It’s time to make your resolutions for the new year. While I may not be able to give you any advice about losing weight or kicking that bad habit, I can help when it comes to the most in-demand job skill: fluency in a foreign language.
There are so many different ways to learn a language that getting started can be overwhelming. In this 3-part series, I’ll review some suggestions for learning on your own, and then discuss where formal classes fit in.
No matter what you do, learning a language always comes down to you putting in the time and effort to build the connections in your brain. Knowing this, many people opt to skip the classes and teachers, and instead create their own training program.
As Malcolm Gladwell described in Outliers, “ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.” Fortunately, learning another language doesn’t mean you need to be a world-class expert. In fact, there are many different standards of fluency you can try to attain. For our purposes, let’s say you want to be “conversationally fluent,” or, as I once read it described, “if, after engaging in deep conversation with a charming woman from a country whose language I’m studying, I have difficulty the next morning recalling which language it was we were speaking.”
That definition comes from Barry Farber’s How to Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own. His approach to language learning resonates with my personal experience. Essentially, he suggests you try anything and everything concurrently, and work at it consistently. This helps balance out the benefits and weaknesses of any single method, and also helps you stay engaged by varying your interaction with the language.
There are four main elements to his method:
- The Multiple Track Attack
- Hidden Moments
- Harry Lorayne’s Magic Memory Aid
- The Plunge
The Multiple Track Attack
To start, Farber suggests getting a grammar textbook for the language you want to learn and working through the first 5 lessons before doing anything else. This grunt work will make all the other tools you use more effective.
After that, start playing with all the other language toys you can get your hands on simultaneously: the textbook, a two-way bilingual dictionary, a phrase book, a newspaper or magazine, a student reader, Pimsleur audio lessons, and flash cards (or a flash card app like Anki or SuperMemo).
Start with the newspaper or magazine. Take an article and slog your way through it, one sentence at a time, until you understand it all. “It will easily be the toughest newspaper article you’ve ever read,” writes Farber, and I know that pain all too well. If you’re like me, you’ll quickly realize you don’t care about this article, and think maybe you should find a more interesting one. Resist the temptation, and finish what you started. That desire to move onto something new can be used as fuel to get you through the article.
For every word you don’t understand in that article, look it up in the dictionary, and add it to your flashcard pile. Be careful of different forms of the word, especially conjugated verbs. You’ll probably need to look up the infinitive or base form to find it in your dictionary.
Then pick up the phrase book, and start wrapping your head around how to pronounce this new language. There will be some form of pronunciation or transliteration guide in the phrase book. Read it. Practice it. Come back to it when you come across words that you’re not sure how to pronounce.
Next comes the audio course. Pimsleur is my favorite by a long shot. It teaches you words and their meanings, and then asks a question to which the answer is a word you just learned, or maybe learned five minutes ago, or even five lessons ago. This really keeps you on your toes, and prevents you from robotically repeating sounds without really adding their meaning to your memory bank.
Wow, that sounds like a lot. When can you do all this? You do need to set aside time in your schedule to do the heavy lifting, namely the grammar book, reading the newspaper, and reviewing the phrase book. Fortunately, there are many hidden moments throughout your day in which to work on the flashcards and audio lessons. Waiting in line, commuting to work, and exercising are all great times to study. Farber recommends that “when you can listen or read, read. Save your listening for when you can only listen.”
Come back next week for Part 2 about Harry Lorayne’s Magic Memory Aid and The Plunge, along with some tips about classes and other online tools to add to your language learning toy box.
You can also check out this short 2006 interview with Barry Farber.