Learning languages is fun and important


I learn languages because I want to work more effectively and meet people on their own terms. There is no quick way to learn another language. It takes time and sweat. I know because I speak 7 languages – 4 really well English, Finnish, French and Swedish, and then good basic Latin, German and Mandarin. I learnt Latin and French at school between 1963 and 1966 for my O-levels, and really basic Japanese in the 1980’s but that is getting rusty because of lack of use, so I do not count it.

I am currently learning to read and write Mandarin but I can manage in shops, when travelling, but not when socializing. Mandarin require 5 times more time than any other language so far… why – I’ll get back to that below?

There is only one way to learn any language you must follow this regime:

  1. You have to practice almost every day for a year or 2 years if you are a slow coach.
  2. Buy a good language book with basic exercises and reading material – normally 1 or 2 chapters a week is good enough.
  3. You must learn 10 to 15 new words every day – this must be your long term average.
  4. Forget grammar when you start – it will come later much faster, unless you enjoy fiddling with things. Grammar is important but you only need it much. much later… It kills the fun of learning for most people.
  5. Listen to programs in that language on TV with text in your own language when you start and then in the language they speak later.
  6. Get a teacher and meet once a week or once every 2 weeks. A good teacher is a great teacher – don’t waste your time with one that is lazy or with whom you cannot connect with.
  7. Avoid big classes – you must practice with and be challenged by your teacher. That will not happen in a big class.
  8. You should practice reading interesting articles aloud to your dog, partner, children or the wall at least twice a week. That way you get used to the sounds and the sound of your own voice.
  9. If you cannot afford a teacher then get a boyfriend, girlfriend or just a friend from that country – I am really serious. It is called the“long hair approach” to learning languages…
  10. As soon as you can start reading one short newspaper article every day with around 700 to 1000 words. Read it fast and underline the words you do not understand. When you are down to underlining 10% or less of the words then you know that you are doing well!
  11. When you have worked hard for at least 6 to 12 months then spend a month in the country that speaks that language and just immerse yourself with learning new words, phrases and talk to people. Find a local teacher… I have a strict regime of talking to at least 3 strangers when travelling to far off lands where I want to learn their language.

Why is learning to read and write Mandarin so hard?

The main reason is that you have to recall 5 things for each character. You only have to recall 1 or 2 things about a word when you learn a European-based language. 

With Mandarin you must remember the following:

  1. How do you pronounce a character – is it “Wei” or “Qing” or “Jiang”, etc?
  2. What is the correct tone out of the 4 main tones?
  3. Can you recall what the character mean when you read it?
  4. Can you recall how to write it? This is totally different from reading…
  5. What is the context in a sentence and its meaning? A single character has various meanings when combined with another character after the simplification of Mandarin characters in the 1950’s.
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