Guest Post: Learning Languages from the Military

Today’s article comes from Michael Jennings, a military linguist for over 12 years specializing in Chinese, French, and some Korean.  Along with being an avid writer, Michael also manages the site DLABPrep.com, a website devoted to preparing for the DLAB and helping service members start their career as a linguist.

Enter Michael…

So with such a long-standing proven program like the military’s, perhaps we can look at what the program is like and whether or not we can use some of their methods in our own language studies.  To do this, we will start by following the path of a soldier selected to become a linguist and then follow that up by looking at how they go from level zero to socially fluent in minimal time.

For any soldier, sailor or airmen looking to join the ranks of linguists, they must first pass the Defense Language Aptitude Battery Test or otherwise known as the DLAB.  This test was designed so as to decipher whether or not an individual service member will have a higher probability of success in studying a language.  If you would like to learn more about this test, and take a DLAB practice test the DLABPrep.com can give you that opportunity.

Because certain languages are harder than others, the military categorizes languages from 1-4 with 4 being the toughest.  So based off of their DLAB results, that service member will then be enrolled in the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and placed into language program based on whether their score met the minimum for that language.   Once enrolled at DLI, that service member will then be immersed in the language and be lead by a team of foreign nations that will guide them through the program.  To highlight the difficulty of certain languages as compared to others, the Spanish program only requires six months whereas the Chinese program requires 1.5 years to reach the same level.

Once the language program at DLI is over, that service member then has to take the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) so as to grade their capability and proficiency in the language.  If the service member is lucky, they will then be able to head over to the country in which they learned the language and start an “in-country” training program.  However this is rare.

So what can we learn from this program and how can this help our own studies?

  1. It is the belief of the military that you must immerse yourself in the language so as to grasp it faster.  While at DLI, a service member is not allowed to use English and must rely on his or her newly founded language skills.  It is not expected of us  weekend-warriors to follow this same protocol however the more you hear it, the more familiar you will get.  So develop settings that will give you more exposure to the language.
  2. The DLAB test focuses on grammar structure and the importance of grammar rules, but also, before one starts DLI, a service member has to take a 2 week course on basic English grammar.  This process helps a soldier understand the breakdown and organization of a language and gives them the building blocks to apply in their new language before they start the study.
  3. When DLI creates the foreign teaching team, they pick teachers from different parts of that respective country so as to expose the soldier to different dialects.  For example, in Chinese I had teachers from Taiwan, Beijing, Xin Jiang and Yunnan.  It was almost night and day between some of their accents.  So make sure you look at your sources and broaden them to account for this.
  4. Most importantly, never neglect the importance of learning that language’s respective culture and history.  The military take significant amount of time to teach the service members about that country, it’s culture and it’s heritage.  It is believed that this element of learning will help that language learner in the long run.

The US military has been training people to speak foreign languages for almost a century.  While their international relations skills might be lacking, their production of capable linguists in incomparable.  Hopefully this quick view of the military language production capability has given you some ideas and recommendations on how to improve your language skills.

eBook, Korean, Language Books, Language Learning

Learn to Read Korean in Just 10 Minutes

Foreign scripts often tend to scare people. After all, they are something that you are most likely completely unfamiliar with, and at best, they probably resemble little doodles that you might do on a napkin.

But not knowing how to write another language can seriously hold you back if you want to experience a new culture or people. Even if you don’t intend on learning how to speak a certain language, knowing how to read its script can be a priceless skill to have.

For example, I used my ability to read Korean the first time I went to Korea and discovered how much easier it was to get around simply by being able to recognize the writing system that I was seeing around me.

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Want some udon noodles? How about some ramen or some bibimbab? You can order whatever you want if you know how to read this menu.

Knowing how to read made me feel like so much less of a foreigner and that I could actually now start to understand and navigate my surroundings.

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The inscription reads “King Sejong”, Korea’s famed inventor of the Korean script. There’s me down in front!

Of course, if you don’t know how to speak Korean, you wouldn’t be able to understand what you may be reading. But the point here is that at least it won’t all look just like little doodles.

You can simply tell someone, “I see that the inscription on that statue says 세종대왕. What does that mean?” That person can then tell you, “Oh, that’s the name for King Sejong, the inventor of the Korean writing system. 세종 means Sejong or course, and 대왕 means king.”

See? That wasn’t hard. And now you’re even starting to learn new vocabulary as you go, even if it’s just the essentials for your trip or for what you’re seeing around you.

However, if you’re planning on actually learning how to speak Korean, you’ll have to learn how to write anyway, so you might as well do it in the beginning and make your life easier. The Korean script isn’t too difficult to master and can be done quickly if you know what you’re doing.

So here’s the point where I introduce a new eBook that I’ve just finished writing on how to learn to read Korean in just 10 minutes.learn korean alphabet, learning korean online, learn korean alphabet in 15 minutes, how to learn korean in 15 minutes, korean alphabet learn, korean alphabet in english, korean alphabet in 15 minutes 9gag, learn korean in 15 minutes, learn the korean alphabet in 15 minutes, learn korean alphabet in 15 minutes

As I explain at the following link, this eBook aims to quickly and systematically teach you how to read anything you might see written in Korean.

And there are also bonus sections on how to properly write Korean, as well as a list of solid resources for how to continually improve your language skills.

So what else does this eBook offer? By reading, you will:

  • Learn how to read and pronounce the Korean alphabet in under 10 minutes (seriously!).
  • Discover the unique way that this language puts letters together in order to form words.
  • Find a bonus section that explains how to properly write the Korean alphabet (there is indeed a right way!).
  • Learn about the history of the Korean alphabet and the king who first implemented it.
  • Be able to type Korean on your computer.
  • Find extra resources to further your study of Korean writing and the Korean language in general.

You can find Read Korean in 10 Minutes here. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to write them in the comments section below!

Have fun on your journey learning something new!

Education, English, Language Learning, Multiligualism

The Immersion Effect: The Linguistic Benefits of Teaching Abroad

Today’s article comes from Christina Chandler, a current graduate student and former English teacher. Not only does she take the view that one must actually use a foreign language in order to excel in it, but that this is best done while abroad due to the immediate access one will have to the brain’s of native speakers. And what better way to get this access than by teaching them English?


Learning a new language is on the list for Americans as one of the top things they want to do. It is also on the list of the top things that most Americans consider difficult to do. In a way, learning a new language is one of those life goals similar to writing a book that most people will make but not always follow through with. Much like any goal you set though, there is only one way to truly move forward with completing it. You have to actually spend the time and energy.

The problem with learning a language is even if you put the time and effort into it, you can often feel like you are not learning or gaining much. This is because the majority of people learning a language forget the most crucial step to learning a language: using the language. This is why the tried and true method of learning a language has always been through the use of the immersion system.

What is the Immersion Effect?

The immersion effect is a method of teaching a language to a person in the same way that we all learn our first language; by constant exposure and interaction with the language. Now this method is often used in a classroom that teaches foreign languages, and is currently used by programs such as Rosetta Stone. But classrooms and programs are only mimicking the true experience of the immersion process.

The only way you can enjoy and benefit from immersion in such a full way is by staying in a city where the language being spoken regularly is the language you are trying to learn. But you can’t just stop there, because you then need to be having regular interaction with people who speak that language. You can’t just sit in your hotel room, or go exploring by yourself. You need to strike up conversations with strangers regularly! And one of the easiest ways of going about this is through the teaching abroad programs.

Teaching Abroad With Immersion

Teaching abroad is the perfect combination of helping people out, immersing yourself in different languages and also experiencing an entirely different society and country. Most everyone that can speak English can teach it abroad, though it is easier to obtain jobs for it with at least a bachelor’s degree and/or a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification.

This means that instead of just going over to a new country to spend a little vacation time, you can actually find a job in the other country and be paid to not only learn a new language but have a completely unique experience in an entirely different country. Guaranteed, it won’t be a totally easy process, but it can be incredibly worthwhile. But other than being around people that speak the language you want to learn, how does teaching abroad really help with immersing into a new language?

Direct exposure to people who know the language you are learning!

You have to interact with the people you are teaching a new language to, and that means communicating with people in the best ways that they can understand. This means not only are you needing to teach this language to people, you also need to be open to learn their language so you can best relay what you need to teach. Even if you only choose to pick up a few words, you are constantly needing to interact with these people who speak a different language and therefore exposing you to it. You’ll find you will learn even better than you could have on your own.

Christina Chandler is an enthusiastic poet and writer with a degree in English Education. She has spent a year in India and two years in Japan teaching English as a second language. She now continues towards her postgraduate degree in Higher Education.

Education, Language Learning

The Future of Language Teaching

29550_10100455205541451_198760505_nThe following guest post is from one of my friends, Andrew Zeller, whom I met while we were studying together in university. He has been very active in film making, as well as language learning for many years. To date, he has studied Japanese, Korean, and French, not to mention also having majored in Chinese at university.

He recently came back from a year abroad teaching English in Seoul, Korea, so he has had a first hand look at what it means to both learn about and to instruct in a foreign language.

Enter Andrew.


Will language teachers ever become obsolete, replaced by technology? Can the traditional classroom setting still compete with the numerous (and often free) resources available online? What is the current best way to learn a language, and how will that change over the next decade?

One can only speculate about the future, searching the past for trends and patterns. It is nearly impossible to select one instruction method as the best, since no two people learn exactly the same way, at the same rate, and with the same goals and expectations. But if we consider human nature as constant, then there are aspects we can predict. For example, it is generally more comfortable to speak with another human than to a previously recorded message or an artificial voice. It is also a human tendency to use whatever language is most familiar to us, the instinctual escape route for a language learner struggling to express themselves. English speakers may become even more numerous, or Mandarin may become the new lingua franca. It is currently uncertain. But knowing multiple languages will always be more useful than knowing one. As someone who has studied four languages (French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean) and taught one (English), I would like to offer the following recommendations for both language teachers and learners.

1. The more you know in one language, the more you can learn in others.
Languages are interconnected, living in the same part of our brain. We naturally translate in order to understand. In my studies of Chinese, I came to know much more about my native language: English. Being able to read and listen in another language also grants you access to the wisdom of scholars whose articles, books, or lectures may not be available in your mother tongue.

2. Nothing can fully replace all of the benefits of a language teacher.
This I learned through trial and error. There are many good books, ebooks, CD’s, podcasts, online videos, educational TV shows, websites, and other resources online for learning languages. The self-study method works if you can keep yourself motivated. Taking a class may be more expensive, and sometimes the teacher’s methods don’t work for you. But think of the benefits: a language teacher can answer your questions, create customized lessons for you, listen and correct your speaking mistakes instantly, share real life examples of how the language is used, share cultural background, act out different scenarios with you for practice (at the grocery store, bank, etc.), praise your accomplishments, build your confidence, and ensure that what you say or write will be understood by others. There isn’t an app that does all of those things.

3. Classrooms are places where we try not to fall asleep.
This is something we all grow accustomed to feeling. An ideal classroom shouldn’t feel like a “classroom”. This is why good teachers move desks around, hang up artwork, invite guest speakers, show media, lead activities, suggest group projects, encourage presentations, and supervise discussions. It’s hard to learn anything when you feel like a microphone recording a lecture. Learning is not entirely invisible. In the best classrooms, you can witness learning actually happening.

4. Immersion isn’t enough.
I lived in South Korea for 1 year. I traveled in China and Japan for several months. I have spent many hours around people not speaking English. I could pick out the words I knew and understood. Then I could imitate and mimic those words or phrases later. It made my pronunciation and intonation sound more like a native speaker’s. But this alone did not expand my knowledge or vocabulary. Study is an essential component for improvement, as well as output: speaking or writing. Travel isn’t always necessary for immersion either, since you may find native speakers of your target language in your hometown (or online).

5. Vocabulary cards and tests are good for short-term memory, but not long-term.
This has proven true for me with every language I have studied, including English. I remember words that I have used in sentences in writing or speaking. I could write down that “Raconteur” is a noun with French origin, meaning: a person who tells stories in an interesting way. Or I could write: “By reading Life of Pi, I discovered that Yann Martel is a raconteur.” Take a word and make it your own.

6. Word Usage > Vocabulary > Accent
Reducing your accent when speaking a language is the least important element. As long as you speak clearly, who cares if you have an accent? It is much more valuable to have a large vocabulary. But even with a large vocabulary, one should ideally know how to use each of those words. Word usage includes grammar and context. While specific grammar rules (the “why” of language, isn’t always necessary), the “how” is essential to build comprehensible sentences and questions.

7. Listen to yourself.
One advantage of current technology is how easy it is to record your voice with a camera or phone. This is an extremely useful tool. Although you may hate the sound of your voice, listening to a recording of it will help you understand what others hear when you speak. You can use recordings to compare your speaking from the past to the present, as well as with other learners, teachers, or native speakers.

8. Imitate. Act. Play!
We all start to learn through imitation. This is a form of acting. Why not embrace it as acting? When my students pretended to be waiters, job applicants, airport staff, or salesmen, they had a “language experience.” This can be much more engaging because using the language is initiating actions and producing consequences. If it’s fun and makes you laugh, it will be even more memorable. This is why games (physical games, board games, computer games, etc.) can be very effective teaching tools when used properly.

9. A little each day goes a long way.
I taught English to classes of High School students in South Korea for 50 minutes each week. Unless they were working on a project, I could see some brains shutting down after 30 minutes. A week would pass and it would be hard to remember what they learned in the last class. In comparison, I have friends who study their target language just 10-20 minutes per day (3-5 times per week). They are able to remember what they’ve studied and build upon it. This is the current study model I follow.

10. You will improve if you keep practicing.
This little motto is is the easiest to understand but the most frequently forgotten. Don’t give up!

The best way to learn a language is to take it in (by listening and reading) and use it (by speaking or writing). There are many methods of doing so, and the trick is to find what works for best for you. Technology won’t replace motivation or practice, but can be helpful in giving you more ways to practice or feel motivated. We shouldn’t fear a tool for communication just as we shouldn’t be afraid of learning a new language. Robots or software may one day make effective translators in some situations, but it will take immense innovation to make them into good teachers.

Chinese, Language Learning

Interview with “Money in Mandarin”

interviewThis week, Money in Mandarin founder Allan Ngo uploaded an interview that I did with him recently about how to demystify and conquer Chinese characters.

During our chat, we took a look at some of the following issues:

1. The difference between simplified and traditional Chinese characters
2. How to transition from traditional to simplified form
3. How many characters you should master to:
– live in a Chinese speaking country
– read in Chinese
– work as an expat
4. Whether it’s better to speak first before learning Chinese characters (or vice versa)
5. Why rote memorization sucks and what to do instead

There’s also a second bonus interview we did that covers additional topics like:

1. How to “get” a new character’s meaning or pronunciation on just the first look
2. How to avoid “What will I say next?” and expound your sentences using the FLR technique
3. Why you’ll never find the “free time” to study Chinese… and how you can learn anyway

Click here to go to the videos, as well as to link to several other good online resources that we mention for learning Chinese.

Chinese, Education, Language Learning

How to Succeed at Learning a Foreign Language

Earlier this week, I wrote an article about language learning for the Mezzofanti Guild, a blog that’s run by Australian Donovan Nagel, an Applied Linguistics graduate, ESL teacher, and Arabic translator currently learning Korean in Korea (cool guy, right!?).

The post was specifically about my history as it pertains to learning Chinese, but also more generally about how you can successfully go and learn a foreign language for yourself.

Check it out here at the Mezzofanti Guild. Enjoy!