Steps in language learning for those who have no track record of success yet.

cropped-20130930_191133.jpgIf someone wishes to learn from English with no previous success in language learning either French, Spanish, German or Italian then I recommend starting with Paul Noble’s audio only courses, published by Collins. For 8 further languages, namely Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Greek, Russian, Polish, Dutch and Portuguese I recommend the Michel Thomas series to absolute beginners. After these courses, or from the start for languages not covered by those courses, I recommend Pimsleur courses. All these are audio only courses and are done with no teacher following the instructions outlined by the presenter.

Once this audio material has been front loaded, it is time, if the learner is still enthusiastic, to work through a written course. Most of these also have audio which should be used earlier in the process rather than later. Good courses include such series as Colloquial by Routledge, the Teach Yourself series (older courses tend to be better than new in that series) Living Languages and the Essential grammar series.

To learn the material in the written courses I recommend my own method called the Goldlist method which is free on the internet if you google for it. It helps to memorise written material to the long-term memory with the least possible total time of engagement per word or phrase. It is more effective than having a teacher who will try to activate sparse knowledge too soon.

You should aim to develop fluency in reading because the difference between fluent reading and fluent speaking is three days of immersion. Not a hundred lessons at 20 dollars a shot. Teachers are only really necessary for languages where you cannot tell the pronunciation from the writing or which have highly complex writing systems – and for tonal languages for those encountering this for the first time. A teacher is more likely to impede the adult learner in most Inter-European language learning.

One small word of warning to the absolute beginner – be ready for words and phrases in the language you know to be used completely differently in the other language. Just to give you an example, take the English “What’s happening now?” In French this would be “qu’est ce qu’il se passe maintenant?” Now this means exactly the same in terms of what the French would understand as the English phrase “What’s happening now?” but if you literally translate each of the elements in the French phrase, you get “What is this that he passes handholding?” If a French person tried to learn English using a verbatim approach as you can see he would not make himself understood, but equally anyone trying to put “What is happening now?” word for word into French will find that they come up with something equally nonsensical to the French, moreover the words you would need to do it do not even exist.

I met an Australian one time who said he was “orry” when I asked him how he was. I said “Orry? What’s that?”
“That’s French, mate”,
“You mean ‘horrible’?”
“No, mate, it’s French for “good”, I’m good, mate”
“How is “orry” French for “good”?”
“What? You’re a linguist and you don’t know the French for “goodbye” which is “orry-vwar”?”
I smiled at the wit and then it gradually dawned on me that the guy wasn’t joking. This is the biggest hurdle people have at the beginning, an expectation that the target language is going to work just like their own, you just slot other sounds in instead of the English ones. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

If you can get your head around that, then you are ready to approach a foreign language.

6 thoughts on “Steps in language learning for those who have no track record of success yet.

  1. David,

    I have mentioned this to you before, but I will just remind you that there is another (currently small, but planning to expand) series of audio-only courses, by the “Say Something In” people. They started with “Say Something in Welsh”, Course 1, which essentially tested out the method, which seemed extremely successful. They went on to produce Courses 2 & 3, and are now on to their 2nd generation of Welsh courses, (“Level 1” and “Level2” so far) learning from the experience of the 1st generation. Course1 (and I think Level 1) are entirely free. The higher levels cost money, but are very reasonable.

    Considering that all Welsh courses come in northern and southern flavours (you can choose which or choose both if you like, for no extra cost), they are incredible value (and both flavours are free at beginner level). There is now absolutely now excuse for people not to be able to learn to speak (colloquial) Welsh now! 🙂
    (It doesn’t attempt to teach formal, literary, or any form of written Welsh at all).

    They also have Spanish, a shortish Dutch course, a short Cornish Course, and Latin. You can also do some of these through the medium of Welsh.

    They have been working on some new technology which should enable them to produce courses more quickly, and over a wider range of languages.

    (My only connection with them is as a happy user of their courses, and I like to share the information about them as widely as possible).

    I won’t attempt to post a link, but they should be findable easily enough via search-engines.

  2. I’m Aussie, too – I think you just happened to run into a real dill. Lol.

    1. Further to Julie’s comment I would agree that Paul Noble’s courses are very good for the complete beginner. However if I had to choose between Paul Noble and Michel Thomas,
      My personal preference would be for the Michel Thomas courses. For me, Michel Thomas seems to inspire me to continue with the learning process and keeps my motivation higher than is the case with the Paul Noble courses. This said, both seem to me to be an excellent starting point and a springboard for further study of the chosen language.
      I also like the Michel Thomas vocabulary development courses which aim to increase your base vocabulary considerably compared to that achieved with the introductory or advanced courses. Combining that with the gold list method Is probably the most effective means of acquiring the necessary vocabulary for engaging in intermediate or advanced conversation and reading.

      Just as an aside, and a purely personal opinion. There seems to me to be quite a lot of “bandwagoning” on the Internet language learning front. Dubiously qualified people offering to make you fluent with very little effort on your part. Of course, they will ask you to pay handsomely for their patented method of learning. This type of approach makes me very wary and sceptical. There are probably lots of language beginners out there buying into these “incredible” learning methods whilst missing the more established and proven approaches to the language (like the good old fashioned textbooks, Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, FSI, Pimsleur and the like). I think it was professor Alexander Argüelles who said that there is a tendency to assume that that “new” is automatically better. He is an advocate of the older language learning textbooks ( for example the 1960s and 70s editions of the “Linguaphone” courses rather than the modern ones).

      Food for thought maybe.


  3. The “ozzie” man was wrong on two counts : French AND English. “Good” is surely an adjective of moral or ethical attribution. Therefore “Michael is always good (i.e well behaved) for his parents. The use of good as an expression of one’s general health is, in my opinion a modern corruption of the English language with its roots (I think) in the U.S.A or Australia. The english language has another word reserved for this sense. Hence….”How are you today ? I’m well, thank you.”
    I think this is another example of the confusion caused by the native speaker misusing the language out of either ignorance , indifference or linguistic insensitivity. This confusion then becomes the norm and used as “Standard” English. Thus, those learning English as a second language are not aware that there has been a manipulation by the unthinking or uncaring or both an that what they are hearing (“How are you today ?” Good, thanks”) is incorrect language usage.
    The whole point of the two little words “good” and “well” is precisely to distinguish what we mean to say. As it is now, as a result of these language- mangling trend setters, we are moving to an ever-increasing potential for fuzzy thinking.
    So when enquiring of somebodies state of health, using the “Ozzy” logic (a tag for this form of misuse as I do actually like Australian people) I would say “Are you good today?”
    “and what about your dog is he good?”. Straight away there is quite a lot of clarification needed. But, “My dog is well and she is also good” ought to be immediately clear to any speaker of the language. What think you ?

Your thoughts welcome, by all mean reply also to other community members!