Thursday, March 15, 2012

Language Diary Thursdays

In the last couple of months, I've started learning two different languages: Malay and Russian. I briefly touched on my reasons for learning Malay in my earlier post on why to learn a foreign language - since my boyfriend's grandmother doesn't speak much English, I want to learn Malay so I can communicate better with her. As for Russian, I'm learning it in part because my boyfriend and I have vague plans to go through Central Asia during my summer holidays, and in part simply because I want to.

In order to keep track of my process, and to give others insight into the early stages of learning a language, I've decided to start a regular feature on my blog: every Thursday, I will give an update on my progress in both languages.

Unfortunately, I didn't think to start this section of my blog as I started learning each language, so you'll have to do with me starting partway through. For now, I'll give an update on my progress so far:


Due to the fact that I couldn't find any Malay teachers in China, I am learning Malay from a book called Teach Yourself Complete Malay. My boyfriend bought it for me just after Chinese New Year, when I mentioned to him that I wanted to learn. My choice was determined largely by the fact that of all the Malay study books at the store, it was the only one that came with audio support. I felt this was important, as I would find it hard to get speaking and listening practice in China.

I started studying almost immediately, and memorised the phonemes associated with the letters of the alphabet while I flew to Australia for my winter holidays. Over the next two weeks, I also studied the first two chapters of the book. I learnt greetings, and how to introduce myself. I also learnt the numbers 1 to 10, which the book included as example vocab when teaching the sounds (more on this later).

After a couple of weeks, I could say: "Helo! Nama saya Alison. Saya dari Australia. Saya seorang mahasiswi."
(Hello! My name is Alison. I'm from Australia. I am a student.)

And: "Tidak nak teksi. Saya sedang menunggu seseorang."
(I don't need a taxi. I'm waiting for someone.) - Such a useful phrase!

I also learnt two tenses: perfect and present continuous.

My progress slowed down since I came back to China and found my Malay learning time competing with university (and also, sadly, the terrible, terrible TV series Merlin, which I have somehow found myself addicted to), but I have still managed to get through chapter 3, where I learnt how to modify nouns, learnt the different ways to make a negative sentence (tidak negates an adjective or a verb, while bukan negates a noun), and learnt important question words like "where" and "how many". I also learnt how to say I once did something:

“Saya pernah pergi ke Indonesia, tapi saya tidak pernah pergi ke Bali."
(I have been to Indonesia, but I haven't been to Bali."

Then I reached chapter 4, where I hit a bit of a wall. The topic of chapter 4 is "Work and School", and the "work" section had a lot of vocab, much of which wasn't really relevant to my life. My general method when I run into this situation is to pick out the words that are most useful to me (so in my case, I've chosen to remember words like "doktor" (doctor) over words like "nelayan" (fisherman), since my father's a doctor, and I don't know any fishermen, so the first will come up far more often in my day to day life). As a student, I found the "school" section much easier to relate to, but I'm still looking forward to getting through this so I can go onto chapter 5 - "family".


Even after studying for nearly a month, Russian progress has been slow. This is in large part because I'm studying at the university, and in China they really like to focus on phonics early on in the syllabus. While I understand the benefits of a solid early grounding in phonics, I'm not really sure if I agree with this method of teaching, since I feel it doesn't move the student quickly enough into proper conversational language use. It's quite frustrating to have been studying this long, and to still not be able to say much more than:

 "Что это? Это словарь. Чей это словарь? Это мой словарь."
(What's that? That's a dictionary. Who's dictionary is it? It's my dictionary.)

I think the teacher's doing a decent enough job, given the size of the class, and what she has to work with, but I feel that the syllabus could do with a lot of improvement.


  1. Well, it just so happens there is a native Russian speaker reading this blog so if you need any help, feel free to ask.

    By the way, you made a mistake in the one thing that you have learned to say. Словарь is masculine, so it should be Это чей словарь? Это мой словарь. Or, perhaps, чей это словарь, which feels more natural (both versions are correct, though).

    And, well, phonics are important. That's how you avoid sounding like an American spy or an illiterate чурка to us. :)

  2. So it is. I somehow read the wrong line for the gender. Oops. I shall correct it it forthwith.

    Yeah, I know phonics are important, but I'd rather they space it out a bit more, because an hour and a half of ба бо бу бы бэ па по пу пы пэ... twice a week for a month doesn't actually make it feel like a living language.

  3. Well, after hearing countless foreigners stumble over the ы sound (I believe it can be used as a shibboleth), I can't say I blame your teachers. Sure, it may be boring right now, but believe me, when you do learn the words, you'll be grateful.

    By the way, you may want to give some thought to hiring a private tutor. In my experience, having individual attention helps tremendously- I've failed out of Spanish in college, then got a tutor when I had to learn it for work, and was chatting merrily in two months or so. Talking about random stuff you usually talk about does wonders for your active vocabulary, and it makes you more comfortable with the language.

  4. To me, ы sounds really similar the 으 sound in Korean. Of course, I could just be getting it completely wrong like most foreigners, or getting it wrong, but in a hilariously different way from most native English speakers.

    I dunno. I'd still rather have the lesson be maybe 1 hour of phonics plus 30 minutes of "hi, my name is so and so, nice to meet you". Even Korean phonics didn't take this long, and they have way more many vowels than you do.

    A private tutor does seem like a good idea, but I might have to put that idea on hold for a month, since I'm going to Iran for a couple of weeks around Easter. At least I should actually be able to find Russian speakers at university, unlike speakers of some languages *cough*Malay*cough*

  5. I suppose I should mention that I like the way they put more focus on phonics here than I remember receiving in any of my language classes in Australia. It's just that I wonder if they take the focus too far the other way. Even if you have fantastic phonics, it's still hard to get fluent if you're not used to stringing sentences together. If there were, say, three classes a week instead of two, I'd be fine with 2-3 hours of phonics a week. I just find the balance to be a bit off at the moment.

  6. Well, I'm sure they'll get to actually teaching the language...eventually :)

  7. Oh, and I can't say whether you're right or wrong, since I have no idea what "으" sounds like.

    Have fun in Iran, but keep in mind that they're not entirely harmless to tourists like the Norks (not that one can blame them for being paranoid), so be careful.