Happy International Women’s Day to everyone out there! Women make up a huge part of our language learning community and there are a number of very prominent women out there, talking about languages. Given it is 8th March, it made sense to highlight another woman out there, showing us how language learning is done and motivating us to learn more.
Siskia Lagomarsino lives in Mexico. She is a language tutor and blogger. If you’d like to know more about her and her languages, you can reach her at thepolyglotist.com.
Ever said, or heard people say this about learning Japanese: “But it’s so… foreign!”? Enjoy what Siskia has to say about how much easier it is to learn Japanese than you might think!
Five reasons why Japanese is actually not that hard to learn
Out of the last nine years I’ve spent studying Japanese, I’ve spent three years and a quarter teaching it, and eight and a half trying to convince people it’s not the monstrously difficult language they’re sure it is. I’m living proof that just about anybody can learn it: I was a terrible learner and student before I started learning Japanese.
I’d like to share four reasons why learning Japanese is no different in difficulty from learning French, Icelandic or English, and it’s actually a wonderful language to start with if you’re only just dipping your toes into language learning. Here we go!
- It has an incredibly regular grammar.
If you’ve learned a romance language, English, Russian, or almost any American language, you’ll notice there are almost as many exceptions as there are rules. This doesn’t happen in Japanese. Rules don’t have counter-rules per every situation: grammar is used as it is taught, and that’s it!
- No genders, no plurals, no articles, absolute conjugations, and limited verbal tenses.
This is part of its regular grammar, but I figure it merits explaining.
- Japanese has no articles (“the”, “le”, “il”, “los”, etc), and nouns have no genders, which makes learning vocabulary a breeze.
- Plurals are made by adding suffixes, and these never change, so they’re easy to remember.
- Verbs have ONLY one conjugation per every tense. You don’t need to remember different conjugations for every grammatical person!
- What’s more, there’s only nine different verbal tenses, which limits the amount of verbal conjugations you have to learn per verb to these nine. Ever heard of a language in which remembering verbal conjugation is easy?!
- Language interference? What’s that?
Japanese is considered a language isolate—it shares some grammatical features with Korean and part of its writing system with Chinese, but in reality nothing else quite sounds like it. This means that it’s actually a pretty hard language to mix up with others.
- Once you have a steady study method, it’s quick learning all the way.
Being so regular, there’s a point in studying Japanese when you will notice a dramatic acceleration in your learning. This is because once you learn the basic grammar (positive, negative, past and present conjugations, etc.), everything else is a slight modification of what you already know.
- There are so many learning resources that you’ll never go through all of them.
I won’t go into detail of what resources you should use to learn if you want to learn Japanese on your own, but it should suffice to say that there are more than enough wonderful sites to learn from. The education of Japanese as a second language is actually a somewhat recent field, so new resources, courses and ideas are coming up all the time.
Now… since it wouldn’t be fair to present this language as a piece of cake, I’d like explain (and debunk) two things that make it seem difficult.
- The reading system is complex.
Japanese has a reading/writing system based on the harmonious cooperation of THREE different scripts: hiragana and katakana, two syllabic scripts (symbols without meaning, only meant for sound), and kanji, an ideographic system (symbols that represent ideas) borrowed from Chinese hanzi.
At first, to many people this feels like utter nonsense, because to occidentals this concept sounds like needing Cyrillic and Georgian in addition to the Roman alphabet, in order to make sense of sentences. However, the reason why this system exists is based on the Japanese philosophy that everything has a mission or reason to exist. Therefore, you can’t write a sentence using the scripts at random—there’s a logic to how and where to use them.
There are two things that make Japanese reading/writing hard to learn.
- The first is that there are 46 sounds in each syllabic script, meaning you have to learn to write 46 sounds TWICE (in two different “hands”). With occidental languages having relatively small alphabets, this would make anybody feel lazy.
- The second is the amount of kanji to be learned. Now, people get the mistaken impression that since there are tens of thousands of CHINESE characters, then one MUST learn them all, but this is untrue. For example, to achieve a relatively high level in China one must learn upwards of 5,000 characters. Thankfully, for Japanese one needs to learn much less: there is a list (the Jōyō Kanji) that list the 2,136 characters of most common usage. However, as a long time learner I can attest that even this number is way too high—I know somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 kanji and have never had much trouble understanding texts.
- It’s a hierarchical language.
Almost everybody knows that Japan has a culture that truly values. The problem this poses for learning the Japanese language is that one has to learn to manipulate the language through several layers of politeness (or lack of it), some of which are inexistent in occidental languages. What this means is that to learn fluent Japanese, it’s required that one, in essence, “learns to play by Japanese rules” in all sorts of interactions. This sounds easy, but in practice it’s much harder!
I hope I’ve managed to change at least a few minds about Japanese. I’ve been learning it for almost nine years now, and I’ve met so many people who really want to learn it but feel intimidated by the task. I want people to know that it isn’t the easiest language you’ll learn, but it isn’t so hard either.
So, when are you starting?
(Get in touch with me via my Speaking Fluently Facebook Page, if you would like to be a guest blogger on this site too).
Rachel sent in her ideas for this blog post to me via the Speaking Fluently Facebook Page. She writes about how she keeps all her language current while living in San Francisco. There is some good, practical information in this post on how to be more proactive in using your languages as part of your life, whilst having fun. Enjoy!
Imagine practicing the language you are learning with native speakers every week; imagine making friends with native speakers and suddenly you are using the language naturally at dinner parties and events; imagine heading steadily down the path to fluency (or maintaining your fluency) while not living in the country. If you like the sound of this scenario, I have one word for you: Meetup
Meetup.com is an online platform that brings real life people together in the real world. And the truth is the platform does most of the work for you. IF you do it right. If you don’t, you will burnout.
Why start your own group?
- You control language level and rules
- You get to pick a location and schedule perfect for you
- Your central role means an easier way to connect with members
One of the main ways I maintain languages I speak well, and improve languages I don’t, is to run Meetup groups in San Francisco. I run the largest Spanish, French, Mandarin, Turkish and Multi-Language (Language Lovers) groups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reaching a near cult-like status of 10,000+ followers in my groups, you would think I would be incredibly busy managing them. Not at all. I have it down to a science, and put in probably less effort than the average member, since all my Meetups happen on a day, and at a time and location all convenient for me. In fact, most are held right across the block from my work, or in a park near my home.
First, let’s get to how to actually start a group: all you have to do is click here and follow the steps.
After you have chosen your name, topic(s), and created your home page, Meetup will give you a week or two to pull yourself together before sending out an announcement. They do all the work in promoting your site, and it is surprisingly effective. Just make sure you are ready: have you home page set up and make sure you have at least one event on your calendar. This is important because Meetup sends out just one huge email blast. You want to look appealing at first glance.
Now that you are all set up, here is some valuable information on how to make your language Meetup group successful. I have seen so many groups come and go trying to create a successful language Meetup, but they mostly fail for one reason: ORGANIZER BURNOUT.
Tip #1: KEEP IT SIMPLE
- Pick one location and stick to it. It seems like lot of fun in the beginning to switch things around and keep it interesting, but you will burnout trying to keep all your venue relationships up and your members will vary since some locations work for some, while others don’t. You can mix things up instead by inviting assistant organizers to help out (more on that later).
- Pick one schedule and stick to it. Decide what your regular schedule will be (e.g. every Friday, first Monday of the month, every other Sunday, etc.). If you and your members have a standing schedule it is easier to keep and harder to forget.
Tip #2: ASK FOR HELP
- I don’t recommend an option you will see that allows any and all members to suggest and post a Meetup. In my experience that leads to mayhem, and lots of disappointed members writing to you to complain.
- I do recommend making designated “Assistant Organizers” or “Event Organizers”, who will take the role more seriously and are easier to keep an eye on. I am fairly lax in this department. I have made some members an assistant organizer without even having met them. So far it has only been added value. If they turn out to be remiss, they could easily be removed.
- Ask members to donate to help you cover the $70 biannual fees. In my groups I don’t make this obligatory since there are then expectations that they are paying me a fee and I should be providing a service (I steer clear of those expectations since I have a full time job, and this is not it). Either way, I see the $140 a year as the cheapest language classes in the world. I don’t concern myself too much if I get it all covered.
Tip #3`: BE CLEAR
- Be clear in your home page description exactly what you are and are not. For my Spanish, French and Mandarin groups I make it clear we are target language only Meetups (no English). For my Turkish group (since my Turkish isn’t so swell) I say “Turkish encouraged” (again catering the group to one’s own skills/interest/location) so if I need to switch to English during a Turkish event to make an announcement, I can.
- Make it clear what you as organizer do and don’t provide. I declare my groups as “member lead”, stating that all members are expected to help integrate everyone into the social mix. This takes me out of the burdensome role of greeting each member, giving every member a name tag, etc. which would take away from my time to do what I want, which is chat with members in the language. My groups are also large (50-90 participants each time); if you end up running a smaller group, you might not find greeting each member troublesome.
Tip #4: DON’T TRY TO PLEASE EVERYONE
- Be honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the Meetups and orient them 100% towards that. Keeping it focused on your interests and skills means you won’t burnout and quit. Everyone benefits from you sticking around.
- Once you are clear what your group is and isn’t, some people might find that disappointing. “French only? But my French isn’t good enough. That’s not fair.” There is a solution to this: offer members who want a different focus to become assistant organizers and start their own chapter, for example ‘French practice for Beginners”. That can add variety to your Meetups and take the onus off of you to please everyone.
Tup #5: STREAMLINE COMMUNICATION
- Be as specific as possible on your home page. My home page for my Spanish Meetup was originally pretty sparse, but as the questions kept coming in I added more and more information. I then even added a FAQ’s page to help clarify further questions: between these two pages, I now get very few questions.
- Once you have weeded out the typical questions by updating your home page and creating a FAQ’s page, you will only occasionally get email inquiries. If you see a pattern, I recommend either adding the question(s) to your home/FAQ page or creating a template to answer these inquiries quickly (again, avoiding ye ole burnout factor).
Tip #6: PICK THE RIGHT LOCATION
- Picking the right location is key. How many people do you see participating? Make sure you limit your RSVP to exactly that (you can always change that for future Meetups as it grows) and make sure your venue is the right fit.
- For small Meetup groups places like cafes, restaurants and public spaces can work out. Either way you want to make sure you have a reservation in place or you (or a member) is showing up early to save your spot.
- If you end up with a larger group of more than 20 members showing up DO NOT pick a popular place. You should look for the opposite: a quiet lonely place everyone is ignoring. You can fill it up with your members, the venue will be happy and you will have your own event space at no rental cost.
- Remember for groups of 20+ people showing up, quiet empty places are best. The goal is to be speaking and if there is loud music or loads of other guests filling up the space, you will all get drowned out. Even quiet places get pretty loud when you have a group of 20+ people speaking in a foreign language.
- Communicate with the venue. Make sure the manager knows you are showing up and is expecting each individual member to have his/her own bill (Don’t try to share a bill; this will lead to stress and conflict, and as organizer the buck stops with you).
- Once you find that sweet spot, don’t change it. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.
- Make sure members know what the venue and event rules are. Examples from my own large Meetups are “this is a stand on your feet and mingle Meetup”; “there is a one-drink or one-appetizer minimum to keep our venue happy”; “don’t forget to tip”, etc.
- Expect 20-30% of the RSVPs to not show up. Don’t stress about it, just put your RSVP limit 25% higher than you want, and the correct number will show up.
Generally speaking, Meetup groups take very little time to run. They are a wonderful way to meet native speakers of the language you speak or are learning and lead to (in my case) some life-long friendships, weekly language practice, and are a great way to welcome some foreign nationals into your community. Here are the groups I run:
By the way, I am also a member of other language Meetups. When I am not running my own, I love to pop in and check out other groups. If you aren’t sure yet about starting your own group, join another one to see how it works. You could even offer to be an Event Organizer to get your feet wet.
Are you thinking of organizing a group?
Do already organize a language group?
Any other questions on how to run one?
(Get in touch with me via my Speaking Fluently Facebook Page, if you would like to be a guest blogger on this site too).
Looking back over the last 6 years since I joined the online language community, I can hardly recognise what we have become. There are so many great people out there now, posting and doing things to support others in the language learning process.
It’s been a couple of years since I last posted on this page, but I have always kept the page going because I knew that I would want to come back to it again in the future. Well that day has arrived and I have a new vision for Speaking Fluently.
Over the last two years, I have been busy with my normal day job, studies and family life. In the online language world things have also changed a lot for me from simply posting the odd video on YouTube and writing on this blog and on the Speaking Fluently Facebook page. I’ve been giving interviews for other blogs, newspapers, radio shows and even TV shows. My role in the language community also changed when I started putting together Polyglot Conferences and talking at other language events too. I love the contact with people and the change has been a good one for me.
As with our language learning questions, life generally makes us choose and prioritise how we best use our time. It is a constant question for many of us and I had to answer it too. I came to a crossroads where I needed to evaluate what I could take forward. I realised that the regularly contact I had on my Facebook page was something I wanted to keep going, but I would have no time to invest in my blog. Now I would like to come back to the blog and put a new spin on things. So, what is all this change about?
With the launch of the Polyglot Workshops Alex Rawlings and I have been putting together and the continuation of the Polyglot Conference too (news soon to come on the NYC conference in October 2015 – join the group on Facebook), I realised something. It dawned on me that the many voices out there should be heard to appeal to the widest audience possible. So Speaking Fluently will now be a platform for anyone out there, wishing to submit a blog post for consideration on this site. If you would like to submit a post for inclusion, then please reach out to me on my Speaking Fluently Facebook page and we can talk some more.
I will write here from time to time too and keep the aspects I love most about our fabulous community and the wonderful languages we learn: communication and human contact.
All the best for your language studies!
The Goethe Institute has launched a video competition called MehrsprachICH for people who speak a number of foreign languages. This is the latest in a recent wave of interest in our ever-growing online language community, polyglots, hyperpolyglots and the language-learning process in general.
Why share your language story?
Growing up I always wished to have a way to be in contact with other like-minded people. When I started at university in 1995, I was introduced to IRC and I was able to get in touch with a people in many different countries and chat in a variety of language. It was great to speak to other people in their own languages and also find other language enthusiasts.
Meeting other language learners today has never been easier
Nowadays more and more language learners have shared their stories and got in touch through their forums, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and YouTube channels. Thankfully I have been able to plug into this amazing resource and get in touch with many interesting people too. I am really grateful for that.
This competition highlights some great stories of language learning, including my own. I encourage you to take a look at the videos and enjoy all of the stories in the competition. The winner will get to talk about their story at the international Poliglotti4.eu conference in Italy (Last year’s conference took place in Madrid).
Your opinion counts!
You decide the winner. You can vote on the Goethe Institute’s MehrsprachIch Facebook page for your favourite! :)
I’ve watched all of these videos and I love seeing more and more people tell their language stories online.
Have you got a story to share?
Join our helpful and encouraging community on the SpeakingFluently Facebook page. We’d love to have you with us! Let’s share knowledge, share stories and get everyone learning languages! :)
I encourage you to share this story with other people outside the language learning community as languages can be fun for everyone! :)
If the opportunity arises, is it worth grabbing?
I have talked about courses before, be self-study with Pimsleur or taught like Turkish course in Skopje.
What about these “intensive courses” though? Just how much can you learn on one?
Living the language
Learning a language in-country can take many guises. You can move to a country indefinitely for work, love or study without a definite plan to return to your native land. Other options are exchanges (particularly for school/university students). The other option open is short to medium stays, learning the language as an independent learner or on a course. You could choose to do this in combination with a paid or unpaid work placement. Or you might choose to seek out language tuition in the country.
All of these options have pros and cons attached, including a number of factors ranging from cost and efficiency to personal experience and preference. I have done the language exchanges offered by my school, like Tim Doner from New York, who went to France on such an exchange this year. In this video he talks about his experience:
I have been on short courses abroad to brush up on my language skills and full year-long courses, working towards a diploma, like my Advanced Diploma in Czech Studies from Charles University in Prague.
If you are thinking about going on a course of study abroad with a language school or university, this new challenge is FOR YOU.
I am currently taking mandarin language lessons over Skype with LTL (Live The Language) in Beijing. The goal is to bring my very limited Chinese to a decent basic level in preparation for a one month stay in China at the start of 2013.
I will be taking part in the “Two City Combo” offered by LTL and spending two weeks in Beijing and then two further weeks in Chengde. I will live with local families in a bid to make the most of my language learning experience and really Live the Language. Whilst I am in both cities I will have twenty hours of tuition a week.
What do you expect to know after a month in China?
I aim to get my Chinese to a solid A1 level before I go over. 80 hours of tuition in China should be sufficient to get to the next level. I hope to be able to speak it at a good A2 level by the end of my stay. Any more than that would be a bonus. The key is to get a solid grounding in the language to build on it after the stay.
Why Chinese? Why now?
Mandarin and I have had a rocky relationship with lots of starts and stops for a number of reasons. Without a doubt it is an important language in terms of numbers of people who speak it. It contains a the rich history and culture heritage. I would also like to support my daughter in her studies of the language, as she constantly expresses an interest in learning it too.
Recording my journey
My Chinese was very basic before starting the Skype lessons, so it makes little sense to record a video saying nothing, right? I will make a video in Chinese after I have studied for three months and then again at six months. When I arrive in China I will be assessed officially for the course. I will record this assessment too and then later show my progress at the end of the course.
Join me on my journey
Share your stories with me on here and on my Facebook page and let me know how I am getting on! :)
There are a number of languages in the world that are mutually intelligible. Croats and Serbs can communicate with each other relatively freely, as can Macedonians and Bulgarians, Afrikaners and Dutch people and of course the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.
Cristina – the Norwegian polyglot
This week I was stayed with another polyglot in Oslo. Cristina participates on the How To Learn Any Language forum that I started writing on when I first got into the online language community. She is an active member there and tries to help other learners where she can. I have always admired not only her ability to use a number of languages to a very high level, but also her kindness towards others.
Going to Norway
OK, so I am in Poland, studying Polish…I know….but the invitation to spend time in Norway with Cristina was too good an opportunity to pass up. With Wizzair tickets at a crazy low prices too, the deal was done! :)
I had been to Norway before and I spoke in Swedish there without any great problems. The written languages in Sweden, Norway and Denmark are even closer than their oral forms, but people do often ask me…just how close are they? And…which one should I learn first to best understand the rest?
My story with these languages
I went to The University of Hull, where there was a strong Scandinavian studies department at that time. I wanted to study Icelandic, but the only way to do that was to take Swedish. Luckily enough for me it was love at first sight. I was involved in preparing for the Lucia Fest in December, learning all of the words to the songs. My teacher, the co-author of Colloquial Swedish, promised that we’d be fluent in the IKEA catalogue by the end of the first year! :)
I studied Swedish for two years at university and thoroughly enjoyed it. To be surprise university studies did not mark the end of the relationship.
Swedish from uni and beyond…
After university, Swedish was one of the languages I guessed I would never use. That was true for a year or so, but then I started working with Scandinavians and I began to familiarise myself with the Danish and Norwegian languages, so I could better understand the slight differences to join in fully with conversations. Whilst I never felt confident to speak Norwegian fluently because I found it too similar to Swedish for me, I could have a good stab at Danish. I could also infuse my Swedish with Norwegian words to adapt it to native Norwegians.
I didn’t consider my choice in Scandinavian language as it was chosen for me by default. In this video, Cristina and I talk about this topic and I get attacked by her roses! ;)
What has your experience been with these languages?