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Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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!

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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.

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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!

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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!

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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!

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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.

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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.

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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!

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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!

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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!

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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!

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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

Posts14Likes16Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / 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.