I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say this: Chances are, if you are reading this article, you are either in the process of learning a new language, or at the very least considering it. Did I guess right?
Maybe you are doing so for employment opportunities, or perhaps you want to break down the language barrier to enjoy better communication with relatives. Or maybe you just like the challenge! Whatever the case may be, here are 5 tips that should help you fit the pieces together a little bit more quickly.
1. Pay close attention to your pronunciation habits.
The thing about habits is: They can be really good things, or they can be a devil to break! When you first begin to learn a new language, it is especially important that you learn to pronounce the letters, words, and tones in certain languages, correctly. Why?
If you fall into the habit of mispronouncing words, it can be very hard to break that habit later on. It will also hinder your comprehension — and that of your interlocutors.
For example, the Hmong language is spoken by about 30 million people worldwide, primarily in China, Laos, and Thailand, but also in parts of the United States and France. It is a tonal language, and not only that, it has eight separate tones! Tones are tricky things. For instance, the difference in pronunciation between the words “converse” and “bother” in Hmong is only a tone away. When I first began learning Hmong, I fell into the habit of mispronouncing the flat tone as the low tone. This confused those listening to me, and confused me when I heard native speakers using those tones. Only later on, when my mistake was brought to my attention, was I able to piece things together. If you can avoid the pitfall of bad pronunciation habits, by all means do so!
2. Focus on reading.
It is just a natural progression that a language learner almost always learns how to read first, then how to write, then how to converse. In my experience, reading should come first because:
(a) Your brain is able to process the written word at a pace it is comfortable with, instead of desperately scrambling to decipher a flood of words spoken to you, and
(b) you need a foundational understanding of sentence structure before you can really progress in the language.
For instance, the use of hendiadys, or a single idea described by two separate words connected by “and,” is littered throughout the Hmong language. It may sound strange to hear talk of kev ploj kev tuag, which literally translates as “disappearance, death.” Did the person disappear first, and then die? But as you read Hmong and see this phrase in context, it becomes apparent that this is a hendiadys that simply refers to death, as in: Tus txivneej ntawd raug kev ploj kev tuag lawm. “That man already suffered death.” Reading can help you put the pieces together, and prepare your ear to receive and understand phrases like that in conversation.
Of course, this is not to say that you should avoid conversation with native speakers. On the contrary, seize any and every opportunity to hear the spoken word! My wife and I do volunteer work that regularly puts us in contact with native Hmong speakers. Maybe you too can participate in local activities which will put you in contact with those who speak the language you want to learn. But you absolutely must put in the work of personally studying and analyzing the language through reading and writing.
Two brief caveats: First, focus on translating concepts, not the sentences as they literally appear. In English some of our phrases would be complete nonsense to non-natives, such as “bird-brain” (referring to an easily distracted person) or “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” (don’t get rid of what is essential when you eliminate the unnecessary). So if you come across a word or phrase that seems out of place, you may have to try to piece together the concept instead of the literal meaning. Or you may just have to ask a native.
Secondly, make sure that you are reading from reputable sources, such as news articles, books geared towards professionals, history books, and so on. You want to make sure you are laying an accurate foundation for yourself! Two online sources that can help with your reading of Hmong are: Hmong Dictionary and Jay Xiong’s Hmong Dictionary. Searching out similar resources in your target language will prove to be most helpful.
3. Try to have regular interactions with native speakers.
While it is important to study the target language and to process it on an intellectual level, you’ve got to be willing to regularly spend time in actual dialogue with those who speak it. You can study the language all you want out of books, but you will never get anywhere if you don’t put what you learn to use. I’ve seen people study a language for years and never make any real progress in it, because everything they learned stayed in their heads and never left their lips!
While it may be uncomfortable, or even embarrassing at times, put forth an effort to engage native speakers in their own tongue. While at first they may respond to you in English, if they see that you’re serious about conversing in their language, oftentimes they will respond in kind. If you’ve just learned a new word or phrase, try it out on someone! Even if they have to correct your usage, you won’t easily forget that word or phrase in the future.
When we first began learning Hmong, one of our Hmong friends would constantly repeat to us yim hais yim paub — “the more you speak, the more you know”. So we tried hard to put that into practice. Sometimes, when we were shopping at Walmart and saw some Hmong standing nearby, we would extend a friendly Nyob zoo! or “Hello!” to them, and if they were amenable, practice whatever little Hmong we knew.
It was funny seeing how some reacted when a white couple, and a white couple on the paler side at that, opened their mouths and out came Hmong words! We’ve collected many dropped jaws over the years. One time my wife introduced herself to a Hmong woman, and the woman was so amazed that she kept repeating to her husband: “She speaks Hmong!” She was in such shock that it took her a few minutes to actually respond to my wife’s questions.
If no native speakers are readily available, consider listening to music, movies, documentaries, or other resources that allow you to hear native speakers use the language in a natural way. For correct pronunciation and usage, news programs are usually the best. For learning Hmong, one really nice resource is the ECHO Minnesota series on YouTube. It is a government sponsored educational TV program designed to assist the Hmong community in Minnesota who have limited English comprehension. It is professional, well-produced, and features a wide variety of subjects, which range from fighting obesity to preparing for a day in court.
4. Be regular, and be reasonable!
The best way to learn a new language is to do so day by day, and with reasonable expectations. It is much better to spend 30 minutes each day studying the language, than to cram three hours of study into one day and then do nothing the next three days.
Think of your brain as a muscle. When you want to build muscle in other parts of your body, what do you do? You set a training regimen for yourself; you train regularly, perhaps daily; and you don’t expect results overnight. It is exactly the same with learning a new language. You want to exercise your brain, but not overwork it to the point of exhaustion; you want to exercise it regularly, and you want to set reasonable goals for yourself.
If you have perfectionistic tendencies, fight them! You will make mistakes; you will appear foolish at times. That is just the nature of learning a language.
For example, I would sometimes ask a Hmong person: Koj puas tau ua li no ua ntej? I was trying to ask: “Have you done this before?” But every time I asked the question, I received the most perplexed looks. I asked a friend about this.
“You are using ua ntej”, he said. “You should be using dua li.”
“But doesn’t ua ntej mean ‘before’?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “but in Hmong the concept is not ‘before’ in a general sense, but ‘before a specific event’. So when you use ua ntej, and just end the sentence there, the person is going to wonder: ‘Before what? Before breakfast? Before noon?’ That’s why you should use dua li. It is more general.”
Well, obviously that was very helpful to me. This just goes to show: Don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes, but use them as learning opportunities. It is often the case that your mistakes will help you progress much faster than your successes.
5. Enjoy the food, enjoy the culture, enjoy the people!
Learning a language is very similar to learning how to swim. You can slowly get into the water and eventually get comfortable; or you can just cannonball into it and adjust much more quickly! If at all possible, I would recommend you choose the latter option. Immerse yourself in the culture! Enjoy exploring new foods, new environments, and even new perspectives. As with most things, the more you like it, the more you will do it. If you actually enjoy the food, culture, and people that come with the language, you will be motivated to put more time and effort into mastering it.
As my wife and I have been learning Hmong, and learning about Hmong food and culture, we’ve enjoyed seeing the world from a different perspective. The Hmong are a very hospitable people. When we are invited into a Hmong home, the householder frequently offers to share a meal with us. Even in the poorest homes, we hardly ever leave without a bottle of water!
The Hmong are very family-oriented, and hearing their views on family has been an interesting divergence from typical American viewpoints. Also, because of our interactions with native Hmong, we have even discovered new favorite foods: For my wife, it is pho, a Vietnamese dish consisting of soup filled with rice noodles, bean sprouts, Thai basil, and your choice of meat. For me, it is papaya salad, or qaub tais, which is shredded sour papaya mixed with peanuts, tomatoes, and kua txob, or Hmong hot peppers. Just a warning if you ever get curious: Hmong food is extremely spicy! You may have to tell the cook to lay off the kua txob! But the point of this is: Because we enjoy the food, the culture, and the people, it motivates us to continue learning more about the language.
I hope these five tips will help you in your journey to learn a new language. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a lifetime journey! But remember this: happiness is not a destination, but a state of mind. So try to enjoy the process of learning! If you persevere, you will eventually have the joy of reaching your goals.