The Beginning Stages of Learning A Language
This is my philosophy about language learning: You should race through the beginner stages as fast as you can in order to get to the good stuff.
Every language has a whole set of structural components that are very procedural to learn. They just take time. For alphabet-based* languages, that would include the letters, sounds, and how words are formed. It doesn’t mean perfecting every sound- that might take hours of practice and a teacher correcting your pronunciation- but it does mean learning all the letters, how they are written, and which sounds they correspond to. These are simple memorization tasks. With Arabic, it is 28 or 29 letters. With English, 26 letters. Thai: 59. Russian: 33. German: 26 or 27. I won’t speak to symbol based2 languages (Chinese, Japanese) because I don’t have enough experience with them.
Letters and writing systems can be easily learned at home, especially if your native language is English and you are already literate. There is an incredible breadth of source learning materials available to English speakers covering the details of learning almost any major language. These freely available source materials grow every day. Language basics for almost any major language can be learned for free from the internet.
After learning the letters and how the writing system works, learn the 100 most-common verbs and 100 most-common non-verbs. If you can’t find word lists in your target language, make them yourself using the most common English words. It won’t be perfect, but it will give you a foundation.
Make sure you learn all pronouns and basic present tense conjugation (or the equivalent). Learn the numbers.
Now you are holding the pieces of the puzzle that will allow you to begin learning this language. Now the fun part begins. Now you have the tools to learn. Completing the above steps- writing system, basic structural words and basic grammar demonstrates the essential level of committment necessary to learn any popular language. Completing those steps will give you insight into your true level of interest. (Is this just a fleeting fancy or do you really want to learn?) Completing these first steps will give you a clue as to whether this language excites you enough to go further.
The steps outlined above take between 5 and 20 hours for any major alphabet-based* language. The more comfortable you are with teaching yourself, the less time they will take. If they take more than 20 hours you are using the wrong source materials.
In order to get the information you’ve just acquired to stick and enter long-term memory (or even medium-term) you will need to use regular repetition. Start with a review every day. When that becomes easy, switch to every couple of days, and then to once a week. Now it is time to find a teacher you like to help you through the next steps.
The next step is to find a teacher you like and trust. A good teacher will help you achieve your language goals, correct mistakes that will be, initially, invisible to you, and be a point of consistency and knowledge for the questions that are not easily answered online. It’s important to find someone you like, because your conversations with this teacher will be a big component of building a base in the new language!
People can have very different goals with language learning, of course. For instance, someone interested in ancient and dead languages generally isn’t trying to learn to speak so much as learning to read. For the purposes of this essay, we are going to talk as if your goal is to get to conversational fluency. This is a fairly typical goal people choose. It allows comfortable participation and immersion experiences within a language-culture. It probably equates to level intermediate-high on the ACTFL and B1 on the CEFR scales.
Set some realistic expectations about what it will take to reach that level of conversational fluency and figure out the most efficient ways- in terms of time and money- to achieve that goal.
Languages require different levels of time committment in order to reach conversational fluency. Languages that are similar to your native language take less time to get conversational in. If you are a native English speaker, you can learn French or Spanish much faster than you can learn Japanese or Arabic. If you are a native Arabic speaker, you can probably learn Hebrew much faster than English. And so forth.
However, the the level of interest you have in a language, and the culture surrounding it, will play a big role.
Realistically, conversational fluency is going to require at least 300 hours of focused activity in a non-immersion setting. Now you can figure out how much effort it will take to fit that into your schedule. (The average US working year is 2000 hours…)
- Learn basic structures at home for free from the internet. Repeat on a sequential basis to make the information stick.
- Find a patient teacher whom you like and trust. Generally speaking, friends will not correct your language mistakes, and so you will proceed, blithely unaware of structural errors that you keep repeating. Even if you love reading grammar books it is unlikely you will catch 100% of the nuance and pronunciation without some outside help. If you are over 12 or 15 years old you will almost definitely need a native-speaker to correct your pronunciation.
- Be realistic about your goals. Getting to conversational fluency- a normal-ish goal- requires hundreds of hours with an “easy” language- i.e. one that is similar to your native language.
- Figure out the most efficient way in terms of time and money to get those hundreds of hours within a reasonable span of time. I believe it is actually more efficient to pay for one-on-one tutoring than it is to enter a classroom setting where you can speak only 5 or 10 percent of the time.
- Pair that one-on-one tutoring with multiplicity of other free ways you can get language hours. These methods all assume you are not living in an immersed situation.
A. Changing your computer operating system to run in the target language
B. Library books in your target language (use inter-library loans)
C. Conversation groups
D. Slow language podcasts and video series
E. Foreign-language movies and television shows (if there is transcription or subtitles in target language it is even better)
F. Volunteering with immigrants
G. Language exchanges
H. Record yourself speaking or reading and compare it to source
* I’m using the term alphabet here very loosely by referring to writing systems that include alphabets, abjads, and abugida. See more here.
*2 aka Logographic
Read this post in two languages on arabiclanguage.me!