A new language for Christmas?

Putting in time to learn a second language is well spent time for an author. The obvious advantage is being able to talk to new people and read new litterature. But the less visible advantages is more interesting. A language is not just words and grammar – it’s an entire system for thinking. Phenomena and things you’ve never thought about is suddenly visible when this new system is applied to them. Old greek and classic sanskrit, for exemple, have a special grammar form for things that happened once in the past – a person killing someone swiftly would use that form (aorist or preterite form), while a person who impose a prolonged death on someone would use imperfect. (Sorry for the gory exemple – I took greek as a part of my bible studies.)

Mandarin (chinese) is the earthbound language that never ever ever saves things for sentimental value, and thus makes an extensive use of context. Five words in a dialogue

-Nan li ma?

-Bei li!

speaks volumes of ritual, polite treatment among friends and where to sit on a mat. A nightmare to translate, but eyeopening for an author. Hawaiian see no use for the verb ”to be” and relies instead on the positioning of words in the sentence to signal that something is something. On a sidenote hawaiian grammar likens the build of a sentence to an octopus; the descriptive terms are like the tentacles that sometimes flail before the head – the noun – and sometimes behind it. Never before have I heard a better description of grammar in general and sentence building in particular…

Learning a new language also gives you access to new litterature and new proverbs, and if you, like me, study a minority language and come from a people with a history of being brutal colonisers, I want you to remember something; be a good guest. Like it or not, you come with a backpack of violence your ancestors hung on your back. It’s tempting to adapt newfound stories, but all them are not up for grabs. Hawaiians have songs that are inherited and forbidden to sing for anyone outside the sphere of inheritors. Other stories may be sacred, or ”just” dear to the humans speaking the language. Take good care investigating your find and its context before you think of borrowing it, and if you borrow do everything you can to treat it right.

How do I learn a language?

Isn’t it hard? Not really, it may take time if you need to revise words thoroughly – that’s it, as long you remember language learnings first rule:

No self-bashing

We learn languages in different paces, and not all with a talent for language learning can keep up with the pace in a university course. I wasted years on internally wailing over others managing to read the Odyssey flawlessly in a week, while I still struggled to whack the basic forms of ”paidevo” into my head. Failing a course over and over takes its toll, and reduced my ability to learn further.

Nowadays I prefer to learn languages using free online tools not bound to a deadline. There are several and most of them are of high quality. Some are funded by institutions for special groups, others are tiered and have in-”game” pay solutions. University of Iceland, for example, have put an extensive course in icelandic online – you can study up to advanced levels without paying a dime. Livemocha have a gametoken system, some tokens you earn by give the right answers, other tokens have to be paid with cash. (Take a look at how a language site fund itself before you enroll, you don’t want to end up with the facebook syndrome; your content/language studies are suddenly a commodity the site owner feel entitled to sell to the highest bidder.)

The key to actually learn a language is immersion. Go the fun way – find movies in your chosen language on youTube or Vimeo and look up songs the same way. Reading comics are a brilliant way to learn – you get a complicated storyline despite not getting every word. If you can, find someone to talk the language with. Last but not least; sing. If I’d put together a language course myself I’d base it entirely on songs. A song give you a handy handfull of words, a basic grammar structure and is much more easy to memorize than a wordlist. When you sing you train your facemuscles which is important since different languages activates different parts of your face. Mandarin is spoken mostly with the part around your lips, whereas english makes more use of the cheeks for exemple. Getting that exercise is invaluable for your pronounciation. Make sure to find songs online where you can get the lyrics with a translation as well.

Where do I learn a language?

If you have a specific language in mind you should start att the official pages of the land where it’s spoken (if the language is tied to a land). Iceland is far from the only land with a university funded free course. If you want to learn mandarin you can find several good language sites, often free-standing businesses (I have no idea how these things actually works in China, though. The country’s business culture is somewhat haywire).

If you want to learn a language but are a bit fuzzy on which one I advice you to pick a world language that’s not your own. You can opt for the ones originating in Europe like french, spanish, german, portugese or russian, or you can go for the languages that are equally big, but outside this sphere: arabian, mandarin or swahili (among others). It’s a plus if you find the land and its culture fascinating, because language studies always involves this.

A short list of language sites


I use duolingo to brush up my french. By far my favourite site, available som app for android, iOS and Windows Phone. Uses gamification with a clean style, like having your schoolbooks turned into games, and it works well. You can even hook up with friends and compete with them. Promises ”Learn a language for free. Forever” which I hope they are able to keep. Funded by three venture capital firms (which I don’t like – firms of that ilk tend to be greedy), Asthon Kutcher and Tim Ferris (!).

Seven languages available, and they seem to expand the pack slowly.



I have mixed feelings about memrise. The site have a nice feel to it, the language learning tools are very good, and they have a large asortment of languages – plus a lot of courses in other subjects. It’s available as app for android and iPhone/iPad. The site relies on its community to produce content for it, which have made it possible for the few speakers of ume sami to use it as a tool for language revival. (Ume sami is a sami language spoken in Sweden, by fewer than fifty persons. A revival is greatly needed.) On the other hand you have to be critical when you pick courses, since community generated content tend be uneven in quality. What bothers me most is that it’s close to impossible to find out if there are paid levels on the site or if it’s funded by individuals or venture firms. I had to sign up and start a course before I stumbled upon a message that I could memorize 350 words before I entered a paid level. I may have missed a link somewhere, but this feels slightly dishonest.

Because of the large amount of languages, other subjects and good learning tools I still recommend this site – with a beware of the dragons attached.



Livemocha have a gamingsystem where you earn tokens for right answers, and pay your courses and reviews with the same tokens. Two kind of tokens are available, those you earn and tokens you can buy with real money. I haven’t been on the site for very long, so I don’t know if you can use them interchangeably or if you have to use paytokens when you reach a certain level. You are provided with a starting sum when you sign up so you can take the first courses. This is the only site I’ve tested that automatically directs you to a review table for some of the exercises. I haven’t tried to interact with others so I can’t say how well the conversation option works. Livemocha was bought by Rosetta Stone 2013 and seem to base their income on the paid tokens. They’re honest about having ”premium options”, but the link directs you to the Rosetta Stone site and the best way to find out about the paid tokens is to sign up. I like the site, but don’t play it with your credit card open.

Thirtyfive languages available.


Surface Languages

It’s what it says on the tin; you learn the surface of the language. Basic grammar, basic vocabulary and pronounciation. Some of the language pages have a lot of content, other languages have to make do with flash cards on basic vocabulary. Basics can take you pretty far, and the site uses native speakers (I tested the swedish vocabulary execises). The site is managed by one person, and I suspect it’s funded by ad income. An impressive site – it doesn’t use gamification, but that can be a good thing too.

Fourtythree languages available


Open Culture’s language list

Open Culture is a site collecting and highlighting quality cultural and educational media online. Their list over language resources is a good starting point if the resources above don’t have what you want.

Fourtyeight languages have resources in the list.

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2 Kommentarer

  1. Languages = a wondrous delight in my life. I love exploring my own language and then diving into French, German, Italian… I’ve dabbled in Hebrew and Russian. Sadly, I’ve really only learned Hej in Swedish, but I tuck delightful Swedish phrases on my Pinterest board about Sweden.

    I think, once you grasp deep within, that you can express something differently and even see something differently based on another culture, your spirit opens to all kinds of possibilities that you might not otherwise consider >>> that there are other ways of being. This to me is the gift of languages.

    That, and being able to order something from the menu in a foreign country! 🙂

    What a wonderful, inspiring post that serves as a starting point for some, and an encouragement for others to keep going. Thanks.

    • marthacrimson

      I can’t really add to this, because that’s covers most of why I’m studying languages too 🙂 . Your comment brightened up my day considerably, thanks! 🙂