Should You Learn to Read and Write Chinese Characters?

This is not going to be a post about how “Chinese characters are easier than you think!” I’ll give it to you straight. Learning to read and write in Mandarin is a serious undertaking. It might not even be necessary if your goal is more centered around speaking and listening ability. In this post I’ll help you weigh your personal …

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How Easy Is It to Learn an Asian Language?

Just to stir the pot a bit… I thought I would post this chart from my upcoming talk at the Polyglot Conference in Fukuoka (2019). I’ll be giving a talk in which I describe the structure of some of my favorite Asian languages, and what to expect if you decide to learn them (the talk is called “Which Asian Language …

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Mandarin Tones Are Not As Hard As You Think

Mandarin tones do take some getting used to, but they are not as complicated as you might think! I have noticed that language learners often decide not to try learning Mandarin because they are daunted by the thought of using pitch to distinguish meaning. But guess what—Mandarin tones are famous for being among the simplest of all tonal languages to …

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Shadowing: This Exercise Will Make You Sound Like a Native

Since I posted my blog post on the importance of prosody, many of you wrote to ask for more explanation of how my shadowing exercise works. It is a very powerful exercise and has helped me immeasurably. It is particularly useful for tonal languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, or Thai. I’ve written a more detailed explainer here, and made some …

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Linguistics 101 Series: Why You Need to Master Prosody to Speak a Foreign Language

When you learn a foreign language, you usually study pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Maybe even a new alphabet. But how many of your language teachers have ever mentioned prosody? Prosody is the “music” of language. In spoken languages, prosody is the variation of pitches across a sentence or discourse level. For example, in American English we tend to raise our …

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Why You Should Learn Chinese

Someone on Quora Français recently asked me, “why should I learn Chinese?” (This post was originally written in French for Quora. Lisez son original en français) My opinion? There are several reasons why you’ll want to choose Chinese as your foreign language. Use Chinese to Access Global Business Right now, much of the world considers learning English to be their …

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So You’re Not Fluent Yet: Should You Blame Duolingo?

When the recent article in The Cut came out proclaiming Duolingo useless, the glee was palpable. I get it. You’ve spent countless hours at the beck and call of that owl, and you still can’t speak Spanish, or Ukrainian, or High Valyrian. You feel ineffective, incapable. You wondered if it was just you. I’m writing this post on a long …

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You Might Want to Learn These Languages

If you’re reading this blog, there is a good chance that you’re a hopeless language addict, suggestible to any new language recommendation, and forever putting languages aside to try out the new hot thing. So maybe I shouldn’t be enabling you. But if you’re looking to learn a new foreign language and don’t know which one to choose, I have …

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Irregular English and How It Got That Way

Happy International Mother Language Day! My mother language, or “mother tongue” as we say in the US, is English. This is fitting for a linguist. Not because it is currently a so-called lingua franca, but because it is a very mixed-up and promiscuous language, vulnerable to nearly any language it comes in contact with, mixing its many linguistic influences, sometimes …

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Langjam: Studying Swedish When You Only Have Four Days

  Hej allihopa! This weekend I participated in Sandra Schellhase’s Language Jam social media challenge, in which participants have four days to study a language which they are randomly assigned. I was so happy to get Swedish! I’ve always been a bit of a Scandinavia-phile, and some of my family lives in Sweden too, but I always felt guilty about …

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10 Ways to Improve Your Accent in a Foreign Language

Working on your accent? So am I — in six languages. As a native speaker of English and an adult learner of Spanish, French, Mandarin, Korean, Indonesian, and ASL, I’ve had my fair share of phonetic struggles, from Mandarin tones to that rolled Spanish “r”. But guess what? There are concrete steps you can take to improve your accent, especially …

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