Updated version of language learning framework


Steps in language learning for those who have no track record of success yet.

cropped-20130930_191133.jpgIf someone wishes to learn from English with no previous success in language learning either French, Spanish, German or Italian then I recommend starting with Paul Noble’s audio only courses, published by Collins. For 8 further languages, namely Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Greek, Russian, Polish, Dutch and Portuguese I recommend the Michel Thomas series to absolute beginners. After these courses, or from the start for languages not covered by those courses, I recommend Pimsleur courses. All these are audio only courses and are done with no teacher following the instructions outlined by the presenter.

Once this audio material has been front loaded, it is time, if the learner is still enthusiastic, to work through a written course. Most of these also have audio which should be used earlier in the process rather than later. Good courses include such series as Colloquial by Routledge, the Teach Yourself series (older courses tend to be better than new in that series) Living Languages and the Essential grammar series.

To learn the material in the written courses I recommend my own method called the Goldlist method which is free on the internet if you google for it. It helps to memorise written material to the long-term memory with the least possible total time of engagement per word or phrase. It is more effective than having a teacher who will try to activate sparse knowledge too soon.

You should aim to develop fluency in reading because the difference between fluent reading and fluent speaking is three days of immersion. Not a hundred lessons at 20 dollars a shot. Teachers are only really necessary for languages where you cannot tell the pronunciation from the writing or which have highly complex writing systems – and for tonal languages for those encountering this for the first time. A teacher is more likely to impede the adult learner in most Inter-European language learning.

One small word of warning to the absolute beginner – be ready for words and phrases in the language you know to be used completely differently in the other language. Just to give you an example, take the English “What’s happening now?” In French this would be “qu’est ce qu’il se passe maintenant?” Now this means exactly the same in terms of what the French would understand as the English phrase “What’s happening now?” but if you literally translate each of the elements in the French phrase, you get “What is this that he passes handholding?” If a French person tried to learn English using a verbatim approach as you can see he would not make himself understood, but equally anyone trying to put “What is happening now?” word for word into French will find that they come up with something equally nonsensical to the French, moreover the words you would need to do it do not even exist.

I met an Australian one time who said he was “orry” when I asked him how he was. I said “Orry? What’s that?”
“That’s French, mate”,
“You mean ‘horrible’?”
“No, mate, it’s French for “good”, I’m good, mate”
“How is “orry” French for “good”?”
“What? You’re a linguist and you don’t know the French for “goodbye” which is “orry-vwar”?”
I smiled at the wit and then it gradually dawned on me that the guy wasn’t joking. This is the biggest hurdle people have at the beginning, an expectation that the target language is going to work just like their own, you just slot other sounds in instead of the English ones. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

If you can get your head around that, then you are ready to approach a foreign language.

How about this for an alternative educational framework for languages?


Please discuss in the comments.

An article of ten … Not!

Monty_python_footIt’s interesting, is it not, to consider how many ways the English language has developed for saying that something is not something else.  Now it seems  that to get anywhere these days an article has to have a list of ten items in it. Let’s see if I get much of a readership by jumping on that bandwagon…

1. !=, ≠
In mathematical notation, we have for instance  !=  or if someone wants to go to the trouble of finding the classical symbol ≠ (Unicode numer 2260) then they have a very elegant way of noting “is not equal to” in a mathematical or logical sense.

2. In-, im-, un-

Then we have the classic prefixes, which encapsulate the diglossia in English: un- prefixes grace Germanic roots in the main and in- or im- go with the Latin or French roots (the latter if the root begins with b, p, or m but for some reason not the other labials f and v) However, the cut-off is not strict, because in- can refer to something going into something also. So “information” does not mean a lack of formation – to get back to that idea you can non- or borrow un- from the Germanic stock for it, so for example you could comment that you found this whole article “uninformative”.


3. Dys-, dis-

Or there is disinformation. This dis- is an additional Latin based prefix showing that something has gone off in all directions, or in a wrong direction, with a more common version of that being dys- from Greek, which isn’t fussy about attaching to Latin roots either, so that you get dysfunctional people … Read the rest of this entry

Joke worth passing on – found on Quora.com

You wanna know why Indian Students are disliked abroad?? read on…..It was the first day of a school in USA and a new Indian student named Chandrasekhar Subramanian entered the fourth grade.

The teacher said, “Let’s begin by reviewing some American History. Who said ‘Give me Liberty , or give me Death’?”

She saw a sea of blank faces, except for Chandrasekhar, who had his hand up:?’Patrick Henry, 1775’he said.

‘Very good! Who said ‘Government of the People, by the People, for the People, shall not perish from the Earth?”

Again, no response except from Chandrasekhar. ‘Abraham Lincoln, 1863′ said Chandrasekhar.

The teacher snapped at the class, ‘Class, you should be ashamed. Chandrasekhar, who is new to our country, knows more about our history than you do.’

She heard a loud whisper: ‘F ___ the Indians,’

‘Who said that?’ she demanded. Chandrasekhar put his hand up. ‘General Custer, 1862.’

At that point, a student in the back said, ‘I’m gonna puke.’

The teacher glares around and asks ‘All right! Now, who said that?’ Again, Chandrasekhar says, ‘George Bush to the Japanese Prime Minister, 1991.’

Now furious, another student yells, ‘Oh yeah? Suck this!’

Chandrasekhar jumps out of his chair waving his hand and shouts to the teacher, ‘Bill Clinton, to Monica Lewinsky,1997′

Now with almost mob hysteria someone said ‘You little shit. If you say anything else, I’ll kill you.’ Chandrasekhar frantically yells at the top of his voice, ‘ Michael Jackson to the child witnesses testifying against him, 2004.’

The teacher fainted. And as the class gathered around the teacher on the floor, someone said, ‘Oh shit, we’re screwed!’ And Chandrasekhar said quietly, ‘I think it was Lehmann Brothers, November 4th, 2008′.

Ode to a Lazy Subordinate

(I don’t really mean this, it’s just a humorous poem, which I wrote ten years ago, and just came across it going through old papers…)

If you were a daphnia,
A hydra or a snail,
You’d be more scared of a clown loach
Than of a killer whale.

Small things bother the little ones
Great things bother the great
So don’t come at me with your issues
Trying to upwardly delegate.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 38,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Answer to the question “How many languages can I learn in a lifetime”?

This is all a question of how you define things.

Firstly the problem is defining languages. Do you define them so that Serbo-Croat is still one language or six, for example? Is Malay and Indonesia a separate language? What about the languages of India, and Africa, where there are many mutually partly intelligible languages. Is Flemish and Dutch one language or two in the way you are defining it? In my opinion it is better to define these broadly and cut it down to a smaller number of claimed languages. After all, where do you stop? Maybe American and British English could be claimed as two – I heard some people try that, ridiculous though it is.

Secondly, there is the problem of desired fluency. A person who only needs to say certain fixed sentences, like a street seller or a receptionist, can say what they know with fluency, but they are not able to synthesis accurate language. Others can do so, but not in speaking as they never mastered it. I tend to go on passive vocabulary learned and put 10,000 as a very reasonable target for learning a language.

Thirdly, you need to define “lifetime”. You don’t know yet how long you will live, nor whether you will still be so keen on learning languages if it is to the detriment of learning other useful things. The day may come – and does to many a polyglot (this is why most of the older polyglots you meet are people who leave it and come back to it – or old people who used to be polyglots but have not studied actively for a long time) where you say “instead of learning Javanese, I think it’s time to learn Java”.

If a person uses optimal methods and gives 400 hours to each language, then if they study for 40 years at 20 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, they’ll have given 400 hours each to 100 languages. With good methods, that should mean the ability to demonstrate reasonable proficiency at least in the reading of those 100 languages. One might choose to spend the same time doing 4,000 hours each to only 10 languages, and show a high degree of fluency in just those ten languages. One might also go down the performing seal route and do 40 hours on a thousand languages just in order to be able to recognise maybe a thousand words and in some cases read or write very basic words in those 1,000 languages. Here one of your biggest problems is going to be materials. Which ever way you cut it, 40,000 hours of study is a large achievement, and it is really up to whether the learner has more utility for what he or she wants from their study whether to be more academic on a smaller number or more hobbyist on a larger number.


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