The Language Learner's Guide

Articles are arranged in alphabetical order. Novices may wish to go to Getting Started.

A shorter (and perhaps less witty) version of this guide can be found here.

Acquiring Vocabulary; Adults versus Children; Allophone List; Allophones; Articulation Base

Cardinal Vowel Chart; Convergence; Counterpart Differences; Cultural Interference

Gathering Information; Getting Started; Grammar; Grammar Exercises; Grammatical Information

How Long?

Imaginary Conversations; Information about Vocabulary; IPA Symbols

Keeping Calm

Language Rivalry; Language Varieties; Learning from the Inside; Learning Grammar; Learning Ladder; Learning the System; Letter-to-Sound Rules; Letters and Sounds; Level of Attainment; Limitations on Expression; Linguistic Identity; Listening; Lists of Sentences

Manner of Articulation; Method of Production; Minimum Vocabulary

Native Speakers

Parallel Progress; Performance; Performing Art; Personal Vocabulary; Phoneme List; Phonemes; Phonetic Transcription; Point of Articulation; Poor Correlation; Practice; Practising Vocabulary and Grammar; Pronunciation

Radio and Television; Reading

SAMPA; Shibboleth; Sound-System; Sound-System - Example; Sound-System Information; Sound-to-Letter Rules; Sounds in Combination; Speaking; Subtitled Material; Syllabification

Tapes; Teachers; Technical Description; Transcribed Tapes

Uncertainty of Meaning; Unproductive Vocabulary; Using Foreign Words; Using Information-Sources

Vocabulary; Voiceless and Voiced

Working Hypotheses; Writing

Acquiring Vocabulary

Because learning vocabulary is boring, the only practical way of learning it is 'in context': that is, in situations where you have an immediate need to know it. This means that the only words you'll learn are the ones used to you by other people (whether in speech or writing), and the ones you use to them. The words you won't learn are the ones in lists.

Passive Learning
It's not too difficult to acquire the first 300 words - the practical minimum - by reading elementary textbooks. The next 3,000 will come (with some persistence) from reading. After that you'll be fluent enough to read material and have conversations that are interesting in their own right. That removes the drudgery, because thereafter your attention is focused on the meaning, and you can absorb the words unconsciously. This is the passive method of acquiring vocabulary.
Active Learning
The active method of acquiring vocabulary is to look up the words that you will need for a particular occasion. But the number of words you can learn this way is minuscule compared with the number you will learn passively.

Courageous - and successful - learners make no effort to memorise vocabulary. If a word is useful, they'll remember it; and if it isn't useful, what's it doing in their heads? Vocabulary. Top.

Adults versus Children

It's sometimes said that we can learn languages naturally and without effort, as little children do. This claim is false, and suppliers should not make it.

So if you're prepared to spend 10 to 15 times longer than you need to, hire minders for 4 years, hang up your brain and have your first language surgically removed, you can learn a foreign language like a child. How Long? Top.

Allophone List

Phonemes give you the basic information for pronouncing a language, but allophones are also important.

Differences between accents are mostly differences of allophones. Scotsmen use a trilled /r/ and monophthongal vowels, for example, whereas the southern English use a lateral /r/ and vowels that slide all over the place. So using the right allophones will make a tremendous difference to your linguistic identity.

You need the same information on allophones as you do on phonemes, but obviously the descriptions must be detailed enough to distinguish allophones of the same phoneme. Sound-System. Top.


When I say "sleepful", I make the two /l/ sounds by putting my tongue behind my front teeth and passing sound round it. The two sounds differ slightly - for "sleep", my tongue is flatter and further forward than it is for "ful". However, swapping the two sounds would not change the meaning: it might sound odd, but it would still be "sleepful". So we have here two allophones of the phoneme /l/. An allophone is a version of a phoneme that doesn't create a difference of meaning.

What are allophones in one language can be phonemes in another:

Allophone List. Shibboleth. Top.

Alphabet, International Phonetic see IPA Symbols

Alphabet, Phonetic, SAMPA see SAMPA

Articulation Base

The articulation base varies from language to language: it's the general area of the vocal tract speakers of that language make most use of. In everyday terms it means that Americans speak through their nose, Italians chatter with their front teeth, and Russians chew the language in their throats. Imagining a stage caricature will help you achieve this effect.

Getting the articulation base right is an important part of having a good accent - it makes you hugely convincing even if you know hardly any of the language. And you can practise it in your native language, just by speaking with a strong foreign accent. Imaginary Conversations. Pronunciation. Top.

Articulation, Manner of see Manner of Articulation

Articulation, Point of see Point of Articulation

Attainment, Level of see Level of Attainment

Calmness see Keeping Calm

Cardinal Vowel Chart

The cardinal vowels are a set of vowels used by linguists as reference points for describing other vowels. The chart looks like this:

  \                   |
      \               |
          \           |

The left side of the grid represents the front of the mouth, the right side the back, the horizontal lines represent the height of the tongue, and the numbers represent cardinal vowels.

Cardinal 1
The front of the tongue is tensed and pushed as high as it will go: the result is like the English "sheet" but tighter, or like the French "lit".
Cardinal 2
The front of the tongue is dropped a little, producing a sound like Scottish "cake".
Cardinal 3
The front of the tongue is lower still, giving English "bed".
Cardinal 4
The front of the tongue is as low as possible, giving a sound roughly similar to English "had" (but not as spoken by older persons - this vowel has dropped noticeably in the last few decades).
Cardinals 5 to 8
These are produced by tensing the back of the tongue and lifting it successively from the lowest to the highest position, producing sounds approximately like the English "hard", "hoard", "hope" (with a northern English or Scottish 'o') and "hoop".

The four levels are called 'close', 'close-mid', 'open-mid' and 'open'. So Cardinal 1 is a close front vowel, Cardinal 6 is open-mid back, and so on. The terms 'high' and 'low' are sometimes used instead of 'close' and 'open'.

Cardinals 1 to 5 (i.e. the four 'front vowels' and the lowest 'back vowel') are pronounced with unrounded lips, and Cardinals 6, 7 and 8 with rounded lips. But then there is a second series of vowels in which the lip-rounding is reversed:

  \                   |
      \               |
          \           |
Cardinal 9
This vowel has the tongue high in the front as for "sheet", but the lips rounded as for "hoop": the result is the French "tu", or the German u-with-umlaut.
Cardinals 10, 11 and 12
These are successively more open varieties of French "jeu" or German o-with-umlaut.
Cardinal 13
The vowel in the English "hod".
Cardinal 16
This vowel (at the top right of the chart) has the tongue high at the back as for "hoop" but the lips unrounded as for "sheet", giving a vowel that sounds like a strangled version of "er" and occurs in Japanese and Turkish but not in English.
Cardinals 14 and 15
These are more open versions of Cardinal 16.

Finally, here are the 7 English 'short' vowels - as found in the sentence "Nick read Pat a long, glum book" - plotted on the chart, reading clockwise from the top left, using the SAMPA symbols. Notice that the tongue is by no means at the limit of its travel for most of these vowels - English vowels tend to drift towards the centre of the mouth.

  \  I             U  |
      \               |
          \ {         |

I represents the vowel in "Nick"
E  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . "read"
{  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . "Pat" 
@  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . "a"   
Q  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . "long"
V  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . "glum"
U  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . "book"

Phoneme List. Technical Description. Top.

Children versus Adults see Adults versus Children

Combinations of Sounds see Sounds in Combination


Convergence is the phenomenon by which we imitate the speech of people we want to please.

Most people modify their language as they move among different speech-communities, though the degree to which they do this varies from one individual to another. This phenomenon is a great help to a language-learner living in the target country, and to anyone listening to tapes. It means that you will, unconsciously and without effort, acquire the speech-characteristics of the people you're listening to. If in addition you can objectively identify words, sounds and grammatical structures that distinguish your target group, that will help the unconscious process along. Speaking. Top.

Conversations, Imaginary see Imaginary Conversations

Correlation, Poor see Poor Correlation

Counterpart Differences

Where a foreign sound is like an English sound but not exactly the same, a textbook should note the differences. French /t/, for example, differs in two ways from English:

  1. It does not have the puff of breath that the English version has (you can test this by putting a hand in front of your mouth and saying "took", "tone").
  2. The tongue is placed in a different position. In English, the tip of the tongue is placed against the ridge behind the teeth; in French, the blade of the tongue is curved downwards and covers the entire back surface of the teeth.

Phoneme List. Sound-System - Example. Top.

Cultural Interference

Sometimes in a conversation the normal meaning of the words may be clear enough, but their particular reference may be utterly mystifying:

Textbooks will give you some cultural information, but you're still likely to be caught on the hop from time to time. Performance. Top.

Differences, Counterpart see Counterpart Differences

Exercises, Grammar see Grammar Exercises

Expression, Limitations on see Limitations on Expression

Foreign Words, Using see Using Foreign Words

Gathering Information

Systematic accounts of a language are hard to find, especially for the non-specialist. So you need to consult a variety of sources to build up reliable information on the sound-system, grammar and vocabulary.

You'll also have to decide whether to keep notes or not. If you do, use a looseleaf notebook and write on only one side of the paper, so that you can reorganise your material as necessary. But if you have continuing access to the original sources there's no point in copying material out. This applies especially to vocabulary: a dictionary is as easy to use as any list you might make.

I personally don't keep notes, on the grounds that if it isn't in my head when I want it then it's no use to me anyway. But I refer back constantly to the original sources. Getting Started. Using Information-Sources. Top.

Getting Started

You have to do two things to learn a foreign language:

  1. Obtain information about the language. You need three categories of information, which you can get from various sources:
    1. Information about vocabulary.
    2. Information about pronunciation.
    3. Information about grammar.
  2. Apply that information, by practising what you've learned. This converts the information into a usable skill.

How Long? Level of Attainment. Top.


"Grammar," it has been famously said, "is a device for generating all and only the correct sentences in a language." This makes grammar an immensely powerful language-learning tool. If I know the grammar, and have some words to slot in, then I more or less know the language.

Let's take an example. Luvish has a simple grammar. It can make only three-word sentences consisting of a personal name, a verb and a food-name - "Tracey loves crisps", for example. The Luvish vocabulary is also limited, consisting just of 100 personal names, 2 verbs and 100 food-names. But a simple calculation shows that, even with these meagre resources, Luvish can still frame 20,000 different sentences.

We know the complete grammar of Luvish - it's given above - so if we learn 202 words we shall know the complete language. This is obviously a lot more efficient than learning all 20,000 possible sentences. In fact we know quite a lot of Luvish already, even without the vocabulary. We know for example that Alaba vosel critch means that person named Alaba does something called "vosel" to a foodstuff known as "critch", and that what they do is different - though how different we don't yet know - from "loves". Looking the words up in a dictionary is now a trivial job. Contrast this with the three-word Hateish sentence Lecona perek senivoc, about which we know absolutely nothing.

Two things follow from grammar being a powerful language-learning tool. One is that to see grammar just as a way of avoiding mistakes is to miss the point: grammar empowers us, it enables us to manipulate language, it furnishes us with a set of frames for communicating our thoughts. The other is that you don't learn a language by learning more and more sentences in it. On the other hand, grammar suffers from the disadvantage that it correlates poorly with real-life situations. Getting Started. Learning the System. Top.

Grammar Exercises

The grammar exercises in elementary textbooks are usually hopelessly confused. A typical example, from an exercise on the conditional, is: "Translate into Portuguese 'Was it (Would it be) true?'"

There are four separate problems bundled up in this innocuous-looking piece of flim-flam.

  1. You need to know the idiomatic translation of "true".
  2. Only one of the two Portuguese words for "to be" ("ser" and "estar") is correct here.
  3. "Would it be" is there to remind you that you can use the conditional to frame a tentative question (as you can in English).
  4. You have to form the conditional.

Items 1 and 2 have nothing to do with the conditional. Item 3 ("Would it be") is no more than a reminder. The only relevant item is Item 4, and since this is accounts for no more than ten per cent. of the mental effort you need to spend on the sentence, it's not surprising that learners find such exercises frustrating, discouraging and a waste of time.

You can get some mileage out of these exercises by picking out the bits that are relevant and ignoring the rest, but you'll have to wade through a lot of dross to find them. An alternative is to look for well-focused exercises among the chattier textbooks and in computer software. But in general there is a shortage of good material. Learning Grammar. Top.

Grammar, Learning see Learning Grammar

Grammar, Practising see Practising Vocabulary and Grammar

Grammatical Information

Grammatical information comes in textbooks, and textbooks come in two flavours, elementary and advanced.

Elementary textbooks give you plenty of examples, and are easy to read. On the other hand they usually give you only half a story, and are vague and sloppy. They have breathtaking omissions - the BBC Greek course, for example, excludes passive verbs, leaving you with no practice on using "sit", "stand", "come", "lie down", or "be afraid". They're rarely organised systematically, or properly indexed, so it's difficult to look points up.

So for long-term use, you need to get hold of advanced textbooks - the more scholarly and forbidding, the better. You'll be acquiring them as reference books, so it doesn't matter if they spend a lot of time on the shelf. You want them because at some stage you're going to have to find out the truth about the grammar of the language you're studying, and a systematic textbook that bristles with tables and footnotes is just the tool for the job. Gathering Information. Top.

How Long?

How long does it take to learn a language? That depends partly on how well you want to know it. Let's assume you're aiming to speak tolerably well and to understand slow speech, with a vocabulary of 3,000 words. This will enable you to cope with most everyday situations at home and at work.

It also depends on whether this is your first foreign language or not, and how similar the target language is to your native language. (If the native language is English, then the most widely studied European languages - French, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch - are 'similar'. Examples of languages that are 'not similar' are Russian, Greek and Japanese.) Depending on these factors, the time required varies between 250 and 600 hours:

At 10 hours per week, this gives elapsed times varying from six months to just over a year. In view of the need to absorb the material learned, the elapsed time can probably not be shortened by much.

It is of course possible to learn something useful in much less time than this. But you should be aware that that's what you're doing, and not be misled by inflated claims. "Malay in a Day", for example, will teach you as much Malay as you can learn in a day, which isn't a great deal. Nonetheless it may still enable you to buy a beer, find the loo, and set off down the long road of linguistic and personal development. Adults versus Children. Getting Started. Top.

Hypotheses, Working see Working Hypotheses

Identity, Linguistic see Linguistic Identity

Imaginary Conversations

You can develop your fluency in the target language by holding imaginary conversations with yourself. I think to myself, "Gosh, it's bitterly cold today!" - and then I wonder how I can convey that in Slobodian.

"Cold" is "firigido" - it'll have to be neuter, since it refers to the weather, so that's "firigidem". I don't know "bitterly", but I do know "streama", meaning "to a high degree" (or rather I know its adverb "streamamenti"). And of course in colloquial Slobodian, when two successive syllables begin with /m/, one of them drops out, so it'll be "streamenti". And "today" is "wodgi". So that's "streamenti firigidem wodgi". The nearest I can think of for "gosh" is to put "isn't it?" at the end - "nitso". So it's "streamenti firigidem wodgi, nitso?"

Now Slobodians all sport technicolour waistcoats - men and women alike - and luxuriant moustaches, and their articulation base is a sort of whining drool. So I swashbuckle on to the centre stage of my mind and declare, in a fine, flamboyant drooling whine, "Streamenti firigidem wodgi, nitso!" The assembled elders nod sagely, and reply... How near can I get to the Slobodian for "Too dead right, mister"? - or, alternatively, "But not as bad as the winter of 1923"? Practising Vocabulary and Grammar. Speaking. Top.

Information about Vocabulary

Given that the only practical way of acquiring vocabulary is by reading things whose meaning you need to know, the question arises of what things those might be.

One obvious category is public notices in the country of the target language. It's clearly useful to know, for example, whether the sign on the door says "push" or "pull". But beyond that there are not many things that one absolutely needs to understand. So language-learners usually play little games with themselves, and behave as though they needed to understand things when in fact they don't.

This brings a lot more material into the useful-to-read category, much of it bilingual, available in the learner's own country and predictable in content:

In short, if you want to acquire vocabulary, you should treat any target-language document that falls into your hands as potential gold. Gathering Information. Top.

Information, Gathering see Gathering Information

Information, Grammatical see Grammatical Information

Information, Sound-System see Sound-System Information

Information-Sources, Using see Using Information-Sources

Inside, Learning from the see Learning from the Inside

IPA Symbols

IPA stands for the International Phonetic Association, and the IPA symbols are a phonetic alphabet promoted by the Association. This is a set of symbols which between them can represent any speech-sound; the same symbol is always used for the same sound, whichever language it occurs in. Its great merit is that it provides a consistent set of symbols for all languages, and there really is no point in using any other phonetic transcription.

Unless you're using a computer, that is. The great demerit of the IPA symbols is that they go beyond straight ASCII, so you need an additional font to read them on a computer. Readers would have to buy the font, and authors couldn't in any case rely on everybody having it. This present document therefore uses a different phonetic transcription called SAMPA. But the IPA symbols are still the standard for printed books, and the most sensible alternative. Letters and Sounds. Phoneme List. Top.

Keeping Calm

As with any performance, the great thing is to keep calm when speaking the foreign language. Don't panic and don't give up; look intelligent and keep on smiling, even if you don't understand a word that's being said. Then go away and sit down quietly and mull over what you heard, and more sense will emerge. Or else it won't. Performance. Top.

Ladder of Learning see Learning Ladder

Language Rivalry

People with different native languages often begin an interchange by exploring who speaks which language best. This may arise from mutual considerateness, or a desire to transact the business efficiently, or it may reflect one side's determination to use the opportunity for some foreign-language practice. Of course, if you're a beginner, that's the side that you'll be on, so politeness suggests that if it's practice you want you should avoid people who speak your language better than you speak theirs. However, even if you know only a little of the language, but are confident and fluent, you'll be able to convince them that their language is the one to use. Performance. Top.

Language Varieties

Most languages have dialects and accents with different vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. These differences are not only regional, but can also reflect age, social class, and sex (women speak differently from men). The problem for the learner is how to deal with these variations. There are a number of things that you can do.

Use the Standard Variety
Stay within the 'standard' or 'official' variety until you feel at home. Textbooks will support you in this, since they normally assume that's what you'll do anyway, but tapes and what is called 'authentic material' may show a lot of unexplained differences.
Gather Information
Gather information about different varieties. This is difficult, but you should try at least to identify what is non-standard, even if you can't say which dialect it belongs to.
Imitate Specific People
Whenever you listen to native speakers (live or recorded), pick out an individual who sounds sensible and imitate only that person. In other words, let 'convergence' do the work for you.

Tapes. Top.

Learning from the Inside

Learning a language from the inside means extending your knowledge of it without having recourse to your native language. This in turn means three things:

  1. Calling things what native speakers call them.
  2. Accepting some uncertainty in the meaning of what we hear and read.
  3. Accepting a limitation on our ability to express ourselves.

We do this when we extend our knowledge of our native language, and there's no reason why we shouldn't do the same for a foreign language. Parallel Progress. Top.

Learning Grammar

Grammar - any particular piece of grammar - is best learned when you, the learner, decide that you need it. This is because a given piece of grammar doesn't have any special applicability: it will be useful in many different situations, none of them predictable. So the time to learn it is when it looks interesting or useful, or when you feel fed up with not understanding it, or dissatisfied with your inability to use it in performance.

The way not to learn grammar is to treat it as advancing in sequence from topic to topic. This is the worst thing you can do, and elementary textbooks are dreadful in this respect. They tell you to take the topics strictly in order, and not to go on to a new one until you've mastered the one before: and they reinforce this by giving you exercises which you can only do if you remember everything covered so far. This is nonsense! Rip the binding off, shuffle the pages, scatter them over the floor and gather them up at random and you might have something you can use.

There's no problem with academic textbooks, of course, because they're designed for reference rather than teaching, and you don't have to read them in sequence. Grammatical Information. Parallel Progress. Using Information-Sources. Top.

Learning Ladder

The 'learning ladder' represents the four stages that we go through when we acquire a skill.

Stage One
The first stage is one of unconscious incompetence: we don't yet possess the skill, and we don't know what we have to do to get it.
Stage Two
The second stage is one of conscious incompetence - we know what we have to do to acquire the skill, what kinds of demand it will make on us, but we still don't possess it.
Stage Three
The third stage is one of conscious competence. We've acquired the skill, but using it demands our full care and attention - we're not able to practise it without being conscious of it.
Stage Four
The fourth stage is that of unconscious competence, when we have acquired the skill, and made it so much part of ourselves that we can deploy it without thinking about it. This is clearly the stage we've reached with our mother-tongue, and the stage we need to reach in language-learning if we're to be fluent and natural.

Stage Four is most reliably reached by spending a lot of time at Stage Three, using the language with care and attention. Practising Vocabulary and Grammar. Top.

Learning the System

The key to learning a foreign language is not to learn the words and phrases, but to learn the system.

When you want to turn right while driving, you carry out a specific sequence of manoeuvres: position yourself to the left of the centre line, wait for a gap in the oncoming traffic, and so on. Imagine what it would be like if you had no generalised concept of turning right, but only a knowledge of how to turn right at particular intersections. You'd have to learn separately how to turn right at each junction. In practice this would mean that you couldn't drive anywhere where you hadn't driven before. Learning the words and phrases of a foreign language without learning the system is like learning to turn right at each junction independently.

So the thing to do is not to learn words and phrases, but to learn the grammar and sound-system. If you don't learn those, you'll never be able to say anything you haven't said before. Getting Started. Native Speakers. Teachers. Top.

Letter-to-Sound Rules

Letter-to-sound rules are the rules that tell you how to convert spellings into sounds. They say, for example, that "ll" in Spanish is pronounced /j/, so "Mallorca" is pronounced /majorka/, and in some languages they can tell you where the stress falls. In short, they tell you how to pronounce words that you meet in reading. It's almost impossible to learn a language unless you can do that.

Letter-to-sound rules can be simple or complicated, but the important question is whether they are determinative or not:

If the rules are determinative the language-learning task is easier, because you don't have to research the pronunciation of individual words. But even if the rules aren't determinative, they may still show helpful patterns. You may not know which pronunciation of "ove" applies in a given case, but at least you know it won't be pronounced "fish", or "archbishop".

If your target language is one where the rules are not determinative, you will have to buy a dictionary that gives pronunciations, and use it assiduously. Another possibility is to work in a phonetic transcription, if you can find enough suitable material.

Letters and Sounds. Pronunciation. Sound-to-Letter Rules. Top.

Letters and Sounds

Letters are different from sounds. The letter 's', for example, represents at least three different sounds in English (/s/ in "some", /z/ in "rose", and silent in "island"); and the sound /f/ can be spelt in three or more different ways ("fur", "physics", "cough").

A good plan is to think of your target language as having, on the one hand, a set of sounds and a sound-system, and on the other a set of letters (i.e. an alphabet) and a writing-system. Using the IPA symbols for sounds will reinforce this distinction.

Most elementary textbooks confuse letters with sounds. For example: "Gaelic has the same five vowels as in English, but there is a wide range in their pronunciation." Another giveaway is when the author lists the 'sounds' in alphabetical order. You need to allow for this confusion when searching for the information you want. Letter-to-Sound Rules. Top.

Level of Attainment

How well should you learn your chosen language?

People learn a language for a purpose, and not just a utilitarian one. If you merely wanted to manage the necessities of everyday life, you could simply shout, or use dumbshow, or get an interpreter. However, people learn languages not just to meet their everyday needs, but because they want to enrich their communication with other people.

Clearly the more fluent you are, the richer your communication will be. But you'll still benefit from knowing only a few phrases, because virtually everybody welcomes a foreigner who's learning the language. People have the same tolerance for novice language-learners as they have for inexpert sportsmen, musicians or other performing artists: a feeling that though they may be at different levels, they're all on the same ladder of struggle and achievement. Problems only arise when performers get out of their depth, and perform in situations where their skill doesn't come up to the audience's expectations.

Language-learners can get into this situation if, for example, they've been in the community for a long time but aren't as fluent as they should be, or still have a strong foreign accent, or are hopelessly unidiomatic. Just as with any other set of conventions - clothes, housing, furniture, cars - native speakers take a foreigner's command of the language as an index of commitment to the community, and feel uneasy if it isn't at the appropriate level. And of course language-learners should feel uneasy too, for not maintaining a proper social identity.

So the short answer is that you should learn the language to a level where you feel comfortable with what you're doing, and where native speakers feel comfortable with you. This level can be elementary or advanced, depending on how and where you expect to use the language, and what you decide is your place in the linguistic community. You are the person that sets the goals, and it's you in the end that has to achieve them. Getting Started. Top.

Limitations on Expression

"I just want to learn enough Finnish to express myself." Oh dear, the poor, doomed boy! - because that's all the Finnish there is, and all the English too for that matter.

Even in our native language none of us can really express ourselves - we choose the wrong word, we hum and ha, we create wrong impressions. We search through our stock of resources for conveying an idea, and find only second-best answers. The same thing will happen in your target language: you'll be clumsy and approximate and convey only half your meaning. Experience will eventually make you adroit, of course, but in the meantime you have to live with your inadequacy.

The way to deal with this is to think only in terms of the target language. Don't wonder, "What's the Slobodian for 'rain'?" - wonder instead, "What Slobodian expressions do I know that might convey this meaning?" Treat the task as one of sifting through your existing resources to find something that will do, rather than one of translation. There's no translation with a foreign language. There's just you, and your interlocutor, and the foreign words and grammar that you have to work with. Learning from the Inside. Top.

Linguistic Identity

Your linguistic identity is the sort of person you are, in terms of the kind of language you speak. As little children we have no choice - our mother speaks buttercup rustic, or cut-glass, or whatever, and so we do the same. Then, as teenagers, most people become inquisitive about other varieties of their native language, and build a repertoire of different styles.

But as a language-learner you get a further opportunity - you can live your linguistic life over again, and this time make choices. If you're learning Slobodian you can choose to be any kind of Slobodian you want - old, young, downmarket, toffee-nosed, crusty, tolerant, radical. You can also learn Slobodian to a higher or lower standard, depending on what sort of foreigner you see yourself as. Learning a language, it is often said, deepens and matures the personality, because it forces you to throw away your socio-cultural baggage and see other people through their own eyes. So here is an opportunity of finding out who you really are. Performance. Top.


Listening is an important activity for understanding the sound-system of a language, but beyond that it's not an efficient way of learning. Material is in any case not easy to get hold of. You can listen to radio, television, films and tapes, but for the first two you will need a shortwave radio and satellite television, and for the third you will need to hunt out foreign-language films. The only listening-material that is readily available are the tapes that accompany coursebooks.

The different sorts of listening material provide different benefits:

  1. Transcribed material, such as tape and coursebook.
  2. Uncommented material, such as radio and television.
  3. An intermediate category represented by subtitled films.

Practice. Top.

Lists of Sentences

If you want to learn a language without learning the grammar, you'll have to learn a lot of sentences. In fact you'll have to learn every phrase or sentence that you'll ever want to say or understand. Obviously you can't predict what these sentences are going to be, and even if you could it would still be an insane undertaking.

Fortunately it's also psychologically impossible. Humans have an irresistible trait which makes them look for patterns in material they're learning, and then use those patterns to shorten the learning task. If the material is a set of sentences, these patterns are of course the grammar; so if you try to learn those sentences, you'll end up extracting the grammar anyway.

You might of course argue that you're not just learning raw sentences, you're using them as models on which to create other sentences. There seem to be two things to say about that. One is that if you understand the models, you're learning grammar, so you may as well be explicit about it and do it properly. The other is that if you don't understand the models, you're simply engaged in an exercise in self-deception. Grammar. Top.

Luvish see Grammar

Manner of Articulation

The 'manner of articulation' is the way in which the air is released when a consonant is uttered. The two most important manners are 'plosive' and 'fricative'.

Technical Description. Top.

Meaning, Uncertainty of see Uncertainty of Meaning

Method of Production

The 'method of production' tells you how to form a sound, in terms of where to place the tongue and lips: it contains the same information as its technical description, but in a less abstract form. The technical description of /t/, for example, is 'voiceless alveolar plosive', but its method of production might be given as: "Without vibrating the vocal cords, place the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth so as to block the airstream completely, then release the blockage." Phoneme List. Sound-System - Example. Top.

Minimum Vocabulary

You can build up a minimum practical vocabulary of 300 words and phrases from the following categories:

Vocabulary. Top.

Native Speakers

If you don't need a teacher to learn a language, still less do you need a native speaker. Native speakers (unless they're trained linguists) know nothing about their language.

Ask your friends how many sounds there are in standard English, or how many morphological verb-forms there are. (The answers are 44 and 3 respectively.) Mostly they will react with dumb panic. These pieces of information are of fundamental importance to the learner, but the native speaker doesn't know them. Worse than that, native speakers usually go into shock when their language is objectively described. Tell the same friends that "handbag" is normally pronounced "hambag", or that "whom" is never used in speech, and they'll react with angry denials.

These attitudes are understandable. Native speakers don't see their language as something separate from themselves, a set of conventions to be studied in a detached manner. They acquired it in childhood, they use it every day, it's an integral part of their social identity; it's as familiar and comfortable as a second skin. So when strangers come along and point out - as it seems to them - that it's full of wrinkles, their reaction is an emotional one.

In short, native speakers lack the two things a language-learner needs, a body of knowledge about the language and a detached view of how it works. So they aren't reliable informants. Learning the System. Teachers. Top.

Parallel Progress

It would be odd to imagine you could learn all the vocabulary of your target language without learning any of its grammar, or all its pronunciation without learning any vocabulary. Even if we know only a little of a language, that little has got to make sense within itself, and provide a tool, albeit a limited one, for communication.

This means that you have to study the vocabulary, grammar and sound-system in parallel, learning a little bit of each at a time.

So your knowledge of each will be primitive to start with, and then incomplete and to some extent confused. This in turn means that you must adopt working hypotheses to codify what you know at each stage. It also means that you can be free of the linear sequence that many textbooks want you to adopt. Learning from the Inside. Top.


Performance is when you're using the language for real, talking to a native speaker to achieve a result. It differs from practice in just the same ways as performance in other fields differs from practice, namely:

So whereas written notes may help you to learn, they won't help you in performance, because you can't refer to them there. Moreover the only way you can assess your performance is by self-correction. So if a teacher corrects your work while you're learning, and that reduces - as it may well do - your sharpness in correcting yourself, that will hold you back.

Other considerations about performance are:

Performing Art. Top.

Performing Art

Using a foreign language is just as much a performing art as playing the oboe, playing tennis, or playing Hamlet. No musician, sportsman or actor would dream of performing without a technique: a repertory of elementary moves, that is, which she practises out of context and away from the arena, until she can reproduce them automatically.

For language-learners these elements are the sound-system, the vocabulary and the grammatical structures.

The learner needs to practise these out of context, away from the pressure of other speakers, until she can select and combine them at will. Practising Vocabulary and Grammar. Top.

Personal Vocabulary

Each language-learner's vocabulary is different from that of others, with only a small common core: in other words, vocabulary has a personal bias. If vocabulary has been learnt in context this is not surprising, because each learner has his own interests and goals which determine the vocabulary he learns. So don't worry if you know the Greek for "special kind of mud to put on your roof before the winter rains", but not for "central heating", or the French for "ire" but not for "kettle". Language is a tool for your personal use, and what matters is whether it meets your needs. Vocabulary. Top.

Phoneme List

The basic information for pronouncing your target language is the list of its phonemes. If you can pronounce all the phonemes, you can pronounce the language. You need four pieces of information for each phoneme:

  1. Its IPA symbol.
  2. Its technical description.
  3. Its method of production.
  4. The differences between it and its nearest English counterpart.

It's also useful to chart the vowels. Sound-System. Top.


A phoneme is a sound that means something different from another sound. If I push my tongue between my front teeth and blow, I make the /T/ of "thin"; but if I draw my tongue back a bit, I make the /s/ of "sin". So /T/ and /s/ are different phonemes in English - they distinguish "thin" from "sin", "thank" from "sank", and so on.

Different languages divide up the possible sounds in different ways, so these two sounds may not be phonemes in other languages. /T/, for example, is no sound in French, and Russian has two sorts of /s/. So it's important to know what the phonemes are in your target language. Allophone List. Phoneme List. Top.

Phonetic Alphabet, International see IPA Symbols

Phonetic Alphabet, SAMPA see SAMPA

Phonetic Transcription

A phonetic transcription is a way of writing a language that ignores the normal spelling, and uses instead one symbol for each sound. So "celebrate" is transcribed as /"sE-lI-brEIt/ and "celebrity" as /sI-"lE-brI-tI/. This enables pronunciation to be learned independently of spelling.

A phonetic transcription can be 'broad' or 'narrow'.

All transcriptions are unsatisfactory - they're either too narrow, giving you more information than you can use, or too broad, failing to give you the information you want. But as your knowledge increases, narrower transcriptions become more useful. IPA Symbols. Top.

Point of Articulation

Consonants are made by placing the tongue where it will impede the flow of air: this is the 'point of articulation'. The five most important points of articulation are:

So /p/ and /b/ are labial consonants, /T/ and /D/ (as in "thin" and "this") are dental, /t/ and /d/ are alveolar, /tS/ and /dZ/ (as in "church" and "judge") are palatal, and /k/ and /g/ are velar. Technical Description. Top.

Poor Correlation

Although grammar is productive in general, there is no correspondence between particular pieces of grammar and particular situations. Knowing how to make adjectives agree, for example, won't bring me any specific benefit when meeting people, buying a snack, asking the way, shopping for presents, or doing any of the other things that an elementary textbook covers.

In fact it's worse than that. Not only is no one piece of grammar especially pertinent to a given situation, but any one situation could call for a whole boatload of features. Suppose I'm buying a knick-knack and want to ask, "Would you say this one was of better quality?" - I could need a conditional, indirect speech, demonstratives, the imperfect subjunctive and the genitive case.

But this poor correlation between grammar and situation cuts both ways, because although a given piece of grammar may not be specifically useful in any one situation, it will be generally useful in many. Agreement of adjectives - for example - can crop up in any encounter. So the freedom and confidence that you get from knowing the grammar makes it worth acquiring, even though you can't predict where you'll use it. Grammar. Top.


There are four ways of practising your target language:

  1. Read it.
  2. Speak it.
  3. Listen to it.
  4. Write it.

Whether you practise in waves of enthusiasm or with methodical regularity is for you to decide - neither way is in principle better. Do whichever you feel most comfortable with. Getting Started. Practising Vocabulary and Grammar. Top.

Practising Pronunciation see Speaking

Practising Vocabulary and Grammar

You need to practise your repertoire of language just as a musician or sportsman practises a repertoire of techniques. You can do this by rehearsing imaginary conversations in your head. This method has two advantages: you can pursue it in idle moments, and you don't need the help of other people or special equipment. Practising like this will take you to the last stage on the learning ladder, the stage of unconscious competence.

Among the anecdotes of language-learning is one about a person coming home from his language class who found fragments of foreign language floating into his head; so he decided he must be overdoing things, and cut down on his effort. This was exactly the wrong move - he was just reaching the stage of unconscious competence!

Practice. Top.

Production, Method of see Method of Production


Most people, when they first hear a foreign language, get only a jumble of sounds. You can reduce this jumble to order by applying two sets of information:

  1. An account of the language's sound-system.
  2. A set of letter-to-sound rules.

Having a mental image of a stagey speaker of the language - a stage-Italian, or a stage-Russian, or whatever - also helps. And you can listen to tapes. Getting Started. Reading. Top.

Pronunciation, Practising see Speaking

Radio and Television

Uncommented listening-material (that is, radio and television) sharpens your concentration and forces you to live the language, and is excellent at consolidating your knowledge and making passive vocabulary active. But it won't teach you much that's new. This is because, in listening to a foreign language, we understand only what we already know.

How we understand speech is baffling, given the amount of information processed and the speed with which we decode it, but it seems clear that we don't analyse it as we would a written text. You can tell this from the 'cocktail party' effect, whereby people can always pick out their own name from a background buzz. The effect is that you can't use auditory material to extend your knowledge as you would written material.

And even if you listen to a piece repeatedly, you won't understand much more each time than you did the first time. So it's a poor bargain in terms of progress made against time spent. Listening. Top.


You can read intensively and non-intensively, and of course you can read aloud to practise your pronunciation.

Non-intensive reading means reading things that interest you, and not stopping to look anything up unless absolutely necessary. This develops your knowledge in a relaxed and unconscious way.

Intensive reading is more demanding:

As a way of laying bare the language intensive reading is unbeatable, but an hour of it can leave you limp. Practice. Top.

Rivalry over Language see Language Rivalry

Rules, Letter-to-Sound see Letter-to-Sound Rules

Rules, Sound-to-Letter see Sound-to-Letter Rules


Here are the 44 sounds of standard English as represented in the SAMPA phonetic alphabet. (Quotes show the stressed syllable, and a colon means the vowel is long):

      Symbol         Word         Transcription
        p            pin             pIn
        b            bin             bIn
        t            tin             tIn
        d            din             dIn
        k            kin             kIn
        g            give            gIv

        tS           chin            tSIn
        dZ           gin             dZIn

        f            fin             fIn
        v            vim             vIm
        T            thin            TIn
        D            this            DIs
        s            sin             sIn
        z            zing            zIN
        S            shin            SIn
        Z            measure         "mEZ@

        h            hit             hIt

        m            mock            mQk
        n            knock           nQk
        N            thing           TIN
        r            wrong           rQN
        l            long            lQN
        w            wasp            wQsp
        j            yacht           jQt

        I            pit             pIt
        E            pet             pEt
        {            pat             p{t
        Q            pot             pQt
        V            cut             kVt
        U            put             pUt

        @            another         @"nVD@

        i:           ease            i:z
        EI           raise           rEIz
        aI           rise            raIz
        OI           noise           nOIz

        u:           lose            lu:z
        @U           nose            n@Uz
        aU           rouse           raUz

        3:           furs            f3:z
        A:           stars           stA:z
        O:           cause           kO:z
        I@           fears           fI@z
        E@           stairs          stE@z
        U@           cures           kjU@z

IPA Symbols. Sound-System - Example. Top.

Sentences, Lists of see Lists of Sentences


Using the wrong allophone can cost you your life. In the 12th century B.C. the Ephraimites, whose territory was on the west bank of the River Jordan and whose dialect did not include the sound /S/, invaded Gilead across the Jordan on the east bank. They were defeated, and the Gileadites sent troops ahead to cut off their retreat across the river. The Gileadites could tell who was an Ephraimite from his accent: "When any Ephraimite who had escaped begged leave to cross, the men of Gilead asked him, 'Are you an Ephraimite?', and if he said, 'No', they would retort, 'Say Shibboleth.' He would say 'Sibboleth', and because he could not pronounce the word properly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan." (New English Bible, Judges, xii, 5-6.) Speaking. Top.


Every language uses a set of specific sounds, usually between 20 and 40 items, of which typically one-third are vowels and two-thirds consonants. English, for example, has 44 sounds, of which 12 are the monophthongal vowel-sounds found in the sentences, "Nick read Pat a long, glum book" and "Jean knew words start wars", and a further 8 are diphthongal vowel-sounds.

The essential first step is to list all the sounds your target language uses. Then you need to divide those sounds into phonemes and allophones, and to find out how sounds behave in combination. Learning the System. Pronunciation. Sound-System - Example. Top.

Sound-System - Example

Here, to illustrate a sound-system, are the descriptions of three French sounds - the ones that make up the French word /tRE~/ "train". The following information is given about each sound:

/t/ : voiceless alveolar plosive, unaspirated.

Place the tongue against the back of the teeth so that it blocks the airstream completely, and then release the blockage.
This sound differs in two ways from English /t/:
  1. In English only the tip of the tongue is used, but in French the blade of the tongue is curved downwards to cover the entire back of the teeth.
  2. The puff of breath that accompanies English /t/ (which you can feel with a hand in front of the mouth) is barely present in French.

/R/ : voiced uvular trill.

The uvula is a waggly appendage hanging down in the middle at the back of the mouth: it's the first thing you notice when you yawn into a mirror. You have to make the back of your tongue vibrate against this. Start by saying "lock"; then, when making the /k/, leave a gap between the back of tongue and the roof of the mouth, so that you say Scottish "loch" instead. The last sound in this word is close to the one you want, but needs to be converted from a scraping sort of sound into a trill. To do that, relax the back of tongue completely, swish plenty of saliva about, and sing. You may need quite a lot of practice, especially to join this sound to the ones before and after it.
This sound exists in German as well as French, but not in standard English.

/E~/ : open-mid front unrounded, nasalised.

Hold your jaw somewhat more than half-way open and spread your lips; keep your tongue flat, tense in the front, with the blade against the back of the lower teeth. Now sing any note, and you should produce a sound like the 'e' in English 'bed': adjust the position of the tongue until this happens. Then sing the sound through your nose.
This sound is the same as the 'e' in English 'bed', but sounded through the nose.

Sound-System. Top.

Sound-System Information

You can get sound-system information from small dictionaries, large dictionaries, elementary textbooks and academic textbooks. You can't get it from tapes.

Small Dictionaries
The pronunciation guides of small dictionaries give only basic information. They leave phonemes out, their descriptions are ambiguous, they don't use IPA symbols; they ignore allophones and sounds in combination, and provide no letter-to-sound rules. But they will give you a start.
Large Dictionaries
Large dictionaries are much better - they normally show all the phonemes and use IPA symbols. Some of them give narrow transcriptions with a lot of detail, however, so you may find them more useful when your knowledge has grown. They won't give you letter-to-sound rules or sound-combinations, but they will identify the phonemes and the most important allophones.
Elementary Textbooks
Elementary textbooks are usually as imprecise in their sound-descriptions as small dictionaries; the worst are those with accompanying tape. Many confuse sounds with letters. But they will more or less identify the phonemes, give you a few letter-to-sound rules, and note such sound-combinations as the authors couldn't avoid tripping over.
Academic Textbooks
Academic textbooks are forbidding - information may take some finding and you wouldn't want to read them for the story. But they are comprehensive and accurate, and often the only place where you can find answers.

Gathering Information. Top.

Sound-to-Letter Rules

Sound-to-letter rules tell you how to spell a given sound. They're not as important as letter-to-sound rules, but you need them if you want to spell words you've heard, or look them up in a dictionary.

You can get at the sound-to-letter rules by reversing the letter-to-sound rules. However, the two sets may not be equally determinative. Greek, for example, spells the sound /i/ in five different ways. The letter-to-sound rules are determinative, because you know that those spellings always produce /i/; but the sound-to-letter rules are not determinative, because they don't tell you which spelling is used in a given case. Letter-to-Sound Rules. Top.

Sounds in Combination

This article describes sound-changes typical of many languages; they may occur in your target language. Some people find such descriptions upsetting, because they think they represent degenerate language. However, as language-learners we need to know what sounds people actually make.

Adjacent sounds
Sounds vary according to the sounds that are next to them. The two /l/ sounds in "sleepful" differ, for example, because one is before a vowel while the other is at the end of its syllable.
Front and back vowels
Consonants before front vowels differ from consonants before back vowels: the two /k/ sounds in "King Kong" (before a front vowel and a back vowel respectively) are different. The vowel can make a noticeable change. The /ju/ of "tune", for example, converts the initial /t/ to /tS/, so that people say "chewn".
Ends of syllables
At the end of a syllable, consonants become weak. The /k/ in "blackmail" is not exploded, the /l/ in "bottle" turns into /w/. Such consonants are sometimes described as 'unsupported'. But they can become supported again when another syllable is added, so "bottling" gets its /l/ back. (Not for all speakers, however - younger people say "botwing".)
Glides are extra sounds arising between other sounds. In English, for example, an 'r', 'y' or 'w' sound appears where two vowels touch: "draw(r)ing", "see (y)out", "go (w)away"; and a vestigial 't' appears in words like "con(t)fidence", "pen(t)sion".
Assimilation is where one consonant makes another consonant resemble it. The 'b' of "handbag", for example, pulls the 'n' forward to 'm', so that it's pronounced "hambag".
Unstressed vowels
Vowels in unstressed syllables lose force. The 'o' in "police" - to take one example among hundreds - was once pronounced as in "pot", then like the first vowel of "peruse", and is now omitted, leaving a one-syllable word.

Native Speakers. Sound-System. Top.

Sounds and Letters and see Letters and Sounds


You don't need an interlocutor to practise speaking your target language, but you may prefer to be alone in the house.

Think of all the words and phrases you know in your target language. Sing them in the bathroom, shout them up the stairs, mutter them around the kitchen. Be terribly theatrical about it. Chew on the funny sounds and enjoy the weird idioms. If you're in a place where you can't speak aloud, whisper; if you can't whisper, think it.

As an undergraduate I learned to roll French 'r' cycling between digs and college - three miles of uvular trill each way.

This will practise your repertory of vocabulary and grammar as well as your pronunciation. Practice. Shibboleth. Top.

Subtitled Material

Subtitled films and television are better for repeated listening than those without subtitles: watching them again will yield more new information, because the subtitles tell you what to look for. But they're still not a good bargain unless you're fluent enough to understand most of what's said. Listening. Top.


Given that sounds behave differently in different positions in the syllable, it matters how words are divided into syllables. In standard English "nitrate", for example, the /t/ belongs to the first syllable and the /r/ to the second. But in "nitrate" the /tr/ belongs to the second syllable, and that's why the two words are pronounced differently. Australians however throw all the consonants on to the next syllable, so for them "night-rate" and "nitrate" are pronounced the same.

This illustrates two conflicting rules for dividing words into syllables:

  1. Sub-words like "night" and "rate" stay in their own syllable.
  2. As many consonants as can begin a word go to the following syllable.

Some languages prefer one rule, others the other. Standard English adopts the first rule if sub-words are present but the second rule elsewhere; Australian English follows only the second rule. Germanic languages mostly prefer the first rule, Romance languages the second. Sounds in Combination. Top.

System, Learning the see Learning the System


Tapes have hampered the learning of pronunciation more than any other technological advance.

It's difficult to reproduce a sound from a written description, but a tape will let you hear it. On the other hand it's almost impossible to reproduce a sound just from hearing it - you need guidance on how to make it, and information on which bits of it are important and which merely incidental. If you haven't got this information, imitating tapes is a waste of time: what was just a jumble of sounds when you started remains just a jumble of sounds.

Tapes are helpful if you already know the sound-system. But courses with tapes don't describe the sound-system, on the grounds that you can simply listen.

It's reminiscent of my uncle, who was learning to play the violin and went to listen to Heifetz. He watched intently, but when he came home he still couldn't play the violin. So next time he's going to sit closer.

Tapes also present a mixture of accents, which is no help to a beginner. You have no way of knowing whether the various speakers are city-dwellers or rustics, old or young, toffs or populace, and no guidance on who to imitate.

So before listening to tapes you must research the sound-system and, if possible, regional accents. Tapes will then give you lots of material to mimic, and provide models for rhythm, intonation, and the more difficult sounds. Pronunciation. Transcribed Tapes. Top.

Tapes, Transcribed see Transcribed Tapes


Apart from encouragement and inspiration, a teacher can provide you with nothing that you can't provide for yourself. You don't need a teacher to learn a foreign language.

A teacher is in the end only an animated textbook, and if your textbook is confused and inadequate on unrounded vowels or future participles, why should a teacher be any different? Learning the System. Native Speakers. Top.

Technical Description

The technical description of a speech-sound is a concise way of defining it. For a consonant the technical description consists of three words - 'voiced bilabial plosive', for example, describes English /b/.

  1. The first word is either 'voiceless' or 'voiced'.
  2. The second word names the point of articulation.
  3. The third word names the manner of articulation.

The technical description of a vowel likewise consists of three words - "close front unrounded", for example, describes the vowel in English "sheep". (Vowel descriptions can be shown on a vowel chart.)

  1. "Close" means that the tense part of the tongue is near the roof of the mouth; the opposite is "open". ("High" and "low" are also used.)
  2. "Front" means that the front of the tongue is tense, rather than the centre or back.
  3. "Unrounded" means that the lips are not rounded.

Phoneme List. Sound-System - Example. Top.

Television see Radio and Television

Transcribed Tapes

Transcribed listening-material - tapes - is different from uncommented material - radio and television - because you can analyse it and make deductions about its grammar and sound-system. However, the activity is then reading with auditory reinforcement, rather than listening. As reading, transcribed material is expensive, and you'll get more mileage out of books. But transcribed material will demonstrate the sounds of the language and give you a gallery of lovable rogues to imitate. Listening. Top.

Transcription, Phonetic see Phonetic Transcription

Uncertainty of Meaning

It isn't necessary to translate all the words you read or hear: the meaning of a word is the sum of our experiences of it, not its translation. We operate in this way our own language. When I see "hake" on an English menu, for example, I believe it to be a flattish fish with coarse, white, sweet-tasting flesh, and on this basis I have to decide whether to choose it or not. Knowing its name in another language doesn't help me. Learning from the Inside. Top.

Unproductive Vocabulary

If you understand a language's grammar, you can construct any sentence in that language; and if you understand its sound-system, you can say any sentence. So the grammar and sound-system are productive, in that they enable you to produce all utterances in the language, irrespective of their content. But vocabulary is not like that. A word is just a word, and learning another one opens no extra doors.

Of course, vocabulary has its productive side. Words are formed from reusable elements ("it-self", "ident-ify-able"), and can have predictable relationships with words in other languages (English "nation", "ration" and "station" are Italian "nazione", "razione", etc.) Good learners make themselves aware of these productive features. But acquiring vocabulary is still a chore. Vocabulary. Top.

Using Foreign Words

If you hear a foreign speaker name a thing, use the word he used: this is an excellent way of building vocabulary. It's the way we learn new words in our own language: we hear them used, and guess their meaning. And if we haven't got a word for a thing, we make one up or use a periphrasis. But what we don't do is look it up in a foreign-language dictionary. Learning from the Inside. Top.

Using Information-Sources

Any source of information is either too elementary or too detailed. This is normal - as a beginner you'll find too much detail confusing, but as you progress you need information that is more and more precise.

A good solution is to start with an elementary textbook, and then move up to a heavyweight reference-work. Don't try to work through this in sequence - just skim it repeatedly for whatever interests you at the time.

Which sources of information can you trust? Go for those that look more technical, more arid, more scholarly. The author is more likely to understand the subject, and it will be easier to find things. This matters if you're using it as a reference-work. Gathering Information. Top.

Varieties of Language see Language Varieties


How much vocabulary you need depends on what you want to do with the language, what you see as your linguistic identity.

It's worth staying relaxed about learning these words. This is because vocabulary is best acquired passively, is not productive, and is strongly personal. Getting Started. Top.

Vocabulary, Acquiring see Acquiring Vocabulary

Vocabulary, Information about see Information about Vocabulary

Vocabulary, Minimum see Minimum Vocabulary

Vocabulary, Personal see Personal Vocabulary

Vocabulary, Practising see Practising Vocabulary and Grammar

Vocabulary, Unproductive see Unproductive Vocabulary

Voiceless and Voiced

With a voiceless consonant the vocal cords do not vibrate; with a voiced one they do. So /p/ is voiceless, but /b/ is voiced. You can feel the vibration by laying a finger against the Adam's apple. Another test is that you can sing a voiced consonant but not an unvoiced one. Consonants generally come in voiceless and voiced pairs - /p/ and /b/, /f/ and /v/, etc. Technical Description. Top.

Vowel see Technical Description

Vowels, Cardinal see Cardinal Vowel Chart

Working Hypotheses

A difficulty facing the language-learner is that textbooks are incomplete and self-contradictory. The answer is to construct a working hypothesis. One well-known Spanish textbook, for example, says that feminine nouns beginning with 'a' take the masculine article "el" ("el agua") instead of the feminine "la"; but it doesn't say what happens with intervening adjectives. But adjectives must take either "el" or "la", and if the change is made on grounds of euphony then "el" ("el admirable mujer") is the more plausible hypothesis.

So a working hypothesis isn't necessarily right: it identifies what is coherent and understood, and separates it from what is not understood, perhaps because it was wrongly described. The hypothesis can then be modified as more information comes to hand. Using a new hypothesis seems to be no more difficult than changing from a right-hand drive car to left-hand drive, for example, or from alto to tenor saxophone. Parallel Progress. Top.


Writing in the foreign language will consolidate your knowledge, provided you go for accuracy. This will take time, just as intensive reading does. It may also mean that you don't say some things because it's too difficult to research the linguistic resources.

You can use the foreign language for your own diary, calendar, shopping list and memos, and you can write notes in it to your family. Perhaps you can write letters to native speakers or to other learners. Internet groups are useful - their idiom is contemporary, and they are unselfconscious about language and tolerant of mistakes. Practice. Top.