FAQs about learning languages on your own

1. Basic principles

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If you are motivated, work intelligently and consistently, you can learn most human languages on your own, no matter how unskilled you think you are. Of course, you can't learn a language while sleeping or without any effort. It takes work, but this can be fun and pleasurable while being very efficient.


I'm just a language lover who likes to let others share his enthusiasm and discoveries. As a polyglot, I have a moderately successful record of speaking 5 languages fluently at age 25, although I keep learning. But many tips you will find in these pages come from other great polyglots, like Barry Farber, who speak more than 25 languages.


So was I ! For some reason, most schools teach modern languages as they teach latin : you learn grammar rules, you memorize long lists of uncommon words and then use it to study centuries-old litterature. Oh, and you do all this surrounded by people whith different levels in the language. This way of learning/teaching might be great for your culture, but you should not be surprised if all you can say when you get to Mexico is si or no. Having a bad record of language learning at school means absolutely nothing on your abilities to learn a living language on your own.


In my experience (continental Europe), no. For the reasons outlined above, levelling from the bottom, unsufficient hours, absence of oral drills, etc... I must say I still have to meet the person who learned to speak a language fluently at school. I hope one day I will meet this person, but if you are now in school and really want to speak that language, you'd be better work on your own.


For many languages, if you  work consistently with the right method, yes. But in order to do that, you need motivation, consistency, and to find a package with as many tapes (audio cassettes) as possible, because otherwise you won't be able to speak with any fluency. Note that it is almost impossible to find sufficient self-study methods for some obscure languages, and thus the validity of the above is challenged.


If you want to make your own opinion panel, I suggest you begin to consider only the opinion of people who have tried to learn a language on their own with some consistency. What language did they study? What book - tapes package did they use? How long did they try ? How motivated were they ? How consistently did they work ? Asking the questions straight away will probably offend people who have to answer negatively, so be polite. But you'll probably realize that most of these "advisers" were just damned lazy.

Learning a language on your own is quite uncommon. This does not mean that it's difficult, but just a bit exceptionnal. And most people don't like exceptional things, sometimes just because it challenges their own way of doing (or not doing), sometimes for darker reasons.

I must say that nobody has never taken me seriously when I talked of beginning to learn a language on my own. The pity is that afterwards, when I did learn a language on my own, the same people either looked in disbelief (it can't be true) or with open-mouthed admiration (some people are so clever...). What I'm saying here is that you can also do it, but you probably won't get much encouragement and many people will   try to have you quit your study. Be persistent, and don't listen to them.


It depends. For some languages that are close to your mother tongue (dutch for german speakers, italian for french speakers) all you need is about 200 hours of work. Of course, if you're after chinese, arabic or russian, you'll probably need at least 2 years. Sure it takes time, but much less than in a language school, because you can study when you want and have time, restudy parts you don't understand and don't need to follow the heavy pace of the less clever in the classroom.


Good tapes really work, and in fact, there's no substitute for them (except marrying a native). So, what's a good tape? To begin, you need a lot of tapes. If you look at a Berlitz book in a bookshop, you will see they have not that many tapes, but on the other hand, Pimsleur or FSI do have dozens of them. Second, what you want are either plain oral drills, or, better, situational exercises like in Pimsleur tapes. If all there is on the tape is a couple of dialogs, it'll be like learning to drive without actually getting behind the wheel. You want your tapes to make you participate, talk back, and for a long time. If they don't, don't buy them.


Many good tapes allow you to study while driving. For example, Pimsleur tapes require no written material, and thus you can use them as you would listen and answer to a passenger seated next to you. I emphasize that this is not a "free lunch" way of learning, because you must concentrate on the tape and get your answers right. Howver, if you commute regularly, this wins you hours of total dedication to the study of your target language, because there's usually not much distraction in the car.


If you are no more of schoolage, you can still choose to take language classes. My advice is : avoid group classes at any cost. They are a waste of time, unless you are at a very advanced level. You'd better save some money to buy good tapes and private lessons when you are more advanced. To tell you that there are three word genres in russian, or that you put s at the end of words in spanish to denote plurality, you don't need a teacher. With a good book, you'll be able to learn at your own pace, re-read what is difficult for you, browse through the easy parts, etc... All this at midnight or on Sunday if you want. Which classes are that convenient?

Some people say that they would not study if they were to do it on their own, that the regularity of the class helps them win over their laziness or lack of will. This is NOT sufficient. Unmotivated or lazy people will never master their target language, classes or not.





I have made every effort to ensure that this text is free of errors or copyright infringement. Nevertheless, some may have slipped through. Also, these pages only reflect my opinion on language learning, limited by my own experiences and knowledge. I invite you to contact me if you feel something is wrong and should be corrected. (requests about American political correctness will be dismissed)

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