Studying Foreign Languages
Iíve studied 2 foreign languages (English and Spanish), both quite different from my native language (Russian) and also rather different from each other. Both of the languages I studied mostly on my own. The English classes I took at school, university and ďEnglish FirstĒ helped me with English but not nearly as much as what I did outside classroom. And yet Iíve been successful at studying and practicing the languages all by myself, although I havenít reached the levels of profundity and fluency necessary for being indistinguishable from native speakers or for writing novels or poetry. What Iíve reached is enough for understanding others, speaking, reading and writing. And Iím going to share with you the details of how I learned the languages, what worked and what didnít, what was useful and what was not.
I began studying English at a public school, some 15+ years ago. I studied it for about 5 years there, and I canít say I learned much. By the end of the school I ended up knowing about 50 irregular verbs, and as many words as could fit in a couple dozen of pages of a pocket vocabulary. And I had all the usual problems: I didnít know how to pronounce vowels, where to put the accent in many words, how to use the tenses properly, and how to correctly construct sentences any more complex than ďI went to the movies on SaturdayĒ.
The reasons for the failure of the public school to teach me English are manifold.
teachers kept changing because the country (
thing was isolation. We only used our textbook to learn the language. We
wouldnít use anything like movies or radio to listen to the real speech.
Everything used to broadcast in Russian. Well, in some former
The third was the time. Too little of it was devoted to the language. Whatever we were learning, we were easily forgetting without constantly practicing it and building on top of it.
The fourth and perhaps the most important flaw was the total indifference. The teachers couldnít teach well and didnít care. The kids (including myself) as always couldnít care less and would prefer to do anything but study. We can now blame the time and the system, but we couldnít change what was happening back then and so we needed to continue or start almost from scratch.
The university didnít improve my English. I still struggled with tenses and lacked vocabulary despite one or two more years of studying the language there. Even though I kind of was interested in English, most of my questions (like why is this so, whatís the rule, what are the exceptions and patterns to them) were left unanswered. As I understand it now, back then my curiosity was aiming far beyond what the teachers had studied or were ready to teach. My questions made them think, scratch their heads and say something like ďUh, I donít knowĒ or ďWell, itís just so, memorize itĒ. Perhaps if I went to a dedicated language school, Iíd get plenty of information to keep me busy and satisfy my curiosity, if not almost drown me in the overwhelming amount of facts and details.
So, there I was, 19 or 20 years old with pathetic English skills as result of the lousy teaching and without a hope to ever speak English well. The free language education didnít seem to work for me.
wasnít hopeless and helpless. At the time I was very interested in computers
and used to spend many ours learning about the computers and trying to program
something. The brain was full of the new ideas in the completely different
field, I was curious and wanted to know more on the subject, as much as I
could. So, half way through the university I already knew 4 or more programming
languages, including the ones specific to a few entirely different computers.
While searching for more information about those bits, bytes and what not I
started to read the official documentation supplied with the software. It was
painful at first and I guess in the beginning I was more guessing and figuring
out the meaning of the texts than actually translating. If youíve ever tried to
translate from a poorly known (or completely unfamiliar) language by using a
regular dictionary, you can understand why it was that way. In 96 and 97 (or
was it a year earlier?), the internet broke the grounds in
A bunch of web pages that Altavista found for my query had lead to the recovery of my English, something I didnít yet know at the time. I greedily began to read everything I was finding on the subject of computer graphics, explanations of the graphical algorithms, mail threads with their discussions, sample programs using them and so on and so forth. There was one particular web page that contained a number of graphical demo programs drawing various things with special effects in 2d and 3d and every demo program and every algorithm used in it was explained in simple English, perhaps the simplest I ever read to date. The documentation was written in an entertaining and breathtaking way. I ended up reading all of it despite the fact that I could understand things from the programsí source codes and the fact that I still occasionally needed to use the dictionary to understand some things. When I had been done with that I noticed how easy it was to read and understand, something that never happened before. Of course, part of this ease could be attributed to my interest in the matter and certain redundancy because there were the code and the documentation, not just one of the two. Nonetheless, I noted this fact and decided to carry on and continue reading in English.
I found a number of web sites of other people eagerly learning the computer stuff and sharing their ideas and programs with others. The sites contained links to other similar sites and so there always was something interesting to read, one just needed to follow the links or use Altavista to find more. Soon I discovered the existence of news groups, a service mechanically working pretty much like the regular e-mail, except it wasnít just between two people (or everyone on the TO and CC lines); it was between all members of a group and there could be hundreds or thousands of the members. Everyone could read everyone elseís message or post their own and everyone else would see it and possibly reply back.
In about 2 years of reading off of the internet and communicating with others over e-mail and in news groups I had greatly improved my English. I grasped most of the grammar and extended my vocabulary nicely, although not without a skew towards technical and computer terms. :) Initially it used to take me half an hour to an hour to compose an e-mail or a post to a news group and the message only consisted of a dozen of sentences. And it still contained mistakes despite me trying to avoid them by carefully choosing words and grammatical constructs familiar to me. But in just 2 years of doing that repeatedly I went from a few messages like that a day to reading several dozens of messages daily and writing similar amount of my own, some times for several days in a raw. Wasnít it great? Oh, boy, it was! I was learning what I was interested in. I was sharing with great minds. And I while doing that I was also learning what I needed later and couldnít learn well before. I was learning English.
The 2 jolly
years almost passed when I knew I was gonna go to the
time in the
And so I started to work on my English. All the classes were in English, all the entertainment (e.g. the TV) was in English and there was no escape. It was nothing less than a full immersion into the language, something some language classes and software titles claim to provide but really donít.
The classes were OK. I could understand most of what teachers said. Besides, a lot of information was either already known or seemed familiar, since it all was mathematics, physics and computer stuff, the things Iíd studied before. The TV on the other hand was completely incomprehensible. The speech was too fast, sounded odd and there were quite a few words I didnít know. So, I was just staring blankly at the screen, trying to recognize where the words began and ended in this continuous stream of sounds erupting from the box. It was that bad, almost as if I knew no language at all, not a single word of it. I could only guess what they said on the TV. But watching the TV for a few hours a day for about 2 months made the trick. I actually started to understand the speech, not guess. At this point I started to pick new words because they were in frequent use on the TV. I also started to see better where Iíd do pronunciation mistakes. I started looking at how vowels were pronounced and where the accents in the words were. It was very painful to undo all the damage that had happened to my pronunciation due to the negligence on the teachersí part. They never taught me to pronounce correctly. I literally had to unlearn and relearn. To correct the situation I used to repeat the familiar words in their proper articulation, every word that I found sounding different from what I had thought it shouldíve sounded like. It was unbelievable. No wonder why so many people who learn Russian donít pronounce words correctly, even if everything else (e.g. grammar) is correct. They all have experienced the same educational flaw. In Russian the accent location is irregular, itís never indicated in the text, and it moves as the words change their form. Only practice and memorization can help here.
As I was
making the progress with English, talking on the phone became easier. You can
imagine what it was for me to talk on the phone when I had just arrived to the
almost a year in the
The second time I went to the US, which was 4 years later, I took English classes from a native teacher (here by native I donít mean an American Indian who would be the most native American one can ever find:). I wanted to improve and polish some things. The guy wasnít bad, but I was asking him way too many questions to which he didnít know logical answers. Itís just that we never question irregularities and oddities of our native languages; we never try to classify them as scientists would. We simply absorb the language the way it is. And so many times questions about those weird things in the language would not find the kind of exhaustive answer we want. And letís face it: native speakers arenít the best teachers of their language. They have this captivating feeling that they know the language. After all, donít they? And they miss a lot of the peculiar details like those irregularities because to them they arenít irregularities at all. They canít point at them beforehand, but they will immediately spot a mistake in your speech or writing. That is, they wonít tell you what to avoid or to do differently before youíve made a mistake. Theyíll do this after. Itís the way they are. However, on the upside, over the time itís possible to practice the language to perfection with native speakers. It just may need much more time than you actually have. Think about the kids. It takes them several years of constant communication with the parents, other children and the childcare personnel to master the grammar and learn basic vocabulary. And donít forget that at this early age learning (well, memorizing) is the most effective than at any later point in our lives. So, to master the language this way in adulthood one would need to spend a lot of time talking the language. And if a lot doesnít sound like much, think 3-5 years minimum. Now thatís a lot, isnít it?
So, if youíve already learned one foreign language (or studied your native language in depth), hereís what youíre likely to face when learning another one. If you use some standard text book, it will seem to you boring and lacking details. Itíll happen not because the book is bad, but because you already know what to expect in the new language, youíll already be familiar with many concepts and constructs the book describes because those are shared among several languages and you know some of them from another language. So, you wonít need all those repetitious detailed explanations and numerous examples just to understand what you already know or to get the idea of a foreign language being very different from your native and the fact that one generally does not translate word for word. And thatís a normal thing to happen.
The way out? Look for a good grammar reference thatís nearly complete, where the information is presented in a well structured manner (with diagrams, tables, cross references), which covers common irregularities and provides patterns for those irregular things that canít be explained by a precise rule, but can be quickly recognized as suspicious (if one knows what to look for), be checked with a dictionary and learned correctly. For example, we know that in many English words the pattern ďeaĒ (as in the word ďeatĒ) reads as the ďeĒ letter of the English alphabet. But thereíre also words where it reads differently. Compare ďeatĒ with ďweaponĒ, ďgreatĒ and ďcaveatĒ. Got it? Now you know what to do when you see a new word with ďeaĒ in it. You need to look it up in the dictionary and memorize the pronunciation along with the spelling. If you donít learn about this ambiguity from a book or some other place, youíll probably learn it the hard way. See if the book points at such suspicious things. Also get yourself a vocabulary. Start with a pocket vocabulary with about 2-3 thousand words. Well, it may be more practical to start with a smaller one (100-500 words) but youíll grow out of it quickly anyway. Learn the grammar and several hundred of words. The vocabulary can be studied almost indefinitely due to the enormous amount of words in a language, but the basic grammar is quite compact. So, get the grammar straight, study the grammar reference from cover to cover. Read it whole several times until you understand it all and it looks familiar enough for recognizing. In the mean time memorize the words from the vocabulary. 500 to 1000 words would be a good start. I think fluent language skills correspond to three to five thousand words or more. Obviously, we donít use all of them daily. And which ones we use depends on what weíre talking about. This article, for example, contains about a thousand unique words. When youíre finished with the grammar, you can turn to books, newspapers, and web sites. The learned grammar and basic words will be enough to begin reading and build upon. Youíll learn more words and touch up your grammar in the process. Writing is also useful, so finding a pen pal for language exchange and writing to each other can be a good exercise. Or you could find an interesting newsgroup (or forum) on the internet in the language youíre learning and get involved in discussions. Also start with audio-visual aids such as radio or TV. In the beginning it may be much like listening to a continuous flow of sounds or just noise and trying to decipher and guess. But donít worry, itíll get better as soon as you know enough words and are accustomed to the speech.
If youíve got a bit of ingenuity and arenít afraid of technology and learning new and cool stuff (which, I suppose, you donít if youíve embarked onto learning a foreign language and are reading this), consider making a good use of your computer to help yourself. If youíve already used electronic dictionaries, flash card programs and other educational software, you can make a big step forward, if not a giant leap and exploit the technology to provide you with additional services you could only dream of.
So, youíve been making your flash cards (I hope you have or at least planned to) by hand in a text editor or in the flash card program of your choice. Itís all right to do this once or several times, but the more words you need, the more time consuming this is going to be because of the limitation of the tools (the editor or the flash card program). The user interface may be not good enough or it may require you to constantly switch between the keyboard and mouse. Or there can be no simple functionality like search and replace a complex pattern of text or simply to sort or randomly order your words or cards. Itís sad these basic things arenít readily available. But thereís a way out. It may be not for the faint-hearted to do what Iím gonna suggest, but it truly pays out.
Learn how to make basic script programs in Perl. Perl is either already available in your computer if youíre using Linux or Unix or some similar Operating System, or it can be freely downloaded for your Windows. Itís been made available for many OSes and chances are youíre a few if not less clicks away from getting it onto your computer.
Perl is a very powerful tool for all sorts of manipulations with text. Itís easy to search for text and itís easy to replace text with Perl. Itís possible to specify a complex pattern of symbols instead of trying various combinations and Perl will find the text matching the given pattern. And it will do replacement based on the patterns too. Youíd be able to sort the words/cards or just randomly order them. Youíd be able to find unique words or duplicate words. And the best thing about this is that these operations become automated. You no longer need to spend minutes and hours of your precious time on just editing, copying & pasting something. Youíd be able to do things like distinguishing verbs, adverbs and adjectives from a list of words; an input text file and your smart Perl script will do it quickly and efficiently. Knowing some basic word morphology and using the regular expressions can do the trick. At times you might need to jump through the hoops because of the language irregularities and ambiguities, but hey, this is precisely what engineers deal with on the regular basis. Be one of those great minds, be smart and do cool stuff few people do!
Suppose, youíve already studied the language grammar and youíre reading your first book in the new language and you need to learn many new words from the text and you plan on making use of your flash card program to memorize them. Open your electronic dictionary. You must have one already. Instead of opening the flash card program and making the cards on the go, open your text editor. Make the cards in the plain text form in your editor. Use one line per pair of words, like so:
Save this file as Unicode (UTF-8, in particular). Youíll be able to make flash cards out of this file at any point later. Just compose the list of words you need and their translation. Use some unique non-letter character to separate the words in the two languages. A semicolon can be used. Less apparent but also suitable could be the tab characters.
Now, what you really want to do while learning languages that have the notion of gender in the grammar (such as Spanish and Russian) is to mark somehow the gender of nouns. In Spanish this could easily be achieved by simply placing the definite article in front of the noun. That way youíll learn not just the noun but also its gender and never confuse. So, the list would be now like this:
A note of caution to the learners of Spanish and perhaps similar languages: while the above technique works perfectly most of the time, thereíre rare exceptions regarding the articles:
Now, if you have this list, itís easy to figure out which word is what part of speech. All Spanish nouns are denoted by the definite article. All Spanish verbs end in Ėar/er/ir/ír (except ayer, which is an adverb). Most single-word adverbs in Spanish end in Ėmente (except despacio). Unless you put entire phrases into this file, prepositions or some new kind of word, the rest are the adjectives (and they in Spanish normally end in Ėo/a/e and less often in other letters such as Ėl/n/r/s/z). You can write a Perl script to search this list for the appropriate letter patterns and generate from it another list that contains, say, only nouns or only verbs. You can now choose what part of speech to concentrate on. Can your flash card program help with this? I bet not. And even if it can, most likely it wouldnít be this flexible. The application of the above idea will, of course, vary from language to language. If itís hard to employ morphology, you can still come up with some markers such as the definite articles in front of English nouns and the preposition to in front of English verbs. You can guide the automation with these markers. For Russian instead of the articles (which are non-existent in the language) one could use the personal pronouns such as she, he and it for all 3 genders (the 3rd is neuter). Adjectives, verbs y adverbs can be easily recognized from a simple morphological analysis.
What else can you do? For the fun of it or for educational purposes, you can combine the words into something more meaningful. Suppose, you have this list:
Knowing which word is what part of speech, couldnít you combine them like so?:
white kimono;el quimono blanco
You could. And this would allow you to learn words not individually but together, several at once. Or you could easily generate cards with conjugations of regular verbs. Or cards with numbers from 1 to 99. You get the idea.
Now, letís get back to actual flash cards. From a text file with a list of words with Perl you can easily create flash cards that are also effectively text files (txt, html, xml, etc). If your flash card program works with flash cards in a text-based file format, you need to find out what that format is (look at some available cards in a text editor or if you have none yet, create a card in the program and then analyze its format). If itís binary (with lots of weird symbols), check if you can easily import your lists into the programís cards. If the program supports only the binary format and has no easy import function, dump it. Find one that operates with cards in simple almost plain-text format (Pauker is almost that thing: the xml flash card files it uses are additionally compressed with the standard gzip file compressor). Then write a script to make cards from your word lists and enjoy learning the way you want. And by the way, there exist word lists which can be helpful too.
Thereíre a few things we may do inefficiently while using flash cards that can be done better.
For grammar and vocabulary:
For reading practice:
For reading and writing practice:
For listening practice:
Flash card programs:
Bilingual books for reading:
Alexei A. Frounze