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Learning Foreign Languages

Updated on August 19, 2014

Just some random tips

I have loved languages nearly all my life, and have had a number of different experiences. This is a collection of recollections of my experiences plus tips that I developed over years of learning languages. My main expertise is reading languages. I read 15. I have had very little opportunity to do more than that, but I can offer a few tips just the same.

The characters on the left are from the Japanese language. They are called "kanji", which means "Chinese characters". The word says "Nihongo". That is the name of the Japanese language in Japanese. The first character means "sun". The second character is made up of the word "tree", plus an extra stroke added. The character with the added stroke means "book". Books are made from trees. The final character is the word for "language" or "tongue" in Japanese. On the upper right is the character for the numeral 5, pronounced "go" as well. I don't offhand know the significance of that, nor do I know why the word "book" is part of the Japanese word for "Japanese".

The use of the character for "sun" is significant because Japan is known as "The land of the rising sun."

Early experience

I started growing up around German-speaking people. We lived next door to my grandparents from the time I was a baby until I had completed first grade. My grandparents and my mother were/are fluent in German. I would occasionally visit my great-grandmother, who hated to speak English. When I was with relatives, the conversations were primarily in German, and I couldn't understand them because German wasn't spoken at home, and I was not exposed enough to learn anything. My mother didn't speak German in our home because my father couldn't speak it.

My mother later told me that she didn't want me to learn her version of German, because it contained some English words. Personally, I think that was a mistake, because she went on to college and got a bachelor's degree in German. She didn't struggle to learn German like I did. I still can't really carry on a conversation in German, though if I spend about a day brushing up my rusty reading comprehension, I can read it easily. More on how I achieved that later.

The result of this exposure was an INTENSE desire to learn foreign languages, and I do mean, intense.

My first real exposure to language learning was in fourth grade. Our teacher taught us a little Spanish vocabulary, most of which I remember readily enough. I wasn't exposed to further language learning opportunities until high school. I first went to high school in Pennsylvania. For some unknown reason, the only language the advisor recommended was Latin. Being of an academic mindset, I didn't object. I spent about three weeks in Latin class, to the best of my recollection, before we moved. The first day of class, I went home and thought up a sentence I'd like to say in Latin, as a kind of slogan. I got the dictionary and translated it word for word into Latin, not paying any attention to grammar. The next day I showed this to the teacher, who said, you have a natural aptitude and will go far. That was then. After we moved, I could have taken a different language, but because the school year had started, they advised me to continue with Latin. The teacher was a Hispanic male who had a rather interesting outlook on grades. He graded very stiffly. You had to make 93% to get an A, 86% to get a B, and so on. He gave NO opportunities to make up a slight deficit in points. The story he told was that he had a friend who barely missed a grade in a subject, and because of that, he went into the military (was drafted, apparently) and was sent into battle, where he was killed. So this teacher felt that being stuff with us was in our best interests. I didn't really mind, and it didn't affect my work, but for some reason, I never really got into Latin. Although I now can read and understand Latin text in masses and other choral works, that's about all I can do with it. Oh, and I can sort of follow along reading the Vulgate Latin version of the Bible.

When I was a junior, I had determined that I wanted to get a PhD in nuclear physics, and I knew you have to have two foreign languages to get a PhD. It was the height of the Sputnik era (when the Russians beat us into space with the first satellite), so Russian was all the rage for an up-and-coming science major. So I took Russian. The teacher was a fellow from Poland, a gentle soul who had lost an arm in the war. I instantly fell in love with the language, and that's how I got diverted away from science! I took two years of high school Russian, and when I took the SAT, I tested out of the first year of college Russian, and started in second year. In the end, I had 19 units (one short of a minor), and had taken a course in Russian grammar, which was taught in Russian, and got an A. I could also carry on a simplistic conversation with someone, as I demonstrated when I took the train to Pennsylvania for vacation, and ran into a Polish couple, and although they spoke English, we conversed in Russian.

One thing I learned from this experience was that if I personally wanted to master a language, I HAD to start by reading. We learned the Russian alphabet the first week in my high school class, and to this day, I read much more easily in Cyrillic than in the Roman alphabet. And that meant that Russian was accessible to me. Later, when I studied Japanese, they used romanji to teach (Roman alphabet, in other words), which meant I didn't learn any Japanese written language. This got me off on the wrong foot, and I struggled with Japanese. But that's another story I'll get into in a bit.


As I mentioned before, I started college with a year of Russian under my belt. After being in college a little while, I took a conversational course in German. That was a dismal failure. I think I got a C, but I learned virtually nothing. Clearly, I am a much more visual person, who does better with reading and writing.

After that, having dropped the idea of getting a PhD in nuclear physics in favor of studying languages, I began to think about the fact that I am very interested in the arts of Japan, so I decided to take up Japanese. I took three semesters of Japanese, and as I mentioned, because they taught the course in romanji, I got off on the wrong foot to begin with (a later course in Japanese that I took remedied this problem, but I didn't even complete first semester because of college politics. I prefer not to recount that right now. It's too painful.) The first semester I got an A, the second semester a B, the third semester a C, and I dropped out of fourth semester. Clearly, they were teaching faster than I could learn. I watched in awe as a young married couple were able to master Japanese so quickly that they got into a summer program of immersion, and by the time they graduated, the wife had written a thesis on the Japanese particle "no", and had done all her research in Japanese. That woman was a major influence on my life, because in addition to mastering Japanese, she was raising a family (two children), growing her own vegetables, finding and refurbishing old furniture she got a junkyards, and keeping house. I decided that if she could do so many things at once, so could I.

After I got my bachelor's degree (in art, as it turns out), I didn't do much with languages for several years. Then three of our children started college, and they started in German class. The reason for that was that the best language teacher I have ever known was teaching the course, and I wanted them exposed to his teaching. (He had been teaching at my high school. While there, he had a student who happened to be a friend of mine. She had a severe hearing loss, but that didn't slow her down. She entered the forensics tournament, where you recite something in the language, and they award prizes to the people who sounded most native. She was disqualified with her serious piece because they thought she was a native speaker. She went on to college, got a PhD in German linguistics, then went to work for IBM working on languages for computer use, of which I don't know the details, and ultimately became fluent in eight languages, including sign language.)

Because two of our children were significantly under the age for attending college, I was required to attend with them. As a result, I was also exposed to this teacher, who I wished I had had in high school. He taught me a heap of things that are helpful in learning a foreign language. I will describe what he taught in detail.


So far, most of my suggestions concern how to learn to read a language. Here are some resources that should be excellent for learning to speak a language. Pimsleur developed a method that helps cement the vocabulary and phrases in your active memory. I have spent a little time with the Spanish audio lessons, and in my opinion, they work very well. In the previous section, I cautioned you about buying materials from a company called Pimsleur APPROACH. The materials are sound, but the selling method is a scam. They also badly misrepresent how QUICKLY the method works, telling you things like you can learn to speak a language in 10 days. (Not unless you have a natural aptitude and you are immersed in it all your waking hours.) For this reason, I recommend that you buy his materials through Amazon, not from Pimsleur Approach. If you get an email from Pimsleur Approach, throw it in the trash.

There are many items available at Amazon, suitable for learning specific languages. Use "Pimsleur" as a search term.

How to Learn a Foreign Language

by Paul Pimsleur Ph.D.

Pimsleur Approach

This is about a conversational approach to speaking a language, which comes on DVDs. It also trains somewhat in grammar. As far as I can tell, the materials are effective, but the speed at which you learn has been grossly exaggerated by one reseller.

Please note: this section is about a pitfall to avoid, buying valid learning materials from a questionable web site. The web site is frequently promoted through spam, by the way. There are a lot of ads for this scattered throughout the internet as well, and the site is being promoted through emails from legitimate sources, such as political sites. This is both a description of the method, and how exactly to avoid the pitfall. The pitfall is mainly the MISREPRESENTATION of what you will have to buy, and how long it will take you, using these materials, to learn to speak a language.

Dr. Paul Pimsleur developed what appears to be a rather effective way of teaching people to SPEAK a new language. I have reviewed the beginning of what is actually a rather extended course, and I find the details of how he did it rather fascinating. I also think it would be effective. The series is published by Simon & Schuster.

These same materials, or similar ones, are being sold to the public by a web site known as Pimsleur Approach.

Here's the problem. The Pimsleur Approach represents to people that for the price of $10 you can become fluent in a new language, in about ten days. Folks, it just ain't so! Suppose you order the Spanish, as I did. I paid $10 and I got 4 CDs. Along with them, I got a note that stated that they would send me a new unit for my evaluation. To the best of my recollection, the note did NOT say that your credit card would be charged $60 for that second set. But I saw that I had been charged. So I raised Cain about it, and they sent me a return label, and refunded the $60.

Please be aware that no matter how effective a program like this is, it will take months to become completely fluent in the language (but of course, that depends on your definition of "fluent"). The only method that works quickly is immersion: you go to the country, and all you hear and attempt to speak is the new language. A skilled person, or one with aptitude, will probably learn enough to function in a couple of weeks. But this is CONSTANT exposure.

At Simon & Schuster's web site,, you can get a complete Spanish course for $450. This will cover 120 lessons, or 4 months. Each individual unit sells for $22. That's a far cry from the $60 that Pimsleur Approach is charging for slightly more material. The $22 buys you 5 lessons, while the $60 buys you 8. Do the math. Very few people will feel they can plunk down $450 all at once, but Pimsleur Approach will collect more than that over time, and only in retrospect will you realize how much you have spent on it.

Pimsleur discovered that if you pace the repetition of each item of material at carefully regulated times, the learner will retain the information much longer. The course is basically a conversational approach. The first lesson teaches about four sentences. The instructions say to repeat OUT LOUD each time they ask you to. They mix it up. They re-combine different words. Interestingly, when teaching a polysyllabic word, they don't start with the first syllable, but the LAST one. I can see how that might be more effective, but it does seem strange at first.

Now there are, to my mind, several weaknesses to all this. First, you won't be able to read and write at all after going through these materials. In particular, I noticed that the first lesson uses the word "hablo" (I speak). In Spanish, the "h" is not pronounced, so it sounds like 'ablo. A person who knows nothing of written Spanish will not begin to guess that there is an "h" at the beginning of the word. I have personally found that this is a problem, because when I listen to a Spanish conversation, those missing letters cut into my comprehension because I already read Spanish, so when I hear a word that starts with "h", I can't tell that it has one. It could be a word that starts with a vowel, such as "a". So what does that word mean? I usually miss it entirely.

The second problem is that many people are more visual, and do not do as well with an audio approach. I am fortunate that I do well at either, but I tend to do better with a literate approach, which is one reason why I chose to learn to read languages. The other reason is it is a lot easier to acquire books for learning, than to find a longsuffering soul who will help you learn to speak.

Now suppose that the language you want to learn is Japanese. With the Pimsleur materials, you are now in deep trouble. Japanese is written in Chinese characters plus a syllabary (like an alphabet, but each symbol represents a consonant plus vowel, with a set of 5 vowels only). Learning to speak Japanese won't get you diddly-squat toward learning to read, but yet if you really want to function, you need to be able to read, at least to read signs. There is another difficulty with Japanese as well, and I don't know offhand how Pimsleur handles this problem. Japanese is really six languages. Men speak in a very abrupt form, leaving off the endings of many words. Women pronounce the entire word. I think it also makes a difference whether you are speaking to another person of the same gender, or another person of opposite gender. And there is a formal version versus an informal version. The formal version would be used in ceremonial situations, for example. Here is an example of what I am talking about. A man would count, "ich, ni, san, shi, go" while a woman would count "ichi, ni, san, shi, go". Take this description with a little bit of salt, because I am currently NOT fluent in Japanese, and I require five minutes to read a page of Japanese text, using a dictionary. A page of Japanese text in a little "paperback" novel would contain a fraction of the words that would be on a page of a novel in a western language. The characters take up more room on the page.

Arabic presents a somewhat smaller problem, but as much as I am usually able to master a new alphabet easily, it was several years before I could make heads or tails of the Arabic alphabet, partly because there are several very different styles, and they're more cursive, and some styles run the letters together, so you don't know where a new letter begins and ends. I finally figured it out well enough to use a dictionary, sort of. But it took quite awhile. So if you want to tackle Arabic, you will also run into this problem.

The bottom line is that I believe Pimsleur Approach is intentionally misleading people, because they figure if you get the new course and devour it right away, by the time you get the second set, you will be stoked, and you won't mind giving them twice as much as what you'd give the publisher for the same material. And because they misrepresent the course to begin with by strongly implying that you can learn to speak with the very first (and supposedly ONLY) set, they are being deceptive.

So stay away from them. If you want the course, buy it from Simon & Schuster.

While I was fighting with Pimsleur Approach over this, I contacted someone at Simon & Schuster. Since she was just an individual working for the company, I cannot presuppose that her statements were official policy. But she did indicate that Simon & Schuster is aware of the problem with Pimsleur Approach, and is not happy about it, but hasn't taken any action.

(Interestingly, I saw a banner ad for Pimsleur Approach on my Lens just as soon as I published it. It's called "Language Professors Hate Him." A text ad on the side said that the offer of $9.95 ends soon. Folks, it's been around for months that I know about. Like I said, please go to, the Simon & Schuster site, INSTEAD.

Viktor Krebs

Herr Krebs was the German teacher who taught me all the tricks I now use to learn a foreign language. He taught a standard German course at the local community college. He had taught himself Spanish, and he was fluent. I don't know how he is doing currently, but he is retired.

Herr Krebs' class ran according to a certain timetable. He usually gave out 25 vocabulary words the first class of the week, for first year, and 35 for second year. People were expected to write them down in a stenographer's notebook, English on one side of the vertical line, and German on the other. We were supposed to study them while we were relaxing doing something else, such as watching TV. We were supposed to cover up the German words, and then look at the first English word, and try to remember the German word, which we then uncovered. Then we re-covered the German, and looked at the first English word, trying to remember the German, and then we looked at the second English word and tried to remember the German. We repeated this process, adding one word at a time, until we completed the list. He gave us a demonstration. He asked the first student his name. He repeated the name, and then asked the second student his name, and then repeated them both, starting with the first. He continued this until he had been through the entire class, and by the class's end, he knew them all.

The last class of the week, he gave us a vocabulary test. He would ask ONE English word of each student, and if the student told him the correct German word, he got an A for the week. If he got it wrong or couldn't remember, he got one more try, privately. If he got that one right, he got an A, but if he got that one wrong, he got an F. Herr Krebs only handed out A's and F's, and that's the only testing he ever did. No averaging needed. Students either knew them or they didn't, and most of the students consistently passed the test. A few didn't bother to study, and flunked out.

He taught us declensions and conjugations by rote, reciting each and expecting us to repeat with him. The first week, we got one declension, and we would recite after him. The second week, we got two. By the end of the semester, we were reciting a lot of different ones, each class. He then would write nonsense sentences on the blackboard, using the grammar we already knew, and we would write them out in German. He would come around and look at each person's paper. An example of a nonsense sentence would be, "The blue frog sat under the table."

After we did all of those things, he spent the rest of the period reading to us in German. He had chosen what he read so that for the most part, we could understand it. He didn't translate.

So that is how his classes went.

At one point after class, we got into a conversation. He said, if you want to learn to read a foreign language, you get children's books and a dictionary. Start reading a book, and every time you come across a word you don't know, look it up. He said it was easy to learn to read a language that way. He's right. I started with a reading vocabulary in German of 500 words, and after six months of reading a half hour daily, I had a reading vocabulary of 5000 words. I even read the entire Little House on the Prairie series in German. That's seven books on about the sixth grade level, I'd guess. I used that same method for a number of other languages, successfully. After I could read Spanish, I took a Spanish conversation course, and I was one of two people in the class the teacher would hold extensive conversations with (several sentences). After I could read Spanish and French, I was able to learn to read Italian in two weeks, reading all day long. Needless to say, I continued to use this method for other languages. Later on, I was able to pick up a copy of the book of Mark in Gullah, which I was able to read immediately, and also, I was able to read the Bible in Afrikaans immediately, using my knowledge of what it says and my background reading Dutch. So far, I have used this method only with Indo-European languages.

Other languages

One time, I met a man who had lived in Alaska for some time. I saw this fellow several times before he left town. He could speak Inupiaq, which is an Eskimo language. Just for the heck of it, I decided to see what I could do with the language. In this case, it would be a bit more challenging, because quite often, one word can only be translated by a phrase, going to and from, and verbs are structured very differently.

So I contacted the American Bible Society and asked them if I could get a copy of the New Testament in Inupiaq. At first they said yes, and then they said that I should specify a book and they would send me a copy. A couple of weeks later, I went to the post office and saw I had gotten a package. I opened it, and it was a complete New Testament. There was a note enclosed that said that they were revising the translation, and they had saved back a few copies of the New Testament. They decided they could part with one, and sent it to me. That was a pretty overwhelming experience.

So I got the New Testament in English, and putting them side by side, I used this as a sort of Rosetta Stone. I used some primitive cryptography techniques, and started making my own dictionary. I would identify a word in Inupiaq and pair it up with an English word, and then put it into a dictionary I was making on the computer. In the end, my dictionary had 800 words. I then showed it to the man I met and he was amazed by it.

I continued to use this technique for several other languages, doing eight in all.

One day, I found a New Testament in an unknown language in the used bookstore. Usually, New Testaments will tell you what language they are in, but this one didn't. I started to make a dictionary, and then I noticed that the beginning letter of a noun would change, depending on what word it followed. I had heard this was the case with Welsh, so I talked to a friend of mine who knew some Welsh, and he confirmed that was what it was. So now I had a dictionary in Welsh.

I don't know how useful this is in learning a language, but maybe it will help.

I have been able to get audio tapes of portions of Matthew in Tohono O'othham (Papago language from Arizona and Mexico), and in that way, I could learn how to pronounce the words. I also spent a little time with the missionaries who developed the dictionary for that language, and translated the New Testament, and he gave me some pointers.

Beyond this point, I haven't done anything further with these languages, but sometime (in my "copious" spare time), I will.

Just a bunch of suggestions

This Lens isn't meant to be any kind of comprehensive analysis of how best to learn another language. It just happens to be a random collection of the things I personally do to learn a language. Your results may vary. Just take it for what it's worth, glean what is useful from it, and get ideas from elsewhere, and have at it. Good luck!

I will next present some information about other approaches, in no particular order.


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