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FAQs about learning languages on your own

4. Tricks of the trade and common problems



The best way is to watch and hear them (through readings, tapes, TV, radio, conversations) and then  let your brain to the work of inference, that is, of deducting what is right and what is not. Then you can look in a grammar book to get a precise "rule" or explanation of the pattern.


For the basic vocabulary, it's a good idea to take lists of common words, either from specialized books or from a standard textbook. Then you can make flashcards or if you're a genius, learn them as you read them.

For advanced vocabulary, my approach is to make a flash card for every new word I get while reading or listening, and then learn it. This is very efficient for languages related to one you already speak, but if you learn russian or chinese, you might wish to be a little more selective on the words you choose to learn.


Use mental "hooks". These are little drawings you make in your mind to hang the new word somewhere in your mind where it will stick. For example, if you were to learn the spanish word embarazada (pregnant), you might think of a woman which is embarassed by her protruding belly as she walks the streets. Or to learn russian for often, tchyasta, you might feature a young lady who when asked if she is chast, answers, tchyasta.

Sometimes you just can't remember words until you make such a figure, and then you can't forget them. The beautiful thing is that after some time you forget the figure (the hook), but the word stays.


First of all, you want to be understood, and for this there's a minimum pronunciation correctness that you must achieve. Some people decide to stop when they have reached that level, and speak all their life with strong accents (do you know any French ?).

You should always try to get a perfect pronunciation, especially the intonation, the music of the word. This as a politeness to your listeners and because it's better to to things well. Of course, perfect pronunciation is not easy to achieve, and you should not be ashamed if people recognize your accent. But it would be shameful to rest lazily on the rythm and the phonemes of your mother tongue when you speak in another one.


Find yourself texts that interest you, pick an article and begin to read. Look up every word that you don't know or that you can't guess, and go on until the end of the article. If your general level in the language is sufficient, this is the best and only way I know to improve reading skills. After a few weeks of daily reading, you will touch the dictionary less and less.


If you only practice your language passively (reading and listening), you can't be fluent unless you begin talking to people. But there are many ways to train you to do this if you don't live in the "right" country for this : Buy tapes that make you talk back, try to contact native speakers of your target language around you (cultural centers, embassies, etc...) and go to the country if you can.


Find penpals that will make you want to write : this is very easy on the internet, with services like the rendez-vous directory or one of the thousand email forums out there. But beware : with email you need more common interests with the person if you want to have a long term correspondence with him/her, because all the other aspects of human interaction are gone. So, choose well.


This takes time, but if you listen real hard, read through transcripts of sendings (available for some languages on ) then you will catch little by little.


Everybody does this at least once. This is bad but you can catch up. Just repeat the last lesson before the one where you stopped and go one regularly with the rest. After one week you will be back on saddle.


Even my dog can get understood. Of course, the first things you want is understand and getting understood, but unless you have very specific missions to do, you need more (look at the military lexicons on : hands up ! Don't move ! etc... ). You should aim for a correct syntax and a good pronunciation. If you make a lot of errors, most people will not have any pleasure talking to you and you will not instill any confidence in business partners. A fair command of the language is necessary to command respect.




Now and then people ask me what I think about learning several languages at the same time. I can only offer my grain of salt based on some experience and common sense, but here it is:

If you are a beginner in those languages, forget about it unless that's all you have to do in your life and you can draw on a bottomless reserve of energy. In my experience, you are far better off investing all your available time and energy into a given language, read, listen to radio or TV, peruse grammar books and so on. If you spread your energy between two or more languages, it'll take ages to reach a level where you can read, listen and converse in a rewarding way.

If, however, you already master all 4 languages well, then you are just entering the lifelong stage of improving your language skills in a given language. This you can do for as many languages as you like at the same time. If I were you I'd take an easy and rewarding language to start with - russian is close to polish and it could be a very useful language to know, french is close to english and it's a smart language to know, etc... Then once you master it well enough, it will give you more energy to go after another language. Don't forget that instead of spreading 3 months of study over 4 languages, you can use all this time for just one. If you just look at hours spent studying versus languages acquired, you'll be much better off concentrating, no questions about it.





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)

Languages | FAQ's | FX Micheloud's homepage s