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Learning foreign languages to high levels of communication proficiency was the first adult learning challenge I took on. I majored in Chinese at university and worked for quite a few years as a Chinese-English interpreter and translator. I'll back up what pg said with a data point from academic research. The online article "How to Become a Good Theoretical Physicist,"

http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~hooft101/theorist.html

by a Nobel laureate in physics who is a native speaker of Dutch, makes clear what the key learning task is to be a good physicist: "English is a prerequisite. If you haven't mastered it yet, learn it. You must be able to read, write, speak and understand English." On his list of things to learn for physics, that even comes before mathematics.

I like to share advice on language learning, because this topic comes up on Hacker News frequently. I hope the FAQ information below helps hackers achieve their dreams. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.




This is completely tangential and I'm not sure if this is off-topic enough to be considered breaking the rules, but you are by far my favorite commenter on HN, and perhaps even the internet. Every post you write is a joy to read, and I know that when I see a comment by "tokenadult" I am in for an informative and thorough break-down of the subject matter. Thank you, and please keep posting.


I guess this is one of those cases where I wish that the commenter would submit a link to their blog, instead of posting an interesting-yet-not-really-on-topic-way-too-long comment. [1]

[1] To refresh everyone's memory, pg's essay is about what happens when founders have trouble making themselves understood, while tokenadult's comment is about how to learn a foreign language.


His comment was specifically about learning how to speak a foreign language with a reasonably "native"-sounding quality — i.e. what the stumbling blocks are that lead to hard-to-understand accents (and/or difficulty understanding native accents) and how to get past them. It seems pretty relevant to me.


I think it's fine to post a comment like this to HN, absolutely we are better for it. However it should also be posted to a blog so it's not lost to the sands of time.


That post was on topic. He explained why it is so hard to be made understood when English is your second language, which was what pg was talking about!


Conversely, I skimmed down the page, saw the list of references at the bottom, and knew it had to be a tokenadult comment.


Wow....just looking at his 'about' section in his profile - that's another essay with references.

Interesting!


I agree. Thank you tokenadult!


I wanted to add that while in my PhD program I was studying this effect for a little while. In studies on ferrets scientists have discovered that the second auditory cortex, A2, tends to collect sonic motifs—things like a quickly rising pitch beginning near middle C, or any kind of warbling, or clear, constant tones at various pitches. Computationally, these motifs can be adapted to a particular corpus in order to improve detection and prediction rates while using a smaller bank of motifs. There's also lots of investigation into how these motif banks can improve robustness to distortions and noise.

As far as I know, it remains speculation that this effect occurs in humans, but it seems by your experiences (and my own learning Mandarin as a second language) plausible that the human brain itself "prunes" less useful sonic motifs in early life improving your ability to rapidly understand your primary language(s) even under shifts in accent or other distortions. This would likely come at the cost of literal inability to be attentive to motifs that haven't been stored. you would perceive them in A1, but they would have less resolution and perhaps semantic meaning (this is as far as I know quite wild speculation, mind).

I remember that it took almost an entire 6 mos of study before I really had a clue what tonality in Mandarin meant—I could hear it, but never perceive it as a linguistic phenomenon. After 6 months it appeared to almost overnight become something sensible to me at which point I had to relearn almost my entire vocabulary including the tonal information that I'd been unknowingly ignoring.


I want to add an interesting personal experience. My native language is a Northeastern dialect in China. The dialect doesn't distinguish well the sounds between /z/ and /zh/, between /c/ and /ch/, and between /s/ and /sh/.

I went to Beijing for college, started speaking Mandarin, and picked it up quickly. But until now, I still regularly make the mistake between /z/ and /zh/, and the other two pair. I am able to easily tell the differences between the sounds themselves. If the sounds are included in a sentence, however, I simply can't tell which is which.

Here is the interesting part. I have no difficulty in distinguishing these sounds in English. I can clearly hear the differences between words like 'sip' or 'ship', no matter if they are spoken as single words or are part of a sentence. My ears will immediately catch the difference. But if it is Mandarin, i will get lost between words like 'ziji' and 'zhiji'.


Yeah, I personally feel that there's a great deal of "modality" in the sonic motifs we are attuned to. It can be remarkable how palpably different "listening in English" is from "listening in Mandarin".


warning: anecdote of 1 here. but one time my native Japanese roommate and I were playing with a real-time audio spectrum analyzer and I was demonstrating the difference b/t "l" and "r" and she simply could not hear the difference.

As tokenadult mentions, it is brutally hard to learn these distinctions. perhaps that is why successful founders push their way past accent problems; they are successful as pushing through brutally hard problems.


'l' is made with the tongue starting at the top of the mouth and striking the bottom, 'r' the tongue stays at the bottom, and the Japanese 'l/r' has the tongue at the top but touching the back of the teeth and it pulls away but it doesn't hit the bottom of the mouth. If you put your finger in your mouth and hold your tongue down you can still make an 'r' sound, but 'l' is impossible, as is 'l/r'.


I can't speak to the articulation of ら &c, but I don't agree with aspects of your description of English articulation.

When pronouncing an 'l' (alveolar lateral), my tongue stays on alveolar ridge of my mouth (the roof, right behind the teeth) for the entire time. When the 'l' sound ends, my tongue leaves the roof of my mouth, but it never "strikes the bottom" of my mouth. If there's a vowel next, it moves to a neutral position for a vowel. If the 'l' was the end of the speech, it just kind of sits in place for a second after the noise stops. If it's followed by another consonant, it moves for that articulation (e.g. when saying "all the sounds", it moves directly from the alveolar ridge to the teeth for the dental fricative).

When pronouncing an 'r' (alveolar approximant), I, and I think most English speakers, roll the tongue backwards to some degree (although not enough that the point of articulation is the bottom of the tongue). I.e. the tongue does not "stay at the bottom". Yes, it is certainly possible to pronounce an English 'r' with the tip of your tongue held down (unlike 'l'), but I think most English speakers would find this "impossible" at first, and then with a minute of practice would realize that it was possible but difficult. In English, these two articulations are perceived as the same phoneme; I assume that some language somewhere differentiates between them. I notice that often when I speak (English) to natives of India (whose first languages I have not identified), I get the sense that they have a richer complex of 'r' noises than I do.

In summary, "l" does not involve "striking the bottom [of the mouth]", and "r" typically does not involve the tongue staying at the bottom of the mouth, although it can.


There are five Japanese l/r sounds: ra (raa), ri (ree), ru (roo), re (ray), ro (roe) - sorry, not a linguist. For each of those, if I pronounce them in English, my tongue doesn't touch the top of my mouth. If I pronounce la (laa), li (lee), lu (loo), le (lay), lo (low) in English instead, my tongue moves from top to bottom. Specifically, the tip of my tongue starts by touching the gums behind my front teeth and at some point touches my gums behind my bottom teeth. Whereas in Japanese it touches the front teeth and doesn't touch behind my gums at the bottom.

Is that more clear? I agree that there are other r and l sounds in English, but there aren't in Japanese, there is a fixed set of phonemes. I'm trying to explain how each Japanese l/r sound is clearly split into a different l and r sound in English. Of course, there are many English l and r sounds that are badly approximated by the five l/r sounds in Japanese.


My Japanese training is very limited (I know the hiragana alphabet, but I'm sure my pronunciation is terrible), so I won't pretend any confidence there. Of course, we both agree that English "l", English "r", and the five Japanese "ra/la" sounds (ら, り, る, れ, ろ), are all different sounds. We all know it's a bad approximation to say that "ら" is "la" or "ra", but it's the best approximation available. (I'm told that whether it's more like "la" or like "ra" depends on where you are in Japan, to some degree). Indeed, this one-to-two mapping problem is so well-known, that there are demeaning "jokes" about saying "lice" when one means "rice", and so on.

Anyway, my point was this: your description of English articulation had some minor errors in it, which I tried to improve upon.

> If I pronounce la (laa) ... in English, my tongue ... at some point touches my gums behind my bottom teeth

That may be true for you, but this is not typical. Or at least, it's not the the "L" that's doing that. If you say "raaaaaaaaa" in English, you'll find that the "aaaaa" noise puts your tongue on the bottom of your mouth just as much as it does for "laaaaaaa".

And if you put your finger on your lower gums, you can learn to say "la lee loo lay low" without your tongue ever touching your finger, much less your gums. Just like how many English speakers curl their tongue to say English "ra ree roo ray roe" but they can learn to leave the tip of their tongue down (with practice).


Well, I'm certain of two things: 1) there is a clear difference between l, l/r, and r and it's easy to say all three if you know what you're doing; 2) I'm doing a bad job of explaining the difference.

I'm pretty sure I know what my tongue is doing in English, but alright it may be due to the vowel instead of the consonant. The problem in Japanese is there's no distinction between vowel and consonant.

Yes, it could be that touching the bottom of the mouth during the vowel part is not as important as the position of the tongue initially. l: relaxed, some sliding, top of mouth; l/r: tighter, as for a rolled r, more forward, top of mouth; r: does not touch top of mouth. loo and roo are both incorrect pronunciations of ru.


The simple description you'll find in most linguistic descriptions of Japanese is that the Japanese r is what is called an alveolar tap and written as [ɾ] in the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is also the Spanish r in pero (not the trilled r in perro). The reality is more complicated because Japanese only has one liquid phoneme. The fact that there is no separate l sound in Japanese means that there is a bigger phonetic space that the r sound can occupy. What ends up happening is that the Japanese r can be lateralized, that is, part of the airstream is through the sides of the tongue rather than through the middle of the mouth. A lateralized tap which results in this case is written as [ɺ]. This ends up sounding like l, which is technically known as a lateral approximant because the airstream is only through the sides of the tongue.

The more complete description of the Japanese r is that it is a tapped alveolar consonant that can range between a completely central [ɾ] and the lateralized [ɺ], with different degrees of lateralization. All will be interpreted as the Japanese r, and speakers tend to use [ɾ] after vowels, with lateralization likely to creep in if the r comes at the beginning of an utterance or after an n.

I'm a native speaker of Korean by the way, and while at the abstract phonemic level we also have a single l/r sound represented as ㄹ in the Korean alphabet, we do distinguish [ɾ] and [l] between vowels. 아리 ari uses the tap [ɾ] and 알리 alli uses [l] because that's how double ㄹ is pronounced. It's a similar distribution to the tapped and trilled r's in Spanish, where trilled r's between vowels can be analyzed as double r's.


Thanks for the thorough explanation. IPA seems useful, like the kind of thing schools should teach, but it also scares me with its complexity.


The Mexican Spanish "r" is close to the Japanese r/l. You don't say "bulito" or "burr-ito" like a burr of metal. You say "burrito", and know that people who can speak it add a tiny bit of a roll to the "r". The Japanese R is not rolled, but it's like just starting the roll.


This is a nice and concise way to articulate it.


I can't speak Japanese, but I've studied it enough to be able to read a little bit. My first Japanese book referred to it as the "tapped R" for exactly this reason.


I'm Romanian and our language is a latin one. When pronouncing both "l" and "r" my tongue first goes to the upper alveolar ridge and for "r" it stays there with the tongue trembling for a bit.

Also, our "r" is much thicker than in English. For that reason, our English accent resembles a bit that of Russians :-)


You'll enjoy learning some articulatory phonetics and finding out about the great variety worldwide in /l/ and /r/ sounds. I particularly like the final sound in the word "Tamil" as spoken by speakers of that language.


Good explanation, I've used it before. Polish is similar in the lack of a 'th' sound which is usually replaced with a 'f' sound: Think becomes Fink. Was always funny growing up to me.


Hah - Romanian also doesn't have "th" and so beginners tend to replace it with "z".


That's a really interesting observation. I've got hearing damage in the high frequencies, so I'm incapable of hearing the difference between an 'f' and an 's'. Fir and Sir sound identical to me, and I can only infer from context! However, I can -speak- them due to the difference in mouth and tongue placement + av therapy.


A small correction here - A2 is a secondary auditory cortex (as in 'secondary stage of processing').

[it's just that the phrase 'second auditory cortex', especially in the context of discussing a process of acquiring a second language sounds suggestive of a development of another separate part. and A2 is definitely not that.]


Oh! Yeah, definitely did not mean to imply that. I was interpreting it to myself to mean "second stage in an audio processing pipeline" as that was what I had been modeling.


Extremely interesting. Some other commenters mentioned this is off-topic; I think it's pertinent to understanding what's behind the empirical evidence pg presented.

This paragraph in particular:

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

One thing I've noticed is that there seem to be relatively few super-successful Chinese immigrant founders in the USA. Fewer than Indians for example, even though both are large immigrant communities. My wife is Chinese and her theory is that Chinese aren't really good at teamwork. I think it has more to do with their difficulties in catching the subtleties of the language as described above.

It is not quite a problem of them not communicating their message well, I think. Most of the time they do, although it may not aesthetically be very pleasing. It is more an issue of them missing alot when you speak to them, unless you conciously try to adapt to your audience.


My parents are from Taiwan, I was born in the U.S. I have reflected on this topic, and my thought was that South Asians, due to British colonization, appear to adapt more easily to American culture. Comparing immigrant parents from South and East Asia, (anecdotally) I have noted that South Asian parents speak English with greater facility than East Asian parents, which I have attributed to the effects of the British Raj.

I also have noted that South Asians have a strong culture that resists rote Westernization, which I attribute to native Indians (etc.) learning over time about what to sustain and what to adopt from the culture of their British overlords. So I conclude that when South Asians emigrate to America, they have a "leg up" in adopting to American culture, while East Asians experience culture shock to a much greater degree. Not only is the language more unfamiliar, but East Asians don't have the historical/cultural experience of keeping their culture separate from a Western culture as South Asians do. As an example, look at the relative interest of children of immigrants in the USA's National Spelling Bee.

I therefore think that because of these reasons, and because I think East Asian immigrants are as bright as South Asian immigrants, that we will observe a bolus of super-successful East Asian immigrants one generation later than when we observe a bolus of super-successful South Asian immigrants.

Now obviously these observation are generalizations, but I suspect that the "strong accent" observation of PG is not just a proxy for facility with English but a measure of cultural adaptation than may be helpful in becoming successful in the USA.


Interesting, but a couple of points worth considering.

It is more an issue of them missing alot when you speak to them

Language grasp =/= communications skills.

(1) Plenty of studies on body language and other forms of cognitive bias back this up. Attractive people are deemed more trustworthy etc.

(2) There are huge swathes of social interactions and nuances that cultural signals. 'Westenized' children educated for example in the us or uk grasp intuitively things completely alien to their parents or to similar kids brought up in the east. Such examples of ""comprehension has noting to do with wether or no the kids have accents or their "language skills".

(3) A regional welsh, working class, or a northern uk dialect is almost indecipherable to many americans. But such would not likely be a signal that this person won't be able to pick up westernized social cues.


What about NewEgg? You also have to look and see if there's a brain drain going to Taiwan and China, because Taiwan decided, years ago, to focus on making PCs.


The cold truth about learning another language is that you will not learn much when you are not living in a community(country) that speaks that language.

I started learning English when I moved to the U.S. three years ago but I speak better than those who spent 10 years learning English in my home country.


The cold truth about learning another language is that you will not learn much when you are not living in a community(country) that speaks that language.

This is verifiably true, by an experimental test of Chinese-language proficiency, of the foreigners who learned Chinese in my generation. Harvard and some other elite universities wanted to develop a test of Chinese as a second language to find out which Americans were learning Chinese the best. During the norming study for the test, someone thought to include foreigners at the Mandarin Training Center of the National Taiwan Normal University ( 國立台灣師範大學國語教學中心 ) in the norming sample. My fellow students and I who were there at the time "wrecked the curve" for all the graduates of Chinese language programs at United States elite universities who had not spent significant time overseas. Further development of the proposed test was scrapped after that was discovered.

That said, English is more learnable in-country than most languages because of its extensive use as an interlanguage. I lost count early of the number of different native language pairings I would see among foreign students in Taiwan--mostly in Taiwan to learn Chinese--who would converse with one another in English, because English was their strongest language in common. English-language movies, books, and other authentic examples of use by native speakers are also pervasively available around the world in a degree unmatched by materials in any other language.


This is commonly "known", but actually, I don't agree. It's all about exposure. I learned English in class, but most of my learning came from watching TV/movies and reading books in English, and posting on online forums. By the time I came to the US, some people confused me with being a native once in a while, even though I had never actually spoken English to a native, or spoken it much at all really. Of course my vocabulary is/was not as great as natives, but I made a concerted effort to try to sound American from the start. Most people in my country don't try to sound American, partly because it probably feels silly/fake to them, and partly because British English was what was taught in school.

My point is, if it's not true for English, then it's not necessarily true for other languages either. You just have to be interested in the culture, and expose yourself to media during and after taking classes.


When learning English, the easiness with which one learns also depends on your native language. For example, speakers of latin languages learn English much easier than speakers of slavic languages.

Also, many languages leave their mark on their native speakers in many cases being very hard to get rid of your native accent.

I was lucky to have Romanian as my native language, as it doesn't leave such a big scar on your pronunciation. I almost speak American English correctly, in spite of not living in an English-speaking country and I've got friends that speak perfect British English, French or Spanish (giving these as examples, as these have thick accents). True story - Microsoft has a support center in Bucharest, with one reason being our linguistic abilities.


What you describe as a "scar" is the same effect the top comment refers to. Romanian, much like my native language (Portuguese) is a peripheral language. Those don't evolve as much and so have not simplified as much as languages from central countries (think central Europe for comparison). The end result is that they are more complex and, to our advantage, use many more phonemes, easing native speakers learning of foreign languages.

To this day, I'm still baffled that Spanish does not distinguish between 'v' and 'b'.


Really? I thought that Spanish does distinguish between 'b' and 'v', but the South American Spanish has the sounds the other way around than continental Spanish?

Interestingly, my native language is Czech, and it makes it rather easy to learn English and Spanish, because the only sound that's missing is English 'th' in three or think, which people here pronounce like 't' or 'f' and "I fink" sounds pretty horrible :)

I understand that Spanish has to be really hard for English speakers, because of things like words changing shape because of gender, and stuff, but the usual English/American pronunciation of Spanish 'j' (or 'x') is terrible. I had to laugh at Lady Gaga singing about some Alexandro, making up about three different ways to pronounce it, not a single one correct. It's not difficult sound!

Talking about difficult sounds, try this one: [1] it's fun :)

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%98


Interestingly, my native language is Czech, and it makes it rather easy to learn English and Spanish, because the only sound that's missing is English 'th' in three or think, which people here pronounce like 't' or 'f' and "I fink" sounds pretty horrible :)

You forgot people mixing up v/w, and being funny with r. ;-)


Have to second this. One of the artists I sometimes contract with for game development is Romanian, and while I sometimes notice idiomatic issues there's absolutely no issue understanding her. Her diction's as good as many native speakers I encounter on a regular basis.


I would much rather speak with a foreign accent rather than with something like a New England accent.


Well, active interest helps as well. I started learning English in school at 10 (German native speaker, 29 years old), and starting at the age of 14, I became actively interested in watching US-American movies (well, the usual mainstream) in English (this coincided with the widespread availability of DVD players and DVDs with English-language audio tracks). My perception has been that it immensely helped me with both my listening comprehension and my vocabulary. That turned out to be an advantage when I worked in companies with English-speaking colleagues.

My only imperfections that I and my GF (who is from the UK) recognize are things like my US-centric pronounciation and vocabulary ("boot, not trunk!", "lift, not elevator!", etc.) and my tendency to mispronounce words that I've only ever read but not heard. And when I'm tired, my accent sometimes slips and I suddenly stereotypically sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Part of US Astronaut training is to live with a Russian family (I don't think it is a Cosmonauts' family) and participate in immersive Russian language training.

This is before they train on how to fly the Soyuz, and the Astronauts do serve as flight engineers on actual Soyuz missions to the ISS. There is a reason NASA does this.


The person who wrote this blog would disagree with you: www.alljapaneseallthetime.com . It's harder, no doubt, but most people can't give that excuse because they don't go 100% into immersing their lives into the language. Which means listening to audio, TV shows, anything in that language at least 12 hours a day even at work, and even sometimes when you sleep (a lot i know, but if it was that easy, everyone would speak 3+ languages).

Plus, if you live in NYC or any ethnically diverse community in the USA, you'd meet plenty of people who've lived here 20+ years, yet can't have a conversation with you in English - I know many Chinese immigrants like that.


That's why I said "community" not country. You can live in many modern cities and speak your mother tongue all the time.

First step for learning a language is wanting to learn I guess


I tend to disagree. Specially the Indo-European[1] family of languages and even more with the ones which are mostly phonetic. Most of the these languages have rules which you can mug-up and get used to in no time(ok a few months). I would assume learning a language which is pictorial in nature probably will be way more difficult and requires you to completely immerse yourself into it. The ruleset of all Indo-European languages is surprisingly common with varying degrees of sophistication but if you know one of these languages, then it is easier to learn others. But yeah, it probably wouldn't work if you speak none of these langauages.

I wish I had internet and wikipedia when I was in school.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_languages


That's not true. I lived in Rio de Janeiro for 3 years. I frequently encountered people who spoke perfect English with American accents... and had never left Brazil.


> The cold truth about learning another language is that you will not learn much when you are not living in a community(country) that speaks that language.

Patently false, as evidenced by the countless numbers of second language English speakers who have never been to an English-speaking country for more than some vacations (if even that).


As the person whom you are quoting said in an earlier reply in this thread,

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6303229

he chose the word "community" precisely to indicate that you don't have to live in an English-speaking country to learn good English (or a Chinese-speaking COUNTRY to learn Chinese, etc.). But massive "real-world" exposure to a language outside required school lessons helps immensely, as many research studies on language acquisition around the world have shown.

English has the network advantage of being the "community" language of people who have no other common language, all over the world.


> But massive "real-world" exposure to a language outside required school lessons helps immensely, as many research studies on language acquisition around the world have shown.

Maybe the primary take-away from those findings should be that learning languages in school sucks. I can still remember being assigned 20 words to mindlessly repeat until I memorized them.


But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

There is a simple and effective technique to help adult learners to perceive difficult phonemic distinctions, called HVPT (High Variability Phonetic Training). It consists of listening to several native speakers produce the phonemes in question and being quizzed on which phoneme is used in each case. You receive immediate feedback whether you were correct or not. This turns out to be much more effective than simply listening to a single speaker pronounce the phoneme pair and being asked to hear the difference (multiple speakers are crucial in helping you generalize what the salient differences are for a range of pronunciations).

Unfortunately, I don't know of any actual implementation of HVPT, and it doesn't seem to be used much if at all in language learning. Surely there is an opportunity there for someone to design a web-based HVPT system.


I had similar thoughts a few years ago, and prototyped such an app. It ended up reinforcing what research on the topic already says: HVPT helps, but not enough. It's semi-effective - better than nothing.

I'm now working on creating something better. In the meanwhile, getting a book with good phonetic descriptions of your target language (including lip/tongue diagrams) and recordings, and doing phonetic transcriptions is a better bet than HVPT. Being able to correctly produce the sounds goes a long way towards being able to distinguish them, though it seems to be a two-way feedback loop.


HVPT is of course only part of the solution; I hope I didn't make it sound like a cure-all. Being able to distinguish the phonemes that you hear is just the first step, and it should logically be followed by learning to produce the sound distinctions in question yourself. And it is definitely a two-way feedback loop in that the better you hear the differences, the better you produce them, and vice versa, just as it is for infants learning their native language. So a more complete training method would combine HVPT with ways to have your own pronunciations scored to see how well you are producing the sounds of the target language.

This is I feel a relatively neglected part of non-native language education, and it is very common for people to have spoken a non-native language for years without learning to distinguish native sound pairs. So good luck with your efforts to help people learn better, and I hope you share the results with us.


My current side project is a web app to teach you to imitate sounds in a particular language. There's some fantastic resources here that will be very useful so thank you.


I'm working on some tools trying to make this extensive reading process easier, would you mind if I emailed in sometime to ask for feedback?


Best. Commenter. Ever. You rock.


"English is a prerequisite. If you haven't mastered it yet, learn it. You must be able to read, write, speak and understand English." On his list of things to learn for physics, that even comes before mathematics.

You could also say that learning to use a computer is key to become a programmer. That's obvious and not very telling about what is specifically required to be a programmer.




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