September 16, 2019

Impossible tasks and bad techniques

If you see someone trying to lift a 500 kg stone with rollerblades on their feet, maybe knowing that that person had never done any exercise in their lives before, it's clear to you that that person will not lift the stone.

Firstly, the stone is just too heavy and secondly, it's really a dumb idea to try to lift it with your rollerblades on.

Unfortunately, the way people are trying to achieve language proficiency in some languages, is something you cannot see with your eyes, and a lot of people simply don't realize that either the goal they are working towards is impossible to achieve or the methods they are using will not work.

Some very difficult languages just cannot be learned to a satisfactory level with current methods. It's just like trying to lift that very heavy rock with rollerblades on.

So..if you are learning a language and are not making progress the problem might not be your lack of talent, but rather the fact, that with the methods you are using, you just objectively cannot learn what you are trying to learn.

August 29, 2019

Multilevel text analysis

Sometimes people ask me whether I use any special methods to learn languages so quickly and so well. These are their words, not mine:) I think language learning is very difficult, takes forever and I think I make a ton of mistakes in every language I speak including my native language. I used to say that talent, passion, focus and a lot of time are probably what influence my results most, but there are also a few methods that I like to use and I wanted to write about one today.

When I'm learning a new language, I like to analyze it on my own. The usual way I used to go about this was to make notes directly into the text I was reading, but this would get messy very quickly, especially when I knew very little or nothing about the language, because I needed to take a lot of notes:

My notes on Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic wars. Latin.

The advantage of this approach for me is, that I can write notes or translations of the text I'm analyzing directly into the text in any language I feel fits the translation/analysis best. If, for instance, in the text I come across a noun in accusative, I write the translation of that word into my native Slovak, because it also has an accusative and represents the form of the Latin original in my mind perfectly. If it's some strange verbal form, I usually write the translation in Italian (or English), since its verbal system is quite complex and derived from Latin and I usually can find a very good match. If it's some rare expression, I usually translate it into English or Slovak, since my vocabulary base is best in these two languages.

July 09, 2019

Understanding Chinese characters is a book that compiles years of Chinese character study in a concise and understandable way for the learner. Learn to understand Chinese characters for what they really are with a book that is easy to use, combining the best modern Chinese character academic research with the best learner experience.

Written by Vladimir Skultety, a graduate of Chinese studies specialized in Chinese character etymology and a polyglot speaking 15 languages working as an interpreter of Mandarin Chinese, English and Slovak.

Buy PDF for € 24.99 (+VAT)

Free Character practice sheets included

Download a FREE 50 page preview

Key features
  • suitable for anyone looking to understand and learn Chinese characters quickly and effectively
  • simple enough for beginners, detailed and accurate enough for advanced learners
  • characters in the book cover up to 70% of most modern texts written in Chinese
  • contains both Traditional and Simplified characters 
  • free printable character practice sheets with correct stroke order included
  • based on years of extensive and very detailed academic research, but written in a way which avoids academic clutter
  • high quality color images
  • custom designed illustrations
  • custom painted Oracle bone characters
  • licensed beautiful Seal Script font
  • 273 pages

May 10, 2019

Learn to read Chinese with manga

Hello everyone,

I started an experimental series on Youtube called Learn to read Chinese with manga. Feel free to check it out if you like.

I found reading to be a fantastic aid which helped me learn most of the languages I speak because of the following:

  • the language is 'frozen in time'. When you listen to something, even if it's a recording that you can rewind, words flow very quickly. When you are reading something, the language is frozen and laid out on the pages you read and you can read whatever you want at your own discretion. 
  • you can look for patterns in the language (crucial for learning a foreign language) much more effectively, because you can quickly compare something you see on page 7 with what you saw on page 3 etc. enabling you to get to your Aha! moment quicker
  • you can make notes directly onto the page you are reading
  • you have more time to analyze the structure of the language because you don't have the speed of the language to fight with
  • you can constantly return with your eyes to the Aha! words/constructions on the page you are reading (repetition - crucial for remembering new information)
I also found that when reading a foreign language, the absolute best thing ever is, when beneath the text I have a literal translation of what is written word by word in Neanderthal and then a translation of the same thing in nice English, as it should be said by an educated native speaker like so:

Latin  Praeterea se neque sine exercitu in eas partes Galliae venire audere, quas Caesar possideret, neque exercitum sine magno commeatu atque molimento in unum locum contrahere posse.
Neanderthal Moreover himself neither without an army into those parts of Gaul to come to dare, which Caesar possessed, nor an army without great supply and difficulty into one place to bring together to be able
Nice English That, besides, neither dare he go without an army into those parts of Gaul which Caesar had possession of, nor could he, without great expense and trouble, draw his army together to one place

If you are reading something on your own, the most tedious task is to work out the Neanderthal version and the nice English version on your own.

All of the above is exactly what I am trying to achieve in this video series:

March 24, 2019

Fluency staccato

A native speaker of Mandarin Chinese left the following comment under my video where I compared the difficulty of Japanese and Mandarin Chinese:

As a native speaker, my advice is that you'd better start off with individual characters rather than words. Although starting with learning a bunch of words helps you put up sentences easier you will get confused soon after passing the beginner level because the Chinese language at its core is the meaning for each individual character. Though nowadays characters usually appear combining with other characters forming into words the meaning of a word is still defined by the characters within. Words with the same character can carry drastically different meaning but the meaning of that particular character may stay the same. For example, in the following two words contain the same character "所" but they have different meanings. 场所:a place ; 厕所:restroom ;  if you try to remember all the words with a "所" it is quite confusing and when a "所" pops out in a sentence it causes problem. However, if you know that the character "所" generally speaking means "a place" it will be much easier. for “场所” since both of the characters mean "a place" the word means 'a place'. for "厕所" the first character means the things you would do in a restroom combining with "a place" therefore this word means restroom. Then whenever you run into a "所" you can guess it is talking about a place except for one occasion that I can think of "所以" which means 'so' or 'therefore'.

I answered the comment and a few interesting things came out of it:

Hello. You are a native speaker of Mandarin and never had to learn Mandarin and without a lot of teaching experience you unfortunately cannot understand what problems foreigners learning Mandarin face and in what order they have to tackle them. It's the same thing as foreigners trying to learn my native language. I have no idea what they need to know and in what order simply because I never had to learn my own language.

Your method would lead to poor results in my opinion because of this:

March 04, 2019

What is fluency?

I was asked to participate in a small scientific study about polyglots and multi-linguals. There were a few interesting questions in it (and a few questions that I've been asked many times before) so I thought I'd write an article sharing my answers:

What is fluency?

It's a difficult question. I think fluency is a moment when you've reached the critical mass in the target language when it comes to speaking and understanding. Meaning you can understand 90+% of what is said fluently (you don't have to necessarily understand every word, understanding what is said is enough) and you can fluently transform 90+% of your thoughts into the target language (not necessarily exactly as a native speaker would say it, but correctly using your own words).

The 90+% is just an estimate and I would have to think about this more.

Reading and writing is not taken into account.

How do you go about choosing a new language?

It's usually related to charismatic people (past or present) that make learning the language extremely interesting. It can be anything from a romantic relationship to meeting a very charismatic native speaker of the language or reading about Julius Caesar.

Are there occasions, where you feel like another person, given the language you speak?

No. I believe that if a person speaks a foreign language really well, that person can bend the language around their personality and not let the language bend the personality.

Would you consider going to language classes once or twice a week in order to learn a language?


Would you consider yourself as a more of a self-taught learner or do you prefer the instruction of language?

A good instructor is an absolute gem and very rare to find. I prefer a good instructor of course, but as they are so rare, I am a self-taught learner.

I prefer to learn alone.

Has your education played a decisive role in your language choices?

Very restraining. As soon as I 'have' to learn something I do everything in my power to avoid it.

February 24, 2019

Chinese character Zen storytelling

So an innocent question under one of my videos about Chinese character etymology
( led me to about an hour of research and I wrote a reply to the comment which I thought was worth publishing as an entire article on my blog. Gotta love science :)

The main reason why I thought this comment was worth publishing as an article was (apart from the fact that it was hopefully good research and took some time), that it is absolutely paramount to understand that people should be scientific and very careful not to interpret the structure of Chinese characters purely based on what they see today and resort to or believe Chinese character Zen story telling. I really can't stress this enough.

As Wikipedia teaches us about the Scientific method: "It (the Scientific method) involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation."

This could not be more true when it comes to Chinese characters.

The character I analyzed 黎 (which is today pronounced lí and today means 'many, numerous') is today structurally made up of 禾 (grain) 人 (person) 水 (water) and a mysterious 勹 + 丿

I could come up with 20 different Zen combinations as to how grain + person + water + (勹 + 丿)  could mean 'many, numerous'. Try it yourself before you read the rest of the article and compare it to what I wrote. Just for the fun of it and just off the top of my head:

黎 character

Modern meaning: many, numerous
Modern pronunciation: lí

Structural composition today:

禾 (grain)
人 (person)
水 (water)
and a mysterious 勹 + 丿

Top of head, seemingly cool interpretation:

'It's a person having to endure the burden of a lot of work because he has to irrigate a lot of grain with a lot of water'. All pointing to the meaning 'many, numerous'.

Let's pretend the 勹 + 丿 is not even there.

It took me, as someone who has spent a lot of time researching Chinese characters, about 30-60 minutes of research with a lot of modern tools to really understand the structure of this character and there still are blind spots in the analysis as you will see. What I'm trying to say is that if someone gives you a cool, funny, mysterious, 'Zen' interpretation of a character (like: 'It's a person having to endure the burden of a lot of work because he has to irrigate a lot of grain with a lot of water' in the case of 黎), please be very skeptical. There usually is much much more to it. Based on the difficulty of researching only this one character hopefully you will be able to appreciate why being scientific is a good thing.

February 19, 2019

A basic roadmap to learning Mandarin Chinese

Of the popular languages, Mandarin Chinese is one of the most difficult ones for Westerners to learn and extremely difficult to reach a high level of proficiency in. Learning languages like Spanish is relatively easy for those of us who speak English because of how closely related the two languages are in terms of grammar, vocabulary and even within the cultures there are lots of similarities to be found. This means that English speakers learning Spanish for instance already have a significant head start. However, when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese, the situation is different. The grammar, vocabulary, syntax or the logic of Mandarin is nothing like English. Many of the typical language learning strategies are often inapplicable with Mandarin, which is why even the most experienced language learners would find it a challenge.

I’m not saying I found the key to learning high-level Mandarin efficiently, but after almost 12 years of studies and having worked as a Mandarin interpreter for the past 4 years I believe that, by trial and error, I have devised general guidelines that will hopefully save you some time.

It would be difficult to explain in detail what it is that makes Mandarin so hard, but in short, the four pillars of Mandarin difficulty are:

  • Pronunciation
  • Vast and unfamiliar vocabulary
  • Sentence structure and sentence patterns
  • Different cultural norms

February 10, 2019

Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese

Here is the list of resources I use or have used when learning or maintaining Mandarin Chinese. I tried to list them all so if something is not on this list, it means I didn't use it or used it and didn't like it. When it comes to resources, I try to look for efficiency, i.e. why have 15 pretty good ones if a few very good resources will do the job? :)

  1. Dianhua dictionary (for iOS only)
    • An electronic dictionary for offline smartphone usage.
    • Very powerful in conjunction with character handwriting input.
    • Allows you to search characters by pinyin and automatically looks up all characters or words with the pronunciation you are looking for. This is very convenient since frequently you only know the pronunciation and not the characters of the word you are looking for.
  2. Google translate
    • Contrary to what many people say, it is the most powerful dictionary out there if you use it correctly.
    • Good for online copy-paste translations.
    • Offers the feature to scan characters with your phone’s camera.
    • Very advanced speech recognition.
    • Very good for contextual search (expressions and sentences), less preferable for non-contextual search (individual words).
  3. Zhongwen pop-up dictionary plugin for your browser
    • Move the cursor over a character on your screen and a translation will pop up.
    • Very useful when reading texts online

December 14, 2018

The most complex Chinese character

What is the most complex Chinese character?

When it comes to the character with the greatest number of strokes and the greatest number of elements I was able to find, it is this character, which is pronounced dhō, with 341 strokes:

It supposedly means “Impossibly complex pictogram-based writing system that takes a person a thousand thousand years to learn.” This character however should not count in my opinion for a number of reasons. The only reference to it I was able to find was on the Uncyclopedia website, which is a website where you can: “Discover, share and add your best comedic writing!” So dhō is thus very probably just a recently invented character invented for fun, where the author took several very complicated existing and non-existing characters, added them together, added a few non-standard strokes, called the character dhō and gave it the meaning I mentioned earlier.