Category Archives: Education

Learning foreign languages on your own—Part 3: Reading

This is part of a series on my method for learning foreign languages. See post one here and post two here.

Three months have elapsed. You have a bumbling, if not reasonable, grasp upon speaking. I imagine you’ve also had a reasonable “look” at the language, but still an immature knowledge of its grammar. You still cannot read basic texts but, browsing online articles, you get an idea of what’s going on. You are ready to move onto stage three in Dan’s method of learning foreign languages ™.

Exclaimer: from this point on, things get more difficult and less fun. If you can’t hack it with this method, you might need the help of a private tutor, or at least a very strict schedule. This can be some grueling labor, but it pays off. The thing is, with my method, efficiency rules above all. You have a limited amount of time and you want to use that time to your advantage. That means the time in which you are learning the language will be somewhat exhausting mentally but will pay off—you’ll advance at a rate two to three times as fast as you would in regular (that is to say, passive) learning environments.

Okay, so now it’s time to set down your listening skills and focus on reading. Why do we leapfrog into reading and not study grammar through a textbook? Because reading gives you vocabulary and a natural grasp on grammar at the same time. The most important part of languages is vocabulary acquisition. Grammar you can learn in a couple of months—but you’ll always need words, especially when you’re getting started. A reasonably-sized language has about 100-200,000 words, 5,000 of which are used in regular speech and 20,000 of which are used in most writing. That’s a hell of a lot of words to know. So why waste a month learning the difference between por and para, which doesn’t matter all that much to be understood in Spanish, when you can learn 500 words in that same amount of time and start getting an organic acquaintance with grammar? You can’t hardly talk to anybody if you know all the grammar perfectly and know about 200 words (which is how you end up after most university courses) but, as you can see with people thrown into foreign environments, such as language-washed immigrants, you can make yourself understood if you tumble into the world of words.

Which is exactly why we begin a tour de force jump into reading, which exposes you to words, words and more words.

At the same time, you have to figure out the grammar on your own. This is far more effective than merely being taught it or learning it. It’s works on the same principle that you learn to write by writing, rather than reading theory about writing, or painting by painting, and not taking art history. The latter is important, but that’s the sort of stuff that comes after you have some practical ability, and is more of a confirmation of what you intuitively know.

One more thing. You can’t give listening and speaking all of a sudden. So, now that you’re going to begin reading, you cut your time down from 30 minutes a day on listening to 15 (and now you can just watch movies, if you’ve gotten up to a reasonable level of understanding) and start reading at first for 30 minutes a day.

Alright. So what you need to do for the reading section is get yourself newspapers, articles, children’s books, dual-book short stories and a dictionary and grammar book. You’ll also need notepads, a notebook, flashcards, pencils, pens, highlighters, a study log, coffee, and a quiet room for half an hour a day, preferably at the same time each day.

It’s always best to start simple, but not too simple, so I suggest you start with newspaper articles, a highlighter and a red pen. You’ll realize early on that by missing a single word you an inhibit your whole understanding of an entire passage—but also you can’t spend your whole day looking up words. So highlight words which are essential, which appear three or more times, while at the same time start to circle the grammatical endings of words and speculate on the patterns you see and what they mean—what the case, number and tense might be.

Flashcards are great, as are word lists. When you’re standing on the street corner, waiting for the bus, you can go over the words you’re working on in your story of the week, which you should read until you know very well, and memorize as you wait. Play games. Make drawings of the word.s Do everything in your power to cram words into your mind at this point. Since newspaper articles are usually in the present or the simple past, you shouldn’t have much trouble, as you would with literary texts, and grammar will still remain simple as your vocabulary grows.

As you go along, spending a half an hour a day referencing your grammar book and marking down 5-10 words a day with definitions and flashcards, you’ll find that you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing—and it will be pretty uncomfortable and tedious a lot of the time—but within a week, suddenly, your knowledge will boomed and will continue to grow. Then, as you move on to harder articles you can start to consolidate and systematize your understanding of grammar.

Note: it helps if you have a knowledge of grammatical forms before you go into this method. If you don’t, well, I can assure this will be an even more murky adventure than it seems at first. Most of the listening exercises I recommended will, however, give you a mundane understanding of the grammar of the language, which will nevertheless be invaluable. I’m not going to lie: you’re going to need to do some exercises and run back to your grammar book now and again, more often if you have a harder time with grammar or don’t yet know another foreign language.

You’ll progress with reading until you can begin to read books. The best way to begin is with dual language books that have the translation on the opposite side. This might sound like a step back from article reading, but it’s actually important to work on your grammar more and stop fussing around over simple words all the time. Having the language there will mean that you can look at the words easier (and will therefore be less apt to memorize them) but that you can study the grammatical forms side by side and get an understanding of them.

You’ll need to point out what indicates the future, how you make the plural, who the different persons are, etc. A lot of this will already be known to you, due to your intensive speaking courses, but you’re going to have to deal with gerunds, the subjunctive and a lot of other forms which were not touched upon. You can reference these and begin to use them in your time spent speaking or listening (renting movies with subtitles in the foreign language would be a good idea now).

Your reading should, little by little, lead up to easier novels in the foreign language, but that will take you about six months’ time more to achieve, and even then, you’ll have to start getting to work on the next part of this method, which is where we shall continue next time . . .

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Posted by on May 15, 2011 in Education, Language


Learning Foreign Languages on your own — Part 2: Speaking

This is part of a series on my method for learning foreign languages. See post one here.

The best way to begin is with speaking. Since most people learn foreign languages to be able to speak them, and since your knowledge of a language will most often be assessed by how well you speak it, it’s a good idea to make speaking your forte and main purpose in a foreign language

For your first few months you can focus on speaking alone, with perhaps a superficial overview of the written language. This is an analytic approach, diametrically opposed to what you learn in High School and College, where they ram into your head the most juvenile grammatical differences that, while important, are hardly going to broaden your real scope of the language and will make a rather inefficient use of your time.

Therefore, when it comes to speaking, the best thing is to get tapes that focus early on vocabulary, context, pronunciation and lots of practice, repetition and a healthy amount of self-testing and drudgery. Grammar comes second. You can make grammatical mistakes and be understood; but you have to first have some idea of how to speak the language and have some conversational confidence. The point is to go headfirst into the language, rather than dancing around with frilly little details like the difference between ser and estar.

The best resources for jumping in to speaking are:

Pimsleur language program (3 month do-it-yourself course; get the long courses from your library for free)

Berlitz tapes (the older the better and cheaper, such as the example I give … Great when it comes to context, goes a bit further than Pimsleur)

These can be got either for free at your local library (older editions usually) or used online for cheap. I’m pretty sure the US government recommends both of these for people they send to foreign nations abroad. The thing is, however, that they’re not easy, they’re not full of fun useless activities (though I like them) and you actually have to work. But you learn rapidly for the amount of time you put in. Which brings me to consistency.

I hate schedules myself. The consistency part of learning FL’s is the hardest for me, but that also means when I do the grind it pays off. The grind means everyday without fail you study, for 15 minutes to half an hour, your foreign language. You can do this on the bus, you can do it on the toilet, you can do it in bed. 15 minutes is nothing. It’s the same with learning an instrument. Putting in an hour every other day is not as valuable as 15 minutes a day. 30 minutes is the preferable mean, a mere 1/48th of your day, but if you can’t commit to that then do at least 15 minutes a day. But during those 15 or 30 minutes you must be focused and learning. They must be fully attentive minutes, which means you do need a study space and a clear mind when you sit down to work.

Your first month to three months, depending on how hardworking you are, should then be time spent on listening and speaking, in your car or at home, without worrying yet about how the language works all that much. You can also begin, when you’re tired of pure exercises, to listen to foreign music, watch films (with or without subtitles) and attempt to read aloud texts you see, or even start really basic conversations with foreign speakers at bars, meetups or clubs. (More on this later.)

A strict routine is always good. Thirty minutes a day listening and speaking at the same time everyday for one month using high quality tapes or CDs should get you up to speed really quick. After that you should be dying of curiosity and full of childlike wonder of how the language actually looks and feels on the page, but you’ll still imbued with an innocent knowledge of the language so that you don’t start correcting its own inconsistencies yet. When you think you’re ready, and you should be ready if you’ve completed all three discs of a Pimsleur language program, you can full force ahead onto the next stage, which will be continued in my next post . . .


Posted by on May 12, 2011 in Education, Language


Learn Foreign Languages on your own — Introduction

Learning foreign languages on your own is not as hard as you think. People like to say that you the only real way to learn a foreign language is a) to move abroad and immerse yourself in the language and, if you can’t do that, then b) to have a private tutor, expensive classes at an institute and a university degree in a foreign language.

While living abroad really is the ultimate way to learn a foreign language, what these people fail to realize is that you can do all of these things and still have only a middling knowledge of the language. Sadly, I know several people who fit this description, and these very people still espouse the conventional wisdom that learning a foreign language is near impossible unless you have a year abroad and lots of fancy courses. I suppose people in general are falling more into the trap that you can buy education, experience and knowledge, and that anybody, if they get the right teacher, can learn anything.

It’s time to divest yourself of this conventional wisdom and face facts. Learning a foreign language, whether abroad in elegant salons, or sitting on a ratty sofa your parents’ basement, requires only two things: consistency and creative use of language-learning resources. Brilliance will help, but as long as you’re smart enough to get a university degree (i.e. a mere nick above average) you can easily learn a foreign language with resources available at your public library, on the Internet and in local bars, barring, of course, that you live near a major city.

The first thing you have to do is decide which language(s) you want to learn. There are lots of things to take into consideration, but in my view the most important factor is whether or not you like the language and will stick with it. There’s little point learning a language half-assedly, unless you just want to be able to ramble a few elegant and sexy sounding words to your significant other, so you should pick something that you’re going to hang with for the long haul. That decided, you can get to work.

To continue, see post two here.

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Posted by on May 10, 2011 in Education, Language