Learning Foreign Languages

How does one go about learning or teaching a ForeignLanguage?

I'm a native English speaker. I've tried learning various foreign languages and the only one I had any luck with was Latin. I tried Spanish but didn't retain any of it. I bought a Japanese course on CD-audio with books, and it seemed confusing. I finally think I know why, too. I think it's because the first lesson in Latin consisted of about twenty nouns, two verbs, a single preposition, and some very simple syntaxes - enough to make simple declarative statements - sort of like an entire mini-language which is a small subset of the real one. This is analogous to a SpikeSolution applied to language. From the first lesson, I could say and translate "The farmers are in the forest" and things like that. Every lesson after the first one added something else to the mini-language, bringing it closer to the complete one, enriching the kinds of things I could say (or write). The "syntactic keywords" that were used in the first lesson turned out to be verbs in later lessons.

There are different theories about how best to teach languages; I wish I knew what some of those theories were, which ones most closely resemble the SpikeSolution method I am looking for, and how to tell which teachers and lessons employ which theories (without having to buy into them). But I do know that it's not acceptable merely to memorize phrases like "Hello" and "Goodbye" and "Where is the United States Embassy?" - not if true mastery of the language is one's goal. Nor is it enough to "listen to people," until one reaches a certain point, because before that point is reached, one doesn't know what to listen for.

-- EdwardKiser


I HaveThisPattern. I took French in high school, studied German while in Germany, and studied Polish while in Poland (using three different techniques). Out of the five approaches/classes, the techniques that work best for me are

  1. Focus on learning a subset of the language (see above). Learn the most useful words first (a few nouns, a few verbs, a few pronouns, a few adjectives, a few adverbs, time words (now, early, late, Monday), place words (here, there), etc.). Once mastered, grow the subset slowly, (again with a mix of nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives).
  2. To actually learn the current subset you are focussing on, play games. Play go-fish, battleship, tic tac toe, make up a story, hangman, etc.
  3. Keep a journal.
  4. Talk to people who cannot speak your language. When you find you "need" a word, add that word to the next subset you are learning.
-- StanSilver


My best experience in learning a foreign language is FrenchInAction, a DistanceLearning telecourse which I taped off the educational access channel. It uses the approach of total immersion, there being no English instruction or translation in the entire course. Instead, we observe the language as it is used in a story which plays out over 52 episodes, and in additional examples, instructions, demonstrations, skits, film clips, television clips, and exercises. In the first lesson, one learns the usual greetings and farewells, the pronouns, the verbs aller (to go) and apprendre (to learn), a few additional nouns and adjectives, and a few other expressions. They even use aller as an auxiliary verb a couple of times, as in "Nous allons apprendre le fran´┐Żais.", and in the second lesson, they explore that aspect fully. Like in Mr Kiser's example above, they start with a useful subset of the language, with complete sentences of course, and slowly expand.

Since I was working with my own taped copies, I could watch a lesson as often as I wanted, and talk back to the television. I eventually ordered the textbook, which provided transcripts to follow and additional documents. By then, I had mastered through lesson 13 or so, and found that I could already read French better than I could read Spanish. And I had already taken four years of Spanish in high school.

In contrast, I learned Spanish in high school without the benefits of immersion, to any extent. When I got out of there, I could conjugate the heck out of a verb, but I couldn't express myself very well. The third year in, our teacher tried to get us to read a short novel in Spanish. Nobody could do it, and later I would realize it was because we hadn't learned how to ignore words we didn't know, so that we could eventually pick them up in context. Nor had we learned how to spot familiar verbs in unfamiliar conjugations, so that we could eventually pick those up in context as well. These are skills that immersion covertly teaches you, and these are skills that you probably use in your native language on a daily basis.

I also highly recommend reading The 13 Secrets of Speaking Fluent Japanese ISBN 4-7700-2302-2 . Many of the techniques in that book can be adapted to other languages, but the underlying theme of it is to look at a language, and the words therein, from as many different angles and contexts as possible.

-- NickBensema

For Japanese, I recommend the text "Japanese for Busy People". Volume 1 is ISBN 4-7700-1882-7 . I've also heard good things about "13 Secrets", but not read it. -- DanielKnapp


Krashen's I+1 input is somewhat similar to what you've explained above, the SpikeSolution analogy. But I'd rather say it's closer to IterativeDevelopment. Vigotsky's Zone of Proximal Development is similar to it as well. -- JuneKim


The following method worked for me. Pick a book you really want to read. Have a dictionary at hand. Read the book. Repeat. OK, it's probably not the fastest method. I reckon it took me something like 5 years to acquire fluent English, and having learned from books my accent is terrible. Motivation was the key factor. I tried to get German that way, but I couldn't keep at it for long enough and consistently enough to pick up more than a smattering. -- LaurentBossavit
Go to a country where the language is spoken and live there for a while. Or watch lots of their movies without subtitles. Or listen to shortwave radio or webradio stations. Find out which good singer-songwriters there are and listen to their lyrics all the time. Get into a chat room and make friends, then phone them. You don't learn languages by reading books. That's 19th century.

I'd suggest that it was 20th century, but too many writers from that period seem to share your opinion.

Au contraire, books are an excellent supplement to the above. For one thing, some of use have trouble recognizing something when we hear it without being able to read it as well. Well-written books also expose you to a wider variation in usage.

You could do what I'm doing kind of like that... I speak reasonable Spanish, so to improve it I'm learning archaic forms. I'm reading ElCantarDeMioCid right now.


I've been making some small effort to learn Swedish, having lived in Sweden for over a year. I'm very bad at it :) and so far only manage to communicate with other people who're new to the language, so I usually just speak English. What I've found so far: taking a course at a university - really fun at first and nice to "bootstrap", but then getting boring (this was a one night per week course). Reading Donald Duck ("Kalle Anka") on the bus - that's pretty good. Reading Famous Five in Swedish (a bit beyond my current reading level) - entertaining for short periods of time. Reading the same Harry Potter novel concurrently in English and Swedish - just frustrating. Watching e.g. German movies and reading the Swedish subtitles - I think that's the best so far. Watching shows in English and reading subtitles seems good too, but most of the time I ignore the text. Presumably actually talking with people in Swedish is the best, but I quickly get sick of sounding so stupid :-)

I still haven't found a method that's fun enough that I don't just wander off and do some hacking instead. I guess that comes when I'm actually able to read interesting books. -- LukeGorrie


Actually I think the problem with "immersion" is information overload. It's almost impossible to learn two thousand vocabulary words at once - or even two hundred.

Instead try IncrementalDevelopment: The goal is to develop, in your brain, a system which translates between the language you know (e.g., English) and the language you are trying to learn (e.g., Latin.) You allow your subconscious to worry about the implementation details; all you are worried about is the inputs and the outputs.

So, you start with a small subset of Latin. Within that subset, you learn how to translate back and forth until you are fluent in that subset of Latin.

This is almost like implementing only one or two user stories in ExtremeProgramming. Except that you are doing it in your own brain.

In each successive lesson, you expand the subset of the language which you can translate. Eventually the "subset" grows large enough that you can say you know the real language.

It would be nice if someone took a "Little Schemer" approach to teaching foreign languages... (see TheLittleSchemer).


It's time to learn by InformationAndCommunicationTechnology! The use of the internet must be seen as a new way of immediate contact with the ForeignLanguages themself. -- PieterJansegers

I've been told that English dialects used to vary much more from one city to the next, and communication between 2 English-speaking people from different cities was difficult. Now that faster transportation and communication (especially the TV) are common, just about everyone in a particular country can at least understand the "standard English" spoken by news broadcasters.

The internet makes it much easier and cheaper to communicate with people who natively speak languages that are foreign to you. Non-real-time techniques like email and listening to MP3s over and over let people who are struggling to understand a new language "keep up" in a e-mail conversation without straining the patience of the native speaker on the other side. On the other hand, ExtremeLearning emphasises that fast feedback is important for learning.


Marriage to a native speaker of the language can't hurt; especially if your in-laws don't speak English. :) (Not that I would recommend getting married for this reason...). I've found that one thing which has improved my Chinese is listening to my wife and 3-year-old son converse in Chinese... though he is now fully aware that Daddy's Chinese isn't so hot and occasionally teases me about it.


When I was very young, English was a "foreign" language. As I learned, people pointed at things and made the sound, and I repeated the sound. As we moved beyond nouns into simple predicate structures, I learned action words and got the syntax for free. Eventually, two years after I was already reasonably proficient in the spoken language, I learned reading and writing, including the alphabet. We continued on from there into literacy.

When I was in my twenties, Danish was a foreign language. I worked with English-speaking people and there was little incentive to learn Danish. Until I got an after-hours job cleaning offices. My new boss spoke no English. So we did it as one does with children. As I learned, he pointed at things and made the sound, and I repeated the sound. As we moved beyond nouns into simple predicate structures, I learned action words and got the syntax for free. Eventually, after some three months, when I was reasonably proficient in the spoken language, I began to learn reading and writing, including the Danish alphabet. We continued on from there toward literacy.

That was thirty years ago.

During the ensuing years I have run into Danes in stores and such, and found that my accent and verbal skills have not deteriorated as one might expect. I still speak Danish with a Frederiksberg accent. Last year I bought an item on eBay from a guy in Norway. He wrapped it in the Norwegian Sunday paper insert, mostly ads and coupons. Evidently Danish and Norwegian (at least written) are more similar than I thought. I found I could read almost all of it without recourse to reference materials.

After thirty years.

I would hesitate to say (given my grades in Latin and German) that I'm particularly bright with languages. Nonetheless, whatever it was I did when I learned Danish seems to be the "right" way.

-- GarryHamilton


I wonder if some of the techniques used for LearningProgrammingLanguages would be useful for LearningForeignLanguages -- and vice-versa.


I HaveThisPattern

Find a classic text in language x

Search for an audio recording of the text

Listen to audio recording over the span of a month while doing other tasks, while falling asleep or while washing dishes

Audio recording finally internalized, set about copying the text from page 1, from memory, with a book as a reference

Copy the text every morning... don't worry about the meaning of the words... yet

Finished copying? Good. Now find another one.

I've learned 3 languages -- Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic -- all using this method.

The texts I used were: An Introduction to Spanish Poetry (Dover) The Dao De Jing The Qur'an

Using this method, and the texts/recordings supplied with Breaking Into Japanese Literature, it would also be very possible to learn Japanese...

Here's the part where you're saying, "wait... what about the meaning of those words so painlessly committed to the cerebral cortex?"

Yeah, that's where you have to get yourself a visa and go live in the country that speaks x language for about a year. But that year will be very well spent, I assure you.


See also ImmersiveLearning, ExtremeLearning, Community Language Learning (CLL) @ http://uastudent.com/community-language-learning-cll-methodology-of-flt/.
CategoryEducation CategoryNaturalLanguage

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