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The Seagull Guide

The most efficient way to study a foreign language

Written by Simon (simonf@simonf.com)

This page is located at http://www.simonf.com/lang/lang_english.html

A seagullHere is a small guide on how to learn a foreign language. I have used these ideas myself. My native language is not English. I am Russian. In fact, I am from Siberia. :)

If you want to skip right to the two important parts, go to  advice on developing the passive vocabulary or to advice on developing the active one. Or you can continue reading about how to study a foreign language.

Everything that I discuss here is true for European languages only. I have never studied an Oriental language, and suspect that the rules of the game might be different.

Learning another language is a huge task. You cannot just cram it into your brain during the two days before a final in a semester course. You cannot, in fact, do it in a whole semester. This is something that is measured in years. Unless you are a genius, but then you already know all I want to say anyway.

Yet there is one thing that you, I think, already know. To learn something really well you have to become it. You have to incorporate it into your mind and soul. You have to live it. There is something of an American and an Englishman in you if you have mastered English. You behave and feel a bit like a German if you are an expert in Deutsch. This is because a language is a part of the culture. And to learn it will require an immersion to the environment of the language. Thus,

Advice # 1. Arrange your birth in the country of your choice.

OK, so this is not an option for you. (If it is, please get back to me. Preferably in this incarnation.) Then you have to surround yourself with things, people, books and thoughts from this country.

Advice # 2. Go to the country of your choice. Live there for a while.

Advice # 3. If it is not possible, bring the country to your home.

I am not going to elaborate on this. It is pretty clear and well known. I trust your imagination.

A seagullNow for the hard part. So you have the tapes, videos, books and posters. But you do not understand a single word! (Or only every other word.) You realize that you actually need to learn something. To memorize. To - aargh! - study.

I do not believe in subliminal tapes. To tell the truth, I have never tried them. But I am not going to set anything free in the depths of my subconsciousness. Yet, if there are proponents, I am willing to listen to their arguments.

To save you the pain of initial troubles, take

Advice # 4. Attend a beginner's course, if you have not done so.

In a new language, there will be quirks that you will hardly figure out by yourself. For example, how long would it take you to guess that German prefixes can separate themselves from their word and shift to the end of the sentence?

Do you think that I should now give Advice #5 "Continue with the courses until you know everything" and stop at that? For one, I do not like a fixed schedule of studying. Also, there is all that grammar. Yes, you have to learn grammar sooner or later. But I would rather study it *after* it's all over and discover things that I already know than learn a set of weird rules in advance. After all, this is what the kids in school do when studying their native language: they learn the rules which they already know, at least subconsciously. So,

Advice #5. Take a book written in the language you wish to study. Read it. Repeat until...

Of course, you should start with an easy one. Take a book that is simplified for high school. Usually such books have a lot of comments, so you will not be stuck on some strange word or grammar construct. When you think yourself ready, start reading books that are adapted for advanced college courses. Then move to non-simplified ones.

I do not need to tell you that the books should be interesting. Detectives, thrillers, science fiction, love stories... whatever. Do not get stuck on an intermediate level. As soon as you can make more than 5-10 pages a day, consider moving further. Another temptation will be to throw the dictionary away and just finish the story, never mind the unknown words. So beware of too interesting books.

Advice #6. Speak to yourself.

Ever heard of the "Speaking problem"? It goes like this: "I know the words, but I cannot say a single phrase!!!" Indeed, it may be on of the most daunting aspects of studying a language. Or one of the easiest. Of course, the best thing is to converse with foreigners. But another thing you can do is translate everything that you say or think in the course of your everyday life. Do you know how to say in the foreign language "I want to eat"? Or "I wonder what I should do now"? Or "Please give me that book in the orange cover"? Create a reserve of such simple common phrases.

Advice #7. Learn by heart.

Learning by heart is extremely useful, though not much fun. But no one stops you from making it as much fun as possible. Learn silly children's poems (for instance, Mother Goose Rhymes). Or serious and philosophical ones. Learn by heart a letter or two from your foreign friend. If you play a musical instrument, there is a ocean of possibilities! (God knows how many Russian teens started learning English from The Beatles songs.)

A comment by Alexander Z.
I believe that the texts that you study must be carefully selected to contain as many grammar constructs as possible. I usually take dialogs from movie scripts. I do not learn everything, but only the most interesting parts. My goal is to master the stereotypical phrases, non the new words.

Well, here comes the most difficult stuff. Words. There are so many words you do not know, right? The bad news is that you have to know them. The more, the better. A 100 words will enable you to say a few most basic phrases, like "My wants drink, now-fast". Knowing a 1000 words, you will be able to make a general conversation and get around in a foreign city. If you are in command of 10,000 words, you are already well-off. You can talk just about anything, read books in the original and occasionally look like an experienced polyglot. Anything above 10,000 is a plus. When you cross the 50,000 words border, you will be on the same level as the natives. Remember, even native speakers do not know everything.

But wait! There's more! If you ever decide to start on yet another language that belongs to the same family, you will already know something. I have not been learning in vain obscure English words of Latin origin. So far I can recognize a full half of Spanish words that have the same roots.

So, what's the good news about learning words? It can be done *fast*! I have heard that in special spy-training camps they learn about 200 words a day. We mortals can achieve maybe 50 words a day without any fancy equipment.
What are you saying? You have already tried this? Well, I will tell you what you probably did. You wrote down 50 words from a dictonary or from a book, wrote down their translations on another piece of paper or another side of the card. Then you embarked on the course towards the noble goal of memorizing them. Unfortunately, you probably have dropped the whole idea rather fast. You may have lasted for some time if you are obstinate enough. (I was doing this for about 3 months.) But when you went back to the first words, you found out that you forgot half of them! A comment by Alexander Z. Cards are very good for studying grammar. I take some grammar construct (for example, Complex Subject - I want him to come), collect examples of usage from a textbook and make cards with this example: one side of the card has a phrase, another has its transaltion. For English I have about 400 cards. Then I put the cards in random order and, taking one, try to recognize an English construct. Since the phrases do not have a fixed order, I cannot just memorize the answers by rote.

You might have tried some tricks. Revising the whole set of words periodically. Making mental associations and pictures that tie a word and its translation. I do not know about you, but none of them worked for me. (Actually, there is one very useful modification that makes this whole method much more effective. More on that later.)

Do I have a solution? Well, yes. In fact, this is why I bothered to make this Web page. I do not claim to be the inventor of the idea that I describe below. But I have heard only of several people that used it, and never seen a book that tells about it. I stumbled on the idea myself, so I guess this makes me *an* inventor (Robert Jordan fans, anyone?).

A seagull

Advice #8. Write down phrases with unknown words. Read them several times.

The efficient method to learn new words is surprisingly easy. Take a book of an appropriate difficulty. When you see a new word, look it up in a dictionary and be sure to understand the phrase that contains the word. WRITE DOWN THE WHOLE PHRASE IN A SPECIAL NOTEBOOK. Collect 20-40 words per one lesson. Read these phrases several times during the following few days. (I was reading them every morning and evening for 4 days.) Revise every 10 (or whatever) lessons.

Advantages. I memorized over 80 % of all words. There is no need to learn anything by heart. (Though if you do learn these phrases by heart, the rate will probably achieve 100%.) As a free gift, you get a growing supply of grammar constructions and phrases that you can use anywhere. Not to mention that by reading or learning these phrases you get a better feeling of the 'spirit' of the language. For example, you begin to understand which words fit together and which do not.

Disadvantages. It takes time. I was studying for 1-2 hours every day. But, as Mr Heinlein liked to point out, TANSTAAFL. There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. I guarantee that 2 years of such studying will bring you from absolute zero to an expert. Only you can decide how much you want it. For instance, I applied this technique to German. In 6 months I moved from kiddie's tales to unsimplified books, doing 3-4 pages at a time.

There is also a "lazy" variant. You do not write down anything, but simply read 3 times spaced over a few days) a moderately difficult text, translating all the unknown words. Worked for me at an early stage, but then I switched to the standard variant.x

And, as I found out with English, at a certain stage you start to run out of words. You can move to classical works. (19th century English writers will keep you busy for a while. For a long while. ) But then the question of the word selection arises. Do you really want to know the name of the lower pocket of a Victorian lord's Sunday suit? Or the titles of the construction items commonly found in a Roman shipyard?

So, we are back at the problem of memorizing a certain list of words, not just those that you have encountered by chance. A good way to select the words you most likely want to learn is to take a dictionary that has twice as many words as you know and pick the ones that you think are worth it.

But wait! Have we not denounced this already? Yes, we have. But I am not suggesting learning words. You need phrases? Then make 'em! Take your 30 words and compose 10 sentences that include all of them. Or try to fit them into 5, just for the fun of it.

Advice #9. Create phrases with the unknown words.

Sounds too good? Alas, there is one major drawback to this method. There is no guarantee that you make these phrases right. In fact, you are bound to make them sound so awful that someone who knows the language will laugh or wince. Most of not-so-common words are used in fixed language constructs and do not change their neighbors easily. A simple example: "no matter what" does not keep its meaning if changed to "no substance why" or "no business when". So how can you find out the typical usage of a word?

You have to consult a teacher or a native speaker. (Or maybe an Internet search engine.) Consult on every phrase. (This is the reason I never used this method - when I had had time, I did not have anyone to ask.) But do not delegate the whole work to this helpful person. Creating those phrases is a rather painful but useful experience. This will include the new words not only in your passive vocabulary (when you can recognize them), but also into your active vocabulary (so that you can use them in your speech).

Here you can find a helpful English speaker who can check such phrases!

Advice #10. Use the word guessing program.

Which leads us to the second important thing I want to tell. A little while ago I saw a computer game that helps to build the active vocabulary immensely. I liked it so much that I wrote a similar program myself. Here is an example taken from the middle of the game. Just take a look, and you will understand what it does at once.

Here is the game itself (a zip file that contains an IBM PC executable). To play the word guessing game, go to Topics, select a level and go to Storyboard .
An advice by Alexander Z. I bought a book that has parallel texts in Russian and English and use it to verify my translations. Someone told me to use exercises in a grammar textbook, but it was not convenient. Continuous parallel texts are much better.

Advice #11. Use a visual dictionary.

Here is an incredibly fun way to learn new words. Just take a look at a scanned page from The Macmillan Visual Dictionary. This book has pictures on tons of various subjects, from astronomy to animals to sports to fashion... you name it. And every detail in every picture is named in four different languages!

Advice #12. Use a theme dictionary.

Another great resource I have found is The Dictionary Of The Phrase And Fable by E. Cobham Brewer. You can find there references to Bible stories, Greek, Roman and other myths, famous personalities in history and literature and just words with interesting origin. Of course, some of them are rather obscure, but this is a treasure trove for someone who really wants to know the many fine points of the English language. I certainly do!

I am curious to know what you think about this guide. I am sure there are a lot of ways in which it could be made better. So it does not matter if you are a professor of linguistics or a beginner, I would appreciate your comments in any case. Also, if you think this document is worth translating to other languages, you are welcome to volunteer. Please mail me your suggestions and ideas. The address is simonf@simonf.com

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A seagull