Every little helps

In an interview I found the other day, Barry Farber, author of How to Learn Any Language, mentions how he learns a new Tibetan word or phrase from the Tibetan woman who works in a nearby local grocery store every time he goes there. He also hopes to use the same method to learn some Moray from a man from Burkina Faso who works in his local liquor store. He says that there’s a big difference between knowing nothing of a language and knowing a little – if you know a little, you can greet people in their mother tongue and have very basic conversations with them, and that this is a great way to break the ice and to make new friends.

I’m definitely going to try this – the next time I take my laundry to the laundrette, for example, I’ll see if I can learn a word or phrase in Hindi. At the office I can learn phrases in Catalan, Polish, Arabic, Hungarian and Norwegian. Elsewhere I can learn bits of Bulgarian, Czech, Slovak, Dutch, Farsi and probably a few others. Maybe I’ll also write the phrases down in a notebook and/or record them on my mp3 player. This will be fun!

Another point Barry discusses is how to explain which languages you ‘speak’. In fact, he advises that you say something like “I have studied/am studying X number of languages” or “I am a student of X number of languages” rather than saying, as I tend to do, “I speak 10/12/15 languages, with varying degrees of fluency.” or “I speak English and Mandarin fluently, have a good knowledge of 8 other languages and a basic knowledge of 10 more”. Instead, I will say that I’m am student of 20 languages, 15 of which I’ve studied in some depth.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

11 Responses to Every little helps

  1. Tony says:

    I used to visit Japan regularly and never seriously attempted to learn to speak Japanese, partly because I discovered that most Japanese do not actually take it as a compliment if you try; it is THEIR language and not something for gaijin to play around with, though of course they pretend to fall about with admiration if you master a few words.
    But I did try to pick up a dozen or so phrases each time I went. The trouble with this was that after I got up to a couple of hundred I started to forget one for each new one I learnt.

  2. Laci the Hun says:

    (may I ask) what do you know in Hungarian? 🙂

  3. Podolsky says:

    I have been using this method since my young years, and I can tell you it works. In this way you won’t be able to speak the new language, only maybe a few standard expressions, but if you are interested in the language, it’s a good start. I still remember some Chinese words which I picked up from a translated novel.
    I also know about a dozen Hungarian words although I never studied the language: szervusz, uj, jo (I don’t know to write diacritics while in internet), viszontlatasra, ember, hal, haz.

  4. Simon says:

    Laci – I know very little Hungarian at the moment – just a few basic words and phrases, plus numbers. One of my colleagues is Hungarian, and I plan to ask her to teach me more.

  5. anònim says:

    Interesting, there’s a catalan at your office. I hope you have fun learning it 😉


  6. Laci the Hun says:

    Dear Podolsky

    I’ll teach you one more, if you don’t mind 🙂

    so “új” means “new” but “ujj” means “finger” (be careful with the pronunciation :))

  7. bulbul says:

    Elsewhere I can learn bits of Bulgarian, Czech, Slovak, Dutch, Farsi and probably a few others.
    Wow, I wished I lived in your neighborhood :o)

    Should you ever require any assistance concerning Slovak, Czech, Dutch and Arabic, just let me know. And in case Laci is ever on holiday, same goes for Hungarian :o)

  8. Simon says:

    bulbul – Brighton (where I live) is a very cosmopolitan place. There are people here from all over the world. Many live here, others come here on holiday or to study. In fact it’s quite unusual to meet someone who was born here – most people, including myself, come from elsewhere.

  9. Polly says:

    I agree with Farber’s suggestion as to the question, “how many languages do you speak. ” It’s wonderfully humble and will prevent the embarrassment that comes from setting expectations too high.
    My office is a veritable U.N.. I take every opportunity to learn words and phrases of languages I didn’t know and to practice various languages that I do know. And a little does go a long way.

  10. renato says:

    I have harber1s book, and it is a really very usefull book for anyone who wants to learn a language. He uses a simply language, which touches us, on how we may study any language easier. As I love to learn language, I am always re-reading and consulting Farber’s book.

  11. Duncan says:

    I’ve always thought that the approach of learning only words and phrases is a very sensible one. I can communicate in Spanish and am trying to learn French but I still want to dabble with other languages and there is no way that (for me personally) I have the time (or mental ability) to learn many more. But I still want to be polite when I visit or see people of other nationalities. Most recently I’ve been learning a few words of Polish (I live in the UK), but there are lots of opportunities to make people smile with a quick Cześć (hello) in our local shops.

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