ترفند هایی برای زبان هایی خاص

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ترفند هایی برای زبان هایی خاص

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CHAPTER 6: Tips for Starting Specific Languages

Learning a specific language is easier than you think. Here I tell you why.

Up until now, everything in this book can be applied to learning any language. The communicative approach, philosophies, and guidelines I suggest have worked for me and many language learners for many years. I have even applied my speak-from-day-one approach to learning sign language (of course with a basic terminology adjustment of sign from day one) and learned to communicate in ASL (American Sign Language) in the same way I have in Chinese, Irish, French, Spanish, and many other languages.

Having said that, when we take on specific languages there are indeed tricks you can apply to give you an extra edge. In this chapter, I discuss these advantages and apply them to the language you might be taking on. I also offer lots of encouragement, especially for languages that have been traditionally viewed as difficult.

Before I get into listing each linguistic family and particular languages within them, I want to introduce a few terms and concepts that will help you here.


A cognate is a word that not only looks and sounds like a word we already know, but it also means the same thing we know it to mean in our mother tongue as it does in our target language.

No matter what language you are learning, you will find that some international words tend to be the same, albeit with a localized pronunciation. “Obama,” for instance, as with most proper names, is the same in every language you will come across. Brand names also tend to be very similar across languages, such as Coca-Cola (even in Mandarin, where it’s Kekou-Kele, ignoring tone marks).

There are also cognates that aren’t spelled exactly the same, but it doesn’t take a feat of imagination to make the connection, such as posesión in Spanish and “possession” in English.

There are exceptions, of course. In Mandarin, Pepsi (Cola) is actually called Baishi (Kele), for instance. Rather than expect all cognates in a particular category to be familiar, it’s better to use these cognate tips as a guideline for finding words that are likely to be similar or the same. You can double-check them when necessary, but the point is that you will effectively have no need to work at remembering this type of word because you already know it, or a close form of it. The only trick is to get used to its slightly different pronunciation, which is good training for getting used to the sound of that language anyway. Use it a few times and you will know this word.

Essentially, cognates are heaps of free vocabulary, and they are one reason it is impossible to start a language truly “from scratch.” Sushi, to cite one example, is almost always “sushi” everywhere you go in the world. All across Europe, the words for “democracy” and “communism” have pronunciations so similar to their English equivalents, you’d almost have to try hard not to recognize them.

In particular professional fields, cognates are much more common than in others. While some vocabulary is likely to be quite different across languages, words related to technology, on the other hand, may be incredibly similar. In Italian, you turn on your computer, and in Brazilian Portuguese, you move the mouse. In Russian, you connect to the Интернет (an exact transliteration of “Internet,” where И = I, н = n, and р = r), and in Japanese, you check your (mē-ru, Japanese’s transliteration of “e-mail”). The name of the program you may use to surf the Internet in Turkish is Firefox, and you may be doing so in Microsoft Windows in the Somali language, on an Apple in Tagalog, or in Linux in Basque.

As well as brand names, you also have food or other cultural nuggets that are associated with a particular place, originally English, or from another language. The Czech word robot tends to be used in most languages, and Italian foods (pizza, pasta, gnocchi) are adapted in many places.

Listing all cognates for a given language is beyond the scope of this book, but brand names, technology words, and even some trendy words (like cool in both French and German) are more likely to be international.

One of the first things I do when I am learning a language is find a list of these cognates or similar-looking words. These lists can contain hundreds or even thousands of examples. Refer to them as soon as possible, no matter what language you are learning, and I’ll share some typical examples in the next section.


Modal verbs are “helper” verbs (action words) that help us to express a concept, without having to worry so much about the grammar of conjugation. You may remember this concept, which was introduced briefly in the previous chapter.

Conjugation is how words change depending on who is doing the action. So, in English, for the verb “to be” we have “I am,” “you are,” and “he/she/it is.” Conjugation also affects the verb tense, indicating the time the action takes place: “I am” (present tense) becomes “I will be” (future tense) and “I was” (past tense). If there were no conjugation in English, then we would use “be” in place of “am,” “are,” “is,” “will be,” and “was.” (This is how it works in some Asian languages, such as Chinese.) Learners of English are lucky in that English conjugation is relatively simple most of the time. In the present tense, you often add an s (“I eat” versus “he eats,” “I jog” versus “he jogs”). Unfortunately, for many European languages this is not the case. The Spanish contar (“to tell”), for instance, becomes cuento (“I tell”), contamos (“we tell”), and contaste (“you told”), which are quite different from one another. This conjugation is pretty standard across Spanish, and the vowel change is easier to get used to than you think, but if you’re an absolute beginner, it can slow you down.

That’s why I recommend using helper verbs. Just learn the conjugation of a few verbs and tack on the dictionary form to the end of them. Instead of saying “I will tell,” which would require you to think of future-tense conjugations, you can rephrase it as “I want to tell,” as discussed in chapter 5. In Spanish, you only have to remember that “I want” is quiero, and you very easily get quiero contar, and can replace any other action word in place of “tell” in the same way.

With any language, I suggest learning the following modal verbs:

can (able to)


would like to

must / have to

want to

Since my conversations tend to be mostly one-on-one as a beginner, the “I” and “you” (singular) conjugations are my first priority. After this, I start to use “we,” then “he/she/it” and “them.” (Generally, “he/she/it” verb forms, known as the third-person singular, follow the same conjugation pattern in many languages.) Many languages have both polite and informal personal pronoun forms, which may sound complicated, but to simplify things, I suggest you focus on the polite form of “you” and ignore the more intimate alternative, at least at first. It sounds weird to refer to a close friend or a young person with the polite form in many countries, but if you plan to use the language with strangers, it’s better to go with this form. When you start to feel a little comfortable in the language, learn the alternative and try to switch between them appropriately.

Romance Languages

Let’s begin with Romance languages! That is to say, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian (as well as Romanian, Catalan, Galician, Sardinian, Corsican, and many others). These all descended from vulgar Latin, the language spoken across the Roman Empire. They have a huge number of cognates in common with one another, but here I want to discuss the cognates they have in common with English.

You see, even though English is not a Romance language, since England was occupied by the Normans in 1066, the aristocrats and royalty in England spoke Norman French for several centuries after that. This meant a huge influx of Norman French vocabulary came into English, the majority of which resembles modern French and other Romance languages.

The trick is recognizing which words to use, and when you know the context in which English “borrowed” these words, this becomes a lot easier.

Aristocrats are more likely to use formal vocabulary, and the English equivalents of these words tend to be more French-like. So when speaking any of these Romance languages, think of a formal alternative to that word in English and this may indeed be the same in your target language. For instance, if someone knocks on your door, you might tell that person to “come in,” or you could say “enter.” In French, it’s entrer; Spanish, entrar. If you want to share your thoughts with someone, you tell your “point of view,” share your “opinion,” or give this person your “perspective.” In Italian, opinione; in Portuguese, perspectiva. Although here, point de vue in French is also not far off. Instead of showing someone a city, you could be the person’s “guide,” which is the same word used in French: guide. Learning vocabulary can be easy, but it’s better when it’s “simple” (which is the same in both French and Spanish: simple).

“Enter,” “opinion,” and “simple,” compared to “come in,” “thoughts,” and “easy,” are words I might use in more formal situations in English—like in a job interview or in a debate—but they are not words I would use at a party, for instance. There, they would seem a little pompous. But in Romance languages, these words are quite commonly used. With practice, you learn to rephrase a sentence in your head and look for alternative words for what you want to say. Doing so in Romance languages gives you an edge in many situations.

More specifically, though, words of a particular type or ending are much more likely to be cognates. For instance, words that end in “-tion” in English are very likely to be the same in French, albeit with a French pronunciation. In Spanish, the ending becomes -ción; in Italian, it’s -zione; and in Portuguese, -ção. There are plenty of words like this: action, application, communication, destruction, fiction, frustration, information, inspiration, invention, invitation, nation, option, perfection, population, protection, solution, tradition, and many, many more.

There’s also “-tude” (gratitude, magnitude), “-sion” (explosion, expression), “-ment” (encouragement, segment), “-age” (garage, camouflage), and loads more. Granted, you’ll find the occasional “false friend,” whose meaning may be subtly or very different, but in general you can rely on these to increase your vocabulary within an incredibly short period of time.

As well as these recognizable words and endings, a branch of Romance-based words relate to similar English words and, though they may be spelled differently, give you a familiar starting point. From “communication,” we get the French verb communiquer (“to communicate”). From “information,” we get the Spanish informar (“to inform”; used more frequently than the equivalent in English). From “encouragement,” giving us incoraggiamento, we also get Italian’s incoraggiare: “to encourage.” Spanish

Spanish is a very straightforward language in that it is phonetic (each letter has one sound in every situation, with a few exceptions like ch, ll, and u after g and q), and it is one of the easier languages when it comes to remembering what the gender of words is, as they tend to end with an a for the feminine and an o for the masculine. Exceptions to this (such as -ma being masculine in el problema) are listed in most language courses. If you aren’t sure, just use the masculine form, as this is not a mistake that hinders communication.

One slightly trickier feature of Spanish is its complex conjugation system. This isn’t as bad as it seems at first glance, because Spanish follows very easy-to-recognize patterns (an o may change to a ue when that syllable is stressed in the word, for instance). Before getting used to these conjugations, though, a beginner should probably focus on using modal verbs followed by the dictionary (infinitive) version of a verb as often as possible to be more confident that the sentence is correct, while always keeping in mind that it’s okay to make a few mistakes here and there.

Some Spanish modal verbs worth knowing are in the list below. Note that you can add an s to the polite “he/she/it/you” forms shown here to get the informal “you” forms, or add an n to them to get the “they” verb form. Remember that when there is no written accent or consonant other than s or n at the end, the stress will always be on the second-to-last syllable, so it’s puedo, but then podemos.

poder: to be able, can, may

puedo: can

puede: he/she/it/you (polite) can

podemos: we can

querer: to want

quiero: want

quiere: he/she/it/you (polite) want(s)

queremos: we want

tener que: to have to tengo que I have to

tengo que: I have to

tiene que: he/she/it/you (polite) has/have to

tenemos que: we have to

deber: should, must

debo: I should

debe: he/she/it/you (polite) should

debemos: we should

A future verb tense is also very easily represented by “go to” and in many cases can be replaced with the future conjugation for a somewhat similar meaning.

ir a: to go to

voy a: I am going to

va a: he/she/it/you (polite) is/are going to

vamos a: We are going to

For more tips on Spanish, see fi3m.com/spanish.


French is one of the most familiar languages to an English speaker when it comes to its written form, because it has more cognates that don’t require any spelling alterations than any other language. Rather than the French borrowing terms from English, as with some of the cognate examples I gave previously, we English speakers have borrowed from them!

The “liaison” between words and how they are pronounced when they are together in a sentence does take a little getting used to (you do pronounce the first s—as a z—in les arbres but not in les pommes), but people who know you’re learning will follow you, thanks to the context, even if you get this sort of thing wrong. It may seem tricky, but French is in fact much more phonetic and consistent than English, so once you get used to this new system, it’s incredibly reliable.

Remembering whether a noun is masculine or feminine can also seem difficult, but this tends to follow very clear patterns based on the ending of a word:

Generally, words that end in a consonant (other than n, s, t, and x) are almost always masculine, such as franc, lac, bord, pied, shampooing, detail, travail, soleil.

Words that end in -asion, -sion, -tion, -xion are almost always feminine, such as liaison, maison, raison, décision, tension, vision, connexion.

If a word ends in an e, it’s slightly more likely to be feminine, such as façade, salade, ambulance, thèse, fontaine.

Exceptions include those words ending in -isme (tourisme), -ède, -ège, -ème (problème, poème, système), and -age (courage, garage, message, voyage).

This list will help you guess most of the time what gender a word is, and once you become more familiar with it, I would recommend not worrying about it too much. I guarantee French speakers will understand you just fine if you say le table blanc instead of the correct la table blanche (“the white table”). This will not hinder communication as a beginner. It’s more important to fix this in the later stages of your learning process, when you concentrate more on speaking correctly.

Next, conjugation in French can be difficult to get used to, but unlike most other Romance languages, the personal pronoun (I, you, he/she/it) is always included, which means getting the conjugation right is even less of a priority for beginners, since you always know who is being referred to.

Another way you can get a head start is to learn one less conjugation, because on (“one,” as in “one does not like this”) is used very frequently in place of nous (“we”). Plus, you use the same conjugation for “you” singular (polite) as you do for “you” plural conjugation, and most of the time the conjugation for “you” singular (informal) is the same as for “I” (je), but with an s added that is usually not even pronounced. Je mange and tu manges.

In the following examples, despite the different spellings, the first and second conjugations tend to be pronounced exactly the same (peux/peut, veux/veut), and in the first three examples, the tu conjugation (the informal “you,” which I’ve not included) is the same as the je one (peux, veux, and dois).

Try to keep these modal verbs in mind, as you can immediately follow them with a dictionary form of a verb (action word):

pouvoir: to be able, can, may

je peux: I can

il/elle/on peut: he/she/one can

vous pouvez: you (polite) can

vouloir: to want

je veux: I want

il/elle/on veut: he/she/one want(s)

vous voulez: you (polite) want

devoir: to have to, should

je dois: I have to

il/elle/on doit: he/she/it/one has to

vous devez: you (polite) have to

A future verb tense is also very easily represented by “go to” (in the sense of intention, not movement) and can, in many cases, be replaced with the future conjugation for a somewhat similar meaning.

aller: to go to

je vais: I am going to

il/elle/on va: he/she/one is going to

vous allez: you (polite) are going to

For much more on French, see fi3m.com/french.


Italian is another phonetic language, although a few letter-combination pronunciations take some getting used to, such as ci, ce, and gl. As in Spanish, feminine words tend to end with an a, masculine words with an o, apart from similar exceptions mentioned in most courses.

As with the other languages, learning some modal verbs can help you create complete sentences much more easily:

potere: to be able, can

posso: I can

può: he/she/it/you (polite) can

possiamo: we can

volere: to want

voglio: I want

vuole: he/she/it/you (polite) want(s)

vogliamo: we want

dovere: should, have to, must

devo: I should

deve: he/she/it/you (polite) should

dobbiamo: we should

Follow these with an action verb in its dictionary (infinitive) form, such as voglio trovare for “I want to find.” To include the future tense in any discussion, just use the standard present form of the verb paired with a time (domani for ”tomorrow,” for instance), and this will be correct Italian in most cases.

For more tips on Italian, see fi3m.com/italian.


Portuguese is also very phonetic and similar to Spanish in the way you recognize noun genders.

Fortunately, you need only three conjugations (at least in most Brazilian Portuguese dialects) to cover all possibilities, because the third person covers he/she, you, and we. The third person is rendered as a gente, similar to French’s on (“one,” as in “one does not like this”). When using this form, it’s best to place the a gente before the conjugation, such as a gente pode.

The following can be quite useful conjugations to learn:

poder: to be able, can, may

posso: I can

pode: he/she/it/you/one can

podem: they can

querer: to want

quero : I want

quer: he/she/it/you/one want(s)

querem: they want

ter que: to have to

tenho que: I have to

tem que: he/she/it/you/one has/have to

têm que: they have to

For much more on Portuguese, see fi3m.com/portuguese.

Germanic Languages

A little closer to home, we have the Germanic languages. This is the branch of the linguistic family on which our own English rests. As such, there are a lot of things we share in common with German, Dutch, Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, and Afrikaans.

Unlike English, however, these languages tend to be very much phonetic, in that the spelling and pronunciation rules (apart from borrowed English words, which are more common than you think) are consistent. Those rules may be different than what you are used to, but once you learn them, you can generally pronounce any word that you see spelled out.

Endless remnants of what German and English have in common crop up often, and the grammar feels eerily familiar, especially for anyone who has read Shakespeare. Several hundred years ago, English’s “you” was actually the plural version of the word that is today’s all-encompassing singular and plural “you.” “Thou” is not that far off the sound of today’s German and Norwegian du. And “thine” compares with the German dein. From “thee” we have dich. Even the conjugation follows the same pattern of “Thou hast,” Du hast. Keeping this in mind has helped German conjugation feel a little more familiar to me.

But where these Germanic languages start to make more sense is in their common vocabulary.

As always, for whatever language you are learning, make sure to find a list of cognates. In German/Dutch/Swedish, “apple” is Apfel/appel/apple, “arm” and “April” are both exactly the same in all three languages, “foot” is Fuß/voet/fot, and “book” is Buch/boek/bok (in the two latter examples, oe is the oo sound in Dutch). There are countless others.

In this case, you can actually apply the opposite advice from the Romance languages section, where I mention considering more formal words in English to find possible cognates. With these languages, find less formal words—not slang though, as the words need to be more likely a part of older English. So, while French and Spanish have entrer and entrar to resemble our “enter,” the alternative of “come in” also has Germanic equivalents. In German, it’s (her)einkommen. Rather than use a word like “consider,” if you opt for “think (about),” you’ll find that denken is “think” in German and Dutch. Generally, words for parts of the body, many animals, and tools tend to be quite similar or even exactly the same.

While we certainly have lots in common, Germanic languages are also slightly more likely than other languages to borrow words from English. You’ll find these among any lists of cognates.

In German, for instance, Flat Rate is used to describe cell-phone contracts. There’s also Interview (in the context of a TV or celebrity interview), cool (as in “great,” not cold temperatures), Jeans, Jetlag, Job, Musical, Party, Sandwich, Scanner, Toast, Top Ten, unfair, Website, and many others. If the German word associated with technology or something trendy, it may be possible to use the English word, but you can confirm this in a list of cognates.

Germanic languages also borrow words from other languages English has borrowed from, such as Restaurant, Charme, Cousin, Dessert, Hotel, Omelette, Prinz, Tourist, Zigarette, and many other words from French that are recognizable even with slight spelling changes, and this also applies to Dutch, Norwegian, etc.


German applies three genders to nouns, (masculine, feminine, and neuter), which at first can seem totally randomly assigned. Of course, this is not the case. Although the meaning of the word (apart from any people or animals associated with that gender) does not contribute so much, it’s the ending of the word you need to look at, and remember it’s the word that has gender, not the object. For example, the endings -ant, -ast, -ich, -ig, -ismus, -ling, -or, -us are masculine,

-a, -anz, -ei, -enz, -heit, -ie, -ik, -in, -keit, -schaft, -sion, -sis, -tion, -tät, -ung, -ur are feminine, and

-chen, -icht, -il, -it, -lein, -ma, -ment, -tel, -tum, -um are neuter.

Apart from this, words ending in -el, -er, -en are mostly masculine, those ending in -t or -e are mostly feminine, and those with the prefix Ge- are mostly neuter.

This may seem incredibly intimidating, but it’s a small enough list that you can learn it, and it will cover the vast majority of words you are likely to come across so that you will know their likely gender as soon as you see or hear them. This is much more efficient than trying to learn the gender of every single word individually. There are some exceptions and words not covered by these descriptions, but whenever you can’t be confident of a word’s gender, just guess. A one in three chance is fine and it won’t be the end of the world if you get it wrong. As always, it won’t confuse a German to hear you say der Auto when it’s actually das Auto. Fix gender issues later in your language learning story, but keep the previous examples in mind so you have a lot less work to do to learn those genders.

German grammar can also seem intimidating with all the terminology used in grammar books, such as accusative, dative, nominative, and genitive, but I find that learning sentences and seeing how words come up in context makes grammar much easier to deal with. Certain words follow particular prepositions all the time, for instance.

These grammatical cases are comparable to how, in English, we distinguish between “I” and “me,” or “he” and “him.” You use one for the subject (“I”; ich in German) and one for the object (“me”; mich in German). German just expands on this to add a new one (mir) in certain situations, but I never found that people misunderstood me if I got these mixed up when I was starting to speak German.

Conjugation in German is harder than in English but still less complex than in the Romance languages. Nearly all the time ich (“I”) has an -e ending, du (“you”) has an -st ending, “he/she/it” has a -t ending, and “we/they” has an -en. Even so, to give your sentences more versatility, it’s still very useful to learn modal verbs first. There are six modal verbs (dürfen, mögen, sollen, können, müssen, wollen), all of which are irregular, but I got more mileage out of focusing on the following ones first:

können: to be able, can

ich/er/sie kann: I/he/she can

wir/sie können: we/you (polite) can

mögen: would like to

ich/er/sie möchte: I/he/she would like to

wir/sie möchten: we/you (polite) would like to

müssen: have to, must

ich/er/sie muss: I/he/she have/has to

wir/sie müssen: we/you (polite) has/have to

wollen: to want

ich/er/sie will: I/he/she wants

wir/sie wollen: we/you (polite) want

Add -st to the first form of each of these to get the informal “you,” or just -t if it already ends in s.

For many more tips on German, check out fi3m.com/german.

Slavic Languages

While I certainly can’t speak for mastering Slavic languages, I have experience reaching the conversational level in Czech. I’ve also dabbled in other Slavic languages, like Polish, and I understand rudimentary Russian. Some of the tips in the following paragraphs may also apply to other Slavic languages, including Slovakian, Ukrainian, and Serbo-Croatian.

The most intimidating aspect when you start to learn these languages tends to be grammar. Each language features many grammatical cases, which makes it seem as though you have to learn six or seven different versions of each word—or twelve or fourteen, when you include plural forms.

These are, however, usually predictable changes to the ends of words. Rather than learning the rules, you’ll get used to them with enough exposure. I actually got by quite well using the basic dictionary (nominative) forms of words as a beginner and people continued to understand me, and I slowly expanded on that. As with all languages, it’s okay to utter a few mistakes—native speakers are very forgiving.

It’s common to overlook aspects of these languages that can make them much easier to learn. They are almost always very phonetic, once again with consistent spelling and pronunciation rules (compared to English’s mess of words, like though, through, plough, dough, cough). When you see a word, you know precisely how it should be pronounced, and vice versa, whether with those that use Latin script or those that use Cyrillic, such as Russian.

Slavic languages may not offer the same similar-words advantage the Romance or Germanic languages do when it comes to learning new vocabulary, but they do tend to be very logically consistent in how they construct words. This means that when you learn a manageable set of prepositions and prefixes plus word roots, you can discover a lot of new words.

For instance, let’s take the four prefixes in Czech: v, vy, od, and za. In their prefix form, add them to a word root—the central part of a word—chod, for instance, which is related to the verb chodit (“to go”). By itself, and as a prefix in many verbs, v means “in,” so for “go in” you have vchod, which means “entrance”! Vý/vy doesn’t exist by itself in this context, but it means the opposite, and you have “exit”: východ. Od by itself means “from,” so what do you think a “from-go” thing would be? A “departure”: odchod!

It isn’t always this logical, but you can create a small story in your head for when it isn’t, to help you remember the meaning of a word. Záchod, for instance, is “toilet” in Czech. The prefix-preposition za tends to mean “behind” or “off,” so I imagined excusing myself and “leaving” where I was to go to the bathroom.

Ultimately, if you understand even vaguely the meanings associated with the prefixes do, na, nad(e), ne, o(b), od(e), pa, po, popo, pod, pro, pře, před, při, roz, s(e), spolu, u, v(e), vy, vz, z, and za, then you have the building blocks to form many words and understand what words mean the first time you see them. While these examples are in Czech, you will find the methods can be applied similarly to other Slavic languages.

This verb chtít (“to want”) can be among the more useful ones in forming sentences while being able to use its dictionary form:

chtít: to want

chci: I want

chce: he/she/it wants

chceme: we want

You can also take this verb and use the conditional tense conjugation to express “would like” by adding chtěl before the conditional mood, which is simply: bych (“I would”), bys (“you would”), by (“he/she/it would”), bychom (“we would”), byste (“you [plural] would”), by (“they would”). This conditional can be added after any verb in its dictionary form, if making it conditional would help you simplify your sentence in some way.

Other modal verbs worth learning the conjugation of include moct (to be able, can), umět (to know how), muset (must, have to), smět (be allowed to), and mít (to have to).


Having reached a conversational (lower intermediate, B1) level in Egyptian Arabic, I would recommend that those with a spoken focus choose a specific Arabic dialect they have a preference for based on the country they would like to visit most.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which most courses tend to focus on, is essential if you want to read newspapers and books or watch or listen to news broadcasts. But dialects, in every country, tend to be much more useful for conversing with people in the street or understanding most Arabic movies and TV shows. Dialects are also much easier to learn.

While MSA is definitely useful, its grammar is much more complex than a dialect’s, which can slow down a beginner’s progress. Grammar is easy to pick up, however, once you’re familiar with the language.

For instance, the word “house” in “The house is there,” “I put it in the house,” or “I like this house” is always going to be bayt in Egyptian dialect, but it would be baytu, bayta, and bayti respectively in MSA because of how the word operates in different “cases” in each sentence.

With all this in mind, you can get dialect-focused lessons or exchanges, as I’ve mentioned in previous chapters, or find small phrase books tailored to the dialect you want to learn, and study this material between spoken sessions. Once you are confident in your spoken abilities in your dialect, it’s much easier to come back to the more complex MSA.

Now, as for using modal verbs, unlike the other languages listed so far, this is not as easy a work-around in Arabic because the second verb is still altered depending on who it refers to. Arabic verb conjugation is actually very straightforward and logical, although it is a little different from what we are used to in other languages.

After some practice using this with a native, it turns out to not be that bad after all. Even the new script isn’t too bad, as I mention in the next section.

For some tips on Egyptian Arabic and other Arabic dialects, as well as MSA, and which resources may help, see fi3m.com/arabic.

Phonetic Script

A language that doesn’t use the same written alphabet as the one you are reading now can seem very intimidating. However, languages like Arabic, Russian, Korean, Greek, Thai, and others that use a phonetic script essentially require that you learn only a small set of characters, which represent particular sounds, and doing so will allow you to read that language as you would read any western European language.

Using a familiar writing system (as with many European languages) tends to make us biased toward pronouncing all words the way we would in our mother tongue. This is one reason we hang on to bad pronunciations longer than we should. This won’t be a problem for you with phonetic languages, because you’ll learn a new sound correctly from the start without any bias.

As with any language, I like to use a little association (which is as visual as possible) when doing this. After a few examples, you’ll see what I mean and you can continue this process to apply associations to your target language’s script.

For instance, this is the Thai character that represents the ah sound: ل

It doesn’t look anything like a European a, but I got a great suggestion from polyglot Stu Jay Raj when I was learning Thai. He suggested that you imagine a man peeing against a tree; the path that his pee takes represents that of this letter, and the sound he makes on relieving himself is of course aaaaah. This is a visual story that is easy to remember and associate with the character. I generally go for more graphic or silly images like this to help me remember new letters.

Next, this is the Arabic letter that represents the b sound: ب

Rather than a complex visual image, all I had to remember was that the dot was below the line. Below has the b sound—problem solved!

In the same way, ت is the t sound because there are two dots above the line, and ث is the th sound because there are three dots. For other letters, you have to get more visual, though. So with م I imagined a mouse with his tail hanging loose or connecting to the next letter, since this is the m sound.

All it really takes is one afternoon of sitting down with a new alphabet in front of you and thinking of things that help you visually recognize each character. It might take a few hours to go through the entire alphabet, but this will be time very well invested. You require that visual association at first while you read, and this certainly slows you down, but you get used to it and eventually know what the sound is instantly. Then you can discard the visual association, like you would training wheels on a bike.

Memrise.com can be a useful resource here, as it has mnemonics prepared for various alphabets.

Tonal Languages

When it comes to languages like Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, or Vietnamese, many people quickly say they could never speak these because their tones make them too hard. Many claim they are tone deaf and could never manage to process them. I find this strange, because even if the person claiming this is musically tone deaf, that person can still fully interpret the prosody and intonation of speech in his or her native language.

We have tones in English and other European languages; we just apply them to indicate subtle differences in the meanings of words and sentences rather than using them to change the core meaning of a word (although this is also possible). We can all tell the difference between “Oh?” when said as a question to show a curiosity for more details (the tone goes from low to high) and “Oh . . .” disappointingly said to show feeling let down by the information heard (the tone is shorter and lowers briefly). The sounds of both of these serve to convey how the word should be understood.

It definitely takes practice for those of us not used to incorporating tones so specifically into our learning process or applying them to languages to convey differences in meaning. Time with a native speaker, and going through it slowly while repeating what that person says a few times, can help you adapt to these. Anyone dedicated to it can learn tones relatively quickly, and then they become second nature.

Despite the fact that tones distinguish meanings of words, people still understand me regularly even when I fail to use the right ones thanks to the context of the sentence, and the fact that they adjust to me as a learner. The more I say, despite using incorrect tones on several words, the more context I provide and the listener can adjust to see what I mean.

When I arrived in Taiwan, I spoke only Mandarin outside the house, and despite needing several weeks before feeling more confident with my tones, I ordered food, asked directions, and was understood by those not used to speaking with foreigners. They understood what I meant from the context, and what tone I meant, similar to the way that you’d understand me if I asked you for “the wee to the leebry” on the street—wrong pronunciation indeed, but very likely to mean “the way to the library,” especially with plenty of context.

Like with everything else in language learning, attitude is the key. Rather than lament over how impossible tones are, you just throw yourself at the problem and solve it. I gave tones my full dedication during the first weeks of learning Mandarin, instead of spreading myself thin trying to learn too many things at once. This helped me get ahold on them more quickly for the rest of my learning process.

You saw in chapter 3, with my mùbiāo example, how I learn vocabulary in tonal languages, by incorporating a visual aspect of falling or going straight or bouncing or flying up, depending on the appropriate tone. Others have used colors to help them make tone associations. I also tried singing out sentences and recording videos to track my progress. Though this took a lot of work, it was nowhere near as difficult as so many made it out to be.

It’s not about mastering tones in your first week or two but just making sure you are doing them well enough to be understood. Then, as you practice, you can continue to improve your skills. Consistent time with native speakers will show you how tones aren’t as bad as you think.


Chinese is one of the most notorious languages around, and many claim that it’s the hardest in the world. This is usually based on nothing more than seeing Chinese script, in which you have to learn a completely new complex character for “every single word.”

Don’t take these scare tactics to heart! First, keep in mind that Chinese is a broad term, encompassing many varieties as well as the writing system, but you may want to narrow down your work to Mandarin, Cantonese, or some other specific variety if your focus is more spoken.

I decided to temporarily put aside learning how to read Chinese so I could focus on speaking Mandarin. Reaching the conversational level in that language in a few months became much more realistic. Then, when I was a more confident speaker, I got back into the language from the perspective of improving my reading skills. It was much easier than when I’d tried before, because I had a better sense of how the language worked and a firmer understanding of the meaning of the words when sounded out.

Learning new vocabulary when you already have some basics is actually much more logical than it is in many European languages. For instance, jiăn zhèn qì means “shock absorber” in Mandarin. With a small amount of knowledge, this word, which may initially seem intimidating, can be quite easy to decipher. Jiăn, for instance, means “to reduce.” (Jinféi means “to lose weight” [reduce fat] and jin jià means “sale” [reduce price].) Qì, a very common everyday word, means “tool” or “device.” Even if you don’t recognize that zhèn means “to shake,” you can still deduce that it’s a tool for reducing something, which is a lot of help!

In general, new words are very easy to understand when you look at their components in this way.

When you are ready to read Chinese, it may seem as if there are too many characters to process, but keep in mind that a smaller number of frequent ones are used a lot and with just five hundred you will already recognize 80 percent of the characters you read and certainly those on most menus and signs. With a good mnemonics system, and when you are already used to speaking the language first, you can focus on this better and progress in it very quickly.

When I was learning how to read, I used my trusted keyword method to help me learn vocabulary. For simple characters, this is quite easy. “Big,” , actually looks like a person stretching out his or her arms to say how big something is, but for more complex characters you need a little more context. One way to do this is to learn as many of the radicals (building blocks of each character) as you can and build up a meaning from them. Some of these meanings are logical, such as “home” being because it’s a “pig” under a “roof,” and in older times a home would have had an animal in it.

Some are not so immediately logical and require imagination to connect their building blocks. Many books are available that go through characters systematically, explaining why they mean certain things. When using these, keep in mind that it is more efficient to focus on the most frequent characters rather than try to go from beginning to end.

As a vegetarian trying to understand menus, for instance, I discovered one thing that helped me immensely. Many vegetables have the same radical above them that implies it’s a vegetable or is grass-related. “Spinach” is , “green onion” is , “tomato” is , “potato” is , “aubergine (eggplant)” is , “lettuce” is , and so on.

Can you see the same fence-like component on the top of each character? Character formations are far from random, and there are consistencies throughout that help you to learn them faster.

For much more encouragement related to learning Chinese, see fi3m.com/chi.


Japanese is another language that intimidates many would-be learners, but don’t let the naysayers fool you! Like all languages, it has many aspects to it that actually make it easier than others. Many Westerners have successfully learned the language, so you can too, if you are dedicated.

Learning kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) is likely the most intimidating part of learning the language. But there’s good news: what I said about learning characters in Chinese applies equally to Japanese. A small number of frequent kanji accounts for the vast majority of the language you are likely to encounter day to day. For example, just fewer than two hundred characters account for 50 percent of all kanji used on Japanese Wikipedia, while just fewer than five hundred characters account for 75 percent.

Japanese has three phonetic alphabets (Hiragana, Katakana, and Romaji), which will allow you to start reading Japanese before you know even a single kanji. Many Japanese learner materials are written in Romaji, which can be learned almost instantly (it’s how Japanese words are rendered in the Latin alphabet), while most Japanese children’s books are written completely in Hiragana, and there are lots of very familiar borrowed words written in Katakana, both of which can be learned in a weekend. And if learner texts and children’s books aren’t your thing, many manga (Japanese comic books) and news sites like NHK News Web Easy add little Hiragana reading guides next to kanji so you can start reading real Japanese no matter your level of kanji knowledge.

Pronunciation in Japanese is among its easiest aspects. The language has an extremely small number of sounds, almost all of which are found in Romance languages. And you will be happy to know that Japanese sounds are one-to-one, meaning each Hiragana, Katakana, or Romaji sound can be pronounced only one way! For example, the Japanese sound e (written in Hiragana and in Katakana) is always pronounced the exact same way no matter what word it appears in, unlike the English letter e, which has numerous different pronunciations, as shown in the words “bet,” “beer,” “alert,” “here,” “there,” etc.).

Even better, Japanese is not a tonal language, so you don’t have to produce the proper tone for each syllable (like you do in Mandarin) to be understood. Japanese does have some high–low distinctions (e.g., hashi pronounced high–low means “chopsticks” while it means “bridge” when pronounced low–high), but these distinctions are fairly small in number and the context will almost always make it clear which word is being referred to. Regardless, learning kanji eliminates any potential ambiguity.

Another major advantage Japanese offers native speakers of English is the large number of borrowed English words used. When in doubt, you can try to say an English word using Japanese pronunciation and you may be completely understood!

Granted, there are indeed some challenging aspects to the language, but like everything, you get used to them if you get exposure, use the language, stay motivated, and keep pushing yourself to learn all the time.

For much more information to help you on your Japanese mission, see fi3m.com/japanese.

Irish (Gaeilge)

The language of my own country, Irish, is worth mentioning too, of course! Note that Irish, or Gaeilge, is the standard name for the Celtic language of Ireland (not to be confused with Gaelic, the language of Scotland); our dialect of English is actually referred to as Hiberno English, or “Irish English”—never “Irish.” Irish intimidated me as a learner in school, but not because of its inherent difficulty as much as its presentation to us in school, which has luckily improved in recent years. In fact, it is a beautiful language, which you can really enjoy learning. Unlike other European languages, it has only eleven irregular verbs (others typically have hundreds, or even thousands, depending on how you count them).

One aspect of Irish that people may complain about is that it is a harder language to practice. In fact, Irish is an official language of the European Union, and there are multiple streamed radio stations and TV shows you can watch for free online. You could spend your entire day getting bombarded with several options to expose yourself to Irish. There are also online discussion groups, and if you make it to Ireland, the wonderful Gaeltacht regions have many tens of thousands of people using Irish as their main language throughout the day.

The phonetic system can seem intimidating, but it’s actually quite logical. Celtic languages change the beginning of words; English, in contrast, changes only the middle (like “man” versus “men”) or the end (like “pen” versus “pens”). If you just replaced the first letter immediately, you wouldn’t recognize the word as easily. Because of this, we have two-letter combinations to mean a different sound. “Dog” is madra, “my” is mo, but “my dog” is mo mhadra, with mh sounding like w. This interesting feature takes a little getting used to, but it is much more consistent than English spelling and pronunciation rules, and it gives the language a wonderful sound and melody.

The fact that the original letter remains, despite the change in sound, also means that you can look up that word in a dictionary. For example, with i gcrann for “in a tree”—the c is silent but essential for recognizing the original word, crann, in case you want to look it up. I see this as a great helping feature for learners. All good courses will cover the phonetic rules in just a short lesson or two.

Learning new vocabulary, despite less familiar words, is very straightforward. You start to recognize word beginnings and ends and can even deduce the meanings of new words. “Astronomy” is réalteolaíocht (réalta = “star,” eolas = “knowledge” or “information,” íocht = the suffix [such as -y, -ity, etc.]; or more generally, the second part, eolaíocht = “science,” so “star science”). And then sometimes we just separate the words in an easy way. “Exit” is simply bealach amach (“way out”).

For much more about Irish, including videos and many resources, see fi3m.com/irish.

Sign Language

One of my favorite languages is American Sign Language. It is indeed different in each country; British Sign Language (BSL) is vastly different, although ASL took a lot of inspiration from French Sign Language (LSF, Langue des Signes Française).

This feels like the most natural language to use, as you express yourself fully with your body—so much so that I find it more efficient to use to express many concepts than spoken or written languages.

One of the best things by far, though, is that after learning the alphabet very well (both recognizing it and practicing doing it yourself), a beginner never needs a dictionary or to refer back to a spoken language. Once you have done this, whenever you come across a sign you don’t understand, you simply ask the person you are signing with to finger-spell it for you, and you can do the same, finger-spell a word when you don’t know its sign. You will have to do this a lot, at the start, and get used to people finger spelling quickly, but the great thing is that you can stay within sign language as a learner.

When you do learn a new sign, it is almost always intuitively logical. The sign incorporates a position relative to the body or a shape or an action, or it adapts the sign of a letter, which makes its meaning apparent. As such, sometimes you can even guess when you aren’t confident, to fill in the gaps.

With some wording changes (you don’t speak from day one, but sign from day one), a lot of what I wrote about already is applicable to learning sign language. Try to spend time with signers, deaf or hard of hearing people, or sign language teachers from the very beginning and get used to using the language for real with them. You don’t even have to live near a deaf community (such as Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, or the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, Texas) because you can learn it via Skype! If anything, video calls over Skype, Google+, your smartphone, or other like systems are ideally suited to ASL because of how visual the language is. Finally, there are countless wonderful video blogs (vlogs) in ASL on YouTube.

For much more on ASL and other sign languages, see fi3m .com/sign.

Other Languages

I hope you are seeing in this book that it’s all about getting started with saying something. The purpose of this chapter has been to give you some encouragement in whatever language you may be learning and to show you that you can look at its complex features in a different way, so that you can get into using the language as soon as possible.

There are so many languages, I couldn’t possibly cover them all in this chapter, but I hope this sample helps most of you. If the language you are learning is not listed here, don’t worry. I have written encouraging summaries, or used guest posts from a speaker of that language to write a summary, and you can find them on fi3m.com/langs, with new ones added regularly.

For more about concepts related to grammar in language learning, grammatical features like cognates, modal verbs, conjugations, and much more related to topics introduced in this chapter, check out fi3m.com/ch–6.

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