This part of
the Guide deals more specifically with language learning. What has been
presented elsewhere as the right method to approach your studies is applied
here to learning a foreign language.
Gradual Approach and Regular Practice
All that was said about the importance of a well-thought schedule is
central to language learning. Think of children: the way they learn their
native language is gradual, repetitive, and multi-sensorial. You should
approach your language studies in a similar way. If you are learning
a foreign language for the first time, start from the basics. Learn small
'chunks' in order: the easiest, more elementary first; the more complex
later. Practice as much as you can: repeat, review, 're-hear,' 're-read,'
're-write,' 're-tell.' Use multimedia material to be as involved as possible
in the practice. For instance, you should hear the language as well as
read it and write it, see an image, or perform an action. The more interactive
the material you use, the more memorable the practice.
Be prepared to devote enough time to the task: you need to practice
extensively to understand how the language works and master its use.
You should practice everyday, if possible. Short and frequent sessions
are better than longer ones far apart. Even just a few minutes everyday
are important to go over points you may tend to forget, review words
or rules you find difficult, or test yourself. If you go through the
material often, you can keep it fresh in your mind and check whether
you are learning well.
Set yourself realistic goals so that you can stick to the schedule and
keep motivated. You may try to skip the easy bits in the hope of developing
great communication skills faster. This is not going to help, though.
Contain your enthusiasm a little, if necessary, and go step by step.
If your schedule is planned well, you will soon start getting results
that will reward your patience and perseverance. You will achieve one
goal after the other, which in turn will keep you motivated. You will
learn more and better.
Think of the difference between 'recognition' and 'recall' [more
...] or 'passive
knowledge' and 'active knowledge.' [more
foreign languages, many fail to notice the gap between the two. Most
of us recognize common foreign words: the French 'bonjour,' the Italian
'bambina,' or the Spanish 'hola.' Foreign words like 'voilà' (French:
here it is/here they are) or 'poltergeist' (German: polter =
to make noise + Geist = spirit) have been incorporated into the English vocabulary.
You can have a passive knowledge of these words and recognize them when
you see or hear them. You can understand their meaning even if you have
never studied the language from which they derive. Yet, this does not
mean that you can speak that language. You may be familiar with quite
a few more words than these or you may have even studied a foreign language
at some point in school, but if you can only recognize the language by
reading it, you still have a passive knowledge of it. Whether you want
to become fluent or just get by in a foreign language, you have to aim
at an active knowledge. If you have an active knowledge of the language,
you understand it, can recall it whenever you need it, and are able to
use it correctly. You don't just recognize words when you come across
them, but you can produce those words without clues and speak them spontaneously.
The way you practice and the time you devote to it are paramount in transforming
'recognition' into 'recall' and give you an active knowledge of the language
Considerations and Techniques
An interactive method is fundamental in language learning. It should
teach all language skills and involve your senses (hearing, sight, etc.)
as much as possible.
You should learn to speak and understand a foreign
language by listening to it. You should also learn
to read and write the language.
Ideally, you should practice all four language skills together using
multimedia material that includes sounds, texts, pictures, and interactive
drills. This makes learning more active, more memorable, and therefore
- Listen and Speak
If you want to speak a foreign language, you have to speak it
It seems obvious enough, but in reality this simple principle is often
neglected. In school there may be too many students attending the course
and too little time to have conversational classes. If you are studying
on your own, you may not be able to hear the language and consequently
do not try to speak it either. Or you 'feel funny' speaking to yourself
and prefer not to talk aloud, which is a sure way to develop a passive
knowledge instead of an active one.
Listening and repeating are crucial. Do try to use audio resources and
use them actively. A native speaker who can teach the language and practice
it with you is an ideal choice. If you don't have access to a tutor or
friend, use material that includes sounds (audio courses). Make an effort
to repeat aloud as much as possible. At first, get used to repeat aloud
what you hear as you hear it. Then practice retelling what you hear in
different ways. Initially, this ability will be limited, but as you expand
your vocabulary and master more grammar, you can have repetition with
variations. Retell in your own words while paying attention to the correct
rules. Try to generalize whenever possible: use typical patterns with
new or different words so that you can get both more practice and more
control over the language.
You can also use media, but what you can expect to achieve with them
vary according to your level. As a beginner, it is hard to progress using
songs or movies in the target language (the one you want to learn), but
they are useful to 'get a feeling' for the language and practice listening
to the pronunciation. Once you have a certain knowledge of the basics,
you can make more use of this kind of material to enlarge your vocabulary
and improve your listening comprehension. At an advanced level, they
can be very effective to refine your communication skills and reinforce
- Read and Write
Reading and writing are usually more practiced in school. You should
not overlook these skills if you are studying on your own because they
provide effective ways to work on the language.
Reading is an obvious way to learn how the words are used to
It is also an activity that provides plenty of opportunities to enlarge
your vocabulary. Graded reading material can be very enjoyable once you
have reached a certain level. Do not fall prey to the 'dictionary obsession.'
Instead of looking up every new word you come across, try to grasp its
meaning by the context in which it is used. Good graded texts reuse common
words throughout the story and make it easier to follow the plot. Read
books that explain more unusual or complex words in the target language
without references or translations into your own language. This way you
can see how the words are used in the target language without the 'interference'
of your own language.
While many learners tend not to pay attention to accurate spelling, to
know how to write a foreign language is important to communicate effectively.
Writing is an excellent way to expand and reinforce your language
The task can be particularly challenging because some languages use a
different writing system (e.g. Arabic or Chinese) or alphabet (e.g. Russian).
Even languages that use the same basic set of letters as English may
have additional letters or particular marks (e.g. German or Spanish).
Also, there may be a difference between the way the language is spoken
and the way it is written. These are all good reasons to learn how to
write a foreign language! Besides, writing is a powerful way to practice.
If you memorize visually or by movement, writing the language by hand
or using a word processor is a great exercise to commit to memory and
- Good Practice
The most effective way to learn the language is to learn it in
In this sense, songs, radio and television programs, movies, readers,
and other texts are good material, if they are appropriate to your
level. It is easier to understand the meaning as well as the rules
that govern the use of a language when words are part of a sentence,
passage, speech, dialog, etc. Rather than isolated words, therefore,
you should learn specific examples such as sentences that follow common
patterns and use everyday vocabulary.
If you have to learn single words out of context, try to make these more
memorable by 'doing things' with them. For instance, you can separate
nouns according to their gender in languages that divide words in masculine,
feminine, and eventually neuter. You can write lists of frequent or difficult
terms, synonyms and opposites, or 'families' of related words. Remember
the 'small is beautiful' rule: if a list gets long, divide it up into
shorter sub-lists. Additionally, you can create flashcards for the most
important words or grammatical. You can choose a mnemonic that helps
you memorize particular terms. You could even prepare small notes and
arrange them around the house: write not only the names of the objects
you stick the note on, but also actions that are commonly associated
with the objects. Write a complete sentence instead of the word alone,
and read aloud the notes as often as you can.
Occasional learners of foreign languages are often
focused only on vocabulary. Learning a language becomes restricted
to learning words. A language is more than the sum of
its words, however. If you want to become proficient in a foreign
language, you must understand how words are put together to express
ideas. You need to learn how the language is used in different
contexts and you should practice all language skills.
Analyses of Western European languages indicate
that a 'basic' vocabulary comprises a few thousands words. For
example, the first 1000 English words represent about 84% of the
words used in conversation and the next 1000 words cover an additional
6%. In theory, you can understand about 90% of everyday conversation
if you know the core 2000 words of the English language. In German,
the first 2000 words account for about 80% of general conversation
and texts, while the next 2000 words cover an additional 5% to
10%. Consequently, you should understand about 90% of oral and
communications if you have a vocabulary of 4000 words.
What statistics do not do is to distinguish between
active and passive knowledge of vocabulary. You may well recognize
words when you hear them or see them written, but can you use them?
If you want to speak a language with ease, recognition is not enough:
you must be able to recall the correct words spontaneously.
Besides, words are not isolated either in conversation or writing. A living
language changes and grammar is not eternal. Yet, at any given moment there
are certain rules that dictate which words can be used together, in which order
they should be placed, how sentences are formed, and so on. To be able to convey
meaning, you need to learn and practice how to communicate in an organic, structured
way. Words are like bricks, but languages are complete buildings. You
need more than bricks to build a solid house!
• An active approach and a well-designed schedule make learning
a foreign language easier and more effective.
• Cover all language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing)
to learn thoroughly, and try to use multimedia material to make your studies
• Practice makes perfect. Find a congenial way to practice, and practice
as much as you can. Practice constantly, regularly, frequently, exhaustively!