Self-Study of a Foreign Language

It is the general opinion of the American public that in order to learn a foreign language, one must study that language in a classroom environment. Although this can be useful, it is not always effective (or cost-effective), and it is not always convenient. Many are un-aware that they can become fluent in many languages with a low-budget and without the traditional and annoying tests and quizzes and homework assignments.

Step 1: Choosing a language

There is a wide assortment of languages to choose from, and each offers some appeal. Some are simply useful, while others may just be aesthetically appealing. The best advice I could lend a language student is to pick a language that they want to learn. A person who wants to learn Chinese just because it might make them money is more likely to get bored and quit than the person who loves using Chinese. Explore. Go to the bookstore and look at some of the phrasebooks, workbooks, and dictionaries. Search on the internet. It would be a wise choice to go with whatever looks like the most fun and interesting to learn. You may find yourself wanting to learn many languages, but for now focus on one. Pick the language that is highest on your ‘list’, and just go with it. (Note: Self-study of languages is unfortunately limited to what study materials you can find on your own. As such, if you want to learn less common languages, you may be out of luck. If that’s the case, searching for a class or a person from the language’s country of origin would be your best bet.)

Step 2: Materials

Your materials will consist of books from the bookstore, an internet connection (library), and hopefully a few people you can meet to practice with. You will likely end up making several trips to the bookstore during the course of your study, but you want to start with a thorough, modern, and portable dictionary. The dictionary should have a large selection of words, be paperback, and have colloquial words. I suggest Harper-Collins Concise, though their language selection is limited. Some type of grammar book is also needed. You can usually find cheap ‘teach-it-yourself’ guides or ‘for dummies’ books that have what you need. If you can’t find one of those, then look for a grammar book. It doesn’t need to be thick and convoluted, and some type of concise grammar book will do best.

Step 3: Getting Started

yourself some reading material in the target language. The internet connection comes in handy here, as you can go to one of “Yahoo”‘s foreign sites and print up a few news article. Newspapers and magazines do best, as they have modern and simple language. Now, consult your grammar/teach-it-yourself book alongside the reading material, and start trying to recognize various non-vocabularly elements of the language. Many elements of a sentence are a part of grammar, and not just purely vocabulary. In the preceding sentence alone, I’ve used articles, prepositions, comparative adjectives, a conjuction, and verb conjugations. If you eliminated those, you’d just have ‘elements sentence part grammar just purely vocabulary’. More than 50% of the sentence is eliminated. Keep this in mind, and work towards understanding the purely grammatical aspects of a sentence. I recommend starting with articles (not ALL languages use these. Latin for instance has no articles), moving to gender (some languages have gender, some don’t), then moving onto verbs. With verbs, learn the subject pronouns, and become acquanted with the conjugation pattern for present and past tense. Skim through other sections of your grammar book, looking at the various types of adjectives (eg. demonstrative-this, that, comparative-better, bigger, smaller, etc., superlative-best, worst, etc.), conjunctions, other verb forms, and perhaps gender and plurality agreement. It will without a doubt be difficult at first, but after a few days of practicing this you will become good at recognizing the format of the sentence. ‘That’s an article, that must be a verb in the so-and-so tense, that must be a feminine noun…’ Don’t become too caught up on vocabulary at this point. Learn the words included in your grammar/teach-it-yourself book, and perhaps look up a handful of words in your reading material, but this should not be your initial focus.

Step 4: Improving Vocabulary

Vocabulary is improved through constant usage of useful words. If you look up a literary and rather uncommon word, you likely will forget it. How often is the word ‘satiable’ used? It’s not a difficult or rare word, but it does not come up in conversation or daily observations. ‘Bus’, ‘car’, ‘dog’, ‘bed’, ‘table’, ‘park’, and ‘street’ on the other hand would all tend to come up on a daily basis. Start carrying your dictionary around with you. Whenever you don’t know how to say something that you see or might want to say, look it up. You’re seated on the bus staring out the window. Look up the words for ‘bus’, ‘window’, ‘seat’, ‘to sit’ (the verb), and ‘to stare’. Regularly refer to these words you look up, and try to cycle through them in your head during free time. As you get better, you should be able to form sketchy sentences expressing whatever is going on. Once you are at the point where you can confidently express words for most things around you, you are ready to return to grammar. (Note: Don’t stop working with vocabulary, continue practicing)

Step 5: Tuning Your Grammar

At this point, your grammar usage is likely very poor. Start by becoming confident with verb conjugation and usage. Another trip to the bookstore might yield valuable verb-oriented books and workbooks. The key to studying verbs is finding the pattern. All languages have irregular verb conjugations, and these must simply be memorized. However, the majority of a language’s verb conjugations follow a specific pattern. Keep this in mind when studying. Also, don’t limit your verb study to one tense or one mood. In classes, students are often taught one verb tense at a time. Unfortunately, that is not how languages are used. Present, past, future, indicitave, subjunctive, imperative, and other verb tenses and moods will all be blended together when you read or hear the language. You need to be ready for that by studying all of the major tenses. You can usually get away with just knowing present tense, past tense(s), and future tense, though be aware that you’ll need to learn other constructions. The internet can be a valuable resource again, as you’ll often find conjugation games and/or drills. As you gain proficiency in verb usage, your mental sentences should begin to come to you faster, and more correct.

Step 6: Learning the real language

No matter what language you are studying and what books you use, you will eventually need correspondence from a real speaker of the language. This is vital, as this person(s) can correct you, and teach you more colloquial tricks to help you sound like a native. This native speaker of the language is also important for your oral and aural knowledge of the language. Learning to read and write a language is not always the hardest part. Learning to pronounce and understand the spoken language can be much harder, and these actually are the more useful skills. The internet is (again!) a valuable resource, because it spans the entire world. If you look hard enough, you can find a speaker of almost any language. Due to advancing technology, hearing the person you are conversing with is not hard. Microphones can go for less than fifteen dollars. Paired with headphones or a speaker, you can have a conversation just like you are on the phone (and this type of software does not cost money either, aside from the internet connection). If you are lucky enough to make a friend who speaks the language, then be sure to take advantage of your time together by practicing and asking questions. If you are really lucky, you can even make a friend who would like to learn your language.

Step 7: Now what?

Now what? Now you need to keep on practicing and learning. There is almost always something new you can learn, and there is almost always some way in which you can improve. Ideally, you’ll want to travel to a place where your new language is spoken. This is the best way to achieve fluency, as you are forced to constantly use the language. Eventually it will just come naturally. In the meantime, resume studying grammar and learn the remaining difficult and less common concepts, and always work on your vocabulary.

Bonne chance, boa sorte, and buena suerte!

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