Chapter 11: The first steps in a foreign language

Language Learning is a Process

In an academic setting, languages are typically grouped with the humanities. Most of these subjects—history, literature, sociology, etc.—involve the learning of broad concepts, or the memorization of facts.

From the learner’s perspective, foreign language study actually has more in common with mathematics or computer programming. A language is a skill. While an accomplished historian certainly possesses a great deal of knowledge and insight that can be applied to various situations, history itself is not a skill.

As with any skill, your abilities in a foreign language can be measured by your capacity to solve problems. At first, the level of problems that you can solve will be extremely limited: You will be able to greet someone correctly at different times of the day (“good morning”, “good afternoon”, etc.), and you will be able to give and solicit basic personal information such as your name, age, and nationality.

After more study, you will be able to solve slightly more difficult problems. Whereas before you were relying entirely on memorized scripts, you will now be formulating your own questions and statements. You will understand simple questions and responses from native speakers. The range of topics that you can effectively handle at this point will still be restricted. For the most part, your conversations will be limited to basic factual information: what you ate for breakfast, does the other person like living in New York, whether or not food is expensive in Italy, and so on. At this stage, however, a discussion about a complex philosophical or technical issue will be beyond your grasp.

If you persevere, you will notice that the difficult problems gradually become less intimidating. One day, you will discover that you can actually explain your company’s products in the other language. Someone will insist on drawing you into a political discussion, and you will be able to reasonably present and defend your opinions regarding America’s latest foreign policy decisions. There will still be a lot of gaps in your abilities to express yourself, but you will begin to get the feeling that you “speak” the language.

With more study, you will refine your skills, and develop the ability to discuss practically any topic in the foreign language. Speaking in the foreign language will be somewhat more comfortable to you. Conscious effort will no longer be required each time you participate in a conversation. Although you will realize that you lack the accent and cultural perspectives of a native speaker, you will be confident dealing with native speakers in their own mode of communication.

It is important to understand from the outset that the learning of a foreign language is a process, with many small milestones along the way. One of the milestones in my Spanish language studies fell into my lap many years ago in the Mexico City airport. A man sitting next to me struck up a conversation in Spanish, and identified himself as a resident of Cuba. I wanted to confine our conversation to politically neutral topics, but he seemed intent on engaging the first American he had ever met in a political discussion. We had a long debate about the pros and cons of capitalism and communism, and the American opposition to Castro. We never did come to an agreement, but we exchanged contact information, and agreed to continue the discussion in the event that one of us ever had the opportunity to visit the other’s country. 

Classes versus Independent Study

We will assume that you are going to learn and utilize your foreign language in a non-academic setting. However, if you do have access to formal language instruction—then by all means take advantage of the opportunity. Traditional classroom instruction does not conflict with the self-instructional methods described below.

Universities are the most popular destination for language students who want to pursue the traditional learning route. Over the past ten years or so, the demographic profile of the “typical” university student has dramatically changed. Undergraduates (and even graduate students) were once comprised almost exclusively of the under-twenty-five, daytime student crowd. Non-traditional adult learners now make up the fastest growing segment of the university population. Universities are responding to this trend by offering more and more classes in the evenings—when working adults can attend.

Many employers offer tuition reimbursement to their employees. The content of these courses is usually subject to company approval. Therefore, if you want your employer to pay for your evening Spanish class, then you will have to build a case explaining why Spanish is relevant to your current position. (If your employer already has customers or facilities in a Spanish-speaking country, then you should be able to build a case.)

To find out whether or not the university in your area offers evening classes in the language of your choice, check their website—practically all universities now offer searchable online class schedules.

Learning a Language on Your Own

If formal classes at a university or other institution don’t happen to fit your lifestyle and budget, don’t despair. If you can’t go to classes, then you can bring the language instruction to you. On a modest budget, you can equip yourself with books, audio materials, and even multimedia computer programs designed for self-studying language students. An assortment of these items (plus supplemental exposure to the foreign language) is all you need to learn any language.

If you have never studied a foreign language independently, then you probably aren’t aware of the specific books and audio courses that are on the market, and their relative strengths and weaknesses. To address this concern, I have included in this book a section entitled, “The Language Student’s Buying Guide.”  This chapter is a roadmap for first-time shoppers.

As a prelude, though, it is worth mentioning a few of the broad categories of the materials that you will be using:

  • Full-length audio courses: These are packaged programs that contain a course book, and a compliment of audio cassettes or CDs.
  • Supplemental audio programs: These often consist of only an audio component. They focus on a particular aspect of language-learning, such as vocabulary, or verb conjugation.
  • Textbooks, dictionaries, and flashcards

When you choose the self-study route, you don’t have to designate fixed blocks of time (such as every Tuesday and Thursday night from 6:00 to 8:30) to learn a language. You will, of course, have to maintain your own study regimen, but you can blend language study into the normal routine of your life.

Begin with a Review of English Grammar

You have probably not formally studied English grammar since grade school or high school. Even if you are an articulate speaker and writer of English, you may not know off the top of your head what the pluperfect tense is, or the difference between a gerund and an infinitive. Once we become functional in our own language, these distinctions tend to fade quickly from the mind. It is safe to say that the average corporate CEO would not be able to produce an impromptu diagram of a sentence if his or her life depended on it.

While the terminology of grammar may have a negligible impact on the average adult professional life, there is a lot to be gained by reviewing fundamental grammatical concepts before you begin the study of a foreign language. This will enable you to more quickly identify the differences and similarities between English and a foreign language.

English grammar books are easy to obtain. You can buy one at any bookstore. Don’t fret too much over the selection of this book; your only objective is a basic review. If you are the parent of an adolescent, then you may even be able to borrow your child’s grammar text.

Stranger in a Strange Land: Learning to Eat with Chopsticks

Despite all my years as a student of the languages and cultures of East Asia, I have never really mastered the art of eating with chopsticks. Although I have some degree of functionality with these implements, I usually throw in the towel and ask if a knife and fork are available. When I visit a traditional Asian restaurant at home or abroad, I cannot avoid the involuntary Euro-centric notion that Western eating utensils are more efficient than chopsticks. How can anyone eat with slivers of balsa wood?

Delving into a foreign language is kind of like being forced to eat with new utensils. You will observe that your new language accomplishes everything that English does, but it often employs different means—just as people in most Asian countries eat with chopsticks rather than knives and forks.

In Russian, if you are going to say, “I am an American,” you would say, “Ya Amerikanyitz.Ya means “I” and “Amerikanyitz” means “American.” The verb “to be” is assumed, even though it is not specifically indicated by the speaker. In addition, you would only say Amerikanyitz if you are a man. A woman would use the feminine form, Amerikanka, to identify herself as an American.

How can Russians make sense of sentences that are missing verbs? Why do they need a masculine form and a feminine form of the word “American?” Can’t they just use a single word, like we do?

This is a reaction that you will have any number of times as you dive into foreign languages. Western European languages have more in common with English than Asian, Middle Eastern, or Slavic languages; but every foreign language uses at least some unfamiliar means to accomplish familiar ends. Your target language will seem to be full of unpardonable omissions on one hand, and mountains of useless baggage on the other.

These preferences are merely the result of our lifelong familiarity with English. English, too, has a number of attributes which bedevil foreign students. Consider irregular spellings, such as through, weigh, and vogue—just to name a few.

I don’t know what language you will be studying, but the following grammatical elements commonly vary across languages. As soon as you dive in, begin sorting out where your target language (the language that you want to learn) stands on these items:


The concept of a “masculine noun” and a “feminine noun” is limited in English. Expressions of a noun’s gender are primarily confined to words such as “actor” (masculine) or “actress” (feminine). Moreover, gender-specific nouns are an endangered species in English—especially American English. The trend over recent years has been to replace gender-specific words with a neutral equivalent. Rather than saying “salesman” or “saleswoman”, the all-inclusive “salesperson” is now preferred. Instead of saying “policeman” or “policewoman”, it is recent custom to refer to both as simply “the police.” (In fact, I have even heard that the word “actress” has fallen out of favor. Both men and women in the acting profession are now described as “actors.”)

The concept of “feminine” and “masculine” words is pervasive throughout many languages, including French, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Italian. In the countries where these languages are spoken, this linguistic gender distinction is not a source of controversy, perhaps because the reference to “gender” does not have an automatic social implication.

For example, the Spanish word máquina (“machine”) is feminine. The fact that máquina is grammatically feminine does not imply any associations between machines and women. Similarly, the fact that the Spanish word horno (“oven”) is masculine does not suggest that men should stay home and bake bread while the womenfolk go to work as machinists. This distinction simply governs the way in which horno and máquina affect other parts of speech.

“Red machine” is máquina roja. However, “red oven” is horno rojo. Because máquina is feminine, the word for “red” becomes roja, the feminine version of the adjective. Horno, however, is masculine, so it takes the masculine rojo

Word Order

In the above section about gender, you may have noticed something strange about Spanish word order. If máquina means “machine,” and roja means “red,” then the phrase máquina roja literally means “machine red,” not “red machine.” Why place the adjective after the noun? That’s not how we do it in English. We say “blue sky,” “tall man,” and “flexible material.” The adjective always comes before the noun.

However, if you’re speaking Spanish, the adjective always comes after the noun (with a few exceptions). Spanish speakers don’t see anything strange about this. Neither do speakers of French, Portuguese, or Italian, who also place their adjectives after their nouns.

The rules governing word order are by no means uniform across languages. Perhaps the best examples of convoluted word order (from an English speaker’s perspective) are Japanese and Korean, which place the verb at the end of a sentence.

Japanese Word Order:

Below is a sentence of very simple Japanese, which demonstrates the counterintuitive (from an English-speaker’s perspective) word order:

Japanese: トムはリンゴを食べました。

Transliteration: Tomu wa ringo o tabemashita.

English: “Tom ate an apple.”

Tomu = “Tom”; ringo = apple; tabemashita = “ate”


In English, these are the words “the,” “an,” and “a.” Most Asian languages completely ignore these. There is no exact equivalent of “the” in Chinese or Japanese. Other languages use definite articles only under limited circumstances.

In most European languages, the article changes according to gender. In Spanish, “the house” is la casa. Casa is a feminine noun, so it takes the definite article la. On the other hand, the word for “car,” coche, is masculine. Masculine nouns in Spanish take the direct article el, so “the car” is el coche. As noted below, the articles in many European languages also change if the noun happens to be plural.


Whenever there is more than one of something, a plural is involved. In English, plurals are generally formed by adding an –s to a word. We have “cats,” “dogs,” and “automobiles.”  (Of course, we also have our share of irregular plurals.)

The Romance languages (Spanish, French, etc.) are relatively well behaved in regard to plurals. (In fact, the plural forms in most Romance languages are more consistent than those of English.) An –s is added, and a consistent change is made to the definite article. In Spanish, for example, el libro (“the book”) becomes los libros (“the books”).

However, German—another commonly studied European language—has a complex system of plural formation that requires quite a bit of memorization. When a German plural is formed, the direct article and the ending of the original word both change. “The year” is das Jahr. However, “the years” is die Jahre. “The boy” is der Knabe; “the boys” is die Knaben.

Arabic is perhaps the most maddening of all—the plural version of a noun may take a form which looks like a completely different word. For instance “a house” is bayt. However, “houses” is bayut. There are several distinguishable patterns for plural formation in Arabic—but Arabic plurals are challenging, nonetheless.

In Japanese, explicit plural forms are seldom used. In most situations, context tells you whether you are talking about one armadillo, or a whole pack of armadillos. If you need to specify the exact number of armadillos, then you use a special auxiliary word, called a counter, which indicates quantity. Just to keep you on your toes, Japanese has different counters for different types of objects. There are unique counters for books, animals, people, cupfuls, etc.

Indonesian plurals are perhaps the easiest and most logical. An explicit Indonesian plural is formed by simply doubling up the noun. For example, the Indonesian word for “child” is anak. The word for “children” is anak-anak.

Plurals are one of the first aspects of grammar that you will have to learn. The difficulty that you will face in this area will largely depend on the language which you decide to study.

Counters in Asian Languages:

Chinese and Japanese do not have universal plural forms like we have in English. However, the counters employed by these languages enable you to be specific if you need to emphasize a particular quantity.

Suppose, for example, that I want to say “three books” in Chinese.  The basic word for book in Chinese is shū. Rather than modifying the noun itself to specify the plural, a speaker of Chinese would use the number threesān , and the common counter for books bĕn before the unmodified form of shū. Therefore, “three books in Chinese becomes 三本书sān bĕn shū.


Mastering these “action words” is typically the most challenging aspect of learning any language. In most languages, the conjugation, or inflection, of the verb varies according to its tense, as well as the gender and the singular/plural status of the subject.

We are all already used to working with verb conjugations in English. For most of us, English verb conjugations are so deeply ingrained that they have now become second nature. Without any conscious effort, we distinguish between “I believe,” “I believed,” and “I have believed.”

In each language, there is a set pattern for conjugating verbs. The past tense of English verbs is generally formed by adding –ed. The past perfect tense is formed with “have” + the –ed form of the verb. Similarly, an –s is added to the third person present tense of most English verbs. I live in Cincinnati, but he lives in Chicago.

These rules are especially useful when you encounter a new verb for the first time. Even if you don’t know the meaning of the verb “actuate”, you will know its conjugations based on your experience with English verbs: “I actuate,” “she actuates,” “we have actuated.” (By the way, actuate means “to put into mechanical action or motion”.)

Foreign languages also have uniform rules for conjugating verbs. Consider the Spanish word for “to talk,” hablar. This verb is conjugated as follows in the present tense (the pronouns are omitted): I talk = hablo; you talk = hablas; he/she talks = habla; we talk = hablamos; they talk = hablan

Similar verbs are conjugated in the same way. The verb fumar (“to smoke”) ends in an –ar, just like hablar, and its present tense conjugations are: I smoke = fumo; you smoke = fumas; he/she smokes = fuma; we smoke = fumamos; they smoke = fuman. You can probably detect the pattern: for the first person singular, the –ar ending is dropped, and an –o is added; for the second person singular, the ending becomes –as, and so on.

This is not the whole story on first person Spanish verb conjugations (there are actually three basic conjugation patterns, which vary according to the last two letters of the verb), but you get the idea. Once you learn the pattern, you can easily apply it across most of the verbs in the language.

Why do I say “most of the verbs?” Well, practically every language contains malevolent creatures known as “irregular verbs.” Irregular verbs do not follow standard conjugation rules. They follow a unique conjugation pattern, and therefore must be memorized one at time.

There are many irregular verbs in English. Consider the verb “eat”:  Rather than say “I eated,” or “I have eated,” we say “I ate,” and “I have eaten.” Rather than saying “I goed,” and “I have goed,” we say “I went,” and “I have gone.”

Although most of us don’t think of ourselves as being oppressed by irregular English verbs, they are a major stumbling block for foreigners who attempt to learn our language. Likewise, when you study a foreign language, irregular verb conjugations will bedevil you to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the language you select.

What are the best ways to learn verb conjugations? Although verb conjugations are covered in every textbook and instructional course worth its salt, you should also avail yourself of some special “verb tools” that are on the market.

The Barron’s “501” verb book series is perhaps the best known. These thick books dedicate a single page to the conjugation of each verb. Another tool is the audio verb conjugation series produced by Living Language. These tapes, like the Barron’s books, can be readily procured at any major bookstore.

Although verbs are difficult, they are the key to proficiency in your target language. Once you climb the mountain of verb mastery, you are well on your way to basic competency in the language.


Cognates are closely related words that are similar across different languages. Some good examples would be the Spanish words presidente, resistencia, and invasión. Even if you have no prior knowledge of the Spanish language, you can easily determine that the English translations for these words are “president,” “resistance,” and “invasion.”

Cognates provide an obvious means of assistance when you are learning a foreign language. Since the foreign word is so similar to the English one, it is easy to memorize. Cognates are especially plentiful across the Western European languages. In addition to the Spanish examples mentioned above, there are numerous cognates in French (technologie, imaginer, etc.) and in German (Studenten, Kameras, etc.), as well as in Portuguese, Italian, and Dutch.

Cognates are often the result of common linguistic origins. In Western Europe, the pervasive influence of Latin throughout the centuries left a wide trail of common vocabulary across the present-day languages of this area. Many of the words that are now used daily by speakers of English, French, Spanish, and Italian were originally Latin vocabulary. The words were modified in a slightly different manner in each region of Europe, but they remain close enough to the original Latin to be recognizable as descending from common roots.

However, some cognates are “false friends.” A false cognate resembles a common English word, but conveys a different meaning in the foreign language. Consider, for example, the Spanish words asistir, carpeta, and actual. At first glance, you might say, “Hey, I know the meanings of these words.” And indeed, it would be easy to mistranslate these words as “assist,” “carpet,” and “actual.” But the English definitions of these words are “attend,” “folder,” and “current.”

While many cognates derive from ancient linguistic roots, others are the products of more recent cross-pollination between languages. In English, we commonly use foreign loanwords such as tsunami (Japanese), amok (Indonesian), and kowtow (Chinese). Similarly, numerous elements of English vocabulary have been adopted into other languages over the past hundred years. The French word le weekend is a European example; but more distant languages, like Japanese, contain English loanwords such as nyuusu (“news”), aisu kuriimu (“ice cream”), and jaa (“jar”).

Chinese Cognates in East Asian Languages

As you increase your knowledge of languages, you will become aware of cognate systems that exist within groups of foreign languages. For example,  Chinese is the Latin of the Far East: many East Asian languages have derivative Chinese words. Below are just two examples.

Chinese word/root :  chá (tea) / Derivative (Japanese): cha (tea)

Chinese word/root : guó (nation) / Derivative (Vietnamese): quốc (nation)

Levels of Politeness

The English pronoun “you” can be used without distinction across hierarchical and social levels. You address your best friend, your next door neighbor, and your boss as “you.” Outside of archaic terms like “your Majesty,” and “your Grace,” English speakers more or less make due with one second person personal pronoun.

Not so in German, Spanish, Chinese or Portuguese. In fact, most languages seem to have specific pronouns that are only used in polite company, while others that are used with friends and family. Japanese takes this principle to an extreme. In Japanese, there are about half a dozen ways of saying “I” and “you,” depending on the level of politeness that one wants to convey.

Verbs also express politeness or familiarity. The Romance languages and German each have two levels of politeness. Japanese has crude, familiar, polite, humble, and honorific (extremely polite) verb forms.

Textbooks and other teaching materials tend to favor the polite forms of any language. It is a good idea to stick with polite language until you become very confident of your abilities, and your degree of familiarity with your audience.

In his book, Japanese in Action, Jack Seward skillfully sums up the politeness issue. In Japanese, there are various suffixes which can be attached to a person’s name. The suffix –san is the standard polite form. Another suffix, –kun, is a familiar form. Seward advises nonnative speakers of Japanese to “err on the side of politeness” in regard to these name suffixes, on the grounds that, “no one will really thing less of you for using san when a native Japanese would have used kun.” The same advice might be applied to any language with different polite and familiar forms.     

Demonstrating Courtesy through Verb Conjugations:

You can express either easy familiarity or reserved politeness in Spanish simply by your choice of a verb. Both of the following sentences mean, “Do you want to go?” in Spanish. But the second one is more polite, because it employs a more formal conjugation of the verb querer (“to want”). Note the –ieres vs. the –iere ending

Informal: ¿Quieres ir?

Formal:   ¿Quiere ir?

Working with non-Roman Scripts

The language that you probably studied in high school—Spanish, French, or German—gave you a break that you perhaps never fully appreciated. These languages all employ the Latin, or Roman, alphabet. The same is true of all Western European languages, including Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian.

Of course, we are not being completely honest here. Most Western European languages do contain a few letters that will be new to you. Spanish has the “n” with a tilde (ñ), as well as accented vowels (á,í,ó, etc.) German has the “u” with an umlaut (ü). Portuguese and French both contain the special “c” with a cedilla, which looks like a c with an upside down question mark attached (ç). But you can master all of these on the first day of class.

Consider the following: Even if you have never studied Italian, you could start reading a page of written Italian aloud, and others would understand at least part of what you were saying. You might not be completely comprehensible, and your accent would almost surely be atrocious. But at least some of what you read would convey a recognizable meaning to a speaker of Italian.

Now suppose that you pick up a page of written Arabic. All you would see is a mind-boggling swarm of squiggles. Your heartbeat would increase, and little beads of sweat would appear on your forehead. You wouldn’t have the first idea of how to pronounce anything. After a while, your listeners would shake their heads, grumble, and disperse as you looked helplessly at the sea of squiggles, reminiscing about how wonderfully easy Spanish class was. 

The same would be true of Chinese, Thai, Farsi, Greek, Russian, Hebrew, Bulgarian, Japanese, Ukrainian, Burmese, Hindi, Urdu, Korean and Serbian. These languages all use non-Latin writing systems. Some of the languages on this list are harder than others. You could probably master Serbian or Russian in about half the time it would take you to learn Chinese or Arabic. Nonetheless, each of these languages requires you to do something that Spanish, Italian and German will never require: learn to use a new writing system.

Therefore, if you have chosen one of the above languages, you will have to make an early decision about how you are going to handle the writing system. Most textbooks of Chinese, Japanese, Arabic etc., employ a method called transliteration. Transliteration is basically a representation of another writing system using the Roman alphabet. For example, the Japanese word for “car” is kuruma. A Japanese would actually write it using a specific kanji, or Chinese-style character (). However, if you pronounce, “kuruma,” your Japanese friends will know that you are talking about a car.

On your first exposure to the transliterated kuruma, you may experience what feels like an epiphany. You didn’t have to learn the Japanese character that represents kuruma () in order to communicate the idea of “car” verbally. So why not just skip the Japanese writing system altogether? Why not just learn Japanese using transliterations?

This is the temptation to which you must not succumb if you have chosen one of the non-Roman languages. There is nothing wrong with using transliterations in the beginning, while you are still learning the other writing system. However, as soon as possible, you should learn the other writing system and begin using it to learn the language.

The notion of a phonetically oriented alphabet is nearly universal. Therefore, once you master the system, you will have few problems using the foreign writing system as a medium for learning. In fact, your study of Russian, Bulgarian, or Serbian would actually be impeded if you relied on transliterations beyond the first week or two of your studies. The Cyrillic alphabet employed by these Slavic languages is easy enough for most students to master. Moreover, some of the transliterated Cyrillic sounds are awkward to work with. For example, there is a single Cyrillic letter that is transliterated as sh-sh. Rather than grappling with this unwieldy combination, it’s easier just to learn and use the corresponding Cyrillic letter (Щ).

The alphabets used in Korean and Thai are a bit more challenging; but once again, they are easier to work with over the long haul than transliterations. Even Japanese has a phonetically based alphabet. (Actually they have two, called hiragana and katakana. Although Japanese utilizes thousands of Chinese characters, most dictionaries contain a phonetic hiragana or katakana “spelling” of each word.)

The Middle Eastern languages, such as Arabic, are a bit trickier. These languages have alphabets, but short vowels are often omitted from texts written for adult readers. However, dictionaries and beginners’ texts indicate all the vowels. In time, you will be able to anticipate the short vowels in a word, much as an Arabic- or Hebrew-speaker does.

Chinese is the one language for which a prolonged reliance on transliteration is necessary. In order to master the Chinese language, you will have to master thousands of Chinese characters, each of which has a distinct pronunciation and tonal designation. Since Chinese has no real alphabet, a system of Romanized transliteration known as pinyin has been developed to help nonnative speakers learn the language. Although pinyin is no substitute for learning the characters, you will probably use it for supplemental purposes for an indefinite period.  When you learn a new Chinese character, you will have no way of knowing its pronunciation without seeing the pinyin version.

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