How Raymond learns languages (and why it’s not working)

Whenever I wander into the subject of languages here, a commenter will ask me what my language-acquisition technique is. I have refrained from describing it since it is very peculiar to my way of learning, and I doubt it will work for most people. But since people seem to be interested, here it is.

I like to learn a language by learning its rules first, then converting the rules to instinct while picking up vocabulary. This is backwards from how children learn a language, which is entirely instinctual and heavy on vocabulary acquisition with the rules coming only much later when they reach school and need to fine-tune their skills.

First, sign up for a language class. In addition to providing a structured environment for learning, it'll be the only place to get pronunciation practice without having to impose on friends and relatives. It also forces you to keep up. You might skip a week if you're just meeting with a friend, but you're not going to skip a week if you are attending a class, because the class is just going to keep going without you.

Next, get a pocket grammar book. I picked up my Swedish grammar book for $2 at a used bookstore. It's called Simplified Swedish Grammar by Edwin J. Vickner, published by Augustana Book Concern in 1934. (That's right, 1934. Which means that it covers aspects of Swedish grammar that are now obsolete, such as plural forms of verbs like "Vi skrevo".) Read the grammar book and try to digest it. You don't have to get every last detail, but you should at least get the basic structure of the language. Don't worry so much about the fine points of adjective and verb endings, but do know how the past tense is formed, and learn the structural elements of the language like word order, prepositions, and conjunctions. The goal here is to learn enough so you can follow a sentence even if you don't know what all of the words mean.

After a few weeks of the language class, you'll have a rough feel for the language. Get some children's books and try to work your way through them.

Find the news for dummies and listen to it every day. It will be rough going at first. I remember when I started listening to Klartext, I had to concentrate really hard to understand just fragments of the first news story, at which point I was too tired to deal with the rest of the program. I would still listen to it, though, just to get a sense for the flow of the language, even though I wasn't trying to understand what they were saying. (Note: Proceeding with this step too soon will not accomplish anything. All you'll hear is gibberish.) Knowing the basic structure of the language will make it easier to understand the news for dummies. You can get by without the right adjective endings, but if you can't find the verb in a sentence, you're going to be in trouble.

If you can find a transcript of the news for dummies, use it. It will make it much easier to follow along (assuming a language whose spelling is phonetic or nearly so), and it will also help train your ear to recognize the language as it is actually spoken, as opposed to how it is officially spoken, because there are many pronunciation rules that are simply invisible to native speakers. (For example, officially, the English word "what" has a "t" at the end, but in practice, the "t" often turns into a "d" or a glottal stop or vanishes entirely. Meanwhile, the leading consonant is often pronounced as a "w" instead of a "wh". As another example, the word "news" can be pronounced as "nooz" or "nyooz" or "neeooz", and most native speakers don't even realize that there's a difference.)

As you become more comfortable with the sound of the language, go back and re-read the grammar points you skipped over, like the adjective endings. Learn the charts and listen for them in the news for dummies. Hopefully the audio reinforcement will help you develop an ear for them and eventually be able to use them properly without having to consciously refer to those charts. The goal is not to rely on the charts but rather to say the right thing because that's how you've always heard it said. But the charts are there when your instinct fails you.

Listening is also the only way you will pick up "unwritten rules" such as the motion of weak pronouns in Swedish and German, which I picked up a sense for despite it being covered by no grammar book I own. (Though it is covered by the amazingly detailed Igloo Swedish Grammar page where it is given the name Long Object Shift.)

You should also read the news. (This was a lot harder to find back in the pre-Internet days, but now it's ridiculously easy.) Reading is easier than listening in many respects, because you can read as slowly as you want, and all the word endings are right there in front of you. No matter how many different ways there are of saying "what", there is only one way of spelling it. Be careful, however, because the language of the news is typically more formal than everyday conversation. (And the language of headlines is even stranger. In English, German, and Swedish, for example, headlines tend to omit articles and helping verbs. "Ball hit into pond" is a valid headline but an awful English sentence.)

If you do all this, you'll be far ahead of the class you signed up for. By the time they start learning noun plurals, you've already internalized the rules for formation of the past tense of regular verbs. (But still show up for class, for you can use the class to fill in gaps in your knowledge.)

Anyway, that's how I taught myself Swedish in six months. Maybe it'll work for you, but probably not.

Actually, I'm having much difficulty applying this technique to Mandarin Chinese because the language doesn't fall into the neat grammatical patterns of Western languages. I have yet to find a Chinese grammar book that takes a structural approach. I also haven't been able to find Mandarin Chinese news for dummies. I vaguely recall that VOA or some similar organization had a special version of the news in Mandarin Chinese, not for Chinese listeners, but for American servicemen who are studying Mandarin Chinese. But I can't find it.

And I don't get much help from my parents. I remember asking my mother a question about word order, and she said, "Oh, there aren't any rules like that. You just say what makes sense." Well, yeah, you say what makes sense assuming you already know the language...

I replied, "Oh, so I can say this," and spoke a sentence where I used both a time and place, and I think I put the time first.

"Oh, no, you have to say it this way," and she restated the sentence with the place first.

"Ah, so there are rules on word order after all," I pointed out.

"Oh, yeah, I guess so. But I don't know what they are."

Native speakers are not always the best choice for learning the grammar of a language because they don't understand their language formally, only instinctively. Consider the four sentences below.

I took the ball home. I took it home.
I took home the ball. I took home it.

That last box is crossed out because "it" is acting as a weak pronoun and must remain close to the verb. Good luck finding a native English speaker who can explain weak pronouns. (Heck, good luck finding one who can explain what a finite verb is!)

On other language topics:

Commenter Michael Puff notes that in Germany, as a rule, hotel employees should speak English. While they may be true in general, the off-hours staff at the small hotel I stayed at in Munich a few years ago were clearly not comfortable with English. They seemed relieved that I was able to speak with them in (bad) German. And my friend who went on a vacation in Germany thought Michael's remark was just a cruel joke, for in her experience, practically nobody spoke English, not even in the cities. (She said that the hotel staff could usually speak "hotel English".)

One of the places my friend and her husband visited during their stay in Munich was Das Deutsche Museum. I warned them about the mining exhibit (English), 900 meters of more than you really wanted to know about mining. I remember being absolutely drained by the experience, and I asked my friend what she thought. "It wasn't that bad. It goes a lot faster if you can't read German."

Andreas Johansson points out that in Amsterdam, people will switch to English as soon as they recognize that you aren't Dutch. A different friend of mine lived in the Netherlands for a while and they way he described it, people "autodetected" the accent and instantly switched to English. His solution? Buy a one-way train ticket to a small town, have lunch there, explore the local attractions (maybe a small museum or something), then buy a return ticket. In the small towns, people are less likely to speak English, which forced my friend to carry out these simple transactions (ordering lunch, taking a museum tour, buying a train ticket) in Dutch.

I don't like to talk about stuff like my family's native language because it leads to additions in Wikipedia that give it a creepy stalker-like feel. "He can often be found in the Tully's on 152nd St, typically on Wednesdays around 8pm, enjoying a venti no-whip mocha with vanilla. He tends to sit at the table near the fireplace facing away from the door."

Note also that the picture of me in the Wikipedia article claims "The copyright holder allows anyone to use it for any purpose," and "Free to use as per". I don't know how they came to that conclusion, because if you actually read the terms of use, you'll see that it says that it is permissible to use Documents "provided that (1) the below copyright notice appears in all copies" (no such copyright notice appears in the Wikipedia entry), and "(2) use of such Documents from the Services ... will not be copied or posted on any network computer or broadcast in any media" (I think Wikipedia counts as "posted on a network computer"). And then there's the clause, "No logo, graphic, sound or image from any Microsoft Web site may be copied or retransmitted unless expressly permitted by Microsoft."

Or maybe terms of use don't apply to Wikipedia.

Comments (54)
  1. Toto says:

    Voice of America News ( has a language selection dropdown that contains Mandarin.  Once there many of the stories have an audio link and there is an audio/visual section.  Is this not what you want?

    [Those stories are for native speakers of Chinese, not for students. (I.e., the audience is smart people, not dummies.) -Raymond]
  2. Bob says:

    Google is your friend… “learn mandarin chinese”

    In this case you’ll wade through a lot more crud if you try Live.

    [I tried that, but none of them gave me the news in Mandarin spoken slowly. Lots of online lessons, none of which take a structured grammatical approach, not that I expect a comprehensive language class available online anyway. -Raymond]
  3. A. Skrobov says:

    It was me to upload your picture to Wikipedia. See the detailed usage rationale at

    The portion of the terms of use that you cited applies just to the “Documents (such as white papers, press releases, datasheets and FAQs)”, of which itself holds the copyright; this portion doesn’t apply to individual users’ contributions.

    [Your explanation just supports my point. The picture did not come from an individual user’s contribution. It was part of a Channel9 video, to which Channel9 owns the copyright. Therefore, it is a “Document” and not a “Submission”.

    I am not going to edit my own Wikipedia entry. People get in trouble for doing that. -Raymond]

  4. Rick C says:

    Raymond, you can always modify the wikipedia article yourself and take away the picture if it violates the TOU.  (And maybe add a comment explaining why you’ve done it, too, in the hope (probably forlorn) that people would honor your change.)

    [Not touching it. People who edit their Wikipedia entries get found out and written about, plus it’s just blatantly egotistical, like starting your own fan club. -Raymond]
  5. Neal says:

    I poke around on and  Both offer lots of audio and transcripts.

  6. Sino-angle says:

    I find listening to Chinese radio stations (such as and Chinese music whenever I can, whether the mornings or evenings or even at lunchbreak helps hugely. They may not have transcripts but once you recognize a particular song and hear it over and over again, the grammer, word order and subtleties of the language eventually get drummed into you.

    Keeping the feel and environment of the language you’re learning is helpful and streaming radio is a great way of doing it.

  7. JS Bangs says:

    <blockquote>This is backwards from how children learn a language, which is entirely instinctual and heavy on vocabulary acquisition with the rules coming only much later when they reach school and need to fine-tune their skills.</blockquote>

    This isn’t quite true. Yes, children don’t learn idiotic "rules" like "Don’t split infinitives" until misguided English teachers tell them, but the actual productive rules of the language are acquired early and only lag slightly behind vocabulary acquisition.

    Raymond, your language acquisition strategy sounds a lot like mine. So far I’ve successfully taken on Romanian and Greek, although I’ve failed at two different attempts at Hebrew. I’m thinking about starting Japanese, too.

  8. EM says:

    Mandarin word order feels a lot more flexible to than in other languages.  But I think it may also be the western-ness seeping across the languages I learn.  For example, id you know English has a crazy categorical adjective order?  (  I wonder if my internalized understanding of that helps me in studying German.  (And I think the placement of time in Mandarin is a similar sort of thing.  There’s a place it goes, but it’s not a formalized rule.)

  9. A. Skrobov says:

    [Your explanation just supports my point. The picture did not come from an individual user’s contribution. It was part of a Channel9 video, to which Channel9 owns the copyright. Therefore, it is a “Document” and not a “Submission”. -Raymond]

    The terms of use say: “However, by posting, uploading, inputting, providing or submitting (“Posting”) your Submission …”

    The page containing the original video says: “Posted by scobleizer”

    So, if it’s Posted, then it must be a Submission.

    Nowhere does that page says that Channel9 owns the copyright to the video. So, I decided that Robert Scoble was acting on behalf of his own, rather than on behalf of Channel9.

    [The legal definitions in the terms of use apply to the terms of use, not to the entire site. The word “Posted” in “Posted by scobleizer” was not used in the legal sense. I can’t believe I had to write that. -Raymond]
  10. Michael says:

    The Wikipedia photo has been marked as a potential copyright violation now.

  11. Nanashi says:

    Image licenses are done by users on Wikipedia and as a result the chance of it being remotely correct is quite low. Someone has already tagged the image as potentially problematic, but the bureaucracy takes time.  

    On the note of image credits, Wikipedia has the idea that as long as it is on the image description page everything is fine.  You will almost never see a cutline listing the image’s copyright holder, even for so called "free" images that require attribution.  The only two that come to mind off hand are on [[Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima]] and [[Chip Berlet]]. (That isn’t to say that there are not more, but those are the only that I can think of off-hand that there has been any strife over.)

    If there are any problems with the article though, please feel free to leave a note on the talk page.  That rarely ends up badly.

  12. Joseph Bruno says:

    Is Mandarin Chinese the first really foreign (ie. non-Indo-European) language that you’ve tried learning? Or have you cut your teeth on Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Turkish, or Maltese already?

    A lot of “why it isn’t working” may be because the languages you’ve learnt so far aren’t really that foreign.

    [It’s the first non-Indo-European language that I’ve tried learning as an adult. I’m sure that’s part of it. -Raymond]
  13. Jamie Gordon says:

    I’m trying to learn Spanish, but all I can say so far is "Hola Mundo" :(

  14. Sheva says:

    Raymond, glad to see that you plan to take on the world’s most compicated language aka Chinese:) I think the biggest obstacle for those foreigners who plan to learn Chinese is that grammar, Chinese really has a very flexible grammers, and the single Chinese word can be used in different situation with quite different meanings, and generally speaking the words ordering of Chinese question sentences are just opposite to those in English, but most of the normal sentences are still quite similar to those used in English, so you should feel much better when you learning the making of Chinese sentences:)

    Good Luck With Your Language Learning!


  15. A. Skrobov says:

    An anonymous person, likely coming from this blog, left a comment in Wikipedia saying that because Scoble worked for MS at the time he posted the video, MS automatically gets the copyright to it.

    This is ridiculous.

    Raymond Chen works for MS, too. Does this give MS the copyright to his blog?

    Does my employer get the copyright to this my comment I’m posting?

    [Scoble filmed the video as part of his job at Channel9 so obviously Microsoft owns the copyright. And yes, Microsoft owns the copyright on this blog because Microsoft owns everything computer-related that I do. -Raymond]
  16. ATZ Man says:

    Scoble was actually doing the specific duties of his job when he posted video to Channel 9. (IANAL)

    These blogs do not amount to anything like that.

  17. A Tykhyy says:

    Raymond, you essentially described how I picked up rudimentary Japanese from a lot of grammar, childrens’ stories and anime. Your process seems the most natural one for a programmer.

  18. James Day says:

    Raymond, for anyone at Wikipedia not just being lazy there is an easy alternative approach to try: do you have a photo of yourself that you’re willing to license suitably for inclusion?

    Nanashi, sadly you’re right that few images contain a photo attribution in the caption. I’d also like to see a note of the license status. I’ve advocated both.

    [I make a point of not getting involved with Wikipedia. It strikes me as wrong that one private organization can unilaterally create an obligation on another. -Raymond]
  19. Jono says:

    That was really cool to read … You’re not alone Raymond, that’s exactly how I learn languages (well, a language).  When I was learning German I had to really work for the vocabulary but the grammatical rules stuck with me right away.  Even now having not spoken the language for five or six years, I can still translate just about anything into a correct (or nearly so) sentence structure.  I just have to leave blanks for most of the words.

  20. Steve says:

    Certainly someone reading this blog has enough artistic talent to create a caricature of Raymond using the image posted on Wikipedia coupled with the various glimpses of his mannerisms (was it effeminate hands?) and his personality we have  seen here :)

  21. James Day says:

    Raymond, obviously Microsoft owns the copyright, since it’s a work for hire. What’s less obvious is whether the videographer then uploaded the image with the posting tag as part of his job, identifying it as one Microsoft intended to be covered by the license for postings.

    You really did have to write that it wasn’t intended to be considered covered by the postings part of the license because that’s what people looking for license information end up having to go by, unless they actually ask, having first observed that it does appear to be licensed for general redistribution. Of course, general knowledge of site licenses and context should have indicated that it wasn’t intended to apply but it’s likely that both you and I know this better than the average Wikipedia contributor.

    Strange concept, that asking thing. :)

    What obligation creation are you referring to? The watch over your own biography for attacks and mistakes sort?

    [Right. If I got involved, then I would have the additional responsibility of policing my own entry. I have enough responsibilities as it is; I don’t want more. -Raymond]
  22. Alex L says:

    In case the URL doesn’t work: Succses with Chinese by Swihart

    Geared for Americans to learn Chinese. Covers aspects like tone shifts due to ordering, etc. Perhaps not what you’re looking for, but perhaps the publisher has books geared towards what you want?

  23. Michael Puff says:

    I think I have to add something to my previouse statement.

    They people that are working in the hotel industry and that have learned their profession should speak English. Because it is an important subject at their school where they learn their profession.

    At night time you might have met temporary personnel when you stayed at the hotel. And the temporary personnel wasn’t that well educated maybe.

    And it depends of course of the age of the people. Don’t expect a sixty year old hotel employee to speak English.

    To sum it up: Usually better educated people, that attended school in the seventies and eighties should speak and understand English here in Germany.

    Even a pupil that leaves school after nine years, has at least learned English for four years. I have been learning English for nine years for example. And at grammar school it was even one of my major subjects. My other one was Biology. ;)

  24. Dean Harding says:

    Scoble was actually doing the specific duties of his job when he

    posted video to Channel 9. (IANAL)


    These blogs do not amount to anything like that.

    Doesn’t matter. Most employers (at least, most employers that employ programmers) require that you sign an agreement that basically states that anything you do on a computer is theirs. That means the side project you work on in your spare time technically belongs to your company. Most of the time, the agreement even lasts AFTER YOU NO LONGER WORK AT THE COMPANY (at least for 6-12 months or so after).

    Usually, though, it’s not enforced in practise. But sometimes it is (here’s a pretty famous one:

    IANAL, either, though…

  25. Claw says:


    If you’re looking for a structured approach to grammar, I highly recommend the Routledge Grammar series.  This book has been the most thorough book on Mandarin grammar I have encountered so far:

    They have grammar books for other languages as well, and the ones I’ve encountered have all been pretty good in my opinion.

  26. Dewi Morgan says:

    IANAL, and I’m not even American. But as I understand it, in the US there are two ways you can create a Copyrightable Work. The first is to create it for yourself, and retain the Copyright. The other is to create it as a "Work for Hire", in which case the copyright for the work goes to the person who commissioned the work, not the one who made it. "Work for Hire" is the norm in journalism, programming, and office work.

    In the US, it is practically impossible for a copyright holder to place the item in the public domain. Unless you are the government (in which case copyright doesn’t apply), you have copyright and are stuck with it. You can, however, release your Work under a liberal "free to use" license, or a commercial or viral one, or even under multiple licences.

    However, nobody other than the copyright holder is permitted to defend that copyright in court. Which ultimately means that the copyrights of the little people are prettymuch meaningless: most artists can’t afford costly litigation.

  27. ColinA says:

    I’m going to throw my hat in with A Tykhyy up there.  This is similar to how I learned German: Rules first.  If I hadn’t studied the rules a bit before I lived in Germany I’m not sure how I would have learned the language.

    This probably has a pretty high correlation to programming aptitude, as it’s the same way you learn any computer language.  First you learn the rules and the syntax.  Only later do you learn of specific libraries and APIs (vocabulary).

  28. A. Skrobov says:

    >> Scoble was _actually doing the specific

    >> duties of his job_ when he posted video

    >> to Channel 9. (IANAL)

    > Doesn’t matter. Most employers (at least,

    > most employers that employ programmers)

    > require that you sign an agreement that

    > basically states that anything you do on

    > a computer is theirs.

    Scoble didn’t do the video on his computer. He has taken it on his camera. (Just nitpicking.)

    Anyway, I have now emailed a request to — I hope he will clear up the issue.

    [I can’t imagine somebody could maintain with a straight face that the video was not part of Robert’s job duties at Channel9. The most visible part of Robert’s job at Channel9 was posting videos! -Raymond]
  29. Jack says:

    "That means the side project you work on in your spare time technically belongs to your company. Most of the time, the agreement even lasts AFTER YOU NO LONGER WORK AT THE COMPANY (at least for 6-12 months or so after)."

    California has laws against these kinds of agreements. As always, read your own employment contracts and consult a lawyer.

  30. Rick C says:


    Obviously it’s your choice how to deal with Wikipedia (or how to ignore the issue) but I don’t think that removing a picture with a copyright violation would be the same thing as the examples you linked.  Especially if you noted you’d done it.  I was just pointing out that you *could* change the picture, or put a note about the copyright status.

    As someone else said, the picture now has a “potential copyright violation” warning, so there’s that, at least.

    [I’m just afraid of the implications. “Oh, Raymond made a change to the Wikipedia entry. He must therefore approve of everything he didn’t change!” Like I said in an earlier comment, I resent that some organization has created work for me. -Raymond]
  31. Nanashi says:

    “[I make a point of not getting involved with Wikipedia. It strikes me as wrong that one private organization can unilaterally create an obligation on another. -Raymond]”

    It is mostly a matter of semantics, but the private organization part of wikipedia is not involved 99% of the time.  The article was started by Joe Nobody and has only been edited by nobodies.  

    I am also unsure how someone asking for a photo is putting an obligation upon you.  A photo under some free license of you would be useful not only to Wikpedia, but others as well.  However, I can see how you think that it could lead to the perception of acceptance.  There aren’t any good (free) pictures of you on flickr either that I can find.

    Certainly if you think the article is a burden I or someone else can try to have it deleted.  It is debatable if the article meets Wikipedia’s criteria, but Articles for Deletion is rarely pretty or kind.  The magic of Wikipedia seems to run exactly opposite of the subject’s wishes (if you want it deleted, it stays: Daniel Brandt, Seth Finklestein, Angela Beasley, Erik Moeller (until recently); if you want it to stay, it is deleted and people say bad things about you in newspeak).

    [Oh, great. It’s even worse than I thought. It’s not an identifiable organization that created the obligation on me. It’s some Joe Nobody. How do I tell Joe Nobody and his army of assistant nobodies to stop stalking me? For example, now people are telling me I should provide a photo of myself. Another obligation on me that I didn’t ask for. Now if I don’t provide a picture I’ll look like a bad sport. It’s a lose-lose situation. -Raymond]
  32. Dean Harding says:

    California has laws against these kinds of agreements.

    That’s the problem with giving legal advice on a forum like this… we’re all governed by different laws!

    Anyway, the problem with Wikipedia (in this case) is that it’s edited by the general public. What I know of copyright law would not fill thimble… I imagine most people would be similar.

  33. Alex says:

    wow, helpful indeed, though I still think it’s going to take me atleast a year to learn any language. :P

    By the way,

    the title of the book sounds pretty promising. Chinese Grammar Theories..

    Or you can do what all the natives do, buy some primary school’s book and read through them all :p They’re pretty easy, but note the side effect; you might not be able to write the characters if you’re as lazy as me..

    I moved out of Taiwan since I was 9, and has continued studied/reading chinese, however I never bothered to practise writing(as typing within windows proved to be quite sufficient..) so now although I can read and even pickout mistakes in a given chinese article, I can not write without making few mistakes in every character…. apparently the brain to recognise and to create a character’s seperate :P

    Good luck learning mandarin! (Watching crappy shows and Taiwan news channels will NOT help you! They often make a tonne of mistakes which even I was able to pick out. On everyday basis too, it’s pretty shocking how low the standard of media is in Taiwan.. sadly to say..)

  34. required says:

    Raymond, that’s the second time you’ve implied that the information on the wikipedia article on you was “stalking”. I see nothing there that isn’t available from other, public sources, including this blog.

    [You can stalk with public information. (Isn’t there even a term for it – ‘googlestalking’ or something?) for example, the article prominently displays my middle name, something I am very protective about. Earlier versions included my undergraduate research work, which I’m pretty sure I’ve never discussed here. And the precise dialect of Chinese I speak with my parents (something I revealed only with great reluctance and subsequently regretted). -Raymond]
  35. Anonymous says:

    Completely agree with your comments on Wikipedia, Raymond. It is ridiculous that you can feel pressured into playing the game (editing your entry) or face nasty comments online. What is even more scary is that many people on the Internet take as Gospel what some unknown person has written in their spare time, with God knows what agenda, and with possibly zero expert knowledge on the subject they are writing about.

  36. Dave Harris says:

    Dean Harding wrote:

    > Most employers […] require that you sign

    > an agreement that basically states that

    > anything you do on a computer is theirs.

    > […]Most of the time, the agreement even


    > (at least for 6-12 months or so after).

    There would have to be more to it than that, else it would be impossible to get another programming job for 6-12 months after the first company fired you.

    [The details vary from company to company, so make sure to read the fine print in your employment agreement before you sign it! -Raymond]
  37. Nish says:

    Hey Raymond,

    Looks like your Wikipedia article is pending deletion because of the lack of "notability".

    I found this text (in a box) on the top :-

    "An editor has expressed a concern that the subject of the article does not satisfy the notability guideline for Biographies.

    If you are familiar with the subject matter, please expand the article to establish its notability, citing reliable sources. If notability cannot be established, the article is more likely to be considered for deletion, as per Wikipedia:Guide to deletion. (See also Wikipedia:Notability)"

  38. David Conrad says:

    Excellent discussion on language learning, Raymond. This is NOT how I have attempted to learn languages in the past. I guess I was taken in, first by the rules and tables in textbooks to think that I should be thinking of those tables of conjugations and declensions and adjective endings when trying to speak the language (something only Cmdr. Data from Star Trek could hope to do), or by the opposite extreme of just picking it up the way children do.

    I think your idea is much better, and I think I may give it a try. I think you sell yourself short when you say it probably wouldn’t work for others.

    On Wikipedia: There would be no harm in just mentioning your concerns on the Talk page; people get in trouble for editing their own entries surreptitiously. As to creating an obligation on you: Puh-leeze. No more so than if the Times-Post-Herald-Dispatch wrote an article about you and you felt compelled to respond with a letter to the editor correcting some point. Being written about is just something anyone well known has to deal with. Do you regret having become popular, notable?

  39. Eric Lippert says:

    Even world-class experts on language structure are occasionally at a loss to explain word-order usages.  A famous quote from J.R.R. Tolkien (who was a professional linguist, not just a fantasy writer):

    "I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do."

  40. richard says:

    It seems like a logical approach to language learning – certainly it is the way I approach it (not that I am a masterful linguist, as I lean heavily on Babel Fish): learn the rules first, the words later. I think language acquisition would be faster if there was a set of core keywords to learn first

    This is somewhat analogous to learning a computer language: learn the core keywords, learn the structure, finally learn the libraries.

  41. Wang-Lo says:

    I learned Mandarin Chinese in much the same way you did.  I had the privilege of studying with Wang (Freddy) Fang-yue at Yale.  His program first drilled pronounciation of the four tones, and the sounds that appear in Mandarin but not in English.  Then came the introduction of ten or twelve words, to serve as examples in the rules section, which came next.  Dr. Wang taught a simplified version of Mandarin sentence structure which was sufficient for a first-year course.  Then came vocabulary, drill, memorization, drill, and, oh yes, drill.

    Early pronounciation exercises with a native instructor greatly reduces the student’s foreign accent.  This in turn greatly reduces the strain on the course instructors, who have to listen to all that %*$@&! memorization and drill.

    So you might say the way you learn a language is the way it is taught to adults in the best schools.


  42. Wang-Lo says:

    "Now if I don’t provide a picture I’ll look like a bad sport."

    You will never look like a bad sport to me, Raymond.  No one who devotes a big part of his life to teaching the obscure lore of Windows APIs, in the face of all the abuse you cheerfully endure, could ever be considered a bad sport.


  43. Your language learning methods sound very useful.  I’ve been working on ASL for a while now, since my sister-in-law is deaf, but I’ve been having a hard time.  My wife is fluent, but we don’t spend a lot of time conversing in ASL, so I don’t get much practice.  I did take a class that was very helpful, and I’m considering taking another.  Unfortunately I don’t think there are any news sites in ASL, although there do appear to be ASL video blogs, so I may have to start watching some of those.

  44. A. Skrobov says:

    [I can’t imagine somebody could maintain with a straight face that the video was not part of Robert’s job duties at Channel9. The most visible part of Robert’s job at Channel9 was posting videos! -Raymond]

    I didn’t know that. And how could I even know that?

    The only two pages at that I ever visited were the video’s page, from the link in your blog, and the terms of use page, from the link in the bottom of the first page.

    I didn’t even get a chance to learn from those pages that Scoble worked for MS. It’s pure luck that I had known that before.

    Is there a way of not getting into trouble with a site’s copyright without being that site’s regular visitor?

  45. Stephen says:

    “in Amsterdam, people will switch to English as soon as they recognize that you aren’t Dutch”  I notice that too when I visited, and the cabbie was the only person who even asked what I spoke (“English or Hollands?”).  Everyone else spoke to me in English before I even said anything, assuming I didn’t know Dutch.  I got a few menus that were in Dutch on one side and English on the other, and waiters handed them to me English-side up.  My clothes marked me as a foreigner, and regardless of where I was from odds are I spoke English, so that makes sense.

    As an American who likes learning foreign languages (I’m on #3 now), it’s kind of depressing when I go somewhere and speak their language and they insist on replying in English.  If I’m in your country and I’m trying, at least respond in the language you’re spoken to in.  You want to practice your English, buy a plane ticket and come to my country.  It’s only fair.

    [It’s not that they want to practice their English. It’s that their job is not “Teach Dutch to foreigners.” Their job is “Sell food to customers.” Since they calculated (rightly or wrongly) that their English is better than your Dutch, they determined that the most efficient way to sell food is to do it in English. You can’t blame them for wanting to do their job. -Raymond]
  46. grouse says:

    "Is there a way of not getting into trouble with a site’s copyright without being that site’s regular visitor?"

    Yes. DON’T COPY STUFF FROM THOSE SITES WITHOUT PERMISSION, especially if your justification for the copying is that the site terms made things "free to use" which it doesn’t appear to. If you aren’t sure whether it is okay, assume that it isn’t until you’ve asked.

  47. Swedish reader says:

    Raymond, great post about learning languages!

    Not knowing what type of language classes you like to attend, but perhaps you like to know that quite a few Swedish universities offer online, part-time classes in Chinese. Since you already know Swedish, that might be an interesting combination :-).

    You can find the classes and apply on:

    Application for classes starting next year ends on October 16.

    Personally, I’m aiming for the classes at Lunds Univeristy – they offer the equivalent of 2 years full-time language study online (Chinese), which would amount to about 4 years online study. These are extremley popular right now.

  48. Sudsy says:

    If you live in the country where the language you’re trying to learn is spoken, the best way I’ve found to familiarize yourself to the language is to watch children’s TV shows. The language is simplier, sometimes spoken more slowly, but isn’t for dummies – it’s for kids.

    That’s how I learned Swedish. I was a great fan of Nyfiken i Naturen.

  49. James Day says:

    A. Skrobov, the only way to be fairly sure is to ask. Then the person being asked can say no. Then the person asking can decide whether it’s sufficiently important to consider fair use and whether there is a valid fair use case. If there is a valid fair use case, that overrides the desire of the copyright holder because their copyright rights don’t cover fair use (and even if they offer a license for fair uses, that license offer can be ignored because you don’t need a license for fair use). In this case, I wouldn’t be interested in using fair use, even if it applies.

    grouse, it appeared that he had permission. He found the image with a tag and a license term covering that tag. He did far better than most reusers on the net: he actually checked for a license. That the tag may not have been intended to apply is unfortunate for him and, should the copyright holder not want the image used, the copyright holder. Confusing information, lack of information and correction of both is normal.

    There’s no bad intent needed, just the consequence of an unfortunate word coincidence and one party to a license addressing a misunderstanding about what his rights under the license were.

  50. ni hao, Raymond!

    My three most profitable language learning experiences were rather dissimilar.  My first, Latin, taken up when I was leaving secondary school, I learnt much the way you suggested – grab a book on grammar, get to know the rules, then work my way through texts.

    My second, Old English, was rather different.  I used several textbooks, worked quite ferociously on the texts, and only managed to grab the rules as I went along.

    My next set – Te Reo Maori, Homeric Greek, Portuguese and Spanish, were treated in such a set of dissimilar ways that it’s hard to draw any conclusions – I got Pharr’s Homeric Greek and worked through that; what helped immensely was the text, which was taken lock stock and barrel from the Illiad, so I got a consistent experience.  Te Reo, that was almost totally a language immersion experience; I find I can make out at least fifty percent of Tahitian or Hawaiian I hear or read because of that.  Spanish and Portuguese I learnt through the later Teach Yourself books with their audio tapes and their written texts.  That was a case of learning the rules by immersion, and only later, working through texts – I have yet to complete reading through a book of extracts from Don Quixote de la Mancha, and I haven’t got much Portuguese books, either – what I would really like is an edition of Os Lusiados … ;)

    One of these days I hope to complete my Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese, of course :) and Sanskrt, Prakrt and Pali – ditto for Pehlevi and several other such languages.

    There isn’t any royal road to learning a foreign language – at the end, it all comes down to motivation.

    Have fun!

  51. IJ says:

    "And my friend who went on a vacation in Germany thought Michael’s remark was just a cruel joke, for in her experience, practically nobody spoke English, not even in the cities."

    Sorry, but that is total and absolute rubbish.

    The majority of Germans, and the overwhelming majority of those under 30, can understand and speak basic English — or better.

    As a Brit living here, I was initially frustrated in my attempts to speak the language, because everyone would respond to my German in English!

  52. Rebecca N says:

    Hi Raymond!

     As you know, I have a lot of opinions about language learning. Personally I’m philosophically aligned with Stephen Krashen…if you haven’t read anything by him, I’d be happy to loan you a book or two. I’d be curious to see what you think of his ideas. Your search for children’s books, news and anything you can read and make sense of is already naturally aligned with Krashen’s emphasis on "comprehensible input."

    I also have a conference to share with you (off-line I’ll tell you where, so you don’t have fans going just to meet you!). Would you be up for experiencing language learning in a totally different approach that what you’re used to? This summer I had four days of Mandarin. My experience was that real language acquisition (of any language) doesn’t have to be "hard" if we learn it as our brains were designed to learn languages. A child’s infant brain is capable of acquiring the most complex of rules (some of which we as grammarians will never be able to articulate), and it’s not an ability that disappears. Adults are just as capable if we can have the right learning conditions met. The only thing were not capable of as adults is hearing some pronuncation details, but in the scope of language learning, if you can speak a language fluently and pronounce it pretty well, that’s still pretty good. Next year I will be learning Arabic at the conference for four days. Would you like to join me?

     Also, I have to add that in my own classroom this year, I am dramatically de-emphasizing (not eliminating) explicit rule instruction in favor of tons of "comprehensible input." (Krashen favors explicit rule instruction later on as a tool for refining what students have already acquired.) The results in my classroom this year have been astounding. First of all, and only you will get this joke, no one is asking anything like "Why do we have to learn a synonym?" My Spanish 1’s are starting their first "novel" (38 pages) in Spanish and are breezing through it. I have never seen kids so willing to make sense out of unknown structures so comfortably. Not only are they totally relaxed to read a book totally in Spanish, they’re excited about it. I really think their success so far is a result of them not being trained to "worry" about all the details upfront. I have kids with six weeks of Spanish reading phrases in the past and subjunctive, and they’re making sense of what is said! My Spanish 2’s with traditional training get totally thrown off by new verb endings and totally halt their reading until they get an explicit explanation of why it’s different. More importantly, my Spanish 1’s this year are leagues ahead of how my Spanish 1’s were performing last year when I did teach with a lot more emphasis on explicit rule instruction and memorization.

     Anyway, those are my thoughts. That and pop music. Would you be willing to tolerate really dumbed-down pop music in Mandarin if you could find it? (And assuming you could find it with translations.) With my students, the catchiest, most repetitive Brittney Spears-esque songs I can find are a great way to imprint correct structures like "wants to go" or "has to buy." The dumber and catchier the song, the more it sticks.

     Alright. Enough babbling. Thanks for letting me share on your blog. See you around.

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