How to Learn Languages

Today on the Ukrainian blog, I’m sharing advice on how to learn another language. My main suggestion is to stop bending over textbooks and start looking into people’s faces. You can only learn to speak a language by speaking, listening and reading in the language.

Also – and this is true for any learning – if it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right and won’t have a result. The brain loves stability and hates anything genuinely new. If you are listening to a lecture and nothing disturbs, bothers, annoys or tires you, congratulations, you just wasted your time. Seek discomfort, avoid “safe spaces.”


14 thoughts on “How to Learn Languages

    1. I’ve never been on it myself and never met people who learned to speak on one of these websites. Language is about human communication. Find a human and speak to them if you want real progress.


    2. ” wouldn’t reccomend sites like Duolingo”

      I wouldn’t say duolingo is completely useless but nothing it does really leads to fluency. It’s okay for maintaining some level of familiary with vocabulary and/or basic sentence patterns of a language you already know but… not much more.
      And… the gamification leds to people skipping real learning in favor of collecting points or advancing levels.

      What I tell people:
      Read out loud (if it’s a language that that is feasible for). It doesn’t matter what you read out loud (or if you understand it or mispronounce a bunch of words).
      I think it’s effective because it integrates visual, audio and kinesthetic learning at the same time.
      You don’t have to do to much – 2-3 minutes 4 -5 times a week is plenty (though you’ll often go over that because it’s also fun).

      Also, work out your short term memory a lot
      For example
      Find a short text, read and reread the first sentence until you can write it from memory.
      Close the book, write it down
      Check it (any mistakes – redo the whole sentence until you can write it correctly without looking at the book (or previous attempts).
      Proceed to second sentence and so on.
      Memorizing short dialogues or text for recitation can also help (though then you want to start from the end, memorize the final sentence first, then the one before it etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. These are really great ideas. It’s very important to practice speaking and reading aloud. It very often happens that it all sounds great in your mind but once you open your mouth and try to emit actual sounds, they come out completely garbled. We need to retrain our entire articulation apparatus to make noises in another language. It’s very similar to training a group of muscles. It takes consistent, repeated exercise.

        For instance, now that I am trying to recover my Ukrainian, I find that vowels are a torture. It all sounds beautiful in my head but the second I try to speak, something very ugly emerges from my mouth. And it’s simply the untrained facial muscles.


        1. ” I find that vowels are a torture”

          Is it because they’re not reduced or something else? One of the reasons that spoken russian is so opaque to me is the levelling of most o’s to a and a bunch of vowels to a blurry, slurred i sound…


          1. Exactly, this is the perfect way of describing it that I’ve been looking for. The vowels are a lot more defined in Ukrainian. So I have to make an effort to avoid blurring them.


  1. Everyone I have heard who tried to use Duolingo for Japanese actually got worse results than what Cliff’s suggesting is the norm.

    Here’s part of the problem: Japanese in Latin alphabet form is called “romaji”, and the early translators pushing books for Japanese that used it were primarily Spanish speakers second and English speakers first.

    The first of these “romaji” forms is known as Hepburn “romaji” or “Hebonshiki”, and it uses macrons over characters that have been difficult to reproduce until Unicode 5+, meaning that it’s taken decades for Hepburn “romaji” to be written on computers the way it’s supposed to be written.

    During that time, an alternate form of “romaji” came about that doesn’t require the special characters, but you have to know when “ou” is the long O form (written in Hepburn with a bar over it) and when it’s not.

    So that “romaji” was created for Japanese people needing to transliterate into English.

    These early translators also laid out vocabulary as if they were doing it for Spanish, along with verb conjugations, and book after book has copied this style without questioning it.

    That’s been a huge mistake.

    Japanese is a language where the speaker generally comes from context, and only when it isn’t obvious does anyone bother with saying it, with usage typically not being at the start of a sentence.

    And so “yo hablo” and “yo entiendo” are simply “shaberimasu” and “wakarimasu” … or are they?

    Endings change the meanings, and so you have “imasu” forms of verbs that are reasonably polite.

    You also have to learn the endings, and this is more complicated than just learning tenses.

    But the general rule of leaving out “watashi wa” which fills in the space of “yo” in Spanish?

    It’s only something that people who are learning Japanese from Japanese people tend to get right from the start.

    “Watashi wa is a lie”, that’s how some Westerners have put it, and they’ve learned this lie over the generations starting with those English/Spanish speakers responsible for Hepburn “romaji” (which refuses to go away).

    Google Translate used to be so hilarious with “watashi wa” over and over and over that you could immediately tell it was a bad machine translation.

    So without further ado about “watashi wa” and its other cousins which are also typically not present …

    “Do itamashita ka?” 🙂


    1. ” Duolingo for Japanese ”

      Oh yeah, duolingo is worse than useless for very non-western languages, especially ones where the traditions built up around teaching it to foreigners are largely dysfunctional. Japanese is a bullseye on both of those with lots of features that cannot/will not be learned by adults without explicit explanation and the Japanese for foreigners textbook tradition makes things even worse.

      Have you read “Japan’s Modern Myth: the Language and Beyond” by Roy Andrew Miller? A lot of reads more like science fiction than the real world though everything in it was confirmed to me by people who knew Japan well.

      I’m told things have since gotten a lot better but I don’t think that will show up on duolingo….


      1. “Japan’s Modern Myth” is a great book, the only pity is that so few people have read it or know about it. It really opened my eyes to the reality both of learning and teaching a language that was basically an invented non-reality, something used by foreign learners that was next to useless, especially for advanced levels of communication. As a teacher (for a very short time) of Japanese there wasn’t much I could do, since basically all materials are (or were, that’s almost twenty years ago) built around it, but it did help me enormously as a learner.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I read “Japan’s Modern Myth” many ages ago, it’s a Showa era book, and I read it in the Showa era.

        I haven’t had much of a reason to read it again.

        “Showa era” is this way that Japanese people have of saying “the 1980s” and before, and there’s a lot of nostalgia built around it because what followed included a major economic crisis.

        It’s also a clear demarcation point of saying that things that applied then don’t apply now.

        Despite the best wishes of many people, the 1990s economic crisis hasn’t ended, and so “Showa era” is also a way of saying that different conditions applied, and so don’t expect things to be the same anymore.

        The “bubble economy” bust wasn’t all bad, as it forced most Japanese people to get used to new things and new ways of doing things.

        Such as Daiso and Don Quixote, 100 yen shops that sell stuff that let you get by with what you need as well as a few inexpensive novelties, which didn’t really take off until the “bubble economy” burst and people couldn’t afford the major department stores as much anymore.

        So there’s this thing in present-day Japanese that’s irritating to me, and I’ve been away long enough that I’m not even sure whether what I learned was correct or not.

        There’s a neighbourhood around Sotokanda in Tokyo that has a certain ending to the word.

        There’s this singer of Citypop (late Showa era pop music) who has that same ending to her last name.

        People learning Japanese learn this rule: the emphasis goes on the next to last syllable.

        So to me and everyone else who learned Japanese during the Showa era, the neighbourhood is AkihaBAra and the singer’s last name is MatsuBAra, with the emphasis on the BA syllable.

        But now I hear Japanese people pronouncing the neighbourhood AkiHAbuhruh while still pronouncing the singer’s name MatsuBAra (instead of presumably MatSOObuhruh).

        What’s the point?

        Did the people of Tokyo always pronounce it this way and it got turned into a regular form by outsiders?

        I don’t know, because maybe it was always this way, but during the Showa era, the dominant forces in the media pushed the preferred local pronunciation to the side in favour of consistency.

        Now that it’s the “Reiwa era”, I doubt there will be much of an explanation as to why, and I’ll keep hearing this weird inconsistent way of saying it not because it’s right, but because there’s nobody around to know the history and to state clearly why it’s probably wrong.

        So AkiHAbuhruh it is. 🙂

        And so now that now we’re in the “Reiwa era”, there are some explanations of “modern myths” in Japan that have taken on the form of persistent myths themselves that refuse to go away.

        Talking about myths, there’s the myth that was Shintaro Ishihara’s “The Japan That Can Say No”, anyone remember that?

        He was right and continues to be right: Japan needs to be much more assertive when dealing with the US.

        But he was wrong about so many other things that this book continues to be ranked internationally among the ten worst foreign policy books ever written.

        Ishihara became Governor of Tokyo about a decade after the book, despite the ridiculous predictions.

        Now Japan has “black companies” that are far worse than anything anyone had imagined during the Showa era or anything that’s allowed to persist in America, and so the idea he promoted of a “superior Japanese culture” is a bit of a laugh.

        The “Heisei era” was supposed to be an era of peace, but it was also in some ways an era of stagnation.

        Also, for those who caught my bit about Hepburn “romaji”: it’s actually Shōwa.

        Some people actually bother with “Shouwa”, others don’t.

        So Clarissa, be prepared to watch consistently for inconsistencies. 🙂


        1. “it’s a Showa era book”

          That’s when I read it too. I was less interested in the general ethnocentrism and more in the creation of the…. thing they called “Japanese” in textbooks of the time (I had had no idea why it was like that and the book was… illuminating).
          Also the whole description of how and why Japanese of the time learned “English” was fascinating (and very surreal).

          Another great and fun showa book was “Japanese in Action” by Jack Seward.

          “Speed Tribes” by Karl Taro Greenfeld seems to be a chronicle of the end of Showa

          “Showa… Shōwa… Shouwa”

          What about Syouwa?

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Right, one last bit on Japanese and Japan before moving on …

    I don’t think Clarissa is going to get the full background of why the Showa era was a doomed golden age from this book, but while we were living it, everyone seemed to know that it might end but had no idea how or when.

    So when it ended in 1991, I was in a major US city helping a very well known architect with several problems that included how to interface with Japanese engineers brought in to build what was at the time the only building in the entire metro area built to Pacific Rim earthquake standards.

    Finding a Japanese translator was hard, but finding someone with knowledge of technical Japanese for architecture and engineering? That would be considered “very difficult” if “luck” hadn’t been on their side.

    My ear was already to the ground expecting the worst, and so I left for the US, knowing that while there wasn’t a huge boom, I could at least find steady work with other architects.

    One local television station amazingly had several early morning Japanese news shows, and so I’d make the habit of waking up at 0530 so I could tune in, trying to keep up with Japan in the hopes that the miasma would perhaps one day blow through. Of course, back in 1991, many people didn’t even have dial-up Internet, and so having this coverage at all was a minor miracle.

    The first show started out with showing the huge drop that day, and as each news programme went on, the news got worse and worse.

    I called up the lead architect and told him nobody in the Japanese engineering staff would be coming in that day on time or perhaps at all that day.

    “You’re all sick because of a hangover?”

    “No. The Japanese economy just crashed. They will all be on the phone to their families today.”

    “Shit … how bad?”

    “My guess is 1929 levels of bad. This may not be over for decades.”

    And it wasn’t: this period during the Heisei era is now referred to as the “lost decades” era.

    Plus, it’s still not over yet!

    So to me parts of Japan stopped in the Showa era, and while I’ve had a lot of experiences since then, it is absolutely clear to me that I could never move back to where I was.

    Thomas Wolfe is right again, pity too few Americans these days have read his works.

    But while the magic was magical, the culture reflected that.

    Citypop was a kind of music popular in late Showa era Japan (the 1980s).

    The best known artist was Tatsuro Yamashita (pronounced “Tawt-SUE-row Yah-MAH-sh-tah”), who for many people was like the Elvis of Japan. (Also, witness the pre-Showa era reluctance to say “shi” or to put emphasis on it, as taught to me by my teachers, and so the next to last syllable rule has an exception, BTW.)

    Even the album covers back then resembled Hiro Yamagata paintings.

    It’s not that I don’t have a lot of love for lots of things from the Showa era: my house has one Hiro Yamagata original in it plus a very, very rare print.

    So try this on YouTube, it’s “Sparkle” by Tatsuro Yamashita:

    [obfuscated link removed]

    Your blog software eats links, so we’ll try this instead.

    Just look for “tatsuro yamashita sparkle FOR YOU” on YouTube.

    See if you can find some Mariya Takeuchi (Tatsuro Yamashita’s eventual wife) and Miki Matsubara as well.

    BTW, Citypop got a refresh in popular culture back in 2021, so this may not be all that new to you, and if you listen to “lo-fi girl”, you’ve probably been directed to some of this by The Algorithm.


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