My Method of Learning a New Language

My Method of Learning a New Language
January 14, 2017 Weixiangz

My background with language. 

I have the advantages of being trilingual. I am fluent in reading and writing in English; I’m fluent in speaking in 2 of the Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Fuzhou-hua (More on what is a dialect, and language in another post). But growing up I didn’t understand the complexity of learning a new language from a formal standpoint, and I learned English when I was thrown into the world of English. Coming into the US when I was nine, in China, I learned English in elementary school. Apple was pronounced with a UK accent, more like Oppo, rather than ae-pple. But I didn’t learn enough to speak it fluently when I came to the US. At Macdonald for example, I would order by pointing at the fish sandwich. It took me at least four years to learn English at a level of fluency.

Four years? You would imagine that immersion would increase the rate of language learning right? Incorrect, immersion without the tools and desires to learn often doesn’t work and often lead to much more confusion of the speaker’s circumstances. Coming from personal experience, unlike Americans who willfully put their kids to language schools, I like many other first generation immigrants were forced into public schools where the language around me are not that of my own. People were speaking English, for me, it was frightening and the only time of solace was when I went home. This was before the age of social media, and time of instant access to Duolingo, or even the internet, this was 1999. My parents were afraid that I would not catch up to English and forced me to sit down until I finished all of my English homework. That’s most immigrant families, who came to the US hoping for a better future for their kids as well.

If you ask my uncle directions to go from his restaurant to the nearest school, he wouldn’t understand. Immersion doesn’t automatically teach you the grammars and nouns of a new language; immersion is a tool like other methods of studying a new language. My uncle has been in the US for 20 years, still can only communicate by pointing and shouting. Even though he has been here for about 20 years, he now doesn’t have the desire to learn a new language; maybe when my uncle first came here, now that he has the American dream, he doesn’t seem to need to learn English anymore.

My uncle like many of my other family members came to the US for a better opportunity. Some came here due to political asylums. Others came here for a better future. When my family came here, we were all given a pink book, “Chinese Restaurant English Handbook.” My mom still has that book. It was a phrase book, and by no means a new language learning book. That book filled a popular market that’s used to ready new Fujianese immigrants to the US and get a better job in the restaurant business. It’ll have phrases that teach you how to say “Welcome to China One, how may I help you.” Or translational phrases like Chicken Broccoli, or General Tso Chicken. It didn’t teach you grammatical structures. There were no descriptions on how to learn a new language, all there was here is x amount of words and phrases, now learn it.

No desire and no tools make for a terrible immersive experience. Immersion is a catalysis, but the Joker.

After a while, I caught up with English. I just learned it through immersion due to living here for a long time and speaking it for a long time. With many trials and errors, it wasn’t the most efficient way of learning, but I learned it. I had the luxury of living in an all American area, Ypsilanti, and I had the luck of having a single Chinese American sitting next to me. In the whole school, there were less than ten Asians in my elementary school. If I had any questions, I could ask him. If I were taught with better English language specialist, I would’ve learned the language faster. However, I didn’t know about that form of resources, and my parents were frugal thus had the “Work hard to learn this” mentality. It sure worked, four years later, I learned a lot of English and became fluent. I wasn’t perfect by any means, and even now English as a second language has permanently slowed my development of grammatical correctness when I write down a few grades. I am okay with it, after all, I can just get an editor. Heh. My Chinese however, was started to fade.

Counter-immersion or the lack of immersion shows the importance of immersion in developing a new language. This guide won’t make you a college level language learner, but it will make you pretty good at it and gives you a set of guides to learn a language for self-learning. My Chinese started to fade about year 5, even at a young age, I’ve always had great vocabulary and literacy in Chinese characters, even my Mandarin was top notch. But, there was no place to read and hear much Mandarin. At home, we all spoke Fuzhou-hua, and due to the severe difference between Mandarin and Fuzhou-hua, my mandarin took a huge ding in my literacy. As for reading, due to Chinese being a language that has no alphabet, I couldn’t like English, look at a word and “spell it out.” There are tiny referential hints for the sound, and thus, my reading also took a huge ding.

With language, I didn’t have a formal method of language learning until I was 18 when I started in college. My first official language course was Spanish. Spanish taught me what English classes should’ve have taught me but I didn’t understand the importance of it until my Spanish class and that’s the importance of learning grammar. Spanish taught me more about grammar the English ever did. When I was in high school, I don’t know for the life of me what a predicate is, what a gerund is, what verb conjugation means, time references, and all the aspects of our everyday language. Spanish gave me the tools of the game, sort of like learning the physics of baseball rather than just play baseball.

That was the breakthrough point for me, learning Spanish helped me access to learning language from a linguistic perspective while combing that with other tools, and techniques such as immersion. It also made me less afraid of learning a new language, and now I learn a new language just because it’s fun rather than it’s required. I did okay in Spain with Spanish, and Germany with German, and when I relearned Mandarin after 17 years, it took me only three days to get it back to 50% of my original proficiency. My goal is more proficient in the Western European language side of French, Spanish, German, and Italian. While on the eastern Asian side, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. One day I would hope to learn Slavic based language like Macedonian, or Slavic, as well as Russian. Lastly, I would hope one day to learn Arabic. It’s very much possible, a friend of mine can speak 9… looking at you Mary.

Mono-Bi-lingual Advantage 

If you are a bilingual speaker of the same language family (for some dialects are included in this category) for example English and Italian or English and Spanish or Romance languages, then for the next few weeks, spend time actively thinking about the difference between English and your other language. Reflect on the grammatical structure, the style of thinking, and even how your mind changes when you’re speaking that other language. When learning a new language, think about how the grammar of the new language is your language on English. You have the bilingual language advantage use that to another set of languages. This will accelerate your learning of a new third language.

If you are a bilingual speaker of a different language family, then you will most likely have the most advantage. For example, if you can speak Japanese and English, or Arabic and English. Use that as a method of introducing your mind to the difference in every aspect of the new language. Language in different families teaches you how language structure works, and how even though the structures are different to almost all aspects, meaning is still being delivered. Take the next few weeks to think about how you language is different than English. Try to break down grammatical structures of your sentence if you can write a sentence, try to deconstruct how verb conjugations (if those exist) works in your language, versus English for example. Think about those in the background, while you use this resource for language learning.

If you’re a monolingual speaker, then like many other Americans you won’t have the advantage of being bilingual, but you will be able to learn another set of languages. Don’t be intimidated, or afraid, learning a new set of language (or languages) allows you to communicate with new cultures. It also sets you with a new way of thinking about the world. It’s often strange how languages can trigger a family mode in me when someone speaks to me in Fuzhou-Hua.

Language Tree Initiation. 

I would recommend that you learn a language in the same language family, as a way of introducing your mind on how to think differently about a language. For English speakers, Spanish would be the best secondary language learn. Spanish learning curve is relatively short compared to French, German, and Italian. Spanish has the easiest grammatical rules, there are no hidden sounds in the speaking, and if you can speak it, then you can write it. Unlike English with hidden rules and regulations in both grammar is speech, Spanish often avoids those misregulations of grammar. Once you learn Spanish and has a sense of what it’s like to learn a new language, then you can start learning a more difficult language in the family. If you want to test your limits, then you can start learning a language in a different family.

Using Technology to Learn

Once you’ve been initiated to a language, start learning by using technology, pen, and pencil. There are multiple sources online that will give you very similar experiences you have in the classroom. What the college classroom gives you is structure, repetition, and subpar immersion. This is the method we will try to imitate.

1. Select the language you wish to learn, hopefully after Spanish, if you’re a monolingual speaker.

2. Unless it’s an Asian language, use Duolingo, this will be necessary for your grammatical lessons.

    1. If it’s Chinese, download HelloChinese, this is great for vocabulary, terrible for grammar as it doesn’t have any grammar.

3. What Duolingo does nicely is introduced you to it’s grammatical structure and formations, while introducing you carefully the language vocabulary.

    1. If it’s Spanish, co-learn your language with Duolingo and use as a supplementary tool for learning. It’s free, and it’s amazing.

4. Now for vocabulary, download memrise on your phone, and start learning the 50 verbs, then start memorizing the top 50 verbs with their conjugation.

    1. Start learning the top 500 nouns, don’t worry memrise won’t give you all of them but only give you as you go. So you won’t be swamped by it.

5. Learning verb, verb conjugation, and nouns by themselves may seem as though you’re learning without contextual points or reference points. However, that is the main reason suggest to you using Duolingo. Duolingo waves all of the structures together and thus allowing you to use the vocabs that you’ve memorized. Without something to string everything together it would be blind and a waste of time to remember the vocabs.

6. Now for immersion of sound, Look into Michel Thomas Methods, as an introduction into immersion and practice of language. He’s method is perfect for the romance languages as he introduces to you how they are related, and how English is the language that is in the middle of every other romance language. Michel Thomas method of language learning is low impact, but high reward.

7. For the immersion of human practice, use Meetup to join a group of speakers that’s also learning a language. I’ve learned more from speaking German and Spanish from my friend faster than learning it by my own, however without the tools like grammar and vocabulary, it’s tough to learn using only immersion.

8. The key to all of this is repetition, force yourself to think about how to say something in that other language, if you can’t figure it out, take out your phone dictionary.

9. Join an online forum. I’ve learned everything about language learning from a mixture of personal experiences and online forums. There are so many resources out there!

10. Lastly, go on a trip. If you have the basics of the linguistic grammar and vocab, then you have the tools to ask questions to accelerate your language by total and complete immersion. It’s the best way and the fastest way of learning it. By traveling, you know that you have the desire to learn a new language, and you can easily become fluent in that language.

11. Have fun, relax, the world of language is really lovely. Viel Glück!

My language fluency

English: Complete Fluency

Mandarin, Chinese: HSK3

Fuzhou-hua, Chinese: HSK5

Spanish: HSK 2

German: HSK1

Korean: Currently Learning

If there are any questions, send me an email, and I’d be happy to answer any issues or complaints.

Additional Links

For general tips, and how I learned a language use this reddit community on language learning

For Memrise

For Duolingo

For Spanish Michel Thomas, here’s Amazon, and YouTube.

For French Michel Thomas, here’s Amazon.