Do You Actually Need to Learn Grammar?

Modern Swedish Grammar by Karen Horton

Books like these can be helpful eventually, but you shouldn’t obsess over it.

There are two general schools of thought when it comes to language learning and grammar. The first follows a strongly analytic model focused on explicit grammar learning. People in this group emphasize the primary importance of learning grammar before and above anything else. For them, grammar tends to take the central role as the most important aspect of learning a new language.

The second group holds the opposite views. That school of thought follows a strongly deductive model focused on implicit grammar learning. People in this group think the study of grammar essentially impedes language learning and that it should be ignored – as long as you can communicate you’ll pick it up eventually.

So which way is actually more effective for language learners?

Implicit Vs. Explicit

The truth is the best way to go is somewhere a little in the middle, but closer to the implicit side.

To say that grammar is unimportant would be completely wrong. If vocabulary is the material you’re constructing things with then grammar is the foundation those things are built upon. It’s absolutely important to have an understanding of grammar to communicate effectively.

The catch is, it’s not necessary to have an explicit knowledge of grammar, only an implicit one.

What’s the difference?

If you ask a PhD. linguist what the difference between the simple past and past perfect tenses are, or how to properly use a past participle, you could probably get a very long, detailed in-depth explanation of the specifics of how those things work. The linguist has an explicit knowledge of how the grammar works because he knows all the behind the scenes mechanics of it.

If you ask a 7 year old the same questions, you’ll probably get a shrug and be asked what those words even mean.

Even so, both the linguist and the 7 year old can use sentences like ‘I went to the store’ and ‘I’ve been to the store’ correctly. The 7 year old can probably even tell you the sentence ‘I’ve been to the store last week’ sounds off to a Standard American English dialect listener.

The 7 year old has an implicit knowledge of the grammar in that even if he can’t tell you why something is wrong, he knows instinctively that it sounds wrong.

This is an important distinction, because the linguist has spent countless years of study and research into grammar and language while the kid has just hung around English speakers and talked to them for 7 years or so and they both have essentially the same ability to communicate.

Sure the linguist will be able to communicate better or sound more intelligent by virtue of having a larger vocabulary, but vocab and grammar are separate things – if you restricted both to the first thousand most common words or so they should be equally able to express themselves.

If our goal of learning a new language is to be able to communicate in it (which is the case for most people) why worry about all the extra study and effort of explicit grammar knowledge if implicit knowledge will yield the same end result?

Everything In Its Time

You can speak a language fluently without any explicit knowledge of its grammar.

But, honestly, I think you should reach some level of explicit knowledge of the grammar at some point, even if technically you don’t have to.

In the beginning, grammar study will likely just get in your way beyond the very basics. You’re a lot better off spending a small amount of time to learn the essentials like how to make a basic sentence or ask a question and then trying to get as much exposure to the language as possible. Focus on learning as much important vocab as possible as quickly as possible and immerse yourself in speaking partners and content that interests you.

The more you’re exposed to and, possibly more importantly, the more you make mistakes and get corrected by others the more quickly you’ll find you just know how to structure a sentence without thinking about it. Once you’re comfortable having basic conversations without thinking about grammar too much, then you can worry about actually studying some of it.

See the learning method of the kid is great – barring some external factors or developmental problems everyone learns their native language that way just fine – the thing is it’s really slow.

Avoiding painful grammar study at first will let you focus on the things that really matter starting out, but you’re an adult and there are benefits to that a child doesn’t have. You can selectively choose what grammar areas to study in order to learn them more quickly where a child would have to just keep trying and being corrected until they get it.

The key thing to remember with grammar study is that you should only study the grammar you absolutely feel you need or genuinely want to.

Don’t get hung up on the grammar.

If you really like studying it, go for it. Most people don’t seem to though, so don’t unnecessarily punish yourself thinking you absolutely have to slam your head into verb conjugation charts and noun declension exception rules until you’re ready to hurl yourself out a window.

Do you hate learning grammar? Do you love it? If you’ve learned or are learning another language how much time do you devote to grammar study? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Karen Horton

Welcome Fluent in 3 Months Readers!

Welcome Sign by Nutmeg Designs

Welcome language lovers! You’re in good company here.

We wanted to wish a warm welcome to everyone coming over to visit from Fluent In 3 Months! If you’re here and have no idea what I’m talking about, Benny over at FluentIn3Months.com was kind enough to feature one of our articles on his site about language learning for introverts.

If you’ve not been to Benny’s site before and are learning a language, don’t even finish reading this. Go click that link. Also, if you’re anything like me, get ready to wind up with a lot of browser tabs open.

Anyway, everyone who’s new to the site if you’d like to know a little more about us and what we do, you can check out our about page.

We write about a lot of things, including fitness, philosophy, productivity and self-improvement, but chances are you’ll be particularly interested in what we’ve written about language learning.

To make it easier if you don’t know where to start, we’ve pulled out a handful of our favorites from the language learning category.

If you enjoy our articles, sign up for our newsletter on the sidebar to the right to get exclusive articles we only send to our subscribers and a free copy of our 61 page starter’s guide.

To keep updated you can also like us on Facebook, or follow us on Google + or Twitter.

If you just want to say ‘Hi’ or ask us a question, you can send an e-mail to Adam (Adam /@/ RoadToEpic.com) or Caroline (Caroline /@/ RoadToEpic.com).

Welcome again, and we hope you find things here that help you live the life you want to live!

Photo Credit: Nutmeg Designs

How to Find Native Speakers and Learn Any Language Anywhere

Anonymity and the Internet by Stian Eikeland

You too can learn a language with the modern wonder of the Webternets!

When you’re learning a new language immersion, exposure and practice are all extremely important. Unfortunately, when it comes to the standard system of classroom language learning or do-it-yourself book and audio programs, you don’t really get much of all three. As a result most people think the best way to learn a language quickly and effectively is to move to a country that speaks your target language.

What if you can’t reasonably do that though? While I think there are enough ways to travel cheaply that anyone who wants it bad enough can find a way, I recognize that not everyone can reasonably run off abroad to learn a language. So how do you find native speakers to practice with?

Thankfully the glory of the Internet provides plentiful opportunities to find a language partner or teacher, both locally and abroad.

The Interconnected World

That’s right. The Internet is more than just cats, naked people and Rick Astley. You can actually use it for something useful.

Anymore just about everyone has an Internet connection. Unless someone’s printed this article out for you clearly you’re one of them. That level of interconnectedness means that even if the closest person who speaks your target language is 12,450.5 miles away (technically the farthest they can get without going into space) if they’re online then you can talk to each other.

On top of that the Internet has provided an excellent if unintentional searchable database of people all over the world – including in your own city. While previously finding the handful of speakers of a more obscure language in a city of a million people required a lot of detective work, now if they’ve mentioned in a profile somewhere they speak it you can look them up in a few seconds.

Finding Native Speakers Abroad

While not necessarily true everywhere, chances are if you’re learning a second language there are more people who speak it natively elsewhere than there are locally. That’s kind of the nature of second language learning for most people outside of multilingual nations.

That means that finding people to speak with remotely, people who are off in these other countries that speak your target language natively, is often easier than finding people locally. We’ll start there.

  • iTalkiiTalki is a site dedicated to exactly what I’m talking about – connecting people who want to practice and learn second languages with native speakers half a world away. iTalki is excellent because you have the option of connecting with people for free to just chat, or paying for actual lessons with a qualified teacher. Seriously, with iTalki out there you have no excuses for not practicing your target language with a native.

  • Lang-8Lang-8 has a similar goal to iTalki, except it’s all about writing. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it to find people to speak with though. The text correction is valuable enough, but in the forums there are thriving language exchange communities and it doesn’t take long for most people on Lang-8 to accumulate a long friends list – most of those people will be more than happy to get on Skype and practice each others’ languages.

  • Google – Yeah, Google. You can search for language exchanges (there are tons of them) or even figure out the words in your target language for ‘forum’ and find some groups in your target language. Once you’re there start talking to people and you’ll eventually find someone willing to chat. Easy.

With Skype or some other video/audio/chat program if you prefer it’s easy to pick a time and have a conversation. If they’re learning your native language you can spend 30 minutes in one and 30 minutes in the other – everybody wins. You can even find pretty affordable teachers and have one on one lessons.

What if you want actual, face to face human contact though? What if you’re really sick of sitting in front of a webcam? No problem, find someone local.

Finding Native Speakers Locally

If you live anywhere even remotely near civilization and are learning a language that is even somewhat common I am comfortable saying there are at least hundreds of people near you to practice with. Probably more. You just have to find them.

Thankfully, that’s not as hard as it used to be.

  • MeetupMeetup is a site devoted to bringing together people with common interests in areas where they might not otherwise find each other. If you’re near a reasonably major city there’s probably a Meetup group dedicated to hanging out and speaking your target language. Do a search both in English and in the target language and see what comes up. You can join the group and then go to one of their Meetups and you’ll find yourself surrounded by other speakers and learners of your target language all there to learn and practice.

  • CouchsurfingCouchsurfing, technically, is for finding people to stay with when travelling. It has some awesome search functionality though, so you can use it to do a search in your own city filtered by language spoken. What you get is a long list of everyone on Couchsurfing near you who speaks or is learning your target language. Then you can send them each a message introducing yourself as a learner of their language and offering to meet for coffee or something and chat to practice. You can even open up your own home and host people from a country that speaks your target language.

  • Google – I won’t link to Google twice. It bears repeating though, you can find people locally using Google. Search for groups at nearby universities. Search for businesses in your area that originate in a country that speaks the language you’re learning. Here around Cincinnati there are tons of Korean restaurants, groceries and churches that I know just off the top of my head on top of a group at the University of Cincinnati even though Korean isn’t offered there. Go visit and strike up a conversation, ask if they know anyone who would be willing to practice with them. Make some friends. People in general enjoy helping others, so just go out and ask.

These are just a handful of ways to find people both locally and abroad to practice your target language with. If you go look you’ll find people, it really isn’t that hard. You have absolutely no excuse for not finding someone to practice with.

Do you have any to add? Anything particular methods you’ve found to be more or less effective? Share them with everyone in the comments.

Photo Credit: Stian Eikeland

Language Shadowing: Learn a Language by Looking Like a Crazy Person

Creative Independence by Nattu

Shadowing is one of the most effective methods for increasing fluency and improving accent in a target language.

I’m certain my neighbors think I’m insane.

After all, on a fairly regular basis I can be seen strolling around the neighborhood talking to myself. However it’s not actually because I’m insane (though some people might contend that’s up for debate) – it’s because I’m practicing a second language using a tactic designed specifically to improve my fluency in production and speaking.

Shadowing.

What’s Language Shadowing?

Specifically, Shadowing is a technique credited to Dr. Alexander Arguelles which he teaches and has employed himself in the past to learn something in the neighborhood of 38 language.

Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing has a specific methodology to it, there are also more general or modified forms of shadowing like what I’d been doing for long before I learned of Dr. Arguelles’ work. In more general forms I’ve always called it parroting or mimicry rather than shadowing, but the terminology isn’t terribly important in my opinion.

Shadowing in general is the practice of taking recorded input in a target language and repeating it as you listen to it trying to match the speaker exactly as you hear it. Now this doesn’t mean repeating what they say after they say it, although that can certainly be helpful to. For shadowing or mimicry you really want to try to repeat simultaneously with the recording. Doing it this way will make it easier for you to check your pronunciation and timing more accurately as your memory of how the audio sounded is likely not going to be perfect.

Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing takes it a step further by adding a physical distraction, walking, and by making the process a little more structured through the transition from blind shadowing (mimicking audio without text to accompany it) to shadowing while reading transcriptions.

What’s Language Shadowing Good For?

Shadowing on its own is not, in my opinion, a complete method for learning a target language.

That being said, it’s an extremely useful tool for increasing fluency and understanding as well as improving your accent and ability to be understood.

Shadowing makes you practice sounding as much like a native speaker as you possibly can as quickly as you possibly can. This has two primary effects on you, the first is it helps create all the neural connections in your brain to produce those phonemes, words and sentences quickly and accurately without having to think about it. This is extremely important when it comes to developing high levels of fluency since fluency itself requires the ability to respond without having to think too hard about it.

Shadowing helps overcome the tendency of people to translate back and forth between their primary and target language before responding – a tendency that slows everything down.

Additionally shadowing also helps develop the muscle memory in all the physical parts responsible for the production of those sounds. Depending on what your primary and target languages are there’s a decent chance there are a lot of sounds your mouth just isn’t used to producing.

The best way to correct this and get your mouth used to producing those sounds is through proper mimicry, that is to say repetition of the sound produced properly. Shadowing provides this practice and is one of the best tools to reduce your accent and get closer to native pronunciation.

Shadowing is best then as a single tactic in part of a larger language learning strategy. You don’t necessarily have to be at an intermediate level though to begin using it. Some recommend only shadowing with audio you can understand but personally I see a lot of benefit in using shadowing right from the beginning even with audio you can’t understand at all – you still get the benefit of the neuromuscular facilitation and you’ll sound a lot better when you get to the point where you can understand what you’re saying.

How to Shadow

I’m not going to go through the specific method of Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing – for that just skip down to the bottom of the page and watch the video of him explaining it in detail (it’s an hour long, but worth watching, so if you don’t have time right now save it for later).

Personally I like to start shadowing from day one. I also like to shadow from more colloquial sources of speech rather than more academic sources. That means going to things like TV shows and movies in the target language, or just recorded conversations between native speakers if you have some friends who speak the language you’re learning, rather than audio lessons from a more structured textbook.

I prefer it that way because in my experience the audio samples from academic textbooks have a tendency to overcompensate in order to be more instructive and as a result come across more sanitized than how a native speaker would naturally speak. Instead, clip a little chunk out of a movie you like and practice with that – it tends to sound a lot more natural.

A slight word of caution though, particularly when just starting out and yet unfamiliar with the connotations of particular dialects choose an audio model as similar as possible to how you wish to appear to people. In other words, no matter how much you love the show, if you’re a guy and you learn Japanese mimicking Sailor Moon you run the risk of picking up all the feminine speech patterns. Likewise if you only shadow a language watching gangster movies, you might wind up with a gangster-esque accent eventually.

So try to stick to characters and people you want to sound like or at the very least mix it up as much as you can. Newscasters tend to be a good option as well. It’s standard for news anchors to train in the most neutral dialect of their country and, while they speak very clearly, they also speak quickly – both good qualities in selecting audio to shadow.

Once you’ve got your target language audio clip it down into a manageable chunk and listen to it on repeat for ten to fifteen minutes repeating it as close to simultaneously with the native speaker as possible. I like to follow Dr. Arguelles’ model a bit and go for a walk while I do it, since it seems to help my brain get used to producing the target language while I’m doing other things.

That may seem minor, but it makes a big difference when you’re trying to have a conversation in the target language someday while driving or doing something else. There’s a big mental difference between using a language while you focus on it completely and using one while multi-tasking that you tend to not notice until you’re in that kind of situation.

That’s it! Keep that up ten to fifteen minutes a day and play around with it to see what works best for you. I’ll leave you with Dr. Arguelles himself explaining his own particular method of shadowing.

Have you used shadowing or something similar to help improve a target language? What did you think? Were there any ways you found to make it more effective? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Nattu

How Much Vocab Do I Actually Need to Learn?

Wise Words Can Be Fuzzy by Kevin Dooley

Turns out you don’t actually need to memorize very many of these to have a conversation.

Externally one of the most imposing aspects of learning a new language is the thought of tackling all that vocabulary.

If you’ve ever seen an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, you know just how vast a lexicon can be. Grammar rules and even exceptions can be memorized easily and tend to be finite, learning a new writing system only takes 15 minutes or so, but there are hundreds of thousands of words out there. So how do you face this imposing wall of verbiage? How in the world can you possibly be expected to learn all of that in any reasonable amount of time?

You can’t.

That’s ok though, because you don’t have to learn everything.

Getting Your Priorities Straight

I’ve talked about prioritization in language learning and application of the 80/20 principle in the past and I’ll revisit it here. Think about your native language, if you pull a dictionary off the shelf is there genuinely not a single word in there that you don’t know? Not a single one which would be new to you if you read it cover to cover? What about the volumes of the aforementioned OED?

Chances are there are as many if not more words in your native language that you don’t know as there are that you do know. That’s even your native language. There’s no reason to ever think that you’ll need to know every word in a target language, even if you’re aiming for achieving native level fluency.

So how many words do you need to know?

Admittedly it will vary a little from language to language and depending on your general goals, but 3,000 words is a pretty good benchmark. The vast majority of daily conversations people have are made up of a relatively small chunk of the available lexicon. To put that in 80/20 terms, 80% of your conversations are comprised of 20% of the languages total number of words. Once you know those 20% or so, you’ll understand the majority of conversations, newspapers, etc.

Before you complain that you want native level fluency and that’s going to require understanding more than 80% of your conversations – that part comes afterward. Learning those 3,000 opens up the world of contextual learning, the way you learned most of the words you know in your native tongue. It’s slow, but it’s easy. Readers of Lewis Carroll don’t need to grab a dictionary to figure out what ‘frabjous’ probably means. In fact you could probably hear it once in context and then use it in a sentence correctly. That’s contextual learning.

Getting those 3,000 or so most common words down first is the part that requires a little more work.

Learning Your First Three Thousand Words

The first part of learning the most common words is going to be figuring out what those words actually are.

Thanks to the glory of the Internet upon which you are reading this very article, that’s extremely easy. Just go to your search engine of choice and do a search for ‘[target language] frequency list’ where [target language] is obviously the name of the language you’re learning. If you want to get tricky add in the word ‘lemmatized’ before the name of the language. A non-lemmatized frequency list will list different forms of the same word (is, am, are, be, etc.) as different words whereas a lemmatized list would combine their rankings (list all of those as ‘be’).

From there, I highly recommend using an SRS to actually learn the words. Best of all my two favorite SRS systems, Anki and Memrise, both have countless user generated decks available for free. That means you can likely even skip all this search engine business and just download a deck that’s been curated for you. How easy is that?

Actually learning the words once you’ve got them may seem like a daunting task, but it’s really not that bad. Even fifteen words a day, something that’s really a bare minimum with a good SRS program, will get you to your 3,000 words in 200 days. That’s about six and a half months. For spending five minutes a day actually studying is six months or so such a long time to wait to be able to read newspapers, understand TV and have conversations in your target language?

If you’re super impatient or particularly ambitious you can even kick it up a notch. I’ve successfully managed 1,000 words in a single month (34 words or so a day), so you could conceivably get to understanding a majority of a target language in as little as three months time.

I’ve talked about the best ways to memorize things and to learn vocab in the past. A good SRS system and an active imagination will make the whole process so easy it’ll never actually feel like studying.

If you’ve got a particular area where you’ll be specializing in or have something you’re really interested in feel free to add in as much vocab from that as you want as well. If you’re an accountant getting transferred to your company’s Tokyo office, by all means learn as much accounting terminology as you can in addition to the common stuff. Even if you’re just super interested in something like photography, learning that particular area’s vocab will open up a lot of reading material that you find interesting like books and blogs on that topic in your target language.

The most important thing to remember is that you don’t really need to know that much to be conversant and context will teach you most of everything else from there. Find your language’s most common 3,000 words and go rock them out – you’ll get farther in six months that way than most people do in three years of classes.

To prove my point I figured it up and, excluding this paragraph, this article contains 438 different words (non-lemmatized, so singulars and plurals count as separate words). Of those 438, if you knew only the top twenty ‘of, the, a, to, you, in, that, words, and, language, your, as, be, if, learning, is, so, are, know, & most’ then you can understand 39% of this text. Those twenty words alone make up 426 of the 1,000 or so words in the article. Could you understand it all with just 20 words? Probably not, but if you knew the first 80 or so of the 400 in the article that’d likely do it. That’s not many at all.

Have any additional suggestions for how much vocab people should learn or the best way to go about it? Have you approached language learning this way and, if so, how’d it go? Share your experiences in the comments.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley

Are You Learning a Second Language for Stupid Reasons?

Saint Pere De Rodes by Jose Luis Mieza Photography

Language learning, like architecture, requires a solid foundation if it’s going to stand the test of time.

There are a lot of reasons to learn a second language. These can range from the extremely practical (being relocated to a country for work that doesn’t speak your native language) to the extremely personal (you enjoy a good challenge and love to study new things) to comfortably in-between (you want to be able to make personal connections with speakers of another language or in another country).

Some people would say your reasons for learning a new language isn’t important. They’d say that every reason is perfectly valid as long as it inspires you to start learning. After all, everyone’s reasons are their own and who are we to judge and let’s all just hug and be happy.

Those people are imbeciles.

Your Success is Bound to Your Motivations

Put bluntly, if you want to learn a language for stupid reasons, you won’t learn a language at all.

I don’t think this is a terribly controversial statement to be honest, this principle holds true in just about every other endeavor you can take. If you start after something for bad reasons your chances of actually obtaining whatever it is you’re after are diminished substantially.

For whatever reason though, perhaps just something particular to language learning, I see a high concentration of people who want to learn to speak a new language for very empty reasons who then become extremely frustrated when they find they’re having a terrible time of it. For that reason I think it needs to be said – if your motivations suck you’re starting off down the road to failure.

Differentiating Good Motives from Bad Ones

I’ll be honest, determining what motives are the wrong ones can be tricky. Particularly because there’s a small element of subjectivity in play here. However there are some general guidelines that serve as decent litmus tests for the overall quality of your motivations for pursuing a goal.

The first thing you should ask is, “Am I doing this for myself, or someone else?”

What do I mean by that? Well, pursuing a goal for yourself means that you’re doing it entirely for reasons that are a benefit to you irrespective of the presence or influence of others. Your learning a language just because you want to, not because anyone else might want you to.

What are some good examples of this?

I want to learn a language to travel – The self interest here is obvious. Your drive to travel is what’s going to push you to keep going when you want to quit and you have a clear purpose in your studying and practice.

I need to learn a language for work – This one may sound like it’s for someone else, and it can certainly fall into that category if you hate your job or are being pushed into it, but in most cases this falls into the category of self-interest in that you’re motivated by a desire for a better career, a promotion or just not losing your job.

I want to meet new people and experience other cultures – Another good reason fueled by self-interest. Wanting to be able to interact with and make friends with people in their native language is a goal based around how good it feels to make connections with people.

All of these are good reasons to learn a language because they’re motivations fueled by a personal desire. You want something for yourself. You’re in control of those motivations. People with these motivations and ones like them are a lot more likely to succeed.

People who are pursuing their goal for motivations tied to others, however, tend to be much less likely to succeed. What are some examples?

I want to impress a boy/girl/spouse/friend/llama/whatever – Learning a language because you sincerely want to impress someone else may seem pretty motivating, but what happens when that person is out of the picture for some reason or another? What happens when you find out that person really doesn’t care? There goes all your drive. You don’t care about the language, you only care about the llama. That makes for poor motivation.

I think X language is really cool – This one is a bit of a gray area. I put it here though because, in my experience, what people are really saying here is that they think other people find X language cool and want to be cool by speaking it. Here again your motivation is tied to the approval of others and is based outside of yourself. You don’t really own that motivation, and when you need it most it’s likely to fail you.

The next thing you should ask yourself is, “Based on the reason I want to learn this language, am I going to still care about it in 5 years? Will I still be happy I learned it?”

If you apply this to the good and poor reasons above you’ll find it’s easy to come up with good reasons for the first set to still care years down the line. You’ll still have the opportunity to travel, your career options will still be enhanced and you’ll still be able to make friends in that language.

On the other hand, five years down the line whoever you were looking to impress might be gone. You might have also found that no one really thinks your cool for learning that language. Then you’re left having invested all this time and effort into learning something you really don’t care about.

Finding What’s Really Important to You

In the end the most important thing is to make sure that your motivations are based on things that are solid, things that are genuinely important to you in the long term. Learning a language, like getting in shape, is a long and difficult process requiring hard work and dedication. Anyone can do it, but it’s something you’ll have to fight for.

Since it’s going to be hard, picking weak motivations is just going to encourage you to give up when it gets difficult.

Do you have any tips for finding better motivations or weeding out ones that won’t work? Any good examples of helpful or detrimental motivations you’ve had in the past? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Jose Luis Mieza

Is Your Inner Monologue Helping or Hurting Your Success? Four Ways to Change Your Mindset and Be More Positive

The Mighty Hunter by James M. Turley

“Thoughts become things.” – Buddha

Before you begin a task or attempt to learn something new, does it make sense to first insult yourself or the subject? To tell yourself that it’s hard or you aren’t smart enough to do it?

It’s not intentional, but often people do it anyway. It’s forgivable – our brains do appear to be wired for negativity, or we remember negative experiences more often than positive ones. However, it’s not inexcusable forever. As soon as you want to do something new or need to gain a new skill, your mindset and how you approach it can have a huge impact on whether or not you will succeed.

Sometimes it’s a memory from childhood (negative emotions around something you had a bad experience with coming back to haunt you) or a cultural negativity toward a subject (X language is HARD!) or a simple fear of failure. There’s lots of ways negativity infects our thoughts and impacts our performance and ability to learn new things.

To make matters worse these negative thoughts not only hurt your chances of success, they also increase your stress levels which leads to, among many things, elevated cortisol, decreased memory, weight gain (or difficulty losing) and disrupted sleep. You are pretty much screwed. Except that you’re not.

The more you allow these negative thoughts to seep into your brain, the more you become them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, so-to-speak. But you can break this negative mindset and instead retrain yourself to think positively. Vain affirmations not necessary.

Four Ways to Change Your Mindset and Be More Positive

1. Practice Mindfulness

Being mindful is to pay attention to the present moment without judgment, or “living in the now.” When you are mindful you are focused on the task at hand – not distracted by other things or, worse, past experiences or worrying about the future. In other words, practicing mindfulness allows you to be more balanced and positive which will then enhance your mental performance.

So how can you practice being more mindful? You can start meditating daily or, if you prefer moving meditation give that a try. By taking breaks to clear your mind, doing one thing at a time and being slow and deliberate about it and paying attention to your thoughts to prohibit worrying about the past or future you will slowly build the habit of mindfulness.

Want another reason to practice mindfulness? There is some evidence that being mindful can increase the gray matter in the brain’s hippocampus, an area of the brain important for learning, memory and emotion, while also reducing gray matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with stress and anxiety.

2. Redefine Failure

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Have you failed yet today?

Changing your attitude toward failure can go a long way to giving you a more positive attitude and getting rid of negative thinking. Don’t treat your failures as something to be ashamed of, be proud of them! Through your failures you not only learn, but you also grow in your experience and insights.

If a fear of failure is preventing you from even beginning to take action, take a closer look at it. What will happen if you fail? What are the possible scenarios? How can you prevent the worst? And, most importantly, if the worst happens anyway, is it the end of the world?

The answer to that last one is that, more likely than not, it wont be the end of the world. Like Henry Ford was getting at, you need to remind yourself that when you do fail that the world isn’t over; You can still take action, or get back up and try again, this time a little wiser than you were before.

Not convinced? Need more reasons to go fail? We recently posted an article just on Why You Need to Go Out And Fail.

3. Be Diligent

When you are studying Chinese grammar you can complain about how hard it is or you can, using smart techniques, keep working on it bit by bit every day.

If you are taking on a huge project it can get overwhelming and a little voice in the back of your head might start telling you that it’s impossible to complete. The negatives thoughts can paralyze you – if you let them.

When those negative thoughts creep into your head take a moment to refocus, take a break if you need to. Divide the huge task into small, manageable chunks and have some way to positively reward yourself when you have completed your smaller goals, preferably with something like a nice green check mark on a calendar to indicate your progress and success.

Over time, the small successes build up and not only boost your overall optimism and positivity toward that particular goal, but you will be able to apply these same principles toward other goals you take on.

4. Take Control

Taking control is probably the most important of all of these lessons. Positive people don’t just have a good day, and success doesn’t just happen by accident – they make these things happen.

One of the causes of stress and self-directed negativity are hopes and wishes lacking action. Being passive won’t get you closer to your goals and most certainly won’t bring you success. Be pro-active and actively work toward success, whatever that may look like for you. Whether it’s constructing your ideal life, being able to speak another language, starting a business or getting healthier.

You have control over your actions and reactions – you have a choice. The more you are passive about goals and creating systems and situations that move you closer to success, the wider the gap gets between you and positivity and success.

I know it’s ridiculous to just expect everyone to suddenly change their actions, but it’s not ridiculous to suggest that you make it a habit. By combining the above advice about mindfulness with the goal of taking more control, you can slowly build this into a habit. Be mindful, take note of negative or passive thoughts and actions, and build the habit of changing them into action and positivity.

Being positive is ultimately about mindful action and re-framing typically negative situations like failure.

Have you struggled with negative thoughts? What has or hasn’t worked for you? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Photo Credit: James M. Turley

Seven Lessons Learned from 80 Days Around The World: The Epic Lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland

Around the World in 80 Days the board game.

It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t read or at least heard of the popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. At the time Verne was one of the most popular authors alive, and the book inspired people to travel and adventure and much debate arose questioning whether or not it was in fact possible to travel around the world in 80 days.

The story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition is an obscure but fascinating tale within which are lessons I think are as amazing as they are important. Which is why I’m sharing with you a brief summary of their story and some of the amazing lessons I’ve learned from it.

Verne’s novel was published in 1873 and in 1888 brave young journalist Nellie Bly pressured her editors to let her test the book’s basis. She was known for her audacity and willingness to put her life on the line to uncover a story – most notably when she faked being insane so she could bring to light the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. It took her a year to convince her editor, but eventually she was allowed to go. She was 25 years old.

The day she left for her journey the paper she worked for published an article announcing the trip. An editor for a competing paper saw the article on his way into work. Once there he called into his office the timid Elizabeth Bisland, who at the time was only 28 years old, and told her to go pack her things and be on the 6:00 p.m. train to San Francisco. She was instructed to beat Nellie Bly.

Newspaper clipping

Meet the Women

Nellie Bly

Before we tell you their story, let me first give you a bit of a background about these two women so you know what kind of people they were. Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, came from a humble family. Her father was a laborer who after years of hard work was able to buy the local mill and most of the land surrounding their home. His lesson of never giving up would stick with Bly for the rest of her life.

Nellie Bly

Unfortunately, her father died while she was still young and money quickly ran out – the family lost all their land and had only her mother to rely on. Her mother did eventually remarry but the man she married was abusive and a drunk; the marriage didn’t last long.

Through watching her mother’s struggles Bly learned that as a woman she couldn’t depend on anyone else – she had to be self-sufficient and strong. Which is why when a misogynistic article was published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch arguing that a woman belonged at home and at home alone, she was understandably upset and wrote a scathing rebuttal under a pseudonym. The editor of the paper liked the article so much he asked her to join the paper. Though he rescinded his offer once he learned that Bly was a female, she persuaded him to hire her anyway. It was a much better job than the work she was doing at the time being a maid. It was common for female journalists to take on a pen name rather than use their real name, and Elizabeth chose Nellie Bly.

Female reporters were a rarity at the time and for the few that were they weren’t allowed to write for anything other than the arts and gossip pages of the newspapers, but Bly was different. She refused – she was audacious and willing to risk her own personal safety to expose evils and mistreatment where ever she found it. Frustrated with the Dispatch for refusing to let her, she eventually talked her way into being a reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, the New York World. Her first story: pretend to be insane in order to be admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island and investigate reports of patient abuse. These were the kinds of stories she loved most.

Elizabeth Bisland

Born on what was once a great sugar cane plantation, Elizabeth Bisland was almost the antithesis of Nellie Bly. A sophisticated, learned writer and poet, Bisland didn’t seek out the limelight but rather enjoyed a quieter existence.

Elizabeth Bisland

The Battle of Fort Bisland was fought on the estate Elizabeth Bisland was born on however the family fled during the war, relocating to a home her father had inherited. Using torn and burnt copies of Cervantes and Shakespeare she had found in her grandfather’s estate, Bisland taught herself first to read. Later, she taught herself French so she could read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original French text.

As a teenager Bisland often sent small works of her poetry to the New Orleans Times Democrat under a pen name, although once discovered she moved to New Orleans to write for the paper. Around 1887 she moved to New York and worked for various newspapers, eventually becoming an editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Bly’s style was unrefined and coarse, while Bisland was more elegant and refined. Bly was also more adventurous and scrappy while Bisland was more interested in books and conversation. The only things they had in common were rough upbringings, an interest in writing and that both women would publish detailed accounts of the trip afterward.

The Challenge

In 1888 after having exposed the cruelty of the Mexican dictator and the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Nellie Bly had become fascinated with Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days and wanted to see if it were in fact possible to circumvent the Earth in 80 days or less. In modern times you could fly around the world in a plane in a couple days, but back then the most they had were steam ships and trains. She had a plan: she’d begin by catching a steam ship to England and would send back brief reports via a new technology, telegrams, and send longer reports via letter. There was a problem though that stopped her editor from allowing it: She was a woman.

Women shouldn’t go across town unescorted, why on earth should she be allowed to go alone around the world? Only a man could do this! Furthermore, she’s a woman: she’ll need 11 trunks worth of clothes and cosmetics that will slow her down trying to keep track of all those things and carrying them from place to place. These were some of the problems the editors of the New York World had with her trip. But that didn’t deter her – it hadn’t stopped her before and it wouldn’t this time either. But Bly wasn’t about to give up, she told them: send a man and I will go for another paper and I will beat him. They remained firm in their decision

A year later though she got a break. The World faced shrinking circulation and needed something to boost readership – a publicity stunt – and Joseph Pulitzer knew just the thing: Nellie Bly. He gave her a few days notice to pack her things and then she would be out. She left November 14, 1989.

On his way into work, Cosmopolitan Magazine owner and editor John Brisben Walker read the front page story in the World announcing Bly’s trip to see if Phileas Fogg’s fictional record of 80 days was possible and if she could beat it. Immediately, he knew this would be an incredible opportunity for him and his publication to get in on. So once he arrived at the office he called for a young writer to be brought to him – and it had to be a female. Literary editor Elisabeth Bisland – who was unaware of Bly’s trip – was called to his office and they exchanged brief greetings before he got to business: She needed to go home and pack her things and be on the next train to San Francisco because she was going to challenge and beat Nellie Bly around the world.

Bisland refused.

She gave excuses at first – she had dinner guests coming that night, she didn’t have enough time to pack, etc. But eventually he wore her down convinced her to go. Her real reason which she admitted to later was that she was a shy, studious and serious writer and as such she cherished her anonymity and privacy. She didn’t want publicity or celebrity – which she knew this would bring. She knew that this would be a sensational story and wanted no part in it. Bly on the other hand reveled that fact.

Bly had left that morning on a steamship east to England but Bisland’s editor believed it would be faster to travel West and so Bisland went via New York Central Railroad to San Francisco.

In Chicago Bisland talked her way onto a fast mail train headed straight for San Francisco. There was a $750,000 contract riding on that train being the fastest yet, and everyone else on the train was either a mail or railroad official. She was the only woman. In Utah the train stopped and changed engineers, the new one being Cyclone Bill Downing who was known for his lack of fear. A few minutes before 1:00 a.m., the train lead by Cyclone Bill Downing slowly began to move forward – but it wouldn’t last for long. He pushed the train to it’s limits careening up and down mountains, around passes, through tunnels and across long plains.

Derailment was common back then and everyone aboard feared the worst – and their nerves were not eased by the trains violent rocking and roar bouncing off the mountains. From the rear car passengers could see a spray of sparks trailing behind them like fire. Many aboard got seasick from the ride, and those that didn’t got sick from the smell of other’s being sick. One man writhed on the floor in terror and was handed brandy to help calm himself.

Bly didn’t have it any easier – she was on an actual ship for the first time and got seasick for a few days. To further complicate things other passengers had no idea why she was on the ship – especially alone. Rumors began circulating about her being an American heiress traveling to mend a broken heart, causing a number of single men to attempt to court her – several of them even proposing.

She eventually devised a plan to end the attention – she “confided” in another passenger that she wasn’t rich, but that a couple charities had raised money for her to go on a long trip to restore her health. The proposals ceased.

Once in England Bly met with a correspondent for the World that told her if she traveled overnight, didn’t sleep and made a few detours she could meet with Jules Verne at his estate in Amnion, France. She was ecstatic – who cares if she had to spend 48 hours straight awake and on the road? She got to meet an immensely famous author whom she respected and loved! While there, she even got to see the map he used to plot out his character’s journey and one he made of hers. He told her that if he beat the fictional record he’d applaud her. He was very supportive of her, even sending her a telegram when she made it to San Francisco to congratulate her.

The two women sent brief reports back via telegram, which the brilliant Joseph Pulitzer realized he could use for more than just status updates. He sponsored a contest for readers – whoever could guess closest to the second that Nellie Bly would arrive back in New York would win a free trip to Europe. Naturally, contestants had to purchase a paper first since the entry form was inside.

Pulitzer’s marketing scheme worked splendidly – the contest was huge and received nearly a million entries. He was careful to never mention Bisland and keep the focus on Bly. The winning entry was off by 2/5 of a second. Second place was off by 3/5 of a second. The contest and paper launched Bly into becoming one of the most famous women in the world at the time.

On the other hand, Cosmopolitan Magazine did a rather poor job of publicizing the race and brought much less attention to Bisland, which was okay since she didn’t want the attention anyway.

The race was neck-and-neck nearly the entire way. While Bisland knew her mission was to beat Bly, Bly had no idea she was racing against anyone else until she got to Hong Kong – about halfway through. The conversation with a ticket office employee went something like this:

Employee: You’re going to lose the race.

Bly: I don’t think so – I’m ahead of schedule.

Employee: Well, the other woman was here a few days ago and is ahead of you.

Bly: What? What other woman?!

The employee filled Bly in on the rest of the story, which greatly displeased her and made her more determined to go faster. On the ship from Japan to San Francisco Bly used her celebrity to convince the captain to go faster – and he did everything he could to get her there on time.

While the trip had its ups it also had its downs – bad weather, miscommunications, mechanical problems and conspirators slowed them down. In the end, it came down to Nellie Bly coming by train from San Francisco and Elizabeth Bisland by steam ship from Ireland. Either women could have won, and the world anxiously held its breath.

Spoiler Alert: Ultimately, Nellie Bly won. Thanks to a ticket salesman who lied to Bisland about missing one of her intended boats and forced her to catch a much slower ship which guaranteed Bly would prevail. Bly’s end time was 72 days 6 hours and 11 minutes while Bisland’s time was 76 and a half days.

Bly’s victory was celebrated with parades and much publicity – by this time she was more concerned with fame than with uncovering immoral actions and becoming more and more arrogant. She attempted to capitalize on it by going on a lecture circuit but it didn’t bode too well. Later s board game and an amusement park in Brooklyn would be made using her name and journey as their themes, however she didn’t profit from either.

Bisland’s return was much less grand although she was just as much changed. She was greeted by a small crowd of curious people and her sister. She wrote soon after returning that she wanted to live her life in such a way that her name would never again appear in a newspaper. However, she would continue to travel. The trip itself had broadened her outlook and opened her up to the world. She particularly loved Japan and would return many times.

Finally, the Seven Lessons Learned

There’s so much that can be gained from the lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland but I’ll just share a few of the more prominent things that stood out for me.

Screw Social Constraints

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were unique – they were doing things during a time when women doing practically anything was frowned upon. While most women were being chaperoned to the store and back, Bly and Bisland were traveling the world alone.

Of course, that wasn’t all they did that was unique. During her early career (teens and early 20s) she would do anything required to expose social injustices – even if that meant going into an abusive insane asylum that she might not get out of (not to mention, many of the people there weren’t actually insane.)

Who cares what other people think of what your doing? Why let other’s opinions – which mean absolutely nothing – have an impact on your happiness? Be yourself, do the things you love, not what others have told you to do or love. Be different, and be proud. By doing this, you’ll encourage others to follow suit and do the things they love.

Things aren’t perfect, but everyone – male and female, and of all races – does have it a lot better than things were in the 1800s. If they could do amazing things then, you can do amazing things now. The only limits you have are the ones you set.

Take Risks

None of the things that happened in this story would have been possible if Bly and Bisland hadn’t taken risks. To me it seems that Bly threw all caution to the wind – she knew things would work out in the end if she was persistent.

Bisland wasn’t really one to attract attention to herself or go outside social norms, but yet she took those risks anyway – just in a very cautious way.

Bly took huge risks every time she did an investigative piece – she almost didn’t make it out of the asylum – but her risks paid off every time. People thought she was crazy for doing what she did but because of her life got better for a great number of people, and she even changed government policy to help protect people from abuses like the asylum.

The trip around the world was a huge risk for both women – not only was it dangerous for them to go alone, but if something did happen to them there would have been almost no way to know. There were no cell phones, GPS or cameras and investigative technology and practices were dubious – especially in the less developed countries they went to. But the trip was worth it. Both women learned so much from this trip, and society in general learned more about the world and grew more accepting of the idea of women being capable and able to handle themselves.

Whichever way suits you, you should take risks. Great or small, if you want something you need to be willing to take risks to get it. Maybe changing the world isn’t your thing – it doesn’t matter, even to get something selfish that you want (which is not necessarily a bad thing) there will be some risks involved. It may not be easy – but nobody said it would be. Of course risks have potential downsides, but whether or not you succeed you’ll come out ahead. If you fail, learn from it so you can try again in the future and hopefully then succeed. Take risks, learn from your failures and live without regrets.

You’ve only got one life, don’t waste it living someone else’s.

Travel!

Whether or not travel is something you are interested it, it’s something I highly recommend you do anyway. It’s not always visible at first but travel will change you.

It’s impossible to tell beforehand the exact ways that travel will affect you – it’s different for everyone. The only thing I can guarantee that it’ll do is change how you look at the world and give you a broader perspective than you could have imagined previously.

Furthermore, the world just isn’t scary – you have no excuse not to travel! If two women can muster up the courage to travel during a time when women couldn’t even go outside without a male escort, you can too.

Learning a Language isn’t Necessary for Travel

Bly didn’t speak a word of any language other than English, and while Bisland did speak some others she certainly didn’t speak the language of every country she went to, yet they got by. Things are even easier nowadays and so you can make it in nearly every country without using any language other than English.

There are certainly benefits of learning the language of the place you are going to, but if you aren’t going to stay for long or are only there to do touristy-type activities, then learning is not necessary.

You Have No Excuses NOT to Learn

You may not need to learn another language but if you want to, you really don’t have any excuses not to. Think about it, if Bisland could teach herself French in the 1800s from tattered books then YOU can learn ANY language NOW thanks to the INTERNET!

It’s not an easy task, but learning another language has gotten significantly easier thanks to the sheer amount of resources you have available to you right now for free. There are ways to get around money issues, if you really want it you will make or find time and with some strategic habit-building you can make yourself stick to it. The tools are all at your fingers – if Bisland could do it you can too.

Embrace Minimalism for a Simpler, Hassle-Free Life

Do you really need all those things? Really? Bly most famously only traveled with a single bag that she could carry with her – currently with The Smithsonian – containing only the absolute most essential items.

Going with only the clothes on your back may be a bit too extreme for some, but it should make you consider what are the absolute essentials – what could you live without on this trip? Do you really need multiple pairs of shoes, tons of clothes, or a bunch of electronics? What exactly do you want to do with your time there? Unless you intend on spending your time on your computer or with your nose in a book, skip those sorts of things. Take only a couple of your most versatile clothes (that can be dressed up or down) and only buy clothes at your destination if you need them. When you’re done you can donate, resell or give them to someone else.

What you pack should be indicative of what you will be doing, so unless you plan on spending a lot of time in your hotel, leave all the extras at home.

You are Limitless

When you consider the time period, the limited resources and social constraints that bound Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, what they managed to accomplish is incredible. The vast amount of resources, knowledge and overall freedom that we enjoy now gives everyone the opportunity to do amazing things.

Pretty much anything you want to do, you can do so long as you apply yourself and stick to it.

So what’s holding you back from pursuing your goals? What did you gain from Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition?

The Single Trait That Will Make You a Better Language Learner

0362 by Cia de Foto

Spending too much time in your own little world won’t make you a better language learner.

I completely and fully reject the assertion that some people are ‘just good language learners’.

Occasionally I also hear it phrased as someone being ‘gifted with languages’ or maybe ‘having the language gene’. It doesn’t matter how you put it, it’s wrong. On top of that and far worse whenever I hear it used it’s either to denigrate the achievement of some hard-working polyglot or as a pathetic cop-out for why they can’t learn a second language.

The fact is anyone can learn a new language or ten, while some people might hit the proper method more easily or naturally it doesn’t confer on them some magical advantage. You don’t need some imaginary ‘gift’ to learn a language.

That being said, there is a particular personality trait that makes you substantially more likely to succeed at learning a new language – but it’s something you can learn.

Social People = Better Language Learners

If you are a serious introvert please don’t leave because you need to hear this the most – people who are extroverted and more willing to take social risks make for much better language learners.

Language is at its core an inherently social thing. Its purpose is to communicate ideas with other people, to share experiences and knowledge. Sure, this can be done through the written medium in a relatively non-social way, but that’s an extension of language not the core of it.

If you’re learning to speak a language, to reach fluency in it and make it a part of yourself, you’re going to have to be social. You’re going to have to take risks.

Ok, if you’re one of the very small number of people who are learning a language solely to read it, maybe to enjoy some classics in their original form or because you’re studying a dead language, then fine. Being social may not be a huge benefit to your progress. You can leave now.

Now that two out of several thousand of you have left, we can move on.

Use of a language is a skill (like swimming) not a knowledge (like history). That means that to get good at it you have to treat it as such. After 10 hours who’s going to be the better swimmer, the person who spent those 10 hours in the pool practicing or the person who spent 10 hours reading books on swimming?

Languages are no different. Study will only take you so far, at some point you have to dive in and practice.

That’s what makes social people such better language learners, they take more risks and create more opportunities to practice their target language. The more willing you are to step outside your comfort zone socially in your use of your target language the more diverse opportunities you create to improve your skills.

Accepting Failure & Taking Risks

I think in general the main reason people miss out on opportunities to practice their target language as much as they could is because of social anxiety.

There can be a lot of causes of social anxiety, but a big one is the fear of looking strange, awkward or foolish in front of someone else and the resulting embarrassment. Fear of embarrassment can be serious business – I’ve known people who would become physically ill if asked to speak on stage in front of a group for fear they’d embarrass themselves.

Learning to let go of that fear and embrace your failures makes it much easier to take these social risks and open up additional opportunities.

I’ve talked a lot about how great failure is. I love failing. It’s really the best way we learn, and it’s definitely not something you should be scared or ashamed of. Particularly in the realm of language learning 99.9% of people who speak the language you’re learning will be ecstatic you’re learning their language and will be infinitely patient and supportive of you even if you make nothing but mistakes.

As for the 0.01% that will find out you’re learning a language and then deride, patronize and embarrass you for not magically being perfect at it from day one, we have a special term for them.

It’s asshole.

Be confident and practice under the assurance that the vast majority of people will gently correct your failures and you’ll learn a ton from them and that the tiny minority of individuals who will seek to bring you down for your mistakes are wretched things leading such dejected and miserable lives as to only be able to find momentary joy in crushing the spirits of others. You can ignore them.

Maximizing Your Return by Leaving Your Comfort Zone

The best learning occurs just outside of your normal zone of comfort. If you’re comfortable then you aren’t progressing fast enough.

That means you should always be looking for ways to push your social comfort zones in order to practice your target language.

This can mean different things for different people. For some pushing their comfort zone is going to mean getting on iTalki and chatting with someone over Skype half a world away who they may or may not ever talk to again. For others it might be going to the local international market or a restaurant from the same country as your target language and practicing with the staff there.

The point is to find your boundaries and step out of them.

Don’t do it in a non-committal way either. Go all in. Taking the first step of joining a Meetup group based around your target language is a fantastic first step, actually going to one of the Meetups is another, but once there you actually have to approach people and chat with them. If you go just to be there and hang out alone in a corner being shy then you’re not really getting any benefit from the experience.

If you’re already fairly outgoing, push your boundaries in other ways. It’s great to memorize the dialogue necessary to order a coffee in your target language then go to a restaurant where you can actually use it and repeat it there, but that’s very rigid and controlled. Do that, but rather than stop there go on and ask an open ended question like how business is going, what their favorite dish is or something like that.

That way you can push the conversation beyond the rigid dialogue you practiced beforehand and get some free form practice outside of your normal comfort zone.

In the end, forcing yourself to be a little more and more social and take more risks will lead to drastic improvements in your language skill that would take forever to come, if they ever even did, if you focused the majority of your effort on introverted study.

Have you seen more success with language learning by being more social or outgoing? Have any tips for people who have a lot of social anxiety? Help everyone out and share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cia de Foto

Why Chinese is Easy

Homework by Simon Shek

I’ve heard it since I was little – Chinese is THE hardest language in the world! Back then before I knew anything about the language I would stare at the beautiful characters and wonder, exactly what makes it so hard to learn Chinese? It wasn’t until I got much older and decided to tackle learning the language that I have come to think that not only is Chinese not the hardest language to learn, but that I think the reason why people say it is is because of a fear of something different.

This is not to say that learning a language is easy – all languages require that you give time, dedication, a lot of hard work and effort in learning and practice and even to go out of your comfort zone regularly. However, I disagree that Chinese is any harder than any other language.

It’s So Different

The assumption that European languages are easier to learn than Chinese (largely because of them being “similar” to English) is what I think really drives the claim that Chinese is the hardest language to learn. Well, that and perhaps also a general ignorance about the language.

Yes, Chinese is different – in some ways. From European languages, it’s definitely different in that it has a logographic writing system instead of alphabetic. But does that necessarily make it harder to learn? Not at all! As I’ll discuss later, Chinese grammar and sentence structure isn’t too different from English which, in my opinion, makes it much easier to learn and remember. The point is really that any language can be difficult. Even between European languages there are huge differences – particularly between languages of different families (Romance, Germanic or Slavic) – that can make them difficult to learn.

Chinese isn’t as hard as one may think!

“Those Symbols” Are Meaningful

For a beginner, looking at a block of Chinese text can seem daunting – for a native English speaker there is no easily identifiable way to pronounce anything or get an idea of what it’s talking about. European languages are “easier” in that many use the same characters (some have a few additional letters or different letters) as English and many words have been shared between languages, giving us a leg up on meanings.

Many of the characters used are meant to look like the word they are supposed to represent. For example:

Shān Chuān Rén

Can you guess what these might mean? Okay, perhaps not immediately, but what if I pointed out to you that the first one kinda looks like a mountain. Can you see it now? Okay, going through the rest: a river, a tree, the Sun and the legs of a person walking. It helps if you’ve got an active imagination.

Much of written Chinese lends itself nicely to memorization techniques, like in the cases above.

I Can’t Memorize 3,000 Characters!

With many languages, our approach to learning is to memorize the most 2-3,000 most common words which will enable you to participate in most conversations and to read newspapers. The nice thing with Chinese is that you don’t have to memorize 3,000 characters though! Learning the basic words and a handful of radicals will enable you to figure out the meanings of other words.

Zhōng Xiǎo Xué

The words above are for ‘big’ ‘middle’ ‘little’ and ‘learn’. Once you know these words, suddenly you also know:

大学
Dà Xué
University

中学
Zhōng Xué
Middle School

小学
Xiǎo Xué
Elementary School

Many words are like this and if you know the characters you can often get the idea of what a bit of text is saying. Putting the words “electricity” and “talk” together gives you the word for “phone” or “electricity” and “view” gives you “television” or “fire” and “mountain” together give you “volcano”. While this isn’t true 100% of the time it IS valid for the majority of common words and phrases.

What are Radicals?

Another way to get clues as to what a word means are the radicals – or one of the components to the character. Knowing how to identify the radicals will help you look up words in the dictionary (although who cares anymore with handy apps like Pleco?) and in many cases can give some clue to meaning or pronunciation, or at the very least help you create a memory hook to remember a word.

Some examples:

林 晶
Lín Jīng

Remember those words from above for “tree” and “sun”? Well, the characters for them are also radicals. As you can see above I have a few words using those same characters. The first one is two trees together – can you guess what it means? Forest! The second is a trickier one – it’s three suns and means “sparkling” or “bright” (and having three suns would be terribly bright wouldn’t it?)

While Chinese has a character for water (水) it also has a radical for water (氵) and by knowing this radical you can get the idea that all these words have something to do with water/liquid or flowing: 洪水 Hóng Shuǐ (flood), 果汁 Guǒ Zhī (fruit juice), 电流 Diàn Liú (electric current) or 啤酒 Pí Jiǔ (beer). If you’re looking at a menu in a restaurant and see a list of words that all contain the 氵 radical, you’ll know those are the drinks! Similarly, knowing that 艹 is the radical for plant and is always on the top of the character you’ll be able to figure out which items on the menu are vegetable dishes.

Radicals may not always help you directly with knowing a word’s meaning or pronunciation, but as I mentioned earlier knowing them can help in many cases and often help in creating memory hooks.

Wait! Traditional vs. Simplified is Hard!

Lots of people fret about whether they should learn the traditional or simplified characters – which is something I think is pointless to worry about. What is your purpose in learning? Are you going to Beijing? Then learn simplified and don’t worry about the traditional. Going to Taiwan? Then traditional it is. Want to read Journey to the West? Simplified.

Aside from purpose making it clear which you should learn, I’ve learned both and I really don’t know why people fuss about it. In extreme cases it’s not much different than remembering there are two ways to say the same thing. More often than not though, the simplified versions aren’t that far from the traditional counterpart. Hacking Chinese had a great example of this:

銳 - 锐
銘 - 铭
釘 - 钉
鎮 - 鎮
釣 - 钓

Traditional is on the left and simplified is on the right. As you can see, all that changed is the radical. So much of what you need to remember is the two ways to write the simplified radicals, not every single character. This is much easier to do than people make it out to be!

Characters, Radicals, Traditional vs. Simplified, This is Why Chinese is Difficult!

I can understand if all the technical discussion above can make Chinese seem difficult. However, I find it a lot easier to remember all these things as I’m a very visually-based person and Chinese lends itself to a lot of visual memory hooks.

Furthermore, Chinese is really consistent which I hope you got the idea from with my examples of multiple trees = forest and electric talk = phone and so on. If you know a handful of single characters or words your vocabulary is instantly doubled once you start combining them!

Another great example of this consistency is, for example, when reading menus if you want to order stir-fried beef the word is literally “fried cow meat” (炒牛肉) whereas we have the obvious problem of “cow meat” being “beef” in English thanks to borrowing many food terms from French.

Beyond vocabulary Chinese doesn’t have genders, three different levels of the word “that” like languages in the Altaic family do (Turkish, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean), politeness levels or verb conjugation.

The Grammar is Simple

One of my favorite things about Chinese is how the grammar is nearly the same as English, but much more simplified. The word order is the same (Subject-Verb-Object, or “I go to the store”) unlike many other languages like Japanese where the structure is Subject-Object-Verb (“I to the store go.”)

For European languages, learning the grammar is where most of the work is at – all those rules for conjugations and the exceptions. But Chinese grammar is simple! The majority of the work in Chinese is just memorizing words, which you’d have to do anyway.

Learning the rules and exceptions to those rules of verb conjugations in Japanese was one of the things that frustrated me most when I was first learning it (which, in retrospect is silly as it’s mostly logical and easy, especially compared to Romance languages!) whereas in Chinese, none of this is a problem. Everything is in present tense unless you throw in a word to indicate otherwise such as “yesterday” or “tomorrow”. For really simple sentences, you can just use Le (了) which indicates that an action has been completed. Simple as that! Context and listening will tell you if something is happening now, happened in the past, or will happen.

Sounds NEVER get Dropped!

This is one of the big things for me – when you memorize a word and it’s character it is always pronounced like that. In other languages, like Japanese sometimes syllables get dropped in the middle of the sentence. Yes, you get used to them after a while and it becomes natural (as it should) but for a beginner it can be incredibly annoying.

English is notable for dropping sounds in pronunciation and a messed up spelling system – just look at the words subtle, enough, phlegm, gnostic or scene. There is no consistency between spelling and pronunciation! ‘Enough’ could just as well be spelled ‘enouf’. Or ‘fish’ could be spelled ‘ghoti’ using the gh from ‘tough’, the o from ‘women’ and the ti from ‘nation’. C, Ch and K can all be pronounced the same way (‘care’ ‘Chris’ and ‘kitten’).

The inconsistencies of English pronunciation are displayed wonderfully in the poem English is Tough Stuff. Here’s the first verse:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

But you’ll never have to worry about any of this mess with Chinese. There’s only one way to pronounce each word and it is always the same.

So the Grammar is Easy but What About the Tones?!

Ah yes, tones. Chinese does have them – four for Mandarin – which distinguish between words. Many other languages have tones too – even English although the use is slightly different. Rather than meaning, tones in English indicate mood, emphasis and sometimes indicate that a sentence is a question.

Learning the tones isn’t and shouldn’t be difficult. Once you understand the, in my opinion obvious, difference between the four tones it’s only a matter of remembering which word is what tone. This may sound complicated, but there are tricks to making this easier.

Even if you mess up a tone in conversation the other person(s) will still understand what you are saying thanks to context. They may correct you, but they won’t be clueless. If I’m talking with a Chinese person about places we are going to go to and I accidentally say I’m going to the “bastard” ( 王八 Wáng Bā) instead of “Internet cafe” (网吧 Wǎng Bā) they may get a good laugh at me but they will know what I mean.

What Actually Makes a Language Difficult?

Having spent a lot of time learning how to learn I’ve come to the conclusion that learning any language is hard work but the level of difficulty hinges on having the right attitude, motivation and method.

Your attitude when you are approaching a language can hugely determine your success – generally if you think something is really hard then you’ll treat it as if it’s hard and it will become hard. But if you approach a language with a positive “this is simple!” attitude you’re changes of success will be much greater.

Similarly, if your motivation isn’t in line with your desires or needs then success will be difficult to attain. Learning French because you want to go to French and communicate for pleasure or business is a much better and stronger motivation than learning French to pass a class you have no real interest in. Whether it’s to understand a favorite show, communicate with others in that language, conduct business or whatever, you need a reason that will really motivate you to study and practice.

Finally, the method you use to learn a language also plays a significant role in how successful you’ll be. Not everyone learns the same way – sometimes even the way something is phrased can change your understanding of a particular element. Even though my attitude was positive and my motivation to learn Korean was extremely high, simply switching which grammar book I studied from made a huge difference. The way the grammar was explained in the second book was MUCH easier to understand. I find using an SRS (spaced repetition system) to learn vocabulary to be much more helpful over writing words over and over.

Chinese is one of my favorite languages and so of course it saddens me that people pass over this rich language because of a stereotype that it’s difficult. If you’re having difficulty with a language, take a step back and figure out why. Maybe you need a new grammar book, maybe you need to find a new source of motivation or perhaps your attitude is negative. If it’s your attitude, go take a break and play! Come back later when you are in a good mood.

What do you think? What has made a particular language easy or difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Simon Shek

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