The Tower of Babel Guide (or How to learn any language): Part 1

I have planned a multi-part series on the topic of learning languages. It is aimed at serving two purposes—answering questions around this issue that many people have asked me in the past few years, and putting into words my observations of what worked best for me or others around me, and where I felt I or others could have done better. The series will roughly address the following issues—

  • Why a new language—difficulties—rewards—how to choose one
  • How to start—where to learn from
  • Pronouncing it well—how to sound good—common mistakes—useful tips—improving your pronunciation
  • Moving ahead—how to start getting a hang of the language—how to cope up with differences—improving your fluency
  • How to keep it once you have it—ways to advance your level—ways to practise—closing remarks

It is aimed at being a leisurely read, and I hope it will be a considerable value addition to whoever reads it till the end.

There is no fixed posting schedule, though I will try to keep some degree of regularity. But expect at least a week’s gap between two posts. I wrote this Part 1 a couple of weeks ago, but expect some delay between Part 1 and Part 2, as I have a hell-week ahead.


PART 1

Before we begin with how, the two important question words are why and which, and I would address them one by one—

Why do you want to learn a new language?

It could be any of a zillion reasons, frankly. Earlier, I used to frown upon a few of them, but I have realized that there is no point putting value to ambition, so whatever reason motivates you enough is fine. If you are a linguophile who simply loves learning languages, that’s ’nuff said, and you don’t need to give it much thought. But, in most other cases, the reason often dictates your overall motivation level. For instance, if you are placed in a Japanese company and have to compulsorily attend 2 months of an intensive Japanese course, there’s every chance that you will end up hating it, and deeply regret your decision. If you want to learn another language to be able to communicate with your partner in their mother tongue, you probably have a strong motivation (and you will end up getting a lot of practice too). If you want to learn stereotyped ‘love langauges’ like French or Italian to achieve linguistically what men in Axe advertisements seem to achieve with just a spray of aerosol, you will probably start off with a lot of gusto, and then fizzle out—not unlike the fragrance of everyday deodorants.

Be warned, however, that language learning can be a long and tiring process, which often offers close to no reward for several weeks (for relatively simple languages) or months (if you have chosen a particularly tough one). This is probably like learning to play the guitar, another in the list of Axe alternatives, though probably much more common. When you begin to learn, you set the loftiest goals in mind, and you are motivated by none but the best—you want to be able to play that awesome 8-minute solo, or be able to sit with a couple of friends on a Friday night and start accompanying any song that is being sung. But when you begin, you realize it’s one long painful process of strumming until your fingers ache and learning to play chords as an academic exercise. It might be weeks before you can begin to play for pleasure  or to a certain level of satisfaction. Learning languages is not entirely different.

I know quite a few people who want to learn a language with the sole aim of being able to read works by authors they admire in the language in which they were originally written, say German for Kafka, Russian for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or Bengali for Tagore. This ain’t unlike trying to learn to play cricket because you want to become Sachin Tendular, though it’s decidedly easier. You should be aware that learning a language to the level that you can appreciate literature written in it, be able to read it for pleasure as opposed to reading it as an academic exercise, reading it so that you can chuckle over the funny parts, feel sorry for the characters’ misfortunes and be able to associate with the tale like you would with a bed-time story your grandmother narrated to you in your mother tongue—is not easy, and will need a lot of time and commitment on your part. It’s not trivial, but it’s not too difficult either. Get into it but be aware of what you are getting into. And it is not necessarily very cool, as far as public perception goes, so you might not get brownie points for attempting it, unlike learning musical instruments.

But the above is not to discourage you, but to give you a fair idea of what you are getting into.  You are likely to be more prepared this way, and will probably be less likely to give it up midway in frustration. Language learning can be a very fruitful process, full of joys and exciting moments. The joy you get when you realize that the seemingly arbitrary sequence of sounds you produced actually conveyed meaning to another person, the excitement you feel when you, for the first time, are able to understand what some random foreigner says to his friend as you all stand in a McD queue, the extremely positive feedback you get from native speakers of a language who swoon even at your terrible attempts at speaking it, the satisfaction you get when you are finally able to sustain a dialogue (unscripted!)  in that language, the respect and admiration you get from friends and acquaintances when you can nonchalantly converse with a native (extra points if the conversation results in them getting a bargain!)—language learning is full of simple pleasures and can be very rewarding. Also, when you learn a foreign language, chances are that you will end up getting insights into your native language too.

And I don’t even need to mention what an immense value-addition it can be. It can potentially boost your employment prospects, open a wider range of opportunities for you both in personal and professional life, might help you survive in a foreign country, might enable you to help someone in need, and though I admit it’s stretching it, it’s not entirely unlikely that it might some day be the difference between life and death. And if you are a linguophile like me, it might be an immensely satisfying and joyful experience in itself.

Which language should you choose?

Image Courtesy http://www.languagesunited.co.uk/

If, after reading the above, you still want to learn a language, great! The next question of course is—which language should you learn? As is obvious, this is directly related to why you want to learn it. Assuming you have free choice, there is a wide variety of questions that you may want to ask.

Do you just want to try out a foreign language and aren’t very finicky about which one, you could begin with something like French or Spanish. These two are also easy as far as the grammar goes. They are fairly easy to learn, aren’t too tough to pronounce, and there is a lot of freely available material to help you learn and practise. They are also very useful because they are widely spoken—in terms of spread, they are second only to English.

If you like grammar a bit, and enjoyed noun declension and verb inflection in Sanskrit, you might want to pick up German. However, unlike French or Spanish, which are spread pretty wide, German is spoken mainly in Germany and a couple of other countries. But it’s a major tourist destination and is also important academically, so you might want to learn it for professional benefits. It’s also the second most common language  on the internet, if that means anything to you.

You could then go on to more challenging languages—maybe try some Japanese, or Arabic, or Mandarin, or whichever you fancy. If you want help choosing, the website http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/e/index.html has a lot of interesting information about languages and their difficulty level, and answers most questions you would want to ask before choosing a language.

Up next: How to start learning—resources—methodology—pronunciation


A few important points:

  • I have decided upon a basic structure for this series, but have written only the first part yet. If you want me to cover any aspect that’s not mentioned in the outline, please add it in the comments section and I will try to incorporate it
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  • Archit Kejriwal

    Between Spanish and French (2 languages most people would be slightly confused to choose between) could you give more pros and cons?

    • Antariksh

      I think Spanish will be slightly easier to pronounce, at least for Indians. But, French has more learning resources—classroom teaching would be difficult to find for Spanish, for eg.
      If you want to plan to stay in the US, I think Spanish would be more useful. Most people know English there, but there are loads of what you call Hispanophones.

      As for grammar difficulty, I don’t have a lot of exposure to Spanish, but I think French grammar might be slightly easier. Not too sure about this one, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mdt.j89 Mudit Jain

    I like Marathi people and their language, had started learning it – could not devote much time as of now. I can understand what the marathi person is trying to say 60% of the times. But not good at speaking and writing.

    What my understanding is – I should first strike at the grammar part – verb forms etc. But I am forgetting how we were taught good sanskrit — karak, karan, alankar etc etc. Could you please throw some light on this.  And what do you suggest for me for learning a language which is quite similar to hindi and sanskrit ? 

  • http://thereviewcafe.com Mohit Tater

    Great post Antariksh! This comes just when I was thinking of picking up a new language. Waiting for the next post in this series, keep up the brilliant work!

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  • Nitin

    Thanks for the post Antariksh. I had read this a few months ago and when I finally decided to start learning Spanish and this was the first thing I came back to for resources.Just one thing which I didn’t like in your post was your fallacious reasoning in comparing learning for the purpose of appreciating the works of greats to learning playing cricket with the aim of becoming Sachin Tendulkar. A more sound comparison of it would have been against learning the rules of cricket so as to appreciate the beauty of Sachin’s batting style. And you are right it would take lots of time watching cricket before one can truly pickup the nuances of his batting, but still, the comparison seems wrong to me.