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.