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Fast-tracking Foreign Languages: How to Meet the Linguistic Challenges of Working Abroad by Philip Yaffe

Native English-speakers 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 quickly.

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.

I therefore suggest that the most effective order for learning a language would be:


1. Basic 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 with it.

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.

Since vocabulary 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. continued...

Written By: 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 ( and Amazon (

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