Learn languages through reading

One of the hardest things to do, is move from an intermediate or advanced level of the language you are speaking into a native or near native level of speaking. I have friends who have done that and I was really impressed with how they did it. I’d like to share my thoughts on how to become more fluent in a language here.

It took me years to work out how to get fluent, but I’ll give you some information here that will help you to become fluent in the language or languages that you are learning, once you know, it’s easy to get rid of the main block that has so far prevented you from learning a language fluently. My story starts in Vietnam…

I Love travelling and a few years ago I spent some time travelling in Asia. During this time I spent some time living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam, about two and a half years. One of my close friends is from Vietnam and I’m always impressed by how good his English is. He has never been to an English speaking country, but he speaks English almost like a native speaker, so I became curious and asked him how he had learned English to such a high level. He told me that first he just studied in the usual way and then just by reading a lot of books in English. He also said that learning the culture associated with that language is also important. He told me that even if your language skills are not that good, if you know about the culture you can communicate really well even with limited language skills, and then after that you will start to become more fluent. I will come back to this in a moment. First I want to mention something called the Input Hypothesis.

One of the most important things about language learning, is that first we need to read and listen, before we can speak and write. Stephen Krashen the linguist and activist calls this the Input Hypothesis. When we are very young, before we start speaking, first we spend a lot of time not speaking and instead listening to everything going on around us. Even when you start speaking fairly early on when you are learning a language, you still need to do at least some reading and listening before you can speak and write in the language that you are learning. Even if it’s only 2 minutes of listening, listening and reading, ‘input’ comes first. It’s the law of nature.

It helps if we already know something of the culture of the country of the language we are learning in our native language first.

Try to understand the culture contained within the language you are learning, this will greatly improve your ability to speak the new language that you are learning. When you learn new words in the language you are learning, you will already understand the concepts behind the words that you are learning. Richard Feynman the Nobel Prize Winning Physicist did a BBC interview titled the Pleasure of Finding Things Out, during the interview he describes how knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing about the thing.

all the kids were playing in the field and one kid said
to me, “See that bird, what kind of a bird is that?” And I said,
“I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says,
“It’s a brown throated thrush,” or something, “Your father
doesn’t tell you anything.” But it was the opposite: my father
had taught me. Looking at a bird he says, “Do you know what
that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese
it’s a . . . in Italian a . . . ,” he says “in Chinese it’s a . . ., in
Japanese a . . .,” etcetera. “Now,” he says, “you can know in all
the languages you want to know what the name of that bird
is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll
know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only
know about humans in different places and what they call the
bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”

Richard Feynman – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Concepts that seem familiar in one language and another may not actually mean the same thing. For example, take the words ‘Family Life’. In Japanese we can use the equivalent word for Family Life, but Family Life in England follows different patterns than Family Life in Japan. So knowing the words to say ‘Family Life’ in Japanese tell us nothing about what Family Life in Japan really is. So we need to learn the meaning behind the words and the processes that are going on behind the words. Also there are words and concepts that exist in one culture but don’t have an equivalent in another culture. So we have to be careful when we are learning not to impose our ideas of what a word means onto the culture we are learning, and also we need to remember that knowing the name of something in another language doesn’t really tell you anything about the culture we are learning about.

So therefore when you are learning a new language, it’s good to learn something about the culture first, in your first language, which can be done by reading a book translated into English first, and then approaching reading the original version of the novel in the language that you are learning. Once your skills have developed then you can learn new concepts in the new language, because your language skills will be better and you will not break the state of flow that you are in when you are reading in your new language.

When reading, sometimes we can feel pressured as though we are going to be tested on the material we have been reading, but research has shown that by reading without the pressure of being tested afterwards, just reading for the pleasure of it, has improved the skill of learners learning a new language.

Also another thing is when learning new vocabulary, it’s important to see the words in context.

So as a tip for learning languages, I recommend reading in that language, and reading something that also teaches us about the culture of the country we are learning about.

If you are learning Spanish, you could give reading one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels a go, for example ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ As well as learning the language you will also learn about South America at the same time. You could try reading the novel in English first and then reading it in Spanish after you have read it in English, another reason this is useful, is because when you read it in Spanish after reading it in English you will have an idea of what is going on in the novel which will help you to understand what you are learning. You could also listen to ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ on audio book in Spanish while you are reading along so you can get the correct pronunciation. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one the most amazing books I have ever read.

One Hundred Years of Solitude in Original Spanish – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

If you are learning Japanese, you could do something similar, Kawabata Yasunari’s novels are a great way in to learning about the nuances of Japanese culture. Why not try reading the novel in your own language first and then in Japanese while listening to the audiobook. His novel Snow Country is beautiful. I think this works because you learn about the concepts first in your own langauge and then learn the new vocabulary in the second language. I think in the beginning stages of learning a new language this is good because it breaks down the complicated process of trying to learn a new concept and a new vocabulary word at the same time in a new language into simpler parts. Which makes it easier for the language to go in and also puts us in a state of flow.

Kawabata Yasunari – Snow Country in Japanese

Reading is one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary, because when you read and see the word in a sentence and in the context of a story or a non fiction book that you are interested in, you will find yourself being able to remember the word more easily because it’s connected to something memorable and to something that evokes an emotion and feeling inside of you. You could also directly study the culture, not only through novels but through directly studying that culture using non-fiction books.

If you only learn from memorizing lists or flashcards you will most likely forget what you’ve learned quite quickly. It’s also more enjoyable to learn through reading. Some people find flashcards work for them, but if you’re not in to flashcards and memorizing from lists then reading is great way to learn a new language, and also if you’re only memorizing from flashcards, you are learning nothing about the culture or context of the words.

Also it’s really relaxing aswell, i think reading can make you feel very relaxed

Also I think because you feel an emotional connection to the story and words you are more likely to remember them. If we already know the story in our own language and have an idea of the concepts of that culture by learning about it first, we can start to understand and pick up the new language.

So, to help you to remember, I think reading helps and it helps if we already know something of the culture of the country of the language we are learning in our native language first.

So try to understand the culture contained within the language you are learning, this will greatly improve your ability to speak the new language that you are learning.

Thank you for reading.

Survival Japanese

How to begin learning Japanese with Katakana Words

When you first start learning a new language you need to find some common ground between your language and the language that you are learning. If you are learning Japanese you might find this quite difficult because your first language is probably completely different from Japanese. This is where Katakana words come in. These are words that are not originally Japanese and come from other languages, these loan words are really useful when you’re just starting out, they can help you make the connection between your own language and the new language that you are learning. Katakana words are also used for scientific and technical terms, onomatopoeia and often for naming companies.

Here are some common loan words and how to pronounce them in Japanese. These are good to get you started when you are beginning to learn Japanese.

To say beer in Japanese is ビーリ (pronounced Biiru)

To say coffee in Japanese is コーヒー (pronounced kou-hii)

When there is a line inbetween the symbols like this ー it means you extend the sound as you say it. So it’s not ko hi but kou hii and it’s biiru. The i い is pronounced ee. so It sounds more like Bee-Ru as in Bumble Bee. Imagine a bumble bee drinking a beer as a mnemonic to remember it.

To say hotel in Japanese is ホテル (pronounced ho-te-ru)

To say juice in Japanese is ジュース (pronounced Juu-su)

To say TV in Japanese is テレビ (pronounced te-re-bi)

To say pasta in Japanese is パスタ (pronounced pa-su-ta)

To say table in Japanese テーブル (pronounced te-bu-ru) The te テ sound is prounced like teh.

To say pen in Japanese is ペン (pronounced pen)

To say America in Japanese is アメリカ (pronounced A-me-ri-ka)

To say Russia in Japanese is ロシア (pronounced Ro-shi-a)

To say party in Japanese is パーティー (pronounced Par-tee)

To say dress in Japanese is ドレス (pronounced do-re-su)

To say shirt in Japanese is シャツ (pronounced sha-tsu)

To say restaurant in Japanese is レストラン (pronounced re-su-to-ran)

To say hamburger in Japanese is ハンバーガー (pronounced han-ba-gar)

To say cafe in Japanese is カフェ (pronounced Cafe)

To say waiter in Japanese is ウェイター (pronounced U-e-i-taa) So don’t forget the “e” sound is pronounced “eh” and the i sound is pronounced “ee”

To say sofa in Japanese is ソファ (pronounced sofa)

To say France in Japanese is フランス (pronounced Fu-ran-su)

To say Cake in Japanese is ケーキ (pronounced Ke-ki) don’t forget to extend the sound in the middle, so a long ke- ki)

To say tour in Japanese is ツアー (pronounced tsu-a-)

To say Chocolate in Japanese is チョコレート (pronounced Cho-ko-re–to)

To say Chocolate cake in Japanese is チョコレートケーキ (pronounced Cho-ko-re–to-Ke–ki)

To say Hot Chocolate in Japanese is ホットチョコレート (pronounced Ho-tto-cho-ko-re–to)

To say mug in Japanese is マグカップ (pronounced Ma-gu-ka-pu)

To say Chicken sandwich in Japanese is チキンサンド (pronounced chi-ki-n-san-do)

To say sandwich in Japanese is サンド (san-do) Or you can say サンドウィッチ (pronounced San-do-ui-chi) so it’s no san doo but san -doh.

To say cheese sandwich is チーズサンド (Chi–zu-san-do)

To say Pizza in Japanese is ピザ (Pi-za)

To say Toilet in Japanese is トイレ (toi-re) sounds like toy-reh)

To say wine in Japanese is ワイン (Pronounced wa-in wine)

To say red wine in Japanese is 赤ワイン (pronounced a-ka-wine) 赤 is a Kanji character which means red.

To say white wine in Japanese is 白ワイン (pronounced shiro-wine)白 is a Kanji character which means white.

To say Chopin in Japanese is ショパン (pronounced Sho-pan)

Michel Thomas

How to learn a new language quickly with the Michel Thomas Method

A great way when learning a language for the first time is to use the Michel Thomas method.

Michel Thomas was born in Poland and during World War II he was imprisoned in concentration camps. Among other things he worked as a code breaker.

When he was young and learning languages in the traditional way of learning languages; through rote memorization and repetition he realized that there must be a better way of doing this and so he discovered a new way of learning which does not depend on rote memorization and repetition.

In Michel Thomas’s method of learning he explains at the start of his audio recordings that all the responsibility of learning is on the teacher, not on the student.

He explains that all you have to do is to relax and relieve all tension from your body, as this helps the learning process.

If you are relaxed then the language will go in easily. He says that any kind of tension blocks the learning process and that you shouldn’t even try to relax, because if you are trying then you are creating tension in your body. Instead just let go and release all tension in your body.

He also says that you shouldn’t try to remember anything, as this will prevent the process from working properly.

All you have to do is to relax and follow along with the audio recording.

The recording has a teacher, Michel Thomas or another teacher depending on the language you are learning who has been trained in the Michel Thomas Method and two students who are also approaching the language for the first time like yourself.

In fact, as Michel Thomas says, it’s better if you are totally new to the language, if you have already been studying the language in a traditional way it could interfere with his method.

The Michel Thomas method is a really great way to quickly learn the foundation and grammar of a new language.

It’s incredible because after a few sessions of listening to his audio recordings you’ll find yourself being able to say really long complicated sentences.

You can hear the other students on the recording gasping when they realize that they can do this.

I learned Japanese from following his recordings, and my Japanese friends were really suprised at how I’d managed to be able to speak Japanese so quickly.

The Japanese Michel Thomas recording isn’t actually one where Michel Thomas is doing the teaching it’s actually two people called Helen Gilhooly and another teacher called Niamh Kelly who have been trained in the Method.

In the classroom as you listen, as well as the two students who are also learning like you are, there is a native Japanese speaker who says the correct pronunciation of Japanese so you can learn how to pronounce the words naturally which really helps.

In the Spanish and French Michel Thomas recordings Michel Thomas speaks with quite a strong accent but you shouldn’t worry too much about this, studies have shown that we acquire accents not just from our teachers but from the social group that we are part of.

For example if you are part of a biker gang or a group of young people doing yoga you will acquire the accent that most people speak in that group.

More information can be found on this in the writings of the linguist and activist Stephen Krashen. This is especially useful to know if you are teaching a language and worry that you have a strong accent or if you are trying to learn a new language and acquire a certain accent. More on this in this post …

The benefit of learning Spanish or French using the Michel Thomas Method is that you have Michel Thomas as your teacher, you get to experience the method directly from him.

The method is also a great way to relax, since it’s a way of learning that depends on you relaxing.

You do need to play a role in the learning process, when Michel Thomas asks you a question there is a pause in the recording and a beep where you have to try and answer. It’s not about guessing, it’s about thinking through the language that you have already learnt and then formulating a sentence that is natural and correct.

Michel Thomas believes that you should get your answers completely correct, he doesn’t want you to only give a half baked answer and only get it nearly right, he emphasises that the student should know what he has learnt before moving on to the next part.

‘What you know, you understand and what you know, you don’t forget’ Michel Thomas.

He does this by constantly checking for understanding, if someone on the recording makes a mistake, he goes back a few steps which then brings you back to a point where you could understand and then moves you along from there. He does all this effortlessly.

Michel Thomas taught langauges to celebrities and charged 25000 US dollars per weekend, and Emma Thompson described it as

“The most extraordinary learning experience of my life.” Emma Thompson in the Guardian.

The Michel Thomas Method really helped me to learn Japanese, to get a foundation of a language that is so different from my own native langauge of English.

After five years of learning French in high school in the UK, I could only say a couple of sentences and I was convinced for years that I couldn’t learn languages.

Then I learned Japanese from the Michel Thomas Method and found that this was just a myth that I had believed, that you needed some special talent for learning languages.

Everyone can learn a language, we all have learnt our first language as children and so we can learn another language, our brains are capable of this. Michel Thomas would often say, just as Mr Miyagi in the film the Karate Kid,

“There is no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher.” Michel Thomas

He would also work in inner city schools and he would teach children languages like French and Spanish.

Give it a go you might be suprised at how quickly you can pick up a new language and start your journey of learning languages and meeting people from different cultures.

Survival Japanese

How to ask for directions in Japanese

If you are travelling in Japan you will often find yourself lost in big cities like Tokyo or even in the countryside. It’s a good idea to know how to ask for directions, here’s how to do it.

ホテルはどこですか in Romaji hoteru-ha-doko-desu-ka (the ‘ha’ is pronounced ‘wa’ so it sounds like this hoteru-wa-doko-desu-ka

You can insert the name of your hotel in front of the word ‘hoteru’ (hotel).

Lets break this sentence down a bit, you might have noticed that the first word ホテル (hoteru) uses slightly different characters than the rest of the sentence. That’s because the word hotel comes from English, words from other languages, not just English use characters called Katakana. The characters are slightly different from Hiragana (the characters that are written in the rest of the sentence) はどこですか (ha-doko-desu-ka). These words that use Katakana are quite common and if you learn them you can have an instant vocabulary of words that are borrowed from other languages. This is really helpful because when you are trying to learn a language that is so different from your language you need something to hook onto that you can connect to something you already know to help you understand the rest of the sentence. I’ll write a post on this but for now lets get back to asking for directions.

ホテルはどこですか hoteru-wa-doko-desu-ka where is the hotel?

The は in this sentence pronounced wa indicates what we are talking about in the sentence, the thing that came before it in the sentence, which in this case is ‘hotel’ ホテル hoteru. Think of it as saying something like, as for the hotel…

When you look at the last character in the sentence, it’s か (ka) This turns a sentence into a question. You don’t need to change the tone of your voice at the end of a sentence like in other languages. Then when we look at the middle part of the sentence, we can see the word どこ (doko) This means where, and finally we have です (desu) (don’t over emphasise the u when you say it, it’s usually just pronounced dess). です (desu) you can think of it as kind of like ‘it is’. It makes the sentence more polite to use the word desu.

So the whole sentence again,

ホテルはどこですか hoteru-wa-doko-desu-ka Where is the hotel? (You can think of it as: As for the hotel where is it?)

So what you do now is change the first word and just memorize the last part of the sentence and you can ask directions to anywhere.

For example here a few places you might need to get too,

駅  えき (eki) means train station.

郵便局  ゆうびんきょく (yuu-bin-kyoku) means post office.

銀行 ぎんこう (Ginkou) means bank.

居酒屋 いざかや (Izakaya) is a Japanese style pub where you can also get tasty Japanese food.

So you can just add these words to the beginning of the sentence.

So you can say for example, 駅はどこですか  えきはどこですか (eki-wa-doko-desu-ka) Where is the train station? (as for the train station, where is it?) As for the Eki where is it?


How to say I Love You in Japanese

In Japanese there are different ways to say I Love You. One is said only between a husband and wife and then rarely as it would seem strange if you said it all the time. This way of saying I Love you is Aishiteru, in Japanese it’s pronounced Ai-shi-teru, it’s writtern in Kanji in the following way, 愛してる the Kanji 愛 means Love. Another more common way to express feelings of Love and affection and to tell someone that you like or love them is to to say Suki, it’s written like this in Japanese 好き. The ‘u’ is barely audible, it sounds more like ‘ski’. This is usually said when you confess your love for someone. You can also say, daisuki, which is written like this 大好き the Kanji 大 means big, so it’s a way of saying your feelings are stronger than the first one. You might want to tone it down a bit and just say 好き so as not to scare the other person off.

So here they are again

愛してる Aishiteru

好き Suki

大好き Daisuki

In Japan, people don’t say I Love You all the time like in other countries, instead they show it in their actions and also show it indirectly in their words.

In Japan on Valentines day, women give men chocolates, then a month later in March there is another day called White day where the men buy women gifts.

Another way to say I Love You is 月が綺麗ですね。In Hiragana, げつがきれいですね。In Romaji, getsu-ga-kirei-desu-ne. Literally means ‘The moon is beautiful tonight isn’t it’.