How to learn any language—Part 2 (Learning resources)

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.

Classroom teaching

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.

Software/Audio courses

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.

Online

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.

Being there

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


A few important points:

  • Please give feedback! Positive feedback makes me happy and will help posts improve, and constructive criticism will tell me what’s wrong and help posts improve!
  • If you find this post useful or this series promising, please help it get visibility by sharing/liking it and passing the link to friends who might be interested in this kind of stuff. I don’t make money off this blog (rather, I have to shell out a few thousand every year for running it), so the only way this series will go on is if you find it useful and show your appreciation
  • If you want to be informed about subsequent posts in this series, or about posts on this blog in general, please enter your email id in the box on the top of the right navigation bar, or follow @linguistrixweb on Twitter

  • Anonymous

    I was learning French using MT’s audio course (completed only till the foundation part). One of the shortcomings I found in its methodology was that it prepared me for not directly speaking in French but rather framing what I had to say in English and then translating it to French (which I believe is not the right way to get the command over language). Wanted to know if you had a somewhat similar experience?

    Later when I jumped over to Rosetta stone, it seemed to remove that gap of translating from one language to other. I too think it’s tedious and the drills after a point seem useless but it is more effective in reducing that gap. 

    Haven’t browsed through all of your blogs but was curious about how many languages you knew and which ones?

    • http://www.facebook.com/antariksh.bothale Antariksh Bothale

      I didn’t feel that was problem with the Michel Thomas courses. He does approach the languages through English, but I thought that the ability to make sentences independently was still drilled in.

      Apart from English, Hindi and Marathi, I know French decently well, can manage German, have learnt Japanese, learning Mandarin and know bits and pieces of many languages

  • Ashwinknan

    A friend trying an experiment with Spanish that I am tempted to use.He is  trying to watch videos in the language , first with English subtitles, for 2-3 times till he grasps the word meanings and then associates Spanish sounds to them. Although time consuming, I feel this is a good way of learning common words and sentences. 
    Is this what the MT method is also about? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/antariksh.bothale Antariksh Bothale

      It’s a good way of learning common sentences and stuff, but I dunno how soon it will give you the ability to synthesize sentences. And I feel that a person following this method is more likely to get frustrated soon. MT is not like this—there, he breaks down the language into small bits of grammar and then tells you those to help you make complete sentences from Day 1

  • Astha

    I have tried some websites for learning German and 2 are definitely worth mentioning here. livemocha.com is a website that you can use, to learn many languages from many other languages. It teaches you phrases, and has matching, reading and writing exercises at the end of each lesson which, and this is the best part, you can get reviewed by German speakers for free (and the system works pretty well). The courses are very well structured and you even have tips from other users on every page clarifying things that the lesson may lack. 

    Another website, by Deutsche Welle is the best resource I have ever found for learning German. It offers a variety of free courses, and has a really good focus on listening. It goes by the European framework for learning languages and its easy to evaluate at which level you are and choose a course accordingly. One of my favourites is a course based on a mystery radio series. 52 episodes of action packed stories with transcripts, english translation and exercises make it really interesting. 

    1 thing I really look for in a language courses is audio, as Antariksh mentioned, especially because I have found listening to be the most challenging part about a foreign language. Over time I have realised that I can somehow make myself understood, even by single syllable words, but I cannot have a conversation unless I can catch the pronunciation of a native speaker. 

    I had tried the French course in insti, but I definitely did not find it to be the best way to learn. The biggest drawback of a classroom course, giving 6 hours of lectures a week is that it makes language learning a burden. Moreover, exercises given in the class cannot benefit from the wonderful tools that internet provides – like Google translate. I have often learnt new words while writing exercises on Livemocha.com when I wanted to say something and did not know the right word for it. Referring to Google translate and bilingual dictionaries(oxford-Duden dictionary for German is my personal favourite) while you do an exercise is an essential feature that classroom teaching misses. 

    Hope my experience comes in handy for some of you. Overall I have had great fun while learning German, and my idea of unwinding on weekends often involves going through a few action-packed radio episodes on deutsche-welle.com. 

  • Daniel Schut

    Keep up the good work, I’m very curious what an actual linguist would have to say about learning a language. 

  • Nelllypradip

    like about kownig about linguist .

  • Nellypradip

    like knowing about linguist lang..

  • Akash

    I decided to learn french as it is somewhat easy as said.Kindly guide me how to start currently i am using livemocha.com guided by Astha

  • Codejam2407

    I want to learn konkani, and the reason being that I want impress someone( okay that might not be the right motivation to learn a language, but that is the only one I have ) . But since it is a language spoken by very few people, there are very few resources to learn from. Do you know what should I do. I have a friend who is a native speaker and willing to help but I can’t pester him all the time. I need a strategy so that I can learn from my friend but do most of the work myself. Can you help out?