Language Learning Tools

In college I studied Russian (well), French (okay), and Persian (poorly). Now I am planning a long trip to China and South-East Asia, and I want to learn some Chinese before I go. Unfortunately, I’m no longer a paying student at a massive research university, so I can’t just enroll in Mandarin 101. Plus, I always struggled in language classes—which probably explains why I took so dratted many, I run towards flame—and I believe there are better ways to learn a language than weekly tests and early-morning classes.

So I’ve been doing a bit of research, and I’m storing here the many tools and resources that I’ve disgorged from the internet.

Universal

  • Anki – the best flashcard tool I’ve found, which uses spaced repetition to quiz you on words right when you would be forgetting them.
  • Fluent in 3 Months – a booster-ish fellow who preaches a gospel of speaking from the first day that you learn as well as making tons of mistakes. I’m always a little bit turned off by such raw enthusiasm, but I also believe there is some enlightenment to be found in it. Certainly the practice of learning a language can be a good tool for erasure of the ego, and in fact the proud (myself included) are often those who struggle most. Has good travel tips too.
  • All Japanese All the Time – a blog of this fellow who has been studying Japanese for five years (I think) and has molded his life around its study. He always has Japanese going, either passively in the background or quite actively. His readership studies various languages, and I think many of his techniques/notions are universal. One cool idea is quantity over quality—that one should study their target language two minutes every single hour, and that this is as good or better than a single block of concentrated study. He correctly identifies the main impediment to learning language to be boredom during study: if you’re not having fun studying then you’re not going to study. The answer, naturally, is to discover a way to find pleasure in the study.

Mandarin

  • Skritter – a really cool iphone app for studying and remembering Chinese characters. Sort of like flash cards, but it demands that you actually produce the ideagram, and it corrects you if you do the strokes out of order. (This last thing is, I suspect, very important.) Costs $15/month, which I’m not sure if I want to pay.
  • Hacking Chinese – a massive blog devoted to the study of Chinese. Very easy to just spend all day reading these articles instead of actually studying.

Russian

  • Multitran – hands-down the best Russian-English / English-Russian dictionary available. Much better than any print dictionary I’ve found. Also free.