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I've been developing a FAQ on language learning as this interest is mentioned on Hacker News from time to time. The article kindly submitted here mentions learning French in France by a (native?) speaker of English who had previously learned Spanish. All of those are Indo-European languages, more or less cognate with one another. I've taken on some tougher language-learning challenges over the years. 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.

I hope the FAQ information below helps hackers achieve their dreams. 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.


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.


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


with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.


(By the way, the International Phonetic Alphabet was invented by language teachers in Europe to help native speakers of English learn French and native speakers of French learn English, so it could help the author of the article submitted to open this thread. The International Phonetic Alphabet was eventually extended to be useful for writing down any human language.) 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,


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,








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.

A special bonus for learners of French (which I have used) is that many classic French literature books (novels, collections of short stories, collections of essays, etc.) are now in the public domain, and are available as free-of-charge ebooks. You can practice a lot of reading French with resources like that, and relearn classic tales you knew in youth. Similarly, today there is boundless free audio, for example in the form of online movies and streaming news broadcasts, in all of the major world languages. Take advantage of that as you learn.

Bonne chance. 祝


Personally I prioritize learning grammar over vocab. I feel it's a lot easier to acquire vocab once you have a decent grammar framework to slot words into, because it means you can practice and retain words much more effectively. For example, you can then start reading prose much earlier, because all you need to do is look up words in a dictionary - since the grammar training has equipped you to glean tense, relations, and so on the two combine to give you the meaning, so once you have grammar down you can read almost anything with the aid of a dictionary. And when you learn new words you will know immediately how to use them (e.g. conjugate them) correctly, and the immediate application will make them stick better.

(I'm currently learning Korean, where e.g. properly conjugated verbs are immensely powerful information encoders, and also serve as adjectives. Grammar is indispensable there.)

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