I'm assuming you already have an exercise book, or equivalent, to write down all new vocab in. (You don't? Oh dear. Go get one.) Vocab is simple - get a vocab book (they're pretty cheap normally) and learn words from it. Anything you think is useful or interesting, write down. But that's not very exciting, really. So how about googling one of your interests, in another language? Google is multilingual - so if you're a football fanatic and you're studying Spanish, why not go along to google.es
and search for fútbol
? You get to do something interesting while learning a bit of Spanish. Are you learning German, and into heavy metal? Why not try finding Rammstein music online or buying it, and then looking up the lyrics online and trying to translate them? Is French politics more your thing? You'll find loads of interesting articles on news websites - again, Google and Yahoo normally have multilingual news pages, but if you want to get stuck into something a bit heavier, try googling the name of a popular newspaper in the target language. The Useful Links thread (link above) also has links to newspapers and news websites - you're never short of stuff to read!
Music is also an excellent resource which is now practically free (and legal) all over the internet. Magnatune
is a collection of songs that are free to listen to on the internet - there are also songs from other languages on there. Of course you won't be able to look up the lyrics in this case... so why not try buying some more popular music (don't know of any? Go and google for a foreign lyrics website and look at their charts) and looking the lyrics up?
All a bit much for you? Of course, no one said it was going to be easy. But maybe you're simply not ready to pick up a copy of Le Figaro
or read the website of Bayern München
yet. Why not buy a book? The good thing about buying books is that you don't necessarily have to buy adult books. If that's too hard for you, why not try and find a Portuguese / Arabic / Catalan equivalent of Enid Blyton, or even a copy of a few books in the Unser Herr Glücklich und Seine Freunde
collection? Why not come and talk to us in the societies? Of course you must have your vocab book and dictionary (online ones will do - see the Useful Links thread) handy at all times, and persevere!
Yeah, ok. People don't like grammar and it's not hard to see why. Personally I love it.
But grammar is just rules upon rules upon rules, and then, as if that wasn't enough, the exceptions normally take just as long to explain. I'm afraid there's nothing else for it - short of going and doing some general reading (see the vocabulary section), there's little you can do. Pick up a grammar book and read it, and then practise it. See the general fluency comments at the end of this section.
(iii) Listening skills
Listening material is harder to find, but a quick google search will do you good, and as usual there's some excellent material in the Useful Links thread. Or listen to music - see my comments in the vocabulary section. Occasionally the problem with listening skills isn't that you're poor at listening, it's simply that you don't know the words - in which case, go back up and learn something from the vocab section!
Sometimes, though, no matter how hard you try, you simply can't discern the words. In this case the problem is probably more in your mouth than in your ear, so to speak. And this is why I've introduced the next section...
Your accent doesn't just reflect on how you sound (although of course a laughable accent can make you sound stupid, and ideally you'd probably like to be able to develop a perfect accent), it also reflects on how you hear and how you think. I was talking on MSN to one of my friends recently, who is a rather poor linguist, and he remarked "sava ai twa?". It was only after ten seconds' thought that I realised that this was actually an attempt at French - he wasn't thinking in a French accent. Consequently, French just sounded like pretentious English to him, which is probably why he never did well. It's perfectly possible to be a good linguist without a good accent, but more often than not, you expect people to talk the way you talk (try going to Yorkshire, Scotland or London and trying to discern what they say first time every time like you can do where you live), and when they don't, it throws you for a second. This can have a devastating effect on your accent (obviously), your listening skills, your general comprehension and (believe it or not) your grammar and vocabulary too... not to mention that people won't understand you either if you're not talking right! So while it may seem a pedantic little point, it's actually really important
you get your accent right.
How do you do that? A good place to start might be to learn pronunciation again. Assume you know absolutely nothing, and go and find a website or a CD teaching you the pronunciation of the language you're trying to learn. Listen to what they say, and repeat exactly
what they say - don't anglicise it, and don't be afraid of sounding stupid! It's easier to slide into a natural accent from "above" (a really over-the-top accent, but which is phonetically correct) than from "below" (a "sava ai twa?" accent almost identical to your native language). Listen to foreigners speaking and repeat it until you sound exactly like them
. Do this for different accents too - German in Berlin is different from German in Austria, even though they both speak the same language! While it may be more natural for you to fall into one accent (and indeed you should never spontaneously mix your accents), it's certainly good practice for you to experience a range of accents, because wherever you go in the world, no two people have exactly the same enunciation.
And now the important part (as if that wasn't important enough!) - your fluency
. Fluency doesn't mean "ability to speak the language perfectly". I'd say I was quite fluent in German, but I'm far off perfect. Fluent (from Latin, incidentally
) literally means flowing
, and that's what I'm using the word to mean here - fluency in a language means you can speak it without hesitating, without pausing to think "argh does the verb go there or there!?", without the little deliberations in your mind over exactly which tense you should be using and which form of the noun you should be using. Of course it's ok not to know
these things - after all, you're a learner - but you definitely want to be speaking to the best of your ability, don't you? It'd be nice to be able to speak French / Italian / Dutch / Russian just like you can speak English, straight off the top of your head, wouldn't it? Not only is it nice, but further on in language study or in the country itself, it becomes essential. That's why it gets its own special little section outside that indented bit above, because it's so important. Everyone
should be reading this section, regardless of where they have trouble in a language, because this is the key to how languages are learnt and spoken. So without further ado...
Talk in the foreign language. Talk to yourself. Talk to the cat. Talk to your blancmange. Talk to your siblings or your goldfish or your mirror. Talk to the computer. "What am I doing right now? I'm brushing my teeth thank you very much." The good thing about speaking during your own time is that you have the opportunity to correct yourself without stress - and you should take advantage of this opportunity. This fixes the language you're learning in your system, not to mention improving your accent (which we decided was really important a few minutes back), and in no time you'll be able to speak it like you can speak your mother tongue. Another idea (but by no means a replacement
) is to keep a diary in the target language, or try translating from your mother tongue to the target language.
You may laugh if I say anyone can learn a language because everyone once learnt their mother tongue, but it's true - and you know how you did it? "But why? Why? Why? Why? I don't get it! Tell me again! What's that over there? What's he doing? What's the point in that? How do birds fly? Why's the sky blue?" As a kid, there were probably times when you just didn't shut up. That's why you can speak English now. 15/18/21/24/27 years of being on this planet, and probably not a day has gone by when you haven't spoken in English. And it took you a few years to get there too - you probably weren't very fluent in English till you were anywhere between the ages of 4 and 8. But you kept talking, you persevered, you asked what things were called and you repeated their names ad nauseam, you sang, you asked irritating questions, and you had a lot of fun while doing it and you weren't ashamed if you got things wrong or sounded silly, you just carried on speaking. And before you knew it, it was second nature - you weren't just speaking English, you were thinking and dreaming in it too. Have I convinced you yet?
Of course, exposure to the language is also very important. As well as fixing the language into your blood stream, you need to have a constant input of the language into your system. The best way to do this is to go to the country and just stay there (and talk and talk and talk). But if you can't do that, you have to settle for second best. All my comments above still hold - read, listen to music, converse with people, watch TV and videos in other languages. (Go back and read through the other sections if you haven't already done so.) I know I use the computer a lot, so my Firefox and MSN (as well as my homepage, even if it is only Google) are currently in French. Find a penfriend you can talk to (MSN and email are surprisingly efficient, and of course they're free, but phone and post are also good) or join one of TSR's societies above. It's amazing how the language just stops seeming foreign to you once you gain enough exposure to it and keep it up. But most of all, persevere. You won't pick it up overnight and no one can pretend you will. But give it enough time and you will
pick it up.
(i) New alphabets
Scream! There's nothing more likely to put you off learning a language if it's all written in shapes and squiggles. But don't panic. You learnt the Roman alphabet (that's this one
) before even learning to read - 26 letters, with 26 capital forms, and hundreds of different handwritten forms. There's no substitute for just filling reams of paper with your newly-learnt alphabet; of course, this may not be necessary in Greek or Russian where the alphabets are similar, but it can't hurt. On the other hand, you can't get away from it with Arabic, where each letter has up to four different forms, which - if we're honest here - look absolutely nothing like each other sometimes, and at other times are distinguishable from each other simply by crafty placement of dots. (It'll be good practice for your right-to-left writing anyway!) Grab a piece of paper, start with the first letter, and just write out a line or two of it until you feel comfortable with it. Then do that with the second. Then the third. After you've done maybe five or so, try writing them out in succession from memory - again, write them all out a few times, because the more you repeat it, the more easily it'll commit itself to memory. Got those five down? Then move on to the next five. This will take a good couple of hours, I won't lie; but don't forget that after that it'll never look like squiggles to you again. Pick up a newspaper or a book in the language and just read it through - not necessarily picking out words, just reading the individual letters that make up the words out in your head, just to make sure you recognise all letters in all positions in the word.
If you think about it, none of this should be foreign to you. Taking the example of the Greek sigma, which changes form according to where it is in the word (as do most Arabic letters, in fact), well, isn't that what capital letters do? You might be confused by the 'lunar' sigma (the one looking like a C, which doesn't change at all), until you realise that a lot of people handwrite their letter Zs like a 3. If the dots on words in Arabic confuse you, think of them as an integral part of the letter, just like the dot on a small letter I or J. (Turkish has a version of the letter I without a dot on top too. This is a separate letter too.) Don't forget we do similar - a little line through the middle of a small L and it becomes a small T; a small flick on an O and it becomes a Q. Put a little dot on top of a comma and it becomes a semicolon. This is all perfectly natural - don't be frightened by it.
Accept it, practise it, and sooner or later it'll stick like our alphabet has stuck, and it won't leave you.
(ii) New scripts
Ooh, now this is naughty. Languages like Chinese don't have alphabets as such; they have seemingly convoluted symbols that represent words. Again, though, this shouldn't be foreign to you; we use "%" for "percent(age)", "&" for "and", "#" for "number", "3" for "three", and, if we're honest, most of us use "2" not just for "two", but also for "to" and "too". Again, don't be scared by it, don't be put off, just sit there, copy a few characters out until they're firmly lodged into your brain just as described above, and then test yourself. Keep doing that and it'll stay there.
(iii) Extinct / nearly extinct languages
Yes, I know people still speak Latin in the Vatican. But the chances of you finding any penpals or taking a holiday there are remote, so for our purposes, it might as well be extinct. Same with Esperanto - there are a million fluent speakers, but there's no such thing as a "native" speaker, and frankly the chances that any given town containing one fluent speaker also contains a second are very slim indeed. Then talking to yourself, as described in section 2(v), becomes yet more important; there's no chance of you practising with anyone, and not many people will know whether you're right or wrong. People who do Latin will know that the verb "to hate" is "odisse" - but this isn't a standard verb form, and because of its oddities, there's no way to say "I will hate" using this verb. The best way to learn in this case is to try learning sentences and replacing the bits of them. Try to keep guessing to a minimum - there's almost certainly an "obvious" future tense of "odisse" that you might be tempted to use, but it'd be wrong, so try to only use words that you know exist through having seen them in a dictionary or in a text before. Don't feel tempted to invent your own sentences until you're definitely comfortable with the language, but when you are comfortable with it, go for it; the same rules apply as in section 2.