I've had to learn quite a few in my life, but the one I learned the fastest was Italian. That is simply because I used the best method.

The method was to move to Italy (Rome specifically) and live in a house filled with 200 people none of whom could speak my native tongue. However, that alone would not be enough.

The first trick was watching cartoons in Italian. Rome had about 30 TV stations at the time. I completely ignored the three RAI channels (the official national channels), but found one that was showing all kinds of American shows in Italian. Since I had arrived from Slovakia, all those shows were completely new to me, so I would recommend a different channel for someone familiar with American shows.

Anyway, the station also showed a lot of Japanese made cartoons. They were not obviously Japanese - all characters were whites and blacks, the only unusual thing about them was that they ate their lunches with chop sticks.

One cartoon series in particular was about a ragazzo diventato robot (boy who became a robot). The basic idea was that the boy's father designed some robots that were activated prematurely during a storm and turned against humanity. The only way to beat them was for the father to turn his own son into a robot so he could fight them.

The cartoons were aimed at children, so they used very short sentences. I quickly learned my very first two Italian phrases: "Uccidetelo!" and "Eliminatelo!" They did not turn out too useful after my enrollment at Gregorian University studying Canon Law, as they translate: "Kill 'im!" and "Eliminate 'im!" respectively, while the Church no longer does that. But it was a good start.

One might thing that Perry Mason would have taught me more useful phrases, such as "Signori e signore della giuria", i.e., "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury" (or, actually, "gentlemen and ladies"), but it turned out Church courts do not use juries.

But watching La Famiglia Bradford (a.k.a. Eight is enough) helped me master everyday Italian.

Later I was able to actually watch full length original Italian movies and learn some very useful phrases. For example, I still remember from Giordano Bruno that a good diplomatic letter requesting a favor from the Pope should start with "Mentre baccio la Vostra pantofola sacra" ("While I kiss Your sacred slipper").

But I really graduated into accelerated learning of Italian when I always ended up sharing the dining room table with a real jerk who prided himself about being a bilaureato (a person with two doctor's degrees), and thought no one was smarter than him. We ended up in serious theological arguments twice a day: At lunch and supper.

He had one big advantage: He was an Italian and we argued in Italian. You'd be surprised how fast I learned Italian just to make him lose!

Many people wish to learn a new language but don't know where to begin. Here are some tips, which apply to natural languages (like Spanish) or constructed languages (like Loglan or Java).

  1. Determination -- you must really want to learn it, or when things get hard, you'll lose interest. This is the single most important thing in learning how to do anything.
  2. Repetition -- ever heard a baby learning to speak? they repeat the same sounds over and over. Once they've gotten a few words down, they use them all the time. Do a phrase or word of the day, or week if you can't seem to use them in a day. I've heard it said by those learning to play the guitar that 15 minutes a day, every day is better than a 1-hour session two or three times a week.
  3. Learn the whole language -- if it is a natural language, get some tapes for the spoken language. Learn to read the written language. If you're doing a programming language, learn how to do the things you don't think you'll use.
  4. Saturation -- a combination of determination and repetition, saturation is spending time every day learning things. This keeps your mind in the mood for it, and keeps those neurons firing.
  5. Associate -- new languages are easier to learn once you have a few under your belt. I'm not saying try to learn five languages in a year, but if you can pick up similarities in your native language, or if you can learn some about linguistics in general, you'll be better off to situate the new language in your memory.
  6. Patience -- above all, be patient. Some days you won't remember how to construct a simple sentence. You may forget your favorite word. Learning something well takes time, on the order of years rather than months. Just keep a long-term view, and enjoy yourself.

My experience (right now with Japanese) has brought me to these conclusions. I watch tons of anime to get the sounds of the words in my mind. I try to read manga all the time. I have both language tapes and written language books, a dictionary, and assorted materials on the actual words and sentences. It all comes down to how bad you want to learn it. The more I learn, the less I believe in limits on the human intelligence.

Good luck!

(reply) It does seem that younger children have an advantage in language aquisition, but they also tend to have more time to devote to such things. Immigrants would likely be very interested in learning the local language, but would not have the time or resources to devote to learning it like children do. Also, as adults, we are able to shield ourselves from social encounters that cause us discomfort, and we can choose to associate with those we can communicate best with. Children are usually sent off to school, and essentially forced into social situations that they must learn to deal with. No one ever said learning was easy...

The classroom setting afforded by most elementary schools highlight many of the points I used. Saturation and repetition are a primary focus. Also, children tend to not mind saying silly things that help wire the pathways in the brain for certain constructs in the new language. They don't usually have the fear of being wrong yet, which makes them more open to this new thing (language). Children also have a way of finding the fun in the languages (curse words, songs and jokes). You learn best when you play.

There is a postulate to learning any language which applies more or less across the board. This is: the younger you are, the easier it is to learn a language. Before your teenage years, you are most apt to learning another language. The existence of a native language in almost every human is evidence is this, as their native language is the language spoken to them by their parents since their birth. Around age 6 or 7, your ability to internalize a language as you do your native language essentially vanishes. Around 20 or so, your linguistic capabilities reach their lowest extent and remain that way indefinitely (as evidenced by how many immigrants speak English with a thick accent, while their children who learn English in school can speak it with near-native fluency). Some forward-thinking educational districts have tried to cash in on this by beginning language instruction in elementary school (I myself was a part of pilot program to teach French to 3rd and 4th graders in Maine. I would partially attribute the relative ease I've had in high school French to that). However, European systems know this for a fact, and begin teaching important languages such as English almost as soon as students start school, and never cease lessons. This basically emulates the environment in which children learn their native language from their parents, although a slightly later point in time. The strong aptitiude many higher-educated Europeans have in English is indicative of the success of such methods.

I believe this also applies to computer languages, and even more abstract concepts. For example, I basically taught myself the architecture and design of Unix systems when I was about 13 years old (for those who don't know, Unix takes a long time to fully grasp, it has many more facets than Windows or MacOS). After nearly 4 years of using it day in and day out, I am deeply familiar with it, enough to use my skills in jobs in the IT field. Without sounding like a slashdot zealot, I would venture to say that teenagers are more suited to learning about programming concepts than adults are. Granted, machine languages are easier due to the lack of any verbal or auditory comprehension and construction. However, it seems clear to me that architectural concepts of a computer have many of the same characteristics as a natural language, so if you want to learn a constructure language, you're better off doing sooner as opposed to later.

Thanks taschenrechner for a few corrections.

(or: SharQ's contribution to the Scary E2 quest)

A true story illustrating how.. eh.. interesting it can be to learn a new language.

About 14 years ago, a 6 year old boy was dropped off at the day-care centre in Norway by his mother. Prior to this, he had been in private day-care, and he had picked up a few words of Norwegian. This day, however, the boy was on his own.

Staying to himself much of the day, the boy doesn't interact much with the other kids. He plays around a bit by himself, and seems to be quite happy with that. The caretakers on the day-care center, however, weren't quite happy with this, and essentially told the boy's mother that he was an unsocial little bastard.

The mother, being a full-fledged natural worrier, has a long chat with the boy, urging him to participate a bit more.

The next day, the boy gathers his bravery, and tries to interact. He walks up to a kid who sits on a tricycle, looking bored, without using it.

  • What I wanted to say: Hello! You look bored, and I was wondering if I could please have the tricycle, as you don't seem to be using it
  • What I said: Can I have? Yes and no?
  • Explanation: I didn't know how to say all that I wanted to say. Even though I was quite aware that what I said was probaby at best rude (or at least impossible to understand) I couldn't remember how to say the word "or" in Norwegian. The reason for wanting to include "yes or no" at all, was that I was afraid that he might start talking to me, and that I wouldn't understand anything he would say to me
  • Result: The boy talks to me in Norwegian for a good two or three minutes, laughs, and races off on the tricycle, leaving me behind, petrified, crying and miserable.

Okay - maybe this situation wouldn't scare you much - but I promise you.. This was the most scary moment of my life.

The single most important thing one can do is to have someone who already speaks the language around, so you can practice your new language. More than one person is, of course, better, and actually living somewhere where the new language is the primary language is ideal. Selecting a language that is reasonably similar to a language you already know well (i.e., a Germanic or Romance language if you speak English) will be much easier than a more distantly related language, since words will share common roots, and thus be easier to remember.

Learn how to say, "How do you say ... ?" and "What is this called?" in the new language. Use these phrases early and often. It doesn't matter so much if you actually remember the responses you get, just hear the words. (Having a patient conversation partner helps immensely.) Don't worry about the grammar at first, just memorize the sounds of these two phrases and repeat them by rote.

Learn to count. Learn basic present tense verb conjugations. Talk to yourself in your new language. A lot. Keep a running narrative in your head of things you do.

Write things as often as possible in the new language. Make signs. If you're taking a class, make sure to do all the homework. Write notes and reminders to yourself in the new language.

After you achieve reasonable low-level proficiency, argue with people. You'll surprise yourself with how easily the words come during a heated exchange.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

The greatest difficulty most people have with language learning is time. Let me explain why.

Suppose you're studying Spanish in a North American high school. You have an hour-long class five days a week for eighteen weeks a semester, and you do a couple of hours of homework each week. This means that you're studying Spanish for 126 hours a semester, or 250 hours a year.

Move up to university level, and you might study a language for twelve hours a week, thirty-six weeks a year. That's over 430 hours a year: a bit better. Add 160 hours of intensive language study over the summer, and you've got almost 600 hours.

Now, let's say you move to South America. You speak English at your job, because you don't know enough Spanish. You might learn Spanish a couple of hours each day, when you're shopping or riding the bus or watching television. So now you're studying Spanish for 730 hours a year. A lot better, right?

Suppose your children go to a Spanish-language school. That's seven hours a day, five days a week, thirty-six weeks a year. From school alone, they're getting 1,260 hours of Spanish a year, and they're probably getting much more than that if they have friends, or if they watch TV or read books and magazines.

Working full-time in a foreign language? You'll get 2,000 hours a year. Marry a local, and you might top 4,000 hours a year. And if you're fighting for the Taliban, and none of them speak English, you'll be learning their language during every waking moment: assuming you sleep eight hours a day, this comes out to almost 6,000 hours a year.

The U.S. federal government trains diplomatic and defense employees in foreign languages by sending them to class eight hours a day, not including homework. An English-speaking American with no prior training can be brought up to "limited working proficiency" (reading, writing, and speaking on a working level) in most Indo-European languages within four months (850 hours), and can be speaking halfway fluent Japanese or Arabic within a year (2,500 hours).

So, if you're looking to learn a language, the key is immersion. The language has to be part of your life so that you can invest enough time into learning it. This is how I learned Japanese: going to Japanese schools and living with Japanese people. As they say, the best way to teach a kid to swim is to throw him in the water.


I was recently invited to share my ideas on language learning. Paradoxically — as I noted at the time the invitation was extended — while I have spent almost 20 years of my life studying one language or another, about nine years translating or interpreting some language or other, and approximately five years teaching languages in various settings, I have given suprisingly little thought to the issue of language learning in the abstract. Thus, while I will try to present as cohesive and complete a discussion of my views on language learning as possible, I apologise in advance for any apparent scattering of ideas.


I began studying languages quite early in life, probably around age five. At the time, there was a rather ancient Random House Unabridged Dictionary lying around in my room, and I occasionally leafed through it. Inside the back cover, there was a chart, labelled ALPHABETS OF THE WORLD. It included Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian Cyrillic, and German Fraktur. For some reason, the Cyrillic alphabet interested me, and I decided to learn more. Over the next several years, I located books and cassettes and any other source of information on Russian. Along the way, my interest extended beyond Russian alone, and I began actively seeking out materials for learning any language I could think of, the more obscure or difficult-sounding, the better. Nineteen odd years after I was taken by the rear cover of a disintegrating dictionary, I speak ten languages fluently, and varying amounts of several more.

One thing that I do not intend to discuss at any length is how I was able to learn so many languages. Simply put, I do not have any real explanation. While I imagine that it most likely is some combination of innate ability, motivation, and having started studying languages before the age of ten, it is difficult to be any more specific. I agree generally with Noam Chomsky et al. that the use and comprehension of language is likely an innate human trait, and that it follows that there is most likely some natural variation in the language acquisition faculty.

When I refer to a "language acquisition faculty," I am not referring necessarily to an anatomical "language acquisition centre" that could be located and studied microscopically (though the existence of such a centre seems plausible). Rather, I am referring to a predisposition toward the mental faculties that increase the probability of acquiring a second (third, etc.) language. Most important among these, in my view, are flexibility and intuition.

Flexibility refers to the ability to partially restructure one's system of verbal associations and relationships. In order to successfully learn a language, one must be able to associate, for example, the concept of tree with the utterance Baum. Similarly, one must be able to hear /zhenonjenavistníchestvo/ and associate it with женоненавистничество and to associate 教育勅語 with /kyôiku chokugo/. Flexibility, as I use it, also includes the ability to adapt to new thought processes, which is essential when learning languages with radically different syntax and modes of expression.

Intuition, in the sense in which it is important to language acquisition, is the ability to suspend pre-existing knowledge from other (particularly unrelated) languages in order to make full use of context and other cues to figure out the meaning of a word, phrase, or expression.

Most likely, it is because of these factors, and the mental agility they imply, that language learning is most effective before the age of ten. Prior to age ten, the brain is still in its formative stages. There is much more leeway for acquisition of new thought patterns, and a greater degree of malleability. L1 (first-language) acquisition is still in its relatively early stages, as well. Starting at age ten, the current theory goes, the linguistically relevant areas of the brain (e.g. associative auditory cortex, temporal lobe) are increasingly hardwired; thus, the ability to learn a new language after that age is significantly reduced.

In my opinion, while my basis for saying so is largely anecdotal, this conclusion should be qualified. In my own experience, the age of ten should not be assigned talismanic value in determining whether to start learning a language. However, early foreign language exposure is at least an important factor in the ability (or lack thereof) to learn a language later in life. The more foreign language exposure one has in early years, the greater the probability of acquiring an additional language even after the decade mark is reached. Often, there is a tendency toward excessive determinism in speaking about language acquisition. People often say — similarly to those who might assert that age ten is some sort of cutoff point — that "it is impossible to learn an L2 (second language) to the same degree of proficiency as one has with an L1," and similar statements. This is usually a case of broad allegations and narrow proof — the data adduced in support of these deterministic claims usually come nowhere near supporting such far-reaching conclusions. Suffice it to say, for our current purposes, that there are myriad factors at work, and any one (or group of several acting jointly) could conceivably influence an individual's ability to learn a language decisively.


Maximise Exposure to the Language

If you hope to have any idea of how the language you want to learn is actually spoken, finding some way to get exposure to people who speak the language is key. There are a number of ways to do this. Meeting and socialising with people from a country or region where your desired language is spoken is always worth considering (although, if you're looking to learn a more obscure language, such as Bella Coola, or a recently deceased language, such as Ubykh, this method will be of limited utility). A good alternative is to find audio recordings or broadcasts in the language you're studying. There are plenty of resources online for both. A short-wave radio doesn't hurt either. Don't worry about not understanding much at first; even if you're not picking up vocabulary, you can still get a feel for pronunciation, tone, and other important elements of speech.

Written material is also highly useful, and easily available on the Internet. Yahoo and similar directories can point you to lists of periodicals from pretty much any country. Reading these, with or without a decent bilingual dictionary, is often quite useful for vocabulary building and facilitates the understanding of the common structures of the language and other important information. Cities with large immigrant communities will often have free newspapers in the community's language. Even instruction manuals can be useful (although many are poorly translated).

Music is also useful, even when just starting out. For one thing, it is invaluable as a pronunciation guide, as lyrics are generally available online or elsewhere. The key to using music is to find singers with relatively standard pronunciation and clear enunciation. Some suggested listening, arranged by language1:

Die Toten Hosen
Herbert Grönemeyer
Die Ärzte
Ricardo Arjona
El último de la fila
Victor Jara
Enanitos verdes
Laura Pausini
Lorenzo Jovanotti
Mr. Children
MC Solaar
Grup Yorum
Yeni Türkü
Sertab Erener
Sebnem Ferah
Lisa Nilsson
Juice Leskinen

Learn to Analyse

Once you've begun to progress in your study of a language, and have at least a small vocabulary to fall back on, it's important to begin to use what you do know to help you figure out what you don't. There are a number of ways of going about this, and each has advantages and disadvantages. One common way of doing this — often unintentionally — is by reaching for the dictionary every time one encounters an unknown word or expression. This is generally not the best way; however, if a dictionary is to be used, it's important to make conscious use of the tool (assuming that you have a halfway decent dictionary, which is rarely the case). The first thing to do, when looking up words used in something you are reading is to look at the patterns that emerge: what is their relative placement in the sentence? A more advanced, and more useful version is to obtain the original and a translation of a given book (I often use the works of John Grisham or Stephen King), and read them side by side.

The side-by-side method2 is generally much more useful than the dictionary hunt-and-peck method. While the dictionary will give you a literal translation (often at random) of the individual words and phrases you look up, it does not put them the needed context, nor does it always do the full job of translation. While this may be unproblematic in many cases (though almost never in the case of non-Indo-European languages), it leaves much to be desired when dealing with more articulate or idiomatic texts. Using two versions of the same work side by side does not eliminate this problem entirely (there is always the possibility of a mistranslation), but it certainly reduces it. Looking at two language versions of the same sentence side by side provides a wealth of information: structural and syntactical information (what goes where), vocabulary, as well as slang and idioms that dictionaries may not cover.

Diagramming can come in handy. As you begin to line up the elements of the original and translated sentence, start to put together a tree diagram of the structure of the sentence. Figure out what elements are grouped together. How are things categorised? Does specification go from general to specific or specific to general3? It helps, in this context, to have an awareness of one's own language (although this exercise often awakens that awareness). How are the overall patterns differing from what you're used to? This helps to understand the underlying thought processes, which is essential in order to achieve anything approaching fluency. Indeed, fluency might well be defined as the point in the language learning curve at which one stops thinking in translation, and instead is able to think directly in the target language.

Enjoy Yourself

Learning a foreign language can be deadly dull, particularly the way foreign languages are generally taught in schools and universities. Boredom can shorten the attention span and reduce the amount of information you actually successfully assimilate. Of course, there's no reason learning a foreign language has to be boring. No language is so narrow that it does not include interesting subject matter. Try to find resources that allow you to learn the aspects of the language that interest you. Try to dilute the boring necessaries such as general greetings and basic grammar by locating materials (slang dictionaries, specialised dictionaries and texts, etc.) that teach the sorts of things that you actually want to know how to say. The way to learn a language is not written in stone. There is no reason why one has to wait until "advanced" instruction to learn how to say "petition for review," "cardiomegaly," or "bugger off, you barmy sod!" The goal is to learn the language; part of that is making sure it holds your interest.


There is no "right way" to teach or learn a language. Certainly, however, there are those who claim otherwise. Berlitz, for example, requires all its language instructors to follow "the Berlitz Method™." They are taught that all students will learn excellently by this method (speaking none of the student's native language during class, explaining all concepts in the foreign language, etc.), and that if they don't learn from The Method, there must be something wrong with them. No deviation from The Method is permitted. When you get to this point with any "method" or "philosophy," you're beyond the realm of science or education and are entering that of organised religion. A method is a tool — nothing more, nothing less. A tool is used if and when it appears to be the best way of getting the job done. You should no more trust a language instructor who says "this is the only method I use" than you would trust a carpenter who says "my philosophy is that there's no problem a hammer can't fix — now where're those windowpanes?" The "right" method is the method that results in you learning.

1Suggested additions, are of course, welcome.

2Students of Japanese will profit from the convenience of the 対訳本 (taiyakubon), which puts the original and the translation of a given work on opposite pages. These most commonly cover the classics, but screenplays and more modern works are also available.

3NB: These are not the only two possibilities. Occasionally, some languages will start at an intermediate level of generality, and progress either to the next highest or next lowest level of specificity.

The Second-Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language

This is not The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language. The best way is total immersion. This is the Second-Best way. It does not involve the spoken aspects of the language, because that falls in the domain of the best way. This way involves a few simple steps.

Step one: Take a class.

Many people would say that taking a class is the worst way to learn a new language. Those people may be correct, but if you take a class then you will have an instructor at your disposal. This is important. You cannot learn a new language entirely from a textbook. There are idioms to learn, exceptions to standard syntax, non-standard spelling conventions, and usually a lot of accents and diacritical marks to learn about. You will need someone to ask about this sort of thing, and a good College Spanish Professor should be a good resource.

Step two: Take a genuine interest in learning the new language.

If you don't have a genuine interest then you won't succeed with anything short of moving to Madrid. If you are genuinely interested in learning the new language you are more likely to start thinking about the language during your day when you are not in a class or studying. Have fun with it. Look up the words that they aren't teaching you in class or in a textbook. Use new and interesting adjectives. Insult people. It can be fun.

Step three: Buy some books in your new language.

No, not textbooks. If you are studying Spanish, you should buy Cien Años de Soledad, a good book that is critically acclaimed. Haven't you always heard that it is best to read literature in its native language? Translate the book. You will likely need a two-language dictionary and a lot of advice from your professor for this. As you translate you will start to recognize phrases and words that are repeated often. You will likely remember their meanings and not have to look them up too many times. It is best to use a physical dictionary and not an online one for this. The physical act of having to look for the word will make you more motivated to remember it. Also, if you learn your phrases, sentence structure, and choice of adjectives and verbs from a work of much-acclaimed literature then you are more likely to develop a sophisticated and intelligent vocabulary and style of speech. A text book will make you sound like a well-versed kindergartener.

I learned to read and write English with Dick and Jane; my standards have risen significantly since then.

Learning a new language by a form of immersion called passive listening

Immersion is a commonly recommended technique to assist in learning a new language, but it is not very practical for anyone other than students or the independently wealthy. A way to simulate an aspect of immersion, passive listening, can be accomplished with foreign news sites. Passive listening, e.g. having the news on in the background, is often unmentioned when reading about learning languages. My best guess is that you need to hear a word 50 times or so before you can begin to develop an understanding of the word and an approximation of its pronunciation.

For example, to learn French, go to www.rfi.fr and download the half-hour news programs in .wmv files (Windows Media Player compatible). These can be loaded onto windows compatible players. iPod users can convert the files to .m4a or .mp3 using a conversion program, like RogueAmoeba's AudioHijackPro (for Mac OS).

I learned Italian through this process in 6 months. The trick is to let go of your apprehension and anxiety and just let the sounds flow into your brain. You will absorb and process the sounds without any effort. Sounds silly, but that's how children learn languages. Here's how my progress went

Month 1 -- could understand very few words
Month 2 -- first epiphany -- I can see the words as spoken
Month 3 -- about 50% comprehension; topic of conversation
Month 6 -- about 90% on the first pass, 100% on the second.

At the end of the 6th month, I took the Defense Language Proficiency Test for Italian and scored in the top categories for listening and reading.

In addition to the passive listening, I picked up an Italian newspaper a week and I'd read aloud a few articles. Sometimes, I'd consult a dictionary, but most times, I just read the articles aloud. I also took a basic class in Italian grammar, like a college level introductory course.

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