Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Learning a New Language

Awhile back, guest blogger Penny Milbouer wrote about why it isn’t so common to study languages in the United States. Studying languages may not be supported in schools, but what can you do if you want to learn a new language on your own?

Obviously, the best method is to live in a country where they speak the language (unless, of course, you want to learn Latin or another language that is rarely or never spoken now). Being surrounded by the language in question and having to use it to buy groceries, go to the doctor, socialize, or participate in other everyday activities forces you to improve your language skills quite quickly. A problem can occur here if you move to a country where everyone wants to learn your native tongue and insists on speaking with you in that language instead. That’s a common problem for people who have English as their mother tongue. When I moved to Sweden, I found it challenging to practice my Swedish, since so many people could speak English and enjoyed doing so. “It’s so fun and cool to speak English,” I was told a number of times, despite the fact that I thought it was more fun and useful to speak Swedish.

It’s not always possible to move to another country to learn a new language, so in my opinion, the next best tip is to read books voraciously and actively. When I first learned Swedish, I studied a book on grammar and vocabulary. At the same time, I read lots of children’s books. Sure, there were times when I felt a little silly carrying a big pile of picture books through the library, but it was definitely a great way to improve my Swedish. Children’s books use simpler language than books for adults do, which naturally makes it easier to read them, plus there are pictures that help explain what is going on in the story, which then helps you decipher any tricky words. If you can find a native speaker to read those books aloud to you and to listen to you attempt to read them, that’s an extra bonus that benefits your pronunciation and listening skills. Plus, story time is definitely not just an enjoyable treat for kids!

Once you have grasped the basic grammatical rules and have memorized plenty of vocabulary, and once you can read and understand works for children and young adults, you can move on to periodicals and books for adults. I enjoyed looking at Swedish food magazines, and of course the pictures and the format of such magazines helped me learn more words. Other people have told me that they liked starting out with magazines on fashion, cars, gardening, or other topics that often are accompanied by illustrations, before attempting to read articles on culture or politics. Some countries also offer easy-to-read periodicals aimed at teaching immigrants both the language and about the culture. Similarly, there are many easy-to-read novels, often shortened versions of classics, so those are worth trying. As for adult literature, I remember how proud I was when I completed my first novel in Swedish (it was a translation of Norwegian author Erlend Loe’s enjoyable novel “Naïve. Super.”) and how eager I was to keep reading literature in Swedish. A mistake many of my students make is to feel they have to understand every single word they read, so they get bogged down by looking up each difficult word they encounter when reading and they eventually give up, believing they just aren’t good enough yet to try reading in English. However, many words can be understood from the context, and guessing often is good enough. I recommend only looking up words you can’t figure out from the context or words that seem particularly interesting for whatever reason. If you stumble across a foreign word in context enough times, you’ll gradually get a good understanding of what it means and how it is used by native speakers. Also, reading teaches you grammar, almost without you being aware of it. You see what is accepted as correct and that soon influences how you write and speak in the foreign language.

While I am not so impressed by much of what is shown on television and don’t even own one, I do think that watching tv or movies can sometimes be a useful way to improve language skills. Depending on what is available where you live, start by watching a program or film in which the people speak your native language but the subtitles are in the language you are learning. Subtitles are generally simplified versions of what is being said, which makes them easy and fast to read. Eventually you should try to tune out or turn off the spoken language and only concentrate on the subtitles. Next, you can watch programs in the foreign language and have the subtitles either in your native language or else in the same language you are learning (DVDs often seem to have this option these days), for extra reinforcement. Besides helping you improve your skills in general, watching television or movies can also expose you to different dialects, which is also important. Some of my students definitely appreciated the idea that they were doing homework by watching tv shows in English!

One of the biggest challenges, I think, in learning a new language, is being able to understand people on the radio. Talking to people in person or listening to someone on tv or in a film is difficult, too, but at least there you are helped by the way their mouth moves, other facial expressions, and body language. When listening to the radio, you only have the voice to go by and people often speak more quickly on the radio, so it important to train your listening skills from early on. One semester, I brought in a CD of news, interviews, and other radio programs in English to one of my intermediate classes. The students were pretty confident about their language skills and they spoke without too much hesitation, but they nearly all failed to answer the questions on the worksheets I gave them about the radio programs. They needed to listen to each show at least 5 times before they started understanding what was being said. But when I incorporated using the same CD in class with a group of students who were just beginning to learn English, I found that they were soon able to summarize each radio program after hearing it just once, and that they could answer most of the questions correctly after listening to it twice. So I recommend buying a similar CD or else making one yourself by recording radio shows and listening to them multiple times. Some countries have easy-language radio shows specifically for foreigners, so you could begin with those. Unless you are planning to just read in the new language, being able to understand what people are saying is an essential skill to possess.

In the next post, I’ll give some more tips for learning a new language or for improving your skills in another language.


Eric Dickens said...

Yes, BJ, I've gone though many of the things you mention in "Learning a New Language".

I got one free as a baby: Dutch. My mother is Dutch and I will, no doubt, have muttered words of Dutch before I mastered English. But since about the age of two or three, I became firmly rooted in the English language. But when, in my 30s, I began to have more contact with Dutch in Holland, that childhood input helped me. It has been important for my Dutch pronunciation.

That initial input has left me with an interest in other people's languages. You realise that lives can be lived in languages other than English. This is hard for most Brits and Americans to grasp. They think that foreigners are, kind of, "just pretending", and will speak in "the real language" i.e. English, if pressed.

Thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest entry in 1970 I now speak Swedish with a Finland-Swedish accent. The Finns sang a song; I got interested in this weird and wonderful language. I couldn't study Finnish at degree level (no courses in those days), so I did Swedish instead. My year abroad (1972-73) was at Åbo Akademi, Åbo (Finnish: Turku) in western Finland. I returned, later that decade, and again mixed with Finland-Swedes. Even after living seven years in Sweden, I still, to this day, retain a pronounced Finland-Swedish accent. This is proof of how important it is to live in the country where the language is spoken. I lived among Finland-Swedes, so my accent reflects my life experience.

If you study on your own, in your own country, I believe that old-fashioned textbooks with text, vocabulary and grammar are best, as long as you also have tapes / DVDs / CDs to help you. Nothing too complicated to begin with.

But I've taught English as a Foreign Language, so I know there are all sorts of tricks that can be used in class to motivate students to speak and discuss.

B.J. Epstein said...

Learning languages as a young child is probably the easiest way of going about it; I always think it is a shame when immigrant parents don't teach their children their languages but instead prioritize assimilation and therefore only use the language of their new country.
Many people find it difficult to study on their own, often because they have to motivate themselves, and that is not always easy. Also, having input from a teacher or a community does help. Recently, I had the opportunity to try out Rosetta Stone, which is a computer system (an expensive one, I might add) for learning languages. I thought it was pretty good. No English is used; repetition and lots of pictures are relied on to help people understand vocabulary and grammar. I enjoyed using it, but I did find it overpriced.
There is, unfortunately, nothing that can replace the necessary memorization and repetition required when studying a language -- this is the part people find dull and challenging. When I taught EFL, I created a lot of fun activities that taught grammar and vocabulary while also letting the students have a good time. These were published a couple of years ago (, and I think the activities themselves can easily be adapted to any other language.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Recently I began attempting to learn a new language online, just to have something else to put on my CV, and I was amazed how many different types of language cds there are available. In the end I decided to purchase some gear that would help me learn German and it has been amazing, I can’t believe how quickly I am picking it all up! Going to give Russian a go next!

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment. I've recently had the chance to try Rosetta Stone myself, and I actually am planning to post on my experiences with it. So check back!

Best wishes,