How to learn a language

Friends and acquaintances often tell me they'd like to learn a foreign language, and ask me which they ought to learn. I usually answer their question by asking what they want to use it for.

Ultimately, a language is not a subject to be studied, like history or economics, but rather a tool to be used for specific purposes (such as studying history or economics!).

Approaching language acquisition in that way changes how and why languages are learned.

My approach is dead simple:firs t choose what you'd most like to do with the language, then start doing precisely that. Skip the primers, tapes, and drill books. Go directly to your purpose and do what most motivates you. Engage fully in that.

That's the basic principle, but of course there are practical considerations that make auxiliary materials such as audiotapes and grammar books helpful, especially grammar books with good cross-references.

A skillful teacher can help guide you over some of the rougher parts of the terrain, if you can afford the luxury of paying a teacher or tutor. Bilingual materials, where the same content is conveyed through your language as well as the target language, are also worthwhile as scaffolding.

Take things in small steps. If you only understand three words while watching a film in your target language, for example, then consider that a triumph, because while you were focusing on the film to parse out those three words, your brain was actively building an intricate web of linguistic connections, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Those connections are generally too subtle to present themselves directly to your conscious attention. However, over time your mind builds up a rich cognitive layer of this linguistic experience, out of which you will spontaneously begin to use the language.

That will often happen unexpectedly without your having done any particular preparation. Be patient and persistent, and stay focused on your purpose for learning the language.

The difference between this approach and the one usually used in schools is that with this approach, auxiliary materials such as grammar and drills are only used for temporary and peripheral support rather than as the focal point of study, as generally happens when languages are studied as formal "subjects".

Suppose, for example, that your wish is to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in the original Spanish.

The fact is that taking Spanish 101 at the local college will help you less than you might think. In all probability, you won't be much closer to being able to comfortably read the novel after the course than you were before.

Meanwhile, you're probably a busy person who doesn't have enough spare time to pursue four years of coursework before actually tackling the novel. If you wait until you have the chance to finish the coursework, you'll probably never read the novel.

On the other hand, if you do go ahead and just start wading through the novel, you'll end up learning a lot of Spanish in the process of doing so, and then reading the next novel will be easier and probably even more engaging.

I've used this approach to become functionally literate in a dozen languages. As I become basically proficient in one language, I start tackling a related one. It can be a lot of fun, and it's good exercise for the mind.

Michael Webb, 2004

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