My books on languages

My books on languages

There's something magical about languages. I see it this way: every language that you know is a key to a new world. And somewhere along the way it became the case that I'd just collect these keys, even if I had no immediate opportunity to use them.

I grew up speaking English and Cantonese at home. At school, we were taught Mandarin Chinese and Malay. I never used to appreciate the awesomeness of growing up multilingual - it was something taken for granted because everyone around me was multilingual anyway. However, once I started travelling, it became apparent that this was an asset. I could get around independently in several countries without any problems communicating (that was, until I got to Europe for the first time and realized how much it sucks when you're illiterate).

Even nowadays, many of my friends are polyglots, speaking between 3 to 10 languages. Many share my passion for languages, perhaps that's why we get along so well.

Under the various language tabs, I ramble about my connection with the language, for every language came into my life at a different time and for a different purpose. I'm not good in any of them, and many of them have fallen into disrepair due to disuse. However it remains to be one of my life goals to achieve fluency in at least one additional language in adulthood (because all the languages that I'm fluent in were acquired from young).

Here's a quick overview. The main language that I'm learning these days is Spanish. My first foreign language is Japanese, I studied it for two years. German is one other language that I was tutored in (besides Japanese) but because the teacher was quite bad, the classes were shortlived (3 months). I learnt French because I was dating a Mauritian guy. American Sign Language (ASL) was a collaborative language learning effort (with a couple of friends) and practising was a whole lot of fun. Learning Turkish was largely accidental and unplanned. Other languages that I briefly dabbled in include Italian, Estonian, and Hindi.

Spanish is my language of the moment. It's kind of funny, because I used to lament that I did not have any excuses to learn Spanish - I never had any Spanish friends (apart from Vanessa from Barcelona), I had never had the opportunity to visit Spain (Vanessa lived in Paris), and somehow there was no compelling reason to actually learn one of the most-spoken languages in the world.

Things have changed a little now that I am dating an Argentinian guy. I started learning Spanish in 2012, mostly self-taught with some tutoring from The Boyfriend. I find that it's a matter of persistence as I do not find the language difficult - the challenge is mainly in maintaining constant practice. 

Here are some of the resources that I found to be useful:

On the web:

On the iPhone:

  • Bueno, entonces - a series of audio and visual lessons, depicting a British guy learning Spanish from an Argentinian teacher in Buenos Aires. Props for immersion in the Argentinian accent and culture. It's a five-week course with videos that are about 45 minutes each. It's quite entertaining and light-hearted and involves a lot of flirting as the British guy hits on his teacher.
  • Salsa - Spanish Language Learning Game
  • Duolingo also has a smartphone app.

The main textbook that I am using is Learning Spanish Step By Step, by Barbara Bregstein. I find it to be quite useful for my purposes to learn grammar and vocabulary. At the same time I'm reading some Spanish storybooks for children that The Boyfriend's Mum brought from Buenos Aires. Very entertaining material, with a moral to every story.


Yutaka Takenouchi, from With Love (1998) - the first Japanese Drama I ever watched

My first foreign language was Japanese, simply because I was watching a lot of Japanese dramas and wanted to know what the good-looking people on the screen were saying, without looking at subtitles. (Ah, to be young and teenage again.)

The infatuation with on-screen actors continued for a while as I went for Japanese class with a friend at ICLS (The fees seem to have increased a whole lot since I was there, admittedly more than 10 years ago), and later on I took private lessons with my Japanese tutor from the centre. I obtained the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) Level 3 (There are four levels, easiest one being Level 4, moving up in difficulty to Level 1). I had to stop my classes after my Japanese tutor fell sick and had to move back to Japan. Although I intended to find another tutor, I never did, and it's been several years since I used my Japanese.

My shelf of language books has mostly learning material on Japanese, accumulated over the years, reflecting my lofty aspirations of mastering the language - which to date has still remained to be aspirations rather than the reality. I still have hope that if I ever immerse myself in Japan, I would be conversant relatively quickly because of the background knowledge that I already have. We will see.


The language of thinkers and poets. Why say "pen" when you can say "kugelschreiber"?

Regretfully I have not spent too much time on my German as I should. I went to Goethe Institut when I was still studying in Singapore, to try to pick up some of the language since I would be attached to University of Leipzig for some time that summer. Unfortunately, I came across one of the worst teachers ever - one who forbade the students to take notes, or to look up the dictionary, or to ask questions, when she was speaking. This wore down my patience very quickly and I gave up learning within 3 months.

Most of my German learning have therefore been rather informal, through Val, my good friend who's German. He also had the knack of teaching me words and phrases that have no practical usage. Over the years I have been able to say things like "Marijuana is not good, do carrots instead" or "Deutschland must die, or we cannot live", or "I would rather be shot!" as party tricks in Germany. Always a riot, me in those German parties.

After I ditched Goethe Institut, I used Pimsleur for a while to self-study German (one really needs more than party tricks in one's repertoire), which then broadened my conversation topics to things like "Where are you from?" "Do you have kids?" "I have been in Germany for a month", which were all very useful when hitchhiking in Germany and Austria.

I hope that I would have the excuse someday to return to studying German. Because it's the language of thinkers and poets.

I started learning French because of my ex-boyfriend, who's from Mauritius, where they speak French, Mauritian Creole and English. Admittedly I had already been rather smitten with the language even before the romance, which could have been a significant factor on why it had started.

I remember repeating the word "République" many times under my breath while I was taking the Metro in Paris, to get a hang of the way they pronounce "r" from the back of the throat. I remember hitchhiking out of Switzerland and getting picked up by a Frenchman, who kindly spent the entire ride correcting my pronunciation as I read from the phrasebook. I remember learning French vocabulary on my phone, at the backseat in a road trip with my parents in Malaysia.

All good memories. Nowadays I have forgotten pretty much all that I've learnt, though I have a few books lying around just waiting for me to pick them up again. A good thing is that learning French gave me a good start in Spanish grammar and vocabulary.


Picking up Turkish was entirely accidental. I had visited Turkey in 2012 for a month-long trip, never really intending to learn the language because I would probably never use it again outside of this trip. I was half right - I never used it again outside of the trip, but I did learn some of the language, because of one simple reason: The Turks are awesome.

Kids teaching me Turkish in Bursa, Turkey

Kids who taught me Turkish in Bursa, Turkey

Really, Turkish people make it easy for you to learn the language. They are such warm people that you end up smiling and talking to anyone and everyone, from the man who sells you orange juice to the random person who walks up to you and offers you çay, or a free pencil. It's a nation where barriers to speaking are low, and everyone's relaxed and has time for you to practise what you've learnt, and to teach you new phrases.

Eva gave me my first Turkish lesson as she was learning, and I remember her being very excited about the vowel harmony. Further on I learnt from my CouchSurfing host, and then from a bunch of schoolgirls near a tourist attraction, and some kids who were also Sufi dancers, junior whirling dervishes (pictured above).

Turkey's a beautiful place. I hope to go back again someday.

The best way to learn American Sign Language (ASL) is with a bunch of friends. It's fun, it's motivating, and it's also very convenient when you want to send secret signals across the room. In my case, I picked up some ASL together with my friends Eva and Michael. We used multiple resources, mostly available online or on smartphone apps, and learnt how to spell, and say simple things.

What we said depended on what sources we used - random words like "octopus", "balloon", "milk" and so on were learnt when we used an ASL app for children (My Smart Hands). Later on we moved on to an ASL dictionary and phrasebook app which taught us how to say things like  "I heard she's easy", "Where do you buy drugs and hookers?", and "My mother-in-law is a bitch".

There was once when Eva and I were travelling on the MRT in Singapore and we were communicating only with ASL. Our vocabulary was limited therefore our conversation revolved around colours, animals, and drugs and hookers. The bystanders didn't know that though, and we were a picture-perfect couple of interracial harmony within the deaf community. One lady gave us a heartwarming smile. Good times.

I think I will pick up ASL again someday, perhaps when I have a child, as I learnt that infants can learn sign language from as young as 6 months. The ability to communicate thus starts much earlier than when the usual first words are uttered!