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FAQs about learning languages on your own

2. Ideas and doctrines


A. Common misconceptions

Some people think that because languages are made of words and rule to assemble them, if you learn the dictionary and read a grammar book, you'll be all set. Too bad it doesn't work that way, we would save money. In fact, if you do this, the best you will achieve is filling grammar exercises or being able to read some texts. But oral fluency will remain a dream.


This is a very widespread misconception (straight-talking people, please excuse the euphemism). If some things are really difficult in a language (genitive plural in russian, subjunctive in french), most of the rest can be learned in a pleasurable way. Don't begin with studying complicated grammar rules, this will only discourage you and destroy your spontaneity. You should end with the grammar rules, but begin with short, useful phrases that you accept with faith. Same thing for exercises : if they look like advanced physics, something is wrong. The right idea in this misconception is that you can't learn a language without effort, but there's no rule written on a stone that it must be  boring or painful.


If you want to learn, you must work for it. This does not mean the work must be boring or even painful, but still, there's some constraint. You will remember many words rapidly, but for the few die-hards that always slip through your memory, you need to find mental hooks to remember them. Same things for difficult syntaxic patterns, you can learn them by memorizing grammar rules or by inferring from phrases, but still you must get the picture. So, if your idea was to get into the country and think the language will come as quickly as the turista, you will wait a long time.


B. Schools of thought

Note : I confess being no specialist in the following part and I would welcome help, references or any feedback from somebody who would be (a specialist).


Some people, especially people in the second half of their life, refer to the "old school", where you were taught languages the hard way. I guess they mean that their teachers were heavy on the grammar book and vocabulary lists. Of course, this does not work if your aim is to speak a language with any fluency, but it seems that many people who have been taught languages like this are reluctant to use any other method. It probably has more to do with the love of the known and Angst before new things rather than efficiency concerns.


During WWII the Americans had to "produce" efficient speakers of german, japanese and russian very quickly. With not that many Germans willing to help, they developped methods using audio tapes that the intelligence officers (language learners) could use without teachers, saving these for advanced students. The programs were centered on dialogs to be learned by heart and, not surprisingly, drills that stressed patterns of speech (phrase structures). The system was so efficient that after 6 months the officers could begin active work.

These efforts were at the beginning of the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey (California), which nowadays teaches 10% of all adult language courses in the USA.

(Note : if you know more about this, or have been involved in this program, I would be really glad to hear from you at


This approach was a real advance for the time, but after some years the defects appeared : being centered on drills, the students found it difficult to connect phrases they knew with real life situations. Critics emphasized the rigid, mechanical exercises that hindered spontaneity. But people were already at work to make it better.


People like Dr Pimsleur improved the army audio-lingual method by emphasizing the link to the context of utterances. For example, in Pimsleur's tapes the voice explain you the particular situation in which you are (You are in a bus in St Petersburg. A young woman seats next to you. What do you say to her?) before making you speak. The result is far better than with the army method, because when you fall in these situations, the right phrases immediately come to your mind, even if you have to create them "from scratch".





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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