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I'm interested in languages and linguistics, can speak a few languages (English, French, Mandarin, some German, Japanese, and Esperanto) and would like to eventually learn more (Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, maybe Italian).

So, are there any fields of linguistics that would be particularly useful for learning languages, and especially, their grammar? (and give me a broader understanding of linguistics along the way) And any resources (books, websites - a Wikipedia page?) for those?

There are a few books referenced on Resources comparing grammars of different languages that seem interesting, but I don't know enough to really evaluate them.

Language typology looks like it could be useful, though I'd rather avoid discussion of features that only appear in a few uncommon languages.

closed as too broad by curiousdannii, prash Mar 12 '15 at 8:28

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  • Syntax is my suggestion. – Yellow Sky Nov 10 '14 at 20:08
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    And phonetics/phonology, this can make it easier to acquire sound systems in other languages. – Gaston Ümlaut Nov 11 '14 at 2:59
  • I think this is too broad. Almost every subfield of linguistics is potentially going to be useful. – curiousdannii Nov 11 '14 at 5:20
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    curiousdannii: sure, but it should still be possible to order them from most useful to least useful, no? – Emile Nov 11 '14 at 10:19
  • A language is best learned by diving into it, by active usage even when far from correct. On the basis of this linguistics might help with phonetics (a good ear and mouth), language specific syntactical categories and passive reading (memory acquisition). I am pessimistic on general linguistics being an apriori help, more an Aha Erlebnis, on integrative, comparitive reflection. – Joop Eggen Nov 13 '14 at 16:17
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Let me share with you an experience I had in learning Russian.

I was utterly incapable of pronouncing the (stressed) high central vowel transcribed y (such as in the name Gromyko). The best I could do was the English vowel in hit. (If you're from New Zealand, this is the right thing to do, it turns out.)

I asked a Russian friend to listen to me pronounce the sound, repeatedly, and try and get it right. He said I had it wrong. I'd try again and again, asking every time I saw him, and never get it. Eventually it seemed he was growing tired of me asking him the same question over and over, and having to give me the same answer every time. So I stopped bugging him.

Months later, entirely by chance and for reasons unrelated to language learning, I picked up a book on linguistics and started reading it. One of the first chapters was on phonetics. When I learned about the vowel quadrilateral, I finally had a way of knowing, at least in theory, what I was supposed to be doing to pronounce this strange Russian vowel. I practiced a bit and noticed that what was coming out of my mouth sounded oddly reminiscent of what Russians said. Then I went back to my friend, said some words with the dreaded vowel in them, and got them all right the first time.

  • Thank you; I have followed this advice, studied some phonetics/phonology (at least, I know the IPA and all that weird terminology about affricates and near-mid front unrounded vowels), read (part of) a book on phonology, and it does indeed some pretty useful! – Emile Sep 29 '15 at 8:48
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The answer to the headline question is very simple. None. Do what millions of successful language learners (and teachers) do, completely ignore linguistics. Just compare linguists and historians - you'll see that linguists are no better at learning other languages. Historically, advances in language learning have not generally come from advances in linguistic theory.

Perhaps the most impact linguistics has had on language education is functionalism. In that case, you will want to read Halliday and people writing in that tradition.

Personally, I found it useful to have a decent grounding in phonetics and phonology for language learning but only up to a point.

But it seems you're more interested in learning about languages.

If you're more interested in finding out about the variations in grammars across languages, you will be better served by contrastive linguists (or typology) like RMW Dixon - his Basic Linguistic Theory is a true delight. But the reading list would be practically endless. Bernard Comrie, William Croft, Martin Hasplemath, all of these people have lots of useful things to say.

If you're interested in how language works in general, then there are also many options. Even though I don't agree with his conclusions, I would still recommend Steven Pinker but there are many other popular authors. David Crystal is one that comes to mind.

Or simply, buy pretty much any introduction to linguistics and see what will strike you as worth exploring in more detail.

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Although all sub-fields in linguistics, including typology, might give you some insight into the languages that you learn, I think that the study of second language acquisition might be the most useful to you for obvious reasons.

Wikipedia articles usually have external links to more in-depth resources, so you might start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second-language_acquisition

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I really doubt that any study of linguistics will help learn a language. Linguistics is primarily not concerned with learning a language but with new ways of analysing language, which in my view achieve nothing but saying known things with new terms.

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