5 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Began Learning Specific Languages
We all make mistakes.
In over two decades of language learning, I’ve made my fair share of them. Just like learning a single language is a process, learning how to learn languages is a process, too.
Generally speaking, there are no shortcuts to this process. You only get better with time, effort, and deliberate practice.
One thing, however, which can speed up the process—if not shorten it altogether—is to learn from the mistakes of others. To learn the lessons others learned through struggle, error, and failure, and to do your best not to repeat them.
I’ve done this many times. I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with many excellent language learning role models over the years, and I’ve learned from them all.
But this article is not about how I’ve learned from the mistakes of others.
It’s about how you, dear reader, can learn from my mistakes.
Today, I want to share with you five things I wish I had known when I began learning specific languages. It is my hope that you can take these lessons, learned from my own mistakes and failures, and put them to use in your own learning, to ultimately speed up your own language learning success.
1. When Learning Close Languages, Start Speaking Early
Sometimes, it’s so easy to get stuck in a routine that it’s difficult to notice when other approaches would give much faster results.
Take, for example, the time I began learning Portuguese in 2008.
I had already had a well-developed learning method that I had tried and tested with several other languages. Part of this method required me to study a language using its corresponding Assimil course for an entire 6 months prior to actively speaking it with natives. This was my plan for Portuguese.
While this is well and good for most languages, I was overlooking one huge fact: I should have started speaking much, much earlier!
You see, Portuguese is a member of the Romance language family, meaning that it is descended from Latin.
At the time I started Portuguese, I had learned and mastered two other Romance languages: Spanish, and my native Italian.
Since Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian have lots in common in terms of grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, and syntax, I didn’t actually have to absorb a whole lot of new information to be able to speak Portuguese well. All I had to do was “convert” a lot of my underlying Spanish and Italian knowledge into correct Portuguese.
Since Portuguese was a “close” language to languages I already knew well, it turns out that I didn’t have to wait six months to start speaking it—I probably didn’t even have to wait six weeks!
The time one should wait to speak a language depends very much on the individual and his or her own language experience, but I know now that when learning very close languages, it’s much more efficient to speak as early as possible, since a lot of the skills and knowledge of a previous language can transfer to the new one.
2. When Learning Distant Languages, Keep it Simple
The amount of linguistic diversity on the planet is staggering. Languages are incredibly complex, and they can differ from one another in both subtle and obvious ways.
This diversity means that just because a routine or approach has helped you learn one, two, five, or ten languages, it won’t necessarily be just as successful in helping you learn the next one.
This was the lesson I learned from Japanese.
As I mentioned in the Portuguese example above, my language learning method focuses primarily on gaining input (listening and reading) for six months to a year, before then focusing on output (speaking & writing).
Typically, once I reach the end of the input phase in a particular language, I’m able to build up my speaking skills very quickly, and converse at an intermediate level or higher.
This is how it worked for many of my previous languages. Even difficult ones, like Russian, Polish, and Mandarin Chinese.
I had no such luck with Japanese, however. Once I began trying to speak, I was confused to find that I couldn’t, even after many attempts at conversation.
Here, the problem was the opposite of the one I had with Portuguese: instead of it being too close a language, Japanese was too distant from any language I had previously learned.
More specifically, every other language in my repertoire at the time had a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) syntax. This means that they form sentences like “I (subject) ate (verb) the cake (object).”
Japanese doesn’t do this. It has, instead, an SOV word order, meaning the above sentence in Japanese is structured as “I the cake ate”.
If you’re accustomed to SVO languages as I was, trying to speak in an SOV language feels like a mental juggling act, as you suddenly have to start building sentences in a way that feels almost entirely backwards.
Now, I did know at the time that Japanese has a different word order. The problem is that I started speaking Japanese by trying to form sentences that would have been easy in SVO languages, but were far too complicated to manage in Japanese. Sentences with multiple clauses—something like “I started learning Japanese because I think Japanese culture is fascinating”—were most often the culprit.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have avoided these complex sentences entirely. While I could express them after a year of learning an SVO language, they simply weren’t appropriate for Japanese. Instead, what I needed to do was simplify things as much as possible.
Japanese syntax was so new to me that I needed to go back to basics; in essence, to speak like a child speaks. This means starting with a focus on simple sentences (such as “I’m learning Japanese” and “I like Japanese culture) and gradually working up to forming more complex sentences through connectors (“I’m learning Japanese because I like Japanese culture”). This “bottom-up” approach would have helped me grow accustomed to the new syntax while avoiding the mental stress of trying to say things that are above my level.
If you are trying to learn a language that is extremely different from any you have learned before, I recommend this approach. At the beginning, simplify everything as much as you can, until you’re comfortable with the basics. Once that happens, build up your tolerance for complexity, but do so gradually. And don’t be afraid to resimplify if you get overwhelmed!
3. When Learning a Language with a New Script, Acquire the Right Tools Quickly
Language learning difficulties can often arise in the most unexpected of places.
When I started learning Russian in 2004, I had already been forewarned many times about the maze of declensions that is the Russian case system. As such, if I was going to struggle with Russian, I figured it would be with its grammar.
Fast forward to four months later, and I was just about to give up learning Russian altogether.
The cases, surprisingly, were not the culprit. While challenging, they didn’t make me want to quit.
It was Cyrillic that nearly drove me to the edge.
Yes, Cyrillic, the nearly-Latin, nearly-Greek alphabet that looks oh-so simple, was giving me fits.
And here’s the thing—I could read and handwrite it with no problems!
When it came to typing, however, I was at a total loss.
I tried learning the Russian keyboard, but it was completely alien to me. Even the letters that Cyrillic shares with Latin (“M”, “T”, “O”, “P”, etc.) were in completely new positions, so learning to use the Russian keyboard would be starting from scratch. I didn’t have the patience for it.
So, I resorted to a different method. One that was much simpler, but much, much slower: I input each letter from the symbols menu, one character at a time. Needless to say, typing anything longer than my name was a complete nightmare. Entire text conversations were practically impossible.
What I needed then were better tools. Clearly, the Russian keyboard and Symbols menu weren’t going to help me get the job done.
I eventually did find the right tool for the job, in the form of something now known as Google Input Tools. This is a browser-based text window that converts text in the Latin alphabet to the Cyrillic alphabet automatically. This allows me to type in Russian while still keeping my keyboard layout the same.
Knowledge of typing resources like Google Input Tools helped me immensely once I tried to learn Mandarin Chinese, which also has a completely different script from my own. Though attempting to type in Chinese characters could have been another Cyrillic-esque nightmare, an application known as Google Pinyin helped me communicate through text without any added stress to my learning.
If you wish to learn a language with a script that’s unfamiliar to you, I strongly advise that you find the tools you’ll need to handwrite and/or type as soon as you can, and learn to use them right away. Look for the option that will get you writing or typing the fastest, without slowing down your learning. You can always look into more complex options later.
4. When Learning a Tonal Language, Use a Top-Down Approach
Amongst language learners, tonal languages are notorious for their difficulty. If you don’t already speak a language with tones, the very idea that the meaning of a word can change according to its pitch can be hard to wrap your head around. This is why many people who are learning languages like Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Thai, or Vietnamese can often struggle mightily when trying to speak.
When I started learning Mandarin Chinese in 2008, I tried to tackle the tones using the usual bottom-up approach that is usually recommended to learners. This means that I started by learning and memorizing the tones, then applying them to the smallest “tonal units” (syllables, in this case) and then combined those units into larger pieces (words) and then combined those into even larger pieces (sentences).
When it came time to pronounce a sentence, then, I had to run through the whole procedure every time: remember the tone number of each syllable, then put the syllables together, then the words together, then the sentence. Mentally, it was a lot to keep track of all at once—and due to a phenomenon called tone sandhi, it’s not always even accurate.
Unsatisfied with the mental acrobatics required by the method, I looked for something better. And I eventually found it.
One day, I stumbled on a surprising fact about children who speak tonal languages natively: they don’t use tone numbers!
I realized then that tonal language speakers don’t piece a correctly toned sentence tone by tone, syllable by syllable, like learners usually do. Instead, they learn tones in chunks—either entire phrases or sentences—and can work down from there if necessary.
This “top-down” approach is much more intuitive, and eliminates the confusion caused by tone sandhi, since you’re not focused on tone changes at the syllable level.
If you’re learning a tonal language, then I recommend you take this top-down approach to learning tones, and avoid the headaches that bottom-up approaches can cause.
5. Practice Proper Phonetics From the Beginning
Having a proper mastery of the phonetics of a language is immensely important if you want to be understood by natives.
The example of learning Chinese tones (above) is one of the more common and obvious examples of this. If you can’t handle the tones, it will be very difficult for people to know what you are trying to say.
Tonal languages are considerably rare, however, so it’s easy to think that you can ignore something like intonation when learning languages that don’t have complex tone systems.
But that’s not quite true. And I found that out the hard way.
In 2008, I posted my first video on YouTube. In it, I displayed my skill in the eight languages I knew at the time.
The video was well-received, and I got a lot of good feedback.
For one language, however, I received comments I wasn’t sure what to make of.
A few people noticed that my intonation was off for Swedish. I found this odd, since I had never had any major intonation troubles with other European languages, and already spoke related languages like German and Dutch at a high level.
I initially chalked it up to YouTube commenters being overly critical, but the comments kept coming. So I decided to look into it.
It turns out that even though Swedish is not a tonal language, it can be considered a “semi-tonal” language, as it has a phonetic feature called “pitch accent”. This means that certain Swedish words can be intoned in two different ways, each intonation having a separate meaning.
This is an important feature of Swedish phonetics that I had only found out about (or at least paid proper attention to) nearly two whole years after beginning the language. By that time, the improper intonation was already deeply ingrained into my Swedish, and undoing all that “damage” would take years of hard work.
Since then, I’ve spent considerable time and effort in re-learning Swedish intonation, but I haven’t managed to completely eradicate the former, erroneous patterns with my speech.
This is why I implore you to focus on phonetics as early as you can when learning a language. Practice pronunciation and intonation and get frequent feedback so that you can eliminate errors as soon as they arise. Errors that get ignored or left alone tend to fossilize, and can be much more difficult to eliminate later on. If you want to speak as naturally as possible in your languages, don’t make that mistake.
Twenty-two years of language learning experience has taught me a whole host of lessons. Some I have learned from other learners, some I have learned from my own success. Most of them, however, I’ve learned from my own mistakes.
Of course, it is possible for you to make the same mistakes that I have made. However, if you learn from the above five lessons, you won’t have to. In the end, this will make your language learning experience much easier, quicker, and more rewarding.
Written by Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse