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Category Archives: Learning Languages

Kieran on Twitter


~Chinese / 中文

~Japanese / 日本語

"Notes on Democracy" Arundhati Roy

~Korean / 한국어
《그렇습니까? 기린입니다》박민규
《소나기》 황순원

~Finished / 読了 / 已读
"Factory Girls" Lesley Chang
"Your Republic is Calling You" Kim Young-ha
"River Town" Peter Hessler
"Oracle Bones" Peter Hessler
"Country Driving" Peter Hessler
「火の鳥9」 手塚治虫
"Inside the Kingdom" Robert Lacey
"A Room of One's Own" Virginia Woolf
《倾城之恋 》张爱玲
「1973年のピンボール」 村上春樹
"One Foot In Eden" Ron Rash

Learn the Arabic Script with Anki

"Bismillah" in Arabic script

“Bismillah” written in Arabic script.

I am an advocate of using the SRS program Anki for learning things.

Today I want to learn the Arabic script, the writing system used to write Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and other languages. However, in the Anki public decks I couldn’t find one for the Arabic script alone. I copied the chart from the Wikipedia page about the “Arabic alphabet” (it’s actually an abjad, because most vowels are not represented) and used it to create an Excel spreadsheet, which I then saved as UTF-16, because Excel doesn’t seem to allow me to save using UTF-8, which is what I need for Anki. I used TextEdit to convert the file to UTF-8 encoding, then created a new deck and note type imported the chart into Anki.

The chart includes the isolated, final, medial, and initial forms of each Arabic graph, along with the name of the graph in Arabic, the transliteration in the Roman alphabet, and the IPA value (aka, the pronunciation). Please feel free to download and use the chart and Anki deck as you like.

Click here to download the chart as a UTF-8 txt file. (Use right click + Save Link As.)

Click here to download the chart as an Excel spreadsheet.

Click here to download the Learn Arabic Script Anki deck.

Good luck learning Arabic!


Korean in 3 Months #Add1Challenge

Can I learn Korean in 3 months with the #Add1Challenge?



The +1 Challenge was started by Brian Kwong, who has challenged us to learn a new language for 90 days.

The +1 Challenger’s Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLIyYMvGTq-ZwL3RuBk72O4Yv5y3cNRpnC

Benny Lewis on the +1 Challenge: http://www.fluentin3months.com/plus-1/

Language Tsar (Conor Clyne) pledges to learn Romanian: http://www.languagetsar.com/1-challenge-with-some-of-the-worlds-top-polyglots/

Alex Rawlings (Rawlangs) takes on Japanese: http://rawlangs.com/1-japanese-challenge/


Hello everyone!

This is Kieran and I’m joining the “Add One Challenge.” The +1 Challenge was started by Brian Kwong, who has challenged us to learn a new language for 90 days. My goal is to learn Korean to fluency in three months.

I made a lot of South Korean friends at the University of Georgia, in Fukuoka, and in Shanghai. At Fudan University in Shanghai I lived with three roommates from South Korea and even made a friend from North Korea. I want to learn Korean to 1) to connect with friends, 2) to make new friends, and 3) to experience the beautiful Korean culture, particularly its rich literary tradition.

I’ve been learning Korean every day for a month. I begin my challenge today, September 30th, so my challenge will end on December 30th. At the end of the year, I will film myself having a spontaneous conversation in Korean with a native speaker. My plan is to learn at least an hour of Korean every day with Anki, Talk to Me in Korean, and some other resources introduced on the Mezzofanti Guild. I recommend everyone check out “Talk to Me in Korean;” it’s a fantastic course for learning Korean. I want to say thank you to Hyunwoo, Kyeong-eun, and the rest of the team for their hard work.

My daily goal is to review 100 new cards in my Korean deck. I’m using three public Anki decks. The first one is a deck of the 1000 most common Korean words with audio. The second is a deck of sentences, most of which are from Talk to Me in Korean. The third is a deck of Korean hanja. Since I speak Chinese and Japanese, I think the hanja will help me learn Korean words.

If I win this competition with myself, I’m going to win some delicious bulgogi. And for every day I miss our hairy cat is going to sit on my face. Gross.

I will update every week with a new video, so please subscribe to my YouTube channel! Check out the links at the bottom of the video, especially the playlist for the challenge where you watch other participant’s videos. Thanks for watching!



How to use the Linguee dictionary to learn Spanish

I’ve been learning Spanish. In February, when I was studying in China I decided to learn Spanish. I chose Spanish because my home is in America and Spanish is fast becoming the second language of Americans. I’m excited by the number of people who speak Spanish, the variety of places I can go, and the opportunity to read literature by authors like Borges and Octavio Paz.

My language background: Learning Japanese & Chinese

When I learned Japanese I had no idea what I was doing. I took classes for several years, studied abroad as an exchange student in Japan, and after many struggles managed to speak Japanese. Chinese I learned gradually over about three years, the last of which I was studying in Shanghai. In learning Spanish I apply what I learned with Chinese and Japanese to learn Spanish better and faster. I found that when I learned Japanese I tried to memorize everything. I learned words that were archaic and rare and downright strange. In Chinese I learned many obscure onomatopoeia before I learned how to properly introduce myself. I don’t recommend anyone do that. I think it’s much more impressive to be able to speak simply and fluently than to know some crazy words.

Learning Spanish with a frequency list

With Spanish I have decided to use a frequency list as advised on Tower of Babelfish, and the Linguee dictionary as advised by Benny Lewis. The dictionary called Linguee is a side-by-side bilingual translation dictionary for several different European languages. I’m using the English and Spanish function to study Spanish. I go down the list of Spanish words by frequency I got from Wikipedia and input each word into the dictionary. I scan the English sentences an easy one and copy the English and Spanish sentences into Anki. I often highlight the Spanish word I will memorize and highlight its English equivalent on the other side. This is so I don’t get hung up trying to understand the entire card if the point is only to memorize one word.

Why Linguee is better than Google Translate

Why not just translate the frequency list with Google Translate and memorize the words individually? Wouldn’t that be faster? I don’t think so.

I tried this and saw several problems with this approach.

1)    Google translate is not accurate enough.

2)    Words can have several meanings. It’s not good to memorize several meanings at the same time. (See “Rules of Formulating Knowledge” at SuperMemo.)

3)    There’s no context. It’s often impossible to determine what a word means without context.

Copying the bilingual sentences solves these problems.

1)    Linguee is based on real translations made by humans.

2)    Linguee gives different meanings for a search term and even gives the relative frequency of each meaning.

3)    Linguee sentences show the natural context for a search term.

I get Spanish words in their natural context and have an English translation to check against to make sure I understand. Sometimes I understand the entire sentence and get grammar practice as well. If I don’t understand the sentence I can still learn the word, and can look up its meaning via the translation (without associating that one word with any English word). A great function of this dictionary is that it will show different meanings for a word, and even better, give the relative frequency of each of those meanings. If there are more than one relatively frequent meaning, I make an Anki card for each meaning. I try to make at least two cards per word.

Honestly, this method is a little cumbersome. If I was good at coding, I would write a code to search the dictionary and grab the sentences without me having to copy and paste them one by one, but I lack computer skills. Some might argue that it’s not efficient to learn Spanish this way. It might be better to start from a phrasebook. The most frequent words can likely be learned easily by learning some useful phrases, rather than random sentences. I think this may very well be true. However, I think this dictionary is an excellent resource and I wanted to share with you how I’ve been using it.

Let me know what you think. I’d like to know how you study languages and how you use dictionaries. Please drop me a line in the comment box!


PS: You can follow Benny Lewis on his blog Fluent in 3 Months, or on Twitter as @fi3m and @irishpolyglot. You can follow Linguee at @Linguee and in Spanish at @LingueeEs.

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!



How Korean grammar differs from Japanese: Negation

Hangugeo and Chosonmal, both of which mean 'Korean language,' written in hangul.

Hangugeo and Chosonmal, both of which mean ‘Korean language,’ written in hangul.

Korean grammar and Japanese grammar have a lot in common. They both use SOV word order and lots of particles; distinguish between “noun-adjectives” and “verb-adjectives”; don’t conjugate for plural, gender, or number; and are agglutinative (meaning they form structures by combining discrete parts with distinct meanings). However, Korean grammar is not exactly the same as Japanese grammar. For instance, negation is different.

In Japanese, verbs (and verb-adjectives) are negated by conjugation. (Strictly speaking, this could also be considered suffixation.) A verb nai that means ‘to not exist’ or ‘is not’ is added after a verb stem.


For example:


Verb:                         iku ‘to go’ or ‘[I/you/he/she/it] goes/is going/will go’

Verb stem:                  ik

Negative:                     nai ‘is not; does not exist’

Negated verb:             ikanai ‘to not go’ or ‘doesn’t go/isn’t going,’ etc.

Example:                    kare wa Tokyo ni ikanai ‘He isn’t going to Tokyo [with the rest of us].’


Korean can also conjugate verbs in this way. A verb anta that means ‘to not do’ can be added to the end of a verb. However, in Korean this is not the most colloquial or common way to make it verbs. The most common way to negate verbs is to add an adverb an ‘not’ before the verb.


For example:

Verb:                            gada ‘to go’

Verb stem:                   ga

Negative:                     an

Negated verb:             an + ga + ayo [present tense] = angayo ‘[I/you/he/she/it] doesn’t go’


Alternately, and less commonly:

Negative verb: anta ‘does not do’

Negative stem:            an

Negated verb: gaji + an + ayo = gaji anayo ‘doesn’t go’


NB: The formal form gaji an sumnida is much more natural. Adding anta to conjugate verbs is more formal than using an, but not formal enough for most formal situations, so gaji anayo is rarely heard, according to Lesson 21 of Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK). I’ve been using TTMIK audio lessons to learn Korean.

Japanese and Korean grammar are similar, but not the same. Besides negation, can you think of any other differences?


Intro Video to Kieran’s YouTube Channel



It’s been a while since I published a blog post. I’ve been updating the look of my website after moving to a self-hosted WordPress site, which was really easy using Michael Hyatt’s method, which you can find in the link.


Today I want to share with you my YouTube channel. My username is kieranmaynard, so you can find me at youtube.com/user/kieranmaynard. Please take a look at my intro video, in three languages! (English, Chinese, and Japanese, with subtitles.)


Thanks for watching!



How a Language Dies

A young woman describes the third generation drop-off of her grandmother’s native language, Chuvash (a Turkic language spoken in Russia and the Chuvash Republic), in the post Ep Sana Yoradap, or How a Language Dies, on the blog In Search of Perfect.


“My grandmother and her sisters speak Chuvash fluently. My mother understands the language, but does not speak it. I cannot claim even that, because I only know three words in Chuvash, albeit these are the most important words in the world, Ep Sana Yoradap [I love you]. It is not difficult to imagine what happens to Chuvash when my mom and grandma are no longer here.” – Yulia, “Ep Sana Yoradap, or How a Language Dies


The “third generation drop-off” is so named because the phenomenon that that Yulia describes is quite common; a language is spoken natively by grandparents, only partially by their children, and not at all by their grandchildren. In three generations, a language can go completely extinct!


What do you think? Is language diversity important? Should we try to preserve languages?

Kieran Maynard

Kieran Maynard

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

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