are increasingly exhorted to learn foreign languages to play a more
effective role in globalisation. However, we tend not to learn foreign
languages for three very valid reasons.
1. Many other
peoples in the world are not just exhorted to learn English,
they are required to do so. Thus, you
can find English virtually everywhere you go.
2. The grammar of most other languages, certainly most European
languages, is much more complex than English. Thus, native
anglophones often view language learning as a daunting, and
even demoralising task.
3. Most native anglophones,
especially in North America, live in almost exclusively English-speaking
environments. We virtually never hear other languages spoken live,
on radio or television, and virtually never see them written in
newspapers, magazines, books, etc. This is hardly motivating.
The fact is, the world conspires against anglophones learning other
languages. So if you speak only English, you have no reason to be
ashamed. Nevertheless, whilst these factors explain why so few anglophones
know other languages, they are not valid excuses for not learning
them when the situation calls for it. For example, you are sent
to open or manage a foreign subsidiary, you are assigned to negotiate
or maintain working relationships with a foreign partner, etc.
How should you go about learning a foreign language with the
least pain and most gain? In my personal experience, the secret
lies in changing your mindset. I live in Brussels. I speak French
fluently, understand and can more-or-less get around in Dutch and
German, and I am now rapidly acquiring Spanish. But the first language
I mastered was none of these. It was Swahili, which I learned when
I spent two-and-a-half years working in Tanzania.
Like many (probably most) Americans growing up in an essentially
English-speaking environment, I thought the ability to speak another
language required superior intelligence; only people endowed with
this unique talent could actually achieve it. Shortly after I got
to Tanzania, I visited in a remote tribal area where virtually everyone
spoke three languages. Moreover, virtually none of them had ever
seen the inside of a school (there just weren't any schools), let
alone graduated from a prestigious university (UCLA).
I therefore had to radically rethink my attitude towards language
learning. This new mindset has significantly helped me master the
languages I now regularly use. I will illustrate with French, the
language I know best. But remember, these same ideas and techniques
apply to virtually any language you may need to acquire.
Some Useful Psychology
The good news is: Learning to speak a language is the easiest
part of the job.
I know you may have thought that speaking would be the most difficult
part. However, I would argue that most people, with minimal effort,
can learn to speak a foreign language reasonably well really quite
Writing a language is very a different story. French, for example,
is one of the most complex written languages in the world. In fact,
written French and spoken French are almost two separate languages.
Therefore, if your objective is to speak, concentrate on the spoken
language and leave the written language to come along later.
I know this may sound like heresy, because the majority of language
courses try to teach both at the same time, particularly in public
schools. They spend a demoralising amount of time making you write
a language (probably because it is easier to grade students this
way), although this is the last thing you really need to know.
When I say that speaking is the easiest part of the job, I am not
advocating "total immersion". Few of us have the luxury
of spending a week, or preferably several weeks, totally concentrating
on learning a language. What I am advocating is doing things in
the proper psychological order. Most people can master enough of
the fundamentals to be able to speak (poorly but nevertheless coherently),
and to understand what is being said to them, within only 2 - 3
months. The trick is to recognise that the major obstacle to acquiring
a foreign language is not grammar. It's vocabulary.
If you don't know the verb you need, it doesn't matter that you
know how to conjugate verbs; you still cannot speak. If you don't
know the adjective you need, it doesn't matter that you know how
to decline adjectives; you still cannot speak. And so on.
therefore suggest that the most effective order for learning a language
grammar The minimum necessary to put together an intelligible
(if incorrect) sentence. In my experience, this is most efficiently
done self-taught. Sit down with a grammar book for about 10-15
minutes each day until you begin to feel somewhat comfortable
2. Basic vocabulary The minimum necessary to begin using
the basic grammar. Again, in my experience this is most efficiently
done self-taught, i.e. the classic "learn five new words
each day". It won't be very long before you start seeing
how different words are related, so you can begin to guess
what new words mean without resorting to the dictionary.
3. Speaking the
language Putting basic grammar and vocabulary to work as soon
as you can actually begin using them. This is the time to consider
a language school or a personal tutor. With the foundation of what
you will have already learned by yourself, you will certainly progress
more easily and rapidly than if you had leapt into formal language
instruction at the very beginning.
4. Writing the language Tackling the daunting task of putting
the language on paper. You will almost certainly never need to do
much writing. And what you do write will certainly need to be revised
and corrected by a native speaker.
is crucial, then the largely unrecognised key to mastering another
language is: Learn to read it.
There is nothing like
being able to sit down with a newspaper, magazine, or even a novel
in the language to reinforce both grammar and vocabulary. The more
you read, the more your vocabulary will expand. And the more some
of the language's apparently bizarre ways of doing things will become
increasingly familiar. best results, the novel should contain a
maximum of dialogue and a minimum of description. With dialogue,
you can frequently anticipate and interpret what the characters
are saying; with description you haven't a clue.
When I was learning
French, I used novels by Agatha Christie and the adventures
of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because they are about 90% dialogue
and 10% description. Hardly my favourite literature, but they served
the purpose. I would also suggest Animal Farm by George Orwell and
Candide by Voltaire. However, any novel with a high ratio of dialogue
to description will do.
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The
Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He
currently teaches a course and conducts one-day workshops in writing
and public speaking in Brussels, Belgium. In the 'I' of the Storm:
the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional,
his recently published book, perceptively and entertainingly explains
the key principles and practices of persuasive communication. It
is available from the publishers in Ghent, Belgium (www.storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (www.amazon.com).