Language & Politics

A language contains world views and cultural traditions of a nation. That’s why even within one language we can see lexical (and grammatical) differences.

A language learner might actually know more about these differences than a native speaker. Here is a video from a wonderful German blogger, Lina, who explains how she was taken aback by all the Austriazismen in Vienna: Möhren are Karotte, Aprikose are Marille, Mülleimer is Mistkübel, and so on.

Why do we have these variations is closely connected with history and politics. A language records the history of a region and its people. The language is used to name what’s is happening to the people who speak it, and it keeps a memory of the events within itself long after the people have forgotten about them.

While some examples, like Cromwellian, Communism, or pogrom clearly send us back to the past, others might be a bit more subtle. We might say that we are crossing the Rubicon when we are making a serious decision, only vaguely remembering that it is somehow connected with Julius Caesar; or call someone a basket case completely unaware that it used to refer to severely injured soldiers, who had to be rolled out of the battlefield in a wheelbarrow or a basket.

Politicians themselves often understood the ability of the language not only to record history, but to shape reality. Linguistic purism is tightly connected with politics as a determining factor why a certain dialect is considered to be ¨purer¨, or of a higher standard.  By commanding a certain version of a language, and censoring others by marking them as less desirable, politicians are able to push their agenda more effectively.

On the other hand, we see positive examples of censorship. In the English language, some of the expressions commonly used in the past are now considered racial slurs – japs, gypsies, orientals. Saying the n-word or faggot, nowadays, can bring about serious repercussions to the speaker. This is a clear reflection on how our views have changed, but it is, also, undeniably a form of political and linguistic censorship.

A language learner using authentic materials to study vocabulary of their target language has now way of navigating these nuances. Think of all the innocent and naive learners of English going all gangsta after listening to rap musicians, and imagine the level of awkwardness, nay, inappropriateness when the said learner drops the n-bomb to his new American pals.

So, learning a language is definitely much more than just memorising words and mastering grammar structures. We do need to learn about modern politics because they affect our target languages right now. Moreover, they affect the content.

At the moment, in the Russian blogosphere there is a movement in support of gender marking in job titles – феминативы. It means that words like author (автор), doctor (доктор), director (режиссер), now, have a female version – авторка, докторка, режиссерка. This unorthodox word formation pattern is yet to enter any established dictionary, it is not in textbooks, and I am pretty certain all the information explaining it is in Russian.

As for the content, take this short clip one of my all time favorite TV shows Scrubs.

Here Elliot Reed reveals she is a republican, which seems like a hard thing for her to do. But why? The US has a bipartial system, shouldn’t it be normal to assume that a large part of American population supports the Republican party? Without understanding the political context this whole scene (and by extension this whole episode)  of a comedy shows becomes unrelatable to the viewer.

The bottom line is if you want to consume materials made by natives for natives avoiding learning about the politics means to deprive yourself of several layers of meaning. Be it the SNL, the Late Night Show, American Dad, or even a new romcom, chances are you going to miss a few jokes, or even plot twists, not because you don’t know the words, but because you don’t get the references.



Many of the language learners I know (myself included) are absolute geeks, getting a kick out of studying Esperanto or Latin. However, it does not mean that only nerds can enjoy picking up a new language. And, while I cannot ensure your road to fluency is all fun, I can, hopefully, tell you what factors lead to boredom.

The Why

If you like the language you want to learn, you like how it sounds, you are fascinated by the culture, or you are a big fan of films/books in this language, it will be comparatively easy for you to enjoy learning it. This is called internal motivation.

People who are guided by an external need tend to see the whole process as a chore. Unless they meet an experienced teacher who can interest them in the subject, they are very unlikely to see language learning as a positive experience.

Tip: Be honest with yourself, if learning a language is a must, suck it up, be disciplined and don’t expect it to be super exciting all the time.

The What

If you are learning a language to use it, you want to be able to enjoy authentic materials – unabridged books, films, podcasts, etc. – as soon as possible. However, you need to consider you level, and choose materials appropriately.  

I once had a B1-level student of German who wanted to read Also sprach zarathustra. At the time, I was too inexperienced as a teacher to predict the end result – she got bored as the book proved to be too hard for her.

Tip: Read a page or listen to a 2-min abstract of your material. Rule of a thumb is there should be no more than 7 (+/-2) NEW words. If it is more than that, probably it would be hard for you to enjoy it.

Textbooks cannot be completely avoided, especially in the beginning. It can be an online course or a physical book, but if you are using it without a teacher make sure it was designed for self-learning, or at least has an answer key in the back.  

It can be hard to find a perfect textbook, so it is okay to combine them and use extra materials. Always check if the book you are choose has a Workbook or anything else like that. It can be a nice way to work with the same vocabulary and grammar.

Tip: Open a textbook in the middle and see if lessons are connected with each other. Make sure that you understand these book’s grammar explanations, and that the vocabulary and topics are appropriate for the level and relevant to your language needs.

The Who

If you decided to get a teacher make sure they are using a communicative approach. We learn grammar and vocabulary to communicate, get a teacher who understands that. Ideally, they would only use your target language in a classroom (even with beginners), and would never ever say that this language is hard,  irrational, or confusing.

Tip: A teacher is someone who can give structure to your language learning process, and help you understand how a language ticks. If a teacher is not doing it for you, don’t be afraid to get a new one.

The How

You are probably hoping to be able to function in your target language as soon as possible. Seeing how much you can say and understand in a language usually helps a lot to stay motivated and enjoy the process. So, the speed with which you are progressing can affect how bored you are.

If you are stuck at A1 level for months/years (like me with French), you can feel discouraged and bored. The longer the pause between each learning session is, the more time you need to revise what you have learned before.  And that can just feel like you are not progressing at all.

Tip: Find at least 30 minutes couple times a week that you can dedicate to your language practice, and be consistent with it as much as possible.


Recently, I have found a few instagram language bloggers who are doing some kind of a challenge. Details may differ but the main idea is to study a new language every 30/60/100 days to… see how far you can get? And, also, I guess, to prove your motivation.

Language hobbyists learn languages not out of necessity but because they actually enjoy the process (and the results). However, I cannot stop thinking about the endgame, or do we learn just to learn?

A2 level isn’t going to get you far in a foreign country, you might as well just stick to English. Even if you break into B1 in 2-3 months (respect!), it is a slippery slope. The sad truth all language learners know – ¨losing¨ your level is easier than getting to it. How much time and effort one would need to invest in supporting all of these sampled languages?

And, perhaps, the most important question of it all – why do I even care? I guess I feel that this recent trend can demotivate me and other likeminded learners who want to ¨master¨ a language rather than collect it. Imagine struggling to get from B1 to B2, B2 to C1, or even C1 to C2, while seeing others being able to throw together a few sentences in Swahili after only 3 weeks.

I think it is similar to watching young fitness goddesses, whose teenage bodies can still defy gravity on their own, give exercise advice, or share their cheat day tips. It is completely irrelevant to your situation, and only adds frustration at who easy it is for some people. When in reality they are not doing what you are doing.

If I wanted to get A2 in 20 languages, I could. But I’d rather have at least B2 in 5. Or 7. Possibly 9? I want to be able to write complex texts in these languages, read good books, and not forget all I’ve learned after a two-month break.  Otherwise, what’s the point?


Ksb5BCBoKJQListening comprehension is one of the trickiest skills to better when learning a foreign language. Spoken language is almost always less formal and more contracted than its written form. Not to mention different accents, dialects, speech impediments, slang or colloquial expressions that can make it hard to understand.

According to a research on communication done by University of Missouri we spend 45% of our time listening. But when it comes to learning and/or practicing a second language – is this true? In class or at home do we spend 45% listening to a foreign language? Not in my experience.

To make things right here are 4 Chinese podcasts for training your listening skills.

         1. CHAIRMAN’S BAO

Texts with audio on relevant topics taken from news aggregators.

LEVELS: Elementary to Advanced (HKS1 – HSK6+)

PRICE: $10/month, $80/year

ADVANTAGES: Reading Comprehension Tests after each lesson, Vocabulary Flashcards, Grammar Commentary, Analytics, 4-5 new articles a day, can switch between Simplified and Traditional Characters.

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DISADVANTAGES: only one sample lesson per level,  no free trial period.

         2. CHINESE POD

Videos and/or podcasts on fun topics.

LEVELS: Newbie to Advanced + Media

PRICE: $14/month, $124/year for BASIC PLAN

ADVANTAGES: 30 DAY FREE TRIAL but only for some of the lessons, vocabulary explanation, examples, exercises, forum, dictionary.

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DISADVANTAGES: no transcript or download button unless you upgrade to premium.

         3. LINGQ

Audio with texts. Lingq is designed as a vocabulary app but it has GUIDED lessons that contain audio and can be used for listening comprehension training.

LEVELS: Beginner – Advanced

PRICE: Has a free version, PREMIUM $10, PLUS $39

ADVANTAGES: Can add your own texts (web version only), vocabulary practice, tutors, can be used for many languages.

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DISADVANTAGES: Designed mostly for reading so the audio content is limited. Just look for that sound button.

         4. SLOW CHINESE

Slowly spoken Chinese articles on relevant topics about modern phenomena in Chinese culture and society.

LEVEL: doesn’t have a breakdown, appropriate from Intermediate and up.

PRICE: FREEEEE!!! (They have a shop, check-out and order something to support the project).

ADVANTAGES: Fun and short. Downloadable. Texts are translated into English, German, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Arabic.

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DISADVANTAGES: It is spoken really slowly. You might want to speed it up on a 2nd or 3rd listen. Updated roughly once a month. Does not have vocabulary training.

So what do you listen to?


Being an absolute beginner in a language is fun – you can find a lot of great materials, learning goes pretty fast, you feel proud saying your first couple of phrases, people compliment you a lot on your progress – it is hard not to be enthusiastic.

The more you learn, however, the more you realize how much longer the road ahead of you really is. You go through denial, anger, depression, bargaining – until finally you come to accept that even as an advanced learner you still need textbooks.

That’s my story with Chinese. Having passing HSK 5 this year (low C1 level) I still feel like too far away from „mastering“ the Chinese language. Here are the tools I am using to work on my reading skills.




Great texts – modern and relevant. Has 3 levels, is accompanied by a CD. If you need someone to correct your written Chinese (for free), use


Fun short texts about Chinese culture. Bonus: each chapter has a „real life“ situation – reading receipts, warnings, labels, etc.


This is my favorite series! It is a great way to learn more about Chinese cinematography, while working on your listening and reading skills. Has advanced vocabulary, grammar section and comprehension section. Bonus: ANSWER KEYS!


Technically not a textbook so don’t expect to see exercises. Still this is a useful book for learning the newest vocabulary – it has explanation in Chinese, usage commentary, and examples – perfect for sentence mining technique.




I am not a huge fan of bilingual books because it is hard not to cheat by reading the English version before you read the Chinese text… but, I guess, it is a good way to become more familiar with the 20th century literature.


Essays on culture and history by a renowned Shanghai author and scholar who I might have never heard about … hadn’t I asked my professor for a recommendation. This is the book Chinese high school students read at school, which makes it ever so more interesting.


Another recommendation (by a different professor). This book is banned in Mainland China (yet I got it in Shanghai thanks to my Chinese friend) because it criticizes infantilism and dependency of the Chinese. I mean, you can guess it from the name. I haven’t found anything that insulting in the book yet but I have only just begun.


If you have any books you use as an advanced learner of Chinese, please share!


20180906_163229-01The most learned languages in US Higher Education are Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. If you look at Europe, English would be on the top, of course, but, otherwise, the list is more or less the same. 

What does it mean for language learners?

Finding good textbooks, finding films to watch and book to read, finding a language exchange partner or a teacher is easy if you are learning, say, German, but what if you want to learn Croatian?

According to the language difficulty ranking by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) for a native speaker of English learning Japanese is harder than learning Romanian. But how much harder is it to find materials in Romanian? How much time will be wasted to find online resources?

This is what I have encountered myself with Georgian. There is no Assimil course, no Georgian option on lingq or duolingo, no podcasts or popular youtube channels for people learning Georgian. I have bought 3 self-teaching books, none of them have audio, and only one has communicative approach and utilizes sentence mining method.

Another potential problem is how native speakers are going to react to learners. In countries where people are used to foreigners breaking tongue trying to say a few words in their language, it is easier to find opportunities to practice. People are more patient and will try to let even an absolute beginner to say a few words.

On the other hand, people who are not used to foreigners mastering their language (*cough* French *cough*) have zero tolerance, and will switch to English or another lingua franca at first opportunity.

Does it mean there is no point learning an „unpopular“ language? Of course not. It just means that you will have to rely on more „old-school“ textbooks and methods. It means that you cannot be as picky when comes to choosing authentic materials (i.e. TV shows, movies, books), find every opportunity to practice, and pretend to not speak English (or another common tongue) if necessary.

Good news – these methods work really well, and it is worth adapting them even if you CAN find the language your are learning on memrise.



1 out of 5 American K-12 students take a foreign language class. By the end of high-school 7% of these students say they can speak a second language „very well“, and another 2.5% of students say they can speak it „well“.

How to master a language?


Language is a communication tool. Learning a second language should answer a need for communication in a person’s life: understanding k-pop music, reading Nietzsche in original, buying potatoes at a market in Spain, talking to your Dutch great-auntie.

When there is a need there is a way.


It’s closely connected to your goal. If you want to start reading in German then your first success would be reading a comic strip, then you can switch to fairy-tales or short-stories, young-adult or fantasy literature, classic novels – all the way up to Nietzsche.

Milestones are important to stay motivated.


Thick textbooks and cramming sessions can be helpful when preparing for a test, or a big presentation but one needs to remember to have fun. Guilty pleasures in a second language are vital, it is language practice without feeling tired.

Relax, watch a comedy in Chinese.


Spaced-repetition is a way to transfer new knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. Simply speaking you need to repeat what you learn, to do that you need to have regular breaks between your sessions. Smaller portions are easier to remember, plus this helps to avoid burning out. 10 hours first week, zero hours the next – is not going to bring the desired result.

Hare vs. Turtle. Take it slowly.