How to Learn a Language

(it's not how they teach you in school ...)

I have become fluent in two foreign languages, Russian and Mandarin Chinese, by somewhat different methods which I explain below.


I initially started learning Russian in college as a practical tool to aid in reading Soviet science journals, which at the time I thought might be useful. The total collapse of the USSR, however, made this motivation somewhat moot, as any physics articles worth their salt were usually written in or translated into English (occasionally, however, I do run into an interesting old article in Russian). Nonetheless, a combination of fascination with Russian literature and culture and my own slavic ethnic background sustained my momentum as I plodded through introductory Russian courses at Carnegie-Mellon University. I was asymptotically approaching the level of a mediocre student until my father (himself an accomplished polyglot) started coaching me on the subject: aside from giving me various verb/grammar books to pore over, the threshold for me was his buying me a Russian-Russian dictionary --- here there were no crutches on English to rely on, if you didn't understand a definition you had to look up the words in the definition, then look up the words in that definition, and so on (the cycle does sufficiently close after a while, assuming your level is ready for this kind of training, which luckily mine was). That way, you keep your mind 100% in the foreign language. Looking up a word in the dictionary was now a slightly time-consuming exercise in itself, and if I had to look up every unknown word this way it would take forever to read even one short Chekhov play. So, my father gave me a second piece of advice: only look up a word if it appears three times. The logic? Well, if a word doesn't appear three times in some story or article you're reading, it probably isn't very central to the context --- if you look it up you'll quickly forget it again. On the other hand, words which appear three or more times are usually linked with the story, so they're easier to remember afterwards. Other techniques my dad taught me include transcribing radio broadcasts (TV works too, and may be easier and more readily enjoyable, though I find the ears are trained less due to visual distraction), memorizing and reciting poems (hard but effective!!) and songs. I didn't know a lot of Russian songs, but my father and, inadvertently, I, had been listening to Ukrainian songs on the radio for years. I found them much more moving (even Russians will admit this) and so memorized them ! Ukrainian is close enough to Russian that learning the one gives you some knowledge of the other, even imparting to you a cool twang in the process, so this was not a reckless detour. My father had recorded hundreds of songs from this radio station (hosted by Vasilii Sharvan and Ihor Chmola) on cassette tape over the years, which I initially listened to often, but I was concerned with the inevitable deteriorating quality of the tapes. Finally, in 2002 I went about digitally remastering the lot of them! Almost 500 songs total are now immortalized. My father also encouraged me to find conversation partners, which was easy enough in a university environment.

After three years my Russian was top of the class, which at the upper levels was mostly reading short excerpts and articles. Outside of class, however, I devoured Tolstoy, Golgol, Chekhov, Dostievskii, among dozens of other authors, like a starving man attacking a banquet. All the training paid off like I had never imagined! But the last step to achieve full fluency, to really think and live like a Russian, was to actually go to Russia. This I did in 1993 after graduating with my B.S. in Physics. I had made enough Russian friends (via conversation partners) in college that I could literally plan in advance everywhere I was going to stay all over Russia, without ever booking a single hotel! Since I don't look too different from a Russian as well, I could also meld into the society without anyone knowing! My trips to Russia number three: 1993, 2003, and 2006 (see Travel for a few pics). Oh, the adventures! (check back here later as I add them!)



First of all, why did I start to learn Chinese? It is notoriously difficult not only for its tonal structure (there are at least 4 tones to every word), but also for its writing system (there are over 80,000 characters!) ... what could be more different from my native English? Well, that's one of the reasons why I decided to learn it! I've always been one for challenges, and it seemed to me that English, Russian, and Chinese formed an interesting triangle linguistically and geographically as well --- surely if I could master these languages, others would only be intermediate in difficulty. The second reason to learn Chinese was so I could more directly access the literature of Buddhism and Weiqi, which I was becoming increasingly attracted to in graduate school. In retrospect, there must have been other reasons in connection with my scientific background, probably related to the fact that Chinese culture is extraordinarily systematic (more on this later).

At the onset of this adventure, however, I knew all about college language courses (you could say I was a little jaded!) and decided to try a different way, an experimental path! Could Chinese, this atrociously contrived tongue with multiple tones and thousands of twisty little symbols, be mastered without spending a dime on a college course? I decided to try. The writing system provided a unique hurdle, so I decided to start with that by practicing calligraphy every morning before breakfast. I wish I could remember the name of the book I used: every page was devoted to one big black character, with an explanation of its meaning and etymology, plus there was other practical knowledge in there like how to use a Chinese dictionary. In addition, I practiced pronunciation from library cassettes (this was boring, ... not sure if it was useful either). For fun, I also read a treatise on Chinese grammar, in Russian! (I also kept a Russian-Chinese dictionary around, cross-checking meanings with an English-Chinese one). Progress was slow at first, but I eventually got to recognize all the basic strokes and radicals ... nevertheless learning characters, which are conglomerations of radicals, is a totally different story, and I knew the mountain ahead of me was high indeed. But experience with Russian, if my theory was correct, should also apply to Chinese. Namely, I would eventually have to:

1. Acquire a totally foreign language dictionary.

2. Read, only looking up a word if it appears at least 3 times.

3. Transcribe radio broadcasts.

4. Memorize songs and poetry.

5. Practice with conversation partners.

6. GO to the country.

These I did: with Oakland and SF Chinatowns nearby, there was no problem with steps #1, #2, and #4. As for #3, my father had given me a short wave radio, enabling me to pick up broadcasts from Taiwan and China (mostly religious programs, though). Berkeley was full of Chinese students, so I quickly acquired conversation partners (almost had to hold them off with a stick!), meeting two or three times a week with them. However, I quickly learned there is a great deal of variety in Chinese speakers' dialects. My first conversation partner was a Tibetan, and others were Taiwanese, so I guess I acquired a somewhat non-standard accent! Anyways, this worked! After two or three years of sticking to this routine (perhaps 10 hours a week, total), I had become functionally fluent in Mandarin and could more-or-less read the newspaper (this only requires a roughly 1000-character vocabulary). Step #6 was next, which fit right into my plans to continue doing physics in China (see Travel). I eventually ended up living in China for eight years and marrying a Sichuanese girl, so by now I am totally fluent and not too shabby at writing (it turns out there are many more opportunities to practice speaking than writing), though occasionally I run into a grammar problem I never learned before. So this is the only problem with skipping a college course: some fundamentals might be neglected, which in the long run will come back to bite you. But for everyday living, my Chinese is more than adequate, so the experiment worked!


The lesson from all of this, then, is that it is quite possible to self-learn a foreign language following steps 1-6 above. BUT, if an introductory college course is available to you, it is probably best to suffer through a semester of two of basics just to be sure you don't miss something vital. I don't think any language in the world is so difficult that you need to spend more time than that in college --- get out and active as soon as you can, for the most learning occurs in real-life situations!