How to Learn a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language is time well spent.

I didn’t really believe this until I took up learning Mandarin Chinese as a hobby several years ago, but now I know that it makes my life more interesting.

What are the benefits?

At the top of my list is the magical creation of meaning.

In the beginning, you experience a foreign language as a jumble of meaningless sounds and symbols. As you learn the language, the sounds and symbols become directly meaningful, without passing through your native language.

This is amazing.[1] The most accurate translation software cannot replicate the meaningfulness of hearing or reading a language that you know.

It’s good for your brain.

Language learning affects several areas of the brain and may improve cognition, even at older ages.[2]

It introduces you to different ways of living in the world.

You probably think that what you do is the natural way of doing things, but maybe there are other ways.

As an example, timelines. A left-to-right horizontal timeline feels natural to English speakers, but Mandarin speakers are at home with a top-to-bottom vertical timeline.[3]

You’ll never get bored.

Are you stuck in a long line? Pull out your app-filled cellphone and quiz yourself on Italian verb conjugations.

You can eavesdrop on more conversations. 

Someone may think that they’re safe from identity theft if they say their credit card number in Vietnamese, but you can prove them wrong!

There will be benefits that you cannot predict.

For example, the Chinese pinyin transcription system is very useful for creating strong internet passwords. Just write a few Chinese words in pinyin and you will probably have a strong password.[4]

Go for it

There has never been a better time to learn a foreign language. Abundant resources are available online and in print for all of the major languages, and the internet has empowered talented teachers to reach a global audience. 

So now that you’re eager to learn a new language, where should you begin?

The polyglots Steve Kaufman (LingQ.com) and Olly Richards (IWillTeachYouALanguage.com) have shared their own learning experiences, and their websites are filled with tips for success.

Gaston Dorren’s Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages (Grove Press, 2018) recounts the author’s experience learning the world’s most widely spoken languages. He brings wit and a connoisseur’s eye to the tale.

Ethnologue (ethnologue.com), a subscription service, tells you how many people speak your new language, where they live, and much more.

The World Atlas of Language Structures (wals.info) surveys the linguistic features of many languages.

Now you have some idea of the challenges that your new language will pose. How will you master them?

1. Start with the sounds.

Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This provides a transcription method for all languages using a single set of symbols. Learning the IPA takes some work, but it will give you a systematic way of understanding the sounds of any language that you want to learn.

Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) probably has an IPA-based article about your language at “[your language] phonology”.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, the iPA Phonetics app is an excellent learning aid.[5]

Consider joining the International Phonetic Association (internationalphoneticassociation.org); members have easy access to their Journal.

To learn about phonology and other areas of linguistics, take Prof. Marc von Oostendorp’s “Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics” course on Coursera (coursera.org).

The eminent linguist Yuen Ren Chao believed that the first six weeks of a Chinese language course should focus on the correct pronunciation of Chinese syllables.[6] Your chosen language may not require that much time, but you should resist the temptation to jump quickly into conversation.

 2. Move on to the writing system.

The Sinologist John DeFrancis defined writing as “visible speech”[7]. With that definition in mind, it makes sense to start with sounds and then look at the relationship between sounds and writing.

Many language books are confusing. If the language uses an alphabet, they list the written letters, often in alphabetical order[8]. Then they describe how to pronounce the letters, sometimes using IPA symbols. Since some IPA symbols are also letters, this can conflate sounds and writing, and it puts writing before sounds.

Start with the sounds, and then the writing.[9] When I take up a new language, I make my own table that shows the sounds (using IPA symbols) in the first column, ordered by where the sounds are produced in the mouth (front to back, top to bottom). In the second column, I show how each sound can be written. I have a third column and endnotes for additional information that I gather from various sources. There is usually some disagreement among sources, so this early step makes me feel that I’m already a serious student of the language.

3. Dive into grammar and vocabulary.

With a solid grasp of the language’s phonology and writing system, you’re ready to learn the grammar and vocabulary that you will need for communication.

Grammar

Get several good grammar books. No book is the best at explaining everything, and they may be organized in different ways; for example, by parts of speech or by situations[10].

What you do with your grammar books will depend on what you do with the language. If you approach human languages in the same way as computer languages, you may decide to read or skim the books cover to cover. If you’re interested in how to communicate in specific situations, you may want to turn to the relevant pages.

Or not. Some people who are very good at learning languages do not spend much time with grammar books. They do a lot of listening and reading, and they infer grammatical rules from their contact with the language.

Vocabulary

The British linguist J. R. Firth famously said that “you shall know a word by the company it keeps.”[11] This hints at a shortcoming of vocabulary lists, which usually show only one or two short definitions. You see the word when it is hanging out with its best friends, but maybe it also mingles with strangers at a business meeting or goes out on an arranged date at a restaurant.

One way to get a broader view of a word’s usage is to consult a usage database compiled from many sources. A few examples:

English: Corpus of Contemporary American English (english-corpora.org/coca).

Spanish: Enclave RAE (enclave.rae.es), a subscription service.

Many languages: Sketch Engine (sketchengine.eu), a subscription service.

For a cross-cultural perspective on word usage, take Prof. Ekaterina Rakhilina’s “Towards language universals through lexical semantics: introduction to lexical and semantic typology” course on Coursera (coursera.org).

To learn vocabulary (or anything else) more effectively, use science-based learning methods.[12]

4. Explore different ways of learning a language.

When I was young, I taught English in Peru. I started out with the usual unimaginative drills, and of course my students sounded fluent as long as they were repeating after me. But like a wagon that comes to a halt when you stop pulling, my students faltered when I wasn’t pulling them along.

So why not drop this illusion of fluency and focus instead on slowly constructing sentences in the target language, taking as much time as needed? That led me to Dr. Caleb Gattegno, a polymath who developed The Silent Way approach. With a set of colored blocks and endless encouragement, Dr. Gattegno could lead you to say complex sentences in a foreign language by the end of a three-day workshop. He motorized our wagons.

Naturally, I draw upon this experience in my own language learning, but you can find enthusiastic proponents for many approaches. You should be skeptical about claims of rapid fluency. On the other hand, you’ll probably learn something from almost anything that you do. 

Part of the enjoyment of language learning is engaging with creative teachers, and it’s hard to know in advance what will work best for you.[13]

5. Test yourself.

The best proficiency test seems to be dictation. Can you write down exactly what a speaker said? That tests your knowledge of the language’s phonology, writing system, grammar, and vocabulary.

6. Practice pronunciation with a native speaker.

A native speaker’s ear is a marvelous thing. There’s really no substitute for it. The IPA is a good tool for understanding sounds, but you need a native speaker for confirmation.

You can easily find native speakers for many languages at italki (italki.com) and Speechling (speechling.com).

7. Subscribe to Babel magazine (babelzine.co.uk). If you enjoy learning languages, you’ll find something interesting in every issue and you'll meet people who share your enjoyment.

8. Look for organizations that promote the language that you are learning.

For example, you can set up a free account at the Goethe Institut (goethe.de) that will let you borrow materials from their online library, including a replica edition of German newspapers and magazines.

9. Join a language teaching association.

Yes, that’s right, an association for teachers, even if you are a beginning learner. You will see what topics the teachers are discussing, and you may learn about new resources that will help you. Attending a teaching conference is probably going too far, but hey, if you’re a member, you’re invited.

If you have ethical qualms, consider that by definition a self-learner is also a self-teacher. And we already established that you’re willing to eavesdrop on conversations.

Good luck with your new language!

Version 2021-02-24. Copyright © 2020-2021 by Glenn S. Daily. All rights reserved. 

Glenn S. Daily is a fee-only insurance consultant (glenndaily.com) and the co-founder of TellUsTheOdds.com.


[1] For a non-magical look at meaning, see Jeff Speaks, “Theories of Meaning”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) (https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/meaning/).

[2] A few examples of recent research: 

Caitlin Ware, Souad Damnee, Leila Djabelkhir, Victoria Cristancho, Ya-Huei Wu, Judith Benovici, Maribel Pino, and Anne-Sophie Rigaud, “Maintaining Cognitive Functioning in Healthy Seniors with a Technology-Based Foreign Language Program: A Pilot Feasibility Study”, Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, March 2017 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5331045/pdf/fnagi-09-00042.pdf); 

He Pu, Phillip J. Holcomb, and Katherine J. Midgley, “Neural changes underlying early stages of L2 vocabulary acquisition”, Journal of Neurolinguistics, November 2016 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5625355/pdf/nihms858255.pdf);

Lee Osterhout, Andrew Poliakov, Kayo Inoue, Judith McLaughlin, Geoffrey Valentine, Ilona Pitkanen, Cheryl Frenck-Mestred, and Julia Hirschensohn, “Second-language learning and changes in the brain”, Journal of Neurolinguistics, November 2008 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2600795/); and 

Teresa J. Kennedy, “Language Learning and Its Impact on the Brain: Connecting Language Learning with the Mind Through Content-Based Instruction”, Foreign Language Annals, Fall 2006 (https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1944-9720.2006.tb02900.x).

[3] For more information about the relationship between language and thought, see “Linguistic relativity” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity); Lera Boroditsky, 7,000 Universes: How the Language We Speak Shapes the Way We Think, Random House, 2021; and John H. McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, Oxford University Press, 2016.

[4] According to websites and my password manager. We will see.

[5] Christopher Coey, John H. Esling, Scott R. Moisik, University of Victoria, iPA Phonetics, Version 2.3 (2019), Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria (cdmediaworks.com).

[6] Daniel Kane, The Chinese Language: Its History and Current Usage, Tuttle Publishing, 2006, p. 139.

[7] Marc Zender, “Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity”, Course Guidebook, The Teaching Company, 2013, p. 10 (thegreatcoursesplus.com).

[8] Where does alphabetical order come from? See Matt Soniak, “Why Are the Letters in ABC Order?”, Mental Floss, October 17, 2011 (https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/29011/why-are-letters-abc-order); and David Sacks, Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z, Broadway Books, 2003.

[9] For an example of sounds before writing, see Adam Brown, Pronunciation and Phonetics: A Practical Guide for English Language Teachers, Routledge, 2014. But the same publisher has other books that put writing before sounds.

[10] For a comprehensive discussion of language proficiency from a situational perspective, see J. A. van Ek and J. L. M. Trim, Threshold 1990, Council of Europe, 1998 (https://www.ealta.eu.org/documents/resources/Threshold-Level_CUP.pdf).

[12] For more information, Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski’s “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” course on Coursera (coursera.org) is a good place to start. They also provide links to other resources.

[13] For a peek at the future, see Regina Kaplan-Rakowski and Alice Gruber, “One-on-one foreign language speaking practice in high-immersion virtual reality” in Y. J. Lan and S. Grant (eds.), Contextual Language Learning - Real Language Learning on the Continuum from Virtuality to Reality, Springer, 2021 (https://ssrn.com/abstract=3780455).