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How to Learn a Language
Alex Steffen, 10 Nov 04

Being multilingual is totally worldchanging. But some of us find learning new languages really difficult -- what can we linguistic simpletons do?

Colin Jacobs has written a user's guide for language acquisition -- titled, helpfully enough, How to Learn a Language. I've been wanting to (re-)learn Brazilian Portuguese and French. Maybe I'll give Colin's system a try.

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I can speak only English but I've studied French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Hungarian. I have also worked through Goethe's Faust in German, the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutra in Sanskrit, and Dante in Italian.

From my experience, I would recommend finding bilingual versions of literature you want to read and working through them with a grammar and a dictionary. Even without any help, poetry can work nicely. I got an added benefit from trying the Polish in Wislawa Szymborska's work. Poetry and songs, I think, are very good language learning tools.

I would also recommend subtitled films in the language of your choice. It gives you a chance to get the sound in your ear. These days people can get access to international TV and radio broadcasts as well. BBC foreign language service is especially good for this. DVDs also give you a variety of subtitle options. I even ran into a bonus disc for "Spirited Away" which had Hungarian subtitles for the Japanese language making of documentary on that great anime. Think of the possibilities!

Right now, I am back to studying Japanese using a new textbook my local library featured and going back to an old reader as well as dipping into the archive of Issa's haiku online, some manga, and some Kawabata short stories (Japanese original read through once without dictionary then read through again with an English translation and, eventually, with kanji and hiragana dictionary look up).

I always thought that the best way to deal with bilingual education was to have the non-English speaking students teach their native languages to their classmates while their classmates teach English to them. But, evidently, that's much too logical for the USA these days.

Posted by: gmoke on 15 Nov 04


For the romance languages of French, Spanish, Italian and German I cannot recommend Michel Thomas language courses highly enough. I saw a BBC documentary on him back in about 1999 where he took a group of 16 year old French exam failures and I got them to an advanced level with 8 hours tuition a day for ONE WEEK. This was with no homework and no memorisation. Michel Thomas has analysed these languages and a great way to teach the structure (i.e. the grammar) effortlessly in a way which activates the brain (rather than using mindless repetition). Within 5 minutes you will be speaking in sentences. By the end of his 8 hour course you will be able to use some pretty complex grammatical structures (without wasting time learning grammatical labels).

I believe Michel Thomas has developed a worldchanging way of teaching the romance languages in a highly accelerated way which mimics the natural process of language acquisition.

Unfortunately he seems like the same modelling cannot be applied to non-romance languages (I'd love to learn Mandarin).

Where can you get this? Well Michel charged about $15,000 A WEEK for personal tuition back in 1999. A look at his website ( shows he's since put his rates up to $25,000.

Fortunately he now has a much more reasonably priced tape/CD set available from and has just launched an advanced series as well.

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Posted by: Alternative Energy Blog on 16 Nov 04



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