So I’m quite happy to point out the fact that more and more developed- country citizens are learning languages (I was worried about us Americans for a little while there!).
But even more so the fact that we seem to be diversifying the languages we’re learning. While a lot of students do stick with Spanish (me) and French in High School, alot of adult learners no longer seem as afraid to take on more challenging languages.
And more and more colleges are offering courses outside from the traditional romance languages.
Plus there tons of online learning platforms that allow us to acquire faraway languages like never before.
But chances are, you already know that. Afterall, you’re reading an article on things to consider before learning an Asian language– which is a pretty unique feat for English speakers.
So regardless of whether or not you’re here to figure out what language to learn or to figure out how to approach the language you’ve already selected, it would definitely be wise to consider all of these before diving in head-first.
‘Cause Lord knows I failed to do so before taking on Vietnamese. And I’m not for others making the same mistakes.
Is it a tonal language?
I’m not going to lie. I was a real amateur when I first started my self-teaching language journey.
I mean, I didn’t even know what a tonal language was. And it had never occurred to me that that was why Asian accents sounded so vastly different from English ones.
It’s because tonal languages are basically non-existent in the western hemisphere.
And for the sake of those who were like me; a tonal language is a language in which words can differ in tones (like pitches in music) in addition to consonants and vowels.
In Vietnamese and Pinyin Mandarin, accent marks (called diacritics) are used to denote tones. So á , à , ả , ã , and ạ are all the same letter but have to be pronounced differently; with your voice either going up, down, up and then down, up and dropping suddenly, or dropping from the get-go.
Don’t worry about those marks in specific if you’re not learning Vietnamese. Tones are different in each language but they exist in nearly all of them, including Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, and Lao.
But I will tell you that the 4 Asian languages that I’m positive are not tonal languages are Japanese, Korean, Arabic, and Hindi.
So despite the former 3 being 3 of the 5 hardest languages for English speakers to learn, at least you won’t have to worry about that.
So figure out now whether or not you should go ahead and start training your mouth muscles.
Does it have an alphabet (Phonologic or Logographic?)
Despite the presumed impossibility an English speaker would hold towards a language without an alphabet, they do exist.
All languages can be grouped into one of two categories: phonologic and logographic.
Being English speakers, we’re all already familiar with what a phonologic writing system looks like.
But a logogram is a written character that represents a word or phrase. Individual written characters in phonographic writing systems represent sounds only, not entire concepts.
But if you’ve ever seen Chinese writing, then chances are you already know exactly what I’m talking about.
All other Asian languages do have alphabets though so writing in those will at least be a slightly easier process.
What Alphabet does it have?
If you’re language does an alphabet, then you’ll need to figure out which one it is.
We’re all acquainted with the Latin alphabet, and if you go with a language like Vietnamese, then that’s all you’ll ever need to know.
Now I’m not going to go into the extensive history of alphabet systems, but I will tell you that there are alot.
Just for a little walk through the origin of the alphabet in a pretty good amount of places around the world, it’s handy to know that these 8 of today’s popular letter systems are derived from the Phoenician alphabet. An alphabet of the abjad type.
And noticing these similarities can be a real comfort for learning other languages. But most Asian languages have no relation to letter systems originating anywhere outside of Asia.
Both Indian and Eastern Asian languages are actually derived from the Brahmic scripts; used throughout the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and parts of East Asia, including Japan in the form of Siddhaṃ.
So here are just a few letters that you can expect if you’re learning a Brahmi derived language:
It’s also good to know how many different letters there are in your choice language. While the longest European alphabet contains 46 letters, the longest Asian alphabet contains 74 letters (being Cambodia’s Khmer.)
Some quick alphabet stats:
The Thai alphabet has 44 consonant symbols, 16 vowel symbols that combine into at least 32 vowel forms, and four tone diacritics
The Lao script has 27 consonants, 7 consonantal ligatures, 33 vowels, and 4 tone marks.
The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, all representing consonants, and is written from right to left.
Are there different dialects? (How Many?)
Now, if there’s one question you need to take seriously from this list– it’s this one.
Different language learning platform often teach one dialect in the language that you’re learning, and if that’s not the dialect you want to learn, then you need to make sure you switch resources.
While dialects are still the same language, they can be significantly different when it comes to pronunciation.
If you know you plan to move or visit a certain region that speaks the language, then you need to make sure you’re learning the dialect its native speakers will understand.
Even if you’re learning a language to simply communicate with a sub-population in your area, you too need to find out which region most of these speakers are originally from.
For example, Vietnamese has 3 different dialects: a southern one, northern one, and central one. But because Northern Vietnam won the infamous Vietnam war, the northern dialect is generally understood by all Vietnamese speakers and used by those in influence.
But learning this dialect means that when I communicate with those from the south or central areas, I’ll still have to at least know what they’re saying even I can’t speak their dialect myself.
Like understanding that the English “G” sounds like “z” in northern Vietnam but like “y” in southern Vietnam. See? A simple change but crucial to my understanding.
But had I intentionally started to learn Vietnamese with the goal of communicating with speakers in my area– then I would’ve needed to learn the Southern dialect on the sole basis that Vietnamese refugees have almost always immigrated from the Southern region.
So these are the kinds of things you need to consider from the start.
What language family is it in?
This may not initially seem important, but if it ever becomes either an interest or necessity to learn another language, it’ll be useful for you to know your language’s sister languages.
Like the fact that once one acquires fluency in French, learning Italian is basically a cakewalk– it’s the same with Asian languages.
The most-spoken languages in the Indo-European family include:
The Indo-Aryan Branch
The Iranian Branch
The Slavic Branch
The Sino-Tibetan Family is comprised of about 400 languages, but it’s major ones include:
The Austroasiatic family, also called Mon-Khmer family, only has 2 officially recognized languages but 117 million speakers.
Mon-Khmer / Austroasiatic Family
The Kra-Dai family also only contains 2 languages, with an approx. 93 million speakers.
And then there’s the:
Semitic Branch (Afro-Asiatic Family)
Now I’m in no means saying that two languages in the same branch/family are actually going to be similar but more times than not, you’ll at least be able to notice some vague similarities.
How long is it going to take to learn?
All but 2 Asian languages are defined as either category 4 or 5 by the Foreign Service Institute.
Malaysian and Indonesian are the only two level 3 languages– meaning English speakers can expect 900 hours of study before fluency. (Rougly 36 weeks)
There are only five level 5 languages and all of them are Asian:
- Cantonese (Chinese)
- Mandarin (Chinese)
*usually more difficult than others
Those languages are considered exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn, and require 2200 hours of study. (Roughly 88 weeks)
This is not meant to scare you, just to tell you what you can expect.
All other Asian languages are category 4, defined as those with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.
And generally take learners around 1100 hours to learn. Which comes out to about 44 weeks if you study 25 hours each week.
So yes, category 5 languages take double as long as category 4 but at the end of the day, how fast you acquire the language is dependant on you.
Your study skills, your study habits, and your passion for the language.
How are you going to practice speaking with native speakers?
As if this even needs to be said; Asia is across the world. You won’t be able to practice with native speakers if you don’t put in a little work on your end.
This is why researching sub-populations in your own area can be so important.
If you know that there are lot’s of refugees or immigrants from a certain Asian region right in your town, then you won’t have to worry about getting some interactive speaking practice in.
You’ll just have to make yourself present in the communities they reside.
And with wide-spoken languages like Mandarin or Japanese, you won’t even have to particularly go out your way to at least cross paths with a fluent speaker.
But there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to need to find some form of digital language exchange.
Regardless of what language you’ve chosen, there are native speakers in virtually all of them who have signed up for platforms that connect them with English speakers.
Because shocker, a lot of them also want to learn English.
So by joining these platforms, typically in the forms of mobile apps and websites, all you have to do is send one message to get instant “penpals.”
Tutoring sites especially are great for ensuring that you’ll actually understand what’s being said by the fluent speaker.
Just 19 hours of using the tutoring platform, Italki, is equivalent to 35 hours on other language Apps, and 48 hours in a college semester.
If you need some suggestions for free quality language exchange apps, then check out The 5 best language exchange apps to use when you’re too broke to travel.
Regardless of your medium though, practicing the language with fluent speakers isn’t really a choice.
You kinda have to in order to reach fluency yourself. So whether you take the digital route or the physical route, just make sure you take a route.
But before you head out
My mission with this site to help other atypical language learners who, like myself, are simply too broke to travel.
Because why wreck your bank account when you can experience language immersion from the comforts of your own home?
I don’t know either. Personally, using my own at-home methods I’ve acquired more Vietnamese in just a few months of learning than in 3 years of Spanish courses.
It’s almost shameful.
This site offers a more well-rounded and enjoyable learning experience than Duolingo, by allowing you to focus on topics that actually interest you.
And that’s including Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Russian, Hindi, and many more.
If you’re interested in learning how to both simplify the language acquisition process and the keys to efficient digital immersion, then make sure you sign up for your free copy of Everything to know about the “Naturally Simple” approach to language acquisition.
You’ll instantly receive the article’s password, along with a well-rounded understanding of what a “Natural approach” even looks like.
And for a limited time, you’ll also score a 4-week self quarantine (rapid) language learning checklist.
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