Lost In Translation: Ways To Learn a New Language

Image result for foreign language art
Image Credit: Phys.org

One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.

Frank Smith

Everyone of us wants to learn a language different from our mother tongue for reasons known only to us. Maybe, you want to learn a language for the fun of it, or you have a trip coming up and you don’t want to get screwed over by some of the locals in that country, or maybe it’s an advantage for you to have some certificate to be shortlisted for some on-site opportunity simply because you know the language, or maybe you are trying to impress some girl/guy by serenading them in their language…..The list is endless. Whatever maybe the reason, learning a new language never hurt anybody.

I can’t say if learning a new language increases your cognitive functions without some solid research, but it very much helps to make an impression that you are

  • a person who knows a little bit of the world more than others
  • a person who is willing to learn new stuff
  • a person who can appreciate the culture of a country other than his own

In the olden days, learning a new language was something out of reach for most common folk. You either had to have access to crazy amounts of money to finance a language tutor, or be his understudy, or you had to be a trader, for he needs to know at least the basics of the language, lest he gets embezzled of his wares by a wily asshole. Travelling the world was out of the question for most people, and there weren’t many books to explains the A’s and B’s of a different language those days. But now, the opportunities are endless, with your endless online lessons, apps, books, shows, travelling opportunities and what not. The only obstacle for learning a new language in this day and age is probably your own gormless ass.

But how to start? Where to learn? Will this method be good for learning? Will they teach me the nuances of the language? Will this be enough?….Several questions swirling in your head?? Not to fret, dear boy. There are ways to learn a language. I’ll direct them down below with their efficiency in teaching said language.


Apps Ain’t That Awesome

The advent of the smartphone market also brought about a boom in the language tutoring industry, since you reach every nook and cranny of the world through a small powerful box that can either show you the wonders of the world or show you just how fucked up the world is, which may be a topic for another day. To that effect, we have various apps for teaching multiple languages, most notably Duolingo, Memrise, Busuu, Rosetta Stone among others and there are apps for teaching specific languages like Lingvist, all of them sporting free plans, with a reminder to learn a new set of words every day for a set amount of time. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well……..Not really.

I can’t talk about their paid plans, since I haven’t attempted those. Besides, if you had money, I’d wager you’d go for a tutor, since they can teach you far better. You approach these apps because you can learn a language without having to pay some dosh, and their free plans sound enticing…and therein lies the rub. The free plans these apps peddle just aren’t effective enough.

I’ve tried most of these language apps and the end-result has always been the same. I don’t feel like learned anything and I forget most of the crap that these apps throw at me. It’s always a bunch of words and letters broken into various sections that you learn and once you’ve finished a section, there will be some practice test where you will have to fill in the blanks or choose the correct answer. Once you’ve finished that, you’ll get some mascot cheering you for finishing this section and that progress bar will increase ever so slightly. Rinse, repeat. Whether you actually learned how to make a cohesive sentence out of those words is a question worth asking.

Again, I’ve tried most of these apps and they all play out the same. Rosetta Stone has this patented feature where you have to shout out the word and the app will determine whether you are using the correct pronunciation of the word, which makes it slightly better. But Rosetta Stone isn’t free for long and their plans are too costly, so much so that it would make sense to approach a tutor for the same cost.

So yeah, apps, at least their free plans, aren’t effective in teaching you a new language. All they do is train you like a parakeet and reward you with a pat on the back on the end, and you’ll be left wondering what on earth you just did.

Online Lessons Are A-Okay

Online lessons have been available for people since the advent of the Internet, I reckon. There are some people who just want to teach people whatever they know for the love of teaching, and there are some people who want to make some cash on the side to supplement their income. The internet provides them a perfect vehicle to reach every John and Jane of the world to learn something new. With cheaper internet costs, platforms like Udemy and Coursera, anyone can take up a lesson. So how do they fare?

Definitely better than those apps on your phone, that’s for sure.

Online courses do come with a major caveat that the quality of the lessons will take a major beating if the instructor is just phoning it in and/or is looking to make a quick buck. There won’t be any third party, providing quality testing or assurance that this course won’t waste your time. Unlike those apps where you know that there will be a standard, there is no guarantee of such sorts for these courses. You could go by user ratings, but even those can be bought and paid for. Besides, one instructor’s methods may be excellent for one person, but another person might find it flat-out boring.

So, you will have to do some searching on the net to see which course fits your style of learning. Some courses provide a 1-week trial period before you pay for the course, so you can use that to see if you can learn from this course and not be annoyed. Also, search for courses where they don’t just teach you how to talk, but also about the history and culture of the place and the manners that would be considered good and bad in a certain place. Not knowing that kind of stuff can lead you to trouble if and when you get the chance to show off your skills in Spanish, only for you to piss someone off, because you offended them in some way that you wouldn’t be aware off.

Online courses are definitely worth your time, so long as you take the time to find the right course and instructor that can match your style of learning.

Movies, TV Shows……They Work (To An Extent)

Everything has it’s own pros and cons, of which the same applies to globalization. Among all the good stuff that globalization provided, international movies and TV shows were pretty much an unintended side effect, further amplified by the likes of Netflix, Hulu etc. For a lot of people of the 21st century, these shows were the gateway drugs to a different language and culture, the likes of which they had never seen before. There are people who watch it just for fun, and there are others like yours truly, who try to learn some of the language that the characters in these movies used to express their emotions. Some of you will be thinking, “Would that even work?

Yeah, they work…..To an extent.

It seems when it comes to learning a language, at least from my understanding, that we humans learn better when the damn thing is explained or told to us than when we have to read it. It’s all the more better when some thing is told by a person we like or we can relate to. Movies and TV shows provide that. You can learn stuff from a blood-sucking vampire or a personification of the God or Satan or a high school student upon whom a fatal power is thrust. You can choose who or what you want to relate to and you can mouth off their most famous dialogues (it doesn’t help if their most famous dialogue is “ZA WARUDO” though). You can also get a feel of the culture of various countries from these media, the subtleties, the nuances, the various slangs of the language

But it ain’t all sunshine and puppies though. While I did say you can get a grasp of the various subtleties and nuances of the language from these movies, not many may know that this is just one way of speaking the language and may consider it as the only way of speaking the language and they could end up offending someone. There are slangs that are local to certain areas in a country, which, again, could be misconstrued as the only way of speaking in a country, and this could end up confusing locals from other areas.

I’ll take Japanese as an example. There are formal and informal speeches, for which there are various rules as to how to speak to a friend and how to speak to a colleague among others. It can get confusing at times. If a guy/girl who’s only watched anime and movies where there is only informal speech ends up speaking like he does to his close friend to a Japanese elder given the chance, that’s considered a offense in Japanese culture. Another con is that most movies show only one side of their country, and the other side of their culture and history is left in the dark to viewers. So, unless one does their research on how these sentences can be spoken and in what situation to whom, you could land yourself in hot water. This method is more effective, if you have a basic grasp of the language and you want to improve it further.

Next time someone chides you for watching another useless movie or TV show, just calmly hit back that you are learning a language, people. It works…..for the most part.

Tutors and Institutes Still Stand For A Reason

Even in this age of MOOCS, some of them released for free even from the likes of Harvard and Stanford, where anyone with an internet connection can access these courses and learn without having to shell out their life savings, most people still prefer learning from colleges and universities. Besides the paper that says you are qualified to be an illuminary in whatever field you are going to work in, being taught by someone helps us to learn faster and better…..Or maybe we have been conditioned like that, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

The thing is, institutes still work.

If you are the kind of guy who can afford a tutor who can show you every nook and cranny of a language and charge you like you’re Scrooge McDuck, then all the power to you. Private tutors usually do a good job, since they need to maintain a reputation in order to attract and maintain a decent clientele. So, while they may charge the moon for their services, you do get your money’s worth most of the time. For others though, you can learn any language at language centers that are recognized by other countries.

Chennai, for example, has language and cultural centers like Alliance Française of Madras, Goethe Institute, Hayakawa Japanese Language School that are recognized by the governments of France, Germany and Japan respectively among others. Besides teaching you the language, they also teach you the culture of the country since these institutes teach you with a view that you will be visiting these countries for some personal or business reason. These courses are broken into different tiers based on price and difficulty and they usually culminate in an internationally recognized language exam, to test your fluency in the language. These courses aren’t cheap by any means, but they are worth the money and those certificates you obtain will be really useful in your university or workplace, if they ever need to verify your mastery of the language.

Talk With A Local or Expat

This is probably the oldest and most effective way in the book to learn a language. You have to remember that our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of the internet, private tutors, easily accessible books or the time to actually research all of that. The people who were trading for a living didn’t have the time or luxury to sit down and learn the language before packing their wares on a ship to be sold off at faraway lands. Spices had to be sold, money had to change hands, and all of that had to happen within a strict time frame. People who wanted to settle in these erstwhile strange and mysterious lands didn’t have good books that dissected the language and explained what differentiated this word from that in their mother tongue, as much as they would love something like that.

So what did they do? They had to talk, and talk they did. And it fucking worked.

Like the traders of times past, maybe we too don’t have time to learn a language totally or we lack the patience to do so. While technological advancements have come to the point that we don’t need to know the written form of the language thanks to apps like Google Translate and Microsoft Translator, there is every chance that we could be swindled of our belongings by some smooth talking con-man or we may be in some dangerous situation because some guys might have singled us out as a naive tourist, and those guys have a keen eye for that. This is where befriending a local comes in handy. They can help you in a sticky situation, they can teach you how to talk in certain situations and they can help you to navigate the locality without breaking the bank.

Of course, the opposite happens as well, where an expatriate might choose to reside in your colony. You can teach him about the locality, your language, your customs and you can gain knowledge in return. You gain a good friend and a contact. I’m not saying that you should befriend someone just for this purpose, but it helps that you can gain something from that friendship.


This is all I have for this week. See you next week, guys.

(If you are new to this blog, I publish articles for self-improvement every Wednesday of the second and fourth week of the month at 6:00 PM Indian Standard Time. If you like my articles, do subscribe to my blog and if you feel like contributing to my blog, do donate via the Paypal widget found below)

Until next time,
An ever improving geek.