The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

The Worst Practices of Learning Languages

I am so good at failing to learn a language that I should teach how to do it. I get by with English on better days, but that is about it when it comes to my linguistic skills. And I studied an array of languages: Latin for eight years, German for one, Spanish since forever, Chinese on and off, bits of Russian here and there, and a month of Japanese. I had two massive failures with French, and I picked up a few phrases in countries where I stayed longer, like Thailand or Cambodia. Nothing ever sticks. If I don’t use English for a day, I am back to the level ‘Hi my name Ludmilla.’

Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum

My Latin comes handy sometimes. This says humans do not urinate in wind.

Latin is quite dead, it is understandable that my interest is limited — sic transit gloria mundi. German is a militärischer Sicherheitsbereich, and it is not the most useful language either, so I am fine not joining the German-speaking Gesellshaft. They can keep playing their Dudelsack for all I care.

Spanish, on the other hand, would be insanely useful. For instance, I would understand what all these salsa songs are about that I keep listening to. My studies started off fine. On an impulse decision, I moved to Mexico City for three months to finish writing my thesis. Having no clue of the language, I was listening to a tape on the flight. The next day I succeeded in buying a ticket for the ballet, with the transaction conducted entirely in Spanish.

Minor success followed minor success, especially after I got an awesome instructor. I navigated myself around the city and the country, and I fell in love with the language. Then I got stuck. I realized my conversations always consisted of about the same four sentences, and there was no way forward. Mi país produce manzanas. That was nearly five years ago. Since then I lived in four Spanish-speaking countries, and travelled through much more. I always blamed my lack of understanding on the locals, who were not speaking the standard Mexican dialect. Then I had a trip back to Mexico, and I had no idea what people were saying. I had no excuses. I failed with Spanish.

My last failed move in learning Spanish was choosing the wrong country to do so. If you want to move to a country to practice the language, check if the population actually speaks the target language. I was in for a big surprise when I moved to the Caribbean, and the jolly island dwellers responded in English to my inquiries in Spanish. Just because an island is called ‘Trinidad’, that does not imply anything with regards to the language.

DVD on sale

You do not get to learn much Spanish in countries where only action DVDs are on sale.

My Chinese is a dark pit of non-tonal oblivion. I ascribe my lack of motivation to a horrific tutorial teacher who spoke no English, and made me pronounce 大 a hundred times in a row, making sure she scolded me after every utterance for getting it wrong. Four tones are not too bad — Cantonese has twelve — but I will never hear the difference.

After years of successfully forgetting the little I had known in Mandarin, I was invited to Beijing for a couple of months. I wanted to use the opportunity to brush up my knowledge, so I contacted a private tutor. She fired me after two weeks, she could not stand my pronunciation. To which the only thing I could say was an exasperated Hokkien expression: chee bai.

To my credit, I fare much better at picking up writing systems. Whereas my mind ignores all forms of audio and visual signals, motions stick more easily. Limited character sets are always easier to pick up: Greek, Russian, hiragana and katakana take just a few hours of practice. Korean is the most logical system on the planet, although mastering it takes more than a few hours.

Herbal penis oil

In case you wanted to know the Chinese characters for herbal penis oil, here they are.

Hanzi is a tough challenge, I never got beyond two hundred characters. At that point, they begin to merge into each other, and the stories I concoct to remember them also concatenate. Hence when I try to recall how to write the character for vehicle, a story comes back about Che Guevara going fishing with the comrades to facilitate the trade of cars between the two advanced economies of China and Cuba, and the character becomes a jumble of random strokes. Perhaps I should devise shorter and simpler stories with less emphasis on Marxist ideology. In any case, the UN should declare any writing system with more than two hundred characters as threatening to universal human rights.

So to ensure that you are unsuccessful at learning a language, pick a tonal language with an unlimited number of characters in the script. If that is not an option, you can be fairly unsuccessful with languages written in Roman letters, even if the language is related to yours: just make sure you are inconsistent and never practice. These are trusted ways of failing. Not having a brain also helps. Good luck.

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