A language learner's guide
Nuts and bolts

Learning languages | Choosing your language | My homepage


This page contains a general guide to help you choosing the foreign language you want to learn. The form is that of a definition list, and it was made to be used with the individual languages pages. However, the best way is to read it first, like a manual.

In the text I use the expression target language, which means the foreign language you want to learn. This comes from Barry Farber's book. By the way, as we are at copyrights, I don't mind your spreading copies of this page as long as (1) you tell me (2) you give my name and URL of this site on every page you take from here. I did this out of love for languages, not of profit, but this is still my work.

Contents of this page :

  1. Introduction

    I. General remarks

    1. Usefulness of a language
    2. Beauty
    3. Chic factor

    II. What you can do with it

    1. Number of speakers
    2. Countries
    3. Regional variations
    4. Travel
    5. Books, songs, movie and culture
  2. Difficulty to learn a language
    1. Phonemes
    2. Syntax
    3. Vocabulary
    4. Orthograph
    5. Overall difficulty level
    6. Time needed to learn
  3. Learning material
    1. Books and tapes
    2. Drills and other exercises
    3. Schools and professors
    4. Things to avoid



Choosing the language that you want to learn is, of course, very important. I think you should consider all the different aspects before beginning to study it, because it would be really disappointing to rush on, let's say, russian, only to learn after 2 months that it really is difficult and of scarce use to you. You'd better concentrate on all the important aspects - usefulness, difficulty level, possibility to practice it, inherent attractiveness, etc... before you begin. Then choose with great care the books, tapes and professor that you will use, because this is the key to your sucess. With a lot of work and a bad book, you will get nowhere, but with a good book and good tapes, it can be a very pleasurable work and you'll get excellent results.
-1. Introduction - ©www.micheloud.com

I. General remarks


A. Usefulness of a language

Call me a pragmatist if you want, but I think this is the most important point in choosing a language. No matter how beautiful, exotic and original your language is, you need to practice it. Many languages offer a lot of speakers (like chinese if you live in San Fransisco), great travels (spanish for Americans), a wonderful littlerature and newspapers (like russian) or are just plain useful (think of english). But if you learn farsi (persian, the language of Iran) you'll have a hard time finding someone to talk to unless you marry an Iranian, travelling is not the easiest thing you can imagine and litterature is rather limited. So why work so much just to tell people at parties that you learned such-an-exotic-language if that's all you can do with it? You will forget it quickly if you can't practice it.
On the other side of the same coin, knowing a useful language allows you to practice it everyday and to open many friendship, career and business opportunities. Of course, usefulness depends on your life and the country you live in. I took italian because Italy is beautiful and just next door, and I had some business to do there. Actually, I could do business in other languages but it really is not the same. And italian is one of the most beautiful languages there is, with plenty of incredible opera airs to sing while bathing.
So my advice is : if you want to learn an exotic language for the sake of it, think twice.
B. Beauty and inherent attractiveness
Some languages are more beautiful than others, be it in their melody, phonemes, writing or expressions. I don't think anybody will overlook this, but this should not be your primary factor for choosing a language (see above). Rather, if you hesitate between two languages, you might want to choose the one that you'd love to speak just because it sounds great (italian is like a music and really thrilling to speak) or because you always dreamed to be able to write such caballistic signs (hindi or chinese).
C. Chic factor
You can't deny that there's some chic in speaking foreign languages. Ooops, did I use a french word ? You got it, even when they speak english, people love to add some foreign words because it's smart to do so. So if you decide to take russian because that will set you apart from the rest, you'd better be clear about it because in the long run, it's not such a big motivating factor for a difficult language.
It is actually fun to see what is chic in some countries. I was at the Fiera in Milan one day (I did not speak italian at that time) and at an exposition I gave a list of the languages I spoke to the export manager so that he could find me someone I could understand. As usually we did those things in english, I was very surprised when a  small man came out shining with pride, saying he spoke tedesco (german). He actually did, and as I learned later, he was part of the 3% italians who do and thus could boast with some reason. This was especially funny for a french speaking Swiss like me, for which learning german had the same level of difficulty but was something you excepted from an educated person. Well, so much for the transnational relativity of chic, but for Western European and Americans, chich languages normally include french, german, russian, chinese and most of the exotic languages.
II. What you can do with it

Some people out there on the web spend their time inventing artificial human languages. I wonder what they do with it. With natural human languages (the kind discussed here) there's usually plenty to do. Nevertheless, it is sensible to first check the number of speakers, wether or not you'd like to travel in the countries where it's spoken and the kind of culture (books, movies, songs, etc...) that is available. Italian scores high on all of this, twi (an african language) is more problematic.


A. Number of speakers
The first thing many people ask is how many people speak their target language. Of course this is important but can be misleading. After all if size was all we would all learn chinese and live in Texas (where they like big things). Actually, I suggest you consider size after other considerations, like usefulness or travelling opportunities. Nevertheless for those of you who think they should aim for the biggest, I give you a somewhat old table of the top league :

© Language Speakers
1 Mandarin 1'000 mio
2 English 600 mio
3 Hindi-Urdu 420 mio
4 Spanish 330 mio
5 Russian 285 mio
6 Indonesian 190 mio
7 Portugese 175 mio
8 Arabic 170 mio
9 Bengali 150 mio
10 French 130 mio
11 Japanese 125 mio
12 German 100 mio

Total number of speakers, as a mother tongue
and as a second language

B. Countries
Several  languages are spoken throughtough the world, some because of colonisation like english or spanish, other because of emigration like chinese or yiddish. This is a very important asset to consider when choosing your language, especially if you like to travel. For example, the bold traveller who speaks spanish has half a continent to discover in the best conditions (people like that you speak their language), where the speaker of basque must content himself with a small area where many people don't understand this intriguing language. The top languages on this criteria are english (understood everywhere by at least some people), spanish (latin America and more) and to a lesser extent french and portuguese. The value minded language learner will notice that three of these four languages are in the same linguistic group, romance languages heirs to latin. You can learn easily the others when you know one well, so why wouldn't you begin there?


C. Regional variations
Some languages have slight regional variations, like for example english or spanish, but others are spoken in very different ways depending on the area, like arabic or chinese (both are written in more or less the same way everywhere, though), The issue for the learner is to be sure to be learning the most standard and widespread version of the language, unless he has some special reason. I remember that when I wanted to spend 15 days in a spanish speaking country for the language, I hesitated between Cuba and Mexico. Thank the lord I chose Mexico, because otherwise I would have come back eating the s's like they do in the Carribean. Ha'ta la vi'ta !


D. Travels

If you speak a foreign language, chances are you'll want to spend some time in a country where it is spoken. And this is a good idea if you can afford it, because your travel experience will be enhanced a lot by this. You'll get to speak with the people, understand their conversations, their jokes, the TV they watch. you'll be able to read the newspapers and learn all the little news that tell you the story better than any cicernone. So the thing to ask yourself is : would I want to visit this country? Are the people appealing to me? An hypondriac would not choose hindi and a woman would think twice before learning afghan after this test.


E. Books, songs, movies and culture

Knowing a foreign language is the perfect way to understand a people, and a passionating way to do this is to dwelve into its culture. There are great cultures out there, with incredible books, poetry, songs, theatre, movies and jokes that loose most of  their strength when translated. Moreover, many are accessible either through bookshops, TV, radio or directly trough the internet. Many people don't imagine what you can learn about a country by reading its jokes, and there are loads of it for your use on the internet.
So the thing you'll want to ask when considering a language is : what kind of culture is there in this language, and can I get it? English or spanish culture is easy to find for most people, but few are those who can find iranian or thai books and movies.

Great languages on this criteria are spanish, french, english, chinese, italian, arabic, japanese etc...


-2. Difficulty to learn the language - ©www.micheloud.com

Learning a foreign language implies several sets of difficulties. You must master the sounds that make the languages (the phonemes),    understand how to arrange words so as to make meaningful utterances (this is syntax), and acquire new words that may seem unrelated to their meanings or funny. Of course, you will learn all this together and I break it down here only to help you analyze the difficulty.


A. Phonemes : the sounds that make the language

The sounds that make the language. For example, in spanish you have a sound usually written j (like in Guadalajara) that does not exist neither in english nor in french, but has a close equivalent in german and russian. A beginner could be tempted to  make it like a french r but it's bad, because there's also a r in spanish. Phonemics, the science that studies how human languages use sets of sounds  to convey meaning, is extremely interesting and you will probably enjoy reading an introduction to it. Anyway, you have to keep in mind that the phonemes  in your target language are to be learned by listening to native speakers, comparing the phonemes between themselves (spanish r versus j or english th versus s) and then practicing. To a dedicated learner, phonemes are not very difficult to learn and they should come after 10-50 hours of study for a reasonable language (russian is *not* reasonable!). Beware that some languages use very complex phonemic systems, for example tonal languages like Mandarin chinese. where not only you must learn to distinguish between sounds that seem very, very close, but also you must tell wether the syllabe that use that sound is climbing, flat, descending or whatever. For such languages, the next best thing after having a chinese girl/boyfriend is to use a good CD ROM where you can click a thousand times on two related sounds to compare them.
Note that some people are just satisfied with just being understood and use the sounds of their mother tongue when speaking another tongue - something rude and lazy that you should avoid. French people are the worse I know for this.
B. Syntax : how they assemble words
Syntax is the way speaker of  a given language arrange words so that they make meaningful phrases. Grammar is a set of rule that tries to explain you how they do this. Keep in mind that the ultimate reference for "correcteness" of speech is the speech of a person from the social group you want to speak to, commonly the speech of the educated upper class.
Difficulty of learning syntax depends a lot on the closeness of your target language to the ones you already know. Some languages have a lot in common in this regard, like the latin languages spanish, french, italian, portuguese, etc... where you can translate word-by-word and get it right. Others, like german, have pretty strange ways of building phrases like "The yesterday-talken-about airplane is today morning found become" that take some time to master. My advice is to read a lot (sample phrases in good grammmar books or newspapers) and then let the "rules" be infered naturally by your mind. Learning rules in the grammar book and then trying to apply them to new phrases does not work. Rather, you should find good drills, preferably on audio tapes, and practice them over and over again. If you must think before your speak, you will never be fluent.
C. Vocabulary : words and meaning
There are more than 460'000 different words in the Webster Dictionary, but you can understand 80% of normal speech with only the 2'000 more frequent words, and with the 3'000 most frequent words you make 95% of normal speech. So don't be afraid when you'll discover the immense amount of words you don't understand. You will probably learn vocabulary all your life (use flash cards) but the words you really need are about 3'000.
Words are normally thought of as arbitrary associations between sounds and meaning, but nobody forces you to learn them that way. If there's no parent in another language you speak (english umbrella and french ombrelle) just make one. For example if you are to learn russian for prison, tyioorma, you can think of the torments of prison.This is an age old, proven and efficient way to remember words, and the beauty of the trick is that with time you will forget the mental association but remember the word and its meaning. In the pages about individual languages, I give an indication of how close a language is to other languages, so that you can find out if vocabulary will be a great burden or not. 
A difficult but rewarding part of vocabulary learing is the idioms part. Every human language has ways of speaking, expressions, idioms that it uses to vividly convey a meaning and sometimes a proverbial piece of wisdom. For example I recently hear in an american movie a black man telling his friend that if was better to "check out than to come back home all fucked up", equalling death with the process of checking out at a hotel. Whatever you think of the poetry of that one, you have to master some idiomatic expressions if you want to understand people, and if you use them you will most probably find it highly enjoyable.
Orthograph, or the way you write the words, is another story. Some languages made clever reforms that lets you write as you speak and speak as you write, like for example german or spanish, but others are backward on this, like english or french.
I recommend the excellent "International Dictionary", which lists 1200 words in 21 european languages in a very useful format for the student who wishes to compare vocabulary.
D. Orthograph
The link between words and how they are written is direct in some languages (german, spanish), tortuous in others (english, french) and non existent in a few ones (chinese, japanese). As most people who learn a language want to read it and sometimes write it, this can a make a sizeable difference.


E. Overall difficulty
For each language I sum up difficulty in learning it by a simple ranking system, ranging from * (easiest) for a French learning Italian  to ***** (most difficult) for an American learning mandarin chinese . Of course, languages related to your mother tongue or to another language you know are easier to learn, so I give two marks, one for a speaker of a related language and one for the rest of us.

F. Time needed to learn

I think that you can give a estimation of the time needed to learn a language in total number of hours spent studying it. This, of course, covers only the core learning, usually with a "method" consisting of lessons, books and tapes. Then it is your choice if you want to study 30 minutes or 3 hours a day, but the total remains the same. For example, total FSI spanish took me about 200 hours, plus some time spent reading newspapers, talking with the cleaning lady or watching TV which I don't count.


c3. Learning material - ©www.micheloud.com
There's no way to learn a language while sleeping, but there are plenty of ways to learn it badly and painfully. Here are the most common ways to do it badly and some good, tried, efficient ways to learn it on your own.


A. Books and tapes
There are good books and tapes for most languages, and I indicate those I know in the individual languages pages. My advice is not to follow the bookseller's advice, unless he himself learned a foreign language with a book he's trying to sell you.  They are good at selling books, not at learning languages, and some very successful language learning books are just bad. (A little personal experience on this ...)
The best books/tapes I know are either Pimsleur of FSI, things you won't find in your local bookshop but that you can order by phone :
Pimsleur : Dr Pimsleur was an American linguist who developped a language learning method based on tapes that people can use in their cars. Not cheap, it is very efficient in having people master (understand and speak) the most useful situations in many languages. You get tapes with two 30 minutes lessons by tape, and a booklet for helping you read the language. There are 30 lessons sets and for the main languages there's a full 90 lessons set. You should really aim for the full set, which in a maximum of 90 days will take you to medium-advanced level with excellent pronunciation and perfect fluency. I used the Pimsleur Italian tapes with great success and passed them on to friends who had as much success as I did. Now I'm working on the Pimsleur russian tapes with good results so far. Beware though that you will have to find something for the advanced level, be it a course or a book.
FSI : The Foreign Service Institute is the part of the US Department of State that teaches languages to diplomats. Jointly with the Defense Language Institute, they have developed many excellent book/tapes sets for most languages, including some relatively minor ones. If there's a good FSI method, you should take it because they are excellent, with many good tapes and intelligent textbooks. The two problems are that the layout is not very fancy and that to get them it could be more straightforward. Actually the first place I would  check would be at Audioforum, an expensive but otherwise good language book dealer. If you can't find what you want, check the US goverment service, NTIS, that will print the book for you and send them. They are efficient but you have to query the database yourself and nobody will help you choose the book.


B. Drills and other exercises
When it comes to achieving oral active fluency (speak naturally), drills are a must. As I undestand it, they have been used extensively for the first time during WWII when the Americans had to teach Japanese and German to thousands of soldiers in a quick and efficient way while there were not that many Japanese and Germans who wanted to teach them. So they developped effiency minded tapes that the soldiers could use without assistance. These tapes contained drills of various types that you can still use with good success : 

Substitution drills : Such drills aim to have you master some syntaxic patterns (phrase types) without having to think. For example they will say "Jose va a comprar un coche mañana" and then give you a word to substitute in the phrase, making all the necessary   changes. For example they say Nosotros and you answer Nosotros vamos a comprar un coche mañana, and then agacuates, where you answer Nosotros vamos a comprar agacuates mañana, then ayer and you answer Nostoros hemos comprado aguacates ayer, and so on. Depending on what they make you substitute, such drills can be called tense, persons, number or construction subsitution drills.
Patterned response drills : These drills ask you a question and you have answer everytime with the same pattern. For example, if they ask you Ya sirvieron? you answer Están sirviendo ahora mismo, to Ya se despidieron? you answer Se están despidiendo ahora mismo, an so on. After a while you have understood the pattern, but the point here is not to check you understood but rather to build an automatism in your brain.

Situational drills : You have to remember that the drills described above have been developped by the military, and they inherited something from them. Actually, Dr Pimsleur thought he could improve tem by connecting them to a real life situation in the mind of the learners. So he made tapes where you are told things like "You are seating in a bus in St Petersbourg next to a young womand. How do you start conversation?" so as to make you find out by yourself how to say things that you will have to say in real life. They also have you make painless  inferences of syntaxic patterns like "In italian, you already know how to say he eats - mangia - and I eat -  mangio. So if we say parla for he speakes, how do you say I speak?" and so on.


C. Schools, diplomas and professors
Once you have made significant progress (you have finished your book and tapes set), you might wish to test your conversational skills with someone that can correct your errors. Or you just might want to ask some things about the language. Unless you're into penny-pinching by trade, I suggest you hire a professional professor for private lessons. Taking a native speaker with no special qualifications is a bad idea that I personally tested for you. You are better off finding a language school which makes the screening (yes, they also take a profit) so that if you're not satisfied, you can ask for another professor. Then just lead the lesson, asking the questions you want, having her repeat or write down on a blank flash card what you did not understand. If you get an old-fashioned, compulsive teacher who wants to teach you her way, by making you write down grammar rules or vocabulary lists from dusty books, get another teacher.  I suggest that for such intensive sessions you don't make more than 1:30 hour at a time.
Some people wish or need a diploma to prove their language skills, and I have tried to list the most famous ones for each language.
Keep in mind that you can perfectly learn a language totally on your own, without any professor, just with good books and tapes and then travelling into the country. But it is often very convenient to have someone knowledgeable help you out with the last paint layer.


D. Things to avoid

  • Classes
    Unless it is social company you are after, group classes are a waste of time and money. You should rather buy you good tapes and books and then invest the money you saved by taking private lessons with a native speaker. If you think you are too weak-willed to do it on your own, you'd better stop learning languages right now because you're never going to make it even with classes.
  • Bad books
    You can tell a bad language book rather quickly. First, a good standalone book must include some tapes (the more the better, but 8 would be a minimum). If it doesn't, it may still be a useful purchase but you need something else with tapes. Bad books tend to be heavy on grammar rules and low on examples and dialogs. Don't come to tell me that you are from the old school and that that's the way you are used to learn : you can't learn a language by learning dry grammar rules, and you should know it by the time. A bad book usually starts with heavy dialogs with plenty of words you scarcely use, where good books start with the most useful words and phrases (alas, it is small talk).
  • Schools
    I have never known in my life somebody who learned a language at school, although I think there are some and it is possible. But if you are young, energic person wishing to learn a language, you should definitely learn it on your own, even if they teach it at school. It's not so much that school teachers are unqualified, but rather that they adress a group of people and that you must follow the heavy tread of the most stupid in the classroom. Also, hours are unsufficient, your brain won't follow the rigid class schedule, and school books are rarely state-of-the-art. Anyway, if some reader has had a positive language learning experience in school, I'd be glad to read it.


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