five more language acquisition tips

It’s been about a year and a half since I took my last French language class. Since crossing over to literature courses, I’ve had some minor anxieties about losing my grasp of grammar and conventions. While I may be familiarizing myself more with the deployment and use of language in its native format (in literature, in print media, in film, in seminar conversations), I’ve nonetheless had to keep at my basic grammar skills in addition to my studies.

I wrote a post a year ago about tips for learning languages, and I’m going to add on to this list today with some tips for maximizing your energy as a language learner.

  • Learn IPA: IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet, is a helpful tool for anyone interested in learning how a language functions phonetically. IPA is a universal system through which words can be transcribed and therefore pronounced through a set of phoneme representations in Latin (or Latin-like characters). Now, IPA is not necessarily intuitive at first; certain sounds are pretty analogous to their English equivalents, like /g/ in good or /s/ in s Others are not, like /dʒ/ in judge, are not. It will take some time to learn all of the steps and mechanisms of IPA, and for some languages it’s more complex than others. For instance, Mandarin, due to its tonal nature, has markers which tell you what the tone is (these are also present in pinyin). For French, IPA is helpful for distinguishing similarly sounding phonemes, like /u/ in joue /ʒu/ and jus /ʒy/. The vowels [ou] and [u], to the English speaker, look indistinguishable, given that [ou] and [u] in English are often the same sound, as in the words you and june. The phoneme /y/ however, rarely is used in English. IPA is even more helpful more helpful for learning English because it quite frankly doesn’t make much phonemic sense. English is a wildly irregular language in terms of its orthography, and IPA allows English learners to better gauge how certain words are pronounced. Unlike orthographic systems, IPA is universal; it does not change depending on language or even dialect. The /u/ phoneme which appears in Azeri is the same /u/ that appears in Icelandic.

  • Study the function and natures of words : The process of learning a language often involves a sense of mimicry: you hear your professor say a phrase coupled with a translation, and you therefore apply that same phrase with perhaps a different predicate. “I go to the store” becomes “I go to the museum” or “She goes to the bar” or “I went to the farm.” Yet, not all verbs act the same. While you can replace the object in this sentence, or replace the subject and its verbal conjugation, you cannot replace the verb without taking into consideration its attached prepositions. “Go” as a verb functions in a way which “enjoy” does not. Not only would swapping “go” with “enjoy” make the sentence illogical, but it would also cease to make syntactical sense either. (“I go to the store” -> “I enjoy to the store”) Words have specific functions and the nomenclature which gives us a way of studying language is important for a language learner’s ability to understand the moving parts of language. Words like adjective, adverb, verb, noun and preposition are important to know, and many of you may be familiar with these terms from your grade school education. Other words, like conjunction, locution / idioms / turns of phrase, transitive, intransitive, direct/indirect object, reflexive, complement or compound, may be new to the student sitting in their first German class. Even more terms, like agglutinative, fusional, and polysynthetic, are terms which are used to talk about language purely in the field of linguistics and language theory, and therefore may not be directly useful to a new speaker.

 

I will give a few examples of the above terms as they function in English, French and Spanish.

Word

Definition

Examples

adjective

A word or phrase which describes a noun.

The house is blue.

La maison est bleue.

La casa es azul.

adverb

A word or phrase which describes a verb.

He walks quickly.

Il marche vite.

El anda rápidamente.

transitive verb

A verb which takes a direct object.

I take the bus.

Je prends le bus.

Yo tomo el autobus.

intransitive verb

A verb which does not take a direct object or takes an indirect object.

No object

I exist.

J’existe.

Yo existo.

Indirect object

I managed to get home.

J’ai réussi à rentrer chez moi.

Yo sucedía volver.

reflexive verb

Often referred to as a pronominal verb; takes the subject or a derivative of the subject as the object.

I stopped myself from eating.

Je me suis arrêté de manger.

Yo me he detenido de comer.

If we look at Wolof, for example, we’ll see that verbs and adjectives function differently in ways which cannot necessarily be boiled down to these apparently universal truths listed above. For example, the word for “black” in Wolof is ñuul, but ñuul does not function as an adjective to be attached to a coda, as in “The dog is black,” but an adjectival verb which in English would be represented like “the dog blacks.” (xaj ñuul la).

  •  Buy / find dictionaries : Once you’ve figured out how to use words given their functions, you can now begin using words effectively. While you may not be used to using a physical dictionary, they’re quite useful because they often include conjugation schemas and multiple deployments of each word. I have two French dictionaries, as well as a Wolof dictionary, and I haven’t spent much money on any of them. I would recommend going to used-book stores for more popularly-studied languages, like Spanish, Italian and German. You can find lots of language dictionaries online, although many of these dictionaries are not regularized and therefore take specific creative liberties with the translation of ideas.
  • Use Wikipedia in other languages : Wikipedia has pages in hundreds of languages. Some of these languages are wildly underrepresented, though, so those interested in languages like Igbo or Yoruba may have difficulty finding Wikipedia pages. Nonetheless, Wikipedia has an array of articles in several languages. To begin, try looking up New York City or Russia or the Bible in your language of choice on Wikipedia.
  • Get a pen pal : Best way to practice al language is to use it constantly and its primary purpose ; interpersonal communication. Pen pal websites, like InterPal and PenPalWorld, or even websites like Lang-8, allow users to engage with native speakers in a mutual linguistic exchange. It will also allow you to engage with the culture of a language’s speakers.

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