How to Teach Yourself a Language (Part 1)

Almost everyone wants to learn another language, or at least would like it if they somehow managed to get the ability for free. Maybe it would help you with your job, or with finding a new one. Maybe you’ve got family members that don’t speak English well, and you want to learn their language so you can talk with them. Maybe you love Korean pop music, and you would like to understand the lyrics. Maybe you’re planning a trip to Botswana, and it would really help if you learned a bit of Setswana. Maybe, like me, you just love the puzzle of a new language, and the insight that it can give you into an unfamiliar culture.

Lots of reasons. Look, I’m not going to make outlandish claims or try to sell you a gimmick. To learn a foreign language takes a lot of time, consistent practice, and hard work. That said, it’s not the impossible task that you might believe it is. A lot of people have done it. My godfather Ken Hale did it all the time, and I do it too. Heck, the majority of humanity does it and has done it. Ken always said that monolingualism is a historical anomaly. So, my first goal is to convince you that learning a foreign language can be done (though you won’t get it for free.) It’s hard, but not as hard as you think.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re a human being. This means that unless your brain has some developmental abnormalities, or you’ve got lesions in the left side of your brain (assuming you’re not left-handed), your brain is specifically wired for language. You’ve evolved to learn, process, and produce language. It’s an extremely complicated system, but you’ve got a leg up. You’ve learned one language already, there’s nothing about your brain that says you can’t learn another.

But wait, you say, I’ve been told that after a certain age, you lose the ability to learn languages easily. It is true that babies and young children do a remarkable job at learning the languages that are spoken to them. But let’s take a step back and look at what it is these babies and young kids are doing. They’re studying constantly, and in an unselfconscious way. When you’re a toddler, most everything is provided for you. You don’t have to worry about food, shelter, clothing, health; someone else takes care of that shit for you. Literally. You have one job: master your growing body and use it to interact with the people around you.

Some of that means figuring out how to walk and play and whatnot, but a lot of that is learning a language. Ever seen a baby babbling away for hours on end? It seems like nonsense, but they’re practicing, getting ready for the next stage of actually producing words. As they develop, they learn more and more words, at a rate that speeds up before eventually tailing off. This is a dramatic oversimplification of child language acquisition, but the point is, these kids are spending most of their day, every day for years, listening to people speaking, and then practicing producing that language. If you spent that much time and effort on learning a language (we’re talking well over 20,000 hours), trust me, you’d get it.

Here’s the amazing thing though: their brains aren’t even close to being fully developed yet, which is why the process takes such a long time. You, with your adult brain, can use tons of shortcuts, like studying the patterns in grammar and phonology (the sounds of the language). If you use an effective method, like the one I will later discuss, then instead of 20,000 hours of study, you can learn a language in a fraction of that time. We’re still talking 500 to 2,000 hours (depending on how different this language is from the one you speak already), which is a lot of work, but it’s not comparable.

You can even get rid of that weird accent if you want

Hold on, you say, I may be able to somehow remember all the vocabulary and grammar, but I’ll always have an accent. Getting the accent right is one of the most challenging things for people, because standard pedagogy doesn’t deal with it at all, or else teaches it exactly wrong. But if Lionel Logue could teach King George VI how to speak without a stutter, trust me, you can learn how to roll your r’s. The former issue is much more difficult. The latter, again, just takes a proper understanding of what you need to do. With a little research into phonology and phonetics, you’ll eventually find yourself able to produce even the strangest of sounds, like clicks and ejectives.

The harder challenge has to do with prosody, or the intonation and rhythm of a language. This aspect of language is incredibly closely tied to emotion and identity. If you are a native speaker of some dialect of American English, you might characterize Germans as sounding stern, Italians as sounding dramatic, and Chinese as sounding angry. The reason for this is that the default prosody of those languages coincidences with an emotive prosody in English. While some things are universal (angry relatively louder, excited relatively faster, sad relatively slower) these factors are all relative within the language, not compared to other languages.

Thus, in the same way that you may think an Italian sounds dramatic, you may feel overly dramatic if you try to produce the same intonation, or that you’re an impostor, or whatever. You’ll “tone it down,” and in the process, end up using English intonation, which is as big a tell of accent as if you were to not roll your r. Again, babies aren’t worried about sounding like an impostor, so they have an advantage, but you can get over it with time and training.

Some of you who know even more may point out that the processing of the sounds in your native language gets baked in pretty early, and from then on, your brain treats those sounds differently from other sounds, making it harder for you to recognize or produce the sounds of another language. True!…sort of. If you look at the actual data, you realize that this is nothing insurmountable. You have a disadvantage, but you knew that already. You can change your brain to a certain degree (what with it being so plastic and all), and also use context clues to figure out what’s being said. Even native speakers do this. After all, everyone mishears things, it’s one of the greatest sources of comedy throughout the world.

Excellent, it’s doable, so let’s do it

Now that I’ve convinced you that you can learn a language and speak it like a native, let’s talk goals. The point of this all is that when you’re looking at hundreds, possibly thousands of hours of work, if you can cut out large portions, that’s worthwhile. Speaking like a native is a pretty lofty one, and even there, it can be broken down. There are two basic linguistic cognitive abilities: production (this could be either speaking or signing), and comprehension. They’re separate, but evidence (as well as common sense) suggests they interact quite a bit. When you intersect those abilities with the medium of the written word, you get the classic four language skills: Speaking, Writing, Listening, Reading. Depending on what you want to do, you should focus on some of those skills over others. Working on any of them will obviously help with the others, and if your ultimate goal is to be equivalent to an educated native speaker, then you’ll need all four.

But let’s take the example of someone who just wants to learn enough Russian to read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. If they never intend on watching Russian TV, or talking to a Russian, their task is much smaller. Conversely, if you just want to talk to your grandmother, without ever writing a letter, you don’t need to learn as much on the written end. That doesn’t mean nothing though, because even for those focusing on the non-written language, there are just too many advantages in literacy for language learning. That will be discussed more later on.

Another consideration you should have in mind is what register you want to focus on. Do you want to talk to people in the streets, or use the language in a formal business setting? Are you reading newspapers primarily, or technical documents filled with jargon? The grammar is largely the same across registers (though with a few prescriptivist tweaks often present at the highest ones), but the real difference is in vocabulary. Every register has its appropriate vocabulary, and just as it’s inappropriate for a businessman to use slang during a negotiation, you’ll stand out just as much if you’re tossing back beers in the bar and referring to your drinks with the literary word borrowed from a classical language. Of course, maybe that’s exactly what you want to do, and that’s OK too, but better to be aware of what you’re doing than not.

Until next time…

I hope this gives you enough to think about until we get to the real meat of things in the next parts, where I’ll go over some more concrete strategies. Stay tuned, and feel free to reach out with any questions.