I think it’s time for a bit of fun, and one thing that’s had me bamboozled for a while now is a game on Sporcle which challenges you to come up with the 100 most used words in the English language. I promise you, it’s easier said than done. It’s the most frustrating game ever! My latest score is (shamefully) 63 out of 100. Can you do better?
Be sure to let me know how clever you are! Here you go…
One of the things which holds us back when practising a new language is making mistakes. We’ve all done it! Everyone makes mistakes when they’re learning, and (less often) even when they are fluent. The most notorious example is mixing up the Spanish word for “embarrassing” and saying “estoy embarazada” (I’m pregnant!) instead of “estoy avergonzada.”
My most cringe-worthy story is from when I was on holiday in Venice, Italy. I needed to send some postcards so asked the cutest guy I could find “Dov’è l’ufficio postale più vicino?” (Where is the nearest post office?) He raised his eyebrows and pointed behind me! Even though I’d made sure I had the phrase and even the pronunciation correct, I was standing in front of the post office!
The important things to note are that:
- Each mistake is a learning process. Often, you can remember words because of a mistake you’ve made and the subsequent correction that your audience has given you.
- People are very likely to understand and forgive you for a mistake, as long as you try!
- Laughter is a universal language. If you make a huge mistake, at least the person talking to you will have a great story to tell their friends!
What’s the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in when speaking another language?
As a pet owner, I feel it’s necessary to be able to communicate with my cat. I’m not a crazy cat lady, nor would I go to the extremes of hiring a “cat psychic,” but like many animal lovers, I do like to be able to interact with another, non-human, animal. I’m also not one of those people who constantly talk to their pets, but my cat and I definitely have our own way of communicating. He’s been with me since he was less than 8 weeks old, and we’ve developed a mutually recognisable social language through repetition. I recognise the different sounds he makes and the ways he tries to communicate with me. For example, the sound that he makes when he sees a ladybird on the ceiling and he wants to chase it is much different to the sound he makes when he wants to play catch with me. In turn, he recognises my human sounds, when I say his name and various words, like “down” (when he’s somewhere he shouldn’t be) or “mouse” which refers to his favourite toy. We also recognise each other’s non-verbal communication, which helps with the emphasis of the verbal communication.
My point here is that repetition is key when learning new words. A Spanish friend who came to London to perfect her English would write down any word she didn’t recognise when I spoke to her, with both the correct spelling and the phonetic spelling, and then repeat it. The next time I would see her, she would use it in our conversation. Obviously, this works best when you have a conversational grasp of the language you are learning, otherwise you would be writing down everything!
I was reading an interesting thread on the Fluent in 3 Months forum, where people were discussing their favourite language learning hacks (or tips). I came across one that I had already been doing without realising its full meaning. One of the members suggested using image searches to ‘see’ new vocabulary in different situations. Obviously for abstract concepts this may have varied results, but it’s a great way to make sure that you have the right idea from a translation.
Recently I had to check a translation that included a list of car types. Not having much more than bus, taxi, car, bike, etc, in my lexicon, I wasn’t sure how to translate things like SUV or bulldozer. The best idea I could come up with was to look up the original word in Google Images, and see which type of vehicle showed up the most often. This came in really handy when I was trying to decide between, say, minivan and station wagon as the correct translation.
So next time you find a word that you’re not 100% sure of the meaning of, perhaps looking at some pictures will help more than an ambiguous translation.
I love when there are specific phrases in languages that really have no short translation into English. I heard one the other day that made me giggle at the same time as it made complete sense (and was also sort of racially inappropriate).
So, you’ve all seen those older western gentlemen who go to Asia for totally legitimate purposes, right? Well, some of them do go to learn languages, even if those language skills are then put to use to approach some of the local ladies. The sight of a western guy with a Chinese girl is pretty common in bigger Chinese cities, but the benefits for the men may be more than just aesthetic and romantic.
Apparently it’s quite a common thing for Chinese people to recommend to single western guys – get a “hēi tóufǎ de zìdiǎn” (黑头发的字典), or a “black-haired dictionary”. This is a colloquialism for a local (Chinese) girlfriend. There’s nothing like love and an inability to communicate well to help improve your language skills!
Of course, I have heard this kind of thing recommended before – there’s no better way to learn a language than to become better acquainted with its native speakers.
What do you think? Is this a side benefit to a relationship, a reason to search one out, or something you’ve never considered? I don’t know if I would want a boyfriend to correct me all the time, but it definitely would help with getting some speaking and listening practice.
Some concepts are best described in languages besides your own, and in these cases, it is more useful to try to learn these ideas and phrases in their source language. Translating them may lead to clunky translations, and they will be more difficult to remember. If you have to use your native language as an intermediary, it will also take more time.
Try to get used to learning phrases as chunks of language, and practice saying them to increase your fluency. Eventually you won’t even try to translate them.
There’s no reason why we can’t try not to use this strategy with everyday words and language. There’s no real need to go through a native language, besides the fact that it makes us more comfortable! Next time you learn a language point, try to imagine it on its own, without a translation. Practise it in a sentence and ‘see’ the concept without using your own language. If you are learning the word for ‘knife’, don’t think about the word knife. Think about an actual knife.
Do you think this method can be done successfully? Or do we rely too much on our own native languages?
There was a great post on the Babbel blog recently from the head of their support team, Anne Matthies. She has impressively used self-directed learning to reach advanced levels in Italian, English, French, Russian and Chinese. Here are her tips for learning languages, especially on your own. The full post includes her comments.
1. Set a plan and don’t stick to it
2. Give yourself time before you speak (if you’ve got the time)
3. Your style of learning keeps changing
4. Study idioms right from the beginning
5. Be yourself
6. Get off the computer once in a while
7. Get around
9. Stage your own immersion day
10. Allow yourself to make mistakes!
11. Don’t give up…
I completely agree with all of Anne’s points (and most of them are things I’ve mentioned before). Do you have any language learning advice that you couldn’t do without?
We all should know by now that much of the best material to learn language from is relevant, interesting to the learner, and comes from real life. It’s often difficult to find articles or videos that are of an appropriate level, though, and working out your own comprehension questions and answers is fraught with difficulties.
I came across a Spanish-English learning website recently that takes away all the trouble for you. Voxy provides videos and articles about current events and other interesting subjects, and then provide questions for the learner to answer. Key words from these articles are stored automatically in a list that can be referred back to easily. They also have a few fun little games to help solidify your language knowledge.
In the future, they will also have a ‘life skills’ section where you can practise your day-to-day communications.
For people who are learning Spanish (or Spanish speakers learning English), this is a pretty cool beta site to check out. Let me know what you think about it!
Google Translate has added another great feature that allows people with boring old western keyboards to type other scripts phonetically. You should see a button that says ‘Allow phonetic typing’ for Russian, Hindi, Serbian, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, and Urdu (with probably more to come). After you select it, all you need to do is type in how the words sound, and it will give you the most likely words in your selected language. Whenever I’ve had to use a special script or a language with specific special characters, I’ve had to change the language settings on my computer, remember where special keys are, or remember the key combinations. Now it can all be done with the help of good old Google.
If you want to translate your own language into one with a non-Roman script, Google also provides a ‘Read phonetically’ option, which will allow you to know (basically) how the words are spoken. Very handy if you want to read anything in Armenian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Georgian, Greek, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Macedonian, Maltese, Russian, Serbian, Thai, or Ukrainian.
To learn more, check out the Google Translate FAQs.
I was half-heartedly watching a football (soccer) match on TV the other night, and the commentary was in Chinese. I wasn’t really watching the match very closely, but I decided that I should probably be listening more closely to the speakers. Because there are a lot of repeated phrases in sports commentary, and the action is happening right in front of you, it’s sometimes quite easy to work out how to say names and terms in a foreign language. Let’s be honest, most sports commentators don’t have a vast lexicon.
I found myself more interested in the speakers than the game in the end, although it was actually a pretty good match.
Have you learned any language from watching sports in other countries?