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On Learning a Language

Learning new words, even in your native language, is easier if you can associate something with them, when there is some meaning behind the bare letters. One way to learn new words faster is to put them into associated groups, like television, telegram, telex, etc. Here, each one has the same prefix.

Learning opposites, like big - small, also helps because you are not learning an isolated word, they come in related and easy-to-visualize pairs.

With any language, but especially Chinese, it is easier to learn to speak first, and then get to know the written language. It is very difficult to try to impute meaning into Chinese characters without knowing how they are pronounced and spoken to other people.

We are taught from birth to associate the meaning of words with their spoken interpretation. Only after we enter school does the written interpretation become important. Think of how you use your own language. Do you think of the spoken word first and then write it down, or do you write it down first, and then remember how it is pronounced? A person who can read but not speak has a much more difficult time getting someone to immediately understand him, than a person who can speak but not read. If someone were buying food in a foreign country, he would spend a lot of time writing and exchanging scraps of paper with the grocery store clerk, if he couldn't orally communicate.

The best way to learn a foreign language, then, even if you have a roommate or spouse who is native to that language, is to first practice and speak it repeatedly, and then tackle the written form. The spoken form of the language is a better foundation to build language understanding, it is the natural way, the way we first learned our own native language.

Of course, it is nice to be able to read the native language, for ease in reading signs and schedules, in getting around on your own on the busses or subways, for example, but what if you get lost, and everyone does at least once on a visit to a new place, then how do you find your way if you don't know how to ask and understand directions?