One of the key milestones in any man’s development is the mastery of one or more foreign languages.
Unfortunately, like so many critical skills, there are great differences of opinion regarding how to go about accomplishing this goal. There are many purveyors of theory, but relatively few who have actually rolled up their sleeves and mastered the art of learning a language through a systematic and focused application of willpower.
Many men have convinced themselves that the goal is beyond their reach, when in fact they have not been pursuing their goal in an efficient way. Like all limiting beliefs, it is one that must be shattered. I wanted to share my own tips and thoughts on what has worked for me over the years. The paragraphs below offer my own thoughts and suggestions.
No one is going to help you.
There is a pervasive myth that being around native speakers will somehow enable you to learn by osmosis. Or, men think that a native speaker girlfriend will solve all their problems. This is not the case. Native speakers are not your security blanket. You have to do the grunt work yourself. Native speakers, even if they’re your friend or lover, often don’t have the patience or inclination to listen to you flummox about in their language. And in many cases, when you are living abroad, people will be more interested in pimping you out for English practice.
Of course, interaction with natives is critical, but you need to be realistic about what it will and will not do for you. Success comes when you realize that you have to fight for your goal of fluency alone. A good rule of thumb is: do the grunt work yourself, and use native speakers to test what you’ve learned, or polish what you know. Expecting more from other people is setting yourself up for frustration.
Conventional classroom language classes are better than nothing, but in most cases are close to being worthless.
The reason is simply that they are too easy. They are not difficult enough or frequent enough (unless you are in a specialized immersion program). They use passive, old fashioned instructional methods. You need daily, intense contact with the language, something that a classroom work does not provide. Instead, focus on being an intense self-learner with a specific and sustained agenda for the long term.
Choose your books, workbooks, and recordings very carefully.
Most of the language courses on the market today are simply too easy. You need something that is going to make serious demands on your cognitive abilities if you want to improve. I have found that the resources offered by the academic presses of Georgetown, Yale, Cambridge, and Oxford to be very good. But you need to look around. No one company has everything. You will need to collect multiple courses over time, from different publishers, and work through all of them. I have very specific course recommendations for Arabic, Portuguese, and Latin, for those who are interested. Whichever courses you choose, they should have certain things in common:
1. The course should contain a large number of dialogues for a variety of situations: basic social situations, doctor, work, employment, renting, music, dating, repairing vehicle, discussing politics, health, education, current events, etc. There must be recordings with the materials. Books with no recordings are not worth much. You need to hear the dialogues and memorize them. Repeat them aloud. Converse with yourself. Repetition is critical, and you need to hear yourself speaking. I prefer courses that employ the “natural language” method: only the target language is used in instruction. No English is used. You need to begin training yourself to use the language right from the beginning.
2. The books should be sturdily made in order to hold up to frequent use, and should have ample margins to write notes. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Check the bindings and covers for durability. As you go through the course, every word you don’t know should be written down and spoken aloud. Keep a separate composition book to write the words again, and review them frequently once or twice during the day.
3. At the intermediate and advanced stages, you should be using annotated readers with ample explanatory notes. A poorly edited text is useless. A good reader will have selections of articles from the popular press, history, folklore, education, art, etc. You need to be exposed to a variety of vocabulary from different fields of endeavor or interest.
4. Buy a variety of courses. No one single course is enough. The variety will do you good, and help reinforce previous learning.
5. Besides good books and recordings, you will need a good reference grammar at the intermediate and advanced stages. Notice I did not say at the beginning stages. Trying to learn too much grammar in the beginning will only slow you down. Remember, the goal is to learn the language, not to learn about the language. There is a big difference.
6. Flash cards are all right, if a bit overrated. They’re good as a supplement in your down time, with certain caveats. You should have a set with about 2500 of the most commonly used verbs. (Verbs are more important than nouns). But to be worth anything, they should have an illustrative sentence on one side of the card. Say the sentence out loud, always. Memorization occurs in context, not in isolation. I like the cards made by Tuttle Publishing, which I believe is an Australian company.
Emotions affect performance.
Be aware that “affective filters” can block your progress. Studying should be done at a time when you are relaxed and refreshed, not when you’re tired or stressed. You will notice a great variance in performance from day to day when you open your books in a restful state, and when you open them in a state of fatigue.
Don’t worry too much about different dialects or about diglossia.
Just learn the standard version of whatever language you are studying. Specialists and linguists like to make a big deal about how there are different dialects of this or that language. Many languages also have a feature called “diglossia” where there are different “versions” of the language: one used in formal contexts, and another used in informal contexts. In diglossic situations, the style of speech spoken by people on a daily basis is a much different “register” of the language than the more literary form found in the press, television, or literature. The specialists are right, of course, but that doesn’t mean you should worry about it too much.
Both Arabic and Portugese, as well as most other languages, have significant degrees of diglossia. But in practice it’s not a big deal. Nobody expects you to speak like a native speaker. And in fact most natives prefer the non-native to use formal and correct speech. Just focus on learning both registers of the language (the “high” form and the “low” form) together, and don’t make a big deal out of it.
Older books are often better than the newer ones.
This is not always true, of course, but you’d be surprised how good some of the stuff made in the 1960s is, compared with now. I also think computer-based courses are generally worthless. Educational standards have declined steadily in America and the UK in recent decades. Rigor has been replaced by an emphasis on making the student “feel good”. This “dumbing down” effect on language learning is likely to continue, so be careful not to make things too easy on yourself.
Ask native speakers to correct you in conversation.
Instant correction on the spot will help to prevent what are called “fossilized errors”, or errors that become embedded in your speaking style. This is very important. Make sure to tell your native speaker friends to correct you. Demand it, in fact.
Take a break every few months.
The mind needs time to rest and let the material “gel” in your head. You will find that coming back after a brief layoff of 7 to 10 days every few months will enable you to be stronger and better than before.
You need a daily commitment.
You need to be working at least 30 minutes per day, every day, for a few years. One hour would be better still. If you can’t handle this commitment, then you will not be successful. Chose your language carefully; you’ll be living with it for many years.
If you are studying more than one language at a time, use different desks or tables in your home for each language you are studying.
I learned this technique in a biography of Sir Richard Burton, an amazing 19th century British explorer and linguist. He had a separate desk in his house for each language he regularly studied. The idea is that you want to go to a different place for each separate language. The technique works: the mind tends to separate and remember things much better. This speeds learning and prevents “linguistic interference” where one language blends with another.
You need regular exposure to soap operas, movies, podcasts, cable TV, and internet video.
Subtitling is a good thing if you can get it. Satellite “free-to-air” TV is also good, although you will mostly get boring government stations. The internet has made the old option, shortwave radio, almost totally obsolete.
Do not allow yourself to settle into a rut.
Language learning is like working out. You are going to hit plateaus and do not want the mind to settle into a comfortable rut. Every few months, shake yourself up and mix the pot a little.
Memorize a few short stories, anecdotes, fables, or poems.
And be able to deliver them flawlessly. In the old days, language learners memorized large volumes of text in the target language. It helps cement structures in your brain. But it is also a good way to charm native speakers. Being able to rattle off a whole story or fable in the target language can be very impressive.
In the intermediate and advanced stages, use major news websites.
Print off short one page articles on current events, economics, health, culture, or whatever, and then translate them. I like to use Al Jazeera for Arabic, or O Globo for Portuguese. Keep a composition book (I love these) to write down all unknown vocabulary. Say the article out loud, as if you are a newscaster. This will keep you current on idioms, structures, and popular culture.
The most common plateaus are:
1. Limited vocabulary (find yourself using the same words over and over again)
2. Embedded or “fossilized” errors (making the same mistakes so often that they become part of your conversational routine).
3. Not knowing enough grammatical constructions to express yourself fully.
As I said above, you just have to fight through plateaus. Keep plowing forward, keep up the daily grind. Remember that the people who succeed in learning are the ones willing to put in the sweat. Language learning can be a very tedious grind at times, but you should be powerfully motivated to do it despite all impediments.
It is all worth it. When you find yourself in a foreign land interacting with native speakers and shedding your old skin, you will know without doubt that you have spent your time wisely.
Orginal publication: by Quintus Curtius for Return of Kings