Project: Crosslingual Character / Syllable Relationships

2014/06/28 Leave a comment

The WorldAs with Romance languages and Latin, many Asian languages share vocabulary through Chinese, but it’s less obvious. I’m thus making a reference table to make them clear and discoverable for learners of more than one Asian language. Help needed! If you’d like to, please contact me! Linguistic knowledge not required.

Why Do We Need This Reference?

“Difficult” is a relative term: Spanish, French, and German are considered “easy” languages for English-speakers due to similarities in grammar, vocabulary, and writing, while Korean has practically no relation to English and so may be seen as “difficult.” Neither Japanese, Korean, Chinese, nor Vietnamese share a language family with each other (practically), but they have all seen Chinese influence, creating some common vocabulary between them all, just like how those European languages share Latin roots and words. I would thus argue that once you learn one of these languages, the other languages lose their place as “difficult” since the shared vocabulary (along with grammatical concepts) will serve as a nice springboard toward learning the other.

From my experience and what I’ve seen, this means there are connections you can take advantage of between most Chinese languages, Hokkien languages, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and maybe others to lesser extents (such as through loanwords in Indonesian). However, compared to, say, Romance Languages, these connections may be less obvious due to more drastic differences in pronunciation and writing systems, so I believe we need extra effort.

Words for Time compared

A Table for Comparing and Contrasting

Despite the pronunciation changes, since Chinese languages are made up of a very small set of syllables attributed to various characters, I believe it’s realistic to make a table of all the syllables and include what they sound like in various languages. This will probably be more efficient as a sort of database, but for now, it’s easier to build it as a spreadsheet.

So here’s a sample below. Attempting a neutral option, I placed the Chinese character in the 1st column, and the other columns hold pronunciations of applicable languages. Currently, they are Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Southern Min, and Vietnamese. What could we learn from this?

Look at the very first entry and see what you discover. It is the character 学 or 學, which relates to learning. If you can’t read them , the Japanese reading is “gaku” and the Korean one is “hak.” FYI, readings marked with a question mark are ones that I have not confirmed yet, and yes, I know the Mandarin tones are redundant – it’s on purpose. Full disclaimers at the end.


Sample of my table

Notice anything? Most of them start with an h, have “a” or “o” as a vowel, and end with a closure, which Japanese tends to bounce into a full syllable. Interestingly, we see that Mandarin is the bizarre language in this case; even amidst three other Chinese languages (Cantonese, Southern Min, and Shanghainese), its pronunciation seems to make no sense. Luckily, in almost every other case I’ve seen, Mandarin pronunciation is also related.

Now, that was only ONE example of a “hak / hok” syllable. I don’t know what happens when we compare more, but building this table will show us these answers. Hopefully, we’ll confirm that any time you see a “hak / hok” syllable, we will see the same pattern across these the languages. However, it’s also possible that “hak / hok” syllables with different meanings have different pronunciations in some languages. After all, I’m sure not all the languages have the exact same number of available syllables.

Cool! But…Am I Supposed to Study This???

NO. NO. NO. This would be for reference only. It’s a way to keep a record so that if you start noticing patterns or choose to learn a few, you can check this. All I’m doing is writing down what many multilinguals find out on their own: as they learn more and more of two related languages and pick up on these patterns, they are more likely to be able to guess how to pronounce a word in the other language. I personally know many people who do this. Basically, this would help for a much more scientific and reliable approach toward trying to change a word you know in one language to use in the other – over 9000% more reliable than tacking O’s after English words to make them Spanish!

What’s Next? Well, I Need Help!

Assistants! Volunteers! Slaves! Beasts of Burden! Camels! Come one, come all!

Other than that, I need to keep collecting this data for more common characters. For example I have “yuan” listed four times, representing four different characters / meanings. In Japanese, two of them become “in” and two become “en.” What about Korean? What about Cantonese?

I could use people to fill in more of these cells. It would be best if you know one of these languages so that you can add them from memory, but I have dictionaries we can use.

If there are some strong trends, then hopefully the table can be simplified and shortened in the future by breaking down full syllables (like “yuan”) into their parts: initials (in this case, y-) and finals (in this case, -uan). I’ve already noticed a few of these trends, which means the table as it is now may be unnecessarily long.

Most immediately important, however, is: Has anyone else partially done this kind of table already? Maybe for only two languages? I’ve been trying to find them. Let me know if you know of any!

If you want to offer any help (even if you’re not sure how you can), please reply, contact me through the Contact TCBP page, or message me through the Facebook page. I’m going to be doing this no matter what, since at the very least I want it for myself, but I’d want to this out there for anyone else who can use it, so I do ask for your help!

Cooperation makes things happen!

One of my favorite songs from way back when!

Notes about the table:

  • For now, my table shows a 1-to-1 relation between syllables / characters but I am well aware there are many cases where that’s not true. If I keep a spreadsheet format, I’ll have to have redundant entries or an extra column or something.
  • Readings marked with a question mark are ones that I have not confirmed yet – I just know they kind of sound that way or I need to confirm the tone.
  • Blanks simply mean I do not know or haven’t filled it in yet.
  • If a character happens to not exist in one of those languages for sure, I’ll write N/A or something.
  • Mandarin’s pinyin is purposely redundant, having both tone marks and numbers. This makes it easy to strip one or the other if desired.
  • The table is ordered alphabetically by Mandarin Pinyin.
  • 1st column may hold multiple variants of the same character: first simplified, then traditional, and then any others in the order of the given languages.
  • Characters listed twice or more are that way to allow the listing of other existing pronunciations.

First Real-World Korean-Speaking test

2014/05/28 Leave a comment

jalAh, that exciting and scary moment when it’s time to converse for the first time after you’ve been learning on your own for a while.

Korean had been barely been a subject of my study during my first 3 years of my recent language-learning efforts, but it had been there nonetheless; once in a while I’d pick up a couple more words from songs, listen to a Talk To Me in Korean lesson that I was curious about, maybe search online how something is said in Korean, etc. However, it wasn’t until Fall of 2012, when I started the TCBP Korean Study Group at my university, that I finally managed to get back into studying Korean more regularly and seriously.

Now it was summer, yet the study group has continued since most of the students were still around, so I had kept up the study. One of my friends graduated at the end of the first half of summer, so we went out for a farewell lunch as he was going back to China and had a job lined up for him there. He told me about a Korean restaurant we should go to, so we did. I was excited because he said it was in fact run by Koreans.

Then I Saw Her Face….

…of an older woman, near my friend’s table (he got there first), so I assumed she was the waitress. Having heard me come in, she turned around and the first thing she said to me was:

안녕하세요! (Annyeong haseyo)

I was momentarily stunned; why would you greet someone in Korean like that? We’re in America here!

I kid you not: I do not remember how I responded. That part of my memory is gone for some reason. I do not remember if I responded in Korean or English, since I was not expecting to be required to switch that quickly. If I did respond in English, I probably did immediately follow up in Korean.

Turns out my evil friend told her that I had been studying Korean “for years.” Of course, the consequences of that little detail wouldn’t affect the early conversation, but I didn’t like that she might have high expectations from me. However, it may have been a good thing. since it could have been part of the reason why later, she was willing to speak Korean, giving me the chance to practice speaking a good bit.

However, anything else right after the hello, as I sat down, was in English, and she left us to look over the menu.

When she came back, we somehow got back into Korean; I think she started it, actually. She took my order (in Korean), and then when she came back with the order, we spoke a little more. The sentences I remember from the whole experience were (and these are NOT literal translations):

  • You can speak Korean?
    I can speak a little.
  • How long have you been studying Korean?
    I’ve been studying for 1 year. I am studying with a friend. (I blanked on “year”; and although it was coming to me, she herself ended up telling me what it was before I remembered it confidently enough)
  • Have you been to Korea?
    No, but I would like to go someday. Actually, the friend I am studying with will go to Korea next year. Therefore, we are learning Korean together. (Messed up a good bit in getting the logical order of the sentences and their conjunctions, and I restarted a few times before I got it all out. To be honest, I over-thought it and shouldn’t have worried too much about making mistakes.)
  • Do you live in an apartment?
    No, I live at home with my parents.
    (Missed the word apartment; she had to tell me in English.)
  • Are you ready?
    Yes. This: one gobdol bulgogi and one Ssaek Ssaek grape [a canned drink] please.
  • Me: How old are they? [Asking about her children]
    Her, in English: They are 27 and…
    Me, in Korean: Could you please say it in Korean ?
    Her: My children are 29 and 27 years old.
    Me: Ah, 29 and 27, ok.
  • Come again, have a good day! (or something along those lines; can’t remember)
    Thank you! Goodbye!
Deep conversation on life and love was not included. (Picture: Jim Carrey in "Yes Man")

Deep conversation on life and love was not included.
(Picture: Jim Carrey in “Yes Man”)

The Abyss Analysis

Although I pointed out a couple of issues, I actually made more mistakes than that – and I don’t mean grammatical or pronunciation mistakes because those are expected and should be the least of your worries as long as you haven’t been lazy about it. This was NOT my first time speaking Korean with a native speaker. In fact, I should have posted about it when it first happened, but I did find myself a language exchange partner for Korean – actually, she found me, on She’s nice, fun, enthusiastic, helpful, and quite mean – in a funny way, of course! Even since the first time we spoke, I had no issues practicing my speaking; it felt just like when I practice speaking Mandarin. The only difference, of course, is that I’m much more limited in Korean.

Back to my problems at the restaurant, first of all, I blanked on some really stupid things – I mean, what could be of potentially more embarrassment than not responding to a simple hello? I also did not mean to say “I can only speak a little” (조금 밖에 못해요) but rather something closer to “I have a long way to go” (아직 머렀어요), but it just didn’t come to me.

Second, while I know my formal speech (존댓말) well, I found it funny how much extra effort it took just to add the 요 – I’m pretty sure I actually said 조금 밖에 못해………………….요!

Third, I mentioned already that I over-corrected myself, both mentally (slowing-down my speech), as well as orally (slowing down the other person by forcing them to hear my restatement). This especially happened as I tried to better form or pronounce verb conjugations. Don’t do this! Better to make mistakes and keep the conversation moving!

We the Jury, Find the Defendant…

Actually, it went pretty well – just not as well as usual. I did not actually forget all that I preach, and was mindful and aware enough of what was going on to mitigate it some. The only reason we didn’t get past those relatively basic phrases was because she got pretty talkative in English, and began talking (to all  of us) about how much she thinks input is important and how she strongly recommends heavily listening to radio and watching TV, even giving us details on certain TV packages that have Korean channels. She did this with her sons, who were growing up here in America, to ensure their level of Korean.

So, as you read about my little failings in this instance, the real message I’d like my readers to take away is: don’t worry about it! These things happen! As I said, I’ve spoken Korean before – in fact, probably over 10 times on Skype, and I’ve exchanged a few random phrases with friends in person. But for some reason, I tripped up more in this case than others. You will have bad days. This could even happen on the first few times you speak to someone, but you can’t be discouraged. Many factors come into play, whether it’s nervousness, subconscious concerns, or everyone’s mood. In my case, there were small, added pressures since the waitress was older (introducing the need for formal speech + the issue that older people’s speech can be harder to understand), my friend was there (he knows I’ve been learning; I expect to prove I can speak some with this waitress), and I also want to prove to myself that I can speak to an adult, native speaker. All of these can actually ruin your speech if you’re worrying about them before and during speaking.

If you start worrying when speaking more than when you are practicing, you’re turning your speaking into a performance, which it shouldn’t be. In almost anything, I think, unless you’re really good / near-perfect, confident, and/or lucky, performances tend to not go as well as practice, so over-worrying will definitely result in problems – just like when I worry too much over an upcoming piano performance of mine.

Don’t hold back! Your own inhibitions and concerns can hold you back more than any person – who tend to be happy and excited to see you try to speak their language.

Doing Things Right: When Practice Comes without Effort

2014/05/21 Leave a comment

The WorldSet up your environment so that the language comes to you automatically. Then, your continued practice is assured regardless of what may personally hold you up.

I recently had another interesting, fun, cool milestone – without trying or noticing. I thus wanted to share it and describe briefly how and why it happened, and how you could allow it to happen to you too.

The Picture that Showed it All….

So I had a long, busy day, the kind that would normally make me think I wouldn’t be able to get any decent language practice in, but as the day went by, I was noticing I was still managing some here and there. It was so busy, though, that I had not entered anything into my log by the end of the day, and I really didn’t feel like having to think over my whole day to go over this little chore. However, for my readers, for future readers, for language learners around the world, for the furthering of human progress…. I made myself spend the 10 minutes or so necessary to recall my day and write everything in. Yes, it took a while, but as I neared the end of my logging, it hit me:

Study record 10-17-13

That’s long. Probably 4 times the length of a normal day’s entry!

Did you count how many languages were represented?

  1. Japanese
  2. Mandarin
  3. Shanghainese
  4. Korean
  5. Cantonese
  6. Minnanhua (Southern Min) / Taiwanese
  7. Vietnamese
  8. Hindi
  9. French
  10. Arabic

Now, since I’m not expecting you to decipher my shorthand notation, I’ll clarify a few things. “Time” refers to minutes spent doing the action (shown here in h:m:s format, though I only use minutes and hours). “Action” is self-explanatory.  “Effort” describes an estimation of how much of that time was dedicated to the action, and the options are Full, Most, Multi(tasking), Spor(adic), & Back(ground) (initially conceived to represent listening to music in the background, but that I now use to refer to 10% effort or less). So “Most” means 80% of that time was doing the labeled action, and “Spor” would mean maybe 20%. Therefore, if there are 10 minutes with a “Spor” label, that means that if I cut out whatever else I was doing in those 10 minutes, I really only spent what would amount to 2 full minutes of the specified action. Finally, the “notes” is an extra label for as useful detail such as whether I was watching TV, listening to music, talking to a friend, texting, etc.

I am not saying I practiced 10 languages significantly in one day. I never make such judgments because any and all practice is significant. I know only a small handful of words and phrases in Arabic; any amount of thinking about it will help prevent losing what I know. Look the time spent every time. Some are 20 or 15 minutes, but most are just a few. We usually have spare minutes that we waste either just idling, or thinking or doing unnecessary things. Instead, use them wisely; they could amount to an hour or hours after a week or so.

Also note this is just a single day. While it’s a great milestone to notice, it only happened once, and I hope to see it happen more often – if I am indeed doings things “right.”

How did it happen?

Here comes the breakdown. How much sounds naturally occurring to you? In other words, a natural event just like anything I may do normally in English that did not require me to choose the foreign language. I hope you see that most of it was so, since a lot of it involved meeting friends, friends texting me, or friends leaving me voice messages. Still, I figure we can divide it into 3 categories. The first, are everyday events that normally happen in English but occurred in a different language without my control. Second would be interactions where it was my choice to act in the foreign language because someone else initiated or because the opportunity came up. Third, things that were completely my own decision and effort.

  • Natural Event: Natural, everyday event
  • Two-Way / Choice: Taking or responding to an opportunity
  • Self-Initiated: Solely initiating a stand-alone event

So here’s the breakdown, as pulled from my memory.

  • My foreign language experience that day began with 8 minutes of a video lesson – I either purposely decided I will watch one lesson today, or – more likely – I got a video recommendation or saw a new video update on YouTube or Facebook and I decided I could spare the time to watch the 4 or 5 minute video. That time stretched to 8 minutes due to rewinds and review. Then I simply repeated the dialog part or listened to a different Japanese video for 2 minutes.
  • Then 3 minutes writing some message in Chinese; most likely I left someone a text or wrote a status update on a Chinese social networking site.
  • 1 minute “sporadically” speaking Japanese to a friend on an app called WeChat, voice and text messaging app like WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, LINE, etc. So basically, I spent about 10 seconds saying something in Japanese to a friend – who is not Japanese, since she studied it a lot herself.
  • I noted 2 minutes looking something up in Japanese, with half-effort / while doing something else. Most likely I needed to check a word before speaking, or my message led me to wonder about how to say something related. I think I was confirming the word for “meal.”
  • 1 minute background (ie, <10% of the time) speaking Shanghainese with a friend. So it was probably just “hello” and “how are you” or something.
  • 2 minutes reading a Korean message; most likely a text someone left me. Then I spent 3 minutes looking up words I had trouble with.
  • 2 minutes speaking Korean with a friend. Another “sporadic” label but it covers two minutes, so we exchanged only a brief phrase or word here and t here.
  • Now there’s an interesting set. 3 minutes speaking Cantonese, 15 minutes speaking Mandarin, 1 Shanghainese, with low-effort labels but the important part is the “notes” label of “school.” When I merely mark a location, it means it was in person but NOT with someone I know personally (otherwise it would say “friend”). So these three instances describe meeting 1, 2, or 3 people at school, and exchanging a few words and phrases in that language with them.
  • 10 minutes singing Southern Min / Taiwanese. Could be a performance, recording, or singing / practicing in the car.
  • 30 minutes, and then 1 hour and 20 minutes texting in Mandarin. So while I was also doing something else, I was doing some heavy texting, having a conversation in Mandarin for almost 2 hours, leading me say I was “most”ly texting (Um, wasn’t I supposed to be “busy” on this day?? Busted….)
  • 10 minutes listening to Southern Min music, and 1 minute listening to a voice message someone sent me on WeChat.
  • 25 minutes drawing (ie, handwriting) Chinese while in class. I either didn’t need to pay much attention to the professor – or needed a way to pay more attention and stay awake – leading me to practice my writing, probably based on English words I heard and knew I should be able to translate.
  • Under a minute saying a couple things in Hindi to a friend (I remember I was practicing saying “how are you,” conjugating for the right gender since my friend was female), and then 3 minutes simply listening to friends talk in Hindi, trying to pick up what little I could.
  • 2 minutes texting in Japanese leading me to take another minute to look up a word or two.
  • 15 minutes of Japanese review from a video. I remember this; on my (1 hour) drive home, I listened to the video lesson I watched or heard in the morning, and looped it for 15 minutes.
  • Still on my drive home, I spoke 2 minutes of French to a friend over the phone – someone also learning French.
  • Then I spent the next 5 minutes doing a set of drills. Whatever I said in French got me started and I believe I ended up reciting the numbers in French as quickly as I could. Since I *should* know my numbers in 10 languages, I then moved on to practice and do speaking drills of the numbers in Cantonese, Arabic, and Vietnamese (the last listing visible). I probably also did it in most of the other languages, though they cannot be seen in the picture as I organized it to fit in the languages I hadn’t yet done that day.
  • Not visible in the picture are what I did after getting home, which was 4 minutes listening to a voice message from a friend in Mandarin, and 15 minutes of Chinese music, and….
  • an 11th language! I forgot this! I have a listing in here for Thai. I only know like 4 words in Thai, so what do we have here? 2 hours listening to Thai music (anyone following my Facebook page knows I recently updated my still-tiny Thai music YouTube playlist) and finally 2 minutes drilling myself speaking Thai. What? a 2 minute drill? Even now I wonder what that was about. Maybe I was practicing the male, formal way to say hello? (sawadnee krap). Or how to say delicious? (arroi)

Brief Categorical Language Practice Analysis 3000 – of Science!

So, how did that sound? Using my memory of the events, I’ve tallied them up into my 3 categories.

  • Natural Event: Natural, everyday event: 1 hour 34 minutes + 2 hours 25 minutes listening to music
  • Two-Way / Choice: Taking or responding to an opportunity: 48 minutes.
  • Self-Initiated: Solely initiating a stand-alone event: 40 minutes.

(I separated music in the first category since it’s skewing the result a bit; my time listening to music varies too much.)

Everyone may have a different idea on how to place my listed events in these categories – after all, a lot of what I considered as taking opportunities (blue) could be considered as being a natural thing as well, or something I purposefully made happen, but with this blue category, I wanted to emphasize slightly less-everyday occurrences that you must or could respond to, and indeed, some DO take a conscious effort if you’re not used it – e.g., being in class (especially if falling asleep) is (to me) an obvious opportunity for me to practice writing – but most people may not realize that or agree exactly.

The Take-Away: Lessen the Stand-Alone Efforts, Increase the Natural Ones

And that’s part of my point and the value of my making the blue category. At first, much of what I have in blue will be red for you – they will be things you have to put conscious effort in to find, realize, notice, and act upon. However, as you keep up the effort, they’ll become much more natural to you. As you get better in responding to your environment and opportunities, were to you label actions this same way, you would be aiming to lower the reds and increase the blues and especially the greens, which would be when the blue events become second-nature or normal, everyday occurrences.

Therefore, sending and receiving texts and voice messages, writing a status update on social media, and listening to music were marked in green – they required no special consideration in my mind and they are regular everyday occurrences. They could not have happened in English, or would have taken effort to do in English.

Saying a few things here and there when otherwise speaking in English, saying what few phrases I know when I met someone who speaks the language, practicing writing Chinese characters while in class, looking up a word for something I wanted to say, and speaking a language with a friend who is also leaning it were marked in blue, as they are a little less ordinary and took a little more conscious effort to choose to do so or take advantage of what I saw as an opportunity.

Finally, doing drills, watching a lesson, reviewing a lesson, and singing, are things I would not normally do for English, and were marked red since they are specific to language-learning and completely because I wanted to or decided I should. These easily do not happen if you are lazy or not putting in the effort – and this is where those new years resolutions fail.

Maybe I’ll write an article later specifically discussing the management of these activities.

Don’t hold back! Your own inhibitions and concerns can hold you back more than any person.

How’s my writing? Sorry, was I having too much fun with colors? Call 2MANY-555-CLRS. Ok, I’ll stop now.

How My First Language Meetup Showed Me I did NOT Forget my French

2014/05/14 Leave a comment

The WorldDid you really forget that foreign language? I share my first language exchange meet-up, that led to over 2 and 1/2 hours of French!

You haven’t spoken one of your foreign languages in some years. You come upon a situation where you are made to try speaking it. The words are slow to come, some seem forgotten, and you’re barely putting together cohesive sentences. You sound like an utter beginner, so you conclude what you’ve been suspecting: you’ve practically forgotten the language.

But have you really? That’s what I believed about my French, until this experience showed me otherwise. I haven’t spoken anything more than a few random sentences of French for over 6 years. I have not EVER spoken French for more than 30 minutes – and that was only once; 10 minutes was probably my usual maximum. I have, however, listened to French an hour or so, such as watching TV, but that was also rare. More details on my French level here. I thus considered myself unable to speak French anymore. The first half of this post will be a re-telling of that experience, and then I will use it to answering that question.

Language Meetups

I’m sure it’s not uncommon to hear of groups that get together once in a while for for special interests such as sewing, debates, book discussion, and so forth. It’s definitely a nice idea for anything that needs cooperation or when one is looking for people with the same interests. But have you ever looked for or gone to any for a subject of study? What about languages? Do you use

I feel like traditionally, news of these spread by word-of-mouth, but now in the age of the Internet, these can be announced and found online. This is also the case for language study. One of my language exchange partners and now good friend from Hong Kong tends to go to many meet ups for various languages, and although they may be hit or miss in quality, she’s had enough good experiences to lead her to continue going to them. Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3, and other polyglots, have praised the value of meet ups. Benny Lewis has said that most of his language practice actually comes from non-native speakers. Considering that non-native speakers can still help teach and correct each other, perfection is not important for communication, and that languages may have more non-native speakers than native ones, you may realize the idea of practicing with non-native speakers is not something to belittle.
1st words learned graphjam

Because this can also happen when you trust the wrong native speakers

Finally, I can speak of my own experience, when I went for my first French language meet up.

Decision & Arrival

I’d already heard about so I could have discovered this group there, but I hadn’t searched for French groups yet since I was still trying to stabilize my Chinese and Japanese practice. I am now finally putting the effort in to bring back my French, and I heard about this meet up by word-of-mouth – through a friend of mine at school. A friend of his had been going to this meet up and told him about it. This would be his first visit, and he decided to see if I wanted to join him. So we met up at school and carpooled to the cafe where the meeting would be held.

My friend figured we should be right on time or just a little bit early to allow us to be easily introduced into the group before they get settled in. We got there at 7 PM and ended up being the first ones there. I went to the bathroom briefly and upon my return, I saw my friend speaking to an older woman. As I approached I heard French conversation, and my friend introduced me to her all in French. It had begun.

My French was extremely stilted, leaving long pauses as I thought of the words I needed, even though she was asking me simple, introductory questions, to the point that I would switch to English when I felt too stuck, so as to get the conversation moving. After all, I was just meeting this person and I still had no sense of what this meetup would be like. Slowly, more people came in and they all greeted each other and began their small talk all in French – which I was glad to see because I was really hoping that English would be avoided, and indeed it was! As we had hoped, it was nice being there from the start, to get reintroduced to the new people, and even I would being to partake in the introduction, allowing for the repetition of names which of course helped me to remember them.

As I think is only natural, I understand that whether or not a meet up is good depends on how open the groups acts towards newcomers and of course, what everyone’s individual personality is like. Luckily, everyone was very friendly and open and despite most of them knowing each other from past meetings, they would turn the conversation to us, would include us, and would ask us questions. They never dominated conversations too much and allowed us to step in easily. Most of them were older women in their 50s or 60s or so (though later a few more came in, rounding it out for pretty even number males and females), their American accents were detectable, and they some had obvious difficulty sometimes, but when that happened, they would simply ask how to say it, would confirm a word, or would take the time to think about it and the others would wait. Overall, you could say they were definitely conversationally fluent.

The 2 and 1/2 hours

At first, I was understandably pretty quiet as I was mostly trying to listen to get a grasp of everyone’s level of French, get accustomed to their accents, and see how well I could follow the conversations. I would step into conversations as possible, at least to confirm my understanding or express a reaction, and any more serious attempts would be only if I felt I could add something worthwhile to the conversation. Both by my own initiative, as well as through their openness, invitations, and questions, my engagement in conversation slowly increased despite my continued moments of pensiveness and unsteady speech, which would tend to make me think in Chinese!  As I got used to to responding more quickly without over-thinking my responses, I even found myself accidentally saying a few Chinese words! Pretty funny, though I doubt anyone even fully realized it.

At least two of the women were actually old French teachers, who taught French at various levels of the school system. Both of them said that after so many years of no longer teaching French, they had forgotten quite a bit and thus looked for opportunities such as these meet ups to continue practicing. In speaking about my professor, I mentioned about our end-of-semester dinner at a French restaurant in my city. I’m not sure if I really should have been or not, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear that at least two of them knew the two French restaurants in my city and one of them had just been to one three weeks prior. We also discussed a little bit about the issues many people face when trying to practice languages, such as the focus on others’ perceptions and the concern of making mistakes, as well as the role of technology which can be a hindrance to personal communication but could also be a powerful tool, such as for finding these meet ups. We also discussed various travels that we had done, and with the younger man next to me, discussed a little bit about philosophies and cultures around the world.

As I continued to let myself go with the flow of the conversation, my French sped up so that by the time we were in the last 30 minutes of the meeting, I was speaking fairly smoothly without many pauses – and I was no longer thinking in Chinese! As the conversations closed and we prepared to leave, I realized that it had been 2 1/2 hours! Not only did I manage for that long, but more importantly, I also only then realized how much my speech improved and sped up in those 2 1/2 hours.

The Analysis: How much do you really know? The effect of heavy speaking practice

Here I found something interesting about language practice, particularly when you have not practiced for a while. For about 3 years now, I have been saying that I do not really speak French – I can usually read it ok (and have of that is guessing from context or from similarity to Spanish – in other words, cheating, and involving words I would not think of when speaking), I sometimes do online research in French, but I can only understand some standard speech decently well, can write if I’m given a million years to get the right spelling, and speaking makes me sound like a beginner. You may be in a worse situation, where speaking is not the only thing that’s bad. In such a situation, a few moments of study, listening, drills, etc., may not allow you to see much improvement or truly assess your level – even doing such practice for a few minutes may discourage you because you will feel that you have confirmed that you have lost too much of the language and cannot speak. While I’m experienced enough to have known that this was not the case with me, it was definitely the impression I would get any time I tried speaking to anyone in French. However…

  • This opportunity forced me to speak for a long time, showing me that much of my French was still there and I simply needed to force it out and refresh what was too hard to get out.
  • I still place high value on knowing how to use spare minutes and seconds of free time to continue learning and maintaining, but that is barely any kind of real practice; it just deals with your knowledge. You can amass all the knowledge you want, but it won’t come out at a matching level until you actually practice using it; your brain needs to learn how to efficiently pick from your library of knowledge and put sentences together.
  • Remember, real life language use isn’t an exam – you can ask, you will be helped, and maybe you can check your dictionary. In this situation where everyone was a non-native speaker / learner and everyone was here to help each other, all I needed to do was ask and I would be told so I could move on. Almost everyone at some point had to ask about how to say something, or would get corrected, or would try their best anyway by using a similar word or, in the worst case scenario, a literal translation of English.
  • I was also surprised about something else, and that is, that despite my intermediate knowledge of French, I never thought I could converse this much. My studies have been mostly academic and relatively proper in writing, speech, vocabulary, and so forth, so there are a lot of colloquial and casual words and expressions that I don’t know. I was even still forgetting stupid words like “since,” but knew a lot more advanced words to express my thoughts on school, language learning, and even philosophy. Especially being with an older group of people, neologisms, slang, and other colloquialisms were not used, but the amount of conversation was still more than I thought I would have managed even at the height of my French skills over 6 years back. Having said that, I still managed to speed up my French speaking to a point much like what I remember from that high point.

In other words, speaking from personal experience, self-analyses, as well as readings of scientific articles and seeing how other people remember things, you should remember that the brain does NOT usually forget things absolutely. I would say it’s almost like the brain forgets how to access something, or gets lazy and makes that information retrieval less efficient, but with effort, the brain can piece together the apparently corrupt files and allow you to remember something. We simply usually do not need or have the time for such efforts. I once spent 5 minutes trying to piece together a memory before I finally remembered what I wanted to know. Twice I tried to remember how to pray the Our Father in Spanish, finding I couldn’t remember a thing past the first two lines, and then months later, when the thought occurred to me again, I suddenly remembered it nearly in its entirety! The brain can surprise you.

So next time you think you’ve forgotten a language, remember this: maybe the brain simply put that language deep in a storage shed due to lack of use. Maybe you need some dedicated time to dig through and find that hidden knowledge. Maybe you need a situation that will force you to find it AND use what you find AND make you keep finding it until you find as many of the language-skill boxes you can find in that old shed. You may be surprised how much of that language survived the storage and did NOT actually rot away.

No-English week and day: Being on a Roll and Keeping the Ball Rolling

2013/12/01 5 comments

I’m extremely busy as I’ve had some hardware failures on my computers that put some of my data at risk, but I wanted to see if I could take a bit of time to knock out an unfancy post. There may be typos; I will correct in time.

I’d like to share two good, recent, level-up / improvement experiences involving Mandarin. One was self-created, while the other was more coincidental, and I put the effort in to keep it going,

Since I always consider my language learning as quite the side project that I mostly fit into literally spare minutes and seconds, I always say I have very “lazy” and relaxed approach – something I would NOT necessarily recommend to someone, but something I’ve realized is still an option. For the most part, I have no goals other than “keep learning and see how it goes.” I have no motivational urge other than “Do it when you can – just make sure you notice those times when you can.”

However, I’ve developed drives, hopes, and somethings like goals as I’ve gone deeper into languages, particulalry Mandarin and Japanese. So, for those I have a focus on, I do give myself a push once in a while. My “lazy” approach is not a chosen method I subscribe to; it’s merely a relaxed, stress-free approach out of necessity, but if I realize I can afford the time and effort, I will definitely add that effort.

The Chinese-only week (really, a non-English week)

I have a few Chinese friends and some more Chinese acquaintances. I can’t get myself to practice speaking with them. I don’t have a lot of time, it’s hard to find good friends, I don’t see them often, etc., so when I do see them, I’d rather use that time wisely to get to know each other better and just be friends, rather than “waste time” practicing Mandarin. That being said, I’m at a level that, while speaking and following conversation is still pretty problematic, I can actually manage a lot – as long as the other person slows down a teeny bit and is willing to work with me. I’ve met people and spoken to them for 30 minutes to an hour. I go to an Asian market and get around in Chinese. But I needed to do this with my friends.

So I simply announced I would be doing this for a week. If I ran to any other friends or acquaintances who didn’t see / couldn’t have seen my announcement on social networking sites and they tried speaking English to me, I’d tell them this was my “Chinese-only week” and would kindly request their help and support.

And it worked, of course. I had a little bad luck in that I had less chances to see my friends than usual, but those I saw worked with me and stayed away from English. Only when something really problematic or important came up, did I switch to English. Merely by listening to people talking to me and being able to ask a few questions as necessary, I even picked up a few new words, confirmed the usage or pronunciation of some words and phrases I had learned but never heard before, and got a few corrections.

Two weeks later I had a different situation.

Taking Advantage of things going Your Way

Day 1:

A Chinese friend invited me to an early Thanksgiving get-together; there were American, Chinese, Indian, and French students attending - among others – and a few of them were mutual friends. One of my Indian friends was there and he’s very helpful with Hindi, so when he had disappeared for a while and finally came back, I made sure to learn from him how to say “Where did you go? With whom?”

I was introduced to a young man from Beijing, all in Chinese, so I went along with it and talked to him in Mandarin. Despite his clear (but not extremely heavy) Beijing accent, I understood him pretty well, despite some surprised due to the accent (ie., 词儿), and we spoke for probably 30 minutes straight. We spoke about life here, school, language and culture, Chinese puns, games, and more. Throughout the rest of the party, I probably spoke Chinese for what amounted to at least 15 minutes more.

I also got to practice some French with the friend who invited me (he lived in Montreal for a while) as well as the two Parisians there.

Day 2:

Coincidentally, for the following day, a friend I met in Beijing had already asked to Skype with me that morning, so I got to continue the last night’s practicing by speaking to her for an hour in Mandarin, retelling what happened that night as well as updating her on some other things in my life. Then she updated me on what’s new with her, and then we had a more two-way conversation before finishing in English so that in the end she also got an hour of English in.

With last night’s practice being so fresh, as well as the events I was retelling, I actually noticed I did pretty well!

Day 3 (note that these days were all in a row):

Another Thanksgiving get-together! Two Chinese friends who had left for another campus invited me and two other mutual Chinese friends to go see them for this get-together. We were going early, and I chose to drive the two friends going with me, so I was going to be around them for most of the day. Having just had two straight days of decent Chinese practice, what do you think I did today?

I told my friends I’m “on a roll” and would like to keep it up. Let’s try Mandarin-only again!

So we did. When I picked them up, I needed a nearby a gas station to check my tire pressure (it’s a 2 hour drive!), so I asked in Mandarin and my friend guided me there in Mandarin. All of our conversations were in Mandarin and I’d only switch to English when really necessary – even then I’d try more for a Chinglish sentence. Anytime my friends asked me or commented or something, it was in Mandarin.

Halfway there, I had a little break. Things had gotten quiet and my friends had fallen asleep. I put on my earphones and had my phone play through Southern Min / Taiwanese and Shanghainese phrases and words my friends had recorded for me, and I’d repeat them out loud, drilling myself for 30 minutes. Then I turned it off and personally did some hard recollection of Cantonese phrases and words – I had time, so I managed to make myself remember a lot things I thought I had forgotten. Did that for 20 minutes, practicing speaking the phrases and words I was remembering. It’s pretty cool how much memory you can reconstruct if you put the time and effort in. My friend from Beijing actually knows a good bit of Cantonese, so by the time she woke up, I only had two questions for her.

Finally we reached our destination, and I let those friends hosting us know that I was on a no-English day, and used with one of them the mere couple phrases of Southern Min that I know I could use. While she stayed to do the cooking, the rest of us went to check out some apartments for the two friends who came with me. One of those cases simply involved visiting one of my host’s friends, so I paid close attention when they were discussing what the apartments were like.

Then I went to a post office to send off a letter. As I was finishing up, a young woman came in and it turns out she was Chinese, so I spoke a little bit to her in Mandarin as well. She was really quite nice and is studying to teach ESL - no wonder her English was so good! There’s more to the story though sadly not relevant to this post, but I’ll share she was from Wuhan, which is known as one of the “Three Furnaces” of China – one of 3 cities known for their highest summer temperatures – but there’s more to the city at least historically, though sadly I don’t know too much myself – yet!

Back at our hosts’ apartment, it was Mandarin as much as possible throughout various random conversations, and things really got crazy for me when the people started pouring in. I couldn’t follow any huge group conversations, but I did better than usual. I managed better by trying to stick to a smaller group at a time, such as with my friends, or one-on-one with any new acquaintances. Of course, when the host had everyone introduce themselves to everyone, I did that in Mandarin too – and that was my worst part because I didn’t notice when we actually started and didn’t know what was expected for me to say, so I made sure to listen to what everyone else was choosing to say. Even though you’d think it would be simple, the slight unfamiliarty caused me to stumble a good bit - for example, as I worked out a way to express something like “Them, these two, and I all know each other from [campus name here]” without translating from English.

The only sad little thing is that speaking Mandarn still takes some effort, of course, and that effort uses up my brain’s resources, so it can be more difficult to read people’s emotions, take more conscious control of the conversation, or even simply come up with something to say. All those social skills decrease, but hey, I guess it’s part of challenge, and it’s not really my fault since my decision to avoid English was the best for such a get-together anyway. Still, I wish I had been able to talk to my friends or been involved in their conversations a little more. However, what I probably felt worse about, was regarding one of the invited guests who was actually someone I knew from my school program in China last year! She was among the better friends I made on the trip, among the people I had the best impressions of and liked better, and although I’ve tried to stay in touch, it’s been hard. I was excited to see her, but in that environment, I just couldn’t say much or couldn’t keep up a decent conversation – especially not before someone else would step in and take her attention. If I did have the opening, I couldn’t think of what to say. I did what I could, even in English, but I would have needed a much more relaxed situation.

Finally, on the drive back home, I had a longer conversation with one of my friends while the other slept, but mostly English since some of the conversation was much more complex, and I felt like a more relaxed conversation this late at night after the long day was in order.

A Small Interesting Takeaway

You run into so much random vocabulary in a natural conversational environment, that it’s unrealistic to care about understanding or learning all of them. Especially when a conversation needs to keep moving, you BETTER have a very quick and efficient way to note a word down before you’re uncomfortably holding back the conversation. However, if you have a chance to note something down and it’s not the most useful word, just consider if it could be good enough, and note it down. If you successfully learn it, it’s one less word to learn later.

What random words did I learn? 气味 (qi4wei4, odor/scent),漏水 (lou4shui3, water leak),静电 (jing4dian4, static electricity),加热 (jia1re4, add heat / warm up),(加)油站 (jia1you2zhan4, gas station),邮局 (you2ju2, post office).

Oh, guess what? I actually did NOT note any of these words down. However, I remember exactly when I heard them, and I pulled out my phone AT THAT VERY MOMENT. Remembering the exact situation, who said the word, who told me the definition, the visual reinforcement of checking the dictionary, and the personal effort to remind myself that night and the day after, was good enough.

Go back at that word list and see if you can’t get the context and realize when I probably learned them, haha!

In Conclusion: Don’t Forget to Challenge Yourself!

That’s what a lot of what this was. Whether I initiated it myself (the No-English week), or chose to continue a streak (the No-English day), when I realized I could use or should give myself a challenge, I did. I normally just go with the flow everyday and don’t think a whole lot about how to force some language practice, but I constantly remind myself to make sure I DO practice when possible, and that I DO keep up the language. So if I haven’t practiced a language in a while, I’ll find a time to review (eg., my Cantonese drilling in the car). If I feel like I could use a little push for speaking practice, I’ll put an extra effort in to challenge myself (No-English week). And finally, especially if the stars and planets have lined up and the gods are looking down favorably on you so as to give you some nice opportunities, take them (30-minute talk at Thanksgiving party) and use it as a springboard to push yourself even further! (No-English day)

Language Practice Totals for My No-English day:

  • Mandarin: 6 minutes texting
  • Mandarin: 2 1/2 hours speaking with friends
  • Mandarin: Occassionally throughout 10 minutes at the post office
  • Mandarin: 2 hours listening and speaking as possible at the get-together
  • Mandarin: 10 minutes working on tongue twisters with my friend on the drive back home
  • Shanghainese and Southern Min / Taiwanese: 30 minutes driling listening and speaking
  • Southern Min: 3 minutes review with my friend and host who speaks it
  • Cantonese: 20 minutes drilling myself speaking
  • Cantonese: 10 minutes studying once my friend woke up
  • Japanese: 5 minutes group review of set, polite phrases with some others at the party
  • Korean: 2 minutes “teaching,” since someone asked how to say a couple of things

Starting Out: Shanghainese and Taiwanese 1

2013/07/12 8 comments

Oriental Pearl + Taipei 101Documenting my first forays into a new language!

I just started looking into Shanghainese and Taiwanese. Here’s how I’ve been starting out. I still can barely use Cantonese, but I want to try picking up at least a little of these other languages. Now, why am I doing this? Well, I’m trying push myself (I’m really pushing common beliefs / misconceptions, rather than myself, I think) in a different way now. Is there really a limit to how many languages you can tackle at once, or is it really all methodology and attitude, as I suspect? I should point out, though, this is will not be a project of primary focus. Rather, I want to see if it’s possible to learn them on the side, with little effort, and still retain them – especially if they’re similar in some way.

So, why these languages? Here’s a little about them to explain why I chose them.


Montage of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, from Wikipedia

A lot Chinese dramas and pop songs known internationally come from Taiwan, and it’s been pretty common for me to meet Taiwanese and people from southern Fujian. Yes, that’s right, with it, I will also be able to communicate with people from southern Fujian province in China, including people from the city of Xiamen. In this sense, it is called Minnanyu or Minnanhua in Mandarin, with the “Minnan” meaning Southern Min. A small issue: Fuzhou, another big, famous city whose emigrants I seem to keep running into in America, is just a bit too far north. They speak Mindong, or Central Min. Hopefully it’s close enough for SOME level of comprehension, but some people seem to say it’s closer to Minbei (Northern Min, if you didn’t see that coming) than Minnan. Oh well. It would still serve me well for talking with Taiwanese people. Variants are also spoken in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, and I’m sure other places as well.

The naming of this language can get confusing, due to what language’s or country’s perspective you’re taking the name from. Minnan comes from Mandarin pronunciation, and Southern Min is the English translation. My friend from Xiamen let me know that in English we can also take “minnan” to call it Minnanese. Sometimes all 3 Min languages / dialects are grouped as one, being all from the same province of Fujian (a Mandarin name), so it may be called Fujianese. Finally, Hokkien is a the romanized (English-ized) version of the native pronunciation of Fujian in… some or all versions of Fujianese. Oh, wait, you may also hear “Hokkien” combined into terms that specify the variant. With Xiamen being a famous city and tourist spot, you may also hear Amoy Hokkien, with Amoy being the native pronunciation of Xiamen. There is also “Taiwanese Hokkien,” “Penang Hokkien,” and more. Confused yet? I know I was!

This does not necessarily mean that Taiwanese Hokkien is the main language of Taiwan. I’d rather not speak too strongly on this, but my impression is that Mandarin is most common, and Taiwanese is  in a close second. However, it’s important to note that there are many aboriginal peoples in Taiwan, resulting in a large variety of cultures and thus, languages, such as Atayal, Saisiyat, Thao, Paiwan, Amis, and more.

Ok, that was a lot of info, I feel obliged to at least mention my sources: my friends from Fujian, Taiwan, and Malaysia, Glossika’s YouTube videos, the many Wikipedia articles for many of these possible variants, and other sites and discussions.


Montage of Shanghai, from Wikipedia

Shanghainese would round out my study of the major languages of China because it is a dialect of Wu Chinese, the 2nd most-spoken language in China. Cantonese is actually in third place, but is better known in America due to the number of Cantonese immigrants and Hong Kong’s economic significance. Many seem to say Wu Chinese has a different, more flow-y sound to it. It technically seems to have 5 tones, but some people say it usually becomes a high and low tone system like Japanese – compared to the reportedly 7 tones in Taiwanese.

As for the naming of Shanghainese….well, it’s just Shanghainese or Shanghai Dialect. Shanghaihua in Mandarin. Easy enough.


I’m fully aware I may be biting off more than I can chew. However, that’s partly what I want to try out. Let’s see if am stopped somewhere. Let’s see if I get confused. Let’s see if I can’t make the time for it or can’t keep it up. Oooh, exciting!

Starting Out!

I’ll try to link to what I use so that you can follow this and learn things yourself!


Normally, I like to first check a language’s grammar article on Wikipedia. In this case, I may do it soon, but I just wanted to jump in. I suspect their grammar won’t be vastly different from Mandarin, but I could be wrong as that may be a huge assumption considering my total ignorance of the topic! We’ll see!

Regarding any pronunciations I decide to write (since I am jumping in and not learning any romanization systems yet):

Plain text: Mandarin Pinyin.
Italics: Cantonese Jyutping.
“Quotes”: More like American English.
(Parenthesis): Uncertain, guessed sounds.

I’m almost totally ignoring tones since it would be too hard to try to figure them out correctly; besides, some change depending on the previous/next syllable’s tone (it’s called tone sandhi). I only have a few tones labeled because I’m relatively more confident on them and want them at least for my reference. They would follow Mandarin tone numbers. I suggest you ignore them and make your own judgements from the audio. Or ask a friend. Or learn the tone systems.


Either way, don’t consider my spellings / romanizations to be in any formal standard.
I repeat, don’t consider my spellings / romanizations to be in any formal standard.

Similarly, any Chinese Characters may be my own guesses rather than than the reality – unless I say otherwise.
I’m big on sticking to standards, but what can I do? I haven’t learned any, and with less famous languages, they tend to be….not as standard as you’d hope.
This also holds true in the case of Chinese Characters, since certain languages have been more spoken rather than written.
I’m not yet sure if I’ll learn a romanization for either of these languages.

Finally, since it is mostly written during my time going through the mentioned lessons, this post is very heavy on personal impressions, thoughts, and assumptions. Do not take anything I conclude too seriously – I’m mainly doing it to show you my thought processes (and explaining why some are educated guesses), to show how you can make such connections to help your learning of related languages, and to encourage you to do so yourself. Do not take such assumptions as factual. You should ONLY take serious information from the links provided. NOT FROM ME. :)


I first started with these two videos by Glossika: Taiwanese Lseson 1: Names, and Taiwanese Lesson 2: Greetings. As he himself recommends, I’m ignoring the names and just listening to the vocabulary.

While I can’t be sure what Chinese characters are being used, many of them sound like they’re probably the same as Mandarin. Of course, most of these languages will share characters. I’m also prepared for certain differences in pronunciation, since – as far as I know – most southern languages don’t have those deep SH, ZH, and R sounds of Mandarin (just listen to Mandarin in a southern accent).

Lesson 1

你是(谁)人? li xi xia(n) lang? That 谁 character doesn’t work here in Mandarin as far as I know, but I assume it’s the one used due to the usage in one of the next sentences (where it DOES work in Mandarin).

我是__。 “Goa” xi ___

我姓__。”Goa seng” ___

伊是谁?Yi xi xia(n)? Seems like Taiwanese uses 伊 for 他/她; it’s also pronounced “yi” in Mandarin and Cantonese.

伊是__先生,太太,小姐。 Yi xi __  “sen” xin(g), taitai, xiujia.

So what are we seeing? From Mandarin. -> Taiwanese, SH -> X, X -> S, N -> L. HUGE generalization from such few words, but interesting nonetheless. As I pointed out before, it is common enough for sounds to stay toward the front of the mouth (losing SH, CH, etc.), and so is the N becoming L (just think Hong Kong accent’s Lei hou instead of the standard Cantonese Nei hou). In other words, knowing this makes these Taiwanese words pretty easy to remember.

Also interesting is that the initial W in Mandarin for 我 seems to become a loose G – that G is not pronounced distinctly, much as can happen in Spanish. Despite having a G sound, “goa” sounds a lot like “wa,” similar to how Spanish “agua” (meaning water) can sound like “awa.” being pronounced as lang doesn’t sound too distant from Mandarin ren.

Something I noticed from one of the names: 美 -> mi, which is the same pronunciation as in Korean and Japanese.

你贵姓?Li gui “seng.” Just like in Cantonese, Taiwanese has a “wee” vowel sound, while the closest in Mandarin (-ui in pinyin) is actually shortened from -uei, and is therefore pronounced like “way” rather than “wee.” The occurrence of these sounds may not correspond to the same characters, but in this case, it does. 贵 is spelled gui in Mandarin Pinyin; therefore, in Taiwanese, it is pronounced just how an untrained person may read the Mandarin Pinyin: “gwee.”

Lesson 2

你好否?Li he “boh” (Usually romanized as Li ho bo)

This is another interesting but not too distant phonetic “change”: Mandarin question marker 吗 is 否 or 無 / 无 (As I discovered here, at Omniglot) and pronounced “boh.” F or W are both labial (lip-based) sounds, so the Taiwanese using B isn’t strange. Even if it’s not the right character, for the vowel’s memorization’s sake, I can also imagine “bo” as a lazy “ma” (吗) like “me” (么), which some people say and use informally.

你叫啥物名 Li giu xa mi mi’an. I think it’s easier to think that “xa mi” sounds like 什么, but the character is not hard to remember because 什么 can sound like 啥 in fast, casual speech, and is sometimes written as such in texts, online chats, etc.

敖早! Gau ca! – good morning. I don’t know the 1st character is, and I only put 敖 there because I saw it on Omniglot. It may have been chosen purely for phonetic value (ao2 in Mandarin), which I’ve read is common for these other languages and dialects – although so far I’ve practically only run into characters that still mean or are related to the Mandarin counterparts. Other than saying the character is for phonetic value, the only other idea I can come up with is that Yellowbridge saying the character can also be an old variant of 熬, which has meanings related to heating, cooking, or boiling. So…. I can only see that being true if the phrase really comes from saying “Roasting hot morning, isn’t it?” Yeah, ok, I’ll end my speculation there. I’m inclined to think that character was chosen for its phonetic value only.

你食飽未?Li qia pa bui? – have you eaten yet? First off, Cantonese and Taiwanese are both using  (which is also used in Japanese) rather than Mandarin’s . Second, Mandarin tends to use some version of 你吃饭了吗?or 你吃过饭吗? as the phrase, but this phrase is literally more on whether or not you’re full  (In Mandarin, if you ate until you were full, you’d say you 吃了). This probably explains why the video, Omniglot, and other sites point out that this phrase may be more typically used as a greeting like “How are you?” or to show hospitality, checking if you are feeling well-fed. A couple of my friends have said if they seriously want to ask if you ate or not, they’d just say 你食未?or possibly 你食没?, since one friend in particular told me it’s a “meh” sound.

Mandarin 不是 sounds like m xi, the negation “m” being like Cantonese 唔.

我真好 – gua jin he – I’m fine. Interesting; compared to Mandarin’s 很好 or 还好, to me, 真好 sounds relatively strong, if 真 really is the character and meaning behind the “jin” word.

你呢? Li ne? Again, you could spell this with the Mandarin pinyin for 呢, but the “e” is more “literal” in the eyes and ears of an English speaker. In the video, the N sound quite close to an L or D.

好啊. he a. Ah, that famous “A,” whether it’s written with Mandarin’s 啊 or Cantonese’s 呀 (or something else – I don’t know), seems like it tends to be the same thing; same rough usage.

Lesson 3

I watched just a bit of this lesson, planning to watch it more carefully another day, so the only things I took away from it were:

美国人 – mi “gok” lang – American. The word for America is very close to Korean 미국 (miguk).

你是美国人否? li xi mi “gok” lang bo? – Are you American?


I ran into this video on YouTube, but found that only Lessons 1, 4, and 5 are on there. Lucky, I found all episodes directly on their website:

China Daily: Say it in Shanghai.

It may be a little complicated to download the videos if you so choose (seems like you need to register), but it’s easy to download if you know how. They’re probably wanting to limit the downloads by making you register, so I’m sorry, I’d rather not tell you how. It’s easy to find out if you wanted to, but you could just try registering.

I like these videos. They teach a couple of words or phrases in a just a couple of minutes. It’s a little strange that they write the English on the board rather than the Shanghainese pronunciation or Chinese characters, but at least they show that in the subtitles.

Lesson 1: Shanghai, I’m Shanghainese, Good Morning, and Hello

I already knew relatively well how to say 上海 in Shanghainese, since every Chinese person I know likes to say it when we bring up this topic. I had forgotten, but somewhere I had also already heard that is the same as Japanese: nin.

我是上海人 – ngu2 si sang3 “heh”4 nin

侬早 – nong2 zo2. I don’t know if this is said in Mandarin, but I typically hear 早安.

侬好 – nong2 ho2

So, these weren’t hard at all. 我 sounds like “ngoo,” the ng part which is like Cantonese, 人 is like Japanese, and & aren’t that much different from Mandarin in a southern accent. We see that they use for 你. My dictionary points it out as having the same pronunciation in Mandarin, but says it’s old way to say 我. Next lesson!

Lesson 2: See you later

Shanghainese version of 再见 is pronounced like “zeh weh.” I can guess zeh is 再 but “weh” sounds too distant from 见. This is where another neat site comes in: Omniglot, which I also referred to for the Taiwanese above. Here’s the page on useful phrases. The “weh” is 会! Makes sense. From my knowledge of Mandarin and Japanese, it means meet or gather, so the meaning still makes sense, and again, the pronunciation is not too distant from Mandarin. Also helping me to remember is, is that there’s a slightly more formal version of 再见 in Mandarin that uses 会.

Lesson 3: Thank you, You’re Welcome

I love how you say 谢谢. It almost sounds like a cute version of the Mandarin; it’s xia xia. NOTE: I’ve seen some other places say the 2nd character may be reduced to simply sounding as “ya,” so it all sounds like xia ya. NOTE #2: My Shanghainese friends say they usually say “ya ya.”

谢谢侬 – xia xia nong OR xia ya nong OR apparently, ya ya nong.

不用谢 is “vuh yoh” xia. Sounds quite the same, so I would guess they are the same characters. The 不用 part just sounds like lazy Mandarin pronunciation.

In Lesson 4 and lesson 5, things started getting a bit more different. The word for “want” sounds like “yoh,” which isn’t bad, and makes me think it’s . However, the equivalent to as in 很好 sounds like “loh” and the equivalent to 好玩 (or possibly just 玩?) sounds very different as ba xiang.

In addition, I checked out Omniglot for a few other phrases – particularly those I heard in the Taiwanese videos by Glossika. I mainly looked at:

饭吃过伐? “veh chok” gu “vah” – Have you eaten? The characters are more like Mandarin (look, it’s and not 食!), but look at the word order! “饭吃过.” Actually, I doubt there’s anything different here, since Mandarin (well, even English sometimes) can put the object of a sentence at the beginning, for emphasis or to clarify the topic (“the food, did you get it??”), so it may just be that this order became more common in Shanghainese for this particular phrases. I’m sure I’ll understand better as I learn more phrases and get a better sense of the grammar.

Quick, Select, Back-to-Back Comparison

T: 敖早 – gau ca
S: 侬早 – nong2 zo2.

T: 你好 – li he.
S: 侬好 – nong ho.

T: 我是_人- gua xi _ lang
S: 我是_人 – ngu si _ nin

Negation: 不
T: 唔 – m
S: 不 – “vuh”
(not definite characters; just saying it sounds like them)

T: 你食飽未? / 你食未? li qia pa bui / li qia bui
S: 饭吃过伐?- “veh chok” gu “vah”

Closing Remarks

Not so similar, are they, Taiwanese and Shanghainese?

All in all, an interesting first couple days looking into these languages! It’s interesting that in the case of Taiwanese / Hokkien, I find more relation and memorization aids in Cantonese, while Shanghainese borrows or sounds more like Mandarin with a southern accent. With Fujian bordering Guangdong, the connection there is no surprise (whether or not such a connection is truly there is a different matter). However, I don’t know much about how Shanghainese and Mandarin may be related – IF they are. On that note, however, I found an interesting anecdote on Omniglot’s main page on Shanghainese. I quote:

The bulk of vernacular Mandarin Chinese literature were written not by native Mandarin speakers but by native Wu and Shanghainese speakers. As result, a lot of today’s Mandarin Chinese vocabulary comes from Wu Chinese via these literary works. The words and usages have become so well adapted into Standard Mandarin that most speakers assume they are indigenous to Mandarin rather than being cognates of Shanghainese.

What the early Shanghainese proponents for a common Chinese language did not anticipate was that Standard Mandarin’s promotion would be handled through the simultaneous oppression of all other Chinese regionalects, and most harshly on Wu and Shanghainese.

That’s not to say it’s the reason for the similarities I’ve seen so far. I would expect those similarities to be in more advanced words, but it was a nice coincidence to find this when I was wondering about the similarities.

That ends this post! Don’t expect future updates to be as detailed! I went a bit overboard here, basically writing as I went through the lessons, but maybe it helps anyone reading to also get a good start as I (hope I) am doing – if you choose to follow this, that is.

My 3-Year Performance Review & Progress Report, 2009-2012

2013/07/05 Leave a comment

In this last post, I went over what was my position in languages 3 years ago, in 2009, before I started learning Japanese and got into this current stage of language learning. After reading that post, I hope I sounded like a pretty typical person. I haven’t done anything impressive, so I hope many people who may think it is can see that I don’t have any special history, skill, or natural talent that has allowed me to get to where I am now. I simply do it without consideration of excuses and misconceptions.

This is a review of what I’ve accomplished in the past 3 years, up to summer of 2012, with a brief overview on how I did it, so that you can do it too. For that reason, links will be provided to any mentioned resources, but check out my Language Resources Page for a full list.

So now it’s time to go over what’s actually happened, and where I am now.

In case you’re looking for something specific, I’ll let you know this article mentions:

  • Japanese
  • Mandarin
  • Hindi
  • Korean
  • Morse Code
  • International Phonetic Alphabet
  • Russian & Greek
  • Vietnamese
  • Cantonese
  • Hmong
  • Yoruba
  • French
  • Spanish

The Decision

Which Language?

Starting Japanese is the big landmark marking where everything started. I wanted to start a new language, with not much of a goal in mind other than to see how it goes, how far I get, and how quickly I learn. I wasn’t going to put much effort since I foresaw myself getting busier in the upcoming years, and wasn’t going to care much for motivation. The only motivation needed is to do it: keep it in mind, do it when possible, but make sure I find that time and make time as possible. I considered Italian since I’ve had the interest and it would be easy, but it’s pretty close to Spanish, so I saw little need. German seemed like a good choice, but you know what? I decided I wanted something considered totally different, so let’s check out East Asia, I thought. Chinese characters, yes! So Mandarin or Japanese? I felt Mandarin would be more useful, and I have a little more interest in China culturally, BUT I had already started watching some anime, listening to some Japanese music as introduced to me from anime, and I was beginning to pick up a tiny selection of words. Thus, Japanese had the better and most promising opportunities for “practice.” Japanese it was!

Common First Step to all Languages

Something else I do to gauge interest and get a feel for a language, is to check out its grammar, so whenever I’m curious about a language, I go look over its article on Wikipedia, looking for the grammar section or grammar article.

The scary G-word is definitely something too many people over-concern themselves with (eg., in school courses), but I do believe it’s nice to start with it. What distinguishes a language and gives it its personality, its attractive qualities? I would say grammar! If languages didn’t have differences in word order, structure, parts of speech, conjugation, etc., learning language would be nothing more than learning vocabulary to swap out, and translations could be made virtually word-for-word. So I read up on grammar.

In the case of Japanese, then, I learned that it doesn’t necessarily use a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) structure, but it is instead primarily a topic-comment structured language. Topics can be dropped if obvious, and it’s much more common (informally) to make extremely short or single-word statements than in English. Questions are structured the same way as statements, only with question words and/or just a “ka” at the end. Different tenses/moods/aspects exist, but all persons (I, you, they, etc.) use the same conjugation. Seeing example sentences helped me see what this all means and how it really comes together.

After reading up on the basics of a language’s grammar, no matter how I continue learning, I’ll better understand why words are coming together the way they are, and the boost to my interest in the language helps make sure I keep going.


The New Languages


Reason for Starting: As stated before, I wanted something far removed from European languages, so I chose East Asian languages. Japanese became my top choice due to it’s smaller requirement in Chinese characters and my watching of anime that could serve as listening practice.

Level Reached: Rating myself using CEFR: a low A2. I can speak enough for some basic conversation upon meeting someone, up to discussing who we are, what we do, and what we like to do, and just a little beyond – assuming it all fits in my limited vocabulary. Usually able to get a vague and general sense of what a conversation or some song is about, and I can read all the words I know.

Primary Learning Method: Podcasts, Blog Lessons, Watching Anime, Listening to Music.

Money Invested: $1
I paid $1 for a 1-month free trial of a website.

How did I do it?

Anime & Music: I had begun watching anime in my school’s anime club, and it became my main source of listening practice – along with any music and artists I discovered through the anime. So, my first words and phrases were typical for these mediums; words for “are you ok,” earth, life, love, voice; question words and a few interjections; and stupid / relatively useless words such as wings, gate, tears, hug, and sparkling – forcibly, unintentionally learned because they come up so much in songs. Early-known music artists were Kitade Nana, Hitomi, Yuki, and Suneohair, due to Fullmetal Alchemist, Code Geass, and Honey & Clover.

Google: A continued searching online for answers to random questions I thought of, and looked up tables so that I could learn the two syllable-based scripts, Hiragana and Katakana, and I would draw the tables over and over until I learned them all – in the margins of my notebooks while I was in classes that didn’t require focused attention. I later did the same with Kanji.

Articles & Podcasts: However, I also actively searched for lessons and resources. I settled on two main ones: JapanesePod101 and Tim Sensei’s Corner. See my Japanese Resources Page for reviews.

With JapanesePod101, I listened to the lessons and practiced writing the Kanji, reviewing its parts as needed until I knew and remembered everything from the lesson – only until then would I move on to the next lesson.

At Tim Sensei’s Corner, along with other sites to see their perspectives and approaches, I learned some basic verb conjugations and constructions that seemed most important and useful.

Other best friends of mine were: this very useful Kanji dictionary (hosted by an online arts and gift shop called Saiga), another Kanji dictionary I’d mainly use to get a sense of the handwritten style, and the Japanese for Morons YouTube videos.

Practice & Repetition: Sometimes I’d try coming up with and typing or handwriting sentences, I’d constantly re-listen to the JapanesePod101 dialogues until they were practically memorized to ensure I knew all the words used and that I could speak those sentences myself, and I’d pay attention as best I could when I was watching anime or listening to music. My listening developed to the point that I’d understand almost anything I knew.

What’s next?

Switch all efforts to Japanese, review all lessons, keep dialogues practices, study vocabulary flashcards, and practice more writing.


Mandarin Chinese

Reason for Starting: Although they usually only have a couple, Japanese characters can have many possible “readings” – different pronunciations depending on the character’s usage, meaning, and the word it’s used in, for example. The worst offenders 上 & 下, with the generic meanings of “up” and “down” respectively, have 6 – 8 readings, depending on how you count them. In Mandarin, however, characters usually only have 1 or 2 readings; any additional readings are for rarer uses. I therefore decided it would not take much effort to learn Mandarin pronunciations along with the Japanese ones. However, the main motivation to actually learn the language rather than standalone characters, was having met more Chinese students at school, particularly one who was becoming a good friend but had poorer English compared to most of the others.

Level Reached: Rating myself using CEFR: Definite B1, but still slow. Felt like an A2 before going to China. In other words, I felt independent while in China. As long as no major problems arise, I could travel China on my own – as long as I had a dictionary at hand. I could talk to people and understand them enough if they spoke a little slowly and were patient, and made some good friends – friends who barely speak English.

Primary Learning Method: None; haphazard, random Google searches resulting in: Blog Lessons, Forum Discussions, YouTube Videos, Podcasts, etc. Finally took a university Chinese level 2 class.

Money Invested: Tough to say; I would say roughly $100 from school books. Adding a class to my full time school schedule is no extra cost, but obviously still paid for by tuition. In addition, although it allowed much language practice, I would have done the ~$4500 school program in China just for the travel, regardless of whether or not I was learning Mandarin. So, you decide how much I spent.

How did I do it?

Be Warned! This is now my best new language, so this one will be LONG. :)

Putting Kanji into Chinese dictionaries: I used a Chinese dictionary with audio, such as YellowBridge, and started learning the pinyin, applying them to hanzi / kanji I already knew from Japanese. Over time, I also pretty much figured out the Yale system, simply from making certain comparisons such as hsiao & xiao, Peking & Beijing, etc.

Google questions: I would Google some simple phrases such as “How’ve you been,” “When is your birthday,” or certain vocabulary such as “busy” or “homework” to plug into what few grammar structures I knew. I read a couple of articles on the general grammatical structure of Chinese, and would read blog articles that explained basic grammatical concepts – usually they’d be at East Asia Student and the related Chinese Grammar Guide, (sometimes great, sometimes terribly lacking), or discussions at Chinese Forums, as well as free podcast lessons from ChinesePod and ChineseClass101, and more (check out my Mandarin Chinese Resources for more sites and articles). If I had trouble thinking up the correct of words for a sentence, and was unsure about the grammar, I’d use Google Translate to see if I could get any help (don’t use Google Translate for help unless you’re experience with it and know well how it can help you; generally I do NOT advise it). However, of course, half of the time I considered my knowledge of Chinese and Google’s help too sketchy to depend on.

TV shows: We still had satellite TV at this time, and I discovered that we were getting two CCTV channels: the main English channel as well as the Spanish one. So I searched for language teachings shows. Apparently they rotate, and the only one I remember seeing on the English one was Sports Chinese with Dashan, which really didn’t sound like the best thing for me. On the Spanish channel, however, they were airing Viajando y Aprendiendo Chino (Traveling and Learning Chinese), which sounded better than something focused on sports. The lessons seemed relatively advanced (I could barely understand a response to “how are you” at that time), but I didn’t care. Advanced or not, I needed some sort of input, and why should I care if it’s advanced? I’ll ignore what’s too advanced and pick up what I do want to learn. They might not be teaching something simple, but if the example sentence has a word or structure I need to learn, I could see how it’s used, copy it down, and research it later if I have to. I actually ended up learning a good amount. If each episode taught 4 grammar structures and 8 vocabulary words, I ended up learning maybe 2 of those grammar structures and 2 words.

With people: If the right situation came up, I’d use a word I had learned, or if I wasn’t sure, I’d ask “Could I say  ___ here?” I’d prepared phrases to deal with the most likely or basic situations, so that when I met someone new, I could at least say “hello,” “welcome,” “how are you,” and “just a little” for when they asked me if I spoke or was learning Chinese, and I would ask them for their Chinese name and try to pronounce it well. I’d keep building up words and phrases I found myself needing to say, and would use them. Some of those friends taught me new words and would help with pronunciation. My better friend in particularly knew how to point out exactly what my problems were and would tell me how to pronounce them – with a tip I’d seen no one else say online! Sadly, I didn’t get to see me friends all that much, so I usually did not want to “waste” our time by using it for my practice when I could instead be chatting with them, learning about them, etc.

Practicing online: I believe it was an article by Benny Lewis that brought me to, a site were you can write something in the language you’re learning (optimally no more than 2 short paragraphs), and you will get it corrected by native speakers on the site, who are able to mark things in red, blue, or gray, or cross words out. You can give back by correcting others writing in your language. If you add someone as a friend, you will see each other’s new posts once posted. This was my best place to practice constructing sentences – though I admit to not using it as much as I should have.

A university course: While searching for what fun classes to take in my last semester of school, I found the 2nd closest Penn State campus offered Chinese level 1 and 2. Assuming my level of Chinese could not be good enough for Level 2, I emailed the professor asking what I could do since the Level 1 class conflicted with another class. Since I wrote half of my email in Chinese (mainly the self-introduction and expression of my desire to take the class), she judged I should be good enough to take the Level 2, so I did. It was a little overwhelming at first, especially because she spoke a decent amount of Chinese in class – which also made it exciting. The class served me well as I learned a lot with a fair balance of listening, speaking, reading, and writing practice. I had fun, made a few friends (including the professor), and the chapter with a dialogue about buying shoes came in handy when I ended up having to buy shoes in China after the shoes I brought got torn. It was a huge boost to my level and comfort in Mandarin, and helped prepare me for my trip.

What’s Next?

Seeking to go to Japan and thus trying to practice Japanese more, I have to put Mandarin on the side and limit its practice and study to when I am chatting with my friends. Having friends to chat with should ensure that I do not lose it. Once I’m ready to return more time and effort to it, I’ll focus on vocabulary, since it currently feels like what’s holding me back the most, rather than grammar.



Reason for Starting: To use some of it with my Indian friends at school. Seemed like an opportunity for practice.

Level Reached: Greetings, and a few random expressions and phrases. Can (slowly) read & write the script, except for certain ligatures and digraphs (combined letters).

Primary Learning Method: Face-to-face with friends, few random Google Searches, Wikipedia and YouTube for the writing.

$0 Invested

How did I do it?

As usual, I started with the writing, so I began by learning the table of the abugida, called Devanagari, which is used with various Indian languages (but there are other scripts for some languages). Although it could have been easier with mnemonics, I learned it brute-force just like the Japanese kana – simply by repeatedly writing the table over and over, pronouncing it while I did, and trying to write it out by memory.

Meanwhile, I’d ask my friends some basic words and phrases or google them, and I’d write them out. Like my experience with Mandarin, I didn’t really find much time to practice with them since I preferred to use my time getting to know them, so after learning the most basic phrases such as greetings and saying that I can only speak a little Hindi, my learning of Hindi was limited to random words and phrases I’d ask about when the situations came up (“What did you just say for ___? What did ___ mean?).

Finally, I’d research some simple grammatical topics such as tenses and conjugation, or try to round out the personal pronouns I knew, etc. That way I could apply the conjugations to other words I knew, and could try putting together some sentences for writing and correction on Lang-8.

What’s next?

I need to keep it up. I’m start to forget some of the letters, which shows why I really should have at least come up with some mnemonics. So far I’m retaining pretty well the words and phrases I know since I recall them from time to time, but I need to practice saying them or typing a little more so that I remember exactly how to pronounce them, which in turn helps me remember their proper spelling. In addition, I learned present, present progressive, and past tenses. They’re getting mixed up in my mind, so I need to practice a bit more.



Reason for Starting: So that I can read the script even if I don’t know what I’m saying, and to create some gravity of interest that would pull me into wanting to learn more.

Level Reached: Random words and phrases. Speaking is barely past basic greetings and formalities. Can (slowly) read & write the script.

Primary Learning Method: Dictionary look-ups, Video Lessons, Podcasts, Listening to Songs.

$0 Invested

How did I do it?

I originally intended to simply learn how to read it, which I’ve of course done. But as you learn to read, you of course pick up words, and your curiosity may build. Since Japanese and Korean have many words that come from Chinese, my knowledge in Japanese and Mandarin has been very helpful.

Again, the alphabet first – after all, that was my only goal at first. My first main reference was this amateur but good video on YouTube by a young woman calling herself “Professor Oh.” I found others as well, compiled in my playlist of videos for learning Korean. This video was very good by itself, and the steady pace made it easy to review. However the main reason I’m glad I found this video is that her next few videos saw huge leaps in quality, soon resulting in her Korean Word of the Week (KWOW) series, which is really great for learning various words and phrases – especially because it’s rarely actually only one word at a time. I watched roughly the first 10 of them.

As I learned the alphabet, I made a study sheet for myself. I also learned the Korean keyboard layout so that I could type it on my phone and on any computer, whether at home and work (where I have the layout installed), or using online tools, including Google Translate.

I pretty quickly then jumped into the great, free curriculum of grammar lessons at Talk To Me in Korean, having heard of them from Frank Fradella‘s world music podcast called LINGO. I only did a handful of the lessons, and listened to a few random advanced ones when I saw they covered a word or construction I had been wondering about.

I picked up many random words from Korean music, and would google certain questions to make some sense out of some basic grammar I’d encounter. At this time, I could only understand and say random words, and a mere handful of short sentences if the situation was right.

Story Time! The interesting story I have is that I happened to know enough super-basic Korean to help out a Korean man I ran into on Xi’an’s Ming city wall. My group was just standing around waiting for something or someone, and after buying a really good blueberry and chocolate and ice cream pope, I heard a man nearby speaking Korean to the cashier – who seemed to have no idea what he was saying, and was apologetic about it. He reduced his words to merely saying “커피, 커피” (keopi, keopi), and she still couldn’t understand. I had already turned my back and rejoined my group (I believe the whole time I was actually in conversation with someone so I wasn’t actively paying attention). After a while, everything came together in my mind and I better realized what happened – especially, the fact that the situation did not resolve and the man had to walk away. I considered my small level of Korean and figured, I know how to call for his attention, without having to chase him down the whole distance he had walked, and I know 커피 means coffee. So, I figured that was enough to try. I excused myself from my group and went after the man, shouting 저기요! (a polite, “hey, you, over there!”). We’re in China, so it wasn’t hard to get his attention when he’s hearing someone call in Korean. He turned to me and I said….something. In fact, I have no idea how I conveyed to him that I could help, but I know I at least repeated 커피 and said 오세요 (come please), while doing the appropriate hand gesture (similar enough to how Americans would call someone over, only the palm should be facing down; the American/western way is rude in East Asia). He understood and followed me. He said something to me, and I understood something related to my speaking Korean. I barely understood, but luckily I knew an appropriate reply: that I can only speak a little Korean: 한국어 조금 밖에 못해요. I would say that was exaggerating, but it was the best I could do. He said something else, which  did not get at all, and was relatively long, so I apologized and repeated, just a little, I can do no more than a bit! 미안해요, 조금 밖에, 조금 밖에 못해요. 미안해요. I think I remember him responding, 어어, 알았어 “Ohh, I understand.”

So I was his translator. Back at the stall, I said 我可以帮你们,他要咖啡。 (I can help you (guys), he wants coffee). He again said 커피 and I just repeated it. She asked which one, and he understood from her gesture and said 아이스 커피. Boy, good thing that wasn’t a native Korean word. Apparently she didn’t understand that either and looked at me, but that was the English word “ice,” so I translated iced coffee: 冰咖啡. Now that she knew what he wanted, she pointed them out and had him pick. The man very quickly asked something. I can’t remember what, but I must have picked out 얼마나 (how much) because it’s the only word I knew and could have understood in this situation. I had already seen the price, and told him. He understood and started getting the money out. Of course, the woman did not understand us, so she soon told him the price anyway with her fingers. Then, it was done, I thanked her and he thanked me and said one or two things I didn’t get, and I mainly conveyed “you’re welcome” and “goodbye” through a smile, nods, small bows, and saying 안녕 – and more familiar, and not polite goodbye (more like “bye!”), but I didn’t know the formal one so that had to do.

Don’t underestimate what a tiny bit of a new language can do!

What’s Next?

Finish improving this study sheet, and then upload to this site. With my ability to read Korean raising my interest, I now intend to also continue following the lessons at Talk to Me in Korean, simultaneously working on some write-ups to accompany the lessons to show relationships with Japanese and Chinese. I will also continue the KWOW lessons. I’m still NOT focusing on it as a language for study, but I’m taking any chances I get. I’m enjoying having Korean on the side.


Main Non-Language Efforts


Morse Code

Reason for Starting: It’s Morse Code! Maybe I can pick some out when I hear it in movies! And hey, good to know for an emergency situation. I’d hope the authorities are still trained in it. Better, get a friend to study it with and use it for secret messages!

Level Reached: If I need to tap out a message, I can, albeit slowly. If I see Morse Code, I can read it. If I hear it, it would have to be relatively slow for me to get it.

Primary Learning Method: Wikipedia and‘s pictures and audio.

0$ Invested

How Did I Do It?

Learned in 30 minutes! Used this neat picture and memorized it with only a couple of slight, personal modifications. I figured that would be best because it adds an additional visual element to learning the letters. I can then more easily practice the listening and move away from the visual element, which may end up slowing me down.

All I did was look over the chart, not even trying to remember it – I was researching other things about Morse code and collecting resources – and finally, I copied it down into my notebook, changing a couple to something that made a bit more sense to me. I went to the kitchen to get some ice cream and thought, maybe I should try seeing how much I remember just from looking and copying it? Answer? All of them!

Over the next few days I kept practicing writing out the chart and going over the rhythms in my head, and listened to some simple practice audio. Last thing I did was in an engineering class: I had two classes in one day, with a 2 hour break in between, with the same professor, students, classroom, and of related topics, so I did not sit down for the second class at all, choosing to stand by the wall. Luckily it worked because I rarely needed anything more than my notebook. I would frequently write dashes and dots on the board, trying to write down sentences my professor said. As you can probably tell, he didn’t mind it at all. :)

What’s Next?

I’m not putting much effort in and I keep forgetting about it, so as much as I’d like to work on my listening skill, I’m currently more concerned with making sure I don’t forget the pattern for each letter.


The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

Reason for Starting: To better pronounce words in new languages even if I don’t have the audio.

Level Reached: I know most letters related to sounds in English, Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, and Hindi.

Primary Learning Method: Wikipedia, YouTube

How Did I Do It?

Basically, I’d look up, say, French phonology on Wikipedia, and see the IPA for the various consonants and vowels, and I would then search those IPA symbols on Wikipedia since they each have their own article. What I really like about those articles is that it contains a list of languages in which that sound appears. I can thus easily see if it appears in a language I already know. If so, then not only do I learn that I can use a sound from a language I already know, but I can thus also connection that with the IPA letter and end thus remember that too.

I definitely do not know all of the IPA letters, and probably will not for a long time. In fact, I probably still wouldn’t do the best job if you had me read an IPA sentence of any of the languages I can communicate in. However, I know enough to help my learning, and the most important thing is that I understand most of the linguistic concepts behind them – well enough, at least. I may forget (but I haven’t; this is just an example) what sound ɕ represents, but when I look it up on Wikipedia and see it’s called a voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant, I’ll remember because that tells me almost exactly what it is. If I forget any of those terms, I can quickly look them up for a refresher.

What’s Next?
Nothing really, other than making sure I don’t forget the related linguistic terms.


Other, Lesser Language Efforts


Russian & Greek

Learned to read them mostly from sitting in a class a couple of times. Finished learning it (and could have done all of it) from Wikipedia. They’re just alphabets.

I have a couple of apps to review the alphabets and their pronunciations once in a while. If I ever see Russian or Greek in movies, TV shows, pictures – anywhere, I’ll stop to read it.


Another language I targeted to “just read.” It simply uses an alphabet, so that was relatively easy, but like English (and in some ways, Mandarin Pinyin as well), the sound attributed to a vowel letter may depend on what other vowels are beside it, so it took a little more effort to find a good way to learn that – and I’m still not that confident about it. This is because most people I know speak the southern accent, so I’m trying to learn that accent rather than the standard northern accent.

Flag of Southern Vietnam. Click for info.Vietnamese has tones as well, which actually involve other changes in the voice, so I still haven’t learned them. I began fiddling with the Vietnamese keyboard layout. Since there are only a few new letters, it’s not bad, but I still don’t have a way to remember which number keys are used for which diacritics.

What’s Next?

I’m going to finish figuring out the pronunciation of the different accents and stabilize my own pronunciation as I learn a few more words and phrases. Obviously need to learn the tones as well, and finish learning to type on the Vietnamese keyboard.


Did a lot of research on what phonetic system to learn before settling on Jyutping, which seemed like the best idea for a foreigner like me since it seemed that most resources would be using Jyutping. I may have a good bit of the Yale system down as well, since there are only some small differences. However, a few issues with my Jyutping have come to my attention; I may need to review some sounds by checking some audio samples.

Cantonese uses traditional characters, but some of them have not been a problem since I knew them from Japanese, or they vary only slightly. I’m also relating pronunciations to Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean to help me guess pronunciations of characters or words. I also already learned a few (usually) unique characters that Cantonese uses for certain words that are different from the ones Mandarin uses; they can be considered native, Cantonese characters.


Almost lost due to concentration on Mandarin soon after. My first look into it was some random, brief research a couple of years back. Recently, I looked at it again and brushed up a bit on the tones and alphabet. I had previously studied the phonology, alphabet, and tones, and with a bit more practice, could have remembered better how to read it, but by now, I’ve forgotten the tones and their notation, and can only remember a few letters that have a more unique pronunciation. I don’t think it would be hard to bring back though. I know only a couple of words / greetings.


Almost lost due to concentration on Mandarin soon after. I studied the tones (there are only 3) and phonology, so that I could almost read it all. However, I didn’t really continue and don’t remember if any sounds of the alphabet aren’t obvious / easy for English speakers. I don’t remember any words – other than remembering that the word for father should be easily recognizable to anyone.


I’ve also picked up just a tiny handful of dialectal words or variants from various sources – such as good morning and good evening in Indonesian / Malay from the anime Nichijou.


The Previous Languages



Not much improvement. In fact, I’m probably still slowly losing it. However, it never completely leaves my life, so it’s still sticking to me in some way. If I’m looking something up online, I may check the French Wikipedia after I give up searching in English, or I may simply search the web in French. If I come across any French in writing or in a movie, I’ll pay attention. I have the iPhone app for the TV5 channel, which occasionally (thankfully, occasionally, roughly once a week or less) gives me a headline in a notification if there are some big news. If I’m out driving at a time when I can’t find any good Japanese or Chinese radio to listen to, I’ll tune into a French station. I am still forgetting vocabulary and many simple conjunctions, though surprisingly, my conjugations aren’t getting too messed up. However, note that none of this involves speaking, and the writing is also minimal, so my French is not functional, and I will sound like a beginner if I try speaking.

Level Reached: Rating myself using CEFR: Same as before; I’d say it’s a rough B level in everything except speaking.

What’s Next?

No real set plan. I’m worried about totally forgetting it, but I’ll try to keep up the current level of exposure at least. I’ll focus more on it after I have more steady momentum in Mandarin and Japanese.



I am in fact, slowly correcting any mistakes I notice, and filling in my gaps in vocabulary. My mother has been keeping an eye out too, pointing out any issues she notices.


Swahili & Zulu

Yeah, I lost most of that. I only remember the more popular words like Simba meaning lion in Swahili, while it is ngoyama in Zulu (although it also means king). However, I recently copied the CD to my hard drive and listened to it a little bit. I still recognize some words and phrases so a short review should bring much of them back. Not that there was ever a whole lot – much less would there have been useful stuff.




Impressed? This was in 3 years, but don’t be. Sure, meanwhile, I’m in college, writing music, practicing my musical instruments, playing video games, spending time with my family, drawing and sketching and writing things for my scifi universe, hanging out with friends, planning for graduation and researching musical schools and programs to go abroad, etc etc etc. In other words, I was not focusing only on languages, and it was in fact only one small part of my time. In fact, that should be obvious – if I was truly focusing and spending so much time on languages, I could have done much more in three whole years. All of these languages were practically being worked on during only part of my spare time. As I previously said, I see in myself no special skill in learning languages; I do not find them particularly easy….and yet I’ve done this much.

If you did the same, think where you could be in a language (or more than one!) in 3 years.

What if you put in more time than I did?


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