How To Learn a Language

In the last few decades, the number of language schools and purported language learning methods has proliferated apace with globalization, just as their asking prices have sky-rocketed along with those of such basic needs as general education and health care.

But any person with a sincere passion for learning a language, and the willingness to do a little hard work studying and reviewing, can achieve significant results at a fraction of the cost and time by sticking to the basics. By "significant results," I mean gaining a comprehensive overview of all the essential aspects of the language, enabling the student to at least recognize almost all situations, and acquiring a fully functional set of tools to be able to read most texts, understand at least the context of most conversations, and express oneself flexibly in complete sentences.

The basic tool for achieving such significant results is good, old-fashioned grammar, and the means of acquiring this tool is a good, old-fashioned, no-nonsense bilingual grammar book (e.g. Spanish grammar for English speakers), which, in many cases, can retail for less than ten dollars. It should be thin, but dense with useful information. Depending on your pre-existing knowledge of grammar, the amount of time available for study, your ability to learn, any previous experience in learning a language and, of course, the degree of passion you bring to bear, the process of achieving significant results can take up to as little as six weeks or up to two years.

In many cases, then, actually the first step is to know well the essentials of grammar of your own native language. There was a time when elementary or primary school was also called grammar school, and for good reason. Hopefully, you came from an elementary school that did not neglect the proper teaching of grammar. In any case, you may need to review the essentials. For this, you can purchase an English grammar book, such as Warriner's English Grammar and Composition, also retailing for around $10.00 in paperback - or less, if you are willing to purchase it used (luckily I still have my hardback version since my grammar school days).

Let's explore the essentials here, step-by-step.

Learn The Grammar

  1. The first order of business in this first step is the parts of speech: articles, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions and exclamations.
  2. The second is the parts of a sentence: subjects, predicates (verbs), and objects.

After introducing the alphabet and a section on pronunciation (phonetics), the no-nonsense foreign language grammar books will begin by introducing the articles, a few main verbs - like the equivalents of "to be," "to have" and "to go" - and a few basic nouns, enabling the student to already begin reading simple sentences. Gaining a handle on sentence structure at this point is more important than building vocabulary. It is true that you have to process a lot of information, but it is much more economical if, at the start, such information is a set of rules that you can use over and over again to form sentences, the vehicle for communicating meaning; you will have plenty of time later to learn vocabulary as you need and desire it.

Next come pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions. As the chapters progress, focusing on different aspects of these parts of speech, the different tenses of the verbs will be introduced (or they may be introduced all at once), as well as more vocabulary - again, focusing on the essentials such as how to greet people, numbers, time (the clock, the days of the week, the seasons, etc.), parts of the body, food and travel.

As the parts of speech are progressively introduced, the sentence structure also becomes more complex and the grammar book will carry you through the following basics:

  1. How to form and use nouns and pronouns as subjects, possessors, direct objects, indirect objects and objects of prepositions.
  2. The proper use of adjectives, including agreement in gender and number if these are a characteristic of the language (not so in English, but very much so in the Romance languages, for example).
  3. How to form and use verbs, not only their tenses and their conjugations, but also the active and passive voices, the imperative mood (commands), the subjunctive mood (in sentences expressing desire, expectation, doubt, belief, hypothetical situations and, in short, uncertainty - it does not exist in all languages and has faded out of use almost completely in English), infinitives, participles and gerunds.
  4. How to use conjunctions to connect phrases in complex sentences.

Again, this is just a summary of the basics. It may seem tedious, but in relatively quick time, you will become familiar with a fully functional set of tools that you will then be able to use to achieve your personal objectives in learning a particular language.

So you can now begin to understand the value of this approach. Instead of being bombarded in a prolonged, haphazard fashion with sentences whose structure you do not understand and filling your head with a ton of vocabulary on topics that may not interest you, you can instead spend your time and energy at the outset on learning a set of rules that will always serve you, rules that you can use independently. Moreover, since you are passionate about your topic, gaining mastery over the basic tools of the grammar will appear less burdensome than having it doled out to you slowly and painfully, without adequate explanations, over a long period of time in an inefficient process over which you have little control.

Having gained a comprehensive vision of the language and being at least familiar with the basic tools of grammar, now the next step is to read, read, read on your favorite topic in that language. Building on the essential vocabulary that you learned when becoming familiar with the basics, you can focus on learning the vocabulary related to topics that most interest you, making leverage of your passions, aided by today's technology - specifically, CD-Rom bilingual dictionaries (you can do without expensive language-learning courses), as well as a CD-Rom dictionary of solely your target language. The latter will usually contains a summary of that language's grammar anyway, or at least the conjugations of all the verbs. Such CD-Rom dictionaries retail for around $35-$100, depending on the language and the country of interest, and some are sold even more cheaply as add-ons in newspapers and magazines in certain countries. The latest tools include reading pens, tiny portable electronic dictionaries that you can pinpoint to scan a word or phrase in a paper text to obtain the English equivalent, retailing anywhere from $25 to $250.

Listen and Speak

Now that you have developed your familiarity with the basic set of rules of communication and have built up a vocabulary, the next step is to visit that country if possible. Better yet, live there for a significant period of time (obviously it depends on the circumstances in your life) or at least frequent communities of people who speak that language in your own country. Already equipped to at least recognize all aspects of the grammar, these experiences will enable you to begin gaining fluency in the listening and speaking aspects of the language. At this point it may be worthwhile to attend an organized language course, but at a conversational level where you can truly make the most of your money. It is in this context, and in the real community, that you will also learn those idiomatic expressions, the stuff of everyday life that the grammar books do not teach you.


If you wish to also gain some proficiency in writing the language, here are some guidelines:

  1. Keep reading, reading, reading, improving your mastery over the grammar and building more and more vocabulary.
  2. During your sojourn to your target country, try to make friends. Leveraging the passion generated by friendship on the one hand, and using today's technology most economically on the other, try to engage them in email correspondence.
  3. If an in-country sojourn is not possible, seek web-based pen pals.

Recap and Conclusion

  1. By making the initial effort to focus on good, old-fashioned grammar, you can achieve a comprehensive view of a language and develop the one set of tools you need for using it independently much more efficiently and effectively than you could by taking some overpriced language course sporting the newfangled method of the month.
  2. Using your learning abilities and your passions to guide you, read as often and as regularly as you can in your target language on topics of your choice to build vocabulary.
  3. Then immerse yourself in the real community of native speakers to gain experience in listening and speaking. Enrollment in an advanced conversation class at this point may prove to be a good investment.
  4. If you wish to gain proficiency also in writing, make friends (preferably some with common interests) and engage in written correspondence with them.

You need ability and passion to accomplish the task. Depending on your circumstances, then, you can grasp all the essentials of the grammar in as little as six weeks and achieve proficiency in various aspects of the language in as little as two years.


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