Learning a Second Language

“Gold scissors cut the ribbon and set them loose
On the opening day the vibrations will shake your bones
I suppose that’s the disadvantage
Of not speaking a second language”

Wire, ‘French Film Blurred’ from the album Chairs Missing

Learning another language is without a doubt one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. In fact, I enjoyed learning a second language so much that I decided to move on and try for a third. Who knows, I might even try for a fourth or a fifth.

Don’t believe the naysayers who say that you can’t learn a language as an adult. I didn’t start studying Spanish until I was well into my early thirties. After lots of study, I took a trip through Central America and I was regularly confused for a native speaker. I don’t think I’ll ever be mistaken for a native Chinese speaker, but I’ve managed to hold my own and have at least one conversation about Harry Potter. I’m not even that particularly smart.

However, you also shouldn’t believe the overly optimistic claims that you can become fluent in three months or that such and such a language is so easy you only need to play on an app for ten minutes a day. Anyone who says learning a second language is easy is trying to sell you something.

But just because something isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. In fact, learning a second language (or third or whatevereth) might be one of the most worthwhile things you can do.

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Why Learn Another Language?

A car sign says 'be careful, woman driver' in Chinese

It’s Fun

It sounds strange to say considering how much work it is, but learning another language is actually really fun. Your high school Spanish speaker might disagree, but she doesn’t know what she’s talking bout. Language learning can become a hobby. And there are few greater non-chemical-induced buzzes than the moment when you first have a real conversation with a native speaker.

You’ll Get More Smarter

Learning another language exercises your brain in a lot of ways. Sure, you can just do some sudoku, but then you’d miss out on all the other benefits of knowing multiple languages. Plus, studies are now saying that knowing a second language can help delay dementia and Alzheimers.

Richer Travel Experience

English is now, for better or worse, the global language of tourism. That’s a blessing and a curse for us native speakers. But even though you can get by with English in most places, whether you are just traveling on a short trip or you’re taking the plunge to move abroad, knowing the local language is going to make things a million times better. You’ll gain insights and experiences you never would have otherwise. Also, it makes simple things like ordering food and getting the bus so much more relaxed and stress-free.

You Can Gossip About People Behind Their Backs

Pretend for a moment you’re an American, like me. Only one in four of our compatriots can hold a conversation in another language. You could talk shit about 75% of people and they have no way to understand what you’re saying. How cool would that be? I am gleefully memorizing all the Chinese insults I can so I can fling them at my bewildered countrymen when I go back home.

General Language Learning Tips

Grafiti on a wall in Shanghai China

Study Every Day

Make a commitment to study your new language. Every. Single. Day. Ten minutes a day is far better than three hours once a week. Obviously, the more time you can spend the better, but it’s important to develop a consistent daily habit.

Start with Frequently Used Vocabulary

You may have heard something along the lines that you can understand 85% of a language if you learn the 1000 most frequently used words. This is a helpful goal to shoot for when you’re first starting out. However, you’ll quickly find it isn’t nearly enough to have an actual conversation with someone.

Don’t Just REly on Apps

There are millions of helpful apps and software out there for learning languages. I’m a big fan of Anki, for example. There are also quite a few stinkers. However, even the best Apps will only get you so far. If you really want to learn a language, you’ll have to start reading, watching, and talking to people.

Noone can give you a language, you have to put in the work and claim it for yourself!

So far, I think Fluent Forever is probably the best practical guide book I’ve read about learning languages. It outlines a pretty easy to follow method, and is full of a lot of good practical advice that I’ve used when learning languages on my own. (Just ignore the part where he writes about working for the CIA.)

Learning Chinese

Learning any language is hard, but damn, Chinese is a doozy. Here are some tips…

Check out my guide on How To Learn Chinese

books and papers for studying Chinese

I’ve shared my personal experience going from being an absolute Chinese beginner to being able to discuss such complex topics as my favorite Harry Potter movie in Mandarin. Hopefully, my experience can help you to learn Chinese as much as it’s helped me.

Uncle Sam tells people to work hard in Chinese

If you don’t have time for a detailed guide, check out these other more general learning Chinese tips…

Learn the Tones

Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the character “ma” can mean “horse” or “mother” depending on the tone you use. The tones aren’t that hard to learn, but they’re difficult to master. Try to learn them from the beginning, as best you can.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Characters

The Chinese writing system is drastically different from English. It’s also one of the most beautiful and interesting aspects of the Chinese language. You’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you neglect to learn the characters. Once you start to get a grasp on Chinese characters, you’ll open up a whole world of reading and a deeper understanding of the language.

I think Skritter is a fantastic App for learning Chinese characters. (p.s. I get a small commission if you buy the app. Thanks!)

Chinese is Difficult

There’s no two ways about it; Chinese is a difficult language, especially for those of us who grew up speaking European languages. Don’t expect to just pick it up by visiting or even living in China.

But also, don’t let yourself get frustrated if your progress isn’t as fast as you’d hoped. Put in the work, and it’ll be that much more satisfying when you can finally say “我会中文!”

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