Why trust my tips?

Well, the simplest answer is: because I grew up struggling with foreign languages and have finally learned how to speak 4 of them properly.  As such, I probably understand the difficulties you may have because I’ve gone through it before, and I’ve also gained enough insights to offer general tips that could benefit you.

For your reading pleasure, here’s my personal story that can elaborate further:

I was born in Singapore and grew up there until I was 10.  I was able to speak normal Singlish (Singaporean English) and clear Chinese with a Singaporean accent.

When I went to Hong Kong in 1992 because my parents had to work there, I was 10 years old.  At that time, the folks there only spoke Cantonese and I didn’t speak very much of it.  And so it was really difficult to make friends.

I didn’t like that feeling and resolved to learn Cantonese properly.  Alas, I left Hong Kong back for Singapore in 1994, and had to live through another 4 years of confused identity.  While I did not master my Cantonese, my English and Mandarin had already become influenced with a Hong Kong accent.  It took a while to be integrated into Singapore again, but it wasn’t necessarily easier to make new friends from Hong Kong either.  It was a difficult time.

So since then, I’ve always taken an interest in language, because I knew it first hand how this is important to making friends.  And so I dabbled in foreign languages in middle / high school: During my high school exams (“A” levels), I learned Korean on the internet because just studying for the exams were boring (I eventually spent most of my freshman year in college eating dinner with Koreans friends, and have grown quite accustomed to the language now).  I also took an introduction to French and Japanese, and learnt smatterings of Vietnamese from my Vietnamese best friend.

The interest in language grew, but serious achievements only came later:

In university, I studied German for 3 years in U.S.A while getting my bachelors in mechanical engineering.  After that, I did most of my engineering thesis work in Karlsruhe, Germany, using resources written or explained in German.  I had both an excellent academic and social outcome: by living in a town without Singaporeans  for a year, I had the chance to use German way more than a normal student would.  I mean, it was either German, or English with a Singaporean accent that no one understands that easily when you are out of Singapore.  Tearing a ligament while I was there and having to go into a German hospital + physiotherapy after the surgery helped.  I got exposed to German dialect from old German folks who were able to describe to you about all the different aches they had.

Anyway, during the later part of my stay in Germany, I used German to learn Spanish.  I even taught German to foreign students on a private basis, because I was able to convince them that I probably understood the challenges of learning German as a foreign language compared to a native German speaker. I was happy to see some of the folks I help speak German more comfortably towards the end of their exchange in Germany.

Also, I made a lot of Turkish friends in Germany, and spent enough time in Istanbul to be used to the sounds of Turkish. I wandered alone in Turkey with a German-Turkish guidebook and was able to ask enough questions and understand enough answers to get to where I needed to… everything culminated in Kenan Doglu’s open-air concert in Istanbul.  I ordered some snacks at the concert and was able to have a decent conversation with the stall owner in Turkish. 😀

Today, I’m back in Singapore and I am trying to get my Spanish up to the same level as German.  I still use a German-Spanish dictionary if I am confused, but am trying to reach a stage where I could use a Spanish-Spanish dictionary.  I hope to do the same for Turkish, Korean, French and Vietnamese eventually. These are some languages I started but never completed, and I hope to be sufficiently proficient in all these by 2022.  Other languages I’m interested in are: Russian and Malay.  Japanese too actually, but my brother knows it already and I’ll let him be the expert on that for now until I’ve done up the rest.

To summarize again, I realized how knowing a language well could benefit you because I got screwed early in my life for not knowing one properly.  Fortunately, with persistence, I’ve had pretty good success with many languages.  And without knowing it, I’ve learned quite a good number from different family groups (e.g. Turkish + Korean + Japanese = same grp; Chinese + Vietnamese + Cantonese = similar group; English + German + Spanish + French = similar group).  I think through this, I would have gathered sufficient experience with foreign languages to have obtained useful insights that you might find useful.

One question you may have after reading this: Why didn’t I study linguistics?

It’s pretty simple: I love languages naturally, so without a university education I’d probably still advance my skills in it.  I’m not natural at engineering – Singapore doesn’t have garages and lots of tools in a typical home – and so it made more sense to learn this in US and Germany.

However, this now becomes a ‘qualification’ problem.  Looking at number of words I took to explain this, it’s really much harder to explain why I can do this better than many others.  Well, whatever -> I hope after reading this story, you can understand why I will be able to at least offer a different perspective of learning a foreign language effectively. 😀

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