Learning languages is so much easier now

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If you use the right tools, that is, as explained in this Twitter thread from Taylor ("Language") Jones.

Rule number 1:  Use all the electronic tools at your disposal.

Rule number 2:  Do not use paper dictionaries.

Jones' Tweetstorm started when he was trying to figure out the meaning of shāngchǎng 商场 in Chinese.  He remembered from his early learning that it was something like "mall; store; market; bazaar".  That led him to gòuwù zhòngxīn 购物中心 ("shopping center").  With his electronic resources, he could hear these terms pronounced, could find them used in example sentences, and could locate actual places on the map designated with these terms.

I agree wholeheartedly with Jones.  Even though I began the learning of Mandarin half a century ago when Chinese language pedagogy was in a primitive state, I resisted it to the best of my ability and instinctively came up with means for learning Chinese that approximated the best practices employed today, but without all the wonderful electronic devices available now.  See the following posts for descriptions of the make-do methods I used to learn Chinese from the very beginning.

"How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08)

"How to learn Chinese and Japanese" (2/17/14)

"The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/5/14)

"Chineasy? Not" (3/19/14)

"Chineasy2" (8/14/14)

"Chinese without a teacher" (2/6/16)

"Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters" (5/16/16)

"Firestorm over Chinese characters" (5/23/16)

"Learning to read and write Chinese" (7/11/16)

"How not to learn Chinese" (4/16/17)

Do not use flashcards!  Do not emphasize memorization of the characters (bùyào sǐbèi dānzì 不要死背单字). Learn words in their proper grammatical and syntactic context.  Learn grammatical patterns and practice them in substitution drills (that was one of the best ways Chang Li-ching used to train her students, and she was extremely successful in getting them up to an impressive level of fluency in a short period of time).

Above all, do not tolerate any teacher who says that they suffered to learn Chinese so that you should suffer too or that suffering while learning a language is good for you.

fèihuà 废话 ("balderdash / blather / bullshit / rubbish / garbage / nonsense / malarkey / hooey / trash / tripe / guff / stuff / bunk[um] / blah / bald-faced lies") húshuō bādào 胡说八道 /
Pernicious Garbage

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. Noel Hunt said,

    August 18, 2017 @ 11:49 pm

    Learning grammatical patterns and practising them in substitution drills is the hallmark of the approach of the Jordan and Alfonso textbooks on Japanese and De Francis' Chinese text books on Chinese. I think Samuel Martin's 'Beginning Korean' is also in the same vein. I would agree that this approach is the sine qua non of methods for learning the above languages. Martin mentions in the beginning of his reference grammar that his aim 'is to describe the wide variety of sentence types used by Japanese speakers', an observation that applies equally well to all three languages.

    I was under the impression that this approach was somehow related to the Bernard Bloch school of linguists, of which Martin was certainly one.

    One has the impression, however, that 'drilling' and 'repetition' are considered abhorrent and repugnant by the modern, wise, and learnèd schoolmaster and paedagogue.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 12:13 am

    @Noel Hunt

    Thank you very much for your good comment.

    Another type of drill favored by Li-ching were build-up exercises. She'd start with a word or short phrase, then add things to it, the students repeating after her with each addition. She'd keep on adding elements one at a time until they ended up with complex sentences having modifying phrases and clauses. The students loved the feeling of being able to create long and involved sentences, while knowing exactly what everything in them meant and how they all fit together. It was exciting just to watch her teach this way in an energetic fashion. The students' interest never flagged.

  3. leoboiko said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 12:16 am

    What are some examples of the grammar substitution drills?

  4. raempftl said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 1:16 am

    I use flashcards (self-made using the Anki App) "with words in their proper grammatical and syntactic context" to learn Japanese.

    I have one set for preparing for a JLPT test and the first card of today's set looks like this:

    German on front side: zufällig einen Freund treffen
    Japanese on reverse side: 偶然友人に/と出会う (plus pronunciation in hiragana)

    Sometimes the cards have complete short sentences and there might be more information on the individual Kanji on them. If I come accross a word in a context where it is used differently from what I already know, I create a new card.

    Another flashcard set has the unknown words (in their proper context like in the above example) from a childrens book I read.

    I have been using this method to broaden by vocabulary for the last year or so after finding that all the "wrong" methods mentioned above and in previous posts were totally in effective.

  5. Peter Taylor said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 4:52 am

    Rule number 2 seems specific to non-alphabetic languages, and perhaps at a pinch to languages such as English where you need to read IPA to get a pronunciation from a paper dictionary.

  6. Joseph F Foster said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 7:12 am

    Note that there is no such thing as a "non-alphabetic language". All languages, including the various Chinese ones, can be written alphabetically. It's the culture the language services that is "non-alphabetic", i.e., whose normal writing system is non-alphabetic. Or non-syllabic.

  7. J. Marshall Unger said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 7:46 am

    A propos Noel Hunt's comment: Bernard Bloch left Brown for Yale to head its Japanese language program for the military during the war. Eleanor Harz Jorden (note the spelling) and Samuel E. Martin wrote seminal dissertations under his direction. Jorden went on to use her experience with Bloch to create the most linguistically well-informed Japanese pedagogical materials of the century. (Unfortunately, not all teachers use them in the ways she recommended.) Martin wrote prolifically on all aspects of Japanese and Korean linguistics, including textbooks; his reference grammars in particular have lasting value. For DeFrancis's career, see https://johndefrancis.wordpress.com/.

    All three were rigorous, open-minded, dedicated scholars whose ideas about second-language learning and teaching were grounded in years of practical experience. The "modern … schoolmaster and paedagogue" ignore their achievements at their peril.

    As for the two rules at the head of this article, always be wary of GIGO: I seldom use a paper dictionary these days for simple things, but I have yet to find electronic dictionary that matches the quality of, for instance, Martin's Korean-English Dictionary.

  8. Frans said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 8:07 am

    @Peter Tailor

    The original Twitter thread (and indeed this post) seems to be pretty much exclusively about Chinese (source). As a regular reader I thought that in spite of the title, that was to be expected.

    Now, I can scan a character with my smart phone and immediately look it up (DONT START ME ON PAPER CH-EN DICTIONARIES)

    For most (all?) European languages "don't use a paper dictionary" would be an odd piece of advice at best, regardless which alphabet they use.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 8:32 am

    I am grateful to Jim Unger for his well-informed comment.

    For the record, I do not subscribe to Rule number 2. As the general editor of the ABC dictionary series at Hawaii, I'm still enthusiastically promoting the creation of new and useful tools for Sinologists. The next one in the pipeline is Robert S. Bauer's monumental Cantonese-English dictionary.


    I spent more than ten years editing the Alphabetical Index to the Hanyu Da Cidian and use it every day in my own research.


    Here on Language Log, I have often sung the praises of the small but mighty Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese compiled by Yuen Ren Chao and Lien Sheng Yang (Harvard University Press, 1947).


    For the first part of my career as a Sinologist, Léon Wieger's Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification: A Thorough Study From Chinese Documents (originally published in 1927, but I think it may still be in print from Dover Books) was my bible for the study of Chinese characters, and there are still some things I can do with it (e.g., look characters up by their phonetic and other components) that I cannot do with any other dictionary, electronic or paper.

    And so on and so forth….

  10. Alex said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 11:33 am

    "Above all, do not tolerate any teacher who says that they suffered to learn Chinese so that you should suffer too or that suffering while learning a language is good for you."

    That's the best rule, I wish the parents here would learn that. I do hear it often, "that's the way we learned it"

  11. mg said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

    Neither my son nor I can learn a new language auditorily – many years ago, he spent 3 years in a school where half the day was immersion in another language, and it was disastrous, even though he'd started in kindergarten. In an attempt to support him, I tried a semester of adult learning and drove the teacher nuts because I needed every new word spelled out for me before I could learn it.

    Fast forward to adulthood, and my son decided he wanted to try learning French with an online app he'd found. He could see the words spelled out while he was listening to them real-time, which made all the difference in the world.

  12. B.Ma said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

    @mg, the same is true for me. I can't reproduce sounds from hearing them spoken until I know what letters I am meant to be pronouncing.

    However, when it comes to Chinese, there is no contradiction between your post and Victor's. You and your son should be able to learn Chinese via pinyin perfectly well, and only introduce yourselves to characters later.

  13. dainichi said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 9:40 pm

    So similarly to Pinyin, I guess one could learn to speak French using a phonemic orthography. That way people whose memory needs visual stimuli might have less of those problems @mg and @B.Ma describe.

    But surely some would argue that if you had to get used to some phonemic way of writing French, you might as well learn the "proper" spelling. The problem (in my case, at least) is that the spelling often provides grammatical/etymological clues that do help you understand when reading, but which you don't want to get too dependent on, since they're not available when listening.

    Personally, my French listening skills improved once I decided to just listen a lot and not care about the spelling primarily. But when I have to look up stuff, I still have to go through the pain of trying to guess the spelling. (There are dictionaries that allow some kind of phonemic lookup, so those come to the rescue once in a while)

  14. Silas S. Brown said,

    August 29, 2017 @ 8:44 am

    The paper version of the ABC EC-CE is not so bad (at least for those who don't have trouble with the print size). Some older people learn languages too, and they're not always happy with electronic tools.

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