Sunday, December 16, 2007

How to Learn a Foreign Language in Six Months to a Year.

How to Learn a Foreign Language in Six Months to a Year.

I have heard of people “picking up” languages, but I still do not know how it is done. Maybe kids can do it because they are amongst other kids playing and using the language many hours a day. They also do not have to worry about being embarrassed and laughed at. I am not a kid and most probably, you are not one, either.

Many people end up in foreign countries but do not know of how to learn the language. Many buy books and tapes, but soon give up. Few ever become fluent. The task of mastering or even getting by in another language strikes them as too big and they just do not know the mechanics of how to go about it.

I am not good at languages and have no natural gift for them. I have always found them difficult and never liked studying them. I have also never been able to pick them up. However, now I am very fluent in three and have reasonable fluency in another 4-5 and can get by fairly well in two more. That means 10. How I did it? I studied them very, very seriously and did not try to “pick them up”.

Once, when I was 6 years old I lived in a foreign language environment for three months but still, was not able to learn more than just a few phrases. I just do not have the ability. So, that means that I need to learn them, not acquire them. Well, as a matter of fact I was in KL this past summer, believe it or not. I like

I have devised a step by step system that has helped me become reasonably fluent in a language within six months to a year without spending a fortune. The method is fairly straightforward and it has worked for me and I do not think of myself as very bright in that area.

Before you start, keep in mind that you will not make any significant progress unless you are willing to study at least 2 hours every day without any breaks. If you only study a few times a week and only some 30 minutes, your progress will be minimal. On weekends, you

Anyway, to make the long story short, this is what you do. Assuming that you are going to study another European language with the Roman alphabet, such as Spanish, your first step should be this:

1) Buy on the Internet, or borrow from your local library an old or conservative-style book titled something like “Basic Spanish Grammar”, “Introduction to Spanish Grammar”, “Beginning Spanish Grammar” (or French or German or the grammar of whatever other language you are studying). Grammar is the skeleton of the language upon which you will build the muscles of vocabulary and everything else. It should have some 100-250 pages. Study it thoroughly and several times if necessary. Do all the exercises in it and drill yourself on the verbs. Study them the way you studied the multiplication table when you were a kid. Repeat them, memorize them, until you can recite all the conjugations in your sleep. Time of study- 1-2 months. During this time, you should not study anything else)*.

*I am assuming that you are not yet living in the country where the language is spoken or are living in it but can get by in English. If you are living in a country where you need to learn the language immediately, buy a good phrase book and use it. I will talk about the use of phrase books later.

This part of your study is gruelling and boring and you will just have to grin and bear with it. Do not be alarmed if you do not understand everything. If need be, hire a tutor who could explain to you the niceties that you cannot yet comprehend. If you still cannot understand some parts of it, just skip them. You will worry about those later. It is better to speak a language that is broken in some places than not to speak it at all. If you cannot get a tutor, get online and go into newsgroups dealing with that culture or Yahoo answers. Someone will explain things to you for free.

2) After the grammar study, buy books for children in the language, some phrase books for travelers, a good dictionary and a language set that contains tapes.

Listen to tapes every day when driving to work, doing household chores or even sitting in the bathroom to learn the pronunciation. Do not worry if you do not pronounce it 100% correctly, just keep doing it. All the errors will eventually be corrected in the months to come.

On one day, you may want to read and translate a story for kids and on the other day, read several pages of a travel book and act out conversations with yourself taking different parts in a “play”. Imagine as if it was happening with you. Imagine a restaurant, a hotel, smell it hear it, see it. Become all the people in the conversation. Utter the phrases in those dialogues with the same emotions as you would if you spoke English. Become an actor. Do not be ashamed since nobody will hear you except yourself.

Most phrase books now have dialogues in different daily situations and a whole array of useful phrases. Learn those by rote. While some people believe that learning by rote is not good, I say it is OK because the phrases which you will learn can later be used in wider discourse which you will be able to carry on because of your previous knowledge of grammar. Set phrases are conversation building blocks, too, just like singular words are.

When reading books for children, a great deal of new vocabulary will pop up. Look it up. Don’t worry if you have to do it fifty times a day or more. Just look those words up. Once you reach some 20-30 words, stop reading. Sit down and write a story about yourself with these words. The story may look ridiculous to you and grammatically incorrect but it is OK. No one except your will read it. When composing this story make sure that other words in a sentence explain or hint at its meaning. You may also draw a small picture or a symbol above the word to remind yourself about its meaning.

Now, that your story is finished, read it a couple of times to yourself while imagining the feeling, or look, taste, smell or touch of every word. Some words like “a fox” will have a certain color, look, and possibly some smell and a touch association with it. While you may have never petted a fox, you may probably imagine that it would kind of feel like a dog. So, while reading your story to yourself, you will also change your voice intonation to reflect the emotion that goes with that word. The word “disappointment” will be uttered in an exaggeratedly tearful voice, the word “fox” in a sly- sounding voice and so on. While reading the sentences in your story in an emotionally charged way while imagining the emotion, picture, smell, sound, taste or touch of each one of them, you will be building mental associations of those words with the things and concepts that they represent. The words will thus sink into your mind and stay there indefinitely. If you are willing to devote three hours every day to this vocabulary-building practice, you will be able to memorize as many as 200 words a day.

Your question may be: Will I retain those words and if so, how many percent will I retain? The answer is: you will retain all of them, except that your brain will eventually allocate them to different levels of memory.

Here they are:

Active memory: here you have words that you can both recognize and use. These will be words that you will be utilizing every day related to work, study, play, food, etc. You will have an arsenal of vocabulary at the tip of your tongue that you will easily pull out and use in sentences any time you wish. Maybe some 20% of the vocabulary you learn will stay there.

Passive memory: here you will have words that you will recognize when reading and listening, however, you will have hard time recalling and using those by yourself. As you read and listen more and encounter these words more and more often, they will move into your active memory. Maybe some 60% of the words you learn will stay there.

Hidden memory: some of the words and phrases you learn will stay in a special brain “chamber” from which they will not be easily recovered. In practical terms, you will see those words and say- hmm, I saw this word before but I can’t remember it. You will look it up in a dictionary again and probably say’ Oh, yes, I remember it now!’ After having been reminded of its meaning, you will then “move “it into the passive memory and if you see it more often, it will move into the active “arsenal” of words.

You must have heard the saying” If you don’t use it, you lose it”. From my experience what happens is: you don’t really lose it but the information simply moves into the hidden memory and if you go back to the language again, and start using it, the words again migrate into the higher memory levels.

The idea is to carry out the children’s books reading/vocabulary/phrase book and tape listening study for some 3 months while doing it 2-3 hours every day. After you have finished all the materials, you may want to review /reread them again or, if you are bored, by some more. As long as you devote so much time daily to your study, you are guaranteed to learn.

Keep in mind one thing: vocabulary is not infinite, it is finite. You will need maybe 2000 words to carry on most conversations, and some 5000-8000 to read most books and magazines. If you can memorize 50 words a day, then you will only need 40 days to create a working vocabulary and some 3-4 months to read most books. However, because many words will still be stored in the passive and hidden memory, you will not be able to use them all immediately, but after 3-6 months, you will see a huge difference in your ability to read and use the language.

3) Conversation weaving, theatre and listening.

OK, now you are ready for some serious action. Hire a tutor and spend a few hours a week with them “weaving” a conversation. You compose sentences on different topics, the tutor talks back to you and corrects your grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary, you write down corrected sentences and keep talking. As the need to use new vocabulary comes up, either look up new words in a dictionary, and/or ask your tutor. Write the words down and review the notes after the class.

Also, with your tutor, act out different situations that will be taking place while you are in a foreign country- renting a hotel, going through the immigration, being at a party, ordering food at a restaurant, taking a taxi, bargaining at a market, etc. Sit down with yourself and think of some twenty or so most commonly occurring situations in which you will likely be participating.

At this time, also, you will need to learn conversation fillers and words that help you communicate with the speaker when you are not sure what to say. This will create an illusion of fluency at first, and later, fluency itself.

Please ask your tutor or anyone else about the equivalent of these phrases in the target language and memorize those equivalents well.


Oh, I see

How do you say it in ( language)?

Let me see/let me think...

Could you please repeat what you have just said?

Hmm, I am not sure what you mean

What do you call it? It’s... what do you call it...

What do you mean?

What is the meaning of this word?

Please explain

I don’t know how to say it in (language).

Excuse me...

I beg your pardon

Got it!

I don’t get it

I am confused.

It’s clear to me/not clear to me.


You see...

Oh, yes. I have a question.

May I ask you?

Say it again, please
What was that, again?

I am sorry, I did not understand you.


Once you learn these, you will have enough phrases to keep the exchange of information flowing more or less smoothly. You will learn to put “fillers” inside sentences while you are thinking of what to say next.

If the language you are studying is in the Roman alphabet, you should now go and get some theatrical works in it. Plays, that is. You can find them on the Internet or get them from a local library or buy them. Next, act them out. You will be all the characters in those plays. Adjust your voice and intonation to approximate what each personage in the play represents. Become the old man, old woman, the child in it, etc. Imagine it all happening on a stage in your mind, of course. Live it. When you encounter new words or expressions that you cannot look up in the dictionary, post them on internet newsgroups or Yahoo Answers.

Now, you should do one hour of theatre a day and watch TV/listen to the radio for another hour. Or be exposed to any kind of language expressions, be it speeches, long monologues, etc. You may not understand everything at first, but slowly and naturally your ears will get used to it and begin distinguishing words from each other and understand sentences and discourse. Just sit there, listen to it, and bear with it. After several weeks, the language will start clearing up. If you have the opportunity to be in groups of people speaking it, stay as exposed to it as you can and as often as you can. Your ears will learn to follow the language by themselves.

4) Dictionary reading and copying. Now you are ready for the toughest part. This is one strategy that I have never seen anyone do and have never heard any linguist recommend. But it works. Take a dictionary, go over every page of it and write out the words that you think you will be using or will need to know. Make your own notebook. Then make sentences with those or stories in which they will be incorporated. Some of these sentences and stories may be ridiculous but you are the only one that will see them. Do not worry if you may sometimes use the words wrong. Draw pictures or symbols above the words and read the resulting text/picture combinations trying to describe.

Idioms and slang: similarly, obtain another dictionary of slang and idioms or if these are two separate ones, get them both.

You will need one thousand of idioms and maybe a thousand of slang items in your vocabulary to finally be able to have an almost complete knowledge of conversational language and appear cool and natural. Read that dictionaries several times and compose sentences with them. Imagine yourself using those in real life situations. If by now, you are still not totally exhausted from studying the regular dictionary and transcribing it, spend another couple of months doing the same with idioms and slang.

After all that, you should be fluent in the language more or less.

Note: while I prefer concentrating on one subject only for several months, some people prefer doing one day of vocabulary, one day of grammar, one day of theatre or even three subjects in a day. As long as you study 2 hours or more a day, I say it does not matter how you distribute these areas in your schedule. The important thing is for them to be covered. Obviously, you cannot yet begin advanced studies of theatre during the first months of your learning period, so you will just have to look at what you can combine based on your ability at this time (that is if you wish to combine anything at all)

Learning a foreign language in the way I have described to you is not easy, and not for the people who want to be entertained or who want to ‘enjoy’ the study process. It has not been easy for me to learn languages this way, but the results have been absolutely phenomenal. If you are ready for some hard work, and are willing to tough it out for six months to a year, you will be fluent, and many new doors will open for you.

PS: Special Note for Languages with Difficult Alphabets:

If you want to learn how to speak Arabic or Japanese and do not want to be bothered with the difficult alphabets, you can still learn them fairly quickly by using many Romanized materials available on the market today. There is nothing wrong with being “illiterate” in the language as long as you can speak it and learn to recognize important signs. In many countries now, signs are in English and if you really want to learn how to read, this can be done after you have learned how to speak.

In Japan there are so many books and tapes written in Romanized Japanese that is it is entirely possible to become very fluent in the language without ever being able to read a single word ( except in the transliterated version of it).

You can pretty much follow the program outlined for learning the language except that a few things will not be possible- you will not be able to read children’s books. So, instead, what you can do (and what I did) was to have people read children’s books aloud to you as you listen. You will also not be able to read books with theatrical plays in them. However, again, you can do either one of two things:

1) 1) Buy lots of travel books with Romanized dialogues ( primarily phrase books) and recite those.

2) Get theatrical works and have native speakers read and explain them to you as you listen. You can then repeat after them.


Phyllis said...

Well written article.

Anonymous said...

you must be really determined to learn to do that...