A longer (and perhaps wittier) version of this Guide can be found here.
Tells you what information you need to collect about your chosen language, and where to get it from. How to learn this material quickly and efficiently. How to practise effectively - and the challenges and rewards of using a new language in a real situation.
You need information about three aspects of your new language: its pronunciation, its vocabulary and its grammar. You can extract this information from textbooks and dictionaries. It isn't easy, however, because most cheap textbooks are muddling and leave information out. So to build up a reliable account you'll have to consult many sources.
For pronunciation, you need:
A vocabulary of about 600 words will get you going. This is easy to collect from elementary textbooks and phrase-books.
- A list of the language's sounds with a description of each. Every language has its own specific set of sounds - 36 in French, 29 in Spanish, 44 in English. Find out what those sounds are, and learn to make them. But watch out for textbooks that confuse sounds with letters.
- A set of rules for converting printed words into sounds. This is much easier if you've established an inventory of possible sounds beforehand. But be aware that the letter-to-sound rules in some languages are more systematic than they are in others - you can for example tell from its spelling how any Turkish word is pronounced, but that isn't true of English.
For grammar, rely on academic textbooks. Elementary textbooks are generally so messy and confused that you'll soon outgrow them. But don't make the mistake of thinking that you need to work through an academic textbook in sequence, chapter by chapter - pick out the bits you need as and when you need them. I provide accurate and reliable material here.
- Start by learning a lot of 'form' words - I, you, he, she, in front of, behind, one, two, three - and just a few 'content' words like eggs or want. Then get really fluent at combining these into short phrases. You can fit in flashier 'content' words like marinate or chain-saw later.
- Extend your vocabulary by reading - read anything you fancy, the more trivial the better. As you learn more words it becomes easier to read more.
- Don't worry if you can't remember the words for things that don't interest you - that's normal. You don't need them anyway.
The secret of learning a language is to treat it as a set of systems rather than as an accumulation of words and phrases.
The most difficult thing to come to terms with in learning a new language is the constant incompleteness of your knowledge, which leaves you always guessing and making mistakes. This is something you have to live with - it will of course improve as you learn more. But you should still try to learn the language 'from the inside' - that is, without recourse to your native language. If the meaning of a word is clear in context, don't look it up; if you don't know the foreign equivalent of a word you want to use, work round it. The aim is not to produce translations of your native language, but to master an alternative set of expressive resources.
- One system is the sound-system. If you know all the sounds in the language (30 to 40 in most languages) and how they behave in combination, then you can pronounce any sentence in the language. So a little learning - you can learn a sound-system in a couple of hours - is very productive.
- Another system is grammar, which defines how words combine to make meaningful sentences. Here again small efforts bring big returns. If you understand the four-element structure of I really love popcorn, you can model an unimaginable variety of sentences upon it, ranging from Roses generally can't stand the heat to My sister absolutely detested Jimi Hendrix. And once you know all the grammar (as you do in your native language), you can formulate all possible sentences in that language!
- Vocabulary too has its systematic side, which you can exploit by noticing word-families. Load, upload, download and reload have an obvious relationship that makes them easy to learn in English. The Greek text on Panasonic batteries tells you not to epanafortizete them, or 'up-again-load' (ep-ana-fort-izete) i.e. recharge them. It also tells you to remove them when they ekfortistun - 'out-load' or discharge. Noticing these relationships makes it easier to remember the words.
To become fluent in the language you need to practise it in just the same way as all performers need to practise their craft.
You can find practice material in workbooks, and of course this website has a good supply. You can also make it up by ringing the changes on workbook material and on any other material you can find.
- Sportsmen, musicians and actors divide the task into separate pieces of technique, and practise the individual strokes, notes and bodily movements until they become automatic. It's only when the fragments become automatic that they can give proper attention to the wider performance. Ordinary people have the same experience driving their cars - it's only when control of the car requires no thought that you can really develop road-sense.
- The pieces of technique in language-learning are the fragmentary utterances and phrases that illustrate the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. So if you're practising uvular 'r', for example, you'll start with a collection of words with 'r' in them, and if you're practising placement of the object pronouns you'll create a set of sentences modelled on Don't hit me! Don't drink it!
- The trick in practising is to talk to yourself the whole time! Do it aloud! Do it in bed and while washing the dishes! Have imaginary conversations with anyone you can think of! You learn a language by using it, and it's not a problem if there's no-one there to listen.
- Speak to your family, friends, pets, toys and teddy-bear in your new language - they won't understand you, but they never understood you in your old language anyway.
- Write diaries, memos, shopping-lists and letters in your new language. Correct them until you've got rid of all the mistakes. Then read them to your friends, pets, toys and teddy-bear.
Speaking a foreign language is just as lonely and exposed as performing on any stage or in any sports arena. There's nothing but your training and skill to support you in the task in hand. There are no grammars or dictionaries in real conversations - if it isn't in your head, it isn't anywhere.
You speak a foreign language to enrich your communication with other people. So you must present to others an image of yourself which you are happy with. This will determine how well you need to learn the foreign language. If, as a native English speaker, you think that people speaking English with a small vocabulary and a thick accent are full of foreign charm, you might decide to be like that in your foreign language; but if you think this kind of foreigner is in the end irritating, you'll want to do better than that. In short, you need to reach a level where you can convey an image of yourself with which you feel comfortable.
You'll also need to adopt a linguistic identity. You have an identity in your native language - you speak with a particular social or regional accent, you prefer some words and phrases over others. In your foreign language you'll find you're doing the same, but since you're doing it as an adult rather than as a child you have more control over which identity to adopt. What fun you're going to have!