Foreign language

How to learn a foreign language

by Don Hank

There are lots of forums and sites for discussion of foreign languages. My favorite is the professional translator site But there are not many sites that discuss language learning in general. Nonetheless, there are tricks that can save you time and teach you a new language rather quickly.

Best methods for learning a new language on your own

First, I recommend buying the Rosetta Stone program for the language  of your choice.

RS has most of the world’s languages in its inventory although as a rule of thumb, if the language has a small number of speakers, you will not find it. Regrettably, therefore, Finnish and Hungarian are not included in their list of about 30 languages. On the other hand, RS does offer a Hebrew course even though the number of people in Israel who speak Hebrew is around only 5 million (you would not need Hebrew to communicate with the roughly 4 million outside of Israel because most of them would also speak the language of their host country), while Hungarian speakers number around 13 million.

I recommend you acquire both Rosetta Stone (RS) and a good grammar book for the language of your choice. Rosetta Stone makes learning interesting by using photos of people in various language situations. It is therefore a very quick way to gain an inroad into the language.

However, RS has its limitations, which its developers apparently do not, or refuse to, own up to. Which is why they do not include explanations, including grammar sections, in their course.

This is because the RS method is based on what we called the audio-lingual method back when I taught French and German in high school. This method attempts to teach you by the same method you learned your native language as a small child. But the developers of the method forgot at least three things:

1—You are no longer a small child.

2—But even if you were, a child learns by hearing hundreds of sentences and phrases every day for years. Virtually every sentence or phrase, including single words, is an example of a pattern, ie, a grammatical or idiomatic pattern. But a student in a language class will not get to hear even a fraction of that number of patterns during his language program. In order for the child to learn a grammatical pattern, for example, he or she must hear snatches or whole sentences of standard speech almost around the clock. Eventually, after hearing hundreds of instances of the pattern in question, he can start speaking more or less correctly, both grammatically and idiomatically. But a 3-level Rosetta Stone course is simply too limited for the learner to deduce from the course content the main rules of grammar and other speech patterns needed to speak correctly. In order to learn the rules of grammar and other recurring patterns of the language, he would need many times more examples than any course can afford him.

3—A child learns language much more easily than the average adult because he/she does not generally suffer from a common malady of adult learners, ie, what we call “interference.” Interference is the tendency to confuse the speech patterns of his native language with those of the new language he is trying to learn. Just a simple example: In French, if you want to say “I like beer,” you need to use the definite article, roughly equivalent to our word “the.” Hence, “I like beer” is said in French: “J’aime la bière,” which if we rendered it literally, ie, word for word, would be: “I like the beer” in English, but it would not mean that. It would mean to a native French speaker, “I like beer.” The new learner would likely have a tendency to say “J’aime bière,” which would grate on the ears of any native speaker of French. His tendency to use this incorrect pattern comes from his native English interfering with the French. This is only one of myriads of examples of the kind of interference encountered by all learners of foreign languages.

Therefore, as you have gathered from the above, Rosetta Stone courses are simply too short to get a complete knowledge of the language, and the course comes free of any explanation of what the speakers that you hear on your computer are saying. For example, a series of words will be heard but the photos do not always suggest the individual meanings of these words. This is frustrating to the new learner. And worse, when the sentences become more abstract, the photos can only provide a rough idea of the exact meaning.

But in the case of Rosetta Stone, thankfully, there is a solution in most cases, and that is, to go to this web site:

and print out the English text corresponding to the unit or level of whatever language you are studying.

Caveat: in a few cases, the RS English course does not match up 100% with the corresponding foreign language text. However, this is rare. I have used RS for Arabic and Korean and have encountered only a few differences in the text.

You can use RS for a month or two without much need for a grammar text. However, once you get into the higher levels you will want to know why the speakers are saying what they say. Grammar is the key to this. Get yourself a decent grammar and conversation book to supplement your course.

I urge readers who are learning or have learned foreign languages, to post in the forum at the bottom of this article at the mirror site:

There is a lot to talk about.

Part 2 will discuss learning more-complex sentences and learning to read serious articles, eg, from online newspapers