quite different.

In my experience, there are (at least) three modes of observing conversations in a foreign language:

1. "How pretty!", i.e. not even focusing on the content but just noticing how beautiful it sounds and maybe imitating a few syllables.

2. "Yep, got it", i.e. focusing on understanding what is being said and placing a mental checkmark on each chunk that you understood.

3. "How useful!", i.e. focusing on gleaning expressions that you could use in your next conversation, noting the way someone asked a question or changed the topic and imagining your own answer.

This third mode is the most important when it comes to developing your speaking ability, and it develops only once you start having conversations yourself. From now on, make an active effort to use this mode when listening.


The Silent Period is a fact of life: both the way language teaching is set up and our own comfort pushes us to stay silent at the beginning of our studies - and possibly for a long time if there is no outside pressure to start speaking.

This does not mean that the Silent Period is something we should actively pursue. In my view, 1-2 weeks of silence is probably not a bad thing while you learn the very basics, but as soon as you have studied some dialogues you should try to have some conversation yourself, in order to activate a mode of learning that constantly evaluates your way of using the language vs. native speakers' way of using the language. If you never try using the language yourself, you risk getting stuck in an observational mode where the target language is a pretty object but not something relevant to your self-expression.

Happy language learning!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Luis von Ahn is one of the smartest people on the planet. He has a knack for seeing two tough problems and solving the problems by combining them. The most famous example of this is the ReCAPTCHA, which combines

problem 1: websites have trouble with too many bots accessing them and

problem 2: when digitizing old books, computers often don't manage to read parts where the print is unclear.

Luis saw that problem 2 is a good filter to distinguish computers (bots) from humans, which made it the perfect solution for problem 1. He invented ReCAPTCHA and sold it to Google in 2009. For several years after that, whenever you wanted to register for a forum or other website, you had to help computers read old books by solving a ReCAPTCHA challenge. Eventually computers got too good and humans got too naughty (there was a concerted effort to convince ReCAPTCHA that all missing words in old books should read "penis"), so nowadays ReCAPTCHA has us identify ships and traffic lights and whatnot within images, contributing to another part of machine learning.

Duolingo in the 2010s

When inventing Duolingo, the two problems that Luis was trying to solve by combining them were:

problem 1: too much web content is monolingual while readers are increasingly diverse and speak many languages

problem 2: learning a foreign language is often unaffordable to those who could benefit from it the most, and also takes too much time.

Luis' solution was to create a free online language course that would be profitable because students would, as part of their studies, translate ephemeral web content for major companies. He even got CNN and Buzzfeed on board with this and soon millions of students were using Duolingo. In the end, this model had to be given up for similar reasons as the original ReCAPTCHA: computers got too good at machine translation (at least better than beginning language students) and humans got too naughty (inserting vulgar words into texts they were supposed to translate and mass upvoting particularly "creative" translations). Also, there were legal issues, since in the EU it is illegal to sell work (translations) that was created by unpaid workers.

Bereft of this method of monetisation, Duolingo had to find ways to earn money from those studying languages on it, hence the various for-pay items and subscriptions that you see now, and their IPO.

Educational model

There was another thought in inventing Duolingo though: the idea that language education at US high schools is inefficient and usually unsuccessful. This is something few polyglots doubt. However, Duolingo's model in the early 2010s was a classic example of tech solutionism: rejecting the insights of centuries of didactics, deliberately not hiring professionals to create courses, and instead believing that Artificial Intelligence would find a more efficient way of teaching languages.

For this, they needed a lot of sentences (so the system could figure out which ones were easiest and would make a good learning path) and a lot of learners. This is why early Duolingo courses were famous for teaching a lot of words for animals, a lot of words for fruit, and then having tons of sentences of the type "The <animal> eats the <fruit>" and "The <animals> eat <fruits>". Once you suspend disbelief, it is possible to generate a huge number of sentences like this, just swapping out the name of the animal and the name of the fruit.

An experienced educator might have told them that it's also possible to generate a huge number of sentences of the type "<name> is (not) (in/from) <city>", which is more useful for conversations AND easier (in most languages this would not involve noun gender, conjugation or cases), and could be followed up by "<name> is a / works as a <profession>" in order to gradually introduce noun gender and other grammar... but when you try to re-invent a field from first principles, you re-invent it from first principles. The real problem (well, one of them) is that Duolingo's AI was always at least an order of magnitude short of the amount of sentences that it would have needed in order to train itself to show these easier, more useful sentences first.

Another feature of Duolingo's approach to language teaching has been the focus on inductive learning, i.e. expecting learners to deduce grammatical rules from the examples they see rather than from explicit instruction. (Luis von Ahn explained to me that their experiments showed that learners were more likely to exit the site when shown grammar explanations.) There is nothing wrong with inductive learning - there is a scientific basis for it - but it does not combine very well with an approach that shows only one sentence at a time. Most learners will not remember previous sentences well enough in order to be able to compare and deduce a rule. Doubly so if the previous sentence is randomly chosen by the AI rather than specifically designed to enable a comparison and make it easy to infer what is going on.

The focus on teaching languages sentence-by-sentence also means that (in my experience) Duolingo students perform worse in conversations. Even if they were lucky enough to study a course that does put an emphasis on useful phrases like "I am from <place>" rather than "The duck eats the strawberry", the problem is that they did not see this phrase in the context of the question "Where are you from?", so they lack the reflex, which other courses hone, of answering "Where are you from?" with "I am from <place>", and many other conversational reflexes.

Recent changes

Bit by bit, Duolingo is addressing all of these issues. Their Spanish course - always the avant garde - now has some explicit grammar instruction, many useful phrases for conversation, and even dialog-based exercises where students learn to answer common questions. I am hoping that these features will be rolled out to more and more languages. Many of the less popular languages still have units that teach several dozen adjectives, or several dozen verbs, or all prepositions... these are didactic nonsense and should be replaced as soon as possible.

Given that, according to Duolingo's own claim, more people study languages on Duolingo than in the American high school system, it makes sense that regulators should push for a minimum of quality. For European languages, quality is usually measured through the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which determines what students should know at which level, so that courses, grammar books, easy readers and so on can all target particular levels. The CEFR also provides standardized language tests that are accepted throughout Europe.

When I was feeling particularly altruistic - and particularly annoyed by "20 of your favourite prepositions" type lessons - I decided to join Duolingo's volunteer team in order to make the Greek course CEFR-compliant. In fact almost all Duolingo courses were created and maintained by volunteers. This explains the great difference in quality within and between courses, e.g. for the Esperanto course the volunteers included some of the best-known teachers of the language, but - based on my interaction with fellow volunteers - it seems that most of them were students and homemakers rather than trained teachers. In 2021, as part of the preparation for Duolingo's IPO, all the volunteers were told they could no longer contribute to the courses except if Duolingo hired them. (There was also an award of some monetary value to reward their existing work.) The number of hired contributors is only a fraction of the original volunteer workforce, meaning that it takes longer to have mistakes fixed and efforts like mine to make the Greek course compatible with the CEFR had to be abandoned. It's ironic that Duolingo now claims its courses are compatible with the CEFR. The Spanish course may be, and perhaps other major courses like French or German (haven't been able to check), but I know for sure that the Greek course isn't yet compatible and I have doubts about most smaller EU languages.

The most recent change, which has upset a lot of users, is the introduction of a Path: learners can no longer choose which lesson to study next, or when to upgrade a lesson from level 1 to level 2 and beyond, this is now determined for them. Despite all the complaints, that is one change I don't reject. It's a well-known secret that some learners would study the entire tree on level 1 only and that this would result in them forgetting most vocabulary before it could be solidified. (To pass level 1 or even 2, you only have to recognise a word, not actively know it. Active knowledge mainly comes in later levels.) The Duolingo-recommended way of studying their tree was the "wave" model, i.e. completing all lessons in the newest section on level 1, then going back to the previous section and completing level 2, going back to the section even before that and completing level 3, and so on. I suspect that most Duolingo users did not hear about this or did not implement it, so it's good that the system now enforces it via the Path, and also integrates regular practice sessions.

The Path also abolishes the ability to choose between 2-3 different topics that could be studied next. Having that choice was nice - several times I only continued because I could switch from a boring topic to a more interesting one for a bit - but I know that for teachers it's easier to create self-reinforcing lessons if they know which topics were mastered before. Of course the lessons would have to be re-written in order to take advantage of this now; otherwise they should continue to let people choose.

Duolingo today

Duolingo has come a long way from the original idea. A lot of the original mistakes and misconceptions have been fixed. However, I would still only recommend it as one tool among many - especially if your goal is speaking ability, you really need to supplement Duolingo with something else. Quality-wise, most Teach Yourself courses beat most Duolingo courses. The only case in which I heartily recommend Duolingo is if you are able to self-study grammar and your biggest issue is motivation/consistency - the amount of gamification in Duolingo makes it very easy to keep coming back to it. If you study inefficiently but you study every day, your results will be better than if you study efficiently once a month.

Good luck with your studies!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Developing your foreign language vocabulary has to be the most critical part of learning any foreign language. Without vocabulary, grammar is absolutely useless, and practice impossible. It makes sense then to think about how to acquire a lot of words quickly and efficiently, in such a way that you will actually be able to use them in real-world situations.

Why use Spaced Repetition?

Language-learning science broadly agrees that Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) are the best engine for moving foreign vocabulary into your long-term memory. The reason is that SRS works with your forgetting curve: it estimates how long it will take you to forget a certain flashcard and it asks you to review this card only just before you would have forgotten it. This saves you time compared to reviewing all the words each time. And it's more efficient than reviewing words whenever you feel like it, which may be too early for some and too late for others. When using a Spaced Repetition System, at the beginning, you may be asked to review a word the next day, then after 4 days, then after 8 days, then after 30 days... there is less and less work involved as the word enters your long-term memory.

Here's a neat visualisation of how this works:

Why use Anki?

Most serious language learners swear by Anki. It is not just free and open-source, it is also incredibly versatile and customisable, and there is a huge amount of ready-made decks for it. I actually coded my own SRS while in high school, but I stopped development once I tried Anki. It had all the features I was missing elsewhere and then some! That was over a dozen years ago and I've never dropped it - I have skipped studying for a week or a month at a time, but never uninstalled the app.

The main reason Anki is superior to other SRS is because it can store any kind of info (not just text but audio, video, even playable chess or Go problems!) and it can recombine this info when quizzing you - see the section titled "Have a different field for each kind of info". Also, Anki allows anyone to write plugins for it and many people have done so - gamifying your learning and speeding up card creation by pulling in audio, translations, transliterations and sample sentences from other sites. My most creative use of Anki was to use it to go from nothing to understanding a Japanese TV series in just 30 days.

Best practices for Anki (+ other SRS)

Having used Anki for over a dozen years now, here are some of the things I wish I had known from the start. A lot of these will also apply to other Spaced Repetition Systems:

Study regularly and in comfort. You want to feel good while studying. Seeing the statistics on how many words you have moved into your long-term memory is rewarding, but you should also make the process itself rewarding, e.g. by sitting comfortably on your couch or your terrace, within reach of a fresh cup of tea... create the kind of environment where you don't want to get up and leave. And make that a habit that you associate with Anki. Aim to study 10 minutes every day. If you look at your watch and the 10 minutes are up, you are free to stop even if Anki still has more cards for you. Don't set a timer though. If you look up and already 20 minutes have passed, be happy that you managed to be so immersed in your target language that you didn't notice the passage of time. In order to be able to study in comfort, you probably want the mobile app. The Android app is free and the iPhone app is well worth the money - so much more convenient to sync, plus you're supporting the guy who has worked for free for 15 years (so far) to code the desktop software.

If you fall behind, don't sweat it. A lot of people get demotivated by decks that have huge "due" numbers after holidays. I usually decommission those decks (not deleting them, just grouping them under "Inactive") when I've fallen behind too far and I don't feel bad about that: the main purpose of these decks was to help me memorize the new words and expressions I encountered during the last two weeks' of study. So if I skip a lot of days, those words and expressions will no longer be as relevant, I should put them on the back burner and instead focus on memorizing the words that I encountered more recently. I will bring back words from older decks if and when I run out of more up-to-date stuff to study.

Set a brisk pace, except when you're not. I generally only look at a card for 4-7 seconds before I decide whether to hit Easy, Good, Hard or Again (= did not know at all). Going through a deck quickly like this feels good to me; like a sport. And after all, even if I would have remembered the solution after 15 seconds, that is as good as not remembering it at all. When using a language in real life, you won't have 15 seconds to remember a word. Sometimes though, when I keep having to hit Again on the same card, I take a minute to invent a mnemonic for that card. Most cards don't need a mnemonic in order to move into long-term memory.

Focus on Production (English to target language) cards. Many of my decks have ONLY production cards, no recognition cards. In my experience, if I know a word well enough in order to be able to produce it, I'll also definitely recognize it in a text. So by testing myself on production only, I save 50% of the time it would otherwise take me to go through a deck.

Reduce reliance at the advanced level. Once you are consuming a lot of target-language media, decommission any decks that test you on basic vocabulary in that language. You will review it automatically through your consumption of media. I also don't believe in having decks covering advanced vocabulary, because in my experience I develop a better, more intuitive grasp of these words and when to use them (vs. when to use similar words) if I learn these words naturally by consuming target-language media, even without looking up meanings (tying foreign words to English is a losing concept once you're beyond everyday vocabulary). The only time I might use Anki for an advanced language is if there's a useful expression that I want to be able to use actively and that I might not hear so soon again, e.g. a slang expression that I heard while visiting the country if I don't live there.

Avoid having cards with a single word. Sometimes it's unavoidable, but for the purpose of being able to use the word naturally in conversation, the ideal card would have a chunk on it, a collocation of words, e.g. not "question" but "a hard question", so that you learn the correct article and a typical expression at the same time as you're learning the word for "question". When we speak a language fluently, it's because our mind has stored a lot of 2-4 word chunks, NOT a lot of single words. If all your brain had was a storage of single words, it would not be physically possible for the brain to retrieve these words and recombine them with grammar at a speed suitable to fluent conversation.

Use pre-made decks in moderation. Yes they save you a lot of time - but the time that you would have spent on creating the deck is also time during which your mind is centered on the target language. Creating Anki cards (like writing paper cards) is a way for your brain to start learning the words. The other issue is that pre-made decks are usually not perfect for you in terms of the vocabulary that is covered. They will teach you words that you won't ever use and they will miss expressions that you use a lot. So if you do use a pre-made deck, be sure to delete everything that seems useless to you and to add any expression that you needed during conversational classes.

Have a different field for each kind of info. E.g. when studying Chinese/Japanese characters, don't put the characters together with the romanization in a single field. You will see the Latin letters and ignore the characters. The power of Anki is that you can recombine the information. When testing yourself on the characters, you can have just the characters show up on the front of the card and romanization+meaning+example sentence on the back. When testing yourself on production, you can have the meaning on the front of the card and characters+romanization+example sentence on the back. This would require two different sets of cards if you used paper flashcards, but in Anki it's just a recombination of information. BUT: recombination only works if you enter the information into separate fields.

Make use of sub-decks. For example, I have the following Anki decks for Russian: !2022::Russian::italki, !2022::Russian::TeachYourself and !2022::Russian::Top5000Words . This means that the first order of grouping is by year - to distinguish the decks I'm actively studying this year from the inactive ones or the ones I created for purchase. (Do buy my decks if you're studying Chinese, Greek or Esperanto.) The ! in the name ensures this deck stays on top. The second order of grouping is by language of course. The third order of grouping is by where I found the words, or also to distinguish my home-made decks from ones I got from the Shared Decks section. This means that when I have a lot of time, I click on Russian and study everything. When I have less time and I'm preparing for a 1:1 lesson with a teacher, I click on !2022::Russian::italki in order to review the words my teachers taught me during previous lessons, so that I don't have to keep asking for the same stuff.

Check out Anki Add-ons. My top picks:

  • AwesomeTTS - will add audio to all your cards
  • HanziStats - for Chinese; shows you the % covered of HSK lists and frequency word lists and which words you're still missing
  • HeatMap - motivates you to study every day and not break the chain

Anki, being so versatile, has a bit of a learning curve, but nothing that watching a Youtube video or two won't cure. Give it a try for a few weeks and you won't want to memorize vocabulary any other way anymore! Good luck with your studies!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Language forums are full of people asking whether they could learn languages A and B at the same time. The reason this question keeps coming up and is never settled conclusively is because everyone's situation is different. So instead of telling you whether you can learn several languages at once, I will guide you to figure this out for yourself.

There are two main considerations:

1. Interference

2. Efficiency

Let's take them one by one.

1. Interference

When you're learning two languages that interfere with each other, that is obviously bad. In the worst case, you won't learn either of them well and you'll be stuck in a perpetual hell of Itañol (to give the most common example - Italian and Spanish are incredibly susceptible to interference).

You should be worried about interference if:

a) You are learning two languages from scratch. In this case, even languages from different language families but with somewhat similar phonetic systems (e.g. Greek and Swahili) can interfere with each other until you have reached level A2 in one of them.

b) You are learning two languages from the same language family and with a similar phonetic system (e.g. Spanish and Italian), and you are not yet at level C1 in one of these languages. In the case of languages that are so similar, A2 or B1 is not enough in order to stop confusing them; you need to reach a higher level.

Quite simply, for each bit of similarity, you need to compensate by having a higher level before you start the second language from scratch. In the case of languages with very distinct phonetic systems, e.g. French or Chinese, you may be able to learn two languages from scratch at the same time without too much interference.

If you're particularly susceptible to interference, ensure that you are level A2 or higher in every other language before you start a new one - or, if you cannot be bothered to improve a certain language anymore, accept that your less-than-A2 language will atrophy in favour of the new language.

2. Efficiency

Surprisingly enough, learning more than one language at once can be more efficient than learning just one language. Often it is not, but sometimes it can be.

Basically, you want to spend the maximum amount of hours on your new language when starting out, so that you quickly leave behind the boring beginner stage and get to enjoy the benefits of the intermediate level. These benefits include: being able to have conversations about everyday life, understanding more and more conversations in movies or TV series, being able to read online articles with the help of a dictionary or reading tool, and having to put in less time into maintenance (the higher your level, the less hours per month are necessary to keep the language at a reasonable level).

So generally, studying only one language at a time should give you the maximum amount of hours: every hour that you have available to study languages, you'll be studying this language and not splitting your time between several languages.

BUT, there are two cases where this does not apply.

1. If studying one language requires a lot of mental energy (e.g. studying a textbook, Anki) and studying the other language does not (e.g. because you're at a stage where you can just watch a TV series or read a comic and learn vocabulary from context), then it is more efficient to learn these two languages at the same time. Whenever you have a lot of mental energy at your disposal, study language A. Whenever your brain is mush, watch a TV series or read a comic in language B.

2. If you are one of the blessed people with several free hours a day that you can dedicate to language-learning, you may get overloaded or bored doing just one language, so that you stop and don't actually study as many hours as you could. You can try to counter this by using a variety of materials and teachers to make study time more interesting, but if you often find yourself stopping and not studying anymore for the rest of the free time, having a second target language (that you're excited about) may be the solution. It gives language A time to settle and it spices up the day. Your total time spent on languages will be higher then.

My own system

I usually have TWO focus languages for each 3-month period. One focus language is a language where I'm a beginner and need to do a lot of hard study, and the other language is one of my intermediate or advanced languages where I do less brain-intensive activities. By declaring both of them to be my focus, I put in more total time, compared to what I'd be doing if my only option was to study my beginner language - in that case I'd not do anything when my brain is mush.

Why 3 months? It isn't terribly long to put off the other shiny languages that call to me and it gives me the time to get to a decent level in them. I find that it is usually easy to maintain motivation and discipline for that long but harder later.

A recent example: for the past few months, I did a 90-day challenge to learn basic Russian from zero and simultaneously enrolled in the Super Challenge with a goal of reading 50 books in Serbocroatian and watching 50 movies in Serbocroatian by the end of next year. (Going in, my Serbocroatian was level B2 already.) This means that when I had the mental energy, I'd work on Russian, and when I had less/no mental energy, I can still put in some hours towards Serbocroatian by consuming some material in that language and counting it towards the Super Challenge. As for the C-level languages, I don't "study" them. In my experience, I need about 20 hours / year of maintenance for each C-level language and these are easily achieved without paying particular attention to hours, just by enjoying conversations, books, movies, news, emailing with friends and colleagues... When a language is well-integrated in your life, 20 hours is nothing.

Your specific case

Think about how the above applies to you:

=> If you expect interference because the languages are too similar and neither is at a high level yet, stop thinking about studying them at the same time and rather focus on upgrading the one you're better at - unless you're ready to lose that language.

=> If you have several hours a day and you often get bored before the time is up, you're cleared to study more than one language at the same time; it's probably more efficient than studying just one.

=> If you have limited time and you are planning to study two beginner languages, you'll be progressing at half (or less than half) speed and much more likely to lose motivation before you've made visible progress. Don't do it.

=> If you have limited time and you would like to study one language through brain-intensive methods (textbooks, Anki, classes) and another language through low-brain activities (watching TV, reading stuff), go for it! Just be sure to actually do the hard study whenever you have the mental energy.

Good luck with your studies!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

If your friend's highscore is just a little higher than yours, do you spend some time trying to beat that score? Not everyone is like this, but if you are, you need to check out language challenges. They take advantage of your competitive nature in order to help you make progress in your languages. And most of them are completely free. Here's a list, in no particular order:

Super Challenge

This is a long-term challenge, it lasts 20 months. During that time, you try to read 100 books (well, 5000 pages, as each 50 pages count as a book) and watch 100 hours of movies in your target language. There is also another version of the challenge where numbers are cut in half, which I'm currently participating in for Serbo-Croatian. If you are currently stuck on the intermediate plateau, the Super Challenge is the perfect challenge to reach C1 or C2 level, because it forces you to consume a metric ton of native content. You are also allowed to read easy readers, watch TV shows with subtitles and so on, so this challenge is also suitable if you're an upper beginner. Be sure to read my article on how to get started on books in foreign languages. The Super Challenge started not so long ago and will last until the end of 2023, so read about it and sign up now! (It's free) Use the website in order to see how fellow challengers are doing. 

6 Week Challenge

The 6 Week Challenge starts every 1st of August, 1st of November, 1st of February and 1st of May. It is intended for beginner languages and the challenge is to put in as many hours as possible for six weeks. The website has a highscore that tracks how many minutes everyone has put in. I often find that if a friend of mine has studied 5 minutes more than me, the urge to study a bit more myself becomes irresistible. Also, when you click through to someone's personal challenge page, the website provides neat graphics to visualise their study style. Sign up for free - joining this month's challenge is still possible and you may backfill your study time until now - and enjoy competing with friends and known polyglots alike.

Tadoku - "Read more or die"

The Tadoku Challenge is about reading as many pages as possible during a defined period (typically 4 weeks). Many participants study Japanese and you have to respect their determination to plow through books in a foreign script. Like the 6 Week Challenge, the Tadoku challenge runs an online highscore, only that it tracks pages read, not minutes spent. Obviously reading a page of a manga is not nearly as much text as the page of a novel, so there are conversions to "standard pages" for various types of reading materials. Even story-based video games count! And of course anything read with the Reading Tool counts as well. The next Tadoku Challenge runs from September 1st for a month and further editions start roughly every other month. Further info and free signup here.

30-Day Speaking Challenge

Many people can "win" this challenge because the goal is simply to record an audio of you speaking your target language every day for 30 days. You're not competing in how many minutes of recordings you manage to do; this challenge is simply about showing up. Instead of a highscore, there are neat communities on Facebook and Mighty Networks that motivate each other to keep going and sometimes provide corrections. You'll also receive daily prompts so that you don't have to wreck your mind trying to think of what to say - though if you don't like the prompt, you can also talk about something else. This challenge has a registration fee of $10 in order to cover the costs of the organizer, who is very actively involved. The challenge runs every month, always from the 1st of the month. Read more here.

Fluent in 3 Months Challenge

In this challenge, which is linked to Benny Lewis' Fluent in 3 Months blog, you are not actually trying for fluency but rather the ability to have a 15-minute conversation in your target language in 3 months. This challenge will work even if you are starting from zero - like me, when I was studying Russian just now. I have completed several of these challenges over the past decade, the format works for me and I find that they set me up for a very good start when learning a language from scratch. That being said, the registration fee is quite a lot higher than when I first participated and will be unaffordable for some ($397 without discounts last I checked). You can of course use my Roadmap to Quick & Dirty Conversational Ability in order to try to achieve the same goal without registering for the challenge. You'd miss out on a community of people who start at the same time as you, several experienced coaches whom you can ask all your language questions and who will cheer you on, mini-challenges to keep you on track, many pages of tips for each week, free access to some of Benny Lewis' online courses, and, if you come out on top, significant prize money. Challenges start every month or two, whenever the waiting list is long enough.

Lingua Franca Challenge

Having a community that starts to learn the same language at the same time as you is a powerful motivator, even if you don't all share the same goals or pace and don't compete in a highscore. The Lingua Franca Challenge is dedicated to this idea: a Facebook community that votes on a language to learn and then learns it together for six months. In order to give everyone a greater incentive, only the target language may be used in the community forum during the final three months of the challenge.

Final thoughts

Without an exam or other definite deadline looming over us, it is easy to put off studying today, and tomorrow, and the next day... The above challenges introduce some artificial urgency. Even when there are no prizes and nothing seriously bad happens if you fail, it is human nature to be competitive, so you will find yourself putting in extra hours and making progress faster than you otherwise would.

In my case, the first time that I participated in the Tadoku challenge, I found myself re-evaluating my days to try to squeeze in more reading time and I found many opportunities to do so. Some of these habits have stuck with me. So while the challenges don't last very long, the positive effects on your study habits may be permanent.

Admittedly some of these challenges sound insane. Reading 100 target-language books in less than two years for the Tadoku?? The only advice I have is to shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

In April, I was hosting some Ukrainian refugees (from the East of the country, i.e. Russian speakers) at my Berlin home and I couldn't communicate with them except through Google Translate. Apart from the practical challenges of doing so, not having a common languages also really embarrassed me - someone who could have a conversation in over a dozen languages but NOT Russian or Ukrainian - and I used this embarassment in order to catapult me into finally studying Russian, a difficult language for which I had really never had the motivation before. Now I had the motivation to at least learn enough for basic conversation, to avoid a repeat of this situation and hopefully be able to volunteer and use my new language skills to help more refugees.

In order to make this more interesting and avoid getting distracted by other languages that also need learning, I decided to challenge myself: I would learn as much conversational Russian as possible (next to my full-time job etc.) for three months and I'd publicly commit to this and be accountable to a community of other learners via the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge. This is a challenge whose goal is to be able to have a (even not-so-fluent) 15-minute conversation in the target language after 90 days, and they offer a ton of material and week-by-week advice for learners working towards this goal.

In my case, I was in it for the accountability rather than the advice - I knew I could do it and how, because I've previously succeeded in having nice conversations after 3 months or less of doing this kind of challenge for  Hebrew, CroatianJapanese and Vietnamese. I don't do such challenges often (only once a year or once every other year) and I don't consider myself to be anywhere near "done" with the language afterwards, but they are a nice way for me to score a quick win which allows me to sustain my learning over a longer period. Once I can have conversations in a language, it is a lot more fun to go back for more lessons, because the subject of the lesson won't be how to ask for the way but rather some interesting cultural aspect or anecdotes that happened to my teacher or me.

I started studying Russian from zero on May 1st and 90 days later my level was more or less this: (English subtitles available)

No it's not fluent. Of course there's a lot more to learn. BUT I'm very happy. Next time I have Ukrainian guests, I can actually have conversations with them, and not just bare basics like explaining where stuff is.

If you watched my other Day 90 videos I linked to above, you know that I pretty consistently achieve this kind of level within 3 months of starting from zero, even in non-European languages. Often a bit better, sometimes a bit worse.

My recipe

Overall, I'm going for at least 50 hours of hard study. (For Russian I did 54 hours.) These divide into:

  • 10 hours of studying "Teach Yourself Complete <language>" or "Michel Thomas <language>" - not Pimsleur or Duolingo or Rosetta Stone because they are too slow and don't focus on the right vocabulary for free conversations.
  • 20 hours of conversational lessons with a tutor who doesn't switch to English (except for single-word translations) - try several teachers until you find one with whom you can "talk for hours" about shared interests. Non-professionals are fine, especially in the 3rd month.
  • 20 hours spent on Anki, memorising the vocabulary from the Teach Yourself course and especially the vocabulary and phrases you encounter during your conversational lessons. Always require your teachers to write down the words you don't know and then enter them into Anki on the day after your lesson. Obviously don't do 20 hours of Anki in a rush but spread it out, max 30 minutes of review per day. Same for the Teach Yourself course and the conversational lessons - do some of each every week, for a total of the prescribed hours.
  • Supplement with exposing yourself to the target language, e.g. listening to a web radio in the background while commuting or doing chores, or watching subtitled movies/series.

Month 1

If you're starting from zero, prioritise learning essential grammar that you'll need to talk about anything, and as much useful vocabulary as you can.

- Set aside at least 2 hours / week for Teach Yourself or Michel Thomas. If you're very busy, try 30 minute sessions. You can even fit in some Michel Thomas while commuting or doing housework, but don't forget to do the exercises aloud.

- Set aside at least 15 minutes / day for Anki, ideally in the morning. If it's late at night and you can't study, use that time to add more vocabulary into Anki. Learn only basic words - words that you can imagine needing within the next two weeks.

- Try out at least 3 different tutors this month (in week 3 and 4 if starting from scratch) in order to find one that you jive with and who keeps you speaking in your target language. Over the course of this month you should have at least 4 hours of conversational private tutoring.

- Develop one or more language islands around self-introductions.

Month 2

Give your vocabulary a big boost and get into a tutoring rhythm

- Schedule two one-hour private tutoring sessions per week. If one-hour sessions give you a headache, you can do 3x45minutes or 4x30minutes but the goal is two hours of speaking every week.

- Set aside at least 15 minutes / day for Anki. When adding vocabulary, prioritise words that came up during your conversations with a tutor.

- A bit more Teach Yourself / Michel Thomas - ensure you know the basics of the past and future tense. If your target language has cases, don't worry too much about getting them right.

- If there's a topic that tends to come up during your tutoring sessions, develop a language island about it.

Month 3

Focus 100% on conversation.

- Two hours of conversation per week is the minimum for this month; better three hours if you can fit them in.

- Review vocabulary in Anki but don't stress about adding more; you probably won't have the time to transfer all to your long-term memory before the big day.

- When you have extra time, or also while doing other tasks, practice self-talk and language islands. Have the target-language radio or podcasts on in the background for extra exposure.

That's it! If you followed this recipe, you'll be speaking at least as well as I do in my various Day 90 videos. Have fun!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

The language-learning industry mostly caters to people who learn a foreign language in order to speak it - people who want it in order to travel abroad, to make business deals, or to talk to loved ones. However, this focus on speaking is not the only way to learn a language. There are people who are more introverted, or who don't currently see a way to travel or meet native speakers, and who want to learn a language in order to read that culture's books, blogs, scientific papers or other written materials. For them, studying conversation first is an unnecessary detour.

Here's my roadmap for this kind of learner:

Step 1: Learn the very basics. Your goal is to know e.g. what the plural, the past tense, present tense and future tense generally look like (without being able to conjugate verbs yourself) and grow a passive vocabulary of ca. 600 of the most common words. There is room for personal taste here, but I find it too harrowing to try step 2 before you know even 300 words and way too wasteful to stay on this step beyond the 1000 word mark. 600 is a good point to move on. How to achieve this? If you're very lucky, there will be a book like "Spanish for Reading Knowledge" in your target language, otherwise you may have to use textbooks like Teach Yourself or Assimil that are aimed at conversational ability - but be sure to just read through them, not completing the active exercises, because your goal is passive knowledge.

Step 2: Level up with texts for learners. Once you know 300-600 words, it's a good time to use this site's Reading Tool in order to increase your passive vocabulary while already reading interesting things. You can also probably find easy readers for your target language. Start by reading all the texts on the easiest level of the Reading Tool (or the level 1 easy readers) and once you encounter only 1-2 new words per page, move on to the next level. This will naturally grow your vocabulary and your reading ability. Reading ability is more than just vocabulary - it's also recognising words when they have different endings and learning how the target language likes to construct its sentences and convey meaning. Keep leveling up.

Step 3: Read easier native materials. After you've completed the "upper intermediate" or B2 level of materials for learners, you are ready to dive into some authentic materials! Try comics, blogs (copy-paste stuff into the Reading Tool), autobiographies, fanfiction, travel stories and translations of foreign authors. These are easier than most books for native speakers because the authors usually don't consider themselves to be writing literature, so their vocabulary and sentence structure is still quite simple.

Step 4: Read cheap native materials. After you've successfully read at least one and possibly more books in step 3, try some cheap romance, thriller or detective stories set in the modern day. This kind of story will only use everyday words - not fantasy, futuristic or historic words that you wouldn't have encountered yet. Also, most authors of cheap books (rather than high literature) write enjoyable stories in a straightforward way and don't try to impress you with the range of their vocabulary, so they are perfect for completing your knowledge of basic vocabulary.

Step 5: Read anything you're interested in as long as the book is not older than 80 years. Whatever genre you like to read, whatever well-known authors you want to get into, this is the time. You'll learn words like quill, orc, starship and so on, but that's fine at this stage, because you already know the words that surround them, so the percentage of unknown words stays at a manageable level.

Step 6: Read books that are older than 80 years. These are particularly hard because they include words, spellings and grammatical structures that are out-of-use nowadays PLUS they talk about a world where people actually used quills and carriages and so on, so I rank them as more difficult than the step 5 books, which may talk about a historic time but using modern spelling and grammar. There are exceptions to the rule, e.g. Molière and Jules Verne are easier than contemporary French high literature.

IMPORTANT: objective difficulty, in terms of unknown words per page, is one thing. Subjective difficulty, in terms of how much you're slugging through the book, is another thing. Some objectively easy books may be so boring that you're struggling to read more than five pages at a time, and some objectively more difficult books may be so thrilling that you'll cheerfully ignore entire paragraphs you don't understand and just keep turning pages. (Dan Brown comes to mind.) So be sure to find a good compromise.

If you read a lot, no matter what it is, your level will naturally go up, so don't feel guilty for enjoying what you enjoy. Have fun!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

A lot of people struggle to grow their vocabulary in their target language, especially when learning a language from a different language family, where there are less words that sound familiar.

The usual advice focuses on two things:

  • Mnemonics, i.e. thinking of words in your target language that together sound somewhat similar to the target-language word, even if the meaning is completely different, and then inventing an absurd story that explains the link.
  • Spaced repetition systems (SRS) like Anki, which weaponize the forgetting curve in order to ensure that you review words at exactly the right time so they are gradually transferred into your long-term memory - and so that you economize on the time you otherwise would have spent reviewing words you already know well.

These two tips are very important, but there is something even more important: an understanding that there is a near-universal system that underlies the vocabulary of human languages. You will discover this system in German and Chinese, in Hebrew, Russian and Indonesian, in Greek and Swahili, and I'm sure in most other languages. Why am I so confident? Because humans are lazy.

We are too lazy to invent completely new word roots for each new concept. For example we're too lazy to invent new words for "uninventive" and "unhelpful" rather than basing them off the words "inventive" and "helpful". To invent new words for "slowness" and "wetness" rather than basing them off the words "slow" and "wet". To invent new words for "widen", "broaden", "redden", "whiten" etc. which are completely distinct from "wide", "broad", "red", "white", etc. We just modify the existing word roots. In some cases we do have distinct words (e.g. "increase" instead of "biggen", "dry" instead of "unwet", "beauty" in addition to "prettiness"), but it is impractical to always invent distinct words and then to teach every native speaker of our language what all of these words mean. So instead, we use standard patterns. These patterns are a great tool for non-native speakers as well, and all too few are using it.

How to Use the System

First, you should become aware of the most common categories that humans naturally think in. This includes:

  • Opposites. important-unimportant, helpful-unhelpful, healthy-unhealthy and so on. It appears to be natural for humans to think in terms of opposites. In English, this is mostly limited to adjectives, while in Swahili it's most common in verbs (e.g. funga to close, fungUa to open) and it's also possible to imagine in nouns (e.g. Esperanto lumo light, MALlumo darkness).
  • People. buy-buyer, paint-painter, brew-brewer and so on. Typically something is added to a verb in order to get the noun for a person who does this action. Some languages (e.g. Esperanto, Chinese) have different suffixes depending on whether the person does this professionally, as a hobby or just right that moment. In English -ist is used only for professionals like pianists while -er (and sometimes -or) is used for any kind of person, professional or not.
  • Places. brew-brewery, bake-bakery, owl-owlery and so on. Add the suffix -ery in order to name the place where the action takes place. Note that neither this suffix nor any other is 100% regular and universal - e.g. drinkeries are better known as bars. There will always be opposites, people, places etc. that don't follow the pattern, but learning the pattern is still supremely useful.
  • Abstract concepts. sick-sickness, slow-slowness, wet-wetness and so on. Whenever you have an adjective, you probably have need to talk about this quality in the abstract.
  • Ability. drink-drinkable, imagine-imaginable, believe-believable (or credible, derived from the Latin equivalent) and so on.
  • Adverbs. slow-slowly, grateful-gratefully, quick-quickly and so on. This is probably the best-known suffix.
  • Actions. wide-widen, broad-broaden, white-whiten and so on. Doing something that results in the state described by the adjective. This is relatively limited in English, but in other languages you might see the equivalent of healthy-en for to heal and many more.
  • New adjectives. luck-lucky, sun-sunny, health-healthy and so on. Many adjectives are based on the noun with an added -y, and when there isn't a suitable adjective, people sometimes even create one, e.g. "And she said to me with that teacher-y voice..."
  • Weaker forms. blue-bluish, pale-paleish, healthy-healthy-ish and so on. Weaker forms are mainly needed for adjectives, for added accuracy. However, many languages also have weaker forms for nouns, e.g. dog-doggie, kid-kiddie.
  • Stronger forms. The opposite of the above. This doesn't appear to exist in English, but it does e.g. in Chinese (dà big - dàdà huge; gāoxìng happy - gāogāoxìngxìng overjoyed) and in Greek (mats match - matsara big match; gata cat - gatara huge cat).

Simply being aware that these are typical patterns in vocabulary can be a huge help in your studies. For example, I was confused when I found that the Arabic word maktab (derived from the root kataba to write) means both desk and office. There's a huge difference between a desk and an office, right? However, once I thought of it as writing-place, it immediately made sense. Similarly, when I was studying Swahili and I saw that to open and to close were essentially the same word (with extra -u-), I found that very confusing until I realised that the addition of -u- usually turns a Swahili word into its opposite, so they were saying something like to unclose for to open.

How to Go Further

If you want to be ahead of the game, have a teacher help you to figure out how each of the above categories work in your target language. This may be difficult to do for your teacher because many native speakers are not actively aware of the patterns. If so, try giving them a bunch of example words to translate, or use a dictionary and see if you can spot the patterns yourself. Don't expect all the words to follow the pattern - languages are not regular.

The only language that is extremely regular in the use of these patterns is Esperanto. That's how I became aware of these patterns (and a few others) in the first place. In Esperanto, you can pile any suffixes onto any word and as long as it's understandable, it's correct. There is no "we don't say it this way" in Esperanto if you call a dentist a toother, if you speak of relax-eries or say someone has unhelped you. In Esperanto, there are no limits to your imagination. The other place where such imagination is acceptable is in poetry. Poets are valued for understanding the above patterns of how our language forms new words and using them in order to create neologisms.

As a language learner with a limited vocabulary, learn these patterns and try to apply them to all words in order to rapidly increase your vocabulary. A lot of times you'll guess right. And even if you guess wrong and wind up saying eatable instead of edible or beautifulness instead of beauty, people will understand you and will help you learn the correct word.

Happy learning!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

I think Heisig is hugely inefficient for Chinese (not Japanese) imho. He just translated his book without prioritizing those characters that are essential to Chinese and he doesn't even give Pinyin. The majority of Chinese characters are composed of theme+pronunciation, so how can he possibly think that ignoring the pronunciation makes it easier to learn Chinese characters?? I much prefer the Matthews' "Learning Chinese Characters" or McNaughton's "Reading and Writing Chinese Characters". These books are also based on building up understanding of Chinese characters from their components and using mnemonics where necessary, but they are also adapted to Chinese. Of course you need to use Anki with any of these books, otherwise I can easily believe that you need 200+ hours to memorize the characters. 

I started learning Chinese in 2003 and for several years I always struggled to go beyond 600-800 because the characters all start to look the same at that point; I was close to giving up. Then I discovered the Heisig/Matthews' method and by combining that with Anki I memorized (for reading comprehension, not handwriting) 2500 additional characters in one non-intensive year. My Anki says I spent about 50 hours total on that deck. I definitely would have noticed if it had taken me 1000 hours because I had a full-time job that year. I'm ready to allow that knowing the first 600 characters was a good foundation and I may have needed more time per character if I had started with those, but still, a multiple of 100 hours to memorize 3000 characters sounds like someone is using a hugely inefficient method. 

This knowledge is not purely Anki knowledge either. In addition to learners' materials and bilingual books, I have read 6 monolingual Chinese books written for native speakers (novels and autobiographies) and in 2015 I took a class on Chinese linguistics taught in Chinese, as a final assignment I wrote this essay


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Amazing, go you for creating a Tagalog grammar!!!

I'm not sure Korean is easier than Mandarin for everyone, because Korean conjugation tables look intimidating and Chinese doesn't have any conjugation. To read most Chinese texts, 3000 characters is enough. When I was intensely studying Chinese characters, I needed approximately 1 minute total (spread over several sessions) to transfer a character into my long-term memory. That would mean 50 hours total for the characters. Even if the true number is double (the first characters take longer to learn), I'm sure there is someone who'd need more than 100 study hours to be able to confidently use Korean conjugations. So yes I agree Chinese should be in the hardest category, but probably there are people whose aptitude is better suited to Chinese than to Korean.

I'm wondering if you just had very bad experiences with foreign alphabets. Russian and Thai writing are not straightforward - it's like saying the Latin alphabet is hard because English spelling is hard, but Spanish spelling makes this alphabet much easier. Try Greek or try Serbian (written in Cyrillic) and you'll probably find that the alphabet is no big deal. These languages would not belong in your category 3.


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

There is a controversy among language enthusiasts: is it possible for a language to be objectively easier than another?

I would argue Yes. The first objection is usually (and it is correct) that for a speaker of Cantonese, Mandarin is easier than English, while for a speaker of German, English is easier than Mandarin. So obviously the comparison needs to be made under the condition that all else is equal: given two languages that are both equally familiar or equally unfamiliar to the person in question, it is possible to say that one is easier than the other.

Take two Slavic languages for example, Russian and Croatian, and assume a learner who has never studied any Slavic language. I believe that in this case, it is possible to say that Russian is objectively harder because its spelling and pronunciation are less straightforward, while both languages feature a similar a relatively complex grammar and rich vocabulary.

The writing system itself need not be a reason to consider a language to be harder than another, provided the spelling is reasonably phonetic. That is, learning "Korean spelled in Latin letters" would take a few hours less than "Korean spelled in the Hangul alphabet", but as long as the writing system can be learned in a few hours (through my Script Hacking books for example), we need to examine whether the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are significantly easier than in the other language, so as to offset the extra few hours spent on the writing system.

And this is where it can get tricky. Often there seems to be some kind of balancing, that is, languages that are unable to express as many nuances through morphology (prefixes and suffixes) instead express these nuances through more rigid word order, more rigidity as to how something "has to be said", and a more extensive vocabulary. How does this look concretely?

Grammar vs. word order

Latin word order was extremely free, at the cost of having to memorise tables upon tables of endings that tell you what a word does in the sentence. By contrast, English has next to no endings, but its word order is very rigid. Poetry written in Latin, or in other languages that have a free word order, loses most of its power when translated into English and many people who have experienced poetry in one of these languages will prefer it over poetry in English.

Grammar vs. vocabulary

Another example: many learners of German dread the system of separable and non-separable verb prefixes. It is a part of grammar that is obviously harder than e.g. French grammar. However, there is a cost in vocabulary: learners of French have to learn a lot more word roots because French does not extensively use verb prefixes. Compare:

German: gehen (go), ausgehen (out-go), mitgehen (with-go), vorgehen (front-go), vorbeigehen (past-go), entgehen (de-go), zergehen (dis-go) --> learn only 1 root: gehen

English: go, go out, go along, go ahead, pass, escape, dissolve --> learn 4 roots: go, pass, escape, solve

French: aller , sortir, accompagner, avancer, passer, échapper, fondre --> learn each of the 7 roots

Doing the math

How do you weigh this against each other? I don't think it's possible. People with a very logical brain may prefer the logic of Latin and German systems and learn these more quickly than the randomness of French, while people whose brain is less attuned to tables and patterns may be overwhelmed by Latin and German and find French easier. So even when considering only English speakers with a comparable background in language-learning, it is not clear which of these languages will require the least amount of hours.

Add to that the difference in learning goals and study materials. Latin is generally learned with an emphasis on passive understanding, while you cannot claim to know French unless you know how to read AND speak it. In Latin, you're expected to be able read literature in order to pass the final exam, meaning that your vocabulary has to be quite extensive, while you may be able to pass French class with a much smaller vocabulary as long as you can use it effectively in conversation. The materials are also not comparable. Languages like Russian and German have a huge amount of different materials (textbooks, easy readers, videos, podcasts, apps...) catering to all levels and all study styles, while the selection of Croatian and Danish learning materials is much more limited, meaning that you may not learn at the optimal pace.

The easiest?

I still believe that it is possible to say that e.g. for a monolingual English speaker, the overall difficulty looks roughly like this, from easiest to hardest:

Esperanto < Dutch < German < Russian < Chinese

That is, to describe difficulty in rough strokes. Beyond that, it really depends on personal factors:

  • Most of us have had at least some language classes at school or even learned one or more languages to a conversational level. That will completely warp the picture of which language is easiest to learn next.
  • If one of the languages you're considering might be deemed difficult due to comparative lack of materials (say, Javanese), you can mostly ignore that if you live in the area where it's spoken - or if you like to study languages the old-fashioned way and don't depend on Netflix, easy readers etc.
  • What do you personally find easier to learn: a language with harder grammar, harder vocabulary, harder spelling, or harder pronunciation? This personal aptitude often makes the difference.

Final thought

The above describes how many hours you'll need to spend on the target language. But you and I know that sometimes an hour feels interminable and sometimes we barely notice it passing. This mainly has to do with motivation. So in the final analysis, whether a language FEELS easy to learn or feels hard also depends on how good your reasons are for learning it. If you need the language to talk to the person you've fallen in love with and you don't have another language in common, that's probably the easiest language you've ever learned.


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

A lot of people are frustrated to find that, after spending many hours on Duolingo, classes, anime or whatever, they understand a lot but are still unable to have basic conversations with native speakers. If that's you, this article will help you diagnose what the reason is and also suggest what you can do in order to fix the issue.

Let's do a test: Stand up and walk once across your home and back. Imagine that you're meeting an old friend on the street. Say "Hey!! How are you? Long time no see! How have you been?" in your target language.

=> If this came out spontaneously and you are also able to use it spontaneously in real life situations, your issue is probably higher-level language. Solution: whenever you're unable to interact as you wish you could, write down (or make a quick voice note) the phrases you're missing and then study these and similar phrases once you're back home, ideally with a tutor who can also do situation practice with you.

=> If this came out spontaneously but you're unable to react like this in real life situations, your issue is probably inhibition. Look up general tips for shy people. Also, remind yourself that almost everyone is happy to hear that an English speaker is making an effort to learn their native language - in the case of less commonly studied languages like Chinese or Modern Greek, people are happy to hear even a "Hello! How are you?" - so you should make them happy as often as possible, even if you're not yet fully fluent.

If you had a lot of trouble saying these basic phrases, do another test: take pencil and paper and write down "It's such a nice day! What are you doing here?" in your target language. Then try to pronounce it naturally.

=> If you were able to write this without much deliberation and also pronounced it well, the problem is at the level of speaking practice. Your brain is not in the habit of calling up words in conversation and you may also not have enough chunks. Solution: book some lessons (e.g. through the "Find a Teacher" menu item) or language exchanges which will be 100% dedicated to conversation. Don't work with textbook dialogs but try to have natural conversations with your tutor. They will be slow and clumsy at the beginning but get much better after a few hours already, especially if you revisit the same topics. When not taking lessons, engage in self-talk or work out language islands.

=> If you were able to write this without much deliberation but the pronunciation was awkward, your tongue is not yet in the habit of producing the language. Every language has its own kind of tongue gymnastics. Even after you can do all the basic vowels and consonants, it still takes some practice to have the transitions come naturally to your tongue. Solution: whenever you see a word or phrase, say it out loud. Use audio-heavy materials (e.g. Michel Thomas, stories on this site's Reading Tool with accompanying audio, Youtube videos with matching target-language transcripts) and imitate the speaker as often as possible. Don't whisper, speak loudly and proudly. If you're finding it difficult to match the native speaker, take a tiny extract, slow it down to 80% speed or less, work until you can imitate that, then gradually speed it up to full speed.

=> If you hesitated a lot on the writing, the problem is vocabulary/phrases. You may even know a lot of vocabulary but not the right kind. Maybe you learned a list of words for animals or fruit but you haven't yet learned phrases like the above - a common problem when using apps rather than actual language courses. (It's much easier to produce an app that teaches you word lists rather than to produce a course that teaches you how to speak, hence almost all apps teach word lists and nothing else.) Change methods. Browse before you buy and look for a course that contains the kind of dialogs that you'd like to be able to engage in, for example Benny Lewis' "Language Hacking" language courses, Teach Yourself "Complete" language courses, Michel Thomas, Assimil "With ease" courses, my own "Systematic Approach" decks for Anki... Supplement with a tutor who can teach you me-language, that is, the kind of phrases and dialogs that are uniquely you, to talk about your hobbies, your situation and so on.

Speaking is not magic! But neither can you expect to magically develop speaking ability while only doing passive (listening or reading) activities. Read a lot when you want to develop the ability to read (and grow your vocabulary), listen a lot when you want to develop the ability to listen, speak a lot when you want to develop the ability to speak. Every muscle has to be trained separately, and this guide allows you to identify which of your speaking "muscles" is weakest. Good luck!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Theoretically anyone who speaks several languages (maybe more than three or four; it is debated how many exactly) can be called a polyglot, and that is how most of the world uses this word, if they know it at all.

However, when debating who should be welcome at polyglot events such as the Polyglot Gathering and Polyglot Conference, a different definition arose: one having passion as its main characteristic. Some went so far as to suggest that we should use “multilingual” for people who - by some stroke of fate, such as being born in Luxemburg or India or having to move somewhere for work - speak several languages without being interested in languages, while "polyglot" should be used for people who learn several languages voluntarily, simply because they like them. By that definition, a polyglot is someone who might...

  • hear that a co-worker's native language is Amharic and spend the next evening researching the language and memorising some phrases
  • read about agglutinating languages and immediately decide to learn one of these languages because "that sounds so cool"... a few years later they are experts on Turkish cinema and raving about the latest Turkish soap opera
  • be unable to decide whether to learn Arabic or Russian first, wind up doing both, and then a side mission on Hebrew a few months later

Maybe "language aficionado" might be a better term? Then we could draw comparisons to e.g. camping aficionados. Everyone has probably gone camping sometime, but only camping aficionados would choose their destination based on whether camping is possible there. Even if they are sent to a business conference, they might find an excuse to camp instead of staying at a hotel. Same with polyglots / language aficionados: everything and anything is an excuse to learn or practice languages.

If the word "polyglot" characterises this mindset, then, so it has been argued, even people who don't yet speak several languages could be considered polyglots already. They are certainly already welcome in polyglot spaces. Less welcome are "Youtube polyglots": influencers who record videos saying "Hello! How are you?" in a bunch of languages and pretending that one can learn a language in a week (or: that all polyglottery is just a trick), devaluing the work of polyglots who have put years and years into their languages and actually reached high levels of fluency in multiple languages.


There are two main events for the polyglot community: the Polyglot Conference and the Polyglot Gathering.

I just came back from the Polyglot Gathering, the first real-world meetup after the pandemic, and it was glorious! The Polyglot Gathering brings together 350-700 language aficionados for a 6-day informal program of geeking out over languages and sharing knowledge and advice. This is different from the knowledge and advice you might get from a high school language teacher or from a family member who has learned the language: the people you'll meet at polyglot events are people who have gotten good at self-study, people who have tried all kinds of serious and non-serious materials that are out there (you'll also meet some creators of language materials, and language bloggers), and who are in a unique position to compare and contrast - see for example this memorable talk comparing 10 Asian languages by a guy who actually learned 10+ Asian languages.

You'll also find fun activities on the program, such as learning salsa in Spanish, doing improv theater in Italian, having taster sessions of Ukrainian or Georgian or the like, and singing Disney songs in many languages.

If the Polyglot Gathering is for informal learning and an exuberant summer camp-like atmosphere, then the Polyglot Conference is more serious, featuring also more lecturers from academia who have written a paper on the subject of their talk. The overlap of topics and participants is quite large though.


More than for any of the sessions or activities, people come to polyglot events for the sense of community. To finally be in a place where your interest in Icelandic is not met with raised eyebrows or uncomfortable silence but an enthusiastic "OMG! I want to learn that too! Do you have any tips?". A place where one of the lecturers (looking at you, Cesco) may spontaneously jump between various European languages every five minutes, reveling in the fact that in this unique setting the audience can follow. A place where dinner conversation might center around whether Rosetta Stone actually ever worked for anyone. And, for many of us, a place where we can feel normal - where having 6-10 languages on your name badge is typical rather than exceptional, and we can re-assure ourselves that we aren't crazy until we reach the 30+ languages mark that a handful of the participants have reached.

The Polyglot Gathering takes place every spring and the Polyglot Conference takes place every autumn. Both have also developed online formats during the pandemic. Outside the events, polyglots can be found on this site and in any space dedicated to learning various (rather than just one) foreign languages. Join us!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

This is a continuation from two weeks ago. Please read that post first if you haven't yet.

Vowels can be the bane of accent improvement for native English speakers because the Great Vowel Shift has caused English vowels to be misaligned with the vowels used in continental Europe or even much of Africa and Asia. The biggest difference is that many English long vowels are really diphtongs, e.g. make is /meɪk/, boat is /boʊt/ (American) or /bəʊt/ (British RP), mine is /maɪn/, and so on.

By contrast, there is a set of 5 basic vowels that are shared by German, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, Hawaiian and most languages on the planet - and only two of these five vowels are present in English in clear form (outside of diphtongs). The basic vowels are:

- /a/ as in German Katze, Spanish/Italian casa, French chat... in American English and British RP it only occurs as the first part of the diphtong in mine /maɪn/. The more typical English A as in father is spelled /ɑ/ in IPA and the main difference is that /ɑ/ is pronounced in the back of the mouth (refer to the previous post in this series).

- /e/ as in German Leben, Spanish peso, French thé, Italian te... in American English and British RP it only occurs as the first part of the diphtong in make /meɪk/. It's how Scottish people might say "may". The more typical English E as in bed is spelled /ɛ/ and this sound also occurs in German, French and Italian (but not Spanish), in addition to the /e/.

- /i/ as in English meet

- /o/ as in German oder, Spanish Hola, French tôt, Italian ombra... in English it doesn't occur at all. The more typical English O as in bought is spelled /ɔ/ in IPA and this sound also occurs in German, French and Italian (but not Spanish), in addition to the /o/.

- /u/ as in English boot

If your native language is English, it is generally a great investment to learn these basic vowels. If you get the vowels right but not the consonants, people may think you're not from their country, but they usually won't think you're an American tourist.

Minimal pairs

Apart from referring to the IPA vowel chart a lot and playing with the front-back, open-closed and rounded-unrounded distinctions, a great way to practice the vowels of your target language is by using minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are two or more words that differ only in one sound (one IPA symbol, independent of spelling).

For example in English the words
pat – pet – pit – pot – put – pout
are minimal pairs and can be used to help immigrants master the English vowels. In French, you might use
sa - sans – sein - son – sceau
which, despite the differences in spelling, are really just /s/ with a different vowel following. Use Google in order to find a list of minimal pairs for your target language and use in order to listen to each word and practice imitating it.

The term "minimal pair" comes from linguistics. Linguists look for these sets in order to figure out which of a language's sounds are actually important to master (because people might think you're saying a different word) and which sounds might reveal you are not a native but won't lead to misunderstandings.

Note that the notion of minimal pairs also applies to consonants, e.g. zoo and Sue are a minimal pair for those struggling with the /z/ vs. /s/ distinction.


IPA consonants are mostly what you'd expect: /s/ as in sand, /t/ as in time, /n/ as in name, /p/ as in part, /v/ as in vein, /z/ as in zoo, and so on. You might be surprised that the Y in year is represented as /j/ in IPA (as in German).

A few extra symbols had to be found to represent all the consonants of the English language:

  • /ŋ/ is the NG at the end of a word like going
  • /θ/ is the TH in think
  • /ð/ is the TH in this, which sounds slightly different from the above
  • /ʃ/ is the SH
  • /ʒ/ is the S in pleasure - /dʒʌmp/ is how you'd spell jump in IPA
  • /ʔ/ is known as the glottal stop, which you find for example in the middle of the exclamation uh-oh. Some variants of English use a glottal stop rather than /t/ in the middle of words like bottle.

Here's a chart of some IPA consonants - not all, just the English ones and a few extra:

(Sounds that occur in English in black; others in purple)

The rows are for different forms of articulation. Let's look at the first column as an example of this: 

- /m/ is pronounced via the nose ("nasal"), you don't even need to open your mouth. 

- /p/ and /b/ are pronounced via a sudden release - think of it as a little explosion from your mouth ("plosive"). 

- "Fricative" means that the consonant encounters some friction on the way out but it's a sustained release of air - you can say fffffffffff or vvvvvvvvvv for as long as you have air, while holding pppppppp or bbbbbbb is impossible. 

- The last row, "Approximant" is for sounds that are pronounced with parts of the mouth approaching each other but not close enough to cause real friction as in the fricatives. Do note that the /r/ sound may not be where you're expecting it to be - English varients use a variety of /r/ sounds which are spelled with a variety of symbols in IPA, but in IPA it's also permissible to simply write /r/ if the language context is clear.

Looking at the columns, just as in the vowel chart we saw in part 1 of this series, there is a progression from front to back as you go left to right. labial = pronounced with your lips, dental = pronounced with your teeth, the next few refer to different places deeper and deeper in your mouth and glottal refers to the opening between your vowel folds, deep in your throat. You don't have to become proficient at using these words; it is possible to learn the pronunciation of consonants by triangulation, just as for the vowels.

Learning consonants through IPA

An example: if you'd like to learn to produce the consonant /x/ - which is the last sound in the name of the German composer Bach and also comes up in a lot of German and Spanish words - you'd

  1. Locate /x/ in the chart.
  2. Find a consonant that you know how to pronounce that is in the same column as /x/, e.g. /k/
  3. Find a consonant that you know how to pronounce that is in the same row as /x/, e.g. /h/
  4. Say /k/, don't change anything about the position of your mouth or tongue, and then use the same mode of articulation as for /h/. (Or: pretend you're saying /h/ but without changing anything). This should get you to /x/.

You can apply the same triangulation for almost all new consonant sounds in your target language, as long as you've figured out their IPA symbol. For example, try to master /ç/ (the German CH in ich) and /ɲ/ (the Spanish ñ)

If you're learning Arabic, you cannot apply the above technique to master /q/ (corresponding to the letter Qaaf), because there is no English consonant in the Uvular column. In rare cases like this, you'd just take the nearest sound, e.g. /k/, and apply the minimal change that is velar -> uvular (just pronounce it further back).

The above chart is just a selection from the complete IPA consonant chart which you can find here. You will never need most of the consonants in the full chart, which are enough to describe all the languages in the world, so I recommend learning the IPA consonants one by one as you need them, by going to Wikipedia phonology page for the language you're learning, e.g. German phonology, French phonology, Spanish phonology... Don't get scared by the scientific terminology, just use the triangulation method, and refer to the big chart if you need to compare/triangulate between several languages.

More in part 3! Please share this if you found it helpful!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

You have probably come across the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) when looking up words in a dictionary. A lot of the standard dictionaries, including Wiktionary, want to tell you /juː/ how a word /wɜːd/ is pronounced, and the odd but familiar squiggles of the International Phonetic Alphabet are the most common way /weɪ/ to denote pronunciation /prəˌnʌnsɪˈeɪʃn/.

For language learners, spending even an hour on learning the basics of the International Phonetic Alphabet is a great investment, for four reasons:

  1. It is applicable to ALL languages. Learn it once, use it to understand the pronunciation of any word in any language for the rest of your life.
  2. It will teach you how pronunciation works; how your mouth can move to produce a great range of different sounds.
  3. It immediately adds accuracy to the descriptions of sounds in textbooks, unlike crutches like "sounds like the EA in read".
  4. When you want to eliminate your foreign accent, you can use the IPA in order to discover exactly what you are doing wrong.

Are you convinced? Let's get started!


The first thing you should know is that English has a lot more sounds than it has letters to represent them. Even relatively phonetic languages like German sometimes use one letter to denote two different sounds (e.g. the O in doch vs. the O in Mond). In the International Phonetic Alphabet, each sound is represented by a distinct letter/symbol.

The IPA does not reflect spelling. For example, even though the word "make" is spelled with an A, the IPA transcription does not include any A, it is /meɪk/ . Note also that the final E is not represented, because it's not pronounced. Only the pronunciation counts for the IPA.

The IPA word /meɪk/ includes what looks like a smaller version of the capital letter I. This is a trick that the IPA uses in order to make it easier to learn: if they assigned one sound to each of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, they would have to invent new symbols after covering only 26 sounds. By using capital letters as well, and assigning a different sound to capital letters than to lower-case ones, they can cover twice as many sounds before running out of familiar symbols. To avoid confusion, these capital letters are printed smaller than they would be in English.


The word "city" is a case in point, as it uses both kinds of I sounds: /ˈsɪti/. The first sound is the same as the I in "is" and the second sound is the same as the EE in "meet", but shorter. Finally, the apostrophe before the first syllable of /ˈsɪti/ denotes that this is where the word stress is: we pronounce it CIty and not ciTY. Now try an experiment: what would "city" sound like if its transcription were /ˈsiti/? What if it were /ˈsɪtɪ/?

The word "meme" is pronounced /miːm/. The colon denotes a longer sound in IPA. If you previously learned English Phonics, note that English Phonics confuses the issue of how a vowel sounds (which mouth position you need) and how long it is, which are two separate issues. Any vowel can be pronounced for a long or short period of time.

Now guess which words are transcribed as /tiːm/, /ˈmjuːzɪk/ and /ˈsɪstə/ .


Team, music and sister. The IPA chose the symbol j to represent the Y sound as in "year", and the symbol ə (upside-down e) is used to denote the schwa sound, a very short, neutral vowel that is also found at the beginning of the word "about" - in most varieties of English. Using English examples in order to discuss sounds is tricky also because regional accents vary so strongly. The IPA can be used as a gold standard.

The English letter A can be pronounced in several ways. Let's take the A in "father" /ˈfɑːðə/ and the A in "apple" /ˈæpəl/ as representatives of the most common pronunciations. As you can see, these are two different sounds represented by different letters in IPA. But what exactly makes them different? If you're working with an immigrant who pronounces both the same, how can you explain what they should do differently? IPA to the rescue! IPA provides a handy chart with all the world's vowels:

Don't be confused by all the symbols, most of which are not used in English, and just focus on the two that I circled, for fAther and Apple. According to the chart, both /ɑ/ and /æ/ are pronounced with a mouth that is rather open (slightly less open for /æ/ than for /ɑ/), but /æ/ is pronounced in the front of the mouth while /ɑ/ is pronounced in the back. What does it mean "pronounced in the back"? Just try it out for yourself: pronounce a long, drawn-out "faaaather" and a long, drawn-out "aaapple" and pay attention to where the pressure is in your mouth.

Apart from how open the mouth is and where the pronunciation is located in your mouth, there is one more key distinction that is represented on the IPA vowel chart: whether your lips are rounded (as for a kiss) or whether they are hanging loose. Stand in front of a mirror now and pronounce the words "boot" vs. "bad". Make the vowels extra long: "boooot", "baaaad" and look at what your lips are doing. The /uː/ in "boot" is a rounded vowel, i.e. pronounced with rounded lips.

Serena of Serena Vocal Studio saying /uː/

Learning vowels through IPA

Now let's assume that you're learning German or French and you need to acquire the German ü / French u sound. I will describe this as a general guide which you can use for ANY new vowel sound you need to learn.

Step 1: figure out which is the IPA symbol for the sound you want to learn. You could do so by consulting the Wikipedia German Phonology / French Phonology pages or by looking up any word that uses this sound on Wiktionary. In this case, IPA uses the letter /y/ to represent the German ü / French u sound.

Step 2: consult the IPA vowel chart. The Wikipedia version even has audio recordings for every single vowel! Locate the symbol /y/. It is at the upper left.

Step 3: look for the nearest vowel that you know how to pronounce. In this case, it is the /i/ right next to it - remember that /i/ is the sound in "meet". According to IPA, what is the difference between the nearest vowel that you know how to pronounce and the vowel you need to learn? The only difference is that /y/ is pronounced with rounded lips. So you will wind up saying /y/ if you try to say /i/ with rounded lips.

Step 4: as a beginner, try triangulation. If the instruction "say 'meet' but round your lips" sounds too difficult, you could triangulate: on the IPA chart, look for the nearest vowel with rounded lips that you know how to pronounce - that's /u/ - and then try to pronounce /i/ while keeping your lips in the same position as for /u/ (a mirror will help). The sound /y/ is born as the intersection between /u/ and /i/, combining traits of both.

You can apply this technique to any vowel you need to master, as well as to review whether you previously learned something correctly. I learned the International Phonetic Alphabet in a remedial French phonology class at university. They made all French majors take this class and learn IPA (despite being already at a level to read French literature) in order to improve their accent and it really helped!

More in part 2!


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

This is the 3rd part of a series and you may find it confusing if you haven't read part 1 and part 2. Let's continue.

More Considerations for Vowels

As we saw, the IPA vowel chart has a distinct symbol for each vowel depending on whether it is pronounced at the front, mid or back of the mouth, whether the mouth is wide open or more closed, and finally whether the lips are rounded or lax (unrounded). There is also the colon ː which is used to indicate that a vowel is long.

This does not however cover some other aspects that may play an important role in the pronunciation of vowels. For example, you don't yet know how to represent French or Portuguese nasal vowels in IPA.

When there are any changes in pronunciation that don't fit into the categories from the chart, IPA uses accent marks rather than different symbols. The accent mark that signifies nasalisation is a tilde, as in Portuguese.

Nasal vowels still have the same categories as non-nasal vowels: they can be more open or closed, front or back, rounded or unrounded, just in addition some of the air goes through the nose. So when you see the Portuguese word mundo (world) transcribed as IPA /ˈmũ.du/, you know that you can achieve the ũ sound by saying /u/ as in the English word boot and then co-articulating through the nose. If you're new to nasal vowels, try using two fingers to gently squeeze your nose while saying /u/, and then work to achieving the same effect without needing your fingers, as you'd look silly speaking Portuguese or French on the street while squeezing your nose.

The nasal vowels used in French are:

  • /ɑ̃/ as in maman, based on /ɑ/ as in the English word bath
  • /ɔ̃/ as in nom, based on /ɔ/ as in the English word off
  • /ɛ̃/ as in bien, based on /ɛ/ as in the English word bed. In many regions of France, this nasal vowel is also used for -un/-um words like parfum, while Canadian French and some European regions have a fourth nasal vowel for that, /œ̃/ based on /œ/ as in the English word bird.

You're unlikely to come across other diacritics on IPA vowels unless you're studying non-European languages.

More Considerations for Consonants

When it comes to consonants, the diacritic you're most likely to see is the small h, as in pʰ . This means that the consonant is aspirated. What does that mean?

Let's do an experiment: place the palm of your hand in front of your mouth, at a thumb's distance. Say "tore" and "pour". You should feel a little burst of air on your hand. Now say "stop" - there should be no burst of air, neither for the T nor the P. This is because in English, the sounds /p/, /t/ and /k/ are aspirated only when they occur at the very beginning of a word, but not at the end of a word or after another sound like /s/. Compare the /p/ in pot /pʰɑt/ and spot /spɑt/ . Compare the /k/ in car /kʰɑː/ and scar /skɑː/ or tuck  /tʰʌk/.

When learning foreign languages, be aware that their aspiration rules are likely to be different. For example in German, /p/, /t/ and /k/ are aspirated also at the end of words. In French, they are never aspirated. In Hindi, aspirated /pʰ/ and unaspirated /p/ are a distinct consonants, so you have to be very careful to distinguish them, and several more such aspirated-unaspirated pairs.

If you're studying a Slavic languages, familiarise yourself with the concept of palatalisation, which is indicated by a small j (instead of h for aspiration) next to the consonant, e.g. /tʲ/. Palatalisation means that more of the tongue is raised to the roof of the mouth near the hard palate. For example, compare /s/ vs. /ʃ/ (as in Sue vs. shoe). For /s/ you raise the tip of the tongue, while for /ʃ/ you raise the broad side of the tongue towards the palate.

A Final Word of Caution

People are lazy, so if there is a general rule that e.g. /p/ is always aspirated at the beginning of a word, as in English, then you will find a lot of IPA transcriptions that simply write /p/ rather than the more complicated and more accurate /pʰ/ - they assume you know the rule. That is why it's important to also read the notes of whichever place you're consulting for IPA transcriptions. The notes will explain any assumptions and simplifications they have made. On Wiktionary, you'll see "IPA (key)", and you'll find the explanation by clicking on key. In print dictionaries, this is usually clarified at the beginning.

You now know everything you need to know in order to get started. There are still more exotic consonants and exotic diacritics, but you can acquire them when you actually study a language that uses them. Triangulation (see part 2) is your friend. Have fun!

List of IPA diacritics


I offer personal language coaching if you like.

Posts28Likes32Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

Summer, sun, time off work… many of us are drawn to a vacation abroad in the next months. For me, Greece is my favourite destination, because it has 6000 islands, zillions of beaches, but also many ancient sights, and unmatched hospitality. I started studying Greek a few years ago and by now I speak it fluently. 

Sometimes I “have to” travel to countries whose language I don’t speak yet - the Polyglot Conference in Japan was an example - and then the question is what I should learn in order to make the most out of the trip.

Most publishers of travel phrasebooks appear to think that I should learn how to book a room at a hotel, how to exchange foreign currency, how to explain a car emergency and so on. In my experience, these are not the kind of phrases that will lead to an unforgettable vacation. For one thing, most people book their hotel online, and even if they had to book a room locally, it’s very unlikely that a hotel wouldn’t have any English-speaking staff. Similarly for the currency exchange. It is possible I'll need to see a dentist or have my car towed while abroad, but I will look up the right phrases then, I don’t pre-learn them.

From the typical phrasebook phrases, I will learn only courtesy ones (greetings, thank you, requests…), numbers, and a few phrases for emergencies that don’t leave time to look up words (Stop! Leave me alone! Help me! Thief!…).

Apart from that, my study is focused on words and phrases that help me to connect with people on the street:

  • My name is… What is your name?
  • Where are you from? I come from…
  • Where do you live? I live in…
  • Do you like <country>? Yes, I love <country>! It is so beautiful!
  • How long are you staying? I am here for … days
  • When is your flight? My flight is in … days.
  • Have you seen <sight>? No, I have visited …, … and ….
  • I have seen <sight>. It is very impressive!
  • Tomorrow I am going to … .
  • I plan to visit … / You should visit ...
  • Do you have any recommendations?
  • Where is …? Is it far?
  • Is there a good restaurant around here?
  • I have (not) eaten … before. What should I try (now)?
  • Is this spicy? Can you make it milder?
  • Is this meat? Is this fish?
  • I would like to try something traditional.
  • This is delicious!
  • Sorry, I do not speak <language> very well. What is this in English?

Additionally, I learn some phrases that are specific to me, for example to explain my work, to explain that I’m vegetarian, if I had any food allergies I’d learn how to state those in the target language, and so on.

With this baseline, I can talk to local people who don’t know English, and with goodwill on both sides, we can make it work.

For example, I was taking a long-distance train in Japan and the person sitting next to me was an elderly Japanese lady who didn’t speak a word of English. Communicating with her was not without challenges, but I managed to convey that I had come all the way from Germany, that I had seen Nagoya, Osaka and Kyoto, that I had also visited Koyasan, which was very impressive, that the monks at Koyasan prepare really delicious vegetarian food, and she told me that it’s one of three very important places in Shingon Buddhism, and Miyajima (where I was planning to go) is another one of these important places, and so on. The phrase structure we used was very basic and we had to add gestures and the occasional word from Google Translate, but we both wanted to communicate and we made it work.


I offer personal language coaching if you like.