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Starting to learn a language with the right attitude

| 45 comments | Category: learning languages

Starting to learn

Starting a new “confusing” language doesn’t have to be so hard

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and learning a language is quite a trip! If you put your first foot wrong, it may seriously slow you down.

I honestly believe that the most important part of learning a language isn’t the grammar, or a having wide grasp of vocabulary, it’s your attitude towards it and confidence with it – whether the grammar, vocabulary and cultural aspects of it are hard or easy doesn’t matter so much as how hard/easy you think it is. When starting a new language it’s easy to get discouraged by all the hard aspects of it. But I say, ignore them, when you are starting. They shouldn’t have to drag you down! We should focus on the positive :)

It’s as if you were being introduced to a new friend, Joe. If, the moment you were introduced, Joe told you that that he farts when he’s nervous, he hates children and he is very opinionated, it may be very honest of him but you are going to have a hard time liking him, and may always dislike him because of these faults. But if the same Joe instead first told you that he has hiked jungles in Africa, works for NASA and shows how kind he is and how great his sense of humour is, then you will likely find him very interesting and a long lasting friendship may begin! You’ll accept his faults as all friends do.

When we introduce ourselves to people, we like to present our good side and save the “crazy” until when they get to know us a bit better. Why shouldn’t it be the same with languages? I’d prefer to think of a language as my good friend, rather than that annoying co-worker I’m forced to spend most of my day with, wouldn’t you?

But… learning a language is SO HARD

It’s easy to look at the hard parts of a language and think that it’s some cruel punishment, or even a brick wall to prevent us from ever being able to learn it. I very recently decided to start learning Czech, and some friends, advice forums and other websites were very quick to “warn” me of the following reasons why it’s one of the “hardest” languages to learn: it’s got SEVEN different possible declensions for every word (nominative, genitive, dative etc.), there are a lot of words with no vowels and pronunciation of consonant clusters is very hard for English speakers…, vocabulary is nothing like other languages in Western Europe, (a)no means yes, strange accents on letters, confusing word order, 3 word genders…, Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

This warning is not helpful. It’s not fair that everyone is bad-mouthing Joe behind his back without giving him a chance to stand up for himself. If you are going to learn the language anyway, then how is all of this discouragement going to help?

I say that we can ignore a lot of these things in the first stage of learning a language. If an English learner ignored subject/object differences and said “That letter is for I”, I could definitely forgive him if he has only been learning English for a few weeks! It’s a lot better being able to get his point across first, and iron out the edges when he’s more comfortable talking. If he were a perfectionist instead, he may say it correct after 6 months of study, but maybe he never even tried to just say it wrong and missed out on chances to actually communicate. After all, that’s what a language is all about, not perfect grammar and tables of rules and lists of vocabulary. It’s a means of talking to people!

Why it’s easy

So, what I do is look for reasons why a particular language is EASY. We’re going to have to work together anyway, so we may as well be friends! Apart from a couple of random hours over the last weekend, today is actually Day #1 of my Czech studies. I have an entire 5 or 6 days before I even arrive in Prague so there’s no rush to get into learning basic phrases just yet. My mission today was to very quickly browse my grammar book and find reasons why Czech is easy. I’ve gotten through about a third of that book (not studying; just casually browsing and flicking through pages) and this is what I’ve found already:

  • No definite/indefinite articles, i.e. no word for “a” or “the”; it’s implied from the context. This makes it a lot easier to construct a lot of basic sentences that are entirely correct without worrying about the gender of the noun (e.g. “The car is here” begs the question in French, Spanish, etc. whether to say el/le or la)
  • It’s a phonetic language; so when you see a word spelt you know exactly how to pronounce it, and when you hear it, you know how to spell it. Not quite as phonetic as Spanish, but more phonetic than French. And a hell of a lot more phonetic than English. You appreciate how messed up English is with phonetics when you try to read this aloud: “which rhymes with enough – though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?”
  • Conjugation that is oddly similar to Spanish/Italian at times: děláme, děláte; facciamo, fate (both “we do, you (pl.) do”, in Czech and Italian respectively”)
  • Although there are a lot less similar words with English and Czech than there are with English and Latin based or Germanic languages, there are still loads of words that you don’t need a dictionary to understand! A few I’ve seen so far include problém, systém, optimista (& optimisticky) kapitalista, (and loads more -ists), profesor, kilometr, mapa, doktor, telefon, and of course the word the Czechs came up with themselves, “robot”. I imagine there are plenty more to discover, which means that in a few days I could potentially learn maybe a thousand words with zero effort!

And while browsing I’ve unintentionally picked up some grammar and actually learned something other than what I’ve written above. This isn’t bad for my first day’s investigation! I realise that saying how “easy” it is may all sound quite naïve, overly optimistic and even arrogant at first, considering I have barely even started, but it doesn’t matter. I will continue to make excuses to make this seem like no work and to make it fun. Attitude is everything!

I plan to keep on looking and learning all the easy bits first and then working my way up. The advantage of this method is that by the time I get to the harder bits I’ll already recognise sentence structures, lots of basic words etc. and it will make sense based on what I’ve seen up to now (“Ah, so that‘s why they write it that way!”). Discovering these usually disliked rules, after you’ve already started learning the language and seen them applied a lot of times, is a whole different game and can actually be interesting and fun believe it or not!

So try this if you are starting a language; find the easy bits first and learn them. Jump from chapter 1 to chapter 20 in the grammar book if you are bored (they are rarely ordered by difficulty, but rather grammar category), learn lots of easy words before getting to the harder ones. Then you’ll actually have a structure to build the upcoming studies on. The traditional approach of systematically covering all grammatical concepts, or starting straight into learning basic phrases that most books and courses cover seem to miss out on this idea.

Let me know if you like this post! I’ll be giving such tips on this blog as regularly as I have the time to post, and will be giving particular reasons why I think you can find other specific languages to be easy at times. Comments appreciated :)

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  • http://palestina-en-praga.blogspot.com/ Alia

    I’m relocating to Prague in July, and just spent 2 months there from Feb-April. I’m eager to take a real class once I’m there.. but you can bet I’ll be following your blog to see how quickly I’ll be able to learn!! I am pretty good with languages, and speak a few already, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to speak decently in about 6 months, at least enough to get by. I’m not making any goals for 3 months since I’ll be there for at least 2 years :) Good luck!

    By the way, here’s an important word I learned there… pivo. :)

  • http://palestina-en-praga.blogspot.com Alia

    I’m relocating to Prague in July, and just spent 2 months there from Feb-April. I’m eager to take a real class once I’m there.. but you can bet I’ll be following your blog to see how quickly I’ll be able to learn!! I am pretty good with languages, and speak a few already, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to speak decently in about 6 months, at least enough to get by. I’m not making any goals for 3 months since I’ll be there for at least 2 years :) Good luck!

    By the way, here’s an important word I learned there… pivo. :)

  • http://blok.ficova.com/ sylva

    good luck with the Czech conjugation, declination, diminutives and the strange word order ;-) hope you find someone speaking real Czech in Prague (since the city is full of tourists and expats ;-)
    do come to Brno, you’ll like it!!

  • http://blok.ficova.com sylva

    good luck with the Czech conjugation, declination, diminutives and the strange word order ;-) hope you find someone speaking real Czech in Prague (since the city is full of tourists and expats ;-)
    do come to Brno, you’ll like it!!

  • Annabel

    benny i met you only briefly but to me the most striking feature of you was that you had zero inhibitions (without the help of alcohol like most!). I think your attitude towards yourself (not fearing judgement) is what makes you so good at learning languages. I know my biggest hurdle is getting over my own ego to start, to make mistakes, to be laughed at, and to accept the neccessity of making the conversartion of a 5 year old. so i think you are very right that your attitude is everything, not just towards the language but towards yourself too ;o)

  • Annabel

    benny i met you only briefly but to me the most striking feature of you was that you had zero inhibitions (without the help of alcohol like most!). I think your attitude towards yourself (not fearing judgement) is what makes you so good at learning languages. I know my biggest hurdle is getting over my own ego to start, to make mistakes, to be laughed at, and to accept the neccessity of making the conversartion of a 5 year old. so i think you are very right that your attitude is everything, not just towards the language but towards yourself too ;o)

  • Caora Rua

    Welcome to the wonderful world of declensions! :)

    Personally I enjoy a loooooooooot the process of reading a dictionary. Some dictionaries are more breathtaking than fictional books. I guess the words is what I love the most in any language: and the more queer the word is the more I like it. So my personal philosophy is that one must at first simply fall in love with some aspect of the language and then everything will be easier than ever!

  • Caora Rua

    Welcome to the wonderful world of declensions! :)

    Personally I enjoy a loooooooooot the process of reading a dictionary. Some dictionaries are more breathtaking than fictional books. I guess the words is what I love the most in any language: and the more queer the word is the more I like it. So my personal philosophy is that one must at first simply fall in love with some aspect of the language and then everything will be easier than ever!

  • Steve

    Absolutely, Benny. Attitude is all. If you expect it to be easy, it will be. And vice versa. Having learned French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Norwegian over the years, I can testify to attitude and motivation being the big factors, not some mythical “being good at languages.”

    Only know good morning (dobre den) and good afternoon (dobre rana) … and even those I’m not too sure of … but Prague is a great city, as you’ll have realized. Lucky sod!

    Steve

  • Steve

    Absolutely, Benny. Attitude is all. If you expect it to be easy, it will be. And vice versa. Having learned French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Norwegian over the years, I can testify to attitude and motivation being the big factors, not some mythical “being good at languages.”

    Only know good morning (dobre den) and good afternoon (dobre rana) … and even those I’m not too sure of … but Prague is a great city, as you’ll have realized. Lucky sod!

    Steve

  • Jen

    There ARE articles actually – TEN, TA and TO – it’s a common misconception. They’re aren’t used as commonly as in English (or other languages) though…

    Good luck with your studies – I’ve been speaking Czech for 17 years and finally feel pretty good with it – have returned to Czech lessons for improving my writing skills :)

    • Rene

      Jen,
      TEN, TA, TO are actually “demonstrative pronouns” (ukazovací pronomina).
      Ten stůl = this table, to auto = this car
      They are used mostly:
      1. to point [ta kniha je moje: this book is mine (pointing)]
      2. to tell one object apart from another. [tohle auto je modré, tamto je černý = this car is blue, that one is black]

      Sometimes they are translated into English as THE, and this creates the misconception that Czech has definite articles…

      In English we usually go through these stages: indefinite, demonstrative, definite. Ex: I have a book (indefinite). This is my book (demonstrative), from now on we can say “the book” to refer to this specific book.

      Czech is simpler: mám kniha; ta kniha je moje (demonstrative to identify it), but now that the book has been identified, you say “kniha je dobrá” (no definite article used here).

  • Jen

    There ARE articles actually – TEN, TA and TO – it’s a common misconception. They’re aren’t used as commonly as in English (or other languages) though…

    Good luck with your studies – I’ve been speaking Czech for 17 years and finally feel pretty good with it – have returned to Czech lessons for improving my writing skills :)

    • Rene

      Jen,
      TEN, TA, TO are actually “demonstrative pronouns” (ukazovací pronomina).
      Ten stůl = this table, to auto = this car
      They are used mostly:
      1. to point [ta kniha je moje: this book is mine (pointing)]
      2. to tell one object apart from another. [tohle auto je modré, tamto je černý = this car is blue, that one is black]

      Sometimes they are translated into English as THE, and this creates the misconception that Czech has definite articles…

      In English we usually go through these stages: indefinite, demonstrative, definite. Ex: I have a book (indefinite). This is my book (demonstrative), from now on we can say “the book” to refer to this specific book.

      Czech is simpler: mám kniha; ta kniha je moje (demonstrative to identify it), but now that the book has been identified, you say “kniha je dobrá” (no definite article used here).

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

    Wow!! Thanks for all the comments everyone :D This post has already gotten 300 views since yesterday!! Not bad for my second post :P I have a lot of ideas for topics I’d like to talk about, so do check back and subscribe to see what I have to say :)
    BTW, my RSS feed is currently only giving a summary of the post (with the title link clicking back into this site), sorry about that, I will fix it soon and you can read everything without even needing to come to the site!
    @Alia. There are always others on the same mission – it’s great to be able to swap stories! I’ll be putting my progress on these posts, but do make sure to let us know how you are progressing and share any tips with us :)
    @Sylva. I will definitely be going to Brno! But I plan to speak Czech for the whole visit there (no matter how frustrating it is for me or those who have to listen to me :P ) so it will likely be later in the summer. See you then :)
    @Annabel. Awww, thanks for the sweet words!! :) In fact, your comment has inspired me for another topic that I will discuss soon here!
    @Caora Rua. Passion for the language is definitely the most important thing – I fell in love with learning languages a long time ago and I hope to spark that same interest in my readers!
    @Steve. Thanks for confirming what I am saying!! I will always remind people that I am not good at languages, it’s just the attitude and methods I’ve picked up in recent years that anyone can apply. I haven’t arrived in Prague yet actually! Monday will be the first time I’ve ever even been there!!
    @Jen. Thanks for your comment! I didn’t say there were no articles though. Just definite (the) and indefinite (a). Obviously you know way more Czech than I do; I was just repeating what my grammar book told me. But aren’t “ten, ta, to” actually demonstratives (this and that)? Perhaps you can use them in situations where you would say “the” in English? Anyway, my point was that you don’t need to always say them like in the example I gave, so that the gender they represent is one less problem to worry about.
    Make sure to correct me when I make statements like that though! Otherwise I won’t learn! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

    Wow!! Thanks for all the comments everyone :D This post has already gotten 300 views since yesterday!! Not bad for my second post :P I have a lot of ideas for topics I’d like to talk about, so do check back and subscribe to see what I have to say :)
    BTW, my RSS feed is currently only giving a summary of the post (with the title link clicking back into this site), sorry about that, I will fix it soon and you can read everything without even needing to come to the site!
    @Alia. There are always others on the same mission – it’s great to be able to swap stories! I’ll be putting my progress on these posts, but do make sure to let us know how you are progressing and share any tips with us :)
    @Sylva. I will definitely be going to Brno! But I plan to speak Czech for the whole visit there (no matter how frustrating it is for me or those who have to listen to me :P ) so it will likely be later in the summer. See you then :)
    @Annabel. Awww, thanks for the sweet words!! :) In fact, your comment has inspired me for another topic that I will discuss soon here!
    @Caora Rua. Passion for the language is definitely the most important thing – I fell in love with learning languages a long time ago and I hope to spark that same interest in my readers!
    @Steve. Thanks for confirming what I am saying!! I will always remind people that I am not good at languages, it’s just the attitude and methods I’ve picked up in recent years that anyone can apply. I haven’t arrived in Prague yet actually! Monday will be the first time I’ve ever even been there!!
    @Jen. Thanks for your comment! I didn’t say there were no articles though. Just definite (the) and indefinite (a). Obviously you know way more Czech than I do; I was just repeating what my grammar book told me. But aren’t “ten, ta, to” actually demonstratives (this and that)? Perhaps you can use them in situations where you would say “the” in English? Anyway, my point was that you don’t need to always say them like in the example I gave, so that the gender they represent is one less problem to worry about.
    Make sure to correct me when I make statements like that though! Otherwise I won’t learn! :)

  • cestina

    Best of luck! Zero inhibition is exactly right when learning a language – never be afraid of making a fool of yourself, just get in there and talk, regardless of genders, word endings, word order (though I find that very easy in Czech actually).

    Czech pronunciation is dead easy, especially compared with English, once you have got over the idea that you need vowels in a word.

    You clearly have it sussed, I look forward to watching your progress – I hope the full-time job is with Czechs not expats. Otherwise head out to a village where no one speaks any English…..

  • cestina

    Best of luck! Zero inhibition is exactly right when learning a language – never be afraid of making a fool of yourself, just get in there and talk, regardless of genders, word endings, word order (though I find that very easy in Czech actually).

    Czech pronunciation is dead easy, especially compared with English, once you have got over the idea that you need vowels in a word.

    You clearly have it sussed, I look forward to watching your progress – I hope the full-time job is with Czechs not expats. Otherwise head out to a village where no one speaks any English…..

  • maxime

    Benny, could who tell us more about the book you use and why you chose it ? Do you plan to also use other methods as movies or music to get used to the language ?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      I am using “Czech, an essential grammar – by James Naughton“. I chose it based on reviews from several websites and I am extremely pleased with it!! It is very in-depth and yet is straightforward. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has already learned languages and is familiar with the basic grammatical terminology. It may not be so interesting to those who need daily examples and basic phrases though. (That’s why I combine it with my phrase book).
      I’ll be using a lot of methods, including music :D All will be shared on the blog!

  • maxime

    Benny, could who tell us more about the book you use and why you chose it ? Do you plan to also use other methods as movies or music to get used to the language ?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      I am using “Czech, an essential grammar – by James Naughton“. I chose it based on reviews from several websites and I am extremely pleased with it!! It is very in-depth and yet is straightforward. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has already learned languages and is familiar with the basic grammatical terminology. It may not be so interesting to those who need daily examples and basic phrases though. (That’s why I combine it with my phrase book).
      I’ll be using a lot of methods, including music :D All will be shared on the blog!

  • http://blok.ficova.com/ sylva

    well, if you do come to Brno, you’ll definitely have to speak Czech if I’m around! ;-)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      Deal! :D

  • http://blok.ficova.com sylva

    well, if you do come to Brno, you’ll definitely have to speak Czech if I’m around! ;-)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      Deal! :D

  • cestina

    Instead of “Have a nice day/evening/etc” you could try “Hezky vikend!” from Thurs onwards:-)

  • cestina

    Instead of “Have a nice day/evening/etc” you could try “Hezky vikend!” from Thurs onwards:-)

  • Miguel

    I hope to join you on this goal , I’m also egar to move to Praha soon and I expect that with your help I can improve very mushmy Czech..

    Miguel

  • Miguel

    I hope to join you on this goal , I’m also egar to move to Praha soon and I expect that with your help I can improve very mushmy Czech..

    Miguel

  • http://twitter.com/chinaquest Alvin

    I am starting to study Mandarin, and I have to say I agree with this. I have studied Latin, German and Spanish previously (sadly forgotten most of all of them). I have to say what I find EASY so far about Mandarin is the lack of verb conjugations and adjective/adverb declensions. I was going through some old college notebooks recently, and found an entire spiral dedicated to just repeatedly writing out Latin adjectives over and over. Now THAT was boring work! OTOH, it gave me quite a basis that I can build on to learn pretty much any language I want.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1088112548 Charlene Hall-Savard

      neat story Alvin.I have been toying with the idea of learning Chinese too.I took the family to Peru for 3 months last year to learn Spanish and was thinking to go back to a Spanish country to improve our Spanish but am now wondering if we should just go to another country and give it a whirl

  • http://jonnyontheroad.blogspot.com/ jonny

    excellent post. after moving to korea i found that many expats who live here fail to pick up the language, many for lack of trying. they always have an excuse handy; usually “it's too hard!” it is hard not to fall into that trap. but i find your advice is spot-on. looking for the positives in any language (or situation!) is setting yourself up for success.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Jonny – glad you agree!

  • Daniel N.

    “Conjugation that is oddly similar to Spanish/Italian”

    Actually there are more grammar similarities between Slavic and “Latin” (actually, Romance) languages. Use of reflexive se, word order, clitics, dative…

  • Vix

    Very inspiring! I am off to Austria to teach English, and have always wanted to learn another language. My story of learning German is SO similar to yours! I learned it for five years in school and could only manage a few basic phrases and random words – WITHOUT the genders! I started studying it again for Austria and felt so depressed over how ‘hard’ it is, and after reading your stories about how you have forced yourself to speak it I thought I would give it a shot! This article really hits the nail on the head though. The right attitude is half the battle. Thanks for the advice, I’ll let you know how I get on!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Please do! Thanks for reading ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Please do! Thanks for reading ;)

  • http://profiles.google.com/zajac.barbara1 Barbara Zając

     It’s very important to have a positive attitude. I’d like to link your post to my post about language learning. I really happy to have come across your blog, it’ll be great to share it further.

    English Speaking Zone

  • http://www.facebook.com/rickcjlove Rick Love

    I’ve been trying to learn Kiikaonde (Zambia) for 4 years with very slow progress. Your site is inspiring has helped give me a new start.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1088112548 Charlene Hall-Savard

    this is a great post! I had the same *euruka* moment when I realised the grammar *rule* AFTER chattering away with natives in Peru!

  • puni

    FEELING VERY CONFIDENT ……………AFTER READING UR POST .I LIKE IT

  • sai

    hey, i’m 14 and would like to learn Spanish. I have NO idea where on earth to start..I also want to learn tagalog (the filipino language) as my mother speaks it and I have heard it was similar to Spanish. do you have any idea where I should start? Thank you :)

  • Selman Arisoy

    yay! looks like I am the first one to notice this but, may I wonder why – since you are an english speaker – you use that spanish-turkish dictionary which I immediately recognized at the very first glance without even reading what’s written on the cover as it is from a widely common dictionary brand here in Turkey? I’m guessing that you were in Turkey or what? That picture made my day :)

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