Transparent Language Blog

Just Ask Alex: July 2013 Edition Posted by on Jul 29, 2013 in Archived Posts

alexbudIf you’re new here, let us introduce Alex Rawlings, a 21-year-old language enthusiast, who has taught himself more languages than we can count on our fingers! Impressed? You should visit his blog! Want to know more? You should keep visiting our blog, too! On the last Monday of every month, Alex will be answering YOUR language learning questions. Have a question for Alex? Tweet us @TLILanguages or connect with us on Facebook using #JustAskAlex.

1. What are the first things that you should learn in a language?

Languages are about confidence, and that couldn’t be more true than in the early stages. The best way to feel confident about your new language is to start being able to use what you’re learning as quickly as possible. To do that, you need to learn all of the important things first.

Your first port of call with your new language is the “idle chit-chat” stage. This is the ‘pleases’, the ‘thank yous’, the ‘good mornings’ and the ‘how are yous?’ These basic courtesy phrases will show people that you’re trying to learn their language and start some conversations. Because they’re quite easy you might even pick up some compliments and some easy confidence points.

Having mastered that, you’ll want to move on. Before you plunge in too deep, though, let’s concentrate on mastering the basics first. Your next focus should be on being able to describe your surroundings and the things that you can see: a town, a house, the rooms of a house, things in nature, transport, and other things that you can see. There are two reasons why this is useful: firstly, learning a lot of vocabulary will give you a chance to practise your pronunciation and ear, and secondly you’ll be able to walk to the shops or work or wherever and look around you and practise what you’ve learnt by trying to remember what everything is. This is a great opportunity to make use of your dead time.

You’re going to want to start joining everything up that you’ve learnt, and at this point you should take a look at verbs. Even if you only learn ten verbs like ‘to be’, ‘to want’, ‘to go’, ‘to like’, ‘to speak’, ‘to understand’, ‘to learn’, ‘to eat’, ‘to drink’, and ‘to live’, think how many sentences you can already form just with those when you combine them with the vocabulary you’ve already learnt!

To finally feel like you have a strong grounding in your new language, complement everything you’ve learnt with lots of ‘connecting’ words. These are aren’t necessarily essential for making yourself understood, but they often add important information and will help join up the sentences that you already can form. This includes being able to tell the time, numbers, colours, phrases that express your opinion, directions, and so on until you find yourself being able to quite confidently hold basic conversations.

Once you have enough vocabulary to form a variety of (interesting) sentences, it’s time to focus more on grammar: different tenses, conditional phrases, and all of that fun stuff. Enjoy!


2. What should you do when you really can’t travel to your target country?

I am a big advocate of visiting the country where your new language is spoken, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to learn a language without doing so. To be honest the ‘language pilgrimage’ trip is not just educational, it’s really just a nice reward for all the hard work you’ve put in.

Your ability to travel should not impose limits on your language learning prospects. If your target country is just too far away or you really can’t make the trip, don’t despair! You can learn a language just as well at home.

When I was learning Afrikaans in London there was no prospect of me ever visiting South Africa. The tickets were just far too expensive. I knew this, but I didn’t let it put me off. Instead I sought immersion in other ways, and through the internet this was entirely possible.

When I’d get home I’d find a South African radio station online and put it on. I listened every day. I used to love the traffic reports from Johannesburg and the heated debates about domestic issues that you’d hear nothing about in the UK. I found Afrikaans music bands that I liked and I listened to them everywhere I went. When one eventually came to London on a tour, I got tickets and knew all of the words, had the best night of my life chatting with all the ex-pats!

I started reading Afrikaans news websites, downloading podcasts, and eventually ordering Afrikaans novels through the internet. It was hard to read them at first, but eventually the new vocabulary that I’d been writing up started reoccurring, and everything became easier to read. I made my way through quite a lot of different authors, all of which helped me sustain the virtual South African cultural bubble that I’d created around myself.

Even though I was on the other side of the world, I made sure that I was living and breathing the language day in day out. I started thinking in it, and because I was working so much on it I even began dreaming in Afrikaans regularly!

I know that this paid off because although I’d never set foot in the southern hemisphere, everything became so much easier to understand, such as the news reports and books that I was reading and the conversations that I was listening to on the radio. When I’d meet a native speaker I was so eager to talk that I’d keep them for hours, trying to pursue any topic possible!

Several years later when by some miracle I got the chance to go to South Africa, Afrikaans was already one of my strongest languages, and I noticed that the moment that I stepped off the plane.

So that goes to show: just with patience, consistence and determination, nothing is impossible!

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  1. Cindy M:

    I am an intermediate Italian language student. I am looking for ways of maximizing my exposure to the language during the day. Is there a good set of CDs that I can listen to whenever I am in the car? I read newspapers and internet postings. But, I need more opportunity to hear native speakers. While in Italy for only 2 weeks this year, my language improved greatly. But, after a month delay in starting back to class, I have forgotten alot of what I alread learned!

    • Alex Rawlings:

      @Cindy M Hi Cindy! Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying any particular course or CDs in your case – the solution isn’t always just to throw money at the problem! Go on iTunes and see if you can find any good Italian podcasts. I know that the main national German radio station make a lot of good ones that are designed for Germans – I listen to the politics discussions or the book club talks. They’re REALLY useful for improving my German, and although they’re hard at first if I sit down and listen to an hour episode really slowly with a dictionary writing down new words just once, the next few times I listen to them they go in much more quickly! Sport news is also always very basic language, even if you’re not that interested in it. Give it a go, and let me know how it works out!

    • Kalik Crick:

      @Cindy M A good way to listen, and I recommend, is listening to Italian radio stations online etc.

    • Laberta:

      @Cindy M I love listening to free audio books from (in general, but especially when learing a language)
      I’m sure they also have some in Italian. Maybe a book you already know or have read so you won’t be overly confused. 🙂

      • Transparent Language:

        @Laberta Thanks for this suggestion! We’d never heard of Librivox before… could be an excellent resource for language learners as they acquire more foreign language content! In the search page, they offer “more search options”, including a search by language feature which is extremely helpful! Italian, for example, has 290 recorded books.

  2. fred logue:

    How many languages do you speak? I do the same.

  3. Mark:

    Hi Alex, I’ve been studying Portuguese for two years now and I think in pretty fluent but far from bein great. In a years time I hope I’ll be spending a semester abroad in either Portugal or Brazil but for now I’ll have to make do with (only) a five day trip to Portugal. What would you suggest I do to maximise the speaking experience? I will be travelling with a small group of friends, none of whom speak Portuguese.

    • Alex Rawlings:

      @Mark Hi Mark,
      So let me tell you I’ve been there multiple times! Not Portugal, that is, but being on holiday with English speaking friends when I suddenly become the “interpreter”, while at the same time I really want to practise my language! Depending on how friendly the people are (they usually are in Portugal) you can make brief conversation with people in shops, the people you’re renting your accommodation from, and of course have great fun eaves dropping on what’s going on around you. Also don’t forget this would be a great opportunity to get some useful resources. Try reading a local paper every day – it doesn’t have to be an expensive one, see if you can pick up a “Metro” or a freebie somewhere – and watch some chat shows on TV in the morning. Even if you don’t get that many chances to really take your Portuguese beyond the “restaurant zone”, those are just a few things that your (short) stay there will allow you to do that you wouldn’t have been able to from home. See it as more of a taster for what’s to come, and don’t worry: with a whole semester coming up in your target country your Portuguese is going to be just fine.
      Thanks for commenting! Good luck with your language learning, and take care 🙂

  4. Donna:

    Ciao Cindy-Alex, as slow learner of Italian (mixed mostly with 3 very different southern dialects), I will share with you my experience. I find Italian radio by far the most challenging to listen-understand but once I got used to it, have found it’s a nice feeling that I finally get it! Funny story of how my favorite station was called ‘Smile Beach’ but kept hearing ‘Smile Bit$!’. I giggled everytime they said it after I figured out they weren’t talking to me. Second place I found quite challenging was Italian news broadcasts. They fly with their words and often don’t pause in between stories. I did find it easier with pictures showing me transition points but I still mis-understand now and again (like did they kill someone or someone get killed..simple things like that–NOT). Try to look up RAI (and read or lis all about Berlusconi’s trial). I have to pay a mandatory 130euro TV tax every year to watch it but it may be free on-line.. I have been coming in-out of Italy for over 25 years now. My first military duty was in southern Italy where after my first year (and Brindisi dialect learned), I met my husband of 23 years now. His family spoke no English so I had to learn to communicate so I studied with the UMUC during our last year and half here. None of that really helped since his mother was uneducated and only spoke ‘San Vitese’ dialect–it was then I realized what a challenge this would be. We left after only 2 years of marriage and I did not learn all the dialect during my one-hour sessions 3-4 times a week with his family. My husband spoke broken English and well frankly the language of love is another one all together. It took me nearly 8 years to get back to Italy but got stationed in Naples (another very distinct dialect to learn). Although we visited his family throughout the years I never realized the same language could have so many vocabulary and enuciation?sp? versions. We spent our last years in the military in Hawaii where we only made it back to visit once in six years. I nearly lost everything I had ever learned since there’s no ‘Little Italy’ in Hawaii! Sorry for the long reply but if either of you, or anyone on this network, would like to come visit Italy, then please let me know. I promise to make it worth your ‘language learning experience’ while(ask me about the time I went to the supermarket and asked for sunscreen). I have two holiday rental homes which are generally available from late Sep-early spring if anyone cares to immerse in our southern culture/language! more on us at I often offer our places at less than hostel rates and long term winter stays are greatly discounted. ok?

  5. Jane:

    Hah! Wicked! If I’d read this post before I started my blog, I’d have probably thought I’m only paraphrasing you. Good thing I found about it now,… that way I’m feeling I actually came up with all of this myself. 😀 Good luck with your Japanese by the way. I do suggest starting with Kanji and learning the counters (hitotsu, futatsu, … hitori, futari, … ippon, nihon, sanbon etc) at an early stage though (I used doodles to remember them), even though it’s not idle chit chat and puts many off. It’s just… something that takes a long time to memorize and is frequently used so it’s good to have it at hand. Just in case nobody’s mentioned it to you yet. Hope this might be useful and that you haven’t already thought of it. For the Kanji, if you haven’t found this yet, I recommend James W. Heisig (found his PDFs somewhere online, but I actually bought the books before that), it’s a very intuitive and memorable way of learnign the Kanji.

  6. Jacques:

    Wow Alex, ek kan nie glo dat jy so passievol oor my taal is nie! Jy is seker die beste Afrikaans-sprekende Europeer (behalwe sommige Nederlanders)! 😉

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