East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

A way to keep the brain going: learning a foreign language (or five!)


The subject of languages came up in the comments section of my last post, when Floodmouse asked about my fluency in both English and Italian.
And I thought that for a blog that has the Silk Road as one of its themes, together with exotic adventure and history, then languages should be an interesting and pertinent topic. And languages have always been an interest of mine – and I learned a few, and I might have some dubious wisdom to share.

3592844F00000578-0-image-m-32_1466643151552And talking of dubious wisdom…
I can’t remember in which of the Flashman novels1, Flash Harry gives some good-natured suggestion to young men abroad in need of learning the local lingo in a haste.
Flashman’s suggestion boils down to shacking up with a local prostitute for the time needed, and do some conversation between… ehm, sessions.


Now I never tried that one, but I do have a few languages in my CV, and I am absolutely certain that knowing a different language (or three) is an essential life skill.
It helps us communicate with others, of course, and it provides us with the opportunity of seeing the world through other people’s eyes – by reading their books and newspapers, by listening to their songs and their radio news, by talking to them.
Practicing a foreign language is also an excellent method to keep the dust off our brain.
And it can be quite fun, if done with the proper attitude.
And indeed, the web provides a lot of opportunities for learning another language, and practicing it. Because practice is the important thing.

The practice I had speaking English while I lived in the UK is certainly what made the difference for me – together with the practice I had reading genre books.
Spanish for me was acquired and exercised through my cousins in Argentina, and then historietas (that is, comic books) and finally some wonderful pulp adventure books the Spanish have produced in recent years.adc1
For my rusty but serviceable French, I hold roleplaying games responsible – I fell in love with the French edition of The Call of Cthulhu, and read it from cover to cover. It was quite a workout. Then I found out a wonder called Raiders of Adventure, and it was a second serving of game-based French.

So, reading what we like in a language we don’t know is certainly a good start – probably not as fun as the Flashman method, but probably quite cheaper, and the sort of practice one can do on a crowded bus without problems.
The only trick is forget about the vocabulary: the vocabulary is a crutch that will slow you down and hinder you. Dive in straight away. The start will be harder, yes, and scary, but your learning curve will be much faster.

Then, certainly, radio.
A while back I posted a link to a wonderful website called Radio Garden, through which you can access in streaming a lot of radio stations all over the world.
Good training, that.

51yQgLsCa4L._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_Courseboks – there’s a lot of those out there.
I always liked the classic Teach Yourself books by Hodder and Stauton – I have here an excellent handbook for Latin (I studied it in high school and can still translate it, but can’t speak it or write it) and from old Teach Yourself, back when I was in high school, I acquired my first smattering of Japanese and my five words of Romanian2.
I’ll have to go back to Romanian one of these days, and as for Japanese, I swear by Naoomi Kuratani’s Action Japanese – that, and a lot of anime.
And once there was a magazine calledMangajin that was an absolute wonder for Japanese learners.
My, I feel old.

Selection_612And then there’s online courses and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – I usually go to Futurelearn for MOOCs (because I like the way their courses are organized and presented) but you van find a huge selection of courses and language-learning podcasts and websites on OpenCulture.

Youtube is another excellent place to find old movies and TV series in foreign languages.

And the BBC!
Let’s not forget the Beeb and its fun BBC Languages page! Where you can get a smattering of something like 40 languages. For free. Now this is class.

And finally, I must admit I am quite curious at Duolingo, but I haven’t tried it yet.
But considering they plan to offer soon a course in Klingon, they seem to be my kind of people.

2_pen-pal-world-300x206What is still missing at this point, probably, is practice in speaking and writing the languages we learn – but given the presence of the web, it should not be hard to find people to talk to (maybe on Skype, or Google Hangouts) and people willing to get in touch with us through email, for a reciprocal exchange of language practice.
Or we could even look for old. traditional, pen & paper pen pals. Checking out a website like My Language Exchange, for instance, to find study partners.

And what else?
Is there some resource I forgot about or I don’t know?
Some other tool or trick or method we should all know but I don’t?
What other languages do you speak and how did you learn them?
The comments are open.
Then we might compile a collection of resources as a future reference, and maybe start something fun here on Karavansara. Speak your mind, ladies and gentlemen!

  1. but if you do, refresh my memory in the comments. 
  2. the plan at the time was to visit Romania and the the places of Dracula… but then the Ceausescu regime fell and our vacation plan was aborted. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

27 thoughts on “A way to keep the brain going: learning a foreign language (or five!)

  1. For European languages, I recommend Babbel.com. They also have Indonesian.

    When I had some extra time on my hands a few years ago, I signed up for the package that allows you study as many languages as you want. I reviewed all the stuff I had studied in school, and I dabbled in a few other languages that sounded fun. Unfortunately, they don’t offer any Asian languages, which I always wanted to try.

    Self-study online improved my fluency better than sitting in a classroom ever did. I decided not to bother learning “correct” grammar the way we were taught in school. I focused on learning useful words and phrases, and interestingly enough, I absorbed a certain amount of grammar without really trying, the way a little kid learns his native language.

    I can’t honestly say I’m fluent in anything much but English. I think you’re right, that living and working with people who speak another language would really kickstart your conversational abilities. During the period of time that I was actually studying online everyday, I did notice a huge and rapid improvement in my conversational skills. I’m confident that immersion in the language would boost me over the top into actually speaking it.

    What’s really amazing, is the first time that you watch an entertainment movie in another language (without subtitles) and you know what is going on.

    I think it’s good to renew your childhood experience of having an imperfect command of a language. It teaches a little humility, and also gives you more drive to question and learn.


    • Did not know about Babbel.com.
      I agree that starting on a new language is a good experience once in a while, as a lessn in humility and a push to do more.
      Thanks for the info and for sharing your experiences.


  2. Thanks a lot for this article “more precious than rubies” as the saying goes.

    I’ll sure check out some of the resources listed above, at least to scrape off some rust on my German, and maybe to improve a bit my self taught spanish.


  3. I love learning new languages too but with Youtube? I’m not sure I’ll understand, for a beginner =D. I got a book that explains Spanish well and also downloaded the Memrise and Duolingo to help me understand faster…now I’m learning Spanish, French, Italian and Afrikaans…not too good but I’d rate myself basic level ;). Now, I need to go back to my lesson =D


    • Youtube is quite good to train yourself to understand a foreign language when it’s spoken fast. For a beginner it can be traumatic, but the sooner you start watching movies, or news, or documentaries, in the language you are learning, the faster you will train your ear to catch those little bits that usually get lost.
      Have fun with your study!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow..You know a lot of languages.. Never thought in the direction of learning new languages, although stayed in US and UK for a while…Probably English was enough there.. Thank you for all the resources. I am sure at some point, they’ll all be useful.


  5. I speak 3 languages ( French being one even tjough It’s rusty) and one local / tribal dialect. I have always wanted to learn Spanish and Italian. My go to would be you tube. I think it’s much easier for me to learn from hearing than from reading


  6. I’m currently interested in learning Spanish….I only know the basics from watching a lot of Spanish telenovela


  7. I would love to learn more languages so when I travel I can communicate better

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I would love to learn a new language, the trick i think is to keep using it. I learnt french in school and now cannot speak a word of it! I can also speak (rather poorly) Afrikaans, and the odd phrase or saying of Zulu but I suspect not many peoplein Ireland (where we now live) would be able to speak these languages with me!


  9. Don’t hesitate. try Duolingo. Its a great app. Am currently learning Italian on it. Have even put my two middle schoolers on it for their Spanish. One of my favourite websites for language learning used to be livemocha. But I think they were bought by someone else.


    • I started using Duolingo over the weekend, and I must say it’s great fun.
      Brushing up my Spanish and French right now, then I’ll try a completely new language.


  10. True! I love learning a new language. And Duolingo is awesome. I have been learning Spanish through it.


  11. I can speak a bit of French enough to get by but I wish I could speak another language fluently.


  12. Oh, the nostalgia of my penpal days. I thought email would be a relief but nothing changed when it comes to people responding to mail. I do like Dualingo it runs like a simple game and makes learning a new language very easy and fun. I used it for my Spanish lessons. And Open culture is one site I visit a lot… I tend to be quite lazy when it comes to learning other languages though…but I’m going to check out radio garden. You’ve suggested some really great ideas and I think I will look for comics in foreign languages which I can use. Thank you for such a resourceful post!


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