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Introduction to learning languages

Water brush calligraphy practice in Lu Xun Park, Shanghai.

Water brush calligraphy practice in Lu Xun Park, Shanghai.

Recently I posted an introductory video on YouTube. It’s rough, and I’m new to making videos, but I want to talk about languages, why I like languages, and why it’s so important to me to spread the message about languages. It sounds weird to say “spread the message about languages,” like it were a religion or something, but honestly, learning languages changed my life. Learning languages opened doors for me made, made me happier, and gave me excitement and hope for the future.

I think that there are lots of people who want to learn languages. If you don’t care about learning languages and you don’t see the point of it, this blog is not for you, so feel free to move on and read something else. However, I know that there are many, many people who really, really want to learn languages but don’t know how. Maybe they tried for years, spent lots of money, and yet think, “I just can’t do it. It’s impossible. I don’t have the ‘language gene.’ I’m not smart enough. I don’t have enough money,” or something like that. In fact, learning a language doesn’t require any special brainpower; it doesn’t require you to be particularly smart—even I can do it! It requires time and dedication, and it requires you to get out of your comfort zone and talk to people, but the process can be fun and exciting.

I once lived in Japan as an exchange student and I couldn’t speak Japanese. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I had taken Japanese classes at my university for a year, and that was after having taken Japanese classes at a private night school for a year while I was in high school. I got to Japan and I realized I could barely speak Japanese. I couldn’t understand anyone, I could barely make myself understood, and I was not happy. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I went to class every day at eight in the morning and I sat in my classroom with lots of people from all around the world like China and Indonesia and Vietnam and Belgium, and we had Japanese class where we recited phrases from a book. I thought that if I just went to class enough and if I just read enough books about Japanese, I would someday be fluent. However, that day didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

Then one day on the Internet I discovered a website called All Japanese All the Time (AJATT). On AJATT a guy named Khatzumoto talked about how he had taught himself Japanese. I thought, How could anyone teach themselves a language? But this guy had done it, and he had gotten real results when he had gotten no results through traditional methods like classes and books. Classes and books can be a good thing; they can help you, but they’re like a side dish when the main course is language. If you keep eating the side dishes you fill up before you ever get to the main course, and you think, “Well, I’m eating,” but you’re not eating the real thing.

Say you want to learn how to play soccer (aka football). Say you want to learn to play piano. They are both skills that require a lot of practice. If you wanted to learn piano or soccer, what would you do?  Would you go sit in a classroom and listen to an instructor describe a soccer game? Would you go and find somebody who had just started to play piano last week and try to play piano with them? Would you pick up a book about soccer moves and try to figure out how to do them? If that sounds ridiculous: good. That’s absolutely not the way to learn soccer or piano. I’m sure you know, the way to learn soccer would be to go and find an experienced soccer player to teach you as a coach. To learn piano, you go and find a master piano player and have them tutor you. We recognize that soccer and piano are physical skills that we cannot learn from a book or a classroom. Why then do we fail to recognize that language is also a physical skill? (See Benny Lewis’ blog for an article by Idahosa about kicking your visual addiction.)

Language is first and foremost an auditory experience. You start learning a language in the womb as you listen to the voices of people around you. It’s been shown that babies even in the womb can distinguish the sound of their mother’s voice. Now, I’m not going to tell you to learn a language like a baby. That doesn’t make any sense; we are not babies, we are adults, and we can use adult methods to learn languages. Don’t let anyone tell you that adults cannot learn languages! The anecdotal evidence of thousands of people online contradicts the idea that adults cannot learn languages. In fact, adults are better at learning languages than children. Kids can only learn a language if it’s spoken all around, and they can only learn by listening to it and picking it up. However, adults can learn languages even if they are surrounded in a language completely unrelated to the one they are learning.

Benny Lewis, who writes the blog Fluent in 3 Months, learned Egyptian Arabic while living in Brazil. Let’s see a little kid do that one! You might wonder how in the world an Irish guy living in Brazil learned Egyptian Arabic. The answer is not textbooks or classes: the answer is the Internet. By using the Internet he found people online with whom he could speak Egyptian Arabic. He talked to Egyptians from day one even when his Egyptian Arabic was poor. He quickly learned the phrases and expresses that he needed to communicate with those people and memorized those specific expressions. He didn’t worry if his grammar was bad or his Arabic handwriting was bad or if he didn’t know certain words. The point was, he wanted to talk to Egyptian people in their language. If you want to learn a language to read ancient texts then maybe this isn’t the method for you, as Benny points out in his TEDx talk. However, if you’re like Benny and what you really want is to communicate with the people who speak that language, then the only way to learn the language is to talk to those people and to memorize the expressions that are the most common and useful.

I have a lot of personal experience in learning foreign languages. I made a lot of mistakes, but precisely because I made a lot of mistakes I want to share my experience with you, so that you can learn languages faster and better. To be honest I don’t think that being multilingual is all that impressive. In fact, it’s the norm in most places in the world outside of, say, America and England and Japan. About all of my Chinese friends speak another dialect in addition to Mandarin, and sometimes that dialect is completely mutually unintelligible, like Cantonese or Shanghainese. Of course, multilingualism is a fact of life in India, China, and elsewhere.

So what do I offer you? I want to give you inspiration and information. I think that what I’ve done is not impressive in that I can speak several languages. The key is that I learned—as an adult—to speak several languages that no one around me in my childhood spoke, and both of which were languages of cultures in which I chose to take part. As Dr. Tim Cross at Kyushu University once said, “Culture doesn’t ask for your passport.” I think that just about anybody can learn a foreign language, even as an adult, but most people don’t know how. I hope that I can help you learn smarter and learn faster so that you can get out there and start communicating.

To get started, you can browse my blog, or go to some other excellent, well-established blogs such as All Japanese All the Time, the Mezzoftani Guild, and Fluent in 3 Months.

Until next time!




  1. Andy says:

    I love your philosophy towards languages Kieran. I understand that not everyone in the world has a desire to learn them, but the process can be truly enriching. Language learning can change your life.


    • Kieran says:

      @disqus_Pujbc1AW2e:disqus Thanks Andy, and thanks for stopping by! Language learning has definitely changed my life. Truly an understatement; I might say language learning has shaped the course my life is taking. I can’t do without it!

      Your site is awesome! I really need to take some pointers from you about organization. I like how you have a “start here” page and a list of all your trips, even with the budget you used.

      • Andy says:

        I can definitely agree, learning a language has been monumental in my life, especially through the amount of opportunities that it has given me.

        I appreciate the kind words about my site. I actually sent you an email via your contact me page. Did you receive it?

        • Kieran says:

          What’s one of the best opportunities you got out of language study?

          Hmm… I can’t find it. 🙁 That’s not good! Sorry about that.

          • Andy says:

            The best opportunities are just meeting people that you would not have been able to communicate with otherwise. The ability to understand what is going on is huge.

            If you did not get the email drop me a line and I will re-write it. backpackingdiplomacy at gmail dot com

          • Kieran says:

            Oops, I think I sent it to your personal email instead.

          • Andy says:

            Maybe it went to Spam folder?

  2. badaccentnoah says:

    Hello Kieran ! Your post was really interesting so I wanted to share my experience at language learning.

    I grew up in a bilingual environment. Both my parents are Vietnamese and we live in France. So at home, we spoke my mother tongue and outside, everything was in French for me.

    I started Spanish and English at the same time at junior school. My teachers were fantastic (I had them for 4 years in a row) so I took the best of what these classes offered me and reached a pretty good level in both languages.

    I think that the quality of “classroom” method for language learning depends on the teacher. I can’t say it was bad for me because I loved each hour I spent with them. And I still associate English and Spanish to them.

    And now, 14 years after, I started to learn Mandarin Chinese on my own. And it’s a whole new word. I’m learning to learn by myself without guidance and it can be confusing sometimes. We can say that Internet is my classroom now, with plenty of fellow students and good/bad teachers 😉

    Voilà ! My little story about language learning. Keep on posting here, I’m subscribing 😀

    • Kieran says:

      Hi Noah!

      Thanks for your insightful comments. Indeed, classes can be good. I have a friend from Sweden who learned French and English through classes, where she said they would sing songs and basically have fun while learning the language. I suppose my views have been shaped by my education in the United States, where my Spanish language education as a child was frankly very poor. In addition, I entirely lacked the motivation to learn a foreign language, and I’m not even sure that I understood the concept of “foreign language” as a child.

      Now that I am like you, and mostly learn languages on my own, I find that I appreciate even more the value of a good teacher.


  3. Henry says:

    Hey Kieran,

    I read this post a few weeks ago and I’d been meaning to comment on it, so here I am!

    I just wanted to say that your early experiences with Japanese closely mirror my own. I took three years of university classes, only to later land in Japan as an exchange student and quickly realize I could hardly speak a lick of the language. I discovered AJATT while I was in Japan, which was a real eye opener, and I made much progress in the months that followed.

    However, our paths diverged after that. As graduation approached I decided to teach English in Korea and stopped studying Japanese (for the most part). I thought my Korean studies would go much more smoothly based on what I’d learn from my experiences with Japanese, but somewhere along the line I think I developed a minor phobia of speaking Korean. I did become fluent in conversational texting and I could often follow what people were saying, but my speaking skills never developed to a point where I felt comfortable holding long conversations with anyone.

    Anyhow, as you know, I’m now in Taiwan. My progress with Chinese has been slow but steady. Although during my time studying Korean I was firmly in the “anti-class” camp, I’ve decided to give Chinese classes a try, not because I think they’ll teach me everything but because they provide me with a non-threatening venue in which to practice my spoken Chinese and build my confidence. (Despite the bold rhetoric I occasionally use on my blog I’m actually fairly reserved in person, believe it or not.)

    So that’s my story, or at least a summary of it.

    By the way, I like the new look — clean and functional. I usually read your posts in Feedly, so I sometimes miss the changes you make to the layout.

    Wishing you the best,

    • Kieran says:

      Hi Henry!

      Thanks for stopping by, and your comments are always appreciated. Like you, I’m naturally a very shy person, and this is something that I have been struggling to overcome the last few years, because “social risk takers make better language learners” (according to the Mezzofanti Guild). When I was learning Japanese I found it very hard to talk to people, but it has gotten markedly easier with practice. I found that I need lots of time to practice on my own before I speak in front of people. Practice, and meeting other people who learn different languages really helps.

      Have you thought of picking up Japanese or Korean again?

      In my experience Chinese people are extremely friendly, love to talk, and love to speak Chinese with me, even if when my Chinese was not good, and even if I don’t understand much of what they say. This is a big boost to my confidence. I get the impression that Korean people really like to speak their native language as well, so I’m hoping to practice it a lot.

      As for being “anti-class,” I I really like taking classes IN the target language. I think that’s probably the BEST way to learn a language. I improved my Japanese a lot while living in China because I attended a Japanese literature class taught in Japanese by native speaker. And I really enjoyed my Chinese classes that I took in college, because the teacher was a lot of fun and encouraged us to speak Chinese, and she would bring in her friends who are native speakers to talk with us. So, like Noah said above, a good classroom can be an excellent place for speaking and building confidence!

      Best of luck with Chinese!

      Warm regards,

  4. […] I learned Japanese I had no idea what I was doing. I took classes for several years, studied abroad as an exchange […]

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Kieran Maynard

Kieran Maynard

Writer, translator, researcher, traveler specializing in Japanese and Chinese literature.

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