Learning Languages on Your Own

This is a Dalarna University production.

[0:00:19.9 Foreign language] All of which is to say my name is Konstantin. I’m a Russian teaching English and Linguistics at Dalarna University in what the locals say is the heart of Sweden. I’ve been a language teacher for eleven years. I studied English and German for my bachelor’s degree in St. Petersburg. But since then, I have taught myself Swedish, Italian, and Esperanto. Quite recently, I finally realized that I could no longer get away with not knowing French so right now I’m trying to get started on French as well.
Well, as phonic lots go I’m really nothing special. There are people out there who are breathtakingly fluent in a dozen languages or perhaps in more. Those people might be true linguistic geniuses for all I know. But I really wouldn’t know because I’m not one of them. I’m nothing if the kind. I’m just a regular guy. But thanks to experience I suppose and a certain amount of study, I have come to realize a few things about language learning, and I’ve come to develop a few useful habits. That’s what I will be talking about today. For the most part, I will be stating the obvious, at least obvious of those who have ever learned a foreign language as adults. And I guess I might start with something that should be blindingly obvious to just about everyone.
When it comes to learning foreign languages, there’s some good news and there’s some bad news. Now, the bad news is there’s no magic way to learn a foreign language quickly and effortlessly unfortunately. Children do pick up languages as they go but children have much better memories, and even more importantly, they have all the time in the world to, well, to learn languages to put it quite simply. And they’re not afraid of losing face. Now, I’m sorry to tell you we’re not like that at all. Our memory leaves a lot to desired. It’s not like a sponge anymore. We have full-time jobs and we have social obligations and we have children. Well, we tend to be, at least, we tend to be horrified. We tend to be afraid of losing face of making stuttering fools of ourselves. Now, that is why we have to find time for language learning. We have to make an effort and that’s the bad news.
The good news however is that if you do find some time, if you make a little effort, you can learn a language. Anyone can learn a language in fact. Anyone can learn a foreign language. No one is crap at languages I can say. We’re all on the same boat, and I’m surrounded by living proofs of that all the time, not just at work.

Why do then so many people seem to view language learning as an awe-inspiring feat that they can never hold to perform? Well, one major reason for that is that we tend to have somewhat unreasonable expectations of knowing a language. It’s not quite clear what we really mean by knowing a language. It seems to me that surprisingly many people believe that you haven’t really learned a language unless you’re perfectly fluent in it? That seems to be a bit unreasonable to me. I can use myself as an example. My Italian is extremely far from being perfectly fluent. But when I go to Italy or when I feel like watching an Italian movie, I find the Italian that I know quite useful. And that’s why even though my Italian is not perfect, I do not really think that I have failed in learning it.

To illustrate this idea a bit further, let me tell you about the seven stages of knowing a language as I see them or as I identify them yesterday as I was preparing this presentation. I must warn you though. The whole thing is a bit cheesy and it’s horribly oversimplified. But I hope that it will do the job for now at least.
Okay. Let us assume that you have been learning French and you’re in Paris right now and you have a French friend and you go to a restaurant, the two of you together. Now, stage one. If you’re at stage one of “knowing” French, what you can do is you can read the menu. You can open the menu. You can read it and you can understand most of it. In other words, given the little time you can understand something that is written in French and that’s exactly the stage that my French is at right now. This doesn’t have to be limited to menus of course. It can also extend to books and sometimes even newspapers. But the main idea is that it doesn’t really go beyond understanding or passively understanding written text.

What happens at stage two is that you can actually order a meal in French, and you can then ask well the waiter for an explanation, for a piece of advice, about a particular item on the menu for example. In other words, you can communicate some essential information by using standard speech formulas and that’s already something. What can I say?
Then at stage three, something amazing happens. You actually understand the waiter’s advice when it’s given to you. In other words, you understand spoken language when it’s directed at you and we assume here that the waiter is sufficiently friendly and that he can see that you’re a foreigner while trying to speak French to the best of your capacity. And that’s already something as well.
And then at stage four, when your friend starts chatting with the waiter, you can actually understand what the chatting is about. You can follow their conversation. In other words, you understand relatively fairly I can say casual, spoken language even when it’s not addressed directly to you. This can also be extended to watching movies for example, most movies anyway, and watching television shows.
Then at stage five, you can actually chat with the waiter yourself. In other words, you can speak spontaneously without too much hesitation. Well, that’s what many people understand by fluency. But it doesn’t really stop there. On the right side, we have some more advanced stuff.
Stage six then. You have been served your food and your wine, and you proceed to argue politics, philosophy, and let’s say the Eurovision results with your friend for about two hours in French of course. In other words, you can carry a sophisticated conversation on a variety of topics. You have enough vocabulary for that.
Finally, the last stage, stage seven, you can do all of the above without making errors. And I would like you to note here that grammatical errors, making grammatical errors and word choice errors is perfectly okay. Well, actually it’s unavoidable at any of the earlier stages. I would also like you to note that whichever stage you have managed to reach so far, now your language skills can actually come in handy. They can be useful even if it’s just for reading the menu.

Well, the next question is how do you reach any of these stages? Well, like I said, there’s no magic recipe but I do have three general tips that I think are essential. I also have some more specific advice for you and I have one major revelation which will come at the very end of this presentation.
Now, essential tip number one: Do not try or do not even expect to be able to reach all seven stages at once. Chances are you’ll feel frustrated very soon and you’ll give up and that’ll be tragic of course. Like elsewhere in life I suppose, it’s important to set goals for yourself that are slightly unrealistic but not too unrealistic.
Essential tip number two: Well, they say that when it comes to language learning, it’s better to study for twenty minutes every day than for two hours once a week. And that is absolutely true except I would add that it’s actually even better to do both and it’s better still to study for twenty minutes several times a day every day. In other words, you need to do a little language learning whenever you can. Whenever you have a choice let’s say between working on your Japanese for twenty minutes and doing something else, you should always go for Japanese. Well, do twenty minutes of Japanese and then do the other thing.
Okay. Whether it’s twenty minutes or two hours, the next question is what exactly do you do during this time? How for example can you work on your accent, on your pronunciation? Well, the first thing I should mention is that no matter how you work in it, if you’re an adult, you will probably never sound like a native. But you can definitely make your accent less foreign. You can make it easy on native’s ears. How do you achieve that? Well, of course it’s different for different people. But one thing that is probably true for everyone is that listening alone is not enough. In addition to listening, which is important of course, you also have to repeat what you hear. Not just repeat. You have to imitate it. You have to ape it as much as you can. You have to do it thoroughly, sound by sound, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence eventually as many times as you can as many times as you have time for.
Why do you have to do that? Well, you have to do that because you have to make your mouth and your tongue and your brain, ultimately, you have to make them get used to these foreign, these alien sound combinations. That’s really important. Now, repetition, imitation, and aping—all of that is really important, but there’s a little snag. The problem is when you listen to a language you don’t really know very well, your brain doesn’t really hear at least half of what is actually being said pronunciation-wise. You have to teach your brain to hear things right as it were. And that’s why it’s usually a good idea to read about the sounds of the language that you’re learning before you start imitating them, or read about them while you’re imitating them and the process as it were. Well, not actually as they speak of course.

It’s important because well of course other languages have sounds that you have never dreamed of for one thing and even those sounds that may sound familiar to you may turn out to be quite different in some in some important way. This distinction may amount to the difference between a mother and foul language for example, something like that.
Finally, when you do all this aping and imitating and all this tongue twisting, it will feel strained and unnatural and you will feel silly and that’s a really good sign. If your mouth literally baulks at it, it’s a really good sign because if it doesn’t feel silly, if it doesn’t feel unnatural, if it doesn’t feel strained at first, you’re probably not doing it right and you should probably try harder.

Next, how do you study grammar? Well, some people might tell you that they can manage just fine without knowing any grammar, for example, in English. Unfortunately, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Grammar put simply is about how you put words and sentences together and you have to know at least something about that if you want to understand other people and if you want to be understood. Now, if you didn’t grow up with the language you have to learn that. You have to learn grammar by learning rules, grammar rules, however scary that might sound at first.
If you want to make that task easier for yourself, it’s a good idea to get familiar with some basic concepts with a few general principles of how languages work, some basic terminology that is used in grammatical descriptions. And there are a couple of ways to do that. Now, one way is by getting hold of a nice introduction to linguistics, something that is very light and very engaging. There are plenty of books like that on Amazon and elsewhere. You just need to shop around a little.
Now, another way, and here comes a shameless plug for Esperanto, is by trying to learn a simple artificial language like Esperanto first as trial. Esperanto is delightfully, ridiculously simple and it will give you a very nice hands-on experience of things like adjectives and nouns and direct objects and verb tenses and agreement and stuff like that. You will never have to worry about your accent for example or even your progress. It is a truth universally acknowledged as they say that a third language is easier to learn than a second one. If your warm up act is Esperanto so to say, then well, it will go really smoothly. I can guarantee you that pretty much. As an extra bonus of course you will be able to befriend any number of Esperanto-speaking nerds like myself.

Next, once you know the basic concepts, you’ll have an easier time understanding rules. Once you understand the rules, it’s really important to watch out for them. At least sometimes when you’re reading a text or when you’re listening to the language you’re learning, try to pay attention not to what is being said, not as much at least. But also to how it’s being said grammar-wise. It’s really important. Likewise when you’re learning a grammar rule, you need to make a point of actually using it the next time you speak or write the language.

Finally, it usually pays to compare the way things work in the language you’re learning and the way they work in English or your first language for example. Now it’s good to be aware of how similar, how different the language are because just like in pronunciation, a lot of bad grammar is caused by unwitting interference from your first language or from English. It’s caused by your grammar instincts that belong to a different language.
Well, this point actually provides us with a nice little bridge to my first take about learning vocabulary which is don’t learn words “naked.” What does that mean? That means that words never exist in isolation. They never exist alone, so to say. They always interact with each other. Let me give you an example of that. Let’s say you’re Italian and you’re learning English and you want to learn the English word “love.” Okay. Now let’s say the meaning of love is in many ways similar to what you know as amore. But there’s a lot more to love than that. There’s just that similarity I have to tell you. Consider this sentence. “I fell in love with you.” Now, you can see the word “love” in there and it still means what it usually does. But you can see that in this sentence, it is part of a very complex relationship with three other words namely “fall,” “in,” and “with.” This relationship is as permanent as it gets and you’d better learn about before it’s too late to save yourselves some trouble later.
Now if you’re an English-speaking person learning Italian for example, something else happens. You want to express the same idea. You want to say, “I fell in love with you” in Italian. Well, if you try hard enough, if you use a dictionary, you will find out that the word amore will not actually be of much use to you because you don’t use it for that purpose. You have to learn a different word. You have to learn the word innamorarsi. Not only that. You have of course to know how to make it fit the sentence and you have to know that the word innamorarsi teams up with this little word di. Mi sono inamorato di te in Italian to express this idea.

So you can see that languages do different things. Well, sometimes they do the same things in very different ways and that’s why it’s really important to be aware of differences and similarities between languages. Where do you find this information by the way? Well, any good dictionary will have this information and you’ll find it there. Talking of good dictionaries, a good dictionary will also list a lot of meanings for common words for example.

The next trick is to ignore most of those meanings, at least at first initially. You need to ignore most of them and only focus on the ones that are important. As a rule, the important meanings will be listed first but it’s always a good idea to check of course.
Besides, a dictionary, a good place to see how words work is the Internet. What I do myself quite often when I learn a new word, I Google the word. I Google it on its own first and then perhaps in some of its different forms if there are different forms. I can also Google it with some of the little words that it has a relationship with as it were. And then I can just see how the word works. I can see how it’s used in sentences, how it’s used by people. That’s something that is really useful.

Next, just like with grammar rules, when you have learned a new word, you need to go out of your way to actually use the word, perhaps even overuse it at first. You need to do that because you have to convince your brain that this word is actually worth remembering because your brain is like that. Your brain will do its best to forget as much s it can as quickly as it can. So you have to keep reminding your brain that these words are important. I want you to remember that. How do you that? Well, besides actually using those words, you can also read as much as possible and listen to as much of the language as possible then note these new words as you come across them. That’s really helpful and it works especially well for common words.

When it comes to less common words, one trick that I find useful especially for a linguist myself is using the reminder function on your mobile phone. What you do is you just take this new word. You enter its translation first then you enter the word itself preferably with some other words around it in a sentence and perhaps with some grammatical information. It’s really important to make sure that when the reminder goes off you don’t see the word right away because you need to make a mental effort to remember it. So when it does go off, you remember the word and you renew the reminder. And you do it again and again with increasing intervals so to say let’s say one day the first time then three days then a week perhaps then a month, something like that. And you continue the same vein until you have convinced your brain that well, this word is actually worth remembering, and it does work.

Now, my phone is pretty basic and it can only do a few dozen reminders at a time but of course more advanced gizmos have more. Things like iPhones and such, they have special applications for vocabulary learning actually and it’s a good idea to use that as well.
Now, at this point you may be thinking, “Okay, pronunciation and vocab and grammar, it’s all very well. It’s all very good. But what about those seven stages? How do I actually learn to do stuff in a language? Well, I’m afraid I only have one answer to that. You learn to do stuff in a language by actually doing it. This is the only thing I can say. You learn to read menus. You learn to order a meal by trying to use that funny phrase from your textbook to order a meal. You learn to understand movies by actually watching movies first with English subtitles let’s say or subtitles in your first language and then with subtitles in the language you’re learning and then without any subtitles at all, and you learn to chat with people by actually trying to chat with them in the language you’re learning. Yes, I know. It will feel awkward and perhaps even humiliating at first. I know the feeling very well and I used to be plagued by it myself. But here comes the great revelation.

The great revelation is that if you’re doing your best as long as you’re doing your best, you never lose face by trying to say something in another language. Well, quite the contrary, you really should be proud of every little attempt you make to say something in another language. If someone makes fun of you, if someone is stupid enough to make fun of you, well, you can just tell them to go practice some palatalized Russian consonants for example or Mandarin terms or something like that.

Now, if everything I’ve already said sounds like work, that’s because it is. Again and again and again and again, you have to spend some time and you have to make an effort to learn a language. At the same time, this effort can be really exciting and extremely rewarding provided you follow my last essential tip.
Essential tip number three: It’s really hard to learn a language for a rainy day. It’s really hard to learn a language just because, let’s say, it sounds cool or because it’s cool to speak a foreign language or because it looks good in your CV. It will look good at your CV at some point in the future. To have enough motivation to work up enough motivation, well, first to get started and then to keep going, sort of persisting with the language, you have to have a real reason for learning it. Any reason will do. Any real reason will do. It can be work. It can be research, romance. It can be another fascination for another culture for example. But mind you, the fascination has to be utter. But you have to find a reason to get started and to keep going. If you have that reason, I can only wish you the best of luck. Thank you.