Tips for Learning Non-European Languages

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Tips for Learning Non-European Languages

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Now that the summer has wrapped up, it's time to dive back into language learning, and let's start with some thoughts on non-European languages! For that, my hyperpolyglot friend Judith Meyer is back and has written up this excellent post for us.

I met in Esperanto gatherings and always see her busy answering Quora questions, writing new language learning books, blogging and doing many many things to help the language learning community grow.

Right now her passion is to launch LearnYu – a free Chinese learning interface, and she'd appreciate any help people can give with that Indiegogo campaign. Over to you Judith!

After learning some Spanish and dabbling in Esperanto, you probably feel ready to tackle your long-term love, Japanese/Chinese/Arabic/Hebrew, etc.

A lot of people are attracted to these more exotic languages, which evoke pictures of foreign lands and fascinating cultures. I have studied Chinese, Swahili, Arabic, Japanese and Indonesian, to varying degrees, and I'm here to give you some tips, because studying these is not quite the same as studying a European language.

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Beautify the Writing Experience

For me, Chinese characters were the biggest reason to learn Chinese. They seemed so beautiful and full of secrets! (Having learned 3500 characters, I can tell you that you won't be disappointed.)  If you are planning to learn a language that uses another writing system, take the time to research it and appreciate the beauty.

In particular, look into different writing styles and fonts. Some styles are more curvy, some have harder edges – whatever your preference, find one that you love looking at and then make it your computer's default font for the language and use it when copying stuff into your exercise book as well.

There are some ways to learn a foreign script that are easier than others (look into my ideas for Korean, Arabic, and Greek for that), but you will still have to spend more time copying out words than if you were learning a European language. At those times, loving the look of your new language's writing system can make all the difference between an hour spent copying stupid squiggles and an hour spent tracing a work of art. I have come to treat copying Chinese as a kind of meditation, a way to relax after exhausting work.

Enjoy Unusual Grammar

Asian languages tend to be much easier in terms of grammar than languages like German or Russian. There is much less to memorize. You do have to keep a particularly open mind though. A lot of things will work differently than you expected them to, based on your experience with European languages.

For example, you may be looking at a language where singular/plural is not specified because people didn't think it important to know if there's one enraged bull charging at you or several. Exotic grammar can also be quite entertaining, for example the use of doubled words:
Děng = Wait (Chinese)
Děngděng = Wait a bit
Burung = Bird (Indonesian)
Burung-burung = Birds
Or the way that Swahili adjusts the prefixes of many types of words to match each other, so you might get a sentence like Watoto wadogo watiga wanalala (Three little kids are sleeping). Is it irreverent to consider these grammar features ‘entertaining'? Maybe, but I believe that a bit of irreverence will go a long way towards making grammar easier to remember.

Use Strategies for Vocabulary-Learning

When I first started to study non-European languages, the biggest adjustment I had to make was in learning vocabulary. For French, Latin, even Modern Greek, Lithuanian and other languages, it had been enough to test myself on production (seeing an English word and remembering the foreign equivalent). Recognition ability (seeing a foreign word and remembering the meaning) would come automatically.

In learning Chinese, I first encountered the problem that I could use words that I couldn't later recognize if someone else used them. This problem was not particular to Chinese, since I had the same issue with Swahili and other languages later. Once I started testing myself in both directions, my abilities sky-rocketed.

Another issue is that European languages continually get easier as you progress. The beginner vocabulary is often distinct and the higher-level words are often similar:

(compare:) fraternalfraternelfraternofraternalbrüderlichadelfikós

At the higher levels, you are tapping into a common European vocabulary. This means that in many European languages, news articles will be easier to read than children's books, if you're a foreigner and often read news articles in your native language.

Depending on the language, non-European languages may surprise you with some European vocabulary at the higher level (Indonesian is an extreme case), but mostly you don't get this benefit. Comparing Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Swahili and Indonesian:

Communismgòngchǎn zhǔyìkyousan shugishuyu3íyyaukomunistikomunisme
theoreticallǐlùn derirontekinadhariykinadhariateoritis

You see that sometimes Arabic and Swahili are close, sometimes Swahili and Indonesian are close, sometimes there are some European roots thrown in, but there will still be many words that are hard to peg. This means that you need to have a strategy in place for remembering them.

The key to remembering is making a lot of connections in your brain. If you think of your memory as a net where each word is a knot, the knot is only as firmly attached as there are links going to it. If there is only one link, the knot is drooping, hanging dangerously over the precipice. The brain regularly randomly cuts links, so you have to make many links in order not to risk losing some parts entirely.

For really foreign words like the above, you cannot trace them to European words with the same meaning, but you could use the following tricks for memorization:

  • Trace them to related words in the same language, create word fields, e. g. Indonesian pekerjaan (work) is related to bekerja (to work), pekerja (worker), kerjasama (collaboration) and so on.
  • Link them to the parts that they are made of – understanding this is particularly useful when studying Chinese or Japanese words. For example, the Chinese and Japanese words for Communism translates to “together-produce ideology”. That's much easier to remember than gòngchǎn zhǔyì.
  • Produce mental imagery that link the words to images, sounds, smells, situations.
  • Relate them to similar words in other languages, even if they are unrelated, e. g. in Finnish, raha means money, and I remembered it because in Swahili, raha means joy.

Your mnemonics don't have to be perfect either. If you can't find any word that sounds remotely similar to shuyu3íyya, it's fine if you link just shuyu to English “shoo you” – if you remember as much as shuyu, your brain will usually supply the rest of the word on its own. For long, foreign-sounding words like this, having a mnemonic for the first two syllables or even just the first syllable is often enough.

Develop Culture and Expression

When progressing towards a higher level, you also need cultural knowledge in order to understand texts and movies or in order not to make a faux pas in conversation. For European languages, this is comparatively easy – a lot of current events, history, customs, religion, mythology are shared knowledge between our cultures. Even the most popular movies and books of another European country are often somewhat known abroad.

When working on a non-European language, you generally lack a lot of that cultural knowledge and it may become a stumbling block to your mastery of the language, so be sure to plan in some cultural sessions and get an early start on all the things that fascinate you about the country.

If you watch cultural shows in your target language (with subtitles), you have the added benefit of getting more exposure to your target language. I found that getting enough exposure is much more important in non-European languages than in European ones, because the way people phrase things is very different from what you'd expect.

In European languages, you can usually get away with translating whatever you wanted to say word-for-word into your target language, with only minor adjustments, but non-European languages often have very different ways of expression. If you listen carefully, you'll find that common situations, which you thought boring and unambiguous, are experienced differently in different languages. Really amazing insights there!


Benny often says that the search for the perfect book is a waste of effort, that you can study with any materials, and I do agree. Still, some materials are so much fun to use that I cannot but recommend them:

GLOSS, countless multimedia lessons for many languages
TEDx, watch local TED talks in any language, the most modern Arabic course on the net
Let's Learn Japanese, great video-based Japanese course for absolute beginners
Erin's Challenge, fun Japanese course for upper beginners

Actually I have been dismayed at the state of online Chinese teaching. The CCTV courses are big-budget and fun, but they are video only, which means that you only listen and never get to do any exercises or say anything in the language unless you create such opportunities.

I have been working on a site that teaches conversational Chinese with a very active approach, where you get to personally use the language a lot and apply it in conversation with the computer. The site is also intelligent in that it can tell which words you have trouble with and figure out which exercises will be the optimal practice for you.

I call this site LearnYu. If you want to be among the first to get to use LearnYu, or get more advice on learning Chinese and other foreign languages, check out my Indiegogo campaign.

Whichever method you choose, learning a non-European language is very rewarding and I can recommend it to everyone. Good luck with your studies!

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