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Learning languages, the easy way

Attempting to learn by conversation and interaction when you don’t have the ability to make a sentence is also pointless. So, the best method is to combine academic/book study, with immersion and interaction. You need to talk to people as much as possible. You need to create situations where you are immersed in the language. This is one reason why I do martial arts. I am usually the only foreigner there, and martial art is a sport where you need to talk to and listen to your teacher. This forces you to use your new language. Joining a chess club may be less effective.

But the question still remains, how do you really learn a language?

I remember coming home from high school French class telling my father, ‘French is so hard, they have something called comparative and superlative.’ Comparative and superlative simply means learning structures such as big, bigger, biggest, or good, better, best. Obviously English, like every language on Earth has comparative and superlative. But, since most of us never do an academic study on our native tongue, we find it harder to learn a foreign language. In fact most American linguists will tell you they first learned English grammar when they were learning a foreign language.

I came home with a similar complaint about French language containing ordinal numbers, verb tenses, and grammatical moods, all of which are also common to English, but which I was unaware of.

Later, when I was studying Spanish, I thought I had gotten off easy, because the pronunciation was so much easier for me. But, I nearly quit when I found out Spanish also had comparative, superlative, ordinal numbers, verb tenses and grammatical moods.

By the time I began studying German, I anticipated these and other structures. And when they came up, I was ready for them. I was unaware of it at the time, but what I had done was I had built boxes in my brain, which were labeled with various grammatical structures. Learning German was the turning point, in my linguistic development. It was then they I completed my warehouse of linguistic structure boxes.   So, now when I approach a brand new language, I simply imagine that my structure boxes are empty and need to be filled. I approach language learning with the idea that I already know language, I just don’t know the vocabulary for this particular language. Once I clear that single hurdle then I will be speaking language better than eighty percent of foreigners.

Now. When I enter a foreign language class, I have a list of questions which I ask my teacher on the first day, so I can begin to fill my structure boxes.

1.       Is this language tonal?
2.       Does it have articles?
3.       Tell me a list of pronouns.
4.       Tell me the particles used for ordinal numbers.
5.       Are there verb conjugations?
6.       Are future and past made with a conjugation or with the addition of a simple particle (in some languages to make past or future you just add one syllable to the verb. If you learn this one syllable early on, you will suddenly be able to speak in past and future. You will astound your friends!)
7.       Do men and women have different registers of speech?
8.       Tell me the comparative and superlative?

Next I have a list of basic phrases and ideas that I find are needed on a daily basis.

Remember, you are the boss in your lessons. You are paying the bills. And, you call the shots. Some teachers want to teach you on a ridiculously theoretical level which is inappropriate for someone just starting out or who wants to be able to function in a foreign country. Other teachers will talk a lot because they want to practice their English.

I tell my teachers straight up, on day one. ‘I paid for an hour and a half of language lessons. Ninety minutes from now, if I don’t know hello, how are you, my name is, how much is it, and the numbers one through ten, you are fired.’

So, now you know twenty languages, how do you keep them straight?

In our research we discovered a very interesting phenomena. Children raised bi or tri-lingualy knew what language to speak to whom. For example, one of our neighbors in Germany was a Chinese family, where the husband and wife were both studying translation. Their four year old daughter knew that when she talked to her parents, she should speak Chinese. And when she talked to Caucasian people she should speak German. But when a Japanese lecturer came from the United States, she became confused, he looked Asian, but didn’t understand Chinese. He wasn’t Caucasian, so in her mind, speaking to him in German would make no sense. In the end, she just refused to talk to him.

Other children knew to speak French to the mother and German to the father, for example, those children would always have to wait for outsiders to talk first, before knowing how to talk to them. One of my neighbors spoke Arabic to his son. His wife was Italian, so she spoke to him that language. The little boy anticipated that he should speak German to everyone else. Occasionally, the mother would talk to him German, and he would just get confused.

The appearance of the conversation partner will trigger a language to come out. It would be hard to kook at a Latino friend and speak Korean.  Given this concept, it is nearly impossible for me to accidentally speak German to my Asian friends. Their faces, the sites, sounds, smells and tastes of the country we are in will trigger Asian languages, not European.

In my brain, my warehouse of boxes, labeled with grammatical structures became a honeycomb. The warehouse has various doors, labeled German, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Khmer, French, Italian, Thai, English and Russian. Once you open the appropriate language door, inside is a series of structure boxes, comparative, superlatives, ordinal numbers, recent past, improbably future, words for addressing monks and royalty. For languages such as Chinese, Korean, Khmer, Russian and Thai, the labels are written in the local scrip. The Korean boxes are labeled in both Korean and Chinese.

I can’t have interference from another language because I have opened the door labeled with the language I wish to speak.

Communication is both physical and mental. Language learning is the same way. To learn languages, to really master them, physical changes must occur in your brain. You must build the appropriate storage facility to store each of your languages, and create new, blank storage facilities to store your next language.

Checkout Antonio’s website.

Get Antonio’s books at
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa

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