Month: June 2014

What Makes Some People Better than Others at Learning Languages?

College-ProblemsIf you have ever tried and failed to learn a language in the past, you might have come to the conclusion that you simply aren’t “good at languages,” or don’t have the “language gene.” Learning languages, apparently, is best left up to the type of people who perpetually have their nose stuck in a book, or language nerds who have no lives outside of academia.

Now, if you think about it, this is obvious “sour grapes” thinking. Here’s the thing: everyone out there, except maybe feral children, have learned at least one language to fluency. If you grew up speaking English, for example, then I’d be willing to bet you’ve mastered the language to the point where you can understand all the subtle nuances and shades of meaning used in most situations, aside from extremely technical jargon. Really, you’ve learned to speak English at native-level fluency! You’ve already done it once!

Scientists have discovered that there is in fact a language gene. But the thing is, all humans have it, even you.

Still, I’m going to go ahead and say that some people are better than others at learning languages, but the reasons aren’t what you might think; they’re not really linguistic in nature, nor are they innately exclusive advantages you can never hope to have.

Here are some of the reasons I’ve found, in no particular order:

Frustration tolerance / Impatience

If you absolutely must see quick results, or breeze through anything you try, I’m sorry to say it, but you’ll have a tough time with language learning. This is one area where simply memorizing a checklist of items will not get you to where you’re trying to get to. Learning a language takes practice, and stretching yourself. Some days it will come easier than others, but if you’re the kind of person who quits if you can’t get it right the first time, stop being that kind of person.

Open-mindedness to new ways of doing things

I could write a whole post just about this one topic. Maybe I will sometime. For now, suffice it to say that the way we word things in English isn’t necessarily the logical way to do things. It’s just the familiar way for us. Other languages use completely different rules for putting words together to communicate ideas. You’ll have trouble learning languages if you can’t get let go of the notion that English’s way is always the better way.

Creative thinking

You have two options: either learn every single word in every possible combination that exists in your target language, or accept the fact that sometimes you’ll have to express an idea that you don’t have the exact words to communicate. Personally, I think the second is infinitely easier. Of course, this means you will sometimes have to use some creative thinking to get an idea across, but this is a skill that is easy to learn with practice. For example, if you don’t know the word for, let’s say, a planter box, you can say “that wooden box that has flowers in it.” Most likely, the person you’re talking to will understand your meaning.

Openness to social risk

This is one that I’ve had a hard time with. Unless you only intend to use your language for reading, for example, with Biblical Hebrew or Latin, odds are you’ll want to talk to someone in your language. The reality is that you’re extremely likely to be in a situation where you’ll need to think on your feet while in a social setting. You’re going to make mistakes in front of people. You’re going to have to make weird sounds come out of your mouth.

If you’re one of the many people who have a tough time in social situations in your own language, let alone a new one, my advice is to make an experiment out of it. I think the key is in the way you approach failure. If failure means you’re terrible at languages no one will ever talk to you again and you’ll never amount to anything and why keep trying because AAAAAAAAHHH!! then you’re much less likely to have a good experience. On the other hand, if failure simply means noting what didn’t work, iterating, and trying again, then you take personal risk out of the equation, and you’ll see much more progress.

Sense of purpose

Have a clear idea of why you want to learn this language in the first place. Is it because your girlfriend is French and you want to be able to talk to her in her own language? Is it because your family came from Mexico and you want to learn Spanish to connect with your heritage? Is it because you want to further your career prospects in Japan? Is it because you love Italian culture, art, music, etc., and want to immerse yourself more deeply into it? Is it because you want to be able to read your religion’s sacred texts in their original language to pick up on nuances that might not carry over into the translation? Is it because you’re fascinated with the uniquely human cognitive construct that is language and want to understand what you have in common with people half the world away?

The firmer the understanding you have of exactly why you’re putting yourself through this process, the more likely you are to stick through the rough patches and see success.

Sense of direction / Goals

Here’s a scenario. Two guys set a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and get in shape.

The first guy gets a subscription to a gym, not because gyms are inherently better, but because he knows he’s more likely to stick with it if he knows he’s spending money on it every month. He goes to the library and gets a book on the different kinds of exercises for different muscle groups. He hires a personal trainer to show him exactly how to do the exercises for optimal results. He takes regular measurements and tracks his performance and progress.

The other guy gets a gym membership because that’s what everyone does when they want to get in shape. He goes every once in a while and lifts a random bar here and there, runs on the treadmill for awhile until he gets bored, then sits in the hot tub.

Which of the two is more likely to get the results he wants? Obviously.

The main point isn’t to spend more money, it’s to create a framework for your own success. Set goals. Track your progress. Define specific objectives you want to meet, and solid deadlines for those objectives.

Already having learned a second language

Here’s the kicker: once you’ve already learned a second language, it’s much easier to learn a third, and fourth, and so on. The reason is that learning a second language requires learning how to learn a language. There are many different smaller skills involved that you simply haven’t picked up yet. Once you’ve deconstructed the process and learned these skills once, you can reuse them again and again. So don’t worry, the first time is the hardest. It gets better.

Portuguese Week 2 Update

I’ve come up on my second week in my Portuguese project. So far, so good. I feel like I’m seeing some good progress.

For anyone who’s had trouble staying focused and keeping motivation in a language learning project, I highly recommend making a video series of yourself at regular intervals during your project. Not only does it provide a way to look back and review your progress, but it also gives you incentive to keep it up – as you’ve publicly committed to all your viewers that you’re going to stick with it. No turning back!

When I begin language learning projects, I’m usually pretty good at leveraging what little I know of the language early on to try and express what I’m trying to say. I may not know the exact word I’m looking for, but I can circumlocute, or “talk my way around it.”

On the other hand, as I mention in the video, learning to understand the spoken language is much more difficult for me than speaking it. It’s just a quirk in the way I learn. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. So this week I’ll be spending a lot more time listening to spoken Portuguese – watching videos, listening to recordings, and having conversations.

Hacking the Romance Learning Curve

I’ve talked a little about how my Spanish gives me a shortcut to learning Portuguese quickly, but a lot of people might not know that even just speaking English gives you a huge leg up on learning Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance languages.

What’s a Romance language?

World Map of Major Romance Languages
World Map of Major Romance Languages

The Romance languages are the modern descendants of the Vulgar (meaning “of the common people”) Latin spoken in the Roman Empire. They include some of the most widely spoken and historically influential languages on the planet. In all they are spoken natively by approximately 800 million people worldwide. The largest include:

  • Spanish, 410 million native speakers as of 2010 (more than English, second only to Mandarin Chinese)
  • Portuguese, 215 million
  • French, 75 million
  • Italian, 59 million
  • Romanian, 24 million

Plus dozens of other regional dialects and languages. If you’re interested in learning a useful language for international business or travel, you could do much worse than choosing a Romance language. But what I really wanted to get into here is the added bonus of how easy Romance languages are to learn if you happen to be an English speaker.

Distant Indo-European Cousins

The Romance languages share a common ancestry with English, along with most of the other languages of modern Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, dating to roughly 6,000 years ago. This means that, although they are now completely different languages that sound nothing alike, they actually have much more in common than you’d think, especially in terms of vocabulary and grammar. For example, here are the numbers 1-10 in a few Indo-European languages:

English Spanish Portuguese French German Welsh Greek Russian Persian
one uno um un ein un énas  odin  yek
two dos dois deux zwei dau dýo  dva  do
three tres três trois drei tri  tría  tri  seh
four cuatro quatro quatre vier pedwar  téssera  chetyre  chahaar
five cinco cinco cinc fünf pump  pénte  pyat’  panj
six seis seis six  sechs  chwech  éxi  shest’  shesh
seven siete sete sept  sieben saith  eptá  sem’  haft
eight ocho oito huit aucht wyth  októ  vosem’  hasht
nine nueve nove neuf neun naw  ennéa  devyat’  noh
ten diez dez dix zehn deg  déka  desyat’  dah

Obviously, they are very different from each other, but if you look closely, you can spot some patterns and similarities.

These similarities are a tremendous help when learning other Indo-Euopean languages, especially if you know where to look. However, the Romance languages share an even closer bond with English. This special relationship is enough to help you boost your vocabulary very quickly, and might even help you with your English at the same time!

Romance – English’s “Adopted” Family

English is at its heart a Germanic language – closely related to modern German, Dutch, and Swedish, and if you read anything written in old English (i.e. written before A.D. 1066), such as Beowulf, it’s for the most part a completely different language from the English we know and love today. However, in 1066, the Normans – French speaking Vikings – invaded and conquered England. Over the next few centuries their French had a huge influence over English, fundamentally changing it.

The Normans, seen here turning Ænglisc into English
The Normans, seen here turning Ænglisc into English

It’s because of this historical fact that we have so many pairs of words in English that mean the same thing, but where one of them sounds more “educated,” such as brotherhood and fraternity, heavenly and celestial, kingly and royal. In each of those pairs, the first is a native English word, and the second from French or Latin.

Because of all this borrowing from French into English, there are a huge number of cognates (words with a common origin and similar meaning) between English and the Romance languages. “Information” is información in Spanish and informação in Portuguese. “Opportunity” is oportunidad and oportunidade, respectively.

This leads to an interesting quirk when it comes to learning Romance languages. The first words you will need to learn, the I‘s, you‘s, be‘s, do‘s, etc., will have to be learned and memorized normally, but when it comes to the more advanced vocabulary, the words will be much more similar, and in many cases you will even be able to guess and probably get it right. For example, the sentence “Various political opinions inform national agendas,” is usually not the kind of sentence you’d think you’d be able to say in your target language within the first few days of learning, but that sentence in Spanish is, “Varias opiniones poíticas informan agendas nacionales.” Not exactly the same, but close enough to be able to guess.

I’ve even found that learning Romance languages can boost your English vocabulary. For example, if you come across the word mellifluous and don’t know the meaning, but you do know from your Spanish that miel means “honey,” and fluir means “to flow,” you might be able to figure out that mellifluous speech or music is so sweet and smooth that it sounds almost like flowing honey.

So, keep that in mind. Languages are actually not all that hard to learn if you know where to look for the shortcuts!

Portuguese Week 1 Update

I’ve been at my Portuguese project for a week now, and I’ve made a fair amount of progress. I want to stress that I’m not starting from scratch on this, as I have had some exposure to Brazilian Portuguese in the past, and am fluent in Spanish, so this video doesn’t represent where you should be after only a week of a new language. (On the other hand, if you are already much more proficient than I am at your language a mere week after starting from scratch, more power to you!)

For those not able to watch the video, I mention that, because Spanish and Portuguese are so similar in terms of vocabulary and grammar, I’m able to use Spanish as something of a crutch at this point. Any words I don’t know yet in Portuguese, I’m able to “fake” by pronouncing the Spanish with a bit of a Portuguese accent.

One thing many people notice when learning a language very similar to one they already speak is interference from their dominant language on their new, weaker one. I’ve noticed a little of that so far, for example, in the video at one point I use the Spanish va instead of the Portuguese vai.

Still, it’s a small price to pay in exchange for the head start that the Spanish gives me at this point in the game. It will be interesting to see what other interference shows up, especially as my Portuguese starts to develop to the point of standing on its own.

For anyone else for speaks Spanish and is interested in learning Portuguese, or vice versa, here are a few helpful articles on the subject, one from Wikipedia, and another from Fluent in 3 Months.

New Language Mission: Brazilian Portuguese!

brazil-flagIn honor of the 2014 Brazil Word Cup, I’m taking on a new language project: Brazilian Portuguese.

I spent two years living in Uruguay, right in Brazil’s shadow, so I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to Brazilian media, culture, and other influences. Still, it’s one thing to have tangential exposure to a linguistic community; it’s another thing altogether to jump right in and join them!

Brazil is a fascinating country and culture, and it’s quickly finding a respected place for itself in the world. As one of the BRIC Countries, it’s predicted to be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050. And of course there is the current World Cup, and Summer Olympics coming up in 2016.

Like many, I’ve gotten especially caught up with all things Brazil with the start of the World Cup today. I’ve been wanting to do this for awhile, but now seems as good a time as any to start my new project – to see what kind of proficiency I can build up in the month from today (the start of the tournament) until July 13 (the final match).

This is kind of a unique mission, at least for me, because I’m not starting the language entirely from scratch. I’m fluent in Spanish, which is closely related to Portuguese; the vocabulary and grammar are very similar, so that gives me a big head start. Actually, one of the motivating factors in this project is learning about what kind of effect previously learned languages have when acquiring new, related languages. The advantages of already knowing Spanish are obvious, but what kind of disadvantages, if any, will I face?

To be honest, this is one of my first language projects that I’ve planned out to this extent. Most of my language learning has either been in a classroom setting, living for an extended period of time immersed in a foreign country, or on my own in a very unorganized, haphazard manner. I’m taking a page from the Benny Lewis playbook here, so I’m not exactly sure what to expect, but I’m shooting for B1 (conversational fluency).

Wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

World, meet Zach

beachguitarHi, I’m Zach, and I’m a linguoholic.

I’ve always been really into languages. Ok, obsessed is probably the note accurate word. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been fascinated by the way different people from all over the world went about their days, their entire lives, communicating using these strange sounds and incomprehensible words, and by the fact that you could actually “crack the code” and learn to understand and communicate with anyone on the planet by learning their language.

I would go to the library as a kid and check out all the books on the different languages. I learned Spanish as a teenager, then went off and spent two years immersed in the language and culture. I also took Arabic and Mandarin in college. Over the years I’ve dabbled in dozens of languages to one degree or another.

This blog is dedicated to language. I’ll document my language learning projects, as well as post tips and advice that will hopefully help you as you take on your own projects. I hope you enjoy!