Word of the Day on Twitter

We have just launched Twitter Word of the Day feeds for French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. Follow a feed to get a word of the day video which includes the word, its meaning and its audio pronunciation automatically in your Twitter feed every day.

More languages to come soon.

Is Korean hard to learn?

Korean is hard to learn for English speakers. Indeed, the United States Foreign Service Institute ranks Korean in its most difficult tier of languages to learn -in the same tier as Japanese, Chinese and Arabic.

While it is true that many of the grammatically concepts that determine how the Korean language works are completely foreign to an English speaker, it is not the language itself that presents the biggest hurdle, but culture inherent in the language that is most difficult for foreigners to grasp.

Why is Korean easy?

  1. The Korean “Hangul” writing system is brilliant. And part of that brilliance is that it is easy to learn.
  2. While the grammar certainly is different, it is in fact not that difficult once certain concepts have been mastered. For instance the use of particles or markers attached to nouns to signify the grammatical function of a word is completely different to European languages. A big part of learning Korean is memorising grammatical patterns – in much the same way as a student learns vocabulary.
  3. Pronunciation is not difficult. While there are some sounds not found in English, the language is not tonal and presents few problems for most English speakers.

Why is Korean hard?

  1. There is not a lot of shared vocabulary. While everyday Korean increasingly uses English borrowed words (derisively referred to as ‘Konglish’), often in a form unrecognisable to an English speaker, these will on get you so far.
    • Cognates include 주스 (ju-se) – juice, 오렌지 (or-rin-ji) – orange, 에어컨 (ae-o-kon) – air conditioning, 텔레비 (tel-le-bi) – television, 아파트 (a-pa-teu) – apartment, 원샷 (won-syat) – bottom’s up (one shot), 홈피 (hom-pi) – homepage, 오토바이 (o-to-ba-i) – motorcycle, 슈퍼 (syu-peo) – supermarket.
  2. The word order of Korean sentences take some getting used to. While in English sentences usually follow the <Subject> <Verb> <Object> pattern, in Korean the order is <Subject> <Object> <Verb>. That said, this difference does not seem to be a huge barrier to English speakers.
  3. Korean has three or four (depends how you count) levels of politeness which can be very challenging to master. But a beginner can get away with focusing initially on two and not offend anyone too much.

Ready to learn Korean grammar step-by-step?
Bootstrap Korean Grammar

A 535-page book and accompanying mobile app.
🇰🇷 Step-by-step introduction to French grammar in 185 topics.
🇰🇷 Over 3,200 annotated examples.
🇰🇷 High-quality audio pronunciations via the app.

Is Russian hard to learn?

Russian, like most Slavic languages, is quite challenging to learn for English speakers. The United States Foreign Service Institute ranks Russian in its forth tier of difficulty of languages to learn for English speakers – harder than French and German, about the same as Hindi and Turkish but significantly easier than Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Arabic.

Russian is challenging to learn because:

  1. There is not a lot of shared vocabulary. While there are not many borrowed Russian words in English, Russian does have some English (and French) borrowed words but this does not get you very far.
    • Useful cognates include центр (tsenter) – center, студент (student) – student, класс (klas) – class, иде́я (ideya) – idea, но́мер (nomer) – number, фильм (film) – film, метро (myetro) – metro and автобус (avtobus) – bus.
  2. Russian nouns have one of three genders – male, female and neuter. While at first this might seem daunting, the noun endings very often give away the gender – an ‘a’ ending for feminine nouns, an ‘o’ ending for neuter nouns and a consonant ending for masculine nouns.
  3. Russian grammar is hard for English speakers – there are no two ways about it. The verbs conjugate according to number, tense and gender. Moreover there are two verbal moods – perfective and imperfective. Nouns, pronouns and adjectives all decline according to number, gender and grammatical function (case). And there are six grammatical cases!
    • The complicated grammar is somewhat offset by a very flexible word order and the lack of articles (‘a’ and ‘the’).
  4. The verbs of motion are complicated. In English we have ‘to go’. But in Russian the verb of motion depends on whether we go by foot or by transport. And whether it is a oneway or return (or habitual) journey.
  5. Pronunciation is challenging. The actual pronunciation of words is not really difficult for English speakers – the exception being the vowel “ы” which has no equivalent sound in English. And the rolling “R”. The difficulty in Russian is that the position of stress in a word can change the sound of certain vowels. The most obvious example is “o” which when not stressed is pronounced “a”. For example “Большой Театр” is pronounced ‘Balshoy’ since the stress is on the second syllable. To make matters worse, the position of the stress and therefore the pronunciation of vowels can change when a word changes its grammatical function.
    • The Russian Cyrillic is easy – that is once you accept that fact that while the letters might look a little like the latin script, their pronunciation is not the same.
  6. Russian has two levels of politeness (the вы and ты forms) are quite straight forward even though getting comfortable with the situations in each should used can make an English speakers as bit nervous. The fact that they вы form conjugates in the same way as the second person plural (‘you’ as in ‘you guys’) makes things easier.

Ready to learn Russian Grammar step-by-step?
Bootstrap Russian Grammar

A 535-page book and accompanying mobile app.
● Step-by-step introduction to French grammar in 200 topics.
● Over 3,000 annotated examples.
● High-quality audio pronunciations via the app.

How to learn Russian – Fiona Hill

Fiona Hill is a British-American expert on Russian affairs. She speaks Russian fluently. She was born and raised in a coal mining community in the North East of England and still retains her robust northern English accent.

How to learn Russian by Fiona Hill

She has no family connections to Russia but decided to learn Russian on the advice of an uncle who, at a time of rising tensions between the West and the Soviet Union, thought that promoting understanding between the two sides would be fruitful. As the daughter of a struggling coal miner, she was granted funding by a coal miner’s union to begin her studies of the Russian language and was then accepted into the Russian language program at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

She spent a year studying at the Maurice Thorez Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow and she earned a master’s in Soviet studies and a doctorate in history from Harvard University. She then went on to be appointed to the US National Security Council and to advise three presidents of the United States on Russian and European affairs. She has also worked in a number of foreign relations institutions and think-tanks. She authored several books about Russia including an autobiography entitled “There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century” published in 2021.

We have reached out to Fiona asking her what is her secret for language learning success and for her Five Top Language Learning Tips. We will get back to you when we hear back from her. Stay tuned.

Involve me and I learn

Tell me and I forget,
teach me and I may remember,
involve me and I learn

This quote, well known and much repeated by foreign language teachers everywhere, is attributed to the American statesmen Benjamin Franklin. And it echoes the sentiment of the 3rd century BCE Chinese philosopher Xunzi (荀子).

The point of the quote in the context of language learning is that getting in and having a go is a critical element in successful foreign language learning. Over the years I have found that those people who are most afraid of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves are the people who have most struggled to make progress in mastering a foreign language.

Bootstrap Russian Grammar – UPDATE

We have just released an updated version of *Bootstrap Russian Grammar* – the book/app combo that teaches Russian grammar step-by-step.

The BOOK is 535 pages packed with 200 grammar topics and over 3000 annotated examples.

And the APP now features high-quality native-speaker pronunciations for all the 3200 example phrases.

The book is here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0646861433
And the iOS app is here: https://apple.co/3wVybhY

FREE sample of the first 10 topics of Bootstrap Russian Grammar is available here: https://www.declansoftware.com/russian/brg_SAMPLE.pdf
And the same first ten topics are also free in the iOS app.

A simple guide to French pronunciation with IPA

Pronouncing French is one of the major barriers to learning French for English speakers. Many text and phrase books use strange English transliterations that try to mimic how French sounds though writing in English. So we get something like ZHUH PAHRL for je parle (I speak).

This kind of simple transliteration from French to the Latin letters used in English is problematic on several levels. Firstly, the pronunciation of letters in English is very inconsistent. For example, the letter ‘c’ can sound like a ‘k’ (cat) or an ‘s’ (cease) depending on the word. Also there are quite a few French phonemes (sounds used when talking) that do not exist at all in English. For example the ‘an’ (ɑ̃ in IPA) in croissant, and ‘eu’ (œ in IPA) in neuf (nine) – neither of these sounds are used in English.

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a written system of phonetic notation that was devised as a way to represent every spoken sound of every language in the world. And it is very useful for students of foreign languages, including French.

While using a less technical transliteration scheme (such the ZHUH PAHRL we saw above) as it appears less daunting, all these seeming simpler schemes are either wholly unsuited to the French language, and/or they required as much ‘learning’ as the IPA. It very much worth the student’s effort to learn the subset of 39 IPA symbols required to perfectly describe the pronunciation of all French words.

One extra symbol that you will encounter is the liaison undertie . In French a silent final consonant may be pronounced, in some syntactic contexts, when the following word begins with a vowel or non-aspirated ‘h’. Many words with silent final consonants have utterly lost them, i.e. neither the ‘n’ in million nor the ‘t’ in art are ever pronounced regardless of whether the follow word begins in a vowel. A liaison should not be made just because a word ends in a silent consonant and the next one starts with a vowel. In the IPA transliteration scheme the undertie appears between words where liaison is happening.

The table below sets out the 39 IAP symbols required to precisely pronounce French.

Consonants

IPAPronunciation guide
bthe “b” in boy, baby and rob
kthe “c/k” in can, speaker and stick
ʃthe “sh” in she, station and push
dthe “d” in do, ladder and bed
fthe “f” in food, offer and safe
gthe “g” in get, bigger and dog
ʒthe “s” in measure, television and beige
hthe “h” in happy, ahead
ɲthe “gn” sound in lasagne or espana.
 lthe “l” in lie and ply
mthe “m” in make, summer and time
nthe “n” in no, dinner and thin
ŋthe “ng” in singer, think and long
pThe “p” in put, apple and cup
rthe “r” in run, far and store; tends to be raspy and rolling.
sthe “s” in sit, city, passing and face
tthe “t” in top, better and cat
vthe “v” in very, seven and love
xthe “ch” in Scottish loch and the German ach or ich
zthe “z” in zoo and buzz

Vowels

IPAPronunciation guide
athe “a” in aren’t – pronounced at the front of the mouth.
ɑsay “pas” with your lips rounded – it is that “a” sound.
ethe “er” in her
ɛthe “e” in ever, head and get
əthe “uh” sound in suspense
œa bit like the “ur” in “urn; the German “ö” in schön
øa “ue” with pursed lips; “ur” in urgent
ithe “e” in eat, see and need
othe “o” in ostrich
ɔthe “or” sound in all, or, talk and saw
u“oo/ou” in ooze, food, soup, sue; front of the mouth with pursed lips
y“ye” in yes, onion

Nasal vowels and semi vowels

IPAPronunciation guide
ɑ̃a nasal “on”; the “an” in croissant
ɛ̃a nasal “a”
õa nasal “o”
œ̃a short nasal “u” in under
j“zh” or “jer”
ɥ“we” with pursed lips and tongue at rear
wthe “w” in wear and away


If you are interested in a fun and effective way to practice the foreign language you are learning, give the Phrases app a try.

Immerse yourself in the language you are learning with ‘Phrases’ — using repetition, reenforcement and memorization to develop an intuitive feel for the language.

The languages available include French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. And more are coming soon.

Give it a try and download here : iPhone and iPad and Android.

Philip Crowther – fluent in six languages

This is a truly impressive multi-lingual achievement by a British-German–Luxembourgian journalist reporter called Philip Crowther.

Apparently he speaks fluently in six languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, German, and Luxembourgish.

He was born in Luxembourg to a British father and German mother. At home, his father always spoke English and his mother answered in German.

He explained that he learned to speak Luxembourgish with his friends, and learned French very early, at school. In college, he added Spanish and Portuguese.

Growing up in Luxembourg, he said that young people there usually speak four languages, including French and English, taught from the age of 10 and 12 respectively. “Most of us speak four languages ​​perfectly by the time we finish school.”

From the age of 14, he started to learn Spanish and became fluent when he moved to Barcelona at 20. The following year, upon entering a university in London, he decided that it would be a good idea to learn Portuguese. He graduated in Hispanic Studies from King’s College London.

Having studied and lived in Spain, Paris and England for extended periods and this has of course helped learning with immersion. Though it didn’t all go smoothly for the him: “For me, French was the most frustrating because it was the first language learned outside the home and with a grammar that isn’t very logical.”

The ‘Phrases’ App – Learning 1000s of Phrases in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese

We are happy to announce the launch of the Phrases app on the Apple AppStore.

The new app complements our existing ‘Words’ app that focuses on teaching vocabulary. Not surprisingly, Phrases focuses on phrases – lots of phrases!

The languages available include French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. And more are coming soon.

The idea is to expose users to hundreds and hundreds of common colloquial phrases, thereby developing familiarity and a feeling for the language. This is facilitated by exercises that emphasise memorisation through reiterative exposure to each phrase, and most especially repeated immersive exposure to the sound of each phrase. This helps to develop an intuitive feel for the language.

‘Phrases’ features hundreds and hundreds of common colloquial phrases organised into topics and all with native speaker audio pronunciation. Language acquisition is re-enforced with exercises that emphasise reiterative exposure to each phrase, and most especially repeated exposure to the phrase’s pronunciation.

The app content is designed so that learners can build mental templates of the language’s most common structures. And based on these patterns the learner can themselves construct and create new phrases. And recognise new combinations when listening and interacting in the language.

The core theoretical principle employed by ‘Phrases’ in facilitating adult language learning is ‘immersive exposure’. Immersive exposure is the key to effective language learning. It’s a proven method called ‘contextual immersion’. The app facilitates immersion through reiteration, repetition, memorisation and re-enforcement of over a thousand commonly used colloquial phrases – all with native speaker audio and contextual notes.

Audio Review Mode

There is a strong emphasis on listening in the app. A new feature that facilitates this is the “hand off” Audio Review Mode.

Using voice commands, the user can progress through all the phrases in a topic, repeat them, listen to the at a slower speed and even have the meaning read out.

A record function is also available that allow the user to record and listen back to their own pronunciation of the phrase so to compare with the native speaker pronunciation.

There is also an auto-play feature that automatically cycles through the topic phrases – ideal for when you are exercising or in the car and you want to repeat and repeat again the phrases until they are well and truly embedded and familiar.

Immersion is not submersion:

The immersion approach is a far better way of learning when compared with the submersion approach. Immersing yourself into a language means that you’ve got tools, tips and tricks to support you when it comes to learning the language and culture. Submersion, on the other hand, would plunge you in at the deep end with no resources or support. While submersion is effectively how children learn to speak, adults progress more quickly and efficiently if they have other resources to inform and support their learning. These include explanations of grammar and lessons that are structured.

While the ideal language learning scenario would be attending a language school while living in country surrounded by the culture and language 24 hours a day, this is often not practical for most of us, particularly for the length of time it usually take to go from zero to proficient. So regular and repeated use of the app is recommended so that you surround yourself with the essence of the language.

Here are several references if you are interested in knowing more about the most effective way you can master a foreign languages – by leveraging contextual immersion:

Cummins, J (2009) Bilingual and Immersion Programs, in Long, M and Doughty, C (Eds) The Handbook of Language Teaching, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

DeKeyser, R (2012) Age effects in second language learning, in Gass, S M and Mackey, A (Eds) The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition, London: Routledge, 442–460.

Kinginger, C (2011) Enhancing Language Learning in Study Abroad, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 31, 58–73, doi: 10.1017/S0267190511000031.

Robson, A L (2002) Critical/Sensitive Periods, in Salkind, N J (Ed.) Child Development, Gale Virtual Reference Library, New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 101–3.

Vanhove, J (2013) The critical period hypothesis in second language acquisition: a statistical critique and a reanalysis, PLOS ONE 8 (7): e69172, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0069172.

Wilkinson S (1998) On the Nature of Immersion During Study Abroad: Some Participant Perspectives, Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 4 (2), 121–138, doi: 10.36366/frontiers.v4i1.65.