A longer (and perhaps wittier) version of this Guide can be found here.

The Language Learner's Short Guide

Tells you what information you need to collect about your chosen language, and where to get it from. How to learn this material quickly and efficiently. How to practise effectively - and the challenges and rewards of using a new language in a real situation.

What information you need to collect

You need information about three aspects of your new language: its pronunciation, its vocabulary and its grammar. You can extract this information from textbooks and dictionaries. It isn't easy, however, because most cheap textbooks are muddling and leave information out. So to build up a reliable account you'll have to consult many sources.

For pronunciation, you need:

A vocabulary of about 600 words will get you going. This is easy to collect from elementary textbooks and phrase-books. For grammar, rely on academic textbooks. Elementary textbooks are generally so messy and confused that you'll soon outgrow them. But don't make the mistake of thinking that you need to work through an academic textbook in sequence, chapter by chapter - pick out the bits you need as and when you need them. I provide accurate and reliable material here.


How to learn

The secret of learning a language is to treat it as a set of systems rather than as an accumulation of words and phrases. The most difficult thing to come to terms with in learning a new language is the constant incompleteness of your knowledge, which leaves you always guessing and making mistakes. This is something you have to live with - it will of course improve as you learn more. But you should still try to learn the language 'from the inside' - that is, without recourse to your native language. If the meaning of a word is clear in context, don't look it up; if you don't know the foreign equivalent of a word you want to use, work round it. The aim is not to produce translations of your native language, but to master an alternative set of expressive resources.


How to practise

To become fluent in the language you need to practise it in just the same way as all performers need to practise their craft. You can find practice material in workbooks, and of course this website has a good supply. You can also make it up by ringing the changes on workbook material and on any other material you can find.

Using the language

Speaking a foreign language is just as lonely and exposed as performing on any stage or in any sports arena. There's nothing but your training and skill to support you in the task in hand. There are no grammars or dictionaries in real conversations - if it isn't in your head, it isn't anywhere.

You speak a foreign language to enrich your communication with other people. So you must present to others an image of yourself which you are happy with. This will determine how well you need to learn the foreign language. If, as a native English speaker, you think that people speaking English with a small vocabulary and a thick accent are full of foreign charm, you might decide to be like that in your foreign language; but if you think this kind of foreigner is in the end irritating, you'll want to do better than that. In short, you need to reach a level where you can convey an image of yourself with which you feel comfortable.

You'll also need to adopt a linguistic identity. You have an identity in your native language - you speak with a particular social or regional accent, you prefer some words and phrases over others. In your foreign language you'll find you're doing the same, but since you're doing it as an adult rather than as a child you have more control over which identity to adopt. What fun you're going to have!