Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

How to learn a foreign language

I've been teaching English at an after-school program to Spanish adolescents for the past year, and I've come to admire their attitude toward learning. Sure, there's the occasional discipline problem along with all the travails of their age, including hormone intoxication. But they bring realistic expectations and habits to class that adult language learners sometimes forget.

Adults tend to expect too much, too fast.

My students know it's going to take years to master English. And as teens, they perceive a year as a very, very long time. But they also know how long it's taken them to get where they are.

It's also taken massive work, and even more work looms on their horizon. They spend a lot of time studying English — and all the other subjects on their curricula. Sometimes they come to class exhausted.

Here's what you can reasonably expect:

As a very broad, general rule (you may be the exception), you can learn three new vocabulary words and three grammar points a day. A grammar point is something like: "be going to" can be used, among other things, to make a prediction about events outside your control, as: "It is going to rain tomorrow."

This means you can learn about 1000 words a year and a portion of the grammar to use them correctly. But you'll need about 10,000 words to communicate effectively in everyday situations. Do the math. Now buy all the patience you can afford, and start studying every single day. Although adult responsibilities will conspire against you, try to keep it a priority.

Language involves four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. For most people, speaking is the hardest. This is because we do most of our language learning by reading and writing. Your boring workbook serves a purpose: it's a fast, efficient way to learn.

Speech is instinctive for human beings. We have an area in our brain dedicated to speaking. But reading and writing are not instinctive, and what we learn by reading is stored in various parts of the brain. In order to speak, you have to transfer that information to the speaking area of the brain. You make the transfer by actually speaking.

The more you speak, the more you transfer. If you have to chose between speaking a lot but with errors and speaking much less but with perfect grammar, speak a lot. The errors tend to work themselves out with a little attention, but the transfer is the crucial part.

You've probably heard that young children learn foreign languages easily and naturally. Yes, they do. But they're only learning to speak and listen, and you're also learning to read and write the foreign language, so you're outpacing them. And you have more patience and concentration than a four-year-old, so you can keep learning when it gets laborious and unnatural, rather than going off to play with your Legos.

In the end, it's worth all the effort and time, even if you don't learn as much as you had hoped. Language is the oldest and most complex human technology in existence. Learning even part of another language will make you smarter, wiser, and happier. But that's a topic for another post.

— Sue Burke
(Also posted at

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