Which Language is Easiest to Learn?
Steve: Hi there, Steve here to answer your questions with my sidekick Kiran.
Kiran: Hello everyone.
Steve: So we may as get right into them.
Kiran: Yeah, okay. We have a lot of good questions this week.
Kiran: The first one is: Do you recommend focusing on communicating instead of perfection?
Steve: Absolutely, perfection is unachievable. There is no language that I speak to perfection, even including English. The whole thing is communicating because it makes it real. You have a real purpose for learning your language. You want to communicate with other people and you make a mistake. As long as your message is coming across and you understand what they’re saying that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about perfection.
Kiran: Excellent. The next one is: If my native language is Spanish, do you think French would be an easy language to learn?
Steve: Yes. Well, it’s not easy, but it’s easier. The biggest factor is vocabulary. In my experience, the more similar the vocabulary, the easier it is to learn the language. So French and Spanish, I don’t know what the number is, but 85% of the vocabulary is recognizable. I mean it’s written different, it’s somewhat different, but it’s more or less there.
Was he saying he spoke French or Spanish?
Kiran: He actually speaks Spanish.
Steve: Well, you can’t assume it’s going to be easy. Even like Portuguese and Spanish, there are parts of the grammar that are different and words that mean slightly different things. So you can’t assume that you’re going to ace it, but you have such a big advantage because 80% of the vocabulary you’ll recognize. So it’s never easy, but it’s easier.
Kiran: Okay. All right, I’m going to read you the next one. In Mandarin, do you suggest learning traditional Chinese characters or simplified characters?
Steve: It depends on your needs and interests. When I learned Chinese we began with the traditional characters and then we moved to the simplified, so I have the advantage that if I’m in Hong Kong or Taiwan I can read the newspaper. I think nowadays practically most people are dealing with mainland China, The People’s Republic, so probably simplified is enough.
If you have the interest, I would start with the traditional, spend a bit of time there and move to the simplified. However, if you’re in a hurry, you want to get on, you want to read, just study the simplified. It really doesn’t matter. So much in language learning is up to you, what are your interests. I think either way is a good way to go, but if you learn the traditional it’s very easy to learn the simplified.
Kiran: Okay. What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome in language learning?
Steve: Well, I think the biggest challenge, because to me language learning is about getting something that is not in you, like the new language, is to get it into you.
Steve: It doesn’t come from inside it comes from outside, so the challenge is always to find meaningful, interesting content. When I went to study German back whenever it was, 1986-’87, (this was before LingQ existed) I scoured the secondhand bookstores in Vancouver to find readers. I didn’t want to look every word up in the dictionary, so readers that had glossaries. So if you can find interesting content and, more recently, learning Polish, as I mentioned, finding interesting content. It’s all about finding interesting content.
It used to be that you had to find content that had like a word list. Looking stuff up in a dictionary is very time consuming and very frustrating because you forget immediately after closing the dictionary. Nowadays with programs like LingQ, online dictionaries and stuff like that, the key is to find interesting, meaningful content. That’s the biggest obstacle, I feel.
Kiran: All right. What do you think about the FSI language series?
Steve: And in colloquial, I think.
Steve: Well, Colloquial is a bit like Teach Yourself. These are the sort of starter books where they say on the cover if you complete this you will master reading, writing, speaking and listening, which of course isn’t true. They’re basically introductory books to the language. Colloquial I think has gotten worse, as has Teach Yourself, because they put more and more English on their audio. All I want from them is some audio, some words, some explanations of grammar which I’m going to forget, but it kind of introduces me to the language.
Kiran: I see.
Steve: I find now I need those kinds of books less and less, but I still buy them because they’re handy to have. So Colloquial and Teach Yourself, those are introductory books, you buy them, you go back to them time and time again in your learning.
FSI is different. FSI is sort of like a system based on very repetitive drills. “This is a car.” “This is a blue car.” “This is my blue car.” I find those deadly boring. With all due respect to FSI, I got some for a couple of languages I just couldn’t stay with it. It gets back to this idea, and this is applicable to Colloquial, as well, meaningful, interesting content. It’s so important.
You can do a little bit of FSI, but I can’t do it. Again, I think it could be part of your language-learning program, but the biggest part of my time is spent, again, listening and reading to meaningful content, using LingQ, of course.
Kiran: I think this next one actually kind of ties in: Do you use a monolingual dictionary? This one user says he wants to start using that from low to intermediate; it helps him to become faster in the target language. Is that true?
Steve: In other words, I will always use a bilingual dictionary, until I am so good in the language that it’s almost like my native language. In which case, I don’t care. Most of the time, you’re looking for a quick answer. In LingQ we use the term ‘hint’ because when you see a meaning in the dictionary that’s not the complete range of meaning of that word, but it gets you started so you see the word in this context and that context.
I have used monolingual dictionaries and I end up with a bunch more words that I don’t know, so here’s a word I don’t know. I’m learning Polish and I look up the Polish definition of that word and there are more words that I don’t know. A lot of people claim that using a monolingual dictionary is good, I have never found that to be the case and I don’t use them. I use bilingual. It can be bilingual to French or a language that I speak very well, but if I’m learning Polish I won’t use a Polish dictionary.
Kiran: Okay. You said in the past that French is one of your strongest languages. So with that, do you ever keep learning new French words and vocabulary with authentic sources, such as _________?
Steve: No. I mean my French is at the point where it’s good enough, but I do a lot of reading in French and, just like any native speaker, you continue to accumulate words. You see them in different contexts, you might be curious and you might look it up. I don’t do any deliberate learning of French, but I do listen to and read French.
Kiran: Okay. Another question here: The user says I’ve been living in Australia since 2013. When I moved here I had just basic English, now I’m intermediate. I would like to achieve an advanced level, but still know very few words. What’s the advice?
Steve: Yeah. This gets back to the idea that, to my mind, to be good in a language you need a lot of words. A lot of people say I can be tremendously fluent with a few hundred words. This person here, (I don’t know if it’s a he or a she) if they’re living and working in Australia and they’re surrounded by native English speakers who have a large vocabulary, depending on their level of education, 40, 50, 60,000 words, if you’re going to communicating with those people you need a large vocabulary.
You’ve got to do a lot of reading. It all comes back to reading and listening. Get on LingQ, build up your vocabulary. When I study Russian, Polish, Czech, I want to drive that known words number up. As I’ve said, my goal in Polish is to get over 30,000 words in Polish. You’ve got to have that vocabulary and if you acquire the vocabulary through listening and reading your brain is also getting used to the language.
You’ve got to read novels in the language. I meet immigrants here and they say I can read fine, but I can’t speak. I know you read fine, I say, but have you read a novel? No. Well, get to where you can read a novel and you can enjoy reading a novel in the language.
Kiran: Okay. Well, that was it for all the questions.
Steve: Okay, we did it.
Steve: Keep your questions coming and keep up the good work in the Challenge.
Kiran: See you guys next week.