This article is the second article in the multi-part series The Tower of Babel Guide: How to learn any language
The first part dealt with the whys and whats that you might encounter when you decide to learn a language. In this part, we will talk about the kinds of resources you can use for learning languages, and their pros and cons.
Quite a few of you might have been taught a foreign language at school. Learning a language is probably going to be much easier for you—you have already seen the worst. The subtle combination of boring textbooks, pointless grammar drills, bad pedagogical practices and just plain indifference on the part of both teachers and students means that almost all people who learn foreign languages at school end up with the same fate—they may have learnt French for 5 years, but can’t hold even the most basic conversation in French or order a sandwich to save their life. A lot can be written on this issue, but I will just quote Jerome K. Jerome:
In England we have a method that for obtaining the least possible result at the greatest possible expenditure of time and money is perhaps unequalled. An English boy who has been through a good middle-class school in England can talk to a Frenchman, slowly and with difficulty, about female gardeners and aunts; conversation which, to a man possessed perhaps of neither, is liable to pall. Possibly, if he be a bright exception, he may be able to tell the time, or make a few guarded observations concerning the weather. No doubt he could repeat a goodly number of irregular verbs by heart; only, as a matter of fact, few foreigners care to listen to their own irregular verbs, recited by young Englishmen. Likewise he might be able to remember a choice selection of grotesquely involved French idioms, such as no modern Frenchman has ever heard or understands when he does hear.
Let’s begin. Irrespective of what language you want to learn, don’t go about it unless you have reliable audio material. I can’t stress on
this enough. The first goal you should hope to achieve when learning a language is being able to speak it. And you can summarily trash all your Learn X in N days guides if they don’t come with an audio component, or if you don’t have a speaker of language to substitute. As a general rule, the entire family of Learn X in 30 days books that are available for INR 30 in bookstores is useless.
The Teach Yourself series is good for basic travelers-knowledge, but I don’t find it suitable for advanced work.
A good classroom course with a competent teacher and smart classmates is the best possible setting for learning a language, but is usually very difficult to find and is often prohibitively expensive. Usually, courses run by Alliance Française (for French) or Max Müller Bhawan (for German) are pretty good, so if you can afford them and don’t mind the travel, give them a try.
If you get a native speaker to teach you, consider yourself very very fortunate, and pay close attention to their pronunciation. You have a golden opportunity—make the best of it. If you did a year long French course taught by a native French teacher, and you still say EN-CHAN-TAY and JAY MAPLE, it’s you who’s a failure, not the course or the teacher.
A lot also depends on your classmates. If they grasp things fairly well, and are really interesting in learning, they can be useful, but you may find yourself in a class where a lot of other people are there for god-knows-what reason, and are clearly pulling the whole class behind. Just live with them. Then go home and study yourself too.
There are two major purely Audio Courses in the world—the Michel Thomas method, and the Pimsleur method. I have tried both of them. The Michel Thomas method is useful for getting basic conversational ability in a language very fast, and is perfect if you want to learn the language because you are going to travel in those parts of the world. It doesn’t dwell a lot on the intricacies of grammar, which is both good and bad, and you end up speaking complex sentences pretty fast. More importantly, it gives you the most important tool—the ability to construct sentences from basic vocabulary.
On the whole, I found that getting to advanced levels with the MT course is tough, mainly because you do need some grip on the grammar, especially for languages like German, where you can’t just ignore the entire case system to make it simple. The courses work brilliantly for basic stuff, but it gets difficult as you work your way into the language. Also, you will soon find your vocabulary wanting.
Another disadvantage of MT courses is that, since they are purely audio-based, you get virtually no reading or writing skills, which gets particularly difficult if you are learning a language with a difficult spelling system, or if you are learning a language with a different writing system.
The Pimsleur method is excellent if you want to learn pronunciation, but fairly useless for almost everything else. It tries to teach language by making you parrot sound sequences, and gives you relatively little synthetic skill, and I find it thoroughly pointless. Pimsleur’s way of teaching you Development is by making you repeat ment, ment, ment, lopment, lopment, lopment, velopment, You will memorize long phrases and will find yourself dumbstruck if you encounter a different situation, simply because the drill made no mention of it.
A famous computer based course is the Rossetta Stone. I installed it for French, just to see how it was, and all it did was Vocab drills. Exceedingly stupid and useless. They try to immerse you into the language, but all they are doing is showing you pictures and making you match them with words. If you are a smart person, you can soon tune yourself into the process so well that you can match pictures to sounds and words off the fly without speaking a word of the actual language. Don’t waste time over it.
There are loads of websites which offer varying degrees of language learning material, but I haven’t found any that is sufficiently comprehensive and interesting. There also exist websites that let you interact with language enthusiasts around the world—I haven’t tried them all that much, since I am a bit wary about opening out to complete strangers, but you can give them a try. There are a lot of websites and blogs and podcasts that offer all kinds of language learning aides. It’s difficult to review even a fraction of them, but if you want my feedback about a particular tool, please write about it in the comments section.
This is obviously the best way you could pick up a new language—be where it is spoken! But it’s not possible all the time, so I’ve an easier way, which works brilliantly if you are in India and want to learn an Indian language. Try a Michel Thomas course one, and notice how he breaks the language into simple elements that help you build whatever you want. Get hold of a native speaker (nicely, of course. You don’t want to scare him away!) and try to learn from him by implementing the MT method yourself. I tried this with Kannada. I had a Kannadiga wingie, and I made him tell me translations of basic sentences which I then deconstructed into grammar bits. That, combined with vocab meant that I could construct complex sentences if I thought over them slowly and systematically. If you keep working on this, you will get pretty good at it.
Up next: Learning techniques and pronunciation
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