Chapter 16: More language learning tips and strategies

Learn by Example

As your confidence grows in your new language, the ideas that you want to express will grow progressively more complex. You will soon grow bored of telling everyone what you ate for breakfast, where you live, and how long you have been studying Russian. You will recognize this phase when you enter it. This is the point at which you are no longer able to immediately find the words that you need in your beginner’s textbook or in a phrase book.

Sometimes you will find that you are able to construct the more complex ideas by looking up the necessary words in a dictionary, and then applying what you know about the grammar of the language. However, this method will not be 100% successful. Every language has its own set of idiomatic constructions and irregular syntax. Consider the following English sentences:

“We’ll be in trouble if we don’t get down to business.”

“If you rest on your laurels, you will fall behind the times.”

“Only proactive measures can prevent the situation from getting out of hand.”

“If we don’t see eye-to-eye on this issue, then we should table the discussion for now and let the matter work itself out.”

For a beginning student of English, you can imagine how difficult it might be to figure out constructions such as “rest on your laurels,” “fall behind the times,” and “see eye-to-eye.” Some of these phrases might be found in a good dictionary of idioms. But as a beginning student, you would probably bungle some aspect of any one of these expressions. Moreover, phrases such as “let the matter work itself out” might not be readily found in any dictionary or instructional text.

This does not mean that as a nonnative speaker, the higher levels of expression will be forever beyond your grasp. However, there is a threshold beyond which the textbook cannot carry you. When you reach this threshold, you should shift your attention from the canned example sentences in your textbooks to the sentences that you find in materials produced for native speakers.

Just as you keep a set of vocabulary cards, you should also start and maintain a set of example sentence cards. One day you will come across a sentence in a magazine article and say to yourself, “I should remember that grammatical construction. It might come in handy someday.” All you have to do is write down the sentence on a 3”x5” index card and file it away. Now it is yours forever, to study and employ in your own conversations and writing.

The more varied your reading, the more varied will be your powers of expression. There are certain aspects of a language that you can only learn from reading financial newspapers. Other nuggets can only be gleaned from scientific and technical materials. And don’t forget to read editorials and opinion pieces. These will teach you how to structure an argument and persuade in the language.

You can also feel free to copy sentences and turns of phrase that you hear people use in conversation. If someone says something that strikes you as useful, jot it down and add it to your sentence card collection. To succeed with a new language, you must become a connoisseur of the methods by which people employ it.

Professional journals and websites that pertain to your particular profession are especially valuable in this regard. If you are a computer programmer who is studying Spanish, then you will want to pay special attention to language that Spanish-speaking programmers use when talking about object-oriented design, program debugging, and multi-tier architecture. This will enable you be truly polished when you discuss these principles with fellow programmers in Madrid.

An Example from Japanese:


Pronunciation: Natsu ni wa tamago wa nagamochi shinai.

Translation: Eggs don’t stay fresh for long in the summer.

My translation is somewhat colloquial. A word-for-word translation would not be as user-friendly. The core element of the above sentence, naga-mochi suru 長持ちする, is an odd beast – a combination of an adjective, nagai 長い(long) and the verb motsu 持つ(to have, to hold) attached to the verb suru する (to do).

From an English-speaker’s perspective, this is an odd way of attacking the idea that “eggs don’t stay fresh for long (or quickly spoil) in summer.” But this makes perfect sense within the world of the Japanese language.

Japanese is full of little syntactical nuggets like this that you will need to commit to memory in order to become a truly competent speaker of the language. Insights like the one above cannot be laid out in a grammar book. The only way for you to learn them is through habitual listening and reading. You will then need to reinforce your knowledge by applying what you have learned in your own speech and writing.

Hitting Plateaus

For the first few months of your studies, it will seem that your knowledge and skill in the language doubles every two or three weeks. And this may not be far from the truth; when you are starting at the bottom, it is relatively easy for you to increase your knowledge by a factor of twenty-five, fifty, or even one hundred percent. At this stage, every textbook and cassette program is full of things that you didn’t know before: new vocabulary, new grammar rules, new idioms, etc. You also have the momentum of novelty on your side.

After a while your rate of improvement will taper off. Progress will be measured in minor increments rather than leaps and bounds. Stimulation will be harder to find, as fewer language textbooks and tapes will be able to offer you something new. Nonetheless, you will know that you still have a long way to go before you reach fluency. You will have to keep moving, even though studying Japanese or Russian may at times feel like just another routine.

Plateaus eventually threaten all study, skill-building, and self-improvement efforts. When as a thirteen-year-old, I took my first guitar lesson, my instructor warned me, “At first, you will be eager to practice everyday. But later on, you will go through periods when you don’t feel like practicing. The students who keep practicing through these times are the ones who eventually become good guitarists.” Similar advice might be appropriate for language learners. Plateaus are inevitable, but they must be overcome.

There are several strategies that you can employ for overcoming plateaus. Depending on your circumstances, you might want to use all of these strategies, or just one or two of them.

Buy a new textbook or audio program

The first thing you might do is whip out your credit card, log on to Amazon or one of the specialty online language bookstores, and purchase some new materials. Plateaus often occur when your present collection of language materials is no longer teaching you anything new. You may be in need of some more advanced materials, or perhaps just a course which approaches the language from a different perspective.

You can often preempt plateaus by making regular additions to your language study library. The monthly purchase of a new book or a new audio course will help you to preserve your sense of novelty.

Step out into the real world

Alternatively, you may want to provide yourself with some fresh “real world” doses of the language. Strike up a conversation with a native speaker of the language that you are studying. If possible, visit a setting where the language is regularly spoken. If you live in a major city, you likely won’t need to purchase a plane ticket in order to accomplish this.

Periodic overseas travel does provide tremendous benefit for language learners. Nothing reinforces your desire to increase your skills like time spent on the ground in another country, where at every turn you can exercise your language skills in a different scenario. If time and resources allow, you might consider taking an annual “language vacation” to a country in which your target language is spoken.

Take a Rest

A final possibility is that you may have been spending too much time focused on your language. As important as consistent study is, it is possible to hit a point of diminishing returns—where you need to step back from the subject to let all the information you’ve consumed soak in.

If you find yourself in a rut, perhaps you need to add variety to your mental life. Begin the study of another language, enroll in an evening accounting class, or read a book which interests you. You will probably find that the addition of such variety enables you to see your language through “fresh eyes.”

Diversifying your Linguistic Portfolio

The process of learning languages can be habit-forming. You will experience a genuine thrill the first time you are able to converse in a language that was incomprehensible two years earlier. Naturally, you will want to repeat the experience. Shortly after you reach a point of competency in your first foreign language, you will probably start shopping for your second one.

This realization raises a few questions. First of all, are two or three foreign languages better than one? My answer would be a conditional “yes.” Every additional language that you learn increases the number of countries in which you can read the local press, conduct market research, and telephone any business or government agency without worrying whether or not you will be greeted by someone who speaks English. All things being equal, a person who speaks both Spanish and Chinese has more options than a person who speaks only one or the other. A person who speaks Japanese and Spanish and Chinese is more versatile still. 

That having been said, there are several cautionary points to bear in mind. First of all, for business purposes, basic skills are of limited use. To truly say that you “speak” a language in the business world, you must have reached professional-level competency. Discussions of technical, accounting, and personnel matters require advanced language proficiency. It’s fine to begin your second foreign language (or your third, for that matter) as long as you don’t stop working to improve your first one.

For business purposes, high levels of skill are required.

I recently saw a television commercial on CNN en Español (CNN’s Spanish-language station) that highlighted the embarrassments that can occur when a person overestimates his language skills in a business situation. The commercial was produced for the Spanish-speaking market by the car rental company Hertz.

The camera opened on the office of a fictional car rental company called “Autos Rebajados”—which roughly translates as “Cut-rate Cars.” The phone was manned by an American customer service agent who proclaimed his abilities in Spanish. However, it soon became clear that the customer service agent spoke very poor Spanish. Each time he answered the telephone, he consistently misunderstood the gist of what the person on the other end of the line was saying. The scene finally moved to the Hertz office, where an operator answered in fluent español.

The Rule of Seven

There is a limit to the number of languages in which you can practically expect to achieve business-level competency. I have read about linguists who have learned ten, twelve, or even twenty languages. While I don’t doubt that there are individuals who can carry on basic conversations in twenty languages, I would be willing to bet that there are few who can discuss advanced theories in economics, finance, and engineering in so many tongues. Remember: your goal should be to reach an advanced level of competency in any language that you study. It would be better for you to truly master only one foreign language than to have a superficial knowledge of four or five.

Polyglots (individuals who speak multiple languages) sometimes refer to the “Rule of Seven”. The Rule of Seven states that proficiency in seven foreign languages is the practical upper limit for most people. In other words, if you try to take on more than seven languages (in addition to your native one), you are unlikely to become highly competent in all of them. 

My own research suggests that the upper limit may be even lower. The American Translators Association, or ATA ( is a professional organization for translators and interpreters. I recently browsed through the translator profiles located in the ATA’s online database. It was common to find translators and interpreters who worked with two or three foreign languages, but I was unable to find a translator who offered services in more than five foreign languages.

This might provide a good yardstick for planning your own language studies. Keep in mind that translators are language specialists, and their limit seems to be five foreign languages. For a person whose primary job function is not translation, I would estimate that the practical limit is about three foreign languages. However, this is not exactly dismal news. Three foreign languages should provide enough variety to keep most learners motivated and interested, without sacrificing a high level of attainment in each language studied.

Once you experience the fun of mastering one or two languages, you will probably find no less than a dozen that really interest you. In fact, I have yet to meet a language that I don’t like. If I had unlimited time, I would study them all—from French to Bulgarian to Navajo. However, there are only so many hours that can be dedicated to studying new languages and maintaining old ones. Therefore, I would urge the part-time linguist to exercise discipline. Make a list of all the languages that potentially interest you, and narrow it down to three.

Strategies for Diversification

How should you determine the languages on your list? There is a number of diversification strategies from which you can choose. You might decide to learn the languages of the countries that dominate your industry. For example, a person working in the automotive industry might first learn Japanese, then German, and then Korean. A similar strategy would be to look at the countries in which your company is most active. Are most of your employer’s customers based in France, Germany, and Sweden? If so, then your future language studies are clearly mapped out for you.

Not everyone works in an industry or job where the choice is so obvious. There are other factors that you can use to decide. Many learners elect to study languages from the same family. If Spanish is your first foreign language, then you might opt for Italian and Portuguese as your second and third ones. (In fact, a person who speaks Spanish will understand a significant portion of Portuguese and Italian the first time she encounters them.) Other examples of closely related languages are Russian and Ukrainian, German and Dutch, Arabic and Hebrew, Thai and Lao, and Hindi and Urdu. If you first learn one of these languages, then you will have a significant head start when you begin the other one.

On the other hand, many serial language-learners crave diversity rather than familiar ground. After spending a year or two focused on Spanish, you might be anxious to step outside the provincial bounds of the Romance language family. For your next challenge, you may be ready for something entirely different, like Arabic or Chinese. A mastery over several languages that have no shared roots will give you wider geographic coverage, since languages with common roots are typically spoken in the same area.

The First One is the Hardest

Language-learning is most difficult the first time around. Having gone through an entire lifetime communicating in only one language, some students have difficulty developing the second “channel” of thought and communication. The process becomes easier after the hurdle of the first foreign language is cleared. When you begin your second foreign language, you will have the advantage of the learning skills that you acquired while learning your first one. Although each foreign language is different, the learning process is very much the same each time around.

Moreover, beginning a second foreign language can actually help you to move past plateaus in the one you are currently studying. This notion seems counterintuitive—but it has proven true for me on a number of occasions, and others have reported similar results.

Here is how it works: suppose that you have been studying Spanish everyday for two years, and you now feel that you aren’t making further progress. The solution—oddly enough—might be to pick up an introductory Russian course (assuming of course, that you want to learn Russian).

The first few chapters of your Russian course will give you a sense of the novelty that Spanish used to have. You will experience again the excitement of making initial strides in a language. The unfamiliarity of Russian will make you appreciate how much Spanish you have learned. Spanish will seem like an old friend. The result: you will be able to approach your Spanish studies with a renewed sense of enthusiasm. 

A Hard One, Then an Easy One, Then a Hard One

If you learn any of the hard languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Thai, etc.), make sure that you have really mastered the first language from this list before you attempt your second difficult language. If possible, stagger an easy language between the more difficult ones.

Suppose that your long-term goal is to learn Korean, Arabic, and Spanish, and you learn Korean first. After you have reached a basic level of competency in Korean, I would recommend that you make Spanish the second language that you study. Arabic and Korean are both among the world’s most difficult languages. Therefore, you will likely appreciate taking a “breather” with a Romance language.

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