How To Learn A Language
Bill Long 12/21/08
A person asked me today: Bill, would you recommend the "Rosetta Stone" method for learning a language or another method? I was surprised at the intensity of my reaction. It wasn't because I was a fan of Rosetta Stone or any other method; it is simply because people make it far too hard to learn languages and then charge you bundles for the effort. If you follow the simple advice I give you here, languages will open to you like Spring flowers. But here is my problem. I have a habit of giving all kinds of valuable insights here--for free! I guess I haven't yet figured out how to "charge" for my insight. But maybe that is why I said yesterday I was going to stop writing and just dig into studying. I guess I haven't yet learned from myself.
Learning a Language
The basic point I make is incredibly simple: you learn a language by memorizing about 50 sentences. Then, you learn to build on those sentences by substituting other nouns, by developing a working knowledge of different forms of the verb, and, finally, by making the sentences longer through adding dependent clauses of various kinds. If you just really think about and internalize what I just said, you would never rush off to Berlitz or Rosetta Stone or any other "service." Perhaps you will need to hire a tutor to help you pronounce the language and get you over some hurdles as you learn, but in general, you will have all you need.
Let me illustrate this by showing you how I am now learning to speak French. I bought a simple book--The Big Book of French Verbs (555 fully conjugated verbs). The book cost me about $8, because it was used, even though there is nary a marking within. It gives, on each page, a separate verb, conjugates it in 14 tenses and gives the imperative form(s). Then, it provides a number of sentences where the verb is put to work. I realized that if I take about 50 of those sentences, derived from various verbs, I have more than the rudiments of French knowledge. Let's illustrate this through the verb donner--to give. It is holiday season, and so the verb comes in really handy [By the way, the simple conversational method, which many people teach you--such as "hi, how are you?" or "where's the bathroom?" are completely useless if you want to learn the language, principally because they are dead-end conversation pieces].
The book had the following sentence:
Elle nous a donne de tres beaux cadeaux.
Sorry I can't do accents here. There is a grave over the "e" in donne. You need to have someone teach you how to pronounce French, but then, just memorize it. Literally, it runs, "She us has given of very lovely gifts." At first you just speak the first four words: "Elle nous a donne." If you wanted to put it in the present tense, it is just "Elle nous donne" (no grave accent over the "e"). Then, you can vary the first four words. Perhaps you want to say, "She gave me.." Then, it is simply, "Elle me a donne." Well, run through the entire list of them. "Elle te a donne" or "Elle vous a donne" or "Elle leur [them] a donne." Then you can vary the subject. It can be "Nous vous avons donne" or "Nous te avons donne." Or, if you wanted to keep it in the present tense: "Nous te donnons..." All of a sudden, you have loads of ways to say who gives something to someone. Well, in fact, you haven't gotten to the "something" yet, but you have the basic structure down so that you know what you are doing.
Then, you play with the second half of the sentence. You can give "de tres beaux cadeaux" of course, but you can also give other things. You can give shoes, socks, pants, shirts, etc. So, if it is "one shirt" it is "une chemise." Shoes are "des chaussurs" and socks are "des chausettes." Begin to fill in the second part of the sentence with all kinds of good things that can be given. Then, when you have the sentence mastered and memorized well, you can begin to tack on prepositional or temporal phrases to the beginning. You can say, "Last year" I gave.... or "Next year I will give." Or "Last week" or "the Saturday before last," etc. You see the point. You are gradually beginning to build complex thoughts, thoughts that arise out of simple statements. Many of the thoughts that are expressed here can then be "broken off" and used in other sentences to describe completely different phenomena.
One Other Example
Well, that is only the first sentence you could learn. There are many others with "donner," some of which are in fact "dead end" sentences but are useful nevertheless. For example, if you said, "Donne c'est donne" (accents) it means "what is given is given" or "You can't take back a gift." But, come to think of it, you can now.. Or, "Il est doue (accent) pour les langues," "He has a gift for languages." We can stay with donner.
Ils n'ont pas encore donne un nom a leur enfant.
"They haven't yet named their child."
The second part of the sentence can be mastered and then substituted for. What else can you give to an infant? To someone else? to someone else's infant? This would require you to change a word here or there... "donne un cadeau a leur enfant." "Donne un livre a leur enfant." Or "a ton enfant." You get the picture. But even more useful is the phrase, "Ils n'ont pas encore..." They haven't yet... and then you can build hundreds of sentences using this opening gambit.
This is how you build language knowledge. Memorize basic sentences. Build on them. Change them. Expand them. Then, before you know it, you are being accused of talking like a native..
How About The "Dead" Languages
What about if you just have to learn Latin or ancient Greek? How do you do it? Very easily, even though these are quite difficult languages. You realize that our culture forced many a person to learn these languages 100 years ago--people who couldn't care less about learning them. Thus there are all kinds of old high school textbooks around, all kinds of "completely parsed" guides around to various works of classical antiquity. These works guide you on a day-by-day, with chunk-sized reading assignments, course of study. A little patience (maybe for three years) and you will be on your way here, too.
Thus, don't ask me about methods. People who ask about methods to learn a language generally don't have the courage or the discipline to begin the study of the language. I have given you the method that really works...