Steve’s Answers on Your Language Learning Questions – Part 2

Steve: Hi, there. Steve again and…

Kiran: Hello. Kiran.

Steve: We’re going to go over your questions, which we’ve collected. Now, I can’t answer all the questions, but I’ve collected them to some extent and we’re going to, hopefully, answer most of the questions. So go ahead. Shoot, Kiran.

Kiran: Okay. The first one: Writing systems cause problems in language learning. How do you deal with different writing systems in Chinese and Russian, etc.?

Steve: Etc. exactly, Korean. I remember the question was like Chinese, how do you start listening and reading when you can’t read anything? What I did when I learned Chinese is I spent the first month only listening and using Pinyin. In those days, it was a different system for using a Roman or a Latin alphabet. So I listened and I read in the Romanization system that we used at that time and then, after a month, I went heavy-duty into learning the characters.

I learned the first 1,000 most frequently-used characters as a deliberate exercise. I would study 10 and, eventually, 30 a day, forget them, relearn them, separate from my reading and listening. After about 1,000 characters, I just learned the characters as I went. With a character-based writing system, you have to make a deliberate effort to learn the characters.

Once you get to a phonetic writing system, like Cyrillic script for Russian is really not very difficult because it’s kind of almost parallel to the Latin alphabet with a few other symbols. Basically, you learn it, you don’t really understand it. You start reading, it’s difficult to read. You continue reading and listening and, gradually, it becomes more and more comfortable.

The same is true for say Asian languages. You’ll notice the differences between Korean, and Japanese once you start studying their scripts.  The characters (Kanji for Japanese) is a big chore to learn. You have to do it and you have to do it every day consistently for a good few months.

Kiran: Okay. The next one: In English the spelling is so irregular that pronunciation becomes a problem. How do you deal with that?

Steve: Yes. In English that’s almost another situation where the writing system is different from the way the language is pronounced. Someone asked do you use the International Phonetic Alphabet. I don’t. My approach to language learning is whatever works for you. I’m not interested in learning another writing system because I have to get used to how those symbols are used to represent those sounds. So I listen to the sounds and I see how it’s represented in that language and I try to get used to it.

So, yes, with English you just have to get used to the fact that ‘ough’ can be ‘though’, ‘tough’, ‘rough’, ‘through’. You just have to get used to it. Personally, I don’t use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), but some people love it. It’s just a matter of choice.


Kiran: All right. Here’s another good one: I’m learning English in Vancouver. Most graded readers use the British accent. Is this a problem if I want to learn to speak with a North American accent?

Steve: Okay. The issue of accents comes up all the time not only in English, but in Spanish, in Portuguese. There are many languages where the pronunciation can vary from region to region, that is to say the native-speaking pronunciation. Personally, I don’t worry about it. My main job when I start learning a language is to make sure I can understand and that I accumulate a large vocabulary.

For Spanish, for example, I want to make sure that I can understand someone from Mexico, from Argentina, from Spain; in Portuguese, someone from Brazil and from Portugal. However, I then decide which pronunciation is the most useful to me.

Kiran: I see.

Steve: If I’m going to be working in Quebec, I want to learn the Quebec pronunciation. If I’m going to be working in Brazil, I want to learn Brazilian Portuguese. For the purposes of imitating the accent I focus on those sources that speak the way I want to speak and I try to imitate them, but I don’t limit myself to that. I actually will deal with a large variety of content. Typically, the vocabulary is extremely similar between Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, Spain; Quebec, France. It’s largely the same vocabulary.

Kiran: Okay. Someone here who is using LingQ says: How many times should I study a lesson question? Should I focus on grammar, vocabulary, structure, how do I proceed?

Steve: Okay. In LingQ or if you’re not using LingQ, I believe that listening and reading is the most powerful way to learn the language to bring it in subconsciously. This is what I’m doing with Polish with the wonderful material that Piotr has developed. I don’t focus on should I learn the conjugation, should I learn the structure. While I’m listening, though, like what I’m doing with Polish, I’ll often use the sentence view in our iLink on my iPad and then I can really look at the structures to remind myself, to help my brain learn.

It’s not as if I’m sort of block studying conjugation tables. I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of time, but it’s limited in what it can do for you. Occasionally, I’ll refer to these and quickly forget it and so the bulk of my time is spent listening, reading and, of course, creating links saving words and phrases on LingQ. You’re just following the content, reading or listening to the content. You’re learning about other things and subconsciously absorbing the language.

As to how many times, again, it’s up to you. Typically, when I start I listen often to the same material because I don’t understand it very well. As I progress in the language I listen less frequently to the same lesson and, basically, I move on at LingQ when I’m bored. I don’t have to understand 70 or 80%, when I’m tired of the lesson I move on, but it’s all exposure.

Kiran: So when you are reading, do you ignore words and phrases that you find difficult to understand?

Steve: Absolutely. I’ll look up the word. I might look up three or four words. It still doesn’t make sense. I can’t make sense of this sentence. I can’t make sense of the lesson. I don’t worry about it. I’m confident and my experience tells me three months from now that will all make sense. Right now it doesn’t make sense. There’s no use beating your head against a brick wall, I just move on.

Kiran: One person is asking: I have online discussions with a Spanish-speaking language partner, his English is much better than my Spanish. I’m too embarrassed to speak Spanish, what should I do?

Steve: You know, when we speak a foreign language we are embarrassed and we don’t speak as well as in our own language. If you want to be totally comfortable, sound intelligent and all the rest of it, stay with your native language. When you speak a foreign language you’re going to sound dumb. You’re going to sound like a child. You’re going to make mistakes. That’s part of the package you just have to do it. I’m sure your language partner is quite content to patiently talk to you in Spanish and then you’ll, of course, help him or her with their English and that’s the deal.

What can I say? You have to break through that initial sense of embarrassment. Once you get comfortable using your new language and congratulating yourself for what you’re able to do rather than worrying about the mistakes that you made, you’ll find that you’ll develop this new habit of speaking with mistakes and enjoying it.

Kiran: Okay. The last one here: How do you get motivated to learn a new language? Related to that, what about learning two languages at the same time and what about learning dead languages like Latin, for example?

Steve: Or Ancient Greek.

Kiran: Or Ancient Greek, yes.

Steve: All right. The motivation is your interest, so if I’m interested in Ancient Greek and Latin I’m going to go after them. We have Latin at LingQ, we don’t have Ancient Greek, but the learning process is the same. I don’t know if there’s audio available for Ancient Greek, there is audio available for Latin and we’re using it at LingQ.

Learning two languages at the same time, if you’re learning them both from scratch, is difficult. I don’t do it because I find once I get motivated to learn a language I’m so motivated that I want to spend all my time on that language, so I really don’t have much time for a second language.

I don’t think it’s bad for you to learn two languages at the same time, in fact, to some extent, it may help you. It might be very good for the brain to keep things fresh. Because motivation is such a big part of language learning, in fact, if I’m motivated, like now to do Polish, I find it very difficult to take time away to spend on my Korea, for example.

Kiran: Okay. Well, that was it for this week.

Steve: That’s it? Okay. I hope we answered every question and continue on your 90-Day Challenge.

Kiran: See you guys next time.

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